By Corinne Simpson
They moved all at once, unplanned, into a large house at the base of a hill.
“But can we afford this, darling?” his wife asked. They could, of course, he assured her, with a few minor adjustments to their expenditures. Wasn’t he, after all, a successful editor? She agreed that he was, quite. Together they surveyed the house. It rose darkly against the backdrop of the hill, nestled among ancient trees thick with undergrowth. “We can cut back the trees, darling,” Celia told him brightly, squeezing his arm.
“No! No… I like the trees. The trees are… essential.” His eyes held a note of panic at the thought of exposing the house to, well, to anything by trimming back those wonderful, tangled trees. He glanced nervously up at the sun. Celia looked at him thoughtfully. He avoided her eyes.
“Darling,” she paused, she kissed him lightly on the cheek. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with our vacation, would it?”
“What do you mean?” His eyes flickered uneasily over the house. I was perfect, really. It wouldn’t do to lose it now, wouldn’t do at all.
“It’s just that we had never talked of moving before and now here we are! So, oh, sudden-like, you know?” Her green eyes shone in her delicately featured face, glimmered above her pale cheeks. She watched him. He laughed heartily, forced the sound out from between his lips and caught her up in his arms.
“This is an adventure, that’s all!” He smiled into her eyes. “This is something new for us. Do you like it?” She held his face between her thin, soft hands and kissed him gently on the mouth.
“Oh yes, darling! I do.” And they turned to look at the great, gloomy house again.
After a week or so the chaos of the move settled and they found they fit into their new home with unexpected ease. Celia learned to love the vast rooms and set about to fill their high ceilings with the brilliance of sunlight. In the morning the sun poured through the windows, it spilled onto the wooden floors and trickled into shadowy knooks and dusky corners without hesitation. The rooms were airy, glorious; buzzing with light and gleaming clean. She set flowers bursting with fragrance upon the piano, in the pale-tiled kitchen, upon the dressing table in the bedroom. She replaced the heavy, moth-tattered drapery that had hung haphazardly over the grimy windows with curtains of creamy color and filmy substance. She was delighted with the house. Even the trees, she said, had a certain lightness of heart that one could grow fond of.
“Darling,” she would sigh, seated delicately upon his knees, “there are wonderful things that morning does to this house. It brightens its moodiness.” And he would nod, absently, fixated on watching the light retreat from the room as the sun sank behind the rise of the hill.
In late afternoon the house was once again dim and dreary, the sun obscured by the hill and the boughs of the great aged trees. Shadows would writhe across the floor and gather in corners and behind doorways. The ceilings would seem to rise, echoing footsteps in their height, pressing a hush down from above. Celia could never be as utterly as ease in this mood of the house as she was in the glory morning hours. Nonetheless, she said, the house possessed certain majesty in the darkness that one could admire. For his part, Elliot loved the house best like this. He would emerge from the dim closeness of his lower-floor study to join Celia in the darkened rooms.
“This is what the trees are most fond of, you know,” he told her.
“What’s that?” Her voice was as bright as sunlight, warm and sweet.
“The ‘majesty’ of this house, as you so elegantly put it.” He smiled broadly, his face flickering in the candlelight. This was just one of his new peculiarities. They could never have more than one or two electric lamps on at a time. Candles were better, Elliot insisted, and set about filling the rooms with them. Celia chose not to mind this curious obsession. Nor did she object to his daily ritual of pulling all the curtains shut the minute the sun had retreated from the rooms.
“Still,” she observed, rubbing his shoulders one evening, “you might come upstairs once in a while to see how beautiful it all looks in the daylight.” He had work to do, he insisted, pulling away and pacing the room nervously. Plenty of work. Surely she understood. She did, she assured him. “But if you’d like, darling,” she offered with the sudden delight of a new idea, “I could brighten up your study! Open it up so the sun can come in as it does up here!” This idea alarmed him sufficiently that he grabbed both her hands in his and implored her never to touch the lower floor, the leave it to him. He gazed at her in such earnest that she agreed willingly.
“If it means that much to you,” she said with a smile.
“Oh it does,” he enthused, “it does!” And he caught up her tiny form in a sudden embrace.
Elliot rose each day before dawn touched the house, washing and dressing in silence so as not to wake Celia. He slipped downstairs just as the shadows shifted from black to grey, shutting himself in his study before they faded altogether and the house was awash in awful, glaring sunlight. The downstairs rooms were black, dusty, their windows blocked off with heavy drapery, lit only by candle-flame and one or two lamps. Here Elliot had his study; a grandiose room of oak paneling and burgundy velvet chairs nestled between a great unused bedroom and a small library lined with ancient volumes on countless obscure topics. A desk-lamp sat on the desktop next to a vase of wildflowers brought there by Celia. Its circular yellow glow provided all the illumination Elliot could bear to work by. Across the room sat an ornate candelabra that held several dripping candles. These Elliot lit each morning; he ate his lunch by their flickering flames.
