The Beautiful Bird Sits No Longer Singing in the Nest by Kate Lechler

The hair-pulling is a habit recently acquired. I do it only when I’m alone, after Grace has left for the evening. I roll each hair between my fingers like a rosary. My fingers crawl across my scalp until I find one: coarse where the others are thin, kinked where the others are smooth. I enjoy the feel of it pulling against me, tenting my skin. Then I yank it out, suck on the end, and drop it on the floor. The area around my bed is littered with black straw.

While I do this, I take stock of my prison. Four ancient tapestries: thick and silencing. A bed: nailed to the floor so I cannot barricade the door. Three of Edward’s candlesticks: tall and heavy, but nailed to the wall. A bowl and pitcher for washing: made of aluminum, soft enough to dent on a human skull instead of caving it in. Plate and spoon: same. Pencils: short, stubby, dull—I sharpen them with my teeth. One set of bedclothes: linens that I could tie together for rope, if they were not sewn together like a sack, if the tower were not so tall, if I were ever left alone for more than an hour.

And one window, high enough for me to rest my elbows on the stone sill and gaze.

Outside: the moors. Spread below me like an altar cloth, like a rolling sea. Not the Caribbean, though, that laughing dance of blue and green; Mother always said it smelled of flowers. This sea of land and sky is endless grey, like the pictures I draw with my pencils.

Inside: Myself. A ball of teeth and nails and uncut hair swinging around my calves.

And, for ten hours each day: Grace Poole, the witch.

***

My husband has hired Grace to come each morning, bringing food, medicine, and, as she puts it, “comp’ny.” She isn’t truly a witch—my father taught me that a belief in augury is the sign of an untutored mind—but I loathe her just the same. Each day, she drags the rocking chair from the adjacent room and sits knitting in it, her heavy breathing filling the space. At the end of the day, she scrapes the chair back through the door.

Who knows what trouble I might get up to with unfettered access to a rocking chair?

She is a dour woman, graceless despite her name, built like a block and with a mouth to match. The only color about her is red: coppery hair, bloated face, bloodshot eyes. The first time we met, she bent forward and shouted her name, “Mis-sus Poo-oole!” dragging the syllables out as if I were dimwitted instead of merely mad. I responded in rapid patois, repeating insults I had picked up in Kingston’s market.

“Tha’rt as addled as I was told,” she muttered and sat down to knit. I returned to my bed, my drawings spread out in front of me. We have not spoken since.

Some days I regret that. Some days I’d appreciate a voice other than the ones which fill my brain.

***

After supper, she leaves and I look through my papers. They tell my story in the blandest of terms. A birth certificate, identifying Bertha Antoinette Mason as an English Creole from Jamaica, born in 1815. A marriage certificate from a parish church in Kingston. A letter from a Yorkshire doctor, diagnosing me with hysteria.

Other pages, collected in a tattered book falling apart at the spine, tell different stories. Tales of Magic, the cover says: wicked elven queens, silent sleepers in crystal caves, little men with red caps. I trace favorite phrases. They make my throat ache with beauty: “rampion so fresh and green that she longed for it,” and “the beautiful bird sits no longer singing in the nest,” and “two of her tears wetted his eyes and they grew clear again.”

What I read in that book, I draw on whatever paper I have, populating my pictures with faces I remember. My father becomes the king who bartered his dancing daughters away, his face twisted with confusion over dilapidated slippers. My brother Richard is Lucky Hans carrying his grindstone, whistling into the air. My mother transforms into the thirteenth fairy, sly smile looming over a cradle.

If anyone could perform magic, it would have been my mother.

As the face I know best, Grace Poole also works her way into my pictures. I put her dull expression on a hag slumped in a tumbledown doorway, or on Cinderella’s furious stepmother. Once, I drew a picture of the animals on their way to Bremen Town, and when I looked down, I had made her the singing ass. I laughed, and lifted it to the candle’s flame.

I never draw myself. I have no mirror and I don’t remember what I look like.

***

Before I married, I was told I escaped my mother’s disease.

She was touched in the head. Even as a child, I knew. She responded to unheard voices, her laughter erupting like a parrot in flight. She was uncanny, impulsive. Keeping the door locked against Richard and me, she spent weeks in her boudoir, only to drag us from our beds on a rainy day to dance through puddles in the jungle.

