CENTENARIAN is a project that once upon a time, when I was young and foolish and not fully appreciative of how much time I was about to spend writing books for publishers, I had thoughts of writing as an Internet-only novel. This was long before the days of crowdfunding, but that was the idea: I would write another chapter for every certain dollar amount donated. I still rather like the idea, even if this needs some work, so I thought I’d post it more visibly and hope you all get a chance to locate and enjoy it. :)
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I was a plain child, although I did not know it at the time. It is only now, looking back at daguerreotypes and stiffly posed photographs, that I can see that though I had been assured by Doting Uncles who numbered in the dozens that I was the most lovely little girl ever born, I was in truth somewhat too large-eyed and hollow-cheeked, with a stringiness to my dark hair and an unhealthy look to my thin frame.
My mother, who was more Sensible than Father gave her credit for, dressed me well, but did not try to give a duckling swan’s feathers: I was not drowned by finery that played up its beauty and my lack of it. Given my age in those early images–perhaps seven or eight, up to twelve or so–I might say I was dressed Elegantly, although that is not a word normally assigned to childrens’ clothing. I looked as though I came from money; more money, in fact, than I did, but given the circumstances it was unlikely that I should look Poverty-stricken even if we had been. I believe I came out of it reasonably well, but even then, though I did not know I was plain, I did know I was spoiled. Furthermore, it was clear to me that this was as it should be: after all, I was the first girl born to my father’s side of the family in One Hundred Years.
As a child, I loved stories of my great-great-grand-aunt, Melinda Mae Stafford. I believed she and I were Bound together through the space of a Century, both of us destined for Greatness. It was only as an adult that I realized that my Ancestress’s sole claim to Remarkability was in being the Last Daughter born to my father’s family for a Hundred years.
A generation may go by without Producing a girl child; that in itself seems hardly startling, even with families of Eight living children. Adding in Mae’s own marriage and production of four sons of her own, not to mention the marriages of her three brothers (and singular sister, the eldest of the lot, whose name is usually forgotten in family lore, because she had the misfortune to be the second last daughter born, a status which held nothing like the notoriety of being the last) whose Progeny were all of the male of the species, the entire boy-ridden family tree was a point of humor.
When–to Retain the story within the Direct Line of my Descent, for Attempting to follow brothers and uncles and cousins down through generations wearies even me, and I grew up regaled with their histories–When those eight sons (technically, seven; Great-Grand-Uncle Rupert was a Confirmed Bachelor, a phrase I did not understand until considerably after I understood that Aunt Mae had been Wholly Unremarkable in her own self) married a total of nine wives and had between them thirty-seven more sons, my great-grandparents began to feel some distress. This went on for a Series of Generations, enumerating the Stafford Family with more sons than anyone could possibly Cope with. In Desperation, many of those sons scattered to the American West; to Alaska; to Australia; all in Search of a life not exhausted by uncountable numbers of Sons.
My Grandfather, who came to America with his wife and hopes of building a carpentry business, took great pride in being the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. My Father’s early years, I believe, were tainted by a resentment over being born Seventh back Three Generations. Much as I imagined myself for Greatness, I think he saw being the third Seventh as a pox: fairy tales were not told about Third Sevenths. Perhaps they might be told about Seventh Sevenths, but he missed that placement by even more generations.
But it was he who fathered the first daughter in a Hundred Years, and that Lifted him in the family’s estimation to First Son, a position which he held gladly until his Death. I was the apple of my father’s eye–indeed, of my father’s family–and I expect that as a child I was Unbearable. I got everything I Demanded, and as such, Demanded a Great Deal. I recall long-suffering nursemaids whom I regarded as idiots, and only with the retrospect of time do I Wish I could apologize for my Behavior. The Haughty Manner in which I ordered around my Family is not to be Dwelt Upon, though I believe, in my Defense, that they ought not have Allowed their lives to be Dictated by a small girl. Only my Mother retained a will of Iron against me, and consequently I resented her highly well into adulthood. If, as an adult, I ended up with any redeeming Qualities, I believe they are thanks to Mother’s steadfast refusal to treat me as if I were a Miracle.
