“A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson is a disturbing horror novelette about a British expatriate at loose ends who is hired by her friend to temporarily care for his young, orphaned nephew in a remote castle-like structure in Germany.
Peter’s little French nursemaid was just the type of rosy young thing Helen liked, but there was something strange about her mouth. She was shy and wouldn’t speak, but that was no matter. Helen could keep the conversation going all by herself.
“Our journey was awful. Paris to Strasbourg clattered along fast enough, but the leg to Munich would have been quicker by cart. And Salzburg! The train was outpaced by a donkey.”
Helen laughed at her own joke. Mimi tied a knot on a neat patch of darning and began working on another stocking.
Helen had first seen the nursemaid’s pretty face that morning, looking down from one of the house’s highest windows as she and Bärchen Lambrecht rowed across the lake with their luggage crammed in a tippy little skiff. Even at a distance, Helen could tell she was a beauty.
Bärchen had retreated to the library as soon as they walked through the front door, no doubt to cry in private over his brother’s death after holding in his grief through the long trip from Paris. Helen had been left with the choice to sit in the kitchen with two dour servants, lurk alone in the moldering front parlor, or carry her coffee cup up the narrow spiral staircase and see that beauty up close.
The climb was only a little higher than the Parisian garret Helen had lived in the past three months, but the stairs were so steep she had been puffing hard by the time she got to the top. The effort was worthwhile, though. If the best cure for a broken heart was a new young love, Helen suspected hers would be soon mended.
“We had a melancholy journey. Herr Lambrecht was deeply saddened to arrive here at his childhood home without his brother to welcome him. He didn’t want to leave Paris.” Helen sipped her cooling coffee. “Have you ever been to Paris?”
Mimi kept her head down. So shy. Couldn’t even bring herself to answer a simple question.
Peter sat on the rug and stacked the gilded letter blocks Bärchen had brought him. For a newly-orphaned child, he seemed content enough, but he was pale, his bloodless skin nearly translucent against the deep blue velvet of his jacket. He seemed far too big for nursery toys—six or seven years old, she thought. Nearly old enough to be sent away to school, but what did Helen know about children? In any case, he seemed a good-natured, quiet boy. Nimble, graceful, even. He took care to keep the blocks on the rug when he toppled the stack.
She ought to ask him to put the blocks in alphabet order, see how much his mother had taught him before she had passed away. But not today, and probably not tomorrow, either. A motherless, fatherless boy deserved a holiday, and she was tired from travel. The servants here were bound to be old-fashioned, but none of them would judge her for relaxing in a sunny window with a cup of coffee after a long journey.
They would judge her, though, if they thought she was Bärchen’s mistress. She would be at Meresee all summer, so she needed to be on good terms with them—and especially with Mimi.
“We traveled in separate cars, of course. Herr Lambrecht is a proper, old-fashioned sort of gentleman.” Helen stifled a laugh. Bärchen was nothing of the sort, but certainly no danger to any woman. “The ladies’ coach was comfortable and elegant, but just as slow as the rest of the train.”
Still no reaction. It was a feeble joke, but Helen doubted the nursemaid ever heard better. Perhaps the girl was simple. But so lovely. Roses and snow and dark, dark hair. Eighteen or twenty, no more. What a shame about her mouth. Bad teeth perhaps.
Helen twisted in her seat and looked out the window. The Meresee was a narrow blade of lake hemmed in tight by the Bavarian Alps. Their peaks tore into the summer sky like teeth on a ragged jaw, doubled in the mirror surface of the lake below. It was just the sort of alpine vista that sent English tourists skittering across the Alps with their easels and folding chairs, pencils and watercolors.
The view of the house itself was unmatched. Helen had been expecting something grand, but as they had rowed up the lake, she was surprised she hadn’t seen Bärchen’s family home reproduced in every print shop from London to Berlin, alongside famous views of Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenschwangau. Schloss Meresee was a miniature version of those grand castles—tall and narrow, as if someone had carved off a piece of Neuschwanstein’s oldest wing and set it down on the edge of the lake. Only four storeys, but with no other structure for scale it towered above the shore, the rake of its rooflines echoing the peaks above, gray stone walls picked out in relief against the steep, forested mountainside. Not a true castle—no keep or tower. But add a turret or two, and that’s what the tourists would call it.
No tourists here to admire it, though. Too remote. No roads, no neighbors, no inns or hotels. From what Helen could see as she sat high in the fourth floor nursery window, the valley was deserted. Not even a hut or cabin on the lakeshore.
She’d never been to a place so isolated. Winter would make it even more lonely, but by then she would be long gone. Back in London, at worst, unless her luck changed.
When she turned from the window, Peter had disappeared. The door swung on its hinges.
“Where did Peter go?” Helen asked.
Mimi didn’t answer.
“To fetch a toy, perhaps?”
Mimi bent closer to her needle. Helen carried her coffee cup to the door and called out softly in German. “Peter, come back to the nursery this instant.” When there was no answer, she repeated it in French.
“I suppose Peter does this often,” Helen said. “He thinks it’s fun to hide from you.”
Mimi’s lips quivered. “Oui,” she said.
“Come along then, show me his hiding places.”
The nursemaid ignored her. Helen resisted the urge to pluck the darning from Mimi’s hands.
“If I were newly orphaned, I might hide too, just to see if anyone cared enough to search for me. Won’t you help me look?” Helen smiled, pouring all her charm into the request. A not inconsiderable amount, to judge by the effect she had on Parisian women, but it was no use. Mimi might be made of stone.
“To hell with you,” she said in English under her breath, and slammed the nursery door behind her.
It was barely even an oath. She knew much filthier curses in a variety of languages. Her last lover had liked to hear her swear. But no more. That life had cast Helen off. All she had left in Paris were her debts.
The clock chimed noon. When it stopped, the house was silent. Not a squeak or creak. No sign of Bärchen or the servants, no sound from the attics above or the floors below. She padded over to the staircase and gazed down the dizzying stone spiral that formed the house’s hollow spine. Steps fanned out from the spiral, each one polished and worn down in the center from centuries of use.
