a quiet house
Autumn (Halloween) 2019
A light hum, flitting through the halls like a butterfly.
The shuffle of two barely noticeable footsteps.
The light shining down on the garden outside, filtering in through the murky windows.
A young woman is sweeping the hallway of a quiet, almost abandoned mansion. Everything seems spotless, yet she is again inspecting every hallway to clean specks of dust and dirt. The possible abandoned glass of wine or spectacles. Her hair is pulled up in a tight, neat braid, and her blue dress hasn’t a single wrinkle. She looks just as perfect as the rest of the estate, a blush on her skin, her eyelashes fanning across her cheeks.
She glances out the window to the majestic gardens, where no leaves or fallen petals clutter the stone paths. The garden is trimmed in a swirling, endless pattern, and it all looks to be done by one man who moves his way through the garden by sitting on the ground and talking to each individual flower. The maid peeks at him, adoration in her gaze. He was the sole person in the house who smiled at her on her first day.
Moving through the mansion, the sounds are few. The sweeping of her broom echoes down the endless walkways. The paintings of the esteemed aristocrats of the mansion, staring down at the stone floors with angry eyes, are the only things that make the place less lonesome. There is one other person working in the house, a reed-thin cook with strong, bony hands. She is butchering a duck, and many other ducks lay around her with their heads cut off. She is smiling as she does this work, though her smile is violent.
All of these people in this silent house are moving at a pace that contains a barely noticeable sense of urgency. The maid sees a countdown in her head, and it begins to beep louder as the sun shudders, melting into the lake beyond the garden and turning everything a hazy orange.
The corridor lamps flicker to life, causing her to let out a squeak and plaster herself against one of the stone walls, her hair sticking against a painting. She hasn’t been working in the house long, and the cook chuckles when she hears the noise coming out of the girl. She still fears this creaking, groaning house that wakes at dusk. It will fade if she manages to last.
Maids come and go easy in this house, the cook knows, because they are always small and pretty. The monsters that lurk the halls tend to like small, pretty things. It’s always the shiny objects that catch their attention.
The gardener stands, his body stiff, and walks back to the cottage on the edge of the gardens. For him, there is no use working in the dark. The plants always get trampled, and in the morning he has to deal with their hurt feelings. That is the basics of his job, and after a few years he knows not to come to the plants’ aid when they whine at night. The tip of his pinky vanished his first night on the job because he couldn’t sleep through the flowers’ cries. He learned to buy better earplugs.
The maid peeps out of the window when she hears the slam of the cottage. Her hands begin to shake and she can’t seem to control it. She drops the broom in a painful clatter, then scoops it up and runs back to her room and locks the door. She is a lucky one, sweeping right near her own door. She’s lucky she even has a lock—some others weren’t so fortunate.
She leans against the door and presses her ear against it, a sudden clattering and clamoring beginning to form in the halls.
The maid leaps onto her bed and peers through the tiny window above it. Horseless carriages are rattling up to the main entrance, circling around the fountain in front. Shadowy figures appear at the carriages and open their doors. Each carriage is unique in coloring and decoration. The one closest to her window is midnight black with thick, harsh patterns clawing through the wooden sides and tearing the seams of the back. The wheels are a contrasting silver, and the seat where a driver should be is draped in a gauzy, metallic fabric. The shadow opening the door is wearing a silver top hat.
A grand woman exits the door, her dress swirling around her like black fog. Her hair is wild, pooling around her shoulders and down to her waist. In a gloved hand she holds a fan decorated with stars that sparkle like the real thing. As she walks to the front door, hand in hand with the top-hat-wearing shadow, other strange folk pile out of the various carriages and gather about the front entrance.
In the hallway, the clamor grows stronger. She rushes back to her door and leans against it again, then wishes she was still at the window when the front doors slam open in their typical style.
The maid has only met her elusive employer on the day she was hired, a few mornings prior, yet she would recognize his booming voice anywhere. He speaks like a man who has seen many things but still zests for more thrills. Her toes tingle as his voice ricochets off the walls and filters into her room. She can imagine him addressing the guests at the front door, though she can’t understand his words.
In the kitchen, the cook yanks out food and shoves in the ducks. Outlines of people swarm around her, helping to plate all of the appetizers. She whispers out orders to them as a haunting band shuffles into place in the great room, their bows ripe with the fire of unshed songs. Her foot almost taps along as a familiar beat strikes the stone floors.
The maid feels a pull in the tips of her fingers as cheers begin to go off in the main foyer. Her hands are shifting without her asking, grabbing for the metal knob of her door. It starts to rattle the moment her skin touches the bronze, shaking in time with the pounding music below.