“Are you quite certain this dimness suits you, darling?” Celia would ask dubiously. And he would laugh in response. Here he was perfectly at home, he assured her.
This particular morning he seated himself at his desk, humming a lilting melody to himself. He shuffled a few papers about, he opened two bills that had arrived by post the day before, he caught sight of the book lying open to one side. He began to shiver violently. Gingerly he pulled the book closer to himself. A cold sweat broke quite suddenly upon his brow. He blinked several times to clear his oddly blurred sight and began to read aloud, his voice tremulous. “Delphi – a town Ancient Greeks believed to be sacred to the god Apollo.” It all sounded so matter-of-fact. Just a town in Greece, that’s all. But memories came unbidden to his mind, flooding through his thoughts unwanted. Celia and he in Greece, vacationing beside impossibly blue seas in whitewashed towns. They had spent time on the beaches and wandering through the towns and then they had decided that it would be wonderful fun to tour the ancient sites, the ruinous temples of immortal gods and the places where long-dead peoples had gathered together. Elliot had always harbored a sort of morbid fascination for the ancient gods, morbid in that the tales of their wrath and revenge interested him most. (He often thanked Providence that the gods had fallen from power before his birth. Or was his shuddering fear of thunder Zeus’ last hold on him? Perhaps his tendency to sunburn hearkened to Apollo’s spite?) That had been a splendid idea - The Temple of Athena in Athens, the Parthenon, the Guardian Lions on the island of Delos; they were beautiful, glorious structures, impressive even in ruin. And then tragedy had struck. Celia insisted it was all coincidence and laughed at the warning given him by the aged craftsman in the village. But he knew better. The ancient deity had cursed him, marked him for destruction out of spite. Standing outside the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, the sky had suddenly darkened. Elliot had not noticed, he had stepped ever closer to the Temple, fascinated by the crumbling pillars, ignoring the guide's instruction to return to the group as they were moving on. The sky had broken, a deluge of hard rain tumbling to the earth. Thunder rumbled menacingly through the clouds. Elliot returned to the group but he felt oddly chilled inside, threatened somehow. The rain had ceased as soon as the tourists were gone. In the town the craftsman had pointed to him suddenly, fearful and accusing. The stream of loud Greek words had been translated for him; a warning. Apollo had been angered at his trespass. The god had placed a curse on his head.
Elliot shivered in the murky light of his study. If only he had obeyed the guide's instruction to leave! That man probably knew how long foreigners were allowed to stay in the ancient stronghold of the immortal. He, Elliot Martin, had foolishly ignored the guide and now... now he was doomed. And yet, here Elliot chuckled to himself despite his fear, he had found a way to foil the god's plan. Apollo was the god of poetry and light - the sun god. Elliot very nearly crowed aloud at his cleverness, it was devilishly simple, really, this plan of his. Apollo couldn't get to him if he stayed out of the sun. And just like that he had won. Elliot Martin, a mere mortal, had discovered a way to thwart the almighty sun god. At once he had rushed Celia home and bought this gloomy house, protected from sun by the tangle of trees and the hill behind. He sat back in his chair, shaking. The book lay open, a glossy painting of Apollo's Temple glaring up at him. He threw the book to the ground.
"Darling?" Her voice filtered down from the sun-filled room above. How daring she was to bask in all that light. Her gentle footsteps sounded on the stairs; she appeared in the doorway with a smile lighting her face. In she glided, she fairly danced when she walked, she was a mortal nymph, exquisitely formed. He forgot his panic. She perched on his knees and kissed his nose. "You called me?"
"I did. I, oh, I..." he stumbled, grasped for words. She laughed lightly.
"Silly!" She rubbed her nose against his. She loved his scattered ways. His studious nature. Opposite and perfectly suited - the bookworm editor for hire and the human sprite. She turned to leave the room then caught sight of the book sprawled upon the floor. "Oh darling," she said as she picked it up.
"It's the sun, you know. The sun is his power. But down here I'm safe, he can't touch me if the sun can't!" Celia regarded him gravely as he spoke. She moved behind him and slid her arms about his neck, leaning down to speak into his ear.
"You must give up this notion that you're cursed, darling. You can't be, you know. Think of it - we traveled home in daylight and you're fine, nothing at all happened! Do you see? It's your mind, your suspicious nature at odds with the things of this world that is convincing you that you're in danger." He relaxed into her embrace, reluctantly agreed that her words made sense. "Now come up to lunch with me. I'll pull the curtains to dim the sun, how would that be?" He thought he might try. Up they went, hand in hand, and stepped out in the brilliantly lit rooms. Elliot trembled. His wife kissed his cheek then pulled all the curtains as promised. They lunched together in the kitchen.
