Hester Prynne’s Daughter
by Wilma Bernard
Neal was laughing, his head thrown back, his mouth open wide. The limousine vibrated with it, loud and full. Pearl had known he’d laugh — she should have known, anyway. Everybody laughed. They thought she was being funny. She laughed with him, until she punched him. Then she was laughing alone.
He made the limousine driver pull over, made Pearl get out. He said she’d probably broken his nose, said he needed that nose. So she was laughing in the dark and the rain, as her date rode off. She laughed him all the way out of sight.
When he was gone she spat up at the clouds. Her one constant since discovering time travel, that sky seemed intent on greeting her with unpleasant eras at every turn. In the past, people thought she was a demon or a god. In the future, they thought she was crazy, or just being funny. She was still looking for a time when she could fit in, but whenever people started to accept her she had the perverse urge to tell them that she was Pearl, Hester Prynne’s daughter, from the seventeenth century. They laughed. She inflicted pain. That ended the relationship.
This was her fifth decade in a week, so she was not in the best of moods as she made her way down a dark alley, toward her time-carriage. It seemed to be some freak of fate that wherever she ended up, the carriage was always down some kind of alley or lane, second door to the left. It might have been related to the freak of fate that gave a seventeenth-century maiden the only recorded working time vehicle, but Pearl didn’t have any way of determining their relationship.
A man stood in front of the second door on the left. A heavy raincoat shaded his features.
“Hello, Pearl,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Get thee gone,” said Pearl. “Look for someone else.”
“But I’ve been looking for you for so long.”
“And now that thou hast found me, thou mayst go!” She tried to keep calm, but it had been a fifty-year-long week, and she was tired. “My path lies through yonder door.”
“I know. Aren’t you a little curious who I am?”
“Vacate my path!” Pearl screeched. “I care for neither thou nor thine origins. Vacate my path or I shall drive thy head into yon wall!”
The man stepped aside. He followed her through the door, and flicked on the lights. They were in a warehouse, with glass fish on the walls and the time-carriage in the center, horribly mutilated. The roof was dented in, the glass windshield shattered. The wheels lay around the wreck, one of them twisted almost beyond recognition. The time-horses were gone. Pearl spun in fury toward the man who had accosted her. He was ancient, stooped and wrinkled. He had thrown back his hood, and his face was subtly twisted, as if it were viewed in a rippling pool. He was hideous, repulsive…and almost familiar.
“What hast thou done to my carriage?”
“What you did to me.” Was he deranged, that he thought he knew her?
“Perhaps thou hast mistaken me for some other.”
“No. There is no mistake.” Or maybe he was someone she’d met a few decades ago? When had she stuck around long enough to inflict that kind of damage?
“Who art thou?”
He laughed bitterly. “You first.”
“No. You’re the scarlet letter.”
It was Pearl’s turn to laugh. “Thou hast read the tale, then.”
“Read it? I didn’t need to. Don’t you remember me? I was younger then, but I was already old to you. You thought I was the Black Man. Remember?”
She shook her head, no, and hoped it was true, hoped he couldn’t be what she was beginning to recall, in images of childhood simplicity. Mistress Hibbins, and her witching tales. The Black Man, talking to her mother. The Black Man, lit up by the lightning, and she on a platform holding her mother’s and father’s hands – in the night, before her father would hold her hand in daylight. The Black Man who had always been with her father, when he was not her father but only the minister.
But he wasn’t the Black Man, really, only something like him.
He was watching her. “You remember.”
“Chillingworth.” It was only a whisper, but it seemed to echo off those glass fish on the walls. They seemed all to be whispering it back at her, confirming it, making it all too real. “No,” she said, louder. “It is not possible. Mr. Chillingworth is long dead.”
“Am I? Did you see my body cold?”
She backed away, shaking her head against his claim.
“Did you think you were the only one left from our sordid little story? You, the one who destroyed us all? Not quite. You ruined my life, but you couldn’t end it. I kept your father alive for years, when he should have died because of you. They knew I was skilled, but they never knew just how skilled. I’ve lived these hundreds of years waiting for you, Pearl. Pearl? Ha! Dagger would be more apt. All we whom you touched were cut. And did you care? Never. You left three lives trampled in your wake, while you went blithely off to wreak havoc on all the ages.”
