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Wyvern Lit
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The Mistress of the House on the Machair

Fiction by Helen McClory

            A black line along the floor where the rolling pin fell and cracked the tiles. The servant boy stares at it awhile, breathless. Behind him, the breathing, curtained windows look out on the endless sandy meadow of buttercups and daisies, the phenomenon known as the machair. The servant boy in his smurched apron washes his hands but does not pick up the rolling pin to place it somewhere safe. He abhors its slippage. Why had he been holding it anyway? There’s no pastry needing rolling. Bread’s in the airing cupboard. Her ladyship the ghost isn’t conscious this early. The hearth, as it has to be, is dusted. Everything beyond that is yellow-white machair and a strange, echoing pain ringing about his heart.

            So he goes and makes a gin and syrup for the ghost, and a tea for himself. He puts the gin drink in the fridge with a daisy in it. Daisy for her, though he forgets – is a daisy toxic or not? He imagines her struggling to raise the glass to her lips, the constant threat of spill. It’s a long time between now and dusk. He wonders if the flower will turn the faint green of the cocktail. If the pattern on the bread will please her, if she will pretend to swallow a bite or two. He drinks his tea black and another and another until his heart kicks free of the strange, echoing pain, for the moment, for he finds even the slightest turn towards malice tiring and is glad to leave it behind without having to go anywhere at all.

            In the cabinet is the palette of stage paints. He clicks them open and begins painting the bones in on the back of his hands. Next he will make a yellow skull of his face, shade in the bones of his neck. The process takes about two hours. The ghost by that time will have finished her toilette and be sleeping in the solarium, on the black floor. Not that anyone can tell except the servant boy.

            Desire, he thinks, enters the mind through the skin.

            People who say it is through the eyes are mistaken. Or they are mistaken in what desire is. Desire is the brink before satiation. The servant boy desires the edge of the window pane as he rests his hands on it to dry. He desires the field of flowers, where he will go to take in the morning’s washing now that the afternoon has drawn out the steam from the clothes and left, in exchange, the smell of the summer, the residue of pollens, the tiniest and many scents.

            His hands dry, he leaves with his basket. He folds the clothes with bone-hands, with his long, long fingers. The paints are fixed so as not to smudge, still, he cannot now wash the skin, not until the morning comes again. Otherwise the ghost will weep at him. She does not like to be reminded of their difference. That he is alive, and she is dead. She wants his life, but not her death.  She doesn’t like to see him at work, either. To be reminded that she is mistress and he is servant. The doors click heavily behind him when he enters one room or another, and there are paths he will take specially to avoid being seen, before the time he is called on to be seen.

            Now, what else is to be done before dusk? It is a high summer’s day, and dusk will not be until after ten. He takes off his floury apron, which he had forgotten. He goes into the conservatory and pulls the blinds, so she won’t glimpse him if she chances to look down from her bedroom window.

            He sits down amongst the lashings of plants, reading a book he had left there the evening before. He won’t eat, or drink from a glass. If needed, he’ll rub a thumb down the humidity of the leaves, chew on the vanilla orchid blooms, keep going with his teeth until he can’t feel much more than their soapy sting.

            The day turns and a glow suffuses the west. When he took this job, the servant boy knew all about desire. Now he knows all about it the way a leaf knows the desire of the snail rasping at its surface. He touches his face and feels the wetness of the conservatory all over him like slime.

            Some time around nine, a restlessness takes him wandering. Though the appointment is not for a few hours yet, he dresses out in the clothes the ghost prefers, a tailored suit that fits his frame close, a top hat he holds like a box of his belongings. When he took this job, he would never have guessed. He had always been courageous, but nothing had ever been asked of anyone, like this.

            He returns to the glass room to sweat and crumple, since that is a human phenomenon as much as any other.

            There is not love. There are hours to be kept. He’s paid to mind the house and to be a human presence, so she is permitted to sometimes forget. Ten o’clock, the disc of the sun touches the Atlantic. And it’s like something cutting into him now, pushing in, as if he is the sea, forced to turn gold by a faraway, incomprehensible presence. She lies still, above him trying to read, trying to wait. She is hollow as a light behind a curtain. He sets the book down again, gets to his feet, wipes his moist face, turning and turning his hat.  There is a voice, but it’s his own. He hasn’t spoken to anyone but her in months. He’s saying, the door.

            He steps across the room, out, into the kitchen, and opens the back door, and holds it. The field of the machair, the wildflower-on-sand, spreads before him, low and impossibly sweet. The village is two miles, and any ship in the bay will receive him. For everyone knows who he is, even if they only saw him the once, as he came.

            He steps down onto the machair. He walks out. No longer the servant, now just a boy. With no luggage, as in the beginning. He, with slow breaths, extracts himself from the house, this much is all that is possible, for the moment. The grandeur of the building retreats, conceals itself behind the rolling hills, behind his ribs. Buttercups and daisies smack against his ankles. He makes a crooked wake of bent grass behind him. His bone-fingers let the hat drop, it rolls away behind him.

            The mistress of the house hears nothing, since now

there is no one left to hear.