Miss Lavinia Parrish was a young woman when she chose to apprentice herself to Mr Harid de Borba, a coffinmaker of great skill but odd repute. Though the two were acquainted prior to her request, Miss Parrish had not laid bare her heart to her new master, nor had she otherwise explained her particular reasons for undertaking a trade. Although considered unconventional for a gentlewoman of quality, Miss Parrish’s family money and connections bought her a fair amount of discretion from Mr de Borba. Moreover, Miss Parrish, it turned out, had some natural skill with her hands. And Mr de Borba was, it was quietly said (by those who would say such things), mad—and in all honesty, Lavinia Parrish never saw him (de Borba) do anything to disprove that allegation—but his eccentricity worked in her favor. Besides, he seemed harmless enough.
Mr de Borba had a peculiar habit of talking to his materials that Miss Parrish found endearing: he exhorted the noble mahogany, the aromatic cedar, the simple pine, to plane straight and join true. Once, Miss Parrish had walked in on Mr de Borba carrying on an animated conversation with a bolt of white Oriental silk, explaining to the fabric that it was destined to cushion the rest of a lady of quality and so should do its best not to discolor or stain—even though, he allowed, that was an unlikely prospect, given its future purpose. Miss Parrish had walked into the workshop silently, had gone unnoticed by her master, and so she had walked back out just as quietly. Miss Parrish privately opined that what Mr de Borba did in his own atelier was his own concern and none of hers, save it were a direct lesson to herself.
Such an understanding served both master and apprentice well.
Lavinia came from a good family, as such things were judged in the society of the Silvered Country; her uncle was a baronet and her mother was the youngest daughter of a Peninsular grandee viscount. (Sadly, there was no longer even a courtesy title for Mrs Parrish, as her eldest half-sister had since inherited the peerage and become Vizcondesa de Pablo.) Lavinia’s father was a gentleman whose forefathers, while not noble, had possessed significant means and had not worked in four generations. Miss Parrish’s hands were small and neat and, once taught, quick-fingered and clever with small chisel and mallet. She was not ruddy, like her father, nor olive, like her mother, but a mild pale color, which tanned nicely in summer were she unwise with her parasols. Her hair was brown, and a touch too short.
As she had not confided in them her true reasons for doing so, her parents did not understand their youngest daughter’s desire to become a tradeswoman, but at least Lavinia was quiet about it, for which they were grateful. Moreover, as Lavinia insisting on a trade likely spared them a proper dowry, and having three other daughters and a son to inherit the rest, Mr Parrish was not prepared to complain about his daughter’s odd ambitions.
Mr and Mrs Parrish were disposed to feel a certain gratitude for (and hence, liberality with) Lavinia, most chiefly arising from the unusual circumstances of her birth. Lavinia had been born blue, unbreathing and already half-claimed by death. Only a clever nurse-midwife’s quick actions had saved the family from the heartbreak of stillborn happiness. As a result, Miss Lavinia Parrish was much indulged.
Yet despite the doting, Lavinia did not imagine that her family would understand if she confessed her motivations all a plan to court a wife.
When Lavinia was nearly six years old, her Welsh nanny, Miss Herriet ap Croutch, was very fond of taking her for air and exercise in the park at Plaza Grover, just two short and tony blocks away from the Parrish manor on the more fashionable side of Marqués Street. The children’s yard in the park was fenced with tall filigreed iron spikes, and only the governesses of the families who sponsored the park where allowed a key.
Thus it came as a surprise to young Lavinia when early one morning when she had pestered Miss ap Croutch into taking her to the yard before any of the other governesses or the children would arrive (to see how high she could go on the swings), that she spied a young girl she did not recognize playing in the yard, no nanny in sight.
The girl was olive (darker than Lavinia’s mother and thus near to tea brown), with black hair that glowed nearly blue, a proud aquiline nose, and a blue and white pinafore dress. A red boater and matching gloves, fine Isthmian straw and dyed kid, lay abandoned on the grass next to the slide.
Lavinia noticed that the young girl attracted no one else’s attention, as Miss ap Croutch just smiled pleasantly in Lavinia’s direction and sat on one of the small curlicued iron benches on the far edge of the yard and pulled out one of the penny-books of sensational stories that she loved and never read to Lavinia. A pair of housemaids out on errands looked up from their gossip to smile at Lavinia as they passed by, but they did not acknowledge the strange girl who was skipping nearby, singing softly.
Young Lavinia, however, found that she could not help but notice her. Indeed, swings forgotten, the young girl occupied the whole of Lavinia’s attention. Never had Lavinia felt such fascination; she could feel her heart thumping in her chest like a New Year’s drum. She walked up to the tall slide where the brown girl in her pinafore dress stood on the platform at the top of the slide’s ladder, her hands grasping the fanciful spiral guard rails on either side of her. The girl was readying herself to step across the platform and begin her descent down the long and wickedly steep slope.
“You’re not scared, are you?” Lavinia asked from the ground, yelling politely.
The brown girl started the tiniest bit, as if she had not expected to be noticed by anyone. She turned to face Lavinia, her right eyebrow perfectly arched above her sparkling dark eyes. The look on her oval face was of surprised—albeit polite—superiority. “No! Of course not. I’m just deciding how I want to slide. My dress, you see... although I’m surprised that you can.”