“Peter,” she called. “Come back to the nursery, please.”
“All right,” she sang out. “I’m coming to find you.”
Who could blame the child for wanting to play a game? Peter had no playmates. She could indulge him, just this once. And it gave her a good excuse to snoop through the house.
By the time Helen had worked her way through the top two floors, it was obvious that the servants were outmatched by the housekeeping. The heavy old furniture was scarred and peeling, the blankets and drapes threadbare and musty, the carpets veiled with a fine layer of cobwebs that separated and curled around her every footstep. The surfaces were furred with a fine white dust that coated the back of her throat and lay salty on her tongue. After a half hour of wiggling under beds and rifling through closets and wardrobes, she was thirsty as if she’d been wandering the desert.
In old houses, the worst furniture was banished to the highest floors. As Helen descended, she expected the furnishings to become newer, lighter, prettier, if just as dusty. In the main rooms, the ones Peter’s mother would have used, the furniture was the same: blackened oak carved into intricate birds, fish, and beasts. The sort of furniture that infested Black Forest hunting lodges, but raw and awkward, as if one of the family’s great-uncles had taken up a late-in-life passion for wood carving and filled the house with his amateur efforts.
Still, if she could get the servants to clean it properly, she might adopt the large sitting room as her own. She could teach Peter just as well there as in the nursery. It would save her from climbing up and down stairs all day long. And though the sofa was backed by a winding serpent with a gaping maw, it was still a more likely setting for seducing a nursemaid than a drafty nursery window seat.
Under one of the beds she found a thin rib from a rack of lamb, riddled with tooth marks. Somewhere in the house was a dog. She’d have to take care to make friends with it.
Still no sign of Peter. Perhaps he was a troubled child, despite his placid looks. If so, this summer wouldn’t be the holiday Bärchen had promised. She’d found him in a booth at Bistro Bélon Bourriche, downing himself in cognac. Within five minutes, he’d offered to pay her to join him for the summer at his family home and teach his nephew English. It would be easy, he said. Bärchen knew how badly she needed money. He was always so kind—famous for his generosity among the boys of Montparnasse and Pigalle.
Helen tapped the rib in her palm as she descended to the ground floor. There, the staircase widened and spread into the foyer, forming a wide, grand structure. At the back of the foyer, the stairs continued through a narrow slot in the floor. To the cellars, no doubt. Exploring down there would be an adventure.
Helen’s trunk still sat by the front door, waiting for the steward to bring it upstairs. On the near side of the foyer, tobacco smoke leaked from the library. It smelled heavenly. She hadn’t been able to afford cigarettes for months. She’d almost ceased yearning for the taste of tobacco, but her mouth watered for it now. Bärchen would give her a cigarette, if she asked for one. But no. She wouldn’t disturb him. He had kept a brave face all through their journey. He deserved some time alone with his grief.
She padded into the murky parlor opposite the library and pulled aside the heavy green drapes, holding her breath against the dust. The sun was high above the mountains. The lake gleamed with light. Dust motes swarmed the air. The sunlight turned the oak furniture chalky, the heavy brocade upholstery nearly pastel. The walls were festooned with hunting trophies—stuffed and mounted heads of deer, wild goats, even two wolves and a bear. Their glass eyes stared down through the cobwebs as if alarmed by the state of the housekeeping.
She skated her finger through the dust on the windowsill. P-E-T-E-R, she wrote in block letters. When she began the boy’s lessons there’d be no need for work books and pencils. Any flat surface could be used as a slate. It might embarrass the servants into doing their work.
Stepping back from the window, her foot jittered over a lump on the floor. Two tiny bones nestled under the carpet’s green fringe—dry old gnawed leavings from a pair of veal chops. She tucked them in her pocket with the lamb bone. Then in the dining room she found a jawbone under a chair—small, from a roast piglet. She put it in her pocket.
Helen found her way to the kitchen at the back of the ground floor. An old woman chopped carrots at the table, her wrinkled jowls quivering with every blow of the knife. Beside her, the steward crouched over a cup of coffee. He was even older than the cook, his skin liver-spotted with age. They watched as Helen poured herself a glass of water from the stoneware jug.
“Peter likes to play games,” she said in German. “I can’t find him anywhere.”
The cook began fussing with the coffee pot. The steward kept to his seat. “We haven’t seen the boy, Fräulein York.”
“I hardly expected bad behavior from him on my very first morning at Meresee.”
“The boy is with the nursemaid. He is always with the nursemaid.” The steward’s tone was stern.
“How can you say that? He’s certainly not with her now.” She brushed cobwebs from her dress. “I’ve searched the house thoroughly, as you can very well see.”
“You must continue to look for him, Fräulein,” the steward said.
The cook bit into a carrot. Her jowls wobbled with every crunch.
They were united against her, but it only made sense. They were old country people and she was just an English stranger in a dirty, dusty dress. Raising her voice would win her no friends.
“Could you bring my trunk up to my room?” She smiled brightly. “I’d like to change out of my traveling clothes.”
“Yes, Fräulein York,” the steward said.
The cook went back to chopping carrots. The steward sipped his coffee. Did they expect her to retreat now?
“There is still the matter of Peter,” Helen said.
The cook’s knife slipped. Carrots scattered across the floor.
“The French girl takes care of the boy.” The cook’s words were barely understandable, some kind of antique form of Bavarian. “He’s not allowed in the kitchen.”
The steward’s mouth worked, thin lips stretching over his stained teeth.
“Is that true?” Helen asked the steward. “Why not?”
The steward covered the cook’s hand with his own. “The boy’s welfare is your business now, Fräulein.”
Helen found Peter at the back of the freezing cellar, hunkering in front of a door set deep into rock. The walls were caked with frost. The boy’s breath puffed like smoke.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked. “Come back upstairs now.”
“Bitte, miss,” the boy said. He wedged two fingers under the door, then crouched lower, head bobbing as he worked them deeper and deeper. His hair was neatly parted, two blond wings on either side of a streak of skin pale as a grub.
