The Unhouse

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Start your story with the whistle of a kettle.... view prompt

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Historical Fiction Suspense Fantasy

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

 The whistle of the kettle woke Alsa in the middle of the night and in turn she woke the entire Unhouse. 

Clara was out of bed first, shuffling into the fussy baby’s room and picking her up. Everyone else stayed in bed ignoring the baby’s screams with pillows wrapped around their heads. Clara elected not to take the kettle off the stove. Someone else could get up and do it. Alsa was already awake, there was no sleep left for Clara to lose. 

It would be dawn before Alsa rested again. If they were lucky. Whenever she cried she shrieked and gasped and shrieked some more. Colicky. Mr. Seir had called her when Alsa first arrived, and Clara asked if she was sick. She was just colicky, Mr. Seir declared. Clara had been colicky too when she was a baby. Colicky Clara he'd called her. It was another thing she and Alsa shared. 

Alsa’s father, like Clara’s, went on a whaling ship and never made land again. Alsa’s mother, like Clara’s, fell asleep on the birthing bed and awoke in a pauper’s grave. 

Alsa, like Clara, went with Mr. Seir to the Unhouse by the sea. 

Mr. Seir had four children in the Unhouse, none of them his own. Clara was the eldest, charged with looking after the other children, especially Alsa. Her colic wracked the other children’s nerves, but Clara was a bit hard of hearing. Where Alsa’s shrieks pierced everyone else’s ears, they merely reached Clara’s.

Enoch was the second eldest. He followed Mr. Seir around the Unhouse and pretended to take notes on him as though he were a newly discovered beast and everything he did was worthy of documentation. He had mountains of notes and drawings shoved under his bed in the Unhouse attic. 

The youngest of Mr. Seir’s children before Alsa, was Byron. He liked to sneak around the Unhouse. He was so soft-footed he could get away with all manner of mischief. Byron liked to wear a dark veil and hide in dim corners like a shade. He would wait for hours to jump out in front of Clara at the right moment. He even caught Enoch off guard now and again, though he was careful never to frighten Mr. Seir. 

Other children came and went from the Unhouse, but they never stayed for long. 

Alsa was hiccuping from swallowing so much air while she cried, and the discomfort only made her cry harder. Clara laid on the hard floor of the nursery, Alsa still in her arms. She screamed right in her face, her tears and spit and snot dribbling down on her. Clara closed her eyes. She thought she was very lucky to not be much for hearing. She fell asleep like that, the screaming Alsa on her chest, the hardwood on her back. 

She awoke to Enoch standing in the doorway, staring down at them. He had his notebook and was feverishly sketching the two of them. Clara sat up, careful not to jostle the sleeping Alsa too much.

“You look very ugly when you are asleep,” Enoch said, matter-of-factly. He imitated her sleeping face. Mouth open, head turned to the side to reveal her sloping jaw. It was hard for the bony little Enoch to even imitate it.

“Sh,” Clara said, a finger to her lips. She carefully rose and returned Alsa to her crib. Byron was waiting outside the door to leap at her when she stepped out. He scared her so often at this point she expected him around every corner, and he always managed to be there. She closed the door silently behind her.

“Was it you that put the kettle on!” she demanded and snatched him by the ear through the layers of chiffon that made up his veil. He squealed. Clara slapped a hand over his mouth, dragging him down the hall away from the nursery and all the way downstairs.

Mr. Seir sat in the parlor, an old, pale-leather-bound book in his lap. He frowned at them as Clara shoved Byron forward.

“Cut his feet off!” she said, stamping her own foot down, “or chain him up at night!”

Mr. Seir sighed and put his book to the side. Enoch had already taken up a seat on the sofa to begin notetaking. Mr. Seir crouched in front of Byron who’d tumbled, tangled up in his veil, into a heap on the carpet. He gingerly lifted one of his little, soft, feet.

“No chain would fit around this ankle,” he said. “But cutting through it would be quick work.”

“It wasn’t me!” Bryon cried, squirming to free his foot from Mr. Seir’s light grasp.

“Who else could have done it!” Clara demanded, fists on her hips. She didn’t have patience for Byron’s constant mischief. She didn’t mind caring for Alsa, but that didn’t mean the boy had to make it harder on her.

