Owlhaven Round Robin: The Old House

  • Here's the first story from the ORR board. The "chapter" titles are taken from the original message headers.
    (If you came straight here for some reason, this is the way back.)

    Esbeemer: A story begins...

    The sun rose on the small town. As the sun rose, it colored the buildings with the muted colors and red shadows of the new day. Folk were beginning to rise and prepare to face the day. Some with gusto, some with reluctance, and some just pulled the covers over their eyes.
    A small house on the edge of town was waking up as well...

    Anna: I couldn't help it.

    It yawned gustily through the front door, stretched its shutters and gave itself a nice good shake then settled back with a creaking of floorboards. It eyed the the car out front, wondering when that had shown up and what to make of its sudden case of itchy insides. It blinked to see the sign out front was a bit different, a new word had been added.

    Aureth: Ye Gads, an anthropomorphic house!

    "Sold", said the sign. The house peered at it with dismay. Its time without an Occupant had been so comfortable; no one blaring music through the window panes, no one pounding up and down the flight of stairs, no one slamming the doors. Now the house would have to deal with all that again. The house turned its senses inward, to try and find out just what this new Occupant was like.

    Keenath: The House

    The house pondered its occupant. Old, obviously.. and hunchbacked. She was unpacking a ludicrously small bag in the kitchen. If the house had had eyes, it would have stared as the old woman pulled a huge cast iron kettle from the bag... But the kettle was easily ten times bigger than the bag! She proceded to pull out a series of items, each bigger than the entire bag, and placed them around the house. A lamp here.. a table there... and a pedestal with a huge book. The book had no title, but there was an enormous latch on the front. The old woman unlocked the clasp and opened the book.

    Pyrtlewing: The Old woman

    She turned the pages slowly, pausing over a flower pressed between the pages, lingering over sketches and drawings folded in between the sheets. She touched them with gentle fingers, sighing over some and smiling at the others. Suddenly she looked up, staring toward the chimney. "I hear you, old house," she smiled at it. "And I am glad to be here. I have searched very long and hard for you."
    The house paused; an almost breathless wait.

    Esbeemer: A meeting of the minds...

    The old woman smiled, "Oh, yes, dear house. You are the one I've been looking for all these years."
    The house felt again. The itch and irritation was there, but it felt different. The lamps the old woman set around the room felt more like they belonged, that they were part of the house, as much as the rafters and foundation that held the house high all these years. Even the woman felt... different. Like no other mobile-folk it had ever felt before.
    The feeling was comforting, yet strange.
    The woman began humming a little tune as she continued to look through her book. There were pages filled with words in an odd tongue. A brilliant orange maple leaf. A bit of braided horse-hair that seemed to catch the light and hold it like a lost lover. A sketch of a seaside sunrise done in charcoal.
    The old woman reached the end of her book, where there were a few empty pages. She took an old plumed quill and a tiny inkpot out of her tiny bag. She looked around and began to quickly and accurately draw out the kitchen. She smiled as she worked, and as her smile grew, the drawing seemed to gain detail...

    Jahangiri: What once was...

    The room seemed to fade as the old woman drew, her mind reaching back for memories from years long gone. As a child, the home she knew, the happiness she felt within the walls of the house her mother made into a home. And the smell of freshly baked bread.
    She smiled in memory, her eyes closed for a moment. Finally, looking down at her drawing, she gave a satisfied nod then rose from her chair. A golden glow pulsed from around the door to the kitchen as she approched it, and the house gave a low moan, it's timbers shifting from within.
    As her hand caressed the wall along side the door, sparks, like vivid rainbows, flowed from her fingertips...and then faded, old wallpaper slowly returned to its original state. As the door opened She saw what her drawing had produced, the kitchen restored. She smiled again as the house seemed to gasp in surprise. "Don't worry, old girl. I'll set you right once again." Going from room to room, the old woman worked her magic, drawing pad in hand, and rainbows flowing like magical water from her fingertips.
    Until she reached the foot of the stairs, where she paused, staring up into the growing darkness. The house waited, puzzled.....

