“This Dark and Narrow Way” by Memory Scarlett
Dela paused on the landing to peer outside. The house demanded she take ownership of the wide lawn and the willow trees and the cobbled path she had never trod herself. It revelled in the cold, hard ache that came every time she looked upon that which she longed for and couldn’t have.
Even the rain, which her books said was as unpleasant as a cold bath in all your clothes, brought that bone-deep pang, that desire for difference. For something, anything, beyond these thick, stone walls.
The house approved. Its pleasure snaked up the back of Dela’s neck, a payment of sorts. A thank-you.
Dela shivered. She hated the feeling.
The house liked that, too.
Dela pressed her forehead against the window’s chill glass, her attention on the lawn below. If she gave the house more than it needed, it might let her enjoy an extra hour in the library, or a foray into the nicest gallery, or even a stolen moment beneath the overhang on the rear terrace.
She was midway through a fantasy about the world beyond the willows – a pleasure the house read as pain – when a figure came into view.
Dela initially regarded it as merely another feature of the landscape, its weary trudge a fitting addition to the rain-soaked tableau.
Then it registered. This slow, shambling thing, wrapped so tightly in its oilcloth cloak, was headed for the house.
Dela jerked away. She took the stairs three at a time. Malan had to know.
She burst into the kitchen, panting so hard she could do no more than croak. “There’s a person. On the path. Coming here.”
Malan’s attention remained fixed on her potatoes. “I suppose you’ll suspend your evening duties, then,” she said, as though this had happened a dozen times before.
Dela hadn’t thought. “The house will be angry.”
“Not so much as all that. Not if you do right by this visitor.”
Dela nodded. “I can do that.” She bustled around Malan to peer in one of the cupboards. “What do I give a guest? Where do I take them?”
Malan snorted. “I get the good parlour sorted. You just go answer the door.”
Oh, yes. That pounding must be the visitor, knocking. They wouldn’t let themselves in; it wouldn’t be polite.
“Durned girls can never remember the form,” Malan muttered as Dela dashed off again.
The door was stiff with disuse; it took all Dela’s strength to open. “Welcome!” she said, bright as a heroine from one of the novels with which the house tormented her. “Please, enter.”
The figure threw back its hood. “Many thanks.” She was a woman, somewhere between youth and age, and her voice was the sweetest thing Dela had ever heard.
“It’s my pleasure.” Fictional characters always said as much when someone arrived. “What brings you to us this fine day?”
The woman snorted. “The fine day itself. I’m a musician–” she patted a small pack strapped to her back “–on my way to March Deepings, and I misjudged my ability to handle the rain. I saw your lights from the road, so I thought I’d ask if you’re amenable to a little music in exchange for a meal and a dry night.”
Music! The house’s instruments had always refused to work for Dela, no matter how she pounded or strummed. The house considered such pursuits too inherently satisfying for its keeper.
“A delightful bargain,” Dela said. “Please, will you come dry off near the fire?”
She led her guest – Sayene, she said her name was – to the good parlour, which she and Malan entered only to dust. Malan had already lit the logs and laid out the tea. There were cakes, too, and tiny bread pockets stuffed with smoked meats and cheese. A far nicer spread than Dela ever received when it was only the two of them.
Sayene hung her cloak beside the hearth. Dela couldn’t help but regard the trousers and sweater beneath it with envy. The house required her to wear heavy skirts at all times, her waist held in check by a tight corset. Sayene’s loose, comfortable clothing raised a new longing within her, something of which the house approved most heartily.
Sayene flipped her blonde braid over her shoulder as she sat. It pooled in her lap. “Oh my,” she sighed, “that does feel good. I’ve been on my feet since before dawn.”
“So have I.” Dela giggled. “It feels indulgent, sitting at this time of day. I’m usually bustling around, seeing to the house.”
Sayene’s eyebrows rose. “Surely your servants do that.”
“Servant. We share most of the work, though I’m the one who sees to the more important aspects of the upkeep. An old place like this requires particular attentions, and not everyone is equipped to give them.”
Not that Malan had ever offered to try. She accepted Dela’s help with the cooking and cleaning, but heaven forbid she return the favour in kind.
Sayene plainly didn’t know what to say to that. The books insisted a good hostess never let the conversation lag, so Dela asked, “Do you travel much in your line of work?”
Sayene took a bread pocket. “I’m on the road most weeks. Every now and then, I’ll find a place where they want a musician for an extended run, but most of my employers are just as happy to stick to short contracts. Squeeze a little variety in there, you know?”
Dela didn’t know. “Ah. How long have you been doing it?”
“Hmm… twelve years, I think? You lose track of time when you’re always moving around. You know you were in this town for three days and that one for ten, with about five days’ travel between them, but you never sit down and tally it all up. I don’t, at least.”
“Neither do I. With my own work, I mean; I just do it, and I let time pass however it wants to, and that’s that.”
The moment the words were out, she realized it was an odd thing to say, but Sayene seemed to understand. “What is time, really?” she asked. “Just something to agree on with the next innkeeper or carnival director, in my case.”
Dela had read about inns and carnivals. “You must have been to so many interesting places.”
“And a fair few dives.” Sayene laughed. “I like the carnivals best. They’re a good chance to hobnob with other musicians and learn new songs. Much as I love to play, it’s always a huge relief to hear something I didn’t have to belt out myself. Something I don’t already know down to the very marrow of my bones.”
