clementine

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


This story is my tribute to the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, celebrated in Henry James's "Turn of the Screw," and, more recently, in Susan Hill's "The Woman in Black."
Friends and family are gathered on the Cape to enjoy the holidays, drink cider, and tell spooky tales by a roaring fire. Caroline, the beloved cousin of the host, shares her haunting tale of a
young and mysterious art student who visits her cottage on the edge of a once grand Estate.

Submitted: December 24, 2017

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Submitted: December 24, 2017

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It was Christmas Eve, and the ritual of the telling of the ghostly tales was underway.  The fire crackled warmly in the parlor of my Cape home.  Cousin Howard, something of an amateur thespian, was keeping our small gathering in his thrall with his latest tale of horror and doom.

“I turned to look outside the room,” he narrated.  “I noticed something strange - a shape, a small human shape, had manifested behind the drapery.”  He stood up from his seat beside the piano, and stalked slowly toward the windows.  He placed one hand over his heart, and outstretched the other before him like a blind man.  “I could hear my heart pounding in my ears,” he continued.  “Or, perhaps, not my heart, but the heart of whomever or whatever was hiding….”  He grabbed the curtain, tugged it dramatically away from the window, and shouted, “Here!”  My cat, Milo, shot out from his perch on the sill, startling Howard, who backed up and fell over an ottoman, depositing his sizeable rump on the hardwood floor.

Hilarity ensued such that it was a few moments before any one of us was composed enough to ask Howard if he was injured. He declared only a bruised ego, but no bodily harm.  He winked at me and bowed for the groups’ applause, confirming my suspicion that the tale had gone exactly as he had planned. 

“My yarn of terror has left me a bit parched, my good man,” Howard proclaimed, handing me his empty mug.  I took my cue and headed to the kitchen to mix up a fresh batch of my famous mulled rum cider.  

When I returned, the conversation had steered toward the mundane, a needed chance for all to catch their breath and settle their pulses before we turned again to the macabre.

“So, Caroline?” My neighbor, Linda, had perched herself on the arm of the couch next to my dearest cousin, Carrie. 

“Yes, Linda?” Caroline smiled, polite as ever.

“Jonathan tells me you are working on your Ph.D. Art is it?  That’s lovely.  I wish I was an artist.  I mean, I can appreciate it, of course, but I am wretched at making any art myself.” 

As soon as I entered their sphere, Carrie thrust out her arm, cup in hand, eyes imploring me for a refill.  I obliged, and she took a long swig of cider before resuming her testimony with my neighborly interrogator. “Well, I do paint, but I am actually working on my thesis in art history.”

“How wonderful,” Linda cooed. “Do you have a particular expertise? I am very fond of Vermeer. Oh, the light. Amazing.”

“Well, botanical art, actually,” Carrie explained. 

“Like plants and fruit, and such?” Linda asked, the enthusiasm from her voice fading like an autumn rose.

“It’s fascinating, actually,” I interjected. “Tell her about your thesis topic, Carrie.” 

Carrie raised her eyebrows at me, bemused. “I am studying the dual nature of botanical art as both a representation of aesthetic ideal and as an attempt to scientifically catalog 20th century local and exotic flora.”

Linda nodded politely, while using her hand to stifle a yawn. This was followed shortly by remarks about the time, the weather, and the warmth of the room.  Within five minutes she had retrieved her coat from the hall closet and was out the door.

“I open my mouth about my research and eyes glaze over,” Carrie remarked, as I settled next to her on the couch.

“Well, it is rather a specific niche, my dear cousin.  But no worries, I find it fascinating.”  I pretended to yawn, and she elbowed me in the ribs.  “Seriously, Car, how is your research going?  If you don’t mind me saying, you seem a bit off.  Tired, maybe?”

She held my gaze, intent.  Her smile faded, “I’ve had something happen. Something odd.  It’s a bit hard to explain.” Carrie’s words were interrupted by a startling crack of thunder, followed by the pinging sound of ice hitting windows.