I do not recall my friends as treating me as if I were Astonishing, though all my uncles did. In thinking back, particularly when looking at my photographs, I believe this is so for two reasons: one, as the first girl born in a Hundred Years, I was Unique, and both children and adults will make Allowances for Unique People (though adults may be more Forgiving).
Second, and perhaps more Importantly, I am almost certain that while I was Unique, my closest friend, Jenny Palmer, was Beautiful. I recall her even now as being black-haired and green-eyed, with extraordinary porcelain skin and a composure that was far more Becoming than my flouncy spoilt ways.
It is possible that Jenny Tolerated me; I am sure I treated her with a mixture of Disdain and Undying Love. She was, indeed, my only close female friend; my siblings and cousins were all boys, and so while I was well-suited to marry, being thoroughly familiar with male antics, I was not nearly as good at female Socializing.
Perhaps fortunately–or perhaps not–the Expectation held by my family (and Myself) was that I would marry, possibly one of the Myriad Cousins, and Produce children. Given the family History, I imagined I would be surrounded by men all my Life, and the Need to socialize with women would be Limited. It was, in fact, Jenny who married one of the Cousins, whilst I was offered (by one of the wealthier Uncles) the opportunity for Education. I seized upon it, and attended a Women’s College, where I learned that my Uniqueness was merely a Curiosity to them, and through several peer-induced attitude Adjustments, learned that Disdain was a lonely peak to stand upon.
In that time, I learnt Latin and Greek and Shakespeare, mathematics and science, as well as more Genteel Arts. I also grew into some measure of Attractiveness, though I would never attain Jenny’s genuine Beauty. I half-imagine, now, that perhaps learning to make friends affected my physical Aspects; that the Spoilt Child I had been could not be also Graced with beauty, for fear she should never become a Person of Worth.
It was a Startlement to me the first day I saw myself as a young woman of physical Allure. In all my life I had never Doubted my handsomeness–the result, no doubt, of being told endlessly by Uncles that I was the flower of any garden. But in an afternoon of Shopping with school friends, I glimpsed a young Woman in marigold, her brown hair burnished beneath an exceedingly good Hat, her eyes large and dark. She did not have the vaunted pale Complexion, but rather a golden Warmth to her skin, and she so Struck me that I turned to see her again, and discovered I looked at my own Reflection.
I might have, in that Moment, become an absolute Horror of a creature. I recall Realizing it, as I gazed at myself. Pretty as my Uncles had said, spoilt as the Only Girl, well-educated at university. I felt myself Waver toward believing again that I was Special, and Destined for Greatness.
Fortunately for me, at that very moment a young man of medium height, blond hair, and fine dress also Appeared in the shop mirror’s Reflection, and I fell so thoroughly in Love that all thoughts of self-aggrandizement were Swept away beneath the power of his crystalline eyes. For the next several Years, I knew the pure Joy (and regular Irritation) of marrying a good man, bearing strong sons, and being a good mother.
I tell you all this now so that you will have some Sense of the woman I was when, at twenty-seven, it became unexpectedly Clear to me that I was not going to Die.
Unfortunately, I did not survive the Discovery.
Yes, in the greater picture, of Course, else I would not now be Penning this Discourse to you, but in the Relevant Moment, no–but no; let me Begin again, and put my Facts in order.
One thinks little of youth while one has it; the slim taut body, the unlined face, the lustre of Skin and hair. Further, one appreciates the Lies of Society when, as one approaches the dreaded age of twenty-five–surely the worst age of a woman’s life, excepting perhaps twenty-nine, or Forty, the latter of which is much too old to be young, yet far too young to be Wise–one appreciates the Lies that assure one that youthful bloom has not left you. I, like other women, was Gladdened to be told by other Envious mothers that my years were not showing on me despite three sons and a fourth not yet Admitted to being on the way. Being well-cushioned from Reality by my beloved Uncles, it did not occur to me to Suspect I was being flattered. This is just as well, for in Retrospect, it is certain that I was not.
