This is my twelfth Pay It Forward Offering for 2019. I’m a little late, I know! This story features Nathalie, Elaine and Dawn. Enjoy!
The snow had come first. Elaine had been right about that.
That didn’t make it fair. She was the eldest out of all three of them. She had been around for more winters and knew its scents and sounds. Nathalie sighed and closed the large leather-bound book she had been writing in. The leather spine creaked, and the pages ruffled themselves loudly. She stroked the cover of the book as if to soothe it. “Shoosh, now. None of your complaining.”
Going to the window, Nathalie looked at the large flakes as they fell from the sky. The stars blinked down at her. Nathalie could see them winking at her through the flakes of snow. When she saw the man’s face, she looked away from the snowflakes and at him instead. His face flickered in the candlelight and she narrowed her eyes so that she could see more clearly.
She gazed out the window and saw the man. He had dark hair and what looked like a fine complexion made rugged by the stubble that covered his chin. He was glaring at their house with an expression on his face. Nathalie couldn’t tell if the gaze the man wore was one of desperation or one of fear. As he started towards their house, the snowflakes falling around him, he began to fade away. Gripping the windowsill, Nathalie tried to see clearly, but the man grew blurrier the more he came towards the house. The one thing that she did see was the knife that he was holding in his hand. It dripped blood onto the snow. Then, as if sensing her presence, the man looked at her, right into her eyes. She saw that he had the same eyes as hers and she cried out. Then the man, the knife and the blood were gone, taken by the wind.
“Fuck.” Nathalie swore.
There was the sound of footsteps behind her. Her sister Dawn entered the living room carrying a tray carrying a teapot, cups and a plate of biscuits. “Another vision?” She asked. The firelight twinkled off of the gold edges of her glasses.
Nathalie nodded, wringing her hands. “It keeps coming. It lasts longer each time and it’s always the same man.”
“Wait until Elaine has come. She is making sure that all the windows and doors are locked and is placing a line of salt around each exit. You know how she gets during snowstorms. In the meantime, how about I pour you a cup of tea?”
Nathalie nodded eagerly. “Yes, please. That would be lovely.” Sitting down on one of the comfortable wingback chairs, Nathalie watched her younger sister as Dawn poured the tea. While several years younger than her, Dawn had the same reddish hair and the same slim oval face that they all did. They got the red hair from their mother.
Dawn had brought her tarot cards, too. While Nathalie had visions of the future, Dawn saw glimpses of it through other means, whether they be tarot cards or tea leaves. She was always accurate and predicted the future with frightening accuracy. Nathalie envied her sister. While seeing visions could be helpful, they often weren’t of any assistance until it was too late. Nathalie only saw pieces of what was to come while Dawn could see a whole path or story in front of her.
The scent of lavender and jasmine reached Nathalie. Dawn had made a calming brew of tea. Perhaps she already knew something of the night ahead of them if she was already brewing lavender and jasmine tea. Snow made all of them nervous. It had always been this way. Nathalie knew firsthand how much the snow could hide and what it could take away.
They heard the sounds of movement in the house. Nathalie watched as Dawn reached out and filled the two remaining teacups. The house began to creak and groan and their sister Elaine entered the room. The house let Nathalie go where she wanted without making a noise. With Dawn, you could hear her footsteps wherever she trod. With Elaine, the house liked to announce her coming.
Whereas Nathalie had short red hair streaked with grey and Dawn had hair that was the red of freshly bloomed rose, Elaine’s hair was white streaked with grey. The red colour of her hair had been taken away by time and had not returned for some time. Elaine always looked as if she were about to break out in a smile, but Nathalie knew what a smile could hide as well as the snow. When they were all together at their studies, their mother had called them Maiden, Mother and Crone. Nathalie and Dawn often argued about who was the Maiden and who was the Mother.
Flopping down into the couch across from them, Elaine let out a loud groan. “Why does a house have so many damned windows and doors? Would you believe this house has thirty windows and twenty doors?” She asked.
“I thought it had ten doors and thirty windows at the last count?” Dawn asked, handing Elaine a cup of tea.
