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Submitted into Contest #64 in response to: Set your story in a Gothic manor house.... view prompt

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Drama Historical Fiction

    A home's memory doesn't begin when the foundation is laid. It doesn't begin when the scaffolding is built, or the walls erected. The garden being grown and a lake being dug do not stir its consciousness, no matter how beautiful. No- the home's memory begins the moment someone names it “Home”.

    “Welcome home, my dear.”

    The Master of the House opened the door and the Mistress walked through, awe and elation etched upon her face. Her skirt swirled as she looked about her, the soft fabric whispering against the waxed floors. Her wide smile said more than any words would do justice. The Home watched as the Mistress went from room to room, fingertips grazing the walls as if to ensure their reality. The Master trailed her quietly, his eyes bright and heart glad. Each room in the manor was a new adventure, one they shared together inside the Home's warm embrace.

    Like any young couple finding their way into fortune, they began to entertain. The Home drank in the good cheer and well-wishes of the Master and Mistress's friends like cool water on a warm day. The rooms breathed easily, even with the many guests tapping their wooden heels to a string quartet. Kisses were stolen in the moonlit garden. Old friends shared drinks on the balconies. No hallway lay barren and cold in the warm summers of their youth.

    One bright morning, the Master called for a doctor. Servants wrung their hands and the cook brewed bone broth for the Mistress, who was so ill she had not left her bed all morning. The agitation of the Home was light though, all of them so young as to think themselves impervious to ill-fortune. The doctor arrived within the hour. The door was shut. The Home listened as the doctor asked the Mistress questions. The Mistress moaned and answered in a whisper as she lay in repose. When the doctor threw open the door to admit the Master, a smile on his face, the Home relaxed, allowing a cool breeze through the window to dry the sweat at the Mistress's brow. Agitation was replaced with delight. Soon the whole house rejoiced and the Mistress was brought all the bone broth and bread she could care to eat.

    In the coming months, the Mistress's stomach swelled and her walk became a waddle. The Home did its best to accommodate her, letting breezes sweep through halls in the heat of the day and cocooning her chambers in warmth at night. As the Mistress walked from room to room, stopping down the long halls to catch her breath, the Home supported her as she leaned. Curtains shifted and the Home brought forth the sun, shining on the lake out front, for the Mistress to see and drink in. The Mistress smiled at these pauses. She then would wipe the sweat from her brow, pat the wall in thanks, and continue to her destination.

    The first inkling of fear appeared in the form of the Mistress one night. Pain and concern etched brows. A doctor was called. Even in the good hands of the doctor and a midwife the fear did not entirely abate. The Home watched, holding its breath, while the Mistress's chambers were warm and humid with perspiration. The first gasp and cry echoed in the Home's rafters. A child appeared. Fear and sweat were wiped away. Tears of joy and pain intermingled with the child's first wail.

    The Home watched this joy four more times over the Mistress's lifetime. Each gasp of a new child the Home kept for itself, a reminder of the wonder of life in its halls. Each life compounded the happiness that permeated every stone and every floorboard of the manor. The Home reveled in each excited shriek of a child running from room to room. It watched as the children hid behind curtains, climbed windowsills, bounced down the stairs. It kept tabs on the animals the children would bring in, secreting them away in a guest room or in the maid's chambers. The chaos that erupted as the Home allowed each one to escape brought lectures and laughter. The Home decided that laughter was what it liked the most.

    Each year the children grew older and the happiness continued. A governess was brought in and the Home enveloped her in the mix. While the children played and screamed in the gardens, the Home would catch the governess, in a moment to herself, hum a tune and smile as she gazed out the window. Each tune the Home memorized and saved for later.

    When the Master's hair began to gray and the Mistress's dresses grew wider, the Home realized the children were no longer children. The girls were the first to go- all three were married off within a few years of each other. The Son had gone to town to learn his father's business and, while there, bought his own home. He arrived one spring morning, bringing a young woman on his arm. Letters were written, tears were shed. All the children were gone. The laughter lessened. Servants departed.

    Laughter did not disappear, though- instead it became quiet. Soft smiles and chuckles between the Master and Mistress, both bent with age. Good-natured ribbing between the cook and the maid, nearly as old as the Master themselves. The dry humor of the doctor, telling the Master to lighten up on the Easter hams during the fall. The Home let these small joys ferment, savoring the sweetness and letting it play in the air over the gardens.

    The Home's first true taste of despair was the Master's death.

    It was slow. The Mistress fussed over him, telling him something wasn't right, telling him to call the doctor. The Master waved her off, refusing to believe he wasn't the young man who first crossed the Home's threshold. When the night drew over them, the Mistress tossing and turning and the Master sound asleep, the Home felt the air thinning. The Master's eyes shot open, he clutched at his chest, and gulped air in spurts, waking the Mistress from her fitful sleep. The doctor was called. The Master went slack.

