Fiction

Rockface, acrylic on canvas by Marcella Peralta Simon

The Occupation of Magdalen House

Magdalen House was one of seven federation-style homes set in a leafy cul-de-sac in an affluent Australian suburb. The lots were generous, with manicured gardens. Tall trees stretched their limbs unencumbered, attracting kookaburras and cockatoos. Apart from the birds, the street was quiet, its occupants seldom seen. Recently, however, Magdalen House had begun sighing and fidgeting in its foundations. Unsightly rubbish had blown across the driveway; the grass needed cutting, the flowers deadheading, and there were notices left uncollected in the letter box. At night the dark house sagged under the weight of its emptiness and longing for its mistress’s attention. Yet it seemed that was not to be. A SOLD sign had recently been erected on the front lawn. 

 

 Professor Charlotte Lloyd lay in bed, awake but muddied in her thoughts and feelings. Her wisps of grey hair had been left ungroomed, stringy in front and matted in back from lying too long on the pillow. Her mouth was dry and her left eye glued shut, leaving her right eye alone to interpret her surroundings. Her bedroom, which was her only room now, was neat and simply furnished. Few of her personal belongings had accompanied her to the nursing home: a chest of drawers, television, CD player, a bedside table, some photos, and a pretty vase. The professor’s faded medical certificates hung on the wall, their relevance diminishing with time. A few photos grouped together showed her elegantly dressed, accepting awards for contributions to new treatments for neurological diseases, or seated at her grand piano after a performance at the Friends of Beethoven’s annual concert. In one old photo she was with her husband, long departed, and their little boy, enjoying a picnic. Despite the cleaners’ efforts, a few cobwebs persisted high in the corners of her room. 

Two attendants bustled in, wheeling an elaborate hoist. As the first released the secure bed rail, she smiled and said “Good morning, Lotte darling, how are we? Are you ready for your shower?” “Poor old thing, she’s well and truly left the building, hasn’t she?” said the other. The two worked in tandem, fitting the sling and attaching the ropes, then rolling the professor efficiently from side to side until she was safe and secure in the device. Using the remote control, the first attendant hoisted Charlotte into the air. “Did you hear her house sold a few weeks ago? I think it went for 4.3 million.”  “Oh my god, that’s crazy. But it is the best house on one of the best streets. Her son is one lucky guy.” “Yeah, too bad he never comes to visit mum. Isn’t that right, Lotte? After all your hard work and accolades, this is where you’ve landed. Not to worry, we love you dal.” 

The women’s chatter wormed deep into Charlotte’s brain, stimulating her long-term memory. Her good eye blinked and she emitted a gurgling sound as they navigated the professor through the air and landed her in the shower chair. “Come on, then, let’s get that wet nappy off and fix you up nicely. After your shower and porridge we’ll take you to crafts and the singalong. You’ll enjoy that, won’t you, being musical and all.” The professor broke wind as the trio careened towards the shower. 
 

Richard Lloyd had struggled with the decision to move his mother to a nursing home. She had always been so fiercely independent. She kept the old house in fine condition and was proud of its period features. Richard had fond memories of childhood. His father had suffered a heart attack and passed away when he was a teenager, but he and his mother had weathered every storm together. She made life’s big decisions without hesitation. She played the piano wonderfully. Her scientific work was highly regarded as she contributed to the fight against Alzheimer’s and other diseases. It was a cruel twist of fate that she herself succumbed to an early dementia, gradually forgetting the day, the year, the place where she lived, and how to count backwards by sevens from a hundred. Richard made his decision after Charlotte even forgot him, her only child. What was the point of struggling on with independent living services when the essence of your mother was gone, leaving only a brittle shell? He would, of course, visit her every day, or every second day, and make sure she had everything required for quality of life. At age 73, on a sunny afternoon, Professor Lloyd was quietly transferred from Magdalen House to Distant Views Nursing Home. She did not resist. 

As his mother’s Enduring Guardian, Richard managed her affairs and made decisions regarding her wellbeing. The detailed legal documents had been drawn up and signed by both mother and son in the presence of Charlotte’s lawyer when the professor was still in full control of her faculties and able to anticipate every possibility—Richard was not one to read the fine print. After a respectful amount of time had passed, he put the house on the market. It required far too much maintenance for his modern lifestyle. And of course, the opportunity costs had to be considered. What else might be achieved if this asset were to be liquidated? He could resign from his tiresome office job, give up his city apartment and travel the world. He knew his mother would have wanted it that way. 
 