Lavinia didn’t understand what the girl meant, but she nodded anyway. The girl was prettiest she had ever met, more than Lavinia’s sisters or even her mother. “If you’d like, I might slide down first to show you?”
“Thank you,” the girl said, “but no. I can decide on my own. I always decide on my own.”
“Are you certain?” Lavinia asked, wanting to keep the girl’s attention but not wanting to be obvious about it.
“Yes. I don’t persuade easily.”
“If you say so,” said Lavinia, affecting a sigh, “but please decide soon. I should like to slide, too.”
“All right,” the girl said and faced the slope again. “I’ll be down in a moment.”
In truth, Lavinia was prepared to wait as long as the girl liked if she could keep looking at her, but she thought it best not to say that.
As if the girl could guess her thoughts, she frowned at Lavinia. “You’re being silly,” she said. “Stop looking at me! You’re not even supposed to see me!”
Lavinia blushed a deep pink almost as ruddy as her father and sputtered, “I just want to see what you decide!”
The girl gave her a weighing look that she could not read. Then with a graceful flounce of her skirt, she returned to the matter at hand, sat, and launched herself down the slide faster than Lavinia had seen anyone go. The girl’s laughter sounded like Cousin Tansy playing handbells at the holiday romps at their grandmother’s town house.
Lavinia’s heart raced nearly as fast as the girl did down the steel slope of the slide. Lavinia ran to catch up as the girl sailed off the end of the slide and into the air, landing softly on her feet a few yards away. Lavinia had never seen anyone fly so far off the slide before.
Being only nearly six years old, Lavinia Parrish didn’t know it then, but that was the moment when she first fell in love. Her small heart thumped faster as she approached the strange tea-brown girl in the blue and white pinafore dress.
Lavinia started to congratulate the girl on her flight, but the girl just walked off over to the swings. “You shouldn’t go next on the slide,” she called over her shoulder. “I shouldn’t like you to feel bad about it later, since it shan’t be anyone’s fault. Come play on the swings with me, instead.”
Puzzled, but happy to be invited, Lavinia skipped her way over.
On the swings, they pushed off the earth and pumped the air as they raced and arced like joyful pendulums across the sky.
In a moment of rest, collapsed on the soft grass next to the girl and looking only at the sky above, Lavinia quietly promised her that she would always be her friend. It was not quite what she meant, but she didn’t know how else to say what she was feeling. The girl sat up, her shadow falling across her face, silhouetted against the fathomless blue of the heavens. Giving Lavinia a look even more measuring than the one before, she replied that she would be Lavinia’s friend forever.
It was not long before the other nannies showed up with their charges and the children’s yard was full with playing boys and girls. Although Lavinia had a few friends amongst them, they didn’t seem to notice her this morning, and she was too caught up in the thrill of the unknown girl’s company to care. The pair of them played on the swings and chased each other, although Lavinia was never able to actually catch the girl, and she took care to not catch Lavinia.
Lavinia had forgotten the girl’s warning about the slide when she heard the scuffle across the yard. Pimm de Balsa-Merriweather had declared that none of the children were going to play on the slide that morning until he chose to let them. He often did such things, smiling charmingly to fool the governesses who all thought him darling and keep them to their gossip instead of wondering why their charges went silent when he approached. Pimm was capricious and mean and big for his age, and Lavinia did not much like him.
Although Pimm had forbidden anyone else to play on the slide, he did not use it, either. Instead of keeping the joy of sliding down it his own personal delight, Pimm sat at the end of the slide and glared at any of the children who approached.
But with the eventual defiance born of the knowledge that her much bigger and very protective brother was home on leave from his boarding school, Rose-Martha de Clare, a small but brave blonde girl who lived in a house across the square, decided to scramble up the ladder before Pimm could stop her. Pimm started bellowing from the moment Rose-Martha’s black patent shoes rang on the ladder’s rungs. Pimm jumped off the end of the slide and ran to the ladder, all as Rose-Martha laughed and climbed in her lace-trimmed lemon-sherbet dress, nimble as the trained monkey the peanut vendor over on High Street kept to delight passersby.
From the safety of the top of the slide, Rose-Martha turned to jeer at red-faced Pimm below, knowing he could no longer stop her. All the children cheered her in excitement and hollered in dread as Pimm climbed the ladder after her.
Laughing, and meaning to sit in order to propel herself down the slide to escape him, Rose-Martha instead caught her skirt on the curling spiral of the guard rail, and the change that the black iron snare made in her momentum was enough to cause her to stumble.
Rose-Martha’s descent should have been a graceful thing, ending with the cheers of her friends and a triumph over Pimm. Instead, there was the sound of her yellow dress tearing as she fell headlong and angular down the steep slope; an abbreviated shriek of surprised terror as she fell, silenced with the first bounce against the steel; then a cruel thud as she struck the ground head-first, and a final soft wet snap that was audible in the silence spilling across the play yard like a wave of horror. It was two heartbeats before the screams began and the governesses finally looked up from their gossip, crochet needles, and books.
Lavinia saw it happen, although she did not quite understand what it meant. She turned to the tea-brown girl in her pinafore dress to ask what they should do, but the girl was gone.
