"Diary, can a place born of evil itself become evil? I have done nothing more to deserve this than to be born here."
First, a thin whistling, then angry buzzing, then waves came like the tide, washing over black iron fence and surging through parlor walls. Searing, unseen swells washed across marble floors, poured down stairs and seeped everywhere but the pantry and kitchen. Esther clutched her diary to her breast in a fetal curl on the kitchen floor as night sounds, sharp as pins, hissed through the walls and rippled down her spine. She gripped her pen, and scratched jagged, trembling words onto the page.
"The others died with their lives in order, their souls at peace. I have no distinction from them, except that I am the last."
Weeks ago, her cats had left and never returned. Insects swarmed the grounds at sundown, but the nighthawks had left. Only leathery wings came to feed at dusk. The house creaked and moved around her, timbers shuddering against the brittle, wintry night. Huddled on the kitchen floor, she could see the inky outline of the counters and iron stove above her and, higher up, pinpricks of faint stars that rippled through window glass. She drew a ragged breath and eased her grip on the pot cover held over her head until she heard something move across the floor above her.
In the dim light, she shuffled to the foyer and staircase at the carriage entrance, steadied herself on the banister and tried to fathom the silence. Someone, or something, drew itself up and stood in the shadows of the balcony above, looking down the curved staircase.
There was no answer, only skeletal tree branches tapping against the high windows above. Something fluttered and fell at her feet. She retreated, slipped, and fell. More fluttering and more impacts on the surrounding floor. Leather slapped at her and she felt a sharp blow to the top of her head that sent consciousness swirling away to a cold, still blackness.
Pale sunlight roused her, stabbing at swollen eyes. Torn yellow pages pasted with news clippings held in green leather binders were a sea of green around her. They were her notebooks, precious green binders she filled over a lifetime of reading, clipping, and pasting. Pain stabbed her ribs as she tried to stand. She clutched the staircase handrail with both hands, heaved herself up and started up the stairs.
She hobbled hand-over-hand up the staircase. Toppled stacks of binders blocked passage to the hall. There was no one there. A breeze blew leaves through the doorway of Mother’s bedroom and rustled them across the stone floor. She found her elegant oak secretary turned over, its contents dumped out. Amid the clutter were her diary books, writing papers and pens. The checkbook was missing, but she would stop payment and let that be that.
In Mother’s room shattered glass near the window’s open sash lock let in the frigid night wind. She taped a piece of cardboard over the hole, gathered up the pens, paper, and diaries in her skirt and carried them down to the safety of the tin and copper kitchen.
Esther put water on for tea and warmed herself by the stove. Tea always lifted her chill, loosened the stiffness in her hands and eased the pain behind her eyes. She sipped, gathered her wits, and thought of the cats of her childhood. Tabitha, Thomas, Calypso... she remembered each one so well. How they soothed her as a child. How they brought her to a peaceful state when she caressed their ears and silky backs.
The mail slot in the front foyer clanked and letters tapped onto the marble floor. The bank’s monthly transfer notice was on top. Esther peeled open the flap of the envelope and pulled out a familiar white letterhead.
"Dear Miss Brandt,
Per the provisions of the trust established in your name by the estate of your mother, Mary W. Brandt, we have transferred your monthly payment of ten thousand five hundred fifty dollars to your checking account with this bank, to be used at your personal discretion.
If I may be of further assistance to you, please do not hesitate to call.
Marcus J. Winther
She sat at the kitchen table, steadied her hand and penned instructions to Mr. Winther to draft checks against her modest bills, composed a brief list for the grocer and renewed orders for flowers on the family graves at Rosewood Cemetery. Seventy-eight hundred dollars would remain until the next transfer, when she would have Mr. Winther again divide the surplus between a house account, the Public Library, the Humane Society and the Red Cross. Esther sorted her mail into two small piles, the first to read. The second, unopened, to kindle the fire. Today she received another long white envelope with dark raised printing at the corner and placed it into the second pile.
