Dusking by Liz Williams
You don't go dusking when the moon is dark, everyone knows that. Too many things waiting in the shadows, coming to cling to your little light, coming to bite and snap. But when the moon is full or new, that's the time to go dusking, and that's when you find all the young couples out in the parks and on the downs, dressed in their Sunday best, carrying candles in a globe of glass, chasing spirits under the oaks.
We didn't have such practices in Greenwich. It was too close to the river, but when my parents died and I was sent to live with my aunt in Blackheath, it was all the rage. One could buy trapping globes in the local market, in a variety of pleasing colours. I remember that in the year of my arrival at my aunt's, blue was very popular, but then, it was during the summer and as the winter months drew on, the blue globes were put away and red ones took their place.
I was too young to go dusking, my aunt said. I begged and pleaded, but she refused, and took to locking me into my bedchamber early in the evening, with a supply of improving literature. My aunt was devout, fervently so, and she disapproved of dusking; it encouraged the Others, she said, and that would never do. Perhaps if I had been a boy, she might have relented.
Of course, the more she disapproved, the wilder I was to do it. I used to lean out of my bedchamber window with a jam jar with a candle in it, but I never attracted anything larger than moths. Only on one evening, close to the autumn equinox, did something else come close to the flame. I saw it briefly, because it veered away into the eaves as soon as it saw my face reflected in the light: it was a small, pinched thing, the colour of dead leaves, with little sharp hands. I often wonder what would have happened if I had caught it. You're supposed to let them go before sun up, but plenty of people forget and find a leaf in the bottom of the globe in the morning, or a bundle of twigs.
This was not the only restriction placed upon me by my aunt. Education was frowned upon for girls, particularly any interest in the developing sciences. I was not to go to school, although she instructed me in Bible study at home. I was to learn needlework, and the basics of the culinary arts, and household management. I grew increasingly frustrated and resentful as the years went by. I remembered what I had learned in my mother's house, but I could do nothing with it: I had no books here, nor access to them.
We only spoke of it once. I'd burned a saucepan, again. My aunt had not been pleased.
"If you would just apply yourself to the rudiments, Emily..."
I drew myself up. She was a short woman, and I was no taller, but I pretended. "I," I said, "have Skills."
My aunt looked me straight in the eye. "I," she replied, "am well aware of that."
Clearly, they were yet another thing of which she Disapproved.
And so I began to plan. I despised the necessity; I found it tedious. But until I had reached my majority, this sort of thing had to be done.
Then, when I was sixteen and some way along with the planning, a young man asked me to go dusking. Chaperoned, of course, by a friend of my aunt's--the young man's mother, in fact. Tristan was eminently suitable, my aunt considered, and I think she was hoping that he might offer for my hand and thus relieve her of the responsibility of myself. I was young, true, but better marry me off as soon as possible and find a more appropriate channel for those skills I'd mentioned.... There was a belief in those days that marriage, and all that it involved, could tame all those wild and latent powers that occasionally afflict young ladies.
It wasn't a view to which I subscribed. But I thought I should like to go dusking, all the same.
Green globes were very fashionable that year. When Tristan asked me to go dusking with him, autumn was sliding into winter; it was the end of October, and London had been touched by the edge of the great storms that had swept so much of the north and west. Wild nights, with the trees lashing against the windowpane, a thundering rain whipping even the sluggish Thames into a froth. I loved this weather, but it was clear that Tristan was deeply concerned about my health, that I might catch a chill.
"You are so pale, Emily. Perhaps it's just that your hair is so very fair. But I worry that this weather will be too much for you."
I could have told him not to fuss. I'd never had a day's sickness in my life--not a genuine one, anyway. Instead I lowered my eyelashes and murmured that it was so kind of him to worry. I could feel my aunt watching me as I did so; it's sad not to be trusted by your closest relatives. My plans took a little hop forward.
"But I have a thick velvet cloak, Tristan, proof against even the harshest winter chill. And I think I--I should like to venture out. If you're quite sure it's safe, of course."
Thoughts of the woods, of bone and blood and the wet black earth, the wind ripping through the trees ... I didn't know where these thoughts came from, but they were occupying more and more of my attention. I felt my aunt's gaze sharpen like an icicle, as though she could see into those thoughts. I lowered my head still further and gave a little I-must-be-brave sigh. Tristan put out a hand, as if to reassure me, but the icicle stare drove it back.
"I shall be quite sure to protect you, Emily. I--I'd do anything." He must have realised that he'd said enough after that, because he grew pink and flustered. I gazed at him admiringly, all the same, and the pinkness increased.
"I should be pleased to see you settled, Emily," my aunt said, stiffly, after Tristan had made a blushing farewell. I'd learned by now not to argue: it was pointless. Instead, I nodded.
"I should like a home of my own, aunty." It was quite true; I didn't have to say what sort of a home, after all.
"Perhaps I have misjudged you," my aunt said, but not as if she believed it. "I suppose you can't help your ancestry, after all. Your poor mother--"
I dabbed my eyes with a lace handkerchief and I think that helped, too.
Upstairs, in my own chamber, I looked out at the weather hissing across the heath, the gaslights blurring the city beyond.
Her mother disappeared, you know.
It broke her father's heart. He didn't live long after that.
I'd heard the whole story by now, delivered in whispers behind the parlour door. My aunt had never liked my mother, I think, but I didn't know why. To my knowledge, Mama had never actually done anything; she was always so meek and mild, at least until she'd vanished. Run off with another man, my aunt had said, still whispering. But I didn't think that was true. And she'd looked so much like me: the same fair hair, almost white, the green eyes that in some lights took on an odd chestnut tinge, nearly red ... My mother had been considered a beauty.
It is my opinion that my aunt thought that I had not shown enough proper mourning at my father's death. Children are frequently stupid; I should have made a better job of it.