The little girl sat on her bed in the dark, still as a stone, her long blond hair splayed around her shoulders. Trembling, she hugged her knees to her chest, her soft nightgown her only defense against the chill in the air. She would have been warm if she had covered herself with the blankets lying bunched around her, but it did not occur to her to do so; she could only stare at the fireplace, its ashes barely smouldering, as its flames had died long before. Her heart thumped hard in her chest and her ears were filled with the thick silence of the night.
Only moments before, she had been staring wide-eyed at the monster from under her bed and the nightmare that frightened it. Garbed in the finest gilt silks, with a powdered wig and a grinning ivory mask, it had hidden from her, its presence in her bedroom only betrayed by its clockwork heart. Tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock. She wondered how long it had been there without her knowing of it. It was only when the strange man, the one she’d seen in the fireplace those many months ago, had pointed it out that she’d even noticed the sound it made.
The man said it wanted her, though he knew not for what. It had attacked him, and he had whisked it away to the world beyond the fireplace, and she was left alone in the cold, dark room. Were there others, waiting for her? She heard only distant creaks and groans, the sounds of the manor house settling or the faint hints of the adults in a distant room, chatting and dancing, but perhaps the monsters could be silent, too. Perhaps they were already here, looking for her, ready to drag her away. She dared not look around, or even move: if she moved, they might find her, and this time, there was no man from the fireplace to save her.
She became aware of just how loud her own breathing was, and she worked on trying to quiet it, finally settling on inhaling and exhaling with careful attention through slightly parted lips. Every slight twitch of her legs or shudder of her shoulders made her wince with fear. But as the minutes wore on - or hours, as she was sure had passed - she began to relax, not so much that she wasn’t alert, but enough that she found herself glancing around and watching the snow fall outside her window. The fireplace was no longer her sole focus.
As she calmed, the girl realised just how cold she was. The fire was only embers at this point, not enough heat to keep her warm, and not enough light to keep the monsters at bay. The fireplace man had lit a single candle, but its faint light only created flickering, menacing shadows. Wanting more warmth and light, she shifted to swing down off the bed, then stopped as she remembered his words. Don’t put your hands or feet over the edge. She began to tremble again. She knew that the monster under the bed always grabs you as you get in or out. She remembered her mother laughing at her when she would jump into bed from five feet away, when she was much younger and afraid of the illusions and fantasies, and she buried her head in her arms, shivering more violently than ever. This time it’s real! And she was ashamed. I should not be scared. I am seven years old. I am a lady. A lady is never scared.
Taking a very deep breath, she scooted back against the headboard and yanked the blankets around her. This will have to do. With wide eyes scanning the room obsessively, she sat in a blanket-wrapped ball and waited for dawn.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
"Reinette? Reinette? Are you all right?"
The little girl awoke to find herself curled up on a pillow, wrapped in bedclothes pulled out of their anchors, high up on her bed. Her mother sat next to her, hovering over her with a worried expression.
"Mama? Is it morning?" The girl rubbed her eyes with tiny fists.
"Yes, yes it is. Are you well?" A worried frown creased her mother's brow as she searched her daughter's face for signs of illness.
"I am well, Mama. I am only sleepy."
"I am glad." With a faint smile, her mother stroked her hair. "Marie found you all curled up like this when she came in to wake you. What happened?
"Oh, Mama, I was so scared last night. The monster came to get me!" She glanced around the room to make sure it hadn’t returned.
"The monster? Oh, my poor Reinette! You had a nightmare." Her mother tucked the blankets around her daughter. "Do not you worry, my dove. It is morning. Nightmares fear the sun."
"No, Mama. It was real." Reinette sprang up into a sitting position and glanced about the room, hugging the blanket under her chin though she found no monsters to threaten her. "It was under my bed, with a heart like the ticking of a clock, and it came out to take me away. But the man scared it with his magic wand and took it away before it could hurt me."
Her mother was puzzled. "The man? What man?"
"Why, the fireplace man, Mama." Her mother stared at her in confusion, and Reinette explained further, with the pride of a child who knows something the adults didn’t think she knew. "The man you have come by to check the fireplace every night."
Her mother favoured her with a condescending smile. "No one checks the fireplace, my little queen. Only the servants, when they build the fire, long before you go to bed."
"But you must have done.” She nodded with such fervor, her hair bounced. “He makes sure the fireplace is working, that I'm happy with my fire. I am sure he checks every night, but I've only met him once before. He was ever so polite."
"Oh, Reinette," her mother crowed, hugging the girl to herself, "you have such a wonderful imagination." She set a pillow against the headboard and laid her daughter against it. "Yes, the fireplace man checks the fireplace every night, and while he's there, the monsters can't get you. So it's safe to sleep in here. Do not you worry." Smiling reassuringly, she caressed the girl's cheek.
