A Visit to the Great House
We were not forbidden much, my sister and I. As soon as our chores were done, we were free to loll in the garden, idly running our fingers up the honeysuckle winding around the trellis. Once we had tired of that, we would take ourselves to the orchard, where we would pelt each other with the green fruit that had fallen underfoot. I lobbed my missiles gently, so that they skittered against my sister’s skin, while she clambered up trees and assailed me from above, as if I were not her kin, but her forsworn enemy. At dusk, sticky and exhausted, we would make our way home, stopping along the way to dip our feet in the thin silver stream that wound its way across the fields.
Just one iron injunction bound us, concerning the grand house on the edge of town. We were not to lift the latch of the gate and cross into the garden; if we were to do that, we were not to venture further than the lip of the well; if our audacity extended that far, we were not to approach the door and raise the heavy brass knocker that adorned it.
Our compliance was constantly being tested, for every week we had to drop off supplies for the inhabitants of the house. My sister and I deposited steaming loaves of bread that sat alongside heaps of peaches and bolts of cloth. One would think that some ancient retainer dressed in livery would emerge from time to time to bring the goods in, but we never saw anyone enter or leave the house. Our friend Tomas, the butcher’s son, once claimed to have hidden in the bushes that lay beyond the gate, just to see what would happen. He said that he must have nodded off, for when he opened his eyes it was twilight and the laden baskets were gone. When his father found out, he striped Tomas’s legs with a willow branch. Tomas wore the slender red welts for a week.
Once, when I was young, I asked my mother about the house’s occupants. “The ladies and gentlemen live there,” she replied, her hands deep in a mound of buttery pastry. I tried to press her further, but she would say no more. I was a small and unobtrusive child, and as I grew older I learned more by insinuating myself into corners and attending to snatches of conversation. My elders attributed every sort of benevolence to the ladies and gentlemen: they protected us from crippling taxation; they prevented the soldiers from the capital from making unwanted incursions into our community; they even diverted a bout of illness that was headed our way, so that while the children in the next village were subject to periodic bouts of coughing that bent them as if they were young trees buffeted by a strong wind, we flourished, straight-backed and bonny.
And yet I saw the look of resignation in my mother’s eyes when she placed a dozen golden loaves in the basket destined for the ladies and gentlemen. Sometimes she would take one out, but she would always sigh and put it back. If she caught us watching, she would send us to the pantry to unearth an overlooked husk of bread, which we would soak in hot milk and eat with a spoon. Nor did it escape my attention that the cuts of meat that Tomas’s father sent were thick and glistening, marbled with fat, while what he sold in the shop was lean and tough as old leather. My sister and I didn’t pay much attention to matters of dress, but some of the other girls pouted when their clothes had to be patched, the reams of cloth that might have served for a new skirt loaded onto a cart and hauled away.
None of that concerned us on the day that we set out for the mansion. The basket was on my arm; my sister walked alongside, her hands buried deep in the pockets of her apron. Every so often she would reach in and pull out a ginger candy, part of a stash that she had pilfered from the commissary. Sometimes she would offer me one; more often, she would pop them into her own mouth. It had rained earlier and the world looked washed clean, the sky a pearly grey edged with rose. We were eager to be out of the damp, so we hurried along. Before we knew it, we were before the gate. I placed the basket among the other wares and turned to go. I had taken only three footsteps before I realized that my sister wasn’t following me. I turned back. She was standing taut as a bowstring, her rapt face tilted upwards. “Look,” she whispered.
She pointed towards the balcony. It looked as it always had, but for one thing. Nestled against the faded balustrade was a ball. It was a commonplace thing, no different from what the poorest child in the village possessed, but never before had the house’s inhabitants left any manifest sign of themselves.
My sister tugged my hand. “Do you think there’s a child in there? Do the ladies and gentlemen have a child?” I should have seized her wrist and dragged her away, but my body felt heavy, as if it had been entombed in lead. As we stood there, the ball, impelled by some unseen force, rolled off the balcony and came to rest in the grass just beyond the well. My sister loosed my hand and made for the gate.
“Don’t!” I called, but my sister didn’t listen. She didn’t listen when I told her to rinse out the pots or feed the cat, so why should she listen now? She placed her hand flat against the gate, tentatively, experimentally, as if she didn’t believe it would yield to her touch. She pushed, and it swung wide. With the gate open, we had our first unobstructed view of the house. It looked shabby in the dying light, the ironwork of the finial rusted over, paint flaking away from the casements. In the garden, the plants had broken free of what once must have been artful arrangements and lay snarled in an unseemly tangle. If the house had gleamed with freshly applied lacquer, if the lawn had been cropped, might my sister have quailed and turned back? I think not, but still I wonder.
