Triumph of Time
By Kassandra Alvarado
Published by Kassandra Alvarado at Smashwords
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Closing my eyes, it all seems like it was yesterday. The day I arrived in the shadows of Cartier estate, that grand manse left in decaying grandeur, my inheritance had seemed a dream from another era. Sheltered by the salt-sea wind by craggy rock, the mansion perched in the discreet shadows of a high cliff. Below, the relentless surf pounded a dim shoreline of rocks and reed-choked sand. Shattered bits of driftwood flowed in and out of the tide’s grasp, weird and wonderful shapes visible to the eye in distorted magnificence.
I’d come here once to this place, as a little girl on a hot summer day. I’d skipped playfully over the rocks, one chubby hand holding the brim of my straw hat. Ribbons flowed from my pigtails, smooth pebbles rolled beneath my heels. Mother was never far, strolling in the company of her aged relative, the Lord of the estate. They had spoken of many things, said many words which I was too young to understand yet knew pertained to me.
“The gift…,” my great uncle said slight eagerness in his fluttering pink hands. “Rowan has it?”
Mother’s lips pursed as she did when she was angry. “It has yet to manifest itself.”
Uncle sighed. “There has yet to be another in five generations. Perhaps, the blood has thinned.”
“It is exceedingly rare.”
Uncle paused, bent and gathered sand into his palm, pouring by thin trickle into his other outstretched palm. “To see a world in a grain of sand…, ah, if only, if only young Rowan were different.”
I was old enough to know the whispered thread of hopelessness in his tone.
If only I – Rowan, were special.
There were few of the family left in the old mansion on the cliff. Somehow, I’d imagined there would always be a member of my family living within its walls, playing out life’s dramas. Now as I walked through the emptied halls and dusty sheet-covered furniture lurking in forgotten corners, I wondered when the world had moved on.
Certainly, the house had been kept in a trust for one such as my great uncle deemed special. He – dead five years after the conversation I’d overheard as a child, hadn’t seen fit to provide my struggling parents with a legacy that might secure our future happiness. My father had died of a failing heart some said was caused by overwork; mother had taken on menial jobs to support us living on in one of Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods.
We were never invited to the summer wedding of one of my distant cousins. The lavish affair was one of the last the old house had seen; I knew of it from reminisces of the housekeeper yesterday morning over cups of strong Turkish brew.
“Were they special?” I asked during a lull in the conversation, envious in my turn of thinking that someone of the blood had possessed what I lacked.
“No,” the housekeeper said, tired in her black widow weeds. “And the house passed from them into solitude and disrepair. Until you, Miss.”
“Until me,” I repeated when I’d left her, entering into the foyer of the mansion that had become mine. There was no one else to who it could pass down into. No one, save for me, one tried and lacking in the thing that had set my family apart for centuries. There was no one left to wait for any-more. Taking the keys to hand, I opened every door, parted every shade. The day was a dim cloudy afternoon, cold in the brisk wind that swept off the surf below.
As I walked through the main hall to the foot of the grand staircase, my hand rested lightly on the balustrade. The wood was warm to the touch. Surprised, I withdrew my hand. Had someone been there before me? Resting their hand ever so gently on the aged Honey wood?
The thought was mildly unsettling in my mind. I’d given the housekeeper the day off, wanting to explore the house on my own terms. Had someone come in without me seeing? I pondered the possibilities of someone driving the distance from the nearest town along the curving cliff road. It wasn’t likely unless it were someone with vandalism in mind.
My fears rampant, I went through the paneled drawing room, through the faded gilt ballroom and upstairs into bedrooms of neglect. Nothing seemed touched; footsteps that appeared in soft dust were my own. Disturbed, I returned below to the foot of the stair, gazing about me in guarded curiosity. Perhaps I had been imagining the warmth of someone’s hand that I’d placed my own over, imagined a sigh where there was none.
I shook my head slightly; imagination was best left on the drawing table where it belonged.
In another place, I mightn’t have noticed the corner of white amidst the wood of the post. The hour was late and I’d eaten lightly of the casserole the housekeeper had left in her quarters. Electricity hadn’t been restored to the house prior to my arrival; I’d chuckled enough over the pleasant gleam of hurricane lamps, ornate fixtures and antiquated appliances throughout the house.