    The doctor arrived only in time to tell the Mistress that there was nothing more he could do. The Master set to dying, slowly, over the course of the next week, while the Mistress wiped his brow and did her best to water and feed him. The children all returned, dragging along their own children, though there was no laughter and no playing. Every soul in the manor was morose. The Home sagged under the weight of the tears being shed between its walls.

    The night the Master died, the Mistress had fallen asleep in her chair by the window. He gasped, reaching for the ceiling, wrinkled hand seizing in the darkness. The Home held that gasp, just as it had the children's first breaths. The Home now knew death.

    Two weeks passed. The Mistress walked the halls as if in a daze, aimlessly wandering the manor. She always ended up at their chambers. The Home held itself up as she wept silently in the privacy of their bed.

    Meanwhile, the Son began giving orders. Orders the Mistress knew naught about. On the last day, the servants were packed and the Son's Wife had stolen into the Mistress's things while the Mistress strolled the garden. When she returned the Son told her they were leaving and she was to join them. The Mistress protested. It was only with great argument, many tears, and the wails of the Mistress was she separated from her Home. The carriages pulled away for the Son's home in town. The Home felt the Mistress's broken heart all the way down the lane. It never saw the Mistress again.

    The Home had never been left empty for more than a week before. Now it sat, alone and bare, for weeks on end with no reprieve. The life inside it had gone. All that remained were the remnants of joy, the gasps of life and death hanging in the halls, and the last wails of despair. The House grew cold. When the Son and his Wife did return many months later, the Home had changed.

    The Son no longer held love in his heart for the place. The children did not play or shriek, for the Wife was quick with her hand. The servants had no joy in working for her. The Wife nitpicked and complained about the wallpapers, the light fixtures, the rugs. The Home was chilly that summer.

    Years of cold summers and empty winters passed by, the Home barely noticing. It took time for it to notice that, one year, the family had forgone a summer visit completely. Then two. The Home ached for company, for life- none came. It shuddered in the cold wind, its windows dark and the rooms hollow. With no one to look after, the Home began to grow tired. Time marched past.

    Footsteps at the door roused the Home from its drowsing and it stretched its aching joints awake. It was the Son, now going gray with age. Beside him was someone the Home recognized, but only just. After listening in, the Home realized it was the Son's Son. The two men walked the dusty hallways and inspected cobwebbed rooms. They placed marks on furniture and nodded in appraisal of the bookshelves. Then they were gone. The Home reached out but was ignored.

    A few weeks later the Home became alarmed as strange men appeared, holding a key and pulling furnishings and antiques out of its rooms. The Home creaked and groaned in protest, violent drafts blowing winding down halls. As the men ransacked its insides, it realized what had happened. Only furniture with the Son's marks were being taken. The Son had done this.

    Many more years of on-and-off looting by the Son left the Home spartan. One main bedchamber. One guest chamber. Servants quarters. An old dining table and a few moth-eaten chairs by the fireplace. The bookshelves were barren but for a bible and a few faded journals. The Home felt violated. Betrayed. Emptiness and gloom now ate away at the places were life was born. Mice entered the floors uninvited. Windows cracked in storms. Roof tiles slipped and fell only to be covered in moss by the next season.

    When a strange carriage pulled around the front, the Home wondered if it was the men, coming to mark and tag the last of the Home's heart to be carried away. Instead, a young girl stepped out, looking frightened. Out of the other end of the carriage stepped out the Son's Wife.

    The Wife was now bent with age, gray and drooping, but age had not cooled her temper. The Wife dragged the girl inside by the arm, fingers clawing into the young flesh. Once inside, a second carriage arrived, this one with a maid and a cook. The Wife spat at the girl in hushed tones, shaking the girl's arm violently. The maid entered and the Wife pulled away from the girl, hands shrunken into fists. The Wife left without another word and the carriage pulled away.

    The Home wondered at the exchange and looked on as the girl spent the next few days crying and hiding in the main bedchamber. The maid brought her food, leaving it outside her door. The girl didn't touch it until the third day.

    The girl prayed. Sometimes she would lay in bed and hold a hand nervously over her stomach. Once she regained her appetite, she ate ferociously. The Home understood and began to call her Mother.

    The Mother ventured out of her bedchambers on the fifth day. She looked out windows like a bird trapped in a cage. Tears still slipped out of the corners of her eyes. The Home refused to let this child spend her days like this. The Home began to brighten.