“Enoch?” Mr. Seir asked, looking over at the boy while he scribbled his notes.

“I was asleep.”

“As was I,” Mr. Seir said, tugging thoughtfully at his mustache.

“Me too!” Byron said.

“Don’t lie,” Clara snapped.

Mr. Seir still didn’t seem convinced, though to Clara it was obvious. He returned to his chair and picked up his book again. “Could it have been a ghost?"

“Yes!” Byron said, “A ghost. Exactly. The ghost of our fathers.”

“Or our mothers,” Enoch offered, not looking up from his notebook. Mr. Seir nodded, satisfied they’d come to a conclusion.

“See, Clara. Byron is innocent.”

Clara kicked the boy in his leg, and he yelped and fell down again, wrapping himself tighter in his veil. “Hey!” he cried.

“It was a ghost,” she said and stalked away to the sound of Mr. Seir's laughter.

***

That night Clara took Alsa for a walk on the beach. The sun had long since set, but Alsa had been awake crying all night and sleeping most of the day. It would be hours before she slept again. The air was very still, Clara thought, as still as it could be with the lapping waves nearby. The churning sea was as still as she would dare ask it to be. The stars and moon were bright enough to see by, but it was getting darker by the moment.

In the distance, Clara spotted a figure, silhouetted against the open, midnight-blue sky. She stopped dead, her heart thundering and breath held. She hoped Alsa would not notice her sudden tension.

The figure held a bit of fire in his outstretched hand. It glinted off its metal container, and Clara could make out what it was, a small oil lamp. The figure tipped it and poured the whale oil into the sea, a tail of fire fizzling out as it met the tide. The sudden burst of light was enough for Clara to make out the shape.

“Mr. Seir?”

When she’d left the Unhouse everyone but she and Alsa had been in bed. Though she hardly trusted Byron’s ‘sleep' she'd never seen Mr. Seir up at this hour.

He turned and as soon as he spotted the girls he made a mad dash for them. Clara gasped and Alsa, sensing her panic, began to scream.

Mr. Seir ran right up to them and shoved Clara over, tossing the oil lamp nearby so it shattered and lit the wet sand on fire. In that faint light, she could see his bare feet as he bounded back toward the Unhouse. He floated like a little boat even on the loose sand.

Luckily, Clara landed on her back, and though she was in the throes of shrieking now, Alsa was unharmed. The smell of whale oil and hot, wet air, filled Clara's nose as she stood and backed away from the small fire on the sand. Past it, she saw Enoch, notebook in hand. He didn’t offer help. He turned and followed Mr. Seir back to the Unhouse.

Clara followed, wet sand sticking to her back and her bare arms. She felt like a woman of sand brought to life. She brushed off layers of her sand skin, unstable and crumbling as she wandered back to the Unhouse.

She entered through the kitchen door. The only light was the lit stove, reflections of the fire flickering against the full kettle over it. She growled, removed the kettle, and put out the stove.

“Clara,” Mr. Seir asked from the darkness behind her. She turned to face him, though she couldn't see much more than shapes in the darkness. She lit the stove again so she could see by it. “Do you have my oil lamp?”

Alsa was still crying. She hoped it woke up Byron.

“Why did you push me down?”

Mr. Seir approached and held his hands out for Alsa. Clara held her closer.

“Come now, Clara,” he said, beckoning for her to hand the baby over. She didn’t move.

“Did I ever tell you girls about Cerulean?” he asked. She shook her head. He never told her about anything. Sometimes she sneaked into Enoch’s room and pulled out his papers. She liked to read them and learn all the secrets about the man in the Unhouse. She had guessed the boy made most of it up. Mr. Seir was not a forthcoming man by any means. Clara didn't believe Enoch had accrued so much information just by observing him.

“Were you a Vicar?”

There was no religion in the Unhouse, but Clara had seen drawings of a black cassock and white collar. Mr. Seir smiled and nodded.

“I still am.”

"But we do not pray.”

“I do,” he said and beckoned once more for her to hand the crying Alsa to him. She extended her hesitantly and as soon as she was away from her breast he snatched her. She did not stop crying, but the heavy gasps for air and shrieks subsided somewhat. Or it only seemed so because she was not in Clara’s arms anymore.

“Why did you push us down?” she asked again.