Magdalen House had been in the family since 1910. It had avoided any ghastly renovations, maintaining its timeless grandeur. In preparation for the sale, the cleaners went to work, polishing the brass and cleaning the decorative fireplaces, fretwork arches, timber floors and leadlight windows. They polished the grand piano until it shone under the glittering chandelier. The gardener swept the tiled pathway and veranda and scrubbed traces of mold from the birdbath. Though not a manor or a mansion, the house was a rare gem, one that knew its caliber and was confident in its superiority. On the eve of the first open house, Richard moved slowly through its rooms, setting a chair just so, placing a leatherbound book of poems on the side table and opening the music for the Moonlight Sonata at the piano. He wiped away any lingering cobwebs. 

Showing the house, the real estate agent highlighted the comfortable sitting areas and swept open the French doors to the library and adjoining music room with its ornate ceilings. The house would be sold fully furnished, piano included. 

Magdalen House sold quickly to Rodger and Jenny Morrow. Rodger had made his money in the stock market and Jenny inherited hers. Their beautiful new home would boost their upward trajectory and help define their place in society. Of course they would have to renovate the kitchen and bathrooms. The driveway needed widening, and they would have to add a double garage. “We must get the pest control people in right away. There were quite a lot of cobwebs,” Jenny said, “and I noticed some big spiders in the living room.” Preoccupied with his phone, Rodger simply responded, “Hmmm, not all spiders are deadly, Jenny.” 

The day they moved in, Jenny roamed around her new home, inhaling its air of prosperity and grace and exploring every nook and cranny. That night, as Rodger reclined in the music room, she moved to the piano, sat down and found middle C. “I can’t wait to brush up on my repertoire.”

 “I haven’t heard you play for so long, darling. Play that song we loved so much back in the day, My Aching Broken Heart.”

With a smile Jenny cracked her knuckles and leaned heavily into the keys. Rodger smiled, overlooking her hesitant rhythm and excessive use of the pedal—until, halfway through her performance, the piano snapped shut on her hands. Startled, she prised open the cover and removed her hands, which were, fortunately, uninjured. “I think the piano did that to me on purpose,” she exclaimed, moving back to the sofa. 

In the coming weeks the couple tried to adapt to the rhythms and peculiarities of Magdalen House. They were unaccustomed to its size and aging infrastructure. In the bathroom Jenny recoiled as thick, brown slime bubbled up from the sink’s drain just as she lowered her face to brush her teeth. She struggled to rinse the fetid sludge away and made a mental note to call the plumber. 

The well-established garden provided quiet repose, with its pretty flowers and soft grass. The hedge offered privacy while colorful Eastern Rosellas frequented the bird bath. Jenny wandered around the garden beds, pulling small weeds here and there with her bare hands. Kneeling down to search for more weeds towards the back of the grevillea bush, she  felt a nasty sting from a rapidly retreating Trap Door spider, jumped up, ran inside, and, trembling, washed her hands vigorously with warm soapy water. During the day, as the wound throbbed and exuded a yellow liquid, she consulted a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and reassured Jenny that the spider bite was not life threatening.

“Oh, Rodger, this house is not easy to settle into, is it? There are so many unpleasant surprises.” Rodger comforted his wife as best he could. “We’ve had the pest control and the plumber, darling. They didn’t see any spiders or problems with the sewerage. Do you think it’s time you might go back to work?”

Late that night, moonlight threw garden shadows across the floor and up the walls of the  bedroom. Jenny lay awake with Rodger gently snoring beside her. She wondered about the house’s previous owner and how the old woman had managed to live here alone. Those thoughts were interrupted by a faint sound drifting down the hallway. It sounded like the neighbors were playing some classical piano music. Curious, she rose from the bed, slipped on her dressing gown, and left the bedroom. She moved along the hallway, drawn by the captivating beauty of the mournful, almost ghostly music. As she edged closer, she recognized the Moonlight Sonata. The neighbors had not played this kind of music before.

Perhaps it wasn’t the neighbors. The sound seemed now to be coming from their own music room. Jenny felt her heart quicken and her palms become moist. She should wake Rodger. Maybe there was an intruder. An intruder playing Beethoven? That was ridiculous. She gave a short laugh and strode through the library and into the music room. The final passages of the sonata now seemed to be coming from nowhere and everywhere at once, increasing in intensity until Jenny was forced to cover her ears. Just then, the piano came alive.

 A multitude of spiders flowed like a wave from within the strings, over the sides and down the legs onto the floor. Jenny shrieked in horror, stumbling back and drawing her gown close around her. Hearing her shrieks, Rodger woke and stumbled, disheveled, into the music room. He stared in disbelief as the spiders scurried around the floor while the last strains of the Moonlight Sonata played over and over at ever-higher decibels. The two jumped around and swatted the spiders ineffectually. “Get out of here,” Rodger shouted. “Run, Jenny, run!” Jenny lurched through the library and down the hall to the front door. Her only thought was to get out of Magdalen House and into the night air. Beethoven’s fractured chords crashed over her head with astonishing ferocity. The sonata’s unbridled emotion overcame her as she tumbled down the front steps. She heard the sound of a bone breaking before hitting her head on the heritage tiles and losing consciousness. 

