Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
  Clarity's Companions - Joanna Gardner
 
 

Clarity stood in the kitchen’s thin morning light with Ms. Mullen peering over her shoulder, so close Clarity could feel the woman’s moist breath on her neck. Movement beside the window caught Clarity’s eye—one of the faces that only she could see, this one the child with goat horns. It appeared and disappeared in the wall’s pale blue plaster like a sculpture in bas relief, except this was a sculpture that could move and change its shape. The child looked worried today, its small, silent mouth in a frown.

     Flakes of snow already darted about outside the tall windows beneath a weight of cloud that promised more weather to come. A ribbon of silvery pink in the east lit the forward edge of the cloud bank above the tops of the bare trees behind the house. But it was warm inside. Waves of heat scented with woodsmoke and hot iron pulsed from the cookstove.

     “I’d like honey today,” Ms. Mullen said as Clarity poured four cups. “And don’t forget Horace wants milk.”

     Clarity had made the tea three times a day for the last six months and hadn’t made a mistake for at least five and a half. But Ms. Mullen had never wanted honey before, nor had she hovered over the procedure like this. Surely she wasn’t nervous too? Today Officer Quinn from the workhouse would visit to evaluate Clarity’s behavior. Officer Quinn had brought Clarity here six months ago in response to Aunt Archer’s request for a lady’s companion, and now it was time for Officer Quinn to check in and see how Clarity was getting on. Clarity had to behave perfectly in order to avoid being sent back, because Aunt Archer—who was not Clarity’s aunt—and Horace and Ms. Mullen all would be interviewed as to Clarity’s worthiness to stay.

     “Here you go,” she said, handing Ms. Mullen a cup and saucer. She picked up the tray with Horace’s and Aunt Archer’s tea, pushed the swinging kitchen door open with her back, and let the door’s squeaking spring close it behind her.

     Horace was already in his parlor. He wouldn’t start playing until after he drank his tea, but he already sat at the piano, leafing through the hymnal. His dusty suit and dusty skin and dusty hair always made him look shrouded in cobwebs.

     “Tea is served,” Clarity nearly sang in her eagerness to be cheerful. She set the tray down on a small table. Horace looked up at her with his usual mournful gaze. Behind him, in the wood of the upright piano, another of the faces appeared, this one the woman. She rose less than an inch from the planed wood, turned left and right as though looking for something, lips pressed together in consternation, then slid along that flat surface and disappeared, her long hair trailing three feet behind her before the wood swallowed it too like water.

     Horace looked into Clarity’s eyes, then took the cup with such care he might have been accepting a newborn babe.

     “Thank you,” he whispered.

     Clarity nearly jumped. He hadn’t spoken a word in her hearing in all the time she’d lived here. Why today?

     “You’re very welcome,” she managed, then picked up the tray and headed for the stairs.

     Twenty steps up, then down to the end of the hall, where the door to Aunt Archer’s bedroom was wide open. Aunt Archer was enthroned upon the cloud of her bed, propped up by a dozen cream-colored pillows. The linen drapes around the four-poster had been drawn back. Aunt Archer’s nightgown and cap were sewn from the same fabric as the bedclothes, which made her look like a floating head and hands.

     Clarity stopped abruptly and almost spilled the tea. The old woman was actually smiling, hands folded in her lap. A small smile, discreet, but there it was. Another first. Could she be in a good mood? Would she tell Officer Quinn she wanted to keep Clarity? It was Aunt Archer’s house. Clarity had never figured out why Horace and Ms. Mullen lived here, as family or friends or bonded servants, but Aunt Archer was clearly in charge. Hers was the interview that mattered most, Clarity was sure.

     Clarity set the tray down on the bedside table. Aunt Archer accepted her cup, the tea so strong that oil was collecting on its surface. She inhaled deeply from the steam, then her smile widened.

     “Well done, child. Well done.” Then she turned her attention entirely to the cup in her hand, closed her eyes, and took a slurping sip of tea.

     Across the bed, on the other side of the room, a face appeared in one of the windows, its shape rippling the glass, making the bare trees outside shimmer. It was the head of a hairless young man who was fond of trying to make Clarity laugh when she wasn’t supposed to. Except he looked oddly earnest today, shaking his head and mouthing the word No.

     Clarity forced herself to look away. Three sealed and addressed envelopes rested on the silver salver beside the bed. The morning post. It was her job to take the letters to the gatehouse out by the road, and if she didn’t hurry she’d miss the morning pick-up. She grabbed the letters and left the tray where it was, so she could use it to retrieve the empty cup after she got back. Downstairs, she wrapped up in her coat and scarf, and headed out into the gray morning.

