Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 9: The Photograph

Elise: -April 1861-

When Elise’s eyes finally opened she was overwhelmed with a sense of longing and confusion. She couldn’t move, and her head felt pressed down by a heavyweight. Her eyelids refused to open. She lifted an arm and set it on her forehead. The skin was hot, and she tried to remember the last time she had a fever, but it occurred to her that she’d never been in such unbearable pain before. Her pulse belted rapidly in her chest and her breath grew heavy as large beads of sweat dripped down her neck and onto the base of her pillow. As she slowly managed to regain consciousness, she heard the cries of women and loud, screaming children. She listened to the swift footsteps passing by her as she remained seemingly unnoticed. Without making a sound herself, tears fell from the corners of her eyes and dripped down her face.

Minutes passed, but they felt like hours as she struggled to pull herself up. As her body shifted upright intense pressure hit her head again and her eyes snapped shut in pain. Her pulse rang loudly in her ears and drained out the wailing of women and children around her, and the noise sent a wave of panic through her, twisting her stomach into a mass of pain and discomfort. Stuck in a stupor, she remained still for several minutes before she was taken by an overwhelming desire to vomit. Unable to control her body, she fell to the floor with only her hand catching her fall, and she hurled into the nearest bucket she could find. She heard footsteps approaching her, but her pounding head prevented her from opening her eyes. She was too disoriented to even think about what was happening to her.

“Aye m’lady, it’s okay. We’re all shaken here. You aren’t alone,” the woman cooed. She took Elise’s arms, slung them over her shoulders, and helped her back to the bed. The woman presented her with a small dose of morphine. She didn’t know if or when she drifted to sleep, but when she opened her eyes again the woman was still there, tending to her diligently.

“There now,” the stranger muttered. “How’s your head?”

Elise felt remarkably better and touched her neck. Her sweating had subdued and while she still had an aching head it no longer throbbed. For the first time since she’d become aware of her surroundings, Elise opened her eyes and they focused. The woman sitting next to her was much older than her with bright golden hair.

“Where am I?” Elise managed.

“You’re in a hospital, miss. Now, how’s that head?” she persisted. She took a cloth from the bucket beneath the bed and rang it out before pressing the moist cloth to Elise’s forehead. It was still red from someone else’s blood. Elise thought she might vomit again, but once the rag was out of sight she managed to ignore it.

“Not throbbing anymore, thank you,” she paused to examine her surroundings, “I’m sorry, but did you say I’m in a hospital? Who are you?” The woman looked at Elise through colorful hazel eyes.

“Aye, a hospital yes. My name is Camille. Came in here, sick like you. Was planning to leave shortly until I heard you hurling,” she answered in a thick Irish accent. Elise said nothing.

“And you? What happened to you?” Camille asked. Elise pondered that question. What did happen? she wondered. She had no recollection of entering a hospital. She unintentionally ignored Camille’s question and asked one of her own.

“Can you tell me how long I’ve been here? And where is here?” she eagerly pleaded.

“Oh, you’ve been here nearly four days. In New York City, right where you were found. I thought you were gone. You were lying in an alley near the harbor. Alone, only with this bag,” she said, reaching to grab Elise’s bag containing her diary and books. “No idea how long you were there. Head bleeding. All alone. You regained consciousness but only for a short time, about two days ago. We managed to feed you but only just. You’ll be wanting to eat soon,” she said, shaking her head. At the words, Elise felt her stomach angrily speak and her hands clutched it in response.

“Thankfully your identification is right here, Miss Elise,” she said, pulling Elise’s passport and showing her. It was then that Elise recalled the men in the alley that pointed at René’s passport. Her mind was suddenly filled with thoughts of René. Her head flooded with questions. Where is he? Did those men kill him? What’s happening?

“René!” she said, sitting up straight, obviously in a newfound panic. Camille raised her eyebrows.

