Estate of Madison, Madison County, 1985

      Kate glance upward as lightning tore with impending sound across a dark sky, the light refracted through the high, stained glass windows of the ballroom to fall in slivers across her softened features. It seemed an inconceivable thing that she, a young girl, without gainful employ, should stand a silent and lonely vigil in this grand chamber, a room larger than most houses, that had come through some weird freak of social nature to belong to her.

Her gaze floated over the massive oak table which filled the room with a thousand memories of gleeful banquet and the shrill cries of children in delight, its surface pitted with a myriad of fine scars and indentations, marks of life now somehow guiltily revealed in the opalescent light as age and decay. A piano rested in the corner, ancient dusty songs clinging like time to its marbled surface.

      Kate thought about her kitchen. It could feed a host of people. It could support the frenzied movements of dozens of cooks and waiters. Great brass metal pots hung from the roof by hooks, the sudden breeze making them tinkle dully, as if whispering and plotting, aching for the touch of oil and spice. She never cooked in there, nor ate. It intimidated her in a profound way, like a passenger suddenly forced to take control of a plane hurtling out of control.

Every single instrument therein seemed to require an act of supreme confidence and balance. The spoons and pots could only be wielded, as if to demonstrate that they had been designed for the hands of giant slaves from the old continent. There was a holy atmosphere, which demanded absolute competence. Kate preferred to order in, a solemn torture in itself, for guilt wracked her as she devoured this transparent fodder while the instruments of a special magic hung unused.

      She felt ashamed in the house. She felt as though her every step through the darkened rooms was gracefully accompanied by an invisible butler, who did not speak, but shook his head in mild disappointment, this phantasm perhaps the last dusty synthesis of the manor soul, playing itself out in silent witness of the manor’s final, sad owner. She crawled across the room on hands and knees, her naked back flipping in and out of reality in time with streaks of lighting.

She knew her away around intimately in the dark. Her mother Amy had explored this place better than any other, and would on each of Kate’s birthdays show her a new secret, a tiny piece of the puzzle that would ultimately reveal the existence of hidden delights like the grand inner garden. She thought about that beautiful garden and knew it must have withered by now. She did not even travel to the inner house these days, not wanting to face the decay and failure, the once proud rooms sacrificed by the fragility of her spirit. She slept in a small room near the dance hall and entrance parlor, the room that had once belonged to her caretaker, as though banished by the land that was her own.

      Early the next morning she rose and dressed in the paltry window of sunlight that reached this room. Her sense of dress had become increasingly careless over the years, the clothes flimsy and few, discordant colours seeming to vie for attention on her thin frame, drowning her, her skin occasionally exposed, as if trying to escape through unmended rents.

And for all her blessings! Scandalous! The old family would not have done this! Sign of the times! Fully dressed she walked toward the hall, consciously enacting the slow, poetic ritual of the mirror torture, said mirror to be hoarding the hallway, poised imperiously beside the front door, as if daring her to ignore it. Always she thought she would not glance toward it, and in that solemn march to the door, all of life knew that the only part of her that was not staring directly into it was her eyes.

      And then she would stop, and glance, and remain frozen in a pose subconsciously arranged to present her least unattractive aspect. In a strange wizardry of self-denial, her countenance would mold and melt, her fine, aristocratic features becoming skeletal and faded, her sumptuous skin, once the glory of her parents, now bleached like a painting reduced to dusty parchment.

In that brief glance, she thought of the story about the witch and the mirror on the wall and understood how she came to be old and black and to live in the inky castle on the hill. It was as though the witch were already alive, existing within her own future, performing acts of evil back through time on the young princess she had been, defying her to choose any path through life other than that which ended in her.

      The day seemed to be continuing despite her. It always did. The outer gardens of the house consisted largely of a traditional hedge maze of marvelous complexity and cunning. Though in most places it was only high enough to cover the heads of children – for whom it had probably been designed – it was nevertheless almost impossible to traverse its length flawlessly unless you were a regular visitor to the manor, which made it an equally treacherous place through which to hurry in any sort of emergency. A burglar to the Manor would have great trouble in the darkness and there was no way to reach the Manor House from any direction but through this maze.

      Kate had once delighted in it, but now she felt a shadowy panic and her dreams often painted this place into dramas of panic and darkness. Hundreds of beautiful stone statues were scattered throughout, their frozen grace of ancient and exotic origin, more treasure, it is supposed, from the old continent. Mostly they were naked figures, like nymphs and elementals at play. Sometimes they were identical, on opposite ends of the maze, and this only added to the confusion. The only point of reference was the manor, and it is in this spirit that most approached it, their eyes fixed upon the immense stone edifice, somehow guided forward, seemingly crossing a magical causeway between this home and the outer walls, which were high enough to hide the manor from the outer world.