I cannot put a finger on it with Assurance, but my beloved Joseph and I were photographed on our wedding day, shortly after I turned Nineteen. I do not look at myself in the mirror now and see exactly that woman, but I think it safe to say that within a year or two of that date Time somehow lost its hold on me. Joseph was an Architect, elder brother of sorts to my Grandfather’s Humble carpentry business, and his Finances assured that we had regular family photographs taken, as each son reached his first Birthday and the chances of his Survival seemed more positive. There is a Sameness about my features in the last several that I do not see in Joseph’s, and in some ways I am Relieved that matters played out as they did, instead of as they might have.
In others, I am less Phlegmatic about the scenario which brought me to the unexpected Revelation of my Immortality. It was on the Occasion of my eldest son’s seventh birthday that we proposed to go from the city to the Countryside, where we would visit my Uncle Herbert, whose generosity has Schooled me, and for whom our Eldest was named. Herbert the Younger was beside himself with excitement–a phrase I had never deeply considered until I watched his Vibrations of enthusiasm–at the prospect of a Train journey. His smaller brothers were caught by his Fervor, and I wished very much to be beside Myself in order to reign in four small Boys worth of Energy. Joseph was no help at All; in fact, he seemed in most ways to be simply a Larger reflection of Herbert’s exhilaration, and I found myself Watching him as well as the children.
And he was a Joy to watch. If you will allow me to wax Rhapsodical for a moment, I have never before or Since seen such a fine specimen of a man. Our Sons, I am pleased to say, took after their Father, and were handsome from the day they were born, unlike their Mother, who had to grow into her own Handsomeness. Three of the four boys were Fair, and the fourth dark, like me. I fancy we made a Striking family, full of laughter and Life as we made our way to the train.
Forgive me; I Dwell on these things because what follows is singularly Unpleasant, and even now I find myself Shying away from putting heavy thought to it. But I must, else what’s the point in these Missives; and so to Business:
You must understand my Recollection of the actual Disaster is unclear. The moments leading up to it stand in my mind like crystal, as evidenced by the above Longing. What I do recall is a carriage and with four fine Horses, all of them better than even Uncle Herbert could afford, and he was no Mean judge of horseflesh. Three were matched bays; the fourth, closest to me, had a magnificent Blaze above his eye, making him look like a dangerous and wild creature. In my memory, it is he who Panicked, though in fact I Know from newspaper stories after the matter that it was his mate to the other side who was Frightened by a child’s firecracker. The Coachman, all but Asleep at the reins, was taken unawares, and in those scant seconds, Calamity struck.
It was a little Girl in a yellow frock as merry as the morning sunshine who bolted into the carriage’s path. In Retrospect, I cannot say what possessed me to move; the child was not my own and it was my son’s birthday. Surely Intellect would insist that I stay by my family’s side, but then, I suppose it was not Intellect which drove me.
The mother shrieked. I can still hear the sound, soprano with terror, echoing in my ears; I can, in fact, see the child pulling free from her mother’s hand in eager pursuit of a puppy, though I am not at all sure I saw that with my own eyes, and not my mind’s. Little ones, with their sturdy legs and unbreakable focus, can move much more Quickly than their parents anticipate, and a woman Bedecked with gowns and petticoats and corsets is no match for such dedication. The mother had no hope.
But I, several steps the closer, did. I sprang forward and Shoved the child, sending her splaying face-down into the dust and cobblestone, her Slight weight easy enough for me to move. Later I read that her only Injury was the breaking of two Baby teeth.
Mine were more Considerable.
I remember a peculiarly clear Thought, that I was glad to have shoved her, and not scooped her into my arms as I tried to run, for Surely she would have been caught and trampled as I was. Horses are not by nature vicious beasts inclined to stomp on people, but driven by fear and tangled in harness and rein, they Danced upon me.
