The house stood on a bluff overlooking the sea. The man, Matthew, had moved there after his wife, Katrina, died, leaving him alone. Before he met her, he’d grown used to his solitary life. Now, forced to return to it, he wasn’t sure he’d cope.
The house welcomed him in and nestled around him. Brought a semblance of Katrina to him as he slept, and sometimes in his waking hours.
The first time he saw the woman on the beach, he wondered if she was real. From a distance, she resembled Katrina. Her figure, sheathed in white, beguiled him. He sensed Katrina’s presence in the wind. It was enough to instil calmness within him and within the house. Despite what he had done.
Every week, Joseph, owner of the local shop, brought Matthew’s food requirements: milk, cheese, bread, meat, and vegetables. Matthew paid Joseph the exact amount from the money Katrina had left him.
‘You should come down to the pub,’ Joseph would say. ‘It’s not beneficial to lock yourself away. There are good people in the town, and they’re curious about you.’ Joseph gazed at the house’s new owner as if he were from another world, another time. Where has this man come from? His thoughts reflected those of the townspeople.
Why has he come?
Why doesn’t he come to town?
Why doesn’t he make friends?
Did the house bring him?
‘I have no wish to meet people,’ Matthew told Joseph. ‘Not right now.’
‘So be it. You know where we are if you change your mind.’ And Joseph left with a heavy heart.
The townsfolk enquired how the man in the house by the sea was faring and Joseph told them the man was well.
‘Will he come and meet us?’ They asked in unison.
‘Not right now,’ Joseph said.
‘Does the house not want us to meet him?’
‘Shush.’ Joseph put his finger to his lips and, looking in the house’s direction, he’d whisper, ‘Walls have ears.’
On the days when her husband, Edward, was away on business, Millie liked to don her dead mother’s wedding dress and run barefoot along the beach, squishing sand between her toes. She would stand at the ocean’s edge and stretch her arms out at her sides. The gossamer fabric of her mother’s dress floated about her, sometimes reaching above her golden hair when the wind was fierce.
Millie was a slip of a girl. Edward twice her age. Millie’s father had promised her to Edward because Edward was rich and Millie’s father was poor. Edward was not a kind person.
‘Lay down on the bed and open your legs,’ were his first words to Millie. Yes, the first words he had uttered and those on their wedding night.
Thrust into a marriage of convenience, Millie had served her husband well and given him two boys and one girl. Edward disregarded the girl, Beatrice, but doted on his sons, Harry and Henry, showering them with his emotionless love.
A year after the boys left for service overseas, Edward became ill and one morning, Millie found Edward dead in his bed. Once she had calmed herself, she called for Beatrice and Beatrice sent for the doctor.
‘His heart has given out,’ the doctor had said.
Millie mourned her husband for as long as was required, then took to the beach in her mother’s dress, where she’d race with the waves and fly with the wind, arms outstretched, waving, white gossamer flapping. When it rained, she bathed in the ocean, becoming one with the water. On sunny days she lay upon the sand, spilling tiny crystals of quartz between her fingers, thinking of her boys far away in foreign lands.
Two years after Edward died, Beatrice became ill.
‘Tuberculosis,’ the doctor had said.
Millie wept for her dear departed daughter, now lying beneath the earth with her heathen father. She prayed for Beatrice. Prayed her grace protected her.
And now, she too lay dying. Older, greyer, her heart aching for the life she never had. An idyllic life, full of happiness. Doted on by a loving husband, two sons worthy of her devotion, and a fine, healthy daughter. Her memories of loneliness and cruelty were a testament to her life of entombment. Yet, she loved her sons, cried when Harry fell in combat, and nursed Beatrice until she died in Millie’s arms.
And even now, on her deathbed, Millie ran toward the ocean. Her feet wet with the rolling tide, her hair streaked with ocean mist, her hands reaching for the wind.
‘Mother?’ Her last living child’s voice carried. Becalmed her insistent mind. ‘Go. Be with the angels.’
‘Shush,’ Henry whispered.
She felt his mouth on her dampened forehead. A smile quivered on her lips.
Henry held her clammy hand and squeezed. His mother was a good woman. A woman he would die for. A woman he wished the best of whatever greeted her in the afterlife.
