At the top of a hill, reachable only after a slow, bumpy drive through dense and shadowy woods, sat a house. A grand one. Well, once. Built in the 1870s by a wealthy landowner, the house was designed in the popular Queen Anne Revival style, with warm red brickwork and an asymmetrical front. It had a wide porch and corner tower which was throttled with ivy by the time the young man and his pregnant wife bought the place, 140 years after the last brick was laid. A strange and oddly beautiful place, it had struggled to attract owners for years due to size, dereliction, and the quantity of bizarre architectural and design features dotted around the estate - so many in fact that the sellers couldn’t assure the new owners that they knew about them all.
When it was new it had bustled with the growing family of the landowner, whose younger children and his grandchildren were all born there, attended to by numerous staff who kept the place up. A landed gent with a steady income and little else to occupy his time, he’d developed a keen interest in spiritualism, popularised at the time by the Fox Sisters across the Atlantic, and in the interest of attracting spirits to his regular seances, had made quite a few unique additions to the otherwise perfectly normal (if you were rich) family home. Narrow servant’s corridors hidden throughout a grand home weren’t unusual, but for the intrepid explorer, picking the right servant’s corridor and following it to a hidden staircase would lead one to a private study, to where the master of the house would often retreat to escape the trials of family life. The young man and his wife had been shown it when they first viewed the house. It had been one of the reasons they’d bought the place, agreed to restore it, vague plans of running a hotel solidifying in their minds as they toured the dusty, strange old place. There were rooms where the lights had no off switches, there were false windows, there were inexplicable staircases. It had lain empty, just barely maintained by the family’s estate, now run by distant cousins, for over three decades before the young couple took it on, and the restoration work had begun in earnest by the time we find ourselves, in mid February, with the young man as he stands in the back door of the kitchen, looking out at the rambling, overgrown garden beyond.
The sun had just set, and twilight was seeping across everything, staining the old walls with a purple glow. The walls were tall and had once been stately; now they were crumbling and weary and partially obscured by decades of ivy. The wall that connected to the house was covered in evergreen clematis; in the rising moonlight the winter blooming flowers looked like snow along the climbing branches. The walled garden was a ruin of its former glory, where upon the eccentric command of the owner, a bemused gardener had planted it with winter blooming flowers and shrubs, and though in the decades of neglect it had run wild; glimmers of the careful and unusual world he had created remained. White forsythia grew abundantly under the kitchen window, its tiny flowers, newly blooming for February, crowding around the old panes of glass. As the moon rose, the darkness solidified, and the garden whispered. A weeping witch hazel, laden down with flowers that looked almost black obscured the patio, the spread of the dragging branches covering every ancient flagstone. Yellow camellia grew over the gate at the far end of the garden, opposite the kitchen door, and would need to be cut down for spring, when the garden, which would be losing its winter coat of blossoms by then, would actually be put to use; planted with the kind of sensible flowers and vegetables they could put to use in their kitchen and eventual guest bedrooms.
The secret study and the inexplicable winter garden were not the only things the young man and his wife had discovered in their new home. A creaking dumbwaiter still laden with plates had been found early on, with a scream of fright and a huge crash when the whole thing became detached and tumbled straight to the bottom of the shaft, and after that they’d been quite unkind about the old woman who’d lived there last. She’d been the granddaughter of the original owner, they were told, and she’d lived in the place alone for decades. She’d become a focal point for the couple’s frustrations about the place. Dumbwaiter laden with dishes? It was the old woman that did it! The strange staircase on the third floor that seemed to - even with the help of a structural engineer - lead to nowhere? It was the batty old woman who installed it! She became a Sarah Winchester level eccentric in their musings about her, and their invented story of her life became more and more absurd as they discovered new strange things about their house, like the fact the place had twelve fireplaces and only three chimneys, or the corridor that was painted in a way that seemed like abstract impressionism at one end, but at the other end, if you looked back, clearly depicted a series of greek statues painted along the walls in the kind of optical illusion you’d need projectors to have a hope of completing nowadays.
The young man was thinking about the old woman as he stood in the door frame and looked out at the garden, with it’s strange, false hill - clearly a man made mound - in the centre of the garden, upon which stood a tree, which the young couple had planned to cut down as it obscured the view of much of the garden from the kitchen. His mouth was agape as he looked at it now though, framed exactly inside the February full moon.
The moon was enormous, supernaturally big, and incredibly, beautifully white, and the tree, which was a winter cherry, stood proud, its branches heavy with pink blossom just reaching out beyond the moon’s frosty edge. The man picked his way across the garden, over the heaps of winter heather spilling onto the old path, and through the masses of yellow flowers that the golden glory had weighing down its bare twigs, and ducked under the branches of the old cherry tree, to look at its trunk. He didn’t know why - it’s not like there seemed to be a reason for most of the rest of the house’s oddities - but something told him that this tree was not there by accident. What was the old woman playing at this time? He was feeling around the trunk, trusting the moonlight to show him anything when he heard the kitchen door closing behind his wife, who’d just stepped into the garden.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked him, tiptoeing along the almost hidden path. “It’s freezing,” she said, stepping under the tree with him, and taking his hand.