The people in the village had a different explanation for her strange behaviors: sorcery. One of the fisherman, Trejean, spit at her at the market when she said his fish smelled like rotten eggs. As the spittle slid down her cheek, her back straightened and her hand quirked in an odd gesture. After his boat sank the next day, he stood on our wide porch and accused her of putting the evil eye on him. Listening from the hall, I shook my head; even as a child, I thought the villagers’ belief in unlawful obeah magic mere foolishness.

But Trejean’s misfortunes increased until he could no longer walk the streets without screaming at invisible assailants. Our priest said he was possessed by a devil and exorcised the spirit, chanting above Trejean who spit and moaned, his arms stretching violently. It did not help, though, and Trejean died after a seizure.

Even if she was a witch—which I did not credit—I could not believe my mother would exact such a price for a mere insult. But the villagers did. In the market, people turned their faces from us, refusing to sell my mother anything. The priest spoke with my father behind closed doors. Within a month of Trejean’s death, my father had committed my mother to an asylum. I never saw her again.

I was careful to pray each day, warding my mind against the voices that had haunted her, my body against the reckless urges that welled up from within. And after our marriage, I imagined Edward’s love as its own sort of exorcism. When he slid into me, I imagined him driving the evil out of my body. I panted and wailed as he delivered the sacrament. Forehead, navel, breast, breast—he covered them all with his red mouth. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In spite of that, the curse came.

***

One night, Edward slips into the room after Grace Poole leaves. I have not seen him for months. We huddle under blankets and whisper. He inspects my drawings and shares tales about his day in return. I admire the strength of his jaw, the curl of hair around his ears. But when I move to crawl into his lap, to unfasten his breeches, he clasps my wrists together.

“Bertha, no,” he says, brows shadowing his eyes. “Such longings are part of your sickness. You must learn to control them.” He rests my head on his shoulder, patting it like a father, and reminds me what it will take to get well: rest, quiet, and abstinence from carnal pleasures. “When you are better, my darling, we may be man and wife again.”

He hands me my medicine, which I gulp to avoid the taste, cloying and metallic. Then I nestle against his chest and listen to the rumble of his baritone. My eyes droop and I fall asleep with his hand in my hair, his voice in my head. You must get well.

When I wake, I am alone. Dizzy on my bed, I stare at the tapestries.

They seem to move around me as if enchanted. Women and men on the hunt for fleeing hart and hare. They are old—threads poke from their faces, and one man’s cheek is eaten by moths—but despite this, they are free. They slip between the boles of trees, they tumble into meadows full of wildflowers, they jump horses over streams. Imagining Edward and me together in the jungle among the ferns and rosewood, smelling the salt tang of the ocean, I slip my hand between my legs. But then I recall my promise to avoid such daydreams.

I will do as Edward asks and endeavor to be well.

***

When Edward met me, I never spoke of my mother and he never asked. I was just another motherless girl, and he the dashing foreign prince. At a party for Kingston planters, my brother introduced him with a wink as “Mr. Rochester, our friend from England.” I blushed as he took my hand. My heart beat hard as I tried to mimic his accent, to speak like what I thought a proper English girl might sound like. I was dazzled with fairy-tale images of tinkling chandeliers, carriages in the snow, and gardens of flowers so plush and pillowy that one could fall into them and sleep for a hundred years.

But he changed after he came to my bed. I was too quick to shrug off the wedding dress. Too eager to touch his skin, rough and furred where I was soft and bare. He cautioned me with a pained laugh: “Bertha, my darling, slow down or I will begin to believe you have more experience than was promised!” I laughed back and tossed my hair, too drunk on love and sweet wine to notice the way his spine stiffened, his mouth pursed, as I reached for him.

I remember his eyes clenched in the pain of pleasure, my pale hands braced against the expanse of his chest. But afterwards, he curled away from me, growling a rough “goodnight” when I touched his shoulder. I snaked my body between the mosquito netting and huddled on the balcony, listening to the rain beat its way through the palmettos below. Behind me, I could hear Edward muttering out his dreams. I caught one word: “Witch.”

He came to my bed many more times, but never with a smile.

Four years later, when I arrived in England, there was no palace, just a grey tower in a grey land. I was not escorted to glittering balls in dresses that outshone the heavens but confined to a small room with a moth-eaten blanket. I had compared my life to Cinderella’s but mine was the tale of Rapunzel instead: a girl trapped in a tower with one window, guarded by a wicked old woman, her only comfort the occasional visits of a prince.

He would free me if I was well.

***

I do not believe the vile-tasting medicine is helping my sickness. I dispose of it when Grace Poole’s back is turned. Holding it in my mouth, I spit it onto the floor behind the bed. There is a spot shaped like a crooked heart where it has soaked into the wood.

