Word Count: 2,374
Spoilers: plentiful ones for all of the Gemma Doyle Trilogy; set post-series
Summary: For Sarah Rees-Toome, retribution takes a most peculiar course.
Author's Note: I am not done with this yet, and I'm pretty sure there's supposed to be more. It hasn't actually been written, apart from some random paragraphs and snatches of dialogue, and maybe if I was good, I would refrain from posting it until, y'know, the whole thing was done. However! I also feel like this sort of works on its own just as it is; it accomplishes what I wanted it to. Also, quite frankly, having like eight completed pages just sitting around on my harddrive and being ignored -- I can't live like that! I just can't! I should be able to, but I can't.
So, here, flist, be subjected to my fanfic? Mwahahaha?
This was sparked by the prompt 'Sarah/Mary, autumn' from the glorious defutata!
Also: this character is my NUMBER ONE LADY in this book series, favourite favourite, all the way, and at the same time, I have never actually been able to truly wrap my mind around/reconcile myself to her storyline. So this is my attempt to do that, for the sake of important matters like my own mental health and stuff. Does it succeed? Who knows???
“I have what I want. You’re here.”
She strokes my cheek. “Yes. For a little while longer.”
My good mood evaporates. “What do you mean?”
“Gemma, I cannot stay forever, else I could be trapped like one of those wretched lost spirits who never complete their soul’s task.”
“And what is yours?”
“I must set right what Mary and Sarah did so many years ago.”
- A Great and Terrible Beauty
I. I heard many things in hell
Sarah – for she is absolutely Sarah now, having shed her other names (and God knows she’d collected enough of those) – wakes in a yellowing place to the whispers of trees.
She’s had quite enough of trees, too.
The dry leaves rustle as she sits up, inspects her surroundings. She’s in the middle of the woods, and judging by the red-yellow-orange state of things, it is the heart of fall. A faint wind, one with bite to it, raises goosebumps on her bare arms. She is, she realizes, wearing nothing but a white chemise.
Not ideal, by any means, but nor is she frozen stationary in a magical well. Not to mention the lack of fire and brimstone, both of which she supposes she has, by conventional standards, earned.
“Well then,” she murmurs. “Hello, death.”
There is no answer. Just the wind and the leaves, caught forever in each other like lovers.
She supposes this could madden, given time. She is glad, yet again, that patience is a skill she’s acquired.
She hoists herself off the ground, getting dirt on her palms as she does it. She doesn’t bother to brush it off. She likes the gritty feel of it, the earthy feel. Being dead, logic would point to the conclusion that this is not, indeed, Earth. For once, she’s grateful for an illusion.
She starts to walk, her strides brisk and purposeful. No sense in dilly-dallying. She would like to find what lies beyond this place, or if there is anything at all. In all honesty, she’s troubled by the prickling suspicion that she is well on her way to running out of beyonds.
She walks and walks and walks; surely it’s hours, lifetimes. She’d been under the impression that time ceased to matter after death, that the clock’s hands stilled, that the hourglass shattered and the sand spilled out, a great mess of seconds, instants, moments left on the floor to be swept up and thrown out.
It must not be so. She feels the time pass.
It is all forest, forest everywhere. She mutters to herself to drown out the whispering leaves. “A brook would be quite nice, if you don’t mind, Mysterious Otherworld Woodlands. Maybe a deer or two for company. How about a nice squirrel? Surely you can spare a squirrel.”
The Mysterious Otherworld Woodlands do not oblige.
She does not feel hungry, or tired. She walks for what must be days, and the urge to relieve herself never comes. She must be done, then, with the human body, its inane demands. Still, she feels the cold. She breathes out and in. And there is – unmistakably, so very noticeably – the continued beating of her heart. Heartbeats are a thing one tends to forget to notice when they’re alive. Now, it’s a spark, a jump, a tiny earthquake each time. What in the world can be meant by that? She thinks of Mr. Poe’s mad protagonist, the dreaded floorboards. But was he mad? And that is the question. True! – Nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story. Odd that she remembers it so well (by heart, as it were, forgive her the pun); she’d read it only a handful of times. The point, she supposes, is that the mad never quite know. The mad always find perfect justification for the lengths they go. The steps they take.