Whatever he was up to, whatever he thought he was going to find on the other side of the door, he was fully engrossed by it. Helen let him have his fun for a few minutes while she poked around the cellar, ducking under the low spines of the vaulted ceiling. On the wall opposite the door, bottles were stacked into head-sized alcoves in pyramids of six. She wiped the dust off a few labels. French, and not that old. Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy. More than three hundred bottles. Enough to last the summer.
The cellar smelled salty. It must have been used for aging and preserving meat, in the past. The cold air’s salty tang flooded her dry mouth with spit. What she wouldn’t give for a piece of pork right now, hot and juicy. Her stomach growled. Perhaps the cook could be persuaded to let her explore the kitchen larder.
Helen wandered back to the boy. “Come along, Peter, that’s enough. Mimi is waiting for you.”
The light from her candle jittered across the brass plate bolted to the door’s face. The tarnished metal was crusted with frost. She stepped closer, lifting her candle. It was a shield—griffins, an eagle, a crown.
She nudged Peter’s foot with her toe. “Time to go back upstairs.” He was stretched out on his belly now. “Peter, come along this instant.” An edge came into her voice. She was tired of being ignored by everyone in the house.
He pulled something from under the door and put it in his mouth.
“Stop that.” She grabbed Peter’s collar and hauled him across the cellar to the stairs. He pitched forward onto his hands and knees. The object popped out of his mouth and bounced off the bottom step.
Helen picked it up and turned it over in her palm. It was a tiny bone, slender, fragile, and wet with spit.
She stared at Peter. “That’s disgusting. What are you thinking?”
“Mama,” he sobbed. His thin shoulders quivered under the velvet jacket. “Mama.”
Remorse knifed through her. She tossed the bone aside, scooped him into her arms, and hauled him upstairs. “Hush,” she said, patting his quaking back as he sobbed.
Tobacco smoke leaking from the library had turned the air in the foyer gray. Her trunk still crouched by the front door.
Helen lowered Peter to his feet. He was heavy. She couldn’t possibly carry him up to the nursery. She’d be gasping.
Helen squeezed his bony shoulders. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” He wiped his nose on his sleeve and nodded. “Good, no more crying.”
She lugged the trunk upstairs and dropped it in her room. Then she took the boy’s hand and called up the spine of the staircase for Mimi.
When her pretty face appeared at the top of the spiral, Helen shooed the boy upstairs.
“Take care of him, won’t you?” Helen said. “There’ll be no lessons today. Not tomorrow, either. Then we’ll see.”
“Oui,” Mimi said.
When Bärchen came to dinner he was already drunk. The scarlet cheeks above his brown beard were so bright it looked like he’d been slapped.
“So many letters. My brother’s desk is stuffed to bursting.” Bärchen offered Helen a cigarette. “I can’t understand them. I have no head for business, Mausi.”
Helen blew smoke at him. “You always say that, but you seem to manage your own affairs well enough.”
“I must go to Munich for advice. I’ll be back soon, I promise. Two days at most.”
“Don’t stay away too long. You’ll come back to an empty wine cellar and a pregnant nursemaid.”
He giggled. “If that happens, it must be God’s will.”
Helen opened her mouth to make a joke about the furniture, but managed to stop herself in time despite the free flow of wine. The dining room chairs were particularly awful. Each one was topped by a sea serpent, thick and twisting, with staring eyes faced with mother-of-pearl. Under it was a rudely-rendered pair of human forms, male and female. And beneath them were thumb-sized lumps the shape of fat grubs. They dug into the small of Helen’s back.
Portraits glared down at the table from the surrounding walls. Wan blond children with innocent, expressionless faces. Handsome, smiling men and women, brown-haired and robust just like Bärchen. And sickly-looking older people, prematurely-aged, with smooth gray skin and straggly black hair framing hollow, staring eyes.
When the clock struck seven, they were halfway into the third bottle of claret. Bärchen was diagonal in his chair.
“Time for me to play pater familias.” He called out, “Mimi! Ici!”
Mimi appeared at the door, clutching Peter’s hand.
“Now, Mimi,” Bärchen slurred in French. “Is Peter behaving well? Is he in good health?”
“Oui,” said Mimi.
Helen watched close as the girl spoke. Yes, some of her teeth were missing, but how many? Helen pretended to yawn, making a dramatic pantomime of it and sighing ecstatically.
Mimi’s eyes watered as she tried not to yawn in response. When her lips curled back Helen caught a quick glimpse into her mouth. Her front teeth were gone, gums worn down to gleaming bone. Candlelight glinted on metal wire twisted through her molars.
Mimi clapped her hand over her mouth. Helen reached for a cigarette and pretended she hadn’t noticed. Poor girl. Nothing more sad than young beauty in ruin.
“Peter, come here,” Bärchen said.
With rough hands, he examined Peter’s fingernails and scalp, looked into his ears, then pried opened his mouth and poked a finger along his gums.
She knew what that felt like. Her father had done the same. His fingers had tasted of ash and ink.
One of Peter’s front teeth was loose.
“You’re losing your first tooth,” he said. “Does it hurt?”
Peter shook his head.
Bärchen wiggled it with the tip of a finger. “Let’s pluck it out now, and be done with it.”
Peter ran to Mimi and hid his face in her skirts.
“Oh come, Peter.” Bärchen laughed. “I’ll tie it to the doorknob with a bit of string. It’ll be over in a moment.”
Peter clutched Mimi’s waist.
“No? Then we’ll get an apple and you can bite into it like this.” He mimed raising an apple to his mouth and chomping down. “You can do that, can’t you?”
“No, Uncle.” Peter’s voice was muffled against Mimi’s hip. The girl had backed against the wall and was inching toward the door. Bärchen was taking this too far.
“It’s late, Herr Lambrecht,” Helen said. “Let the girl take Peter to bed.”
“Well then. The tooth with fall out on its own and then this will be yours.” Herr Lambrecht put a silver coin on the table. “Miss York will keep it for you.”
Mimi and boy slipped out the door.