“Numbers mean nothing,” Elaine said. “You know as well as I do that this house grows and shrinks as it sees fit.”
“Don’t I know it.” Nathalie said. “I’m still looking for that library that was filled with occult books that I found last week. I went back to look for the book I had been reading on Victorian botanicals and still can’t find it.”
Dawn placed a cup of tea in front of Nathalie. “Maybe just ask nicely for the book. You know that it can’t hide things for too long.”
Elaine took a sip of tea and put the cup back down. She closed her eyes and rubbed her head slowly. “Are you okay?” Nathalie whispered.
“Don’t I wish. Why does the snow always bring them out? Why can’t I just enjoy a small glass of sherry in front of a fire during a snowing? Why must they bother me so fiercely every time it snows?”
Nathalie reached out and squeezed Elaine’s hand. She knew that while both her and Dawn saw the future in some way, Elaine saw the past. Specifically, she could see ghosts and spirits. They always came to her in various degrees of dying or they had been dead a long time. Whenever it snowed, Nathalie knew that the spirits bothered her endlessly. Even though Nathalie couldn’t see the spirits, she could feel them. During a snowstorm, the house expanded to provide room for all the spirits that visited her sister.
“Have another sip of your tea,” Dawn said. “I made it with lavender, jasmine, juniper and rosemary. It should help clear your vision and aid you in seeing clearly.”
Elaine took another grateful sip of the tea and let out a sigh. “There are so many of them today. I wish they would leave this old lady alone.”
“How many spirits have there been?” Nathalie asked.
Elaine shook her head. “I stopped counting at thirty. Have you ever heard thirty people talking at once, each of them clamouring to be heard?” She let out another sigh. “It’s a wonder that my head isn’t done in. All of their yammering, it’s constant. I hope the salt will keep most of them away. Enough of that, though,” She gave Nathalie a shrewd look. “What troubles you, sister?”
Taking a sip of tea to calm herself, Nathalie told Elaine and Dawn of the vision. “It’s clearer each time. He gets closer and closer to our house each time as well.”
“How long have you been having this vision?” Elaine spoke sharply.
“It’s been a week or so. Every time I pass by the window, I can see him. Sometimes, I can hear him singing a song, others calling out to someone that I can’t see.” Nathalie took another sip of tea. Calm yourself, Nathalie thought.
Dawn reached for her tarot cards. “Shall I see what the cards have to say?” She didn’t wait for either Elaine or Nathalie to respond and started shuffling the cards. Nathalie knew that she didn’t have to ask her question out loud, that her Dawn would intuit whatever the cards had to say anyways. When Dawn was done, she put the deck down on the table and drew three cards.
There was the three of swords, the nine of swords and the ten of swords. Dawn’s eyes grew wide and she drew a fourth card for good measure. It was the seven of wands. Dawn took a deep breath and let it out. Then she took a sip of her own tea as if to calm herself. Looking up at both of her sisters, Dawn said “There is trouble here.”
“What do the cards mean, Dawn?” Elaine asked. “You know I have no sense of cards or tea leaves.”
“The three of swords is heartbreak and torment. There is pain there. The nine of swords is someone at their wits end, unable to focus on anything else but the mental torment that plagues them and the ten of swords is the end, someone who is finished and has given up entirely. The seven of wands is tells of a fight, of protecting what is ours.” She took another deep breath. “These are unhappy cards.”
“How fitting for an unhappy spirit.” Nathalie said. “These are all well and good, but what do we do now?”
“Weren’t you listening to your sister?” Elaine said. “We have to defend ourselves. We must prepare for battle.”
Nathalie looked at the cards more closely. Pointing at the five of swords, she said “That is the man I’ve seen in my visions.” She tapped the card. “He’s was even carrying a knife the last time I saw him.” The man on the card was so similar to the one that she had seen. Shivering, Nathalie took her hand away from the cards.
“That is even more worrisome.” Elaine said. “We shall have to ready our defenses.”
“Do you really think that is necessary?” Nathalie said.
“Think on your vision, sister. Do you think the man means us harm?”
