There were two sisters who lived by the sea
Oh, the wind and rain
The younger one loved a man in the trees
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain
Rose had always liked stories, and no one told them better than her mother. She would tuck her into bed, kiss her on the forehead, and then begin to read. Rose had many favourite stories. She enjoyed Arabian Nights, particularly the story of Scheherazade, and she enjoyed the story of the subway, but most of all, she enjoyed the tale of the murderous sister.
But the only tune that the fiddle would play was
Oh, the wind and rain
The only tune that the fiddle would play was
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain
‘That’s not a very good ending,’ she’d remarked the first time she’d heard the tale.
Lady Usher laughed. ‘And what ending would you prefer, my flower?’
‘The man in the trees should have died. He deserved it more than the sister did.’
‘A story is a story,’ Lady Usher shrugged. ‘You can’t change the ending.’
When she was fourteen years old, a sickness swept through the house. The whole family was ill, but none more than Rose. She lay on her deathbed, and her mother sang while her brother played a mournful melody on his cello.
So she pushed her sister in the river to drown,
Oh, the wind and rain
Watched her coldly as she floated down
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain…
Lady Usher cut off as she looked at her daughter’s face in horror. ‘Rosie, my flower, why are you smiling?’
Rose looked up at her mother with eyes filled with tears of joy. ‘That’s my favourite part,’ she said in a pitiful voice barely above a whisper. And then she closed her eyes and let the tears roll down her cheek, a last breath escaping her lips, still smiling eerily.
Lady Usher placed her hands on her stomach. Rose had deserved a chance to meet her sister, but now it was all too late.
Roxie clutched at her head, screaming or perhaps making no sound at all. She fell to her knees, her auburn hair sticking to the hot tears on her face.
WHO AM I?
She was Pearl’s sister, and yet she was Pearl’s daughter, and yet she was Pearl’s lover, and yet Rose was her sister, and the starchild was her daughter…
She dissolved into sobs, screaming and tearing and smashing anything she could find in a blind rage.
And then there was a knock at the door, and it all went away and there was only her brother there at the door.
‘Roxie?’ he said, staring at her. ‘Are you alright?’
‘It’s nothing,’ she said quickly.
He blinked. ‘It doesn’t look like nothing. It didn’t sound like nothing, either.’
‘Don’t you have a cello to be playing?’
He sighed. ‘Right. Excuse me for trying to be a considerate brother.’ He went to leave. On a whim, Roxie followed him, tidying herself up as she did so.
‘Where are mom and dad?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘When are they coming back?’
‘I don’t know.’
She pouted her lips. ‘Is there anything you do know?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
The house creaked as a heavy, terrible wind shook the walls. Roxie shivered as the rain pelted down on the roof.
Her brother noticed her fearful expression. ‘Relax. Since when have you been scared of the wind and rain?’
‘Since mom went crazy,’ she said, large eyes darting around nervously. ‘Something happened to her. You said she never used to be like that.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘two things changed at the time she lost her mind. Rose died, and you were born. So either the grief drove her out of her mind – or you did.’
She stuck out her tongue. At the same time, there was a loud crack of thunder, and she jumped. Her brother laughed. She heard another tinkling laugh from the corner and turned to see Rose, smiling cryptically. ‘There’s nothing wrong with the wind and rain,’ she said teasingly. Roxie laughed.
‘What are you looking at?’ her brother asked quickly, following her gaze to an empty wall. ‘There’s nothing there- oh. When are you going to realise Rose isn’t real? She’s dead, Roxie.’
‘You don’t know anything!’ Roxie snapped. ‘You’re a fool! She says dying was the best thing that ever happened to her!’
‘Oh, God, not this again, Roxie,’ he sighed, rolling his eyes. He turned away from her. ‘You’re just a little attention seeker.’
‘Don’t call me that!’ she shouted, grabbing his arm. ‘Rose is real, and one day you’ll be dead and you’ll see I was right!’
He pulled his arm out of her grip and leaned in close to her face, sneering. ‘Go away, little girl.’
Tears welled up in her eyes as she turned on her heel and ran. ‘I hate you!’