She made her way forwards. There was nothing mincing and uncertain in her step, and before I had time to blink she was at the well. As she bent to pick up the ball, she tossed some words over her shoulder. “I’m just going to give it back. Wait for me!” Another blink and she was on the verandah. My sister didn’t march up to the door and lift the knocker, for even her boldness had its limits. Instead, she dropped the ball onto the outer edge of the porch and nudged it with her foot.
I don’t know if I have words for what happened next. As the ball rolled towards the door, my sister turned to face me, her face flushed, as it always was when she was pleased with her own daring. She was just about to descend the steps that led back into the garden when the ball came to rest, cushioned against the doorjamb. At that precise moment, the knocker lifted, seemingly of its own accord, and descended. My sister froze, her eyes wide. Two more raps followed, hollow reverberating booms that hung in the still air. My paralysis broken, I screamed “Run!” My sister made to obey, but before she could move, the door flung open.
No one was standing there. On this point I will not waver. There was a sound, as of fallen autumn leaves skittering along the ground, and a dry, musty smell, the smell of an attic that needs airing, but no one was there. My sister didn’t look behind her. All she needed to do was make it down the steps. She had learned to run almost before she could toddle, and she would be through the gate between the space of one heartbeat and the next. She sprung and lost her footing. My nimble sister, who mounted our fence and sauntered along it with a cat’s ease, sprawled face first against the stone.
As she raised her head, her legs raised too, as if they were the arms of a wheelbarrow. She twisted and kicked as best she could, but slowly, inexorably, she was hauled towards the open door. She curled her hands into fists and wailed, “Please let me go! I’m sorry!” Her pleas ceased as she crossed the threshold, her sobs ending in hiccups, as they always did when she had worked herself into a state. Before she disappeared from view, she reached out and clasped the ball in her chubby fingers. I expected the door to slam behind her, but it closed gently, with a soft click.
I stood in the gathering gloom for no more than a few seconds. Then I was off, charging headlong towards home. My father and mother were just sitting down for the evening meal when I clattered over the threshold. I had to pause for a moment, doubled over with my hands on my knees, before I could get my breath back. My mother started towards me. “Child, what’s wrong?”
My father looked at me, his head tilted at a quizzical angle. “Who’s gone?”
I tried to say her name, but it stuck in my throat. “Sister!”
My father’s brow furrowed. “Girl, have you lost your wits? You don’t have a sister.”
A look passed between him and my mother, a look that I couldn’t read. My mother approached and placed her cool hand on my forehead. “I think you have a fever coming on. Go to your room and I’ll bring you supper”. I knew that when my mother’s voice took on those caressing tones it was useless to argue, so I obeyed. I let her run a damp cloth over my face and spoon a few mouthfuls of stew into my mouth. When she left, I lay in my bed, stiff and fretful, until I was sure that she and my father had gone to bed. Then I crept out of my room and made my way to the nook where the family chronicle was stored.
Calling it the chronicle makes it sound grander than it really was. It was a list of entries stretching back to my great-grandfather’s time, consisting of names and dates of births, marriages and deaths. My fond mother had slipped a sachet between the pages, containing locks of our infant curls. When I turned to the page reserved for my sister and me, my heart started to gallop. My entry was there, my name and birth date inked in, but there was nothing after it. By this, I do not mean that my sister’s entry had been obscured or defaced in some way; I mean that no entry had ever been made. The paper was pristine, without wrinkle or smudge. I picked up my mother’s pouch and upended it. Out tumbled one of my ringlets, tied with a blue ribbon. A red ribbon should have followed, wrapped around a chestnut tuft, but it wasn’t there. I put my entire fist into the bag and turned it inside out just to make sure, but nothing emerged.
I heard a creaking from my parents’ room, so I slipped the book into its alcove and stole back to my narrow bed. I thought that I would lie awake all night, but my eyes closed almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. When I awoke, I was confused by how unencumbered I felt. I was accustomed to waking with my sister’s arm laid across my neck, her hot milky breath gusting against my ear. I used to retreat to the farthest edge of the bed in an attempt to escape her, but at that moment, I would have welcomed the weight of her body against mine.
