The House in the Fog
Perhaps you will find me a liar...
I am not a reliable narrator. I will eagerly steer you toward my own bias. And so, I tell you, approach what I disclose with great discernment. I am merely a witness, and, as such, I will make my judgments, just as you will.
However, you would be wise to note that I have the advantage of time on my side. I have yielded to the beginnings and ends of countless wars, some fought on the very soil on which I stand. I have endured the destruction of a generation and housed the lineage that followed. I am where lives have come to be birthed and to die; to thrive and to wither.
For all these reasons and more, I would be most inclined to admit that my own perspective may hold more bearing than yours ever will, and so, I implore you, have a seat and listen close. Perhaps you will be able to hear that wind, too, that seems to linger in my memory.
She came on a frigid February day, boots encased in mud and hems frozen in a solid silhouette of embroidered bluebells and ivy. Her bonnet had been knocked back by the wind, the blue ribbon caught tight around her neck. She knocked and I let her in, though she did not heed me. I guessed her to be no older than fifteen, then, her youth still rounding her cheeks. Her hair was the most glorious red, so bright I’m sure some could describe it as noxious. She surrendered her name as Lorelei.
I never did learn from where she came. She had nothing save the dress she wore and a simple, gold, barn owl trinket hung around her neck.
For a few years she worked in the kitchen peeling potatoes and washing dishes and she hardly spoke. But even in her silence, her beauty drew notice. I must admit that even I was captivated by her comeliness. But if a man dared approach, she would turn away without the slightest regard. She seemed content enough in her manner, but I saw her when no one else did; she was not the impassioned persona she presented, I assure you.
Those days, it always seemed to rain. The rolling mounds of heather that spread out before me were beseeched by a constant shroud of fog to remain hidden. My bones would ache and sway from the damp chill that seeped in. I’d imagine that was similar to the feeling Lorelei endured. In fact, there was a time I questioned whether she was actually living.
But death, in actuality, is far more unquestionable than that. For instance, when the ladyship’s maid died of tuberculosis, there was not a single prospect that she was somehow still breathing. She was white and stiff and cold when they found her, and so, The Lady searched out a new maid.
It came as no surprise when she selected our lovely Lorelei. The Lady was no less beautiful, with piercing eyes and locks of cascading ebony, but she was a jealous sort. She sought to capture that which she felt less than and chip away at it until there was no semblance of human distinctiveness. She saw a young woman who threatened a part of her, and so she aspired to degrade Lorelei into an untouchable. Oh, I still delight in the irony, but I suppose you’ll find all that out at a later point.
In just a short time, Lorelei settled into her new role, rising at dawn every morning to dress and prepare The Lady for her day of little to do. At breakfast, in the private confines of her quarters, The Lady would deftly drop bits of egg and fruit on the floor for Lorelei to crouch and collect, and on more than one occasion, The Lady would, quite intentionally, spill tea onto Lorelei’s hair. Lorelei appeared to dread these new days with earnest, but never uttered more than “yes, m’lady.” At least, not until she met The Lady’s counterpart: Lord Dallan Bennett.
Lord Bennet arrived for tea with The Lady one day, having completed his business abroad. He stood a good deal taller than the majority of his staff, with his raven hair combed neatly back and his frigid eyes boring into Lorelei.
I, myself, am abashed to admit him to be quite a handsome man. Far softer on the eyes than his father or his father’s father. Dallan Bennett was fortunate to not have inherited the Bennett nose: large and swollen, as if under the constant duress of a bee’s sting. Rather, Lord Bennett’s was long and narrow, one of the few gifts he’d received from his mother’s side.
“And where is dear Louise?” he asked his wife, sitting across from her at the quaint round table. Lorelei began to pour the tea.
“Why, she died, dear,” her Ladyship replied dismissively. “Just a week or so ago, while you were away,” she added plaintively.
“You jest, my dear…”
“Oh hardly!” she rested a hand on her breast in a dramatic flare. “It was quite horrid really. I must say I am glad you were not here to witness it. I know how fond you were of her. I expect she served me just as well as she did your late mother, God rest her soul.”
“Yes, well… I suppose it’s no surprise. A pity as it is, she was getting on in years. We will be sure to have a proper service for her as soon as the ground is thawed.”
“I trust you have found a replacement?” He took a slow sip from his cup.
“I have. This little thing here,” The Lady pinched at Lorelei’s sleeve and raised it, holding her arm up in presentation, “has done fine so far.”
Lord Bennett turned his attention to the servant and nodded. “Good, good,” he said, keeping his eyes on Lorelei. “But why do you have your lady maid serving your tea?”