“A beau? Any notion on how to contact him? Lots of commotion here after the announcement. Many people were taken to the hospital after being trampled. Particularly near the docks. Bad place to be at that time. I reckon he’s looking for you too,” she said, hopeful. But Elise recalled the events of four days ago perfectly. René was bound, beaten, and physically defeated the last time she saw him...When he was being dragged away. Without warning, tears streamed down her face and her body ached with fear and apprehension. ‘I hope you like fighting in wars, boy.’ She remembered. A chill went through her body.

“No, my husband was taken. They mistook him for someone else. He was captured!” she admitted in a panic. Elise recalled the details of his capture and explained them to Camille. The news visibly disturbed the vibrant Irish woman.

“I’m sorry. That doesn’t surprise me and I’d reckon he’s not the only one. They’re grabbing any able-bodied young man they can find here.” Her voice dripped with disgust. Elise sobbed and Camille didn’t hesitate to comfort her. The closeness, while unexpected, filled Elise with a sense of security.

“Oh, come now. We’ll get this sorted, you’ll see,” she said, but there was doubt in her voice. Despite their engaging conversation and her disturbing thoughts about René, Elise was still vividly aware of the hospital’s loudness. She was once again overcome with an irrepressible urge to vomit. She reached for the bucket she’d used before. The smell that rose from it caused her to hurl violently until she was shaking and heaving. Camille left her side and for a brief moment, Elise was struck again with panic. She had not noticed how comforting Camille’s presence was. She stayed there, hunched over the bucket shivering. Camille returned with a glass of water and relief surged through her when Camille offered it to her.

“Thank you.”

She took the water and drank until it eased her stomach. Camille appeared unphased by the events unfolding around her. Though Elise felt as though she was being torn apart both physically and emotionally, the woman beside her remained resolute.

“How are you so calm?” Elise asked, genuinely curious. She suppressed the need to vomit again.

A laugh escaped Camille before she responded. “I’ve been around sickness my entire life. I’m surprised I haven’t perished by it myself. I’ve got no one here. That kind of life hardens a person. I was planning to leave here myself until I heard you struggling. Something compelled me to help you. Maybe it was God watching you after all.”

“No family?” Elise sympathetically asked. She thought of René.

“None, miss.”

Elise pitied her.

“Now that this war broke out I can’t very well go back to Ireland. I’ve got no husband, he’s long passed. Scarlet Fever, about three years ago. Precious man. Didn’t deserve to go. Never did have any little ones. Haven’t been interested in any man since,” she said, stifling a sniffle. She took a deep breath and released it slowly as if to remain strong despite the topic of the conversation.“Got no parents here, nor in Ireland. Died when I was a child, no older than ten. Never wanted to leave Ireland but I fell in love with an American and here I am.” Her voice reflected no need or want for sympathy or pity, but Elise did just the same.

She glanced in Elise’s direction and paused. “Would you like me to help you find your beau? I’ve got no one waiting for me, and if I can help you, I will. It’s a hard life here, with no one. But I know this city and I know how to beg when needed. I can help you until you’ve found him again,” she offered. Camille’s eyes drifted away for a moment, “Maybe God sent us to each other.”

Elise never expected anyone to offer help, and she was clueless about what she was going to do. She couldn’t return home without René, and she certainly couldn’t journey home alone in a time of war. She was stuck in New York. Elise was always quick to trust, but after the vision of her husband’s bloody face filled her head she was unsure. She examined Camille again and watched her gentle movements. Camille cared for her and treated her wounds without reason, and that gave Elise hope. Believing she’d found a friend, she accepted the offer of help. Camille smiled and provided her undying support as a faithful companion, and left Elise’s side to gather her belongings, however few they were. Elise tried to move, but her body was weak and she reluctantly accepted that she needed time to recover. In Camille’s absence, Elise took her bag and removed the diary. She gathered the strength to separate the top from her fountain pen, and began to write down what was happening to her, in hopes that René would read it someday, warm in their home while recounting their unfortunate experience in New York.