Nathalie closed her eyes and tried to see past the shadow realms, to see deeper into herself. Then she saw him, the man that had been haunting her visions for the past week. She saw him and tried to go nearer to him so that she could learn more about who he was and what he meant to her, but it was like he heard her footsteps and when he looked up into her eyes, she saw the flash of gold and then a flash of silver.
Opening her eyes, Nathalie let out a cry. It sounded primal and she had never made that noise before. It was one of pain and discovery, of heartbreak and wonder. She put a hand to her stomach, feeling a weight inside her that was not there before. “He has golden eyes.” She said. “He has golden eyes.
Dawn let out a cry of her own and pointed at Nathalie’s dress. There was blood that had seeped into the fabric of Nathalie’s dress where her stomach. With a trembling hand, she touched the spot of blood and took her hand away, looking at the blood upon her fingers. Though she had seen blood before, this frightened her.
The book Nathalie had been writing in before flapped open and the pages began to ruffle themselves as if they were being moved by an unseen hand. The house moved and shook around them, sounding like it would crumble at any moment, so loud were the creaks of wood, metal and glass. The pots in the kitchen began to clang against each other.
“The spirits are restless.” Elaine said softly, worry heightening the terseness of her words. “They are in a torrent of movement around us.”
“I can hear them,” Dawn said, worry coating her words. She moved towards Nathalie, wanting to protect her, but Nathalie put her hands out.
“Not yet.” Nathalie said. “Don’t come near me yet.”
The house continued to move and shift around them and Nathalie could feel it expanding and contracting, growing and shrinking with each passing moment. When she thought she couldn’t stand it any more, when the howl of the wind that was moving through the house reached a screaming pitch, the wooden broom that they kept in the kitchen fell to the floor, slapping the hardwood floors with a sound like a bullet.
All three sisters jumped and they looked at each other, worry on their faces. The sounds, the wails of the wind and the creaking of the house had stopped. It was as if the broom falling had been a period on the end of a particularly long sentence.
Elaine looked at Nathalie with worry in her eyes. “It seems like the enemy is not coming from outside our house,” She said. “But from within.”
Dawn and Elaine looked at Nathalie. She saw the worry there and she knew that it was echoed on her own face. Nathalie could only place one of her hands on her stomach, her skin now slick with blood, and wonder what would come. As the house settled around them, she wondered how they would defend their walls against themselves.
Standing, she went to the book and read what it had to say.
Ignatius Finkelstein was keeping a secret from his wife.
This was nothing new. Their marriage, in fact, had been based on lies and deceit. Valetta had claimed to love him yet he knew that all she really loved was his money. The woman couldn’t even give him a male heir. All they had for a child was Hasenpfeffer and she was second rate at best.
It didn’t matter. None of it really mattered. He often wondered if he actually loved his wife and daughter. The wife? No, he didn’t love her. The daughter? The jury was still out on that.
He took the same route he always did. The roads weren’t too crowded this time of night and, within fifteen minutes, he’d arrived at his destination. He did the same thing he did every time he visited this place and looked at it for a while, as if sussing it out.
Through the haze of smoke that filled the cab of his car, Ignatius looked out into the night. The house sat there like a lover, bathed in a soft golden hue of light. And like a long time lover, the house looked as if it had seen better days.
It was dilapidated and slightly worn. The wrap around porch sagged in front of the main door. But for all its faded beauty, the house still held an iota of charm for him, something that called to him.
Stepping out of the car, he locked the car door even as the cloud of smoke that followed him readjusted itself around his head. Looking out at the parking lot, he saw that the place wasn’t too busy, not yet anyways.
As he always did, he felt a moment of fear, a moment of shock at his daring and wondered if anyone had seen him. Of course they hadn’t seen him. He knew that. Ignatius Finkelstein was nothing if not careful.
Gathering a moment of strength, Ignatius left his car and walked towards the old house. It had seen better days, but then again, so had he.
He rang the doorbell and shivered in anticipation as he heard the answering notes ring out through the old house. While he waited, Ignatius picked lint off his suit jacket. He tried not to run his hand over the item he kept in his pocket.