The beam of my flashlight had passed over the bottom of the post as I’d been crossing the hallway. Upon seeing it I was struck singularly by my own childhood penchant for leaving small notes of my presence in places we had once inhabited. Had I done so here once? I couldn’t recall.
Curiosity got the better of me. I plucked the paper free, surprised to find it a short letter of neat handwriting once revealed by the light of my flashlight. The writer had a careful hand, letters were uniform, nearly perfect sweeping across the page. I carried it upstairs to better read within the comfort of the bedroom I’d fixed up for myself off the landing. The Master bedroom I hadn’t dared touch as it had still had some of the heavy baroque furnishings from my uncle’s time.
The room I’d fixed up for my brief stay had long blue curtains hung from the large four-poster bed. A small bedside table with a cracked marble top served to hold a candleholder that emitted flickering light once it had been lit. I hadn’t yet forgotten my experience earlier in the day, the soft whistle of cheer that had occupied my lips in the daylight had faded to silence by late evening.
I was a city girl born and bred; the doors and windows were bolted fast. In my mind the need for security eclipsed the soft thread of curiosity. What words did the letter contain? The house had been in my family for generations. What ancestor had walked these halls, leaving behind a fanciful record of their past deeds?
I smiled at my romanticism, donning a soft cotton robe, clambering atop the freshly made bed. The paper crackled as I slid my finger beneath it. At first glance the paper appeared old, coated with a thin layer of dust that coated my fingertips. I was amused to see the date postmarked some thirty years in the future.
I’ve fallen in love with someone. They don’t know who I am, or my name. They don’t even know I exist or will exist…,
I’ve placed this note in a place where that person may find it. This house…, I ran my hand over the railing feeling the warmth of the ancient wood. The stairs are deep and the walls dark with age. I’ve always been in awe of this house where she lived.
The house had been shuttered from prying eyes for many years. Only members of the immediate family were allowed within the domicile. Had the writer of the missive been a member of the family? Or perhaps a visitor…, had they loved in secret a member of my family? My wonderings would never cease despite my exhaustion. I left the missive on my bedside table and fell into a sleep warmed by recollections of happier times.
In the morning I awoke to the rush and pound of the surf against the rocks below. Sunlight streamed through the curtains I’d closed the night before and the letter I’d discovered in the bannister railing had vanished. This occurrence was unusual for I wouldn’t have believed the housekeeper of deliberately touching my things, unless she knew of the letter’s import and sought to hide something from me.
My suspicions were raised, although my mind warned against ill-conceived conspiracies. I sought her out in the herb garden below to question her. “A letter, Miss?” She knelt in the loamy earth; a cool sea wind tousled our hair. “I haven’t seen no such thing. Was it important, Miss?”
“I see…no, no, it wasn’t. Only something of curiosity.” I started to walk away back to the house when she called after me. “Strange things have always been associated with this family,” she nodded as I turned back, shading my brow with my hand.
“And this house.”
Far beyond her, past the low white picket fence where the sea grass meandered to a low stubble against barren rock, I seemed to see someone standing there for an instant. A figure who gazed out mournfully toward the sea -- a passing cloud obscured the sun and the path out to the cliff’s edge darkened. No one stood there.
I shook my head to rid it of fancy and returned to the house intent on exploring. I had not gone in very far when a notion occurred to me. It was a silly thought and one that was entirely frivolous in execution. I went to the stair and bent low, inserting my searching fingers into the open seam of woodwork. Smooth paper rustled at the touch. I slipped it out feeling my heart race.
As before, I closed off my bedroom door seeking privacy in the room I’d fast begun to feel as my own. Kicking off my tennis shoes, I curled up surrounded by frilly pillows, the missive lying across my lap. There had been nothing else there yesterday of that I was certain. Someone was coming and going through the house, someone neither of us had seen, the housekeeper and I.
I laid aside the letter unable to read on. The experience had undoubtedly been traumatic. The road was familiar to me as the one I’d taken from the village to the estate above. The road was winding, steep with the cliff wall against one side and at points, a sheer drop beyond the guardrail. It was nearly impossible to allow someone to pass if coming at opposite directions. A collision was nearly unavoidable. I shivered despite the warmth of the day.
