Bénédiction House

By MF Macpherson


In Bénédiction, Honora's mother permitted no season other than spring. She flitted from room to room in pale silk and creamy lace, with her apple blossom cheeks and daffodil hair above and butterfly hands below.

"We must never complain," she said when Honora brought up—again—the smell in her rooms. "It is an absolute crime when a woman nags. Make the best of it, darling, and you will always have the best."

And Honora tried, she very much did, to follow Mother's advice. Her great ambition was to be Mother when she grew up, to go to balls and wear bright jewelry and, if she could manage it, to be married to Father (how they had laughed when she said this as a child of three! But even yet she was not entirely convinced it was impossible). She dearly liked to laugh and be noisy, however, and for this reason Mother had requested her rooms be placed as far away from the other living quarters as possible.

Honora did not have a nurse. Or rather, she was between nurses, as she had heard her mother say when a nosy neighbor asked. It was another lesson in making the best of a situation, she supposed, as Honora knew very well no one wanted to live in Bénédiction. The most recent nurse was a little island girl named Clemence, who was scarcely older than Honora herself and had told her lurid stories before she fled one night, taking half Honora's dolls with her.

"The man who own the plantation before your papa, yes, he name Monsieur Frederick. He family own this place so long, God a little boy," Clemence said. She spoke with her brown hands like Mother did. "After the war, he know he can't have Bénédiction and he hang in tree right so big. They say he slave run away, but she my mama sister. Tantaw Felice she have a baby, she would not leave. She in hell with him."

Honora loved the story all the more because she knew it was true, although she didn't believe Clemence's claim that it was the disappeared slaves' curse that was responsible for the awful smell in her rooms. She preferred fact to fiction, and Beauregard Frederick's story was factual enough for her. He was not the first and would not be the last plantation owner to return from the battlefield and pass on, as the ladies delicately put it, from shame. Such stories entertained her when she discovered the boys and girls around Bénédiction did not want to play with her.

"They call you papa, he scum," Clemence told her the night before she scampered off. "Money he love, like God."

Mother never let her near the little boys who spat at them when they rode to church, but a girl in her Sunday bible study did the same and Honora slapped her. She did not know how anybody could blame her father for the war when he had not even participated in it. He was terribly consumptive, Mother always said, and he should certainly have gone if he could have, but someone had to keep the banks running, wasn't that so?

Bénédiction House was rather boring without playmates. When they had first come from Boston it was exciting, of course—reacquainting herself with all the toys she hadn't seen for so many weeks they were almost like new again; fresh wallpaper in every room, including the soft blue in Honora's; all the doors that led to surprise rooms. There was never much space in the house in Boston, as pretty as it had been, and she loved to hear Father's happy baritone and Mother's sweeter, higher voice in the high-ceilinged ballroom when all their friends came to sing and chatter. Still, after only a short time it grew very ordinary.

*

In September, Mother and Father threw a ball and invited all the families who had moved to St Lazarus Parish ahead of them. There were twelve, and Honora disliked all of them with varying levels of intensity. The Henry Crandalls she hated least, because although Mother said they were low and Mrs. Henry Crandall had a horrible piercing laugh, they always brought her favorite cordial and when they did, Mother would have Cook make ice cream to pour the cordial over. The David Andersons she hated most, because she had once overheard Mr. Anderson call Mother a showy, relentless piece of work. The rest of the guests had revealed themselves to be ignorant and ridiculous while visiting the Winthrop family in their Boston home, but Mother said, "They're hardly ideal, but I don't think we can afford to be picky at the moment."

And so Mother reigned over the room like a queen, drooping gracefully here and there over a flower arrangement or a chair out of place and giving everybody a bit of her attention. There were never any children at balls. Honora was banished to her rooms to play alone, but she knew where all the hidey-holes were now and had found the best one. It led from the east side of the kitchens, where Cook never went unless she needed lard, to the east side of the white ballroom. She grabbed half a dozen cakes while Cook wasn't looking and squeezed herself through the crawl space until she reached a little door just behind the tables. She settled herself in comfortably and waited for the guests to talk.

She didn't have to wait long; Mrs. James Powell and Mrs. James Bannister took their seats, fanning themselves furiously after the Schottische, and Mrs. James Powell leaned in and said breathlessly, "We're giving a ball the third week of October. I'm not certain we'll invite them."

Honora sat up straight and listened.

"Oh, we were wondering the same," Mrs. James Bannister said. She was thinner than Mrs. James Powell, whose lilac satin bulged and overflowed, and caught her breath more quickly. "The way they snatched up this house so fast, it wasn't right."

"I've heard hints, but we were at the Coast when the War ended and now no one dares tell me what happened. Would you be so kind? Between us, of course," Mrs. James Powell said, dropping her voice into intimacy.

Mrs. James Bannister looked around for a moment and took a sip of water. "Well, Anna, I don't have to tell you about poor Mr. Frederick hanging himself."

"Sarah!" Mrs. James Powell gasped, her plump cheeks going a blotchy red.

"Calm down, I won't go any further. They say," she began again. "They say he was just obsessed with that house girl of his. He bought her when she was a little girl and trained her up for himself."

"Good Lord," Mrs. James Powell murmured encouragingly, fanning again.

"And when the War was over and he came home, he knew he couldn't keep her or the plantation, and so." Mrs. James Bannister put her hands up. "And then Mr. Winthrop comes in, quick as you please, and buys the house before the owner is even buried. It's indecent."

"That's Sam Winthrop for you," Mrs. James Powell said. "Our house was empty when we came here; the family gave it up for auction in '62."

