There was one other time when Death had shown itself to Ellen.
Back then, she was only a girl of ten, walking down a deserted street in Edinburgh with her older brother. It was nearly dark and Edward was hurrying her along, mumbling about how angry mother would be that he had still not brought Ellen home. Ellen’s excitement was only slightly perforated by fear of her mother’s retribution. Her cheeks were rosy and she was out of breath. This was the latest she had ever been outside her home. They passed a dark narrow alley and Ellen chanced a glance. She halted in her tracks, a blood curdling scream forming in her throat, silenced by the retching taste of vomit which rose like bile to her mouth. She could not think, she could only see what eyes such as hers should never have fallen upon. She was unaware of anything around her. She was numb to the tugging of her brother who had still not realised that a body had been dumped, just out of sight, in that little alleyway. The dogs had got to it already, so that it was ravaged beyond identification. The face and torso were mutilated but an arm, which seemed to be reaching out to Ellen was still intact, hopeless fingers curling upwards slightly.
Death had reeked then, a smell so foul it clogged her nostrils for weeks later. Death had made her ill and not just of body. It took her and her brother months and years to recover completely and although the horrible dreams lingered, the impact had slowly washed away and with it the memory of Death had slowly dissipated. It came back now, like a wave which suddenly and mercilessly crashed her against jagged rocks. Once again, nothing existed but Death. It did not reek today. Today it watched. And watched, and watched.
“Oh, I see you’ve met my friends.” Ellen’s lips trembled. Shaking hand still holding the sheet, Ellen looked up. Tess was holding a stack of dinner plates in her arms. A small smile played on her lips while she looked at Ellen. The carefree naivety with which Tess beheld her, like there was nothing which was terribly, utterly wrong with that painting was no less jarring than the subject of the painting itself. Ellen tried to form words but once again, bile kept everything at bay. She swallowed hard
“What… why?” Ellen floundered, trying to make sense in the chaos which had stirred dark memories, which swirled around her and around Tess’ smiling form, chased shadows around the room. She let the white cover fall from her grasp, hiding death, stilling chaos.
“Come dear, surely there never is a why to a painting.” Lady Tess had started putting the plates on the table, making her way around slowly. Ellen stared, fists clenched by her side, still tasting vomit at the back of her throat. “Sometimes, it’s a desperate need to paint what you see, sometimes it’s an inexplicable force you need to release. And demons are the very worst. They yearn to be free you know. To be released. Then, you find peace.” She stopped and looked at Ellen. Her smile deepened. In two quick strides she was upon her, grabbing her hand and holding it to her chest. “I have had the most splendid idea!” she said. Enthusiasm glistened in her eyes. Ellen shivered uncontrollably and tried to wrest her hand free but Lady Tess had a vice-like grip, her smile still plastered in her wrinkled face. “I am having them over for dinner tonight, why don’t you stay and meet them? They have always so much to say, it tires me sometimes but with you, someone so new and fresh and young – we could have fun, you know. Oh please say you will!” Tess was almost rocking on her heels in anticipated delight, like a child proposing a day by the sea. Ellen’s eyes grew wider with her remark, she was shaking her head and backing away, unwillingly pulling Lady Tess with her.
“No… no…!” she murmured through trembling lips. The room suddenly seemed smaller than it was, everything was converging to one single point, Tess’ face, inches away from her own, like her vision was getting narrower the farther she tried to look. Something moved in the corner of her eye, a breeze stirred the white cover and for a swift moment, it seemed to Ellen like something else had moved. Ellen closed her eyes tightly and with one final tug, freed her hand. She pushed Tess away and flew out of the dining room, past eyes which followed and mouths which seemed to laugh and ring in her ears.
“How rude of you!” Tess called out after her. But Ellen was at the door, struggling to open it. When she finally did, she ran down the pathway towards the road without looking back. Tess’ shouts were getting fainter and the ringing in her ear receded with ever step she took. She stumbled twice in her haste, grazing her knee but she did not stop until she got home and had locked the door behind her. She sagged against it, falling in a heap on the floor, sobbing.
