5,300 Words

Every winter, Halla rents the Villa Couloir on the banks of the Ruisseau de Rieu Ferré for its quiet, its darkness. Near the arch of the old stone bridge, it has a view of little else — skeletal trees, the shadow of a ruined windmill, a long road leading someplace Halla will never go.

Groceries are delivered and left by the back door with a note she will place unread in the bread box; over the course of the winter fifteen notes will collect, all on the same paper, all with the same words (thank you, if you need anything else, Michel — and Halla can picture his eyes, so wide and dark in their study of her, as if they cannot turn away). Halla comes to the villa because it is a means of getting away from people, from their incessant needs and unquiet wants. Halla would say one cannot create in bustling environments, but has been told time and again women cannot create, unless it is the bloom of life given from a husband’s body. Halla has no husband; believes she will die alone. Not unloved — Halla is confident she was greatly loved, and sometimes thinks back on these figures, but Halla rarely lingers. They only flit through memory, for each has gone as everyone does. Perhaps they went on to marry, have children, but for her they ceased living the moment she parted ways with them. Lahja will always be on the cusp of the priesthood; Valo will always be poised to ascend the stage.

Every winter, the villa enfolds Halla and welcomes her return. She has been told it is a cold space, that winters spent by the river are cruel, but Halla has been told many things she ignores. She has been told by the landlord not to go into the uppermost bedroom, where the fading paper curls from the walls, so it is always the first place she goes. The room is not cold, despite the snow falling beyond the windows, despite the lack of a fire in its clean and ready hearth. The paper was once gold and holds a hint of summer’s sun yet. She can see no great reason to not enter the room.

From the room’s windows, she can see the villa’s garden; poised in the center of the villa’s walls, it appears to have been designed with winter in mind, for only when the trees shed their leaves can one properly see the labyrinthine pattern of plantings. The bare branches and trunks arch in a tangled canopy over the marble fountain trickling with water yet, a layer of ice encasing the naked woman rising from its center. After the villa’s original owner died, they wrapped the stone in black burlap for a year — Halla can imagine what it was like when her face was at last bared, when full sun fell again on shoulders and breasts.

Halla takes the smallest room as her own — not the uppermost room with its peeling paper, but a room on the north side of the house, where the shadows linger. She does not like the morning sun waking her, no matter that she otherwise appreciates its warmth and light. She will wonder in the coming days at the warmth that creeps from the foot of the bed, infusing her bare feet, her slim thighs. Halla will wonder over the way it feels like sunlight, even as she wakes to a cool, dim room.

She unpacks her few belongings — she has brought clothes of course, and her best woolen coat so she might yet enjoy the garden paths. She has brought her journals, her acrylics, but forgot her canvases propped in her apartment’s entry. Next winter, she will bring them. Brushes, charcoals, and crayons, and the case Valo made of willow wood to enclose them all. There is no room she prefers over another for painting; everyone says how odd, for aren’t artists supposed to favor morning’s clean light? If I were an artist, she says to them, and laughs for too many reasons. Halla has painted one hundred and twenty-one canvasses, several of which have sold for auspicious amounts, three of which reside within a museum, yet no one she crosses paths with knows her name.

Within the villa, there are rooms Halla will not enter, rooms where no light falls. These rooms are fashioned belowground, without windows. They smell of dirt and damp, and every winter they are coldest of all. She cannot bring herself to venture down the steps — there are fourteen, each of sturdy oak, and a muddy bootprint occupies the last four. She does not ask herself how she knows, because she has already pushed the knowledge aside. She will not think on it. Not of the sliver of light that filters down from the half-cocked door, not the way that sliver is swallowed entire when the door closes (the door, it squeaks). The perfect black of those rooms is as a contained scream, something that cannot ever get out, something that cannot ever gallop down the road that leads someplace she will never go.

Within the villa, there are rooms Halla treasures even above the uppermost room. The uppermost room has its delights, but it is not the kitchen with its metal breadbox, nor the conservatory with its fabric-draped piano. If she were judging as an artist, she might say the conservatory has the best light, facing south, made entirely of windows so as to catch every droplet of light it might. It is, she might say, the antithesis of the rooms below, but she knows no words so grand. She studies the windowed walls and knows, the way she knows the dark rooms she cannot think of, the conservatory will not do. She begins on the ground floor, between slender paned windows that spill columns of light in broad stripes down the wood floor.