#

     Clouds covered the entire sky now. A cold wind was picking up as she pulled the tall door closed behind her, but the snow disappeared when it touched the ground. The world darkened further when she stepped in among the trees. The house was set far back from the road and separated from it by woods that hadn’t been disturbed in a hundred years. A driveway ran from the house to the road along the edge of the property, but Clarity preferred the direct route, straight through the forest. Her feet had worn a path through the trees in the six months since she had moved here from the workhouse, a path she imagined would be her jumping off point on her way into the world next year, when she turned sixteen and gained her freedom from wards and guardians and government officials of all kinds.

     She reviewed her preparations for Officer Quinn’s visit. She had bathed last night, and this morning put on a freshly pressed wool dress, black, like all the others. Her hair was braided, her boots laced all the way up and tied neatly at the top. She had read the textbooks Officer Quinn left for her and completed a stack of homework assignments the books suggested. She was ready. Now it all depended on the adults.

     And truly, she had no idea how they felt about her. Conversation was frowned upon in the house, and the few times she had ventured a question she had been rewarded with a slap. Not painful, but firm enough to send a message. She knew that Aunt Archer’s “condition” kept her bedridden, and that was about it. They were a weird and mopey little tribe, the three of them, with their sequestered little church services on Sundays, held in Aunt Archer’s room with the door firmly closed to keep Clarity out, but they left her alone once her chores were done. There was plenty of food, and she had her own room. How could she go back to the dormitory with its double row of bunk beds? To ten-hour days in the shirt factory?

     It was entirely possible they would want a better girl, one who never made the tea too weak or missed the morning post or got distracted by faces in the walls. But she hadn’t made mistakes in a long time. And they had all acted so strangely this morning. Maybe she was imagining it, but she thought they might have been showing kindness.

     She walked quickly, patting her pocket to make sure the letters were still there. Walking out to meet the morning and afternoon post, this was considered a chore. Maybe she could find a job someday walking things places for people.

     More snow was falling through the net of branches over her head when the gatehouse came into sight. It was a tiny building beside the road, only big enough inside for a rickety wooden chair where Clarity could wait for deliveries. The mailbox was built into the front wall, beneath a row of rectangular windows, and opened from both the inside and the outside.

     She was stepping along the path of smooth oval stones to the back door when she stopped, the key still halfway in her coat pocket. The stone closest to the door had changed since yesterday afternoon’s post. It had been carved.

     She stepped off the path and crouched down. She reached out and ran her fingers over the letters, capitals, just like on a gravestone, except these read “CLARITY.” She thought she heard the word out loud as well, in a voice like a chime. A thrill ran through her. No one in the house had used her name once in the last six months, she realized. As she watched, more letters appeared in the next stone and the chime spoke again: “RUN.” She leaped to her feet, nearly falling backward. And then more letters in the third stone, their shapes sinking into the rock beneath an invisible chisel and ringing in the chime voice: “BACK.” Clarity Run Back.

     Back to the house, the stones meant. And when stones spoke it behooved one to listen. The envelopes still in her pocket, she whirled and plunged back into the trees, racing toward the house as fast as she could. Her legs took over, pumping and stretching and catching her weight entirely under their own volition. The cold air sent a shock into her lungs with every breath. She had an impression of being suspended between worlds, between the main house and the gate house. The doors of each one bounded her domain, held her steady like magnets.

     Snow was sticking to the ground now, a thin layer of soft icing. Her feet slapped at it, smacking it into the chilled earth, and she practically flew threw the trees.

     The house loomed ahead, its tall two stories and the three-story tower in the front, its tall, narrow windows and its tall, narrow door. Clarity’s momentum carried her up the steep steps of the porch. She put a hand out to the cold metal latch and yanked it open, plunged inside and slammed the door behind her.

     But something was wrong. The house was silent except for her heaving breath. Horace wasn’t playing, no dishes rattled in the kitchen, no one shouted from Aunt Archer’s room. Was this why the stones had sent her back?

     She tiptoed into Horace’s parlor.

     “Horace!” she cried, and rushed forward.

     He lay sprawled across the braided rag rug, his legs draped over the tipped piano bench. She touched his head. His skin was too cool, and there was a stillness to him. She put a hand on his ribs, over his heart, and felt stillness there too. Silence. Immobility. He was dead. She clenched her hands to keep her fingers from trembling. Her ankles wobbled as she rose to her feet.

     There was his hymnal, and there was his teacup on the piano, empty, waiting for her to take it back to the kitchen. But Horace was gone. His orderly chords would no longer plod through their songs, he wouldn’t sit with his spine slouched over the keys. He wouldn’t ever shuffle into the dining room for supper, ever again. Movement at the piano caught Clarity’s eye and there was the woman with the long hair, her eyes closed, her lips moving in a rapid mumble. In the fireplace, a spent log collapsed through the grate and turned to gray powder.

