“The Lady Winchester Deciphers Her Labyrinth” by Adrian Van Young

SWinchesterBefore the great earthquake of 1906, twenty-three hours before it exactly, a quake which will, when it has passed, enact such a chaos of structural damage upon a house in San Jose that the house might as well not be standing at all, shattering ten of the seventeen chimneys, juddering three Tudor turrets to bricks, uprooting a wing of New England-style porches, shaking loose the plasterwork, collapsing asunder the third and fourth stories, buckling the seven-tier tower to bits—before any of this, while the house is still standing, while the house is still pumping with uncanny blood, Sarah Winchester, the woman who owns it, proceeds through its windings with Tommie her gardener, counting the number of windows that are.

Rooms in the house: 160.

48 fireplaces. 17 chimneys. 3 elevators. 2 basements. 2 ballrooms. 10,000, counting, panes of glass.

Only some of these windows look out on the gardens where Tommie, cadaverous and elegant, walks. While other windows in the house look sideways at walls or look upwards on ceilings. They are curious windows, interior windows; rather than leading outside, they lead inward. A couple look through dim woodwork upon still other windows and through these the gardens. Between the windows lies a shaft with no architecture above or below it, an extra dimension of vertical space encasing the house like some strange second skin.

Every glass pane counts as 1 discrete window. The heiress has made sure of this.

Even the stained glass surmounting the staircase which was 1000 dollars, two weeks to install, goes down in Tommie’s book as 1—one mark among a legion like it. The glass has an inscription on it from Richard II, Act V, Scene V: These same thoughts people this little world.

She is an heiress but also a widow. Her daughter is four decades dead, her husband three; she is alone. The heiress’ fortune comes to her from rifles—the Winchester model, named after her husband, who carries the name of his father in turn.

But she is the primary shareholder now. She owns the house and never leaves it.

Every two weeks she goes hobbling through it, calculating what she’s built.

She and Tommie come into the house’s ballroom where she turns in a circle; the dust motes turn with her. All the curtains are drawn in this cavernous space.

Daylight filters through the cracks.

“Seven thousand four hundred and twenty-six, Tommie.”

Tommie marks inside his book. “Are we counting the panes in the greenhouse today?”

“Of course, Tommie, yes,” says the heiress, distracted, ticking off panes with her right pointer finger. Chronic arthritis sets fire to her hands, bringing her back to the moment—his question. She turns and arranges her face into sternness: “Of course we are, Tommie. When have we not?”

She stiffens in the dim ballroom, ready to turn on a dime and go out.

To reach the right staircase that leads to the top, they’ll have to double back again down the hall that led here, then the hall at the branching, then a series of shorter halls still off of that—a kinked-up maze of passages that leads to the alcove that houses the stairs. There are many staircases all through the great house, though few of them lead to the places they should. Like the windows, the stairways melt up into ceilings or end mid-ascent in bizarre, floating platforms. They have a purpose in the world that they’ve been divested of here in the house.

“Tomorrow is Wednesday,” says Tommie.

“Which means?”

“A good day for a holiday.”

“If you like, you may take the day off,” says the heiress. “Spend it with Ito. Your pretty young wife.”

“It’s not on my behalf…” He stops. “It’s not on my behalf I ask.”

“That’s lovely, Tommie,” says the heiress.

His diction, she thinks to herself, can she place it? Anne Radcliff perhaps—Polidori—Flaubert. She has given him so many books in the past, stacked them outside his quarters, not insisting he read them.

He is vague through the haze of the heiress’ veil. It is crepe and it gusts with the air of her motion, approaching him, passing him, leaving the room. She only removes it whenever she bathes and when she is in bed asleep, and even though Tommie has seen her without it, she still prefers to keep it drawn.

Beneath it is not even something macabre: the necrotic grand dame with the straggling hair.

It is only the face of an elderly woman who cannot fully chew her food.

When they reach the staircase she begins to climb first. She calls back down the stairs to Tommie: “I will finish this count at my leisure,” she says, “and bring you my findings so you may record them.”

When Tommie’s face begins to shake the heiress turns her own away.

