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Smoke From This Altar

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"In the slaughterhouse of love, they kill only the best, none of the weak or deformed. Don't run away from this dying. Whoever's not killed for love is dead meat."

—  Rumi





One-  

 

She daydreams of being interviewed and breathing.

 

Violet Baudelaire sits on the stage at the Eliade Cathedral, her peers at her feet. Beside her is a faceless interviewer, their voice as monotone as her third period instructor. The interviewer waves to her as if beholding some sacred specimen, says, “Soooo, oxygen. How’s that feel?”

Violet, honest, says, “Like having an alien in your chest.”

The crowd laughs merrily, as if such an idea made her an amusing outsider.

“Let’s see you breathe-” the interviewer says. “Go on. Lung up!”

So she does, long and slow, inhaling and exhaling to riotous applause.

This daydream works to keep her calm as the other orphans light their votive candles and the altar server lights his incense, the smoke hanging like doom in the dim cathedral. Envisioning her interview, imagining someone saying, “Keep breathing, slowly now, calm-” keeps her from focussing too heavily on the flicker of hundreds of candles, from the smoke and the flame. If she does she knows she will only see the charred remains of her childhood home and the faces of every family member she has lost because of it. And if she does this, she will panic, will feel lost and choked in all that residual grief.

And so, Violet dreams of breathing.

She tugs on her pleated skirt, or fiddles with her stockings, or winds and rewinds the ribbon around her wrist. She dreams her responses, “I can even hold my breath- and whistle- watch this-” and keeps calm, waiting.

And then Isadora arrives late to sermon, as she always does, to distract her.

“Hey,” The girl’s face is bright with a secret as she slides into the pew beside Violet. Her dark eyes are mischievous and smug, even as she tugs her wrinkled blazer from her satchel, as if completing her uniform would make it less obviously rumpled.

Plenty of other orphans had settled into the pews around them whilst Violet had been lost in her mind. The sanctuary was almost entirely full. From where she sat near the back, Violet could hear the dreaded voice of Carmelita Spats saying loudly, “I hear he was voted Most Handsome and Talented Individual Involved in Local Theatre by The Daily Punctilio !”

“Hi.” Violet says, grateful for her friend’s arrival. Seeing the smirk on Isadora’s face has a questioning smile gracing her own. “What’s that look? What secrets have you got?”

Isadora tilts her head as if about to deliver some grand joke. From the breast pocket of her blazer she withdraws a small, well-worn notebook that Violet feels she’s seen at least a thousand times.

Isadora clears her throat theatrically, flips to her latest page, and recites,

 

“Because of some actor and his theatre troupe,

I’ve been hearing nothing but giggling girls on loop.”

 

Violet frowns, confused. “A theatre troupe? Here? At Eliade?”

Isadora nods and glances around to their peers in distaste. Violet follows suit, eyeing the large crowd of orphans with their clean uniforms, their shiny hair, their bright faces painted with perfect cosmetics. It seems a stark contrast to how most of the young women had behaved months ago upon their arrival from Prufrock Preparatory School to Eliade. New orphans, she had learned, tended to disregard hygiene when battling constant grief.

“That’s what these girls are so excited about. Some actors are going to be working here for awhile. Apparently their leader is handsome, if you trust Carmelita.”

Violet, annoyed at even Carmelita’s named, glances away and mutters, “Absolutely not.”

“Smart of you.” Isadora says, just as venomous. Her eyes, dark and heavy with emotion, glance to Violet’s hands which rest gingerly in her lap. Before she can ask the latest details of her punishment, the lights dim even further in the sanctuary, leaving only a faint spotlight before the altar table and the glow from the candles. At this swell of darkness, the chatty room quiets. Isadora flips her notebook closed.

“Wait, where’s Duncan?” Violet whispers as the very back doors to the sanctuary open with a grating squeal. High-pitched gasps echo against the stained glass ceiling as several orphan girls turn to sneak peeks.

“He’s in his bed. Still sick. Eliade’s sending a doctor next week.”

Violet hums, concerned. “You think a doctor can help?”

“I hope.” Isadora says. “I’ve tried everything, even begging. We’re seventeen, nearly full adults, and he still refuses to leave his bed like a child. He’s been getting more of those threatening letters from his instructors saying grief isn’t an excusable-”

A sharp wail cuts through the room, high-pitched like the shriek of car tires before a crash.

“Quagmire! Baudelaire! Stop with that girlish chatter!” Vice Principal Nero barks as he lumbers past to the front of the room, his beady eyes red-rimmed, his violin perched in his arms, the obvious source of the offending noise.

Both Violet and Isadora had learned many months ago that arguing their innocence made no difference when it came to the swift punishment that the Eliade Cathedral was prone to giving.

“Sorry, sir.” They say in unison. In the startled silence, their voices carry, properly diminutive in the large, open space.

Sorry, sir. ” Nero parrots in his usual high-pitched mess of mockery. When no one responds, he comes to stand before the crowd of orphans at the edge of the altar. His violin is lowered in his grip and his stature is irritated, as if any time standing in front of an audience deserved devotion entirely to his heinous musical exploits.

