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art by Ron Sanders

Casket Girls

James Dorr's The Tears of Isis is a 2014 Bram Stoker Award® Fiction Collection finalist. Other books include Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance and Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret, and his all-poetry Vamps (A Retrospective), while for more information he invites readers to visit his blog at jamesdorrwriter.wordpress.com. "Casket Girls" is Dorr's third publication in Daily Science Fiction.

She was one of the many, les filles à les caissettes, named for the little sea chests they had been allowed for their voyage. Casquettes, as some on the river later mispronounced it, as if they had all worn little caps--although some of them did. Some of them were orphans and could afford no more, but many had come from better families, good, respectable Catholic girls. Often from convents. Just what would be needed to tame a frontier.
Or so, at least, King Louis XV thought, or was it the idea of his Polish wife? Or more likely the cardinal, André de Fleury, his minister of state. It didn't matter.
It was later to become a point of pride for New Orleanian families to claim their descent from the "casket girls." Which did not matter either.
Aimée had her own reasons for leaving France. As for the means, well let the king, or the cardinal, or both take credit for her transportation. Aimée was nothing if not always willing to credit others where credit was due. Her own reasons, however, had been more immediate; France had become too hot, family members of hers had been found out. Some of them slaughtered.
It was a hard thing, this, to be persecuted. She felt sorry for the girl she had left in the harbor behind her, no doubt a good girl who deserved better treatment. But one must be always looking ahead, yes?
Her home and her friends she had left behind too.
She suffered the voyage, the ship cramped and smelly, crammed in the hold with young women around her, pressed body to body. She, whose tastes were catholic in many ways, but resisting temptation.
She, with her large, sparkling eyes and tight-curled black hair, affecting a perpetual look of wonder--waif-like and longing--it was not her nature to fight her urges. But fight them she did.
By the time their ship had reached the great river, Aimée gazing now beneath the deck-awning at strange swampy shores, she had become almost like a big sister to the other women, despite looking as young or younger than most. It was she who led them, finally, down the broad gangplank, there to be met by the Ursuline nuns who would be their protectors.
From there they were walked the short way from the river, their "casquettes" heaped on a cart behind them, to Rue Chartres and the Ursuline convent where they were given the entire third floor, above the nuns' quarters. It was only later, however, when more and more of the girls complained about the brightness of the sun, so much more so than in France, and how it hurt their eyes when they had to be up in the daytime, that carpenters installed the "hurricane shutters" that remain today. Aimée watched as they did this, admiring the carpenters' muscular arms and their ruddy complexions, but waited until dark, the nuns fast asleep in their beds on the floor below, before she would sneak out to sample the town. And despite the fact that one workman had died, later, from a strange sickness, a kind of anemia. These men were not for them, these laboring men, but rather they were to be groomed to marry the owners of land, of shops in the city or else the plantations that dotted the sides of the Mississippi.
As time went on she often took some of the others out with her on these nighttime forays--shuttered windows or not--having already made one or two of them special companions back aboard the ship. A playful nip on a wrist here and there, but always discreetly, where there would not be wounds to be noticed. But here in their attic with its bends and crannies, Aimée had found secret places aplenty to introduce her fellow filles à les casquettes to love and more.
By day, some of them who had been orphans before sleepily helped out in the orphanage the nuns themselves ran on the convent's first floor. All also took lessons in skills they would need when they became wives, of directing servants, of selecting produce in the French Market for the kitchen staff to prepare. They went out by day in the care of the convent priest, their modesty well protected by parasols and veils--by night with Aimée, they wore perhaps less clothing. Mornings they did chores, repairing their work dresses, their better clothes still packed in their sea chests for when they were married or, if before, being introduced to those men they might marry.
The nuns did their work well. There were women enough of the lesser sort on the streets of New Orleans, women cleaned out from the prisons of France, transportees and worse. But the "casket girls" were bred to be ladies, and never mind the rumors that began to be whispered about them. The nuns countered these--so what if they all had such pale complexions? That is what veils were for. And if some still looked gaunt, consider their arduous voyage from France, across the whole ocean, already frail enough at the outset because they were ladies.
And ladies they were. They were their own society, married to men of the highest station, eventually, becoming the hostesses to kings and generals should such come to visit. Ruling their households. And Aimée had wed the wealthiest of them all, a doctor and scientist by reputation, though forced to leave New Orleans eventually. Aimée herself, rumor had it, had shown up again in France many years after, but still with the look of youth. Still with the spirit that she had shown the others.
And never mind the rumors, those early years, of corpses found along the river. The blood drained out from them. Those were still the years when New Orleans was rough, its streets teeming with criminals. What business would convent girls have to do with such things?
Yes, these were the ones called les filles à les casquettes, the "casket girls," for the small chests they brought with them with their things in them, and it is not true what people say now. That within these trunks there had been concealed vampires. Nor is it true either that with them had come some new kind of disease.
No, it was enough that with them had come the one named Aimée.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Author Comments

There actually were “casket girls” and there actually was a rumor that they'd smuggled vampires from France in their luggage, at least according to the “Haunted New Orleans” tour I went on when I was there for the 2013 World Horror Convention. So in one sense, this is my “what I did on summer vacation” story. But something seemed wrong--there certainly wasn't room for even a few extra books, let alone a vampire, in the bag that I had with me, and I'd only come from Indiana. So, with a little thought, and a bit more research, and hopefully a fairly large bit of imagination, this is my tale of what “really” happened.

- James S. Dorr
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