Empress

One morning when she and her mother were making the bed--she was on one side, her mother on the other--Cecilia showed the first sign of madness. She suddenly said, "The plain is moving. There will be a disaster." Her mother looked at her uncertainly. "What did you say?" and Cecilia answered, "What?" in such a way that it was clear she didn't remember speaking the sentence. Her mother repeated it to her. "The plain is moving. There will be a disaster." But seeing the look of total incomprehension in her daughter's eyes, some intuition warned her not to continue. However, the sentence remained on the mother's mind all day long; and that night in bed, when Cecilia was already asleep in the other bed, the mother was still murmuring, "the plain is moving." Several days passed, days that were exactly like every other day of the year. Cecilia helped her mother with the housework, did some mending, and sometimes she would cry. (One Sunday, two years before, they had gone to a movie.) Evenings, after the mother cleared the table and Cecilia shut the windows and put out their nightgowns, they would go to bed even though it was not yet completely dark.

It had occurred to the mother by now that her daughter might never marry. It wasn't a very pleasant thought, yet at the same time the mother knew she would be very unhappy if Cecilia were no longer there to shut the windows and put out the nightgowns.

She had long forgotten the girl's strange utterance when one afternoon, Cecilia looked up from her mending, stared her mother full in the face and said, "The horses were all a little tired this morning, Mamma." This time the mother leaped to her feet. "What's the matter with you, child? Are you sick?" and rushing toward Cecilia, cradled her head between her hands. Cecilia came to herself.

"What's the matter with you, Mamma?"

"You said the horses were all a little . . . "

"I never said a word about horses, Mamma," the girl shook her head. "Maybe you dreamed it."

But in the same sudden way, Cecilia began raving the following day, and then every day, several times a day, until, with a relative's help, she was admitted to the mental hospital in the next town.

The director of the hospital sent good reports to Cecilia's mother almost every week, although he didn't allow her to visit during the period the girl was under observation. Permission eventually arrived, however; and the brokenhearted mother came to the clinic. The director offered her a seat and proceeded to talk at great length.

"We are on the threshold of a cure. As we expected, Cecilia's delusions have finally settled into a constant fixation. She believes she is the Empress Theodora. The belief permeates her every waking act. It's painful to see, to be sure, but today we know how to treat such delusions. There is a specific medication, something new, which we here have developed" (and he nodded toward his assistant, who smiled). "We've already given the girl some trial injections with very good results. Her body is accepting them perfectly. We, therefore, feel certain that we can effect a complete cure. In full dosage, the medication will cause a kind of epileptic seizure, after which our Cecilia will be completely recovered."

"Completely recovered? She'll be like she was before?"

"Exactly."

"She'll come home with me? We'll be together again? Oh, Doctor!"

"Now, let's go," the doctor interrupted and, leading the woman through a corridor, he stopped in front of a door and whispered, "She's in there." He pushed the door open, thrust his head in, and called out cheerfully, "Cecilia, your mother's here." Then he withdrew and motioned the woman to enter.

She stopped for a moment, dazzled by the white walls, then saw her daughter, who seemed to have become taller, standing next to the bed. The mother raised her arms, took two steps towards the girl, but felt frightened and stopped.

"Is that you, Mother dear? Thank you for having made such a long trip. They've treated you well, I hope, as befits the mother of the Empress?"

"Cecilia, darling," moaned the woman, who, leaning forward, noticed for the first time that the girl was draped in a sheet, as though it were a long mantle. She reached her side, held her in her arms for a moment. The girl let her mother kiss her, then gently pushed her away.

"Mother dear, I'm terribly sorry that important obligations will keep me from spending much time with you today. Please sit down in that armchair," she added, indicating a tiny seat at the foot of the bed.

The mother staggered, barely set her weight on the edge of the seat, and stammered meaninglessly. Cecilia, still standing, turned toward a corner of the room and spoke. "Ladies, prepare the blue suite for my mother; and guards, clear the antechamber, I won't be giving any audiences today. Mother, come look out this window."

Cecilia's mother obeyed. At the window, she took a deep breath. Below her, all she saw was a small courtyard with a strip of green edged in daisies. She turned toward her daughter again, uncertain whether to remain at the window or return to the girl's side.

"If you come back tomorrow morning and look down into that park, you will see me walking alongside the Emperor. That's when we discuss affairs of state and when he asks my advice. This morning," she lowered her voice mysteriously, "I ordered him to depose the Pope, who has been my enemy. Here, on the other hand," she raised her voice, extended her arms and turned her face to the white ceiling. "Here, everyone loves me and obeys me. But what are you looking at? Oh, the ceiling? Do you like the way those gold stars are set around the green cross?"

Just then, for a moment, in the midst of her horror, the mother saw the ceiling ablaze with stars. Her whole body shook, and she hid her face in her hands. When she regained her composure, she could no longer look at Cecilia, who was still speaking.

"There are so many other things to show you. Tomorrow morning, we'll start looking at my jewels, yes, and then the crown, the gold crown with gemstones and pearls, the one I wore for my coronation in Santa Sophia when I stood at the Emperor's side surrounded by sweet voices and incense. I think even the angels in heaven were singing then. No other woman in the whole world has ever experienced that. No other woman can know what it means to be so happy."

Cecilia fell silent with a luminous gaze in her eyes, but her mother's heart was filled with dread.

"Darling, my sweet daughter, you don't remember?"

"What should I remember, Mother?"

The older woman couldn't speak. She no longer recalled what she had wanted to say. She swayed as if she'd just found herself at the edge of a precipice. To cling to something, she raised her head and looked at her daughter's face. But even then, she couldn't sustain her glance. Cecilia, after a few moments of thought and with a distant gaze in her eyes, had begun to speak again.

"When one is very happy, one doesn't have time to remember. One thinks of the past only in unhappiness. I have everything, Mother. Will you come back on a ceremonial day to see me ride in the golden coach drawn by four white horses?"

The mother raised a hand to her forehead. "Yes, darling, I'll come."

And with her eyes closed she listened as though to a distant voice. "And my great ivory table? And the peacock garden? The moonlight feasts on the Bosphorus? The secret room where I make my own perfumes? The throne on which I receive the ambassadors of every country in the world? Mother, Mother." Now she was shouting in a rush of joy from her overflowing heart. "Mother, I want you to see me walking through the streets in my purple mantle, when the people throw themselves at my feet shouting 'Her majesty, her majesty.'"

Cecilia's mother found herself in the corridor with her back against the wall and no memory of how she got there. Someone discovered her and took her to where the doctor was waiting. As soon as she set eyes on him, the woman roused herself, stood erect and before he could utter a sound, declared in a dry, choking voice, "I forbid you to cure my daughter."

From The Faithful Lover: Short Stories by Mario Bontempelli. Published 2007 by Host Publications. All rights reserved.