Strange Abounds at Night
Rain pattered down that evening. The light hum of rain drops hitting the pavement outside cast it’s sound through the castle walls. Drop after drop spat onto the trees covered in darkness - all except for a couple of lamp posts that dotted the trail leading around the grounds to the entrance of the grand hall.
Inside, she has been prepared for the evening. Her nightgown laced and her hair wound into a tight plaid, tied with a ribbon. The maids had already come to prepare the bed - heating the coals between the sheets, ruffing the pillows just so. The room was dark and dimly lit by a couple of candles by the mirror. Warm and snug against the rages of the storm.
She pressed one hand against the window. The coolness tingled on her fingertips. The rain rolled down the pane, drop by drop.
There was no-one else to be found in the palace this late at night. Mama and Papa had gone out with the carriage and would not be back till’ next mid-morn. The staff had all but gone to sleep, tucked away in their quarters. Nothing and no-one stirred in the halls. The lamps lighting the hallways flickered, casting their dim shadow onto the carpet and bannisters. Not a squeak, not a sound, and within, the rain filled the empty rooms with it’s muffled sound.
From the window as Aloisia looked out below onto the castle grounds. A lamp in the corner, where the castle wall curved its way around and hid behind her window, flickered. Before it was out.
Furrowing her brow, she ran down the grand staircase and into the foyer - the marble numbing the soles of her feet with cold. The key was in door, to which she turned and opened with some force, placing her hand on the stone as she peered out. The lamp, a solid flame one minute, then a flicker the next.
Sticking her hand out under the grand sheltering, only a few drops fell. The rain was easing, the storm lightening. She caught the gaze of the stars on the cold autumn night. Scattering the sky like seeds on a field they too, glimmered and flickered in their ebony beds. A gust of wind rushed through, her skirts lifting, peppering her skin to gooseflesh.
Looking around her she thought for a moment that perhaps Gerda would somehow see the flickering and come to change the oil. Papa would be livid if he were to know that one of his lamps was not standing strong like the others. He did not stand for anything that didn’t work properly. Broken lamps were playthings of peasants, he would say. She turned her head left then right. No Gerda.
‘There was only one thing for it,’ she thought to herself, determined to mend this wrong, and stepped out onto the pavement in the darkness of night to see for herself, the meaning of this.
Small blotches of light lit her path as the rain dropped lightly now, into the puddles from which it shon. With each step closer, the more the lamp flickered. Her stomach began to knot itself, wringing against her. She didn’t know what for, only with each step, the lamp seemed to flicker more uncontrollably, wrestling itself against the cold air. The hem of her nightgown wet with dirt, she craned her head to see more clearly.
One step closer, the flame wavered once more, as if reacting to her movements. The closer she became the more unsteady the flame grew, until she took one final step to peer under it, and it went out.
Her breath fell out of her.
She brushed the sweat from her hands on the nightgown. Pushing a wisp of blonde hair behind one ear, the pangs of emptiness echoed in her belly. The maids warned her the night caused strange things. She felt the light touch of the cold caress her shoulders. A feeling of emptiness and awareness from outside of herself.
She looked behind her - nothing. Although she would not like to wait until a nothing became a something. Her legs wanted to run, run back to the room and the warmth and the safety of home. With one jolt she turned to run, and It was in front of her.
A girl, no older than herself, with a nightgown trimmed with white lace on the border. Her hair was a dark brown, curled and hanging long and thick at the back. She had a ribbon tied in it to keep only half back off her face. Her eyes were bright and wide.
Bile rose in her mouth. Her throat closed over. The air in her lungs built and built until it was pressing against her rib cage about the burst open.
It looked at her. Staring right through her. Into the emptiness of her soul that she felt while gazing into its eyes. She wanted to look away, to run, but her legs would not move and her head was frozen in place.
Her hands trembled in the cold autumn air. Their pale white numbness which she could not move.
It reached a hand out to her.
“Who are you?” she whispered, her breath caught between her ribs and her mouth.
It did not speak, It simply stared at her longer.
“What are you?” she echoed.
It looked down at her hand and wrapped its own cold fingers around her palm.
Her breath wavered under its touch. Her hand trying to jolt back.
Its grip tightened. She looked into Its eyes, and then there was darkness.
She blinked and opened. A dining hall, or perhaps a banquet hall, full of people and guests of fine stature and dress. The music tumbled and rolled through the building. Laughing and joyfulness emanated as happy couples danced and drank and talked.
A sudden jolt of anxiety ran through her. She was standing at a ball, in her nightgown. It grabbed her wrist, as if It could anticipate her emotion, and realised that its hand no longer seemed like a faint cloud over hers. It was real - or, she too was in fact unreal.
