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
“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
jumped. He hadn’t spoken a word in her hearing in all the
time she’d lived here. Why today?
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.
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Quinn. May I take your coat?”
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.”
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,”
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.
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
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,
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