The wall is twelve feet long, perhaps more. She moves paint-wet hands over the rough plaster, having no idea what she means to make. She watches the shapes that take form beneath her hands, and the way light crosses shadow, to see what she might make of them; she tiptoes to reach higher, then drags a chair, a bureau, and at last kneels upon the uppermost rung of a ladder she retrieved from the pantry as her hands assemble a stormy sky across the wall’s highest edge. She does not recognize the sky at first, only comes see what it is when she has climbed back down, and looks upon it from the floor, her feet bare and cold, paint drying upon her hands: it is the sliver of sky made by the closing door when belowground.

She drenches her hands in black acrylic to erase what she has wrought. The night sky handprints its way over the storm to obliterate it and now when she stands before the wall, she exhales in relief and ease, for the storm is gone. The night sky is clear and pricked with a thousand winter stars. She knows this sky, it is the clear sky framed by the garden’s leafless trees. She patches every bit of gray beneath her blackened hands, until even the floor bears her painted fingerprints, and only then does she think to wash, to eat a meager dinner, and fold herself into bed.

The room fades with consciousness and Halla is no longer in the villa, but the rotting windmill clinging to the river two miles up the long road. She has climbed to the highest chamber of the mill, where a thick post stands in the center and the floor spirals outward in a decomposing fan. There is a window, but it folds inward from its outermost edges, the glass long ago shattered. From the window, she can glimpse the villa — if she leaves a light lit within the kitchen, it is a bright pinprick to mark her way in the darkness, but she extinguished all the lights tonight. Halla is barefoot and bloody-mouthed and dancing in the arms of a creature she cannot name. It moves the way wind moves, quick and unseen, and the room blurs around her, until she can no longer see even the villa’s roofline out the collapsing window.

Unable to see the villa, she closes her eyes, and dances until her limbs are as ice. She clings to the idea of being wheeled in strong arms, spun like sweetest, shining sugar so she cannot tell up from down. She leans in, hopeful of a lover’s kiss, but it is not a kiss that steals past her lips. It is unrelenting winter, biting lips and tongue until Halla would cry out, but winter has stolen her voice, too. She wants to say stop, every line of her body says stop, but she wheels on until her feet are as bloodied as her mouth. The strong hands hold her from every angle, digging. She lifts a hand and searing heat tracks a path across her knuckles.

The room Halla has taken has one window, high and clear, and the cool morning air pouring through its opened panes wakes her. The blankets are rucked to the foot of the bed, and her skin is gooseflesh. She cannot remember opening the window, but balances upon the headboard to close it; the frame is cold, edged with frost that bears the mark of three long fingers having lain there long enough and recently enough to melt the frost and not have it reform. Halla’s entire body twitches as she sets the latch and drops back to the mattress. She stares at the window, brightening as the sun rises in the east, then at last convinces herself to bathe and dress.

In the tub, she finds the bruise on the outside of her left thigh, tender and black as if fresh. She winces to touch it, and by the time she has climbed out, wrapped herself in a towel, and dragged a comb through her hair, has convinced herself it happened as she carried her bags into the villa the day before. Perhaps her willow case, perhaps the easel. The bruise aches the whole day through, a constant reminder even as Halla believes she has set it from her thoughts. When she puts weight on her left leg, it aches deep inside. When she turns to reach for something on a high shelf. When she sits down to her solitary lunch. Unthinking, her fingers slide down to her thigh and press and she winces as if only discovering the wound. Halla balls her hand into a fist, brings it to the tabletop, and thinks backward.

The easel slipped from her hand as she maneuvered it through the slim entry, she tells herself, and as she cleans up her dishes she has nearly convinced herself of an icy front step, the slip of a foot, the way the easel had caught between her leg at the doorframe as she sought to regain her balance. Nearly. Halla turns her bowl upside down on a tea towel and moves for the back door, drawing her woolen coat around her before latching the door behind. The day is too warm to stay inside and she wants to study the tracery of tree branches across the half-frozen fountain.

The shadows look like cracks, and if Halla stares at them overly long, their blackness deepens, as if a new world entire will open within them. She thinks she can see worms tunneling through them and perhaps they are not branches at all, but tracks of earthworms on their way elsewhere. Pressing her fingers to them reveals only shadows — and a red slash across her knuckles. The mark recalls the ache in her thigh and she shifts her weight to her right foot, closing her hand into a fist again. The skin crackles, dry and cold.

Halla shoves her hands into her pockets and wanders the garden path, from the fountain in the center, to the strand of rowan trees at the outmost edge. The trees should have lost their leaves, but within their group there is still one wholly dressed. Halla reaches for it, but sees the broken branch on the nearest tree. She cannot remember it, but fashions a story of how she tore the branch free in haste, how she needed it for her art, how it whipped across her knuckles and —

“Oh! Hello?”

