October 15, 2012

A House Divided


A House Divided
by Gary B. Phillips

Ich gestehe! I confess!

I killed him. Though that word does not do the act justice, I assure you. It was a cold and calculated murder. I tell you this now because no court in the world would find me guilty.

He was in the study, sitting at his mahogany desk; a ledger spread out before him. The stresses of his life had creased his brow and thinned his hair and he looked much older than his twenty-nine years. I had watched him perform this secret ceremony for years, stealing their fortune one pfenning at a time.

He got up from the desk and paced to and from the window, glancing out though never noticing the garden walls that hid the streets and factories of Brandenburg. The yellow-leaved golden elms stood like silent guardians around the topiary garden. Goldflame honeysuckle vines crawled up the gardener's house and yearned for the sun behind the day's dead, grey sky.

My body ached from watching the man's wearisome ritual and I stretched and settled back into place as quietly as I could.

He stopped and turned his ear to the ceiling.

"Hello?" he asked.

Had he heard my bones creak? It didn't matter, I saw my chance. A loose stone provided the perfect weapon. One strong blow to the head felled the man and he crumpled to the polished floor. His blood pooled at my feet.

The constable and doctor came at once and examined the body, then the stone and the high ceiling with the hole that matched the broken piece.

"Casus fortuitous, an act of God," said the constable.

"Or a poor craftsman," said the doctor with a laugh too long for his own wit.

I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. A damp wind blew through the hallway and Elisabeth pulled her shawl around her.

She stood outside the study with the maidservants and listened to the two men explain the circumstances of the man's death to the stoic master of the house and his grieving daughter. The servant girls wept as the body was taken away, but Elisabeth did not cry.

My first memory was of her. Elisabeth. She was alone in the quarters she shared with the servant girls, sitting at a white vanity. An ill-fitted camisole hung off her shoulders as she combed her long chestnut hair and hummed to herself. Her fox terrier hid under the vanity and nipped at her callused pink feet.

I was young then and watched her from that room. She did not know I was there. The other girls--Hungarian and Polish and Jewish--may have suspected me though they never voiced it to her, only exchanged nervous glances and hushed whispers as they polished furniture in the sitting room or changed sheets in the bedrooms. I watched Elisabeth dress and undress and read to the servant girls. It wasn't lust, not then, just the curiosity of a child.

Elisabeth did not mourn or fast after his death, instead she kept herself busy attending to the needs of the lady of the house while she grieved. Each night, after seeing the mistress to bed, Elisabeth returned to her own quarters, said a silent prayer and removed the rose cut garnet adorned necklace that she kept hidden under her garments during the day. She placed it gently under the base of the candle holder by her bed.

The night after the funeral, Elisabeth retired to her quarters with the girls. She had been offered her own room when she became the lady's maid, but chose to stay with the girls.

She read to them from a tattered book of poetry that the master had collected in his travels. She spoke the words to them in English first, taking great care to pronounce them, and then translating it to German.

And when I could no longer look, I blest his grace that gave and took, That laid my goods now in the dust, Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.

After they were asleep she put the necklace on without hiding it, took the brass candle holder from her bedside and wandered the halls until she found herself in one of the home’s many hidden passageways. The array of gems around her neck sparkled in the flickering candlelight as she walked the corridor and entered the room where she used to meet her lover in secret.

"Why did it happen?" she said. "Why did you leave me?"

She cried there on the cold floor. I wanted to comfort her, to tell her I loved her, but I could not.

She seemed to age overnight. Her body was still young, but her countenance was vacant with care-worn lines where there had been none before.

My victim came to me that night, dried blood on his translucent head. He asked why I had killed him.

"When she loved you, you only loved yourself," I said.

He cursed my name and begged to see her.

As with the other spirits, he was not free to roam the hallways and displace the living. Not without my permission.

"In time, you will prove yourself useful and then I will grant your request," I said.

He wailed in distress, a sound that echoed through the halls and woke the living.

In the weeks following the funeral, the newspapers ran rife with speculation contrary to the official cause of death. A deadly affair! Heir to Richter wealth murdered by spurned wife after affair with maidservant. The town ate up every word, like a dog lapping its vomit up from the street.

The servants spoke of these rumors often, in hushed tones around Elisabeth, and never around the mistress.

Each night Elisabeth walked the path to the study and cried on the floor. When she did sleep it was restless, pervaded with nightmares. She told the girls of the dreams each morning as they prepared the table for breakfast; the dark creature that watched her from the shadows of the house.

"It's nothing but a dream, of course," she would tell them.

I saw the truth in her eyes.