“She enjoys the work, isn’t that right, girl?” The Lady dropped her arm.
“Yes, m’lady,” Lorelei replied, stealing a glance at the lord before bowing her head and taking a step away from the table.
I must admit that I found The Lady to be quite tiresome, even on a cheery day, so I usually maintained the habit of tuning her out. But there were some circumstances I simply could not bring myself to ignore, such this one. And let me make it abundantly clear before continuing that Lord Bennet was not a philanderer. By some miracle (or I suppose morality), he remained loyal to his witch-of-a-wife, so how could I not take notice when he so clearly had his attention set on our Lorelei? But perhaps I give too much away.
“I do hope my wife is not working you too hard.” Lord Bennett called out from a shadowed alcove as Lorelei escaped down the hall from her lady’s chambers. The Lady had succumbed to one of her frequent migraines and retired for the day, dismissing Lorelie early.
“No, my lord,” she replied, turning to face him as he strode into the open.
“I understand that she can be a bit forceful at times. Please, do not hesitate to inquire for my appeal should she become too overbearing. I would be happy to sort the issue out with her.”
“Is it customary for your Lordship to interfere with the accommodations of your wife’s personal hand maid, sir?”
Lord Bennett smiled amusedly. “Unless the lady of the estate is displeased, I should say not.”
“Is the lady displeased?”
“Not to my knowledge, no.”
“Then, pray, why do you approach me so?” Lorelei’s expression was placid, but her eyes wandered cautiously and curiously over the man before her.
“I would like to formally make your acquaintance, should you feel comfortable with such.”
She hesitated, tugging at the fabric of her skirt nervously before nodding slowly. “I am Lorelei.”
“Lorelei,” he repeated softly, taking hold of her hand and raising it to his lips. “I am Dallan Bennett. It is an honor to meet you.”
After that day, Lorelei saw Lord Bennett regularly, at no fault of her own. On the contrary, Lord Bennett made constant excuses to run into her in the halls, and on more than one occasion, would stalk from around a corner awaiting her emergence from The Lady’s chambers. Lorelei was delighted by his attention, though she did well to hide it. I would often find her smiling to herself as she went about her duties; such a lightness it offered my days.
“Lady Bennett kept you late this evening.” The Lady had felt especially needy that evening due to the raw cold that battered the windows.
Lorelei whirled around, startled by the voice. “Oh, it’s only you,” she gasped in relief.
“‘Only’ me?” Lord Bennett pressed, stepping closer until he stood merely inches away.
“You know that is not what I meant.” Lorelei sucked in her breath, feeling her heart quicken.
“Oh?” He leaned closer and she shuddered.
“My lord, your… your wife…” she offered weakly. Lord Bennett straightened again, dragging a hand dishearteningly down his face.
“What do you want from me, Lorelei? Everyday, you torment me with your eyes and– and your smile and yet I cannot touch you. You must know how I yearn to hold you and make you my own every time I see you. Every fiber of my being burns with a single thought of you and yet… you dismiss me so.”
“I do not dismiss you, sir,” she whispered, casting her gaze down. “You must know I too am drawn to you, but… we cannot… not yet. Give it time and I swear to you you shall have me. You shall have all of me.” Lord Bennett tucked his finger under her chin, commanding her gaze back to his.
“What am I to do, then? When I am starved for a single taste of you? How long must I go on without sleep and without food? I can do nothing but think of you, Lorelei, can you not see my misery?” His hands drifted back and grasped the back of her neck, his fingers tangled in her flaming hair.
“You mustn’t blame me so,” she cried, hot tears pouring onto his forearm. “I am in anguish to see you and not run to you. You must know! You must know…” Lorelei placed her hands on Bennett’s chest, grasping at his jacket. “But how can I come to you when I prepare your own wife for your bed? How can I lie with you when I prepare another to do the same?” She lay her head on his chest and wept silently as he caressed her head. “Can you not imagine my pain and my shame when all I can do is dream of you?”
Lord Bennett lowered his head and rested his lips on her hair. “We do not lie together.” Lorelei pulled away and looked up questioningly. He cleared his throat and said it again. “We do not lie together. We haven’t in many months, in fact. She comes to my chambers only in pretense. We could not afford the scandal that we were no longer fulfilling our marital duties, so we decided to maintain this… charade. You would know better than anyone how the staff gossips and we were determined not to fan that flame.” Bennett stroked her cheek with his thumb, leaning his forehead against hers. “I am married only on paper. The lady and I have no entanglement beyond our signatures and an oath forced on us to take.” He kissed her cheek, melting her skin beneath his lips.
