Who are you, if forgotten? Who are you, but the sum of your memories? - Cecilia Dart-Thornton
The young man staring up the slope felt he could sympathize. What was left to do when the light, life, and love had gone out of you? When there was nobody to bring it back, or even take care of what was left?
The last of the sun’s light shimmered across the wet grass, as if someone had scattered golden flakes across the turf. He avoided the gate at the end of the gravel drive and jumped the low wrought-iron fence instead, landing between a fuchsia bush and the remnants of an old oak tree. He walked slowly across the lawn, watching the fascinating shadows that the mansion and its outbuildings cast across the grounds. He ignored the front doors, instead walking around to the back of the house.
Spread out across the hill’s gentle downwards slope and the fields beyond were the estate’s gardens; four acres of carefully constructed flowerbeds, pathways, ponds, streams, clearings, and tiny groves, now grown to a barely contained jungle. The entrance to the gardens was marked by two large cherry trees. In the depths of winter, their branches were bare and skeletal, swaying mournfully in the wind. But he remembered a time when countless petals had showered through the air, landing on the ground in a thick carpet, a pink softness not unlike another well-remembered texture…
“Are you sure about this?” A soft touch.
“I don’t want to scare you…”
“I’m not scared. I want this...” Echoing resolution.
“I just…I don’t ever want you to push me away.”
“I would never do that!”
Promises. Such frail, delicate things, despite the conviction with which they were often made; they were deceptively easy to break. And like any broken thing, even if you managed to put the pieces back together, they were never quite the same. Technically, though, his friend had never actually broken the promise. He hadn’t pushed. He’d pulled. Pulled away, first emotionally, then physically. The many barriers to their relationship had not been insurmountable, but as they had popped up one by one, they’d become too heavy a burden to bear.
He crunched through the snow, his feet barely shod. He felt no chill. It was nothing to match the cold inside. He felt as if his mind and body were frozen in stasis, unable to break away from the past, waiting for that almost-forgotten heat to roll back in and thaw them out, like the spring-warmth that would melt the snow and bud the waiting flowers. At least spring was a predictable thing; you knew it would come back eventually, if you could survive winter’s cold.
He walked along the walls until he found a back entrance into the house. The small door was overgrown with ivy that had once grown tamely around the frame. He ripped it away, revealing wood that was beginning to rot. In some ways, he knew why he had come back here. Winter had arrived, and it carried with it a deep change. He could feel it coming, creeping slowly through the earth, even while ice and snow locked everything in a long sleep. It sang around him, a melody that made him shiver in both anticipation and dread.
Is it for me?
He pushed hard, and the door inched open. It wasn’t locked, as one would expect, but it was rusty from disuse. There was a long, appropriate creeeeeak as it opened. Inside was a foyer area, adorned in cobwebs, some new, some old. They hung from the ceiling and walls like delicate, finely- spun lace. He left the small room, traipsing through the derelict building, his light tread disturbing the dust, disturbing memories…
“Your house is so amazing!”
“Ummm…you really think so?”
“I never really noticed, I guess…”
They’d both been a bit naïve then, but while social status had only been the first of many obstacles to their relationship, it had been the hardest to overcome. It had taken a long time to realize that his friend’s family accepted him, even if their contemporaries couldn't, wouldn’t. He had found it hard to believe that people so far above him could hold such values sincerely; he knew that it was easier to believe in equality when you were at the upper end of the social ladder, having never experienced the pain and cynicism of the bottom rung; the beggar on the street, the child gone hungry, or the prostitute forced to offer up her body in return for money and basic needs.
Stepping through a pair of richly carved doors, he entered the main living area. There was still some furniture left here, looming up out of the dark without warning. It was all covered with moth-eaten white sheets. He felt suddenly bemused. White sheets were for dead bodies, weren’t they? He was familiar with that custom…so strange, that the material possessions left behind should be treated in such a way. Or maybe, not so strange; the inhabitants had been the soul of this house, and once they were gone, what was left, but a dead, barren husk?
He carefully pulled the sheet from a low, flat shape in one corner. It slid off easily, pooling on the floor with a small puff of dust, revealing a wooden table. He ran his hand across the surface, his fingertips recalling another texture, intimately familiar with the pattern of the wood grain. They had played checkers on this table, his companion patiently teaching him the rules. He remembered now how many of their matches had ended; the younger player would point out a good move to the older, which would subsequently result in the younger taking all his pieces and declaring a smug victory.
Soft laughter. “Does that mean I get a prize?”
“What could you possibly want from me?”
“Oh, I’m sure I can think of something.” A mischievous smile, one hand sliding down the other boy’s thigh…
The ghostly touch on his skin made him jerk back, and then a rattling crash made him jump three feet in the air. A small black shape shot across the room, having disturbed a number of ornaments left on a nearby mantel. It paused at another door, ambient light revealing it to be a small, black cat. It was scruffy and underfed, wild. Obviously, it hadn’t taken long for nature to begin moving in, a new tenant inhabiting the rooms that it had previously been barred from.
He followed the furry creature out into a long hallway that led to a small stairwell. The animal paced along behind him as he climbed the stairs, no longer scared now that it knew he had not come to disturb its home in the basement. The stairwell led to another hall that ran along the entire length of the mansion’s second floor, one side revealing the world through several large windows, the other systematically punctuated with small doors.
