His condition was quickly deteriorating and thus it was deemed best that he journey to Saltwater House. The ocean air, the murmur of the waves, they would soothe him.
Balthazar had a fortune and a name. Judith had neither. Her father had been a friend to Balthazar’s father. She was now an orphan, though she was no trembling waif-child. At twenty-two she was too old for such a designation. Nevertheless, the loss of her father and the subsequent funeral and the settling of his accounts had depleted their already meager purse. Judith’s father had gifted his only daughter fine frocks and hair combs, but that was years ago, before his luck turned, and the vast majority of such gifts had been sold.
Judith found herself with a terribly small inheritance and no way to supplement this dismal income. That is, until she was summoned by Balthazar’s mother. Her son needed a companion. He was a witty, well-educated, and vivacious young man. Or he had been one. But his condition changed the situation. Saltwater was a fine old house, but it was isolated. He would be lonely there. With no art exhibits to attend, no strolls down the boulevard, no conversation in the tumultuous cafes, melancholia was sure to strike. He needed not a nurse as much as a friend, and since his condition was delicate and the situation quite fraught, it would have to be someone with an even temper and common sense. Someone who could watch over Balthazar without him feeling as though he was being spied on. Someone like Judith, who possessed a charming smile.
Therefore they journeyed there, to the shuttered house by the sea. A couple of trusty servants went ahead of them, to pull the sheets off the furniture and dust off the candelabra, and when they arrived it was indeed the pleasant white-washed house Judith had seen in paintings. An austere-looking, century-old house, though that same austerity gave it a certain romanticism.
There would be a cook and a maid who would come in several times a week, but Judith had been warned the stay would be lonesome. Yet it seemed to her now that it would be entirely bearable.
“It’s a delight,” she told him. “I can picture you playing at pirates in this place.”
“You’d be wrong. We seldom visited Saltwater,” he replied, his gloved hands in his jacket’s pockets, looking up at the house. He did not need his cane every day, though they’d brought it along with the laudanum and the porcelain hot water bottle.
“That seems a bit of a pity.”
“Grandmother lived here and so did my uncle and my aunt. The house is a place for old people, for the infirm,” he said. “I hope the cook’s dishes have improved. There was a distinct lack of variety to them.”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine. You cannot expect a feast from a grand hotel when you are in a remote abode.”
“Well, no. At least the wine should be good. There’s a little cellar. A delightful cellar, I suppose.”
“Oh, don’t you dare mock me and my naïve optimism,” she said, taking his arm as they made their way inside.
He smiled. They had known each other for only a couple of weeks—though letters had served as an introduction, ink and paper establishing a link between them which was being fleshed out—but already they had acquired an easy rapport. Judith had obviously been well-picked for this task.
Over the next couple of days she familiarized herself with the house. It was smallish, as Balthazar had predicted, and filled with a multitude of trinkets. The carved teeth of whales, a collection of sea urchins and starfish and a great big clam, an empty metal birdcage where a parrot had once sat, watercolors of dolphins and marine mammals, and a coquettish oil painting depicting a mermaid, her nipples peeping between her hands.
The food was simple but plentiful, and soon they settled into a routine of late and lazy mornings, followed by leisurely lunches. The cook left them watercress sandwiches and little cakes, and every other morning a maid would come by to clear their dishes and tidy up. Judith felt like a heroine in a fairy tale, attended by invisible servants, though in truth she guessed she was merely one more servant: the dutiful nurse.
Balthazar liked crosswords, which they solved together, and they spent much of their day reading and chatting. There were impromptu piano recitals—he played, she sang, their audience were the pictures on the walls and an old tabby which came and went as it pleased. There was some sketching, and much walking down the path which led to the front door of the house, past the elms and blackberry bushes growing wild.
The sea he did not like and there she had to head alone. He seldom agreed to venture behind the house, down the trail which took them to the beach, claiming the rocks were slippery and the sun here did not suit him well, even beneath his wide straw hat, as if the sun had a different quality than the sun in other parts of the world.