    Pyat: What could be...

    The woman frowned, and worried at her lower lip. Her pen remained motionless in her hand as she gazed upwards. Hestitantly, she sketched a few lines from the memory of what had been she shared with the house... and as she did, a cold exhalation of air flowed downward, lifting the edges of her skirt and toying with a few stray locks of her hair. She stopped her drawing, and considered the few suggestive lines on the pad.
    What little was there hinted at a tremendous sorrow locked within the frame of the old house, embedded so deeply that not even her powers of restoration could salve them. Turning the pencil over in her hand, she erased what she had drawn.
    The old woman spoke softly to the house. "Sometimes what could be holds more comfort than what was. Sometimes the future holds more happiness than the past."
    Saying this, she turned the pencil right side up, and began a new creation...

    Blackears: Martha and memories

    And she sang as she drew, a small tune familiar to her ears; friendly to the spirit of her house:

    "William went on a bobtailed steed
    a sachel on his head an' a fist of weeds"

    The words were weathered with age and tinted with the hues of old memories bleeding together. Her hand skipped over the paper as her tongue tripped on her teeth; the ink dripped from her pen to form shadowy blothches on the rough paper.

    "Standing high on the bobtail's back
    for a stolen kiss and a gold filled sack

    Oh, you'll dance with a necktie that fits so fine
    'Cause the miser's love is thought more than mine."

    When the rhyme ended, so did her hands. She had reproduced a memory; blurry, perhaps, to a casual observer looking over her shoulder, but rich in scent and texture to herself.

    Her picture was of an afternoon, long ago. It was of a wagon, hitched to two horses, with several shadowy people standing around it. On the wagon were two people, one with a rope joining it's neck slackly to a great tree. Martha could still feel the heat of that afternoon shining brightly on her from the surface of the paper.

    Martha turned to that darkness that gazed at her hesitantly from the top of the stairs.

    "Still remember that day, William?"

    Lynx: The dweller in darkness

    The house felt something stir within its attic, a fullness like that of a stomach after a heavy meal, or perhaps the heaviness of a woman with child. It had never eaten, but the terms that meant something to those who lived within and without suddenly meant something, as it felt the pangs stretching limits more than physical. Shutters banged open in the loft, a little room that might have been for a child once, or for two children, revealing beds on opposite walls. All through the house, curtains opened and warm air gouted from each like a breath let out after long wait. The door rattled in its hinges.

    Long ago, long ago, the house thought. Long ago when it hadn't been a house at all, but... Dust billowed out of closets on the second floor, doors banging open, brooms falling out in a confusion of limbs, then straightening, skidding about like a magician's coven of apprentices. Its thoughts were cobwebbed, and so it tried to sweep them clean, bristly brush-heads reaching to every corner.

    Long ago... The wooden beams bent inward, causing plaster to fall from its walls. Who had it been? the house wondered frantically. Who lived in the darkness, that now threatened to burst and overflow its space with shadows?

    Paka: The House of Pain

    A smile creased the old woman's weathered face as she set down the lead, sat back, and continued humming tunelessly as the golden sunlight warmed her. Her eyes flickered open, a pale cataract blue, old woman's blue.
    "Oh, yes, William. It was there, Tremaine's house. Just like you knew it would be. Just like it said in his journal."
    One worn hand - knuckles bent with arthritis, the house felt - reached down into her bag, caressed the small silk package of cards, brought it out onto the table. The old woman's touch on the cards was familiar as she sorted them down in the time-worn patterns, like a lover's touch, and her song shifted into an older pattern too.

    Western wind, when wilt thou blow? The small sky pours down rain.
    Christ, that my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again...

