Amber Nicole Brooks
The year was 1945. The young Victoria woke before Jeffrey. Daylight created only a thin outline around the edges of the vermilion brocade curtains, which meant she sometimes slept far later than she intended. The second story of the house was dark despite its vastness. The curtains were so thick they seemed impenetrable like walls—great insulators, Jeffrey had said. The second story was not like the first floor, which had broad glass on the back of the house, facing the ocean. On a sunny day, the kitchen, sunroom, and living room were sunny and bright also, despite the staid furnishings . Victoria thought the master bedroom was not unlike a tomb—dark taupe walls so glossy they looked damp, though of course they weren’t. Victoria could feel the weight of Jeffrey on the mattress next to her and wondered, for a short moment, if he was dead. But of course he was not dead. All evidence pointed to the contrary. His breathing was raucous. She had no idea how she could sleep through the noises he made, but she was thankful she could. She was also thankful to have awoken first. Despite his phlegmy breathing, she considered this a time of privacy.
Victoria rose as quietly as she could manage and paused to look at Jeffrey’s body. His sparse grey hair was feather-like and stuck up from his scalp, as if it threatened to float away. His jaw hung loosely below his sallow cheeks, breath crackling. Victoria could almost not bear to look at him, all the crevices and noises. But she had thought him handsome when they’d met, hadn’t she? She had. She kept reminding herself of this. That this, everything now, was all her doing, what she had wanted. Jeffrey was indeed well-built, still looked sharp in a suit. On the evening they met he had been handsome, spry, wearing a tuxedo, holding a whiskey sour. She had enjoyed talking to him—she was not a dunce, and Jeffrey engaged her in conversation long enough to figure this out. People often assumed negative things about her, or at least assumed very little, and this was because she was pretty. But she was no idiot, she would remind herself often. She was no idiot. He must have been at the peak of his health then when they first met, holding that drink and smiling. Only six months ago Victoria had this perfect image in her head. But now she lived with everything, saw everything, this sleeping body.
After slipping her feet into her moccasins, Victoria looked up at the Virgin Mary above the bed—a detailed cross stitch of bright colors in a modest, slim frame of about one and a half by two feet. The Blessed Virgin Mary with her hands clasped bowed her head downward, a shroud covering her hair. This cross-stitch was Victoria’s handiwork and she was proud. She knew the image and the modest brown frame were too small for the room. The wall was large and the furniture was all robust and huge. But the enormous master bed and too-tall mahogany nightstands topped with Peony Tiffany lamps would not detract from Mary. No, Mary would be front and center. One could only go so large with cross-stitch. The pattern took Victoria two weeks to complete as it was, and she couldn’t imagine making a larger one. She didn’t even enjoy cross-stitch. She felt, though, that she was supposed to make something handmade to christen this new home of hers—that’s what people did, she supposed.
“What are you doing?” Jeffrey had asked when he walked in on her as she tried to take down the slim glass case of horrid masks from above the bed. She was startled but also relieved. She had no idea the case would be so heavy. Who put such things above their bed? He rushed over, “Whoa, careful Vic, careful.” Jeffrey managed to move the case from the wall down onto the bed. As it lay there, in its ugliness atop the lush bedspread, Victoria thought that she wouldn’t have minded if she’d dropped it and broken it. But Jeffrey would mind, he would mind very much. The masks were part of his collection, these ghoulish Vodun artifacts and whatnot. “It’s not that different than Catholicism. The Haitian Iwa are like the Saints you like,” he’d said as they walked awkwardly, with the heavy case, down the stairs. “One big god and helpers,” he said. He had explained this to her before. However, Victoria insisted, sharply, that Mary go above the bed in place of the masks. Jeffrey had not objected, but he spoke to her in a way that made her feel like she was a student that had difficulty grasping a topic, and she didn’t like this feeling. She helped him move the glass case down to his study on the main floor, propped against his bookcases. Victoria didn’t want to bother contemplating what he said—the statues, masks, fetishes, all looked demonic to her. Sure, she could not argue against their monetary value. Jeffrey was a collector: Haiti this, Yoruba that, and the Lukumi…she didn’t care. She had feigned interest, kissed Jeffrey on the cheek, and went to properly display Mary above her bed.
The master bathroom counter-top was a sprawling piece of pink marble accented by gold-tone fixtures. Two sinks sat at opposite ends. An oval mirror with a bronze filigree frame hung above each basin. On the counter, Jeffrey kept out only his inhaler and his toothbrush, his twice-daily imperatives. All other sundries hid in the rosewood drawers. Victoria kept out her face powder and Yardley English Lavender, a stash of cosmetics hidden away in the drawers.
