A Guest in the House of Ruin

“And she answered with a tender voice: ‘Let us be good friends.’—But what I have told you here, dear reader, that is not an event of yesterday or the day before… For time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate number, and the number of the configurations that, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again…

There’s somebody else in here, in this house. Someone who shouldn’t be. Someone who can’t be. I can hear them. I hear footsteps in hallways, doors slamming in corridors. Distant laughter, echoing. I walk into a room where smoke is rising from a just-snuffed candle. Creaking sounds, rhythmic and repetitive, lead me to a bedroom on the second floor where I find a rocking horse, cantering back and forth on dusty runners. A little girl’s sun-hat, faded blue-and-red ribbons wrapped around the band, is balanced on its head. I watch the wooden horse slow to a halt.

Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip. Clop.

I shouldn’t be here.

I won’t be here much longer.

I smile grimly at the thought.

 

I ran through the rain-slicked streets, the far-off sound of pursuing shouts and whistles slowly fading into the growing storm. I ran, turning haphazardly at this corner then the next, until I could hear nothing but the pounding rain and see nothing but the stroboscopic blur of railings flickering past. I ran and I ran, water streaming down my face. Eventually, as my lungs began to rasp for want of breath, I slowed and ducked into the topiary archway of some private park. I glanced back along the twilit street. Nothing. Nothing but the oil-paint smear of street-light on water, the mutter of it dripping through leaves. I shivered, suddenly realising I was soaked to the bone. I took one final glance down the street and, seeing no pursuit, I stepped back out onto the pavement. With my collar flicked up and hands thrust deep into my pockets I became just a man hurrying home through the rain, hurrying home to a drawing room fire and a large glass of brandy.

Just a man. Not a murderer. Never a murderer.

I walked down the street, working a plan in my mind. I’d evaded my pursuers, but for how long? Already my limbs were feeling heavy with weariness, with cold, as the jolt of adrenaline faded from my veins. I needed to find a safe place to hide for a time, but my immediate need was for shelter from the storm.

The house looked much the same as others in the street, a tall townhouse of dark stone, set back from the paving with its furrowed eaves looming down. Something about it, some feeling that it too was trying to hide from the world, drew my eye. A single light, shining blue-green through the time-warped glass of a first-floor window, made me think that there might be some lonely inhabitant inside who’d offer shelter to a stranger, at least for a short while. I walked up the path, between dark yews, and pounded on the front door with all my strength, expecting to have to hammer to be heard over the gale. Instead it swung open, without protest, on the first blow. I entered, calling out a greeting in the hallway. Not even echoes in response. I climbed the stairs and walked from room to deserted room, looking for the light that had beckoned me, until I found a bedroom and, without meaning to, I slept.

 

Fitful dreams flickered through the mists of sleep, jumbled up across space and time. Memories floated to the surface of my unconsciousness until they coalesced into one image; Annabella. How she’d laughed with glee at a puppet show in Yellow Park, the jerking dances and squeaking voices making her clap her hands in delight. Her tears, hot and inconsolable, when the news was announced of De Pontellino’s death; days spent locked in her room, playing the master’s cascading etudes on her piano instead of eating; listening over and over to the little music box I had bought her. I saw the day she came to me in my rooms as I was reading my mail. The words she said, having undoubtedly been made to say them by her wretch of a brother. Her face as she turned to leave; her blue eyes, red-rimmed, refusing to meet mine. Her hair tumbling from its amber combs as she fell.

No, she said. Please don’t

 

I woke after what could’ve been an hour or a day into a world muffled by a half-light gloom, my body stiff from sleeping in wet clothes. Dust and cobwebs caked the windows and I could see only dim, immobile shapes outside. I turned and noticed that a suit of clothes had been laid out on the dresser. I found a jug beside the clothes and, thirst overcoming caution, drank the brackish, stale water inside. Then I undressed, changed and left my own garments, now musty with damp, on the bed. As I left the room, just before the door slammed shut behind me, I looked back at my rumpled clothes where I’d left them. The outstretched arms of the shirt seemed to be reaching towards me, clutching at the air.