I can deduce that the screams I heard then were not only my own, but those of my family and of passers-by. Each shock was worse than childbirth, shattering Pain in my bones. I cannot say which broke first, my ribs or my legs, nor do I care to Speculate. All I know is that the hoof that finally clipped my skull was nothing less than a Mercy.
I do not, as a whole, recommend Awakening in a morgue, if it can be at all avoided. It is entirely bad enough to be Killed; to survive it and find oneself surrounded by Cadavers–well, no one will condemn me, I think, if I admit my first action upon regaining my Sensibilities and realizing my companions was to scream like a frightened child. It echoed dreadfully, clanging off cold walls and seeping into the still bodies of the unfortunate Creatures around me. I truly believed one might Rise Up from the force of my cry, and I myself scrambled off the table I lay upon and hid in a corner.
Looking back, I realize that by that time, I had already made several mistakes in my new Existence.
Firstly, and no doubt most Importantly, the dead do not often scream. By the time I had put myself in the corner, two Doctors had arrived, both of them looking a little Wild about the eyes. I cannot in any fashion blame them for this, and can only be glad that in a city the size of the one we lived in, there were enough Deaths on any given day that the problem was not immediately apparent to them.
Secondly, and nearly as important, the corner, while shadowed, was not actually a place of hiding. I would have been vastly better off hiding beneath a corpse’s table, where a sheet might have protected me from Prying eyes. Both of these details were lessons I learned well, and made use of later.
Thirdly, though this was perhaps not precisely an error, I had no Concept of what had happened to me. While my location provided the obvious conclusion that I was Dead, my animation suggested otherwise. I could only suppose a terrible Mistake had been made. Armed with this belief, I drew my Dignity about myself and came to my feet.
Out of the various Choices I made in those moments, that was most likely the one that saved me from a lifetime Imprisoned by doctors and Studied like a laboratory animal. For while a Doctor may expect to see a woman unclothed if he is attending her, or if she is a corpse in his care, Men do not expect women to rise up from amongst the dead clad Only in their Dignity, and that, I fear, was all I had to wear.
I rather fancy that I was something of a Venus rising from the half-shell to the eyes of the young Doctors. I had been bathed, so no mark of blood lay upon my skin, and through some Miracle my bones had knit and my body was Whole. I was twenty-seven and with a Mother’s full figure, lush breasts and broad hips that lent themselves, even uncorseted, to the suggestive wasp-waisted shape that was so popular. It was, of course, Illusory, for I am not especially narrow through the waist, and at the time my belly was beginning to protrude with what would have been my Fifth Child. But illusion is often enough, and my Doctors’ goggle-eyed stares suggested that I had Commanded an attention that did not much depend on deep intellectual thought.
“I demand clothing,” I said with all the hauteur at my command. Remember, please, that I had been a child Spoilt beyond reason, and then imagine the tone I employed. Both the Doctors struggled out of their coats as I strode forward Imperiously, a hand extended to take what they offered me. The taller of the two provided me with his coat more rapidly than the other and I put it on as if I were a queen donning the finest silk. It was in fact tweed, and Smelt of tobacco and itched against my skin, but these minor discomforts were Vastly better than shameless nudity.
“I will require something more appropriate, but this will do for the moment. My deepest appreciation, Doctor…?”
“Woodrow,” said the taller of the two, faintly. “Madame, you–I–what?”
“Doctor Woodrow.” I drew upon my finishing school experiences and fully Ignored his questions, as a lady should when faced with a topic not suitable for her to discuss. “Doctor Woodrow, I am certain a place such as this must have discarded clothing. Most of it is no doubt in a wretched state, but if you would be so terribly kind as to fetch me even a simple skirt and shirtwaist, I would be greatly in your debt. Go to now, sir, I require it.”
To his own obvious bewilderment, the poor young man turned to do as I ordered. He paused once, looking back at me, and I flitted my fingers at him in expectation. Chastened, he scurried off, leaving me with the shorter, and unfortunately older, of the doctors. I could not expect with quite such certainty that he would hop to doing what a matron set him to.
