by Sharmon Gazaway
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Ah, I remember you.
From behind the tattered merlot draperies I see you are as handsome, and kind, as I remember. But then, how could I forget? I, too, have an Usher malady. You do not remember me. No one still living does. My name is Marilla, sister to Roderick and Madeline Usher.
I imagine stepping into the room as you console Roderick, revealing myself to you. Would you gasp? Smile? But, no, I stay cloaked in curtains, staring through a moth hole. Like a ghost, among many, I haunt the House of Usher.
Madeline, Roderick’s twin, drifts across the far end of the faded chamber, shadow-silent. Madeline will die soon. Roderick weeps as he tells you this. His only companion, they have never been parted. “Her malady is a mystery to physicians. A malaise, complicated by descents into catalepsy.”
Awkward in the face of his outburst, you peruse the photographs on the table, lift one from the back and wipe away years of dust. It’s a tintype of me. “And who is this golden-haired beauty?” you ask. You gaze steadfastly at my likeness.
Irritated, he says, “Oh, a relative, I was told. She is no longer with us.” Dismissive of anything not concerning his ailments or moods.
Your spaniel eyes soften as you gaze at it, set it back on the table, but in front. My heart leaps. I cannot think of myself as a beauty, freckles scattered across pale cheeks, like dandelion seeds on snow. My pulse drums so loudly I fear Roderick will catch it with his preternatural hearing—his inherited torment. But he’s plucking that infernal guitar, and you jest with him. I remain undetected.
I must, if I wish to stay in my ancestral home.
Thanks to our sire’s philandering, I was injected with a hearty dose of peasant blood from my mother, a fetching milkmaid. Ma and I came after the wife and five-year-old twins. Father sent Ma away, and kept me, though not due to any paternal affliction. In the event his puling, legitimate offspring didn’t survive to inherit, I was his recourse.
With a lingering glance at you, I recede into the hidden passageway between the walls. Intimate with each step, I love every damp stone in this decrepit pile of bones. The ghosts dissolve like sun on fog when I encounter them. They accept me as one of their own, sense that I too am restless, a phantom of who I could be.
That night I follow you and Roderick from afar, down, down to the dungeon vault, bearing Madeline’s corpse in her coffin. You screw down its lid and slide her into a niche; it grates against cold stone. Roderick winces. The tarn’s insidious waters penetrate from outside; a slow, seeping wound.
I long to trail after you, touch my bare feet where your steps have touched. But being this close to Roderick’s acute hearing and his volatile temperament is dangerous. If exposed, I’ll be turned out as an imposter, or worse.
I can never be parted from the House of Usher.
Shivering, I retreat to my chamber in the turret ruins, my home and prison. Before Father died, he put the grim valet Himmler in charge of me; so, you see why loneliness was my familiar playmate. I pored over the ancient tomes Himmler brought in towering stacks. I soon realized I had perfect photographic recall. All images—good, bad, or indifferent—were seared on my brain. My Usher malady.
Ravishing the tomes, I discovered the mansion’s crumbling blueprint and its hidden, wartime passageways. Through them I escaped my prison and learned of my half-siblings, who, even as children were dull and selfish. I kept hidden.
Now Madeline lies in the deep dark, and I wonder if I will one day meet her in a hidden passage.
Except for the cryptic ghosts, I have been alone.
Until you came, my love.
Hunching into the down quilt, I count the hours till I dare see you again.
A cold hand snuffs the still, autumn days, one by one. Unable to think with you so near, I toss aside a book on husbandry, and slink to your room. A mere wall between us, you pant softly as you pace. I remember when, still a youth, you arrived on an elegant bay to see Roderick. Broad-shouldered, you took the stairs two at a time and my breath caught, then as now. I used to watch for you, despaired when you no longer came. I dreamed I’d search for you, tell you all my heart, forsake Usher forever. But I couldn’t. Could never.
I cup my hands against the wall as if to capture your breath, then press them, clenched, against my bosom and turn away.
The violent winds of a devil’s-brew begin to shrill. Passing by Roderick’s suite, familiar ghosts accost me, mouths gaping with silent screams, eyes black with warning. I hear Roderick groan and his hoarse words stop me cold.
“Madeline, how long will you torment me? I dare not let you out! Cease, I implore you!”
The blood dashes cold through my chest.
Dear God, is it possible Roderick entombed Madeline alive? Mistook a cataleptic coma for death?
We surely would have heard her screams, her struggle.
Her demise has unhinged him.
My heart flits like a panicked bird. No, we couldn’t have heard—me, in my garret, and you, in your suite high above the vault. I envision her first scratchings, shredding the coffin’s silk. Days of clawing, shrieking in claustrophobic terror.
We couldn’t hear. But Roderick could.
Could hear each plank splinter, each fingernail ripping from flesh, her little white feet drumming till battered blue. Shrieks turning to sobs, sobs to begging, please let me out.
On slippery stone I race down to the vault.
The coffin’s lid is askew. Her eyes are red-lit like some rabid, feral thing, her stench overpowering. And she is laughing.