It was fortunate that at that point Miss ap Croutch, having dropped her penny-dreadful on her bench and run across the full length of the yard at the sound of the screams, swept Lavinia up in her arms and engulfed her in as maternal an embrace as she had known.
Quickly feeling to make sure that Lavinia was whole and unhurt, Miss ap Croutch took in the scene with a glance: all the children frightened and sobbing, including Pimm, Rose-Martha’s splayed body at the foot of the slide with her head and arms twisted in unnatural directions, and Miss Polly Waszko, the de Clare governess, walking with a bowed head and steps slow and reticent, as if by delaying she could avoid the reality of it. Miss ap Croutch shouted, “Get a doctor!” although she surely knew there would be no use.
Later, whilst standing in the viewing queue with her parents at the service for the young Miss de Clare, Lavinia thought she caught a glimpse of the tea-brown girl. It seemed to her that the girl held out her red-gloved hand and trailed it along the small black lacquer coffin as she filed past the body. Sad and confused, Lavinia remembered then that the girl had shared something with her, some secret promise or clever thing that had made sense of the world, but she could not recall what it was. An enveloping sense of loss claimed her as her certainty fled, and, walking past the coffin, Lavinia cried.
One morning several years later when Lavinia was six days away from turning fourteen, she woke up earlier than usual and came down to the warmth of the Mrs Begas’s kitchen.
Lavinia was being sent to a new school—which was good, as she hadn’t liked her previous one. According to her father, it had been very well-regarded, but Lavinia found it dreary and the teachers cold. More importantly from Lavinia’s parents’ point of view, it was no longer the best place for the daughter of a good family due to a small scandal involving the headmistress and the mother of one of the students.
The excitement (and, were she honest, the nervousness) of knowing that she would be starting at a new school had brought Lavinia down to get a glass of milk and some warm bread and jam from Mrs Begas. The rotund cook had welcomed Lavinia into her vast and floury domain ever since she was small, and so Lavinia sat in her usual spot out of the way. It was not something she could admit to her rank-conscious lady mother, but she enjoyed watching the way the staff brought the house to life. Lucy, the maid who tended the fireplaces and swept, sang quietly when she thought herself alone. Cervantes, the butler, was terribly serious upstairs in the presence of Mr and Mrs Parrish but had a silly sense of humor when downstairs or alone with Lavinia and her siblings.
Well before the family awoke, the kitchen bustled. Lavinia enjoyed watching the deliveries come to the service door: the butcher’s boy bringing plucked hens and eggs, the milk girls coming around with their enameled blue jugs, and the baker’s son dropping off the standing order of morning loaves.
Tick, the butcher’s boy, a tall freckled lad with light brown hair sticking out like straw around his ears from under his white cap, had put the brace of hens on the hook in the cold room and settled the bill with Mrs Begas, and now was quietly flirting with Lucy next to the hammered copper sink. It wasn’t a serious courtship yet, but last week Lavinia had overheard Lucy being teased by the staff for mooning over the boy.
Since Tick was on his slow way out, the service door was still open, and through it, Lavinia could see a girl about her own age step up to the threshold.
The girl was a dream, with cool-looking skin the color of Lavinia’s mother’s favorite porcelain cups and soot-black hair, with lips the pale pink of new summer roses, and a sharp up-turned nose like the illustrations of pixies in the storybooks Lavinia’s nanny had read her when she was ill. She was so striking that Lavinia sat up straight on her stool, bread and sweet quince jam forgotten. The stranger was the loveliest girl Lavinia had ever seen.
Sometimes, when she was ill or only half-awake and lingering on the borders of sleep, Lavinia thought she remembered—as if in a dream—a beautiful tea-brown girl on a slide, and fancied that the girl was possessed of a secret that would make Lavinia content or wise. Sometimes she would recall imagining that she’d seen the tea-brown girl walking on a crowded street or passing by on the city tram, the lovely girl’s appearance changing over the years as she grew up. Seeing this girl now, all that sharp memory and ache flooded back, and Lavinia half-smiled at the melancholy hurt; she weighed the beauty of it against this present moment. She could not decide if this girl was lovelier or not than those misty fancies. One of the two most lovely, then.
The girl did not knock or hesitate but stepped in with a confidence that denied the possibility of refusal, her bearing even more regal than that of Lavinia’s grandmother, the Dowager Viscountess. Whether she was a shop girl sent on errand or a likely girl hoping for a maid’s position, Lavinia did not care. Seeing the girl standing there in her simple calico frock, Lavinia just wanted to watch her, and perhaps talk to her if she could summon courage enough.
No one else turned to look at the strange girl as she walked in, although the conversation and bustle faltered and then resumed with anxious strength. Yet no one said anything at all as she crossed the grey slate floor of the kitchen and approached the sink, where Tick and Lucy stood murmuring and blushing at one another.
Lavinia saw Mrs Begas look up as the girl walked past the great kitchen table where she sat planning the week’s menu. Mrs Begas frowned distractedly, as if merely remembering that the cheesemonger had forgotten to include the sharp bleu with her order and that she would need to send an errand boy to pick it up; she gave no sign that she saw the strange pale girl.
