Porcelain Tales: the Countess

In my house, there is a collection of porcelain dolls that have been painted to appear grotesque, terrifying, or simply creepy. The following stories are inspired by each of these dolls.

 

I should have been grateful to be in the Countess’ employment. I wanted to be grateful. But the truth was, I’d never been more terrified about anything in all my life.

Mother, of course, thought I was being silly.

“When I was a girl, it was a rare privilege to be servant to a Countess, you know, and it’s a good job, by all accounts. You get some decent money to send back home. You maintain a bit of your dignity, unlike those godless whores selling themselves on the street. Really, you should be grateful, my girl.”

“But how can it be a rare privilege,” I returned timidly, “if the Countess already employs half the maidens in the village?”

Mother didn’t have an answer to that. She just muttered something about me being ungrateful and then made it clear that I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I was going, and there was to be no further discussion.

And maybe I wouldn’t be so concerned, if it wasn’t for the rumours that I heard in the village. I didn’t mean to hear them, of course – Mother said that they were a dirty thing to hear. Lies, all of them, all meant to slander a woman who had been nothing but good to us. But, of course, one can’t help but hear things when they’re said so often.

“Young Miss. Emilie was in the Countess’ employment,” said one girl in the market, as I was simply passing through to buy some cloth, “and she hasn’t been heard from since she left!”

“I’m sure she’s just busy with her duties,” said the perfectly reasonable woman to whom she was talking. “The Countess is a busy woman, and I’m sure she keeps her servants just the same.”

“Then why hasn’t she so much as written to her family? Why is their every inquiry about her met with silence and evasion?”

“Well, they’re still being paid for her service, aren’t they?”

“Last I heard, they were.”

“Then I’m sure that everything’s fine. Like I said, the Countess is a busy woman.”

Miss. Emilie wasn’t the only girl to leave for the Countess’ service and never come back though. It had become something of a cliche in our village, to the point that some referred to the invitation for service as “the kiss of death”. Mother didn’t believe any of that though. When I received my invitation, Mother was ecstatic.

And so when the Countess’ carriage came for me, I was all ready to go. My best gowns were packed away (“you need to make a good impression on the Countess,” Mother said), and I hesitated only long enough to kiss Mother and Father and young Robert goodbye. My hands trembled all the while, though, and I hoped beyond anything that I saw them again.

The carriage was driven by an old gentleman with a rather kindly face, who recognized my fear with a reassuring smile. He didn’t say much, but he took me to the secluded mansion of the Countess without trouble, driving through hills and forests to reach it. Once we arrived, I was greeted by a woman with a stern, hard face – Mrs. MacDonald, she called herself, and I was to report to her for my duties until I was told otherwise. I didn’t really mind that arrangement, to be honest. As much as Mrs. MacDonald was unfamiliar and her voice joyless and strict, at least she wasn’t the Countess. At least, from her, I had nothing to fear.

My first few weeks in the mansion passed surprisingly uneventfully. I was put up in a room with three other girls – all of them young and agreeable. I received more letters from Mother than I had expected, and I was diligent in writing back to her as often as possible. My duties were simple, but time-consuming enough that I didn’t really have a chance to think about how strange everything was, or about how much I missed everyone back home. I might even have described myself as ‘happy’ during those first few weeks – and not once did I so much as see the Countess.

The Countess was a very busy woman, I quickly discovered – she worked all through the day, locked away in her room where no one was ever to disturb her. And then at night, she had herself dressed nicely by a few select servants (among them was Mrs. MacDonald), and then she went out, and she did not return until just before sunrise. At first, I was relieved by her schedule, because it meant that at no point would our paths cross, but after a while, I began to wonder about it. On one occasion, I even grew curious enough to ask Mrs. MacDonald what the Countess was like.

“Like no one you’ve ever met before, or will ever meet again,” Mrs. MacDonald admitted (that was the first time I had ever heard her praise anyone, and it caught by a bit off guard). “She’s a beautiful woman, and if you ever lay eyes on her, you can count yourself among God’s most fortunate creatures.”

I doubted that very much, but still, I couldn’t deny that there was something intriguing about the Countess. Just not intriguing enough to actually seek her out.

Then, a good six weeks into my service, Mrs. MacDonald charged me with a new task: I was to help the Countess get dressed for her evening.

I protested at first, but like Mother, Mrs. MacDonald made it very clear that I had no choice in the matter. Still, she seemed just as nervous to send me into the Countess’ chamber as I was to go in, and she went over every rule that I was to follow as though preparing me for battle.

“The Countess probably won’t notice you there,” Mrs. MacDonald said hurriedly. “Do not take offence to that – she has a lot of servants, and you’re only one. Chances are, you’ll be tasked with brushing out her hair. It sounds like an easy enough job, but it’s not. You need to do so with extreme caution. Do not run the brush through too fast, but do not go so slow that you bore her either. Do not make a big fuss out of matts or tangles, lest you cause offence. And most importantly of all, do not pull her hair. She gets most upset if you pull her hair.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’ll she do?”

