Saturday, June 30, 2012

Midnight Memoirs: Ettie

My heart still weeps when I allow myself to think back. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years pass, the pain does not fade and runs so deeply through my veins that I often experience long periods of misery and inertia. I will try to explain what became of my life after the dark, harrowing night in October, 1848. This is not an easy task; I only hope I do this justice.

I had found myself in a most privileged situation after some hard times and six young mouths to feed. After working in the kitchen for two years, I had risen to become the royal wet nurse of Queen Victoria’s children. I would breast feed the two little ones, 2 year old Princess Helena and the baby, Princess Louise, often at the same time, it was non-stop for a while. I could handle it though; I was still feeding my two youngest, Charles and Martha. It was amazing money, Arthur and I had nearly laughed our heads off when we realised I now earned more wages than he did. It was tough though, not seeing much of him or the children sometimes, but we were making it work. My Sister Nancy helped us out, feeding my little two when I couldn’t get back.

Baby Louise was a beauty, so bonny with her short blonde ringlets and big blue eyes; I’d stroke her rosy cheeks as she suckled at my breast contentedly. I was chosen for this job for several reasons: I was healthy, I’d never lost a child, I had a good temperament and my more than ample breasts overflowed with nutritious milk. I knew how fortunate I was, the several wet nurses on constant standby would tell me often enough.

So, there I was, 26, married, mother of six and responsible for feeding the two princesses in the royal palace. I’d often stay over in the servants quarters but I’d try not to leave it too long before I made my way back to our little family house, arms swooping at my skirts and squealed delights as soon as the children heard my voice. I always had to rush back though; I couldn’t have anyone stealing my place, and then I would get the same response from the royal children, a flurry of affection that I had returned.

And then the tidal wave of destruction arrived, haunting my broken mind for evermore. The Cholera epidemic came upon England suddenly, in days thousands were ill, so many dying. I feared for everyone I knew, praying to God for mercy and salvation. Panic gripped the country as corpses piled high, the stench overwhelming. I tell you this from rumour and recounts from the palace kitchen staff, I was safely tucked away, part of the ivory tower. Until the note arrived.

It was the governess who broke the news, Nancy was dead. Gone. My Sister. Dead. Gone. I sobbed openly, fat salty tears pouring from my eyes. My thoughts collided into one another and I felt as though the very ground below my feet may swallow me whole. I fainted. When I came to, I was in a heap on the floor in the downstairs quarters. Mary, one of the maids crouched by my side.

‘You’re not to feed the babes, Ettie. Her majesty went mad; she thinks you might pass on the fever. You must go,’ her voice was trembling, as was the hand stroking my hair.

Nancy died,’ I remembered, choking back a wail. I buried my face into Mary’s arm, the pain crushing and excruciating in my chest.
‘I heard. I’m so sorry Ettie, my love. These are cruel times indeed. You must tend to your own babes now, the family needs you. Give them all a kiss from me, poppet,’ she helped me to my feet and embraced me tightly before seeing me to the door.

‘Goodbye Mary’ I tried to smile but my heart was broken and images of little baby Louise suckling at another woman’s breast pricked at my pride.

The crisp, cold October air filled my lungs and the wind whipped my face. I had not even a shawl to warm me; the black night sky rumbled overhead as the rain started pelting down. I walked as briskly as possible; it was so quiet and eerie. Not even the backstreet pub spilled out the usual noise and drunks. The Cholera must have hit hard around here. I shivered, imagining Nancy fading away, the agony she must have been through. I cursed myself for not being there, not wiping her brow and uttering words of sibling love. The tears started again, mixing with the rain drops. I was soaking, my grey dress sticking to my body.

A flash of movement from the corner of my eye made me spin round. Squinting to see what lurked in the shadows, I saw nothing. My mind was clearly playing tricks. The streets were deserted and silence reigned; only the splatters of rain collecting puddles could be heard, though my heart now raced and I felt on edge. My stride accelerated as a bolt of lightning cracked through the night sky. The low, angry rumbles of thunder setting my feet into a half run.

And again. What was that? I felt certain that I had just seen another flash of movement. I didn’t stop this time to find out. I ran like I never had before, panting, my lungs on fire, and the scenery beside me a bouncing blur. The heavy rain was hindering my every step; I could barely open my eyes for the backlash of water pouring down my face. Yet I carried on, I was close to home now, almost at the top of our street. I just had to keep moving and try to forget the very real sensation that I was being followed.

