OF MY ILLS & IDLENESS
O, Catherine, what an adventure have I to write!—you have occupied my thoughts
all night, and I am risen now to tell you my mother is undead!
Yesterday it was settled that we should send the Nurse away. What needs Mother a
"Don't be distressed," the Nurse said. "I am sorry we are to part so soon, so
suddenly," the Nurse went on, bitterly, "but surely—"
"Enough!" Father shouted and stamped his foot, impatiently. Repelled by all gently
sexed things that would not tick like machines, Father denied this Nurse her aberrant fervor.
Not in this HOUSE! Lacking the bloodless fidelity of his looking glass, the precision of his
pocket watch, he could but conclude her devotion had been tainted by the proprietary flush
of—dare he say it—BLOODLUST!
Mother was now a dreadful object; her face besmirched with tears. "O, I shall die! I
shall die!" She wailed.
Thus, the night advanced, pitiful and dull. The Nurse's trunks were hurled at the
curb. Dinner was served.
FURTHER ILLS & SINFULNESS
This now too fervid Nurse entered our service a cool little bird, her talons balled, her
eyes, hard. Indisposed and majestically swathed in counterpanes, Mother watched the days
elapse from the comfort of her high-backed chair. The scent of garlic, an odor, which caused
the Nurse to flinch, hung heavy in the air. Mother sighed, "Weep not, dear child, for thy
fallen house." The Nurse's shoulders clutched as though she had been struck. Indeed, her
house had fallen. Her house had been aflame, and then it had fallen on her father. Had she
wept? She had not. For her father was dead when the house fell. Nevertheless, Mother's
tender, though false imputation softened the Nurse, and the Nurse resolved to deck her high
backed chair in garlands and love knots!
Meanwhile, the Groom was leaning on a barrel, his hip cocked, his teeth clamped
down on a twist of straw. He watched the Nurse. Behind him the horses brayed in—? What
was it? Consternation? Discomfort? He didn't give a shit. He followed the Nurse back to the
house, and caught her by the habit. She turned quick and furious. He didn't notice. He
plucked the flowers from her fist and tossed them. The Nurse once killed a man. She killed a
man, and she burnt his house down. Should she tell him? What did he want? To fornicate?
Fine. He pulled her to the ground. There was something so—what was it?—hateful in her
eyes. The Groom smiled. She would never like him. How do I know? I don't.
CONCERNING THE SOURCE OF MY DISORDERS
O, Catherine, it happened just last night as I stood in Father's presence, that this very
epistle fell from my bosom to the hearth. You can imagine Father's consternation when he
glanced upon these pages! "Lies! Delusions! Lies!" He said and flung each page into the fire.
But, when he cast his eyes away, I scorched my fingers to retrieve them. And I have got
them now on my person.
* * *
Mother procured the Nurse from the convent. Her credentials: nonexistent. A
serpent or foul dream felled Mother by the forest, where a footman found her sleeping. So
said the footman. She woke screaming. Do you believe him? The Nurse did not. She is not
mad, the Nurse said. But where was the Nurse when it happened? In the garden, speaking
pale words? Sighing in a stable yard? In the drawing room, kicking, bitterly, at some family
heirloom? Where was I? Behind the curtain, watching, so, I know. She told the Groom, I
won't be dismissed. What poison does he feed her? Come, said the Groom, sigh no more.
He placed her hand on his trouser buttons. She blinked. Perhaps, I could be of service, if—
the Groom stammered in an embarrassed manner, you would be so good—it would make
me very happy if—
PARTIAL OBEDIENCE AMIDST VANITY AND SIN
How bold the Groom had grown: amidst a copse of trees, beneath a bit of
shrubbery, in broad daylight, out of spite. All things being equally undesirable, it mattered
little to the Nurse, until it mattered more. The Groom was stalling. He told her nothing.
Meanwhile, Mother's condition grew worse, her countenance broken and discolored.
Unhappy? She cried, it grieves me to behold thee thus! They sat beneath a beechen tree, their
laps full of embroidery, Mother's needle perpetually slipping from her trembling fingers.
Lovelorn, silent, wane, the Groom crept along the fallen leaves.
