“Oooooh—my…” Saithe exclaimed, stepping out of her Lexus. Clearly, she’s made a wrong turn. She couldn’t be standing in front of Pieria Estate. It looked more like the estate of Vincent Price’s mother. No, wait. It was more like Vincent Price’s great grandmother’s estate.
“This—is the grand Pieria Estate?” she wondered aloud, understanding the urgency of the letter. The letter from an aunt that never existed, until the day it ended up in her mailbox. The day—that changed everything.
The stately white paint was faded to dusty gray decades of neglect. Many of the boards were missing and what remained was chipped, cracked and peeling. The shutters sat on slacken sills and their tattered curtains framed dusty forgotten rooms.
Turrets encased each side of the estate like columns bracing the gates of an old cemetery, sharing in equal dismay with shingles crumbling in sparse patterns, lending dark character to their rooftops. Dilapidated balconies sit atop each turret with warped French doors. An old rocking chair was creaking back and forth in one of the turrets from a salty breeze that Saithe felt on her face.
Her gaze follows the breeze to the withered grounds of the estate. She imagines how regal they once were, laden with beautiful English gardens and that clever labyrinth. Something shiny in the twilight dusk catches her eye; a midnight raven passing overhead. It croaks once as it soars, then spins on wings like grooves on vinyl and the beautiful scene drips like candle wax back to the reality of ruin.
The foggy Pacific laid background to the decaying estate. Dark swirls of mist envelope the haunting body of water, teasing the eye with random shapes of waves crashing in on each other, concealing the dangerous promise of rocky crests.
Like the gardens, the labyrinth lay in waste. In the clearing between the maze and the estate, sits an empty rusted bench, facing the dark ocean’s expanse losing its battle to the salty lick. More times than not, the cape is shrouded in fog, more so than anywhere else making it the foggiest place in the United States.
Saithe shrugged off the eerie feeling, closed the car door and walked down the busted brick pathway towards the porch. Vermin scurried and slithered out from under the decayed landscaping, crunching under her feet. She wasn’t afraid then.
She stopped suddenly when she heard a faint creaking sound and squinted through pale light, but saw nothing amongst the ruin. It must have been the rocking chair—of course. Then a sudden gust blew her long red hair aside, smelling thick, of a sickly sweet smell she couldn’t quite place. Burning leaves, berries and mildew? She’d come too far to turn back now, as if turning back was even a choice that she didn’t know she didn’t have.
“Oh!” she gasped, gazing up the length of double doors that formed an immense arc of intricately carved wood. The carvings were upraised, marking each half of the doors in the shape of a gilded family crest. At the center stood a shield divided into four theatrical masks; happy, sad, angry. The fourth mask was left blank and hollow, like a missing puzzle piece. Beneath the crest was a wavy motto with the words: ‘Αν δεν παινέσεις το σπίτι σου, θα πέσει να σε πλακώσει’. Did she know that language?
Running her hand over the grooves she felt the doors had been carved from a single piece of wood. Paul Bunyan style—minus the ox. Every other aspect of the mansion was dilapidated and worn out, except for these doors. They were architecturally grand in design. Flawless. Was it so dark that she hadn’t noticed this from the car?
Saithe looked for a doorbell and smirked. Really? A doorbell? She imagined a black velvet rope outside, tied to a cat’s tail on the inside. Yank the rope and ‘YEE—OOOWWW!’ Your arrival was announced!
In lieu of a ‘cat-bell’ and in contrast with the flawless doors was a weathered wrought iron knocker shaped like the blank theatrical mask in the crest. She didn’t know why, but when she saw the knocker, she felt calm. She felt fixed. Centered.
She reached towards it and wasn’t surprised when it pulled at her like a hidden ebb tide. She traced the shape of the rebellious knocker with her fingertips, feeling the coarse, pitted corrosion as she grasped hold of the old iron. She pulled up hard and gave it three deafening raps. Not one. Not two. Three.
She grew tense, waiting for the rafters to come down, and then gave it three more solid raps when no one answered.
She let go and it slowly creaked back into place with a thud louder than possible.
“Hello?” she said feeling vulnerable, when no one replied after a moment. Was that scuffling she heard behind the door?
“Hello? Is someone there?”
The scuffling grew louder. The sound was traveling all over the doors. They had to be at least fifteen feet high, not to mention wide. Who could do that? And better yet—why?
“What—is it?” she whispered leaning closer. Her ear brushed the tip of the empty mask and the scuffling skirted to the top of the door.
“What the hell?” She jumped back. “This is ridiculous! I’m Saithe Estia—I got your letter! Is someone there?” she shouted while the noise continued to scuffle all about the door.
“I’m looking for Callisto Pieria!” she yelled and then suddenly the scuffling stopped, for just a moment, being replaced by a mechanical sound like a bank vault waiting for the daily counting. The doors cracked open an inch and she made a face at the foul breeze that came out. She tensed up when the doors abruptly opened about two feet making a vacuum packed swish. Saithe waited, expecting to see a little old woman. Darkness. Completely.