Clara: -September 1906-

Weeks passed but the animosity between my mother and I remained the same. We spoke only when necessary and I avoided her whenever possible and I suspected she did the same. I felt a tremor of remorse when I recalled her crying on the parlor floor, but I couldn’t set aside the negative emotions I felt. It was nearly October, and the air was cool and brisk. Though the mosquitoes were retreating, and the air was changing, my life remained at a standstill. I’d finished all of my schoolings and yet I had no prospects. Of course, as any girl of my status would, I’d spent the first seventeen years of my life in boarding school. But I wouldn’t have called myself accomplished. My skills were lacking in nearly everything and I felt like nothing more than a listless weight on the world. We’d been invited to no dances or town events in months, nor had we made our way into town since the funeral. Our large house felt like a trap and I escaped whenever I saw the opportunity, but even my walks to the tree weren’t satisfying anymore. I spent most of my days reading and writing in my diary, and though my mother strictly forbade it I continued to sneak to the live oak near the remains of my grandmother’s house. My mother avoided me so often that even if she was aware of my misdoings she kept silent. My emotions were split between the desire to be left alone by everybody, and the paralyzing feeling of depressing isolation. The days blurred together. I had minimal contact with my siblings, as Henry had returned to school and my father kept Benjamin and Harvey busy in the fields with Ezra. I felt invisible to everyone. Is that something I wanted or loathed? I couldn’t tell. Conversations with Emma were dull and hardly involved anything that didn’t include gowns or ribbons, and she occupied her thoughts with trivial matters in which I had no interest. I made my feelings clear to her and, in turn, I pushed her away too.

“Clara, will you please hurry,” Emma said, knocking at my door. I’d fallen asleep with my windows open and the cool breeze drifted over me as I gained full consciousness. I let out a loud groan to vocalize my indignation at Emma but to no avail. In retaliation, she continued knocking.

“Henry is returning today,” she paused, “Any minute now actually.” She waited. “The sun is already shining, there’s absolutely no reason for you to still be in bed.”

After several minutes with no response, they retreated. As I listened to their footsteps descend the stairs I felt relieved. It was unusual for me to sleep so late but it was becoming increasingly difficult to leave my bed.

“Okay, mother,” I huffed under my breath, though I knew she couldn’t hear me. I turned to my side, pulled the blanket to my face, and stared at the window, though from my angle I could only see the sky. There were no clouds, just the raw blue. I don’t know why but at that moment tears welled behind my eyes. I shut them in protest and reluctantly admitted to myself that Emma was right. I had not seen my beloved brother Henry since the funeral and I yearned for his companionship. He was lucky to be away from the house and everyone in it. I envied him for it. Once I removed myself from the bed, the open windows let in an unwelcome chilled breeze. I quickly grabbed a shawl from the armoire and wrapped it around my quivering shoulders. I took a seat at my vanity and looked at myself in the mirror. I stared at my emotionless face and touched the delicate skin below my eyes, scoffing at their dark, purple hue. I took my charcoal black hair and swiftly braided it, noticing how long it had grown. The loose braid shaped my face and I let the fringe hang loosely in the front. I took a brush from my vanity and adorned it with a small dab of powder. I tapped it against the table and watched as the dust scattered. I swept it across my face, and it immediately lightened my already pale complexion. I skimmed a shade of red across my cheeks, marveling at the drastic improvement with only a few strokes of a brush and powder. I felt myself slouching and tried to sit up straight but my body did not have the strength.

What’s wrong with me? I pondered, staring at my reflection. It didn’t even look like me anymore. My entire body was overcome with fatigue and I wanted to crawl back into bed and cover myself and hide. Instead, I stood and removed the shawl, enduring another unwanted gust of air from my opened window. Before shutting it, I glanced through the clear pane into the front yard. The large white fence encircling the house had been repaired from the hurricane’s damage, and the fields were overflowing with fresh, dark soil. I saw my father hauling wood just below and yearned for his attention but when my gaze met my reflection again I no longer wanted it.

“Clara, please!” Emma’s voice bellowed through my door. Without waiting for a response or giving a warning, she burst through my door. Alarmed at my appearance, she covered her eyes sarcastically.