With a gasp, the door flings open and she is pulled into the hallway. Suddenly her hands are her own and she is able to cover her mouth in shock. Tall, ghoulish figures are flickering with the lights and bending around her as they pass down the halls. They are filling up as much space as they can, the tips of their hats reaching the ceilings.
She shuffles through the shifting specters toward the double staircase at the end of the hall. It leads into the opulent main foyer, where the maid sees her employer standing next to the door of the great room. His hat is tipped down so she can’t make out his face, but the silver pocket watch that he twirls in between his fingers gives his identity away. He did the same gesture when she first met him. It had comforted her in her anxiety. Now, though, as she stares at his hand, the shapes of him start to shimmer and wave and she isn’t quite sure what she’s watching anymore.
The fancy guests who had flooded the main entry are now dancing around the great room, their joyful steps hitting the floor as the skeletal quartet at the back of the room leads them in a song.
The maid takes a look at the very long faces of the guests, and the way their teeth glint too sharp in the lowering sun, and makes a beeline for the kitchen. The head cook had never paid her much mind, but she couldn’t go back to her room when she wasn’t able to trust her own hands.
She tumbles into the swinging kitchen doors as shadows slip by her, their forms plastered against the gold-tinged walls. The head cook is standing at her metal work table, the blood of many ducks sticking to her fingers as she waves them about, directing her helpers. The maid has never heard the cook speak before, save for a polite you’re welcome, but now her voice echoes through the room in tiny whispers, somehow rising above the din of the party-goers and somehow barely heard at all.
Sizzles of duck fat and pots of soup fill the air, and the maid is hit with the sweet scent of cucumber and mint. Though her nose tingles, she heads straight for the cook. The cook has noticed the maid now and her eyes are wide. Her mouth pulls into a thin line as the maid pauses in front of her and explains the situation. The cook says in her whispery tone to leave and return to your room if you want to stay alive. The maid takes the warning.
As she rushes for the stairs a hand—or maybe a claw—wraps around her wrist and pulls her to the great room.
Her panic steals her voice away and she tugs as hard as she can. She looks at her capturer and sees it to be the grand woman from the front entrance. Her eyes are thinned and her smile is wicked, and when the maid looks at her hand again she indeed sees sharp talons.
A bubble of nausea hits her and she can’t help but wonder if she missed something in the fine print when she saw the help- for-hire ad in the paper.
Her employer is no longer standing by the door of the great room when she enters. She’s glad, because to handle his disappointed gaze with the sensory overload she already feels would be too much.
The great room is abuzz with dancing and cheers and tipping champagne flutes and loud music. The maid feels shivers run up her spine as her ears focus on the music. It is bass-heavy and shrill at the same time, the melody almost jarringly overtop. The guests look more fiendish as they dance, their faces jovial and sinister at the same time.
She is spun about, her hands now put in various dance partners wearing over-the-top magical clothes and shoes that shine against the sparkling tile floors too well. The usual soft gold curtains that reach the high ceilings have been replaced with heavy black ones that pool at the floor and highlight the glow of the almost-prominent moon. Above the musicians, away from the windows, is a jutting terrace with no door or stairway leading to it. A massive velvet throne sits upon it, looking down across the room. The maid can almost feel the chair under her fingers because there is one just like it in the dining hall. The velvet is exquisite in its softness, and no touch leaves a mark. In the chair is her employer, and he is staring right at her.
His eyes sparkle in the blur of the room, in the blur of his own face. Though the maid would have called him handsome at meeting, her employer now seems to have a smile too wide, teeth too long, and his eyes look like bottomless pools, even from across the room. His crooked and tangled-looking hand is still twirling the pocket watch, the silver chain so long it keeps brushing against his shiny shoes.
Out of the blur that emanates about him is another hand, though it is slimmer and sharper. It beckons for her to come forward.
In a trance-like state she does, the same feeling from when she had opened the door without her own consent hitting her again.
The maid begins to walk toward the terrace with jelly-filled steps, unsure of why but sure that she must, when something grabs her wrist once more. Everything around her seems to slow as she turns and sees the gardener, his soft, very human hand against her.
The sounds around her dim as she is pulled out of the great room and up the stairs and down the hall and back to her simple little room.
Everything is so quiet and the moon is calming in its rays as it rains on the unlit, empty hallway.
She turns around to thank the gardener, but he is already gone, the kind lines of his smile in her memory the only linger left.
The maid bars her door shut and knots up her hands so she can open no more doors for the night.
She survives the night.
The maid will never see the gardener again.
Anna Wenzel is is a tenth grader in Colorado. She has been published in the local paper, the Boulder Weekly. She loves reading, writing, and building LEGO sculptures. Her favorite authors are V.E. Schwab and Sarah J Maas.