The Yellow Baron
Still I held my ground, entrenched before the largest mirror in the barony. In times of crisis, one need not abandon dignity. "One should hold up one's chin," my father had taught me, "even in the face of defeat." This was before he contracted syphilis, before the court doctor's cures had driven him beyond reason, before his raving pogrom had annihilated the fathers, uncles, cousins, and brothers of those women, geriatric men, and children who were even now lynching my General Staff. Before he had painted me into this corner in which I now stood, helpless to save my own wife and daughter as the peasants ripped away the carriage walls that served as the only barrier between their frilly cream-colored dresses and the dirt-encrusted fingernails of the disenfranchised. Then my wife, Isabel, and my dear daughter, Martha, would dissipate, beings of air and light lashed and parted by dark, earthy tendrils, like white clouds stretched and torn across the alps, or fog grated and shredded by the Black Forest.
This, I thought, is the fundamental difference between Them and Us. We are of a finer substance, of cleaner stuff than they. I could see it in the mirror. My uniform, patterned after the Prussians, but of mustard yellow cloth, was without wrinkle, flat-pressed as a book in the chest and shoulders, collar stout and regal as the neck beneath it. My spiked helmet (Pickelhauben) and jackboots were polished to a brilliant blackness. And my accoutrements—belt, scabbard, field glasses and the lanyard from which they hung—shone ebony, their luster as sublime as the countryside night sky. The brass buttons of my field jacket, my buckle, and the guard of the family cavalry sword were a constellation and crescent moon. I was otherworldly—celestial.
I counted the stars on my (admittedly) portly belly, starting from the buckle and proceeding up to the collar clasp that shone a half-face underneath my moustache, when a glimmer in the mirror distracted me from my hauteur. I looked up into the mirror to see the source of the flash, expecting the glare of torches behind me, but the gates were holding up outside, and at least a few of the palace guards, it seemed, remained loyal enough to prevent unfriendly egress. No, this flicker came from the mirror itself, and as I triangulated my way to it, another presented itself to the corner of my eye. I immediately turned my eyes to the second, only to be distracted by a third, a trio of looking glass will-o'-wisps beckoning me to examine them more closely, faeries in a reflecting pool, stirring with the first hint of sunrise.
Stepping closer to the mirror—chin still up—I could see that these tiny sundogs were caused by flaws in the mirror. I shall have the mirror-maker shot, I joked to myself, until the sound of gunfire from somewhere in the compound reminded me of my humorless situation. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by these pockmark light-wells caused, no doubt, by my daughter and her cousins in one or more of their infamous marble fights. Her Germanic blood was evident by the accuracy with which she could fire a projectile, the bullet only missing its mark because of an intervening family pet, nanny, or mirror. No wonder my brother's troops would arrive too late to save me—he was busy tending his son's marble wounds! I hoped that she might have a pocketful of shooters in the carriage. She would surely take a few of the communists with her.
It was in the midst of this thought that I lost track of the flaw that I had been studying, as if the mirror had healed itself of its scar.
The girl's mother, my wife, would not fare so well. If the peasants didn't kill her, the cold would. She was a Spaniard—our marriage an attempt on the part of our fathers to reconstruct their misconceived notion of some ancient warrior's alliance. She had none of the martial spirit of my ancestors—or hers, for that matter. Generations of languid ease in a warm country had robbed her family of any vigor, and it was only through an accident of birth (I am to understand from the current science) that my Martha inherited ferocity from my line. No, Isabel was a lamb. More properly, a miniature poodle, robbed of any dog-ness through weak breeding. She was a fluffy trophy, a showpiece, and wholly unsuited to the climate. She suffered a great deal from ill moods in the winters, which arrived with such cold suddenness as to blast spring, summer, and autumn from the memory until the land released its grip again in thundering cracks of ice.
Still, I grew to love her. Or, perhaps, I grew to love the role of protector—a Teutonic paladin defending the ancient values of nobility, Catholicism (yes, even in the Germanic lands), self-reliance, and loyalty to tradition. I fought against heretical political ideas, atheism, and my neighbors' increasing submission to Prussia in the name of "nation-building." Our marriage, arranged as it was by a long line of heavenly decrees or historical accidents—depending on one's point of view—was symbolic of our families' way of life. Over time, however, I found myself in love with more than a mere ideal. Only an empty-hearted man shares the conjugal bed without developing something akin to love for his wife. Our relationship was, at first, awkward and overly formal, a trophy marriage for our parents, really. Or more properly, for the barony, for the people.