The hedges were threaded by an endless seam of rambling rose, like streaming arteries to the muscle and tissue of the hedge, clinging together in an odd symbiotic embrace. For most of the year the roses bloomed a holy white and the maze looked to be covered in a frosting of snow soft as petals.

      The town of Madison on Rhye existed in another time frame. The older values and culture had not transformed in nature since the first hamlet home was converted from a granary of the old Estate, some three hundred years ago. It was a place that possessed some unspeakable power. While the world about it had laced the very planet with a web of metal and concrete, this place remained untouched.

It was very difficult indeed to find it on the map, despite the fact that the very State of Madison had found its identity in this heart. Some people did come here, and they remained. They were the right people for this place, without exception. None could explain it, but all were aware of it. One simply did not speak of it or question it and for this reason it hung on the lips and expression of every person.

Moreover, it afflicted their very social behaviour, in the sense that many more things were left unsaid. One did not, for example, discuss the worries one might have over the health of the manor or, for its present owner, and for this reason, while every form of language abounded about her and at her, it was the only the unsaid that she heard, the unspoken.

      She walked slowly along the street toward the market, poised in slow, deliberate movement, a dignity that fell flat when viewed through her outfit. She always thought as she walked how strangely the streets cleared, as if life were parting before her. It was unusual to ever to make direct eye contact with anyone, unless it was by accident, and then the inadvertent fool would smile, too quickly, and sputter some inanity. Nobody ever mentioned the manor, or asked after her health. They were too terrified to know the truth, and thought simply to avoid this not knowing by avoiding any acknowledgement of her existence.

It had its advantages, as the market was never quite so busy when she came into town. It occurred to her this morning, as she approached it, that she was a prisoner of superstition and she saw the absurdity in its full grandeur, how this psychological alliance – this mythology – came to govern the behaviour of mice like men. She felt a fierce joy, for the first time in days, and felt to blaze herself outward and scorch every soul she touched, to rebel against their obsequious civility.

      ‘I need a packet of cigarettes.’ She spoke to a short, round woman, and suddenly her face was shocking in its beauty and intensity.

      ‘Good morning Kate!’ Her voice was shrill, almost strangled.

      ‘Morning Marge.’

      ‘What can I do for you today?’

      ‘Which part didn’t you understand?’ Kate smiled, wickedly, and felt a shock of terror and almost irrepressible joy spread through her body, as though she had walked into a holy place and suddenly been returned her full power.

      ‘Excuse me?’

      ‘The cigarettes.’

      ‘We don’t sell cigarettes in Madison of Rhye, Kate, you should know that!’ The women smiled brightly.

      ‘I see the old men smoking continuously!’ Kate scowled.

      ‘They smoke pipes. With pipe tobacco, see? So you couldn’t possibly be wanting a pipe!’

      ‘As a matter of fact, I do.’

      ‘Well then, better you go over to Mr. Erickson. I am sure he will be happy to oblige. Have a good day!’

      Kate turned and her heart stopped. Across the market, a man stood watching her. It was her first experience of man. His entire being projected a calm, quiet detachment, as though he were the only man alive, and all around him a movie continued, filled with characters that could never harm him. He was foreign by fibre, face beautiful and kind, almost innocent, struck by a subtle glow that flickered in hazel eyes. His face was framed by golden Dionysian curls of hair.

      ‘Hallo.’

      He mouthed the words across the distance while the whole world blurred, and she could hear them, each sound, each crystal expressed drop, clear as the song of a sparrow at the dawn of spring.

      She walked toward him, drawn and compelled, as if this were her one chance to escape, to fly from the grand fallacy. Any moment now, one of them might see, and the crowd would pulsate with their dark energy and she would be captured and forced once more to do their evil deeds, to be the soul trapped in the castle for the sake of social fantasy. They would kill him, to be sure, and bury his body where the outer world would never find him.’

      ‘Good day.’ He spoke again. He was before her and seemed not concerned for the milling crowds. His mouth was full and sensuous and the words he spoke seemed barely to flutter them.

      ‘Hallo.’ She replied. Her body spun slightly, as she circled him, gazing at him and then suddenly she stopped and backed away.

      ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I must go.’ In a moment she had retreated back into her frosty webbed demeanor.

      ‘The choices one makes have immense consequences.’ He said. ‘Larger than we suppose.’

      ‘The cigarettes?’ She said. ‘Do you think they are bad?’

      ‘Not the cigarettes.’