My remaining guests all gathered by the window to assess the weather.  I implored them not to go out into the worsening storm, but rather to stay the night.  None had children to get home to, and the more would make the merrier I assured.  The next flash of lightning was followed by an abrupt plunge into darkness, which settled the debate. All would stay put, including Carrie, who had planned to stay for the duration of the holiday. 

We refreshed our drinks and settled by the fire. “Well, I’ve told my tale. Who’s next?” Howard asked.

The room fell silent, with nobody rushing to pick the storyteller’s mantle from Howard’s shoulders. “Come on, folks. We’ve all night, and the perfect setting for a spooky tale,” Howard encouraged.  Well-timed thunder rumbled overhead proving Howard’s point.

Carrie looked at me, her face pale in the shadow of the flickering hearth. “I have something,” she whispered. “I’m not sure I should tell you.”

I smiled gently. “It’s okay, Carrie.  It can’t be any worse than Howard’s.”  Everybody laughed, except Carrie. She looked down, twisting a corner of a blanket in her lap like a child.

I felt a shiver run up my spine.  My outgoing, funny, logical cousin was acting so strange. “Surely, it will be fine, Carrie,” I tried to reassure her, or me, but even as I said it, I felt the world tilt slightly.

She gazed at me, her expression haunted, and nodded slowly.  “Perhaps it will help,” she mumbled.  And then she began.

Carrie’s Tale

I arrived in Blyton at the end of August, just before the start of fall term at the University.I had accepted a half year position as an archive assistant for Dr. Fletcher in the Art History department.  It was a perfect situation.  I would catalog and digitize her collection of botanical art, and she would allow me to study the contents for use in my doctoral thesis. The University, being founded principally as an agricultural school, has extensive resources in my field, so I was thrilled to be working there.

It was difficult to find housing for a half year stay. After several frustrating conversations with work study co-eds in the housing department, who couldn’t understand that I didn’t want to be placed in a dorm, their manager, whom I insisted upon seeing, came up with a solution. “How about this?”  she asked, handing me a listing for a small cottage.  “It was a servants’ cottage on the Dalton Estate.  The Archeology Department had been storing equipment there, but it’s recently been cleaned up and renovated for housing.  It’s rustic, but warm and cozy, and fully furnished.  It’s intended for housing the visiting Collins Archaeology Fellow, but that won’t be filled until the next year.”

The listing showed a small, one story house with white clapboard siding, green wooden shutters, and grey tin roof, which looked new.  A field stone walkway created a path through a bright array of wildflowers up to the front door.  The cottage was charming, and perfect. 

I filled out the paperwork, and she handed me the keys and drew me a map.  The cottage was only a few miles from campus, but it was off an unmarked lane and easy to miss without guidance, she explained. 

 

The map proved handy and accurate, and I found my way to the cottage without difficulty.  It was the only house at the end of road that was little more than a rutted track through a thinly treed forest.  The house itself was surrounded by sweeping fields that rolled down to the bank of the Sterling River. The main estate, I had learned, once a grand home owned by a blue blood professor, had burned down in the 1920s.  At some point, the land had become part of the University’s holdings.  Lucky for me, I thought.

A riot of wildflowers surrounded the small house, and I stood enjoying the scent as well as the aerial theatrics of my new neighbors, the bees. I grabbed my bags, unlocked the door, and stepped into the parlor. Inside, I noted the furniture was as varied as the plants outside and, although shabby, sans chic, it looked comfy and would suit me well enough.  As advertised, the cottage also had one bedroom, a kitchen, replete with pots and pans, and a full bathroom. 

To my surprise, there was a door at the back of the kitchen that led to a small, enclosed patio.  The room had stone floor surrounded by windows that stretched from my ankles to the ceiling.  Although the panes were in desperate need of a cleaning, they let in a delicious stream of warm afternoon sunlight.  I thanked myself for making the last-minute decision to pack my easels and my art supplies.  This would be a perfect spot for painting.

