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October 14, 2015 Fiction


Adam McOmber

Swaingrove photo

Atlanta, 1863

Here, in the green glass light of the parlor, Swaingrove cultivates its memories. The house recalls the history of its own silent rooms, how they began as ideals, as uncreated forms. Long before the architects raised their beams and trusses, Swaingrove existed as an invisible body. It stood in the tall grass beneath tattered clouds and willow trees. Its flesh was a dream of paneled walls and wax wood floors. At times, it seemed to passersby that some vast and unknowable intelligence must have descended from the higher realms to crouch there on the hill. Animals avoided the grassy slope. Birds found other skies.

“Most houses gather dust,” the aging Viscount d’Archambault told a handsome young soldier of the Confederacy, as the two of them sat together on the rose-colored divan in Swaingrove’s grand parlor. “My house, dear boy, gathers desires.”

The soldier, called Sam, had fine black hair, cropped short, a precaution against the recent infestation of lice in the barracks. His skin had the pale and sickly sheen of one who’d been too long in the winter regiments. He smelled of horse sweat and gunpowder. He kept his brass buttons polished. His leather boots, though worn, bore signs of good care. The viscount, a long-time friend of the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Joseph, had made some pretense of cigars. He’d promised the boy a glass of strong brandy too if he came and sat for a time. But, in the end, there was neither cigar nor brandy. The house, in fact, seemed oddly bare.

The viscount reached out with his papery hand to touch the young soldier’s downy-bearded cheek. The caress seemed to express something more than mere admiration. And because of this, the boy drew back, though only slightly. He didn’t want to appear rude or foolish. He’d never been touched in such a manner before. There’d been no girls for him in the town he’d come from. No courting of any sort. And he’d certainly not imagined a touch like that in the green light of Swaingrove’s parlor. The viscount—white-haired and wearing an overlarge suit—smiled, kindly enough. The noble air of the old man’s French ancestry hung about him. He’d come to America some thirty years before. The gray waters of the Atlantic still colored his eyes. “They’re sending children to war these days,” the viscount said in a tone he thought well described his own shame at what the South had become. He allowed his fingers to trail down the breast of the young man’s uniform, enjoying the firmness of a youthful chest. “When I was your age—” he said.

The solider gently took hold of the old man’s wrist, attempting to stop the viscount’s curious stroking. “Sir,” the boy said. He had a faint accent. A pleasant hint of rural Georgia.

The viscount merely smiled again and removed his hand, as if the whole thing might have been some mistake. “When I was your age,” he repeated. “I would walk along the riverbank near my father’s house. The water there was clear, like the mirror atop my mother’s dresser. I could see myself reflected in that water. Just a boy, tripping along over rocks and stones.”

“I knew a river once—” the young soldier began. In his mouth, the word was “riveh.” He intended to tell a story of his own, as the soldiers did around the campfire. They told mainly of girls they’d left in their hometowns, but sometimes there were other stories too, those of high adventure, set along back roads and other unknown places. These were landscapes that caused the young men to feel the world had been made for them.

“Memories are like that, aren’t they?” the viscount said, interrupting the solider. “They trip along. Like a reflection over water. Always threatening to disappear.” He slid across the divan and let it rest in a place near the young man’s strong thigh.

At that moment, the house shuddered around them, creaking its beams and, momentarily, causing the window glass to tremble. It was as if, the soldier thought, the whole of the structure had contracted, pulling inward upon itself, too fast for the eye to see. The soldier looked toward the green chandelier that swung now on its silver chain, casting odd shadows.

“You’ll have to excuse Swaingrove,” the viscount said. “My house is surely haunted.”

The soldier raised his unblemished brow at this, unsure what kind of truth might be found in such a statement. He was no child on his mother’s knee, to be sure, yet he’d heard tales from the other soldiers about Swaingrove and its owner. The old man’s half-crazy. Thinks he can conjure hexes. There’s a painting in that house. D’Archembault claims to have bought it off the back of a wagon driven by the Devil himself. And there’s worse things than that too. The young soldier hadn’t seen any paintings, and he didn’t believe in the Devil drove a wagon around the back country roads. He’d agreed to visit Swaingrove because the promised glass of brandy sounded restorative. And the viscount hadn’t seemed so terrible. He was a friend of the colonel, after all. What harm could such an old gentleman bring? “Haunted by whom, sir?” the soldier asked finally.

“Oh, ages of the dead, I suppose,” the viscount replied. “People too often make the mistake of believing revenants are local in time. But ghosts tend to stay on, son. I imagine my haunts go back long before I laid the foundation of Swaingrove. There’s probably more than a few red Indians crawling about. Right along with my house-girl who came to her end after falling down the stairs from the landing and the man called Jonny who put a shotgun to his head in the cellar. There was the little baby too. Terrible thing. Sent my wife into paroxysms of grief. Our poor little child all laid out in white coffin lace.” The viscount shook his head. “Now where were we?” he said.