‘My dear, dear, Mother.’ His tears fell, splashing upon their clasped hands.
And she was gone to the beach. To the ocean. To her utopia.
On a crisp, sunny morning in April, the house led Matthew to the top-floor window. Through this window, the beach and the ocean glistened in all its finery. A perfect view. Matthew saw her as he always saw her — as Katrina — entwined in white, standing on the edge of the ocean, arms outstretched, hair twirling around her.
It’s time, the house said.
Matthew left the house. Ventured further than he had before. He unhooked the gate, separating the garden from the sea cliff, and descended the steps onto the beach.
At the foot of the incline, Matthew observed her. She now lay on the sand, handfuls of which slipped through her fingers. Her delight rose in the air. He moved closer. When he stood over her, she gazed up at him and smiled. He did not. She was not Katrina.
Millie sat up. Mesmerised by the man staring down at her.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.’
‘You didn’t. But where did you come from?’
Matthew pointed towards the steps. ‘From up there.’
‘Oh. You live in that house?’
‘There are many tales about that house.’
‘Really?’ He lowered himself. ‘Do you mind if I sit?’
‘No. There’s plenty of room.’ Her green eyes sparkled in the sunlight and the heart in Matthew’s chest nudged his ribcage.
‘Will you tell me about the house?’
‘Well, my great grandmother lived there. My parents named me after her. She was a seeker of truth. A free spirit. In those days, that was very rare.’
‘Hmm. What tales does the house hold?’
‘Many and varied, but the one most people remember is the day my great grandmother freed herself.’
The fresh breeze had died, and the air had grown still. No birds flew. The ocean’s waves rested. Nothing stirred except Millie’s voice. It reached inside Matthew, strong and true. Stirred the memories of what he had done. He closed his eyes against the images. Against the fear on Katrina’s face.
‘It is believed she poisoned her husband with arsenic. The doctor said it was his heart, but great grandmother knew better.’ Millie was surprised by the man’s reaction, as if he had known about the house all along and had tried to trip her up. ‘Open your eyes,’ she said.
Her inquiring expression pierced Matthew’s ribcage and sliced through his own heart.
‘Was she found out?’ he said, to break the spell. To shut the woman out.
‘No. It appears not.’ Millie secretly admired her great grandmother. She imagined her strength of will. Her propriety, despite her wretchedness. ‘People in town believe she murdered my great grandfather because he was the Devil.’ She laughed.
The townsfolk jumped to conclusions. Made up their own stories.
The house laughed, too.
At the mention of the Devil, Matthew’s breath hitched in his throat and he looked toward the house, its top-floor window glinting in the sunlight. It wanted him to join in with their laughter.
Smile, Matthew. You’re safe now.
‘But she got away with it?’ Once again, he summoned all his power to keep the woman from the scent.
Millie nodded. ‘Some say she spent her days here on the beach, dressed in her mother’s wedding dress.’ She saw through the man’s eyes. Saw the glinting window. Felt the rumble of laughter in the sand beneath her.
Matthew turned from the house and looked towards the ocean, to the horizon beyond. A tanker ship’s hull caught the sun’s rays, spilling red and purple hues across the surface of the water.
Millie sighed beside him. She had seen into the man’s heart, to something hidden. But she could go no further.
The house forbade it.
‘What is your name?’ he said, facing her again.
‘Millie.’ She tilted her head the way Katrina used to. ‘And yours?’
The vision of Katrina’s head tilted, abnormally, infested Matthew’s mind.
He blinked the image away. ‘Matthew,’ he said, matter-of-fact.
The breeze picked up. The ocean’s waves roared with the wind’s awakening. The sky filled once again with the sound of gulls.
Invite her in, the house said.
‘Would you like a cold drink?’
Millie smiled. ‘Yes, please.’
Her soft expression embodied Katrina. Ignited her deception and her betrayal. His response and his undoing.
They stood together.
Millie set off toward the house. She had never seen it up close. The townsfolk said the house was bewitched. Millie laughed at their superstitious natures. But deep within her, something stirred.
The house welcomed Millie. Enveloped her the way it had Matthew. It breathed new life into its guests. Made them believe they could be in the house, together, forever.
They had lived there – many times. The house would ensure they both remembered.
Copyright (2022) MJ Christie