The girl stopped next to Tick, whose shy banter with Lucy had fallen silent. Lucy blushed furiously enough that it showed even with her copper-brown skin and didn’t look up from the pot she had been drying for the last five minutes. Thus Lucy missed it when the pale girl leaned forward and kissed Tick on the cheek gently, like a mother might kiss her babe. Tick gave no notice to the girl’s presence, but Lavinia saw him shudder as if suddenly cold, and then Tick rubbed his chest and left arm absentmindedly, as if they ached like a trick knee in bad weather.
Kiss given, and still seeming invisible to everyone else in the kitchen, the girl turned around and glanced at Lavinia, who had not moved from her stool in the corner. The girl’s dark eyes were sad, and Lavinia could not tell what color they might be, but they reminded Lavinia of a sparkling-eyed girl in the pinafore dress. The girl gave Lavinia a half-smile that seemed both bitter and sweet, like almond honey and regret, and walked out of the kitchen without a word.
Lavinia rose from her seat but hadn’t taken more than one faltering step toward the door when she heard a clanging crash across the kitchen. She jumped and swiveled to see Tick clutching his chest on the slate floor with specks of foam on his lips. Lucy knelt next to him, the copper pot she been drying having bounced and landed behind her.
Lavinia could see that Tick wasn’t breathing; Lucy started to wail, a thin keening sound like all her new hopes boiling away in a kettle of despair.
Lavinia ran to the door, wanting to find the girl, to demand to know what she had done, to kiss her, to ask whom she was, to know what happened, to know her name.
She wasn’t there.
For a moment then Lavinia knew, knew it as well as she knew her own name and her own secrets, that the girl had been real, even if no one else had seen her.
Stepping back inside, that knowledge quietly dissipated like the truth of dreams lost in morning light, and Lavinia felt a sick pit of dread open up in her belly. Everything seemed flimsy around her. She struggled to take in the scene again, the loss making her uneasy and uncertain. She met Mrs Begas’s grim eyes from across the gulf that had opened up in her kitchen.
“I’ll go wake Father,” Lavinia said.
From where she stood, Lavinia could see that the coffin was simple but poorly-stained pine. Tick’s family didn’t have much money and probably saw no reason to waste the collection taken up for them on something that would moulder in the ground and bring no comfort to the living come winter.
It wouldn’t have been appropriate for a girl of Lavinia’s station to attend the funeral for a butcher’s boy (or so she knew her mother would have said, had she dared mention it to her), so she watched from across the street as the mourners walked in a solemn cortège out of the little stone chapel on St Thelmus Street.
At the end of the short stream of family, butchers, and shop folk, a pale girl walked in a calico dress, her dark hair uncovered. She saw Lavinia and slowed her pace. Lavinia dashed over to walk beside her.
“It was a sad service,” the girl said as Lavinia joined her, before Lavinia could launch into her ten thousand questions. “Tick’s mother was so confused and crying, and his father was silent and hurt. Tick’s uncle died the same way, when Tick was a baby. A weak heart.”
Lavinia’s questions dried up, and so she just nodded and walked alongside the girl.
“There weren’t many flowers, and the coffin was just a simple box and not very well made.” The girl glanced at Lavinia then, sidewise and blue. “I would have thought that they’d use a little more care to see him off. It’s important to show respect.”
Lavinia nodded again. She still wasn’t sure what would be the right thing to say, to ask.
As they reached an intersection, the bells of the little church tolled behind them. Lavinia turned, surprised by the carillon. She was moved by the beautiful and unexpected tribute for the dead boy.
At her side, the porcelain-pale girl said, “I should go. I have other places I’m wanted. Goodbye for now, Miss Parrish.”
Startled, Lavinia whirled back to the girl, an arm flung out to hold her from leaving, but she was gone. Lavinia searched up and down both streets for several blocks before she thought to wonder that the girl knew her name.
A little time after that, Lavinia forgot what she was looking for, and who it had been that had known her name. A trifle puzzled, she went home.
As a young woman, grown out of the awkwardness of adolescence and having filled out, Lavinia found her health, although mostly quite good, grow unexpectedly precarious. When she was seventeen, she contracted scarlet fever at boarding school in Brasyl, and she came closer to death than anyone truly realized. Delirious, she babbled to the physician and the matron that she had seen the pale girl many times in the edges of crowds and from across busy streets, but that the girl would never speak with Lavinia again and always disappeared before she could reach her. Believing Lavinia to be especially ill and in want of rest (as she remembered nothing of this confession once her fever broke), she was sent back to the family home.
It was then that Sister Marival del Kurosawa was hired to instruct her, since Lavinia had insisted on receiving as good an education as her brother, and she would need special tutoring in order to secure a place at the Royal University.
The scholar-nun was sharp, and brisk, and cold. She was never mean, and never treated Lavinia with anything less than a full measure of dignified seriousness and respect should Lavinia undertake the effort to learn, but she did not coddle her.
Being a gentlewoman of quality, and having been much accustomed to getting her way as the baby of the family, Lavinia found that she alternately loved and despaired of Sister Marival’s methods. Mrs Parrish, of course, felt that too much education was not quite the thing to do with a girl child, but Mr Parrish, ever-doting, was amused by Lavinia’s insistence, as was the rest of the family.