 

I quickly settled into the cottage and my new job at the University.  My days were split between cataloging and organizing and working on my thesis.  In the afternoons, I painted in my little solarium. It was idyllic.  By the end of September, however, I started to feel a bit isolated at the cottage, so I decided to post up a flyer on campus advertising art lessons. I could earn a bit of money and offset the loneliness that was starting to invade my time at the cottage.

 

“‘Creativity is intelligence having fun,’- Albert Einstein.” James McCallister, a history professor, read over my shoulder as I stapled my advert to the activities board in the Student Center. “Did he really say that?”

I shrugged. “Seems so. I doubt he was talking about painting, but I needed something catchy.”

“Ah yes, the famous quote. A life ring thrown to save drowning academics. I have grabbed a few myself over the years,” he remarked. “Anyway, I see you’re offering art lessons.”

I nodded, deciding to let my uninspired flyer speak for itself. “Are you interested?”

“Me? No. But my son, Jake, loves to draw, and my wife and I were just discussing lessons. Are kids okay?  He’s ten, but he’s an old soul, and hardly ever obnoxious.”

I hadn’t thought about teaching children, not that I minded.  I liked kids.  Because I posted on campus, I assumed my students would be from the college. “Sure.  Kids are great.”

“Any day, Tuesdays – Friday, 4 to 6,” he was reading again.  “Is this address your house?”  Before I could confirm, he pulled off the tab with my information, stuffed it in his pocket, and started to walk away. “Great, we’ll be in touch about Jake.”

 

Over the next weeks, I had a few inquires in response to my flyer, but no takers.  Still, I set up my paints every afternoon just in case I had a drop in, and worked on my own projects.  I tried to depict the tumble of shapes and colors in my front yard, and was fairly successful. Most of the time, I painted the view out the back – a vast, green field stretching out to the edge of the river. The landscape was not one that required much technical skill, yet I couldn’t seem to capture it.

I stood at the window, puzzled.  Perhaps, the medium was wrong.  I opened my case of acrylics, thinking to give them a shot, when I heard a knock coming from the front of the house.  Someone was at the door.

Thinking back, I wasn’t alarmed.  I probably should have been, being so out on my own, but I was only curious.  I yelled, “I’ll be right there,” wiped my hands on my smock, and headed to the door.

I am not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t him.  A young boy, perhaps ten years old, was standing on my front steps.  He had chestnut hair that curled over ears, fair skin, and bright blue eyes.  “Hello,” I said. “Can I help you?”

He smiled, and held out his hand.  A small orange fruit, a clementine, rested in his palm. “For me?” I asked.  He nodded. 

I accepted his gift, and we stood, studying each other.  His attire was a bit off, shorts made of a fabric like brushed flannel, brown socks and shoes, and a white button-down shirt.  I was thinking how old fashioned he looked, like he was on his way to a casting call for Oliver Twist.  And then it hit me. “Oh, you must be Jake,” I said.  “Here for the art lesson?”

He nodded again, and worked his way past me into the house. “Did your parents drop you off?”  I asked.  I had not heard a car. Perhaps they had dropped him off at the top of the drive, which seemed odd.

He didn’t answer.  He had already found his way to the studio.  When I entered the room, he was standing in front of my landscape, studying it.

“It’s rubbish,” I said. “The colors. I can’t get them right.” I had no idea why I was saying this to a child, but the way he looked at it.  It was like he could really see it.  See that it was wrong.

“Do you want to give it a try?” I asked.  Again, he nodded, but did not speak.  I removed my painting from the stand, and replaced it with a fresh sheet of Kilimanjaro, bright white. My brushes and watercolor pallet were next to the stand.  He picked them up and went to work.

He painted silently, mixing colors and sweeping them across the canvas. I stood for a bit and watched him, feeling like I should provide guidance or advice, after all this was supposed to be a lesson, but not wanting to interrupt the creative process.  He seemed oblivious to my presence, so eventually I just started to work on a new piece.  I had placed his gift, the clementine, on a small plant stand next to a Boston fern I was trying not to kill.  The bright orange sphere contrasted nicely with the gentle green color and feathery texture of the plant.  It had been a long time since I worked on a still life, so I grabbed some pastels and gave it a go.