Rodger did not appear in the doorway. Instead of running out behind Jenny, he’d paused to survey the chaotic scene, as thousands of Redback spiders swarmed across the room. In an instant they were upon him, each one’s small fangs sinking into his skin with murderous intent. Their neurotoxic venom, rarely fatal in a single bite, had its cumulative effect. Rodger collapsed in the library, seizures giving way to a growing paralysis and systemic organ failure. In minutes, he was dead. Magdalen House grew quiet.

Despite toxicology reports and Jenny’s account of that fearful and deadly night, no Redback spiders were found in Magdalen House. After a brief stay in the hospital Jenny went to live with her sister. She could not bring herself to return to the old house. When she had recovered adequately, she put the house up for sale. 
 

At about the same time, Richard Lloyd struggled up a steep and narrow mountain path in a remote area of northern Thailand. Carrying his rations on his back, he sweated profusely and cursed himself. Who did he think he was, trekking along as if he were a young man? He was slowing down the group, all of whom were at least twenty years his junior. It was embarrassing. He plodded on despite beginning to feel lightheaded. He swayed back and forth. One of the young women called to the guide ahead, “Hey I think we need to stop for a break. Richard here is looking a bit clammy.” The kind young people gathered round him and helped him to sit on a nearby log. The guide loosened his shirt, gave the suffering man water, and asked if anyone in the group knew first aid; he had neglected to complete his own cardiac resuscitation training. And so, in that distant and exotic land, Richard succumbed to his father’s defective genes as his heart contracted one last time. 

Richard’s body was air-lifted from the nearby village to the closest town and then to the capital city and onwards to Australia.  Professor Lloyd’s lawyer was at the airport to receive his coffin—and execute an important clause hidden deep in the fine print of her clients’ legal documents. If Professor Lloyd’s son did not survive her, his family assets were to be returned to Charlotte, to be used, if necessary, for her care in Magdalen House. Perhaps she had foreseen this possibility, knowing the weakness of his heart. Thus Magdalen House was sold back to its original owner, and for a bargain price, since the circumstances of the previous owner’s demise had become widely known. 

On a cold and windy day, Professor Lloyd was transferred from Distant Views Nursing Home to Magdalen House. Accompanying her were two live-in personal care attendants and an array of equipment required for her daily needs. In the months that followed, her household settled into a slow and comfortable routine. Support staff came and went, the family doctor visited, groceries were delivered and smoke curled up from the chimney. Professor Lloyd’s attorney rehired the gardener and the cleaner, who removed the last vestiges of blood from the  heritage tiles. Although the professor was well looked after and positioned safely and comfortably every morning in her favorite chair in the music room, she could only stare vacantly at the window, oblivious to the tragedy that had occurred in that very room and of the death of her only child. 

With the coming of spring, however, the attendants noticed a change in Charlotte’s expression. Her eyes were brighter, and there appeared to be a slight smile about her lips. She sometimes hummed a simple melody. When Charlotte called out to be taken to the toilet and for a cup of tea outside of the routine times, the attendants and support staff. were astounded. They called in the doctor for his assessment, but he could not determine why Professor Lloyd was more alert and aware of her surroundings. 

It was about this time that the spiders returned to Magdalen House, some small with a red back, some big with long and hairy legs. Some lived in burrows in the garden; others created large and intricate webs on the veranda, apparently immune to the cleaner’s various attempts to exterminate them. One afternoon an attendant checking on the professor—who was as usual in a sunny spot in the music room—screamed in alarm, “Oh my god, get away, go on, shoo!” Two spiders had settled comfortably on Charlotte’s left forearm, and one was resting on her right wrist. The attendant deftly swatted the spiders off the professor and onto the ground, where she proceeded to batter each of them to death. When the attendant inspected Charlotte and saw spider bites above her wrist and on the inside of her elbow, she called the doctor. The bites were almost certainly harmless, but in order to prevent infection, he prescribed antibiotics and light dressings. 

