The House of Sleep

briar_roseShe woke in cold confusion amid the rumpled hillocks of musty quilts, on a high sleigh bed in a room silvered by evening light, at the top of a narrow house replete with dirty windows. Outside, the luminous depths of the woods spoke with a thousand voices –tree frogs chanting their paean to the drizzle and chill as the light trembled toward gloaming. From her position on the bed, she could see the tops of the trees, their black bones aflame with tender leaves, their verdure magnified and made radiant by the rain. She sat up, her hand to her brow, pale hair hanging over her face, and drew the topmost quilt about her shoulders.

How did I come here? Where have I been?

She put one bare foot over the edge of the bed and lowered it to the floor. Her toes touched the soft flannel braids of a handmade rug. Her heel pressed it. Sudden silence expanded in the room and made her ears pop, and then she heard a soft scratching outside the windows. It seemed to come from every side, a sound like claws dragged lightly over the old clapboards. It advanced and receded, became insistent and lapsed into sulky whispers. She tiptoed to the window and peeked out.

Roses girt the house, strong green whips, wickedly barbed. They had clambered up the porch posts, and buried the roof. They waxed and waned with the wind in an awful kind of respiration, their thorns skittering over the skin of the house. The crinkled fans of their new leaves flexed in the last light, and the hard knuckles of their buds rapped at the windows. The roses sprawled out into the overgrown clearing that had once been a lawn, an impenetrable wall from which the house rose like a shabby, besieged tower.

“Oh. Oh, no,” she whispered, her hand to her mouth. Such neglect must have gone unchecked a very long time.

As the first stars caught fire above the forest, she turned from the window and sank down upon the bare planks of the floor. She might have sat there all night, stricken by the menace of the roses, but the cold knocked on her bones, and she shivered herself into wakefulness. She crawled to the fireplace, dragging the frayed quilt with her, and struck a match. The fire burst from the dry wood and rushed up the chimney. In its ruddy light, she saw a tall mirror in a shadowed corner, and she climbed to her feet and rushed to find herself in the glass. But the mirror was black, obscured with paint that slopped onto the graceful pear wood frame and showed her only a distorted haze of a reflection in its smeared gloss.

Suddenly angry, she screamed at it. “Tell me my name!”

The mirror made no answer, and the shudder that had disturbed the stifled air of the old house at her shout left a deeper silence in its wake. She became aware of the tidal drum of her own heart. Its thudding climbed from her chest to her ears and set the girders of her skeleton ringing until it seemed she heard two hearts instead of one. She closed her eyes to will away the frightful rhythm, and the second heartbeat revealed itself as the heavy tread of boots on the stairs outside her room. She was not alone.

to be continued…

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