      ‘My name is Katy, or Catherine if your prefer.’ She held out her hand.

      ‘My name is Malcolm.’ He held out his hand and his skin was soft and dry, the grip firm yet somehow kind, or compassionate.

      ‘You are a visitor to Madison, I take it?’

      ‘A visitor, yes, but not for the first time. Are you the girl who lives in the Manor House?’

      Kate looked at him and instantly the line of her mouth hardened. It was like he had asked: Aren’t you the girl who is the lover of somebody worth something?

      ‘Yes, why do you ask?’

      ‘I would very much like to visit there.’

      ‘Why?’

      ‘It holds my interest.’

      ‘I am not taking visitors.’

      ‘I was given to understand that the manor was in concept a public property with a tradition of open doors.’ His calmness disarmed her.

      ‘Well then, visit any time you like. The front door is open.’

      Suddenly he laughed and his eyes sparkled with unconditional joy and simplicity.

      ‘It is said that the house is guarded by an impenetrable maze. I would very much like it if you would guide me there personally.’

      She looked at him without saying anything for several long moments and he seemed not embarrassed by the silence, in no way using the language of his body to disguise his discomfort. In the presence of the world, he was truly at ease.

      ‘Okay. Come with me.’

      And now the day seemed to change its tactic and threw beauty at her in sodden lumps. She led him through the streets. It was autumn and golden Oak and Maple leaves flew aimlessly on the breeze, the light somehow condensed and amber, making it seem as if the leaves were cutting a wake through the air as they twirled toward the ground.

It was a beautiful village, and she was sorry that she neglected in her appreciation of it. The old stone houses and buzzing markets were a stream of life that never ended, a hologram of gentle traditions that interpenetrated her, taking her for a moment to join with them. She felt sorry, and could not join. It was wrong. After having given so little to them, how could she take anything from them? She was the outcast. This mellow world of fibrous social connections was not for her.

      Malcolm had a wide, beautiful smile capable of assuming an extraordinary array of expressions. When he smiled it was as though the sun were rising and setting in the flash of a second, rippling across his face in its flippant migration. It was the smile of a child, simple and open, unaffected, greeting every facet of life as though it were new and undiscovered.

He gazed around and around, taking in tiny nuances of the town’s character, laughing in astonishment at the antics of children and animals, like a man who had returned to a long lost home. At intervals he would spin around and smile loudly and open up his arms and point at something that had obviously no relevance in context of any life but his own. Despite herself, Kate watched him, if only for the anticipation of his erratic behaviour.

      The reached the outer gate. Kate walked forward and twisted the ponderous handle. Behind her, Malcolm hissed, as if in anticipation. Kate turned slightly, and in her peripheral vision she saw him staring blindly at the door, caught up in some private, personal rapture. His mouth moved slowly and she thought she could detect the faint echo of words on the wind. She faced forward and threw the doors open, revealing the massive circuitous maze that stretched for a hundred yards up to the front door of the Manor. She turned again and noted that Malcolm yet remained outside, his body seemingly frozen in great concentration, his eyes fixed forward on the Manor House.

      ‘What is it with you? You’re not a lunatic are you? Escaped from some home and now wandering the countryside preying on mansions?’

      ‘No.’ He smiled again, just beautifully. ‘It reminds me of a place I knew and that makes me very happy. You would not believe how happy! I have been to many mansions, yes, but I have hunted for only this one.’

      ‘Why?’

      ‘It’s a special place.’

      ‘Well, are you just going to stand there?’

      ‘Is the Lady of the Manor not going to invite me in formally? Have such customs died so quickly? I am a guest about to enter your realm, but you must give me the key.’

      ‘Key?’ She was about to speak, flippantly, but then suddenly she felt a sinister chill. It was as though the world had taken on muted tones, suspended, the very birds and clouds slowing in their paths and waiting for her reply. There was a terrible power in the world, a power from a time when every spoken word had consequence. ‘Sure, come into my home then. I invite you, Malcolm, from the outer world, into my home.’

      ‘Thank you.’ He stepped over the granite block, which formed the base of the door and in stepping through it seemed to rise up, his body filling out imperceptibly, the weight of the world sliding languidly from his shoulders.

      In the space of a sentence, he was into the maze and laughing with utter, wild abandon. Kate watched him in alarm and then quickly closed the outer door, blocking the world out, encircling them in the private fantasy that was the manor.

The roses were going into their decline and barely a petal remained on the bushes, making the floor a blanket of white that released clouds of odor when one walked over it. She shuffled after him and then quickened her pace as he darted down the pathways. It reminded her of a scene from her dreams that played itself endlessly and felt a cold, delicious terror flash through her body, weakening her knees, making her stomach swivel in anticipation.