Indeed, I could see in his eyes that Thought was beginning to overtake Astonishment. This struck me as Disastrous, for I had no idea at all what had happened to me, and my only real thought was to escape the morgue and return as quickly as possible to my family.
“Madame,” the remaining doctor began. Panic Seized me and I reached for something to say, determined that Propriety should somehow overtake Rationality.
“There has clearly been a dreadful mistake, sir,” I said in what I am ashamed to report were strident tones. “I can see quite clearly where I am, and you can see quite clearly that I do not belong here. As soon as the young Doctor Woodrow returns with some clothing, I shall remove myself from these premises with my thanks to you.”
“Madame,” he repeated, with the soft firm tone one takes with a frightened child or animal, “I think you had better not.”
From nearly anyone such words would sound a threat. Even now I wonder that I did not hear them as such, but instead found a sob clutching at my chest and throat, as if his very gentleness would undo me. I could not allow myself to speak for fear of letting that burst of terrified sound loose, and so for long moments we stood facing one another, both of us without words. My eyes and lungs burned with holding emotion in, and I focused so hard on the man before me that even now I can see him standing in front of me as clearly as though he were real. He was of little more than my Height and round both of head and body, the former of which had less hair on it than I imagine he wished. He looked extremely reassuring, in the way that good bankers and doctors do.
It was he who broke the agonizing Silence. “Woodrow can likely be made to think your presence here is some sort of fraternity prank. I’m nearly certain, Madame, that he was more distracted by your–” He took a deep breath, said, “Assets,” delicately, and went on. “Than your face. It helps that he was not the doctor on duty when you were brought in this morning, and so had less opportunity or inclination to examine your features. I am, however, afraid that I saw you quite clearly, and while you’re unquestionably correct in that you don’t belong here, I’m equally correct in saying that five hours ago, Mrs. Walsh, you did.”
“That is not possible.” I had learnt, as a child, that insisting things were impossible did not necessarily make them so. I heard a child’s offense in my protest. So, clearly, did the doctor, whose expression grew strained. Only in retrospect do I truly recognize the tension that radiated off the man; at the time he seemed so much more rational and calm than I that I could not imagine he felt the same turmoil I did.
“It is not,” he agreed. His hand betrayed a twitch of stress, folding into a knot and relaxing again. “It is not possible, but it appears to be quite true regardless. An artist has put together a sketch of your–” Here he Fumbled, visibly at a Loss for how to continue. “Your extraordinary actions,” he finally said, weakly. “Your photograph, along with the story, has been published in the evening paper. Mrs. Walsh, you’re dead.”
“I most certainly am not.”
“The world believes you are.” The doctor’s voice was so terribly gentle that a chill of horror rose on my skin. “Dozens of people saw you trampled to death, Madame. There is a vigil being held even now, thanks being given to God for your valiance in saving that child’s life and honors being laid at your feet for giving up your own for her. Your husband and sons are in shock and in mourning. Mrs. Walsh,” he repeated Inexorably, “you are dead.”
My childish arrogance, which had held me til now, staggered beneath his polite, unrelenting words. “But that’s not possible.”
“That, Madame, we are in full agreement on.” The doctor drew himself up and sighed so deeply as to seem to lose some of his very roundness. “Every part of me that is a man of medicine wishes to examine you–take you apart if necessary–in an attempt to discover how it is you’re standing here before me. And the part of me that is a man of God thinks you must be a miracle, and that Man should not question God’s miracles.”
Fear seized my belly and I drew my rough tweed coat around myself as if it would provide protection from his Scientific Curiosity. I had always Prided myself on a quickness with words, but now they Deserted me and I stood barefoot and cold in an echoing morgue, awaiting a proclamation of my Fate.
In the end, though, it proved that Neither of us would ever Know whether Science or God ruled him, for at that moment Doctor Woodrow returned with my clothes.