    The cards fell into place, each upon each with the skill of - decades? centuries? The old woman pursed her lips and frown. Not a good reading. La luna; key 18, the moon, shapeshifter's card, transformation, magic plotted behind someone's back. L'amore, the lovers; Il papa, the hierophant, a powerful man, conservatism and rigid adherence to the past; nine of swords, a woman weeping in bed at night with none to comfort or even know of her; five of cups, three cups shattered and letting none but the barren ground accept their offerings, irredeemable sadness. The old woman's voice shifted lower, into a lilting language manifestly not English. Perhaps not even in any human language.

    And the house felt, felt in the only way it could feel, suddenly finding itself breaking more into small single voices nearly lost in the afternoon light. Tremaine - now, that word sounded familiar. Tremaine meant other afternoons, long ago, with the sun streaking in through the windows; men stomping in mud-edged boots on the floor to talk of a lady - Bathory? - and what she had kept in her bath chamber, cruel-featured men returning from riding, parties of periwigged and fashionable gentlemen and ladies of the crown colony of Massachusetts. The house knew that these were memories, and further knew that it was not supposed to have such things.

    It sorted, tried to make sense of its own individual voices, separating each, trying to find more. The myriad voices that made up the house's intelligence seemed somehow rooted in the ground beneath, in the ground that was old before pale-skinned men had done in the original inhabitants with shot and smallpox, before pale-skinned men had carefully excavated the cellars and labyrinthine corridors. This was a space that began at the break of the cellar doors, and beyond that, the house could not feel anything. Or perhaps did not want to feel, for the voices flared up in pain when it sent out tendrils.

    Pyrtlewing: This Old House

    She put away her cards with a sudden smile and touched the worn boards as though soothing away the pain of a child. "Long ago, and the cards read true. We will right the injustice done, you and I, and set this little corner aright again. I've noticed a certain unpleasant grayness creeping over the world and while I'm not empowered to fix the whole world, I can stop it right here.
    "Tremaine and Bathory... that started here. It's best we mend it here as well," she smiled. "Their old pain and sorrow is something that the demons of despair can grab onto and feed. Let's make sure that those things go unfed."
    She set the cards back on the table with a smile. "The first thing we must do, dear, is to go find those poor old ghosts." She pulled a pendulum out of the bag and flipped her book open till the pages showed an old map. Setting her pendulum above the book, she let it swing, her lips moving softly in some enchantment. The house watched in silence; not a board creaked.

    Paka: The House of the Dead

    A smile crinkled Martha's features as the pendulum swung, light reflecting and playing in patterns along the wall, and she closed her eyes, concentrating. "Ahhh, and there you are." She felt along the edge of the boards, in the apparently blank space along the wall, until a draft of cold air played across her hand.

    Martha returned the pendulum to its familiar place around her neck, reaching into her pocket now to clasp a small amulet and whisper - what, a prayer, maybe simply a habit? The house couldn't tell. What it did know, however, was that the sighing and pleading of the voices became more intense, even as the slightly crooked fingers wandered gently over the wall, finding the trapdoor, finding hinges and the hidden latch, tracing over the faintly graven runes. Another satisfied sigh, and a soft klik - almost an explosion in the quiet of late afternoon.

    The old woman thought for a moment and took her sturdy walking stick, gently eased the trapdoor open - safer than using a hand. Plaster and cheap paint cracked and flaked onto the floor as the door swung inward - and a noxious blast of fetid, long undisturbed air met Martha's nostrils. Mildew and dried herbs and something else, something rotten and long dead...

    The voices that made up the house's consciousness were screaming now, agonized. With a mischievous wink, the old woman smiled, in no particular direction, knowing quite well what was happening. Her voice was soft, and soothing. "Shhh. It'll be set right soon." Then her features set grimly, and Martha lit the small spelunker's lamp she'd brought. Taking the light in one hand and the stout walking stick in the other, she peered through the trapdoor - paused a moment - and stepped in.

    The end? Or another beginning? Noone has been able or willing to tell this far... Looks like there are still some questions left unanswered, so who knows?
    I have made a couple of small corrections (?) but left one word unchanged. Not quite sure what a
    sachel is. The closest my dictionary gets is satchel but that is not something a man would wear on his head...