She felt what she said; and so Dela could feel it, too. Sayene’s deep, passionate love for her music, and for those who made music of their own, seeped from her very pores. Dela ignored the house’s protests and drank it in. It was rich and sweet, and Dela didn’t care what the house might do to her tomorrow if only she could have this moment, here, now.
“Tell me more about the carnivals,” she said. “What happens there, besides music?”
Sayene described a dizzying array of colours and lights, a cacophony of sounds, an enticement of scents. She remembered the last pantomime she’d seen so keenly that Dela remembered it, too. She could see the jesters in their motley, hear the roar of the audience as an acrobat turned a back flip, smell the hot churros from the cart down the lane.
Gods, it was brilliant.
And then Sayene tuned her harp and began to play.
She opened with an instrumental piece; something to draw the crowds in, she explained, and give them a chance to talk amongst themselves before the main act began. Then, when they were ready – when Dela was ready – she sang.
Her first song told the story of a painter who meant to make his fortune in the big city but kept getting derailed by his many love affairs. It was funny and sweet, and Dela had never imagined she could laugh so much.
The house disliked it.
The next was a love song in which two girls found one another after years of painful searching. The house approved, until Sayene arrived at the happy ending.
Finally, she sang a ballad about a woman exiled from the place she loved most, forced to dwell far from her heart’s desire. Dela sobbed. The house sent its pleasure up her neck.
Sayene fell silent. “Thank you,” Dela whispered. “That meant the world to me.”
“I’m glad.” Sayene yawned. “It means the world to me when someone has such a strong reaction to my music.”
“I can’t imagine that’s a rare occurrence, with a talent like yours. But please, don’t let me keep you up. You’re clearly tired after your long walk. Let me show you to a room.”
Sayene stretched. “I didn’t realize it had grown so late. It seems time got away from me; probably to prove a point.”
Dela led the way upstairs. Malan had lit perhaps every second lamp, casting most of the corridor into shadow. “What an atmospheric home you have,” Sayene whispered. “If I wrote a song about this place, it would be a ghost story.” She clearly loved the idea.
Dela liked it herself. The house was ghostly. Had it been merely the setting for a story, she would have adored it deep in her bones.
Sayene saw this place as a wild tale; a small, haunting escape from everyday life. If Dela could harness that belief and merge it with her own, perhaps she could give the house the ultimate gift.
At that thought, the house sent knowledge as well as its familiar, creeping pleasure.
Dela showed Sayene to her own room, rather than one of the frigid guest chambers Malan insisted they keep ready for company that never came. She bid the musician good night and hovered outside, scarcely daring to believe.
Malan came by. “You’re waiting for her dreams,” she said.
Dela nodded. “According to form.”
“Ah. You remember now.”
“It’s like something I heard decades ago. I know they should be nightmares. The house likes those best.”
Malan snorted and carried on to her own chamber.
Sayene’s dreams, when they came, were far from the nightmares Dela herself fed the house each evening. They were elegant, imaginative, fraught with excitement and danger of the most compelling kind. Through Sayene, Dela travelled down a river – another thing she’d read of, but never seen – to a glittering city where dancers performed on every street corner and the gentry strolled about in elegant fashions like those the house occasionally showed her in the nicest gallery. She wore such a gown herself, and thrilled to the loose swish of the silk skirt.
The house grew angry. It demanded Dela find something abhorrent in the dreams, something to hate. She blocked it out as best she could. This place had taken so much from her over the years; it would not take this.
Not from her.
When the dreams slipped away, Dela crept into the room and watched Sayene sleep. The musician looked different already. Her blonde hair had darkened; her face had acquired a few more lines. A quick glance in the mirror proved that Dela’s own face was smoother, her own hair lighter.
This was the one. This was the way.
Dela took Sayene’s pack and harp case downstairs. She fiddled with the instrument for a few minutes, unsuccessful until she thought to explore the connection the house encouraged between herself and Sayene. The songs were there, ready and waiting. Dela stripped them from the other woman and made them her own. The house shivered in delight.
Once she knew she could play, knew she could make her way by means of the strings, she crept back up to her – Sayene’s – bedchamber.
The house knew, now, what she planned. It offered no resistance as she reached deep into the part of herself where the terrible hook lodged. It came away easily for such an old bond. Slowly, so as not to wake the sleeping woman, Dela attached the silent stream to the edge of Sayene’s soul.
She knew it would take. Sayene was too rich a prize for the house to resist.
Downstairs, she stripped away her heavy skirts, her tight corset. Sayene’s clothes were a little too large, but she’d grow into them. The cloak, at least, fit well.
Dela had never been rained on; never walked down a cobbled path; never stood close to a patch of grass, or touched a tree.
She gave the house one last gift on her way out the gate: all her guilt and sorrow at having confined Sayene to a dark and narrow way devoid of music and freedom and life.
About the Author
Memory Scarlett used to live in Auckland, New Zealand, with a tiny cat who thought herself part dog. She currently resides in her hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a tiny dog who thinks he’s a cat. When she’s not writing, she’s usually reading, watching trashy television, testing a new recipe, or wandering the streets of whichever city she happens to be in this week. You can find her on most forms of social media under the username xicanti.