When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn’t suffer.
But Isabella’s parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella’s… condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor.
Or is there…?
Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.
These instructions are written in gold letters, in elegant uncials. I can see the silhouettes of my fingers through the thin parchment paper.
Turn right at the woman sliced into twelve pieces. Please don’t touch the statues. Please don’t litter.
I weave my way through the hedge maze, dragging my faux-leather luggage trolley through the fresh-cut grass. After a while, I remove my oxford pumps so I can feel the greenery between my toes. A mellow breeze cools my face. The air smells like lavender.
I pass a little girl with stone flames bursting from her eyes and mouth. She screams a silent scream, like all the others.
Finally, I reach the bottom of the parchment paper. The instructions say: walk forward. They say: please don’t pick the flowers.
The path opens wide, and the hedges glare at me on either side, clipped into massive faces with wide-open eyes and wide-open mouths.
A little voice tells me to turn back, but a little voice always tells me to turn back.
I walk forward. I don’t pick the flowers.
Before me, Stockton House scratches at the grey sky with two pyramid spires. Dozens of headless figures populate the yellowing, weatherworn façade. These sculpted figures reach to the heavens, their fingers curled. The wind picks up, dragging the heavy blanket of clouds across the firmament.
While double-knotting the laces of my pumps, I spot a brown billfold crushing a patch of pale flowers. Inside the wallet, there’s a photograph of a small girl and a hundred dollar bill. The girl looks a little like my son, with the big brown eyes and impish smile. A crown of lavender flowers sits askew on her dark curls. The girl reaches out for me, or for whoever took this photograph.
I approach two towering doors of black wood. An elongated woman balances on the trumeau. She’s faceless, hairless. Her long, skeletal fingers press together in prayer.
A small section of the enormous door swings open, and an elderly woman bursts from the house. She’s wearing a simple blue dress and a muslin apron embroidered with black feathers. Her tight gray hair pulls at the sagging skin of her face.
“Hello, miss,” she says, taking hold of my luggage trolley. “Glad to see you found your way through the hedge. We had to send out a search party for the last one who came. Didn’t know her left from her right, that one. I’ll ask you, how can a teacher not know her left from her right? Mr. and Mrs. Evers will be glad to know you didn’t have any trouble in the hedge.”
The old woman turns around and disappears into Stockton House. I follow her through a brightly-lit foyer with a red-and-white tessellated floor. Here and there, the tiles form geometric faces with wide-open eyes and wide-open mouths. For no good reason, I avoid stepping on these heads.
“You’ll like it here,” the old woman says. “Mr. Evers had 84-inch, high definition televisions installed in all the living quarters. I’ll ask you, miss, have you ever seen your favorite program on an 84-inch television? Mr. Evers is no skinflint when it comes to creature comforts. Safe to say you will like it here, miss.”
The woman speeds forward as if she’s walking on a moving sidewalk at the airport. I have to jog for a few seconds so that I don’t lose her.
“My name’s Antonia, but no one calls me that anymore, miss. My mother would call me Antonia if she were still alive, but she died from extrahepatic bile duct cancer twelve years ago. The name I go by is Robin. You might find this difficult to believe, but I can’t remember who gave me the name or why. Robin’s a pleasant enough name, so the history’s of little consequence.”
Robin leads me to a sitting room full of red velvet armchairs with carved mahogany frames. Most of the chairs face an 84-inch, high definition television mounted on the wall. A woman, probably Mrs. Evers, kneels in front of a marble fireplace. She’s dressed in a chiffon evening gown with a ruched bodice. And she’s using a bare hand to scoop dirt or ash into a brown paper bag.
“We had a little accident,” Mr. Evers says, dressed in a grey check suit with a wide lapel. He’s standing next to the fireplace, grinning at the mound of ash on the floor.
“Let me do that for you, Mrs. Evers,” Robin says, racing forward.
“No, no,” Mrs. Evers says, waving away the old woman. “I’ll do it. I don’t think grandfather would appreciate being swept into a dustpan.” She continues scooping handful after handful of what must be her grandfather’s ashes into the paper bag. On the mantle above Mrs. Evers’ head rest a number of large white urns. Human faces protrude from the front of the urns, their eyes closed and mouths downturned.
Mr. Evers approaches and takes my hand. He squeezes me tight. “What did you think of the Atrocities?”
“Atrocities?” I say.
“The statues in the hedge maze. Job, Lot’s wife, the Levite’s concubine, etcetera, etcetera.”
The back of my hand itches, but I don’t move. “They’re…interesting.”