When I went into the kitchen for breakfast, the table was laid for three. At school, the desk next to mine, her desk, sat empty. It had been scored with dozens of shallow scratches, for when she was bored her mind turned to mischief. When I ran my hand over the grain, it was smooth, all evidence of her handiwork gone. It was the same throughout that day; all traces of her, everything that had been uniquely hers, had been obliterated. When I got home, my blood quickened when I discovered one of her dresses hanging in the closet; then I remembered that the dress had belonged to me first. The worst was that no one seemed to remember her. On the playground I tried to say her name once or twice, but every time my throat would close up, as if it were filled with dry leaves.
My sister’s disappearance cast a grey pall over my life, but I didn’t refuse to get out of bed, or spend hours sobbing, or try to do away with myself. Like a traveller weighed down with a heavy load, I trudged on, placing one foot before the other. I went to school and helped my mother with household tasks. I had always been the responsible one and I became even more diligent, now that we were missing a pair of hands. I still brought our stores to the mansion. It sat squat and impassive, giving no sign that it had opened its great maw and swallowed my sister whole. Once or twice I considered striding up to the front door and lifting the knocker, but I thought better of it. My parents had only one child left to them.
As the days and months and years passed, the act of memory became an act of will. When I called her features to mind, they were blurry and indistinct, as if I were viewing them through a rain-streaked window. All I could be sure of was that she had a snub nose and a spray of freckles across her cheeks. Even her name threatened to slip away. I made a point of saying it to myself at least once a day, but when I did, blood rushed to my head, a roar like the flap of vast wings.
From time to time, my mother had spoken about sending me to the university in the capital, but I put paid to that notion. My schoolwork had once won me glowing approbation, but I let it fall into steady mediocrity. When I was seventeen, my father took on an apprentice, a tall boy with large, square hands. Stefan would blush and stammer his thanks when I placed his plate before him at supper. I started to waylay him on his way to work, cooing insubstantial nonsense while letting my sleeve brush against his wrist. Before long, we were lying together in the meadow, his hands scrabbling frantically beneath my clothes. I did this not because I felt love or even any great liking for him, but because he would tie me to my parents’ household forever. We were married before I was twenty.
Our first daughter followed within the year. We named her after me, as is customary. She was just about to start school when we welcomed our second daughter. Her, I named after my sister. When announcing her name to the midwife, I was afraid that my voice would be choked and muffled, but it rung out with such vehemence that Stefan raised a sandy eyebrow at me. The invisible chains that had been wound around my sister’s name had been loosened, it seemed. Perhaps because the name was no longer hers.
Life settled into a safe, predictable rhythm. Stefan worked with my father at the mill; I assisted my mother in the kitchen. My daughters, like a pair of kittens, cuddled and clawed each other in turn. Their bright voices in the courtyard, pliant dough beneath my fingers, Stefan’s hand at the small of my back: all these things served to anchor me to the present, so that my sister receded further and further into the caverns of my memory. I might have forgotten her altogether, were it not for the invitation.
It appeared one morning on the corner of the kitchen table. As I was setting down the milk jug, it brushed against a stiff square of creamy, embossed paper, edged with mourning black. I snatched it up and showed it to my mother. She shrugged, said she didn’t know where it had come from, it hadn’t been delivered. We broke the seal and read the missive that lay within.
It purported to be a message from the ladies and gentlemen. In it, they expressed regret that they had hidden themselves away for so long. In an attempt to rectify this state of affairs, the youngest lady of the house would go forth three days hence and traverse the village. The women (and only the women) were invited to come out and gaze upon her.
Every household that contained a female, be she an infant in the cradle or a doddering grandma, had received a copy. As the sun ascended, voices sharpened by urgency sliced the air. What did it mean? Had the ladies and gentlemen ever shown themselves before? Finally, the boldest of us formed a contingent and marched to Margery’s house. Margery, the oldest woman in the village, lay for more than half the day in a sleep so deep that one would think she already lay in her winding sheet. As her daughter-in-law banged a pot beside her ear, I shook her awake and put our question to her. She opened one ancient, rheumy eye and coughed. “Yes, I remember. It must have been fifty years ago or more. A lady came out of the house. Beautiful, she was.” With that, she sank back against the pillow, and all our attempts to rouse and press her further went in vain.
