The House of Sleep: Conclusion

dark roseShe lay a long time on the floor, the chill and damp of the house claiming her from the skin inward, and the frost of despair turning her to ice from the heart outward. Her mind slowed. Her cheek pressed the cold floor. She closed her eyes and waited, but the House of Sleep would not admit her. She remained in the twilight emptiness between it and the waking world, vaguely aware of her cramped, frozen limbs and the sweep of shadows that passed over her locked eyelids as the sun crept by her windows. As though from a great distance, she heard the biting and gnawing of carpenter’s tools on the barred door. She felt the gust of its opening, and heard the clockwork man’s soft approach. Her eyes creaked open just enough to confirm that he stood over her, the scuffed toes of his boots filling her vision.

“You had to look, didn’t you?” he said. “You couldn’t leave that damn mirror alone.”

When she made no reply, he crouched by her and stroked a tendril of hair from her face.

“You’re like ice,” he said, and his tone was accusatory.

He reached under her and lifted her. He was strong again, now that he had the key to wind his heart. Warmth radiated from him, and she felt herself begin to thaw. He laid her on the bed and chafed her limbs, and she snuggled into the quilts with a happy murmur. There was still magic in the old sleigh bed. Perhaps now she could enter the House of Sleep.

“No, no, no,” he barked.

He slapped her cheek lightly, and she sat up and opened her eyes in sudden fury. “How dare you! Get away. There is nothing to keep you here now. Why don’t you go?”

He leaned toward her and spoke through gritted teeth. “You know what I want. I’m not going without it.” He put a hand over the smartly revolving gears, the delicate tripping hammers, of his heart. “Give it back. It’s no good to you, and hasn’t been for a long while if only you could remember.”

He was so changed, and he was wrong. She did remember. She recalled his eager smile each time she woke, the care he took to please her, and the sorrow in his eyes when she returned to her dreams. He spoke so roughly now, as though he believed she had stolen something from him, when the truth was that he had given it freely. She sighed and fell back against her pillows. She was too tired to argue.

“It won’t fit you now, I’m afraid,” she said. “Everything about you is different. We have both grown ugly, each in our own way.”

He had the grace to look ashamed. “You aren’t ugly. Never that. And I … I only want to feel again. You’ll go away, as you always do, and I have grown weary of waiting for your love.”

It was true, she’d never loved him. Yet, looking at his youthful, weary face, she felt a pang. She opened a drawer in her bedside table and took out a small black box. It was made of pasteboard, much scarred from jostling among the expensive baubles and love tokens left by her admirers. She stared at it as though seeing it for the first time.

“Is that it?” His voice sounded choked.

She nodded and handed him the box. Almost fearfully, he opened it. She watched his face, saw the hope flare and ebb. He turned his gaze to hers, and his eyes were empty. Without a word, he tilted the box so she could see what lay on the yellowed tissue paper within.

“Oh …” Again, that pang. Tears started to her eyes.

A daub of shriveled red lay there. It looked very much like a dried rose that had succumbed to time. It was not a rose. It was his heart. She looked up at him, at the lost expression on his face, and felt her own heart throb for him. She opened her arms to him, and he sank against her, breast to breast, and laid his head on her shoulder. She felt the whir and click of the clockwork, and the magic that still hovered about the sleigh bed, and the bittersweet pang that might have been love, after all.

“I have something I want to give you,” she whispered.

He started back with a cry, his hands flying to his chest. The clockwork fell from him like petals from a rose. The flesh over his heart was smooth and unmarred, and a living organ beat beneath it. She smiled at the familiar sound of it as she slipped across the threshold of the House of Sleep for the last time.

“Thank you, Mother,” he sobbed.

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The House of Sleep: Part III

creepy mirror
CRAA-ATCH, snick, CRAA-ATCH, snick.

She leaned against the bedroom door and listened to the maddening sound of the key scraping and turning in the man’s clockwork heart. She put a hand over her own heart, imagining what it must be like to feel the springs tighten, the gears catch and bite at each other with renewed purpose. Could he hear it ticking, the way she sometimes heard hers beating? Did the sound frighten him? Her stomach rolled in a slow knot of nausea.

She floated on the lake of her memory like a woman in a boat, staring down into the murky green at an image too heavy to surface. It hung in the dimness like a body, weighty with its time in the depths but impish enough to rise anyway, just out of reach. There was something familiar about its shape. She leaned toward it, and it rolled its slack, white face up at her. The clockwork man! She knew him. Recognition brought a slick of cold sweat to her skin.

A thump from the other side of the door jarred her from her reverie. She gave a shrill cry and hopped away. The doorknob turned, but she had shot the bolt and he couldn’t get in. She listened to him breathing.

“You can’t hide in there forever,” he said. His voice was soft, his tone reasonable. “I have the key now. I could leave.”

Was that supposed to be a threat? She wished he would leave. Her gaze slid toward the bed, with its cargo of tatty quilts. The promise of sleep that rose from that warm nest was almost overpowering.

“You know what I want,” he said. “Why not just let me have it? After all this time, why not?”