“They’re dreadful, aren’t they?” Mrs. Evers says, standing. She holds her ash-coated hand as far away from the rest of her body as possible. “I would have ground the things into gravel years ago, except Hubert has a soft spot for tourists.” Robin hands Mrs. Evers a towel, the same color red as the armchairs surrounding us. “Once a year, we open the hedge to the public. People come from all over the world. It’s really quite strange, the number of them willing to fly thousands of miles to see hideous statues.”
Mr. Evers clears his throat. “What Mrs. Evers fails to grasp is that the Atrocities are more than mere grotesqueries. They exude historical and spiritual significance. Back when Stockton House was a church, the entire congregation would travel the maze together, hand-in-hand-in-hand. The parishioners would stop and reflect on every Atrocity. And what would they see? Not a hideous statue. They would look beyond the violence and suffering to the metaphysical core of the image. They would see a manifestation of God’s power.” Mr. Evers clears his throat again. “Forgive me for droning on. You must be exhausted after your flight.”
“Oh,” I say. I pull the wallet from my pocket. “I found this outside. There isn’t any ID, so I’m not sure–”
“Didn’t I tell you she would return it?” Mrs. Evers says, pulling the wallet from my hand. “Her references are more than impressive.”
I let out a huff of air before I can stop myself. They purposefully left the wallet outside for me to find?
“You’ll have to forgive the unorthodoxy of our little test.” Mr. Evers sits on one of the velvet armchairs, and motions for me to do the same. “You see, Ms. Valdez, we require a governess with very specific qualifications. And this goes beyond a mastery of math and science and linguistics. As we mentioned in our letter, our daughter is having a difficult time coping with her present circumstances. She is, for lack of a better word, degenerating.”
“Isabella’s frightened and she’s acting out,” Mrs. Evers says. She bites at a fingernail on the hand she used to scoop up the ashes.
“Yes.” Mr. Evers polishes his glasses with a handkerchief, the same red as the armchairs. “Isabella is a troubled child, and we require someone with integrity enough to strengthen her moral faculties. Is this you, Ms. Valdez?”
The back of my hand won’t stop itching, but I won’t let myself move. Somehow I feel that to remain motionless is to give myself an air of professionalism. “As you already know, I’ve worked with special children for over ten years. I’ve found that whatever a child’s weaknesses, these shortcomings are often accompanied by equally powerful strengths. I have full confidence that I can help Isabella identify and develop these strengths.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Mrs. Evers says, gazing at her hand. “I think you could be the one we’ve been searching for. Don’t you think so, Hubert?”
“I am more than satisfied.” Mr. Evers stands, grinning. “You can begin tomorrow, but for now let’s get you settled in.”
Mrs. Evers glides over and takes my hand. “Thank you for coming.” Her long, cool fingers bring to mind the faceless woman balancing on the trumeau.
“Come with me, miss,” Robin says. She disappears into the hallway, and I disappear soon after.
On my way out, I hear the couple whispering. The only words that reach me are virtues and fiend.
Robin leads me down a dim hallway decorated with illuminated paintings. Each canvass houses an emaciated figure draped in tattered strips of gossamer. Wings made of human fingers spread out from their backs, and their ashen skin stretches tight over their bones like shrink-wrap. None of their faces have eyebrows or teeth or lips. The lights in the hallway flicker, all at once.
Robin is far ahead of me when she speaks, but she sounds close. Her voice carries in a way that reminds me of my mother. “I can tell that whole wallet business ruffled your feathers, but don’t let it bother you, miss. Mr. Evers is what some might call an eccentric, but he’s a good man and a good employer. Have you ever had a boss who would lend you five hundred dollars so that you could help your son? Can’t remember why my son needed the money, but it was important, I can tell you that much, miss. Don’t give that wallet another thought.”
By the time Robin finishes speaking, we’re in a chamber saturated with prismatic color and the smell of bleach. A stained-glass window the length of my Hyundai dominates the west wall. The window depicts dozens of headless figures trekking through a stark landscape.
“Told you, didn’t I?” Robin says, motioning to the 84-inch, high definition television on the opposite wall.
“It’s a lovely room,” I say.
“Oh yes. It’s one of my favorites. In here, you almost feel yourself in a dream.” Robin releases my luggage trolley. Then she opens and closes her hand again and again. “If you need anything, miss, just give me a ring. My cell number is right there on the table. As for dinner, you’re welcome to join Raul and me in the servants’ hall. Servants’ hall sounds so dreary, but I assure you, miss, it’s quite well-furnished and impeccably decorated. Of course, after such a long journey, I suspect you’re not in the mood for much socializing. I can bring you your dinner, if you’d prefer.”