“How was my performance?” Bärchen asked. “Was I convincing?”
“Very. I can hardly believe you never had children.”
“God forbid.” Bärchen shuddered and drained his wine glass. “Did I ever tell you about my nursemaid? Bruna was her name. She was devoted to me. You would have liked her. Very pretty. But like Mimi, not much of a talker. Not like you.”
“Nothing can keep me from saying what I think.” Helen reached into her pocket and set the bones on the stained tablecloth. “For example, your servants are lax,” she said.
He shrugged. “What can be done? They’re old. Who would choose to live here, if they could be anywhere else?”
After dinner they took their wine out the front door and onto the wide front terrace. Evening stars twinkled above looming mountains and a lakeshore veiled in mist. The three sides of the terrace stepped straight down into the water, like a dock or jetty. The skiff bobbed alongside, tied to an iron ring.
That morning, the water had been an inky sapphire, the color so brilliant it seemed to cling to the oars with Bärchen’s every stroke. Under the darkening sky it was tar black and viscous. In the distance, a dark object broke the surface, sending lazy ripples across the water. Helen squinted.
Bärchen followed her gaze. “Just a log, that’s all. I have a present for you.”
He pressed a silver cigarette case into her hand. It was her own—she’d pawned it for rent money three months ago. And it was full—forty slender cigarettes, lined up with care.
She grinned. “If we were back at the Bélon Bourriche, I could put on a pair of tight trousers and sing you a song, as many a young man has done. But you don’t want me sitting in your lap any more than I want to be there. So I’ll just say thank you.”
“It’s nothing. Will you be happy here, Mausi?”
“Of course. It’s so beautiful. Though I’m not sure how long I can stand to live in a place where nobody appreciates my jokes.”
He laughed. “Meresee is beautiful, but it can be a little confining. I’ll show you.” He led her to the edge of the terrace to peer around the side of the house. Its walls jutted straight down into the water, raising the house’s profile far beyond the shore. Behind, the steep mountainsides advanced on the lake, threatening to topple the house into the water.
“You don’t want to fall in. It’s deep, and so cold it’ll knock the breath right out of you.” He braced himself against the wall with an unsteady hand.
“I suppose this was a fortress, once,” said Helen. “Holding the border of some medieval Bavarian principality.”
Bärchen patted the wall. “A fortress, yes, but it never protected a border. It protected the salt.”
“Your family had salt mines?” Helen asked. No wonder Bärchen was wealthy.
“The mines belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor. The crown owed much of its wealth to Meresee. More precious than gold, once, this salt. My family protected it.”
Bärchen peered over the edge of the terrace. The water clung to the sides of the house. A shadowed stain crept up the foundation.
“Don’t fall in,” he repeated. “In winter it’s somewhat safer. When the ice forms, you can ski across the lake, or skate, if the snow has blown away. But even then, you must be careful.”
She laughed. “You’ve convinced me. I’ll be careful to be far, far from Meresee by winter.”
“Of course, Mausi.” Bärchen forced a chuckle. “Naples for the winter. Neapolitan widows like tall Englishwomen like you. Or Athens, if you please. The world is open to us. We are rich, happy, and at liberty.”
Bärchen was trying too hard to be jolly.
“Your new responsibility is eating at you, isn’t it, Bärchen?” She threaded her hand through the crook of his arm and drew him gently away from the water’s edge. “Why worry? Send Peter away to school. In England, many boys are sent away at his age.”
“Maybe you’re right. After the summer, if you think he’s ready. I’ll take your advice.”
“What do I know about children? Next to nothing—I told you so in Paris. You couldn’t find a less experienced fraud of a governess.”
Bärchen patted her hand. “You’re a woman. It will come naturally to you.”
“I doubt that very much.” Helen pulled her hand away. “But how much damage can I do in one summer? I’ll teach him a little English at least.”
“That’s fine, Mausi. Do your best.”
She grinned. “Are you sure you’re not his father? Peter favors you.”
“A family resemblance.” The last trace of dusk drained behind the mountains, and Bärchen’s mood darkened with the sky. His gaze fixed on the floating log. “If you think I’ll develop a father’s feelings, you’re wrong.” Bärchen’s deep voice rose to a whine. “It’s not fair to shackle me to a child that’s not mine. And it’s not fair to the child, either. He should have a mother’s love—devoted and selfless.”
“What happened to his mother?”
“It was grotesque. She swelled larger than this.” Bärchen held his arms out, encircling a huge belly. “How many babies can a woman’s body contain? Twins are common, triplets not unheard of. I can’t imagine how women survive even one, can you?”
Helen shook her head. Sour wine burned the back of her throat.
“My brother’s fault. He should have been more careful than to get so many babies on his wife.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” Helen said.
“It does in our family. One is fine. They should have been content with Peter and stopped there. But no, they had to have more children. And now they’ve all joined our family in the crypt.”
Bärchen stared at the house’s foundation stones. Helen followed his gaze.
“Do you mean there are tombs in your cellar? The door in the cellar leads to a crypt?”
He nodded. “I’ll go there too, eventually. Not soon—I’m still young.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “I try not to think about such things. Paris makes it easy to forget.”
A chill breeze stirred the water. She put her empty wine glass down and chafed her arms. “And your brother?”
“My brother couldn’t live without his wife. He had to join her.”
“Let’s go in, it’s getting cold.” Bärchen shook his head. “I can’t leave you out here alone,” she insisted, pulling on his elbow. “You’re too melancholy.”
“Don’t worry about me, Mausi,” he laughed. “I have no urge to join my family. I love my life in Paris too much to give it up yet.”
At the door she stopped, half in, half out of the house.
“Do you know what happened to Mimi’s mouth?” she asked.
“I heard it was an accident,” he said, and turned back to the lake.
Bärchen left at the first light of dawn. Helen’s pounding headache woke her just in time to spot him from her bedroom window, rowing across the lake in the skiff, pocking the water’s surface with each frantic pitch of the oars. She’d never seen him move so quickly, put so much of his bulky muscle to work. It was as though he were escaping something.