She runs through the whole story, word for word. Then she starts on Idylls of the King. She finds she doesn’t forget a thing. Every aspect, down to the last caesura, is etched into her brain.
“Well, well. This would have come in much handier indeed during my teaching days,” she says to the gaping no-one-nothing that surrounds her.
She begins to recite things aloud, for the noise. Jane Eyre. Hundreds of pages and she doesn’t miss a word. It’s a peculiar omniscience indeed. Mad, monstrous Bertha – Bertha on all fours, Bertha a burden, a lunatic, not a woman at all really – flings herself from the roof. Love prevails. In fiction, love has such a troubling tendency to do so. Rather wryly, she devotes her attentions to Wuthering Heights. Cathy and Heathcliff – has there ever been a more insufferable pair of twits?
“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods,” she says to the woods and the nothingness, her voice very sardonic. “Time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees — my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff — he's always, always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being —”
She ignores a stab of feeling, and pauses. For once she seems surrounded by perfect silence.
A memory overwhelms her, so crystal clear it is almost like living it again:
In the art classroom at Spence, surrounded by the girls and a great deal of banter sparked over a bowl of fruit. The prospect of still lives.
Gemma, so thoughtful and so burdened even then. ‘What happens if your choice is misguided?’
‘You must try to correct it.’
‘But what if it’s too late? What if you can’t?’
‘Then—’ (Spoken from experience.) ‘—you must find a way to live with it.’
Damned if she’ll think of Mary. Damned if she’ll think of Mary. She carries it with her, a chant she thinks with every step forward but does not speak aloud – for that would be terribly weak, would verge on sentimental. Damned if she’ll think of Mary. She times it to her footfalls and the persistent beat of her heart.
But to speak of damnation – well, isn’t she damned?
She laughs. (She does not know how many times it has run through her head by now, DamnedifI’llthinkofMarydamnedifI’llthink
It’s a nasty business, being this strange human shell. She comes to miss – many things. Afternoon tea at Spence. (Say what one will about Brigid; the woman can brew a fine pot of tea.) Bookshops, and new gloves. Hot summer days, and the harsh purity of frost and snow. Give her summer or winter; she’s grown most unimpressed with this in-between. Or spring – at least then there’d be a bit of bloom to make things interesting.
The Rites of Spring, by Sarah Rees-Toome. She recalls the splendid pleasure of sketching quick, dark lines over the paper, the lines taking on form, becoming man and woman entwined: base and vulgar, but admirable, too, in its simplicity. Its truth. Mary, laughing, tucking it away into her diary, a parody of a lovely keepsake. Mary, with her red hair always falling into her eyes; how sweet and thoughtless it became, how second-nature, for Sarah to push it back.
The leaves whisper, whisper, whisper around her, inside her. In time (blasted time), she suspects she will begin to hear words in their ghostly nonsense.
She quickens her pace, loosens her limbs; soon she is running, without ever quite having meant to.
And if this is hell—
First and foremost, she hates to think it. It is inevitably tinged with the dramatic. Still, she might as well be thorough. It is a possibility.
If this is hell, she must express her admiration to Messrs. Lucifer & Company. It’s certainly unorthodox. Once upon a time, fall was her favourite season.
If this is hell, then perhaps that’s why she no longer feels it: the need for power, for the magic. It is like being hollowed out, cleanly and thoroughly. She spent her whole life giving up, and bloodying her hands, but oh, the purpose was so clear. She did heinous things – she knows it. She never tried to delude herself into believing anything else. But always, always, it seemed worth the cost. The world was filled with cruelty and injustice; the people who deserved fine things were so seldom the ones who got them. She’d learnt that lesson very well by the age of eight. (She does not know who deserves the blame more: her mother for being so weak, so quixotic, so easily won, delicate as a Dickens heroine, practically begging to be crushed; or her father, for his swiftness and his rage, his very quick action. Perhaps the both of them. Yes, that seems a fair means of doling it out.)
She recalls being praised by Mrs. Nightwing, called a quick learner, so clever and bright (if a bit too precocious) – and a scholarship student, at that!
