All it takes is one ember.
The house was old, older than either of them knew. Its history was traced back in the fading tapestries and haunted halls, century upon century of ancient portraits staring at them as they wandered from room to room. Much of the house remained uninhabited, for they were young, and in love, and needed only a few rooms to themselves. They had let the servants go, and found work elsewhere for the cook, and lived alone, just the two of them, in Blackwater Hall.
He had inherited the house from some distant relative, now long-deceased, to live in when he married. It had been kept up through the intervening years to the sparsest degree, and dust caked all but the most-used rooms. When he took his new bride to see it and they pushed open the front door, he gasped and she sighed, for to her it was beautiful. Grand, sweeping staircases wound away from the entrance, a chandelier of crystal drooping massively over the cold, marble floor. The door shut behind them, and in the silence, the hall resonated with a deep, ominous bang and startled them greatly.
To him, the house was dark, and cold, and whispers filled the halls at night. He heard the voices of his ancestors through the walls, telling him of tragedies that befell those who lingered now in the darkness, unable to escape. He did not believe in ghosts, but he knew what his ears told him: he knew what his skin felt: a coldness, deeper than the coming winter, filled this place.
For weeks she danced joyfully through the labyrinthine passages, or watched birds from behind clouded windows, or played at the ancient piano, dreadfully tuned. Her melodies were sonorous and pleasant, and he would sit and watch her for hours, admiring this charming and delightful woman who had taken him as her husband.
Autumn came, and with it the fall of leaves through the grounds made rich carpets of reds and golds for them to tread. They would venture far from the house then, right down to the river that marked the edge of their land, and back again. Through the orchards, they walked day after day, though the trees had not borne fruit in an age.
But as the weather turned and the clouds came in, so too did her mood begin to change. Where once joyful music sprang from her fingers and lips, now her melodies were haunting and sad. He wondered at this odd change in her, for he had never seen it before—always she had been cheerful and sprightly. Now she languished in the halls and the rooms and said to him that she could bear no more, and wished for the clouds to depart. She said this even on sunny days.
The house grew cold indeed then, for it felt to him of a chill deeper and more chilling than that of winter’s wind. When the last leaf fell from the great oak that stood tall outside the parlor window, he brought in wood and set going a great fire in the hearth, so that they might have some cheer and warmth. Outside, the tree looked on in silence, its branches clawing at the window.
She thanked him for his efforts and apologized for her mood: it was the coming of winter, she said, and nothing more. But he was not so certain and began to listen again for the whispers and voices that roamed the passages in the depths of night, portraits of the dead furtively speaking in hushed tones amongst themselves that this house, this place—it was not for the living. It was for them, and these trespassers, these intruders, had no business living among them.
He heard these voices in his head when he could not sleep, and all the house was black as pitch. He heard them in the day when the sun was hidden behind storm clouds and rain. He heard them, even, in the dreary and despondent notes from her piano, which she now played only seldom.
But come the sun—which always returned, eventually—the voices ceased, and he thought himself childish and foolish for entertaining such wild thoughts as ghosts. Soon it was winter indeed, and snow covered all the grounds and weighed at the branches of the orchard. Now they stayed often indoors, fires roaring in parlors and kitchens and they sat and spoke tenderly, or played at cards, or sang, or said nothing at all and kept each other company in contemplative silence.
But the voices would not be so easily dismissed, and they began to call to her, then—outsider, not of the line of the house, they said to her; she did not belong. He could stay, if he must, but she must leave. She shivered in her sleep, and when he pulled her close he felt her chill, and was afraid.
So he left their bedroom for the parlor, where the fire that had warmed them in the evening smoldered still, safe behind the grate that kept the sparks and embers at bay. To the fire he went, and grasped a long branch that had not fully burned, taking it from the fire and bringing it with him back to the bedroom. He would set a fire there, he thought, and so keep them warm through the night—though his mother had told him sleep in cold prevented the ague. And as he did, the voices saw their chance and blew a cold wind through the flue. It rushed around the room and tousled his hair, and he looked back for a moment, frightened.
But there was nothing in the room, and so he left the parlor, shutting the door behind him. The room glowed gently, light from the diminishing fire in the hearth … and the growing one at the tapestry, for the wind had blown an ember from his smoldering log.
He returned to their bedroom, set a fire in the hearth, and was about to retire when he saw their bed was empty. In the gloom, he looked about, but she was nowhere to be found.
Out of the bedroom, down the hall—he called out to her, and her name rang loud in the silence. Soon he found himself in a part of the home that he had never seen before and pushing open a door looked in on a drawing room, thick with cobwebs and dust, the pale moonlight casting an eerie glow on the silhouettes of cloaked and draped furniture. Even here, in this dreadful and abandoned wing, she was nowhere to be found.
And so he turned back, and it was as he was making his way to their bedroom once more that the scent of terror breathed around him: smoke and death. He forwent the bedroom, continuing on down the corridor, and was stopped in his tracks by a great and terrible heat, flames licking at the rugs and wood panels desperately, furiously, hungrily. He screamed for her—and heard only the roar of flames in response.
So he plunged himself into the flames, batting away their invitation to burn, racing down one hall and then the next, the fires of doom growing all the while. Soon the smoke was billowing thick and black, and he began to choke and smother. And that was when despair took his heart in its icy grip, for he knew that after such a time, she must surely have perished. And facing a life without her light, he lay himself down in the great hall, as a flaming beam crashed down upon him and took his breath away.
Come the morning, the flames were spent, and the home was a charred skeleton, scarce a pillar left standing to remind of its former glory. And in the remains of the great hall, under smoldering beams and collapsed roofs, there was a hand, reaching out in a desperate plea to the skies above—a plea never to be answered. And beside it was another, for in the end they had, of course, died together as they lived together, never to know how close they had been.
And for all the remaining ages, he wanders the halls still, calling her name and seeking in the desolate ruin for a beauty that he can never find. And she seeks for him, never to know that they had joined the chorus of whispering voices, now silenced.
Chris, features writer. Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris' creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com.
Get even more book news in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter: http://eepurl.com/mHTVL. Girl Who Reads is an Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at Amazon using any Amazon links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.