“But, my lord, what of your heir?” She whispered, fearing she would force him away if she spoke too loud.
“We cannot have children.” He straightened again and dropped his hand, turning away. “My wife is barren.” And what good is a wife that cannot conceive? I could see the thought play across Lorelei’s features as she searched his.
“Give it time, my lord. We shall be together, I swear it.” He smiled softly and nodded, planting another kiss on her forehead.
“I have no doubt, my love.”
That night, Loreleil hardly slept, which was not all that unusual for her. What was unusual was her manic energy. She paced for hours on end, twirling her hair with her fingers and muttering incoherently to herself. I could only have described her as confused and afraid, but of what, I could not be sure. Finally, she sat at her frail vanity and searched the reflection in the looking glass as she unhooked her necklace and placed it on the table. The owl gazed up at her with its hollow eyes, its golden wings outstretched to where they met with the chain. She stroked its metal feathers with her fingertip and whispered softly to it, “forgive me,” before finally falling asleep.
“You seem rather cheery of late, child,” The Lady observed passively the following evening as Lorelei prepared her for bed. “Good news perhaps?”
“No, m’lady.” Lorelei combed down the dark length of The Lady’s hair, her posture suddenly more sullen.
“Mmm,” she mused, “but I do suppose something has happened to cure you of your miserable little disposition, no?”
“I suppose the grandiosity of the opportunity to serve you personally, m’lady, has not yet been lost on me.”
“You speak well, girl, for a servant.”
“Thank you, m’lady.” Lorelei pulled The Lady’s hair back and secured it loosely with a white ribbon, avoiding the eyes piercing her in the pane of the mirror.
“What an interesting trinket,” she noticed in the reflection, suddenly rising to face the girl. Lorelei, usually careful to keep her keepsake hidden below the collar of her dress, had it exposed to the flirtatious glimmer of the candles, practically taunting her mistress. “Let me see it.” Wordlessly, Lorelei unclasped the chain and placed it in the cold, narrow fingers. The Lady analyzed every detail of the molding, staring down her nose at it, her lips thin and turned down. “I suppose you stole this from your last employer?” She raised an eyebrow.
“No, m’lady. It was my mother’s.”
“I’m sure that’s unlikely,” she finally concluded, setting the necklace down at her vanity. “It is a trifle too valuable to be in the hands of a maid. It seems only right to include it in my family’s fortune, especially seeing as we have been generous enough to offer a position to a thief such as yourself.”
“I understand, my lady,” Lorelei curtsied in reverence. “Thank you for every opportunity you have granted me here.”
“Yes, very well,” she muttered in response, waving her hand in dismissal. Lorelei bowed again and left, a subtle smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
You could only imagine my intrigue and, frankly, confusion, at this exchange and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had missed something. But, as the saying goes, my walls do have ears and I miss nothing. I am the one that watches without fail. I hear every curse and prayer whispered in silence. I feel each tip-toe down the hall and every creak of every door hinge. These things that happen on display and happen in secret happen, irrevocably, to me.
And so, when The Lady fell ill, I knew before anyone else. Her skin suffered first, a blistering rash spreading from her chest down her arms and up her neck, but she was able to hide them with long sleeves and a tall collar. Lorelei prepared baths of herbs and oils to soothe her sores, but nothing seemed to soothe The Lady’s misery.
“I have been cursed,” she muttered to Lorelei during one of her baths. “There could be no other explanation…” her voice swelled with emotion that began to bubble past her lips, “because I cannot have a baby.” She began to weep into her pruning hands. “I could not do the one thing a woman is born to do,” she sobbed, “so now I am doomed to die here with a husband who cannot feign affection for me and a maid who thinks herself better than me. Oh, I have been forsaken!” Her wails echoed out into the hall and I felt for her for the first time since our acquaintance.
The Lady still dressed and left her rooms everyday, donning Lorelei’s necklace in such confidence as if to mock her. She had filled the owl’s empty eyes with sapphires, so dark they looked like drops of ink against the polished gold. Everyday, Lorelie would rub the small figure between her hands in ritual before surrendering it all over again to The Lady.
Within a week, however, she was no longer able to leave her bed. Her blisters had spread to her legs and face and her hair began to fall out in dark mats. Even her mouth began to fill with the sores and the doctor could find no plausible reason for it. He tried salves, bloodletting and leeches, but nothing worked. Eventually, he said, the rash would spread to her lungs and, ultimately, she would suffocate and die.
Lord Bennett visited her daily, but she would keep the curtains over her bed drawn, too ashamed by her appearance to let him see her.