Without the medicine, I am less drowsy but my illusions are more frequent. I imagine many things, most of them involving Grace Poole. Sometimes I turn her into a bubble, and then pop her with my pencil. Other times, I imagine her in her rocking chair as a long-legged frog croaking on a lily pad. Most often, I see her as a witch: looming over a cauldron, dancing with her weird sisters around a bonfire, baring her withered dugs to the moon. These visions make me giggle. She glares up at me and continues rocking.

When I get restless, I stand by the window, braiding and unbraiding my hair, wishing it stretched all the way down to the wet stones below. For a moment, I believe I see it coiling on the ground, a gleaming black rope. Edward approaches at a run, his open face turned towards me, ready to clamber up my hair like a twisted beanstalk, past serpents, past giants, past the tops of mountains into the clouds. My heart pounds so hard I can feel it in my feet, bare against the floor, and then Grace Poole clears her throat and the vision is gone.

The doctor in Yorkshire said that such hallucinations are another part of my sickness. He told me to struggle against them, but I find it difficult. Until they reveal themselves as illusion, they seem as real as the chill in this room, the dirt beneath my fingernails, the throb in my chest. I must try harder not to give into my fancy.

***

In the story, no one wonders what else is in the tower. It could be anything below that topmost room—a silo full of grain yellow as gold, or a pile of gems under a coiled dragon, or, most terrifying of all, a hollow stone shaft descending into the earth, and when your foot scrapes loose a pebble, it never lands.

But in real life, the tower has other rooms. Some nights, I explore them.

On evenings when Grace Poole tilts in her chair, breathing a fume-laden shudder, the door cracked open behind her, I force myself to be silent and small. I exhale through the open hollow of my mouth until I make no sound. I stare at my hand until it seems to fade into darkness. When I can imagine I can see the floor through it, I slide behind her and out the door.

In real life, the rest of the tower is full of furniture and books and old paintings and sometimes people. An old woman snoring by the kitchen fire, her midnight tea dripping from the cup in her hand. A young girl sleeping in a bed tangled in lace like a cloud.

The only thing strange about the tower is that I cannot seem to find a way out.

***

Tonight mist gathers in pockets on the moors and Edward comes late.

“Did something keep you?” I ask.

A new governess has come to stay at the house. “She is a fragile thing, and doesn’t know about my circumstances; you’ll have to be quiet.”

My circumstances, he says, although the most pressing circumstances are mine. “I am always quiet; your medicine sees to that.” I test him; has he discovered I haven’t been taking it?

His face softens. “It is for your own good, my dear. To calm your nerves.” He gathers me under his arm and begins the old litany. “Rest and quiet are what will cure you.”

I gaze up at his face as he talks of coarse behaviors, female maladies, the excitability of the womb. A lock of my hair lays across his shoulder, and as I watch, it crawls across the yoke of his back and winds itself around his throat. It tightens like a noose. Edward continues to talk as if the strands of hair are not choking the breath out of him.

My throat constricts. This is another illusion. I know I should fight it, but I cannot drag my eyes from the line of red and white that the hair cuts into his flesh.

He pauses. “Bertha, are you well?” I blink and see an expression of concern on his face. When I glance back, the hair is gone, his neck unblemished.

“Yes,” I smile. “I am well.”

***

My visions come more often now, tricking me, and I wonder if something beyond madness is at play. I feel eyes on me at all moments. Grace Poole’s breathing echoes in my head, even when she is gone. It is as if the tower has become a part of her, a giant throat, inhaling and exhaling, waiting to blow me away like a tuft of dandelion or to swallow me down red and raw.

Fleas crawl over me. They must be her messengers, her spies. Do they suck my blood on her bidding? I resolve to catch and crush as many of them as I can. The motion is pleasant; I pinch the fleas between my fingers and then roll my thumb nails together, waiting for the pop.

When there are no more fleas, I pick out the eyes of the women in the tapestries. I tug the threads, blue and green, free of the dark weft behind, and leave them with ragged holes, as if their own falcons plucked them from their sockets. They shall not watch me either.

I pull more of my hair. Perhaps, once it is gone, Grace Poole will come no more. Perhaps I can weave a rope and escape.

***

I have learned something almost beyond belief: Grace Poole is a witch.

I saw her transform in the garden. Grace staggered into the maze, the top of her red head bobbing above the lines of yews. Moments later, she emerged again—with a different face. Younger, her brow pale and smooth, but with eyes that have seen ages.