Out in the hallway, weak light shone from lamps lining the wall. Rain battered against the grimy windows and filled the landing with its clatter but, on the very edge of sound, I could hear the halting sounds of a piano being played in a room on the lower floor. The repetition of a student practicing her scales. I padded downstairs, cautiously, following the sound to a pair of double doors. The music stopped, the last note damped off abruptly, as I approached. The doors opened into a drawing room where a piano, its glossy blackness illuminated by a standard lamp, stood with its keys, aggressively white, facing towards me. Like teeth smiling out from an ebony skull. I turned to look around the room, and started as my eye caught movement. My own reflection in the smeared silver of a gilt-edged mirror. I smiled ruefully just before a jarring crash made my heart leap. I spun around. The piano’s fall-board had slammed shut. Had been slammed shut. As I watched, chest heaving, the key turned slowly in the lock with a grating screech. As it clicked into place the standard lamp flared sharply into actinic brightness, forcing me to fling my arm over my eyes. Pain arced through my head, as if it were being consumed by fire.

I fled, I admit, with my head pounding. Out through the double doors and down the hall, past the stairs I’d recently descended, until I caught my foot on a bump of carpet and collapsed into a window seat. I sat for a while, my head in clammy hands, until my breathing slowed to normal. A branch, blown feverishly by the wind outside, scratched against the leaded glass. Tic tic I raised my head and looked down the hallway. Tic tic. It seemed shorter than the distance I’d run, the drawing room’s double doors only a few paces away. Tic tic. Something nagged at me. Tic tic. Something wrong. Tic tic. I realised. Tic tic. The wind had died away as I slept.

TIC TIC.

I stumbled through a door on the opposite side of the corridor, not daring to look back, and found myself in some kind of study. Dark, burnished wood lined the walls wherever they were free of ceiling-height bookshelves, and a large, leather-topped desk dominated the centre of the silent room. Dry creaking broke the silence as I lowered myself into a high backed chair. I sat, my head tilted back against cold leather, and stared at the ceiling. A spider-web of cracks ran through the plaster, bifurcating fractally until I became dizzy looking at them. I let my head drop forward and noticed that a large, off-white envelope rested on the desk’s top of sea-green leather. A single name was written on it in a flowing script I recognised all too well. Not my writing, not the blocky scrawl I had struggled to master since childhood, but a delicate series of loops and whorls.

I stood and moved over to the desk, picked up the envelope and turned it over in my hands. It was soft with a slight feathering of dust at the edges, as if it had lain there for decades. I read the name, mouthing the words silently, and a finger of dread scratched down my spine: Mr Emmerson Miro.

My name. My name, in Annabella’s handwriting.

I plucked a letter-opener from the rack and slit the envelope’s seal. The paper ripped raggedly, peeling back like the skin of an over-ripe fruit, and I dropped the envelope in disgust. Small fragments of it stuck to my fingers. The letter inside was a single sheet, folded in half and spotted with dark brown patches. Mould, perhaps, or even… No, just mould. I unfolded the paper to read the words written on it. Although the message was undoubtedly written in the same hand there were no curlicues or delicate loops here, just three words scrawled in a frantic scattering of dark ink.

No, it said. Please don’t.

I stood there, holding the piece of paper, staring at the words, staring as blotches and stains began to creep across it until it collapsed into grey flakes and fell through my fingers to the floor. I heard her voice again, as delicate and precise as her flowing handwriting. Please don’t, she said. I heard her saying it, choked around the blood.

I leaned forward, hands splayed out on the desk’s top to support me, and cold sweat beaded on my forehead. The letter-opener lay pinned under my right hand. I barely registered that its blade was now smeared thickly red.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I know this hurts you. I’m sorry, Emmerson.”

“I don’t understand,” I reply. “Is this Tomasz’s doing, Annabella?”

“Tomasz?” her brow wrinkles. “No. Not at all. What would my brother have to do with it?” She lowers her gaze, stares at her gloved hands as they twisted around each other. “It’s… I love you, Emmerson. I love you so very much.” She looks up quickly. Her gaze holds mine, her blue eyes wide. “Yet you frighten me, and I don’t want to live in fear.”

“Fear?” I laugh, a touch too loudly. “What have you to fear?” I move towards her, around the desk, but she backs away. I feel a tightness in my scalp as I narrow my eyes.

“You have…moods,” she stumbles over the words. “A shadow passes over you and the colour, the joy, fades from you.” She walks over to look out of the large window, almost floor to ceiling, that dominates one wall of my study. Her dress, pale cream with red and blue stripes, whispers as she moves. The evening sun is fading quickly, dulled by the threat of black clouds, but a few slanting rays shine through to set the dust motes glistening. She looks like an elf-maid, I think, wreathed in golden light.

We say nothing. The carriage clock on the mantelpiece ticks out its slices of time.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats. “I have nothing else to say.”