What were they doing coming up that winding road to the house?
Who were they?
Would I ever know?
At least…now, I had a name for my more than strange writer.
In the afternoon, I wandered through the fallen wrought iron fencing enclosing a small graveyard to the east of the house. The peak of the cliff rose in rocky splendor ahead. Nestled in the grasses, the chipped and crumbling stones of my ancestors lied buried. I picked through them, bending occasionally to brush the inscriptions free of clinging moss.
For over two centuries, members of my family had been buried here. Would I choose when the time came to be interred in the rocky soil? Or somewhere far away surrounded by strangers? Death was a strange thing. It came to the Cartier family in spurts after long stretches of life. My own mother had been buried in Kensal Green beside my father but my uncle had chosen his place beside his forefathers. His was easily the largest of the monuments, the last of the titled Lords, Henri Cartier. The name conjured images of a portly man clad in grey and black suits. He walked with a limp and wielded a tortoiseshell cane from Victorian times. The sound of his footsteps came back to me then, the same cadence, rolling gently on broken seashells. There was a much different footstep beyond the cemetery gate, limp, dragging. I looked up startled for I’d thought I was very much alone. “Who’s there?” I called sharply and the long grasses rustled in reply.
Nothing but the wind, you silly goose! My thoughts cried. Still, I wandered and wondered. The house was mine to do with as I pleased. If there were spirits earthbound, then I wasn’t afraid. I’d lived a life dictated by others, mother, my husband, bound by rigid traditions; I hadn’t truly begun to live until now.
I thought of my freedoms with the keys jiggling in my jean pocket, striding down the grassy slope to the old red pickup parked on the natural curb. I could drive anywhere I wanted, returning at all hours of the night. I was beholden to no one, not a man who demanded my being home before his return from work nor a meaningless job. The summer was mine and if I lived frugally, I could live happy.
I thought these things the next night and the night after that. My mornings were spent dusting, sweeping and waxing the ancient floors. Windows were washed, brightening curtains bought and windows were thrown open to rid the house of the scent of musk that hung heavy over the antiquated fireplace and heavy carved wooden panels. In the afternoon, I’d consume a light lunch on the sunlit portico, on a peeling white wrought iron patio set then, sometimes take a walk along the sedge grass, the wind tousling my loose hair. It was on days such as those that the wind seemed to sigh with me. It filled me with breath and stole it in the same moment. My days were fleeting, blissful. I was happiest with the letters, brief and long that appeared in the split seam of wood at the bottom of the grand staircase.
It felt a secret, my secret. I kept the letters in a silver box on my vanity table. I was nothing special or remarkable reflected in the antiquated glass. My mother’s face and softly curling auburn hair fell to my shoulders. I resembled a healthier, younger version of her than at her last illness. Sometimes, I dreamed those days when she held my hand so tightly, the bones of her fingers cut into my flesh. She sweated and cried out to God, to father, to her brother. No one answered her as I stayed mute at her side.
In those nights, awakening in the house my family had hewn from stone, I cried out, blindly thrusting my hands into the darkness, seeking to dry the tears flowing down her withered cheeks. But, of course there was no one. My tormented mind somehow knew that and would fall from the depths of hysterics to the wretched misery of sorrow. It was then, that I’d rise, padding quietly across the worn floorboards to the vanity reflecting a shaft of moonlight.
My silver box sat in shadow, cool to the touch. It was an elegant present from my sixteenth birthday; its tarnished beauty felt a comfort to my anguished heart. The lid would revolve back on some hidden mechanism and the papers carefully folded inside would be revealed for my perusal. Part of me deep down knew the fascination I held for the writer of the missives, was foolish, a flight of fancy. Infatuation came to mind. I’d rarely indulged my emotions, they’d never run rampant, the way I’d seen so many others succumb to the throes of love.
Still, I sat on the veranda, bathed in the light of la Luna, reading and rereading the familiar lines. The missives told of his remodeling that had begun in the cellar and moved up to the yellow wallpapered drawing room. Day by day, I seemed to understand the writer of the letters. His love for the old house, respect for its long, troubled history.
