I’ve recently acquired my late grandmother’s home. She had always promised that she’d give it to me, but no one in my family had ever taken her seriously. So they were baffled when, upon the reading of her will, I was bequeathed (among other things) her three-storey Victorian. As expected, a few of my relatives were quite jealous of this. At 23, I was a woman with not only a high-paying, steady job, but now I also had a splendid home: One that my grandmother had payed off long before her death, and kept in perfect condition. I was living the dream of everyone at the wake.
Yet it was all I could do not to chew my nails off when I first got the news. It may have come as a surprise to the rest of the family, but my grandmother and I knew the reason why she’d left the house to me. I was the only one she had told.
I’m the only one who knows about the “saints” beneath the floorboards.
My first and only interaction with the saints had been over a decade ago, when I was 10. My mother had driven me down to spend the weekend with grandma, and I’d brought the family dog, Sherbert, along. Grandma’s house was an hour from ours, and somewhat isolated. Her nearest neighbors were about half a mile away. Close enough that I could see a house in the distance when I stood next to the mailbox, but far enough away that there wasn’t much noise reaching them.
Grandma’s house was bordered by a small sea of trees on either side, creating a natural fence. The driveway was dirt, and I remember fidgeting excitedly as my mother drove closer and closer to what I had dubbed “The Castle.” Though most children find the Victorian style creepy, Grandma’s house was a wonderland to me. It was so big that every visit was an adventure, searching to find new rooms and corners. That particular trip, I had been eager to find an entrance to the attic that wasn’t criss-crossed with boards and nailed shut.
Barely waiting for the car to stop, I threw open the door of the van and ran across the front yard. I jumped up the blue-painted wooden steps, racing around the wraparound porch. I opened the back door, knowing it would be unlocked, and let the screen slam behind me. My grandmother, faithfully working in the kitchen, turned and smiled at me.
“You always know just where I am,” she chuckled, kneeling down.
“Grandma!” I shrieked joyously, running into her arms. “Cookies, right? Cookies?”
“Of course,” Grandma said, leaning back and patting my shoulders. “Lemon sugar cookies. Your favorite--and a nice way to welcome summer.”
“Courtney,” my mother sighed from the back door, entering the kitchen. Sherbert followed behind her, trotting over to my side. “You shouldn’t run ahead. It’s dangerous; this house is very old.”
“Ridiculous,” my grandmother scoffed. “I’ve kept it in good repair. It’ll be standing another hundred years at this rate.”
“Regardless,” my mother insisted. “She should be more careful. She’s been getting into trouble lately.”
“Mom!” I protested, sidling up next to Grandma.
“What, thought you could escape it here?” my mother asked, smiling a little. “It isn’t ladylike to be breaking into abandoned houses with your friends.”
“We’re exploring,” I said. “You make it sound so bad.”
“I’d say that a bit of trouble is good for a young one,” my grandmother said, pulling me into a one-armed hug. “You worry too much, Clarissa.”
My mother rolled her eyes. “I should’ve expected as much. Well, I’ll go get her sleeping things. Try not to lose sight of her, Mom.”
“Don’t worry,” Grandma assured her. “We’ll be as close as peas in a pod.”
I grinned up at my grandmother, already tasting the warm sugar cookies she’d prepared.
My usual trips consisted of us playing games and Grandma telling stories, as well as gardening and baking. We would go on walks through the fields of flowers that made up her backyard, with Grandma dressed in the clothes of other cultures. Having traveled the world for over a decade, there were still some knick knacks, paintings, and souvenirs that Grandma hadn’t gotten around to telling me about. Each visit was brimming with a taste of the world I hadn’t yet seen.
But, like I said, it was on this particular trip that I didn’t go anywhere foreign or tropical. I went into the dark, and listened to my grandmother tell a very different kind of story.
You know how in horror movies, the dog knows what’s happening long before any of the main characters do? My dog wasn’t like that.
The next afternoon, I discovered an old dumbwaiter, made before Grandma’s husband bought the place. The Victorian used to belong to a couple of rich sisters, who had people to wait on them. Grandma had explained the history of the place to me on my last visit, saying that the dumbwaiters, hidden behind fake panels of walling, went either up or down. She had encouraged me to find them, and tell me which way they went.
I was delighted to discover my first dumbwaiter in the parlor. It was on the second floor, relatively near the attic. After ten minutes of slapping wood, I had exhaled in relief at the sound of hollow tapping. I’d been grateful that the panel hadn’t been stuck behind wallpaper.
With the careful placement of a flathead screwdriver and some muscle, the panel popped open. I coughed at the musty smell, waving away the dust as I judged the hole. It wasn’t big enough for much more than a dinner platter and a glass of wine. There wasn’t a chance of me fitting in there.
But one Border Collie puppy? That was certainly doable.
I had been hopeful that Sherbert, despite his size, would be able to knock the panel out from wherever he ended up and give me an idea of the space. I hoped he would end up in the attic, and I’d figure out a way to follow him up there. He’d be my adventuring dog, and I’d play Nancy Drew.
He let me lay him on the rickety dolly, patient and trusting. I gave him half a biscuit for his obedience, then began pulling on the rope of the dumbwaiter. I was disappointed when Sherbert began going down, but kept at it, determined to see the mystery through.
He never made a single noise.
It took a while for the dumbwaiter to stop, from a kid’s perspective. When it finally did, I called out Sherbert’s name excitedly, expecting him to bark back. At the silence that followed, I jostled the line of the dumbwaiter, feeling the cable wobble all the way down.
This time, I was rewarded with a noise. Hissing and a skittering sound, like claws.
