by Sarah Monette
Some time before his death, my father quarreled with his close friend, the eminent Biblical scholar, Frederick Harriman. The closeness of the friendship may be judged by the fact that Frederick Harriman was my godfather, the severity of the quarrel by the fact that Dr. Harriman did not attend my father's funeral, nor did he visit me even once during the years I suffered the guardianship of my father's business partner Mr. Siddons and his basilisk-eyed wife. I believe Dr. Harriman sent a gift on my graduation from Brockstone School, though I no longer remember what it was, but other than that, there was no communication between us until the day I received a letter announcing that hewished to leave his library to the Parrington, and when was I free to come appraise it?
I was, to put it mildly, nonplussed, but I knew what Dr. Starkweather would say if I rejected a potential donor on purely irrational, personal grounds. I consulted my calendar and presently arranged to take a long weekend for the purpose of going to Grizelton, where Dr. Harriman taught at Grizelton College.
I was met at the train station by one of Dr. Harriman's students, a worshipful young man who provided me--I thought inadvertently--an explanation for why Dr. Harriman was approaching the Parrington at this particular moment. He was full of righteous indignation at the shoddy way his hero had been treated by the president of Grizelton College, and I understood, from far too many years' experience of in-fighting, academic and otherwise, that I had been summoned as a political maneuver. As this meant that Dr. Harriman might easily change his mind, I knew that Dr. Starkweather would urge me to get an agreement written and signed--and I could see when I met him that Dr. Harriman knew it, too.
He had chosen to meet me, as if casually, in front of his house. A trowel on the brick walkway suggested gardening, but his nails were perfectly clean. In his vigorous mid-sixties, he had iron-gray hair and sharp eyes, too deep-set for their color to be easily discernable. He was thin-featured, ascetic-looking, and he played the unworldly scholar very effectively. Too effectively: Dr. Harriman's studied phrases and eloquent gestures belonged to Volpone, one eye always on his audience. He was expecting me to court him, as Dr. Starkweather would have furiously urged me to, but I could not. I failed to pick up one conversational cue, then another; Dr. Harriman was first puzzled, then suspicious, and finally simply irritated.
But he regrouped quickly, abandoning the unworldly scholar and hiding the irritation under a role I liked even less, a stance of avuncular benevolence that was either grossly inappropriate or simply untruthful, depending on whether one assumed I was here as a senior archivist at the Parrington or as the only child of Dr. Harriman's long-dead friend. He did not throw his arm around my shoulders, possibly because my gangling height would have made the gesture absurd at best, but it was all there in the sudden deep-voiced warmth with which he bade me come inside and meet his daughters.
There were three of them: Deborah, Esther, and Judith. I had a very vague memory of meeting them once when I was a small boy. The eldest, Deborah, had married one of her father's acolytes, a wealthy young man named Louis Tolland. But he had died in a boating accident, and Deborah Tolland and her two small daughters had moved back into her father's house. She was fair and faded, dressed all in black with a Victorian mourning brooch at her throat. The second daughter, Esther, had followed in their dead mother's footsteps, becoming a philanthropist of some note; she was particularly concerned with the plight of refugee children in Europe, and after dinner, she cornered me in the drawing room and explained at great length, until her father called her off. "Esther and I spent last summer in Europe," he said and added, just dryly enough that Esther was abashed, "It was very enlightening." Curiously, Esther's ferocity had the same effect as Deborah's obvious, grief-worn fatigue, of drawing all the color and individuality out of her.
The third daughter, Judith, was her father's housekeeper and amanuensis. He had been worried about Judith for a while, Dr. Harriman told me after the women had gone to bed--bizarrely, it was now as if he was the one courting, trying to win my confidence by confiding in me.
Judith had been discontent and wild (said Dr. Harriman), arguing with her sisters, flirting with quite unsuitable young men at college functions. I had a hard time imagining how any student at Grizelton College could be "unsuitable," but deduced that Dr. Harriman meant it as code for Jewish, or possibly Catholic. "I had intended to take her to Europe," he said, "but in the end I simply couldn't allow it. And she refused--refused--to go to Maine with Deborah, although poor Deborah could certainly have used her help with the children. So I told her she could stay here instead of closing up the house, and it was the making of her. She apologized very prettily when we returned, and since then she's been a good, dutiful, womanly daughter to me. Your poor father, Kyle, was lucky that he never had to watch his children forget their duty to him."