* * *


* * *

Elisabeth's nightmares worsened as summer plodded to autumn and then winter. In her dreams the dark creature entered her room, rose up above her bed and whispered revelations that she did not remember in the morning.

The servant girls went to the mistress and pleaded with her. They told her that Elisabeth was afflicted with nightmares.

"Nonsense, she is keeping up with her duties," the mistress said, dismissing them back to their own chores.

The first snow of the year fell on a cold November evening. The servants gathered in the small common room to be together and warm by the fire. They reclined on the curved camelback sofa and sang hymns together. Elisabeth sat at the solitary desk, away from the warmth of the fire and wrote in her journal. Her pen scribbled along the page in great curves. After she finished, she wiped the pen clean on the small cloth under the ink reservoir, closed the journal and excused herself.

In her quarters she found the little brown bottle of laudanum. The label said it was from Baltimore and I wondered what wicked path it had traveled to arrive into her hands. I saw tears well up in her eyes and realized with horror that she knew exactly how it had come into her possession and what she would use it for. She closed her eyes and took a deep swig.

She winced from the bitter taste and stifled a cough in the crook of her arm. The wind howled outside and masked her sobs as she took another deep drink.

I did the one thing I could. I let out a guttural and unrecognizable moan that frightened the servant girls out of the common room and into their quarters. They found Elisabeth there, already unconscious.

Again, the spirit of my victim came to me.

"She's dying. I beg of you," he said, his incorporeal face twisted with grief.

I had murdered him. I owed him at least this much. I allowed him to go to her.

The doctor was called upon and arrived with haste. Every member of the house gathered to watch as he inserted a small rubber tube into her mouth. He fed it in and listened to her stomach. When was satisfied with the position of the tube, he had the girl with the driest eyes hold it as he poured a small amount of saline in. He then pressed his lips to the tube and siphoned it back out, repeating the process several times.

He monitored her through the morning and left late that afternoon with strict instructions to keep her hydrated.

She recovered slowly and her sleep no longer seemed troubled. While awake she read books of poetry to the delight of the maidservants. She laughed with them and smiled often.

Something had changed in her. I summoned my victim.

"What did you say to her that night?" I asked him.

"I saved her," he said.
"How?" I asked.

"I told her this was not a home worth dying in."

A fortnight later her health returned in full. She awoke early and kissed each of the girls as they slept, then she removed her necklace, placed it on the vanity and left.

* * *

Summers and winters passed and the world went to war. Revolution came and the monarchy crumbled. But the promise of the revolution failed and the golden age never came. Even the Richter family fortune dwindled. Elisabeth's contemporaries aged, had daughters and granddaughters of their own. Loyalty to the family kept the servants caring for the old home, though the family could seldom afford to pay their wages.

The servants spoke often of Elisabeth and each of the girls received letters from her. I have seen mountains larger than any country and a tower to rival them. I have traveled across deserts and seen ancient places. Beauty and love is in every place. Look for it there. I miss you all.

* * *

On a cloudless blue February morning Elisabeth returned home. The lines on her face were now valleys and canyons, a map of the places she had been.

She following the snow covered path past the wrought iron gate. Ivy covered walls flanked the estate's front door. The once proud face of the manor had crumbled with war and disrepair. When she reached the door she did not knock, simply opened it and walked in.

A small girl running through the corridor spotted Elisabeth in the foyer.

"Hello," the girl said.

"Hello, I'm Elisabeth."

The girl skipped into the foyer, the red gems on her necklace bouncing with each step.

"That's a beautiful necklace," said Elisabeth.

"My mum gave it to me."

"Is she here?"

"She's cleaning. Follow me."

Elisabeth did as she was told and followed the skipping girl down the hallway. She let the tips of her fingers brush against the cold stone as she walked. "I didn't know you could miss a home like this," she said to herself.

I smiled. My soul was warm and the fires burned brighter in their hearths. The master of the house was informed of her return and a small celebration was planned. The cooks prepared a feast.

That evening, they ate liver dumpling soup and roasted duck with red cabbage, and for desert, black forest gâteau. The whole of the house gathered; men, women, and children, servant and master alike, they all sat together. Music and glühwein and mirth flowed from the dining room.

After the children had been sent off to bed, Elisabeth told of the great plague spreading across the land. Man turned against man, neighbor against neighbor, and friend against friend. They took up uniforms with strange insignias and marched across the land.

"I have seen them kill," she said. "They will come here. And they will kill us."

"I will not allow it," said the master of the house.

"You will have no choice," Elisabeth said.

"Then we will hide them."

