Casket Suite

By James Dorr

The Flavor of the Jest

Life, or in her case perhaps “unlife,” was not without its little jokes, Aimée reflected.  Many of the women she now considered her sisters had parents who, like all respectable bourgeois will, complained the king’s taxes were too high.  Yet she and her fellow “casket girls” — filles à les caissettes as they had been called for the little sea chests they had been given for their belongings — were now in New Orleans because of Louis XV’s generosity, most of them hoping for new and better lives.  They were to marry the rich and successful, starting families to insure the permanence of this new colony, with only one, Aimée herself, who had had to flee France.  There had been persecution of those of her kind.  

Yet who longed to return.  

Fate was fate, however, and one must play the cards one was dealt, yes?  She had murdered a girl in Le Havre for her papers, and then on the voyage, if one needed blood, were there not healthy young woman aplenty pressed alongside her in the ship’s hold?  And if one should make of them “sisters,” not corpses. . . .  

Then, irony upon irony, they were now housed in an Ursuline convent until they should become brides, guests of a far different kind of sisterhood.  Housed and accepted, so much so that when some of them complained of the sun, as they slowly became themselves full-fledged vampiresses, the nuns immediately hired men to construct shutters for the windows of their third-floor quarters — shutters that remain there to this day.   

It was here Aimée had her change of mind.  Admiring a carpenter for his ruddy, blood-filled physique, she had lured him into their attic’s shadows and had her fill of him.  But, oh, the flavor!  It was like a fine wine, yet new in its brashness, not sweet like those of her sister filles, but with a tang, as if from some trace of vinegar.  Surprising and fresh, a taste of robustness. 

This was not a man she would marry, of course.  For that higher birth would be required, not to mention money.  But marriage vows need not constrain one’s dining habits.  Nor must one long only, she realized now, for what was left behind.  

No, Aimée considered, perhaps even she would learn to love her new américaine home. 

A Surfeit of Poe

They were the casket girls, les filles à les caissettes, having come to New Orleans in 1728, turned into vampires by one of their number, the one named Aimée.  They had come to be married, sent by none other than King Louis XV himself, and had married well, amassing from their husbands wealth and power, exchanging the old for new as these first husbands aged and died, and so had formed an exclusive club.  They did work for charity, founding a hospital, helping patients who suffered from bad blood — cupping as was the medical practice of the day, and never mind what happened to the blood then.  And they held regular meetings among themselves in which they discussed the events of the world, and other such things that they found of interest.   .  

So it was that Yvonne had returned from France, from a recent visit, younger looking and rather more stylish than when she had left.  This was a thing they did, going to France, then claiming now that they were their own daughters — how else to explain a perpetual youth?  And having left, often, as a grieving widow, now back on the prowl to obtain a new husband, not to mention new riches and comfort, for if one was to be all but immortal, better to spend one’s time wealthy than poor.  

And they spent their time learning, some of them anyway.  Yvonne, for instance, usually the quiet one, the dreamer, the poet who kept things in her head, churning and churning until they were ready to be put on paper.  But this time pulling a book from her luggage, in French of course, Histoires Extraordinaires.  “It is from an up and coming young writer, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire,” she said.  “But the thing is, it is not written by him.”  

“Then why do you have it?” Claudette asked, laughing.  She, the literal-minded one, was always ready for a joke as well.  

“It was given to me,” Yvonne said.  “Charles — that is, Monsieur Baudelaire — when he heard I was leaving for New Orleans, said they were translations he had made of our American poet, Edgar Allan Poe.  He thought they were quite good, the originals, that is, though others have praised the translations too.”  

“But these are not poems,” Claudette, who had taken the book and now held it up, said.  “As you see they are stories, not poetry at all.”  

“But did he not write ‘Le Corbeau‘?” Lo asked.  She had been back to France the decade before, and was always the most glamorous of them all.  “I mean, I am not so much a reader myself, but Aimée has a copy.  She showed it to me once.  And stories as well, but they all seemed so sad, about people who had bad things happen to them.”  