Another thump shook the door, its violence giving the lie to the quiet, cajoling voice. He was furious, and after all that had happened, she could not blame him. She remembered now, had reached down into that cloudy water and fished up the deed that bound him to her.

“Go away,” she hissed. “You have your bloody key. Take it and go. You never should have come here. I never wanted you.”

He was silent so long she thought he had gone. When he spoke again, his voice seemed close to her, right in the room.

“I want what’s mine. I’ll be back for it.”

She heard the tread of his boots on the creaking boards of the hall, on the stairs. A sound rose from below that she had thought never to hear again. The house door opened with a ghastly moan, then slammed shut. A flock of echoes rose like startled doves to the rafters of the cathedral ceiling.

***

She sat at the window through the night, watching the forest under its frost of moonlight, listening to the restless scrabbling of the roses. She couldn’t think where the man had gone or why, but she did not doubt his word that he would return. The fire had gone out, and the room was cold enough that her breath hung before her. She ached to lie down, to close her eyes and dream, but she was under siege. He would be back, and she would have to deal with him.

As dawn melted the last of the dark, she stood and stretched. She was surprised at the stiffness of her joints, and at the depth of her fatigue. She had woken before, she remembered, and seen to the task of winding the clockwork heart. She had always felt strong and rested. There had never before been such signs of neglect about the house, either. The man had kept it well, and she had been able to return to her slumber satisfied that the fragile suspension spell would not be shattered.

Uneasiness bloomed in her mind. She went to the mirror and touched the thick black paint that marred its elegance. Her fingers – oh, they seemed so thin – plucked at the rubbery little tags of paint that stuck up here and there. She pulled a few long ribbons of the stuff from the mirror and stepped close to observe her reflected eye in one of the slivers revealed. What she saw wrung a shocked gasp from her, and she clawed at the paint, stripping wide flaps from the glass.

At last, enough of the mirror had been uncovered to allow her to see her face. Her hands went to her cheeks, but did not touch the ravaged beauty. The skin, once so taut and radiant against the fine bones, had softened and sagged. There were trembling jowls, and a terrain of fine lines about the eyes and around the lips that had thinned and lost their saucy ripeness. Her hair, that once glorious fall of pale sunlight, was white. She stared into her own wide eyes, and a keening sound rose around her. She recognized her voice, wailing in horror, as she slumped at the foot of the mirror.

to be continued…

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…

Gardens of Witchy Delight

I’ve been contemplating faerie-tales. Ruminating upon them, mulling them over, inhabiting them in the dark forest of my imagination. Not the sanitized, overly sweet pap currently dished up for children, mind you, but the blood-freezing marchen my great-gran used to tell in the howling winter gloom – tales of witches and goblins and poor, lost children. Magic permeated those tales, dripped like black honey, deliciously sinister, from every word. I don’t think I slept comfortably for years, yet I wouldn’t trade one fright-filled night for all the handsome singing princes and bluebirds of Disney. I was a child of dark mind, and I guess not much has changed as I approach my 43rd birthday.

One thing that always fascinated my young imagination more than all the other fantastic fare in those venerable tales was the recurring witch’s garden. Shades of my future, I suppose. I am an avid gardener, much given to musing on the magics inherent in my unruly masses of herbs and billowing borders of wildflowers. Every bird that flits from elderberry thicket, every toad that bumpily blunders from beneath the clary sage, every dark-eyed chipmunk that whisks along the shaded understory of the roses is replete with enchantment. Does a squadron of wild geese shadow the moon, or a lone heron draw a blue line across bales of autumn cloud? It is a sign. It is a story. And the story is magic turning in the air like faerie lights, and I am gone from this modern existence as speedily as Alice down the rabbit hole.

Rapunzel was a passive bore, up there in her tower room; the prince no match for the wily witch and her spellbound thorns. The witch’s garden started the whole show, filling Rapunzel’s mother with such longing that the doomed trespass was inevitable. I longed to enter that garden, so tantalizing it was worth the price of a daughter.

Sleeping Beauty, silly thing, never heeded the 13th Faerie’s curse; she stuck her finger on the spindle just as she was warned all her life not to do. I had no patience for her. But the thorny rose fortress that bloomed with witchy vigor around the sleeping castle – that was treasure to me. All those roses, fat on the blood of vanquished princes whose bones hung amongst the thorns in mute warning, those roses clambering up and up, and sprawling out toward the forest, roused a desire in me to have my own rose-girt haven.

Another Beauty found herself the price of desire when her father plucked a rose from the Beast’s enchanted garden. Such a garden that was! And the house that extended from it was itself a living thing – the ultimate magic garden to be lived in like a wildling, sheltered by a spell of dire elegance. The idea of confusing in with out, of transforming garden beds into green rooms and carpeted rooms into lush gardens, turns my head like a rare perfume. The swooning perfection of the witch’s garden lives in my mind as the pinnacle of magical deftness. The stories all avow the ease with which the charm can be joined.

All one has to do is to gather up the courage to step through the gate…