Published in Issue 10 of Visionary Tongue, Spring 1998.
The house was old, but new. White plaster columns, white wooden shutters and whitewashed walls gave it the look of something just created, although it had stood there for as long as Jacintha could remember.
She was also old, but young. She had the smooth unlined face of a child, the slim firm body of a teenager. Bright eyes and pale hair. She could not remember being young.
It had always been the same.
Everyday, Jacintha would walk through the rooms, examining the white leather sofas, the white marble tables, imagining that something might have changed. But always, the house remained the same. Even the garden that surrounded the house was not affected by time. White roses always grew in the white plaster pots that led down the steps to the lawn. On the grass, Jacintha would lounge on a couch until the sky darkened and the moon dipped her slender figure in ice. And so the days passed.
On the afternoon that the man arrived, the sky was frosty-blue. He strode across the lawn, his black boots trampling the perfectly manicured grass. Jacintha had never seen a man before. She could not even remember her own father. But she was not afraid. She stared at him with her bright eyes. His tall figure shadowed her as she lay on her couch. He wore a grubby vest and torn jeans. His bare arms were muscular and tanned; his hair, black; his eyes, amber. His face was lined, but Jacintha guessed that he was not old.
The silence was broken as if the man had taken a knife and ripped through the silk of it. ‘Miss, I have travelled a long way, may I rest a while in your fine house?’ His voice was deep and velvety with the trace of an accent that she could not recognise.
‘My name is Lucian,’ he told her.
She did not reply. She did not know if she could speak. Had she ever spoken? She could not remember.
She motioned him towards the house and watched him disappear into it, a sooty mark on a pristine canvas.
When the moon rose, Jacintha glided towards the house, a silver queen to her silver palace. She found Lucian in the dining room. The table had been set for two. Before, it had always been set for one. So the house knew that he would come. Perhaps it had brought him here.
Lucian had changed into a black suit. Now he was all darkness and straight lines. Jacintha wore a white cotton dress that swept the floor. Pearls hung from her ears and neck. She sat at one end of the long table, Lucian at the other.
As they ate cold chicken and salad from china plates and drank white wine from crystal glasses, Lucian spoke. ‘I have been travelling so long, to such terrible places, it is a relief to come to this house.’ He did not seem to notice that she was silent.
Candle flames coloured Jacintha’s face yellow and orange. On the walls, more candles were held in brass sconces.
‘You are so lucky. A princess locked in her magical castle,’ Lucian said.
Jacintha was still silent. Lace curtains fluttered at the open windows.
After the main course – a dessert of iced cakes. Lucian ate greedily but Jacintha’s plate remained full. The cakes were too sweet for her.
‘Perhaps you would allow me to stay here again if I ever pass this way?’ Lucian asked.
Jacintha nodded. Then she rose and glided from the room, a frightened butterfly fleeing danger.
In her white bedroom, beneath the lace canopy of her bed, Jacintha lay awake, thinking of Lucian.
How different he was to everything else she knew. Dark, loud. She did not know if she was afraid or fascinated. It did not matter. Tomorrow he would be gone. The house would be pure and silent again and she would sit in the garden until the moon appeared.
But she had promised that he could return. Why had she done that? Should she make him understand that he was not welcome? No, he would forget the house. The noise and dirt of the places he travelled to would lure him away. He would not find the house again.
Still Jacintha could not sleep. She thought of the places he had visited, wanted him to tell her about them. Perhaps in the morning she could ask him? No, he would be gone. She thought of his black hair and amber eyes, his tanned skin and muscular arms. She only thought of them because they were different, she told herself.
Rising from her bed, she stood by the open window and watched the moon. The lawn was coated in silver. It was cold and harsh, peaceful.
Then, Lucian appeared, wearing his vest and jeans, walking away. He did not look back. She watched his dark shadow recede into the distance.
In the west, the sky lightened. The stars winked out, one by one. Jacintha looked at the horizon. Lucian was gone. She fell back onto her bed and wished that he had not come. The house felt different now, even though he had left. It was as if he had left fingerprints everywhere. Eventually, she slept. The sun rose and set. The moon rose, and still Jacintha slept on.
Gradually, Jacintha shrugged off the strangeness that she felt. She forgot Lucian; he was a dream. She rose at sunrise and lounged in the garden until dusk. She grew accustomed to the whiteness and the silence again and forgot the darkness and sound.
Then, Lucian returned.
The first she was aware of him was as a shadow as she dozed.
‘Good afternoon, I hope I am not intruding. You said I could return,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you were being kind.’
Jacintha did not speak. She shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked up at him. He was a silhouette against the light.
‘I have brought you these as a token of my gratitude.’
He crouched close to her and now that he blocked out the sun, she could see him more clearly. His dark skin and dark hair, a blot on the day.