It was during this same time that Lavinia’s father’s father, old Reginaldo Lann Parrish, also came to stay with the his son’s family. Old Reginaldo had been the spoiled grandson of the self-made Juan Diego Dormouth Parrish, an unrepentant robber baron who had made the original Parrish wealth in coal and railroads crisscrossing the windswept pampas and investing in the new mechanical inventions coming out of the New Wales colony in Puerto Madryn. Although Reginaldo’s father had been embarrassed by the newness of the family money, Reginaldo Lann himself had never known anything else, and it showed.
Widowed for a second time recently, and willful forever, Reginaldo, upon learning that Lavinia would be at home for at least a term, declared that he was leaving his estate in the north to come to the capital and spend time with his favorite granddaughter. Besides, he had been ill, and his physician demanded that he see a specialist in the city.
Upon learning what her father-in-law intended, Mrs Parrish had informed her family that it was past time that she took Lavinia’s sisters on a grand tour of the great cities of the continent, and so with a farewell kiss on her forehead she had bade Lavinia goodbye, with plans to delay her return until Reginaldo Lann Parrish went back to his own estates.
Thus abandoned by her health and her mother, Lavinia learned to endure—and even like—both her lessons and her grandfather. (Truth to tell, Lavinia adored her grandfather and that he doted on her so outrageously. It drove her sisters batty, but they had their mother’s favor, so Lavinia felt it only fair.)
Later, when Lavinia’s health had improved sufficiently that she could go out on her own, Sister Marival assigned her work that required Lavinia to visit the city’s libraries, or on occasion, the Royal University, where her brother had studied and she aspired to as well.
Returning one late summer day from an excursion to the main library and wondering how she would adapt to pursuing her studies at the University, Lavinia saw the woman that she knew she would marry. The woman had left the library about the same time as she had and was walking a few paces ahead, looking back occasionally. The woman was tall and looked to be exactly Lavinia’s own age, and she had dark skin the color of the fertile earth loved by the farmers in the river valleys in the northeast of the country. Her hair was a black nimbus of tight curls, and she had high cheekbones, a pointed chin, and a broad nose above wide, thick lips that made Lavinia blush to admit she wished to kiss. The young woman’s dark eyes sparkled whenever she glanced back, and Lavinia was certain that she was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. That thought made her pause for a moment, and consider. The memories of two other pairs of eyes flashed and then receded in a wave of earnest childhood longing, but she thought the woman most lovely.
The young woman was dressed in a University student’s robe, which gave Lavinia, as a prospective student, a plausible excuse to approach her. As they walked separately but on the same path, Lavinia noticed that other walkers on the banquettes and streets simply maneuvered around the space the ebon beauty inhabited without acknowledging her.
That bothered Lavinia, but she was not certain why, so she pushed the thought away without further examination. She wanted to speak to the young woman, and if the woman spoke back to her, Lavinia felt, outrageous though it be, that she might even propose.
Lavinia quickened her step, but the young woman in the scholar’s gown remained ahead of her by the same margin as before. Running, Lavinia was sure, would help neither her nor her plight. The beautiful young woman tossed a look over her shoulder at Lavinia when she thought that, and winked. That was when Lavinia knew that the woman would not be caught unless she decided that she wanted to be.
Lavinia laughed out loud, and at the sound the dark woman paused her march and kindly stopped, waiting for Lavinia to catch up.
With a smile on her face, Lavinia said, “Hello, I’m Lavinia Parrish, and you are the most beautiful woman in the world.” Lavinia hadn’t quite meant to say that second part out loud, but the truth of it escaped past her lips, and she smiled as she found that she didn’t mind that it had done so.
The woman arched her right eyebrow at Lavinia, and a mostly-suppressed smirk of amusement quirked her lips.
“Yes, I know who you are,” she said. “We’ve met before.”
The beautiful young black woman started to walk forward again, while Lavinia puzzled over what she had said. Surely not—Lavinia would have remembered meeting such a beautiful girl. Lavinia remembered every beautiful girl she had ever met: all the lovely lights of the capital society scene and the years of boarding school crushes.
Realizing that the young woman was going on without her, Lavinia bounded after. “But I would recall that!”
“If you say so, Miss Parrish.”
“I do! We haven’t met here or at the Museum of Natural Histories, have we, my lady? Seeing you now, I must admit that I was emboldened to approach because I saw your scholar’s robe... I wish to study at the University, too.”
“That’s a very noble thing, Miss Parrish. I commend you.” The strange woman smiled. It was a small, half-secret smile that hinted at private approval and a vast but encouraging amusement.
Lavinia flushed, and went on before she grew tongue-tied. “I insisted that my father allow me the same education that my brother received. My sisters think me silly, and my mother despairs of me ever making a match, but I insist upon it.”
“I can see that you are a very persistent woman, Miss Parrish. That’s a very fine quality.” The dark beauty paused her step and met Lavinia’s eyes for a dizzying moment. “I would never make a match with someone who wasn’t prepared to persist.”
“Yes?” Another half-secret smile ghosted across the berry-dark lips.
Groaning inwardly but assailing another gambit, Lavinia said, “I persist, then, in ignorance, my lady—for I cannot say that I recall our prior acquaintance.”
