approx 2800 words, ~23 min read time
In the spring she calls to me.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?” she calls.
She doesn’t call me Jackie all the time. But always in the spring.
In the spring she calls. “Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?”
And immediately I answer back. “Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy.”
She isn’t my mother. But when she calls, I answer. “I’m here, Mommy.”
The house becomes quiet, as it always is now, and I go back to whatever it was I was doing. Cleaning, usually. She seems to like to call when I’m cleaning. This spring, I was dusting the delicate hands of the grandfather clock. The hands and the pendulum, and the inside of the great oak case with the tiny little gears that click and spin and shine when they are polished.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?” she calls, her voice old and cracked in the empty parlor.
My name isn’t Jackie. I’ve lived in this house alone for many years. I don’t know who Mommy is, or where she is. The first time I heard her call was when I was just twenty-three.
Back then, the house was not empty. Back then there was my wife, and there was my baby, and there was always laughter in the hallways—not quiet, the way it is now. There was laughter, and music, and making love in the parlor as the baby slept upstairs. We had guests who would stay, and guests who would not. The old house loved guests, so we dedicated two rooms for them on the third floor, looking out over the rolling hills. They would come, and they would stay, and we would all laugh while eating savory meats and delicious cheeses, delivered fresh from all over the world.
I never worked in those days, and I never cleaned. We had people for that, and they would arrive at nine every morning, and depart every day at five. I never knew their names.
Except for Chester.
Chester stayed in the servants’ quarters down the hill, and he never left the property. I’m sure Chester knew all the servants’ names, but that wasn’t my concern. My concern was only our guests, and they usually arrived at six-thirty.
Chester never worked after five pm. After all, we weren’t monsters. Not back then.
So, there was my wife, and our baby. And our guests.
We first met the French couple in August of 1912, and they came to stay with us the following year. They had corresponded with us for months. “Come to the country,” we would write on perfumed stationery. “Stay! We’d love to have you! You can have the blue guest room at the top of the stairs. From there, you can see the spires of the city, past the green rolling hills. It’s lovely…”
Like many others, the French couple came. Like many others, they stayed. All that summer, we would laugh and play cards in the evening, and during the day we would wander the grounds and play music on the phonograph.
I would dally with the French wife in the garden, my hands exploring beneath her many layers of petticoats and lace. And my wife would take the lady’s husband on long walks in the woods. And all four of us would come back with leaves in our hair.
At night, my wife and I would laugh and tell stories in our bedchamber, and I’d smell him on her, where he touched her. And she would smell the French wife on me, on my fingers, and on my loins. And we would laugh and make love again with the baby sleeping soundly in her crib in the nursery nearby, and the sounds of the French couple whispering and twittering behind their locked door upstairs.
In the morning, Chester would discreetly launder any undergarments left outdoors, and return them to the enormous wardrobes that graced every room, with their sweeping filigree and cherubs adorning the crowns.
Despite the rising tensions across the Channel, the French couple returned the following summer. It was the great year of 1914. And it would be that summer when I would first hear Mommy calling to me.
I will never forget that first time. I had risen early, and none of the servants had yet arrived for the day. Chester was out in the garden, pruning roses in the morning mist, and the house was quiet as I measured out the imported Ceylon tea and put the water to boil.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?” she called.
“Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy,” I said instantly. My hand was frozen on the silver tea scoop and the morning sun was arching through the window. Minute particles of dust danced in its light.
I don’t recall how long I stood there, frozen. I knew at once that it was not the voice of my wife. I knew at once it wasn’t the voice of our French lady friend. This voice was old and cracked and seemed out of place in our gay and happy home.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?” it had said.
“Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy.” I had replied.
My name is not Jackie. She is not my mother.
The scoop had trembled, tea leaves scattering across the white marble counter like black stars. Constellations of stars. My eyes watered, looking at them.
“Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy,” I had replied. But I am not Jackie. She is not my mother. And I do not know her.
And then I heard the Frenchman upstairs screaming.
Even then, I remained frozen for several seconds, straining my ears for that crackling old voice, before finally dropping the scoop of tea in the sink and rushing for the stairs.
Chester was coming through the door at almost the same instant, and we nearly collided in a heap on the landing. Neither of us spoke as we bolted up the stairs. I passed the master bedroom and saw my wife sitting up, clutching the bedclothes to her throat. The shrieking continued, resonant with terror and despair, until the house seemed to overflow with it. Every room filled with the screaming, pouring out of the open windows, and running through the yards and gardens in rivulets. In the nursery, our baby began to cry.