"Yes, Mama." Reinette forced a smile in response. Mama does not believe me. She was sure of it, as sure as she was of the monsters and the fireplace man himself. But she knew there was nothing she could do to convince her.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Reinette did everything she could to protract her bedtime. She demanded that Marie brush her hair out a second and then a third time. She rearranged the dolls in their display four times, never quite satisfied with their poses. She changed her nightgown, then again, then asked to try on her new dinner gown, “for I am sure I am grown enough that you will have to let the hem out." Marie excused herself to fetch her sewing kit, and when she returned, Reinette's mother was with her.
"Oh, my dove. You do look enchanting in that dress. But it is time to go to sleep. Come, let me help you with that." She circled around her daughter and, kneeling so that her wide gown ballooned around her, began undoing the clasps on the back of the girl's dress.
"I don't want to sleep, Mama. I'm not tired,” Reinette protested.
"Nonsense," her mother declared in a crisp tone. "You've had such a long day. Your lessons with M. Roucault, and you have been practising your painting and your drama all day. And then performing on the harpsichord after dinner for Mme. Sciacchi. She said your Italian is perfect." She helped the girl step out of the dress, then turned to the maid for her nightgown.
"But I'm not tired." Reinette stood helpless and sullen as her mother pulled the nightgown over her head, then squirmed her arms into the sleeves.
"Reinette." Her mother turned her around and looked into her eyes. "You must go to sleep. All little girls must get their rest."
"The monsters will come back, Mama."
Her mother shook her head slowly, keeping a firm eye on her daughter. "They are just nightmares, Reinette. They cannot hurt you."
"But they are real, Mama. I saw them." She clasped her hands in front of her chin. "Cannot Papa come back? He would fight the monsters. Would they not let him back, for me?"
Her mother shook her head, a sad smile pursing her lips. "You know they will not. Papa will be gone for a very long time." Her mother's face lit up with an idea, and she held up a finger. "But, you know, nightmares come at night, not during the day. So we shall make them think it is day." She turned toward the maid. "Marie. Build up the fire, as high as you can."
Reinette gasped in horror. "No! Don't!"
As the servant moved to the fire and began stoking it up, adding logs of fuel, Reinette's mother turned back to her daughter with an encouraging smile, but the girl was staring at the fireplace in horror. "Oh, my little queen, you shall love it! A bright, blazing fire, to light up the room and chase away this January cold. The monsters daren't come near."
Reinette shook with fear as the glow of the fire grew, her wide eyes shining with reflected firelight. "Oh, but they will.” She pointed a trembling arm at the flames. “And now the fireplace man cannot come to me, or he shall be burnt. Mama, please stop her! Please put the fire out!"
Her mother cupped her cheek, stroking it with her thumb. "Do not be silly, my dove. This room should be quite frozen without it."
The girl's eyes flicked to her mother, then back at the fireplace, and she stumbled a step away from it. "But Mama..."
"Reinette!" Her mother's sharp command pulled her daughter's eyes to her face. "No more of this nonsense. There are no monsters, no fire man or whatever it is you call him. You are letting your imagination run away with you. You are a big girl, and it is time that you act like one. Go to bed.” As her frightened daughter trembled, she set her hands on her waist, then pointed at the bed. “Get. In.” Reinette glanced down to the space where the monsters hid, and she hesitated. Her mother lost her patience. “Now!” she roared.
“Yes, Mother!” squeaked Reinette. Gathering the skirt of her nightgown around her, she leapt in a high arc from her spot and, pulling her feet up, away from the lurking monsters, landed in the middle of her bed. She then scrambled under the covers.
Her mother glowered at her, clenching her jaw. “Reinette. That is no way for a lady to behave. Jumping about like a commoner, in front of the servants. How demeaning.”
The girl peered out at her mother, her eyes filled with tears. “Mama. Please put out the fire. Please.”
“You will go to sleep now. Not another sound out of you.” She motioned to the maid, who fetched the douter and circled the room, snuffing the candles until the room was wreathed in flickering shadows from the roaring fireplace. “Good night, Reinette. Tomorrow, you will abandon these childish fancies, and perhaps you will remember how to behave like a lady.” Her mother swept from the room, and Marie followed her, glancing at the terrified child before shutting the door.
Swabbing her nose with the back of her hand, Reinette stared at the door, hoping it would open again, but she knew her hopes were futile. No help would come from that direction. She didn’t dare move on the bed, for she knew that gloved hands grasped up from the darkness below, ready to snatch at her if she even thought to look over the edge.
Tensing under the bedclothes, she stared at the dancing flames. She had a very long night ahead of her. What could she do? The monsters were waiting for her, and she could not flee or fight them. What do monsters have nightmares about? she had asked the fireplace man. Me! he had replied, as he vanished with the creature of ivory, silk, and clockwork. If she must contend with her nightmares, she would rely on theirs to protect her. Her only hope lay beyond the fire, and, squaring herself against the headboard, she resolved to be brave, to wait until the flames died down and it was safe for the fireplace man to come to her again. And he will, she told herself with certainty, when the monsters come again.
As the room darkened, bit by bit, she could see him in her mind’s eye, standing his guard in his world, stepping from the fireplace and fending off the monsters, and he lent her his courage. Whilst he watched over her, she knew she could face her fear, and presently, her eyes drooped closed and she journeyed to meet him again in the land of dreams.