With his dying hand, Wilm left me all his worldly possessions. His creditors took the bulk, including everything of any real value, although I understand it covered less than one tenth of his balance. I was allowed to keep a small sum, which I passed to his child, and some of his personal effects, which I kept for myself. These included a number of books and letters stuffed into a large wooden stationery box that folded out to make a traveling desk, complete with shelves, drawers, quills, ink, blotters, wax, seals, paper, envelopes, and so forth, none of which were easy to come by. While waiting for Wilm’s estate to close, I continued to receive his mail and used the contents of the box to inform both his irate creditors and those seeking his assistance of his unfortunate yet heroic demise. One letter in particular struck me, from a man of some importance, an Austrian noble. I recognized in his oblique words a genuine desperation. In those days, in society at least, one rarely said what one meant outright. One demonstrated wit and grace—superiority, even—by the light touch of one’s euphemisms. This was especially true of anything unseemly. Young women did not have abortions, although we most certainly had sex. If the untoward resulted, we “went to the country” for a season, or to “take the waters” at some out-of-the-way hot spring, only to return rosy and rejuvenated months later. The problem, of course, was that meant one could not actually take the waters without someone supposing the worst. Hence the obsession with appearances, and on being seen. One’s only defense against rumor and innuendo was to act as openly and ostentatiously as possible so as to leave the smallest margin for supposition—to invite an entire train of followers to take the waters as well, for instance, and to finance their participation. Invitations thus flew about hither and thither among the idle class as they each sought escape from the very eyes on whom they nevertheless depended.
Wilm had been invited to winter at the nobleman’s ancestral home, which was described at length as a sportsman’s paradise. In fact, a full two-thirds of the four-leafed letter was devoted to its “sylvan slopes dappled with fishing ponds and forest groves, each thick with winter game,” with the final third quickly mentioning that, while he was there, he might perhaps also attend to “certain other matters of which you are an acknowledged expert”—meaning the occult. I responded to the letter with the news, as I had all the others, but added that I had “worked as Mr. Castleby’s assistant for several years” and that I was in possession of his notes and artifacts, and although I had not his skill and experience “in the matters of which you speak,” that my services were available, had his lordship need of them. The reply was swift, which is to say came within a matter of weeks. A carriage had been dispatched, I was told, and would arrive within days of receipt of the letter, which had traveled ahead by mounted messenger. And just like that, I was employed as a dabbler, the first ever work for which I would receive a salary.
I made no attempt to conceal my gender, but neither did I expressly reveal it, which caused considerable consternation upon my arrival. I had hoped to be saved by the grandeur of the white owl, which had taken to perching near me, but to no avail. My lord announced after tea that I was to be sent away first thing the following morning, and he would have done if not for a heavy snowfall that obliged the better part of a week’s stay, during which time the facts of the case became known to me. It was a mild haunting, as they go, but harrowing all the same—full of the usual patent terrors: doors that wouldn’t remain closed, ghastly sounds emanating from inside the walls, and of course the knocking. Knocking, knocking, interminable knocking. It woke you at all hours, rising in intensity with each unanswered bout until at last it was like a hammer on the door, rattling the hinges and echoing through the house, louder and louder until someone had the strength to answer it—and were greeted by nothing. Some nights it would start again an hour after you returned to bed. At other times it would resume before you crossed the foyer, or even the very moment the door was shut, immediately angry, as if the door that had just been opened was not the correct one.
And that was the clue. I suspect Wilm would’ve gotten it right away. It took me a fortnight of frustration and study. Before the snows abated, I suggested to my lord that I be allowed to stay, at least until he found a suitable replacement. I would draw no salary, I said, unless my interventions were successful. He agreed, reluctantly, eyes haggard from lack of sleep, and I set to work. Some weeks later, after a terrible night that saw his wife and children huddling in a corner, I asked my lord and his family to leave the house and mentioned, as they packed into a covered sled, that I might do it quite a bit of damage in their absence, but that in the end, I would either drive the apparition away or be taken by it. I think by then he had lost all faith in me, as the owl had several days before, and intended to have me arrested as a charlatan upon his return. But just then, he had little choice. I watched until they were all out of sight, then turned to face the house alone.
It was a mistake. The truth was that I did not, in fact, know what I was doing, and the flight of the occupants turned the haunting from insistent to wrathful. Never had I seen such things: eyes in the dark, hands reaching in desperation from under blankets. Several times, I was frightened to complete catatonia, curled and unable to move. Hoping to escape, I removed myself to the servants’ cottage, where the apparition found me on the second night. It pounded on the door, all the angrier for being ignored. I shrieked as it rapped on my window and scraped the pane with unseen claws. I thought of running many times. It was only the deep snow and my knowledge that I could not die that held me. In the end, I took a sledgehammer to the walls of the manor. Somewhere, I was sure, there was a door that needed to be opened. I found it in the nursery, boarded on two sides. Sweaty, panting, and covered in dust, I opened it without ceremony. It creaked on its hinges as it swung wide. Instantly, a lighter air settled over the roof. Within moments, a songbird alighted the branch of a tree near the window. My lord had mentioned in his letter that he hadn’t seen one on his estate in months.
I dropped the sledgehammer and wiped the sweat from my brow.
I had done it.
Selection from the fifth and final mystery of my paranormal epic FEAST OF SHADOWS.
art by Kylie Parker