“There are bones in the garden.”
Lady Mordemag looked up from the table, her dark black eyes blinking ones, twice, as one dainty white hand held her teacup inches from scarlet lips. She was still beautiful, even in her raggedy, thin, demolished state, the one that had begun to grow all those years ago, ever since even she had to come to face the truth.
“Bones?” said Lady Mordemag.
“The children found them.”
Lady Mordemag set her teacup down on the white saucer. It rattled, the little gold petals of its design shivering in some phantom wind. The table was dusty, set in its perpetual manner, only the teacup ever swapped out. Two pairs of dishes, two sets of cutlery, two large wine glasses. The maids used to clean them every week, until there were not enough of them to care. The rest of the room was no better: dusty sofas, dusty bookcases, dusty curtains that remained drawn, allowing in only the tiniest sliver of butter-yellow light.
“And what,” said Lady Mordemag, looking up at her accuser, dark eyes narrowing in the dim light of the manor, “does that have to do with me?”
The speaker, Darya, shifted. She glanced back towards the door, an impossible square of bright light, like the portal to another world. She was the only one who dared address Lady Mordemag, most of the time. Perhaps the woman still had some buried soft spot in her heart for her children that made her extend courtesies to their governess—or, more likely, Lady Mordemag maintained a veneer of politeness because she understood that this was it. There would be no new governesses, no new servants, no new staff. She didn’t even have the money to place an advertisement down the coast anymore.
“They might be human remains,” Darya said.
“Emmeline found part of a skull.”
“My dear. What does that have to do with me?”
They buried the bones, Darya and the cook, out behind the gardens when the children were napping. They worked in silence, digging and scrapping, shielded only by the rotten black trees that had once constituted—so Darya had heard—a rich orchard. She tried to picture apples on those dark, slanted branches, and shivered.
The cook finished patting the last bit of earth on the mound. He spat on it, rubbing his bald red head in the sun, and turned to go back inside.
“Should we mark it?” asked Darya. “The grave.”
“Ain’t a grave.” He made to move around her.
“But it…those…” Darya said, growing red. “They were human bones.”
The cook gave her a long, hard look. “Don’t make trouble for yourself where there ain’t none.”
Darya blushed deeper. She knew that, probably better than this man and his condescending advice. She had known it from the moment she had taken the position, had given up her old life to come out to this estate, prepared lies on her lips (“Yes, I’ve educated many children before; Yes, here are my letters of reference; Yes, all good families, only the best”). Of course, it turned out that Lady Mordemag had only tested her French, and briefly, and as her language experience was the one thing Darya had not lied about, she was kept on. Looking back months later, though, she didn’t wonder whether Lady Mordemag would have made the same decision, regardless of the strength of her accents.
“Do you know who it is, then?” Darya said, pointing at the now-buried bones. She thought they ought to share a little camaraderie, the two of them, even if they had never been on particularly friendly terms before. The household used to be five times as large, and that was in its destitute state—supposedly, at the height of its glory, the Mordemag estate had employed hundreds. Now it was Darya the governess, the cook, and two maidservants. And the bones.
“You live as long as me here, you don’t know anything,” the cook said, in a near growl. His dark browns were knit over his eyes, and his thick hands were balled into fists. For a moment Darya wondered if he would strike her. And then, she thought, wouldn’t he be in for a surprise.
“Don’t mistake my curiosity,” Darya said. She leaned on her shovel, pressing one sweat-soaked band of hair behind her ear. “I don’t care for justice. There is none out here.”
The cook snorted. “It’ll take us. Every one of us. Just a matter of time.” He spat again on the grave. Somehow, Darya knew he did not mean death, or time. He meant the estate.
“And how does it do that?”
A crooked smile was her response. “You want to know, dearie? You want to know the things I’ve heard? Hear the things I’ve seen? I could make your skin crawl.”
So could I, thought Darya. “Try me.”
“It feeds. On—”
He cut off, straightening up as a bright, light voice called, “Darya! Darya!”
Darya turned, but not before she caught one last glance of the cook’s face. The color had left him; his pallor was white. And he was looking back at the newly finished grave.
Annabelle and Humphrey pranced their way over to Darya, greeting the cook as he stomped his way back into the house, acknowledging their words with a gruff tip of his head. The two children laughed and screeched on their way over, playing as only children could, oblivious to the spirit that hung over the estate.
“Mother says we’re having dinner tonight!” Humphrey said, eyes shining. “A proper dinner! With tarts and everything!”
“You’re to come, too,” Annabelle said. She was slightly older, barely ten, and her eyes met Darya’s with something like an apology before they quickly darted away.
“Is that right?”
“Mother says she has an important announcement.”
“Blackberry and chocolate,” said Humphrey. “Two types of tarts! I’m to put on my collar!”