I rounded the corner and launched myself up the second set of stairs, with their hand-carved balusters and ivy.
The Frenchman stood on the guest bed, naked as the dawn. His wife cowered in the corner, terrified, but apparently unharmed. The veins stood out in the Frenchman’s neck, and his eyes were wild and terrible. His arms reached out and clawed at something invisible in the air in front of him, and he screamed. And he screamed, and he screamed.
I caught one arm, Chester caught the other, and the screaming stopped. The Frenchman collapsed onto the bed. He laid silent for a moment, and then the weeping started.
It was their last visit.
The French couple left that afternoon. Nobody could say what had happened. But they left, and from that day, the house felt less gay. The silences, no longer comforting. The guests, fewer and farther between. The lights in the windows, no longer inviting us all to dance. The music, muted and distorted. Shadows seemed darker, and we could not dispel them, no matter how many lamps we used, or how many electric lights we installed.
The servants came, did their work, and left wringing their hands.
They came and worked. Until they stopped coming, and Chester had to hire new ones.
Our baby, our dear Mollie Bee, died later that year. Just as the leaves were beginning to fall from the trees.
There were no guests in our home the day Mollie Bee died. We had tried to entertain guests earlier in the summer, in those days after the French couple departed. But our home always seemed darker and damper than we liked, and no matter how the servants beat the curtains, or washed the shimmering glass in the vaulted ceilings, the gloom could not be dispelled. We had guests, but they didn’t stay. They would suffer through a day in the dreary and damp rooms, and then suddenly receive a telegram that they had an emergency at home, or a forgotten appointment for a malady they had never thought to mention.
By the time little Mollie Bee died, the guests no longer came at all. And by then, of course, the war had started, and letters from the continent dwindled and finally stopped.
But poor Mollie Bee, who had not yet turned two, seemed to feel the house’s affliction more than even the guests or the servants. And as the summer stumbled and came to its knees, her little heart could no longer bear the dank sadness that had invaded our lives.
Chester wrapped her in her favorite pink blanket, the one with the elephants dancing to and fro. He buried her on the hillside above the orchard, under a beautiful oak that we had visited with her often. He buried her alone. The gardener had left in the night the week prior, and no one had answered our ad for a new one. He buried her alone, because we could not bear to watch.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?” the voice called to me, as I sat in the parlor that evening, listening to the distant sounds of my wife sobbing.
“Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy,” I said, the hum of my own voice unfamiliar to my ears. The fire shimmered, with sounds so muted and colors so dull, it seemed like a silent picture show in our fireplace. My wife was standing in the doorway, I recall. I believe I recall. And I know she was speaking. But I couldn’t hear her voice, and she looked unfamiliar to me, like one of the guests that used to wander the hallways after dark, but who had now forgotten their way back to their room.
I heard my voice, but couldn’t make out the words. And Chester placed a warm blanket on my lap.
The next morning, my wife had gone. There was no note, but the master wardrobe was open and some of our best linen was missing. For the first few days, I thought perhaps she had gone to visit her mother, or just gone to town for some champagne and chocolates. More than once, in those first days, I thought of asking Chester if he knew where she had gone. But each time I thought of it, I no longer felt it was important enough to mention. After all, he had newly washed napkins to fold, and he always polished the silverware each year before the winters came.
I don’t know when I first noticed that Chester was no longer in our employ. Or, perhaps, in my employ. I had left his wages on the kitchen table one day in the midwinter. But the next Tuesday, I noticed the little stack of bills was still there. I left another week’s wages next to it, in its own tidy stack. But those too were still there the following week. And as the snows deepened, I marveled at the unbroken whiteness of the landscape. Each day, I’d look for tracks of the squirrels in the freshly fallen snow, but they too seem to have fled.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?” Mommy called again, early in the spring, before the last snow was off the ground. I was making another neat pile of bills on the crowded kitchen table when I heard her voice.
“Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy,” I said, and finished stacking the last of the banknotes.
Standing in the window of the Blue Room, I wondered how the war was going. I seemed to recall there was a war. But perhaps I was mistaken.