Looking up again, he saw a shape coming towards him, its lines distorted by the coloured glass set into the door. As the footsteps became louder, the shape grew. All too soon, before Ignatius could really calm himself, the door was opened.
A woman with a warm face looked up at him. “Oh, Mr. Finkelstein!” The woman’s was split by a large smile. “I haven’t seen you in a dogs age, come in, come in.”
“How are you today, Ms. Hockneybrow?” Ignatius kept his voice courteous and respectful. “Has there been any trouble lately?”
The older woman gave him a soft pat on the arm. “How many times have I told you to call me Mafalda? I’ve told you time and time again.”
“Every time I visit here.” Said Ignatius.
“Then why don’t you do as your told?” The old woman chided.
“I’ve always been taught to mind my elders Ms…Malfalda.” He said.
Mafalda Hockneybrow laughed and pinched his cheek. “You got a real smart mouth, anyone ever tell you that?”
“Only you.” He said.
She laughed again and led him down a long, darkened hallway. They passed closed doors, noises escaping past the sound proofed doors. Malfalda scowled at them. “Soundproof my ass.” She said. “Doesn’t matter how much padding you give a door, I can still hear you all carrying on.”
Leading him into the main drawing room, Mafalda sat him down on one of the large, black leather sofa’s and offered him a drink. “Beer, wine? Maybe some tea?”
Ignatius nodded. “Beer would be fine.”
“Now, what did you want this evening? There are a few specials on offer. There’s some nice middle eastern that’s particularly popular or perhaps you’d fancy yourself a nice oriental experience?”
Ignatius shook his head. “I don’t know.” He said. Smoke whirled around his head like a storm cloud. It seemed to move and pulse with his words. “I don’t know what I’m in the mood for tonight.”
“Well, you know what to do. Take a look through the albums and let me know when you’ve made your choice. Just press the button on the wall there.”
Mafalda walked away with quiet steps, leaving Ignatius to peruse the albums at his pleasure. Picking up the first one, he opened it and looked at the photographs contained within. It took him only a moment to decide.
He pressed the buzzer. Mafalda was with him again in moments. “I’d like that one,” he said.
“Oh, splendid choice, just added to the menu last week. You’ll be very pleased.” Mafalda said.
“For the money I’m paying, I certainly hope so.”
Chuckling, Mafalda led the way down another long hallway. Steeling himself, Ignatius followed the older woman into the darkness.
When I left home at sixteen,
I needed another name.
The name I had then didn’t fit properly.
It fit too tightly around me,
and was far too harsh.
After a while,
I realized that it was not the name
that didn’t fit
but that I didn’t fit the name.
I kept my first name
but I let the last two fall away to the wind.
I watched them sail away
to find someone else
but it left me empty
and unsure of where I belonged.
I asked if I could take your last name,
if that would be all right.
I was afraid at what you would say,
at the answer you would give.
You said that you would be honoured
if I took your name.
When I tried it on,
the name fit so well.
It was new and it was mine
but it was also your name.
As time moved on,
we were separated by space,
by seas and by land,
but we always had the connection
that existed between us
because of your family name.
Your name gave me
a new sense of myself
as I reshaped who I was.
However, you were also my parent
for over twenty years of my life.
You taught me to dance,
to let my spirit free to move as it would
and to feel the air around it.
You showed me
what you thought was beautiful,
everything from art and culture,
to music, food and wine.
Though you have gone to live amongst the stars,
I choose to remember you
as the man who was kind enough
to give me his name
and everything that it held
Valetta looked out the window for the eleventh time in the space of thirty minutes. At the kitchen table behind her, Ignatius snapped the paper. “You know she’ll be home when she’s home.” He said. “Hasenpfeffer has her own mind about these things.”
Sighing, Valetta turned from the kitchen window. “Well I have to worry about somebody.” She said to the newspaper. “You won’t let me worry about you. What the hell else am I supposed to do, cooped up in this fucking house all day?”
The paper snapped again. “I really wish we didn’t have to have this conversation again. Every. Single. Day. You know how it tires me.”
