Hey, I’m finally writing short stories again! The last time I posted one was in January of last year. Let’s just say it’s been a while.
Anyway, I wrote this one for Jem’s prompt linkup, One Quirk Later. The prompt got my gears turning, and then I churned out something with a Victorian mansion that just might be an eldritch abomination, a genderfluid child who is possibly a fairy, and a (mostly) normal guy who is honestly so tired.
One last thing to clear up any possible confusion: the child getting referred to by both he and she pronouns throughout the story is 100% intentional.
Nothing was ever the same twice in the House.
Things shifted and changed, sometimes from moment to moment. Edward was never lucky enough to see it with his own eyes, but sometimes he would look up and find that the walls were now a peaceful sage green instead of the white that they had been a second ago, or he would look down and see hemlock springing up through the floor, as though his floor were a garden instead of part of a house. But it was not his house, though he may live here, and he did not even pay any rent, so he put up with it and did not say anything whenever anything moderately objectionable happened.
He had wandered into this place once, many years ago, and he had never been able to find his way out of the grounds again, for the grounds grew twisted and tangled each time he tried. Edward had been on vacation from Oxford, and quite drunk, and his friends had been very curious about the old ruins of a mansion on the hill. They were much too afraid to come with him, though they had teased him for a coward when he expressed hesitation. Edward supposed they had all gone on to be successful members of parliament, and likely they were all very happy as well.
He was not alone in here, at least. A child followed him around the place, haunting his every step. The child appeared as a boy one moment, and a girl the next, but he knew it was impossible for them to be two different people. Those blank, endless eyes could only belong to one person. The probability of eyes that strange belonging to two children were ridiculously low.
The child had terrified Edward at first. He had been sure that the child was a demon. Perhaps a vampire like in those penny dreadfuls his mother always complained about him reading. But it never did anything, just stared at him with those big blank eyes, and he had been reminded of his old nursemaid’s tales of changelings. A changeling ought to have scared him also, he supposed, but anything was a relief after suspecting himself of having been haunted by a demon.
Ivy covered the library shelves, intertwining too tightly with the books to ever hope to extract them. He doubted it would be much use, even if he had managed it. The books the House tried to create—at least, the only ones he had ever found—had always been fractured in some way, when he tried to look inside. Sometimes literally so, the pages crumbling to pieces and reforming again. Sometimes they were filled with nonsensical hieroglyphs, not Egyptian or any language he would recognize. The only books he had were the ones he had had in his pack he had carried in.
“All I want is to reread Carmilla,” Edward complained to the child, who was currently, incomprehensibly, reading a picture book. He looked over her shoulder. The pictures blurred and reformed into increasingly unfamiliar shapes and colors until he was sure that they must be attempting to depict God. (Not God from the church. That was a watered-down God, made more human so as to be understandable to his followers. This was attempting to depict the God that could leave Edward locked up in a fracturing, unhinging house and still love him.)
The child did not answer. He never did.
“I think I’ll call you Carmilla,” Edward decided. The child looked up at him, narrowing her eyes, which was more of a reaction than he had had all week. Edward responded with a shaky smile. He always thought they were friends, but it was hard to tell with children, especially with fairy children.
The House tried to provide for him, even though it did not know how. The next week, he found a book on the table beside his bed with Carmilla written on the spine in shaky lettering. The words inside were nonsense, of course, written in Latin all jumbled up.
Edward found a piano in the dining room, one day. He looked over it, expecting to find an apple tree bursting out of the body of the piano, or for it to only create sounds that sounded like they might have been produced by one of the odder angels, the ones that were simply concentric rings with eyes. But it sounded the same as any other piano.
“Come here,” he said to Carmilla. The child cocked his head and walked over. “Do you like Mozart?”
She waited, presumably for Edward to say something important.
“I never liked Mozart when I was a child,” Edward continued, “but my mother did, and she taught me to play. I never appreciated it when I was young.” His laugh sounded breathless. “I don’t think I appreciated the things she did for me half as much as I ought.” He sat down, hammering out Mozart’s minuet in G major. His playing was clumsy and graceless, and he often struck the wrong notes, but he had not been able to practice for many years, and he thought he did quite well, considering.