“To see if you would get back up,” he said and turned to walk into the darkness with Alsa. Clara followed close behind him, keeping square with his back as he went from the kitchen to the dining room. He took his place at the head of the table. By the time he sat Alsa had stopped crying.

“How did you soothe her?”

“I was in love with Cerulean,” he said, sighing wistfully and leaning back in his chair.

“Is this a story?” Clara asked, hesitantly taking a seat across from him. Enoch was already sitting there, already scrawling notes even though it was much too dark to see by in this room. Clara knew Byron was somewhere nearby, though she could not see him, and she could not hear the sound of his chiffon veil rustling like everyone else could.

“Start from the beginning, please,” Enoch requested, flipping to a new page in his journal.

Mr. Seir cleared his throat. “Sometimes, children, there are nights with no stars,” he lied, “this was one of them.

“On this starless night, I was called upon to perform last rites on Cerulean’s husband. I had wanted to marry her years before when I first met her at a funeral. She was already married though; her husband was my cousin.

“I was so heartbroken. That is why I joined the church. I could not imagine marrying any other woman, so I devoted myself to loneliness. Imagine how disturbed I was years later when Cerulean’s husband perished at sea.”

Just then the kettle whistled in the kitchen. Clara searched the room for Byron, but still could not make anything out in the dark. Enoch and Mr. Seir both ignored the kettle, even Alsa did not stir.

“I was the only holy man she knew, so she called on me to perform last rites.”

“How did you perform last rites without a body?” Enoch asked, utterly detached from the story, and interested only in the finer details.

“She had his body. It floated ashore with the rest of the flotsam, blue and bloated. Cerulean didn’t care. She held his frozen hand and kissed his cold lips. I have never seen a woman so in love.” 

“So, you did perform the rites?” Enoch asked only for the sake of clarification. 

“Yes, but I crossed my fingers and said the words wrong.”

Clara wanted Alsa back. She could not hear if she was whimpering anymore, or even breathing. She could not make out the scratching of Enoch’s quill, or the rustling of Byron’s veil. He must have turned the kettle off, otherwise, she couldn’t hear that anymore either. Mr. Seir’s voice was clear as day though.

“Cerulean was pregnant with his child. I wanted to cut her open, pull it out, and throw it into the sea to perish as its father had.”

“Did you?” Clara asked. Byron was looming, she couldn’t hear him, but she could feel him. He would spring out any second in his horrible, black veil.

Mr. Seir reached out and lit the candle in the middle of the table. His face was ghastly in the dim light, all shadows, and hollows. His eyes were pitch dark in his sockets. She felt frozen in her chair, staring into those dark holes.

“Where is my oil lamp, Clara?” he asked. He was angry with her. She turned up her chin indignantly.

“Why did you push us down?”

“It wasn’t me,” he said, smiling as he leaned away from the candle, descending into the inky nothing surrounding them. The Unhouse was filled with nothingness. “it was a ghost.”

Just then Byron leaped out from behind the last empty chair at the table and Clara nearly fell out of her own. She gasped and shouted a small, “Ah!” Her exclamation was enough to wake Alsa from her unnaturally peaceful slumber. She began to shriek.

“Now look what you’ve down, Clara,” they all said in unison. The kettle whistled in the kitchen. She shot out of her chair and ran to take it off again. Byron was already in front of her in his horrible veil. She reached to snatch it off him or shove him out of her way, but he darted back, out of her grasp. She lunged for him again. This time he leaped forward and kicked her in the leg. He giggled as he sprinted off and vanished back into the nothing.

From the kitchen window, she could see small flames still bobbing on the beach where the oil lamp had broken.

She picked up the kettle and put out the stove again, plunging the room back to black. The faint glow from the beach was nothing. The Unhouse swallowed it up.

Clara dumped the scalding water out on the tiles, and she heard Byron cry out as he ran over it with his soft feet. He slipped and fell into it. His veil soaked in the boiling water and pressed it against his skin, the fabric melting into him.

“Let me guess,” Mr. Seir asked from the doorway over the sound of Byron’s painful yelps and Alsa’s colicky cries. He sounded leagues away like she was deep underwater, and he was above it speaking to her. “The ghosts did it?” 

August 27, 2022 03:07

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