Victoria appreciated the separation of space. She appreciated the rooms in the house, the fact that she could be far away from things she wanted to pretend did not exist. Jeffrey’s sink was about spitting phlegm and taking medicines. If he rose before her in the morning she would pull the covers over her head and feign sleep. After she’d heard him pad out of the room in his slippers, her body would relax. Jeffrey had seemed surprised that she wanted to sleep in the master bed with him. The guest rooms were equally elegant. When he’d told her to take her pick of rooms and she then told him she’d never thought elsewhere than with him, he was visibly elated, and had mumbled, I’d just assumed.
Victoria was young. An orphan after her parents’ automobile accident back when she was a teenager, she used to say. However, she had noted the word orphan did not gain her sympathy from others anymore—she, even, was getting too old for some things. Yet, her youth was a problem. Jeffrey’s family, well, she and Jeffrey had distanced themselves from them. Jeffrey’s adult son did not approve. He was an adult, but Victoria was an adult now too, a fact she had to keep reminding herself of when she felt lost. By God, she had to decide what to do. Yes, and that is why she had had to do something. What kind of a life was she to have? Well, she had met Jeffrey and figured it out. She was no longer an orphan, but now Mrs. Jeffrey Greene. Perhaps he did love her. Admiration of her youth, her energy. A need for her nursing, her cooking. Someone to talk to that was pretty, someone that would not go away at the end of the evening. She didn’t blame him for his proposal. It wasn’t lust. There was no dirty old man. He was so earnest, about everything.
Now she could see the days lengthening before her, the walls of this house threatening to pull her into the ground, as if it would all collapse down into a chasm, where she’d remain trapped for eternity. But these walls were what she wanted. She told herself she loved him, but what she wanted to love was a home. And this was grand. This was an estate: Otranto. Jeffrey, having had it built to his own specifications, had named it this strange name. Jeffrey said the name was “whimsical and fun,” something to do with some old book. “A what?” she’d said upon hearing the name the first time, and then Jeffrey had explained his cleverness to her satisfaction. Prior to seeing the house, she was concerned he seemed a bit nutty, but then it turned out it was indeed a building worthy of a name.
At the back of the house, Victoria loved the slope of the land down to the rocks and the water, and the magnificent size of the main house if you looked up at it from the rocks. A detached garage sat away from the main house, with large worn faded swing style doors lacking adornment, as if the small building was nothing but an afterthought. The loft in the garage housed Jeffrey’s paints and canvases and some of his tools for looking at artifacts. He called it his studio. This was different than his study inside the house. Victoria did not care about the garage.
His paintings were very good though. Frankly, she did not have a clue why he was not famous for it. He said it was just a hobby. Shortly after they married Jeffrey persuaded Victoria to sit for a portrait—a grand thing done in oils. She had to model for it for several days, each time sitting exactly how she had the day before, at the exact same time of day too, lest the light be different. To her, the finished painting looked very old fashioned and made her feel regal. Her portrait on the wall seemed to give her a legitimate familial history, a real claim to things. An oil of Victoria Greene was on the wall.
The wedding had been small: ten friends, no family. Victoria’s dress was ankle-length with a high neck and long sleeves of lace. She’d agonized over choosing her small white hat and veil, but once it was done she felt great relief and pride. Father Brunnick married them at St. Agnes. It all ended up seeming exceedingly convenient. The Mass was too long, but it always was. After the ceremony the group took three cars back to Otranto. Victoria had hired a caterer to set up a few tables with light food and, of course, they would have to cut the cake. Victoria was most excited about the harpist, the harpist and the rocks by the ocean. She loved the beauty she created by purchasing things. She had carefully chosen canapés with spreads, Welsh rarebit toasties, a modest white layer cake. She’d carried calla lilies as she walked the aisle toward Jeffrey. But that was four months ago.
Victoria brushed her teeth and washed her face at her sink, on her half of the pink marble counter-top. She dried her hands, tucked her hair behind her ears, dusted powder over her nose, and smeared a spot of rouge on her cheeks. Before leaving the bathroom, she took Jeffrey’s inhaler, the ugly rubber bulb with its glass stalk, from the bathroom counter. After examining the inhaler for a moment, she opened the second rosewood drawer up from the floor. She placed the inhaler in the far back corner of the drawer. She closed the drawer.