“Orphans!” He barks. The sound carries harshly. Violet is relieved to notice she is not the only one to flinch. “I’m afraid there is going to be a change of schedule to your schoolwork regimes. As you know, due to the abnormal influx of tragedies, you orphans have been housed in the Eliade Cathedral of the Mysterium Tremendum Et Fascinans while our Prufrock Preparatory School undergoes extensive boarding extension. There is no date on when the renovations will be through, so for now you will be stuck here indefinitely. However, your instructors are getting fed up with the long hike from the school to the cathedral, and they’ve gone on a strike to have one extra free day to themselves. So, Wednesdays will furthermore be used at your leisure- which means on Tuesday you will receive lots of busywork.”

A small titter of distaste rose through the general crowd of orphans.

“Also,” Nero says, louder than before. “We have some extremely talented visitors, who are not as talented as me, that you will be seeing throughout the place. Olaf!”

At the name, a small gathering of people emerge from the back door and trudge their way to the front of the room. Chatters rise from the orphans like an audience’s excitement just before a big show.

Hello, hello, hellooooo… ” A loud voice purrs as the crowd struts to the front. “At least, that’s what the Count would say, if he were here.”

A tall, lanky man with hooks for hands and a multitude of facial scars leads the strange Troupe. He is dressed in a pinstriped button-up and black pants, with large sunglasses covering his eyes even in the dim sanctuary. The troupe trailing behind him seems dressed for the theatre, each person bedecked in odd costumes. One tall bald man wears a tracksuit and a turban, while a different person of indeterminate gender wears a tight pink skirt, a blonde wig, and glasses. Two white-faced women take up the back of the crowd dressed as movie theatre concierges.

The man in the lead turns to face the crowd of orphans and smiles.

“The Count regrets to inform the orphans that he is not able to attend this meeting because he didn’t want to come. In any case, I am Fernald and this is the rest of his theatre Troupe!”

Each person bows at the same moment as if they had rehearsed it extensively.

Nero frowns at the oddly-dressed gathering of actors before addressing the orphans. “Anyway, Count Olaf and his Troupe will be using the basement theatre which, reminder , is strictly off-limits to you orphans!” The man says, wagging a fat finger.

At this, Violet and Isadora share a hesitant glance, the same idea passing unspoken between them. Better be careful.

“And if you’re lucky, Count Olaf has agreed to give us a preview of his play. He will be visiting classrooms around this institution to perform. If you’re lucky. ” Nero grimaces as if disgusted to be holding the attention of so many orphans and speaking to them civilly.

He looks to Fernald and says, “Do you know when that will be?”

“Er, I’m not sure actually,” The man says, scratching his chin with a hook. “You’ll have to ask him. Also, hey, what religion is this place for? Like, what god?”

Clearly thrown off course, Nero claps his hands together and sighs. Finally, he says wearily, “You can worship whatever beast you’d like here at Eliade. Whatever hierophany you seek, you can find within these walls. In any case, orphans, stay out of the theatre. Do not be alarmed if you see strange individuals in costumes wandering around. And do not show up for classes on Wednesdays. Understood?”

“Yes, Vice Principal Nero.” The entire congregation responds at once in the same bland tone.

“Now I obviously need to meet this Count, so my performance for this evening will be canceled. Now get out of here.” He waves a hand to the rows of orphans then turns to talk quietly with Fernald. The orphans waste no time scrambling to get their bags and hurry from the sanctuary in fear that Nero would change his mind and reassemble them for a concert.

“How lucky that the Count cancels Nero’s performance by not showing up.” Violet says as she follows Isadora down their pew.

“How lucky,” Isadora mutters, sounding unsure. Once they shuffle through the pew, she turns to regard Violet sadly, glancing from her face to the mess of gauze looped thick around her knuckles. “You’re still bleeding. What was it for today?”

Violet blushes, embarrassed and ashamed at the brutality obvious on her body.

“She hid Remora’s planner underneath my pillow, then said I stole it. Naturally, Nero didn’t listen and I got ten cuts with the cane. Good start to my morning.” Violet mutters sarcastically, trying to swallow her shame. “I wish I knew what her angle was. Why she’s singled me out.”

Isadora, her eyes heavy with pity, shrugs. “How many times has she framed you for stealing from the Cathedral? Four?”

“Three.” Violet corrects, wincing at the memories of Nero and hot blood dripping sticky down her palms and into the sleeves of her Prufrock blazer. “If only she was kind enough to let the others heal before she did it again. Now they won’t stop bleeding.”

She flexes her knuckles and sighs in frustration when a new small dot of red seeps into the thick gauze.

“Should we go to your place?” Isadora asks quietly as they shuffle into the long line of orphans fleeing from the sanctuary.

Somewhere, they can hear Carmelita shouting, “I’m going to see the Count first and then he’s going to be the Most Handsome and Talented Individual Involved in Being My Boyfriend!”

