But before you go, I hope you'll enjoy my little entry in The Portrait Flash Fiction challenge:
“And here we have our most intriguing display.” The plump, gray haired woman stopped in front of a spindle legged table which stood in the middle of the traditional southern sitting room. “As you can see, this portrait is quite old. Though there isn’t a date on the image itself, experts have estimated that this picture was taken between 1840 and 1850.”
I stared at the sepia image of the man in the oval frame, which was carefully protected by a thick glass box. It was surrounded by miniature skeletons, probably made in Taiwan, I thought with a sigh, but I supposed they gave the display the creepy feel that the D’Arnoult House advertised.
“Who…who is he?” The tiny man with a bald spot scooted closer and aimed his camera.
The tour guide gave a wide smile and lowered her voice, as if she were sharing a great, dark secret. “Some say he was the lover of Mrs. Francois D’Arnoult. Supposedly he was a handsome young man, educated, but from a working class family. It’s said he swept the young D’Arnoult bride off her feet, and they fell madly in love with each other. When her husband, Mr. D’Arnoult, found out, he used his influence within the more…unsavory parts of the community to curse him. He took this picture and kept it displayed so his wife could see it every day to remind her of what would happen should she stray again.”
A wide eyed young lady fluttered a hand at her chest and asked, “But what happened to him? The young man, I mean.”
“No one knows for sure. Some say he was taken in by the very woman who cursed him. Some say he ran off into the swamp and was killed. Still others say he snuck back here one night, where he committed suicide in the carriage house.” The older woman leaned in, her face full of the joy of the macabre. “Whatever happened, many of our visitors swear they still see him on these very grounds, searching for the woman he loves.”
That elicited romantic sighs from some, skeptic chuckles from others, but all seemed to enjoy the story. I kept my mouth tight, rolling my lips together to keep from speaking. As the tour guide ushered the group out of the small drawing room and into the study, I stayed behind. When I was completely alone I stepped closer to the picture, my heart pounding with too many emotions to name.
“Hello, Grandfather Fossier.” My words were soft, a prayer spoken in the sanctity of the tiny room.
He didn’t speak back, only stared at me with sightless eyes. Still, I felt as if he were there, watching, relieved to be recognized at long last. My great-great grandfather. The missing link of my genealogy. The man who’d only been a first name for too many generations. Here he was, finally, in one of the only two images that survived of him.
The protrusions on his face were like bone spikes; the jagged teeth and hugely yawning jaw were sadly terrifying. Some mutated form of Exostoses? A curse from a Voodoo Priestess? No one knew; likely no one would ever find out. It had never occurred again in our family history.
I had been researching my family history two years before and had come across the name Phillipe, no surname; it had intrigued me. No one had heard of him, not my mother or uncles or aunts. I searched family and public records, and as the days turned into weeks, and weeks to months, I was frustrated and not a little angry with the blank results. Then I found two clues. First was an entry in my great grandmother’s diary written on the night before her wedding. She spoke of her real father coming to see her, a man who wore a low brimmed hat and scarf surrounding his face. He told her she was as beautiful as her mother, and was glad the Fossier curse hadn’t touched her. The next day I closeted myself in my mother’s attic and began digging through all the old family keepsakes. And there they were, a small pile of ribbon tied letters, carefully preserved in a sealed bag, wrapped tenderly in a vintage wedding dress. Obviously my grandmother had found these, but had never revealed any of the truth.
With a surname as well as a town name, I searched again. It wasn’t so hard this time; there were very few records of my great-great grandfather. His birth record in Baton Rouge; his death record in New Orleans. He had never served in the Civil War. Most likely they would never have taken him. There was no record of employment, no records of medical care, no records of marriage or children.
I knew he had been truly happy once, when he’d been in love with my Great-Great Grandmother Sophia. The tour guide’s story was a twisted version of the truth, of which I knew the real answers. Sophia and Phillipe had been lovers, she from an influential family, he from a poor one. When she found herself pregnant, Phillipe had known she couldn’t be with him, and so he had walked away after making plans with the gracious and rich Monsieur D’Arnoult, whom had been Phillipe’s patron. D’Arnoult had married Sophia knowing she was carrying Phillipe’s child. And Francois had loved that child as his own, just as he’d cared for both Sophia and Phillipe. There had been no curse. There had been no torrid adultery. There had only been love and friendship, and, many generations later, my children had come from that. Because of their sacrifice, I felt it was only right to abide by their wishes. I would keep their secret. But I would visit, and when my children were old enough, I would share the story with them.
I kissed my fingertips, rested them for a moment on the glass display. “Thank you grandfather. I’ll come back next week.”
I left the old antebellum house quietly, holding myself a little straighter, a little prouder, as I shut the door on the chattering of the tour guide.