“Didn’t you see?” he asked her, planting a quick kiss on her temple. ‘The moon and this tree?’
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Good night for a full moon, isn’t it?” she said, pulling him down for a better kiss.
“Valentine’s,” he said, after the kiss, smiling down at her. “That can’t happen very often! I can’t remember the last time it did.”
“I actually know the answer to that, weirdly enough,” his wife said, going to look closer at the trunk. “My parents got engaged on Valentine’s, 1968, and there was a full moon. That was the last one. Look, here,” she said, her palm pressed against the trunk. “There’s something carved here.”
“It’s a heart,” he said, leaning close and squinting in the almost-dark.
“No it’s not,” she said, frowning, “it’s an arrow. Or a dart. Look, there’s a bit pointing down.”
“I think that’s just the tree, I don’t think that’s part of the carving. It’s a heart.”
She crossed her arms over her stomach and raised an eyebrow. “It’s pointing down,” she said. “Get a spade, I bet there’s something buried in the roots.”
“I don’t want to damage them,” the young man said, tucking a strand of his wife’s hair behind her ear.
“I thought you were going to chop it down anyway,” she replied, and leaned against the tree.
“I thought you were cold!” he shot back at her, but smiled and went to fetch a spade anyway. When he returned, his wife had brought a chair from the kitchen and a blanket for herself. “Can’t be too uncomfortable in my delicate state,” she said, rubbing her round belly as he sunk the spade into the hard February soil.
It didn’t take long for him to hit something solid, and he pulled the box out of the ground with numb fingers. It was metal, and at one point was probably polished to a very high shine. It had probably once been locked, but opened with little effort now.
The moon had risen up, beyond the tree by this point, and it was smaller and less magical than before, but it was still supernaturally bright, and there was still light enough to read from the little book inside, that the box had once belonged to a girl, who had loved a boy, and they’d loved each other from when they were children, and they first saw the full moon rise upon her grandfather’s cherry tree on Valentine’s day in the year 1900. The man and his wife held hands, and saw that underneath the little book were letters, which told a story of the boy going to war, and the girl he left, who’d lived in the house behind them. The letters told how her brothers had gone to war too, and she’d stayed with her parents in the house and they’d received letter after letter with the news of another life lost, and her father grew strange and sad, and thinking of his own father’s flirtation with the spirit world, began to build staircases to nowhere in the house, and trapdoors and secret passageways and false doors in the hopes that if he could lure his sons back home, their spirits, their consciousness - anything of them he could possibly reach - he could keep them there with him, in the house.
The garden grew quiet and soft as they read, and though the February breeze swirled in the trees that hugged the house and gardens, they were impossibly warm. The girl waited, the letters said, until the war was won, and then she waited some more, but the letters stopped coming, and she stopped sending hers to the front, addressing them still to the boy, but writing as if in a diary. Her father never really recovered, and the house, she wrote, remained resolutely spirit-free. She waited until Valentine’s Day, 1919, just a few months after the world was supposed to be safe again, when she got the dreaded letter and learned she’d never see her husband again. On that night, the full moon rose again, and she buried her past in the roots of their cherry tree, where no-one had looked for almost a hundred years.
Suddenly the old woman of their jokes and gripes and Sarah Winchester fantasies was gone, replaced with a broken war widow. She’d changed in an instant from eccentric, miserly, the kind of strange old crone who’d die without emptying the dumbwaiter, who’d let her house be choked by ivy until it was creeping into every room - into a different kind of creature, a lonely figure in a tower, whose parents and brothers and husband left her one by one until she alone was left with the rising damp and the overgrowing gardens and the strange, mind bending illusions scattered around her forebears’ grand house.
The man and his wife returned to their kitchen, and looked out of the window at the tree; the spade still leaned against its trunk.
“We’ve been awfully rude about her,” she said.
“I know,” he replied. “I feel dreadful. What a shame. I hope she found some kind of happiness.”
“I suppose we oughtn’t blame her for all the strange stuff about this place anymore.”
“No. Her dad and grandfather, maybe, but not her.”
“I don’t want you to cut the tree down,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to, even if you did,” he replied, resting his hand on her stomach, which was as beautifully round and full as the moon outside. “Next full moon on Valentine’s day, we’ll have something amazing to show him,” he said.
“Or her,” she replied, leaning against him and smiling up at the moon. The moon gleamed, the house creaked, the garden whispered, and the man and his wife were quiet.