Shortly thereafter the professor began to move her arms, legs, then hands and fingers in accordance with her will.  Charlotte dug herself up and out of her comfortable chair. Her legs were weak but carried her shakily towards the kitchen, where dumbfounded staff observed her making tea and toast; this was impossible! Smiling, the professor spoke for the first time in over a year: “Today is Monday, August 7th, 2021. I believe the time is 11:15 am. And I can count back by sevens: one hundred, ninety-three, eighty-six, seventy-nine and so on. Well, there’s no need to stare as though you’ve seen a ghost. Carry on, there’s work to be done.“

Charlotte began to regain her lost memories, her capacity to care for herself, and to make reasonable choices. She grieved the loss of her son and showed appropriate concern for the Rodgers’ unfortunate death in her house. Soon she reduced the number of staff at Magdalen House, keeping only her cleaner and gardener—to whom she gave instructions to allow spiders free rein of the house and garden and not to disrupt their habits. The staff sometimes saw her with spiders on her arms. The cleaner and gardener exchanged concerned glances when she allowed the arachnids to bite her, but they accepted these eccentricities as part of their employment—and because Charlotte seemed to flourish, despite the spiders’ venomous bites. 

Her recovery remained a great mystery. Some thought it a miracle; others believed she had been misdiagnosed from the onset. Whatever the reason, order and routine returned to Magdalen House. The gardener kept the grounds tidy, and the house was always clean and bright. Rosellas splashed in the bird bath while cockatoos called out from high in the trees. No rubbish littered the driveway; no mail lay neglected in the letter box. On the occasional summer’s evening, neighbors heard the Magdalen House piano and gentle laughter through the open windows as Charlotte played familiar songs and sang with the cleaner and the gardener. With the mistress home at last, Magdalen House nestled comfortably on its foundations. 

A year had come and gone since the tragic events at Magdalen House. Jenny had tried to overcome her grief and trauma by moving to a picturesque coastal town where she planned to open a gift shop, make new friends and blend in as best she could. Driving south toward her new home, she steered her car around the road’s gentle curves. She found comfort in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean unfolding before her, a shimmering panorama the colors of emeralds and sapphires. The sun was shining, and the towering trees dappled the mid-day light. Smiling as she carefully navigated along the escarpment, Jenny noticed a slight movement across the dashboard. Horrified, she watched a huntsman’s spider, large and hairy, making  its way onto the steering wheel between her hands. There was no time to recover from the shock; she froze when she should have navigated the bend in the road.

Jenny and the spider sailed gracefully over the steep precipice, sun glinting through the car windows as the vehicle plunged toward the sparkling ocean. The Moonlight Sonata’s soft and haunting melody returned one last time, flooding Jenny’s consciousness and gently cushioning the fatal impact.   

 

Author's Comment

As an author of speculative fiction, I wanted to write a haunted house story. Not one with chains rattling and screams in the basement but one that followed a prodigal woman, a woman taken from her home, only to return in time to her rightful place. There are some wrongs that must be righted before order and tranquility can be restored. I extend my gratitude to Margaret Wagner for her insightful editing which has improved my story. 
 

 

September 12
by Andrea Carter Brown
  On 9/11, Andrea Carter Brown was a resident of downtown Manhattan living just a block from the World Trade Center. September 12 chronicles her up close and all too personal experience of the attack, but, even more, the continuing horror and eventual healing of the months and years afterward. September 12 won the 2022 IPPY Silver Medal in Poetry, the James Dickey Prize from Five Points, the River Styx International Poetry Prize, the Puddinghouse Press Chapbook Competition, The MacGuffin National Poet Hunt, and is cited in the Library of Congress Online Research Guide to the Poetry of 9/11. “A more haunting memorial to 9/11 than this book will be hard to find. Reading September 12 is a wrenching but restorative experience you won't soon forget".  — Martha Collins, poet, author of Casualty Reports and Blue Front "... detail by detail, we watch the process of innocence captured by absolutely unpredicted trauma, and how the experience lives on and on, through shock and terror, through the kindness of strangers, through the heart of a beloved, through grief and elegy, through normality that will never again be normal."  — Alicia Ostriker, New York State Poet Laureate "This brave book documents great loss, but also hard-won psychic resilience in poems of astonishing beauty and wisdom. September 12 is necessary poetry." — Cynthia Hogue, Poetry Editor, Persimmon Tree
Available from Amazon and Word Works.

Bios

Susan Thomas is an emerging writer based in Newcastle, Australia. She draws on a range of characters and settings, but with each story, she leads her reader down a strange and sinister pathway. Susan is one of a group of Writers in Residence at the historic lighthouse in Newcastle.  She has published a number of ghostly short stories and is currently working on her first novella. A retired nurse and public health researcher, Susan’s other interests include the classical guitar, history, architecture, and reading at the beach.

Marcella Peralta Simon is a retired Latinx grandmother, splitting her time between Cambridge, UK and Kissimmee, Florida. She has been a diplomat, university professor, and instructional designer. She writes poetry and short fiction. Her artwork has been featured in Smoky Blue Literary and Arts MagazineBeyond Words Literary MagazineTofu Ink Arts PressPersimmon Tree, and The Acentos Review.

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