You carry an ember, Charlotte, a bright-burning star. It’s a light that will not fade. Even when you’re gone, it will glow still. I know because my name is the name of that patient spark inside you.
I, your potential energy—
Not your daughter, not the flesh that is growing even now from your flesh by umbilical connection. The spermatozoon that sprang forth from Arthur Bell Nicholls’ tenderly guarded testes is no part of me. I will never bear your mitochondrial DNA. And yet I am no less a part of you.
You yourself might call me a spirit, but I’m not the shade of a life extinguished. The fetus incubating in your womb will die when you expire, but I won’t. She, the beginnings of your earthly legacy, will cease to be, but I will remain in this form unchanged. I have always been inside you, always been waiting. But unlike you, who must travel in only one direction—your mortal body carrying you only forward toward a mortal end—I move in all directions. I am and was and will be.
I am here with you now as you sit at the table, writing a letter to Ellen and listening to Arthur read aloud. Like you, I can hear your father coughing in the next room and the wind breathing against the windows. But I am also elsewhere even as I am here, remembering, potentiating.
At this moment, I am also with you as you arrive at Haworth Parsonage for the first time, the carriage rocking over the cobblestones through the thick, black night. You should have arrived hours ago, but the roads are bad this time of year, so the seven-mile journey from Thornton has taken twice as long as it ought. You know you should be anxious; you can feel the nervous energy in the carriage—little Anne is crying in Maria’s arms, and your mother’s face is white with the strain of travel. Although you don’t know it yet, she is already sick and will be dead by autumn, just the first of many losses you will concede to the tubercular air of this place. But now, as the carriage bumps up the steep high street, you have no presentiment of your future troubles. I watch with you as you peek out the window at the darkened village and catch your first glimpse of the cemetery and the rectangular parsonage beyond, its front lamps lit in attendance of your arrival. You are not frightened by the flat-topped graves or the gnarled trees or the rattling wind. You are just this month turned five and you’re caught in the excitement of staying up past your bedtime, of moving to a new place, of a mysterious journey under the cover of darkness.
I am there as you trace your initials in the frost that forms on the early morning windows of the cramped bedroom you share with your sisters; as you write the soft curves of those letters over and over again; as you lie there awake while Emily and Anne sleep, knowing that soon you’ll have to get up and dress, go about your day, knowing that for just a moment you are alone with some secret promise you sense in your initials, as if they are a cipher of things to come; as your tiny fingertip squeaks across the wet glass and makes that looping pattern: C.B., C.B., C.B.
I am there beyond the stone wall of the parsonage, where the green farm hills give way to the stooping shoulders of the moors, barely visible through the lingering cold haze of dawn.
I am there as you and Emily and Anne and Branwell walk the moors, naming the streams with private names and curling centuries-old stones in your small hands.
I am there in Glass Town and in all the cramped words you and your siblings scratch across fragile paper to chronicle the goings on there, two inches high—edited by the genius C.B., your initials encircled in a heart of chained flowers.
I am there in Angria, too.
I am there in Brussels, when you walk Messieur Heger’s creaking hallways, holding your breath in unrequited sentiment.
I am there when you are Currer Bell; when you crack your nervous joints and every few minutes think, Maybe someone, somewhere, has just now bought a copy of my book, even though, objectively, you realize there’s no way to know.
I am there at your writing desk, at your inkwell, at the long, quiet hours you sit alone before the page, and I am there when you wrap your manuscript in brown paper and tie it with twine and address it to Smith, Elder & Co, No. 65 Cornhill St., London, and I am also there in the long, quiet nights you lie awake waiting for their reply.
I am there in London, when you make your first appearance in society as a celebrated authoress; when you burn under the weight of so many eyes on you and then school your features into an invulnerable shape for fear of seeming too eager for all this attention; when you hold stilted audiences with great men of letters, during which you remind yourself that you will not be overwhelmed, and resolve to behave no differently before these exalted figures than you should if you were at home with your father; when you tell yourself, This changes nothing, and you’re right: you have always carried this fire.
I am there as you stand beside Branwell’s grave with Emily, who insists on walking to the church barefoot despite the torrential rain, a challenge to the elements to subsume her, to break her down and make her part of the land forever; as you exhort her to see the doctor, knowing that before the year is out, she will be dead, too; as you curse her silently for being always so close and yet ever out of reach to you.
I am there with you and Anne in Scarborough not long after, in your hand as it grips hers, as she urges you, Take courage, and even when you leave, I am with Anne still in St. Mary’s, overlooking the bay.
And I am there with Emily and Branwell amongst the slowly gathering crowd in the family vault at Michael and All Angels, which you will join soon enough yourself.
I am there when they lay you to rest, too.
I’m sorry there was nothing I could do to put a stop to your demise. She, the little uterine interloper, is to blame. The estrogen your body must produce to bear her body in your own is what causes you to twist again and again in sickness and disgorge your meals, the tepid tea and cool water you try to force down your throat—not me. But I cannot fault her for what will happen to you. She is weak, only flesh, like you. Though if I have a single regret, it is that I will never have the chance to see your face with my own eyes. I would very much like to be held by your hands and swaddled in your arms, to put my natal lips to your breast and touch your cheeks with my own corporeal parts.
But what I am is greater than your body or your desires or even the most lasting words you have consigned to paper. I’ve already lived for hundreds of years after your death. I am living now, in fact. I am, always, simultaneously. I am here and I am also later and before, when you are just a fetus yourself dreaming in your mother’s womb and when you are long dead. I am not just some resonant echo of your voice. I do not belong to you. You are mine.
You will never know me, but I breathed life into you, and without your ever realizing it, my voice is the voice that has always whispered to you when you fell quiet enough to listen. My voice, our voice, is the one you put down on the page, the one that was blocked out in leaded letters backwards and inked and bound.
I existed long before you came to be, and I made you what you are, and I have watched your flesh decay. When you are gone, I will survive, telegraphing your spirit forward through time, lingering in the corners of your home and the lonely dirt roads leading to the moors, whispering in the ears of others in your voice well after your last breath has been breathed out. I am the one who will always remember you. I am the one who will carry you on.
Carlea Holl-Jensen was born on a Wednesday. Since then, her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, Black Warrior Review, Necessary Fiction, and The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review. She is the co-editor of The Golden Key, an online journal of speculative writing, and co-host of the podcast Feminist Folklore. You can find her on Twitter @carleacassyl.