The last chime of the clock struck the tenth hour when Jean slowly and carefully eased from his room down the steps of the old house. For a short while, it felt like this hour would never come. Time seemed to work just as strange as everything else in this house and at some point, he even felt like it might be running backwards. It was a better fate than if he’d tried to stay down with the adults for too long. Jean had never been that good at hiding his excitement and he knew that his parents would have grown suspicious to see him getting more and more anxious as the time wore on. He’d excused himself from the table early from dinner and even feigned that he was too tired to bother with his grandmother’s gift, preferring to wait until tomorrow morning. His parents accepted that the trip had been a bit much for him and allowed him the privacy to sit and wait while they settled in. The light beneath their bedroom door had been dark for nearly half an hour when the clock finally hit ten. The sound of the ominous chime breaking the otherwise eerie silence made him wince in anticipation of the sound of footsteps. Surely they would be awake tonight and waiting to hear. Waiting to take this tale away from him. But no. As soon as the sound had faded, there was silence again, save for the soft noise of his feet lightly moving across the floorboards down towards the stairs and down to the sitting room on the first floor.
The anxiety that he kept him feeling caged and maddened in his room was fading to an almost fearful caution now. The darkness of the hall was broken up by large windows that allowed the small amount of light from outside to filter in and guide his way. Still, a kind of pall hung in the quiet and he wondered if he was truly alone. If perhaps Grandmother had simply been toying with him and he would wander down to an empty room. He did not much like the prospect of this. For one, without a fire going in these large rooms, especially one like the sitting room, became dreadfully frigid. Even as he was walking now, he could feel his nose becoming colder and he forced himself not to sniffle to try to remain as quiet as possible. The air was chilled with the kind of edge that made it feel like one of the windows must be open somewhere. He wondered idly if one had broken amid the raging storm. Surely that must be why it was so cold but no. It was simply the pockets of air that always seemed to remain trapped within those frozen unforgiving walls. Quickly, he made his way down the darkened staircase to the first floor and found it just as chilly. The whole of the house was dark and quiet save for the howling wind outside battering the poor windows. Jean felt his courage dwindling as he moved through the shadowed side hall towards the library. He knew he would have to pass through that collection of shelves before he would be able to make his way to the other side of the room. There would be doorway to the wide hallway that led from the front entrance to the sitting room. As he moved quickly through the short passage from the stairway landing, he swore that time seemed to play with him as it seemed to take much too long to move in the dark. When he finally came upon the doorway to the library, he saw dull light reflecting on the shelves closest to where the door that led to the main hall. Forgetting caution for a moment and letting his curiosity guide him, Jean came close to where he saw the light and it only seemed to get brighter. He was quickly reassured when he reached the opening on the other side of the library and saw that the light spilling down the corridor was from the sitting room. Grandmother would keep her promise.
Before moving forward, Jean paused. He looked back over the shadowy room he’d just passed through. While in the darkened hallway, he’d been dreading this but he’d moved through it so quickly, he hadn’t had a chance to stand still and really worry about it. The room was gloomy, though. Even with the light in sight, he could see now that the sense of darkness seemed to gather here. There were long shadows and any manner of imaginary foes to hide in those crevices. Waiting for him to take notice of them.
“Mind them not, child,” his grandmother’s calm voice said from the sitting room. “Hurry along now. It is getting late.”
With a final glance back at the room, Jean allowed himself to move forward towards the light. He was relieved that the sitting room had a large, roaring fire that seemed to warm even the furthest reaches of the corners. He rubbed his shoulders absently as he approached the fire place. There was a chair placed before it casting a long shadow that looked like it had horns at the top.
“Grandmother?” he said quietly. Jean shuddered in spite of the warmth and approached cautiously. He came to the edge of the chair and looked around it, to see his grandmother sitting, staring placidly. Her eyes looked him over.
“Sit down, darling,” she said, looking back at the large flames before them. “These are tales that will not do to stand during them. These are the kinds of tales that long nights were made for.”
“Grandmother, what did you mean to mind them not? Who are they?” he said, pulling up a small chair to bask in the firelight. He curled up in it and waited as she sighed.
“They will tell you themselves one day,” she said, a faint frown on her lips. It turned to a small smile. “Perhaps one of them will speak tonight. They are restless after all. It is the darkest part of the year now. The true beginning of winter.”
“But it’s been snowing for weeks already, Grandmother,” he protested. “It started in the city a week after Halloween. Mom said it started here even before!”
“Ah but that’s just the weather, my darling,” she sighed, her eyes far away as she looked deeper into the light. “Just the last symptoms of a dying season. True winter does not actually start until the longest night of the year comes to pass. When the shadows become deeper and all those things that hide from the sun come to gather here amid the trees. Come to seek out the house in the forest to keep him company during his long nights when he searches and searches but never finds. Do you know the one whom I speak of?”
“The man who built the mansion,” the boy said with reverence. “He was a crazy old man who built spirals to nowhere. He kept building and building, they say.”