"We had ours built," Mrs. James Bannister replied. "I wouldn't have someone else's leavings. The old house was a drafty barn anyway and the land was a mess. We've had to start over practically from scratch, and Jim is hardly a farmer."

"I'd rather be back in Boston," Mrs. James Powell agreed with a sigh. "The company is so dull."

Their conversation moved on to attacking the flowers—'mums and camellias, so ordinary—and Honora ate a cake and wondered what had happened to Mr. Frederick's house girl, if she had run away as everyone else said or if she had gone to hell with Mr. Frederick as Clemence said, or if she was still hiding on the property, as Honora was beginning to believe. Then the dinner bell rang, and she stopped wondering about the house girl and started worrying that Mrs. James Powell was going to eat all the jelly rolls before Honora could have one.

School began a week later. She had loved her teacher in Boston and, despite her fear of the new children who might all hate her, she began to be a little excited over her arithmetic once again. She was good with sums—Father said it was because she took after him.

"Will you be a better banker than I am by the time you return home tomorrow, do you think?" he asked her when she sat on his knee after dinner. Cook had served Honora's favorite candy apple pie, and Father had brought home a new velvet hair ribbon especially for her first day.

"I—" she began, wanting to say I'm scared of the other children and my belly hurts. She remembered Mother's advice just in time. The smell was almost gone, just as Mother had said would happen if she didn't complain, and anyway talking about bellies was indelicate. "By the second day, maybe."

And Father laughed and called her a plucky little thing, and the next morning he wouldn't hear of her going to the schoolhouse alone. He walked with her—Mother rarely came out of her rooms until the afternoon—and waved to her at the gate until she couldn't wait any longer and went inside.

The master, Mr. Hatchett, had a face exactly like his name, with his nose and chin a blade and his mouth a slash of frozen displeasure. "And with whom do we have the pleasure of speaking?" he asked when he called for order and she sat alone at one of the desks.

"Honora Winthrop, sir," she said. The class tittered behind her.

"I see," he drawled, and the class tittered again, a little louder.

When she limped home that evening, she went to her rooms first to make herself presentable before Mother and Father saw the damage. The velvet hair bow was long gone, and the bow around her waist. One of her shoes was in the river. She doggedly wore the other. The stocking on her unshod foot was torn all the way to her knee. Her knuckles stung still from fifteen smacks of the ruler—five for shouting when she sat down on a tack, five for not knowing the past participle, and five for refusing to take her hat off once class resumed after lunch because she could not untangle the brambles from her hair. Mr. Hatchett had to cut a great patch of it out with his dull scissors, and he was not delicate about it.

She stood on one foot to remove the sodden remnant of her shoe, and after three attempts she gave up and sat on the new blue and white rug. There was no nurse around to yell at her, she reasoned, and blinked back tears. She rather missed Clemence, who was at least kind to her, even if she was only a servant.

When she sniffled, she caught a whiff of the stench that had plagued the rooms all summer long, despite all her flowers and powder. Father told her it was likely an animal trapped in the walls. That happened sometimes, he said—some poor beast slithered through a hole in the boards and couldn't get out again. She didn't understand what he meant until she asked Clemence, who said matter-of-factly, "Death have a stink." The only funeral Honora had ever been to was her grandmother's, and she was surprised and sickly fascinated over the idea that the flesh melted away after death. She had had the vague notion that a person did much the same thing in his or her casket as he did in real life—thinking, praying, knitting perhaps.

She wiped her nose. Clemence's voice came into her head unbidden, whispering He take his slave to hell with he, and she shivered. She found that the lower she went to the ground, the stronger the scent became. Crawling on her hands and knees, she pressed her face to the floor. This wing was newer than the rest of the house, Father claimed, which was why there weren't as many trick latches and funny doors. But—her knee collided with a tiny bump under the rug, and she exclaimed, "Aha!"

Perhaps, she thought, she could find a way under the house and surprise Father. She pulled the rug away from the wood and saw that it was only a little imperfection in the floor. Disappointed, she flipped the rug back in place and almost sat on it again with a sigh before a bulge in the wall of the closet caught her eye.

It was expertly disguised, tucked away behind her dresses, unless one was looking at the open closet from a particular angle on the floor and saw the protrusion. She pushed her way through the fat sheaves of cloth and felt the wall for a latch. It was high—higher than her head, and wouldn't budge when she tugged on it. When she turned it, however, she heard a click and it gave slightly. The door was nearly a foot thick and monstrously heavy. It took all her strength to drag it open far enough to fit inside. Her weight was barely enough to keep it there and her feet kept skidding out from under her.

The smell was terrible. She took in a single breath and shrieked before her hand flew up to muffle it, but it remained trapped in her nose, putrid and soggy. Gagging and trying not to take in air through her mouth, she didn't open her eyes fully at first. When she did, she screamed again, and her grip on the door loosened. She had no purchase underneath her when the door began to close against her, forcing her inside inch by merciless inch, into the hot, dark stink.

In the rapidly dwindling triangle of light from her bedroom, she saw a small, lumpy gray foot. A doll, she thought, it must be a doll baby's foot, but it was like no doll she had ever seen before, shriveled in on itself with tiny black nails, and then the door fell shut completely, and she knew at last that Clemence had been right all along.

 

MF Macpherson is the prose editor of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, and Prose.  Her work appears in the anthology Love Rise Up, published by Benu Press.  She enjoys carnations, bingo, more Pyrex than she can fit in her cabinets, and magical realism.

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