One of the hands disappeared and Valetta heard the click of a lighter. When the paper came down, Ignatius Finklestein’s head was covered in a cloud of smoke. “She’s a thirteen-year-old girl and she will do as she likes.”
Though Valetta couldn’t see his face, she knew he was scowling at her. “And I stopped needing you to worry about me a long time ago. Why don’t you get yourself a job?” Ignatius barked. “And not another one of your god damn causes again. I won’t be dragged to another charity luncheon, I hate those fucking things.”
He turned and left the kitchen then, the smoke from his cigar trailing behind him. He left the scent of sour grapes in his wake, the smell festering in her nostrils. She could always smell him before he was coming, hours before he would be coming home. It was always the smell of grapes that preceded him.
Turning back to the kitchen window, Valetta resisted the urge to look in the cupboards. She knew what was waiting there for her, knew without a doubt that she would eventually look anyways.
Giving in was easier, she decided. She went to the cupboards and pulled out a decanter and a tumbler glass. She poured herself a hit of Rose Hip Sherry. The burn down her throat was like fire. Then she poured herself another.
“I need a job, do I?” She whispered. “Just you wait, Ignatius Finkelstein.” She took another hit of sherry. “Just you wait.”
* * *
Later, when Ignatius was out of the house, Valetta went to her bedroom. She lit herself a long cigarette and smoked it using a holder. She did this because her mother had always said “If you’re going to do something dirty, try to do it with a bit of class.”
Valetta took a small drag and positioned herself on the bed so that she could have a good think. She thought that the smoke added a nice effect to everything, made everything very alluring. She pictured herself in black and white, like a silent film siren.
Everyone looked better in black and white after all. It was far more flattering. Valetta didn’t like to think, but believed that, like all else, she should be as beautiful as possible doing it. Sighing, she flicked a bit of ash into a crystal ash tray and let her mind wander.
She had to get out of this house that much was clear. She could never leave Ignatius; despite the hate between them, they needed each other in some way. But how could she escape him temporarily?
She wasn’t good at anything, for fuck sake. She was a high society housewife. What the fuck did they do when their life went sour? She made a mental note to call Moxey Pickle; she would know what to do.
There was a knock at the door. “Yes?”
Geeves, her butler, entered the room. His name wasn’t really Geeves, of course. It was actually Walter Fickus, but all butlers were supposed to be called Geeves, right? He was the third in his family that had served their house. So technically he was Geeves the third. Valetta wondered if she should give him an official title?
“Miss Finklestein?” He said. Geeves’ voice was always soft and demur and she was always a Miss. Even at sixty seven, she could feel young again. “There is a woman downstairs to see you.”
“Oh, a guest, how fabulous.” Valetta sat up and readied herself. Perhaps this was the distraction she’d been waiting for. “Who is she Geeves? What is she here for?”
“Well, that’s just it Miss, she says she’s your daughter.” Geeves’ voice was a little softer than usual, as if he were uncomfortable delivering this news.
“You mean Hasenpfeffer?” Valetta let out a little laugh. “But that’s ridiculous; of course she’s my daughter.” Valetta let out another nervous laugh. She had a feeling that this was going to turn out to be a very bad day. She could feel it. God was fucking with her again.
“No, Miss.” Geeves said. He looked at her then and she knew that he was serious. “It is another girl and she says that she is your daughter.”Valetta nodded. “I see.” She stubbed out her cigarette and pulled her robe more tightly around her. “Well, Geeves.” She tried and failed to put some false cheerfulness into her voice. “Let’s go see this mystery daughter, shall we?”
Sian stared at the castle. It took over the sky and could almost block out the sun. It seemed to grow larger every year. Sian knew the truth.
She approached the bridge that crossed the moat. The drones appeared, sliding into vision when they sensed her presence. One held a laser assault pistol and the other looked at her with an unblinking red eye. She knew they had cloaking software, but they were still fucking creepy. They scanned her face and her body. The air was filled with the sounds of electric current. Sian knew that this came from the moat itself. She could see tongues of the current reaching into the air.