“He was not crazy, child,” his grandmother tutted. She sighed, looking down. “He was not always old either. In the spring of his life, he’d once been a young man who came here to build a fortress where no one would ever find him. A place to hide from those who had once come to hurt him. They tried and they did hurt him badly but they could not take him away from his precious prison that he’d built for himself. When he was sure the world had all but left him to his silence and his solitude, it was not the world that found him but love. A love that blessed him with a family that he adored with all his heart. A love that would haunt him for the rest of his life. If he was ever truly crazy, it was simply the doing of a heart that belonged to those that he could not stand to be parted from.”
“Love doesn’t sound like such a bad thing to be haunted by,” Jean said. He hushed when he saw the look on his grandmother’s face.
“It can kill when it is wild,” she said, her eyes flashing darkly. “Just like the fire, it is. And just like fire, sometimes what it creates leaves whispers of what it was behind. Like the smell of burnt wax where the flame has sputtered out. Like the last wisps of smoke that rise from dead embers in the fireplace. Like the ashes smeared on the snow outside. Love can be like all of these things, child. It was this kind of love that found its way into his heart and it was this same love that tormented him into building more and more into that house. It needed far more room.”
“For the ghosts?”
“No, darling,” she shook her head. “They came later. Much later when the lights went out at last and let the shadows take the township.”
“Was it his ghost that told you this story, Grandmother?”
“No, darling,” she frowned, the lines in her face deeper in the firelight now. “No, this is one tragic tale that I know quite well. I saw the day the lights went out. I was there to see when the house he built turned into the nightmare that it was. But that is a much longer story. One that I think we must save for a different time.”
“Oh please tell me more, Grandmother,” Jean begged. “Mom and Dad won’t tell me anything and they pretend the house doesn’t exist. They won’t let me find out anything and I promise I won’t go there.”
“They’re simply being parents, child,” she laughed warmly. She sighed. “They do what all parents try to do. Protecting you from the things that go bump in the night. It is something you’ll thank them for eventually when you understand it better but you must understand this: I tell you all these things because I know, as I always have, that you will see the house.”
“When?” he said, struggling to keep his voice down as he thought excitedly about the possibilities.
“In time and not soon,” his grandmother hushed him. “Before you ask why, believe me it’s for the best. You are not ready to see such sights yet and if we can keep you from the hurt it will bring, we will. But you will see it. I know in my heart, as I always know, it will call you when it is your turn to go. When you do go, you must know what it is you will find. What is the part that calls you.”
“There’s no way to get up there, though,” he said, timidly. Suddenly the mansion sounded vaguely threatening and like something that he was less interested in for the moment. It would pass and even he knew that but at that moment, it felt less like the tantalizing treasure that he’d always seen it as and more like entering a movie theatre to a film he knew would be too scary for him.
“Never you mind that now, child,” she said, dismissively. She settled back into the chair and looked over the fire with calm eyes. “Let us leave the ghost of the man of the house alone. He will tell his own story to you eventually but tonight, I promised you another one. Tonight, I will tell you of the lights.”
“You said they were bad luck,” he said, thinking back. Jean would never admit it but he was relieved to be leaving the story about the mansion alone for now.
“Indeed they are,” she nodded. “You see, darling, there was once much more to that place in the forest where the mansion sits now. Once, there was an old woman who lived there and she watched over the small houses from that perch. She was someone they trusted but people out here have a bad habit. After a while, the shadows in the woods get to them and they get scared easily. They get jealous too. They get rotten ideas and those ideas just make the shadows they’re so scared of get bigger. More hungry.”
Jean let his eyes stray from the fire and looked behind him at the shadowy doorway that he’d come in through. Beyond there was the hallway and somewhere in that darker place was the library in all its rotten gloom. He didn’t need to have Grandmother tell him that the shadows could get bigger. He saw these things. He felt them too. How cold they were. How they watched.
“That’s a look I know,” she said with a smile, looking at him as he glanced back at the warmth. “The look of someone who’s seen them. Those ghastly shadows when they rise and they begin to whisper. They’ve always whispered here but these people, they do such strange things, thinking it will silence them. It never works.”
“It makes them louder,” Jean said, quietly. His grandmother nodded knowingly. “Grandmother, what happens if they get too loud? How do you make them quiet?”
“That’s the rub of it all, my poor darling,” she sighed. “The only way to make them quiet again is to listen. To truly hear them in what they tell you and, when the time is right, make sure you tell their story to those who did not hear it. Those who need to hear it as you need to hear these tales, child. You are young and the shadows know that there is only so much they can say. There is much for you to learn yet but that doesn’t stop them from hungering. From testing to see how much they might yet tell you when the sun goes down. They are eager.”
“But why me, Grandmother?” he said, shrinking into the seat. The city felt a million miles away and he wished very badly to be beneath the modern lights of that urban space. “They don’t know me. Why should they want to?”
“Ah but they do want to, child,” she said, looking up as if to the heavens. “Believe me when I say, this is something that does not happen to everyone here. Be grateful that you might hear these now. Some are never so lucky as to know what haunts them. And this is why you listen now. Hear me well and know the reason why those lights shall never string in this house or any in the county. Know and learn why the shadows are waiting for you. Why they hunger for your attention so.”