Anxiety wormed through her breast. If she called out to him, he’d turn around and row back. But the window latch was stuck, the claw cemented into the catch with years of dust and grit. She struggled with it for a minute, and then gave up. Her head throbbed, her mouth was coated in grit, and her eyes felt as though they’d been filled with sand. She crawled back to bed and shoved her head under her pillow.
When she finally ventured up to the nursery in the afternoon, Mimi was sitting in the window seat, needle and thread idle in her lap. The boy was nowhere to be seen.
Helen joined Mimi in the window seat. “How long have you been caring for Peter, Mimi?”
The girl shrugged.
“I suppose when you first came here, you ransacked the house every time he hid from you.”
“Oui,” said Mimi.
“But you’re tired of it. He’s older now. He should know better.”
Mimi hung her head. One lone tear streaked over the rose of her cheek and dropped to her collar, staining the cotton dark.
Helen longed to wipe her knuckle along that soft cheek, lift the dregs of the tear to her lips as if it were nectar. But no. That might be fine in a sodden Pigalle bistro, but not here. She’d only frighten the girl.
She rested her palm on Mimi’s knee, just the lightest touch. “Stay here, I’ll get him.”
Helen found Peter sitting on the edge of the terrace, legs extended, trying to reach his toes into the water. He leaned back, balancing on his arms, and squirmed closer to the edge.
Helen’s heart hammered. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep herself from calling out—a sudden noise might startle him. She crept closer, poised to run and grab him if he fell. When the boy turned his head toward her, she kept her voice low and calm.
“Come here, Peter.”
He ignored her. She slowly edged closer.
“Come away from there, please.”
When he was within reach she snatched him up, hauled him to the front of the house and set him down on the doorstep. She gripped his arms firmly and bent to look him in the eye.
“Peter, you can’t keep running off, do you understand? It’s dangerous. What if you’d fallen into the lake?”
“Bitte, miss.” The boy scuffed his foot. The light bouncing off the lake seemed to leach the color from his skin.
“Yes, Miss York. That’s your first English lesson. Repeat after me, Yes, Miss York.”
“Yes, Miss York,” he said.
“Good,” she said.
He raised his hand to her cheek. He gave her one brief caress, and then snaked two of his fingers into her mouth.
Helen reeled backward. Her arms pinwheeled. She grabbed for the door handle but missed. When she fell, she raked her shin along the doorstep’s edge.
Peter stood over her and watched as she keened in pain, clutching her leg and rocking on the ground like a turtle trapped on its back. She rolled to her side and wadded her skirt around her leg to sop up the blood.
When she could stand, she grabbed his hand and yanked him upstairs, lurching with every step and smearing blood in a trail up the steps. Mimi met her on the upper landing. Helen shoved the boy into her arms, dropped to the floor, and raked up her skirts. Blood poured down her leg and into her shoe. Her shin was skinned back, flesh pursed around gleaming bone. She fell back on one elbow, vision swimming.
Mimi guided her to a chair and lifted her skirts. Helen flinched, but Mimi’s touch was soft, her movements quick and gentle. She ran out of the room for a moment, then returned with rags and a jug of water. As Mimi cleaned her wound, Peter cowered in the window seat. Helen kept a close eye on him. He was crying again, silently, his mouth forming one word over and over again. Mama.
Mimi put the final tuck into the bandage, then squeezed Helen’s knee and looked up, her brown eyes huge.
“Merci,” Helen breathed.
Mimi smiled. Lips peeled back over gaping gums. Wire wormed through pinholes in her back teeth. Helen recoiled. She grabbed the edge of the table and hauled herself to her feet. She stumped over to the window seat, grabbed Peter’s shoulders and shook him hard.
“That’s enough,” she yelled. “No more games. No running off on your own. Understand?”
The boy sobbed. She lowered her voice, trying to reach a source of calm, deep within her. “Don’t be afraid, Peter. I’m not angry anymore. What do you say?”
“Yes, Miss York.”
“Very good. I understand you miss your mother and father. It hasn’t been very long since they died, but it will get easier, with time.”
“Bitte, miss,” the boy said. “Mama and Papa died many years ago.”
The cook and steward blocked her questions. In between their one-word answers, they commented to each other in an impregnable Bavarian dialect, gossiping about her, no doubt, as if she weren’t even there. And why shouldn’t they? She was acting like a madwoman, limping around the kitchen, waving her arms and yelling at them in every language she knew.
Helen took two deep breaths, and tried again.
“A few days ago, in Paris, Herr Lambrecht told me his brother had just passed away. He had to travel to Meresee and take responsibility for his nephew, the house and the family finances. Is that true?”
“Yes, Fräulein,” said the steward.
There. Everything was fine. The knot in Helen’s chest loosened. “But Peter just told me his father and mother have been dead for years.”
“Yes, Fräulein,” said the steward.
“How can you say that?” Helen longed to grab him by the throat, shake him until he rattled. “How can both those things be true?”
The steward ran his tongue over his stained teeth. “It’s not my place to contradict either Herr Lambrecht or his nephew.”
It was no use. She stumped up to the nursery. Mimi and Peter stood in the middle of the rug, waiting for her.
“Peter, play with your blocks. I want to see them in alphabet order when I return.” She pointed at the blocks. “Ah—bey—tsay.”
He knelt on the carpet and began stacking the blocks, obedient for the moment. She didn’t trust him, though. She wedged a chair under the handle of the door, trapping them both inside. Then she stumbled downstairs to the library. It was locked, but one stubborn shove and the lock gave way.
The desk was abandoned, cubbyholes dusty, drawers empty except for old pen nibs, bottles of dried ink and a silver letter opener shaped like two entwined sea serpents. So many letters, I can’t make sense of them, Bärchen had said. Had he taken everything away to Munich?
It made no sense. Why would Bärchen lie to her? He knew how desperate she was. No more friends to borrow from, nothing left to pawn. She would have followed him across the world. She had no other option.
