The Gilt Box
Torsia might have felt jealous no-one could have blamed her. But instead she became his willing slave. She found she could begrudge him nothing, least of all her love. So they had shared almost everything a mutually satisfying alliance between the beautiful Simian and his little shadow sister, with the long, dark hair and the pale face she had never felt was quite pretty enough.
She couldn’t remember when it had started, but it was the same every year. As Christmas Eve approached Simian would become withdrawn and quiet, then by degrees restless. At first she had tried to find out what was wrong, only giving up when he became angry with her.
He did not, it seemed, want to share his secret.
Then the wandering would begin. He would disappear, often for hours, only returning in the early hours paler but happier, more like the brother she knew and loved.
At first she had been too small to follow him, only just reaching the end of the lane in time to watch him tantalisingly disappear into the quiet darkness of the woods.
That was until her tenth year, when the river froze and the snow came early. That year she crept out behind him following him through the woods and up the lonely hillside.
It was darker than she’d expected and when the moon disappeared she was plunged into almost complete blackness, the feeble light of her small torch, doing little more than to show a few feet in front of her.
Looking back at the valley she could see the coloured lights swathed around the village square, somehow comforting in their familiarity.
The snow was thick and heavy going. Simian’s footprints showed a dark trail. She shivered as the cold crept down her sleeves and into the gaps in her clothes.
Simian looked at the old dark house. It seemed to bend closer sagging a little more at the seams. Inside he remembered it would smell damp and lonely but for the faint aroma of cinnamon and dried lavender.
He clambered over huge frozen boulders, fringed with wild figures of trees, wearing stiff white coats.
A twig snapped behind him and Torsia pulled herself through the hedge. She let out a low whistle as she caught sight of him in the moonlight.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed, pulling a face and turning away.
“I was worried about you.” her voice faltered
“Well I’m fine, so you can go right back.”
“Oh don’t be like that, what are you doing up here, all alone in the dark?”
In spite of himself he looked up across the white garden to where the straggling monkey-puzzle tree leered and waved bony arms, a pale ghost against the heavy sky. And glowing in the pale moonlight; there looking somehow more real against their newly whitened world, were the statues; just as they had always been.
He knew each one by name. Their vacant stare regarded him impassionedly. Floorless skin that would never age, each a child crafted so convincingly that but for the fluid whiteness of their skin might seem only to have paused in the games they had played throughout past centuries.
Followed his gaze, she felt herself shiver, she didn’t like to admit it but the whole place gave her the creeps.
“Get lost!” he threw the words at her, then set off up the uneven slippery path.
“I’ll tell mum!”
He glanced back, his face full of anger then carried on towards the house.
“I didn’t mean it, don’t go, there could be anyone hiding in there.”
The moon shifted from behind a black cloud and an eerie light flooded the garden. She watched him push open the heavy door and disappear. Torsia stood mesmerised; her breath floating in the dark air for a few seconds, then stumbled up the path catching her hand on something sharp and cold.
“Simian”, she whispered pausing in the doorway. The hall lit up as the clouds gave way again. The door shifted a little, thudding against its frame.
“Simian” she heaved the door too and stood in the darkness, something scuttled across the floor. Something small and hairy probably, but too small to hurt her, then footsteps above her, she put her foot on the bottom stair.
“Simian is that you?”
She took another step. The boards were loose she clung to the rail unsteadily “It might be dangerous, the floor I mean. Come on Simmi, talk to me I’m….”
Pausing in the darkness, her feet felt numb and difficult to manoeuvre. She blew on her hands, trying to regain feeling in them, so she could grip the torch. In its beam the landing looked solid enough. She inched along it.
Several doors seemed to lead off uninvitingly into different rooms. For a moment she thought she saw something, a shadow perhaps. Then just for a few seconds an intense feeling of misery enveloped her. She reasoned with herself, ‘it was the darkness’. Stealing herself to examine them coolly, objectively, she continued ‘It’s just an empty old house’.
The doorway did not answer her, it merely shifted in its frame, a dark forbidding hole.
But from the furthest a strange light radiated, a warm flickering that crept out onto the surrounding walls.
A cold fist of air glanced off her cheek sending a strange prickling sensation racing through her limbs. Reeling she almost fell, staggering into the room, catching at the walls as she was propelled forward. Then there was the sound of a small child laughing.
The room was intensely warm and she had landed on a soft rug. Drawing her knees up, she rose unsteadily to her feet.
“Simmi”, she whispered, but he didn’t seem to hear her.
In one corner of the room was a large fur tree, a young woman perhaps a year or so older than Simian, was hanging coloured paper lanterns on its boughs. A small girl kept pulling things from a small packing case and showing them to Simian, who chatted playfully with her. Another child knelt on the floor playing with a painted train and humming softly to himself. None of them seemed aware of her presence several times glancing back in her direction, yet staring right through her. Their clothes were strange too, the women’s skirt was long and wide sweeping the floor when she moved so gracefully she almost floated along it. The children might have been dressed for some kind of party except there was something else about them, a wistful sadness; Torsia could feel it rather than see it.
The little girl handed a china angel to Simian and he placed it on the uppermost branch of the tree then bent and whispered something to her. Torsia began to feel impossibly warm and light headed.
Simian she realised also looked strange; he had on a long coat unlike anything she’d seen before. His black boots were shiny and new showing no signs of the snow he’d just walked through and why was he wearing that stiff white shirt? Torsia’s eyes blurred she couldn’t concentrate properly, why was it so hard to breathe?
Simian reached into his pocket. The small girl giggled, somehow it sounded as if it echoed distantly in the hall. From his pocket Simian lifted a small gilt box. Kneeling down he lifted the catch.
Torsia’s head began to swim, she wanted so badly to see but the room suddenly went dark. She felt a rush of icy air like a weight upon her chest crushing all the breath out of her.
“Simian”, she screamed “Simmi”.
For a moment she couldn’t collect her thoughts, daylight was streaming into the room, an unfamiliar room with yellow roses on the wall and a small fire burning in the grate. She was warm lying in the vast bed but there was a strange smell she couldn’t quite place.
She struggled to sit and realised she was not alone. Sitting on the bed with his hands covering his face was Simian.
The door opened a fraction and into the room walked the small girl; in her hand was the gilt box.
“He said you wouldn’t come but you did”, she said smiling happily.
Torsia looked confused and the child continued “He said we’d lost you forever but I knew you’d come” the smell intensified suddenly she remembered cinnamon, cinnamon and dried lavender. Why was it so hot? The child opened the box inside was a photo, slightly torn and browning with age. It was almost impossible to see at first but in her hands the image flickered and intensified.
Surrounded by small children a young couple stared back at her; a woman in a wide dark skirt and a young man, tall with light coloured hair and dark eyes.
“Simmi” she whispered.
He turned towards her his eyes were sad but he smiled his beautiful smile “I tried so hard this time”, he said simply, almost apologetically “but I knew you would come in the end”.
The photo fell from her hands, faded and torn, all except for one figure, more substantial than the rest. This child stood at the very front of the photo. She was a girl with long dark hair and a pale face, a face she had never thought quite pretty enough.
Outside the snow fell covering the last of the footprints. Now only the dark house was left to brood in its heavy white cloak. Silence fell with the snow, cold as the face of the woman in the dark dress. Pale as the slim hands, that chipped with a fine silver chisel, searching its contours for the child within.