The Littlebury Estate
Word Count: 2226
The stairs snaked up the hill, right up to the imposing old mansion. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at it with a grim look on my face. In the dark sky, the moon shivered under a shawl of clouds, and I shivered too. The October air was bracing but it was the thought of entering the old house that truly chilled me.
A month ago they sent the letters, as it turned out, to Darlene’s old apartment, an old address. Ten days ago, my wife died, and thus her claim to her ancestral home, a home that she’d never mentioned to me.
I opened the letter, of course. The envelope addressed to Jacob and Darlene Hannah came in with all the rest. I’d ignored it for as long as I could, too distraught to handle anything but her burial. Hiding from well wishers in our tiny flat. My hands shook when I read that letter, addressed only to Darlene.
It was so illuminating.
“According to the will of John Littlebury, we hereby transfer all family assets and property to Darlene Hannah, ne’ Darlene Littlebury. Transference effective October 3rd, 20–.”
Darlene died on the twenty-first.
You have to understand that Darlene and I, we lived just above the poverty line, even with both of us working. We lived in a tiny flat with a cat named Marley. Darlene had begged to keep him her eyes glittering with excitement like she’d never seen a kitten before, plucking him out of our neighbor’s trash filthy and disheveled. Adding that cat to our little family had been a strain to our finances.
A cat. So maybe you can understand my confusion regarding my wife’s family.
We had love though, Darlene and I. One set of dingy sheets, but a bright red bountiful love. Some nights we ate ramen, but it hadn’t mattered. It didn’t matter to me, and it didn’t matter to Darlene.
Or had it? It was hard to believe with that big brick mansion up on the hill–an estate that came with two hundred acres according to the paperwork. Two hundred acres of rocky craggy land, and servants, for god’s sake. The house was brick, had three turrets decorating its stately roof looking like English aristocracy. Plus, all told that fantastic house was a mere blip in value on the financial sheet that the lawyers had sent to me. The fact was, the Littlebury’s were worth millions–hundreds of millions.
But my Darlene, she preferred ramen to this opulence. I mean she must have, right?
Darlene never talked about her family. I’d always assumed they were dead. Or toxic, something disastrous, maybe unmentionable, like my own. I can relate to that–I’ve been estranged from my own family since I was fifteen. I’m embarrassed now that I never asked Darlene about her circumstances. I just assumed she would tell me if she chose, and in the four months of our marriage, she never had. Not once.
I’m not a narcissist, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t incurious about her. It’s just that Darlene made me her whole world and I was content to be there. It felt good basking in all that adulation. Darlene’s love, well, a person could live on it and nothing else.
Still, this house.
How could she hide it from me all this time?
I climbed the stairs finally. One light shone from the uppermost window. Someone was home, although Darlene had no living relatives according the the lawyer’s letter, so it must be a servant up there.
I stood before the door, wondering if I should knock or use the key that I held in my hand. After a moment the decision was made for me. The door swung open.
I stepped inside and the house was warm, startlingly so after the cold air with out.
“I’m Jacob Hannah,” I said to no one at all. The foyer stood empty. “Hello?”
I glanced back at the door but it didn’t shut on its own–of course, why would it? So I shut it myself. Then after a moment’s thought, locked it so it wouldn’t blow open on its own again.
Moonlight shone through the windows but the room was thick with shadows. The floor looked like marble, the walls, wood.
I felt watched and turned a full circle to try to locate the source. Two rooms lay on either side of the foyer and both were dark and silent.
I tried to imagine Darlene in the house–my Darlene, the girl who was always smiling and loose, spun sugar. Maybe when she was young she stood where I stood, her long hair pinned in a chignon, wearing a party dress, answering the door to some eager boy intent on her company. It was an impossible image. This house was a museum, not a home. I wondered about the servants, both what it was like to grow up with them and where they might be now. Had they all been dismissed?
Then I remembered the light I had seen outside and began climbing the stairs.Time to investigate.
I kept up a steady, “Hello,” so I would not startle anyone but I found the uppermost room well-lighted but empty. The room had an abandoned feel. A table sat in the center of the room, its legs ending in lion’s feet. A very ornate urn dominated the center of the table.
Creepy. Was I standing in a mausoleum? Was this John Littlebury’s last resting place?
I backtracked through the house and found a guest bedroom, then set my bag down. Time to explore. I grabbed my camera, a Nikon I had splurged on before the trip here. I couldn’t own this house, with no heir the estate became property of the county, but I could occupy it while the county went through its slow and laborious process of possession. I intended to take advantage of every moment available to me in this house. To grieve of possibilities, losses and to get to know my wife in ways she had never been willing to share with me. I was owed that much. And after all of the nonsense we’d suffered unnecessarily together–maybe I deserved just a little piece of luxury, too.
The camera would capture the elegance, the opulence and maybe if I was lucky, the essence of my wife. I intended to photograph it all, every nook and cranny of this elaborate mansion. I wanted to tease out all of its secrets. Haunt its halls until I could see my wife in its rooms.
I started by turning on every light switch I came across.