Judith let him be, until he had one bad night and then another. She knew a salt bath was what he needed and she convinced him to go with her down to the beach, to dip his feet in the blue-green waters. They walked slowly, he leaning on her, and when they reached the shore he rolled up his trousers up to his knees and sat on a large rock.
“I’m glad you agreed to come today. It’s beautiful here,” she said.
“Yes, I know.”
“We should come more often. Your mother explained it would do you well. And it’s refreshing, isn’t it? The breeze is lovely.”
“I’d rather be in the city.”
“It’s too warm this time of year.”
“The concert season will be in full swing now. I’ll miss everything of importance.”
“We could put the gramophone to good use tonight,” she said. “Or else, we might play the piano again.”
She realized, as soon as she suggested it, that this would be a poor substitute to the pageantries he was used to, but she could offer nothing else.
He dipped his toes in a small puddle of seawater. Tiny crabs scuttled by his toes, trying to hide behind rocks. The angle of his hat did not allow her to see his eyes, but his lips were pursed and he stood up quickly, hurrying back to the house.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’ve no desire to be here right now and wish to go in.”
He walked much too fast. By the time he had reached the stairs of the house he was out of breath and she maneuvered herself to stand by his side, helping him walk up the steps.
That night was bad and she knew very well they ought to have stayed by the seashore, but there was little to be done now. She offered to draw him a warm bath with plenty of sea salts but Balthazar shook his head, stubborn.
“No. Give me the tincture.”
“You know it should be a last resource,” she said.
“My body aches and I have a fever. For God’s sake, Judith, hand me the tincture.”
She grabbed the blue bottle from above the mantelpiece and unscrewed the cap, careful measuring the right doses onto a spoon. As soon as the liquid touched his tongue his eyes dilated and he leaned back against the cushions, his ragged breath slowing down. She sat next to him and held his hands between her own until he closed his eyes. When she attempted to rise, however, he turned his head and looked at her.
“Judith, can you stay a little while longer?” he asked.
“As long as you like,” she said.
He smiled at her.
There was an old wheelchair in the corner which had belonged to Balthazar’s grandfather and Judith was careful to cover it with a blanket because she knew he did not like the sight of it. But since she was tidying the room, she had removed the blanket as she fiddled with linens and clothes and personal items.
He walked into the room and stood there, staring at the wheelchair. Judith quickly placed the blanket on top of it, but the damage was done. She could see all mirth draining from Balthazar’s face as he sat on a large leather chair and glanced out the window and put his gloved hands together.
This really was one of the worst rooms in the house. The master bedroom was much cooler, but it had a view of the sea and Balthazar would not abide the sound of the waves at night; he was a light sleeper. She slept in the master bedroom instead and craned her neck at night, looking at the white curtains as they blew gently into the room. The wallpaper in that room was as blue as the sea and the paintings were of boats and shipwrecks. In Balthazar’s room the paintings were of fruits, and she imagined that had as much to do with his choice of quarters as the lack of an ocean view.
“I’m going blackberry picking today,” she told him. “There are clumps and clumps of them. I plan to make jam. Won’t you come with me?”
“I had better not,” he said and he was already reaching for the blue bottle, throwing his head back as he took a swig.
“Balthazar, really!” she said, snatching the bottle and placing it back on the side table. “You are supposed to have only a small dose.”
“Oh, what do you know?” he muttered, and he turned his face away from her. “Go, get out. I have a headache and no desire to hear you blabber today.”
It was the rough distaste in his voice which hurt her, more than the words, and she silently stepped out of the room and went to the kitchen, where she grabbed a straw hat and a pail, and set off. It was too hot a day to stay out for long, but she lingered by the blackberry bushes. Some berries were already too ripe, and when she pulled at them they became a pulp against her hands. But there were a fair number which still shone a glossy red and ones that were firm and perfect.
More than once the thorns scratched her arms, but she did not mind, and her fingers grew dark and sticky with berry juice.
