From: High Ground, copyright 2017 by Richard Authier Lee
Margaret was jostled from sleep by a sound that slipped away before her mind could grasp it. Soft music from the bedside radio lulled her toward deeper sleep, but a crackle and whine rose again from beneath the music and pricked at her face. She brushed the sensation away, sat up and turned on the light. Bailey, her father’s lonesome beagle, slipped out from under the covers to investigate.
She flew out of bed, pulled her leather car coat on over her nightgown, and found the flashlight in her father’s bedside drawer. Outside the night sky was blacker than any she had ever seen in Boston. No street lights, no city haze, absolute black nothingness stretched above, flecked with stars set in the shimmering film of the Milky Way. Bailey probed the shadows as she walked the hillside, flashlight beam at her feet, letting her eyes adjust to the dimness. She headed up the garden path, stopped and listened again for the sound.
Whispers. Whispers slipped through the velvet waterfall of night wind in the tall grass. Soft whispers poured down from the house. Behind her, the yellow patch of light from her bedroom flickered through swaying tree limbs. Esther’s house was dark, but for the pale sheen of moonlight against its upper windows. Night air blew under her nightgown, like icy fingers on her legs. She crouched low and gathered the cotton around her knees, watching, waiting.
There were no children. There was no one out here at all.
She turned back and returned to the house. Tight at her heel, Bailey drew a yawn out into a languid stretch that finished with a curious squeak, then followed her inside. From the wall phone in the kitchen she called the Sheriff’s office. The Deputy seemed to take respectful note of her last name and tried to assure her that all was well. They would send a car by to have a look. Not to worry.
But she was hopelessly awake. Dead tired and unable to sleep, as she had been since Mother’s “friend” the State Senator had called her with the news of her father’s death. “Lorraine is too overcome to speak,” he told her, as though he had no idea to whom he was speaking.
Bailey remained unsettled and she became aware of a scent on the night air, like rain after a lightning storm. She wrapped herself in a blanket and sat in a wooden Adirondack chair on the front porch where she could see the road and the hulking shadow of the Brandt mansion. Bailey stood at her feet, then hunkered down. The two of them dozed, and she listened and watched until the black night sky slid to deep purple in the east, then to a pale blue dawn.
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…
Sweet coolness surrounded them, though the air had begun to carry the stench of day. They tucked limbs and leathery skin away, each clinging to its place in the layer as others returned one-by-one and settled around and over them. The room echoed shadowy pictures that danced, shimmered and faded as the nightly symphony of chirps and clicks reached its finale.
Three hundred pairs of wings flinched tighter when blinding yellow roar exploded into the chamber, drowning out their sweet nesting sounds with obscene cacophony. Those not securely furled, fluttered in agony. Others chattered and swooped in frenzied, banking turns, flying into the face of the hideous thing. Some tucked in mid-air and dove back into the passageways to hide in terror, trapped between morning sky and screaming yellow light. A few rattled and thumped on the floor until their battered wings lifted them airborne, two rows of bucksaw teeth flashing in fright.
The roaring yellow light hissed, spit searing splinters of glass and fell silent.
A swirling frenzy of bats swept against the door as Margaret jerked it closed, some sailing over her head, out into the house. The smell of burning leather sifted down from the horrifying encrusted overhead fixture. The room breathed against her back and drove the beat of her heart into her throat until she found the banister and stumbled down spiral stairs, sliding over the talus of binders, through the front door and out into daylight.
She was on her on hands and knees in the grass, pale and terrified, gagging on the lingering stench, wiping vile grime from her hands when Esther found her. “My dear—” Esther said tenderly, stooping at her side.
Margaret looked up at her in shock. “My God, Esther, the room—upstairs—”
“The closed room,” she gasped.
“I was—looking for—you.”
“You did not go in?”
“God, Esther—the bats—”
“We must never go in Father’s room,” Esther scolded. “Never ever, Miss Meg.” But Margaret was up and halfway down the walk in a slow, staggering trot, pulling her hands through her hair, tearing off the T-shirt that was now smeared with oily stains. She threw it into the brush, and fled down the garden path, covering herself with her arms when she reached the road and thought for a moment that she saw someone coming the other way, scuffling the shoulder of the road along edge of the black iron fence.