“I’m sorry I could not give you a son,” she muttered to him through the thin veil of fabric.
“I’m sorry I could not love you better.” he replied.
She died alone and in silence, a life fulfilled only for having been lived at all.
“We may not have had a loving marriage, but this loss does not bring me any relief as I thought it might. She did not deserve to die because of my discontent.” Lord Bennett sat on the steps of one of the side entrances, his arms draped over his knees and his shoulders slumped in sorrow.
“Death is not a punishment, my lord,” Lorelei said, standing up by the cracked door. “I would think for my lady, it was a reprieve.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I do. I believe she will find happiness now, just as you will.” She took a step down and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I will wait for you, my lord, until you have grieved and are ready for me.” Lord Bennett reached up and stroked her hand lightly before she turned and went back inside.
Not long after, during one of Lord Bennett’s business absences, Lorelei went to retrieve her beloved necklace from the late lady’s jewelry box. Carefully, she brought it back to her room and threw it in the water basin, which she had earlier filled with boiling water. With a bristle brush, she began scrubbing it until her fingers were raw and near bleeding, before dropping it back to the bottom of the bowl. Staring at the gleaming wings through the steamy ripples, she began to cry. Her shoulders heaved with sobs as she slipped to her knees, cradling her head with stiff fingers. Eventually, she fell asleep curled up on the floor, her breath shuddering through cracked lips.
“Marry me, Lorelei,” Dallan Bennett said when he had finally returned home. He has scoured every room and hall in search of Lorelei from the moment he breached the doors.
“My lord?” Lorelei’s mouth parted with surprise. She had been hanging linens out to dry when he had approached her, greeting her only with this supplication.
“We have waited long enough, have we not?” The sheets blew in the wind, being drawn into whirling walls of white around the two. “My mind was plagued with you for every second I was away. In my grief it was only you who I wanted to comfort me. In my homesickness, I realized it was not this place but you whom I missed. Lorelie, you must marry me. Who am I now without you?”
Joy washed over Lorelei’s expression. “Of course I’ll marry you, Dallan Bennett. Who am I without you?” Bennett reached for her and pulled her against him, pressing his lips to hers in a single, desperate movement. His hands slid up her neck into her wild hair as hers grasped handfuls of his shirt, and I looked away. There are some moments that should have no witnesses.
They were wed almost immediately.
In all the centuries that have been standing, I had never before seen a love such as theirs. I worried it was simply a devotion to passion alone, but there was something in their manner I could only describe as necessity; they shared an untamable need for the other in any and every way. When Lorelei fell pregnant there was not a single breath of surprise among the household. She beamed and the clouds finally parted above, letting rays of warmth seep through. The heather around me danced in the golden light, the joy of their choreography easing my moans and aches.
The lord Bennett could not have seemed more content than in those moments when he held his wife in his arms, his hand resting on the subtle swell of her belly. I have to admit my envy of them in those instances. They seemed to share an understanding beyond my own reckoning and I suppose I’ll never quite figure it out.
But what’s the fun in such pleasant perfection? I’d assume you didn’t expect my story to end there, now did you? In all my experience as a formidable witness of people’s lives, I have seen the reality persist that no relationship is a simple one.
“What an intriguing necklace,” Dallan observed. Lorelei had finally regained the confidence to wear her family keepsake and now flaunted it across her bosom.
“Thank you, my love. It has been in my family for more generations than I believe I could count,” she laughed lightly, resting a finger on the trinket’s delicate wing.
“I see… my late wife had one similar… perhaps even identical.” He rose from the bed and bent to examine it.
“Well, yes, this is the same as that one. She had taken it from me, you see, having convinced herself that I had stolen it from a previous household, when, in fact, I had never worked a day before coming here.” Lorelei pulled her robe tightly around her shoulders, concealing the piece, and suddenly her posture shifted as if it had become too heavy for her neck.
“I know it is clearly too late, but I apologize in her stead, my love. She was unfair to you and I only wish you had sought me out at the occurrence of this transgression so that I could have righted it immediately. But I must tell you now, it looks far lovelier on you.” he reached for the hem on her robe to pull it aside, but Lorelei took a stumbling step back, clutching at her chest tightly.
“I’m sorry, my lord, but I feel unwell. Please excuse me.”
Lorelei left. She did not breathe another word to him that night and slept alone in her old maid quarters, where she knew she could weep freely. “He must know,” she cried again and again when a terrible pain suddenly gripped her, tearing a scream from her throat. A moment later the housekeeper and a squabbling of maids rushed in with flaming candles and raised fireplace pokers as she continued to wail.