Following me from room to room the watched feeling never went away. Instead of getting spooked I decided it was my wife’s spirit guiding me through her manse. I pasted a smile on my face when the prickly sensation rose on the back of my neck, and tried not to think about sleeping in this house.
I photographed the library, the dining room, two of the bedrooms. The hall of paintings was the most impressive. A dozen ancestors lined the hall, each one bearded and serious. I took pictures of them all. In each painting of the men, their brows were furrowed, the only trait they shared in common. Otherwise they were each unique, some blonde, some brown haired, one olive skinned, another fair. They must have each favored their mother although none of the women of the family were in evidence in any of the paintings. Where were the women? Where was Darlene?
I found Darlene’s room, in the left wing.
She’d had a poster bed with curtains all around it–gauzy frilly curtains with strawberries on them. In our own flat, strawberries made their home as well, a picture here, a knick knack there. Tasteful art decorated this bedroom’s walls but it told me nothing about her, matching the mansion instead. A sheet covered her mirror, and her furniture looked two hundred years old. I felt the urge to open her drawers and finally did, revealing only emptiness. I was disappointed but really what else would I find? The room was dusty, undisturbed. Darlene clearly hadn’t been in here for many years. I photographed it instead.
I wondered how many years it had been. When exactly had her presence graced this home? Had she been the sort of daughter that would call her father, ever? Did she have reason not to? Or maybe she wrote him letters? I’d certainly never seen any evidence of it. My wife’s mystery only deepened. Her father had known she was married, that much was obvious from the letter from the lawyers. So why hadn’t he come to the wedding?
Well, we had eloped for one thing. Maybe that hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Maybe we had alienated him. Angered him.
Or maybe Darlene had been ashamed of her groom and had never brought me home. That stung a little, I had to admit.
I pulled the sheet off the mirror, then stood before it. Its surface was cloudy, the silver backing wearing thin. My dark eyes were red rimmed, I looked overtired.
I imagined Darlene standing where I stood. Brushing her hair, thinking about her future. A future that included leaving here for some reason only she knew, that included, ultimately, me.
Poor Darlene. Twenty-nine years old, and dead in a car wreck, crushed beyond recognition. What a stupid pointless waste of a future, of a life, of a beautiful life.
Of a love.
I turned away from the mirror and headed on tired feet to my own room. I lay under the blankets, staring at the ceiling and listening to the house. The old mansion didn’t disappoint–it entertained me with its tales, with its creaks and sighs and whispers. Soon, my eyes slipped shut, and I dreamed.
I stood in front of the urn, my hands tracing the lines of the gold leafing, my lips mumbling the words etched there in a language I didn’t recognize. Heat poured off the urn, like the heat off a fireplace. Imprisoned, I was unable to break away from the urn, its essence snaked its way into my veins. It stung, and burned and buried me.
I woke sweating under the heavy blankets of my bed, frightened and fully wake. Pushing off the blankets I knew I wouldn’t sleep again tonight, so I slipped out of bed and headed for the library. Maybe I could find something to read, to pass the time until the sun came up. I glanced at the clock: 11:30 PM.
I’d left the light on by the chair and it burned warmly, beckoning me. I perused the shelves, first idly, then puzzled, then mystified. These were no pop titles. No classics either although they were old. Unaccountably old. I flipped one open and although it was in English it was nearly unreadable–it was in Olde English. I stumbled through a line or two before I closed it and put it back.
What the hell was transmogrification anyway?
I sat in the chair instead and looked around the room, tapping one finger on the arm rest. I wondered why John Littlebury didn’t own a TV or even a radio. What century was he living in?
No wonder Darlene had left, never to return.
The wind blew heavily against the windows and from upstairs I heard a crash. I raced up the stairs, sure to find a window open but found instead the urn crashed onto the floor.
His ashes were splashed across the floor, the urn broken in three places. I squatted down, grimaced. Thank goodness I had an empty stomach because the thought that a dead body–
Gingerly picking up the three pieces, I set them back on the table. Almost as an afterthought I pieced them back together, traced one finger along the break. It was beautiful in its own way. Black and white, midnight blue and gold, perfectly formed. Layers of gold embossing swirled around it and after a moment I could see it was more than just design–it was script. The gold embossing became words, and my lips formed the words in the silence of the room:
An old soul dies
Another heart gives
The soul disguise
A flash, then darkness. The window open after all, wind swirling around my face, in my eyes, my nose, making me gasp, stumble, retch, and fall.
The dark eyed young man sat in the library smoking from the hundred year old pipe. His brows furrowed in concentration as he deleted photograph after photograph from the camera.
Bloody mess, he thought.
The door opened and Darlene Littlebury entered, eyes empty and delivered the tea. “Father,” she said.
“I trust you had fun on your little outing, dear?” Her eyes flickered slightly, then became buried in sadness. “Good.Go back to your room, Darlene. I won’t need you til morning.”
Darlene left on soft feet, settling on top of the covers of the poster bed that belonged to the house. Her eyes closed, and her body dimmed in the moonlight, becoming non-corporeal.
Downstairs in the library, the young man continued to smoke his pipe rubbing idly at the beard coming in on his cheeks.