"Er," I said, for I had far too many objections to that statement to be able to articulate even one.
"Oh, don't mind me," said Dr. Harriman with a smile that I thought I was supposed to find sweetly pensive. "I'm an old man, and I get maudlin sometimes."
"Maudlin" was not the word I would have used, but I took advantage of the break in his monologue to remark that it was rather late and I had a great deal of work to do the next day. Even that did not allow me a clean escape, for it reminded Dr. Harriman of the one issue on which his daughter Judith still vexed him. "She refused either to give you her room or to share with Esther this weekend. I'm afraid we've had to put you in what was the nursemaid's room, before Deborah finally agreed the expense was unjustified."
"That's, er, that is, I'm sure I'll be very comfortable." I tried very hard not to notice that it had not occurred to Dr. Harriman to compromise his own comfort in any way on behalf of a guest. I knew that I was being uncharitable and that my feelings had far more to do with what had happened--or failed to happen--twenty years ago than with an elderly scholar's domestic arrangements. And the room was not uncomfortable, though clearly very little used. I had no dreams that I could remember.
I spent all of Saturday alone in Dr. Harriman's library, and after the chaos of the breakfast table, I was intensely grateful for it. It was not the children, who were clean and silent and abnormally well-behaved. Dr. Harriman generated the chaos entirely by himself: ordering his daughters about; announcing, obviously unexpectedly, that he had invited two of his students to dinner; bullying his elder granddaughter with a sort of secular catechism. Whatever his myriad faults, at least Mr. Siddons had never quizzed me on state capitals over breakfast. Dr. Harriman's books, devoid of their owner's personality, were pleasant and rewarding company.
At lunchtime, Judith Harriman brought me sandwiches and a glass of lemonade. I wanted to apologize for the bother she and her sisters were being put to, but realized as I opened my mouth that I would in essence be apologizing to her for her own father and said only, ". . . Thank you."
I would have been even more grateful to be able to avoid dinner en famille, but Dr. Harriman's library, although an excellent example of its kind, was simply not that large. I was done with it by five o'clock, though I managed to delay in tidying up and in writing a preliminary précis of my findings until six-thirty. But I could delay no longer than that.
Dr. Harriman was in an expansive mood that evening, dominating the table effortlessly. Both Deborah and Esther seemed uncomfortably aware that his behavior bordered on the boorish; I wished I could reassure them that I preferred his speeches to being asked to participate in a proper conversation. Judith listened as uncritically as the overawed college boys.
That night, lying awake, I became aware of an odd scent, simultaneously brackish and sweet. I could find no source for it, though I did search, going so far as to open all the drawers of the bureau and even the wardrobe--I was answered only with mothballs. It was not until the morning, when I happened to pass Judith Harriman's room, next to mine, just as she was opening the door, that I discovered the scent's origin. An unfortunate experiment with potpourri, then, or perhaps she actually found it pleasant. I noticed that she locked her door before turning to wish me good morning, and could not fault her for defending the one privacy she had.
At breakfast, when Dr. Harriman jovially asked me how I was faring, I took an entirely unworthy pleasure in announcing that I had completed my assessment and thought of leaving on the afternoon train instead of waiting for Monday morning as I had originally intended. But, used to the heavy hand of Mr. Siddons, I had underestimated Dr. Harriman. "Well, that's excellent!" he said with all apparent sincerity. "I wish I could teach my boys that kind of dedication. But I wonder . . . something occurred to me last night, and I wonder if before you go, you'd be so kind . . ."
Trapped. "I, er, I'll be happy to, er, render assistance in any way I can."
"Splendid!" Dr. Harriman said, beaming at me. "You see, my brother Colter left his books with me when he went to Africa as a missionary--a strange decision at his age, but he was determined. He died over there. And now I have this crate of books . . ." He trailed off suggestively, but I had no idea of what he was suggesting.
"Er," I said. "I, um . . . what do you want me to do?" My voice was far more plaintive than I would have wished.
"Just go up and look through them, and tell me if they'd be of any interest as a collection or if I should just donate them to the college library."