But in the interstices of privacy we snatched away from formal obligation, I came to know Isabel in much more than just the biblical sense. She was beautiful—physical attraction was never in question—but naïve and child-like. She had led a life behind villa doors, cushioned from the outside world by servants, tutors, messengers, and hand-chosen playmates— usually her cousins. Through her lessons she learned much about the world, but not much of the world. I suppose that her apparent vulnerability, combined with the political, scientific, and religious changes I sensed taking place, not to mention my father's betrayal of matrimonial vows, which resulted in his disease and death, awakened a need to secure the remnants of our dying world.
It was not a matter of control. Isabel was quite happy with the stunts and barriers I set for her. No, this was a matter of sanctuary. And I gladly provided spaces in which my wife could find both comfort and protection, for the two are not exclusive of one another.
Let me begin from the outside and work inward. And let it not be said that I did anything to hinder my dear wife's growth. On the contrary, I hired the most learned doctors and professors on the continent to teach her more about (and of) the world. Thus my Isabel was not ignorant of the state of things "outside," though she only ventured forth from the barony, or from the palace, for that matter, to visit her family in Spain. These visits had to be kept to a minimum, of course, in frequency and duration, lest she suffer a bout of xenophobia. I was sure that she was attended, during these trips, by both a physician and a pair of bodyguards, but it was never my intent to hold her captive.
She never did care for social gatherings, and I often found myself involuntarily in the role of messenger when she wished to "converse" with others at such events. Her demeanor was perfect, so long as she remained silent. Only when she spoke did our interactions with others become uncomfortable. She was not unintelligent, just a touch awkward and immature in her mannerisms. So I spoke and listened on her behalf, dressing her meanings in a warmer grammatical cloak and interpreting body language, intonations, and the like for her.
Warmth, as I have hinted, she craved. I had her bedroom windows covered in dark velvet to keep in as much warmth as the wood stove could supply to that part of the tower. Cold-footed servants would bring hot water bottles to her and stoke the stove on a regular basis. She slept under bear furs and when she would awaken, she layered herself in an almost cold-proof armor (moving from the outside in, as you and I previously agreed): A thin cloak of sable fur; a fan-front, cartridge-pleated, three-tier dress replete with bonnet and wool-lined goatskin gloves; an elaborately-embroidered Over Petticoat stitched with images of hearths, the sun, dragons, and other symbols that evoke warmth; a long-sleeved Hoop Petticoat; several Under Petticoats—red, orange, yellow; a back-laced corset embroidered with tiny licks of flame; and finally, a boiled wool undergarment that, despite it's slightly uncomfortable texture, provided a great degree of warmth to her smooth belly and breasts.
By now, I thought, they have peeled her like an onion and found the pure white inner core that is my wife's porcelain skin. I feared that they would keep peeling until nothing is left, exposing her spirit, her essence, to the whole world. God help her soul.
The thought, the memory of her skin, now fades away in layers, and the flaw in the mirror that triggered the initial epiphany slowly fades until it has entirely disappeared and I look directly into the reflection of my own eye. I am soon distracted by the flash of the final flaw, the last imperfection in the mirror. It is an image within an image, a microcosmic reflection of me, the baron in yellow, standing in the palatial stronghold, the inner keep. The larger reflection shows a different scene—the baron startled from his reverie by the explosion of the door behind him, splinters flushing the air. A crowd storms in, brandishing farm implements and dragging the mangled remains of his wife and daughter in their wake, palatial guards' heads spiked atop pitchforks and stolen bayonets. The Baron in Yellow is thrust to the ground, kicked and trod on, stampeded in a mad dance of victory over repression, his remains disappearing into the soles of peasant boots.
But in the last remaining flaw, I see. The Baron in Yellow is apotheosized, transformed into a being of pure light, and lifted into the heavens on a lacunal vessel to dwell upon a sea of silvered pools. The vision is dazzling, brilliant, and an eternity removed from the sound of screams and shattering glass that now fills my ears.
image, "Baroness," © 2006, Darin C. Bradley—All Rights Reserved