     But how had this happened? Had someone hurt him? What about Ms. Mullen? Clarity ran back to the kitchen. Ms. Mullen was slumped over the work table, empty teacup beside her. The child’s face appeared in the table and butted its horns against Ms. Mullen’s heavy arm as if trying to wake her. Clarity wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Ms. Mullen actually looked pretty, resting like that. Clarity laid a hand on Ms. Mullen’s face. This time she was ready for the cool skin and the stillness, and she found her palm resting there. Poor Ms. Mullen.      Clarity dashed upstairs. Aunt Archer lay against her mountain of pillows, eyes closed, jaw slack, arms flung out to her sides. Teacup empty. The face of the young man moved in the window, tilting side to side, trying to see the bed.

     Moving slowly, Clarity arranged the woman’s arms in a more comfortable-looking position, the hands laid across each other over her belly. She backed out of the room, a tremor high in her belly, then raced down to the other end of the hall and into her own little room, where she sank onto the narrow bed and cradled her face in her hands. It felt like someone else’s face, something that might appear on a flat surface in the house, move for a moment and then vanish.

     Now she knew what the stones at the gatehouse had been on about, but that didn’t make her feel any better. For all three of them to die like that, at the same time, without any wounds—had there been something in the tea?

     And what was she supposed to tell Officer Quinn? Clarity would be sent back to the workhouse now for sure. She couldn’t live here alone, they’d say. Then her breath caught. They would say more than that. They would say she had killed the grownups. She had brought them poison tea. She wouldn’t be sent to the workhouse. She would be sent to prison.

     She flung herself backward on the bed and heard paper rustling. It was the letters, in her coat pocket. She drew the envelopes out and sat up, examining Aunt Archer’s cursive and her seal pressed into black wax on the back of each one. Letters were sacrosanct. Reading Aunt Archer’s mail was the greatest sin she could imagine in this house. But who made the rules now?

     She opened the first one, a brief message to the grocer canceling deliveries to the house. The second was a note to the power company, requesting that electric service be turned off. The final one was a letter to a Reverend Richard E. Bleeker, thanking him for his counsel and advice over the years. Aunt Archer could never have led her little flock without his help, she wrote, and even though she knew that the Reverend disagreed with some of her ideas, she was sure he would understand if only on the other side of the veil, when Aunt Archer hoped to welcome him to the glory from the ranks of singing angels.

     Clarity let the papers drop to her lap. It all came back to her in a rush, how strangely everyone had behaved this morning. She hadn’t killed the grownups. They had used her to kill themselves. She was as certain of it as if she could read their minds. They had wanted to die, but suicides couldn’t go to heaven. So they had contrived to have Clarity kill them on the day of Officer Quinn’s visit. What happened to her didn’t matter. If she drank the tea she’d die too and heaven would sort out her fate. If she didn’t, she would be collected and dealt with by Officer Quinn.

     An engine grumbled outside. Clarity stepped to the window and peered around the lace curtain. A government car rolled to a stop on the gravel below, gleaming black. A tall, thin woman got out and wrapped her coat tight around her as she walked through the falling snow. Officer Quinn, and she was early.

     The doorbell gonged its three notes.

     This was it. This was the end. Clarity’s time at the house was over. How could they have done this to her? She cast a glance at the ceiling, hoping heaven’s administrators would see what inconsiderate finks the grownups had acted like. Her own cup of tea was in the kitchen still, her own cup of poison. She could drink it if she chose. If she dared. Which she didn’t. She left Aunt Archer’s letters on her tiny desk and picked up the homework books and papers.

     In the stairway, all three faces appeared in the paneled wall beside her, all at once, jostling each other, their blank eyes wide open, their mouths moving in silent shouts.

     “Shoo,” she whispered. “You can’t let Quinn see you.”

     But they raced ahead, leading her down the stairs, moving seamlessly from the wood to the plaster to the painted white door of Horace’s parlor. There, they surrounded the doorknob, frantically jutting their chins at it.

     Clarity stopped so suddenly she almost stumbled. They wanted her to shut the door. If she did, no bodies would be visible. Ms. Mullen was behind the kitchen door. Aunt Archer was all the way upstairs. The faces had a point—maybe Officer Quinn didn’t have to know what had happened. Clarity pulled the parlor door closed with a click.

     She took a moment to compose herself, then opened the front door. Blotchy clumps of snow had already collected on the shoulders of Officer Quinn’s charcoal-colored coat.

     “Hello, Clarity,” she said.

     Chimes again, off in the distance, sounding above and behind Officer Quinn’s voice. That was the second time Clarity had heard her name today. It felt stranger than the message from the stones, stranger than the faces in the walls, stranger than the bodies strewn about the house.