After Victoria left the bathroom, she dressed and went about straightening the main floor of the house. After Jeffrey awoke he always worked in his study. His study was at the opposite end of the house from the kitchen and sunroom, where Victoria spent most of her time. Jeffrey mulled over his papers, talking to people on the telephone about things Victoria did not know about and didn’t waste time wondering about. Probably bidding on more evil artifacts. Sometimes the statues seemed as if they were taking over the house, if not in sheer number then in silent conspiracy. It was as if the little carvings could communicate with one another. Victoria knew this idea was crazy, sometimes. She planned to cross stitch St. Michael next, perhaps for above the fireplace in the den.
As was their routine, in the late afternoon Victoria ventured to Jeffrey’s study and knocked lightly on the heavy door. Following a lengthy cough, Jeffrey said, “Oh, do come in.” When she opened the door she saw his face was strained. She had told him just yesterday that he looked ill.
“You don’t look well.” Victoria walked over and put her hand to his forehead. It was hot. She pulled her hand away and looked around. Her gaze settled on the grotesque bocie Jeffrey insisted on keeping on his desk. It was only one of many bocie Jeffrey had acquired, but it was the most foreboding. The statue, as all bocie were, was clearly a person, but it was covered in all sorts of mess. Fur, feathers, straw, and bones were piled on the surface, covering most of the body in ugly textured masses. Cloth, iron, beads, and bits of pottery were stuck about, only leaving the head and feet exposed. The crown and jaw of the head were enlarged, menacing. Cloth and hide pouches of what Victoria could only imaging to be various poisons hung from its neck. Her eyes could not settle on one part of it. Victoria had commented once, in horror, that the statue looked saturated in places with oil and blood. To this, Jeffrey complemented her on her “good eye.” Victoria was stunned, and from then on thought of this one as Blood Head. Victoria looked from Blood Head to Jeffrey.
“I’m fine. But, honey,” he paused. His breathing was labored. “I think I may have forgotten my medicine this morning. Will you fetch it?”
“I’ll go look.” Victoria kissed him on the forehead.
She did go look—but his inhaler was not on the bathroom counter.
Instead of returning to her husband with news of this disappearing inhaler, she went to the kitchen. She would make her famous Bolognese sauce.
She opened a bottle of red wine. She pulled the ground beef and pork sausage from the icebox and set it aside. After getting the meat and laying it out neatly on the countertop, she got the vegetables. She finely chopped the pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, and she minced the garlic. She sautéed the pancetta and vegetables then set them aside. She browned the beef and the pork. She added a splash of whole milk. Then, the Bolognese was ready to simmer.
Two family secrets were passed down about this recipe: the pork sausage and the three hour simmer.
After setting the sauce to simmer, Victoria went back to Jeffrey’s study. After getting no response from her knock, she opened the door to see Jeffrey try to stand up from his chair. Both his hands pressed flat against the top of his desk. His head hung. He looked up. His right hand lifted up and flailed about in the air, came down and knocked over Blood Head who fell to the floor with a clatter. Jeffrey’s hand slapped back down on the desk.
“Help me,” he said.
Victoria pulled the door slowly until she heard the door latch. She headed back to the kitchen, but this time she stopped in the living room. She called it, properly, a record player, but Jeffrey insisted on calling it a phonograph. Before the wedding, she had requested they get one—the newest kind. The cabinet also housed a radio receiver. After lifting the heavy lid, she thumbed through the few new records she had purchased. She put on the B-side of her newest 78: Bing Crosby’s rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
As the strings began their powerful ascent, she stared at the fireplace, imagining St. Michael resting atop the mantle. O Beautiful Prince of the heavenly host, St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle and in the terrible warfare that we are waging against the evil spirits which surround us. Come to the aid of man, whom Almighty God redeemed at a great price from the tyranny of Satan. The prayer she whispered to herself became buried under the melody.
To make a place for St. Michael, she would have to move the case that was above that mantle. It was full of messy things like the mess on Blood Head. Jeffrey had explained the importance of each object to her and she had discarded this scholarship. This case looked just like the one that had held the masks above the bed. The most innocuous item in this case was a small pouch covered in cowries. A smooth stone hung by a cord from a bundle of sticks and cloth secured together. An animal horn, covered in what looked like strings and feathers, hung like a dagger ready to pierce. She wondered if there was some special glass case-maker for things that needed to be sealed up. Of course there was. People said they put these things, these artifacts, in cases to protect and preserve them. But Victoria knew better—it must also be to keep the things locked away, to seal up the evil. “I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new…” Bing Crosby crooned.
After Victoria had perfected the Bolognese, the requisite three hour simmer had passed and she went again to Jeffrey’s study. She opened the door to see.