Tiers of Hell

I'm afraid. I think it's mad funny. I'm scared to go to my room. I'm scared of the walls and the bed and the whole thing. I'm afraid to touch the lamp to light it. I'm afraid to brush the dust off my clock. So I haven't gone into it yet. I wonder how long I can sit downstairs by the fire before my mother or one of the servants comes to send me to bed. I haven't been home in ages. It's been a damn sight longer than three years, it seems. But my room's not mine anymore, I don't think, and thus my silly mind is telling me not to go there. I think I partly scared myself into it. I think part of me wasn't afraid at all, and then I suddenly convinced myself it was poison because of the part of me that was thought it should be that way. I often do that - trick myself into something I don't want because I think I ought to want it.

Oh well. I can't quite change my mind, not now. I've turned on my old music box, from when I was very small. It's a charming little wood thing, and God knows why, but it's been stood on the mantle. Charming, of course, is an opinion. It's just hardwood with some strange metal fiddlings shoved inside so that when it's opened it plays bits and pieces of some song from some opera or concert or some such that no one cares about now. It's dusty, even. You can hear the dust inside it, and the dust is in the melody, too. It's odd. The metal fiddlings make soft grating noises as they turn and smash themselves together, idiotically, and it runs against the music. I'm annoyed by it, so I set it back.

I look around the room for something, anything, to entertain me until I can sleep, because this chair is damned uncomfortable. My head's starting to ache and I do so want to close my eyes, but I can't, because I'll only get pictures in my mind, of things I don't want to see. I came back to this house to escape those things, and I won't let them follow me.

There - the fire. I can look at the fire. The flames are jerking up and down and flickering, sometimes blue, orange, purple, yellow, white. Sometimes, perhaps, there are faces in there. An old woman, and she's crying, a yellow face with white tears; a small child, purple, with golden hair and blue eyes. Ha! And then, of course, the embers in the grate, glowing, mostly black, but with red fire lacing them. And all the ash, mustn't forget that. All the grey-silver ash being blown about by the draft, undecided for a direction, sometimes going this way, sometimes the other.

It's throwing great dark shadows on the curtains, demons and black angels dancing - or perhaps warring - on the gauzish, once-proud stuff. When I was small, the curtains delighted me. I liked the feel, and I'd take handfuls and bury my face in it. I won't touch it now, not for all the gold beyond the drooping rainbows. Clair wore a dress like that, made out of gossamer, falling in streams of pale.

I remember Clair, fancy in that dress, his dark hair pulled back with a blue ribbon. He didn't like dresses all so much, but he did love that one. When he wore it, his white face went flushed, he smiled, and he wore the blue ribbon with it, which I bought him. His hair wouldn't stay in it, but he looked so pretty with curls escaping, that I didn't care. I refused to. I liked him happy.

I liked him, happy or no. I liked his faint smell of apples, the scent he claimed came from spending time in his father's orchards before school. He told me that even in a skirt, he could climb trees, that it didn't upset him when they tore, for he could always buy more. Clair was rich like I never was. His father had a plantation. Apples, yes, there were all sorts of apples, and pears, oranges, things that shouldn't have grown in the kind of climate we were cursed with. I wondered if Clair's father could work magic. That was something else he had that I didn't. A father. Not that I minded. We used to plot over his father and my mother in the garden in summer, pretending that if we could only get them to go such-and-such a place together, they'd fall into deep, undying true love. We knew it wouldn't happen, though, and then we'd laugh and give up. I knew him even before I left - we chose to attend school together.

I hate sleeping alone, too, that's part of why I shan't sleep in my room. It won't be the same. I'm used to having warm beside me when I sleep. I need it. I need Clair.

But I don't want to remember Clair. Now I hate the curtains, too. I hadn't planned to remember.

The fire's edging out of the fireplace. It's trapped too, I suppose. It doesn't want to be here. It wants to get away. Maybe I'll let it go. I might. I wouldn't mind setting it free. It could eat up the curtains, playing gentle, trillish, hell-hot hands over that awful material until it was gone. I wouldn't stop it. Then, maybe, it would take on this chair, running up the polished wood of the legs and scarring it, consuming the embroidered coverings. Of course, while it was devouring the chair, it would devour me, as well. It would catch my boots, searing the soft leather, biting my feet. Then it would find my trousers, my legs, and keep on. It would hurt, I expect, but, after all, the dead don't remember things. It would catch my sleeves, these long, billowed, silk affairs Mother made herself. They'd go up like nothing, they're so thin. They'd burn like parchment. And it would begin on my arms, my tender white flesh, weak and ugly, and it would erase that. My neck, too, is white; terribly fashionable, I have heard. The fire could melt it easily, cut through it. I wonder if flames would kiss my mouth as Clair did. No... I wouldn't mind to burn. I want to look around a little longer, though, before I let it go.

Besides, it might want to leave this room, and I shouldn't be happy, really, if Mother were burnt. And it would set fire to the spice cabinets in the kitchen, the ones Father carved by hand before I was born. The spices would smoke, I'm certain, a thick, cloying smoke that smelt of whatever it came from.

Clair burned spices. He called it incense. He said that it cleared the mind, made one feel things sharper. I shouldn't like that. The last thing I want is to feel all I've felt the last week any sharper. Mother wanted to know at dinner why I didn't drink any water, when she'd put it for me, knowing I hate wine, and the way it confuses things. I can't bear water any longer. For the same reason I can't bear that curtain stuff Clair wore.