     “Hello, Officer Quinn. May I take your coat?”

     Officer Quinn stepped inside and Clarity pushed the door closed, letting her hands linger on the thick varnished wood. She depended on doors now. They were all that stood between her and the workhouse. The door to Horace’s parlor, the door to the kitchen down the hall—they seemed so thin, like fabric that could blow open in a breeze.

     “No, I’ll keep it on. I know I’m early but I wanted to beat the weather driving back. I hope it’s not a problem.”

     “Please, sit down.” Clarity gestured toward the visitors’ parlor and hastily hung her own coat in the hall closet. 

     “Here are my assignments.” She sat on the sofa next to the woman, her thoughts oddly clear and still. “Horace and Ms. Mullen have gone to town this morning and won’t be back for another hour, and Aunt Archer is quite unwell. She asked me to beg your forgiveness, as she finds it impossible to see anyone today.” Clarity’s heart beat with utter calm as she heard herself spin this lie out.

     “Oh, no.” Officer Quinn looked crestfallen as she accepted the pile of books and papers. “I’ve got to certify that the placement is working for all parties. Couldn’t I just have a quick word with Mrs. Archer?”

     Clarity didn’t have to fake the look of concern that spread across her face. “She really is terribly indisposed.”

     Officer Quinn pursed her lips, studying Clarity. “Let’s just peek in. I must at least see her.” She stood, clearly meaning for Clarity to lead her.

     Clarity nodded and walked Officer Quinn to the stairs. This was it. It was over. Her life of ease here at the house was about to end. Save me, she wanted to wail. Don’t send me back, don’t send me to jail. I didn’t mean to do it. Her chin tried to quiver. She clamped her lips together and climbed the those twenty steps perhaps for the last time.

     “Here’s her room,” Clarity whispered.

     This door was wide open, gaping onto the scene inside. And there was Aunt Archer, perfectly still in the shadow of the curtains, lifeless hands resting on a lifeless belly. Tea tray on the table where Clarity had left it. Cup and saucer on their doily. Rumpled cotton napkin at their side.

     The body lay there so clearly not breathing, so clearly not Aunt Archer anymore, so clearly about to betray Clarity. The wind rose outside, squealing in the eaves.

     Officer Quinn sucked in a breath and put a hand on Clarity’s arm. Clarity looked down at the woman’s long fingernails, shaped and painted burgundy. Talons.

     “We can’t wake her up,” Officer Quinn whispered. “Look how soundly she’s sleeping.”

     Confusion replaced Clarity’s former calm. Her heart clamored in her chest, as if trying to ring the bells of her ribcage. She followed Officer Quinn back to the parlor in a daze and barely registered the questions Officer Quinn asked. How often did she eat? Did she have nightmares? When had she last misbehaved? How had she been punished? Somehow Clarity answered in spite of the growing realization that she was going to make it. She was to be left here, in the house, by herself. The stones at the gatehouse had saved her. If they hadn’t sent her rushing back headlong through the trees, Officer Quinn would have found the bodies herself.

     Sure enough Officer Quinn left before long, hurrying out the door and into the fast-falling snow, but not before disgorging a new pile of books for Clarity’s studies. Trigonometry, Art History, Metaphysics.

     Clarity closed the door and went limp against it, face pressed to the varnish. Might it draw her in? Absorb her into whatever realm the faces occupied? She thought she felt the wood ripple and yield, but then it was hard again and she was outside it, a body in all four dimensions.

     The three faces appeared in the plaster wall as she walked back toward the kitchen, the sound of her booted footsteps echoing down the hall. She was going to have to take the bodies outside. Into the woods. In her mind she saw the rock piles she would build over each one. Above-ground graves. The face of the young man stuck his tongue out at her.

     She’d have to figure out how to pay the bills and conduct any other correspondence the house required. Although Aunt Archer’s final letters would be delivered to the cookstove. She wanted the power on and food delivered, and she did not want any Reverend Bleekers coming round to ask questions. The woman with the long hair bared her teeth in a smile.

     She would plant the garden herself this spring, and she would drink no tea until a fresh pound came from the grocer. Maybe she’d learn how to play Horace’s piano. The child with goat horns opened its mouth in what looked like laughter, and Clarity heard the chimes again, louder this time, as though they came from the windows and walls and floors and doors, and the spaces those planes contained.

 
 

About the Author

 
Joanna Gardner
 

Joanna Gardner lives in New Mexico and is an assistant fiction editor for the journal Many Mountains Moving. Her stories have appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Expanded Horizons, Reflection's Edge and others, and she goofs around online at www.joannagardner.com.

   
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.