In the distance, the sweet sound of a violin drifted from the music hall. The radio set left playing there made her vaguely uneasy, but it was also a comfort of sorts, filling the lonely corners of the house with classical music and the occasional human voice. A television set had also been there once, but she could not tolerate its presence. She had them haul it away, those awful men laughing to each other as they carried it down the walk. Brandts. It seemed amusing justice to them, somehow.
Her shoes clopped over the marble floor and their echo within the house reminded her of her loneliness, of her diminishing ability to hold on alone. She found the scissors and what remained of the current pot of white paste. Items clipped from newspapers, magazines, fliers, handbills, anything printed formed the sifted tapestry she wove from carefully chosen facts, layered one upon another. But up is now down. White is now black. Light has become darkness. Good is now evil. Life is death. In a single lifetime, humanity had blown open the doors of the world and let all manner of evil in.
Time itself had changed. Country clock towers had once set the standard within each village and town, varying by as much as fifteen or twenty minutes from one to the next. What happened beneath each one was all that mattered. Should larger events impose their will from elsewhere—wars, the deaths of presidents—the people beneath this village clock would decide what import it had to them. But asphalt covered the cobblestone roads and clock towers eventually stopped and left frozen in time for lack of people who knew how to fix them. Wrought iron was no longer the brink of this world, when news of worldwide events from across the state, the nation, the world now poured in unchecked, detailing humanity’s triumphs and achievements, yet also unrelentingly documenting its daily brutalities. Too many choices, too much information, too little knowledge from messengers who sat in distant, sterile air-cooled rooms with blue carpet, glass desks, and swirling colored backgrounds, assaulting unassuming unbelievers with each added detail, each new, deeper horror.
Her shoes fell silent on the dining room oriental, then rang again as she entered the Music room, with recent entries in fresh pages. Esther stacked them on a table to dry.
There was a day when the pain first came, she recalled, rippling like rolling pins across washboards. The cats had understood, as they always somehow did, and Mother accepted that without the need of further evidence, for her cats took young Esther to a peaceful state.
“She reads like a sixth-grade boy,” the sniveling Principal Arnold Parsons had said about her—God rest his soul—-an insult nestled in a compliment like a rock in a raisin cookie. “Yes, Madam, an exceptional mind for a young lady,” he would coo. “She’ll make a fine and cultured wife one day when she develops sociability.”
"As if that little man would have the slightest idea about any of that."
Children of the town were rough and vulgar, not at all like Mother, Jensen, Woods or Millie. Father would have caned them within an inch of their lives had they been Brandts. Children ran, hollered, threw snowballs against the windows, played stickball in the street, scared the daylights out of Mother and one Sunday in June fulfilled her most dire prediction with the fateful smashing of a rose-tinted Tiffany window.
The servants planted maple saplings and thick evergreen hedges between the house and the street. Dirty, sweaty men with stinking, smoking horse-drawn carts forged a black iron fence around the grounds. The city poured an oily, black cover over the hopscotch wheel ruts in the road.
Esther worked at the Library after school, returning each night, disappearing behind the burgeoning greenery along Hemlock and Pine.
The town’s children had children. Some left. None returned.
The city packed the street with blue-black asphalt and the noisy charge of autos drove horses from the roadway. Mother took ill and a doctor came. Two men carried her down the marble staircase and out into the world, never to return.
The town’s children grew old and died, forgotten in their passing by all but the obituary page of the now extinct Leitrim Champion, their lives terse paragraphs before the names of the funeral parlors that paid for the listing. Esther read more newspapers, magazines, and books. She clipped and saved, pasted, and rebound the words and pictures, taking the measure of the world outside by its paper replica, constructed of clean volumes bound in green leather. She piled them around her desk, her room, out into the hallway against the wall, down the corridor, and over the years down both sides of the halls, deep into the house. She felt comfort from the nearness of her green books, and, yes, comfort from the organizing and sorting of such an untidy world. They became her proof of the world, nothing less.