“‘Tis great pity, then, Miss Parrish, for I recall it vividly.” The strange woman went onward, leaving Lavinia a small, awkward craft in her magnificent wake.
Stunned again but determined, Lavinia embraced the challenge presented by this beautiful stranger who claimed to know her, and caught up with her. “Surely, my lady, I should then be able to recall it as vividly? Have you changed your fine attire so very much since first we met?”
“Is not a lady permitted to change her style to keep with fashion?” the woman asked as they walked. “Do you not do so yourself?” Giving Lavinia a sidelong look that gleamed with open humor, she added, “Just so, me.”
“My lady, I am certain I would recognize you in whatever style you adopted. Your beauty and your intelligence,” she said, sweeping a hand to gesture at the woman’s University robe, “would shine forth no matter what.”
“I would certainly like to believe that, Miss Parrish, but I do not. You have not recognized me, and I would hazard that you do not even know my name despite our meeting twice before.”
Not daring to let herself be flummoxed by the young woman’s continued claim of prior acquaintance, Lavinia imitated her brother Miguel at his most rakish and retorted, “Oh, indeed, my lady? Then let us put that to the hazard. I will tell you your name...”
“I suspect a ploy, Miss Parrish.”
“...provided that there is a forfeit when I do, for your lack of faith in me.”
“And what forfeit might you claim, miss?”
“A kiss, of course, my lady,” Lavinia said before a lifetime of propriety and deportment lessons could naysay her. “I believe that is the forfeit currently in fashion. And must not a lady keep with fashion?”
With a laugh of genuine delight, the dark woman nodded her assent.
“And you say we have met twice before today?”
“Yes, Miss Parrish, we have.”
“But you kept a different style then.”
“Oh, yes. Radically.”
“Hm. Might I have a hint?”
“I suppose that you might. Very well: each time we have met, it might have felt to you as if it were the first time you saw me,” said the beautiful woman. And then, softly, as if murmuring to herself in curious wonder, she added, “To tell you truly, I don’t understand how you saw me to begin with.”
Entranced by the woman’s graceful profile, Lavinia caught only the first statement. “My lady, every time I look at you, I feel it is the first I see you.”
Lavinia smiled, and sallied another question. “Might we have met at a ball? Perhaps when my cousin, Tansy, had her debut last year?”
“No, not then.”
“Would it be unfair to know when we might have met, my lady?”
“Yes, Miss Parrish, it would be. But you do have such a charming smile that I shall tell you regardless: we met when you were a little girl, and then again before you went off to school.”
Lavinia could not imagine that the young woman walking next to her would have made a less striking or lovely figure at any other age, and although there were quite a few girls of her complexion among their social class, Lavinia recognized none of their faces in the young woman’s. The woman’s beauty was on a level beyond most mortals, but in addition to her looks, the sense of her amusement was singular. It felt worldly but not unkind, and Lavinia felt herself both newborn and a woman-grown in the strange beauty’s presence.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” she said, “but regardless of the style you might have kept before, I know that I do not recognize your face.”
“Ah. I suppose that I must tell you, Miss Parrish, that perhaps you might not recognize my face, but rather my office. We met whilst I was in the course of my duties.”
Lavinia grew more puzzled; had this beautiful creature just admitted to working?
The young woman stopped walking and faced Lavinia directly with a look of annoyed amusement. “It’s honest work, Miss Parrish, and important, and I am remarkably good at it.”
Lavinia had the grace to blush.
“But you were at work when we were children?” Lavinia asked, concerned for the young woman’s sake (and, although she didn’t like to admit it, her own station).
“I said when you were a little girl, Miss Parrish. I never said anything about me,” came the woman’s arch reply.
“But my lady! We’re the same age! Aren’t we?”
“Oh, Miss Parrish,” the woman sighed. “I thought you knew better than to ask on another lady’s age.”
Confused and with a little regard for them both, Lavinia exclaimed, “You will be the death of me!”
“Brava, Miss Parrish!” the strange woman said, eyes sparkling with real pleasure. “That’s exactly right.”
It was then that Lavinia Parrish understood what the woman meant and realized that she had met her before, a tea-brown girl in a pinafore dress and a pale girl with rose-pink lips, and when. Her health still delicate, Lavinia did the only thing she could do, and swooned.
Surprised, Death caught Lavinia in her arms.
When she came to, awoken by the sound of pained coughing, Lavinia was lying on the violet leather chaise longue in her father’s study. Her grandfather sat next to the window in the club chair opposite her, reading a book of natural philosophy entitled “Sobre la muerte y otros misterios” in the late afternoon light, with a glass of fine Mendoza red in one hand. A blood-spotted handkerchief lay in his lap.
It was not the most auspicious awakening.
“How do you feel? Gave the cook a hot buggery shock when that girl of yours showed up at the service door, carrying you like a sack of potatoes.” Reginaldo Lann paused, taking a sip of his wine, then added approvingly, “Sturdy lass, that one. Good hips.”
“Oh, no need to be coy about it. Your Great-aunt Virginia was the same way, and she was my favorite sister. She had herself a lady from Santiago, Susana; they were together until Virginia died. If I’ve learned anything from my sister about loving women, it’s that you should seize joy with both hands, and if she lets you get a leg over, so much the better.” Reginaldo Lann coughed and took another sip of wine. “Your miss is a beauty, and a University girl, at that. You could do worse.”