“Thank you.” I sit on the edge of my bed. “Maybe I will eat in here tonight. I’ll join you for breakfast tomorrow.”
“Very good, miss. I’ll bring you your dinner as soon as possible.”
Robin heads for the door, even faster now without the luggage trolley to slow her down.
“Robin,” I say. “Before you go, can you tell me anything about Isabella?”
The old woman sighs. “A very sweet girl. Very bright.”
“In the letter Mr. Evers sent me, he mentioned there was an accident?”
“Yes.” Robin rubs her hands together. “Mrs. Evers will explain. I shouldn’t say any more before Mrs. Evers explains. What I can tell you, miss, is that you need to go into this with an open mind. But I shouldn’t say any more. I’ll return with your dinner soon, miss. Do you have any allergies?”
“Dairy. And you can call me Danna, if you’d like.”
“Danna. That’s a lovely name, miss. Danna.”
Robin vanishes, and I finally scratch the back of my hand. A rash inflames my skin in the shape of a dog. When I was a girl, my father told me that God chattered constantly to mankind in the form of omens. What would my father see in this dog on my hand? I laugh a little, and lie on what could be a charmeuse silk blanket. After kicking off my shoes, I turn to the headless figures of stained glass on the west wall. Men, women, children. They’re staggering, crawling through a desert of blackened trees and jagged stones. Some of the figures hold a skull in their hands. Maybe their own.
I roll over and face the 84-inch television. Before I can even turn on the TV, I drift into a white room without any windows or doors. I get the feelings that I’ve been here many times before. Dozens of fluorescent bulbs intersect on the ceiling, forming a labyrinth of light. Malformed beetles creep and buzz inside the bulbs. I can see their silhouettes through the thin glass.
A voice whispers from under a mound of white blankets on the hospital bed.
“What are you saying?” I say.
“Fiend,” the voice says. “Fiend.”
“I don’t know what you want.”
A small gray hand slides out from under the blankets. I sit on the bed and hold the icy, withered flesh. Only now do I notice the holes in the walls. There are eyes everywhere, peeking at us, never blinking.
“Go away,” I say.
“Fiend,” the voice says, quivering.
When I bring the hand closer to me, I discover that the flesh ends at the wrist. Quickly, I search the mound of blankets, but I can’t find the rest of him.
I open my mouth to say, “Where are you?” But I can’t get my lips to part.
The fluorescent bulbs flicker. The beetles hiss.
I stand, holding the severed hand close to my chest. I’d like to leave, but there are shards of glass glittering on the linoleum, and I still can’t find any sign of a door. The eyes in the wall blink faster and faster. The little hand holds me tight.
The next moment, I’m lying on a silk blanket, with a tray of roast beef and asparagus salad on the table beside me. I sit up and inspect my body. Olive cardigan, navy skirt, braided belt. This is a real outfit of mine. I must be awake.
Yes, there’s the stained-glass window. There’s the 84-inch, high definition television.
I haven’t had such a vivid hospital dream for months now.
It’s still dark out, so I turn on the white pansy Tiffany-style lamp near my bed.
The roast beef is cold, but I don’t mind. At this point, I would wolf down a shrimp cocktail or two, and shrimp taste like salty rubber bands.
I accidentally bite down on my fork when something or someone slams against the door of my room.
“Hello?” I say, getting out of bed.
The door handle moves up and down, slowly.
As soon as I approach the door, the brass handle stops moving and I hear a high-pitched giggle coming from outside the door. The laughter sounds artificial, like a cartoon character. I look down and I’m still wearing the olive cardigan, navy skirt, braided belt.
I reach out and open the door.
Looking left and right, I can’t see anyone except for the cadaverous, winged figures hovering in the paintings. The closest figure seems to be looking right at me. A thick, pink maggot dangles from his lipless mouth.
I glance around again. “Isabella? Isabella, are you here? I need to talk with you.”
No one responds.
Despite the breakneck pounding of my heart, I know on a conscious level that I’m not in any real danger. Isabella is playing some kind of game with me. She’s only a little girl.
Back in my room, I decide to put on my pajamas and I discover that my luggage trolley is empty. Did Isabella sneak in while I was asleep and…? No. Just because Isabella knocked on my door, doesn’t mean she would take my possessions.
After taking a deep breath, I approach the mahogany dresser adorned with squares of stained-glass roses. Inside, I find my clothing folded neatly away. Robin must have done this after bringing in my dinner.
I dress in my cat pajamas, worried that I won’t be able to fall back asleep. But as soon as I cocoon myself under the covers, I return to the hospital, searching for Bruno, and finding only pieces.
Excerpted from The Atrocities, copyright 2017 by Jeremy Shipp.