    As the Mother sat in the dining room, the Home called on the birds that nested in its roof to come sing. When the Mother walked in the gardens, the Home let the ivy that had grown on its walls flutter. If the Mother looked out the windows, feeling trapped, the Home brought forth the sun or the breeze and let the dusty curtains dance in the wind. Within a few weeks, the Mother started to smile. Then the maid. And the cook. And the Home smiled with them.

    Smiles became grins. Grins became chuckles. Chuckles turned to laughs. They were not as frequent as the Home might've liked- the Mother still had spells of weeping in darkness- but it was more than it had felt in years. The dust was shaken off the furniture, the mice banished from the storerooms. The Mother's stomach grew and the mirth in the household grew as well.

    The Home watched as the maid felt the Mother's stomach, feeling the baby's first kicks. It watched the cook run out in the morning to fetch fresh cream for breakfast. The Mother smiled as the town doctor checked in and let her hear her baby's heartbeat.

    The love in the household was short-lived, though. The last doctor visit brought fear back. Sadness swept through the manor once more, no matter how much the Home blossomed. All it could do was support the Mother's back as she sat against the wall, hunched over her belly and crying.

    The day came. The doctor was called and the Child born. The Home reveled in the first gasp of new life, the first it had seen in decades, but could do no more. The elation the Mother felt died as the Child was taken out of the room. The Mother wept into the maid's breast.

    The Mother was allowed to recover for a week before the Wife came back. Under the oppression of the Wife, there was no joy, no laughter. She restricted the Mother's diet. Forced her to walk the gardens, even as the Mother ground her teeth from pain. The maid and cook watched on, sorrowful. Within four weeks, they were all packed up to leave. The Mother watched the Home from the carriage window, much like the Mistress had the last time the Home saw her. Then they were gone and the Home left alone once more.

    This time, there were no more summers. No movers came to take the last of the Home's life. The only guests the Home entertained were pests, plants and decay. It lost track of the years as the seasons changed and the sun rose and fell in the horizon. The Home sank in on itself, caving and curving as time ate away at its supports. Walls crumbled. The cracks in the windows multiplied, then shattered the panes entirely. Once the outside was let in, it was over. Wind, rain, and snow invited themselves in and rotted the insides. The Home was dying. So it slept.

    In hibernation, at least, the Home would not have to feel the splintering of its life, the beginning of its death. Instead it could dream. It dreamed of the children's laughter, of the Mistress, of the Mother. The balls and the music blended together into a wonderful vision of jubilation that the Home held on to, afraid to let go of in fear that it would signal the end. The Home had seen the beginnings and ends of life; it didn't want to lose those in the rubble.

    “Welcome home, my dear.”

    The Home roused. Someone had crossed its threshold without it noticing. It shook itself awake, trying to get a fix on who had entered. Two people stood in the entrance. Sunlight beamed down on them through a hole in the roof.

    “This is really yours?” the woman asked.

    “Yes. Passed down through the family. It wasn't supposed to go to me, though. But all the other heirs died in the war.”

    The Home tried to fix its blurry vision on the man. He seemed familiar. An aura attached himself to the Home, something the Home didn't quite understand.

    “Bit run down,” the woman said, kicking at a fallen roof tile.

    “Yes, but- well, it could be grand, with some love.”

    “Your mother loved this place, didn't she?”

    “Yes,” the man said, wiping at his eyes, “After she found me, it was all she talked about.”

    The man gasped a little, trying to hold down his tears and the Home recognized him. The Child. The Mother's Child, taken from her minutes after birth. He had returned.

    “What do you say, dear?” he asked, “Shall we go through with it?”

    The woman nodded.

    The Child brought many men. They spent weeks, months, mending the Home's supports, replacing the rot, and polishing the stone. The Child did much of it himself, a large grin on his face and exhilaration in his heart. After a year of constant attention and love, the Child came back with his wife. They furnished each guest room with bunk beds. The servants quarters were updated to house staff. The kitchen was extended and the old lake was now clear and safe for swimming. The couple moved in and, shortly after, placed a sign in the front lawn. It read “Manor Orphanage”.

    Soon the Home's halls were filled with the shouts of children, the joy of play, and laughter. Laughter enough to shake the rafters. The Home rejoiced. Everything it had ever loved had returned. Everything it had ever wanted could stay. The Child was no longer a child. The Home had a new Master and Mistress. The Home knew the end would come, as it did for everyone- but for now it would allow itself to rejoice in the second life it had been granted.

October 23, 2020 22:17

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2 comments

Madi K
15:45 Aug 18, 2021

I loved the balance between the laughter and the sadness. It made everything more compelling and real. Your characters have so much feeling and solidness to them, bravo!

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Carolyn Mc Bride
16:44 Mar 05, 2021

I can barely see through the tears to type. This story reached out and grabbed me, held me and never let go. Your skill with words had me crying halfway through. This is my favourite of your stories.

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