Thinking that Sherbert was dealing with squirrels, I began pulling the dumbwaiter up as fast as I could, assuring him that he was being a good boy. When the dumbwaiter finally reached the top, my heart sank as Sherbert wasn’t wagging his tail at me. He wasn’t jumping out of the dumbwaiter, running to get outside into the fresh air. He was perfectly still.
I grabbed Sherbet’s limp body and pulled him onto the floor, patting him down for injuries and waiting for him to move. Maybe he was just dazed. Maybe the sudden darkness had made it hard for his brain to react and adjust to the reintroduction of light.
I started screaming when I realized that my hands were coming away red.
Footsteps slammed against the floorboards, overpowering my screams. My grandmother was suddenly kneeling beside me, demanding what was wrong, what had hurt me, whose blood that was.
“S-Sherbert,” I sobbed, turning numb. I pressed my hands against his coat. “Sherbert!”
A little sigh left Grandma’s lips. Later, I would realize it was a sigh of relief.
“That dumbwaiter goes down, then.” She turned her attention to the dog, a mess of bitten-into flesh, fur, and blood. I watched as she pulled the corpse toward her.
“Grandma?” I squeaked.
“Oh no, this won’t do,” Grandma murmured. She dug her fingers into the large holes in Sherbert’s body, pulling out chips of black and yellow. She tossed them on the floor with contempt, splattering the floor with flecks of red. “Coal and fool’s gold,” she tsked. “That won’t do. They don’t like dogs.”
“Grandma, we’ve got to get him to the vet!” I screamed, desperate.
“There’s nothing to be done,” Grandma said soothingly, pushing my hair back as I cried. “The saints took a bite out of him.”
“Saints?” I warbled. I wiped my nose and flinched, the smell of iron filling my senses.
“In the basement,” she murmured. “They eat things, and give you jewels. They ate babies that nobody wanted. Do you know what a miscarriage is?”
I nodded, confusion masking the fear and loss. “M-Mrs. Daniels had one.”
“They eat those, too,” Grandma said. “They like people, not dogs. When I worked at the women's clinic, I only ever gave them the people that nobody wanted. And they gave me enough gold, silver, and gems to live however I wanted.” She paused to stare at the empty cavern of the dumbwaiter, then looked back, eyes shining.
“If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.”
I too took a moment to look at the dumbwaiter, flinching as Grandma grasped my hand.
“Keep them a secret, and you’ll get the treasure,” I heard her whisper. Beneath her words, there was the sound of skittering and hissing. I refused to turn and look her in the eyes. “You’ll be rich, like me. See the world for yourself. You’re a smart girl; young girl; loves an adventure. Not like your mother. I’ll leave the saints to you.”
We ended up agreeing to say that Sherbert had wandered into the meadows, and had been eaten by wild animals. The forest around Grandma’s house was not unknown for its wolves and bears. Grandma's husband had actually met the very same fate decades earlier. My mother and father accepted the news without question, grieving and reminding me to grieve as well. I had left my tears on the wooden floors, though, besides the blood and gold.
On any subsequent visits to Grandma’s house, I didn’t run to meet her. Mom took it as a sign that I was maturing and heeding her advice. Throughout the years, my grandmother winked at me every now and again, reminding me that we shared a secret. We never spoke of the saints aloud, and I tried to purge them from my memory. But it was hard. Whenever I stared at all the beautiful things in her house, I could just imagine the paintings, teapots, and statues all streaked with red. The blood of babies; of people that the world didn’t want.
When I got the news that Grandma had passed, my first instinct was to grab a can of kerosene and light the Victorian from the basement up.
Grandma’s will was read a day before the viewing. Though it had sickened my stomach to hear her promise to me had been kept, I’ll admit that I thought “At least it’ll be easier to set my own house on fire.” The viewing, held in Grandma’s home, seemed a little too well-planned to my biased eyes. To give me the house, and then force me to walk through its halls, mingling with people and imagining myself in such splendor. Grandma really had kept it in wonderful condition. And even though her more rare worldly items would be donated to local museums and charities, there was still a fair amount of furniture and accents that would, were I to accept, become mine.
“An easter egg, to begin your own personal house of fortune,” the woman in the casket had told me one night over cocoa.
I never told her that I wanted the saints. I never said that I wanted riches.
But I guess something had slipped through. Something that even I hadn’t noticed, in my own self-reflections over the years. Maybe it was a family trait, that had skipped a generation.
Maybe it was simple curiosity that inspired me to cut off a few of Grandma’s fingers, when everyone went to toast her memory in the kitchen. She had ordered her body be presented in the parlor in the second floor, right beside the false panel. A truly insidious woman, my grandmother had been.
The dumbwaiter was clean this time. It went down smoothly, on a well-oiled track. I felt the impact of the dolly hitting the floor, and waited. This time, the hissing sounded more like singing. Like laughter. I pulled up the dumbwaiter to find that my grandmother’s words had been true. They definitely prefer people over dogs.
Whatever it is beneath the floorboards in this old Victorian, they certainly make beautiful work of ugly things. Like a caterpillar into a butterfly.
At the reading of the will, along with the deed, I was given a map of the house. Certain rooms had red X’s over them, and there was an accompanying written log of the specific location of each X. My family members had been confused, but I knew a treasure map when I saw one. And I know what false paneling sounds like when I hear it.
I have everything I need to be a self-made woman, just like my grandmother had been. As I turned the rubies over in my hand, watching them catch the light, I felt a smile cross my face. I know of a rundown neighborhood not ten miles away. There are people in it who could use my services.
No matter the decade, there are always people who can use the help of saints.