“What is it my dear?!” the housekeeper begged, panic evident in her wide eyes. “Was it just a dream, perhaps? Are you in pain? What is it?”
Lorelei whipped off her blanket to reveal a black puddle of blood, seeping and growing from between her legs.
“M-mm-my baby,” she gasped, clawing at the sodden linens. I watched helplessly as she lifted her nightgown and tried to hold the blood in with her hands, her body racked by sobs. “Help me,” she cried over and over. “Please, someone save my baby, she’s dying!”
“My lady, please, lay back,” the housekeeper pleaded with her, trying to soothe her with a steady hand on her back. “Lay back, my lady, the doctor is on his way. Please lay back.” But Lorelei would not hear her. She grasped at her belly, bending forward on her knees as the pain only seemed to grow.
“My baby,” she continued to mutter as exhaustion finally extinguished the screams. “Please, my baby…”
She stayed in her old bed for weeks, grieving the loss from her womb. Lord Bennett spent every free second by her bedside, but she did not speak to him. She did not move to look at him. She did nothing.
When she was alone, Lorelei would twirl the little gold necklace in her hands and trace the detailing of the feathers with her fingertips. The round, innocent face of the barn owl betrayed nothing of the hatred Lorelei began to nurture for it.
Eventually, months began to pass and Dallan Bennett began leaving for weeks at a time to attend to his recently neglected business, allowing his beloved to withdraw into isolation and her veil of reality began to shrivel. She stopped eating and sleeping but her lips moved ceaselessly, reciting “I must, I must.”
When Lord Bennett returned from a particularly long venture, Lorelei met him in his bedroom.
“My love!” he exclaimed with jubilation. “My love, how are you? How have you fared in my absence?” He moved closer to her, planting a kiss on her parted lips, but she made no movement of reciprocation. Her hair fell in ratted strings over her face and her eyes seemed fixed on something in the distance behind his shoulder. “Lorelei…”
“I did it,” she interrupted, gaze still cast away.
“Did what, my dear? Are you alright? Have you been eating? You look so thin.”
“I did kill her. You must’ve known.” Lorelei raised her hand to her chest, clutching the necklace in her bony fingers. “This killed her.”
“Come now, who could have planted such a notion in your mind?”
“You know I speak the truth!” Finally, she directed her eyes to his, but they were wide with a terror, and rimmed with tears. “She could not make you happy. She could not bear your children. She was a blight on your life. It was apparent to us both and I loved you.” Her fingers dug into her palm, tinting her finger tips with blood. “I could not leave you like that and so… so I let her take my only possession.” She released the owl so it dangled on display for Dallan to look on in horror.
It’s wings were tinted red.
“Everyday for months I coated it in poison. I didn’t think it would take so long for her to die! I could hardly wait for you but I knew I must because I loved you too deeply to lose you to my own impatience. And then finally you were mine! And I was to have your baby…” she reached out to her husband who stood frozen before her, laying her bloodied hand on his chest. “But…I could not give you a child. I have brought you this meaningless misery just like her. I am not but a plague to you.”
Dallan laid his hand atop hers and pressed it deeper into his white shirt until it stained. “You are not, my love. I will look beyond your faults.” He caressed her cheek with his other hand and kissed her softly. “You are the only joy I have left. There is no life for me without you.”
She fell against him and wept. “Then you must die too,” she managed, pulling herself away and turning to the nightstand.
She grabbed the candle lit there and raised it to the curtains draped over the bed. “It’s simple,” she said, now calm and steady, “you will not live without me and I cannot live so you must die also.” The satin caught in an instant, inviting the flames to climb higher.
“Are you insane?! Give me that!” he lunged for the candle, but managed only to knock it out of its holder as she tried to evade him. The candle fell to the floor at her feet and ignited Lorelei’s nightgown, consuming her in a void of orange and yellow as her voice shredded a scream in her throat.
Then, for a single second there was silence, the air a dull throb of heat, as Lorelei looked out to Dallan and he gazed at her. She reached out a hand to him, her skin still pure and smooth there, and he grasped it, stepping nearer until the flames erupted on his own sleeve.
He embraced her and from her melting fingers fell the golden necklace, its ink-black eyes reflecting the wild light of the dancing room.
I was reduced to ruins that night. Though I still stand as blackened beams, my bones seemed to splinter under the weight of that heat. Ah, but I had grown so old already. Perhaps it was time for me to retire the lives I had collected within my walls. The impressions of those who wept and perished in these halls will forever haunt these ashes. But mark me when I say, death is never the tragedy of such a love.