Esther sealed her envelopes, stamped and placed them in the slot for her mailman Gerry to take the next morning. At the kitchen table, she sipped her tea, took up her green and gray Waterman fountain pen and scratched another entry into her diary.
This house grows larger by the day, shooting extra branches and wings like wisteria vine in the spring, as though some critical ballast fell away when Mother died. It fairly breathes now, adding rooms and doors I do not recall passing through before. Tricks of an aging mind, I know, but some corners, some rooms, some halls are so foreign to me I fear them, fear what lies behind them as if were again a child. I am the last, a lonely, childless old woman and it has come to me these few months how suited I am to this unhappy task. While the others surpassed me with each of their personal gifts I have taken on a bit of each of them in myself, living through their lives, through their deaths, to remain the pale distillation of that which came before.
Last night the waves were stronger, and I believe I heard Father in the house. There have always been things about this place that frightened me—though I know each stone, each board, as I know my own hands.
What has been my crime? My punishment is clear.
I am condemned to live—
Esther spent her day wandering rooms populated by her past. She walked through the sitting rooms and foyer, up the staircase to the library, past Father’s den and the scandalous marble bust of Mother carved by the handsome young Italian hired to sculpt Lion’s Gate. Mother was a youthful woman in full flower then. Young and foolish, she would later say. She sat in the music hall, naked to the waist for a dozen warm summer afternoons, curtains drawn to the street, doors open to the gardens to let in the warm air and sweet fragrances that caressed her skin while the young man furiously hammered chisel to stone. It was a whim that nearly cost her marriage, yet one she never spoke of regretfully. The artist had left a likeness in the stone so beautiful that afterward, despite his anger, Father could not bear to have the bust destroyed. And so, the artist carved the second lion in some haste; the first sleeping cat took three months, the second, wild-eyed and frightened, a mere three weeks, angrily pounded out in the garden tea house. "He is a brilliant artist, Mother protested, one who does not deserve such disrespect. They may one day call him a master. Would it have been so shameful to have disrobed for Goya?
“Goya is dead,” Father answered, repeating the remark to himself in quiet moments for almost a year afterward.
The door knocker at the carriage entrance cracked twice against its strike plate. A youthful woman’s voice called from the other side of the heavy wooden door. “Hello? Is anybody home?”
The knock sent Esther’s heart into her throat. She sat motionless, daring not to breathe.
“It’s your neighbor from down the hill. It’s Margaret Haart.”
Esther rose from the table and moved toward the rose-hued stained-glass panel beside the door. She could make out the milky, blurred form of a woman who appeared to be alone. Esther worked the bolt back from the door and opened it an inch. “You do not look like a Haart,” she said. The slender young woman forced a smile from under wind-whipped rust-red hair. She wore a crisp white blouse and a reddish-brown blazer that complemented her coloring. “I’m Robert Haart’s daughter.”
Esther opened the door wider. “Robert?”
“Robert’s daughter,” the woman nodded. Esther opened the door wider and smoothed her own wild, snowy hair with one hand. Margaret took a weary breath. “You knew my father.”
“I’m sorry to tell you―he―has died.”
Esther put one hand to her mouth and ushered the young woman in out of the wind. She stepped around a heap of green binders that spilled over the stairs and led her down a dim, gritty hallway to a library where red leather chairs sat around a pink marble fireplace. There was no fire, but warmth radiated from the stone. Esther offered one chair and sat near her.
“Oh, poor Robert,” Esther said. “How did this happen?”
“It was sudden. Quite a shock. In his car two nights ago. A heart attack, they think.”
“You and your poor mother, dear. You must be devastated.”
Margaret brushed her hair back from her face and it was then Esther saw Robert Haart, Sweet Robert, the bone structure, prominent forehead, and sincere green eyes. Margaret looked vacantly into the fireplace and said, “I can’t believe it.”