My attention was focused on my composition, and I soon forgot that Jake was there.  Perhaps an hour had gone by when I remembered my student.  I got up to stretch and check on his progress.  He was gone.  “Jake,” I called.  “Are you in the bathroom?”

I heard no reply, so I did a quick search, but he wasn’t in the house or in the yard.  How odd, I thought.  I felt a bit guilty for having not checked on him sooner.  He must have left and not wanted to interrupt me, much as I had not wanted to disturb him.  I convinced myself that this must have been the case – that his ride had come, and he had made his exit as quietly as he had his entrance. 

He had left his painting up to dry, and I went to look.  I was reassured by its presence that he had not simply been a figment of my imagination.  His painting depicted the same view I had been struggling with for weeks, and it showed that Jake had some skill.  The shapes were childlike and clumsy, the hills too rolling and the clouds like puffy meringues.  But he had done a better job with the colors than I had, the rich green of the grass giving way to yellow as the afternoon sun’s light scattered across the field, and the blue of the river a shade darker than the cobalt of the summer sky. He had also added something to his painting that was not in mine. In the distance, on the bank of his river, there was a structure. It was hard to make it out, but it looked like some type of gazebo; it had a roof and supports, but no sides. 

I looked out the window. Had he seen something I had missed?  The light was starting to fade, but I still had a clear view to the river’s edge and my eyesight was good.  There was no gazebo, no manmade structures at all.  Perhaps he imagined a fort by the water, a childhood hideout where he could scout for pirates.  Jake was a kid, after all, even if he was a quiet one.  What struck me, however, as I studied the painting was that the fort somehow fit.  It wasn’t just the colors that made his painting feel right; it was the fort.  It was as if Jake found a piece of a puzzle I hadn’t known was lost.

 

Jake’s next visit, a few days after the first, followed the same pattern.  A knock on the door, a smile and nod, and a clementine. Again, I saw no one drop him off or pick him up.  He came and went like cloud shadows on a mountainside. 

He worked on a new painting, but the same subject.  His colors changed to reflect the tones of the season; the greens of the grass paled, but new colors, crimson, orange, gold, erupted on the river’s far side.  We worked in silence, two artists sharing studio space.  Again, I felt I should probably teach him something, but he seemed content and, since he was paying me in fruit, I figured he was getting his money’s worth using my materials, so I let him alone.

When he had gone, without me noticing as he had done the first day, I spent some time considering his composition.  The vantage had changed slightly. The view of the river was not from the solarium, but rather that from outside in the field.  The fort, still a way in the distance, was closer, close enough to see that it was not a fort or a gazebo, but rather a green house.  Not a plastic wrapped, modern structure, like the one from which I adopted my fern, but an old-fashioned hothouse with delicate panes of glass reflecting the autumn sky.  The painting was lovely, amazing work for such a young artist, and I should have felt awed, or even jealous, but I didn’t.  I felt sad, strangely and overwhelmingly sad.

The following week it rained.  Not passing showers, but bang on the roof, is it ever going to stop-rain.  Jake did not come. This confirmed my belief that he had walked to my house for his “lessons” rather than being dropped off.  I welcomed the break and made some headway on my thesis.  The light was not right for painting, plus the solarium seemed lonely without my silent companion.

The sun finally returned, as well as Jake with his knock on the door and his clementine greeting.  He resumed his post and began a new painting.  I did not watch as he worked, for it felt rude.  But as soon as he was gone, I looked.  Again, the field, the river, the hothouse. This time closer than the last.  The hothouse was patina green, as if made of twists of weathered copper, enclosing panes of glass of varied shapes and sizes.  It was clear that the hothouse, not the landscape around it, was the focal point of Jake’s painting.  It was a strange subject for a child, but as his father had said, “He is an old soul,” and, perhaps, a prodigy in architecture. 