The voice startles Halla so, she takes a stumbling step backward. She was unaware of any property so close that another person could simply wander up into her own garden, but here wanders a woman, a lavender scarf wrapped around her head, tucked into the collar of her own woolen coat. The breeze snaps a silver curl of hair free and the woman tucks it back and laughs. The sound is as startling as her voice; Halla takes another step back.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you, dear — had absolutely no idea anyone was out here this time of year. Are you renting the old place?” Her eyes skip past Halla, to the villa walls, and back again. Eyes that have grown wary. “I — Well. I didn’t think —”

But Halla has already turned away. She refuses to find her own voice and moves with sure steps toward the villa’s rising walls. In the daylight, they are the color of fresh cream, trimmed with a color that calls to mind the copper-bottomed kettles that hang in the kitchen. It is the kitchen she seeks, not turning to see if the woman follows; only once Halla has latched the kitchen door does she look. She peers through the paned glass down the long path that has brought her here and sees no one. She stands for so long that she is aware of how the light changes, how the shadows shift closer to the house. How they close over and keep the rest of the world at a pleasant distance.

Only when Halla is certain she has not been followed does she unbutton her coat. She folds it onto the chair beside the door, and moves toward the dishes, only to find they have been cleared away. The towel drapes the edge of the sink and her bowl is in its place in the cupboard and Halla cannot remember.

This is when she hears the first footstep. The drag of a foot against the front entry, as if someone has kicked the front door. Anger rises sharp in her throat — it is hot and salty as stone, and maybe it is vomit and not anger at all — but Halla freezes, torn between staying and running. It is the old woman, she tells herself. A nosy neighbor who will invite herself to tea, who will discover the painting that —

Halla finds herself in the front room, her leg aching as she stares at the painting begun upon the wall. Where night once closed over the storm clouds, billowing crimson now holds sway; the night has been eaten by a rush of color she cannot expl —

The sound at the door again. Halla turns, putting the painting to her back, backing into the wall that smells fresh, that is still tacky beneath her palms. She counts to one hundred, and one hundred more, then moves for the front door. She pauses in the front hall, long enough to again gauge the way the light moves, the time passes, the sound does not come. At the door, she tiptoes up until she can see out the small peep window, and the porch is empty. The yard is empty. The field beyond is empty to the treeline; the river tumbles just beyond her sight, but nothing moves in the fading daylight, not even her heart.

She tells herself she sleeps perfectly well that night. The doors are locked, the lights are out — she cannot see the pinprick of light from the windmill’s rotting window and that knowledge claws at her. Amid all the darkness, there should be a dot of light, but there is nothing. Halla wheels directionless and her body is opened, studied; she feels the life flowing out of her. Her limbs grow heavy as if with ice, and she cannot shake it, cannot throw the weight off and crawl free. Her voice is once again taken; she fancies it sealed into a box, set upon a high shelf, but the windmill has no shelves that have not already fallen into memory. She reaches, but there is nothing to reclaim.

There is the dance and within its nauseating motion, the memory of the old woman, the way her eyes skittered nervous to the villa walls. The old place. She didn’t think — Didn’t think anyone was there? Only ever me, Halla thinks, and tries to force herself awake, but she is not dreaming and there is nothing to wake from. She is awake, splinters pricking her toes as she climbs down the windmill’s decaying steps. Each step gives with her weight, damp and cold, and snow spits from the black sky when she emerges. The long walk to the villa is silent; she pauses by the line of rowans and rips bare branches free, wondering at the tree that has not shed its leaves.

Over the front door, she weaves a lattice of bare rowan branches. She leans this against the doorframe, closes the door softly, and finds herself in the lowermost room. Darkness enfolds her. Already inside, too late, she thinks, and yet sees her bare foot framed within the muddy bootprint that occupies the last four steps here. Already inside. She steps into each print, until she is upon the floor, until her body is bent and bruised and burned out.

Come morning, Halla’s hands are striped with fresh welts and she cannot remember. She presses her coffee and drinks in the watery light that streams through the kitchen window. She watches the garden and it does not move. There are no footprints through the snow, nor a lattice of branches across her door. She returns to her painting and it is again covered in black, the crimson only the barest thread around its outermost edge. Halla fingers the crimson line and it runs wet beneath her fingertip.