He walked to the centre of the hallway, where an intricate stained glass window, cleaner than the rest and still unbroken, stretched from floor to ceiling. The sun had dipped far below the horizon, and despite the deep navy darkness of the encroaching night, the pale moon outshone the stars, its light falling through the clouds in soft beams. It reflected off the mists that were beginning to gather about the bottom of the hill, like a lady gathering her skirts.
The window depicted lush green fields, not unlike the real ones outside. But on these hills, fantastical creatures ran free, their happiness caught for a moment in transparent colour. The light shone through the colours, spilling across the floor in a green pool that he was hesitant to touch. But he stepped forward, and the light painted itself across his skin, making it look otherworldly. It was so different from the colour he’d become used too, the colour that used to keep him awake at night in fear…
The creamy sheets were clean and crisp, clashing with the sweating, shivering body lying under them. The hand that lay above the coverlet had sickly green tinge, the first outward symptom of this strange malady that had returned to haunt them after so long. He hadn’t ever believed that your skin could actually turn green when you were sick.
The patient turned his head and smiled weakly. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. It’ll pass after a month or so.”
“Yes, that’s about how long it took last time. Stop worrying, you’ll get grey hair.”
He attempted a smile for his sick companion’s benefit, but in truth he was much more worried than he let on. He’d walked down to the house kitchens yesterday to snag a treat for them both, but on his way he’d been distracted by the sounds of upset murmurs in one of the sitting rooms. He couldn’t help but stop to listen, and he realised it was a discussion between the master of the house and the doctor who was currently staying over to care for the poor youth.
He hadn’t heard much, but he caught the gist of the discussion. The doctor, who’d obviously treated this particular patient before, was saying that this affliction was getting worse every time it hit. He was worried for the young master’s continued condition, and wanted to move him to a proper hospital for treatment. He made no bones about his diagnosis – this disease was terminal.
He continued on down the hallway, descending another set of stairs. These came out in the more public part of the house. The first door he pushed at opened into a large ballroom, a slowly rusting chandelier hung at its centre. The lightly gilded carvings and decorations on the walls were as flaky as the outside of the house; this room was a shadow of its former glory. He’d been invited in here once, his companion having decided that he needed to learn how to dance.
He could remember the graceful body running towards him across the parquet floor- no, that was wrong. Not graceful. Grace implied strength, the strength to make even the most difficult and energetic of movements look effortless. Rather, he’d been like smoke; smooth, flowing motion that was easily disrupted by the smallest opposing force – like a puff of air.
He didn’t like this room, though. The memories disturbed here were not good ones, not sad ones. They were angry memories, painted with hurt and resentment.
“I’m sorry, I have to go home.”
“Can’t you stay just a-”
“No. My father needs my help, it’s harvest time. I had to sneak out just to get up here. I can’t keep neglecting my chores.”
“Why do they need you anyway? Are they too lazy to do it on their own?”
His eyes widened. Surely his companion hadn’t meant that. He was usually so understanding, knowing that the other's family was not nearly as well-off as his.
“Of course not! This time of year is just busy, you know that…”
“No, I don’t.” A stubborn pout. “If they need you that much, they should just hire a farm-hand or two.”
Anger sparked. His lover knew they couldn’t afford hired help; why was he being so unreasonable?
“Well, I’m sorry, but right now my family needs me more than you do.” His words were like daggers. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll take my leave.”
“Fine.” His companion dismissed him like the low-blood he was. “I give you permission to leave.”
They’d both been frustrated that day, and they’d both let it get to them. He’d been busy with seasonal work, and his companion had begun to garner more and more duties as he grew into his role as the family heir, despite the shadow of sickness. They hadn’t been able to see much of each other, and there had been other issues slowly piling up in the background, one by one. Stress had finally broken the already fragile state-of-affairs.
But hindsight was a vicious and clear-cut beast. Not only had he recognized how stupid their argument had been, but it was not long after the disagreement that the family had moved away. Looking back, he’d realised that his companion’s stress must have been due to the imminent move, and the prospect of leaving his beloved behind. It explained what he’d said during the argument; he’d obviously hoped the other would be willing to leave his family behind and follow his lover.
He left the ballroom quickly and continued his exploration. Even as he wandered, though, he could feel a slight tug. His feet unconsciously drew him back towards the door he’d entered through. In that direction, a different path than the one he’d taken into the house, lay the family’s sleeping quarters.
He ignored the first two elaborately worked doors, stopping in front of the third, slightly less ornate one. The door handle was strangely cold under his hand, but he took a moment to trace the complex patterns he’d never really thought about before. Not looking up, he twisted and pulled, remembering the feel of the mechanism catching slightly in the frame. He took another moment to examine the inside of the door. It didn’t take him long to find them; very faint scratches marked the varnished surface.
Two hands planted themselves on the woodwork, gripping tightly as bodies surged with heated passion. He would never forget this feeling; no matter how far apart they were, or how much time passed…he knew he would always love this man.
Something in him tugged again, and he finally found the courage to look up and see a room he remembered so well, a room he had not seen in years. It was unaltered, right down to the person who’d always been with him…
A dark, delicate shape stood near the window. Moonlight glanced off pale hair, pale eyes, and skin so translucent it was almost see-through, like fine china. The figure was vague, wavering against the backlight, not quite all there. He paused at the door, silence settling like another layer of dust. It was a strange little silence, born of shame, secrets and ceaseless pain.
“So…you finally returned…”