Catching Its glance It smiled, nodding its head towards the dancers.
They swirled and twirled around the floor. The women tilting their heads back with a soft smile, while the gentlemen held tightly to their waist. Amidst the older couples she could spot, there were a few young like herself.
In the corner a loud ‘pop’ echoed through the chamber as a maid scuttled off in embarrassment. A log on the fire had not been dried properly and begun to smoke and crackle. Other maids swarmed in to remove the log and contain the smoke. A roar of laughter erupted throughout the hall - even the young ones prodded each other with a snark.
Memories began rushing back. Her eyes widened, a torrent of cold blood flushed through her. This was the ball she had attended not a month ago.She could see herself, standing at the edge of the floor being lead to dance by a man - a head taller than her, deep brown hair and kind eyes. She saw herself being swept around the dance floor under the candles. Spinning, laughing, throwing her head back as her cheeks buckled with rosiness under her smile. He laughed too. Bending her into him and smiling, touching his nose against hers.
She smiled. Her eyes glossed over. Then the pounding of her heart came. Rattling itself against her ribs. Feeling squashed by the hands of a giant.
“Why did you bring me here” Aloisia yelled, thrusting her hands against it. She trembled and shook, her hands turning ice cold.
It could do nothing but have a grimace. Even the shove barely moved It.
“Answer me!” Aloisia lunged once more at It. Hot tears streamed down her face. Her smile turned to the red flush of anger.
“You’re a demon,” she spewed, “A liar and a demon and I….I….I wish I could kill you, you undead fiend-”
“Do you not see?” It asked, the voice pulsating through the room.
She stopped. The voice surged inside of her - its heave and flow rising and falling in her blood. Coming from both inside and outside her.
“Why do you resent it so?”
Her heart settled, feeling the white hot waves of emotion wash over her.
“I….I….I do not know,” she trembled. Her heart being clenched and squeezed harder now.
“Why do you push it away?”
“Push what away?” Aloisia cried.
“Aye,” It said, tilting its head back to her on the floor, “You are afraid to be happy, are you no?”
“Afraid?” she said, hot tears rolling across her red cheeks, “What do I have to be afraid of?”
“Then why do you feel afraid?” It spoke.
Her eyes fell. Why indeed.
It placed both of its hands on her shoulders like a tender mother, and when she opened her eyes once more, she was in a dressing room. A little vanity with two bottles and a brush, wallpaper designed in France and thick curtains hung over the two tall windows beside her bed. It was a small bed, and the room was no bigger than a maid’s apartment.
She looked around. None of it familiar, running her fingers across the drapes and inspecting the wallpaper up close.
Footsteps and shouting came from the corridor before the door burst open and slammed. It was her. She walked towards herself, seeing her own snarled expression and hateful tears welling in her flushed eyes. Angry and intolerable, she knew the feeling well.
“I do not know why I listen to that woman!” Aloisia yelled, throwing the tiny bottles and mirror to the floor. The bottles thumped and crashed. Shattered glass found its way into the thick carpet. The liquid splattered across half the room.
Looking at the mess she fell down onto the bed, held her head in her hands, and began to cry.
She looked at herself, feeling her own heart break. Bruised and cracked, it opened. The pain of loss crept back to her, like a twisted vine through the crags of stone.
“What’s happening to me?” she whispered.
“You are hurt,” It said from behind her.
“From what?” she asked, whipping her head around to face It, her eyes full of empathy for herself.
“You never went to that dance.”
She turned around to face it, “What?”
“To say perhaps you never did attend that ball, this is what you would’ve felt.”
She pursed her lips as her eyes burnt, “To have never met him?”
“Exactly,” It whispered in her ear, It’s breath cold “You may think that it is all over but perhaps you never did, this result is worse, is it no?”
She peered around the room in silence, “And where is this?”
“This is the room your parents bought for you when you withdrew from all social activities. They thought you an unwedable spinster and decided to lock you in here.”
“You are home tutored. Money is spared for your education. You took it upon yourself to lock yourself away from love because in this realm, you saw the same young man on the street making conversation with another. Your eyes locked and a connection forged yet you pushed away the possibility. He would think of you for years to come, but you became numb.”
She looked into It’s eyes looking back at her. Its eyes devoid of emotion. A mirror into her own soul.
“I don’t understand-”
“Then perhaps this will change your mind.”
It reached out and held her hands. The room spun around them until it was a blur. She looked down and her hands were in the hands of another. Strong hands, with a slight olive to them. White lace wrapped around her wrists, and a gown of sorts she was wearing. She looked up and saw his face. He wore a black and white suit, a beaming smile, and a sparkle in his eyes.