“Good heavens, Clara! Get dressed. Henry’s here and he’s brought a woman with him. Do hurry up.” She slammed my door. Eager to see my brother, I hurriedly chose a light blue dress that contrasted with my dark hair. I was surprisingly pleased with how I looked, compared to the sad creature I’d woken up as. I inhaled sharply before opening the door. As I descended through the house I heard my family’s voices in the parlor.

“Clara!” Henry said, standing from his chair. I presented myself politely and let his hug linger. I hadn’t realized how much I missed him until his arms were around me. He was at university for months at a time and though he wrote me often, it wasn’t enough. He was my childhood companion, and in many ways, my best friend. He was the complete opposite of me, with a wild personality and a consistently smiling face, always eager to talk to others and make people laugh. It was Henry who encouraged me to speak to people I’d never met before and build friendships. But friendships were difficult to maintain when my family lived miles away from anywhere. Despite my preference for solitude, I craved a big city, because maybe then I wouldn’t feel so lonely even if no one spoke to me. He pulled away from me and smiled.

I ruffled his hair. “I’ve missed you, Henry!”

He motioned his hand to a short, petite woman beside him. “Clara, this is Maria, so nice for you two to finally meet,” he beamed at her while she smiled at me. I smiled in return but my thoughts betrayed me. Nice to finally meet? She was shorter than me and so thin that her dress wiggled loosely around her body. Her nose protruded from her face, and her hair was short and curly. We’d barely spoken three words before my mother interjected.

“Clara do go get your father and Harvey. They’re in the barn.”

I did as I was told and walked through the front door without saying another word to anyone. The blue sky was suddenly flooded with clouds and they blocked the sunlight, creating a dull, colorless image of the front yard. The vibrant green was now darkened and I felt a slow, cool breeze creep through my body. Once again it was going to rain and I watched the sun as it struggled to show itself through the darkening clouds. My father was not in the barn. Instead, it was filled with the voices of Harvey and Ezra. I had not spoken to Ezra since the day by the oak and we’d exchanged only petty glances and smiles. I hid out of sight if only to hear his voice. Despite my best efforts to eavesdrop my attention was distracted when my father cleared his throat behind me. Ezra and Harvey turned their heads to see us peeking in. I patted down my dress to ease my sudden anxiety.

“Clara,” Harvey said. Though he only said my name, it was filled with admiration and I hinted a sense of longing in his voice. I felt responsible for our distance and silently cursed myself for pushing him away. Ezra kept his gaze at me as if entranced, though he said nothing.

“Harvey, you’re needed in the parlor. As are you, dad.”

Harvey shook Ezra’s hand as they parted and my father followed him. It was rare that we had someone other than our family to interact with, and everyone immediately warmed to Ezra’s presence. Admittedly, so did I. Left with a moment alone I let my eyes once again meet Ezra’s. They were a radiant, mesmerizingly blue. He grinned at me but I hardly had time to make a sound before Harvey called after me to follow. I did, leaving Ezra alone in the barn.

“Now that you’re all here, we have an announcement,” Harvey said once we were all situated in the parlor once more. With that, he stood from the couch with Maria’s hand in his. Before the announcement was made my mother’s eyes shone and she scooted further up her seat. Emma repeated her actions, though she slightly bounced and her curls moved in unison. I saw a smile form in the corner of my father’s mouth.

“We’re engaged to be married!” Maria said, not allowing Henry time to finish the sentence. He happily took her hand and plunged it into the middle of the room for everyone to see. My mother and Emma shrieked in unison and my father shook Henry’s hand. As if in a daze I watched as they responded to the news. Though I was truly happy for Henry, none of us had met Maria and I seemed to be the only one surprised by their engagement. They’d only been together for five months, and to me, that seemed soon to dedicate an entire life to another. Noticing my apparent lack of enthusiasm, his smile faded. I forced a smile and immediately perked myself up.