“Nothing else?” I’m taken aback by how I bark out the words, how they boil up out of me. “Nothing else? You cut me off, cast me aside like a troublesome servant, and you have nothing else to say?” I laugh hollowly. “Will I at least get a reference for my trouble?”

She turns to face me, her eyes red and glistening. She holds two fingers to her temple. A tear wells, then falls.

“This is what I’m talking about, Emmerson. These icy rages, this sneering. How can I live with something so cold? Tomasz says that…” Her eyes widen and she pulls her hand down to cover her mouth, but the words will not be unspoken.

“Tomasz,” I say his name quietly. “I see.”

“No! No, it’s not like that. He just… He just explained things that I already knew.” She walks towards me, the light around her dying as the storm clouds crowd the sky and fill the frame of the window. Mere feet away, no distance between us at all. “Emmerson, I…”

“ENOUGH!” I howl out the fury that has built within me and fling my arm out wildly to fend off her platitudes. The knife I had been using to open my correspondences, still clutched in my hand, slices a crimson line across her throat. Time stops its even flow and jerks forward, a macabre zoetrope, as the clock ticks out its pitiless rhythm.

Tic.

Annabella stumbles forward, catches her balance, mouth open and eyes bulging.

Tic.

She lifts her hand to her throat and feels the warm blood spurting from the open wound.

Tic.

I move forward, horrified and bewildered, to steady her.

Tic.

She staggers backwards, one hand fending me off and the other clasped on her throat.

Tic.

Blood leaks from her mouth and then is coughed into mist.

Tic.

I press forward. I can help her, explain it was an accident.

Tic.

She steps backwards, eyes fixed on mine, then steps backwards again.

Tic.

Her legs unsteady, her face pale.

Tic.

“No,” the word rasps out of her mouth. “Please don’t.”

Tic.

She steps away from me one final time, catches her heel and topples backwards.

Tic.

She hits the thin glass of the window and it explodes around her falling body in a fountain of diamonds.

Tic.

She is gone.

Tic.

The flow of time returns in a rush.

I run to the window and look out, the wind building and blowing into the room. Annabella lies on the gravel driveway below me, a storey below. Her face stares up into the sky. She doesn’t move, one leg is bent in a way no leg should be. A cry makes me look up, squinting as cold rain starts to sting my face. A carriage is parked in the street outside, the side door swung open. A young man leans out, his mouth open in a look of horror.

Tomasz.

He stares up at me, then leaps out of the carriage.

I turn and run out of the room, out of the house. Out into the storm.

 

I breathed deeply, sucking air in through my teeth and holding it until the blood pounded in my ears. I slammed my fist onto the table top and let the air out of my lungs in a long, hissing stream. An accident. A horrible accident. Tomasz, though, would see it differently and I would become a raging murderer, the madman he had always thought I was. I needed to think, to plan. The storm had died so my initial need for shelter had been achieved. Now I needed to escape, to go away until I could find a way to prove my innocence. I had new clothes, I needed a new appearance altogether. If I could shave my moustache, perhaps. A hat, some glasses. It could be enough to get to the edges of the Fen, where I could disappear for a time.

I wandered the house for a while. Just as hunger began to prick at my stomach I found myself in a dining room, the remains of a meagre meal on the table. Some bread, some cheese. I ate it all. As I sat and chewed I pondered why I hadn’t come across any inhabitants, beyond these few, mute signs of recent occupation. It hadn’t yet occurred to me to wonder why, despite my haphazard wanderings, I’d not yet found myself back at the house’s front door.

The smell of carbolic and the sound of dripping water led me to a bathroom where I hoped I could find the means to shave. It was a small en-suite, lined almost entirely with white porcelain tiles, off a bedroom draped in storage sheeting. Twin bands of dark red and bright blue ran around the wall in an unbroken line. A claw-footed tub sat snugly against one wall. A straight razor lay on a wooden stand with a small bowl of soap, the strop hanging down below it. I turned the chrome-bright taps, half expecting them to cough drily, and jumped slightly as clear, chattering water poured out. I cupped my hands and drank from the flow, letting the cool water run down my chin. Yet the water remained unheated and I resigned myself eventually to the unpleasantness of a cold shave. I stropped the blade to a shine and lathered up the soap. The house allowed me this small veneer of normality, at least.