Lavinia still felt muzzy from swooning like an idiot, but the sense of her grandfather’s words penetrated the fog like sunshine. “You saw her?”
“Of course I did. Who wouldn’t notice a fine girl like that?” His Northern accent made two syllables of girl: gar-rul, but the glint of frank admiration in his blue eyes made Lavinia blush. “Huh. Now I think on it, Mrs Begas was rather shocked when I pointed her out. I don’t know why she’d be upset, seeing such a fine girl. Ye’d think that Mrs Begas wasn’t just as black as she is, the way she blanched.”
Lavinia didn’t know what to make of it. She was certain that the young woman was Death. She thought she should have been afraid; she wasn’t, she was sure of it.
She was also certain that she still felt like marrying her.
Her mother would not approve of Lavinia marrying another girl (such things were not unheard of, but were only done quietly, as they still could be a nine-days scandal if not done right), much less marrying someone who worked for a living. Lavinia guessed that Death’s actual rank would please her mother. How would the precedence work out, anyway?
Lavinia realized that her grandfather was still talking and focused her attention back on the conversation at hand.
“—and she said that she’d call this evening. Something about unfinished business.”
“Don’t look so glum, granddaughter, she said she was sorry that she couldn’t stay to see you awake.”
“I... did she say anything else, sir?”
“Aye. She mentioned that she owes you a forfeit.”
Later that evening, Lavinia waited in the garden for Death to arrive. After the sun set, she did not keep Lavinia waiting long.
This time, Death kept the lovely dark face Lavinia had last seen her wear, but she had donned a rosy evening dress that any woman of Lavinia’s class with good taste might choose. Lavinia’s sisters would have approved and discreetly inquired after her dressmaker.
Lavinia went to the wrought iron gate herself to let Death in and then sat with her on the new small bench (a love seat, the gardener called it) by the rose arbor.
“You promised to be my friend,” Lavinia started.
“I did. I am. Forever.”
“But you killed Rose-Martha de Clare, and that boy that Lucy liked, what was his name—”
“Yes, that’s right. And Grandfather said you had unfinished business tonight, so I suppose that now you’re here to kill me.” Lavinia was proud that she sounded so calm. Her hands were cold and she could feel sweat beading on the small of her back.
“No, Miss Parrish, I am not here for you tonight, and I do not kill anyone. I am simply there when they must die. I’m there for everyone, whether they go in glory, or alone. I am always there, and like a dear but difficult friend, I might not always be welcome, but I am always dependable. And,” she added with the sly look a person might give a longtime companion whose foibles amused, “it’s a living.”
“Too sharp, Miss Parrish?” she asked.
“Perhaps,” Lavinia admitted.
There was a long moment of quiet where all Lavinia did was look at her hands. She had questions, but she knew that the answers didn’t matter. She realized she had already made the decision a long time ago when she was a little girl. That child’s foolish fancies seemed so bright and small to her now, with her heart beating staccato rhythms in her chest and passion running in her veins. She had thought herself unafraid before, but now she understood that she had been mistaken. Lavinia took a breath and screwed her courage up.
“Being who you are,” Lavinia said, “I think it likely that you know my heart.”
“Being who you are,” Death said, “the contents of your heart are written on your face. But yes, I do.”
“And if I were to ask the question?”
“I should prefer that you not.”
“A lady must be wooed, miss.”
“Also, I must inform you, Miss Parrish, that I am here for duty tonight, as well as this conversation.”
Lavinia grew still. “If not for me, then who?”
Death gave Lavinia a steady look, not unlike the one Sister Marival gave her when she was being dense about an obvious subject.
“Grandfather,” Lavinia said in one exhaled rush. The old man had done his best to ignore it, but he hadn’t been well since his wife had died. “No.”
“There is no question,” Death said. “Nor am I asking for permission. This is my office, Miss Parrish, and if you would be my suitor, you should know that one day I will be there for everyone you have ever known and everyone you have ever loved. Everyone, my dear friend.”
“Can you give him more time? He liked you.”
A pained expression flickered across Death’s dark face. “No, I don’t have that power. I am Death, Miss Parrish, not Fate, and not God.”
“Can’t you ask them? For me?”
“Oh, my dear Lavinia, I’ve never met either. In all honesty, I am not sure I believe in them.”
To this, then, Lavinia had no reply.
Death took her hand then and held it until the sky turned black and starry. Then she stood and walked toward the manor. Lavinia stayed in the garden. No door could deny Death, and the scent of late-blooming roses was a comfort.
The mortuary instructions left by Mr Reginaldo Lann Parrish were precise and detailed, and they most prominently involved securing a coffin from a certain Mr de Borba that had been made to particular and exacting specifications, setting the old man adrift in said coffin on a funeral boat on his favorite lake on his summer estate in Patagonia, and then having his favorite grandchild set it ablaze with a flaming arrow shot from the shore. Lavinia had less than a week to practice her archery.
It was during that week that Lavinia met Mr de Borba, as Lavinia’s father being overcome by grief, her brother Miguel in London on business, and her mother and sisters still abroad and only arriving back from Bogotá in time for the funeral, it fell to Lavinia to attend to the few details that required the family touch.