Mrs. MacDonald gave me no answer to that.

By the time that I made it into the Countess’ chamber, I found that I was again trembling with nerves. I didn’t want to see her – I knew that now. I had been perfectly satisfied with wondering. Yet, there she was, seated on a plush stool before a large, golden vanity, already being attended by a small crowd of servants. The Countess of whom I had heard so much about.

I suppose it would be expected of me to say that she didn’t live up to expectation. Considering how everyone spoke of her, she should have been too short, or too fat, or her nose should have been sort of funny. She should have been flawed, somehow, in a way that nobody thought to mention. But she wasn’t. In fact, not only did she live up to expectation – she exceeded it entirely. Truly, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, or will ever see again, with hair of bright, blood red tumbling all the way down to her waist, and skin so pale that it honestly reminded me of snow. There was a slight haughtiness in her face, perhaps, but she had earned the right to wear it. The very sight of her made me forget what I had come there to do, and it wasn’t until another of the servants placed a brush in my hand did I remember.

My every movement was clumsy – I tripped on my way to the Countess’ side, my hands got in the way of the other girls attending her, my brush strokes were a bit too hard, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t look away from the vanity, where the Countess’ image was reflected in the glass like a work of art. She was so beautiful, so perfect. How had I known what happiness was before her? How had I found the strength to rise out of bed, to continue with my life, without the promise of seeing her face?

Every once in a while, the Countess barked orders at the other girls, but not at me. Me, she ignored – at first, anyway. Truth be told, I was satisfied with being ignored, because if the mere image of her was enough to reduce me to such a clumsy fool, then what would speaking to her do? And then I noticed the dark eyes reflected in the mirror dart quickly in my direction, and even before the butterflies in my stomach had time to settle, she spoke in a slow, deep drawl.

“You’re new,” she said, speaking with an accent that I had never heard before and could not place (not that I knew much about foreign lands, anyway). “What’s your name?”

I obediently told her, stuttering awkwardly over it as though it were my first time speaking it.

“Pretty name,” she said with a small, oddly knowing smile, her dark eye running the full length of my image reflected in the mirror. “Pretty name for a pretty girl.”

She didn’t say anything more to me after that, but I was invited again to help her dress the following night, and every night after that, too. I gathered from Mrs. MacDonald that that was a rare privilege – most of the girls who dressed her did not do so regularly, but were invited up every once in a while as a treat.

At first, the Countess acknowledged me no more than anyone else, commenting only on how ‘pretty’ I was when her eye did fall on me. After a while, she then started to ask me questions about myself – simple things, like who Father was and what he did, what family I had back at home, if I was enjoying my work in the mansion. I answered them all eagerly, my voice trembling more than I’d care to admit, but she never laughed at my nerves. If anything, she seemed to find them endearing, smiling so sweetly at me while I spoke.

It took me a long time to get comfortable enough to ask her questions, but I wanted to. More than anything, I wanted to get to know her, to speak to her as an equal, to understand her the way that no other servant did. And so once day, although the butterflies in my stomach raged so desperately that I thought they might tear me open, I decided that I would.

“Where do you come from?” I asked her, my voice small and timid.

The Countess’ dark eyes shot in my direction almost cruelly, and I would have shrunk back if I could. She didn’t seem to want to answer my question, and I was prepared to accept silence, when suddenly she said, “a long way from here, pretty girl.”

“Do you ever miss it?” I asked.

Another servant was brushing the Countess’ hair on the other side. She was a new girl, and I could tell she wasn’t doing a very good job – tugging a bit too tightly, because the Countess kept squirming. With a brief glare in the new girl’s direction, the Countess answered me: “desperately.”

“Why don’t you go ba-”

“Stupid girl!” the Countess screamed suddenly, erupting to her feet. At first, I thought she was talking to me, and I fell backward against the ground in my fear. Yet, it was to the new girl that the Countess directed her cruel, cold glare. “You nearly pulled my hair clean out!”

The girl was frightened: she couldn’t have been older than fourteen, standing there small and trembling beneath the Countess’ shadow. “I-I-I’m sorry, mistress,” she squeaked out, staring up at her with eyes so wide that they might have rolled right out of her skull. “It w-won’t happen again, I prom-”

Out!” the Countess screamed. “Everybody out!”

I didn’t move at first, frozen against the floor with my eyes on the Countess – the beautiful, perfect, kind Countess who had so suddenly become so terrible. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t accept it.

“You too, pretty girl,” the Countess said in a low growl, and it was then that I realized that I was the last remaining servant in the room – with the exception, of course, of the new girl, standing there trembling, whimpering, awaiting my leave so that she could receive her due punishment. I was struck with an urge to remain, to help that poor girl however I could, but I couldn’t deny the Countess. I rose to my shaky feet and left the room, closing the door behind me – slowly, so that I could keep my eye on the new girl as long as possible.