The horror. The horror! Creatures, unnameable creatures which hunt the darkest corners of insidious minds grope and hold. Slime and blood and slime, feel it as it takes you, touches you. Grotesque shapes with limbs stretching out, devouring flesh, minds and souls, mincing, grinding gnashing. Re-incarnations of a twisted mind’s darkest fears, or perhaps desires – whatever comes first, or whatever is left. The mincing, the gnawing, the gnashing, the slime, the blood, the slime never stops. Blood seeping through greedy mouths, always wanting more. Teeth, jagged teeth, everywhere ripping and tearing limbs and faces. And eyes… oh but the eyes, they never sleep. They stare and hunger. They watch and they wait and they reach out, always reaching, plunging me in darker pits. Is there no way out of this nightmare? No way out? Am I to be consumed, am I only meat and slime and blood? Oh but my soul, pity my soul, leave me be! Will you not leave me? Is there no way out? Will the demons within never sleep?
Ellen spent the next two days a recluse in her own home, writing feverishly. She felt hot one minute and cold the next, like the sickness was real, and maybe it was. She could not stop thinking about what she saw. She did not eat and slept fitfully. If she was not writing, she sat at her chair and rocked back and forth, arms tight around her. It seemed to her like she had gone back fifteen years, to that twilight in Edinburgh when Death first reared its head and showed her how rotten and ugly his side of the world was. But this time she was alone and falling to its strong lure everyday. For despite the fear which impaired Ellen, she could not shake off the whisper which urged her to see, to open her eyes and see. It was madness, Ellen knew. But she could not help unlocking the door at night and stepping out, only to bolt back in and lock it in a trembling sweat. No. Tess’ demons were everywhere. And they wanted to be seen.
On the third night after Death had lifted the veil once more for her to see, she got out of bed. Her sweat-drenched nightmare had woken her up again. This time, whatever walls she had built to protect herself had come crashing down around her. There was no use fighting. She got out of bed, went to her front door, unlocked it and let herself out. The wind tugged at her dress and her hair but Ellen barely felt it. My Guests. Restless Spirits. My friends. Demons. There was a certain helplessness to her now. She had failed to get those creatures out of her head. They called to her, their voice now sweet like rosewater over stone, now rasping like flint grating against flint. And she gave in to them now. Let it be over. Please, let it be over. She stopped short when she came in front of Hawthorne Manor. The large dining room was lit up. Music was being played on Lady Tess’ gramophone, a happy tune, chillingly out place.
Inside, shadows were dancing in a silent tribute to the lady who set them free. Lady Tess had long harboured them, these demons, in a mind which grew ever darker over the years of imprisonment. As a young girl, she had always felt oddly out of place. She seemed to see things other people did not. She had friends no one ever saw. And for that she was banished to never leave her house again. Her paintings were both her blessing and her curse. Before the paintings, she was left mostly alone, unmolested, unperturbed, to do as she wished, with whoever took her fancy. When the discovery of her talent was made, things changed. Now, everyone in her house was keeping an eye on her, every single moment was spent under someone else’s scrutiny.
She must not dally, Margot. Every lost moment is lost money. This child is our deliverance John, is she not? Yes, who would have thought. Simple Tess. That’s a good girl. Tell Mrs Gibbons she is not to stop until supper. That’s a good girl.
A pat, a little ruffling of the hair. Steps receding and steps coming back. Eyes watching. She hated it. She hated every single second of it, and she hated those who watched her even more.
So, years on, she started painting eyes with a disturbing alacrity. No one likes being watched all the time. No, no one does. And Tess smiled when people shuddered now at her paintings. Unsettling. Disturbing. No one wanted to buy them anymore so her family drove her into herself, deeper still.
You will paint like you used to Tess, or by God you will regret this. You will. You will. You will.