I began to draw the blade down my face, slicing away sideburns and then either side of the moustache itself. I felt a coolness on my skin, raw and tight. I looked up into the mirror above the sink and saw a face I didn’t recognise. Gaunt and tight-lipped with dark circles under the eyes; an older man’s face, a sick man’s face. Distracted, I let the razor nick the skin above my lip and I yelped. The taste of iron seeped into my mouth and blood dripped into the sink, swirling in the foamy scum that drifted on the water. I cursed under my breath and pulled the plug, watching the water spiral away into the drain. I looked for a towel. There was none. I patted my lip with a sleeve, grimacing at the sharp pain that came with every touch.

The noise came slowly, as if from a far distance. The sound of air moving deep underground; a thin and lonely sighing, stretching out slowly into silence. The light in the room dimmed as if a veil had been drawn over my eyes. A ghostly luminescence still shone from the white tiles, but deep wells of shadow now lurked in the corners of the room. The temperature began to drop rapidly; the hairs on my neck stood up and the freshly scraped skin started to sting. My breath came out in clouds and I watched as fronds of ice began to form on the mirror, clawing their way across the silvered surface to coat it in a layer of frost. Haltingly, like a child’s finger writing its owner’s name in dust, thin black lines began to form in the ice. They slowly shaped themselves into letters. Into words.

“No,” they wrote. “Please don’t.”

I stiffened as the room was plunged into total darkness.

I reeled backwards, arms spread wide. I could hear the crackle of ice as my feet slid on the tiled floor. I started to panic. Then, almost imperceptibly, small patches of blue-green light appeared. Glowing vapour, heavy like February fog, flowed languidly from the taps and oozed up from the plugholes. It seeped from between the tiles. I stared, panic numbed by the room’s increasing chill, as it pooled in the bath and sink, flowed in sheets down the walls. Thin tendrils crept and teased, fell away from the main mass in writhing streamers, before tattering into nothing. Reason returned with the realisation, a thought that bubbled up from some subconscious depth, that I must leave this room before that shining smog reached me, smothered me. I backed away one step, two steps. The eerie vapour had breached the lip of the sink and was flowing down to the floor. It ebbed and pulsed with my steps. I gasped as I backed into something hard and unyielding: the door. I slid my hand over its wooden panelling until I found the handle, turned it and slipped out quickly, shutting the door behind me.

I blinked. The lights had dimmed here, too, but even in the cobwebbed gloom I could see that, impossibly, I had not returned to the sheet-shrouded bedroom. I stood at the end of a long corridor with doors lining either side and the faint gleam of moonlight through glass at the far end. It was a goal, at least, and I began to stagger along the corridor, still shaking off the effects of the bathroom’s unearthly chill.

Something, a near-imperceptible lightening of the darkness, made me look back to the door. Thin, blue-tinted fingers of vapour were pushing under it, seeping through the keyhole. They oozed out and pooled in front of the door, bright in the darkness. Slowly, haltingly, but with a sense of purpose that was almost palpable, it began to flow towards me. I backed away down the corridor, stumbling as I did so, unable to take my eyes off the approaching wave.

From out of the darkness behind the glowing mist came a faint sound: a mechanical sound I found familiar but hard to place. A clock being wound? With a faint click the sound stopped and music, dissonantly metallic, started to play. I felt my throat tighten as I realised what I was hearing. De Pontellino’s unfinished arietta, the one whose beauty they say killed him, rattled out by the senseless fingers of a music box. Thoughts came unbidden of the time Annabella sang the sketched-in finale in the parlour, her voice breaking slightly as she reached falteringly for the soprano’s heights but all the more beautiful for it.

Then, without warning, the music stopped, cut off mid-phrase. The shining fog hung before me, slowly settling into a thin layer just above the floor. It seemed to be sleeping, or waiting.

It did not wait long. The mist began to billow and wave, as if stirred by a breeze, then slowly parted down the middle to collect in bulging drifts at the side of the corridor. Along this channel, something white and indistinct approached. A figure, twisted and bent. Its head lolled back drunkenly only to snap forward as its jerking steps brought it forward. It wore a dress, ripped and sodden, of pale cream with red and blue stripes. I felt the heaviest of weights descend upon my soul.

“Annabella,” I groaned. “Annabella.”

Her bloodshot eyes fixed on mine even as her head pitched back and forward, the gash across her throat flapping and mouthing obscenely. Thin tendrils of the phantom fog clung to her limbs, leaked from her mouth and nose. Her feet, bare and grass-stained, slapped wetly against the parquet flooring as they staggered towards me.