Jake came every day the following week.  I piled the clementines in a blue bowl next the fern. My still life compositions were vastly improved from all the practice.  He continued his hothouse series, zooming in closer and closer each day.  On day six, I could make out the color and shapes of trees and plants behind the windows.  On seven, small orange and yellow globes, citrus fruits, could be seen among the green.  On eight, the shape of a man appeared, and everything changed.

Jake showed up, as he had done every time, on my doorstep.  But today, he did not smile.  His already pale face, appeared paler.  His eyes feverish.  “Are you feeling ok, Jake?” I asked. “You don’t look well.”

No nod, instead he reached out to offer the clementine, but his hand trembled as he dropped the fruit into mine. He put his head down and came inside.  I was worried about him, so I did something I had previously avoided.  I watched him paint. 

He started with a wash to set the sky. This time, not blue, but purple gray. When it dried, he painted the hothouse.  He was right outside it, the door flung open.  The inside was filled with spiky, Perylene and sap green fronds of tropical plants, and the blunter, waxy leaves of citrus trees – limes, lemons, and, all around the perimeter, clementine trees.  He painted quickly, as if the composition was already there and he was just uncovering it.  I was mesmerized.  He made a final stroke of green, and then he stopped.  He turned and looked at me.  I felt prickles on the back of my scalp.  The expression on his face was like none I had ever seen before, nor wished to ever see again.  It was as if someone had mixed up love, pain, grief, and rage and painted it on the face of a child.  I knew that it was not meant for me.  He turned back to his painting, dipped his brush in black, and painted the shadow of man in the background.  I had to look away.  When I looked back, Jake was gone.

I left the solarium.  I didn’t want to look at the painting.  I didn’t want to touch it.It occurred to me now what should have occurred to me much sooner – the silence, the odd clothing, the compulsive painting of one subject. Jake was clearly disturbed.  Did his parents know?  Did they realize how troubled their child was?  I had to talk to them.

I tossed and turned all night, dreaming of the shadow in the greenhouse.  I barely slept at all.  So, instead of heading to the art department in the morning, I went directly to History to find James. 

He arrived at his office as posted, 9am, and I was waiting outside the door.  He looked at me curiously, and I could tell he was trying to place me. 

“Carrie, Art History.  I give painting classes,” I offered.  How could he not know who I am?

“Oh yes, likes to quote Einstein,” he said, smiling. “What can I do for you?” He opened his office, and I followed him in.

“I need to talk to you about Jake,” I said, standing in front of his desk.

“Jake?” he asked. “What Jake are we talking about?  I have a lot of students.” 

“Jake, your son.  The art lessons,” I explained, wondering how out of touch a parent could be. Jake’s anger was beginning to make sense.

“Oh, yes. I’m sorry about that. I know I said I’d be in touch, but, unbeknownst to me, my wife signed him up for hockey.”  He took a long sip of his coffee.  “Seriously, don’t let your kids play hockey.  It costs a fortune, it never ends, and it’s cold.” 

“I don’t understand,” I said, feeling my pulse quicken. “But Jake’s been taking lessons with me – for about a month now.”

A co-ed knocked on his door, queuing up for office hours.  James held up a finger indicating he’d be done in a minute.  “I’m sorry, Carrie.  It is Carrie, right?  I’m not sure who you have been giving lessons to, but I can assure you it’s not my Jake.”He handed me a photo from his desk of a boy in a tire swing – a boy with blond hair wearing a Red Sox jersey. I had never seen him before.

 

After I left James’s office, I felt ill.  I sat outside the Student Center on a bench in the shade until my pulse settled and my resolve returned.  Somehow, I felt that the hothouse was a key to solving this mystery.  I recalled that the archaeology department had been doing research on the Dalton Estate, so I headed there to look for answers. 

I stopped at the office, and explained that I was staying on the Dalton property and was curious about its history.  Fortunately, the woman working the desk was a grad student who worked on the dig and was happy to fill me in on what she knew.