As the day approached, consternation gave way to excitement. Dresses that had been packed away in trunks were taken out and aired. Strands of turquoise and carnelian were looped around necks and wrists; lace ceintures placed around waists. Stefan offered to buy me something new, but I refused. I would wear my old woolen gown. If I appeared before my sister in unaccustomed splendor, would she recognize me?
On the day itself, the men departed for the fields, or crowded into the only inn. It had been made clear that they were not to look upon the lady. Most took the injunction to heart; they were afraid of being blinded or blasted from the face of the earth if they transgressed. A few, young and foolhardy, didn’t take heed. My neighbor told me that they had dressed in women’s clothes, in the hopes of melting into the crowd unseen. They had been detected, duly chastised, and handed over to their fathers and brothers for safekeeping.
We women congregated on the main street. Diligent housewives all, we had scrubbed the steps and trimmed the flowers in the flowerboxes. Brightly colored gonfalons, run up the flagpole on orders of the mayor, criss-crossed the sky. A hum ran through the throng, a busy, expectant buzz like that of bees. The noise intensified when the one we awaited appeared at the head of the thoroughfare. Necks craned, bodies strained against the wooden railings erected to contain us, as she advanced with slow, stately steps.
She wore a watered silk gown, its cut of such exquisite plainness that it made our poor village finery look tawdry by comparison. She held a basket in the crook of her arm, and every so often she would reach in, pull out a flower, and offer it to someone in the crowd. She tossed a petunia at a bold young matron, bent down and offered a clutch of blue forget-me-nots to a little girl. The recipients of her largesse were immediately set upon, encircled, made to hold up their tokens of favor for inspection, while envious sighs wafted on the breeze.
I was at the head of the line, and her features were obscured to me until she had advanced almost to my shoulder. Even when she was within arm’s reach there was something hazy and indefinite about her, but I could tell that, yes, this was she. Her face had lost its baby roundness and her freckles had been replaced by a uniform ivory pallor, but the thick coil of chestnut hair, the snub nose, those were unmistakable.
When she was immediately abreast of me she stopped and turned sharply, so that we were face-to-face. With her eyes fixed on me, unblinking, she rummaged in the basket. When her hand emerged again, it held, not a flower, but the ball that had beguiled her all those years ago. She raised her arm above her head and hurled it at me, as she had once hurled unripe fruit. I put my arms up in defense, but it was too late. The ball made painful contact with my breastbone before I caught it and dropped it into my pocket.
I wanted to vault over the railings. I wanted to run to her and catch her by the arm, lead her home, perhaps with a few thumps along the way for the heartsickness she had caused. I would present her to my parents, my children, my husband: look, here is your daughter, here is your aunt, here is your sister-in-law. As I started towards her, she pivoted away. She gathered up her skirts and started to run, all ladylike pretense gone, legs bare to the knee and pumping like pistons. Hands reached out to caress, to entreat, to detain, but she shrugged them off and continued on her way. She was a black spot on the horizon before we registered that she had truly gone, the only evidence that she had walked among us the dust that swirled in the air, kicked up during her flight.
After that, the day deflated like a balloon slowly letting out air. A few stalwart souls circulated among us, offering up sausages and hot pastries. Clutches of women huddled together, their murmurs pierced from time to time by strident voices declaiming, “Wasn’t she perfect? Wasn’t she beautiful?” No more than three quarters of an hour had passed before we had to admit to ourselves that nothing more was going to happen, the great event had come and gone. We trudged home when the sun was at its height, ready to take up our washing and mending again.
Friends tell me that the flowers, which had been arranged in vases or pressed reverently between the leaves of books, crumbled into powder before the day was out. The ball, though, remained what it was, a hard pellet that bumped against my hip as I went about my chores. That night, I stole into my children’s bedroom. They were lying on their backs in the sweet abandon of sleep, arms outflung. I placed the ball into the hand of my younger daughter and closed her fingers around it. They were old enough, now, to start delivering our wares to the great house. I bent over them and breathed some words into their ears. If they take after me, the words will serve as a warning. If they inherit my sister’s waywardness, they will disregard them, or worse, take them as a challenge, a perverse call to action. Even so, I couldn’t leave them unsaid.
“Do not open the main gate. If you do, go no further than the rim of the well. Do not go up the steps. Do not knock on the door. Don’t. Please don’t.”
Bindia Persaud lives in Southern Ontario and works as an editor. Her work has appeared in Expanded Horizons and The South Asian Review.