“‘The Raven,’ yes,” Aimée said.  “Poe wrote the poem not that long before his death.  It is popular still.”     

“Yes, and for the stories I have read Aimée’s book before too, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque,” Claudette said, smiling.  “For myself I’ve enjoyed them, though certainly they are often dark.  But then, we are too, aren’t we?”  

“And now they can be read also in France,” Yvonne said.  She envied this Poe — Baudelaire as well, although not always agreeing with all his sentiments.  But the way both of them had with words, the one in English, the other Français.  And as for “Le Corbeau,” she tried to remember.  Something Poe himself had written. . . .     

But Lo interrupted.  “Yes,” she said, “both Poe and we are ‘dark.’  And no doubt this Baudelaire as well.  But then why do they not write stories about us?  If that were the case, perhaps I would enjoy them more.”  Hélène and several others who had not spoken yet nodded.    

“Well,” Claudette offered, “there may be one or two — such as ‘Ligeia.’  It’s one Baudelaire has in his book too.”  

“But it’s not,” Lo protested.  “That is, he has it backward. Yes, there is a woman who will live forever, but as a loose spirit who seeks new bodies.  While we retain our bodies and souls too, as long as we wish them.” 

“Symbolically, though,” Aimée said, “is not ‘The Raven’ a sort of a vampire?  He takes all hope from him, Poe, perhaps, who is speaking through the poem, even the hope of eternal rest.”  She looked up from the copy of Baudelaire’s book, which she had now been leafing through.  “That is, I would hope we don’t always go that far, but. . . .”  

Now Yvonne remembered it, practically word for word, almost exactly ten years before in Graham’s Magazine, Poe’s essay on how he had written “The Raven.”  “Listen,” she said, “this is how he described it.  Poe himself, and on poetry in general.  ‘Of all melancholy topics, what is the most melancholy?’  His answer was ‘Death.’  ‘And when,’ he asked, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’    

“This is what Poe said:  ‘When it most closely allies itself with beauty.  The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’  Perhaps he did not realize that after death some of us continue.  But we are the undead, then, are we not?”  

Claudette laughed out loud.  “Yes.  Beautiful, dead, and now living again.  So, by his own words, the best of this Poe’s work was written about us.”  

Aimée looked up again.  She had not heard this theory before, but she nodded and smiled.

Reflections

Of all the superstitions about vampires, the one that bothered Lo the most was the one about mirrors.  That vampires can’t see their own reflections.  But vampires were beautiful, having become such at the most alluring time of their lives, at least the ones that people called les filles à les cassettes, the casket girls who had come to New Orleans in 1728, and Lo was the one who was the most attractive.  But how could she be sure, were it not for her viewing herself in a mirror?  

Others could tell her, of course, and some did.  Especially men.  But how could she be sure they told the truth if she couldn’t see what they saw for herself?  And not to mention the use of a mirror for putting on makeup, for even a natural beauty can use the enhancement of art.  But without her mirror. . . .  

Well some of her fellow filles, behind her back, of course, whispered among themselves that she was shallow.  That she cared only for beauty and fashion, and how the latter could add to the former if one had taste — which she certainly had.  And again her mirror helped underscore that.  

She might add, too, that they all required this — a personal beauty, especially as recognized by men.  Had they not, after all, been sent to New Orleans by King Louis XV himself, especially to marry the burgeoning colony’s most influential men?  To induce them to take roots there and raise families, and never mind that Lo and her sisters, as vampires, were sterile.  Sisters, that is, in a metaphorical sense — that’s the term her more poetically minded fellow fille, Yvonne, would use — they having in common that they had all been “turned” by their mentor, Aimée, the one who had been a vampiress already before their voyage.  Who then had shared that blessing with them, with Lo herself being one of the first, and as for sterility, men did take mistresses, even if married — even if married to beautiful women.  And vampires had ways to induce these rivals . . . well, in short for babies to be produced and identified as the vampire-wife’s own.  

