Written by Ella I.
The night was dark, blanketing the hills with its velvety folds, stars glimmering like diamonds on the rich cloth, with the full moon, a pearl of exquisite beauty, shining in the center of the dark velvet. A crown jewel in the night. Clouds scudded across the starry sky and snow fell softly, adding mystery to beauty. A house, almost a mansion, rose from the night, nestled in the hills. Warm yellow lamplight spilled from a single window in the second story, illuminating the form of a man. He sat at his desk, a pen in hand, paper spread in messy piles across his desk, some halfway filled with words, others left with one and then abandoned. Yet more pages, crumpled into little balls, filled a metal trash pail beside the old oak desk. The chair creaked as the old man shifted, tapping the end of the pen against his lips and muttering under his breath.
The neighbors said he was crazy. People in town, so far away, said he was mad. They said that the poems that he wrote, strange, nonsensical flights of fancy were the spawn of his chaotic, madman’s mind. They said that he had murdered his poor young wife, all those long years ago. All those things that they said, that they thought he never heard, the dreadful gossips. No, the old man heard. He heard. He knew that they thought him mad. He didn’t care. He was reclusive, hidden away in the old manor. He had bought it to avoid the questioning, pitying stares and the nervous glances that followed him everywhere. He had bought it so he would have a quiet place to go and write his tales of spectres and spirits. But before all that… Before all that he had dreamed of sharing the old house with her. Her.
The house had been in disrepair. Rusted metal scraps littered the front yard. An ancient carriage house, tumble down and falling apart, sat beside the old house, a house riddled with passages in the walls, broken dumbwaiters, dusty bellpulls and all the rooms that the old man had never bothered to explore. They said that the house was haunted. The old man didn’t care. He was alone with his stories and ghosts.
There was only one thing he missed, and that was impossible to retrieve. Her. The man shook his head pushed the thought of her from his mind, trying to resist the temptation to gaze out into the snowy night and down at the single stone cross that stood alone in the garden behind the house, a garden that, when spring came, was overflowing with flowers and the scent of wet, clean earth. Now, though, the garden was buried beneath the still, white blanket of snow and ice. The flowers had long since withered away, and all that was left, was the cross. A single haunted memory of bygone days. A remnant. The old man finally set down his pen and pushed his chair away from the oaken desk that stood on clawed feet beneath the window. He closed his eyes and sighed. It was late. High time for him to retire to bed. He reached out to close the curtains, but stopped suddenly, his hand still outstretched. It fell to his side, and a breath of air escaped his lips. There, in the garden! A fire blazed brightly despite the wind and gusts of snow. And there was a figure standing beside it, next to the cross in the garden. He could see her gazing up at the window, her eyes gleaming with delight. Her pale hand rose in a wave. Her.
He quickly pulled the curtains shut, and turned away, rubbing his forehead with long, worn fingers. This was not the first time….
Then he heard it.
Rafael! A merry voice cried, over the sound of violins, a single piano, the clinking of glasses and the rough sound of silverware scraping plates. Rafael! The music, don’t you hear it? Can’t you hear the music? Come dance Rafael! Come! After all, it’s our wedding day. Doesn’t the bride deserve at least one last dance with the groom? One last dance, Rafael, please…
How Rafael had laughed. How he had let himself be pulled onto the floor and be swept away with the music. How she had felt in his arms, her lilac scent drifting around them, her feet lighter than air. How happy he had been, to dance with her. And now, so many years since that night, he heard her voice, calling him to dance one last dance with her before the night was through. “Elinore.” Rafael murmured. “Dear Elinore. But it is too late. Far too late for dancing.”
Her laugh haunted him as he slipped off his dressing gown and slippers and laid down in bed. The house seemed so empty. Too empty. She should have been there.
His Elinore. But it was too late. Her heart, they had whispered, had caused it, or maybe poison. They said that he, he who had loved her so much, had murdered his own dear Elinore. Never. She laughed again, and even through the heavy curtains, Rafael swore he could see the fire in the garden, blazing merrily in the snow.
And so it went. Night after night. Elinore. Dear Elinore. She waited for him, he yearned for her. Only fear kept love at bay. Every night he remained a while longer at his window, watching her. Every night he knew that he was slipping away. His only comfort was that at last he would be with her again. Dear Elinore. He loved her and feared her. What if, when he joined her, he found her gone, as he found her every morning as dawn broke over the horizon?
Rafael wrote his strange poetry and waited for her, ignoring his fear for a few brief moments, wishing to see her as often as he could. And she came. The fire burned every night. Elinore laughed and asked for one last dance. A last dance. Their very last, the last dance of the day she died.
Every night, Elinore came. She had been coming for weeks now. Every night she sang and danced alone by her fire, and every morning, when the sun came up, there was a neatly melted ring in the snow where the fire had been, but no footprints. Not even the remnants of a fire.