‘There is no doubt of it, Miss Rees-Toome. Your aunt will be a lucky woman to have so fine a companion.’
‘I don’t wish to be her companion.’ God, she must have been no more than ten at the time. She very distinctly remembers looking up into the schoolmistress’s face. ‘I’m going to be an artist.’
‘Perhaps your aunt will enjoy your pictures. You can share them with her.’ And that was it; not the slightest bit of whimsy, not even a small pretty lie to spare for a girl not quite old enough to see the stale, unexceptional life stretched out before her.
‘If she thinks I’m going to stay cooped up in that awful woman’s dusty old house for the rest of my life, reading her books, then she’s mad,’ she told Mary later, sitting out in the grass, fuming.
‘Maybe you’ll escape.’
‘How? Bedsheets tied together? Climbing out the window in the dead of night?’
‘You’ll be pretty when you’re older. You can find a man to marry you.’
Mary-Mary-Mary. How like a heartbeat it’s turning.
The Realms, the magic, all of it: it seems foolish. Ugly. Unjustifiable. It must be, she thinks, like falling out of love; the first flushes, the mad frenzies all passed, and one is left suddenly with nothing but this person beside them. Giddy desire all gone, and all you can think now is that their conversation is not really so very droll, that their ears are rather funny.
To think that greed ate her up so. To think that she hadn’t believed a speck in Sarah Rees-Toome, in Hester Asa Moore; hadn’t thought it enough to keep a room of her own and teach drawing, to stand before a class and tell them about chiaroscuro and the fact that women actually got on quite well before the invention of the corset (Amazon warriors, goddesses of destruction and the like). When she looks back now, when she tries to discern what moments were worth most, what she is fondest of are the memories of that classroom, and those girls – some bright, some silly (God! The ghastly Cecily Temple! Poor, dreadful thing), all so young, so full of choice and of potential, even if they couldn’t begin to know it.
Even then, in living, she could not see the beauty of it; she was too caught up in her quest, and so tantalizingly close at last. Gemma Doyle with Mary’s diary. (And Mary’s hair, and Mary’s green eyes.)
She thinks of Carolina, and what easy business it has always been – moving forward, doing what is necessary. Making promises of a new dolly.
She thinks of craggy cliffs and the scent of the sea; girls in white dresses, gobbled all up by black. She thinks of that green cloak, the boldest of all her disguises. Emerald green, and always kept in the back of her closet, and chosen because the first glimpse of it in the shop had stirred some feeling deep in her belly, a wonderful lurch, a relief, an impaling, for it was the precise shade of Mary’s eyes. It had been for Mary, in a way, all of it. Mary, who was shamed enough, brave enough to throw it all away; to run out of the underworld, away from Sarah, and never turn back for that one fatal glimpse.
How Sarah lived, for a little while, in the hope for that glimpse.
She runs, now, runs and runs.
She thinks she has aged twenty years. There is, of course, no means of checking her reflection; no water, and certainly no looking glass. Then again, she hasn’t hungered, or slept, or stopped. She rather thinks aging is no longer a concern of hers.
But oh, she feels old. Old as wretched Aunt Louisa, and after all, wasn’t her whole life a rather abstract way of tying together bedsheets, climbing out that window? The last she heard, right before she’d departed for Spence, Aunt Louisa was still obstinately alive, all of ninety.
At the time, that news had seemed so much like validation.
And so, mumbling Coleridge (whom she always preferred to Wordsworth; there is something in him – his anguish maybe – that makes his words ring truer, pierce harder), she sinks to the ground. She does it slowly, like one getting into bed after a long day, each leaf a stinging sound as it crunches beneath her. She stares up into the gray sky.
“My genial spirits fail, and what can these avail to lift the smothering weight from off my breast?” she whispers, feeling – well, pitiful, to be quite honest. As though she’s finally lost. “It were a vain endeavour, though I should gaze for ever on that green light that lingers in the west—”
Next to her, the leaves crunch.
Her heart skips a beat. For a second, there is nothing but the fear. But then she finds relief behind it. The courage to carry on boldly. After all, this is part of her choice to go on. (Thanks to Gemma.) She has always, always gone on.
She turns, and there is Mary, resting beside her.