She lit a cigarette and pulled hot smoke deep into her lungs. By the time it had burned down to her knuckle, she was sure the mistake was nobody’s but her own. It was typical of her—always too busy searching for the next joke to listen properly. Bärchen had said his brother was dead, but not newly dead. He said Peter’s mother had died in the spring, but not this spring. She’d made assumptions. Hadn’t she?
There was one way to find out.
“The crypt key.” Helen held her hand out to the steward, palm up. “Give it to me, please.”
“I don’t have it, Fräulein.”
“Of course you do. You’re the steward. Who else would have it?”
He flipped his jacket open and turned his pockets inside out. “I only have this.” A blue and white evil eye medallion spun at the end of his watch fob. “You should have one of these, Fräulein. It keeps you safe.”
Helen ransacked the house for keys and limped down the cellar stairs. Her mouth began watering as soon as she smelled the salty air. She lit a cigarette. It dangled from her lips as she tried each key in turn. None fit the crypt’s lock. She leaned on the door with all her weight but the heavy iron hinges didn’t even shift. She squinted through the keyhole. Only darkness.
She lowered herself to the floor and threaded her fingers under the door. A feathery shift of air drifted from below, ruffling her hair. It smelled delicious, sea-salty and savory, like a good piece of veal charred quickly over white-hot coals and sliced with a sharp knife into bleeding red pieces.
Her fingers brushed against something. Forcing her hands under the door, she caught it with the tips of her fingers, drew it out. It was a tiny vertebra, no bigger than the tip of her finger. Helen held it close to the candle flame, turning it over in her palm. It was brown with dried blood. The canal piercing the bone was packed with white crystals. She picked at them with her fingernail. Salt.
There was something else under the door, too—a tooth coated in a brown blush of blood. A tendril of frozen flesh hung from its root.
Helen limped upstairs. The chair she’d leaned against the nursery door was wedged so tightly the feet scratched two fresh scars into the floor as she dragged it away.
Peter waited in the doorway. Mimi was curled up in the window seat.
“Is this yours?” She showed him the tooth.
“No, miss.” He skinned his lips back. His loose tooth hung from his gum by a thread.
“Where did it come from, then?”
He blinked up at her, eyes clear and innocent. “Bitte, miss, I don’t know.”
Tall as he was, in that moment he seemed little more than an infant. His voice was quite lovely. The effect of a slight childish slur on those German vowels was adorable.
“Do you know where the key to the crypt is?”
“Have you been inside the crypt?”
He was just a child; children had no sense of time. Did he even know the difference between a month and a year? She’d gotten herself worked up over nothing. The steward and cook had taken a dislike to her, but it was her own fault. She should have taken care to make friends with them. But no matter. Bärchen would be back in a few days, and the summer would continue as planned.
Helen brought Mimi and Peter their dinner, barricaded them in the nursery, then helped herself to a bottle of claret from the steward’s pantry. She set it on the dining room table beside her dinner plate. No corkscrew, and she hadn’t found one while searching through the house for keys. The steward must have had hidden them. She hadn’t seen any cigarettes, either. She’d have to ration the ones in her cigarette case until Bärchen came home.
She called for the steward. When he didn’t come, she fetched the silver letter opener from the library and used it to pry the cork from the bottle. She lifted the bottle to her mouth like a drunk in a Montparnasse alleyway. The wine burned as it slipped down her parched throat.
Helen put the letter opener in her pocket and took her plate and the wine bottle out to the terrace. The air was fresh with pine. The first evening stars winked overhead between clouds stained with dusk. A hundred feet off the terrace, the floating log bobbed. Slow ripples licked the terrace steps.
She had almost drained the wine bottle when the log was joined by another. The breeze carried a whiff of salt. The two logs seemed to be moving toward her, eel-sinuous. Starlight glistened off their backs as they slipped through the water, dipping under and then breaking the surface in unison like a pair of long porpoises.
The bottle slipped from her hand and smashed on the terrace. Shards of glass flew into the lake.
The logs turned to look at her.
Helen scrambled into the house and slammed the door. She ran to the parlor and began dragging an oak chest across the floor, rucking up the rug and peeling curls of varnish from the floor. She pulled it across the foyer, scraping deep scars across dark wood. By the time she’d barricaded the front door, she was dripping with sweat. Her wounded leg throbbed with every shuddering heartbeat.
She crept to the parlor window and peeked between the drapes. Only one creature was visible, floating just beyond the edge of the terrace. It looked like a log again, but she knew better. She’d seen them. Two long, inky serpents raising their heads from the water, their maggot-pale eyes hollow and staring.
Just a log, that’s all.
The log flipped. Water poured across its back. Its mouth split open. Starlight revealed hundreds of teeth, wire-thin and hooked.
Just a log, that’s all.
Bärchen was a liar.
The cook and steward sat at the kitchen table, heads down over their dinner, one candle burning between them.
“I suppose you’ll tell me there are no serpents in the lake. Herr Lambrecht says they’re logs, and it’s not your place to contradict him.” She threw her arms wide. “If one of those monsters bit off your leg and Herr Lambrecht said it hadn’t, you’d agree with him.”
“Would you like another bottle of wine, Fräulein?” the steward asked.
“Always.” She pounded her fist on the table, rattling their dinner plates. “But I’d rather know how badly Herr Lambrecht lied to me, and why.”
The steward shrugged and turned back to his meal.
Helen ransacked the kitchen drawers and piled instruments on the table—knives, forks, even a slender iron spit—everything she could find that was long and slender and strong. She wrapped them in a rag, grabbed the candlestick from the table, and lugged everything downstairs.
Delicious, salty air roiled out from under the door, stronger than before. Helen’s stomach growled. She lit a cigarette and rolled up her sleeves.
The white coating on the walls and door wasn’t frost; it was salt. She scraped the crust off the eye of one of the griffins. It wadded up under her fingernail, dense and gritty.
Helen licked the salt off her finger and slipped a filleting knife into the keyhole. She could feel the latch inside, and bumps that must be a series of tumblers. They clicked as she guided the knife tip back and forth. The blade sawed at the corners of the keyhole, carving away fine curls of brass. But the knife was too wide, too clumsy.