      Suddenly she could not see him. He had gone into the high hedges and only the sound of his laughter identified his rough whereabouts. Uncertainly, she ran toward the sound, somehow expecting him – like a child – to break something or run into trouble. Though he was a grown man, she wanted to keep him from some unnamable harm. It was not enough that he simply wanted to play without purpose.

She ran after him for these reasons, while at the same time she herself began to run, to run in the aimless, excited, terrified passion of childhood, where one became so infused with emotion that one did the crazy things of youth, like spinning around and falling flat onto the ground or wriggling around in dirt and leaves. Already she had lost herself, and only a quick glance at the Manor reoriented her.

      She could not find him. All she could hear was his laughter, the laughter of gladness and good tidings. It erupted within her, bubbling out in dazed surprise from her normally petulant lips, exploding in little moans and gasps of strange delight. Alive and lost she chased her new play mate until suddenly, rounding a corner, she came into one of the grand clearings, which was centered by a heavy stone table, on which he stood, gazing imperiously about with his hands on his hips.

      ‘The trick with mazes is to try and get a better perspective.’ He said, as if this were some profound statement. ‘Unless, of course, you prefer to be lost in the maze, and to move with the sweet panic of not knowing. Which are you?’

      ‘Excuse me?’

      ‘Are you looking for a better perspective or do you prefer to be lost?’

      ‘The first one, I think. I am always glad that I can see above the tops of this maze, so I guess I prefer to have perspective. But just now, when I was running, I remembered how I used to be. As a girl, I used to love being lost. Back then, everything was unfound.’

      ‘Do you love this place?’

      The question sent a jolt of panic through her body, rendering her speechless. She could not remember when she had last been asked a direct question about anything. She stared at him, the confusion wrapped across her features. Her mind raced with a hundred answers, a flurry of images that made her feel sick to the stomach. Guilt. Fear. Caution.

      ‘No, not very much.’

      ‘Why don’t you leave then?’

      ‘What kind of a stupid question is that to ask! Don’t you know anything?’

      ‘I know everything.’

      ‘You know everything?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘Who are you?’ She asked, staring up at his shining face.

      ‘I am an orphan. I’ve been moving around since I was very young. What happened to your parents?’

      ‘That’s none of your damned business!’

      ‘That’s true, yes.’

      ‘What happened to your parents?’

      ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember. They say it’s best.’

      ‘Yes.’ She was suddenly flooded with compassion and spoke words that she had not spoken in some time. ‘They died, in a fire, when I was ten. Nobody knows how.’

      ‘Let’s hope at least one of us is telling the truth.’ He said simply. She was going to react but then, suddenly, it did not matter.

      ‘Why don’t we go inside?’

      She led the way through the maze and toward the front door. Walking through that door, it was as though an enormous weight had been lifted, and she deliberately turned and smiled at the mirror. At the very least, she had shared something, with somebody, and what’s more he understood at least some of her struggle. He followed her into the ballroom and they were treated to a spectacular display of light from the stained windows, casting a patchwork of pastel shades over every surface. She imagined how it might once have been, as this very colour rippled over the surface of not just still tables but the malleable surface of children’s’ skin as they darted through here laughing in delight. How beautiful it must have been at night, when the moonlight would grace the perfect poise of dancers in motion, twirling and spinning to the tunes of the old continent.

      ‘How old are you?’ Malcolm asked.

      ‘Nineteen.’ She replied quietly.

      ‘So you have been here alone for six years?’

      ‘No. I had a tutor, a young man by the name of Jeremiah, from up-country. He spent several months of each year living here and teaching me what he could. For a few years, after the accident, I had a matron, who did her best to care for me, but she did not like the house, and left. She was not, shall we say, large of spirit.’

      ‘And Jeremiah?’

      ‘He was a good man, but rather pallid of constitution. I guess the house does not always select its victims perfectly.’

      ‘What do you mean?’

      ‘I think that the town planned for the poor fellow to marry me. It’s sort of a tradition here. The house spawns these women and then drags some poor fool into its spell so as to marry him off and propagate the lineage. The town people felt that it would be for the best.’

      ‘But he left?’

      ‘He left. Of course he did. Despite the fact that the dear man had fallen for me, though God only knows why. Of course, they neglected only one thing. My feelings. I have no interest in men, or the lineage, and most certainly would not have found within myself one tiny instance of attraction for Jeremiah. It became a little too awkward.’