Seeing how comfortable Mr de Borba was with death, Lavinia felt an odd kinship with him, and in the month after the funeral (where Lavinia had caught sight of Death, in solemn mourning dress standing quietly amongst villagers from her grandfather’s estate, and been so startled that her bowshot had almost gone wide, but the pyre had been well-doused with kerosene and caught easily despite the arrow striking near the edge of the boat), Lavinia approached him about apprenticing.
Thankfully, any lingering effects from the scarlet fever had vanished following the conversation with Death in the garden, so Lavinia was able to start learning her new craft soon after.
It took years, of course, to not only simply acquire the skills but to improve beyond the point of common mastery and into true artistry. Meanwhile, Lavinia saw her beloved as she always had: on the periphery of her life, and occasionally in person. She kept each and every memory of her, vouchsafed against loss now that she had her own understanding with Death.
Meanwhile, each coffin that she helped to make taught Lavinia a bit more about her craft, and just as surely, a bit more about people. Each taught her about herself, and what it meant to be mortal and to love.
Two years into her courtship and her apprenticeship, Mr de Borba allowed Lavinia to design a coffin and make it completely on her own. It was a simple affair: stained ash heartwood, copper nails, and demure muslin linings. It was ordered for a young girl of the petite bourgeoisie who had drowned in the Plata, whose family had the taste to avoid parvenu ostentation and choose instead elegant and affordable simplicity.
It was a lullaby set in a minor key, dressed in wood and mourning.
When Lavinia proudly mentioned the accomplishment to her mother, Mrs Parrish (who by then had grown somewhat accustomed to the eccentricities of her youngest daughter) had pursed her lips in thought as she imagined the coffin and then complimented Lavinia’s taste.
Lavinia knew that Death went to every funeral, touched every casket or urn, stood by every pyre or shallow grave. She visited each person who would die, and paid her respects after. So Lavinia knew that Death would see her work, and Lavinia knew in her heart that Death would know that it was hers.
And so the coffin was a love letter to her beloved.
Soon after that burial, gowned in funeral black, Death paid Lavinia a visit, and they made love for the first time.
More years passed, and the coffin love letters grew more elaborate and accomplished. Each one occasioned a visit from Death, which made Lavinia happy.
Each time, they had the same conversation, which made Lavinia sad:
“Being who you are, my love,” she said, “I know that you know my heart.”
“Being who you are, my dear,” Death replied, “you know that I do.”
“And if I were to ask the question?”
“I should prefer that you not.”
“A lady must be wooed, my love.”
This went on for many more long years, and never did Lavinia point out that she, too, was a lady. When Lavinia made the coffin for her father, and later, for her mother, Death came, wordless and gentle, and they did not speak, but instead Death held her in her arms as she cried.
Years passed, and slowly everyone Lavinia had known, and everyone she had loved, died. Lavinia’s hands grew rough from work and her face soft from age. Her hair greyed and, as a courtesy, so did Death’s. Each time a loved one died, they had the same conversation, and Lavinia’s questions did not change, and neither did Death’s replies.
Then it came time to make her own coffin: her marriage bed, she still hoped.
Lavinia Parrish chose mountain walnut for the wood, out of love of its color and the feel of it under her crooked fingers. She planed and sanded it right; it would require no varnish at all for the wood to shine.
She thought her beloved would like that.
She used no nails, either. Instead, Lavinia used full-blind dovetails to join the planks. She wanted a simple coffin; the frame one theme, one long conversation in the intimate night. As she worked, back bent, she remembered her master and whispered love songs and poetry to the wood. She was sure that it listened attentively.
For the lining she chose bleached raw silk, backed with cotton batting imported from plantations across the sea. Lavinia told it good-humored bawdy stories that she had read from books with falsely modest covers and thought that her beloved would appreciate the laughter.
Lavinia used small, sharp, aged bronze tacks to attach the upholstery inside. She thought that Death would like their quiet elegance more than the bright shine of brass. To them she murmured simple accounts of the pain of love and distance, and the mixed joy of wanting. She pricked her fingers with each one, the red tears of life welling up and staining each with her bittersweet memories.
Death would appreciate the truth of such things, and more: Lavinia did.
The hinges were bronze, too. Lavinia had them made especial for the coffin-bed. Stories of marital joy were what she shared with them, of couples who loved each other more after lifetimes spent together, couples that partnered and danced in their happiness even if their mortal frames no longer held them up quite straight because of palsy and quake.
When it was complete, Lavinia’s coffin was beautiful, and she was glad, as she knew that her time was very short.
She waited patiently for Death in the gathered dusk of her last evening, a lifetime of memories and hopes held softly in her heart, like soft hands holding a newborn, or cradling a moribund lover.
When Death arrived, Lavinia knew that she had finally come for her. She had always claimed to read the contents of Lavinia’s heart on her face, but after a lifetime, Lavinia could read hers, too.
Death opened her mouth to speak, but Lavinia raised a hand to forestall her, and spoke the words:
“Being who you are, my love,” she said, “I know that you know my heart.”
“Being who you are, my dear,” Death replied, tears falling, “you know that I do.”
“And if I were to ask the question?”
“I would answer ‘yes’.”
“A lady must be wooed, my love, and you have.”