*          *         *

The heiress is due in the house’s grand parlor where Samuel Leib, her lawyer, waits. After the greenhouse with Tommie she goes there, the cherry buds thick as a balm on her hands and Leib has been sitting in decorous humor with his downturned mustaches, in coat and cravat. It might be mid-evening for all there is light and the hearth is dull-seeming with smoke through the irons. The day has grown drizzly. The fire is her gardener’s, and so it is a famished fire. He has never, of course, trusted Leib and dislikes him, though Leib has been to her a trustworthy counselor and even along the far margins a friend. Tommie stands in the shadows just right of the fire, recording the words that they say in his daybook so she can read them later on and ponder if she has been wise.

She takes the chair across from Leib.

“He is,” says Leib, “a crafty man.”

“You did not strike a deal with him?”

“You call it a deal, Ma’am, I call it a mercy. His game was entrapment. There’s no guessing that.”

“But you came back retaining a part of the sum?”

“I have half of it here in my pocket,” says Leib.

“And what should I do with this face?” says the heiress.

But she does not remove her veil.

“You are,” says he, “a lovely woman.”

The lawyer says this all the time. He is a sort of husband, then, with whom she does not share her bed.

“It is the principle, I think. I ordered up dentures, he didn’t fulfill them.”

“The teeth are mere utility. You will manage with fake ones and still have your smile. “

It had been just a tooth at first, a top-left incisor that spiked on the porcelain while Sarah was standing there scrubbing her gums. Graceful as a suicide it had leapt from her mouth to the basin below her. She had held it before her, intractable, bloodless, peered into her ruined gum. Raw and hollow of her tooth, it had looked like the pupa of something newborn.

After that she and Tommie had hired out a dentist, a slick San Franciscan who’d come recommended, but he had botched the job and well.

The dentures did not even fit her.

“Other things,” Leib says, “are brewing.”

“Financial other things?” she says.

“Of course,” he says, “now I am here.”

“You’re speaking of my will,” she says. “My will,” she says, “paid out in bullets.”

“I am to transcribe it, if that is your wish.”

“Transcribe it?” she says. “Or perfect it. Which one?”

“To channel it in your best interests.”

“And what are my interests?” she says, leaning forward and cupping her cheek in the palm of her hand.

“To relinquish your stocks at which time you so choose. To claim your share and step aside.”

“The buying party,” says the heiress. “And what will they do once they have it in hand? The empire,” she sneers, “of my dear, deceased husband.”

“They’ll do with it what they will do.”

“That is quite the endorsement,” says Sarah Winchester.

“They are tired, altogether, of whether you’re well. They want their stake or they want out.”

“And you have advised them what course?” says the heiress.

“To lose their shares or hold their horses.”

“You are good to me, Samuel. Thank you.”

“I have tried.”

Tommie closes his notebook and moves from the gloom. He comes to stir the fireplace.

“You build and build and build,” says Leib. “And yet you leave nothing for what is forthcoming. What bides, as such, on your horizons.”

The skull, she thinks. The gaping grave.

She tells her lawyer: “Spinsterhood. I would venture to say it is already here.”

“Your legacy, of course,” says Leib.

“My legacy, really?”

The heiress is tired. Tired of guns, tired of lawyers. All the men she’s ever known rhapsodize about guns, their mechanical grace, but she hates them and always has. Every couple years or so she endeavors this same conversation with Leib concerning the prospects of interested buyers would who ferry the awfulness out of her hands and every couple years or so the heiress demurs, then retreats through her maze. She marvels Leib still humors her; she marvels he is here at all. She will not sell the company. Not this year and not the next.

She does not know why she knows this. It’s only something that she knows.

“You have always been generous with me,” he says. “I hope I have not made offense. I am telling you, Sarah, my office withstanding, that you must sometimes plan ahead.”

“I was planning ahead with those dentures,” she says and looks at the fire for a time, back at Leib.

*          *         *

She has ordered that work on the house never cease, in nighttime and daytime, in sun and in rain. The pounding and grinding, the groaning and sawing, goes on at all times of the dark and the day—though less so in the night, of course, when the workers are prone to committing faux pas’ that have injured a couple of them, but no deaths.

On days she travels through the house with her veil hanging over her wrecked, toothless face, she has heard them discussing her, architects, builders, her chief architect, a man named Denan, in little cabals of man-spite, beneath scaffolds: “She could no more imagine a building, that woman, than conjure a husband to suffer her touch.”