      Malcolm laughed aloud. Kate looked at him in astonishment, not knowing what to say. He continued to laugh as he walked from the room and into the kitchen, into the great kitchen as though he owned it. He danced and paraded amongst the pots and pans and lovingly touched every work surface.

      ‘Would you like me to cook you dinner?’

      ‘What? Here?’

      ‘Of course, where else?’

      ‘I haven’t eaten a meal here in five years, nor cooked one.’

      ‘I am sure you have your reasons.’ He smiled.

      ‘Yes.’ She said, but suddenly she did not know her reasons at all.

      ‘Do you have a pen and paper?’

      ‘Sure.’ She went out and into her little bedchamber, where she kept a writing pad and pen. She gave it to him and he furiously began scribbling down some notes.

      ‘What are you writing?’

      ‘Shopping list.’ He flashed a smile and handed it to her. ‘Run down to the village and buy everything on this list. In return, I will conquer your kitchen and cook you the best meal you have eaten in five years. Deal?’

      ‘What the hell do you want anyway?’ She felt like screaming it at him.

      ‘Dinner.’ He said and turned around to tackle the long disused kitchen.

      Walking back through the maze, she felt a feeling of release and anxiety unparalleled in her life. Something was happening. It was in the poise of every sliver of life about her. It elevated her footsteps, giving her the dangerous desire to take off her clothes and run through the streets of the hamlet, laughing and howling like a mad women, a lycanthrope emerging from an ancient sleep at the castle.

      She had arrived at the market at that time of day when everything was beginning to wind down. She looked over at the list and then quickly rushed off to the poultry stand, whose owner was a weather beaten old woman called Mullins who very much liked to gossip.

      ‘Twice in one day Kate? That’s quite the little record isn’t it?’

      ‘Quails.’ Responded Kate.

      The women stared at her blankly.

      ‘Little birds?’ Kate prompted and then flashed a vicious smile. ‘I’m sorry, did you want to talk to me? What would you like to talk about? How about my future, or the future of the Manor? Maybe the future of the entire town? Why don’t we talk about any of the things that none of you have said to me? Why don’t we talk about the things that none of you ever discuss with each other?’

      By this time her voice had raised itself to embarrassing levels and several people nearby were staring at the young girl, one by one allowing her to seep unwitting into their guarded consciousnesses.

      ‘Four quails, halved.’ Finished Kate.

      ‘Will that be all?’ Said Ms. Mullins, her face ashen.

      ‘No actually;’ She whirled to face the crowd. ‘I’ll be needing two green chilies, a bottle of lime juice, a jar of honey, some lemon grass, coriander, a bunch of sweet potatoes and a bottle both of wine and vinegar.’

      Several people disappeared.

      ‘Is everything all right Kate?’ Said Mr. Montgomery, who had inspired her into smoking a pipe.

      ‘Funny you should be asking me that now. Let’s just say, that one way or another, things are going to change around here. Starting right now. By tomorrow, everything might be different.’

      A bag of goods awaited her and she walked out of the market without once looking back.

      Her footsteps quickened as she turned toward the outer gate. At any moment she expected an arrow to puncture her spine. At the very least they were all muddled as a mob, staring at her, muttering with irritation or – even worse – pity. She could feel them. And if she turned, they would turn quickly about their business and instead it would be they who would feel her gaze. In a world of feeling, vision could be the only absolute guarantee and therefore had to be selectively used. An incautious glance, the faint touch of direct eye contact, forever robbed any pretensions. Only then could come the grudging recognition and, finally, acknowledgement.

      Dare to hope? She thought. And to hope for what?

      Her natural tendency for morose thinking loomed like a tumultuous dark cloud on the far fringes of her consciousness. She realised, for a second, that she loved this dark place! The security of her sadness and resentment was a deep cave in which she hibernated, sleeping away the gray winter that had settled in her lands at the death of her parents.

Alone in the highlands, strange and ostracized, wallowing in deep vats of her own melancholy, refusing to hear the knowledge that demonstrated the real ease with which one could leap free and into the light. Damning that knowledge, refusing to acknowledge it. In her country, every body had agreed not to say at least one thing, and together they perpetuated the illusion.

      Walking through her front door she was blinded by light. Liters of sunlight spewed over every available surface, baring wood that had remained in deep chocolate concealment for an entire generation, spraying across tapestries containing caricatures that seemed to be standing around and staring in a dazed amazement.

She felt a breath of wind streaming down the corridor and realised that Malcolm had opened almost every window in the house. The dust of the ages swirled around, reflecting sunlight like a host of tiny golden snowflakes. She ran forward in utter alarm. Without looking, she knew that room after room had been assaulted and pillaged of its final respects.

      ‘Malcolm!

