October 13, 1931
Dear Neville –
I remember you asked me once, darling, how I got my outrageous name. You were laughing, a highball glass in your hand, at the time — convinced, I’m sure, that I would have some witty story about a character from musical theater or a wager made and lost. Just as I know, when I’ve said to you that I’ve had a bad life and done terrible things, you probably pictured a humble mother — perhaps a seamstress — a gamekeeper father, or me betting too much at Baccarat and frequenting speakeasies.
Since I’ll never see you again I’ll give you the real story. I’m sitting before a cozy fire gazing out the French doors at the moonlit silver surf of the Atlantic, in the study of this seaside hotel, as I write. I’m wearing the emerald earrings you gave me, the ones you said matched my eyes. Is that picture too vivid? Does it contain too many clues? I guess not. After all, you wouldn’t search for someone like me, not even to regain some stolen trinket.
My name is outlandish, not like your sister’s, Eleanor. Are you surprised I knew that? But I knew so much more about you than you realized when we “accidentally” met at the Yacht Club. I knew her name. I knew that when your mother died Eleanor fled into a bottle, and when gin wouldn’t hide her from the pain any longer, into shimmershim, that seductive herb, all numbness and sparkle. I knew your father disinherited her, and you, Neville, ended up with the Ashrod fortune, including that lovely, valuable red gem called the Firedrake. That was the first thing I knew about you, and the only thing I cared about, because I’m a grifter, and I’ve been on the grift since I was twelve, or nine, depending on how I choose to count.
But the story of my name – let me get started.
My mother was one of those beaten-down blondes the British Isles produce in profusion. She grew up in a cultish sect of Protestantism. They hated magic so strongly that they didn’t speak of it at all, even to acknowledge its existence, keeping their members in a state of virulent ignorance. They loved the use of characteristics – which they called “virtues” — for girls’ names. When my mother and my sodden brute of a father came to America, before I’d even arrived, she’d borne four daughters; Patience, Temperance, Forbearance and Tolerance. She was already scraping the bottom of the “virtue” barrel.
They came here in 1905. As soon as they landed in New York, Erasmus Rather disappeared into the whiskey-tainted jungle of the Bowery, returning at night to demand his dinner and take the coins my mother earned as a laundress. We lived in a rickety tenement, the kind you might recognize from your own nighttime jaunts. When my father was sober enough to find work, he was a hod-carrier.
Have you guessed it already, dear? My weak, ignorant mother had a gift for word-magic. Worse, she was a back-hander. While I wouldn’t have minded the name “Charity” bestowed on me, given my mother’s gift—or curse — I think we can guess how my life would’ve turned out if she had chosen, God forbid, “Chastity.” Instead, believing for some reason that the names had to end in “ance,” when I came along in 1906, she chose Comeuppance. It’s barely a word, and isn’t a virtue at all, but it has served me well.
You think I’m cruel about my mother, but shouldn’t she have begun to wonder? Couldn’t she see it? Patience had a terrible temper. Temperance giggled, chattered, fizzed around our cramped fourth-floor flat like an uncorked bottle of ginger beer. Louder and giddier she got, until she plunged into a dark mood, and lay under her cot with her face to the wall, sometimes for days. As for Forbearance, if the slightest thing went wrong – a lamp wick wouldn’t light, her tea got cold – she dissolved in storms of tears. “I can’t bear it!” she’d cry. “I can’t bear it!”
But the worst, by far the worst, was Tolerance. She hated the Russian Jews who lived below us on the third floor, swearing their cabbage soup made the whole building stink. She mocked the Italians and Irish on our floor for their excessive religiosity. She glared at the Lutherans who walked past the stoop on Sunday mornings, hissing that they were too judgmental. On the rare Sunday outings when we would ride the trolley to a park, Tolerance would hold her skirt close to her legs if we passed Chinese women, or Negroes, and say loudly that she saw no need for “certain people” to come to “her park.”
Every night after dinner, when Erasmus pushed his chair back from the table, a bottle of whiskey cradled in one hand, she leaned on his knee. Her gleaming brown eyes touched on each of us in turn, and then her head would tilt and she’d whisper her litany of our shortcomings and failures to him—just as every night she’d dissect his flaws for us. I, from my usual place under the table, would keep my gaze from him, from all of them. Every night I hoped he would not explode into curses. Every night that hope was crushed.