But here was the thing.  If vampire-wives’ jobs  were, as it were, to gain the most wealthy and powerful as husbands — becoming themselves New Orleans’s most influential women — they must be beautiful.  They must serve as examples for all the city’s more common women, and in their own company, it stood to reason, one of them must also be the most beautiful.  One for her fellow filles to strive after, to better their chances for nailing their own men.   

If it was for Lo to bear this burden, she cheerfully took it on.  After all, les filles had formed a sorority, specializing in charitable works, which husbands could be induced to make substantial donations to, even if when they found themselves aging and thinking of wills, they might be inclined to be overly generous to their children.  For husbands did age, even if other men vampires dealt with might have shorter life spans.  

But to the point, for Lo to serve as an ideal of beauty for her fellow filles, this was in itself a charitable act, yes?   But for her to do so, she must have her mirror! 

Not only that, it was a special mirror.  She, like her fellows, had grown up squinting into small, tarnished ovals of once-shiny metal, or if their families had had enough money, perhaps a mirror made of Venetian glass backed with tin.  Smoky and dark.  But it was in 1835 that the German chemist, von Liebig, discovered a way to adhere metallic silver to glass — the silver-backed mirror!  Who said people like Lo failed to appreciate science?  And Lo had a husband who, at that time, had connections with Germany, even before this Justus Liebig had been made a baron, and so she was first in New Orleans to have one — and her unlife was changed!  

Or maybe, really, not completely changed.  But now she could be sure, what she saw was beautiful — maybe with a little touch-up here or there, an experiment with a new coiffure, but the basics were in place.  She had in her dressing room now what was really three mirrors, as tall as she was herself, hinged in a way that she could see even her own back reflected.  It was the Ancient Greeks, was it not, who said “know thyself,” and the silver-backed mirror, for vampires as well as for anyone else, was a tool of self-knowledge.  

Which brought up another bête noire of hers.  The superstition that vampires, somehow, were supposed to fear silver.  So maybe that was supposed to create the problem with mirrors?  The thing about problems with vampires’ reflections?  But Lo loved mirrors.  Just as she loved, and personified, beauty.  For beauty could hide things as well as reveal them.  

A certain sharpness of one’s teeth, for instance, but why dwell on that when the lips surrounding them were so desirable?  That beautiful women might embrace the night, but was not that the time for charity galas, for parties for raising funds for good works?  It was important that no one suspect that the lovely, charitable ladies among them were actually higher on the food chain.  Again, this was self-knowledge.    

One was what one was.  And husbands were useful for other things too, like money and luxuries, new gowns to wear for the party season.  Jewelry and comforts, and not just for food — one would find one’s meals elsewhere!  These were as well in the service of beauty, but also obtained in the first place through beauty.  One’s carefully tended-to desirability, for which one was in part dependent on mirrors.  Both vampires and humans.  

And her fellow filles said she was not a thinker!


Shades of Difference

Red, the color of blood, of course.  It was a vampire’s favorite color, but, just as a Frenchwoman doesn’t drink just wine, so too the New Orleanian vampiresses, les filles à les cassettes, expressed their fondness for shades of red.  Crimson, for instance — arguments ensued over whether or why it was better than scarlet.  Yvonne had a special fondness for pink, her poetic mind searching for tiny variants — highlights, if one will — in its soothing paleness.  Lo preferred mauve, or even maroon, but in a fashion sense, noting their contrast to her pale skin, her luxurious blonde hair.  “Just red,” she would maintain, “is vulgar.  Too flashy.” 

Others agreed, although all pointed out it was still delicious.   

What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name?  Aimée wondered.  Well her name, Aimée, meant “beloved” in English, and she’d like to think that everyone loved her.  But did they really?  