She hears Michel at the back door sometime after noon; she hears him hesitate after he sets the box of groceries down. He always lingers and she pictures his head bent to the door, black lamb’s curls gathering snow because he lingers so long. She pictures his hand pressed to the door’s window, fingers folding into a loose fist to knock, although he never actually knocks. He knows she will say nothing to him, even if she comes to the door. She will take her groceries and his note, and close the door without a word. Michel’s eyes will say everything he wishes her to; if you need anything else, but I need is as unfamiliar to her as the desire for social interaction. What she needs, the villa gives her. Silence, solitude, the space to spread her paint across the walls, though she has permission for no such thing. (I’m letting to an artist, can you imagine, Halla imagines the landlord saying, the old woman clicking her tongue, agreeing artists were trouble, but what could one do when no other would sleep a single night within the villa’s walls?)

She waits for Michel to go and once he has followed his own footprints out of the garden, comes to the door with her hands still wet with paint. She opens the door, fingerprinting the doorknob with chromium oxide green, and brings the box inside. The letter goes into the breadbox along with a fresh loaf; she lines the fingerprinted cans upon the counter, sets the vegetables in the sink, and returns to her work, to find that the green field rioting across the south wall has been covered in gold ochre, that it is burning, plumes of graphite smoke blackening a once-cerulean sky. She leaves the paint, cleaning her hands without taking her eyes from the wall. She does not see the gold ochre wash from her fingers and does not see the graphite that darkens her skirt until she is at the table having dinner. She cannot remember, but imagines that Michel’s note was newly written when he brought it today — perhaps he forgot to write it ahead of time, perhaps he never wrote ahead of time, and only ever balanced paper and pencil against the door’s own window as he wrote. If there is anything you need — if there is anything — and these words smudged onto her fingertips and onto her skirt and this is how it came to be.

Halla washes her dishes and watches the still garden, and soon after bundles herself into her woolen coat, so that she might watch the stars come into the sky. She leaves the light burning low in the kitchen and can see its bright pinprick as she wanders the garden, and this comforts her even though she has not gone far. She does not know why, and laughs at herself — always a child in need of a light. She turns slow circles in the garden until she is vaguely dizzy and the stars are peeking above. She cannot name the stars she sees — she knows no words so grand — but she counts each one until she has lost count, until she stumbles against the edge of the fountain and sits hard. Her breath catches in her throat.

Within the fountain ice, she sees a woman’s face. Her eyes and mouth gape open, fingers splayed against the underside of the ice. Her hair spreads in an ink cloud. It is as if she fell and froze all in the same instant. It is the statue, Halla tells herself, and then sees it is her own face, reflected. She thinks to take this dichotomy inside, to apply this twining effect to her painting, so that a person might see a thing that was at once their own self and something wholly different, to the point of not being understood.

But inside, there is no paint, and Halla cannot find her bed. She stands within the lowermost room and is stripped bare. My coat, she wants to say, but remembers how she wrapped it around the garden statue, how she could not stand to see her coated in ice. Halla stands within the lowermost room, naked, and it is not about her body, but about what it houses, the inextinguishable spark that must reside within her flesh.

She is opened, the seams of her body so well known that it is ritual now. Her forearms where the bones split; the length of her femur, an icicle buried in blood; the path of her stair-step spine. Everywhere she is opened, she aches, and cannot remember — it was the easel, she slipped on ice — long fingers seeking what they never quite find. The thing that makes her create; the thing that feeds her when nothing else does. It is not food; it is not light. It is something within the body entire, something contained, but even when Halla’s womb is split, the long fingers do not find what they seek — even as they themselves place it there. The spark given by the strangeness of the search. Slowly, the fingers piece her back together, mending as best they can, but what is healed is never truly healed; there will be a scar, there shall be an ache.

Morning is unbearable. Halla sits on the side of the bed for long minutes, wondering if she will bleed today, for she feels heavy, as if a hot stone rests within her cunt. She presses her face into her thighs, closes her eyes, but the darkness is repulsive. She throws the blankets back and stumbles to the tub, pushing the thin curtains from the bathroom window, opening the panes to let winter’s chill pour inside as she submerges herself in steaming water. She sits for an hour, adding hot water, waiting for blood. Nothing comes.

She skips breakfast, goes to her paints, and begs them to consume her. She begins fearful, but in the end trusts what she feels inside, what she knows she must do. She does not listen to her body and its hungers, but listens to the thing that is beyond her body — the thing that moves her and floods from her hands. Her mother called it spirit, but only once; her father called it God’s blessing, but only once. Halla calls it necessary.

From the pain that roils inside her, from every wound that claims itself healed, Halla builds worlds upon walls. She sees nothing before she puts hands to plaster; there is no plan within her mind, only a need within her body. From her fingers spill fields and mountains; there come faces and clouds; slowly, dark spaces are pierced by light that never quite gets through. The blackness always eats the light, always whittles the sun to a pinprick, but a point of light nonetheless.