By the time I was seven he had begun to use his fists, not only on Mother but on us as well. One night, when I was eight, he struck Patience in the face. She sprang up, spitting curses as good as his own, and he shoved her into the wall. “Changelings!” he shouted, “The lot of you!” He glared at my mother who sat by the stove, staring at her hands, then he snatched up the bottle and slammed out of the flat. After a moment or two, Forbearance began to sob.
He didn’t come home for two nights, and I breathed easier, but the third day, while our mother was out and I was ironing a pile of just-dried shirts, my sisters came up behind me and pulled a flour sack over my head. I screamed and kicked, but they carried me out of the flat, down the hallway to the stairwell. I could tell that there were only three of them (Temperance, in a deep funk, was under her cot). I smelled cabbage soup, which smelled like safety to me, and then fried fish and cooking oil… and the stairwell grew colder. I stopped screaming because my throat was raw. We descended and I knew we were headed below street level, into the vast basement. I kicked, and someone (Patience) punched at my face through the sack. “Be still!” someone else (Tolerance) whispered.
I’d never been in the basement. Mother told us it wasn’t safe, and Forbearance always moaned about cockroaches and rats. I knew it had a boiler, and as we left the stairwell – I could tell because sounds grew flatter, with less echo – I felt a wall of heat to my right. Soon we left that behind. I think I was genuinely frightened then, and even Patience’s blows could not keep me still, but there were three of them, and I was small. Finally they pushed me up against a dank wall and yanked the cloth from my head.
The basement was not lit, but in the distance a square glowed red (probably the boiler), and I could make out my sisters’ faces in that light.
“It’s your fault,” Tolerance said. “He’s gotten worse since you came. Look at you! You’re not even his daughter, with that black hair and those sickly green eyes. Demon-eyes!”
“You don’t have his eyes either!” I shouted, determined not to cry. “You’re the changeling, not me!” Anyone looking at us, at the shape of our cheeks and chins, could see that I was a much their sister as any, but such things never mattered to Tolerance.
Patience slapped me. “Shut up! You’re the source of all our problems!”
“Do we have to stay here?” Forbearance whined. “It’s cold. I don’t like it.”
“This one needs to go,” Tolerance said, and in the red light I saw her smirk.
“She’s lying! She lies all the time!” I said, and in spite of my determination I started to cry. “I’m not a changeling! I’m not!”
Patience reached behind me and tugged open a door. It was a closet or a cupboard of some kind, smelling of rot, and it was dark in there.
Do I forgive them? I do not. You’re thinking, they were cursed from christening, named by a back-hander. An Agnes or a Nancy would have emerged unscathed from my mother’s unconscious magic, but them it twisted. Surely, forgiveness?
I did visit Forbearance’s grave once. Her, perhaps, I’ll forgive. The others—no. They were cursed, and they cursed me.
I screamed through my raw throat, I clawed, and I managed to bite Tolerance hard on the ear, but together they hurled me into that even darker space. I fell with a thud onto a rotting floor, and by the time I leaped to my feet they had slammed the door and I could hear grating as they moved something heavy in front of it. Would they have blocked the door, Neville, if they hadn’t meant for me to die?
“Let me out, let me out!” I shouted. I pounded on the door but my words bounced around me. It was dark. It was cold.
“Sleep well, changeling!”
“Come back! Please!” My hands shook and my face grew numb and tingly. I began to feel along the wall, trying to find a hole that I could crawl through, or a duct that would let me call for help. As I made my way around the square, the spongy floor broke away beneath my feet and I fell – and fell, and fell.
Since I’ll be on another continent by the time you get this letter, I might as well tell you what’s been on my mind. A few years ago, on the West Coast, I failed to deliver a commission for a client. He’s a powerful German magus, although he uses the fashionable new word zauberer — “wizard.” He was too young to be part of Germany’s force of magi, the Zauberer-schwadron, during the war, but his hatred for Europe and America is so strong you would think he saw comrades fall around him like bowling pins. He punishes failure, and I failed. He found my trail about four months ago. I hoped that I would be too small a fish for him to bother with… but it seems that’s not the case. I know my capabilities, and he is beyond mine. Far beyond mine. I’m not, I’m not frightened, but… A judicious exit is the best strategy, and the Firedrake provides the means. I doubt you’ll even miss it.