The heiress’ eye is completely untrained, and the house is paean to botched architecture.

Denan is the heiress’ chief architect because Denan is building-savvy, though all of the major decisions are hers—each window and staircase, each turret and shingle. The elements he ridicules are totems of her trial and error. Yet his ridicule ever goes only so far, the heiress has noted, and never on paydays.

On those days he says she is getting a knack. And sometimes the heiress will almost believe him.

All the money that comes from the selling of guns she pours into the house—its upkeep, its increase. There is seemingly, frightfully no end to money. The Winchester rifle, the heiress now knows, has done terrible things to the tribes of the West but she has weighed the consequence against the house and found it lacking. She’d even hired a medium to see if it would ease her guilt, but she had been an utter fraud.

So the heiress re-hired her, again and again.

The first time she’d had her come in through the kitchen, and then she’d fed her sparingly: her husband, his handkerchief bloody in autumn, her daughter, dissolving away in her crib. When the heiress had mentioned the dead Indians the woman had asked her to please close her eyes. “The spirit that wishes to speak is no red man. The spirit that wishes to speak is a girl. A baby girl without a name. She is fresh from the belly. She is small and so thin. She is trying to keep something down to sustain her. Her mouth is chewing on the air. She is trying to live for you, mother, she says. She is trying to show you that she can withstand it, this malady that clouds her birth.” At first she’d felt rage then a troubled acceptance: the little girl’s name had been Annie Pardee. Unable to keep down her mother’s sweet milk, she could not grow strong and had died of marasmus: uncomprehending agony in the new nursery at the top of the house. But the heiress had wanted to hear more about her—was curious, almost, to hear her opinion, as though she were a full-grown woman returned to her mother from many years gone. “When you come for me over the cloud-banks to meet me,” said the medium, grasping, beleaguered, absurd, “it is I who will come to the gates and admit you and I who will stand at the pass, and lead on.”

From then on she’d have her come in through the front—always through the front, where the whole world could see. And the neighbors, her neighbors, would talk to their neighbors and those neighbors would talk to their neighbors in turn and a rosebush of madness would pulsate out from them, enclosing her behind its thorns. Her life was peaceful after that and the dishes and baskets were less at her door. The San Jose paper had published a headline: “Heiress Seeks the Spirits’ Counsel.”

*          *         *

As Sarah Winchester performs her ablutions, she walks before the fallen shade. While she’s soaking and chewing on willow bark scraps which she rubs on her feet and her hands once she’s drained them, Tommie flits about her bedroom, lighting the lanterns and blessing the bed. When she’s done in the bathtub she rises by turns because she cannot rise at once; she stretches her legs out, then crooks up her knees, then lays out her arms on the sides of the tub and with the mechanism set she pushes herself, achingly, into sitting. She retrieves a hand-towel from the edge of the sink and gently she spits up the chewed scrap of bark, a thin web of drool coming off of her gums. Her toothbrush is mottled with more and more blood; when she spits in the sink there is terrible pinkness. She gets in her nightdress and goes out to Tommie, and she has Tommie stand there re-locking the door for a charm of three times before feeling quite settled. Then like every evening she drops off to sleep, though not without having sensations of falling and in a fright wakes up two times, one less than the sound of the bolt turning over.

*          *         *

The third time she wakes and the bed-frame is shaking. It is, she thinks, the century’s end. The bed appears to levitate, arising on its own vibrations and she is a caught up in it, hostage unto it, as it floats in the maelstrom and then hunkers down. And then she springs out of her bed. She has not moved this way in years. She is running, she thinks, to the door of the room where the lintel built into the wall will protect her, but just as she presses herself to the frame the ceiling behind her comes crumbling down.

Here is the moment, she thinks in the din, where I will be buried by what I’ve constructed.

She lies on her back staring up at the beams. Flakes of cracked plaster rain down on her face. She does not need to lock and unlock the room’s door to know that she is trapped inside it.

Slowly she rises, turns around and sees that the door is blockaded with wreckage and that most of the windows and mirrors have broken, inundating the room with a river of shards. She feels the gesture overtake her to record the smashed windows as three windows less. And that’s when a sitting chair, ancient, brocaded, slides into the rift in the ceiling above her and hammers down upon its side just short of where she sits there dazed. The heavy grooved arm of the chair cracks away and it skitters away to the wall; the chair settles. She rises and wraps herself up in her bedclothes and returns to the place where the chair almost crushed her. There, amid the shattered bits, she hunkers and cradles herself like a girl. It is, she reckons, near to dawn by the way that light trembles upon the horizon. She raises a hand to the back of her head. It returns to her slick, amniotic with blood.