Well, she was a vampire, the first of les filles à les cassettes, the casket girls, the one who had been a vampire before — having had to flee those who would persecute her — before she discovered the group of young women just then leaving France to go to New Orleans.  This was at the orders of no less a one than King Louis XV, to found families there with the colony’s most influential men.  And who thus had become vampires themselves because of Aimée, to endure forever in youth and beauty, while they had been waiting to choose their husbands — as well as to found their own sisterhood with Aimée as its head, which continues today. 

Surely that act was deserving of love! 

But it doesn’t explain why she had had to leave France in the first place.  Why some had pursued her, hoping to do her harm. 

Who, one might then conclude, did not love Aimée. 

She sighed at that.  True, she did have her faults, a lack of patience at times being one of them.  It was a thing she had to face, to strive if she could to keep under control.  Especially, she did not suffer fools well.  

But was that not itself a result of what should be considered a virtue?  That is, her ambition, besides being loved, was to learn to better understand things — to be the opposite of a fool.  Her first husband, for instance, was chosen not just because he had wealth — this was a criterion for all les filles, that their husbands be wealthy because, in the times when they were between husbands, they had to have means to continue their lifestyles.  But back to the point, that her first husband also had been a doctor by profession, as well as in his spare time a scientist, such as science was in the earlier part of the eighteenth century. 

Aimée adored science, to learn how the world worked.  To learn about stars and such things that weren’t “fool” things, like how the Earth went around the sun and not the other way around, no matter what it looked like from the ground.  Or what happens when chemicals are mixed together.  She liked as well to learn the customs of different people, in places other than France or New Orleans — and even religion, although it was those who professed religion who often were the most prejudiced against vampires.    

She could not understand that.  That, yes, these were the ones who, in France, had pursued her!  Who even destroyed several of her companions with hammers and stakes driven through their hearts.  And yet if they truly believed in God, the creator of vampires as well as people, should they not then extol vampires instead?  

Sure, perhaps on occasion a human, or someone a human had known, might have had a bad experience with a vampire, sometime in the past.  There was, after all, the “blood thing.”  But that was no excuse!  It was not the fault of vampires that God, in His wisdom, had put blood in people — blood that vampires required to live.  Did cows and chickens, for instance, blame people because of God’s making them out of meat?  

But yes, there it was.  It was a case that some people were bigots, and Aimée, most of all, should realize that one cannot reason with bigots.  Some still persisted in saying the Earth was flat and, although Aimée could suggest experiments they might use to see it was round instead, she knew that that still would not change their minds. 

And that was something Aimée had to cope with.  To make rules, for instance, for one’s fellow filles to keep their vampirism a secret, lest they be persecuted as well.  To not tell one’s husband, but also not to use him as a blood source — rather to fake one’s own parallel aging as he lived his life out, and then as a widow to go back to France, only to return some months later in the guise of one’s own “daughter,” having been sent to France as an infant for one’s education.      

To try not to kill people, except when needed — but then were they given credit for that?  For showing restraint, even when it might be an inconvenience?  Of course in that case, restraint was a virtue in that it helped keep their existence a secret.  

If one should ask, for whatever reason, if vampires exist, to readily reply:  “Of course not — vampires are a superstition.  Only a fool would believe in vampires!”  

And Aimée, even if the beloved, had no taste for fools. 

– END –

 






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6 Responses to “Casket Suite”

  1. Aimée, Casket Girls Saga Begins on “Flash Suite” Finals Listing | jamesdorrwriter Says:

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  2. Casket Suite: A Surfeit of Poe | Defenestrationism.net Says:

    […] by James Dorrread the suite from the beginning […]

  3. Casket Suite: Reflections | Defenestrationism.net Says:

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  4. Casket Suite: Shades of Difference | Defenestrationism.net Says:

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  5. Casket Suite: What’s In a Name | Defenestrationism.net Says:

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  6. Aimée, Casket Girls “Flash Suite” Now Up for Reading | jamesdorrwriter Says:

    […] In a Name?” All now are available in proper order for your reading pleasure, by pressing here — with details on voting among all the finalists, should that be your inclination, to be […]

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