Have we not been happy? Mother said, Terribly, unbearably happy? She asked the
Nurse. The Groom advanced with pail in hand. He hit Mother upside the head with it. She
collapsed in the dust beside the cracked fountain. The Groom laughed. He pulled the Nurse
down. Her embroidery, tangled about her wrist, dangling, all egregious. She won't know the
difference, the Groom grunted into her hair. The Nurse raised the needle in her red fist. She
discovered, that instant, what it meant to have a preference and rammed the needle through
his fluttering eyelid.
ON THE EVILS OF ILL SOCIETY WHICH BETRAYED ME INTO HERESY
I believe Mother died that day beneath the beechen tree. And, by means of some
talismanic physic, was preserved, strengthened, and made to live again.
Yesterday morning from my window, I saw Mother and the Nurse walking in the
garden. Propped against a barrel, the Groom observed their progress. The Nurse raised her
eyes like a knife and affixed her gaze to the tree line. The Groom jammed his fist past the lip
of his trousers. He knocked the barrel with his hips, and knocked the barrel again, again.
O Catherine, I must confess: I have been covetous! I have dreamt this narrative
because my heart snapped beneath the prodigious spoonful of spite the Lord hast daily
forced betwixt my lips! The physicians forged a carapace called sickness and affixed it to my
person! I said God make me MOTHER NATURE. Let me be nothing. Let me be pregnant
with everything! Let me selectively abort a vast portion of the universe! (Namely, Father and
Were my prayers answered? They were not! For this I dreamt more brazenly,
exquisitely, wickedly. I dreamt God fell off a great cloud and landed in the village square. I
filled my fist with his white beard, and I dragged him through the streets. God, why didst
thou make hunger? Why make thy creatures eat thy other creatures! Why nudge the stable
boy's eyes upon my mortified flesh? Why compel the Groom to goose me, and every
petticoat stuffed as a sausage skin, and thereby rendered immobile though animate? For this,
I cried, I shall slaughter and eat you! A crowd of washerwomen formed about me and
Of course, I did not eat the Lord, dear Catherine. I tease. Instead, I woke to a great
crash in the great hall!
A portrait toppled to the floor. The Groom ran, screaming, down the corridor.
"They're demons. They're undead! Their pallor! Their figures! Their fingernails!"
ONLY PARTIALLY SHAKEN HEREIN
O Catherine, what a thrilling escapade have I to convey! This evening, before dinner
was served, Father ordered the coach be brought round for the Nurse, and you might well
imagine the violence of his agitation, when the coach never came!
"What are you writing, Eleanor? Stop writing!" Father dashed a goblet to the ground.
Unnerved by Father's wild gesticulations, the serving girl toppled a tureen of
congealed gravy, and bolted from the dining hall. In the midst of this confusion, Brother
ripped the epistle from beneath my rolling quill. I snatched at the letter, as he stood over me,
perusing its contents coolly.
"The theme is compelling, if melodramatic, the style, engaging, though whimsical
and histrionic. And, as is endemic of your sex, you've got everything backwards." He tore
the letter into several pieces. (Catherine, think no more on HIM. He's spoiled, boring, and
always DRUNK! You SHANT meet him!). By and by, as I scurried about his feet, sweeping
these fragments into my gown, he asked, "Who is Catherine?"
Just then, the footman rushed in, slipped on gravy and fell down. "A terrible thing
has happened!" He clutched his hip and winced. "A most consummate, a most horrifying
scene!" He groaned.
* * *
The horses had been turned loose. They ran wildly over the grounds, the carriages,
afloat in the ravine below. In the stable, the bridles hung from blood-flecked pegs. The
Groom's body was cradled in a sloping-rack. His bootless leg slung over the edge. His
FLESH had been—O, dear Catherine, shield thy eyes from the horrors in which my flagrant
WHEREUPON WE ARE MISERABLY PERPLEXED
Here I am, dear Catherine, an inmate of the devil's house!
In Brother, Father has found an accomplice. Late last night, they threw the Nurse
down the stairs, dragged her to the fountain by her hair, and cut off her head.
The next morning, Mother searched for her in the garden. She found instead the
fountain filled with blood, and body parts bobbing to its surface. Next to the fountain was a
block of wood with an axe on top of it.
Now I sit before the vanity, my only friends arrayed about me: quill, candle, meat
cleaver. All is dull. I make faces at the mirror. I wonder why this face is mine instead of
another, what is mine, and what am I. Father says a modest and deflated sack into which the
Lord rid himself of enmity and filled me out. No, I said, I am bones rolled in jelly, jammed
down a sagging mouth, eyes pressed into a mound of flesh, and here I—
Hark! Someone raps violently at my door!