She took her pail to the kitchen and washed the berries, then set upon mashing them and boiling them. The kitchen was a bit of a mess and when the cook came in the next day she might complain about it, but Judith decided she’d worry about that later. After she was done, she sat in a kitchen chair and slowly took out the pins from her hair. The day was terribly hot and even hotter in the kitchen. Her neck was sweaty and her dress was stained with the juice of the blackberries.
She shook her hair out, shook out the last pin and let it fall on a ceramic plate.
She turned around and looked at Balthazar, who was leaning heavily against the doorframe. His eyes were glassy with the laudanum. She could see that. But she saw something new, too. The flushed cheeks and the sheen of sweat upon his face were expected—the day was warm and he was prone to aches and fevers. But there was pure wonder in his eyes and a raw, open yearning which made her flush as crimson as him.
They looked at each other in silence. He was so pale, dear Balthazar. Skin like marble and hair like coal, and his eyes so very dark. He’d never been handsome, but as the days passed and his condition slowly deteriorated, his skin seemed to acquire a soft glow, the eyes were burnished bright, and there was a lovely sadness to the curve of his mouth. She looked at him and wondered what might happen if she touched those lips with the tip of her fingers, but she did not dare move.
They had both become statues and gazed at each other.
Somewhere in the house a clock marked the hour and the spell that held them together was broken. He shuffled into the kitchen. “Jam-making?” he asked.
“Yes. I hope you like it on your toast,” she said, raising a hand and rubbing the back of her neck. “Did you need anything?”
“I wanted to see if you’d returned.”
He leaned over the pot and slowly stirred the wooden spoon. “I wanted to apologize,” he added. “It’s just… sometimes the pain is too much.”
She nodded. He turned around and sat across from her, leaning his elbows on the kitchen table.
“Will you give me a penance?” he asked.
“You could help me fill the jam jars.”
“That I could do.”
“And you’ll go down to the beach with me tomorrow.”
“Ah, Judy,” he muttered and she lowered her eyes, blushing.
“It’s your penance. But I’ll pack us lunch and you’ll love my cucumber sandwiches.”
He smiled at her. “Very well,” he said.
He went down to the seashore the next day and the day after that. He was much improved there, when they rested in one of the little coves, the water lapping at their feet. Sea spray and gulls above their heads, and little seashells under their feet. He seemed calmer and he wasn’t drinking any of the laudanum. The sun and the sea soothed him.
She lay next to him, on a large blue blanket and they talked about inconsequential things.
“I will miss the season for opera. To go down the boulevard at twilight and see the opera house,” he said.
They had taken their shoes off and Judith wriggled her toes and leaned back, an arm behind her head.
“Well… you might have improved by then,” she ventured.
He chuckled. “There is no improving me,” he said, shaking his head and touching his neck, knotted with the wide cravat. “Can’t you see? Can’t you hear me at night, wheezing and coughing?”
She could see indeed. Those fine, dark veins now standing starker against the alabaster skin and his skillful hands—hidden, as always, under dark leather—which were losing their elasticity, which trembled a little and would not be able to play the piano very soon.
She felt so terribly sorry for him and she turned and pressed her palm against his face and he sighed, clutching her hand.
“Judith,” he whispered.
Her name on his lips startled her. She felt that no one had ever said it the way he did, the syllables sweet and low in his throat.
She could not resist. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. He kissed her back, drawing her close, his fingers splayed against her back. A long, lingering kiss, before he untangled himself from her arms and stood up.
“Wait,” she said, trying to hold on to him. He brushed her hand away.
“I’m going back and you… you should leave the house,” he said. “Go back to the city.”
“Please! Let me be!” he exclaimed, and he stumbled a little when he walked. Nevertheless, he rushed off, leaving her to fold the blanket with tears in her eyes.