I have seen her—this new Grace—from my window several times now. Dressed in somber colors, with small, unremarkable features and an austere expression. I am surprised that she did not choose to make herself more lovely. What does she want? If not beauty, perhaps youth? And how is she accomplishing it? I have heard of witches changing into animals. The villagers said my mother became a little brown owl and preyed on their chickens. But can they really change their faces as the stories say?

If so, Grace Poole may only be one of the witch’s faces. She could be any anyone, gain anything by changing her appearance.

She is more dangerous than I thought. I call this new apparition the Snow Queen, and draw a picture of her as that cold enchantress, her grey gaze darting ice into the hearts of men.

***

I have fashioned a rope of my hair and threads from the tapestry. I can wrap it around my waist three hundred times, and I keep it there during the day to escape detection. Tonight, while Grace is away, I will make my escape. I will search the tower until I find the door and I will run out onto the moors, the grass icy beneath my feet like a thousand knives.

I walk the halls for a long time, but they flicker and twist; I think she has put a spell on them. I leave the rope trailing behind me so I will not get lost as I try all the doors, hoping that one will open to the outside. Perhaps, like a magic mirror, one will lead me home. What will it look like, I wonder? Will I emerge from the surf like Andersen’s mermaid, and return to Father’s embrace, to Richard’s smiles?

As I reach the last coil of my rope, one more door looms out of the darkness. I crack the door slowly, almost closing it before I see who sleeps within. It’s Edward. In an instant, I’ve dropped my rope and am by his side. His shoulder is cool beneath my fingers; is he enchanted? Has the witch’s magic ensnared him as well?

I bend down to kiss him awake, but the candle drips onto his shirt, three circles of red tallow like drops of blood on snow. Remembering my stories, I panic. If he wakes, will he turn into a bear, or a bull? Will he disappear to the ends of the earth, beyond where I can find him? I drop the candle and run, finding the line of my rope in the hall and feeling my way back to the stairs. Behind me rise the sounds of shrieks and rushing wind.

***

I cry myself to sleep for three nights in a row. I had suspected it was magic that bound me to Thornfield, but knowing Edward is caught, too, is unbearable. And I am helpless. Not for the first time, I wish my mother had been a witch, wish she had taught me something—anything—of this craft so I may protect myself.

As if in answer to my wish, Mother comes to me in a dream.

I am a little girl, sitting on her lap in front of her dressing table, swinging my legs and bumping my shins against the drawers. She brushes my hair, fingers light and quick as feathers. I glance at us in the mirror; my face is dim and hazy, but Mother’s is clear. Her dark hair is piled on her head and her lips flush with bright rouge. She smiles at me, a look so loving that it warms me from within. I lean back against her, smell her perfume: jasmine and musk.

As she begins to braid my hair, she sings a song about a girl who turns into bird and flies away.

***

Months have passed since the night I explored Thornfield and found Edward, or at least so it seems. It is difficult to tell time here; the days flicker past. I try to count them, looking at my arms to make a scratch, only to find unremembered marks here already.

Today the tower knocks and rattles about me. I pick the hands off of the women in the tapestry. Now they carry their knives between their teeth as they hunt, and their feet have grown claws. One of them looks like Mother—fierce and lovely. Does that mean she looks like me?

When the witch returns, I shall not beg for my freedom. I take my extra spoon out of its hiding place. I have sharpened it to an edge on the stone behind the tapestry; with it, I can cut her throat and rescue Edward.

I keep myself awake for two days, sharpened spoon in hand, waiting for her. Every moment I think I hear her tread on the steps, her breath at the door, but when the door opens, it is not Grace or the Snow Queen. My heart sinks. The witch is wearing the face of my brother Richard.

He sits on the bed next to me, and as he talks, I examine his face for sign of the lie, a crack in the mask. But it is perfect. His eyes plead; his voice soothes.

“Darling ‘Netta,”—how does she know to call me by my childhood nickname?—“are you content? Can I give you anything, send you anything from home, to make you more comfortable?” He cradles my hands in his, and I can barely breathe. This is the cruelest illusion the witch has yet created.

I bite him to see if he bleeds.

The witch runs away—a coward, no brother of mine—and Edward rushes in, pours something horrible down my throat. Hours later, I wake. The sharpened spoon is gone; in my fist, I clutch a clump of hair.

***

When I wake again, head full of fog, Edward is back. He bids me to take another draught of the medicine, watching me drink every sticky-sweet drop. Afterwards, as I drowse, I see him touching my picture of the Snow Queen, tracing a finger over her smooth cheek.