The Ushers arrived home after yet another of their mysterious outings. Edgar helped his wife inside. ‘There, now, you see? Nothing so terrible about the outside world.’
‘Roxie,’ Lady Usher said mechanically, evidently not listening to her husband.
‘Roxie is fine, dear. Isn’t that right, Brent?’ he asked his son, who had just entered the room.
The boy shifted his weight from side to side anxiously. ‘Well… she had a little fit and passed out, but I’m sure-’
He didn’t get to finish before both his parents had pushed past him and were running upstairs to their daughter’s side, just like they did after every stupid stunt she pulled. He sighed and went to the corner of the drawing room to practice cello.
Time seemed to melt together into one long, sorrowful melody as he played, his blistered, practiced fingers moving over the worn strings. The cello was practically ancient, but he knew his father would never buy him a new one – and besides, he was too deeply attached to the cello to abandon it.
Perhaps an hour, perhaps an eternity later, Edgar came back down the stairs, looking exhausted. ‘They’re asleep,’ he sighed, moving to the kitchen to get himself a drink. ‘God, don’t you hate it here?’
‘Why are you asking me?’ Brent said monotonously. ‘You already know my answer.’
Edgar brought over a bottle and pulled up a chair by the fire, listening to the storm outside. ‘You’ve improved on your cello.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, not looking at him. He missed a note and cursed. Edgar let out a bark of a laugh.
‘You should really take care of your sister and your mother, you know,’ he said, taking a swig from the bottle. ‘I need a break.’
‘I am taking care of them,’ his son retorted. ‘You’re always just too shitfaced to notice.’
Edgar raised his eyebrows but said nothing and instead moved over to the piano under the tapestry on the opposite side of the room. ‘Have I ever told you I can play piano?’
‘You can play one song, Dad.’
Edgar shrugged but began playing a melody on the old piano. His playing was sloppy and he continuously stopped, muttered something, and repeated a section, but his son did his best to play along on the cello anyway.
‘What song even is that?’ he asked when they’d finished.
‘I don’t know. Something by Monk.’
Brent sighed and stood up. ‘I’m going to bed.’
Edgar looked at him with tired eyes. ‘Do you ever – this is going to sound crazy but – do you ever have flashbacks to things that never happened?’
‘What?’ He sat down again. ‘I mean, yeah. I thought everyone did.’
‘It’s just, I feel like I…’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘No, I’m being ridiculous.’
Brent eyed his father suspiciously. ‘…Say, Dad, did you see anyone come around here earlier, around midnight last night?’
‘I thought I heard someone talking to Roxie… but it’s nothing. Goodnight, Dad.’
The astronomer liked to tell himself that he knew the forest like the back of his own hand… and yet he’d still managed to get himself lost. ‘Hello?’ he called, and immediately regretted it. Anyone – or anything – could hear him out in the woods, and with an insane woman trying to kill him, making himself visible was dangerous.
‘Dad?’ said a voice. He whipped around.
‘Did you just talk?’ he asked the enormous bear standing before him.
The bear blinked. ‘Oh, sorry. You’re not my dad.’
‘No,’ the astronomer said, more than a little bewildered. ‘I don’t recall fathering a bear. I’m an astronomer.’
‘The astronomer? Oh. I’m supposed to kill you.’
‘Oh, wonderful. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to kill me?’
‘I shouldn’t think so.’
The astronomer looked at the humungous animal before him. ‘Well, are you going to kill me or not? I haven’t got all day.’
The bear seemed to shrug. ‘I really don’t feel like killing anyone.’
‘Right,’ the astronomer said decisively, deciding that the talking bear was just a hallucination. ‘Well, I’ll be on my way, then, son- I mean! You’re not my son. Don’t- you know what? I’m gonna go. Goodbye.’ And he turned and left, vowing to find his way back to his treehouse by himself. Immediately after he found his home, he poured himself a drink.
‘Talking bears…’ he muttered angrily to himself. ‘No such thing! No ghosts, no magic, no talking bears!’
But just before he closed his eyes, Brent heard the voices again. They were muffled, but one was definitely his sister’s, and the other was a man’s. He stepped out into the hall, a candle in his hand, and walked as quietly as he could to Roxie’s room.
