After making my friends something to eat and leaving it on a tray outside their closed door, I followed Martin’s gracious suggestion and went up to the attic, a wide A-framed space from which one reached the cupola, the same cupola I’d been asked to keep close and locked, the same cupola from which the spire had broken just as his nose came free. The house and the man, it seemed, were somehow linked. The cupola was accessible only by a slat staircase that rose so steeply it seemed more like a broad ladder. At the top was a trap door, shut tight. The rest of the attic was very much as one might expect. Two bare electric lights, one at each end, hung precariously at head height. Under them were boxes and old chests with a gaggle of loose items tossed on top with the best intentions of being properly ordered “one day.”
It didn’t take long to see why “one day” never came. I’m not sure any of the clothes I found were properly wearable—in any century. I found a faux fur mantelet with a mother-of-pearl clasp and a gaudy flower-print vest that both looked and felt as if it had been cut from sofa upholstering. There was a child’s seersucker suit with a brown stain around a knife cut in the chest, a pair of orange tweed pants, and so much plaid that one could’ve easily assumed the family was not of Welsh ancestry but Scotch. And there were hats. So many hats. Head wear, it seems, doesn’t follow you to the grave any more than it follows you to bed.
I pulled a brown fedora with a white sash off a sewing mannequin and looked at myself in an antique dressing mirror. I turned once and replaced it with a white baker boy, followed by a purple turban.
“I could be a woman of many hats,” I told myself.
But Annie was right. There wasn’t much for me. I did, however, find a stunning almond blossom silk shawl that had absolutely no business rotting away in an attic, not to mention an equally beautiful turquoise velvet dinner jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves and braided honey-yellow tassels at the shoulders, cuff, and tail. I took it out and held it up. The tassels would have to go, as would the tail, but I decided it would be very easy to cut a third from the bottom and to take a V shape from the back and resew it all to make a nice fitted coat in a shape more appropriate for a modern woman. And it would pair beautifully with the pair of black jeans I had also found, although those also needed to be hemmed—a skill I had so long ago acquired that I was no longer sure I possessed it.
I passed by my hosts’ bedroom once, but the door remained shut. Part of me knew that was to keep me from worrying needlessly, but it also isolated me and amplified my guilt—not just over the day’s events but in how poorly I had treated my friend. I had been so wrapped up with my own problems that I hadn’t seen how much Annie had been suffering since Martin’s death, a suffering that had its roots many years in the past, in the trauma of our first encounter. Adolescence is hard on Harrowood girls. It’s when their powers manifest. Every generation loses one. Annie had told me about it that first summer in Amalfi. Her mother was getting older and pressuring her to marry and have children. Annie always said she wasn’t like her mother, and that was true. She was a sensitive girl. Her older sister, Anewellyn, had been the strong one. But Anewellyn had been the one the spirits took to honor the family’s centuries-old bargain. Annie witnessed the whole thing from her sister’s bedside. By the time I met her, she was just old enough to have children herself and couldn’t bear the thought of losing one like that. So she put it off.
I’m sure her and Martin talked about it often, especially into middle age. But it never happened. When I met her, Annie said her family’s bargain was a terrible thing and she wanted to see it ended. I think as she got older and then finally aged, she had second thoughts. She had seen, as her mothers had at a much younger age, what can happen to the community of the living if a necromancer isn’t there to keep back the dead. It was indeed a terrible bargain. But perhaps—just perhaps—it was worth it.
But now there was nothing to be done. Annewyn Harrowood was an old woman. The last of her line. I expect that’s why she’d raised Martin. His death signaled the inevitability of hers—and since she was the last, her end also meant the end of her storied family as well. The specter of facing that alone was too much to bear.