* * *
'Twas Brother! Again, he read my letter. "Absurd! An axe? Father?" He wrote. His
stupid penmanship! Don't listen! Don't listen!
Brother lies! I'm changing! My power—omniscience—has grown threefold! Have
"Nonsense!" Brother scrawled ALL OVER MY letter. "The coach," he said, "as you
well know, safely carried the Nurse back home."
"Home?" I said.
Catherine, the convent is no more. He's gone. Now listen.
When Mother returned from the garden, Father was drawing smugly on his pipe.
"Praise the Lord! He asked no lesser sacrifice—" Just then a log cracked. The fire went out.
But first, an ember leapt to Father's head. He sprung up and flung his flaming hairpiece at
the hearth. Father darted his eyes toward Mother, who stood before the window. The
curtains billowed behind her. Her hair blew wildly about her head. Her eyes were white and
bulged like milk jugs from her face. Father opened his mouth. No sound came out. So, he
ran, toppling over a Windsor chair as he cast his glance back at her, then, a game table, then,
a lap dog. He did not stop until he reached his chamber, and the bolt had been securely
fastened in the door.
HONESTY ABOUT ONESELF
Dead to the world and equally insensible to its inhabitants, Mother bid adieu to all
society, but what should spring from the fiery stream of her fancy.
Father scribbled furiously at his desk. There has to be a cure for it: Mother's rage,
like fire or plague, sweeps over the Abbey, and leaves everything convulsing in its wake!
Outside, a footman stumbled from the barn, hacking with an axe at his withered arm.
"So loyal," said father. "My footmen don't deserve this." The candlelight flickered.
"The bitch," he whispered.
Who cares! Forget Father! Erase him from your mind, and avoid his lurching figure
as it trips on a quill, crashes massively down the stairwell, and slumps heavily into this
epistle. Shall we speak instead of pleasurable pastimes, half-pleasurable incidents, all the
sudden and slow changes? A change came over Mother to be sure. She walked about. Her
eyes reeled around, then settled on one pointed window. The glass cracked.
"How long has she stood like that?" Brother asked.
I told Mother (with my mind) that I would NEVER answer him.
For her, I'd held an assembly. I sat at the piano, poised to play. How could I play?
Brother waved a hand before Mother's face. Get away!
The curtains billowed in the wind. The trees withered as she looked at them. Hush.
Mother stiffened, pinned her vacant stare to one pointed window. I played a haunting tune
as she rose to cross the room. "Don't be frightened," she said to the walls, to the window, to
me, "come, rise up, to my side—"
"Who is frightened?" Brother cried, his hand on the hilt of his dagger.
The candles flickered in the gale. Out, out, beyond the ruined chapel, before the
crumbling tombstones, the dirt pulsed, cracked, and a dozen rotten fists cleaved the earth
Then, Father fumbled in, breathless, wild. It was common for him, after spells of
gestation, to be spastically driven to some imperial mission.
"Come with me: fly, Henry, fly! The Nurse is back!" He shouted. "Collect your
mother! Tarry not; question not; but fly with me!"
Brother rolled a ream of sheet music into a rod, drove her like an ox down the dark
passage, until she stumbled dumbly out of my anxious company, the doorways and corridors
crumbling as she passed through them.
And I, fat ball of quivering desire, was poised precariously on the instant's narrow
tip, and then I quivered out of harmony with it, plummeted down the endless pit of myself
and all the fancies, conjured therein, which shall never (never!) flinch into their own
"Good heaven! Where go? What happened?" I leapt up and followed where Father
drove them out, out into the howling night, past the shattered fountain, where Father once
more took the axe in his hand and past the rotten sedges, and on, on into the shadows of the
wounded woods, the broken barn, wherein I stumbled over the servants, transformed,
boneless worms, squirming bits of flesh littered about the threshing ground.
Did the moon dip behind cloud or tree, did God gag on a draught of his infinite
mercy and spew some decomposing substance on my head, or was it the pools growing
endlessly around my feet? I seemed to move about in utter darkness. Soon, I told Mother,
the stock, and God, it will be morning, and the sun will unstitch this blindness! They will
retire bloody and spent, and I will notice Mother's absence.
To be continued...
Jessica Alexander's story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Fence, Black Warrior Review, PANK, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist and DIAGRAM. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where she teaches creative writing at Franklin and Marshall College.