The child listened, fingers twitching, and when Edward had finished, the child played the melody back to him, with perfect intonation and without a single mistake. Edward sighed. “That…that was very good,” Edward said. “If you ever decide to leave the business of haunting places, you ought to become a musician.” Fairy children were supposed to be good with music, Edward remembered from the stories. It wasn’t his fault that the child was better than him, despite the fact that he didn’t think she’d ever touched a piano before.
He played piano the rest of the afternoon, though eventually he ran out of pieces he had memorized, and he had to repeat some, or struggle through the half-remembered ones. The child seemed to enjoy it, all the same.
Edward, while he played, thought that he might remember how to be human like this. He would later think that it was this moment that caused the House’s power over him to weaken, but he would never be sure.
Spring was a time of renewal. The grounds did not always remember to match the seasons—sometimes he would wake up to find a light frost on the ground outside, and the trees orange and gold in the summer—but it tried its best. Edward lay in the orchard, letting the cool sun shine on him, as he reread his Latin textbook for the fifteenth time. He had learned Latin well enough by now to make his old professor weep with joy. Full, red apples weighed down the branches of the trees, alongside white flowers just beginning to unfurl their petals. He picked up an apple that had fallen, turning it over into his hand and wondering if it was worth trying. He shrugged his shoulders and bit into it. It was juicy and sweet, like the apples he had eaten as a young boy stealing from his neighbor’s orchard. There were no apples better than stolen apples, at least not to a child. He laughed to himself, taking another bite.
He looked to the side, wondering if there would be anything at all beyond the orchard or if there would just be a blank nothingness. Sometimes that happened, when he opened doors to rooms that the House had forgotten to fill. His eyes chanced to fall upon a toad in a watering can. He stilled, the apple falling from his hand. He had never seen another living creature in the House before, aside from the child. The toad waited, meeting his eyes, and then it hopped away down a path that had not been there before.
Edward scrunched up his eyebrows, then decided that the toad meant for him to follow. He took another second to decide that he would not be wasting his time. A living creature in this place was a novel enough thing.
The path led down a hill and by a fishpond—stocked with actual koi fish, he would have wept for joy and then talked to them for hours just for the feeling of someone listening if not for the fact that he thought the toad would be very unimpressed—and finally, to a twisted, crumpled silver gate that would not shut all the way, and beyond that was a wood.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh.” This wood was not the hill in Yorkshire that he had walked up to enter the house. In fact, he suspected that the wood was not any place on earth at all, but it was certainly a real, living place, and not something pretending to be that like the House. Or perhaps attempting was the better word; it wanted to be real and living, but it couldn’t quite manage.
Five years of living here, and he still wasn’t sure if it was malevolent or if it simply did not understand.
“Is this place fairyland?” he asked the toad. It did not respond, not particularly having a voice box suited for creating sounds in human languages. Edward looked back uncertainly. The house stood high and proud, in ruins and in the prime of its existence. “What about Carmilla? The child, not the vampire,” he added hastily. He wished, with a keen sense of embarrassment, that he had named the child anything more normal. Jane was a perfectly nice, respectable name.
Edward had never known toads to have expressions, but this one managed to look at him as though he were a blithering idiot. “He can make it out of the house any time she wants to, can’t he?” he said. Edward had always known she was not trapped in the House like he was, but he hated to leave her, all the same. Perhaps Edward would miss him, in a strange way. Perhaps he would miss him quite a bit.
Edward had not the slightest idea what awaited him in the world outside. It might be worse than the House. But he could never go back, any more than he could will himself to jump into a freezing lake with no cause. “Well,” he said. “With my Latin textbook at my side, I feel quite ready to take on anything.” He smiled awkwardly.
He looked ahead, taking a deep breath, and stepped outside the grounds for the first time in what felt like a century. He would survive. Somehow or another, he always did.
Short stories, how I have missed thee. It feels really good to just sink my teeth into a project for two or three hours and then be done with it, lmao. It also feels like it’s been a little while since I’ve written historical fiction, though that may just be because I’ve spent the last two months in fanfic purgatory. It still feels good to get back to the genre even though I haven’t been gone that long, though! Anyway, tell me what you think!