She tried the iron spit next. It left a patina of sticky grease on her palms. She attacked the lock with each instrument in turn, whining with frustration. She knocked her forehead on the door, gently, once, twice.
A chill played over her bare skin. Gooseflesh prickled her arms. Sour spit flooded her mouth.
Finally, she drew the letter opener out of her pocket and fed its tip through the lock, leaning into the door as if she could embrace its whole width. She peeked into the keyhole, hand by her cheek like an archer with a drawn bow.
She licked salt from her lips. The lock clicked. The door opened an inch, hinges squeaking.
A little wet bone bounced across the floor and hit her foot. She turned.
Peter was right behind her.
Candlelight flickered over his round cheeks and dimpled chin, the neatly combed wings of pale hair framing his face. He was just a child. Orphaned. Friendless. She’d already given him her sympathy. Didn’t he deserve her care?
“Hello.” She kept her voice gentle. “How did you get out of the nursery?”
“Bitte, Miss York. The door opened.”
The chair must have fallen. She hadn’t wedged it hard enough.
Peter stared at the crypt door. She should take him back upstairs, tell Mimi to put him to bed, but he would just come down here again. And wasn’t this his own home?
“Do you know what’s behind this door, Peter?”
“Mama,” he said.
“Yes, that’s what your uncle told me. Not just her, but your whole family—all of your ancestors, in their tombs. Do you know what a tomb is?” He shook his head. “A big box made of stone, usually. Or an alcove in a stone wall, sometimes. Usually family crypts are in cemeteries or churches. But your family—”
She hesitated. Your family is strange, she thought. She needed to find out exactly how strange.
“Are you sure you want to see your mother’s tomb?”
The air that rushed out as she opened the door had a meaty, metallic tang. Her stomach roiled with hunger; her vision swam. She shielded the candle flame with her body. Peter took her hand and led her into the crypt.
Helen had seen crypts before. They didn’t frighten her. At age five she’d seen her mother shut away in a Highgate Cemetery tomb. She’d kissed her first girl in the crypt at St Bride’s, after stealing the key from the deacon. And she’d attended parties in the Paris catacombs, drank champagne watched by thousands of gaping skulls.
But this was no crypt.
The passage opened into a wide cavern, its walls caked with salt crystals and honeycombed with human-sized alcoves, rough indentations hacked out of the rock with some primitive tool. Some were deep, as if they might be passages, some gaped shallow and empty, and others were scabbed over with a crusted mess the color of dried blood, leaking filth down the crystalline walls. One of these was just over her left shoulder. Tiny bones were embedded in the bloody grime. It smelled like fresh meat.
A few—just a few here and there—were furred over with cobwebs the same bloodless pale pink as Peter’s skin.
At the bottom of the cavern, a wide pool of oily water quivered and sloshed.
“Mama,” Peter said. “Papa.”
“I don’t think they’re here, Peter,” she whispered, pulling him back toward the door.
His hand slipped from her grasp. He ran to a cobwebbed alcove and plunged his hand deep inside. She grabbed his jacket and pulled him away. The strands clung to his arm, stretched and snapped. When his hand appeared, he held tight to a squirming grub the size of his head. His fingers pierced its flesh; the wounds dripped clear fluid.
Its eyes were dark spots behind a veil of skin. Its tiny, toothless maw opened and closed in agony.
“Brother,” Peter said. He raised the grub to his lips and opened his mouth.
Helen swatted it out of his hand. The grub rolled across the floor of the cavern and plopped into the pool.
She ran, dragging Peter behind her by his elbow.
Helen slammed the door and braced it with her shoulder, throwing her weight against it as she jabbed the lock with the letter opener. Getting the door open had been sheer luck. She’d never get it locked again, not if she worried at it for a hundred years.
She couldn’t believe her stupidity. Opening doors that should stay shut. Going places she didn’t belong. Trusting Bärchen, as if she actually knew him. As if he were human.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she said under her breath.
The lock clicked. She fell to her hands and knees, weak with relief. Pain shot up her leg. Her vision darkened.
Peter lifted the candle. “Yes, Miss York?”
She sucked air through her teeth and wrenched herself around to sit with her back against the door. She would get away from Peter, run as fast and as far as possible. Into the mountains, into the forest, anywhere but here. But she didn’t think she could stand. Not yet.
“Do you remember your mother? Your father? Do you know what they are?” Monsters, with hollow staring eyes. Her voice rose to a shriek. “Do you know what you are?”
“No, Miss York. I know you.”
He sat at her feet and slipped his hand into hers. His fingers were sticky with fluid from the grub. It stank like rot, like old meat turned green and festering with maggots. Her gorge rose once, twice. She took two convulsive gasps for air and then the stench changed. Her stomach growled. She raised Peter’s fingers to her mouth and licked them clean, one after another. Then she sucked the last of the juice from his sleeve.
There was more on the other side of the door, puddled on the stone floor. She could open the door again. But Peter looked so tired. His eyelids were puffy and the skin under each eye was stained dark with exhaustion.
“Come here,” she said, and the boy climbed right into her open arms.
Helen watched Mimi undress Peter and tuck him into bed. When the nursemaid tried to leave the bedroom, Helen stopped her.
“No. We’re staying here. Peter can’t be alone. We have to take care of him.”
Mimi hung her head.
“Do you understand?”
“I don’t think you do. You let Peter go—every time. You don’t even try to stop him. Why don’t you care for him? He’s just a child.”
The boy watched them, hands folded between cheek and pillow. Mimi stared at the floor. A tear streaked down her cheek.
“We have to keep Peter safe, you and I, so he can grow up healthy and strong like his uncle. And then like his parents, out in the lake.” Helen sighed. “I wish we could talk properly, you and I.”
“Wait here,” she said.
Helen ran to fetch a pencil and paper. When she returned, Peter was asleep.
“Tell me why you let him go.”
Mimi fumbled with the pencil. She couldn’t even hold it properly, and the only mark she could make on the paper was a toppling cross inside a crude shape like a gravestone.