Midnight came again one late night, as winter slowly melted into spring and again Elinore came, She spoke as Rafael drew the curtains. Rafael! She called, as she did every night, the sounds of the wedding party, their wedding party, echoing through the night. Rafael! The music, don’t you hear it? Can’t you hear the music? Come dance Rafael! Come! After all, it’s our wedding day. Doesn’t the bride deserve at least one last dance with the groom? One last dance, Rafael, please… It’s time for one last dance, before the sun comes up and the guests go home. Come dance Rafael!
Rafael shivered at the sound of the new verse. He wanted to dance with her, his bride… But was this real? Perhaps Old Man Rafael, the hermit in the woods who wrote poetry that only he truly understood, really was being driven mad by his own flights of fancy. He ran his fingers through his gray hair, his sad brown eyes catching the light and twinkling in his careworn face.
“Ah, Rafael,” he murmured to himself, “Elinore and you, the restless souls of the manor in the woods.” He pulled the curtains fully closed. The fires light shone through the red cloth, and Rafael smiled sadly. “Perhaps I shall dance soon, Elinore. I have felt it coming for many nights now. Perhaps…”
Rafael retired to bed, completing his nightly routine and slipping under the heavy quilt that lay on the bed. “Perhaps tonight, dear Elinore, we will dance again.”
Rafael woke only a few hours later, waking slowly, so slowly. He lay there, unable to fall back asleep. He stood and pulled aside the curtains. The sky was still dark, and a fire still blazed below. The woman, his dear Elinore, looked up and smiled, crooking her fingers at him. Come. Rafael was about to turn away, but his gaze caught on his reflection.
How odd. His hair was chestnut brown, and his eyes twinkled. No wrinkles yet lined his face. He wore a smart new suit. His wedding attire. He was young again. How odd…
Then Rafael smiled, looking down again at dear Elinore. Perhaps it really was time.
He turned and flew down the winding stairs and pulled aside the bolt to the doors in the foyer. The portraits on the walls seemed to stare down at his haste with contempt. But he was out. Snow was falling again, on this dark night, just in between seasons. The full moon was shining brightly, it’s gently light catching on the gently falling snowflakes. Rafael walked in a daze, his feet skimming the snow as he rounded the corner of the house. And there she was. His Elinore. She stood by the fire, gazing up at the window to his room, now dim and dark, the lamp extinguished.
She was as beautiful as the day they had married. Her long, dark, raven hair had been braided and pinned into a chignon with pearl-decked pins at the nape of her graceful, pale neck, but even that couldn’t contain a few wisps of dark hair that framed her pretty face. Her eyes were dark green, and glimmered merrily, and her cheeks were flushed with laughter and general merriment. She turned and smiled at him, her beautiful red dress with its puffed sleeves, so fashionable when they had married, swishing as she walked towards him. He remembered her wedding dress as being white, but no matter. This was Elinore, the light of his life. She lifted the hem of her skirts as he walked, and her slippered feet fairly floated above the snow.
Soon Rafael was holding her in his arms again, the scent of lilacs swirling in the air. The sound of violins and a lone piano filled the air, and soon they were dancing, Rafael with his hands once again on his brides slim waist, her smile warming his heart. They laughed and danced until the fire grew dim and the music faded, but still they danced on, happy and together once again.
Now a new stone cross has joined the first in the garden, and spring has graced the hills once again. Vines creep up the sides of the old house, and daffodils bloom in Rafael and Elinore’s garden. The old house has been rid of its dust and mustiness. A family lives there now. A happy one. And on clear winter nights the children swear that they can still hear the sound of violins and a lone piano playing in the night, and laughter floating up from the garden.
As for Rafael and Elinore? They are happy, I assure you. They dance every night when the moon shines full and the stars shine bright, forever young and in love. They wander the hills and sit in the garden, talking and making up for long years lost.
You can ask me whether I believe the old house is haunted… And I will respond, of course it is, every place that was once a home is haunted by memories, and are we not all spirits adrift, in our own way, waiting for someone - something unnamed?
The widow Maria let her hand sink down, still clutching the slip of paper tight, her face, so similar to her brother’s, pale. She met the eyes of the lawyer sitting in her parlour and he cocked his head, curious. Maria let her eyes travel back to the paper, a letter, and tucked a strand of her long, now white hair behind her ear.
“And I will respond, of course it is, every place that was once a home is haunted by memories, and are we not all spirits adrift, in our own way, waiting for someone - something unnamed?” She read aloud, her voice quavering. “Sincerely and always yours, your loving brother, - Rafael.”
The lawyer nodded. “It was his last will and testament, that you should receive this letter, Maria. Rafael has finally danced with his young bride again. He died in his sleep a few nights ago. He is gone.”
“Danse Macabre…” Maria whispered. “The Dance of Death.” And she smiled.