That, I could translate: he wanted to know if it would be worth the bother to attempt to sell them. I was struggling to find an answer when, shockingly, Judith Harriman intervened on my behalf: "Father, you can't ask Mr. Booth to spend the whole day in that horrid attic." It was the most I had heard her say all weekend; her voice was peculiar, flat and dull--not muffled exactly, but as if there was no cavity in her body in which it could resonate.
That was a dreadful image, and I told myself not to be morbidly imaginative.
"Judith, my dear, I'm not asking anything of the sort," said Dr. Harriman, although of course he was. "But since I don't imagine Mr. Booth wants to come to the college chapel with us?" He raised his eyebrows at me, and I shook my head, perhaps more emphatically than was polite. "Then you could easily be done by lunchtime and can certainly leave on the afternoon train if you still want to."
Mr. and Mrs. Siddons had taught me not to sigh audibly; I said, "I'll be happy to examine your books, Dr. Harriman," and was rewarded with another beaming smile.
It occurred to me, oddly and uncomfortably, as I followed Esther Harriman up the attic stairs, that awful as the Siddonses had been, I had reason to be grateful. If my father had not quarreled with Dr. Harriman, if I had been left to his care, I would almost certainly have been pliable to his methods and might still be his slave, downtrodden and adoring just as his daughters were.
"Phoo," said Esther Harriman at the top of the stairs. The attic was dusty, stifling, and the strange smell of Judith Harriman's potpourri was stronger here than it had been in my room. "You needn't stay up here long, Mr. Booth. Just come down when we get back and tell Father to give the books to the library. I don't want to worry about you dying of heatstroke up here or something."
"Thank you, Miss Harriman," I said and almost managed to return her smile. "I'll, er, be careful."
She left, and I attacked the box labelled C. HARRIMAN. The books were actually quite interesting as a collection: none of them particularly valuable in itself, but Dr. Harriman's brother had had eclectic tastes and a discerning eye--discerning enough that I was not sure whether I should tell Dr. Harriman to donate them to the college as his daughter suggested, or admit that if he decided to sell them, the Parrington would very likely make an offer. I stared vacantly into space while I ran down the ramifications and consequences of each option, and after some moments, I realized that I was staring at something very peculiar. There was a mirror in my line of sight, wedged at an odd angle between a steamer trunk and a senile rattan chair, and it was reflecting the cluttered belongings on the far side of the chimney stack, including a massive, broken wardrobe. Through the lolling left hand door, I could see what looked like a dead face.
Overly imaginative, my guardians had called me, usually as the prelude to a punishment, and surely this had to be another example, my imagination making a false pattern out of shadows and cobwebs. But I could not make the image in the mirror resolve into anything else, and finally, crossly, I got up and walked around the chimney stack to prove to myself that I was wrong.
Except that when I reached the wardrobe, what I proved was that I was right. Gaping eye sockets, gaping mouth, beneath a rat's nest of colorless hair. She had been dead for months, hung in this wardrobe like an out-of-fashion coat. And the air around her stank, not of corruption, but of Judith Harriman's potpourri.
I retreated, lurching, to the crate of books, where I sat down heavily and attempted to think rather than to panic. I found that I could not turn my back on the mirror, which made matters nearly impossible at first, until in desperation, I grabbed Colter Harriman's copy of Presteign's Darkest Africa and Her Denizens and stared fixedly at the frontispiece portrait of the author with a dead rhinoceros. Compared to the dead woman reflected in the mirror, it was queerly soothing.
How she had died I did not know and could not find out without a closer examination of the body--assuming that there would be a cause of death that I could recognize, which I doubted. In any event, the closer examination of the body was an insurmountable stumbling block. As the dead rhinoceros watched me censoriously from its sepia purgatory and I calmed slightly, I realized that it was at the most basic level a moot question. For regardless of how she had died, someone had subsequently chosen to hide her in that wardrobe. And that meant . . .
I squeezed my eyes shut; for a moment even the dead rhinoceros was too much. I could not imagine that any murderer had broken into the Harriman house to carry a dead body up to the attic and stash it in this wardrobe, which meant that the dead woman had been hidden by someone in this house. And then the ghastly corollary arose: no one was missing.