“Wonderful news Henry and Maria! So happy to hear it. I offer my sincerest congratulations and best wishes to you both.”

The words came quickly, and my robotic voice sounded as if I’d recited them from a pamphlet. He hugged me tightly and upon his release and much to my surprise, Maria hugged me as well. My mother and sister immediately sought the details of their engagement before another word escaped my mouth. I politely excused myself and claimed a need for fresh air. Within seconds of stepping outside, I found myself walking to the coolie at the edge of the property. I was grateful for the breeze now and inhaled in each cool gust. The sun had managed to sneak its bright rays through the small crevices of cloud cover and I felt them touch my skin with every other step. I placed myself next to the tree near the water with no regard for the soil on my dress or the wind’s effects on my hair. I set my face in my hands. Without control of my body tears cascaded quickly down my face, saturating my cheeks and neck. I cried quietly, selfishly resenting my brother for his happy news. I was jealous.

What’s wrong with me? I asked myself for the second time in the same day. I began to wallow in self-pity as I envied my siblings and their suitors, convincing myself that I was unlikeable and repulsive. My self-confidence plummeted further than ever before. My body tightened and I held my stomach and it turned as if I’d done something wrong. I heard a step behind me and I caught my breath with tears still cascading down my cheeks. Mortified, I turned to see Ezra standing there, awkward. I promptly hid my face in embarrassment. He must have sensed it because he let out a small grunt and turned around, ready to run away.

“No, wait, please,” I said, taking my hands from my face and reaching one out to him.

“I can go. I just-” he paused. He was flustered and it was the first time I had ever seen him that way. He was usually calm and collected, smooth and confident. “I’m sorry,” he said, taking my hand to steady himself down the step.

“I am a horrid mess.”

He slid into the spot next to me pretending not to notice. His warmth slowly began to melt away the sadness I was feeling. Our backs laid against the heap of chopped wood and the scent of fresh pine filled both of our senses.

“If I may be so bold, of anybody’s company I would prefer at the moment it’s yours, Ezra,” I confessed. He smiled at my comment and it implied that he felt the same. My tears stopped. I didn’t know why but my statement was true. Our conversation at the tree had given me hope that he could one day be a friend. He was the only person in months who had spoken to me as I mattered, and I appreciated his company. We spoke of important topics, and he listened as I spoke. While my family did not completely ignore my existence, I often felt like conversations with them were moot. Any hope of a conversation with my mother was lost the day of the hurricane, though admittedly that was just as much my fault as hers. I knew that my father did not take me seriously, and my brothers, apart from Henry, treated me the same. Perhaps Emma was the only one who I’d blatantly pushed away. Guilt crept through my chest and twisted it as I thought of the hurt I’d probably caused her. I missed my grandmother, and the kind, wise words she always told me when I felt this way. I was always a shy, quiet girl who had trouble making friends, one who preferred solitude, but my grandmother was always a faithful conversational companion who listened to my thoughts and appreciated me. Again, I was saddened as I recalled her memories fading and the lost spark in her eyes as she aged. She slowly forgot who we were, and eventually forgot herself as well. I tried to shake the thoughts off when I remembered Ezra’s presence.

“What is the matter, Clara?” he bluntly asked. The bright sky illuminated his already vibrant eyes and I felt myself staring at them, studying the different shades of blue and the way that the light reflected the colors. They almost seemed to be glowing.

“Or, were you crying for amusement?” he asked, sensing my distraction. I broke away from his gaze covered in humiliation.

“Um, no, uh,” I managed. I straightened myself and patted my dress down.

“Honesty compels me to tell you that I am distraught over my brother’s news of his engagement. I believe I am experiencing too much self-pity for my liking,” I replied, attempting to make the statement humorous. It didn’t work.

He raised his eyebrows. “Your brother’s engagement? Please, send him my kind regards and congratulations. Was he courting the lady for long?”

“No, I’d not met her until today. I am pleased to hear the news, please don’t misunderstand. I think I am just, I don’t know. Disappointed. I’ve only just lost my grandmother, I don’t want to lose Henry too.” Why am I being so dramatic? I silently accused myself.