I was re-stacking boxes in the attic, feeling furious and disappointed with myself at all the ways I had failed my friend, when I noticed that the trap door to the cupola was wide open. I went right to close it, the same as you would go to switch off a light that had been accidentally left on. I don’t know that I gave a single thought to why. When I reached the top of the ladderlike steps, I discovered I would have to ascend halfway into the octagonal room, which was barely large enough for three people to stand, in order to reach the handle to the trap door, which lay flat against the floor. There was a conical roof overhead rimmed in slat windows. Small pagan statues, no more than two feet tall, rested in the concave nooks at the center of each of the eight walls, with the exception of one, whose figure had fallen to the floor. It wasn’t until I stepped into the space and lifted it that I realized I could see everything clearly despite that it was night and there were no electric lights above me. The windows let in a hazy orange glow, as if it were dusk in a sand storm. I looked down at the statue in my hand, a prancing satyr who grinned at me as if he knew something terrible was about to happen. I replaced him in his nook and turned his face toward the wall, which is how all of the other statues rested, before quickly descending and locking the trap door behind me.
My feet reached the floor of the attic and I turned in the direction of an old chest where I had before noticed a torn satin dressing gown only to find that the chest was missing. I turned slowly. The room in which I stood was different. It was still an attic and it was still appointed with stacked chests and clutter, but it was different clutter, and the stacks were higher. There was a filing cabinet that hadn’t been there before. And the room itself was longer and L-shaped, as if in descending from the cupola, I had entered the attic of a different house.
I looked up to the trap door. Perhaps it was best to retrace my steps. I climbed the stairs only to find that the lock was no longer on the exterior of the door, which was immovable. The house groaned then, just as it had right before the spire fell, and the attic to my left seemed to stretch away from me. I ran around the corner, nearly striking a full suit of horse armor on a Trojan stand. I stepped around it and made my way down the stairs, which opened not into a room but into a kind of secret passageway. Joists stretched inches over my head. To my right and left were solid walls made of struts that oozed dried glue between them. Beyond, I assumed, was the house—or whatever version of the house existed in that place.
I heard sounds, voices. I couldn’t make out the words, but in the timbre and interplay I recognized Annie and Martin. They were awake and talking.
“Annie!” I called “Annie! Annie!” I pounded on the wall and repeated the name. “Annie!”
Her voice got louder then but still sounded as though she were yelling through a stack of pillows. There was a silent pause, and just as I raised my knuckles to knock again, I both heard and felt scraping.
I pulled my hand back from the wall.
It was Annewyn’s voice. It rang clear, as if there were truly nothing but drywall and old slats between us.
“Mila? . . . hear me?” Her voice faded in and out as if someone was adjusting the sound on a radio.
“Yes! Annie, I can hear you! The cupola was open. I went to close it. I seem to be stuck.”
“You’re going to . . . your way out!” she yelled.
Already her voice sounded further away, as if she had stepped to the far side of the room. Whatever spell she had cast was fading—or was being countered.
“Do you . . . find your way. There’s nothing . . . to you. Okay?”
“Annie?” She seemed still further away then. “I hear you. But I don’t know the way!”
I heard more muttering, but this was as faint as before. Nor did it sound any clearer after several minutes of waiting. In fact, it seemed then that whatever was being said was no longer directed at me, that Annie and Martin had given up trying to contact me and were talking worriedly to each other. The fact that she was awake suggested that time had passed in the real world, whose relationship to and distance from the derivative dimensions was never constant.
I knew where I was—in the general sense, at least. I knew where I was in the same way that, when one is lost in a forest, one knows it’s a forest—perhaps even which forest—but I had no idea how to get out. I was on the other side, in the shadow realm, formed by the light of higher dimensions striking our thin film of reality.
Westminster chimes rang then, as if from a grandfather clock. But it wasn’t a clock. It was a recording of a clock. A vinyl record had started playing. I could faintly hear the scratches as the sound moved like a pale echo through the halls. After the chimes, the music started, but I had already recognized the recording, even though I hadn’t heard that song in ages—not since my time with the Winter Bureau. Music stays in our memory like that. But then, this song was all the more memorable for Hank Hunter and I having danced to it the one and only night we slept together. It was “Three O’Clock in the Morning” by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, recorded in the early 1920s. I listened as the gentle swinging horn section danced off the walls amid the crackle of the scratches. Since I could no longer see the staircase that had deposited me, I started again down the narrow passage behind the walls which, despite subtle changes in texture or appearance, remained basically the same. The path was straight and never-ending, and despite that I traversed it for some time, the song never seemed to end, nor did it start over or get louder or softer as I walked.