From shaking fingers a windmill rises out of a bloody mouth and folds itself into a black room. Every landscape is riddled with bottomless blacknesses, but a careful path traces between each. If a person were smart enough — she knows no words so grand — a person could navigate their way through the dark, until they reached the constant labyrinth of the garden, to the point where they were reflected in the ice, where they at last found themselves, still and waiting until the season turns, until the ice cracks and bleeds water into the ground.

But the long fingers are not so patient. From every point she has been opened, Halla bleeds into the dirt of the lowermost room, until she thinks that at last she will die, it will cease, and her works will be found — no one will know who came to the villa, no one will know the name of the painter as the spring light traces its way across the walls. Halla bleeds into the dirt, tries to lift her arms, but is pinned in place, a stone upon her tongue. The stone is hot and tastes of salt and across its curved edge, Halla sees briefly the eyes of another (only myself reflected, she thinks). She tries to reach for this person, and cannot move.

In the uppermost room, Halla waits for the other to crawl up her legs. She can feel it crouched at the foot of the bed after having carried her here — this is the story, she was carried, she did not crawl up the stairs, dragging her broken body; she was carried with concern and placed upon the narrow bed even though she hates the sunlight’s waking heat. She waits for the other to move up her legs, up her hips where it will settle and wait in return. She waits, but it does not happen.

When she can rise, she is not willing to place her feet upon the floor. She draws her legs into her chest and wraps her arms around. She peers at the floor, at the darkness that gathers beneath her bed, and understands the space may house a menace of a size that could overwhelm her. The bed is narrow, the darkness is wide, and Halla stares at the sunlight as it fragments through the window, as it spills across her with warm brightness, and she exhales.

At last the sunlight has its way with the darkness and chases it back enough to allow Halla to step from the bed. She thinks the floor and stairs should be dirty with mud and blood, but they are clean, and she shakes off the bad dream as she does any other. Her body aches, but it is a release of pain she seeks now, one she finds with fingers and paints. She climbs upon the top of the china cabinet, stretches herself flat, and anoints the ceiling.

Over the course of the day and into the night, the face she saw in the darkness takes shape and though it is composed of darkness, Halla fingerprints a pinpoint of light within its eye. If there were no light at all, she reasons, she could not see — there must have been light. A light that burned the length of the river; a sliver of sky reaching from the closing door. Halla can taste the salty stone on her tongue, but paints until she is drained of every taste, until the spark of the idea has flown from her and into the walls. Emptied of the idea, she slides to the floor and does not look upon her work.

Halla does not wash the paint from her hands, so when they alight upon the face in the darkness of the longest night, she leaves prints, soft-edged and bright. She fingerprints light onto the darkness and allows the darkness to gaze upon what she has made of it. The darkness howls at the sight of itself, but does not withdraw. It opens her as it ever has. It will not take the longer path between the bottomless blacknesses because it is easier to tear a thing apart than it is to wander. It parts her with fingers and tongue, seeking a thing she cannot explain, a thing it covets.

Halla does not wake, for this is never quite sleep. When at last she rises and washes her hands clean, she cannot recall the dream that held her, but her body aches, is wetly swollen. This sensation has become familiar, is welcomed. It was a good dream that bore beautiful art, and she will leave knowing her season at the villa was not wasted.

She is carrying her easel out the back door when Michel arrives. He is not carrying a box of groceries, only a small folded piece of paper between his long fingers. He stops at the sight of her, startled she would be there, that she would not wait for him to go. But his expression has not changed, his eyes so wide and dark in their study of her, as if they cannot turn away. Halla thinks she fingerprinted light into those eyes, knows his face graces the villa’s ceiling, but tells herself she is mistaken.

Michel closes the space between them, offering the note, and Halla takes it, but as with the others does not read it. It is pretense only, a way to explain what cannot otherwise be explained. She did not come for social interaction any more than Michel came for groceries. He turns without a word — Halla already knows what he sounds like when he howls. Knows precisely how his long fingers open her skin, searching for a thing he does not himself possess. He walks up the long road to the windmill and will only return to gobble the paint from the walls once she has truly gone. She will take the path around the house, to the cab that will carry her home. Next winter, Halla thinks, I will bring canvas.

Every winter, Halla rents the Villa Couloir on the banks of the Ruisseau de Rieu Ferré for its quiet, its darkness. Near the arch of the old stone bridge, it has a view of little else — skeletal trees, the shadow of a ruined windmill, a long road leading someplace Halla will never go.

Catherine Tobler has never slept in a haunted French villa — but you should ask her about the haunted house near her childhood home sometime. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Sturgeon Award ballot. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.

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