“I? I have done nothing. It is thou who art to blame. Thou art the fiend who tormented, not I!”
“I tormented Dimmesdale in part, it is true, but who tormented your mother? And who, think you, tormented me? I was a good man, before you got to me. A kind man, even a loving one. It was only under because of you that I became what I am.”
“What art thou, what have I turned thee to?”
“I’m hollow. My better parts have rotted away under your influence. I am more than three hundred years old, and what do I live for? Can I truly call it living? I’ve done nothing significant for a hundred years but wait and search for you, ‘Pearl.’ I’ve finally found you. I think I have my revenge.”
He pulled a dagger from his belt, and Pearl gasped. “Thou art mad.”
Chillingworth laughed mirthlessly. “You need not fear for your life, demon-child. I didn’t kill your father, and I don’t mean to kill you. Death is too easy.” He skidded the dagger across the floor to her.
She picked it up, watching the blade flash in the light. There was a single pearl set in its hilt.
“No,” Chillingworth continued. “Death is far too easy. You’re going to live, the way we have lived. Your machine is broken, the horses are fled into distant eras. It’s like my marriage, Dimmesdale’s piety, your mother’s beauty. All gone or shattered. We had to live with it, in a world that wouldn’t understand. See how you fare, in the same circumstances.”
“It was no fault of mine!” She was shaking, screaming at him. “Thou must know it was no fault of mine!”
“But I don’t. I don’t believe you. I’ve lived too long, in the truth of this bitter world. It’s finished now, for me. No one will believe your story, no one understand your speech. Think about that, and I’ve done it to you. It’s only what you did to me, but does that change anything? You’ve got the tool. Kill me. Finish the job you started so long ago.”
She didn’t want to – she told herself that later: she really hadn’t wanted to at all. But standing there, taunting her, he was the Black Man again. It wasn’t her; it was him, everything he stood for, everything he said. He was the society she’d left behind, that condemned her for the circumstances of her birth. She tried to tell herself, later, that she’d been frightened. Sure, he seemed like a weak old man, but look what he’d done to her carriage. Maybe he would have hurt her if she hadn’t done something. Maybe not, maybe that was only what she told herself so she could sleep at night. But she still couldn’t sleep. Anyway, he would have stood there, talking at her, reminding and damning her with every vile sentence. And she couldn’t get away, and the fish were looking at them, and the fish wanted blood. They were all blown glass, hollow, and they had to have something to fill them up. If it wasn’t him it would have been her. She would have stayed, and died there, and rotted away, and they would have gorged themselves on her flesh, and … and that was all nonsense. She didn’t do it for the fish, and she didn’t do it out of fear, and really she never could figure out why she did it, but that she was Pearl Dimmesdale and she always did the wrong thing at the wrong time.
So, because she was Pearl Dimmesdale and always did the wrong thing, she lunged at him, dagger in hand. She grappled him to the floor, and stabbed and stabbed until those bony demon-hands stopped clawing at her. Then she stood up, and the room was deadly still, and the fish were drinking it all in. They disgusted her. She had to get away. So she shoved the bloody dagger into her belt and opened the door and went out. She closed the door behind her. She washed her hands in the rain. She washed the dagger off, too.
And she went away, and spent the night in a subway station, trying to rationalize and to sleep. But she couldn’t, and she wandered around the way he’d wanted her to, lonely and bitter. And she learned to talk the way they did in that part of the future. But people still laughed at her, when she told them who she was, and she still hurt them, and sometimes she killed them. And it was satisfying, really, to watch her enemies bleed. Because the blood is where the life is, and she was what Chillingworth had made her, after she’d made him what he became. She was Dagger, and cutting was the only way she touched people.
AUTHOR BIO: Wilma Bernard has had stories published by Youth Imagination, Every Day Fiction, and the Metro Moms Network. Links to her work can be found at wilmabernard.blogspot.com.