Tess reached a new found darkness in herself, one she had never discovered. One which was slimy and tasted of blood. There was no coming out. The creatures she drew were the demons she found within. She believed she saw them, creeping around the house, silencing the household until there was no one left but her. No more watchers, no more eyes except her own. The blood on her hands she quickly washed away. There were no stains on her white hands, none that she saw. No one knew what she and her demons had done and when they questioned, no one delved too deep. The community feared the girl who spoke to spirits and no one wanted to have anything to do with her or the house. The family had simply upped and left, leaving her behind.
Tears ran down Ellen’s cheeks as she moved forward, unable to resist. She reached the large windows and looked in.
“Notice if you will, the queer reflections in the young woman’s eyes. The lengths the artist went to, to capture what held this lady’s gaze through the window. The fear etched on her skin. Notice the shadows in her eyes which swirl, arms reaching, claws perhaps? A sombre spectacle, surely, but guaranteed to delight followers of the late Lady Hawthorne and the, shall we say, darker twist the painter took later in her life. Can I have a hundred for this magnificent piece? Two hundred to the gentleman in black, thank you sir. Can I have 300? 300 hundred to the man in the mink shawl. Thank you good sir, and oh my, 400 to the gentleman in black. Can I have 500? No? 450? No, then 400. Going once… going twice… sold, for £400 to the gentleman in the last row in black. The last known painting of Lady Tess of Hawthorne. Now on to our next piece…” The auctioneer drawled on in his nasal voice while the gentleman in the last row made his slow way out. It was winter now and Edinburgh was blanketed in white. Christmas carols were being sung merrily from St Giles as he walked by. He tightened his hand over the parcel he had just bought. His knuckles were white. His lips pursed, his eyes unreadable, he went up the slippery stairs to the institution’s main door. The staff had attempted to cheer up its dank hallways with garlands and holly but it looked to Edward more like a parody of the season. A mocking tribute to the happiness which had no place in the rooms here. He stopped by at the reception.
“Ellen McDonnell.” The nurse did not even look up from her papers. Edward Mc Donnell could set up a bed here for all his comings and goings. The nurse glanced briefly at his parcel and looked at him questioningly. “A Christmas… gift,” he said, grimacing. If only it would bring her joy. She nodded. They would normally enquire to see such things but Mr McDonnell was trusted here. He was a good man, as good as one could be. Edward thanked the nurse and made his sombre way to Cell Number 56. The place was oddly quiet. Usually muffled voices competed with each other to be heard. Some sing, some cry, some just talk loudly. Today, there was only the occasional whimper. Maybe the nurses sedated them so they too can enjoy something of the Christmas spirit. Edward shivered. No matter how often he came to this forsaken corner of the city, he still felt queasy, like he was intruding on things he should not be seeing, or hearing. Many people felt that way about the St Albert’s Hospital for the Mentally Disturbed. Most pretend it does not exist and those who visit, usually try to do so unseen. It does the family name no good, you see.
Edward was different. He didn’t care what other people said of him or his sister behind his back. He would never abandon her. When she had first come back from Lake Mora, she would not talk or eat. Her eyes had dark circles and they always stared, wide and afraid. Of what? She would not talk, no matter how much he urged her and when his father – scared of what the people might say – locked her away “until she regained her senses”, he thought he had lost her for good. And while his mother pined and whittled away into nothing, cursing his father for ever consenting she be sent away on her own, Edward swore he would get to the bottom of it. Before trying to talk to her again, he unlocked her suitcases. Beneath dresses carelessly stowed and half rotting apples, he found her notebooks. Very slowly, a story started taking shape. A woman who talked to herself, feared by all in the town. An eccentric genius of a painter, she swore she had dinner parties with the people in her painting and – but what was this? Almost unidentifiable scrawls replaced the careful script. Jagged lines which tore through pages, replaced the soft curls of the letters his sister so lovingly wrote. And what he read chilled him to the marrow. When he closed the notebook with a shaking hand, the last words haunted him for the rest of the day.
I must see them. I must see them. For they will never stop seeing me.
