Lasher (Lives of the Mayfair Witches #2)(15)

by Anne Rice

She remembered that quote from Hilaire Belloc that she'd found in her father's papers, after his death:

Wherever the Catholic sun does shine There's music, laughter, and good red wine At least I've always found it so.

Benedicamus Domino!

"Let me tell you a little secret," her mother, Laura Lee, had said to her once. "If you're a tenfold Mayfair, which you are, you'll never be happy outside New Orleans. Don't bother." Well, she'd probably been right. Tenfold, fifteen-fold. But had Laura Lee been happy? Gifford could still remember her laugh, the crack in her deep voice. "I'm too sick to think about happiness, daughter dear. Bring me the Times-Picayune and a cup of hot tea."

And to think Mona had more Mayfair blood than anyone in the clan. What was she? Twenty-fold? Now, Gifford had to see this computerized family exploration for herself, this endless chart that traced all those many lines, of double cousins and triple cousins marrying one another. What she had wanted to know was this: was there any fresh blood at all during the last four or five generations?

It was becoming ridiculous now, Mayfair marrying Mayfair. They didn't bother to try to explain it to others. And now Michael Curry, all alone in that house, and Rowan gone, heaven only knew where, the child once stolen away for her own good, come right back home to be cursed somehow...

Ryan had said once, in a very reckless moment, "You know, Gifford, there are only two things in life that matter-family and money, that's really it. Being very very rich, like we are, and having your family around you."

How she had laughed. It must have been April 15th, and he had only just filed his income tax. But she'd known what he meant. She was no painter, no singer, no dancer, no musician. Neither was Ryan. And family and money were their entire world. Same with all the Mayfairs she knew. The family was not just the family to them; it was the clan; the nation; the religion; the obsession.

I could never have lived a life without them, she thought, mouthing the words as she liked to do out here, where the wind off the water devoured everything, where the featureless roar of the waves made her feel lightheaded and as if she could in fact sing. Ought to sing.

And Mona will have a good life! Mona will go to whatever college she wants! Mona can stay or go. She will have choices. There wasn't a fit cousin for Mona to marry, now, was there? Of course there was.  She could think of twenty if she tried, but she didn't. The point was Mona would have a freedom that Gifford never had. Mona was strong.  Gifford had dreams in which Mona was always very strong, and doing things that nobody else could do, like walking on top of a high wall, and saying, "Hurry up, Aunt Gifford." Once in a dream, Mona had been sitting on the wing of a plane, smoking a cigarette as they flew through the clouds, and Gifford, terrified, had been clinging to a rope ladder.

She stopped very still on the beach and tipped her head to the side, letting the wind bring her hair tight around her face, covering her eyes.  She floated, the wind holding her steady. Ah, the loveliness of it all, she thought, the sheer loveliness. And Ryan coming to take her home.  Ryan would be here. Maybe by some miracle Rowan was alive! Rowan would come home! All would be explained and the great shining miracle of Rowan's first return would begin to give forth its light again.

Yes, sink down and sleep in the sand. Dream of it. Think about Clancy's dress. You have to help her with her dress. Her mother doesn't know a thing about clothes.

Was it now Ash Wednesday?

She couldn't see her watch by the light of the clear heavens. Even the moon did not help, shining so brightly down upon the water. But she felt in her bones that it was the beginning of Lent. That far away in New Orleans, Rex and Comus had opened their ballrooms to one another, and the courts had taken their final Mardi Gras bows. Shrove Tuesday was over.

But she had to go in. Ryan had said to go in, to lock everything up, to turn on the alarm. She knew she would do it because he had said so.  Some night when she was really angry with him, she'd sleep in the sand, safe, and free, beneath the stars, like a wanderer. On this beach, you were all alone with the oldest part of the known world-the sand, the sea. You could have been in any time. You could have been in any book, in biblical lands, in Atlantis of legend. But for now, do what Ryan says. Don't for the love of God be asleep out here when he comes!  He'll be so furious!

Ah, she wished he was here now.

The night last year that Deirdre Mayfair had died, Gifford had wakened with a scream, and Ryan had taken hold of her. "Somebody's dead," she'd cried, and he'd held her. Only the phone ringing had taken him away. "Deirdre. It's Deirdre."