      ‘Hallo there!’ His voice from the kitchen.

      She ran into the room to find him calmly washing dishes.

      ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, you … hobo!

      ‘Washing the dishes.’

      ‘And the rest of this place?’

      ‘Letting in some fresh air, and sunlight.’ He turned and smiled sheepishly, his expressive mouth forming a zigzag.

      ‘You have no right!’

      ‘It has to be done some time.’ He turned back to his washing.

      Kate could think of nothing to say.

      He went about the making of dinner with great gusto and elegance. She watched him combining the liquids and herbs like an alchemist preparing a potion, immersing the small, delicate birds in the potion and then firing up the immense gas oven, which seemed to swallow the meal. Slicing up the sweet potato, he made animated discussion about the places he had been and the people he had met. Suddenly he turned and looked at her sharply: ‘You know, every kingdom has its wise leaders and its poisonous advisors.’

      ‘Every kingdom?’

      ‘Yes.’ He said. ‘Including yours.’

      ‘What are you talking about?’

      ‘Well,’ he began gravely, ‘imagine you were in a palace, a grand marble palace filled with many, many rooms and hundreds of people. The entire affairs of the country would be run from there. If the ruler of this exalted monarchy were a wise and just soul, a soul with the ability to lead as well as follow, a person of competence and character, then this would be a good palace and all the land would prosper. Everything would be smooth and seamless and full of joy.’

      He quickly skipped around and placed the lightly spiced potato strips in a shallow pan and began frying them in olive oil.

      ‘But then may come the poisonous advisor.’ He continued, ‘The jack in the box. This is a person who is capable of finding the heart and ear of any great man and corrupting him with silver-winged guile. We don’t know who it is. It may be the family advisor, or the spouse, the cook or even the minister who lives down the hill. It may very well be the clown, sent for the King’s amusement to tumble about and make jest and pretend to be entirely without the skill of thinking or understanding.’

      Kate stared at him. ‘Fascinating. But, what are you talking about?’

      ‘I’ll tell you at dinner.’

      They had dinner by candlelight on a quickly constructed table in the centre of the ballroom. Kate could not remember when last she had had eaten such a superlative meal and imagined that not even the finest restaurants of the old continent could have created such delicacy and artistry. She opened a bottle of red wine that had lain dormant in the old cellar at the back of the kitchen for some interminable time and found it to be beyond compare.

      ‘Imagine,’ began Malcolm suddenly, ‘that the great palace I mentioned was your mind. Your mind is a great beaurocrasy, you could say, made of many working elements, not least including a wise ruler.’

      ‘Or a poisonous advisor.’ Added Kate.

      ‘Quite.’ He agreed. ‘And it is this advisor that is ultimately responsible for sabotaging your every effort at wise rule. Slowly, but surely, you have relinquished power to this nefarious shadow.’

      ‘You don’t know anything about me!’ She screamed across the table.

      ‘Said the poisonous advisor.’ He smiled softly.

      ‘I mean you have no right to judge me!’

      ‘Well let’s neglect the obvious for a moment – which is to say that this clever and angry advisor will defend itself at every turn – and concentrate on this house. You are its ruler and by your whim and will it will rise again or fall forever into obscurity.’

      ‘I never asked for that responsibility!’ She argued.

      ‘And yet it is yours.’

      ‘Well maybe I will give it up then.’

      ‘Are you ready to make that choice?’

      ‘What the hell do you know about responsibility anyway? You’re just a beggar!’

      ‘Well, fine then, I’ll take on the responsibility.’

      ‘Excuse me?’

      ‘I’ll take over here and you can give it all up.’

      ‘The town would never allow it.’

      ‘Then you shall have to marry me, and when I have established control, you can leave.’

      Kate stared at him with mouth agape. ‘You are proposing to marry me and then wish to steal my house all in the same sentence?’

      ‘You don’t want it. I do. What’s the problem?’

      ‘Maybe I don’t and maybe I do.’

      ‘I feel sorry for your country if you are its ruler.’

      ‘Is this how you woo a lady?’ She said with a flat expression. ‘You invite me for dinner and then insult me? You try to undermine my confidence? Who the hell do you think you are?’

      ‘Since I was a very small child,’ he explained, his voice taking on an inflection of nostalgia, ‘I have always dreamed that I was in fact a young prince somehow lost by my rightful parents, a separation most likely in some horrible war. I have cherished the idea always that somewhere there is a grand manor awaiting me, an ancient house surrounded by a maze and containing within it secret gardens and many marvels, a place where I could live and wisely rule. This place is the very image of my dreams and nobody owns it! Why shouldn’t I live here? I would really enjoy that.’