Violet shakes her head. She turns, seeing Nero and the rest of the theatre troupe exit towards the hall behind the altar’s small stage. Light red as wine spills into the sanctuary the moment Nero cracks the door. Beyond it, Violet can see only blackness and the distant glow of an exit sign as the Troupe trudges single file into the dark.

“No,” she says regretfully, “Nero’s probably going to find the Count in the basement theatre now. There’s no way we could sneak past them. I’ll have to go tomorrow night.”

Beside her, Isadora winces as if she had stepped on something sharp.  “I promised Duncan I’d tutor him tomorrow since he’s missed so many classes. Remora’s short story theme for this semester has been about why individualism and free thought are worthy of jail time. I think some of those bananas he eats constantly are laced with something. Either way, Duncan’s got at least three essays to write.” Isadora sighs, rubbing her face wearily as they pass through the enormous wooden doors of the sanctuary and into the heart of Eliade.

To their left shine Eliade’s front doors painted white as salvation, the panes decorated with the same stained glass in the ceiling of the sanctuary. On one door a choppy collection of colors depict a bottomless sea in deep blues and purples and black. The other pane shows a skyline shimmering with the colors of young girls, all vicious little pinks. Carved into the space above the door are the same words the Cathedral was named after: mysterium tremendum et fascinans . Nearly every time Violet reads it she imagines Klaus defining it like a reflex, like compulsion, “A mystery before which man both trembles and is fascinated, attracted and repelled. Popularized by Rudolf Otto as a concept of God. Why do you think they would name this place after Mircea Eliade then use Otto’s philosophies, Violet?”

To their right, a winding staircase leads up into the orphans’ quarters then further still to the instructing rooms, the libraries, the study rooms, the washrooms, the large clock tower. Overall, the institution is vast and seemingly expansive. Many times Violet has hurried through the halls hoping to avoid Carmelita only to find a room she had never before noticed. Eliade was one mystery she could never fully fathom.

You’ve got at least three essays to write then, you mean. You know I love when you can come with me, but I don’t really think this can wait until tomorrow. I’ve gone through a whole roll of gauze just this week.” Violet mutters as they turn and stomp the cramped stone stairway. She eyes the growing bloom of red atop her knuckles against the handrail, already feeling the new scabs split the more she moves. “I’m not sure when Carmelita’s going to mess with me again and I need these healed as fast as possible. Can’t afford to wait.”

Isadora sighs as they reach the top of the stairs where the hall branches between orphaned boys’ and girls’ quarters. She flicks her long hair over her shoulder and cocks her hip, appearing aggressive and collected all at once.

“Wish we could get her back. She’s got it coming.” She eyes Violet’s face with pursed lips, as if she were ready to shout and defend at the first sign of refusal to fight fire with fire.

“This will end somehow. Maybe Nero will break my knuckles and send me to the hospital and we can get the police involved.” Violet says, knowing the attempt at optimism was misplaced, yet also knowing there was absolutely nothing she could do. Even in Eliade, standing before her best friend, she was powerless against reality.

Isadora glares at her, dissatisfied. Violet ignores this, instead glancing down the long hall that led to the cool safety of her bedroom. “Either way, go visit Duncan. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”

That breaks the dissatisfaction. Instead it is replaced with exhaustion, far too much, Violet thinks, for any young woman to tolerate yet she feels it as intimately as Isadora- that weariness like another skin.

“I’m sure he won’t be happy to hear about your morning. He goes crazy sitting in that bed all day, and hearing about your issues just makes him want to run out and give Carmelita swift and unruly justice. But you’re right. He needs me to write those essays. I’ll meet you in the Hall for dinner.”

“Alright. Oh, and-” Violet meets her eyes, hoping to appear reassuring and grateful. “I won’t tell Duncan I know about that book until he’s the one who mentions it to me.”

Isadora smiles but it is bitter at the edges. “Thank you. I know he won’t be happy with my meddling, but… Okay. Next time we go to your place, we’ll think of someway to get him to show it to you. Maybe before his doctor’s visit? I don’t know. We can plan more at dinner, yeah?” Isadora has already turned her back and trotted down the hall by the time she finishes her sentence. Violet glances down to the gauze growing red and worries her bottom lip as she walks to her room, concerned for her wounds and the constant sting of them.

She reaches her door, a little plaque by the knob gleaming ROOM THIRTEEN , and hurries inside. In the six months Violet has lived within Eliade, her bedroom has remained as bleak and cramped as when she arrived. She has not taped photographs or newspaper clippings or letters on the walls like her peers, has not stitched blossoms into her bed sheets or snuck in candles from the many supply closets off the sanctuary. Instead, she lives in a barren bedroom, dreaming of the moment she can sneak downstairs to take centerstage.

Unwilling to be left with her thoughts in the dim, quiet room, Violet toes her shoes from her feet, wriggles the skirt from her hips so it drops flat to the floor, tosses her blazer, and crawls into bed. She hopes that her friends are there to welcome her at dinner and, if she must dream, that it is devoid of fire and ash.

Violet settles into her starched sheets, closes her eyes, and imagines herself standing before the altar, right where the Count’s Troupe had been, breathing to unruly applause.