She didn’t feel much older than she was now. Flowers overflowed around the altar, with beautiful long stained windows casting a rose light across them. The priest stood in the middle of the couple.
Around her stone heart a deep emotion flooded through it, breaking it down piece by piece until the light entered every crack. Soft and tender, like a fresh heart ripped from a hare.
“This is your wedding day,” It said, floating around her, “You are where you feel the happiest you’ve ever felt in your life.”
She could not help herself but smile with teeth and all. He caressed her hands, each touch tingling.
‘How was this possible, how could I have gotten here?’ the thought arose.
“You did not give up,” It spoke, “You realised that your love is his and his love is yours. You both came to reconcile and ended up here. You see, even when things seemed bleak you still had hope.”
‘Is this what love is?’ The thought rolled in her mind.
She felt It pull her back, like being sucked into a whirlpool. The air swirled around her, he vanished from sight, until she was back on the pavement in the cold autumn air. The rain still spitting down. The trees rustling against the silent night.
“Do you see now?” It said, leaning against the lamp post.
She looked about her. The same skirts, her hair damp from the rain, her hands still cold.
“See... see what?” she spat as the crushing emptiness returned, “That I may as well keep putting myself in harms way until I am finally called upon to marry? What sort of a life is that?”
Her face was hot and flushed again with anger. How dare this thing bring her to the brink of happiness before snatching it all away again.
It smiled, shaking its head, “No no no. What if,” It paused, wafting to her side, “What if it was already happening, but you did not know it?”
She creased her brow, “I was there when he told me. He walked away, simple as tha-”
“Ah,” It said, “But what does you heart tell you?”
She bit her lip. Her heart, what did it say? It burnt bright. An ember ablaze. She felt connected to him, like an unbreakable silver cord that shone like a moonbeam. A link in a necklace. In her mind it flamed like gold, and if she followed it along in her mind she saw it connected straight to him, and it burned even brighter.
“I do not understand-”
“Do not listen to your mind child,” It cupped her cheeks in Its hands, “What does your heart tell you.”
“Do not give up,” she said, “It is….here...It is here?” Aloisia repeated to herself.
It smiled. Its lips curled to a smile so full of warmth and affection that she was sure It was as innocent as a child’s doll.
“It is not to be feared my child,” It spoke in a honey-sweet tone, “It is here for you. Why do you not take it?”
“But how can I, when he does not want me?”
“Your heart does not lie,” It spoke sternly, “If you believe that, then it will be so. If you trust what you feel, then that will be so. Has tonight taught you nothing that this realm is what you make of it?”
Her eye twinged. She looked into Its eyes.
“The realm of what is to come is as varied as a buffet, and you decide of which dish you eat from.”
“Both are true,” she mouthed with little sound.
It grinned, nodding with glee.
“Here,” It said, grabbing her arm and whisking her to the stone over by the apple tree in the corner.
“Hope is like a bird,” It said, closing its palms and opening them again. A tiny bird lept and chirped about in It’s palm. She looked down at it with a smile, “It flights from branch to branch, whispering secrets to all that will listen. It connects us with what our heart desires which brings us back to shore.”
It looked at her as she watched the bird with glee, “How do you know that it will not work out? The truth is that you do not know that. You may think that. You may think safety feels snug but it is a chain around your neck. It will not set you free but keep you encaged.”
She looked up from the bird smiled half, “Do you think I am to believe in nothing but your empty words?”
“Emptiness, no. Delusions kind or wretched in nature are never good for the soul.”
“So what am I to believe in?”
“Your heart,” and within a moment sunlight shone through the window.
Her eyes squinted against the morning rays. The covers weighed down on her. Her hair dry, not damp. She rolled her head to one side - yes, this was her apartment. The crimson and beige wallpaper, with large windows, honey coloured drapes and big double doors edged in gold leaf.
She rested her head back on the pillow. With a sigh, she lifted herself up from the bed, pushing the duvet off with one hand, and pattered onto the floor. It was silent in the household - too early for anyone to be roused just yet.
She pushed the windows up to let in the crisp morning air - filled with the scent of apple leaves and morning dew.
A tiny thing fluttered and landed on her window. A small bird, with a belly of red, chirped and ran about, tilting its head and danced in a squiggle.
She smiled, bending her head to see more of it. A feeling like she had never experienced before, rid of the twists and pains in her stomach that clenched to despair. Hope she supposed, is what it felt like.
‘For what you wish already exists and what you want is yours.’
“Remember these words for they are true,” the memory from last night dawned upon her.
In her breast and in her gut she knew that nothing was out of her reach, and that perhaps it was true, that happiness was her destiny.
© Claudia Merrill 2019