      ‘Enjoy that?’ She paused as if lost for words. ‘I am sure you would! I am sure half this damned country would, but it’s mine!’

      ‘Don’t you think it’s odd that a young girl like yourself should possess such a palace as you own, through some weird conundrum of law and custom? Why should you? You have done nothing to earn it. Indeed, you don’t even enjoy it, or respect it! I, on the other hand do, with all my heart. Why shouldn’t it be me?’

      ‘Because it’s mine!’ She cried and in that moment thought of how the witch on the hill was now smiling, confident that she had embarked on the path to her own dark future.

      ‘Fine.’ He said. ‘I’ll leave in the morning.’

      ‘Fine.’ She replied. ‘How do I know that you are a wise ruler anyway?’

      ‘Anything has got to be better than you.’

      ‘Bastard!’ She felt indignation rip through her and stormed out of the room.

      Kate rose early to a mixture of feelings. She walked with padded footsteps into the kitchen, clutching a white sheet around her body. She did not know where he had slept but now he was awake, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen table, a pot of ancient coffee in his hand. He was a beautiful sight in the morning, skin soft and golden.

      ‘Good morning.’ His voice was comforting.

      ‘I thought you were going to leave.’ Her voice contrived to seem cold, like a picture of ice.

      ‘I am,’ he said, ‘but not before you have given me a tour of the house.’

      ‘I don’t travel through the rest of the house.’

      ‘I know, but I am going to go with you.’

      ‘What do you want to see?’

      ‘The inner garden.’

      ‘Where did you hear about the garden?’ Her face suddenly snapped into focus.

      ‘Somebody told me, in the way of passing.’

      ‘I doubt it.’ She circled him slowly, examining him. ‘How did you get here anyway? How did you get to this town?’

      ‘I just walked on in. Why? What’s the difference?’

      ‘It’s not so easy to get here you know.’ She looked at him for a long time, before speaking, watching the light play over his golden curls. ‘This town’s not on the map. Any map. There’s only one exit in and out. It is illegal to mention the existence of the manor property in any travel brochure. In fact, it’s illegal to advertise Madison on Rhye in any form. For fifty miles there isn’t a single road-sign pointing in this direction.’

      ‘Why?’

      ‘Well,’ she suddenly smiled, as if exacting some sweet revenge on a traitorous lover, ‘some say that this place is full of really rich people, a little private secret for the high and mighty. But that’s not what it is. The truth is far more ludicrous. The rich do collect here, along with anyone else, because the mere proximity of the manor attracts abundance. We’re sitting in a big god damned golden goose. Tradition has it that the manor selects them indiscriminately, like little cogs in a clockwork, churning out a legend.’

      ‘Has it always been like this?’ He seemed highly amused and jumped onto his haunches, taking in her story with his whole body. He was the picture of freedom and flexibility.

      ‘I’m not sure. When I was young, things were more relaxed. Everybody knows the legend but nobody used to speak about it. Everybody just knew his or her parts. My mother was a small deviation from the tradition but she found a man and everybody relaxed again. Then they died, under questionable circumstances, and everything started to fall apart. The house did not seem to bear the strain well. I was on my own, alone, and overcome by grief and fear. People started to lose money and some had decided to leave, which caused a sudden panic. They had no choice but to reinforce their beliefs, and found a suitable man, a suitor and a teacher, whom they hoped the house would claim for its own in an act of thinly disguised sacrifice, of social cannibalism.’

      ‘This would be our hero Jericho.’ Malcolm prompted.

      ‘Jeremiah.’ She corrected.

      ‘Continue…’ He smiled.

      ‘Well, basically, it’s gone crazy since then. The stress is killing me. I’m a prisoner here. The whole town is holding its breath. I feel like armed soldiers must be waiting at both exits.’

      ‘Hey Kate.’ Said Malcolm.

      ‘Yes Malcolm?’ Said Kate.

      ‘Maybe the house chose me?’

      ‘I don’t think so.’ She turned abruptly. ‘I’ll get dressed and then you can look around a bit. How did you hear about the gardens anyway?’

      ‘I already told you. I’ve been dreaming about this place forever.’

      Scantily dressed in blue suede, Kate took him on a tour of the house. The central pillar of the house rose three unbroken stories and was fifty feet in diameter. Within this area was set the grand inner garden, rising inside a cone of glass and copper, a completely self-contained tower within which had once thrived a glorious and mysterious explosion of life. The entrance was granted in a mezzanine corridor that ran in a big loop around the central structure. From this corridor, one could see nothing of the garden but an ornate door of filigreed brass work.

