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Amongst a thicket of wily trees and thorny rose bushes lies an aging manor. It sits upon a hill, immense, casting a shadow upon those who have the privilege of approaching it. The townspeople once lauded it for its spiraling structures—for its arches and bold, red-orange exterior that conveyed an air of grandeur unfelt by most commonfolk.
The rumors that swirl around the mansion have been ever-present. They started small: people wanted to know more about the older gentleman helming the estate. He rarely came into the town proper, and when he did, his attire caught the eyes of all—long, royal blue coats that looked to be made of the finest of imported materials; silken neck ties, black shoes polished to a pristine shine; a lofty top hat that announced his charisma, just as much as his alluring smile.
Some recall how his dark, dark skin reflected like a twinkling night sky. Others made remarks about his gentle tone. He always carried a cane with gold embellishing, which was a startling sight against the backdrop of the muggy brown grounds and sweltering heat of their modest Louisiana community.
Although the man was exceedingly flashy in his demeanor, he appeared so infrequently that the total absence of his presence wasn’t noticed; a mysterious woman arrived in town, years later, to inform an inquisitive shop clerk of his sudden passing. She was revealed to be the wealthy man’s estranged daughter. Like her father, she exudes an atmosphere of excess: her frilly, bright bodices compliment her small frame, and her overflowing skirts trail behind her with utmost prestige. Her black hair is always coiled into the most immaculate of thick curls, held together with silk ribbons, and she inherited her father’s skin: so, so dark, like a silky abyss that makes her eyes shine bright.
Because she lets on so little about herself, the rumors begin to arise around her too. People start to call her The Lady. The news about her travels in fragments: yes, she is now residing in her father’s estate, along with a mousy blonde maid that follows her around everywhere on her heels. No, she is not married.
The town starts to look at her oddly.
There is one thing, though, that initially prevents the town’s skepticism surrounding The Lady from devolving into something more sinister: The Lady’s Maid.
Curious inquiries from around town reveal The Maid to be around the same age as her master. On the occasions they arrive in town together, they make for an intriguing pair. The Lady’s pitch-dark, lean stature, extravagant gowns, and generally esteemed demeanor are largely offset by her smaller, more pale companion: The Maid bears the most plain, brown dresses, and her straw-yellow hair is always tucked deep into a frilly white bonnet. Some vendors recall The Maid’s face being very fragile, almost doll-like, glassy-eyed—just the exact opposite of The Lady’s deep, sharp features. They are day and night, always joined at the hip, which charms many. Townspeople are put at ease by the pair’s easy banter; by the feelings of calm they exude.
A handful of people can recall moments they spotted the two spending time together outside of the town proper. At the beginning of spring, a fisherman stumbled upon them down at the bog one evening, from afar. He remembers the warm, sunset glow peeking through the cluster of trees covering the area, casting leafy shadows over everything. He remembers all being quiet: stray fireflies flickered soft light all around. The mossy water was still and green; the air was thick and tender. And beneath the watchful gaze of a lush branch bent over with age, there they were: The Lady, kneeling over in the mud in an opulent, light blue number; her Maid, laying down as if to sleep, with her head in The Lady’s lap. The Lady looked down upon The Maid’s gentle features, drew fingers through her hair, leaned down to tell her something—the fisherman simply took this as his cue to turn around and venture elsewhere for the day, the line of his pole hitting his back as he trudged off through wet leaves.
It’s a memory that comes back to him—that he starts to tell the other townspeople about—when The Maid vanishes from the town, and the vines creeping up the sides of the manor begin to wilt.
It comes apart in pieces.
Around the time The Lady’s public appearances start to grow fewer and fewer—and around the time The Maid stops appearing with her all together—some start to notice how the manor gardens are growing stiff and pale despite the blooming spring season. The colors of the flowers lose their luster, as do the vines hugging the exterior of the mansion in a spiny embrace.
One commoner is brave enough to offer assistance. Before the season ends, she walks up the winding path to the mansion and notes small signs of neglect all around: a slightly overgrown lawn in need of a trim, the withering state of the front gate bushes. The front step before the towering front door creaks when she walks upon it. A brass ring with ornate engravings hangs down from the door’s front: she grips it tight and gives three hard, resounding knocks.
The Lady’s head peers out, minutes later. She doesn’t reveal the whole of her body. Her hair is fraying at the edges, and her full lips spread out into a thin smile. “What brings you here?” she prompts.
Startled by The Lady’s unusually unkempt appearance, The Commoner stumbles over the beginnings of a spiel about how difficult it must be for her as an unmarried young lady with all this space to herself, poor dear, and if she needed any help with keeping things in the right shape—
She doesn’t get to finish her offer. With curt assurance and a polite farewell, The Lady sends The Commoner spinning on her heels back down the path, but not before easing the door closed right in her face. It all happens so fast—The Commoner’s dizzy with it.
When The Commoner closes the gate to the manor behind her, she notices that looming clouds are rolling in from above like an omen. An inarticulable, charged sensation prickles at the surface of her skin. She looks back at the mansion: the brooding sky is elongating the shadows in the grooves and nooks of the massive building, under all its arches, making it look murky—her vision of it suddenly shakes at the edges. The aging vines are spreading out like long, gritty fingers all along the red exterior.
She hurries away then, petticoat picking up dirt along its white seams.
As the summer coats a deep, skin-sticking humidity upon their community, malicious rumors take shape, swimming in and out of the ears of all who are curious. The Lady brought a hauntin’ t’the manor, they start to say. The local schoolyard gossip is even more pressing: children scuffle past the rusty gates of the manor on insidious dares, trying to catch glimpses of The Lady who must be hiding a corpse in the mansion’s attic—she must be, so-and-so’s brother said it to be true—
Whispers spread between vendor stalls at the market, meanwhile, hint that she’s concealing something even more malevolent behind those creaky, closed doors.