Would she have such a feeling when something finally happened to Rowan? Or was Rowan too far away from the fold? Had she died already in some horrid and shabby way, perhaps only hours after her departure? No, there had been letters and messages from her in the beginning. All the codes are correct, Ryan had said. And then Rowan had actually called that doctor in California long distance on the phone.

Ah, tomorrow we'll know something from this doctor, and round her thoughts came again to the same place, and she turned her back on the sea, and walked towards the dark dune and the soft seam of light above it.

Low houses to one side and the other, seemingly forever, and then the great threatening mass of a high-rise, studded with tiny lights to warn the low-lying planes, and far far away, in the curve of the land, the lights of the town, and out to sea the clouds curling in the moonlight.

Time to lock up and sleep, yes. But by the fire. Time to sleep that thin vigilant sleep she always enjoyed when she was alone and the fire was still burning. She'd hear the coffeepot click on at five-thirty; she'd hear the first boat that came near the shore.

Ash Wednesday. A lovely consolation came over her; something like piety and faith combined. Ashes to ashes. Stop for the ashes. And when the time comes cut the blessed palm for Palm Sunday. And take Mona with you and Pierce and Clancy and Jenn to church on Good Friday, "to kiss the cross" like in the old days. Maybe make the nine churches like they used to do. She and Ancient Evelyn and Alicia walking to nine churches, all of them uptown in those days, when the city was dense with Catholics, true believing Catholics-Holy Name, Holy Ghost, St.Stephen's, St. Henry's, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel, St. Mary's, St. Alphonsus, St. Teresa's. Wasn't that nine."

They hadn't always bothered to go as far as St. Patrick's or stop into the church of the colored on Louisiana Avenue, though they certainly would have, segregation not existing really in Catholic churches, and Holy Ghost being a fine church. The saddest part was Ancient Evelyn always remembering St. Michael's and how they had torn it down.  Cousin Marianne had been a Sister of Mercy at St. Michael's, and it was sad when a church was torn down, and a convent, sad when all those memories were sold to the salvage company. And to think Marianne too had been Julien's spawn, or so it had been said.

How many of those churches were left? thought Gifford. Well, this year on Good Friday, she'd drive up to Amelia and St. Charles and challenge Mona to find them with her. Mona loved walking in dangerous neighborhoods. That's how Gifford would lure her out. "Come on, I want to find Grandmother's nine churches. I think they're all still there!" What if they could get Ancient Evelyn herself to come? Hercules could drive her along as they walked. She certainly couldn't walk now, she was far too old. That would have been foolish.

Mona would go for it, only Mona would start asking about that Victrola again. She had it in her head that now that First Street was refurbished, somebody would find that Victrola in the attic and give it to her. She didn't know that the Victrola really wasn't in the attic at all, but once again hidden with the pearls where no one

The thought left Gifford. It went right out of her mind. She had just reached the top of the boardwalk and was looking down into her own house, into the warm rectangle of the living room, with its steady flickering fire, and the sprawling cream-colored leather couches on the caramel-colored tile floor.

There was someone in Gifford's house. There was someone standing right by the couch where Gifford had napped all evening, standing right by the fire. Indeed, the man had his foot on the hearth, just the way Gifford liked to put hers, especially when her feet were bare, to feel the inevitable cold that lingered in the stone.

This man was not barefoot or in any form of casual attire. This man looked dapper to her in the firelight, very tall, and "imperially thin" like Richard Cory in the old Edwin Arlington Robinson poem.

She moved a little slowly along the boardwalk, and then stepped down out of the wind into the relative quiet and warmth of the rear yard. Through the glass doors, her house looked like a picture. Only this man was wrong. And the truly wrong part of him was not his dark tweed jacket, or wool sweater; it was his hair; his long, shining black hair.

It hung over his shoulders, rather Christlike she thought. Indeed as he turned and looked at her, it was a dime-store Christ that came to mind-one of those blinding color pictures of Jesus with eyes that open and close when you tilt it, full of lurid color and immediately accessible prettiness-Jesus of soft curls and soft garments, and a tender smile with no mystery and no pain. The man even had the mustache and neatly groomed beard of the familiar Christ. They made his face seem grand and saintly.

