Can a place hold an imprint of past events? Is it possible for a house to hold, in its stone and mortar the memories of tragedies unfolded there? Here’s a story for you; it’s a long and sad one, so you have been warned.
In a village near where I live stands an old mill house and the ruins of its mill. The house is decaying. Blank windows curtained with thick ivy look out over the maize fields. In parts the roof has yielded to the elements and inside, garlands of cobwebs hang from every corner, swaying in the slightest draught to release a powdery cloud of ancient flour dust.
It was not always so.
More than a century ago the mill ground the flour for the village and the river that rushed past offered here and there a quiet pool where women could do their laundry and gossip about those things that are left unsaid when men are around.
Now the miller and his wife had a daughter; she was about eight or nine; pretty, with long brown hair and dark eyes that more often than not sparkled with mischief. Let’s call her Rosie.
One particular washing day, whilst her mother and some village women scrubbed and rubbed their smalls, Rosie wandered off upstream, bored with all the chatter. Some time later one of the women called out:
“Hey, who’s lost their bloomers?” and pointed to a white bundle floating gently towards them. Amidst the laughter Rosie’s mother looked around, a stab of fear in her heart.
“Rosie? Where’s Rosie?” she cried.
As the bundle drifted into the washing pool a slight current caught it up, rolling it over.
The mother’s anguished scream pierced the air as she looked at the bundle for floating face upward, bright eyes forever closed, was little Rosie.
And the villagers said “what a tragedy”.
Afterwards, the miller’s wife unable to support life at the mill moved away to a nearby town. The miller however stayed on, grimly working. Over the next ten years he became slovenly and careless in his work; the village folk took their corn elsewhere and he spent his days sitting in the mill with a skin of wine for company. One day, on a whim, he decided to set the grindstones to work again. The rusting machinery groaned into action and the massive round stones began to turn when there was a loud crack and one of the stones split into three. The miller stumbled to his feet as one of the pieces crashed down onto the floor. As it fell a floorboard sprang up on its end, hitting the miller a tremendous blow on his forehead. He lay insensible for two days before one his neighbours found him. He drifted in and out of consciousness for a further week until with his last breaths, he cursed the day he ever came to the mill.
And the villagers said “what a tragedy for the family.”
That however, is not the end of the tale. For more than twenty years the house stood empty despite the miller’s heir, a distant cousin, offering it for let. True, two of three families came to live there but stayed only a short while. Then, a friend of the cousin moved in – a middle-aged lady who had fallen on hard times. She arrived, despite her penury, well-dressed and as plump as a Christmas goose. However, as the months passed by, the fat fell away and her clothes hung shapelessly. She grew thinner and thinner; hollow-cheeked and with dark purple shadows beneath the eyes. Eventually, one wild night, she let go of her life.
The doctors said “cancer” but the villagers whispered “it’s a cursed place”.
The years rolled forward and the mill house was again left to itself and the cousin who owned it despaired of ever selling it or putting it to good use. The roof of the mill fell in and the walls quickly followed. The house itself began to crumble as the voracious beetles set to their work. Yet, in spite of its condition a new tenant did come forward and the cousin hastily made some repairs.
The newcomer, a widow with one son, came from the north, full of common-sense and practicality. No doubt she heard the village whispers – “a cursed house –holds nothing but misfortune for all who live there – it’s an evil place” but her northern nous dismissed all that. It seemed as though all went well for a couple of years. Then the widow’s son arrived home from his work in the local textile mill and announced:
“Ma mère, I’ve joined the Legion.”
His mother stared blankly for a moment before screeching:
“You’ve done what?”
“I’ve joined the Foreign Legion.”
Well she screamed and drummed her heels but the lad was adamant. Some days later he left to attend his medical examination which included vaccinations necessary for Legionnaires serving overseas. When he returned that evening he complained of feeling unwell and took himself off to his bed. In the morning, hearing no sound of activity from her son’s room, the widow bundled out of bed to wake him. She opened his bedroom door and gasped. There he lay, paralysed, unable to move a limb or to speak. Only his eyes moved and these, wide with fear, fixed on his mother. The widow called an ambulance and for weeks the lad remained in hospital as the doctors puzzled over him. The widow’s son never made it into the Legion.
After his death the doctors said it was a rare and violent reaction to the vaccinations.
And the villagers whispered “there’s something bad about that house; it’s cursed.”
Now the house moved into the ownership of yet another scion of that almost forgotten miller’s family. This heir was a townsman with no interest in a place in the country. He removed temptation from the village kids by boarding up the windows and padlocking the doors before leaving the place to its own devices. More years slipped by and the townsman, nearing retirement, decided to pep up his pension pot by letting out the house to the tourists who were beginning to travel to the region. After a lick and spittle clean-up he was fortunate to secure a long-term tenant willing to pay what seemed like an extraordinarily silly amount of rent.
“I want peace and quiet” the tenant drawled (he was an American) “and I’m willing to pay for it but don’t you be bugging me for more.”
Quickly pocketing the proffered cash the townsman took himself off. The American lived quietly and was scarcely seen, heard or known of, in the village. This new generation of villagers paid no heed to the old wives tales and whispers, yet now and again a few of the old folk, gossiping in the late afternoon sun would ask “is he still there do you know?” and whisper “there’s something evil about that place.”
It came as no surprise to them to learn that a year or so after his arrival, the American was found dead in a ditch in front of the mill house with the back of his head stove in. The murder is logged today as “unsolved” and the house is abandoned.
Was this just a concatenation of tragic events?
Or can a house resonate with the horror and tragedy of the past to shape the lives and deaths of those who occupy it?
None of these events actually happened – well not all of them;
Mill House doesn’t exist – well not really.
This is merely a piece of whimsy on my part whilst playing around with an idea for another short story.
Or is it?