A Phantom Flame by Gabriel Ertsgaard
A voice from the past calls out to the present, and an old tale is more than a fragment in someone else's myth...
Once upon a time, a princess was very sick. Once upon a time, there was a maiden with countless names. Humor your old grandma, dear. You may have outgrown bedtime stories, but this is a more mature tale, if I can just figure out how to tell it. Once upon a time, a silver-haired woman received a surprising letter—I suppose that will have to do—and the letter went like this:
My dear Caroline,
If you recognize this handwriting, then it must feel like you’re hearing from a ghost—the girl with “strange, sad eyes” back from beneath the lake ice. You were too curious, my friend; I learned, long before we met, to vanish from those who peered beneath my surface. It’s cruel, I admit, decades later to upset your serenity, but I offer a form of payment. I’ll finally give you what you sought back in our college years: the truth about me.
I’ve enclosed a few photographs: the mugshot of a careless young flapper caught in a club raid; a very recent Starbucks selfie from a millennial with purple hair streaks; and (in case you’ve forgotten how we looked forty years ago) the two of us in our infamous tie-dyed t-shirts, just a few hours before our psychedelic torsos taught us why we shouldn’t have put them on half damp. Lay these pictures side by side, and most would detect a lineage, grandmother to daughter to granddaughter. Do you see past that? Those three women don’t have similar faces, they have the same face. They are all the same woman. They are all me.
You notice telling details, and more importantly, believe them. That’s why I’m writing you (and why I abandoned you). I had no idea, until you started taking notes, that I still talked in my sleep—much less, to borrow Professor Durand’s phrase, in “an Occitan dialect already archaic by the Napoleonic era.” He just couldn’t decide whether that “oddly scholastic prank” was one you were playing on him, or one I was playing on you. Perhaps, though, you’re no longer someone who can believe what this letter contains. Really, it doesn’t matter. Right now, memory matters more than belief. Make me into a fable or a bedtime story. I just need to be more than a fragment in someone else’s myth.
I was burned alive three times over the course of the Renaissance—let’s start there—twice as a witch, once as a heretic. (That was during my Huguenot phase.) Three times I felt my body caught between the physics of combustion and the metaphysics of, well, whatever I am. Can you even imagine that sensation? I’ll spare you the grotesque similes, but anything you posit, it’s at least that painful. My behavior isn’t always fair, I acknowledge, but my fear of perceptive people has deep roots. Of course, the way biometrics are going, I could be flushed out into the open by the end of this century.
I need to prioritize, though, to focus on the life events that best explain me. My first clue regarding my own nature came when a cholera epidemic swept through Galatia. It took my six-year-old daughter, the only child I ever had the courage or recklessness to birth. That was worse than being burned alive. At midday she was still pretending the staircase was an alpine mountain. Then the vomiting started, and she lost more fluid than her poor body could handle. Dead by sundown. She had cinnamon eyes. It’s the only part of her that I still remember clearly. Just a half century ago, I could have sketched my little girl’s portrait from memory, but time eventually blurs everything.
A shadow stood at the foot of her deathbed, and strangely, I knew him. I knew this Lord Death. He went into a wild panic when I caught the hem of his cloak. Ironic, really, how terrified he was of our reunion. When he finally shook me off, I didn’t land anywhere on Earth. I was lost in a black void. At first, my lungs ached, but the cold soon numbed everything. I felt timeless. Then a strange, celestial light carried me back to terra firma. Aether wind, I suspected, until Michelson and Morley proved that no such thing exists. Angels? Perhaps. There’s a comfort, though, in knowing that some mysteries still dwell beyond one’s ken.
For centuries, I pored over tracts on alchemy, philosophy, and science, searching for the key to my persistence. I should have listened to wrinkled grandmothers telling bedtime stories. They knew. Have you heard the tale of Godfather Death? A new father once sought a fair and just man to serve as his son’s godfather, but it turned out that only Death himself met the man’s high standards. Death comes for us all—the rich, the poor, the great, the humble—what could be more just than that?
According to the tale, Death gave his godson a medicine that would cure any disease. With this, the latter might earn a respectable living as a doctor. “Yet if you see me standing at the foot of someone’s bed,” Death warned the young man, “you must not cure that person, for I’ll be there on dreadful business.” But there was a princess…of course there was a princess. She was gentle, beautiful, and deathly ill. Her desperate father promised the maiden’s hand in marriage to him who cured her. The usual fairy tale stuff.
Memories from my fever delirium have always been gauzy. A shadow hovering at my feet. A young man’s voice demanding, “Quickly, spin her bed around!” Suddenly, the shadow by my head. The youth with cornflower eyes putting a vial to my lips. His elixir molten in my throat. In the folklore, though, these fragments fit a coherent whole, the tale of the young doctor’s ploy to outwit Death.
The old wives say that Death, furious over the ruse, dragged his godson down into a mysterious chamber that was lit by the eerie glow of inumerous candles. Nevertheless, there was something the tale weavers missed. In every variant, every version of the story I’ve found, the young doctor collapses dead on the chamber floor. But I recognized him, standing by my daughter’s deathbed. He still had the eyes of that youth who hoped to marry the princess. It’s been ages, though, since we were princess or doctor—ages since he stole his godfather’s cloak and cursed us both.
You see, I’ve been stalking Death, and now I’ve found the path to his chamber. I intend to claim my birthright, and I don’t mean the crown of a vanished kingdom. One of those candles is linked to me, one that flickers with a phantom flame. I want the real fire back. Now, before I forget my daughter’s eyes, I’ll finally burn out the last moments of my natural life. For the sake of justice, Lord Death must give me that. There’s a last justice, though, that my one-time physician cannot grant—the right to echo on as the heroine of my own story and not just a fragment in his. My dear Caroline, I beg you, grant me that final mercy.
formerly Princess Joanna of Burgundy
formerly Rufina, the mother of Esperanza
formerly many women who were, in truth, the same woman
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Once upon a time, a princess was terribly ill. Once upon a time, there was a maiden with so many names. Once upon a time, a silver-haired matron pondered a message from her very old friend...
Gabriel Ertsgaard has served on the English faculties of Caldwell University and Wenzhou-Kean University. He earned his D.Litt. from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in an Irish legend.
Story ART by: Amanda Bergloff