Squinting for a better look she said, “Hello, I’m Saithe Estia. I got your letter. I’m the niece you needed to meet. The one you—ah, never met.”
Nothing. Just the open, door gaping at her like a toothless ogre.
“Hello?” she said, stepping a little closer. Her eyes started to adjust while something inside started to focus. She put her sweaty palms on the doors and gave them a shove. The weight of the doors caused an echo as they thudded against the walls.
“Is anyone there?” Her voice started to give way to panic. There was one behind the doors and no one in sight. Then it happened.
It was like a studio set came to life before her eyes. The inside was rich and luxurious. Everything was perfect and perfectly new. The chandelier was lit with all the glory of the sun and each piece of crystal perfectly hung and dust-free. When did she step inside?
She looked about the interior. Framing the room in an arc of alabaster were two huge staircases beyond the chandelier. The railings were handcrafted out of the same alabaster with statutes on the bottom of each baluster. The statute on the right was a beautiful veiled woman with a look of longing on her face. Her hair spilled out from the veil like it was ablaze and she reached out towards the statue on the left which was a large alabaster bowl filled with marble fire, ornamented with a flowered branch.
“To hell with this!” Saithe said as she turned to leave and the doors were closed! Closed? “What the—“ She went to grab the door handle.
“You have your mother’s hair, you know?” Came a voice from behind.
Dead center of the room was an old woman staring directly into her eyes. She wore a black tapered dress buttoned down to her thin waist. She was as beautiful as tall and stood with grace. The silver bun adorned at the top of her head shone from the light of the chandelier like a full moon. Although her youth had not transcended time, her beauty clearly had. She was as old as she was young.
“Wha—where were you?” Saithe wheezed.
The woman needlessly straightened her stature and brushed down the front of her dress with long boney, yet elegant fingers. “Why I’ve been waiting here for you Saithe,” she said in a low modest tone.
“I meant, where did you come from? I was standing on the porch and—ah.” Saithe caught herself ranting.
“You seem very excited, my dear. Why don’t you take a moment to gather yourself? You must be weary from the trip,” she said baring straight tiny teeth in a smile. “Oh! Where are my manors! I’m Callisto Pieria, lady of Pieria Estate. Come into the parlor.” She opened her arm towards the staircase in an invitation to follow.
“I’m sorry.” Saithe said, regaining a little composure. “I’m Saithe Estia. It’s just that, you startled me. I was standing at the front door and well, ah—I guess it doesn’t matter.”
Saithe followed Callisto to the parlor behind the stairs. A faint smell of burning wood lingered behind Callisto as she floated across the marbled floor. A fireplace?
“No offense, but the inside of your estate is pretty amazing compared to the outside. How is it possible?” Saithe asked.
“None taken, dear.” She laughed. “Things from within have stronger bonds than those of the outside,” she answered without glancing back.
As if possible, the parlor was grander, with a cold fireplace, expensive artwork, antique crown moldings and exquisite cherry wood furniture with white woven cushions. On the coffee table stood a pure crystal vase with stunning white Oleanders in a milky opaque liquid. The room itself was oval in shape with a bowed picture window, dressed in dark rose taffeta drapery. A dumb waiter bearing the same crest from the doors was nestled in the corner dressed in identical taffeta.
“How do you take your tea, dear?” Callisto asked.
“Oh ah—just a little sugar please.”
“I’ll just be a moment dear and then we can relax over tea while we discuss why you’re here.” Callisto said, slipping through the door next to the dumb waiter before Saithe could respond.
As she sat near the Oleanders and breathed in their soft scent, a mechanical sound came from inside the house. It reminded her of the click clack sound of wooden escalators like in the Herald Square Macy’s.
Saithe got up in search of the sound and headed towards the window. Before turning from the window, she noticed a woman in dark clothing sitting amongst the mist on the old bench overlooking the ocean. The woman turned her head and gave Saithe a solemn look. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. From this distance, she could have passed as Saithe’s double.
“Something wrong, dear?” Saithe spun around getting caught up in the taffeta. Callisto was standing behind her, holding a sterling silver tea server with a dainty china set. “On the rare days there isn’t fog, you can see ships in the harbor.”
Saithe unraveled herself from the taffeta and saw the vacant bench. She looked off in the empty distance. “I just saw someone on the bench.”
“You’re eyes are playing tricks. I’ve made Lapsang Souchong. Quite an acquired taste, but one that I think you’ll grow to love.”
“Do you get many visitors or delivery people? Mail men?”
“No dear. Now, I have everything that I need, here in the estate.”
She laid the tray down next to the Oleander and fetched fancy linen napkins and a stacked desert server from the dumb waiter. She closed the wooden doors and set the server down. Handing Saithe a napkin, she gestured for her to have a seat.
“There must be house keepers or servants or someone that helps you,” she said taking her seat.