*          *         *

The earthquake’s duration is forty-two seconds. Even so brief a time takes a terrible toll.

Looking north to San Francisco weird fires can be seen in the heart of downtown. And in spite of firebreaks to disable the blaze with dynamite and shell barrages, the separate fires become one conflagration; it blooms with appalling speed over the city. 3,000 people lose their lives. An enormous cache of botanical specimens, some newly discovered, are lost to the flames and the flag from the ‘46 Bear Flag Revolt, enshrined in the State Building, crinkles to ash. An opera-singer come to town to play the tenor role in Carmen who absconds from the wreck of the Palace Hotel with a portrait of Roosevelt clutched in his hands vows never to visit the city again. San Jose does not catch fire, but the sundering force of the quake is enough. Not five miles from Llanada Villa, at the Agnew Asylum where lunatics dwell, hundreds are crushed when the cheap upper stories, like floors in a dollhouse, come tumbling down. Of the hundred or so who are not killed a good portion of them escape through the doors and the lunatics run through the night in their linens, unleashing their mad, strangled cries at the stars. The clock in the sumptuous St. James Hotel stops dead at 5:13 a.m.

*          *         *

Hours seem to pass in the heiress’ room.

Even the light appears to change: it is dawn, afternoon, eventide, dead of night. It might be the scattershot way the sun finds her, shining through the jagged glass then reflecting again off the puzzle-pieced mirrors which makes her feel that, in her room, she is moving too fast or too slow through the cosmos. Her vessel of selfhood has entered a doldrums; that, or a maelstrom which wheels her around.

She groans and she worries her hands, walking hunched.

She’s seeking the Enunciator, set high and left of her bedroom’s blocked door. It is carved in walnut with a clock centered in it and a sextet of brass knobs arrayed at the base; she has only to flutter the switch on the right and Tommie, if he is disposed, will come running. And yet when she presses the flat of the switch she hears only a clicking sound. She stumbles away from this useless convenience and sits where she stands—where she no longer can. The morass of the wrecked upper story juts upward, like a congress of objects from some revolution and she sees to the top where a baby grand’s legs depend at a slant through the ceiling beyond.

But she cannot die there, she knows. She refuses to die like a child, beatific, with her atrophied legs folded up underneath her. She starts to crawl across the floor toward the part of the room that retains the most warmth—the worn escritoire where she writes when she can, centered in the eastern corner.

The bedroom is freezing, the pain unrelenting.

The heiress says, “Uh,” like a beast as she crawls. “Uh,” she says—a few more feet.

And that’s when the first of four aftershocks come, landing her hard in a sprawl on her stomach. The warped prominence of the house shakes above her, raining detritus upon the room’s floor. The extremities of her are soaring with pain; the pain in her head is a complement only. And she realizes now, as she lies on the floor with the last of the aftershocks settling around her, that she has never felt so human, so kept by her flesh as she does at that instant.

To be human, she thinks to herself. To be selfish.

She does not want to die like this. Not here in this room and not really at all. And suddenly the heiress sees she does not have a cogent plan. She had never devised one at all, she thinks now, but had planned to keep building forever and on. Yet now that the house is a ruin around her and now that she reaches the base of her desk, she sees that the greatest indignity yet would be to rebuild if the house is destroyed. She sees it now as others see it: a haunted place of fog and sighs, a superstitious woman’s home who has built labyrinths for the spirits that plague her—perhaps the same spirits, she’s heard in the papers, that her Winchester rifles have wiped from this earth.

In euphoria almost the heiress sits down and she coaxes a page from the drawer on her desk. She dips her pen. She tests it, darkly.

She gathers the bedclothes in closer about her.