I rip the splintered planks free and she scrabbles over the side like a crab from a pot. She flies past, emaciated, mangled hands dripping. Her white, blood-mottled gown billows behind her like an avenging spirit.
Had Roderick been mistaken?
I tear after her, knowing where she’ll go; I fear she’ll find you first. I care not if I’m exposed now.
I think only of you, love.
Ghosts reel ’round me, shrieking a dirge. The storm-pummeled house trembles beneath my feet and its bones begin to give.
Madeline reaches your suite a step before I do. You drop your book, affixed in horror.
Roderick stands, lips peeled back. With a guttural wail, Madeline leaps on Roderick, gnashing on him, teeth bared. She claws bloody stumps down his face—so like her own—and they crumple to the floor.
I swallow my scream, lest you think me one of their mad kind, and duck behind a suit of armor.
You bolt down the stairs, the storm invading the house when you plunge into the maelstrom.
Roderick’s eyes stare, his face a rictus of fright—and guilt, perhaps. Madeline is truly gone this time. To a better place, I hope. This specter will never leave me.
The house shudders, cracks and groans, coming apart at the seams. Gusts whip my hair wildly about my face. Clinging to the banister, I slowly descend. The house is going. You are gone. I can choose the house and spend eternity here. Or I can follow you, my love, and hope.
I find you beneath a blighted elm, your head gashed by a broken branch. I cradle your head in my lap and rain washes over us. It rouses you in time to see the vast, timeless hulk of Usher split asunder and tumble in on herself, in on the last of my kin.
And on Himmler, the last living person who knows of my illegitimacy.
“Who…who are you?”
“Shhh. Time for that later.” I stroke a lock of hair from your spaniel eyes.
The tarn’s greedy waters creep over the fallen stones of The House of Usher.
I wipe tear-mingled rain from my cheeks, smile down at you.
We will rebuild, my dear. With the same beloved stones, and the blueprint engraved on my brain, and heart. I am of hearty peasant stock, strong and determined. We’ll drain the lurid tarn, and plant fruit trees there.
The halls will echo with the laughter of our children.
And the ghosts.
©️ 2021 by Sharmon Gazaway
“To Have and to Hold,” by Sharmon Gazaway, was first published on April 29, 2021 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe, Volume I: A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe.
Interview with Sharmon Gazaway, Author of “To Have and to Hold”
What inspired your story?
The original guidelines for the first issue of Love Letters to Poe. I was so excited to find a journal that was dedicated to Poe and gothic writing I could hardly wait to submit. I wrote the first paragraphs immediately, and the full first draft the next day. My favorite Poe story is “The Fall of the House of Usher” and I love re-tellings. My character Marilla, Roderick and Madeline’s unknown sister, popped into my head like I’d always known her. I also loved reimagining Poe’s original unnamed narrator who tells Poe’s tale, and seeing him through Marilla’s eyes.
My stories and poems tend to take dark, tragic turns so I was surprised the hopeful “new beginning” end to this story came naturally and felt right.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Hands down, “Wuthering Heights.” I think because it’s so unexpected. It stands out from the rest of the gothic novels of that period. The concept of anti-hero and anti-heroine is so intriguing. How can those two obnoxious people, Cathy and Heathcliff, make us care about them and want them to be together? And the haunting aspect of eternal love…that is the genius of Emily Bronte. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I love to read about them and write them.
How long have you been writing?
I wrote my first short story in fifth grade, my first novel at 17. It was a gothic romance, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I never think of theme till after writing. The only reason I know I have a recurrent theme is because I was trying to find a common thread in my poetry so I could title it, as a collection. Practically every single poem has “loss” as a theme. I don’t mean loss as in death, necessarily, but life as a series of losses: objects, pets, friends, homes, childhood freedom, youth…the list is infinite. And poignant.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
I collect quotes like seashells for my corkboard. One constant is from scripture, the book of Acts, “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said…” Another is “Thoughts, that breathe, and words, that burn.”—Thomas Gray. That’s the goal. And because I’m a born procrastinator “Discipline weighs ounces—regret weighs tons.”—Jim Rohn.
What are you working on now?
I have a huge unfinished fantasy novel I had to set aside when I came down with acute chronic migraine several years ago. I could hardly read, let alone write. So, I started to work on poems, and later, shorts. I’d love to put together a short story collection, and get back to the novel now that the migraines have improved.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I live in the deep south of the U.S. and write both speculative and literary work, published or forthcoming. A flash fiction is online at “Daily Science Fiction,” and a short story will be in the spring issue of “Breath and Shadow.” I sold a fantasy short to Metaphorosis, and have a science fiction short coming out in the fall in “New Myths.” A speculative piece was selected by Rhonda Parrish for the anthology “Dark Waters,” also released this fall. If anyone is interested, they can find my poetry in “Backchannels,” “micorverses.net: Octavos,” “The Society of Classical Poets,” “Welter,” “Tiny Spoon” and “Third Wednesday.”