by Kevin Wohler
Rocking Horse Room — 1943
From the attic to the wine cellar, their voices whispered my name, “Eliza. Eliza. Eliza.” I had come home for Christmas. I had returned to Straeon Manor.
The rocking horse wallpaper had been replaced by utilitarian white paint. The child’s bed gone, replaced by a single adult bed. The nightstand — where I kept my mother’s bible to comfort me during the long, dark nights — had been replaced by a small dresser where sat a small tray of food.
A rocking horse sat in the corner of the room. Had it been mine once upon a time? Perhaps I had left it behind when we moved. I couldn’t remember. This was no longer my bedroom, just as this was no longer our house.
Straeon Manor had been given its name long before my grandfather purchased this place and gave it to my parents as a wedding gift. Then it had been a stately name, one befitting a house of importance. Now, it was spoken of in town the way one might mention the butcher’s shop or the pharmacy. Its nobleness diminished. The current owner had transformed it into a boarding house. Straeon Manor had little more dignity than its vagabond boarders.
I heard the sound of bells like an angel’s wings fluttering in the winter air. Christmas was fast approaching, and the men and women who stayed in Straeon Manor were making merry in the great room below. A knock on the door, and I turned to answer it. An older woman, in her late 60s I supposed, came in.
“The missus said you just arrived,” she said. Pointing to the tray on the dresser, she added, “Dinner was served hours ago, but she thought you might be hungry.”
“That’s very thoughtful of her. Please give her my thanks. And thanks to you.”
“We don’t normally allow food in the rooms. That can lead to problems with pests. But we’ll make this one exception. You bring the dishes downstairs in the morning. Breakfast is served at seven.”
“I will. Thank you again. It’s good to be — ” I stopped myself before I finished my thought.
“What’s that, Miss?”
I shook my head and sat on the bed. I tried to look out the window, but saw only darkness. “I’m sorry. It’s silly of me. I was going to say that it’s good to be home. But it really isn’t home anymore. It hasn’t been for over ten years.”
“You lived here?” said the woman. She gazed at me in fascination, as if trying to see past my hair and into my eyes.
“Many years ago. I was still a child. My parents moved us out when I was eight or nine.”
“Eliza?” asked the woman, almost a little too loud. She was clearly taken by surprise.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Do you know me?”
“Know you? Miss, I gave you your meals morning, noon and night from the time you were weaned from your mother’s teat. I worked in your family’s kitchen for years. I’m Beatrice. You used to call me, Mrs. Bee.”
The name hit me like a warm rush of springtime, waking me from a winter daydream. I could feel warmth rushing to my cheeks, embarrassed as I was to have not recognized her.
“Oh, Mrs. Bee. It is good to see you.” I motioned for her to sit beside me on the bed and asked her how she came to be working at Straeon Manor again.
“Once your parents moved you to the other side of town, I left, too. But in the end, I couldn’t stay away. This place gets a hold on you and doesn’t let go. Now it’s a boarding house, and people don’t stay long. Too many of them hear things and get frightened.”
“So the stories are still around?”
“Stories, Miss? They aren’t stories. They’re fact. You should know. After all, your parents moved out because of the trouble with you. Not even that English gentleman knew what to do, though he tried his best — God bless him. In the end, your mother wouldn’t spend another night in this place.”
“I don’t remember much about it,” I said. “I was young. It’s all a bit of a haze.”
“What about your parents?” asked Beatrice. “How are they?”
“My father was called up to serve in the war in Europe. After what happened with his leg during the Great War, he couldn’t fight. He was sent to England in an advisory capacity. On the way over, his plane went down. We never found out exactly what happened. Bad weather, I suppose. We’re not sure.”
“Oh, bless. And how is your mom doing?”
“I thought she was fine, but…”
For a moment, I couldn’t find my voice. I hadn’t spoken of my mother to anyone. I had kept it all bottled up inside me. Now that I wanted to say the words, they wouldn’t come.
“I’m sorry. It’s hard for me to talk about her… condition. Her health is poor, and I fear that losing my father was a shock to her. The state committed her. I’m here to sign some documents and manage her estate.”
From downstairs came the sound of a piano. Someone was playing Jingle Bells. Several people had joined in the song.
“You shouldn’t be here, Miss. If you don’t mind me saying. Your mother wouldn’t approve.”
“I know,” I said. “All my life, she warned me never to come back to this house. She said it was haunted. But I don’t have any family in town anymore. I need a place to stay while I conduct my business.”
“Best that you make quick work of it, Miss.”
“Please, Mrs. Bee. Call me Eliza.”
She put her hand against my cheek. Her face brightened with the warmest smile I had seen in ages — a genuine smile reserved for those we love. Then she said my name, and it sounded like a blessing.
“Will you come downstairs?” she asked. “Mr. Cooper is quite the piano player, and he has a fine voice.”
“Not tonight,” I said. “The trip has taken its toll on me, I’m afraid. I think I’ll have a bite to eat and read before bed.”
“Drink your milk,” said Mrs. Bee, sounding exactly as she had a dozen years ago. She stood, gave me a quick kiss on the forehead and vanished from my sight.
In the quiet of my old bedroom, I heard them calling to me from throughout the house. From the attic to the wine cellar, their voices whispered my name, “Eliza. Eliza. Eliza.”
I had come home for Christmas. I had returned to Straeon Manor.