He moved closer to me and I found my breathing to be more difficult than before and not because I had been crying. “Lose him? He’s merely getting married, Clara,” Ezra said, noticing my exaggeration.

I pondered my response. “Not lose him. When William married he moved so far from us and I never spent any time with him anymore. I suppose I fear the same will happen with Henry,” I said, shifting uncomfortably. I thought I saw him move closer to me again.

“I’ve got no siblings. I can’t relate.” He was too blunt for my taste.

“I think I’m just lonely.” The words slipped out of my mouth like soap. Did I just say that out loud? He gave me a genuinely sympathetic look. I was certain he moved closer and I felt his arm touch mine.

“You don’t have to be,” he said, hopeful. I smiled at his words. As I did he reached a hand to my face and wiped away the lingering tears from my cheeks. We sat in silence for several minutes, absorbing the small amount of intimacy. I listened to the birds and with Ezra beside me, my mind never wandered back to my family. I appreciated Henry’s happiness and did not want my sulking to ruin it. After the minutes passed Ezra looked increasingly uncomfortable.

“What is it?” I asked, fearful he’d finally noticed my appearance. Or me in general. Much to my surprise he reached into the large pocket on his trousers and pulled out several small envelopes.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have,” he said, hesitant. “But I returned to your grandmother’s house after our, um, conversation. I found these.” He handed me the envelopes. Following those, he handed me a photograph.

“My mother,” I breathed. She must’ve been no older than fifteen in the photograph. She looked young and lively, smiling, and her face was smooth and surrounded by long, luscious black hair. She was hardly recognizable. I wanted to hug her and apologize for my crudeness. But the damage was done, and I feared I’d never get to know the beautiful young woman staring back at me. It was a school portrait, and it occurred to me that I knew as little about my mother as I did about my grandmother before I’d found her trunk.

“I couldn’t help myself and I apologize for entering where I didn’t belong. I had to do it for you. I wanted to ensure that you didn’t miss anything in that house,” he said, with evident concern in his voice.

“Ezra...I am so completely and utterly grateful.”

I gaped at the letters. “What a marvelous person you are.” I thought I saw him blush.

“Where were these?” I curiously asked.

“The top bedroom, near the stairs. They were hidden in the side of the bedpost.”

Tears welled up again but I held them back. I considered how much he must have searched to have found them in such an inconspicuous place and happiness filled me again.

“Ezra, thank you.”

Before I knew what was happening, I was in his arms, in a tight intimate hug. Though the time to let go had passed we remained in the embrace, enjoying each other’s warmth. We separated and his hand lingered on my face, his fingers softly caressing my cheeks. Our close moment was shattered by noises at the house. We both moved low to the ground, eager not to be seen. We both watched as Henry took Maria down the road until their figures grew smaller and out of sight completely. We locked eyes again and a giggle rose from inside of me. He smiled in response, and his eyes moved to the envelopes in my hand.

“Interested to see what’s inside?” he asked. I reveled in his curiosity and obliged. I leaned my shoulder against his. I opened the first letter, impatient to see its contents.

My dearest Elise, May 25, 1861

I received yours of the fourteenth and I am much grieved to hear that your honeymoon was disrupted by the war. Oh, pray that no more young lives are lost! We’ve not yet felt the direct effects here, but I have little faith that it will spare us. I pray every day that René will be returned to you and that you will both live your lives as husband and wife as God so rightfully intended. Regretfully, I cannot give you any information on your parents in New Orleans, as I have not received word from them. My parents have fled the South, but they did not include your parents’ whereabouts in their letter and for that, I humbly apologize. I will send you word immediately if I receive any news on the matter. Apart from this small update, I am afraid I have no other words of encouragement. Keep your faith in God and trust in his plan to return your dearly devoted husband to your side. May this war end swiftly, and this letter reaches you in haste.

Your ever loving and true friend,

Caroline

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