I stopped when the hairs on my neck stood. I was being watched. I thought for sure my earlier shouting had called something to me in the gloom. Instead, I spun and saw Anya and her stringy hair standing silently some ten paces behind, next to a door that hadn’t been there before. The door was open, and I heard the music louder, as if the space beyond held its source. After a pause, she went through, and I followed as quickly as I could lest the door disappear as fast as it had come. On the other side was a billiard room with an impossibly high ceiling. The walls were lined with bookshelves to a height of about eight feet. All of the books were backwards such that their spines faced the wall. A large Victrola, complete with wooden horn, turned in the corner, spewing Whiteman’s seemingly endless song. Four pool tables took up the rest of the space. Each was topped in red velvet. Only the table at the back was in use. Six figures stood silently behind, including little Mattie, the ghost who had come to see the stranger that invaded her home. A diagonal shadow hid her face. The adult figures around her held pool sticks. The long lamps that hung over the tables obscured their faces as the shadow did hers, but by their stance, and their silence, I was sure each was watching me—partly curious, partly impatient for me to leave them to their eternal reverie.
In any normal world, Anya would’ve been just in front of me as I entered the room, but as I turned through the door, I saw her waiting for me in another door on the far side. She was leading me past the ghosts the warlocks had woken in the attack, who seemed to be celebrating their waking, deeper into whatever realm I had entered. Annie’s weakness, it seemed, was letting all manner of beings push in, including whatever had been imprisoned in the cupola. As I walked to Anya, the green-glass lamps hid the faces of the others, who never moved. Not wishing to press my luck, I stepped through the far door swiftly but without seeming afraid, and it shut behind me on its own.
The music stopped abruptly. There was only a distant hollow breeze. I was in a long, narrow hallway, as in a mansion, but without doors or windows. As before, it stretched as far as I could see in either direction. The walls rose so high that the ceiling was completely obscured by shadow. Whether it was fifteen feet tall or fifty, I couldn’t tell. The brown wainscoting on the walls was heavily scuffed while the wallpaper above it was pale tan with faded brown pinstripes. On it hung a myriad of framed pictures. Thousands and thousands of them—more even, each hung close to its neighbors, filling the walls to their distant height. No two frames were the same, although most were rectangular. A few were round or oval. Even fewer still were oddly-shaped. I saw a cast-iron frame in the shape of a fleur-de-lis and a wooden one in the shape of a sitting cat. Inside each was a still photo captured from a memory—my memories. The hall was my life. I stood at the point of my previous parting, when Beltran and I decided we could no longer live as husband and wife. Behind me was the past. Somewhere ahead was my first meeting with the young shaman who would change my life forever.
I lifted a round frame, like a wooden plate, from the wall. It hung from a nail on a loop of yellow ribbon. The border was seemingly hand-painted in a repeating floral pattern. Inside the circular window, Beltran and I posed for a picture that had never been taken. He was wearing his high fur hat with the mighty buckle. I was in a wool coat with a high collar. The sun shone. The mountain wind blew. We looked so happy, but our eyes were tinged with sadness. He had then begun asking me for that which I could not give.
My finger traced the firm line of his jaw. It had been years since I’d seen his face. Decades, even. Not a single picture of him had survived the adventure that separated us, and it took every ounce of strength not to cry at the sight of this one. My lip quivered as I smiled.
“Hello, darling . . .” I breathed.