      ‘How do you get into it?’ Malcolm asked.

      They were standing in the corridor that circumscribed the garden, after having walked completely around and examined each of the four doors in turn.

      ‘You have to have a key. I don’t remember where it is.’

      ‘What do you mean you don’t remember?’

      ‘It was nine years ago that I last came here and I don’t damn well remember!’

      ‘What are you getting so angry about? It’s a bit strange that somebody should forget such a thing as this after only a few years. Unless, of course, one was compelled to forget?’ He stared at her intently, without flinching, his blue eyes without expression.

      ‘You are a ruthless bastard Malcolm!’ She felt fear and resentment burn through her.

      ‘You have to do it some time.’

      ‘Do what?’ She screamed.

      ‘Get in there.’ He pointed at the door behind his head, but it was not all clear that he was not pointing at his head.

      Kate stared at him for several long minutes. She was tired of reasoning why he should have the authority to judge her, the arrogance to invade her privacy, the confidence to pontificate about the profound with such utter glibness. She leaned her back against the wall and slid down to her haunches, her wrists hanging loosely over her knees. When she spoke it was with mute inflection.

      ‘My parents were burned to death inside the garden. At the very top of the garden, forming the dome that you can see rising from above the manor is a special room, long suspected as being an observatory built by the first owner of the manor. It is called the Asterlabe; Or any way that’s what is written on the entrance to it. It has never been opened in modern history, since the first caretakers moved in last century. It is guarded by a puzzle, a very complex. She used to say that the inner garden was never enough, though she loved it dearly. She wanted to reach higher. She wanted true vision. My mother had studied it for years and was trying to get in when the accident happened.’

      ‘And you feel responsible how?’ Malcolm interrupted.

      ‘I was playing with the copper cables which power the sprinkling and humidity system. I don’t know what I did, but there was a flash of light and then I heard my parents screaming. It was so horrible …’ She broke off in a sudden deluge of tears, pain wracking her body like she had not felt in years, digging into her ribs, searing her lungs.

      ‘The way I see it,’ said Malcolm, ‘is that either you caused a flash that hurt your parents or they hurt themselves and you received a flash as a consequence. You have no way of knowing and either situation is equally likely. The flip of a coin. That’s a tremendous amount of pain to balance on a random throw of the dice. Somewhere within you is the truth and we have to work out how to find this key and go back to the place where the whole thing fell apart.’

      Kate sat there for several hours, her eyes closed. When she opened them again, early evening had already set in and Malcolm was nowhere to be seen. For a moment she had an attack of irrational panic at the thought that he might be gone and then relaxed at the sound of his foot steps slowly coming closer, accompanied by a baritone of song. She felt an enormous weight had been lifted. Her skin tingled with new promise.

      ‘What are we eating?’ She said as he walked into the room.

      ‘Coconut beef stirfry. I managed to get a fine cut from the village. They were most helpful.’

      ‘You went to the village? Are you crazy?’

      ‘They were very pleasant.’

      ‘Did they ask questions?’

      ‘Yes, I told them I was a guest of her lady at the manor, who had personally and most graciously invited me into her homestead.’

      ‘And they said what?’

      ‘They smiled as if fate had just patted them on the back.’

      ‘You know, they used to call this the house of love.’ She grinned.

      ‘Do tell.’ He knelt in front of her.

      ‘According to the legend, the manor has always been filled with it, love that is. Do you know why it is called a public property? It’s because nobody owns it. For three hundred years it’s been standing here and in every generation it has been filled with a man and woman in love. They say that the town and its people are here because of it.’

      She leaned forward and gently stroked his cheek. ‘That’s why they’re all so worried, you see. They think the town will fall apart if the house is empty. Nobody wants this job and I am not sure if I qualify either. When I was a girl, the house was filled to the brim but when they died, all the love went away.’

      He stood up and raised her to her feet, his smile flickering over her face. ‘So, are you gonna keep that garden locked up forever or are you going to go back inside?’

      She held her breath and pulled from about her neck a long, silver key. ‘I’ll probably be needing a key, don’t you think?

      Kate turned and slowly, shakily turned the key in the large ornate lock until there was an imperceptible click and the door groaned several centimeters ajar. Kate froze again and turned to face Malcolm.

      ‘I guess I’m going to have to change my dress sense.’ She whispered softly.

      ‘You know Kate, this town is your life.’

      ‘Yes malcolm, I understand now.’

He paused, his breath catching slightly as he tried to phrase his thoughts clearly. ‘So, what do you say, can I come in?’

      A pause followed like all the seasons of the house taken collectively.

      ‘Yes Malcolm, you can come in…’

END