Yes, he looked like that, spot of this man. Who the hell was this man? Some neighbor who had wandered in the front door to beg a twenty-five-amp fuse or a flashlight? Dressed in Harris tweed?

He stood in her living room, looking down at the fire, with the long flowing profile of Jesus, and gradually he turned and looked at her, as if he had heard her all along, moving through the windy dark, and knew that she had come into earshot and stood now silently questioning him with her hand on the steel frame of the door.

Full face. It was suddenly a bright redeeming beauty that impressed her; something that bore the weight of the extravagant hair and the precious clothes; and another element struck her, other than the seductiveness of his face. It was a fragrance, almost a perfume.

It wasn't sweet, however, this perfume. It wasn't flowers, and it wasn't candy and it wasn't spice. No, But it was so inviting. It made her want to take a deep breath. And she'd caught this scent somewhere else, only recently. Yes, known this same strange craving before. But could not now remember it. In fact, hadn't she remarked on it then, the strange scent... Something to do with the medal of St. Michael.  Ah, the medal. Make sure the medal is in your purse. But she was thinking foolishly. There was a strange person here!

She knew she ought to be wary of him. She ought to find out who he was and what he wanted immediately, perhaps before she stepped inside. But every time in her life that something like this had frightened her, she had always come through it, half embarrassed to have made such a fuss. Nothing really bad had ever happened directly to Gifford.

Probably was a neighbor, or someone whose car had stalled. Someone who saw the light of her fire, or even the sparks flying from the chimney along this lonely stretch of sleeping beach.

It didn't greatly concern her, not half as much as it intrigued her, that this strange being should be standing there watching her in her own house, by her own fire. There was no menace in this man's face or manner; indeed, he seemed to be experiencing the very same curiosity and warmth of interest towards her.

He watched her come into the room. She started to close the glass door behind her, but then thought better of it.

"Yes? What can I do for you?" she asked. Once again the Gulf had fallen back into a whisper near silence. Her back was to the edge of the world, and the edge of the world was quiet.

The fragrance was suddenly overpowering. It seemed to fill the entire room. It mingled with the burning oak logs in the fireplace, and the charred smell of the bricks, and with the cold fresh air.

"Come to me, Gifford," he answered with a smooth astonishing simplicity. "Come into my arms."

"I didn't quite hear you," she answered, the forced and uneasy smile flashing before she could stop it, the words falling from her lips as she drew closer and felt the heat of the fire. The fragrance was so delicious, made her want to do nothing suddenly but breathe. "Who are you?" She tried to make it sound polite. Casual. Normal. "Do we know each other, you and I?"

"Yes, Gifford. You know me. You know who I am," he said. His voice was lyrical as if he were reciting something that rhymed, but it didn't rhyme. He seemed to cherish the simple syllables he spoke. "You saw me when you were a little girl," he said, making the last word very beautiful. "I know you did. I can't really remember the moment now.  You can remember for both of us. Gifford, think back, think back to the dusty porch, the overgrown garden." He looked sad, thoughtful.

"I don't know you," she said, but her voice had no conviction.

He came closer to her. The bones of his face were gracefully sculptured but the skin, how fine and flawless was the skin. He was better than the dime-store Christ, certainly. Oh, more truly like the famous self-portrait of Durer. "Salvator Mundi," she whispered. Wasn't that the painting's name?

"I've lost those recent centuries," he said, "if ever I possessed them, struggling as I did then to see the simplest of solid things. But I claim older truths and memories now, before the time of my Mayfair beauties and their fragile nurture. And must rely as men do upon my chronicles  those words I wrote in haste, as the veil thickened, as the flesh tightened, robbing me of a ghost's perspective which might have seen me triumph all the quicker and all the easier than I shall do.

"Gifford. I myself recorded the name Gifford. Gifford Mayfair-Gifford, the granddaughter of Julien. Gifford came to First Street.  Gifford is one who saw Lasher, don't I speak the truth?"

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