And the body smelled of Judith Harriman's unpleasant potpourri--of the room she would neither give up nor share, the room she kept locked. I remembered that she had been alone in the house for months the previous summer, that she had seemed changed when her family returned. I remembered that she had not wanted her father to send me up to the attic. Grimly, my heart pounding painfully, I got up and picked my way around the chimney stack to take another look at the dead woman.
It was impossible for me to guess what the body might have looked like when it was alive. It seemed about the same size as Judith Harriman, and its hair might have been the same color, that mouse brown-blond that completed the unremarkableness of Frederick Harriman's daughters.
And then an odd thought struck me: did I know what Judith Harriman looked like in the first place? I had noticed that Deborah was faded and worn, that Esther was too fierce to be vivid, but I had noticed nothing about Judith until that morning, when I had noticed the peculiar quality of her voice. But had I ever actually looked at her?
I could not remember doing so.
I heard the front door of the house shut; Dr. Harriman and his satellites had returned. Driven by a sudden spasm of irrational guilt, as if by finding this woman's body, I had somehow caused her death, I retreated from the wardrobe again. I tidied Colter Harriman's books back into their crate, and then I sat, staring at the mirror, trying to decide what I ought to do, until the door at the foot of the attic stairs opened and Esther Harriman said, "Mr. Booth? It's time for lunch."
"Coming," I called. She waited for me, standing at the foot of the stairs and frowning upwards.
"That smell," she said as I shut the door behind me. "Do you think we've got rats?"
"I, er . . ." And there was the sticking point. Either Judith Harriman was a murderer or an imposter, and if she was an imposter, how could her family not know? How could they have lived with her for months and not noticed?
The same way, said a dark voice at the back of my mind, that you cannot say what she looks like. I wondered bleakly how long it had been since any of her family had truly seen her--except for those wide-eyed, silent little girls. In Deborah's grief, Dr. Harriman had said, Judith took care of them. I wondered, even more bleakly, what they had seen and did not know how to say.
I was fortunate; Dr. Harriman was preoccupied by an argument with Deborah about the Grizelton College chaplain. I missed the details, just as I tasted nothing of what I ate, myself preoccupied with Judith Harriman. She said very little, as she had said very little all weekend, and she made eye contact with no one, and yet I got no impression of shyness or discomfort. There was, in fact, something strangely hard about her; the word carapace suggested itself and refused to be banished.
"Mr. Booth?" said Judith Harriman suddenly.
"I, er . . . yes?"
"Is there something wrong?" She looked at me directly for a moment. Her eyes were blue, a cold hard color like china, and in them I read her real message: Look away from me. As everyone did.
Suddenly dizzy with recklessness, I said, "I was wondering why you did it."
"I beg your pardon?" But it was Dr. Harriman who spoke, not Judith. Her flat china eyes had widened with alarm.
"How long has it been, Dr. Harriman, since you were up in your attic?"
He gave me a baffled, disapproving frown.
"Any of you," I said, looking from him to Deborah to Esther.
"We hired one of Father's students to take the trunks up in September," Deborah said. "Before that, I don't know. Why?"
"Judith knows," I said. She had gone bone white.
Or had she been bone white all the time? None of us had seen her to know. Except Deborah's daughters, their eyes dark with things they should not have known.
I spoke to them. "Was your Aunt Judith different when you came back from Maine?" The younger, Marian, looked at the elder; Caroline Tolland flicked a glance at her mother, then jerked her head in a tight nod.
"Judith?" said Deborah. "What is he talking about?"
"I don't know," Judith said, but her voice was wrong, as hard and flat as her eyes.
It was a sunny Sunday noon, and I was cold to the bone.
"You aren't Judith," I said. "Who are you? How did you--"
"I am," she said with a darting glare full of loathing.
"You took her place," I said.
"Mister Booth," said Dr. Harriman, asserting himself. "I find this jest very ill-conceived."
Now that I had seen her, I was not going to look away from Judith Harriman. "What are you?"
"I've done nothing wrong," she said, whining. "I filled an empty place, that's all."
"Mr. Booth!" shouted Dr. Harriman. In another moment, he would pound the tabletop, as Mr. Siddons had done when particularly outraged.