A third of her fortune she wills to her lawyer, another third yet to her sister-in-law and still the last remaining third for what she envisions a specialty clinic which will treat, in her words, “pulmonary unwellness and other afflictions of the chest.” The house, of course, she wills to Tommie. The proviso it not be rebuilt is included. She makes Leib executor, lord of her shares—steward of the corporation. The wrack-removal of the grounds she contracts to Denan & Sons and leaves him, too, the prototype of a canon the Winchester Arms Company had had manufactured for Sheridan’s army but never after reproduced—a big-bellied and snub-nosed thing that has sat for eight years in her furthest outbuilding and that Denan will have to haul, by fits and starts, to see it moved.

It would be no exaggeration to say that she throws back her head and she cackles. But the motion jogs something inside of her head. She sees the familiar expanse of her bedroom go swimming before her like something unmoored.

There are sounds in the house but she tries to keep writing. Her pen starts to founder. She dips it again. And then there comes a grating crash so near to her she can’t ignore it. The door erupts inward, displacing the wreck. The forms of her lawyer and three other builders struggle clumsily over the reef that remains. She sees herself briefly as they four must see her: a feral spinster in a nightdress, bleeding from her very head, turning to herald her saviors with wildness, hunched above a scribbled page.

She looks at the will, but she can’t recognize. All she knows: it is for her. So she folds it and tucks it away in her dress as the men clear the wreckage and stand in the floor.

“We are here, Mrs. Winchester, Ma’am, to retrieve you.”

“How many hours have I been here?” she says.

“Hours?” says her lawyer. And looks to the builders, one of whom consults his watch. “It has not been an hour,” says Leib. “We came to retrieve you as soon as we could.”

She has nothing to say to that—nothing at all.

And that’s when her face hits the top of her desk.

*          *         *

How long she’s lain here in her bed she cannot in good faith determine. It’s somewhere close to seven days and a couple of years, give or take. The light lengthens. It shines in her eyes and it heats up her face. There is a gauze upon her head, a splint and poultice on her nose.

My nose, she will think, which is no longer mine.

They tell her that now it belongs to her blotter.

Tommie is infrequent to her and mostly the lawyer comes there in his waistcoats. He enumerates for her all kinds of statistics yet she can little piece them out. But she thinks it is mostly to do with the house and the infinite index of damage done to it and how to repair it will cost X, Y, Z. When she bothers to look out the window before her to catch a glimpse, perhaps, of Tommie, all that she sees are the slopes of her land tending up past her feet in a green-brown morass.

When the heiress is human again, Tommie comes. Light shines in her eyes; it must be early morning. What an elegant corpse is her Japanese gardener, with his long, frowning face and his stately dark eyes as he enters the room in his white linen suit.

She tries to rise; he frowns her down.

“Are we feeling some better this morning?” he says.

“Oh rather ethereal, Tommie. This sun.”

“They do not close the shade for you?”

“They seem to think I need the light.”

She asks that Tommie leave her room so that she might dress for a turn in the garden and when he lingers Sarah tells him, wanting nothing so much as to dress by herself. The other reason being this: the process is going to lay torment upon her and she doesn’t want Tommie to see her in pain.

And then she finds it, toward the back: a ruined nightdress, stained with blood. There are dirt smears and plaster smears on it as well, and they swirl with the blood like oil paints on a pallet. Tommie has probably left it there for her, not cleaned or destroyed, just to teach her a lesson.

This is what happens, the ruined dress says, to afflicted old women who take on too much.

There is something outlined in the dress’ front pocket.

She works her hand into the fabric and comes up with a folded page which by and by she picks apart to reveal what she sees is her own living will. And the will has provisos, recipients, clauses. It is, she reflects, a magnanimous will. There’s a little dried blood in the will’s top right corner. She has no memory of composing the thing—of writing it, signing it, bleeding upon it. Though that is the reason perhaps she does not: she had tipped like a toy soldier, back, hit her head. And because of the fall she’d tipped forward again, breaking her nose on the top of her desk.

But this will that she holds in her hands, it delights her. It is so unexpected, so new—so unlike her. Even the part when she chastens Denan by bequeathing upon him her cumbersome canon is a fond, mordant gesture, a whimsical one.

And she thinks to herself: well perhaps, then, I am.