“Why thank you kindly, but as I’ve said, there is no one else here. I tend to things as deemed necessary,” she said matter-of-factly.
Callisto sat down, handing her a teacup. Saithe could smell the smoky scent as Callisto poured the hot tea. She’s not used to the art of ‘Tea Time’, so she watches Callisto, smoothing the napkin into her lap with one hand while holding her teacup and saucer in the other. Gingerly picking a few Petit Fours, Callisto places them on her dish and gently lays it on her napkin. Saithe follows suit and a deliberate smile forms at the corners of Callisto’s lips.
“If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn there was someone on that bench. And it looked like the spitting image of—”
“Oh no, dear,” Callisto interrupted. “Like I said. There isn’t anyone else here at Pieria Estate. It’s just the fog from the ocean. He has his way of playing tricks.”
Saithe’s plate teetered as she shifted in her seat. She was getting a little agitated with all the avoidance and vagueness. She hadn’t come here for a Tea Party. She wanted to know what this was all about.
“You mentioned a sense of urgency in your letter.” Saithe started, more curtly than she intended.
“You’re getting impatient, dear. I do apologize. I was just trying to break into our meeting with a little pleasantry. It’s been too long. You must have many questions, I know, and I will answer them all. I promise—it will all become clear.”
Callisto took a delicate bite from a Petit Four and managed to pull the napkin from under the plate with such ease and grace as she dabbed the corner of her mouth. Saithe relaxed a little, now that the air of conversation had been recognized. Her long lost aunt was sniffing out money. This act wasn’t fooling her. She needed answers.
“I’m sorry to be so impatiently rude. It—has been a long trip.” Oddly, she couldn’t remember how long it had taken. She took a tasty bite of a Petit Four. She felt the icing on her lip. Knowing she couldn’t pull off the napkin trick as gracefully as Callisto, she yanked the napkin out from under the plate like a magician and wiped at her mouth as she continued, “It’s been such a long time—not knowing that you existed. You must understand my curiosity. If I may be so bold, what does it cost to run this place?”
Callisto placed her dish on the tray and readjusted her position with such eloquence. “My dear.” She smiled, narrowing her eyes. “You’ve misunderstood the purpose of our meeting. It isn’t your money that I need.”
“Okay, being bold again—if you don’t need my money to repair—ah, your estate. Why now? Isn’t it a little late to start a budding relationship with your long lost niece?” Saithe said not even trying to cover the sarcasm. This woman has blown her money feathering her nest, only to forget about the withering tree holding it.
“You’ve come to repair Home and Hearth dear child. But not with your silly money.” Callisto bellowed with laughter. “The innocence we put in humankind is endearing, and so fanciful of you for the show. You’ve gone astray for so long, that even you believe in your own lie.”
She glanced past Saithe towards the picture window. As she stood without effort, her demeanor shifted and she rose, taller than humanly possible. Her gait was flawless—beyond graceful—beyond human form. She left Saithe seated on the sofa and floated towards the picture window. A shape was forming in the swells of the ocean.
“Ah—dear brother. Hearth and Home are one again and we shall rise to our rightful place.” She turned towards Saithe, locking crimson eyes on her as she said, “Let me help you remember.”
“Remember?” Saithe said. Her head started twitching. “Re—remember.” Forgetting the plate on her lap, she stood knocking over the Oleanders. “Oh my, I don’t feel—so.” Her voice trailed off.
“Do you remember, dear?” Callisto repeated the question.
“The petit—four,” she said watching the liquid from the flowers drip methodically off the table. She touched the edge of the table and in the instant the milky liquid touched her skin, she felt an electrifying current.
“How was the ambrosia, dear?” Callisto laughed as her tiny perfect teeth grew into ferocious needle like daggers.
A weightless feeling of confusion overwhelmed her. The world around her was shrinking away as if it could fit into a pillbox. The walls started beating in time to her heart. Dub-dub—dub-dub—dub-dub.
The room began to dance and swirl, centering its focus on the spilt Oleanders like a fisheye lens. She was beginning to feel faint. She couldn’t fight it off, no matter how hard she tried. Round and round and round her head was spinning.
She reached her arm out towards the petals, like a drunkard’s foot on the floor in an attempt to capture ground and stop spinning. She tried to hold on but she started to feel that ethereal feeling fading in and out like watching ones self from somewhere up above. She was slipping away with each wave, each pulse; she was holding on by a thread that was about to break. Surely time and space would cease to exist.
Whirl. Whirl. Whirl.
Everything was a blur, except for the Oleanders, lying on the table, encircled by the whirligig scene in the electrifying opaque liquid, twitching and yawing with the current.
The petals started shaking from the eddy. The flowers, so beautiful before, became so sullen and vile. They pulsed with the current of the wicked estate. Twitching and rustling about in an attempt to be free of branch. ‘You are back where you belong Saithe’, the flowers whispered silently and breathlessly to her. ‘Home and Hearth are whole and renewed. We know your true name. We knoooooow. Hestia has returned.’ Saithe let go.