Elisabeth retired to the guest room early that night, weary from her travels. There were three small knocks at the door and when she opened it she found the young girl from the foyer on the other side. In her hands she held the garnet necklace. The girl held it out and placed the necklace in Elisabeth's hands.

"It's yours," the girl said. "Mum told me."

"Not anymore. It was from long ago and I no longer need it. Please keep it."

"Wear it for tonight. I want to see how it looks on you."

Elisabeth smiled and let her fingers slide across the red gems.

"Okay," Elisabeth said. She crouched to the little girl's level and pulled her hair aside. "I'll give it back in the morning. Will you put it on me?"

The little girl hooked the necklace around Elisabeth's neck. Elisabeth squeezed the girl's hands and kissed her forehead.

"Go back to bed, before your mother catches you," Elisabeth said.

That night, they came. I heard them first, a low rumble across the earth's crust. Then I saw them, over the high walls of the manor: They marched into town with great mechanical beasts at their side. Panzerkampfwagen.

Each home was searched. Gunfire and screams rose up from the streets and within the walls of neighboring houses.

Finally they came to the master's home. He opened the door and let the twin blue-eyed soldiers in. They did not greet him, but instead wandered the foyer and examined the photographs that hung on the walls.

"Are there Jews in this house?" one of them asked.

"No," said the master.

The master stood upright, defiant, as the soldiers pushed him aside and searched his home.

Elisabeth helped the mistress check that the women and children were well hidden.

"Now hide yourself," the mistress told her.

Elisabeth returned to the corridor near the study where her love had died. The door to the study was locked and had been for some time. Twin sets of footsteps echoed on the polished floor, louder with each step. I extinguished the lights in the hallway so that she was in darkness. She mouthed a silent thank you and pressed herself against the wall, in the darkest spot. The soldiers rounded the corner and stopped. They peered into the darkness, no more than six meters from her.

"Cigarette," one of the soldiers said.

They fumbled in the dark, rustled through coat pockets and flicked a lighter to life. A small flame rose in the darkness and lit a cigarette for each man. The red stones around Elisabeth's neck glimmered in the flame's flickering light and the lighter snapped shut. The world was silent for a moment and then Elisabeth heard the slow creak of leather as their pistols were drawn from their holsters.

Two shots rang out in the darkness.

Elisabeth's blood pooled at my feet.

It did not take the soldiers long to find the hidden men, women, and children. The family was labeled as traitors and led out to the dirty streets to be executed.


They stripped the curtains from my windows, exposing me to the world. My storehouse was pillaged and they drank my wines. My doors, my smile, became firewood to burn my body. They tore down my corridors and quarters, the wings that stretched between my spires. My iron cresting became the broken crown of a once great king. When they had their fill, they left my skeleton as a warning to others.

I hated them for what they had done, for their bloodlust, their heartlessness, their cowardice. They raped and stripped me, destroying my beauty and the companionship my walls had held for so many years. Worst of all, they had murdered my love.

And then the wind shuddered against my creaking remains, whispering, You killed hers first.

* * *

Gary B. Phillips lives and writes in Arizona with his wife, two daughters, and three cats. His short fiction has appeared in Stories in the Ether and Interstellar Fiction.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories? I don't consider myself a historical fiction writer, but I'm fascinated by the late 19th and early 20th century. I feel that time period is fertile ground for a wide range of interesting stories. For “A House Divided,” I had been watching a lot of BBC costume dramas (a not-so-guilty pleasure) and wanted to write something Gothic. One of the major tropes of Gothic fiction is the house or manor as a character. I immediately had an image of a servant girl sitting in her room, brushing her hair, unaware that she was being watched by the house. Rather than "if these walls could talk" I wondered, "What if these walls could fall in love?" The rest of the story wrote itself.

What inspires you to write and keep writing? Other writers. Any time I'm feeling down about my work or uninspired, I only need to talk to another writer. Good stories and movies also help recharge my creative batteries, along with weather and atmosphere. I write a lot of horror so a good dreary October day inspires me. (Unfortunately, I live in the desert so dreary days are few and far between.)

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story? For me, it's all about location, both time and place. Historical fiction excels at taking the reading to a fantastic place as much as genre fiction does.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre? My life is filled with and ruled by technology. I'm a software developer by trade so I never feel like I can really get away from it. Historical fiction allows me to escape.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers? Read about real people, places, and events and then fill your world with them. A single sentence with a real historical detail can bring your world to life.


Unknown said...

I love that the house could control where the ghosts were allowed; that gave me chills. I also like the way the last sentence gave a sort of satisfying but still horrifying closure. This was a good read, thanks both to the author and the site for making it available!