Mimi’s lower lip quivered. A tear dropped onto the paper. Helen took the pencil from Mimi’s shaking fingers. “It doesn’t matter,” she said.
Mimi climbed onto the bed and lay beside Peter.
Helen pulled a heavy chair in from the hallway and slid it in front of the door. It might not keep him from getting out, but if he tried to drag it away the noise would wake her. Then she kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the bed, reaching around Mimi to rest her palm on Peter’s arm.
The girl was crying. Her back quivered against Helen’s chest.
“It’s all right,” Helen whispered, holding her close. “Everything is going to be all right.”
Mimi cried harder.
Helen expected to be awake all night, but Peter was safe, the room was warm, the bed cozy, and Mimi’s sobs were rhythmic and soothing. Helen slipped into sleep and tumbled through slippery dreams of inky shapes that writhed and grasped and tore at her skin. When she woke, the moon shone through the window, throwing the crossed shadows of the windowpanes over the rug. Her leg throbbed. The clock struck four. And Peter and Mimi were both gone.
On the pillow lay two bright pieces of copper wire, six inches long, worried and kinked, their ends jagged. The pillow was spotted with blood.
Helen ran down to the kitchen and fumbled with a candle, nearly setting her sleeve on fire as she lit it on the oven’s banked coals. She plunged downstairs, bare feet on the freezing steps, and when the smell hit her she stumbled. She slipped on a bone and nearly sent herself toppling headfirst.
She panted, leaning on the wall. The smell pierced her. It coiled and drifted and wove through her, conjuring the last drip of whiskey in her father’s crystal decanter, the first strawberries of summer, the last scrap of Christmas pudding smeared over gold-chased bone china and licked off with lazy tongue swipes. It smelled like a sticky wetness on her fingers, coaxed out of a pretty girl in the cloak room at a Mayfair ball, slipped into a pair of silk gloves and placed on a young colonel’s scarlet shoulder during the waltz.
The smell was so intense, so bright it lit the stairwell. The air brimmed with scents so vast and uncontainable they poured from one sense to the next, banishing every shadow and filling the world with music.
Helen fell from one step to the next, knees weak, each footstep jarring her hips and spine. Her vision spun. The cellar brimmed with haloes and rainbows, a million suns concentrated and focused through a galaxy of lenses, dancing and skipping and brimming with life.
The only point of darkness in the whole cellar was Mimi.
The nursemaid crouched in front of the crypt door. She humped and hunched, ramming her face into the wood as if trying to chew through it. The threshold puddled with blood.
Mimi’s jaw hung loose. It swung against her throat with every thrust. Her nose was pulped, upper lip shredded, the skin of her cheeks sloughed away.
The remains of her teeth were scattered at her feet.
Helen grabbed her foot with both hands and heaved, dragging her away. Mimi clawed at the floor, clinging to the edges of the stones with her shredded fingernails.
At the sound of Peter’s voice, the air cottoned with rainbows.
Peter stood at the head of the stairs, lit by a euphoria of lights. It cast patterns across his face and framed his head in a halo of sparks.
Mimi threw her head back and screamed, her tongue a bleeding live thing trying to escape from a gaping throat, a cavitied maw that was once the face of a girl.
Mimi lunged up the stairwell. Helen chased her.
“Peter, run!” Helen howled.
Mimi threw her arms around the boy. The huff of breath through her open throat spattered the walls with blood. She lunged down the hall, dangling Peter like a rag doll. Helen pitched after her, grabbing at the nursemaid’s hair, skirt, sleeves. In the foyer she caught hold of Peter’s leg and yanked the boy away.
Mimi dug her fingernails into the heavy chest and pulled. It scraped over the floor, throwing splinters across the foyer. She yanked the door open and turned. Blood puddled at her feet. Her tongue wagged from deep in her throat. She raised her arms, as if yearning for Peter to enter her embrace.
Helen clutched Peter to her chest. She forced his head against her neck so he couldn’t see his nursemaid’s pulped face.
Mimi yowled. Then she plunged out the door and clattered across the terrace. At the edge of the water she teetered for a moment, arms wheeling. In the moment before she fell, an inky shape welled up from the water. Its jaws welcomed her with barely a splash.
The boy knelt on the nursery window seat beside Helen, his nose pressed to the window pane. Two sinuous forms floated in the lake, lit by the pale rays of dawn poaching over the mountaintops.
“Come sit over here.” Helen patted the stool in front of her.
When the sun broke over the peaks, Peter’s mother and father were gone, sleeping the day away at the bottom of the lake, perhaps, or in the crypt pool, keeping watch over their precious, delicious children.
Helen kept Peter by her day and night. She barely took her eyes off him, never left his side. To him she devoted all her care and attention, until her lashes scraped over dry and pitted eyeballs, her tongue swelled with thirst, and her ears pounded with the call from below.
The scent slipped into her like welcome promises. Lights spun at the edge of her vision, calling, guiding her down to the cavern.
At night, the serpents tossed back and forth in the waves, dancing to the rhythm shuddering through the house. She didn’t have to look out the window to see them; every time she blinked they were behind her eyelids. Beckoning.
Helen made it three days before she broke. When her pen turned clumsy, when her handwriting dissolved into crude scratches, she was past caring. The crypt was all she could think of. Hunger gushed through her, overflowing and carrying her down each flight of stairs as if floating on a warm river to the source of everything left in the world worth wanting.
Her hands were too clumsy to open the door, but it didn’t matter. She could eat her way through it. The scent itself was nourishment enough. Every bite was a blessing. She drowned herself in it. Gave herself over until her mind hung by a thread.
Her world collapsed into pain when Peter pulled her out of the cellar. She resisted, a little, but she couldn’t fight him. Not if it might hurt him. When he got the wires through what was left of her teeth and jaw and twisted them tight, the light abandoned her, the call receded, the house darkened.
“Will you be all right now, Miss York?” Peter asked.
“Oui,” she said.
“A Human Stain” copyright © 2017 by Kelly Robson
Art copyright © 2017 by Sam Wolfe Connelly