Cold sweat trickled down my spine and spurred me into motion. I began to step backwards, one hand flailing behind me in the darkness. The other I held in front of me, a gesture of warding. Her eyes narrowed and a hissing growl escaped from the rent in her throat. The razor! In my terror I had continued to grip it in my hand and now I foolishly brandished it in front of her, like a sinner proudly calling out his transgressions. I let it drop from my hand. She watched it fall then quickly looked back at me, the bright blue of her eyes shot through with a sickly red.

Without warning, the lamps that lined the corridor flashed and Annabella was suddenly closer. A few tatters of vapour remained floating where she had been, only an eye blink before. The remainder drew in closely about her, twining around limbs and clothing. Another flash and, again, a jump closer. Another flash. Mere feet away, no distance between us at all. Her hands, twisted into claws, grasped for my throat.

I screamed in horror, turned and ran down the corridor, into the blackness beyond the mist’s moonlight glow. As I ran, the lamps began to flash rapidly, now accompanied by a shrill buzzing. Faster and faster, brighter and brighter. I knew, knew with absolute certainty, that each flash brought this grotesque apparition of Annabella closer on my heels. Horrible lurching shadows oozed bizarrely in front of me, spilling from furniture and fittings and waving drunkenly in the oscillating light. The floor seemed to retreat away from me, then rush forward. I stumbled nauseously and collapsed forward, seeming to reach the once-distant window in an instant. My forehead cracked against the glass, shattering it into shards that flared like lightning in the lamps’ epileptic flicker, and white light, unutterably bright, pierced my brain. One thought shot through me before I was suddenly plunged into darkness more intense than any night.

“No,” I thought. “Please don’t.”

 

Her eyes widen and she pulls her hand down to cover her mouth, but the words will not be unspoken.

“Tomasz,” I say his name quietly. “I see.”

I see. Oh, I see. How I’ve been used in these games of torment. The plaything, the novelty. I see all too well. My hand clenches into a fist around the handle of the knife.

“Emmerson, I…”

“ENOUGH!” My hand leaps out, a snake with a single fang, and I hear her gasp as the red line appears on her throat.

Tic.

No. No, that’s not it. I…it was an accident.

Tic.

Red and blue streamers, wrapped around the brim of a child’s sun hat.

Tic.

I watch in horror as the knife, forgotten, cuts into her pale throat.

Tic.

I nod, let her leave.

Tic.

A music box, twinkling the final lines of an unfinished arietta.

Tic.

Annabella, fury crackling from her skin, jitters through space towards me.

Tic.

I look out of my study window. A carriage drives past, a young woman looks out at me.

Tic.

A rocking horse, bloody froth on its teeth.

Tic.

I push out a hand, knocking her backwards.

Tic.

“No,” she says. “Please don’t.”

Tic.

“No,” I say. “Please don’t.”

Tic.

The glass explodes, the clock stops. We fall out into the void, our bodies intersecting.

Shards of glass, motes of dust. Shining in the darkness.

I feel the wind building, the rain on my face.

Something, invisible, rushes towards me and I…

 

…woke into a world muffled by a half-light gloom, my body stiff from sleeping in wet clothes. I scrabbled off the bed, half-falling onto the floor, and fell backwards into a heavy wardrobe. The water jug, the clothes, the cobwebbed windows. I reached up to my face, felt the soft hair of my moustache. I dropped to my knees, pitched forward onto the carpet, and lost myself in great, heaving sobs. Steam rises from my twitching body.

 

Since then I have wandered this house, this set of interlinked and seemingly endless spaces; attics and cellars, bedrooms and box rooms. I find fire-grates still warm to the touch when I am cold, baskets stacked with crusts of bread when I am hungry. I’ve found music boxes skipping through a single line of music, tin monkeys shaking enamel cups as their clockwork slowly winds down. Corridors that stretch off as if to some far, bright horizon.

I have never, not once, found another living soul.

Perhaps there are none, not even I, in this place that has been constructed from death, this house of ruin.

 

There’s somebody else in here, in this house. Someone who shouldn’t be. Someone who can’t be. Somebody I once knew and who thought she knew me. My Annabella. My Death.

I shouldn’t be here.

I won’t be here much longer.

I will leave and I will return, as I always do.

As I always must.

I smile grimly at the thought.

 

And thus it will happen one day that a man will be born again, just like me, and a woman will be born, just like Mary — only that it is to be hoped that the head of this man may contain a little less foolishness — and in a better land they will meet and contemplate each other a long time; and finally the woman will give her hand to the man and say with a tender voice: ‘Let us be good friends.’” – Heinrich Heine, 1797 – 1856

by

Daniel Pietersen

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