I didn’t see her again after that.

I tried to ask around, to find out what happened to her. The new girls didn’t know, though, and the older servants only shrugged me off, mumbling the same spiel, each and every one of them: “the same thing that happens to all of them.” They wouldn’t elaborate on what that was, though, and for the first time since I had laid eyes on the Countess, I found myself reminded of the rumours I had heard before coming here, of the girls who simply went missing. Had the same thing happened to her? What had the Countess done to her?

It struck me suddenly just how little I knew about my beloved Countess. She was beautiful, yes, but that did not mean that she wasn’t capable of causing harm. Maybe she hurt these girls. Maybe she did something inexcusable, simply because she could – because these girls had been placed in her care, and she could do with them as she wished. Of course, I didn’t know any of that for sure, but no amount of logic could make those thoughts leave my mind.

That night, I asked Mrs. MacDonald to tell the Countess that I was too ill to dress her, and Mrs. MacDonald returned with the Countess’ request to see me personally. The news struck me hard, like a physical blow to the gut. This was most unusual, I knew – the Countess never asked to see servants alone. If she was asking it, then I must have done something terrible to upset her. She was going to kill me, I knew that now. Without a doubt, I would soon be among the missing girls.

I should have run away, of course, but where would I go? If the Countess knew that I had guessed her secret, then who knew what she would do to silence me? She might hunt me down to the ends of the earth – or, worse, go after my family! I considered writing a letter to Mother instead, explaining the situation – but, no. That would be just as fruitless. Who would believe me? And even if they did, what could they do? No, it would be best for me to face my fate all on my own. Face it, and be done with it.

When I came to the Countess’ chamber, I found her seated, as always, at her vanity, but the room felt eerily large and barren with only her and I in it. The door fell shut with an echoing bang, and the Countess’ eyes met my image in the mirror.

“Pretty girl,” she greeted me with a friendly smile. “Why are you so nervous, pretty girl?”

“I’m not nervous,” I said, and she gave a polite laugh in response. Of course she did – my every movement betrayed my feelings. My inability to draw too far from the door, to approach her as I usually did, it all gave me away quite clearly.

“I can hear your heart from here, pretty girl. I know you’re nervous,” the Countess said.

“Hear my-”

“Do I frighten you?”

I shook my head immediately, but I don’t think she believed that either.

“You can tell me the truth, pretty girl. We’re all alone here. Away from everything in this world – away from expectations and titles, away from humanity and its rules. It’s just you and me, and you can be honest with me. So tell me, and be as frank as you need: do I frighten you?”

Honesty did not come naturally to me, especially not with the Countess. My every instinct told me to shake my head again, but for fear of angering her, I nodded instead.

“Why?” the Countess asked. “Is it because of how I yelled at that girl?”

“Where is she?” I asked, and then, because my voice came out much too small the first time, “what did you do to her?”

“I killed her, of course,” the Countess said, so calmly and so casually that I didn’t understand at first. “I cut open her neck and I drank down her life’s blood. I wish it hadn’t had to happen, but if it hadn’t been her, then it would have been somebody else. Perhaps somebody less deserving.”

I didn’t know what to say. She had said it so quickly, so easily, that it almost didn’t seem to be important. The loss of a young girl’s life wasn’t important. That young girl, that child with a mother, father, siblings most likely, a family to provide for, wasn’t important.

“Her family will continue receiving payment from me, of course,” the Countess said then, as though she had read my mind. “I find that it’s the easiest way to keep them from asking questions. So long as they keep getting money, they assume everything’s just fine.”

“But it’s not,” I said, almost numbly. “You killed her…”

The Countess’ reflection adopted that oddly knowing smile of hers, just before she rose to her feet. She was so tall, I noticed then. I had never realized she was so tall before…

“Does that frighten you, pretty girl?” the Countess asked again, closing the distance between me and her, coming so close that I could smell her sweet perfumes and feel the absence of heat that came off of her.

“No,” I said, and I was startled to realize that that was the truth. “Unless… unless you plan to kill me too, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t,” the Countess said, taking my hair in her slender, pale hand as she walked around me, sweeping it back over my shoulder. “Not you. You’re too pretty to kill – it would be a waste.”

“Was Mrs. MacDonald too pretty to kill?” I asked. “Were the rest of the servants who have been serving you all these years too pretty to kill?”

“Are you jealous?” the Countess asked, and there was a laugh in her voice. She was mocking me, and for whatever reason, the thought of that thrilled me.

“If it helps,” the Countess added, sidling up so close against me that I could feel her pressing against my back, “you’re prettier even than them. Too pretty to kill. Too pretty to age. Too pretty to let live.”

“What options does that leave me then, mistress?” I asked.

“Only one, my pretty little companion.”

I felt her teeth slide into my throat then, felt the intense cold that overcame my limbs as my blood filled her mouth, and I let it all happen. In all of this, I at last had a choice, and I chose her.

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