“Do you know her?” I ask.

“No,” he says, jerking back.

But he lies. I have seen them together.

Last week, the Snow Queen approached him across the lawn, her brown hair gleaming, her dress as neat as a pin. He smiled at her and took her arm. When he chanced to see me at the window, his face hardened and he turned away.

She has bewitched him.

The women in the tapestry perform a death march, staring at me with ragged holes. If they were here, they would reach for me with their handless arms, bear down upon me, and smother me in their silks and satins, their endless threads. I almost welcome it.

I pluck at my remaining hair until it hangs limp on my neck, my forehead smooth as a penny. I have twisted some of it into rope—I will still escape, even if I must leave Edward behind—and saved the rest in piles beneath the bed. I want to build a boat out of it, like Moses and the bulrushes, and sail away from here. It would bob up and down on the waves and every time a hole developed, I would pull more of my own hair to patch it. I would stride the waters like a bald Amazon.

***

Grace visits me no longer and I now know why. He has married her—the witch, in her Snow Queen disguise.

She brought him to the tower to gloat, wearing the gown that was meant for me. I would have ripped it from her, growing claws myself like a harpy, if he had not stopped me. What I would not have done to that pale, ageless face—seamed it up and down with the edge of my spoon, dug out her eyes with my pencils, held her face-down in my bowl of wash water until she bubbled.

She has taken everything from me and I am bereft. Even the women are gone from the tapestry now, leaving only empty shapes behind. I have nothing but my books and my drawings and my memories.

I remember my mother’s revenge against Trejean—was it revenge or mere coincidence?—and determine that the witch shall not have Edward. I chant a song, cobbling it together from words of anger and retribution, weaving it tight with melodies my mother used to hum.

With it, I unweave the men on the tapestry, picking out their eyes and mouths, tugging on the threads of their thighs. They shall not couple. They shall not ride the backs of beasts. All that will be left are the animals in the forest, the fox rolling its white eye, the dog caught in mid-snarl, the bird startled from the bush.

***

My food was delivered while I slept, a chill plate of bread and a metal cup of medicine. And tonight Edward returned, sidling in the door, head bent like a convict.

“She is gone, Bertha.” His voice cracks, and he slumps on the bed, reeking of rum.

I am astonished. If not to ensnare Edward, why did the witch do this? Why did she trap me, curse me, stir up the madness in my blood, if not to keep my husband as her own? I do not understand. But it matters not. He married her. She fed me porridge and smelled of spirits and sucked away my beauty and my blood, and he married her.

I close my eyes and wish him gone, an illusion, but he is still there when I look again. He sways towards me, reaching out for comfort. And I see my life stretch in front of me: eternally bound to this tower, not by magic but by his need for companionship, for dominance. I will never be well enough, and he will never release me.

I must release myself.

Forestalling his embrace, I place the cup of medicine in his hand. He goggles at it and then tosses it down his throat in one swift move, sinking into slumber almost instantly.

I consider the room again. I would strangle him with the bedsheets were they not sewn onto the mattress. I would stab him with my spoon, but it is gone. All I have left is my rope of hair and thread. With it I bind him, hands and ankles tied together and fixed to the bed frame. Then I take my book—the stories of all the selves I could have been—and hold it to the candle, watch the flames curl the pages, the ashes floating around the room, insubstantial.

The book is burned. Now I hold my papers—the story of the me that was, Bertha Mason from Jamaica—to the flame. I spread them around his bed, a king on his bier. I light fire to the tapestries, the men and women only shadows, the animals too late to run from the blaze.

Stories everywhere deceive and disappoint. The prince isn’t real. And I need no longer fear the witch. Why should I? Another was here in the tower all along.

I move to the window, remembering my mother’s song of freedom and escape, the girl who grew wings and flew away. Was it a spell? Were the villagers right about my mother? Did she really fly, a little brown owl against the moon? And if I try, will it work for me?

I see myself flying; I see myself falling. I raise my hand to the latch.

I climb out onto the stony ledge, spread my arms wide to embrace the air. It will bear me up on its shoulders, shouting wordless cries back at me. It will take me beyond the horizon. Perhaps there I shall meet my love, made new. I will wash his shirt of tallow. I will wash his feet with my hair. If I melt into foam, he will embrace another with my voice. I will blind and abandon him in the desert. Or I will be merciful and allow him to live, to become part of another’s story.

Below me are cobblestones and far off I see a tree, rent in two by the lightning. Beyond, the hills.