Anyway–So, three things I learned from that experience, when I was eight. Never trust women, particularly sisters. Any man is easily controlled, even a father. And, there is more magic beneath our cities than even the magi truly know or understand.
I fell, it seemed, for a very long time, fetching up in a blue-lit world filled with the rush of wind. In fact, it was water. A glimmering waterfall cascaded down from the sky, or some place so high I could not make it out. The ground was dark and the twilit place full of shadows. Some of it looked like a garden, some like a forest, and parts were filled with shadowy ruins and boxes of metal, sandwiches of masonry and brick, as if buildings had collapsed and then been pressed even more tightly together by the weight of the buildings above them.
I began to search for a way back to the basement, to my home, because, wretched as it was, I missed it. Soon I grew hungry and thirsty. I drank from the river that ran at the foot of the waterfall. You do not need to tell me that this was foolish, but I was eight, and I didn’t know where I was.
I searched for a long time.
It was always twilight there. I’ve learned since then that some call it the Twilit Lands. The things I saw! Once I walked around a sailing ship, from the old days, complete with tattered rigging, that had turned to stone. There were people – well, things – there, too. I heard them often. Shadowy things snarled and snuffled, especially when I would try to sleep. Sometimes, when I curled up in the shelter of a broken wall, I heard running, panting, scraps of prayer sobbed out, and behind that, fierce baying, hoofbeats and laughter. I’d fold my arms over my ears and hope I was not seen. I never knew if the laughing hunters noticed me, or if I was too small a fish to bother with. I know someone noticed me, because they fed me, and two of them talked to me. Once I slept in the lap of a tall woman who smelled like flowers, whose hair was not the color of rotted straw like my mother’s, but golden, whose eyes were the color of the waterfall, and she sang me a beautiful song. All my sadness and pain drained away while she sang. Or maybe I dreamed that. Or maybe I’ve dreamed it since.
I began to make a mark on my arm with my fingernail, each time I woke up, to keep track of time. When I finally found my way back, climbing up a slimy ramp of bricks and rotted wood, and crawling through a smelly masonry pipe into the basement, I had twenty-four marks that showed, but the first four had healed up and vanished. I was in that place for a month.
The smell of cabbage soup welcomed me. I climbed up the stairs slowly. After my time in that place below the city, the walls around me seemed unreal somehow, flimsy and small, as if they were part of a doll’s house, or a cardboard mask for a party. This is how the manmade world has looked to me ever since – flimsy and false. And that’s the way people look to me, too – like papier mache masks. Flimsy. False.
It was mid-day, and the building hummed with the sound of fussing babies and women’s voices. I went upstairs to the fourth floor. Long before I reached the door I heard Patience yelling. I stood in front of that door for an age, but I was determined that my sisters would not frighten me anymore.
I went in.
A woman I didn’t recognize turned. “Who the devil are you?” she shouted, in Patience’s voice, and then I knew her, although she looked older. Just as I recognized her, her expression changed. Her mouth hung open and the blood drained out of her cheeks. The girl standing next to her—young woman, I guess I should say — turned her head. It was Tolerance.
“What–” She gasped so hard she choked, and stepped back, tripping over a basket of shirts that sat on the floor.
“Dear God protect us!” Patience said. “It’s a haunt!”
“How could you leave me there? Why do you look so old?” I wondered if they had used some kind of spell to make themselves older. Tolerance looked at least fourteen.
“It’s not her!” Tolerance said. Her hands shook as she backed away from me. “It’s an enchantment.”
“What’s all this?” my mother said, coming out of the bedroom. She screamed and dropped to her knees. “Comeuppance! My Comeuppance, looking just as she did when she ran off. What devilry is this?”
“I didn’t run off. They threw me down a hole in the basement!” I said.
My mother raised a hand and turned her head away. “It’s a haunt! Lord save us.” Mother’s hair, I saw, was streaked with strands of white. How had that happened so quickly?
“Don’t listen to it!” Tolerance said, licking her lips.
“She’s wearing the same blue dress,” Mother said. “And it isn’t faded, after three years.”