“I’ll help you with that,” Darya assured him, and took each of the children by the hand to lead them back to the estate. The cook had already disappeared inside.
Annabelle glanced back and pointed with her free hand to the fresh mound of dirt. “What is that?”
“You’ve planted something,” Humphrey said approvingly.
“Nothing grows here,” Annabelle said. “Don’t be silly, Humphrey.”
“In time it might,” Darya said. “You never know.”
Again Annabelle looked up at Darya with those knowing eyes. Darya suppressed a shiver. The girl was too clever sometimes, but she did not protest again, even when Humphrey began to talk of planting tomatoes and carrots one day. “Cook says we can try, maybe next year.”
“Maybe next year,” Darya said absently. She was thinking again of the cook’s pale face.
“The lady is in one of her moods,” Marcy, one of the two remaining maids, warned. Darya paused from brushing her hair and looked up, to the corner of the mirror where she could see the maid silhouetted in the doorway, almost ethereal.
“Wait,” Darya said, as the maid turned to go. The dark curls bobbed backward, and the wary face, half-obscured by the fading sunlight, looked back at her again. “The bones. Did you hear about the bones?”
“I don’t want trouble,” the maid said, and disappeared again before Darya could press her further.
Darya finished brushing her hair and looked in the mirror. She felt old, ancient, though she had not yet passed thirty. It was the estate. It drained the life out of her, and spit back up bones. She ran one hand over her chestnut hair, the waves loose and lifeless. Underneath her eyes, she could see fine lines already forming, like the threads of spiderwebs. She thought of the men who had once called her beautiful, and then wondered if she would ever hear someone say so again.
The bell clanged. Dinner was ready.
The children had washed and primped, though Annabelle had not worn the frock Darya set out for her. Darya felt a ruffle of annoyance, but it was too late—Lady Mordemag sat at the head of the table, a fine pearl brooch around her neck, her hair up and coiffed. She smiled, a slick, serpentine thing, and asked Annabelle if she had had a pleasant day.
Be nice to her, thought Darya. For Humphrey’s sake, if not your own.
“It was fine,” Annabelle said, into her plate. Marcy brought out the first course; the other maid was nowhere to be found. It was a thin, grainy soup, spiced with pickled fish. Almost everything they ate up there was pickled or salted, nowadays.
“I’ve brought you a present, my dear,” Lady Mordemag said, as they all pushed around the soup and pretended to eat. Humphrey’s eyes shone as he watched his mother, though she seemed not to notice. “A teacup.”
“I don’t want a teacup,” said Annabelle.
Anger flashed across Lady Mordemag’s face, but she smoothed it soon after. Darya felt her pulse quicken. “It used to be your father’s.” She pulled something from her lap, a napkin, and folded from it a thin, pristine porcelain cup, decorated around the top with little navy whales. “Do you like it?”
Annabelle looked up furtively, and then back down at her plate.
“And you, Humphrey?” Lady Mordemag said, with another of her serpentine smiles. “Darya, it is beautiful, is it not?”
Darya agreed that it was.
“Would you like it, Annabelle?” Lady Mordemag said. “No? Well, Humphrey, I suppose that means it’s yours.”
“Lady Mordemag—” Darya started.
“Quiet,” Lady Mordemag hissed, though her smile didn’t falter. “I’m speaking to my children.”
Humphrey’s eyes glowed with delight. He reached out his chubby pale hands, but his mother whacked one wrist sharply with her fingers. Humphrey recoiled. “Now, now,” Lady Mordemag said. “We don’t use fingers at the dinner table.”
Humphrey looked first to Annabelle, and then to Darya. His lower lip trembled, and then he looked, cautiously, hopefully, fearfully, at his mother. Darya bit her lip, wanting to rip the teacup from Lady Mordemag’s hands, wanting to tell her that she would not let the woman play her cruel games, not this time. But what could she do? If she were turned out of the house, she would die before she reached the first road. They were all prisoners there.
Humphrey closed his eyes and squeezed them shut. He pressed his lips together, too, as if by sheer force he could conjure up the power to do what his mother wished. Annabelle’s eyes sliced left towards her brother, and then farther left to her mother. Darya did not miss the anger in them.
Humphrey opened one eye to peak. The teacup remained unmoved.
“Pay attention!” Lady Mordemag snapped, striking the table with one hand. “Pay attention, you fool! I was moving whole plates when I was your age!”
Humphrey whimpered and closed his eyes again. Marcy the maid peeked in and darted out again, probably telling the cook to hold the next course. Humphrey squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, not daring to stop, not daring to peak, as the seconds ticked by.
“He can’t do it,” Annabelle said, not meeting her mother’s eyes. Her voice was low and angry. “We can’t do it.”
“Nonsense. You’re Mordemags.”
Annabelle looked up at Darya. I can’t, thought Darya, but then, if I don’t, who will this girl trust? Everyone else was afraid of Lady Mordemag; Darya didn’t have to teach Annabelle that she had to do the same.