That night he reflected upon his success that afternoon. Nothing had happened to him as he sat listening to Celia's bright chatter amid the full force of daylight. He resolved to wake with the dawn next morning, to test his strength of will against Apollo's. By god, he wouldn't be intimidated so easily! He would face the sun and triumph. The next morning found him wide-eyed and nervous, backing away from the advancing gold of sunlight until it had him cornered. Then it ran all up him, warming him and causing him to squint. He spent the whole of the day upstairs, trembling at every odd sound, wincing when Celia threw open the door and stepped out into the thick of the sunlight to gather fresh flowers. She returned unharmed, humming, to plant a kiss upon his cheek.
"Why darling," she laughed, "you're cold! Don't worry so." She arranged the flowers upon the kitchen table. Evening found him secure and triumphant, cheering inside himself that he had beat the curse of Apollo. Celia hugged him tightly, delighted. "You see, love? The sun is not out to harm you at all!" The next day he arose with more confidence, venturing to pull back the curtains in the bedroom to allow sunlight to play over his wife's sleeping face. She found him in the kitchen, working on some manuscript by the window, drinking orange juice and whistling cheerily. She marveled at the change in him, kissed him upon the top of his head.
"Elliot," she began, stepping into the kitchen later that morning. "I'm going out to..." He turned at caught sight of her purse, of the shoes on her feet.
"No! You can't leave! Where are you going?" The words burst out of him, a fresh panic raced through him. How could he face this daylight alone? Better retreat downstairs, just to be sure. She gazed at him evenly, caught his hand in hers.
"I'm only going to visit my sister. Just in town. Just an hour or two." He squirmed under her gaze; sure that he didn't want to hear what was coming next. "Don't go back downstairs. This terror of yours has to be dealt with, darling! See how well you've managed this far? It's only an hour or two, that's all." Her eyes pleaded with him. He was torn, anxious. But how could he refuse, after all?
"Oh darling!" She threw her arms around him and kissed his worried mouth. He walked her to the door. "I won't be long," she assured him, smiling. She left.
Alone in the dreaded sunlight all his fears rushed back to torment him. He remembered vividly the rain pelting into his face at the Temple and the horrified words of the craftsman echoed unpleasantly in his head. How could he take such a curse so lightly? He recalled hearing how Apollo had murdered the children of Niobe, queen of Thebes. What had Niobe done to deserve such treatment? The story went that she had boasted that she was better than Leto, Apollo's mother. Such cruelty in response to such an innocent transgression! Surely trespassing upon his sacred ground was a far worse offense. Elliot trembled violently at the thought. Perspiration stood out in beads along his forehead. He wouldn't give in, though. If the sun god expected him to hide for the rest of his life, he was mistaken. Elliot Martin would not give in. He seated himself in a chair, his back to the wall. His eyes glanced nervously about the room, expecting something horrible; not wanting to watch but unable to look away for fear he would be caught off-guard. An hour ticked by. The air was still and silent. The sunlight was warm upon his face. The lilting fragrance of wildflowers drifted into his nose and he felt his anxiety draining away. Nothing would happen. Celia was right. This was all part of his imagination. After all, he had been alone here for an hour and still he sat unharmed. The god must have forgiven him. He sighed. He closed his eyes, drowsy from the quiet and the perfume of the flowers.
A sudden, violent hissing sound grated into his ears then and he leapt to his feet in a renewed panic. There - upon the floor! What was it? A charred area appeared upon the wood and a billow of smoke blew into the air. The room grew hot, fiercely hot, and the smoke began to twist and writhe strangely. A figure stepped through the smoke. Elliot felt his eyes begin to ache and burn, his heart thudded furiously in his chest, the breaths he drew stifled him and scorched his throat. The figure blazed, the shape of a man, strong and tall, viciously handsome. The man stepped closer; his footstep sizzled upon the wood, a charred spot appearing beneath his foot. The light was hard and blinding and pressed into Elliot. Needles of pain shot through his body, he couldn't look at that figure, he tried to scream, to call out. He felt himself crumbling, fading, vanishing. The room towered above him, his sight blurred, he could feel nothing except that odd disintegration, that scattering of himself.
Celia caught sight of an intense glare of light through the front window. She blinked and turned her head, when she looked again it was gone. She thought no more on it. She stepped into the house and called brightly for her husband. "Darling?" She kicked off her shoes and moved lightly, barefoot, into the sitting room. "Darling, where are you?" Seared onto the wooden floor were several blackened circles, sooty, charred. She frowned. She glanced at the chair against the wall. A pile of ashes, grey and sullen looking, sat upon that chair. She ventured closer. The ashes sparkled suddenly, blue as Elliot's eyes and white as his cheeks. Celia trembled. And a hot gust of wind picked up those ashes and blew them by her ear and they whispered her name...
Copyright Corinne Simpson