And yet, no one gets the chance to pester her about the state of the manor, or even about The Maid: the gates are now sealed shut to all outsiders. No sign of human life comes in and out of the mansion, let alone breathes about the place. The manor sweats through the blistering season: its red exterior starts to fade, and nearly all of the greenery punctuating the land shrivels into dusty brown husks as the summer treads on. The lace curtains in the windows never move an inch, betraying absolutely nothing. Cicadas swarm the lawn in droves during particularly scorching evenings, crying out desperate into the emptiness.
The decay of the manor is gradual. Children stop gathering at the front of its gates to haphazardly toss stones and twigs at it. The town eventually tires of talking about it—for the most part.
When rumors do resurface here or there again, it’s because someone happened to pass by the manor—usually at night; most of the stories detail a twilit shell of a mansion—when they caught a glimpse of movement in one of the topmost windows. The stories vary: a candlelit flame revealed to them a shapeless figure, a stray limb, the fluttering-by of a white night gown of some sort. They claim that something really is alive in there. A ghost, perhaps, but something—someone—nonetheless.
It’s a rainy day in early August when the ghost reappears in town.
She passes through in a white dress that flutters out behind her. The Lady has one gloved hand clutching at her skirts, hiking them up. Her other hand poises a sopping umbrella just over her head.
She’s coming from the pharmacist. Heads turn as she plods through the main street; people peer at her from storefront windows, do double-takes as she makes her way over.
Someone calls out to her, Miss—she is obliged to look up at a group of top-hatted gentlemen loitering under a covered, storefront porch, just up ahead. They see her slow as she approaches. The Lady doesn’t meet them all the way: she stands at the foot of the porch, clearly itching to continue on her path. The smile on her face is polite, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. When she tilts her umbrella back a little to get a better look at them, a couple lines of rainwater drop squarely onto her face, running down. Her dark features are glistening.
“Afternoon,” she greets, clipped. The sky continues to pour down all around them. Very distantly, the low vibrations of thunder rumble through the atmosphere.
The men size her up and down, wordless. Women that were inside the shop emerge with hesitant steps. They’re all looking at her, down at her. And after the silence drawn out between them all is stretched to its limits, one of the men steps forward, tips his hat at her. Words running together fast, he speaks into the downpour: “You still live in that manor down over there?”
“Yes sir,” she answers. She watches the gears turn in their heads. They don’t know how to ask what they want to ask, until one of them does: a different man, mustached, very, very slowly asks how she’s been keeping up with her lawn.
A few of the other men evidently find this hilarious. They’re cracking the beginnings of knowing smiles at the mustached man’s inquiry—and so The Lady makes an executive decision to end the conversation all together, right then. Rainwater dripping down her lashes, she proclaims, “My manor is my business.”
With that, The Lady wishes them all a good day. Frozen on the porch, the people watch her vanish down the dirt road in a flurry of hasty white fabric.
The house is bursting with warmth when The Lady returns: she closes the grand, front door behind her with a slam that reverberates throughout the foyer. “I’m here,” she calls out, voice echoing. She bustles about the place—drying herself off, removing her shoes—and then starts up the winding staircase to the second floor, to the master bedroom that’s just at the end of the hall.
Her little maid is dwarfed in the sheets of the canopy bed in the room. The candlelight on the bedside table exposes just how deathly pallid The Maid’s face is—instantly, The Lady scrambles. She retreats to the bathroom, wets a new cloth, and returns to replace the already soaked one on The Maid’s burning forehead. She takes note of how the water glass on the table is untouched, and kneels down at The Maid’s bedside. The Maid’s eyes flutter open and find her. The weak woman pulls one arm out from under the covers; her hand seeks out The Lady’s, who grabs at it.
“The medicine from the pharmacist here,” The Lady starts, giving the frail hand in hers a comforting squeeze. “It ain’t the same as the kind from the town over.”
The Maid blinks, sluggish. She breathes slow, labored breaths: in, and out. Her chest heaves with every passing moment. “I know,” she manages. It’s hoarse.
The Lady just nods. She rubs a thumb over the pale hand in hers in a soothing, circular gesture. Her face nearly crumples in on itself as she listens to The Maid’s soft wheezing.
After an unsteady, shared quiet, The Maid says at last: “I want you t’stop stayin’ in the town over to get my medicine. You been takin’ care of me for so long.” She holds The Lady’s gaze, gray eyes almost closing on themselves. “You need t’take care of yourself. This place.” She breathes for a moment, watching The Lady’s rain-dampened face scrunched in worry. “You understand?”
The Lady doesn’t answer right away. With a hollow hole sore in her chest, she stands to lean over The Maid, to press her lips soft against the cloth on her forehead. Outside, a storm rages on: strong winds whip against the old infrastructure of the house, causing the wood to creak and groan through the walls. The rain continues to fall in silent sheets, relentless.
Lorelei Dietz (@lorelei_lolita_art) is a 2020 Amherst College alum graduating summa cum laude in studio art. They were the 2020 recipient of the Hasse Prize for best representation of the human form. Currently, they are working as a contract costume designer and freelance artist with a particular interest in pop surrealism, gothic horror, and folklore. You can find further examples of her work at https://loreleiart.com and @lorelei_lolita_art on Instagram.
Whitney Bruno (@16bitwhit) is a writer from Austin, Texas. Her work has previously appeared in Make Muse, with an additional essay from her forthcoming in The Common. She’s an editorial assistant at The Common, and enjoys reading, baking, and embarking on nature trips with friends when she’s not working or writing. As a senior at Amherst College, she is currently finishing up a short story collection for her creative writing thesis.