But Dr. Harriman's anger did not frighten me, not compared to the creature sitting across the table. "In your attic," I said, "in a broken wardrobe, there is a dead body. It's been there since sometime last summer, I would guess. And I am very afraid that it is your daughter Judith."
There was a confused noise of outrage and bewilderment.
"But her place was filled," I said. "It didn't take much, did it?"
"She was empty anyway," it said. It did not look like Judith Harriman now; it bore the same resemblance to a human being that the empty carapace bears to the living insect. I could almost understand it, how Judith Harriman might have died of desperation and emptiness, how this thing, with its false front and its hunger, might have been drawn--even created--to fill the place she left. It could take Judith Harriman's place, because no one around her would ever notice the difference. Because the place was already empty, even before she died.
"I think," I said carefully, "that you should leave now."
"You have no power to make me," it said. "This is not your house. Father, you don't believe him, do you? Deborah?"
Deborah and Esther exchanged a glance; they had not seen it, the creature claiming to be their sister, but perhaps they had been suspicious for other reasons, had told themselves--as I had--not to be morbidly imaginative. "I'm going to go look," Esther said and went before her father had a chance to call her back.
In the deeply uncomfortable silence which followed, Caroline and Marian slid out of their chairs and went to stand by their mother. Esther was back so quickly that for a moment I thought that she had not found a body, that there was no body, that I had hallucinated it, dreamed it. But then I saw the look on her face.
"It's true," she said.
"Esther," Dr. Harriman said, more irritably than anything else, "what nonsense is this?"
"It's not nonsense, Father," Esther said grimly. "There is a dead woman in the attic, and I think it's Judith."
"But then . . ."
"They're lying," the false Judith whined. "Can't you see that they're lying?" She pushed away from the table and came around it, rather awkwardly, to kneel at Dr. Harriman's feet. "Father, don't let them do this to me." And I watched the way his eyes skipped off her face even as he took her hands.
Deborah gathered her daughters closer. Esther looked hopelessly at me. I wanted to protest--this was not my sister, not my house--but I was the one who had found the body, who had dragged the truth out into the open. I forced my voice steady and said, "Dr. Harriman, look at her."
"What?" He was frowning at me again, still trying to make this my fault.
"Look at her. Look at Judith."
I suppose he was too bewildered to argue. He bent his head and looked. The false Judith twisted away from his gaze, ducking its head and wiggling and finally, desperately, pulling free of him. And as it did, he saw it, caught a glimpse of the truth of it. His face went gray and he jerked his hands back; he said hoarsely, "Dear God, Judith, what have you done?"
"It's not Judith," Esther said.
"Of course I'm Judith," it said. "Who else could I be?"
"No one," I said. I got up, moved into the foyer to open the front door. "And you need to leave."
"But what will they do without me?" it said. "Who will look after the children? Who will keep track of Father's notes? This house needs me, and you can't make me leave."
It was right. I could not. I looked past it. "Dr. Harriman?"
He was rubbing his fingers together, as if to wipe away the memory of the false Judith's touch; he looked old now, all his selfish, poisonous vitality drained out of him. I could not like him, but I pitied him. And he was iron under all his poses and manipulations, for he said, hoarsely but clearly, and looking directly at it, "I want you to leave."
There was a heartbeat's worth of silence.
The false Judith made a noise, clamorous and awful, and turned and rushed past me out of the house. I am haunted by the last glimpse I had of its face, white and glaring, stretched around the terrible sound still coming from its mouth, its eyes as wide and flat and empty as china saucers. By the time I turned to look, my ears ringing, it had vanished as completely as a shadow beneath the noonday sun.
I shut the door. Esther stood alone in the doorway to the hall; Deborah had her arms around her daughters, but Caroline was looking solemnly, assessingly at her grandfather. Dr. Harriman stared unseeing out the window. At least in the Siddons house, there had been no pretense of love to be destroyed. This terrible replacement had not created the emptiness in the center of Dr. Harriman's family; it had only exploited it. The false Judith could be cast out, but it left the truth behind: a dead woman in a wardrobe, a locked room, the sweet and brackish scent of an emptiness which could be filled, but not mended.
"Give all the books to the college," I said and went upstairs to get my bag.