A chime sounded from the drones. She had been given the all clear. She bowed to the drones with a flourish. She didn’t know why she bothered. Human emotions like humour were lost on them. Walking past them, she approached the electricity that thrummed and moved like water. Watching it, she was almost mesmerized.
Looking down as she crossed the bridge leading to the castle’s front entrance, Sian knew that the electric current could kill in a seconds thought should the drones wish it. Thankfully, this was her home, so she was safe. She could still be awed by the display below. When she crossed the bridge, the front door slid open and she made her way inside.
“Jessia?” Sian called out. “Jessia!”
“Must you shout so loud?” Jessia said. “I’ve told you how loudly things echo in here.”
Her sister appeared. She was more android than woman. Though her face and hands were human, large portions of her were made of metal. Watching her, Sian didn’t know when Jessia had stopped being her sister and had instead become her protector and general. She still felt guilty, however. Sian would never be able to make it up to her.
Jessia saw something in Sian’s eyes and came towards her and enveloped Sian in an embrace. “Stop thinking like that.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking?”
“I can see it on your face. You always look at me that way whenever you see me.”
“What do you see in my face?”
Jessia reached out and caressed Sian’s face. “With pity.” Beat. “And fear.”
“A part of me dies every time I see you. I wish I had been there.”
“You were leading the alliance against the rebellion. How were you to know that they would target me?”
“I should have known!” Sian said.
“You can’t keep beating yourself up over this. Here, let me make you some steeped tea.” Jessia went toward the kitchen and took out a tea press. It looked old and the glass was cracked. She took out some loose-leaf tea and poured it into the press. She poured boiling water from a kettle onto the leaves and the scent of lavender filled the air.
“I don’t know why you still use that thing.” Sian said. “Mother and father used to make their tea that way.”
“I know. It’s the small rituals that keep them alive.”
After waiting for a few minutes, Jessia poured them both a mug of tea. They clinked their mugs and Sian said, “To Mom.”
“To Dad.” Jessia said.
There was the sound of air moving outside the castle and they heard the electric current out in the moat rising up angrily. Something exploded and there was the sound of gunfire. Something struck the castle and the whole place shook, but Jessia and Sian went on drinking their tea.
“It looks as if the rebellion has found us.” Sian said. “What would you like to do?”
Jessia took a sip of her tea and put the mug back on the counter. She let her dress fall to the floor, revealing a body that was almost entirely made of metal. There were touches of humanity left, like her hands and one of her legs. She was more robot than mortal.
Thankfully her eyes were still human. When Jessia looked at her, Sian could see the fire within them and she was looking at the sister she knew, the sister that had always been her protector.
“Why don’t we make them feel welcome?” Jessia said. Then she blinked and her eyes were filled with fire.
Jessia lifted her hands and spread her fingers. Sounds of gunfire filled the air and Sian head the sizzle of electricity fill the air. Sian marvelled at Jessia’s control, though it shouldn’t have been surprising.
When Sian had found Jessia after the attack on their home, the castle had been in ruins. Sian had found Jessia amongst the rocks and pieces of broken glass. Sian had gathered Jessia into her arms and had taken to someone who could help. His speciality was the manufacturing of androids.
The only way to keep her sister alive was to make sure that she was more android than human. When she had the castle rebuilt, Sian was astounded to see that, though her sister never grew much taller than her five-foot four frame, the castle grew for her. She was less and less human every year. Jessia became more a part of the castle with each day. Calwalder had warned her this could happen.
Sian knew that every blow to the castles walls was a blow to Jessia. That every window or brick that broke meant that something within Jessia broke as well.
“Can you see who is out there?” Sian asked.
“Yes.” Jessia said. “It seems the rebellion has sent a large number of visitors.”
“What are we going to do?”
Her sister didn’t answer. Outside, there was a brilliant flash of light and Sian watched as light began to flow from her sister. Jessia looked at her with horror and when she opened her mouth, the light consumed her. Sian knew that it was the electricity from the moat, once their protector, now it was their ending.
When the light faded, Jessia was gone.