As the identical houses greeted me with familiarity, my feet slowed a little, the candle light glowing in our window the most welcome of sights my eyes had ever beheld. I had made it. Home. My muscles tight, my breathing rapid, I attempted to calm myself; I’d worry the children half to death if I went in like this. I took a few seconds to straighten myself out although it was futile; I looked like a drowned rat. I opened the door.

The strong odour made me wretch and I gasped back into the night air, the smell of faeces hit my nostrils immediately, causing waves of nausea as I heaved and heaved onto the doorstep. I could not go back in there without something to wrap across my face. I stumbled, another crash of lightning waving goodbye to my nerves and reason. I looked down at myself, I had ripped my dress, and the hanging fabric would do the job, I decided. It took some doing but I tugged and ripped at the tattered material until I felt confident that I had enough to act as a mask to the offending stink. I tied it in a knot around my head and held it close to my face.

Again I slipped through the doorway, not expecting the usual excitement at my return, it was gone now and the children, at least, would be fast asleep. The candle was close to burning away completely so I walked over to the old, faithful wooden drawers and took out a new one, lighting it and surveying the empty room. Even with my handmade mask the reek was so powerful, my body convulsed once more, though I had nothing left inside of me to give. I turned towards the hallway and froze.

‘Arthur?’ I managed to stammer, my voice shaking with fear and impending doom. There he was, lying flat out in his night shift on the floor.

‘Arthur?’ I called out again, louder this time, urgency thick in my voice.

I knew I needed to go over there and see him but my feet didn’t want to know, they were very much locked into position. If I did, if I really did walk over there then my life was changed forever. I knew that. And for just over two minutes, my brain refused to let that happen.

But then I shuffled over and faced the inevitable. He had soiled himself, his face a fixed grimace of horror which is how I now remember him. I can’t visualise the happy, laughing, passionate man I married. I see this.

I couldn’t even cry which still shames me to this day. I think I was so shocked that normal bodily functions such as tears evaded me completely. I remember just saying no. No. No, no, no, no, no, no over and over again, shaking my head in a useless method to make it all unreal. But real it was. And I didn’t know the half of it.
Slowly, as quietly as I could, I made my way up our creaky old stairs, shutting my eyes as I passed the drawing Nancy had done for the children, our smiling faces captured forever, beaming for all to see. Each step filled me deeper with dread but I had to remain positive. I had to remain positive.

I came to a halt at the top of the stairs, where first? My feet turned left and paused at the door of the boys, pressing my ear to the wood in a desperate need for the blessed sound of snoring or creaking beds as they stirred. Nothing. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, opening that door. In the end, I swung it open quickly, hoping for a reaction, but I didn’t get one. My heart shattered then, into an irreparable thousand pieces. I sidled over to the bed and gingerly pulled back the covers. And there they were, both my angel sons, holding onto one another. I stroked Albert’s head, icy cold. I felt Charles’s cheek, the same. I fell to the floor, weeping until I could scarcely breathe, loud yelps escaping from my lips. I don’t know how long I was there, curled up, beating my tight fists into the floor. I hesitated, not really wishing to see my daughters in the same state. But some vague hope dragged me to my feet. I covered up my sweet boys, wishing God would strike me dead with a bolt of his vicious lightning, and strode out of the door, straight into the room of the girls.

My first born Victoria was on the floor just like her Papa; I kissed her dead face and peeled back the covers to the bed. Florence was rigid; her face a sorrowful crumble, her hands still clutched her stomach. I had been so busy attending to the princesses that I had forsaken my own family. I wasn’t here when they needed me. I envisaged the scene with great distress and knelt and prayed for forgiveness. I could not foresee a time whereby I lived with this guilt.

What about Amelia and my baby Martha? Where were they? Had they got out? Were they still alive? Were they out there, somewhere, searching for me? The sensation of hope created a surge of energy throughout my body and I flew out of the room and almost fell down the stairs in my haste.

Catching another glimpse of Arthur laying at the bottom, my insides felt as though they may burst. I stopped to kiss his freezing brow and whispered my sorry, knowing that would never be enough. I peered into the kitchen and it was all over. My life ended. In the corner, I could make out the silhouette of my darling Amelia in the chair; she was holding something and my mind refused to respond. I could not face this. I could not stand this. As traumatic and tragic as the whole evening had been, I knew this sight would seal my fate, propel me to an insanity I couldn’t possibly return from.