His sister had seen something, or believed to have seen something which had terrified her out of her wits. With books at hand, he started visiting her more often until very, very slowly, she started opening the lid on the fears which gnawed at her. And Edward listened, unable to make out whether to believe her or not. He feared that, should she talk to someone else about them, they would never let her out of that accursed place. So they talked. Brief conversations which would flow readily one second, and seize up the next when Ellen refused to utter another thing. Edward made it his life’s mission to get her out of St Albert’s. Whatever it took. And so, when he had heard of Lady Tess’ painting being auctioned off, he had told her. Her glance from the other side of the room had been piercing. What painting? She had asked. He didn’t know- but it was not the one she had discovered under the white cover, that much for sure.
“A painting of a woman, her latest. That is all I know.” When Ellen requested it, Edward naturally got it for her.
He entered her room. Over the years, when Ellen was showing slight improvements, the nurses had allowed her the use of a better room. This one had a small bookshelf, an armchair and even a small fireplace, which was certainly not allowed in almost any cell due to its dangerous implications. She was only allowed to light a fire when she was being supervised but it had made a difference, Edward could see. There was a small fire going now, cheerily crackling, unaware of the heavy air which still clung in the room. The nurse which had been with her, knitting silently in the corner, left when Edward entered. He sighed and placed the heavy painting against his chair, reaching out to the Brandy bottle on the small table between them. Ellen’s eyes had not left him since he entered but she did not say a single word. He poured himself and her a cup, finishing the bottle. He looked at it, then at her, raising an eyebrow. She shrugged and took a sip. Dark circles still hung beneath her tired eyes. It pained Edward to see how old she looked, one still so young. He sighed again and placed the bottle gently on the table. He took hold of the frame and looked at her.
“She is dead you know. Tess.” Ellen stared at the fire and did not say a word. She took another gulp of her brandy and turned to face him. “Ellen, I am not sure you should see this,” he said slowly, measuring each word.
“It’s me, isn’t it?” she said softly. “Please let me see. I want to see.” Edward did not reply. With one last worried look at his sister, he proceeded to rip the paper covering the painting. Ellen did not say anything. She looked on, her expression unfathomable beneath all that sadness. If she felt anything, she did not show it. She calmly put her glass on the table next to the empty bottle and her brother’s untouched cup. She stood up slowly, skirts rustling. Edward looked up. He did not stop her when she took hold of the painting, or when she walked with it towards the fire. Ellen looked at it for another brief moment and Edward thought he saw something flicker in her eyes. Anger which replaced sadness. The moment seemed to last much longer than it actually had. Just as suddenly it was broken and Ellen chucked the painting in the fire. She stood there for a while and then walked back to her chair. She took the glass gulped the contents down. He took his own glass and they turned to watch the demons which had haunted Ellen for so long, burn.
The eyes were the last to be consumed, the arms reflected in them, which had been reaching out just moments earlier curled in on themselves before they became ashes and dust. Edward saw Ellen closing her eyes, before a tear ran down her cheek. The rasping and rattling breath she emitted would haunt Edward all his life. Because it was at that moment that he believed her. He believed she saw what she said she had seen in that room. And it jarred him deeply. He leaned forward, put his head in his free hand, wishing with all his might that he could turn back time, to the day he had seen Ellen off on the platform. That warm May day. A hand cupped itself on his own. and he looked up. Ellen was looking at him and though her cheeks were still tear-stained, though that sigh still echoed in his mind, he swore a corner of her small mouth lifted. He swore it did.
“Thank you,” she uttered softly. Outside, the choir singers from St Giles’ spilled out from the church and their voices flitted through the cracks of St Albert’s, filling the room. For a moment, the air felt lighter and when Ellen leant back against her chair and closed her eyes, her forehead was no longer creased. She looked, almost, as young as she truly was. Edward leaned back in his own chair and stared at the fire. There was no trace of anything there at all. He took the glass and sipped at his Brandy. It was a long time since he believed he’d get a good night’s sleep.