By the following fall, I had counted out the last of the money from the safe upstairs. Chester’s weekly wages now covered the table from one end to the other, in over fifty small piles, each with a scrap of paper on top, giving the amount and the dates. The piles for the new year each had an extra bill, since I’d promised Chester a raise. And there was a special pile I had made next to his wages for Christmas week. The note on top said, “Buy something special for your mother, who I know you love dearly.”
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?”
“Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy.”
That was the year I started cleaning. I didn’t want the place to be a mess when Chester came back. And I knew Mommy liked things to be clean and tidy. So I would dust the dishes in the hutch, and then dust the hutch. I would sweep the carpets and polish the silverware again, even though it wasn’t yet the fall. I would mend the tears in the drapes, then wash them by hand in the sink, and dry them over the balconies on sunny days. And yet the more I cleaned, the mustier the house smelled. I blamed it on the war. Grandfather had been in the Boer war, and he told me nothing ever smelled right to him afterward.
Maybe one day this new war would be over, and the house would smell better. Maybe then my wife would return, and Chester would be back to pick up his wages, and refold all the linens, since he knew how to do it so much better than I.
It had been more than two years since dear Mollie Bee had died, and I couldn’t remember where Chester had buried her. I was sure he had found a special place. Chester was always kind and thoughtful that way. Wherever she was, I knew that she was resting peacefully, surrounded by nature’s beauty. But the harder I thought, the less I could remember.
Chester knew. I’d just ask Chester.
I walked about the house for a day, calling to him, before I remembered that he had been gone for well over a year.
But perhaps he had just overslept. It would be unlike Chester to do that. He was always so punctual. He always showed up at exactly 9:00, coming up the path from the servants’ quarters to the main house. And he always left at precisely 5:00, to give us privacy with our guests. Chester was always so thoughtful. And we didn’t want him to work past five. After all, we weren’t monsters.
As I left the front door of the house, I realized I hadn’t been outside in quite some time. The wooden stairs to the porch had rotted away over the winter, and with my first step they gave way, depositing me roughly on the overgrown lawn.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?”
“Yes, Mommy. I’m here, Mommy.”
I walked down the path to the servants’ quarters. There was a question I wanted to ask Chester, but I couldn’t recall what it was. Perhaps I would remember when I got there.
The servants’ quarters were dark and musty, even darker and mustier than the house. I promised myself I’d bring my cleaning supplies down later in the day and give it a good going over. The door hung open on its hinges, and the room beyond was so dark, and so cold. I recalled that there was a reason I had come down here, but I couldn’t remember what it was now. I stepped into the small room, and my eyes adjusted to the gloom.
Yes, much mustier here. This place could certainly use a good cleaning.
Chester was curled up on the couch, pools of blood on the fabric and the floor, long since ripened from red to black.
I didn’t realize he had such a nice couch, I thought. In fact, I couldn’t recall ever visiting him here in the servants’ quarters. He had been dead for a very long time. I only recognized him by his carefully starched shirt and blue bow tie. In his lap was a medal in a dusty frame, with a card underneath. The words were barely visible through all the blood as I leaned close.
“For exemplary valor and bravery in the Boer War,” the inscription read, “His Majesty awards Jack Chester Stevens this, the Victoria Cross.”
Chester, I thought. Jack Chester Stevens. Jackie.
On the floor at his feet were three bundles, wrapped in dank and stained blankets. One was tiny, and something about the pink elephants looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. The second bundle was larger, and a delicate hand with a familiar ring had slipped between the folds of what looked like some of our best linen.
“That’s a shame,” I said. “I’ll never get that clean.”
The third bundle was lumpy and misshapen and looked very old. The blanket was moldy and rotted away in places. And unlike the others, there were feet sticking out of one end. The shoes were shiny and bright. Orthopedic shoes. Old woman shoes, I thought.
“Oh Jackie? Dear Jackie?” a voice said.
“Yes, Mommy,” I said to the bundles on the floor.
“I’m here, Mommy,” I said to the fetid room.
And went back to the house to get my mop.
Wess Mongo Jolley is a Montreal novelist, editor, podcaster, poet, and poetry promoter; and is best-known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel for more than ten years. His work has appeared in journals such as Off the Coast, PANK, Danse Macabre, The Chamber Magazine, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, RFD, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. His supernatural horror trilogy, The Last Handful of Clover, is currently being released serially on Patreon, Wattpad, QSaltLake, and as an audiobook podcast. Check him out at http://wessmongojolley.com.