The door opening broke the fearful stupor that had settled on me. I shrieked like a woman possessed and flung Woodrow’s coat into the other Doctor’s face, following it with the hardest punch I knew how to throw. I had, after all, grown up with Innumerable Cousins, and even a Spoilt Girl must learn to defend herself. Poor Woodrow yelled, though not as loudly as the round doctor, who scrabbled at his face and Woodrow’s coat as though a nest of Spiders had dropped on his head. In that brief instant I charged past both Doctors, snatching what I could from Woodrow’s grasp.
He gathered his Wits slightly too late, reaching for me as I dashed through the door and ran mad-cap through the halls, hands and what clothing I had stolen clutched to my bosom. This was not out of Modesty–I had little sense of that left–but Practicality. A generously endowed woman does not make light of the bouncing Weight of her bosom when she runs, a discovery I made then (having never before run while not wearing a Corset or stays of some sort) and never forgot.
I rounded a corner, racing pell-mell with no sense of direction, and found myself in a narrow, damp-walled Hall littered with wardrobes. A door at the far end stood open, rain blowing in and Assuring me of my escape, though Woodrow and the round Doctor were not far behind me, both shouting obscenities that a woman shirks to hear.
I cannot say what it was that drove me into one of the Wardrobes, for surely it was not clear and rational thinking. A Survival Instinct, perhaps, or a profound awareness that if I wished to escape unnoticed from the Morgue, I must not run naked into the Streets. I closed the wardrobe door just before Woodrow and Doctor Round tore past it and down the hall toward the wet outdoors. Something rattled at my elbow and I turned to see a ghostly white Skull grinning at me in the darkness.
It is, I think, to my credit that I did not shriek. A terrible lurch seized me and nearly knocked me off my feet from shock, but a moment later it was all I could do to keep from Laughing. My life had, in a few short seconds, become such a thing of Chaos that it seemed facing a skeleton in a closet was only to be expected.
Gallows humor fled as quickly as it had come, leaving me to examine, with shaking hands, the clothing I had stolen. To my Dismay, it was nothing more than a skirt. In a fit of Temper, I stepped into it and hauled it up to my Armpits, where it did not fit, but at least it Covered me.
It was, I suppose, sheer madness that drove me to step out of the wardrobe and go back in to the Morgue in search of more sensible clothing. On the other hand, I simply could not be expected to make any sort of Escape while wearing only a skirt pulled up over my bosom, and a sort of clarity of Thought was settling over me. Properly dressed, even if bedraggled, I could be explained away as a mourner coming to see the beloved dead, at least so long as I did not again encounter Woodrow or Doctor Round. I could only hope they would search the dark and stormy night for me a while before returning. I went straightaway back to the room I had run from, finding–as I thought I would–the top and, indeed, a pair of shoes that Woodrow had brought me.
The shoes were my own.
The brief moments I spent staring at them felt an eternity, each one marked by the sick thud of my Heart. Somehow encountering my own shoes in this place made Doctor Round’s impossible claim seem more real: that I had, indeed, been dead and my clothing stripped away, my body stored in this cold dank room while my family mourned.
If this were true, then my life was over. The dead did not rise and re-join their families, no matter how we might wish them to. I could not return to my beloved Joseph and darling Sons, not if I had been so Publicly Destroyed. Worms began to crawl in my belly, terror finding its way into my throat and choking me. It was a Modern Age, and people did not believe in Witchcraft, nor burn women at the stake. I knew this, and yet I also knew that Truth, as it lay proved in my hands by a pair of brown leather shoes, would not let me sleep another night in peace at my husband’s side; that fear and shunning and rage would follow me all my days if I were lucky, and that if I were not, stoning and burning and quartering would be less far from the minds of my good, God-fearing neighbors than anyone might hope.
Clothing arranged, well-fitted shoes on my feet, dark hair in tangles around my shoulders, I slunk from the Morgue, determined to see with my own eyes if I had indeed entered a living Hell from which I could not return.