I replaced the picture on the wall and turned my eyes over the others nearby. I began walking forward. As much as I would’ve loved to see my father one last time—or even my mother, whose face I only knew from a single painting that hung over the hearth in the great room of our house—I knew that there were no surprises in the past. Whatever I was there to discover, I was sure it lay forward in the wastes of the unknown, and I took up a brisk pace. I saw Istanbul and Little Village and a ceramic terrine in my kitchen of which I used to be quite fond. I have no idea what happened to it and realized then that I would’ve liked it back. Odd that we attach ourselves to such small things.
Still I walked, and there came the gaps, spaces where many of the pictures were missing, frame and all. The only evidence of their prior existence was the slight discoloration on the pinstriped wallpaper. In a few steps, the walls were all but bare. Only a few pictures remained. I saw the derelict train station in the woods and the cafe where I tasted the Nectar of Death. I saw a cemetery grown with trees and a grave filled with books. And I saw Etude. Younger. Skinnier. Softer. With a sheepish grin under that great bald head that contained the world.
Then, just like that, the gaps ended and the walls were full again. So many pictures, so many frames. I saw the library in the Keep of Solomon, I saw the friend I made there, I saw the garden and the grand hall of The Masters. I saw the Great Eye shattered into ten thousand shards. I saw Beltran sipping tea as a very old man. I saw a fantastic coat and the Safari Gastronomique and a jaguar-man and the towering horns of a long-dead beast, stretching to a height of five stories. I saw the Great Wall and a voodoo woman jumping into a pyre and Granny Tuesday and a fight in The Barrows. I saw my first night with Benjamin and our first visit from Oliver Waxman. I saw poor Dr. Alexander hanging in the poison garden. I saw Cerise’s dead body curled in a pot and the detective woman and the tree in the sanctum burning like an effigy to hope.
And then I saw the chair. This picture was no mere photo, like the others. It was a vanity portrait, a painting in oil at least five feet high, like something from the halls of Versailles. In it, the chair was cracked, its prisoner released. To one side, I saw a black and white photo of Harrowood House flooded by the ocean to a height of three feet, and that was it. That was the end. For before me, the entire front of the house was missing. Beyond was the water of the Chesapeake, which had risen in catastrophe to lap at the wood siding, just as in the picture. It seemed like it had been doing so for a very long time—long enough to have pulled down the windward wall. The floorboards under my feet poked out, cracked and jagged, over empty space. Below were the two lower floors of the house, while far out to sea, so distant as to be shrouded in haze, was a monster the size of a mountain. It strode slowly northward, up the bay, as if moving in slow motion, its upper half shrouded in orange hazy clouds. Its massive tentacles, too numerous to count, alternated between the earth and its mouth as if it were a grazing elephant.
It was grazing, in fact. It was too far to see clearly, but somehow I knew then not only that it was grazing, but that it was grazing on people, plucking them from huddled crowds hiding under the ruins of the capital. It slid its tentacles into the gaps of the buildings like the tongue of an anteater through a termite mound. It wrapped up whole families and pulled them screaming to its seven-holed maw. What they became after stewing in its intestines, what emerged dripping and snarling from its anus, I cannot begin to describe. Pray only that you never meet one.
It was the future, I was sure. It’s what was coming to the earth—a return to the bondage we had slipped eons ago. But this wasn’t the distant future. It wasn’t what would come if some arcane string of whether-or-nots came to pass. This future was almost upon us.
The giant creature turned as if it had heard a noise. It tilted awkwardly at first as it swung its feet around. But soon it picked up speed. I had a sense then of its power, for its legs were pushing an ocean in front of it, and yet it came right toward me, toward the broken remnants of Harrowood House all the way across the Chesapeake. I turned about looking for some kind of escape. I was certain there was no way back down the hall, to my past—one unbroken line of action to the dead end of my birth. But the boards before me were shattered and two floors below was the shallow ocean. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where I could run or what place could possibly shelter me from the beast, who, I was sure, was one of the six Nameless gods who ruled our universe. It had sensed me, and although it was the future, I knew that if it plucked me from this vision, I would reenter the real world at that terrible point, having skipped over all that came between.
