Excerpt from High Ground, copyright 2017 by Richard Authier Lee
The garden walk was damp with morning dew when she returned in T-shirt, jeans and one of her father’s work shirts. She sat on the steps of the gazebo and tied her hair behind her head, watching as the sun rose from the sea like a drop of liquid fire. A rabbit bolted from the brush and down the path, sending Bailey streaking after it, his ears flying and a wild, excited look on his face. When the chase circled back around she snared the little hound’s collar and the rabbit disappeared into the meadow without a sound, without disturbing a blade of grass. In barely another moment, it was as though the little creature had never been.
The Brandt house was a looming presence in the light of dawn, like a macabre doppelganger of a battered house in an Andrew Wyeth painting. Slate grey, foreboding and commanding of the horizon. Still, she wondered how this town could let a frail old woman live unattended and uncared for here. There were services for old people, surely, even here in the country. Even for a Brandt.
The overgrown tiered garden plot had been cut into the hillside just below an old grape arbor. Already a few seedlings had sprung from fall’s compost. Three little tomato plants and a cluster of marigold seedlings awaited the warming sun. She began to pull a layer of wet leaves away from the soil and her shovel struck a glass bottle.
Jameson pint. Goddam it.
Margaret held it in her hand a moment and felt an emotional charge swirl within her. No. It’s done. She threw the bottle aside and stabbed at the soil. Half the garden had been turned over before the sun rose high into the sky. She pulled off the long-sleeved shirt and stuck the shovel hard into the dirt.
Esther would be up now, surely. Margaret walked up the tangled path toward the house where a dozen more secret gardens hid in tall grass, flanked by wild budding shrubs and unkempt ornamental trees. She would stay for a while, she decided, long enough to clear these paths and sweat out some of the poison of the last few weeks. She had started this, simply enough, to reach the old gazebo, but the project expanded to almost a hundred feet of idyllic path. Cedar grape arbor hung from the back of the main house, leading down to a maze of garden paths, overgrown flower beds and the gate to the Haart cottage. Margaret stopped to pull creeping vine away from choked iron fence, wiped sweat from her brow and trudged on up the hill to the old house.
Heavy iron pipes bolted to the southern face of the house bore thick, gnarled grey vine dotted with small green buds of wisteria. A few tender runners sprang from sunny, protected pockets close to the clapboards. She pressed the button beside the front door and a melodic chime rang deep within the house.
This was a truly immense place, dwarfing even her mother’s family manse in Wayland. Three stories at the main house, with wide clapboards and broad slate roof, and a glass-enclosed walkway which led to a two-story great hall rimmed by pairs of tall French doors. A carriage house and a small barn were nestled in the lee of the main buildings. Rippled stained glass windows were at either side of the ornate front door. Rose and white floral inserts in the glass framed gold leaf wrapped around a single commanding black letter, B.
Margaret rang the bell again.
Nothing. She tried the latch and the heavy door eased open an inch.
“Esther. It’s Margaret…”
There were faint echoes within the bowels of the house, but she could not make them out. She pushed the door further open and stepped into the dim foyer. “Esther?”
A soft scratching noise came from the end of the hall. Dusty framed portraits, a spittoon, vases, tables covered with books were all bathed in pale morning light filtering through dusty curtains. She stepped into the foyer, slipped over something and sent smooth, flat objects sliding along the floor. The air held the sweet rankness of old fabric gone to rot. Her steps echoed in the empty passageway where the hall widened, and cool currents of air moved at her feet. She found a door and opened it to total darkness and the smell of still water.
Something coarse, slid between her feet and raced down the hallway, scurrying along the wall, sending her scrambling up the stairway. She turned to bolt from the house, but then thought she heard a woman’s voice from the hallway above. “Esther?” She climbed to the landing that formed a balcony overlooking the entrance foyer. Two doors were open to long unused bedrooms and a third was closed, a jumble of dust and leaves across its sill. The corridor beyond extended deeper into the big, dark house. She knocked, waited, then turned the knob, pushed against creaky hinges opening onto inky darkness. She found a light switch along the inside wall…