I Am the Ash
When the first postcard reached the governess in Venice, she wasn’t surprised. She used her sister’s name on the train and her mother’s with the woman who came to change the sheets; but the manager of the hotel had insisted on taking information directly from her passport when she arrived in the afternoon with one suitcase and requested the cheap room on the third floor.
The photograph on the postcard was a country house on a green lawn. She walked to the window for better light and turned the card over.
I AM THE ASH, it read, drawn in smudged grease pencil. There was no address – the card had been slipped under her door, along with a letter from the manager inquiring on the length of her stay.
The governess thought it over while she made breakfast. She had a boiled egg, a roll from her purse, a slice of ham, and bitter coffee. By the time she swept the crumbs into the sink, she decided it couldn’t be from Charlotte’s family. They wouldn’t hire someone who played games.
She laced her canvas tennis shoes and descended the stairwell, keeping to the edge of each wooden step. On the street, she turned left and kept walking until she reached a campo.
The red-framed sunglasses were taken from an unattended café table. The logo on the corner made some people stare, but she wore them anyway to obscure her line of sight. Tourists and pigeons flocked around the bench where she spent the morning, gazing across the square and occasionally flipping through a paperback she held open in her lap.
Another girl in canvas shoes sat on the bench, watching a child stalk birds across the stones.
“Is yours here, too?”
The governess took off her sunglasses and smiled. “My day off.”
“Lucky.” She watched her charge stomp, cast a flock into the air.
The governess turned toward the movement. Amid the swirl of grey feathers, she could have sworn she saw large black wings.
“At least it’s birds this time, instead of me.” The girl pulled a magazine from her bag and began studying a model’s pose, craning her neck and tilting her chin.
“I know what you mean.” Charlotte thought of her more like an animal than a person. The boy tripped on a stone and fell, began crying, holding his knee. The girl stared at the magazine until the governess cleared her throat, nodded towards the wounded boy.
I AM THE ASH OF THREE WOODEN HORSES, the next postcard read. It was of St. Mark’s Square. This one she tore quickly and scattered in the alley behind the hotel. She decided to tour churches that afternoon.
She dropped a coin into a brass box and lit one of the candles, the flame shrouded in red glass. Her mind wandered. The rocking horses were chipped and worn, the paint on their saddles flaking and their eyes staring into a corner of Charlotte’s room. Charlotte usually neglected them for her china dolls, but one rainy day she rocked violently, almost tipping over. The governess scolded her, and walked over to steady the horse, and Charlotte pitched the rail down onto her foot.
Staring at the flames dazzled her. As she rose from the bench and turned, large white eyes stared from the shadow of a confessional. She blinked and they were gone.
When the third postcard came, she decided to read the new letter from the manager first. It informed her the room was no longer available; she would pay and leave the next morning. The postcard was from one of the basilicas, a reproduction of blue and red stained glass.
I AM THE ASH OF A COMMUNION DRESS.
The governess left the postcard on the table. She put her hair up, wore pearl earrings with her best floral dress, chose the patent leather heels instead of her dingy canvas shoes.
She walked all day. She took lunch in a restaurant where she spent the last of the money from the housekeeper’s stash. Watched the newest waves of tourists burning in the sun on the canals. Tried to remember what, exactly, had set her off that day. The rage settled once she threw that ugly ruffled dress into the fireplace. The shining synthetic fabric caught so quickly.
She wandered until dark, until the manager should have been asleep. Until her feet bled from walking in heels across the cobblestones.
The governess reached her room and turned on the light, and saw the window was open. The linen curtain, yellow with nicotine, swayed a little. She sat across from it at the little table and took off her shoes. The curtain billowed in and out, like the window was breathing. The governess saw a flicker of movement outside. From under the curtain, a soot-covered arm stretched over the windowsill. Her angel of ashes entered the room.