After that, he wouldn’t walk back to the beach with her, instead isolating himself in his room. At nights he drank liberally from the blue bottle. More often than not, when she stepped into his room, he was in bed, asleep. Or it was as if he slept, his eyes half-lidded, not really seeing her.
The pain, it was worse. The fever spiked. He rolled around under the covers, drenched in sweat.
He would not talk to her about it. He would not let her draw his bath or read him a book or even sit by his bedside, looking away when she chanced to pass by.
“Why are you still here?” he asked her, one evening, when she came to pick the dish he had not eaten.
“Your mother hired me. She’s the one who can fire me,” she said.
“Then I’ll write to her,” he promised.
Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But a letter never came bidding her to go. Things didn’t improve with them, though. Something was broken and Judith didn’t know if she should stay or if she should abandon him like he wanted.
In the end she remained, running her hands upon the green bottles filled with tiny ships and listening to the wind chimes as she sat on the bottom step of the stairs which led to the house. They existed in different worlds now. He’d exiled himself to a distant island even if they still lived under the same roof and try as she might she could not reach him.
They remained like that, and she felt herself growing smaller and smaller, pushed to the edge of the map.
Then, one night, when his moans were too loud, she went to his room and found him on the floor, shaking.
“Judy, I need… I… the laudanum,” he said.
She grabbed the bottle from the table, but it was empty. Judith managed to help him stand up and got him back in bed. Then she filled a basin with water, grabbed a towel, and began dabbing at his forehead, his face.
“Feeling better?” she asked after a while.
“Much,” he muttered.
His lips looked chapped, so she hurried to pour him a glass of water from a lovely blue carafe and helped him hold the glass. When he was done drinking she took out a quilt from the chest at the foot of the bed and unfolded it.
When she was certain he was comfortable, she brushed his hair from his face and prepared to say her goodbyes, but he surprised her by catching her hand and sitting up.
“Judy, I’m sorry for telling you to go,” he said. “But you understand… you do understand why I said this? I will change, Judy. I won’t want you to be here when I change.”
“I’ve always known,” she protested.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “You don’t understand. You know, but you don’t understand.”
He unbuttoned his shirt, the fingers clumsy, and he turned his head so that she might take a good look at his neck. She saw the red, raw indentations on the side, still closed. Unmistakably gills which would spread and open any day now. And he held his hands up, showing off the delicate membrane which was growing between his fingers.
He swallowed and closed his eyes.
“I’ll go off to sea. What will you do, Judy? Bundle me in the old chair and push me to the beach so I can slide into the water? Would you truly wish to witness that?”
“Perhaps I would.”
He snapped his eyes open and looked at her, blinking, the pale nictitating membrane sliding upon his eyes for a second and then fluttering away. “You would not,” he said hoarsely. “Nobody would. That is why I am here and my family is back in the city.”
“I’m not afraid. I want to stay with you,” she said, her fingers finding his chest, her palm settling upon his heart.
“What will you have me do?” he asked, desperately.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
He did and she pressed a kiss to his lips, light and quick. Then a second one. Until at the third kiss his mouth opened and he was kissing her back. Slowly he drew her near, until she lay at his side and he opened his eyes.
“I’ll be gone so soon,” he said. “Too soon.”
“You’re here now,” she said. “And when you are gone, maybe you’ll remember me and from time to time—”
“I’ll swim by the shore to be near you,” he whispered.
And she nodded, thinking of a day when she’d walk down to the beach and stand on the sand, looking at the tidewrack and the sea foam, at the sun dipping into the horizon. Judith, standing on her tiptoes, trying to see if a pale form might bob its head above the water.
Outside was the blue sea of late summer, waiting for Balthazar.
But for now he was here and she embraced him and he touched her, planting kisses on her neck and drawing her into his arms so that they crashed against the sheets and he wrapped strands of her hair around his fingers. She gasped for breath, tumbling against his body, pressing her lips to his skin, which tasted of salt. And there was salt in her eyes, but she blinked the tears away and smiled against his mouth.
© 2019 Silvia Moreno-Garcia