For the umpteenth time, Hansu searched through the daily paper, looking for any clue regarding the whereabouts of her one-time lover, Bert Alto. For awhile, an ambitious reporter had made the story her own, relaying in breathless detail the abandoned ice cream truck, the flyers, the searches, the cadavers dogs and occasionally a reference to a “mysterious dark-haired woman” who was accompanying Bert when he was last seen. Hansu waited for a knock on the door from a detective, a neighbor, even the reporter, standing on the porch, ready to pepper her with questions. But that knock never came. Nor did a story hailing the return of the lost man.
No matter, she thought, I have better things to do. So began her rituals, a series of activities she went through every day of each month, every month of each year. After all, as much as her secret Fountain of Youth allowed her to stay frozen in age, she feared the day would come that it would fail her, in spite of the promise Pater Notorious had made. She started with a frenetic workout on her treadmill, running and running until sweat dripped off her face and soaked through her clothes.
Next Hansu filled the tub with tepid water and a concoction of moisturizing bath salts. She would undress slowly, running her hands up and down her firm body, marveling that her skin still retained its elasticity. Climbing in the water was not always easy, especially on cold days. Even with the furnace on full blast, lukewarm water was not the most comforting sensation. But her fear of aging distorted her logic. If the water was hot, she would prune and surely the wrinkles would slowly become permanent, or so she believed.
Then came the best ritual of all: a trip to the Hidden Springs spa! Hansu was grateful they provided a variety of treatments all guaranteed to satisfy the clientele in pursuit of ageless beauty. The aestheticians never failed to crowd around her, oohing and aahing over just how effective the mudbaths and seaweed wraps were for their number-one customer. Hansu avoided the other ladies partaking of the spa’s services for she knew from growing up with a twin sister just how wrathful a jealous woman could be. She would arrive in a virtual disguise, including oversized sunglasses and a headscarf, removing neither until she was whisked into a private room. Hansu splurged on the most expensive packages day after day, leaving the spa workers wondering exactly where the money came from.
Back at home, Hansu climbed two flights of stairs to the top floor and drifted to the full-length mirror. How she loved that mirror! It hung on the back wall of the nursery and she often went there several times throughout the day as the lighting was so flattering. For an hour or maybe it was hours, she gazed lovingly at her flawless skin, her eyes unmarred by crow’s feet, her mouth undiminished by laugh lines.
Hansu lost herself so deeply in her own reflection, she was oblivious to the sole resident of the nursery, her lovechild with Bert Alto.
Little Giselle could flail and wail but all for nought.
Until Pater Notorious appeared, seemingly out of thin air. He scooped the tyke into his burly arms and tickled her, turning Giselle’s sobs into gales of laughter. The arrival of her patron always snapped Hansu out of her vain reverie. She would quickly scurry around, picking up toys, reshelving books and straightening the bedding in her daughter’s crib as if cleaning up the nursery was her reason for being in that room.
After seeing to it that the toddler’s mother had fed, changed and put Giselle to sleep in her crib, Pater would noiselessly gesture to Hansu to follow him. They would slowly descend to the second story. He would double-check the baby monitor was on (more often than not he found it turned off) and then turn to the young mother with a twinkle in his eyes. The gleaming within was a ruse, Hansu had learned, a trick to put her at ease. But the trick had only worked the first few times for she knew what was coming.
“Hansu, I made you a promise, did I not?” Pater asked. Hansu held her head high in spite of the tone he took with her, a tone that said ‘You displease me.’
“Yes,” she answered.
“The Fountain of Youth appears to be working. Is it?” Pater went on.
“Yes,” she answered again.
“In return, you made me a promise?” He queried.
“Yes,’ Hansu replied, her voice starting to tremble.
“What was it you promised me?” Pater’s tone shifted to one that said ‘You lied to me.’
“An heir.” Her voice was now barely above a whisper. Finally, she lowered her head.
Crossing his arms and shaking his head, Pater continued. “An heir,” he repeated. “An heir. Such a simple request.”
With those words, the grilling ended. From out of nowhere, Pater would produce a book, sit down on the settee and start to read.
Paralysis set in for Hansu. She dared not return to the nursery for fear of waking Giselle or worse, flitting to the mirror to get another look. Heading downstairs seemed a viable option so she turned on her heel but, as she suspected, Pater was not finished with her.
“Hansu, my dear,” he began without looking up from his book. “I could not help but notice a foul odor upstairs. Could it possibly be emanating from the potty chair? I assume it needs cleaning.” So she climbed the stairs, and gingerly lifted the bowl out of the potty chair. First she dumped the contents down her own toilet, and then she carried the now-empty but still smelly bowl to the alcove that housed a washer, dryer and laundry sink. Scrubbing away, she muttered to herself a string of blue words. At last the bowl was clean so Hansu peeled off the rubber gloves she had donned to do the chore. Immediately, her anger dissipated for the hands in front of her were plump and the knuckles delicate and the veins non-existent.
For all his chastisement, Pater never seemed able to get through to Hansu that nurturing his precious heir was not his responsibility, it was hers. He stepped up to the plate of parenthood whenever necessary but more and more, Giselle’s mother was nowhere to be found. Pater could guess where she was, either at that infernal spa or deep in the woods, languishing besides the Fountain of Youth, stupefied by its drug-like effects. One night he appeared at the house, assuming that, in his absence, the woman had the good sense to stick around. But her home was tomb-like it was so silent. He crept up the stairs to the nursery, his blood beginning to boil at the thought that Hansu had taken the child somewhere, something that he strictly forbade. What he found angered him far greater.
At his feet lay little Giselle fast asleep on the floor. Meaning, she had been left on the floor for how long, he could not guess…long enough to cry herself out.
With as gentle a voice as he could muster, Pater called the toddler’s name. It took several times but at last she opened her eyes. For a moment she looked bewildered, probably, Pater thought, remembering how dark and lonely a time she had experienced.
With loving hands, Pater picked the child up and immediately discovered her diaper was so soiled, even her onesie was wet. He changed the baby girl, offered her a bottle and then sat down on the floor with her, reading through a dog-eared volume of nursery rhymes.
When little Giselle’s eyes began to flutter, Pater felt he could put her in her crib with little protest.
She fought hard…
But was no match against exhaustion.
This man, so dignified and reserved, found himself tiptoeing around the room, putting dirty baby clothes in the hamper and collecting bottles of formula that had been lying around for so long they reeked of rot. Finally the nursery was tidied to his satisfaction. He picked up one last toy and placed it in the crib with Giselle. She did not stir.
How many more times? Pater thought. How many more times do I allow her to mess up so badly? He was unsure what to do. He had made her a promise. She had lived up to that promise somewhat. Only one thing remained to do…he must up the ante to get what he truly wanted: full and total control of little Giselle.