I heard a buzzing and a flapping then, as if from a swarm of large, batlike insects. I looked up and saw black dots swirling in the sky. Devils. Thousands of them. Swirling, like wasps preparing to descend. I caught movement one floor down and saw Anya in her burial dress. She was looking silently up at me. She was waiting. On the floor near my feet, under the portrait of the chair, was a loose photo, unframed, of feathers scattered on the ground—colorful feathers, like a shattered rainbow. Bird of paradise plumes. Bits of blood were splattered across them. I recognized them. They were part of his battle garb. I leaned down slowly and lifted the loose photo. Then I looked up at the gloating demon chair.
“There’s no frame,” I whispered. I turned to Anya again. “What does it mean? Can I change it?”
She moved out of sight swiftly, and I stuffed the photo in my pocket, dropped to my hands and knees, and began to climb over the shattered boards, whose ends were capped in sharp splinters. As I dangled, I glanced to the orange-tinted sky and could just make out the faces of the descending devils. Behind me, the ocean crashed, pushed forward by the ancient god as it strode mightily forth. The noise and power were immense, and I lost my concentration and slipped and fell, and a long splinter buried itself in my hand.
Anya was already in the hallway at the back of the room, and I forced my feet to follow while pulling the bloody splinter free. When I reached the hall, she disappeared around a far corner. I heard devils land on the roof, like the sound of scampering reindeer. I heard their scratching. I heard their shrieks. I heard the first waves of the impending tsunami fill the ground floor of the house with a rush. I heard clatter as it lifted clocks and furniture and cast them against the walls. I heard a rumble then, like a cross of elephant and lion, and the whole house shook. Glass clinked in cabinets. Pictures rattled and turned crooked on their nails.
The ancient nameless god had come.
The devils broke into the house as Anya moved again. She raised an arm to direct me around the left corner of the hall, where there was a short nook with two doors, one next to the other. They were mismatched and out of place. Neither belonged to that place. I turned to Anya, hoping for some clue as to which door I should take, but she simply looked at me, scared and helpless, as if she were not allowed.
Devils entered the hall, whooping and snarling, and I turned with a fright. They had me—or so I thought. I had no escape. But Anya raised both her arms and a door shut in front of them where there had been none a moment before. They clawed and pounded against it. It would not take them long to break through.
The house groaned. The giant wave pushed by the striding god crashed over the roof. Sea water fell from every crack and drenched everything. I turned to the doors. The motion spun my wet hair and it struck my face. I had been given a vision. I looked to her.
“I must make a choice.”
I looked between the doors. One was scuffed and shabby, the other painted and pristine. Did that mean I was to take the lesser door or the greater?
I heard the bellow then, directly overhead, and a terrible crash. The god was tearing the house apart. I went for the scuffed door as the entire roof and upper floor of the house was torn free, lifted off in one piece as if by a tornado. It flew high into the air and I saw dark clouds and swirling devils and the tendrils of the mighty god and its seven-hold maw lined with millions and millions of teeth. I saw a giant tentacle plunge for me.
At the last moment, Anya shoved the empty air before her and I was propelled through the open door with force. I tumbled to the hardwood as long handles and plastic bottles hit the floor beside me. I stood immediately and slapped my palm against the back wall, but it was solid.
I was back in Harrowood House. The sun was shining. I stood in a puddle amid a tangle of broom handles and sideways spray cleaners. I was drenched. I smelled of the sea. Watery blood dribbled from the gash in my palm. I looked at it. My arm was shaking. Pain throbbed down to the elbow.
“There you are,” Annewyn said from the stairs, as if a sundered world were whole again. Her arm was in a sling. “I knew you’d make it out.” Then she saw my face and my bloody hand and the puddle that dripped from my clothes and hair. “What happened?”
I fell to the floor, crying. I reached into my pocket and took out the picture. I looked at the blood on the cut feathers.
“Oh, no . . .”
Snippet from the conclusion of Feast of Shadows, my five-course occult mystery.
cover image by Bruno Biazotto