For the will in her hands is a treasure to her beyond even the measure of what it apportions. It deploys a strange energy, coursing, all through her. She should not—cannot—feel this good. She cycles spryly through her closet, flinging her dresses away on the rack and she comes upon one she has not worn in decades, a ridiculous dress of Victorian times with Marmaluke sleeves and décolletage lace, and she binds herself up in its fanciful riddle of ruching and whalebone and zippers and stays. When the pain comes upon her—her fingers and wrists, her whiplashed neck and broken nose—the surge of delight that she feels overrides it. And she rides it, the surge, as she once did the pain. She rides it out into the hall, out to Tommie, whose arm she does not take at first on her way down a staircase that’s partway caved in and has since been patched over with rudely cut boards; and she rides it down into the house’s foyer where the Tiffany glass chandelier has been stripped, the vestige of its architecture casting shapes on the floor like a skeletal hand; and she rides it out into the garden at last where now she does take Tommie’s arm, and as she moves beyond the house toward the yews and the hedgerows and carven Demeter, she gazes up to see its ruin, her dream of ascension, of growth without end, reduced to a trimming of serrated edges.

Her chimneys and turrets have crumbled and fallen; her third and fourth stories are all but destroyed.

Like a bible worn over her heart to a duel, the will is tucked inside her dress.

But she and Tommie aren’t alone.

There are so many workers around them—too many. Men raking up rubble and picking up bricks and yanking down dreck from the hedges and trees, and dismantling aggregate, freestanding ruins of steel and stone and splintered wood. Not building the house, Sarah realizes now or even rebuilding it into its grandeur, but making it livable for her again. She wants to show the will to Tommie; it burns like an ember inside of her dress. She wants Tommie to know of course that he has been provided for but also that she has been wise, that she has heeded his advice and that the construction they now walk amidst on their way to the greenhouse that centers the maze is not a return to the past but a yielding.

She wants him to know it is part of her plan.

They wend the maze. It goes out from them, the hedges unwinding with shade at the bend and a narrowing tunnel of green lies before them whenever they strike out again, in full sun. It is a lovely April day—the sort that cannot, quite, be real. They are slow in their progress, the heiress and Tommie, under skies of sea-scented, unspeakable blue.

If only he knew, thinks the heiress, not stopping, that none of it can touch me now.

The side of the greenhouse comes up on the right, an ocean-liner all of glass. It is immense more so than most; 1,500 feet square, if the heiress remembers. When she’d first built the place fifteen years ago now she had always had Tommie in mind to care for it: all her sour-berry bushes, and daisies, and roses, and Indian hawthorne, and crepe myrtle blooms.

But she notices now that some aspect is off.

The house is standing wrong, perhaps. It seems to have canted some yards to the left and Tommie does not look at her as they round the front pathway and journey inside.

“Is it different?” says Sarah, beneath the front entrance.

Inside, the April light refracts.

“I have been coming back,” says Tommie, “for every day you were in bed.”

The pinks and the yellows and greens flash about them. The blue sky looms behind the panes.

What the heiress has hidden inside is not awful.

What the heiress has hidden inside is her heart, beneath a cherry blossom tree that stands at the center of everything growing.

Sarah’s husband and daughter are under that tree, the roots of the tree twining over their leg-bones, the trunk of the tree jutting up in a mass from the concavity of the dead husband’s ribs while Annie curls there in his arms, her head no bigger than his hand.

When she’d first disinterred and instated them here, the exact length of time she ineptly remembers, her daughter was this little doll, two thumbprints of darkness in place of her eyes. Her bones had knocked around her box, a precious nut inside its shell. While five times the stature of Annie Pardee and housed half as long in the grip of the earth, her husband had been only partway decayed and Tommie had had to prepare him with gloves in aligning his chest with the trunk of the tree. His spoliation year by year had mixed into the soil below him. The stronger scented flowers there had thinned though never masked the scent and the cherry tree grew with an unnatural vigor, skin of velvet, buds like snow. Often in her daughter’s skull there would collect at least three petals and if she watched them hard enough they would lend the illusion her soul had returned.

But when she arrives at the base of the tree she sees her kin have been disturbed.

The tree is uprooted. The earthquake, of course—how the trunk had divided her husband in two when the tree-roots pulled free in the throes of quake. The upper part of him is shattered along with the body of Annie Pardee so that all that remains of the girl is her skull where Sarah does not look for petals.

But Tommie has swept up the glass from the beds.

And Tommie has hauled the dead tree limbs away.