I went a little mad there and then, sweeping the rosebud china jug from the table, hearing the smash as I opened the cupboard door and compulsively dragged out every single matching item from the set, the plates, the cups, the saucers. I threw the sugar bowl at the wall and emptied all the spoons out on to the floor. I screamed and I wailed and I just could not dispel the anger, putrid reality and utter hell fast enough.
I hated myself. I marched over to Amelia and pulled the bundle from her adamant, unyielding arms. And I fled. I ran out of the door and immersed myself into the unforgiving, sinister night, unperturbed by the lashes of rainfall and found myself at the river. I should feed the baby. I was a rotten Mother; Nancy couldn’t help me out now could she? No more princesses for me. Back to basics. I sat at the water’s edge and unfastened my nursing dress so I could access my breast. It was wet in seconds, never mind I thought, I must feed Martha. Little Martha, my baby, my treasure, Mummy is so sorry but I’m here now and I won’t go anywhere ever again, I promise.
I moved Martha right up to my breast, expecting immediate lactation. That’s what I did, after all, the human cow. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t taking it? Had I been away too long? Had she got so used to Nancy that her own mother was second best?

And there he was, as strange as could be. His long hair, even longer than my own blonde locks, cascading down his body, black as true as the night, eyes the same colour. His tall frame and long shroud created quite a frightening picture. He was so pale that he almost glistened despite the horrendous weather. At once, I knew he was the flash of movement I had spotted earlier that night. I had no words; I just remember looking at him quizzically.

‘Ettie,’ he purred, holding out a white hand. How did he know my name? I declined to shake it and went back to helping Martha latch on.

‘Ettie, please, see sense. You know she’s dead don’t you?’ his voice was gentle which jarred, stabbing me all over.

I despised him at that moment but my eyes shot straight to my baby and acknowledged his words.

‘Let her go, Ettie, I beg you. You’re only bringing yourself more agony with this charade. Put her down, sail her down the river and let her be at peace now,’ his voice clinked and charmed and I knew he spoke the truth. He had made it so that I could not continue with believing I still had a child, she was gone like the rest of them. My baby was dead.

I still struggle to comprehend how I managed to do this but I actually did lean over, watched the gushing, swollen river water and lowered her into it. I watched as her tiny body rushed away and peered up at him for further instruction.

‘You’ve had quite a night, dear Ettie. I had you in my sights as you dashed through the rain but I let you go. It would have been kinder if I had taken you then, spared you from the sights you have seen tonight. Your heart is broken. I can’t mend it. But let me try to help you now. Let me give you a new reason to exist in this world,’ his words were a riddle but I no longer cared for my well-being. I deserved nothing but the depths of Hell after letting my family die and my world fall apart. I didn’t desire to live when everything I cared for had gone.

‘Come to me,’ he ordered, his arms outstretched. I rose and felt him embrace me. My naked breast rubbed against his silky cloak.

‘This is going to hurt, Ettie, I won’t lie. But it will be worth it. It’s your second chance,’ I didn’t have a clue what he referred to but I didn’t fear pain or death at that moment.

His hand squeezed my breast and his head lowered, his cold lips skimming the nipple. And what came next shocked me right back into the moment. He bit me. His teeth ripped right through the sensitive flesh of my breast and I screamed and screamed into the night. I could feel his mouth hungrily lapping at my blood, gorging at my bust. The pain was unbearable and seemed to last forever. All my instincts shouted fight for your life, but what for? This is what I deserved so I didn’t even struggle, I just allowed him to continue with this agonising act.

It wasn’t long before I sensed I was fading, close to death and I welcomed it. Death was the release I hoped for. But then things changed completely. He pulled at my head until my lips touched his neck. I didn’t understand. What did he want?

‘Ettie, sink your teeth into me,’ he growled through gritted teeth. His absurd request had me speechless.

‘Do it! Do it now or all is lost. Do it!’ He roared, and so I did.

It was the oddest thing in the entire world but I was under his spell and had no sane mind of my own to rely on. I burst his skin and sucked his blood, taking out on him all the heartbreak of the evening. He pushed me away after a while and I felt so tired. I just wanted to sleep. He picked me up and held me close as he ran into the night, faster than the lightning itself. I drifted off and don’t remember that first night at all but I awoke in the same desolation.

‘You are a night walker, sweet Ettie. Your life begins anew today with the taking of another. You need the blood of humans, you will find yourself feasting upon it,’ he said.
Death I had seen too much of and refused to take part in it as a sport. He killed, I drank.

This has continued for over a century and I have come to the decision that I can’t do this any longer. I should be dead. I wish I was. I’m writing this memoir to leave a little truth behind and some sort of testament to my family. I don’t deserve a second chance. I don’t deserve a second thought. I can’t take the pain for one more night. The moment sunrise occurs, I am stepping out into the June sun and my sorry carcass can burn to dust.

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