“Lady Mordemag, perhaps I should take Humphrey to bed. He’s had a very long day. He saw the bones,” Darya added, hoping to distract her mistress. Bright blue eyes flashed upon her. Across from Darya, Humphrey finally opened his eyes, blinking rapidly.
“Saw the bones?”
“The burial site. He saw the—”
Lady Mordemag’s eyes crackled. For a moment Darya feared that she was about to banish her, about to tell her that she had no business being there, witnessing whatever terrible dance it was that she was insisting on putting her children through. Annabelle sent Darya a frightened, pleading look, and Darya tried to reassure her with a tight-lipped smile, the one that said that the adults knew what they were doing, and it would all be alright. How long had it been since she had actually believed such a thing?
“Darya,” Lady Mordemag said, after instructing Humphrey to continue. “My dear. What was it that you did before you came to work for us?”
Darya’s pulse quickened.
“I-I was a governess. You saw my references.”
“I never checked them. Go on, Humphrey. Good boy. You’ll get it soon enough.” Her voice turned sweet and soothing, and she stroked Humphrey’s hair with one thin hand. Darya felt paralyzed. Lady Mordemag had never hinted that she doubted Darya’s story. Had there been a visitor? A letter? Good lord, what if someone was there now?
She tried to read the answer in Lady Mordemag’s face, but the woman was only watching her youngest son, an expression of almost childlike earnestness on her face. When she finally turned back to Darya, her expression stiffened.
“Go on,” Lady Mordemag said. “You seem to have strong opinions on how to raise children. Tell me about your experience.”
Darya opened her mouth but did not speak. Behind her, the grandfather clock chimed. Evening was slowly slipping away into night.
“You worked with many families before, didn’t you?” encouraged Lady Mordemag, her hand still absentmindedly stroking Humphrey’s hair. The boy was only half-paying attention to the teacup now, his gaze darting nervously between his mother and Darya. “Tell me about them.”
“What would you like to know,” Darya finally croaked.
“Tell me about the unicorns.”
Darya felt like the world dropped out beneath her. She had to catch her breath; the corners of her vision seemed to darken, and she fought to remain alert, to not let panic overtake her. She knew. The old world had followed her, even out to this forbidden place. The scent of blood overwhelmed her; she seemed to no longer be in that dark, dusty dining room on the coast of a northern, distant shore, but back in the Dim City, kneeling on the stone ground amongst a dozen other girls with bowed heads. She could hear the click, click of his boots as he walked among them, asking who could ride. Darya had raised her hand, even though she could not.
Darya heard the cup rattle in the saucer, and Lady Mordemag’s gaze tore away from her.
“Humphrey, darling!” Lady Mordemag gasped, pulling her son to her and cradling his head to her shoulder. “Humphrey, you moved it!”
The teacup spun and rattled for a second longer, before resuming its proper place in the saucer.
“I think I hit it with my elbow,” Humphrey said, befuddled. “I—”
“Nonsense, darling, you did it!” Lady Mordemag showered her son with kisses, and Humphrey blushed with pride. Annabelle was staring down at her fists. “Oh, I knew you could! I knew there’s still something in our blood yet!”
Annabelle bolted up and out of the room. Darya hesitated, then followed her. She could hear Lady Mordemag’s oily praises all the way up the stairs, echoing down the long, rotting halls.
Annabelle would not speak to her; she was in one of her own capricious moods, the only time when Darya could see a resemblance between the little girl and the lady of the house.
Darya lay awake for hours that night, unable to sleep, waiting for the moment when her bedroom door would open and an apparition from her past would come in. But in the morning, it was only Lady Mordemag whom she saw, telling her to make the three-mile trek into town and place an advertisement for a new chef. Darya thought about asking what had happened, but she could see by the twinkle in Lady Mordemag’s eyes that the lady knew that she had her. How she had found out, Darya didn’t know. But it didn’t matter. They were all slaves to the estate now.
As she threw on her jacket, and tied it about her waist, Darya turned once more to look at Lady Mordemag, seated at the dusty dinner table, a bit of embroidery in her lap. She didn’t know the top of the needle from the bottom, but she still liked to make a show of wasting her own time, as if that would recall to mind her high breeding, even in the midst of such disrepair.
“Is there anything I should know,” Darya said, choosing her words carefully. “About anyone in town.” She paused. “Who might know me.”
“If someone knows me…” Darya hesitated.
“You would fear for your safety.”
“My dear.” Lady Mordemag smiled thinly up at her. “What does that have to do with me?”
Stephanie Bucklin‘s short fiction has been published in magazines including Balloon Lit and Caterpillar Magazine. Her nonfiction has been published in Clarkesworld, Buzzy Mag, Psychology Today, New York Magazine, and more.