Of course, he wore other things. He often wore silk blouses in pastels, because, he told me, pale blue was his colour, and pale green. He wasn't fond of real blue or real green. He liked them faded. We were both young. He was slim, and only a little shorter than I, and his hair was long. He looked a woman, a young lady, if you didn't observe closely. He said it was easy to trick people, and that was why he dressed as he did. He didn't want to be a boy. So he always appeared a girl. His dresses were fine cut, too, almost gowns. He had another one, besides the whitish one. He had a long silver-grey one with sapphire trimming. But the day we went boating, he wore the first.

It was only an outing for class. We were allowed a day to ourselves on the river, everyone. It was meant to be enjoyed. It was a beautiful river. It was blue, blue as anything, and still, and after the wetish summer, everything growing was fine and green. It looked a sort of book-done paradise. And I, the foolish one, thought I might take my Clair out. I rented a boat, a good boat. I rowed, and he leaned over the edge and laughed at the fish and reeds and water bugs. His laugh carried, sparkling in the sun, in silver streaks, on the surface of the river. It wasn't even flowing fast. It was that dress. It was that damned dress. One couldn't swim in it. It was the fault of the thing. I'm still not sure how the boat tipped. He leaned out too far. But it wasn't him - it wasn't - it was the dress. One of the sleeves, balloon sleeves, because he said he liked them best like that. It caught on the branch of a tree he reached up to take a flower from. A flower for me. He fell, the boat spun over... And he didn't return to the surface.

They did find his body, something I didn't want to happen.

They expect me at the funeral, tomorrow. The funeral? Yes, they want me to come and say something noble about his friendship. Friendship. He wasn't a friend. I've never trusted friends. I refuse to have them. I don't like friends. He was the person I loved, and that's something else. And already I'm speaking of him as dead. I'd hoped I could pretend. No. Was, is, loved, love. It's not over yet, is it?

I stand suddenly, and take back the music box. What shall I do? I cannot take this house. I cannot take the whispers, the people who wonder why I should be so strangely distraught over my school-friend. Oh, school-friend. The school-friend in whose arms I slept at night. We always awoke earlier than anyone else, so that he could return to his room before anyone noticed, slipping out the door, gone in silence. I slowly open the glass doors of the fireplace and place the box inside, quivering a little I cannot help, because it is hot, hotter than I expected. But I don't flinch. I'll get used to it. I set the box down and straighten, pulling my hands from the flame.

Just as slowly, I cross the room, unhooking the curtain rod, sliding the curtains off. Yes, they are as I remember. Yes, they feel like Clair's favourite dress. I bring them over, too, and set them in the fire.

They are burnt away much faster than the box, which is still only catching. The sheer fabric goes up with a faint noise like a sharp intake of breath. The fire blazes much brighter for a split-second, then fades back into itself, to be as it was before. The music box begins to truly burn, and the unknown metal fiddlings shiver, sending out a moan of their melody, dying. I kneel down in front of it, feeling the heat on my face, a crackle and horrible smell as a bit of my hair catches. I jerk back without thinking that I will.

The odour reminds me of when Clair and I were ten, and found an enemy. He had knocked Clair down and called him names for wearing a skirt to class. We waited till a time of our own at the boarding school, and crept into his room, searching for some of his hair to set fire to. It was Clair's idea; more of his magic. He said it would make the older boy have headaches every morning. I still don't know if we used the right hair. We just burnt whatever we found in brushes, murmuring words Clair told me were the spell. The first morning afterwards, the boy looked terrible, but Yere, who slept in the bed beneath mine, claimed to me that he'd achieved a hangover from drinking stolen brandy.

We forgot soon, though, Clair and I. It didn't matter. We went back to being more concerned how we could avoid class. Mother says all children are like that, girls as much as boys, in a constant loathing of work. Ah well.

I suppose, that if I didn't want to burn the whole house, I could get inside the fireplace. I've never been quite big, and the grating is. It would be easiest, if need be, though I'm not sure if I want to be found as scorched bones hunched up inside a sooty marble box. No. I shouldn't like that. Not at all.

I sit back in the chair, carefully, still pondering. The best thing would be to simply open the glass doors, and let the fire run out. I don't want to ruin the house, though. It's a lovely old house; it's been around for years and years, and I did grow up in it.

I want Clair back. That's all. I'm tired, and I don't want to sleep by myself. I'm lonesome. I want to feel his arms around me, his small chin laid on top of my head, the both of us lying in a bed at the college; only meant for one occupant, but we could both sleep there. We would be almost-asleep, have our eyes closed. We'd be facing each other, and perhaps I'd have a hand in his hair, or draped over his hip. It would be very peaceful, a gentleness. We'd know that in a moment neither would be awake, but that wouldn't matter, because we wouldn't care. We'd be happy to be resting against each other. It would be the most beautiful, wonderful thing in the world. It would be heaven. It's all I want. It's all...

I move from the chair once again, but this time it's to lie down by the fire. The heat dances over my face tenderly. It feels a bit like his warm breath. Maybe - just maybe - I can fall asleep now, and not mind it. I'll decide what to do tomorrow. But now, I can't keep my eyes opened. And suddenly, I don't mind seeing him against the darkness of them closed. Tomorrow - I can choose between opening the grate or sitting inside it tomorrow. I'll rest now, I think.

I hope Mother isn't too angry when she sees the ash I've gotten all over my clothes...

Owari ~ End