“Colonel Joseph calls role at night, sir,” the soldier said. “I should be going.”

“Beauregard will understand,” the viscount replied. “He is a merciful man.”

But the young solder persisted, standing from the divan and adjusting his uniform jacket. At this, some joint or brace deep inside the house began to squeal. It was an alarming sound. As if the whole structure might fall apart.

“Oh, now you’ve done it,” the viscount said. And he looked as if he found something amusing.

“Done what?” the soldier asked.

The viscount stood and moved toward the boy again.    

The soldier retreated to the lamp-lit foyer, reaching for the brass handle of the door.

“You’ll find it locked, I’m afraid,” the viscount said.

The soldier tried the handle and, indeed, the door was locked. For a moment, it seemed not even to be a door at all, but instead some kind of dry flesh that wanted his touch. “The key?” he said.

“Dark and lovely,” the viscount replied, looking at the boy. “Dark and lovely.”

At this, the soldier heard something on the stairs: the sound of a man or woman descending. Step after slow step. The noise faltered once or twice, as if the person who descended (if it was a person at all) had some kind of ailment. The soldier watched for a shadow to appear, that of a servant perhaps or the viscount’s wife. But when nothing came down from the rose-papered landing, he began to wonder if the stairs themselves might be making their own curious sounds. The footsteps were a memory, an old thought buried deep inside in the wood.

And, at this, the soldier paused. For beyond the stairs, in the foyer, there had appeared a large oil painting in a gilded frame. It was the sort of painting that might have been found in the halls of some grand museum, the likes of which the soldier knew he would never visit. He hadn’t noticed the painting before, but now it seemed to be the most important thing in the entire house. It was a vast and detailed work. And it appeared (yes, the soldier was quite sure this was true) the painting appeared to radiate with some vague internal light. As if a gas lamp glowed some distance behind the surface of the canvas. Or maybe not a gas lamp, but something more mysterious.

The scene, depicted in careful strokes, was a sylvan glen where a group of fair young men reclined about a sunlit pond. Their long limbs were spread. Their torsos shone in the light. This must be a scene from history, the soldier thought. Could it be a forest from the viscount’s home country? Or was it some imagined place? A few of the young men in the painting wore scraps of peasant’s clothes. Others wore almost nothing. All of them had a certain stillness in their handsome faces (not like death, the soldier thought, but rather like a feeling of great and final peace). These men had not been to war. They had not known the handle of the plow. Or if they had once known those things, they had certainly forgotten them.

It seemed then as if their painted eyes—blue and green and quiet black—had turned to gaze upon the boy in his ragged gray uniform. They appeared to wonder why the soldier had not yet joined them in the beautiful sun.

“The house once told me—” the viscount said.

The rest of his words were lost, for a rumbling that came from beneath the two men. It sounded as if a large object were rolling through the root cellar. Back and forth, making an awful noise.

“What did you say?” the soldier called, speaking loudly enough to be heard over the din. “What did the house tell you?”

“I call it Swaingrove for love, you know,” the viscount replied, as if that was an answer to the soldier’s question. “It didn’t have a name before I gave it one.”

The soldier felt as though he was about to have a nervous attack. The sharp report of rifle fire and the black thunder of mortar were nothing compared to Swaingrove, the subtle way the house now shifted and changed around him, like water in the sea. The boy braced himself against the wall and slid slowly down to the polished floor. The viscount knelt beside him, telling him it would be all right. “Things are different here,” the old man said. “But you mustn’t worry, boy. And you mustn’t leave me here now all alone.”

“I mustn’t?” the soldier asked. It was hard to breathe. Difficult to even hold a thought.

“No,” the viscount said. “You mustn’t.” He put his hand on the young man’s forehead, as if checking for a fever. Then slowly he slid his fingers through the boy’s short hair. “Every leave-taking is a kind of death. Don’t you know that?”

The soldier didn’t know if he should agree.

“You learn so much in a place like this,” the viscount continued.

The soldier closed his eyes. He imagined he might rest by the lake in the woods—the bright grove in the oil painting. Sunlight would fall between the leafy branches there. He’d lay among the figures, the elegant and peaceful men (nothing like corpses). They would whisper to him.

The soldier felt the viscount unfastening the brass buttons of his gray uniform jacket. Swaingrove continued to shift around them. It was certainly a restless house. Perhaps it remembered how it had once crouched upon the hill, long before the viscount had come with his architects, long before the so-called ghosts had arisen. The house had been a deathless thing then. And now? Well, now its uses were all too apparent. “I was never your age, was I?” the viscount mused. He kissed the young man on his bearded cheek. “No, I was never your age at all.”

image: Anita Olivia Koester