She brought me to a room with artifacts from the excavation.  “Those over there have been cataloged,” she explained, pointing to a shelf of glass and pottery shards, and other remnants of the past. “We still have a lot to do. The Dalton Mansion burned down in 1928. Edgar Dalton was a professor here, a botanist, a specialist in tropical plants.  He died in the fire.”

I pulled at my collar. “Do you know if he had any family? Children, perhaps.” I couldn’t believe I was asking this.

“I don’t know.”  She looked at me. “You’re a student here?”  I nodded.  She grabbed a nearby box and brought it to a table. “These are some photos from the Estate.  You are welcome to look through them. They must stay here though.  Ok?”

I agreed, and she headed back to the office.  I flipped through the black and white photos.  Most were of the house, a white clapboard mansion with black shutters, cold and austere. And then, I found what I was looking for.  What I knew would be there. A photo of a hothouse perched on the edge of a river. The last photo in the stack stopped my heart.  It depicted a man, black eyed and severe, standing next to a small boy, with light eyes and hair that curled over his ears.  On the back it read: Edgar and Miles Dalton, 1927.  

 

“Come in, Miles,” I said.  He nodded and handed me a clementine.  This time, my hand shook as I took his offering.  I was afraid of him, but I had to know what he wanted.  I needed to see what he would paint.

He painted furiously. At a speed that wasn’t quite human.  I stood and watched.  I held my breath as he whipped colors across the paper.  After what seemed like minutes, he stopped and stepped back.  He had painted himself, standing in the hothouse, a hatchet in his hand, hacked trunks and branches of fruit trees scattered in piles at his feet.  He had chopped down the trees.

He ripped the paper from the easel, replaced it with a fresh sheet, and started to paint.  His brush dipped into the crimson, again and again, and again.  I didn’t want to watch, but I had to.  A moan, the first sound I had ever heard him make, keened from him like a mournful wind.  He stopped.  The hatchet, painted this time in the hand of his father.  Red splashed across the ground at his feet.

Miles tore this page away too. There was one more painting he needed to paint.  When he was finished, he carefully took the painting down and walked over to me.  I was crying.  He looked at me, his eyes empty.  He placed the painting in my hands.  The style was different, primitive.  It looked very much like the work of a child.  It showed a large white house engulfed in flames. The hothouse by the river was filed with a jumble of colors - reds, oranges, green.  There was a cavity in the ground under the one clementine tree which still stood, and in it was the body of a child.  I looked up for Miles, but he was gone.

 

I packed up my art supplies and my bags and left.  I returned my key to the housing office and found a weekly rental in a hotel.  But even though I was no longer at the cottage, I could not stop thinking of Miles.  He needed my help.  A week after our last session, I called the Archaeology chair in charge of the Dalton project.  I told him that I had learned, from a source that I could not divulge, that there was a find of significant historical value buried at the site where there had once been a hothouse.

Weeks later, I read in the paper that the remains of a child, presumed to be Miles Dalton, had been found by the banks of the river. It was clear that he had been the victim of a homicide, which was a surprise, for it had been thought he had perished in the same fire that took the life of his father, renown botanist, Edgar Dalton.  It reported that Dalton, although considered a genius in the cultivation of new varieties of fruits, such as the clementine, had been prone to episodes of intense melancholy following the death of his wife in childbirth.  He had been obsessively devoted to his field of study, to the neglect of his only child, his son, Miles.  In fact, at the time of the fire, most of his colleagues were surprised to find out that Dalton had a son. “I always assumed his trees were his children.  His work was his life,” one had remarked. 

 

I was relieved that Miles had been found.  Yesterday, I stopped by the cottage before I left town.  I am not sure why, but I needed to go.  The front steps were covered in clementines.  I ran back to my car and drove straight to your house, cousin.  I needed to put it behind me, to get away.

But then this morning, after I came back from the shower, I found this.  It was sitting on the middle of my bed.

Carrie reached into her pocket and pulled out a clementine.  “He’s followed me here,” she said.  The curtains rustled.  This time it wasn’t the cat.

 

 


© Copyright 2018 Hart McHugh. All rights reserved.

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