And Tommie has picked up her daughter and husband—a scapula, a shard of rib—and piled them up beneath the tree, a little pretty cairn of bones. Even the dirt-stained irregular bits that the heiress has trouble perceiving as human are shoring in her husband’s trunk, her daughter’s skull propped in the midst of his hipbones.

The earthquake had done this.

The earthquake, she thinks. As though to remind herself: nature, not Tommie.

The limbs of the tree appear black in the light. The cherry blossoms float and flash.

And then it is obvious to her, this life, and what she has intended by it—the reason she builds up her house without end and why she has kept herself hidden these years beyond her green labyrinth, her halls and staircases. It is simple and obvious, staring right at her: she has nourished the house as she could not her own. She has dwelt in the house as her dead dwell in her. But now that her family is lying in rubble beside the tree roots that supported their bones the widow Winchester sees no point at all in being magnanimous, wise, any of it. She sees no reason, in a phrase, to be anything more than she already is.

She is angry, she finds. Inconceivably so.

As angry now that she is here and she has seen what she has seen as she was surprised and delighted before while her fingers unfolded the imbecile’s will and she’d said to herself: It is now I will face it. Finally I think I can.

So it is simple for her, too, to let the vileness back inside and the heiress decides she will never stop building as she had planned to after all. She will rebuild the house and will build it the more beyond even the point of her death, which is coming and will visit the gall of her thwarted desires upon generations yet made in the earth so that not one of them will be able to say when they pass alongside of her ramparts and towers that here lived a woman who laid down for life.

They will know my name, she thinks.

Or maybe she says it aloud. She’s unsure.

Tommie is speaking to her—has been speaking.

“The tree,” he says, “it will grow back.”

But already the heiress is mounting the planter.

She is planting her feet, at great pain, in the sod. Not to cry or to worry her arthritic hands but to tear up the will that she has in her dress, the shreds of which she integrates by a sweep of her hand with the buds of the tree.

“It’s a pity, now isn’t it, Tommie.” she says. “Well, then.” She breathes in. “What are we to do now?”

*          *         *

Sixteen years later the heiress will die on a day in September with Tommie beside her while the birds of the valley enliven the garden. Her mind will be utterly blank in that moment, not regretful or peaceful or spiteful at all, but maybe if only a little bit frightened to be leaving the earth as all people must do. And yet no single hammer-blow will mark the passing of the heiress—no death-knell punctuation sound, in the wake of which work on the mansion will cease, but the sounds of Denan and his men will continue and when Denan dies, Denan’s sons and theirs sons. And when the house can grow no more, passed into the hands of executive parties only tepidly linked to the heiress by blood, the process will remake itself in outfitting the house as a roadside museum. And the roadside museum, along with the house, will pass through new seasons of glory and shame—at first a premier San Jose destination with well-informed docents and wall-text displays where the heiress’ aura of mystery holds sway, and yet before long nothing more than a hovel, with bad circuit wiring and overpriced tours.

In this broken-down spook house of piped-in laments, and eerie red lights that make phantoms of bureaus, and a carpeted gift-shop that peddles on racks postcards of the house in its dwindling grandeur, one of the docents, locked in after hours and bleary from a day of drinking, will lose himself amid the halls that stretch and bend and double-back and increasingly panicked will run through the mansion, getting more and more tangled the further he runs, until, at the foot of the house’s grand stairs, he will fumble his footing and fall to the landing.

The docent will survive this fall.

He will sprawl on the once-magisterial landing, chuckling while nursing his twisted-up ankle and in his drunkenness will see or think that he sees for a moment no more the shade of a woman bent over with age, her face obscured by widow’s weeds, going haggard and proud down the marble stairs slowly and into the garden in search of her heart.

But it’s only the shadow of something outside as it tosses in fury beyond the dark glass. The docent will sit there a moment, recovering.

And when he is ready he’ll hobble downstairs.

adrian van youngAdrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award for a collection of stories; an occult mystery serial novella, A New Orleans Murder Mystery for The-Line-Up.com; and the novel Shadows in Summerland, forthcoming in April 2016 from ChiZine Publications. His fiction and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, Gigantic, The American Reader, Black Warrior Review, The New Orleans Review, VICE, Slate and The Believer, among many others. He is a regular contributor to Electricliterature.com. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Darcy and his son Sebastian. See more at: adrianvanyoung.com


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