He offered her a bouquet of flowers. She did not recognise all of them. Roses, she knew, though these were crimson and ochre. There were also flowers of cerise, violet and orange. A myriad of colours that was overpowering to her eyes.
The scent was intoxicating. As she inhaled it she imagined it reached inside her to every part of her body. It made her feel light and warm.
She smiled at Lucian and almost spoke.
When the moon rose, they dined. The same bland, colourless food and drink as before. Jacintha did not feel hungry. The flowers had been placed on the table in a porcelain vase, an explosion of colour that blocked out the sight of Lucian.
‘You must be lonely, living here,’ he said.
Perhaps you would like to visit the City? I could take you there.’
Jacintha shook her head. Her heart beat faster at the thought of escape.
Lucian was silent again. He bowed his head. He knew that he had crossed a line.
When dessert was finished, Jacintha did not rush away. She sat with Lucian on the veranda. Paper lanterns lit the darkness. An owl with moon-coated wings flew by.
‘Tell me about the places you have visited,’ she said.
Lucian stared at Jacintha’s pale lips, as if he could see the shapes of the words as they emerged. She did not know where the words had come from.
‘They are all so different, I would not know where to begin,’ he said. ‘Some towns are small and dirty, filled with more animals than people, others are cities full of tall buildings and harsh noises, colours and smells.’
He described to Jacintha a few of the places he had visited. She listened enraptured, storing everything, even the words she did not understand. She imagined she saw some of these places in Lucian; in his excitement, in his brashness.
Eventually, she stopped him. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you can tell me more next time you visit.’
She floated from the veranda like a wisp of smoke and vanished before Lucian could stop her.
When Lucian returned again to the house, the flowers had wilted and died. Crisp brown petals fell onto the dining table and the wind through the open windows swept them away. He arrived carrying more gifts; an abstract painting, vividly detailed in primary colours; a bottle of perfume that was spicy and exotic – Jacintha imagined that it smelt of the places Lucian had visited; a purple parasol to shade her as she lay in the garden.
‘When I am away, I dream of this house,’ Lucian said. ‘Of its coolness and its quiet. I feel as if it has become my home.’
Jacintha did not speak. She was still examining the gifts that Lucian had placed in her arms.
‘I’m sorry. I should not feel this way. I hope I haven’t offended you.’
As they walked to the house, she assured him he had not.
Before dinner, they explored the house together. There was little to see. On the ground floor plain rooms of whitewashed walls and white tiled floors contained tables and chairs, a sofa, in one room, a white grand piano.
Walking silently along the halls and through the rooms, the silence seemed to hang over them like a bubble that would burst if they spoke.
In the main hall, a crystal chandelier dangled like a cascade of icicles. A large staircase rose and branched out above them. Upstairs, they found more white rooms, almost identical to those below, except that they also contained beds covered in white like sweeps of snow.
Next, they followed the stairs down to a basement. But the door they reached would not open.
‘Why is this door locked?’ Lucian asked.
Jacintha tried the handle herself, expecting it to open at her command, but it would not. ‘I don’t understand it,’ she said.
‘Don’t worry about it. Perhaps next time,’ Lucian said.
They returned to the dining room where they ate a meal of steak with red wine and a dessert of glazed strawberries. But Jacintha did not enjoy the food. She was thinking of the locked room and what it might contain. She could not remember ever having seen the door before, or, of ever having entered that room.
‘I have a key,’ Lucian said.
The key glittered as he held it up to the light like a prize he had won. Jacintha reached up to snatch it from his hand but he would not give it up. She grabbed and pulled at his fingers but they tightened around his prize. Jacintha sank back onto her couch.
Lucian smiled. ‘Now, we shall see the room,’ he said. He set off towards the house and Jacintha followed, afraid but excited.
Inside, the white walls silently witnessed her apprehension as Lucian forged ahead, unaware that she shuddered with every step she took. She wanted to pull him back, to tell him that she did not want to see the room, but he was an adventurer, hungry for the challenge of the new.
Reaching the door, Lucian waited for Jacintha to catch up, eager for a spectator to observe his bravery. ‘At last, all secrets will be revealed,’ he whispered as he placed the key in the lock.
Jacintha closed her eyes. She heard the key turn, the lock click open. Heat swamped her and the smell of dust and incense made her cough and stagger away from the assault. When she opened her eyes, the door was open. Lucian had already crossed the threshold. He took her hand and pulled her inside. ‘Come on, don’t be afraid,’ he encouraged her.
Darkness surrounded them for a moment, then Jacintha felt as if her eyes expanded, taking in more than they could possibly see.