‘…And this one?’
The door was already open, and so he pushed open the door. Roxie was sitting on her bed with an unfamiliar man, looking through a booklet of stars by candlelight. Brent watched incredulously as his sixteen-year-old sister let this stranger whisper in her ear, touch her, kiss her. He felt fury build up inside himself and was about to storm into the room, demand that the man leave, but he stopped.
What did he care if Roxie gave herself away to some mysterious stargazer? What was in it for him if he confronted them, told their father? What reward would he receive?
Nothing. Because no one in the family ever gave a damn about him.
And so he quietly stepped away from the door and returned to his room.
The Shah used to find it amusing that David would torture himself to perform for the ghost of some Monk, but after so long it became concerning.
‘Do you not think you should rest?’ he asked after one particularly painful piano-playing session. ‘If the gods decreed that music is to be banned, then perhaps it should be.’
‘No,’ David said determinedly. ‘Monk’s ghost is behind that door, I’m sure of it. Besides, I thought you liked my piano playing? No-one else on the entire planet can play piano for you, except me.’
‘Yes, but I’m concerned for you,’ Shah Zaman said. ‘This has all become rather ridiculous, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Why do you care? The music sounds nice, doesn’t it? And just because you can’t see a reason for my piano playing doesn’t mean I can’t.’
‘Then enlighten me.’
David sighed as he bandaged his blistered, bleeding fingers. ‘I have to find a meaning. A purpose. There has to be a reason for all this suffering. And I’m certain the answer lies behind that door.’
‘What suffering? I don’t suffer.’
‘You’re a Shah. I’m a servant.’
‘Oh. But, David…’
Shah Zaman gave him a sympathetic smile. ‘He’s dead, David. Dead and gone.’
‘Don’t you believe in ghosts?’
‘I don’t believe in anything.’
‘Since when did you grow out of “Dad”?’
‘-this is the third family meeting this week. When are we going to see the falconer?’
Edgar didn’t smile. ‘Brent, this is… this is more serious than that.’
‘Oh, yes, it’s always serious, isn’t it, Edgar?’ he sneered. ‘Roxie this, Rose that – are you even aware you have another kid?’
‘What has Rose done this time? Why do we need a family meeting every damn time Roxie bring up Rose?’
‘THIS ISN’T ABOUT ROSE!’
Brent went silent. ‘Oh,’ he said in a small voice.
Roxie was sitting in the living room in a sobbing mess, her mother comforting her. Edgar gave her a sympathetic glance.
‘Now, as we all know, a great misfortune has befallen our family-’
‘What?’ Brent interrupted. ‘What misfortune? How could you neglect to tell me what you’re talking about?’
Edgar and Lady Usher exchanged a glance. ‘Tell him,’ Roxie choked out through sobs.
‘Roxie has fallen pregnant,’ Lady Usher said ruefully.
Brent’s eyes went wide. ‘Roxie, you’re seventeen!’
‘Hush!’ Lady Usher scolded as Roxie let out a wail. ‘You’ll only make her worse.’
‘Am I the only one not okay with this? Who’s the father? Is it that man I saw you with?’
‘What man?’ the three of them said at the same time.
Brent looked between them. ‘No one,’ he said sullenly. ‘Look, is that all? Can I go?’
‘Lose the attitude, Brent,’ Edgar sighed in the tone of voice exasperated parents use when they’ve had to repeat the same phrase one too many times. ‘The point is, we have decided to keep the child, which means all of us will have to make sacrifices.’
‘Sacrifices?!’ Brent said with a malicious, humourless laugh. He looked dispassionately around at his poor excuse for a family. ‘Tell me, father, what more can I sacrifice? I’ve been ignored ever since Rose was born! Now both mom and Roxie are out of their minds, as well as Roxie being in the family way, and I’m supposed to carry this burden? How long ago since the falconer came to town, huh? And did we go to see him? No. Why? Because we were too busy talking about Roxie. So no, father, I won’t be making any more sacrifices anytime soon. God knows I’ve given this family enough already.’
And he stormed from the room, the only sound Roxie’s shocked sniffs and sobs behind him.