Hair askew, clothes rumpled and soiled, this woman still seemed to Margaret to be above her class—a bone china doll grown old. Esther nodded. “You are Robert’s Meggie? You never came here with him, did you, dear?”
“No. We went to Rhode Island a lot as children. My mother was from Newport. Father always went to Maine by himself.”
“He treasured his privacy and peace,” Esther nodded.
Margaret looked away. “Yes, well, it was my mother’s choice that we never come here.”
“Why didn’t she want to come, dear?”
“Her concerts, fund-raisers, political committees, I guess. The woman never sleeps.”
“I always thought Robert would marry a Maine girl. Raise his family here.”
“Mother would have divorced him and left him for dead before she’d move to Maine.”
“Yet, you are here now...”
Margaret smiled weakly. “Yes, well...”
“With your own family?”
Margaret’s face stiffened. “No. No children. I’m soon-to-be-divorced, myself.”
Esther put her hand to her mouth again. “My poor dear, you have been through a lot of pain, haven’t you?”
“You could say that.”
“I am alone,” Esther nodded.
“You live here by yourself?” Margaret asked, looking around the large, ornate sitting room.
“I’ve lived here nearly my entire life, dear.”
“Someone must help you care for such a big place, surely.”
A puzzled look came over Esther’s face. “I suppose I should have someone, but the servants have gone on.”
“Died, dear. Each in their own time.”
“And there’s no one from town to help?”
“You are from away, dear,” Esther said. “Father owned the mills and was hard on these people and generations of their kin. I understand how they must feel. Really, I do.” Esther folded her hands in her lap. “I am the last living Brandt, you see. Mr. Harris at the market brings my groceries. Mr. Winther tends my financial affairs. I pay them well.” Esther thought for a moment and then said, “There was your father. Robert’s father worked his entire life for my family. He managed the mill, and Robert worked there for a time before he went off to college. He was one of the few who came back and always came to visit when he was home.”
Margaret nodded, “He told me so much about it. I’ve been clearing some garden path between our houses. I hoped you wouldn’t mind.”
“The garden,” Esther said approvingly. “Yes, Robert always wanted me to let him clear the garden.”
“You didn’t want him to?”
“Oh, that would have been just lovely, dear, but he was always doing so much for me. Fixing the roof, clearing the gutters, putting in the new glass when the children break the windows.”
“Break the windows?”
“Well, yes, sometimes. They have little else to do, poor things. They come up here on the first few warm nights of the spring. They call my family names and they throw rocks.”
“One never quite gets used to a thing like that.”
“The police don’t put a stop to it?”
Esther sighed and spoke slowly and patiently. “Willard Twitchell tries, dear. He can’t be up here every night.”
“You should call every time the little creeps set foot near your property.”
“I don’t have a phone, dear. Never could tolerate those sorts of things.” Esther raised her eyebrows and shrugged quizzically.
“Well, I have one in my pocket,” Margaret said, “and I’ll likely be awake if they come again—”
“In your pocket? Really? Oh, my.”
Margaret looked toward heavy curtains shrouded a window. “I’ve cleaned Dad’s house, weeded the flower beds and cut half the brush from the garden path between our houses. Still, I can’t seem to sleep more than two hours at a time. I guess I’m a mess.”
Esther nodded. “Oh, stay the summer, dear. Try to relax a bit. The sea air will work wonders. You’ll see.”
“I also have to decide what to do with the place now.”
“You may grow anything in the gardens you like,” Esther pronounced. “Near the gazebo is a patch of ground where Robert used to plant. And you’re always welcome in my house, dear. As Robert was.”
Margaret looked at the floor for a moment and seemed at a loss for words. She rose to leave, and Esther took her hand, holding it long enough to study her guest’s clear green eyes, but also to let skittering, scratching sounds scurry before them down the hallway.