“A month,” I said. “They left me down there a month. I could have starved in the dark!”
“It’s been three years since I lost my baby,” my mother said. “I prayed and prayed…” She began to cry with great tearing sobs.
“Oh, not this again,” said Patience. She scowled at Mother. She glared at me. “Begone, spirit, haunt, whatever you are!”
“I’m your sister!”
Forbearance came out of our room. She had been listening, I could tell. She pointed at me. “Go away,” she said. “I can’t bear to see you. Do you know what it’s been like, the past three years?”
“It hasn’t been three years,” I said, although now that I looked at Forbearance, a scrawny fifteen-year-old scarecrow who had been twelve when she threw me into the basement closet, I was no longer sure. There were dark patches under her eyes and I could see shadows in her mouth where she had lost teeth. Her skin was gray.
“I hardly sleep,” she said. “Food tastes like dirt in my mouth. I can’t bear the guilt. Go! Go away and never come back!”
My mother got to her feet. She came forward and put one arm around Forbearance and one around Patience. “My poor baby. My little lost girl. You need to leave now.”
I tried to speak but the shock stopped my mouth.
She said, “My little girl is gone. You are not my daughter. Go.”
“I’ll starve! I’ll freeze to death! Is that what you want?”
She shook her head, as if she were trying to avoid hearing my words. “You will neither starve nor freeze. I see your eyes. You may not be a haunt, but wherever you have been these three years, something has changed you. You are not my daughter.”
I stared at them. I thought Tolerance would be smirking, but she was not. She was the most frightened of all of them. I considered crying, but I could see that my mother would not be moved. Somehow, while I had been gone, the weakling had found iron in herself. And turned that iron against me.
I was still angry, but, looking at them, I felt nothing else; no sadness, no pain for lost love. I was of no value to my mother or her daughters, I could see, and in that moment I knew that they were of no value to me. I wasn’t like your sister, Neville, beaten down with grief. Where there should have been – something – there was a vacancy as smooth as a freshly made bed.
So I left.
One of the Russian families took me in. For them, I cried. They gave me a bath and fed me cabbage soup and little stuffed dumplings. The grandfather, a slim gray-haired man, had joined them for supper. He took an interest in me, and when he went home I went with him. His name was Dragomir but here in America he used Harvey. He found that having a polite, emerald-green-eyed little girl at his side gave him far greater flexibility in his grifts. He taught me languages, manners, music and history, to read and do arithmetic. Sometimes I played the clean but poor daughter of coal-miners, and we lunched with the wives of the wealthy while Harvey talked about his Coal-Miners Aid Society. Once, for several months in several different cities, I was the secret bastard child of Czarevna Olga Romanov—the Czar’s eldest — thus the only heir to the Russian throne. That was quite successful. For some reason, we love other people’s royalty.
I owe him my life. I will never forget him – in fact, every Christmas I send a knitted scarf and a letter to him at Alcatraz, although I have heard that he refuses them. I hear that he wishes many bad things on me, but the name Comeuppance, bestowed by a back-hander, has shielded me from the worst of those ill-wishes.
You’re wondering if what came back was a fairy, not the little girl who fell through the floor. I don’t think so. I know—I think, no, know that it is I who came back. I came back, but they changed me. They took something from me. They gave me something, too, though. I was a pretty child. I am no longer pretty; with my gleaming black curls and my glittering eyes, I am beautiful. That’s from them.
I can ape any tender feeling, as you know, and I can weep whenever I choose, but I am never moved to weep. Dragomir said once that my heart was as hard as a diamond. Maybe I would say “as hard as the Firedrake.”
I’m not tender-hearted like you. I wouldn’t go to the waterfront tenements, the speaks and those shelters where you can get a meal and a cot if you let them lecture you on your sins, those places, searching for a lost sister. You never saw me those evenings, Neville, but I saw you, and I saw your face as you said her name.
The bellboy has just come to tell me my taxi has arrived, and he waits patiently as I finish this up, so that he can post it for me. Maybe this letter is a risk, but… no. No, I’m sure you won’t search for me.
Poor, poor boy! You’ve been tricked, betrayed, heart-broken – but cheer up! It will just make you more interesting to women, I promise.
Never Truly Yours,