The room was a warehouse of oddities. The walls were painted in psychedelic patterns of purple, red and gold. Silk scarves of amber and green were draped from the ceiling, giving the room a warm, still atmosphere as if they had walked into a womb. Dusty shelves were furnished with trinkets of tarnished gold and silver. A carved oak chest was burdened with old wooden toys, yellowing books. Here and there, candles ached to be relit.
Jacintha was startled by her reflection in an ornately framed mirror. A headless figure loomed behind her. Turning in fright, she let out a sigh of relief as she realised she had only been alarmed by a dressmaker’s mannequin.
Lucian laughed. ‘You’re easily shocked. Have you something to be afraid of?’
Jacintha did not reply. The room made her feel uncomfortable She wanted to leave, but Lucian blocked her path. To cover up her discomfort, she fingered the fluid folds of red silk that draped the mannequin. The soft material made her think of a lover’s skin and she quickly withdrew her hand.
‘That’s a beautiful dress,’ Lucian said, hovering at her shoulder. ‘It would suit you well. Wear it tonight.’
The thought of that red silk caressing her skin excited and horrified her. But Lucian’s pressure made it difficult for her to refuse. It was as if she had no control. ‘Yes, I’ll wear it tonight,’ she said.
As Jacintha glided down the staircase, the red folds of her dress spilled across the steps like an ever growing pool of blood. Lucian waited at the bottom to greet her. He held out his hands for hers, as if they were lord and lady preparing to make a grand entrance. Jacintha was sensually aware of the dress clinging to every curve of her body, aware that Lucian watched her every movement. If she had been naked she could not have felt more sensitive to the movement of his eyes across her body. When he kissed her cheek, the sensation lingered as if she had been branded.
The house felt different, wrong. The air felt heavy; she thought she would suffocate.
‘Please, we must leave now,’ she said, urgently. The desire had surfaced in an instant, but she knew she must obey it.
For a moment, Lucian seemed startled, but the mask of charm was soon readjusted. He smiled. ‘Your wish is my command,’ he said.
He led her from the house, down the steps and across the lawn. Jacintha looked back at the house. All the lights extinguished, it brooded like an abandoned lover planning revenge. She turned away quickly. The silver of the moon could not dampen the fire of her dress. Wearing it, she felt dangerous, but she was also afraid of the power it possessed.
The red dress lay in a crumpled heap at the foot of the bed Jacintha shared with Lucian. She watched him now as he slept, the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the fluttering of his eyes beneath the lids as he dreamed. She had lost track of time since she’d arrived in the City with Lucian. The days had merged into one long experience of new sights, sounds, smells. Lucian’s stories could not begin to describe all the magic and mayhem that the City contained. He laughed at her wide-eyed astonishment. The nights had also been filled with other new experiences. Passion was a fever Jacintha welcomed along with the pleasure it released. Lucian delighted in revealing these things too. Gradually, her astonishment died and with it Lucian’s interest.
The moon dappled his skin in silver stripes that fell through slitted blinds at the window. The hot air smelled of sweat and sickly sweet air freshener. Muffled sounds of traffic punctuated the night. Jacintha rose from the bed. For a moment she picked up the red dress, then discarded it in favour of jeans and a T-shirt.
As she opened the door, she looked back at Lucian’s sleeping form. She thought about lingering awhile, waking him, but she knew she could not reawaken the desire in his heart. His arm stretched out to the space she’d left. The emptiness did not distress him; he spread out, filling the entire bed.
Jacintha sighed and stepped through the door. The red dress lay in a crumpled heap, discarded like an old skin.
Jacintha travelled by night, hoping the moon would guide her home. She had little recollection of her journey to City and now she trusted instinct to lead her away from it. As she left the confines of the grey buildings her spirits lifted. She drew comfort from stars, undimmed by the dominance of electric light. Moving further away from the City, she became aware of the night creatures, crickets chirping, owls screeching. The air felt cool and clean on her skin.
She spent many nights watching the horizon, hoping that home would appear over the next hill. It never did. Then, one night, as the sky began to colour in the west, she reached the summit of a hill and in the distance saw a familiar sight. She began to run towards the house. As she ran, the sun burned up the night. The shadows began to lift and the house turned scarlet. Jacintha slowed. The dry grass crackled beneath her feet. Dead roses hung from withered stems in their white plaster pots. She climbed the steps to the house.
Each second, more was revealed. She stood so close now that she could see the deep cracks running through the walls. In some places, weeds had begun to grow. Tattered curtains blew through shattered windows. There were gaping holes in the roof where it had fallen in. The touch of the sun tinged the house red as if it was embarrassed by what it had become.
Jacintha walked away, she did not look back. She walked until the moon rose and did not stop when it set.
Gradually, she began to think of herself as a wanderer. She discovered many of the places Lucian had described to her. Although she travelled many miles and walked for many years, she found that her path did not lead her to the house again.
She knew it would not.