The full flush of summer heat had descended upon the coast when a letter came from the probate delivered in a creased envelope from their London office. Another heir had been found. I smoothed out the creamy white paper bearing the seal of the Pembridge firm. Over tea and sweet cakes, I read the terse message to the housekeeper who listened intently. “My goodness! Another claimant? Who?”
I glanced over the paper. “A woman said to have had close ties with my uncle’s close family. In any case, Mr. Stafford feels that her claim…if valid, gives her right over the future of the property, completely taking it out of my hands!” My heart gave a strange little flutter within my cold chest. Suddenly, everything I’d worked for, my days of sunlight and simple work, were blots of ugliness. Everything was being taken away from me…and for what? A woman’s greed? Someone who’d heard of my cousin’s death and thought to take advantage by exploiting an old connection?
The housekeeper’s expression soured; she was a righteous old soul. “There’ll only ever be one heiress to this house, ma’am, if you don’t mind me saying, and that’s you! Lord Cartier always felt you had a touch of the gift.”
Slowly, I lowered the probate’s letter; the tea quietly steamed abandoned near my elbow. “What gift? What is this you speak of, Rosie?”
The poor old soul colored as she crossed herself, a forbidding gesture to my eyes. “Why, Miss, there are those who walk in this world …and those who walk in the worlds of the past and present. Those people…are your people, Miss. The people who control Time.”
I didn’t know what to make of her words as she excused herself to the wash. What could I say? What was left to believe? Perhaps this woman was from a dalliance in the past, my uncle’s son’s past. Either way, her claim needed to be investigated, the assets of the house…the deed, everything that had been turned over into my name, would be frozen until such a time that the heir would be revealed. Those thoughts filled me with bitterness. The yellowed marble foyer, the faded gilt rose wallpaper, even the brass lion’s head knocker already felt a part of me.
The house had seeped into my very bones and I never wanted to leave it.
“Is this how you felt, Cameron? The day you…,” lost your mother. That same feeling, that same stunning blow of losing something or someone precious to you. The letter floated before my mind’s eye. The date became an incessant needle worrying away at the back of my skull. Before I’d become conscious of my motions, I was taking the stairs two at a time, rushing to the room of pale blues I’d called my own. There, in the silver box, I feverishly sought the letter, dreading the confirmation of my worst fears.
Why that was thirty years…,
Oh God, Oh, God, Oh God—\
My thoughts ended on an unfinished prayer.
I ran with my car keys in hand. I’d left the truck parked on the grassy knoll beside the falling sign. Once, I’d clambered into the cab, I pressed my hands to my forehead. What was I to do? Stopping something from happening…stopping someone from dying,….that all seemed to be within the realm of the fantastical. But, the letter…Cameron’s letter…the dates, it all coincided with this day.
The truck’s engine roared to life. I pulled out with hardly a glance to the rear view mirror. The housekeeper’s voice rose above the squeal of the tires as I drew up onto the shoulder of the road. “Young Miss, don’t go! You can’t fight fate!”
What was fate to the knowledge I had at hand?
I would save them.
The woman ran to the edge of the grassy strip where the rock met pavement. My gaze swung past her and I drove away from the house on the cliff. The sheer cliff face curved as the stretch of road wound its way down the hillside. My mind, my thoughts were all fixated on this one thing. I…Rowan, didn’t need to be special in order to save someone. After everything I’d sought, after the secret of this family had been kept hidden away from me -
Cartier house rose above in the splendor of midday.
I glimpsed it reflected for a second on the windshield of the car coming up from the village. It was beyond midday with the wind rising off the ocean, scenting the air with the tang of salt. The car was a small red hatchback with the paint peeling from its hood. The windows however were clear revealing the sight of the woman bent low upon the steering wheel, her gaze fixed on the mansion above.
We seemed to be drifting toward one another on an inevitable course for collision.
I slammed on the brakes, swerving across the narrow road. The woman glimpsed me at the last minute, her face a study of terror, her scream silent as the truck clipped her, sending her small car spinning away into the cliff side. My world became the sound of shattering glass, twisting metal. I knew no more for a time.
Then, there was a sound…maybe it was what awakened me. The sound of someone hopelessly sobbing. I opened my eyes to the glare off the pavement arising in shimmering waves. It had been an unusually hot summer on the coastland…, I felt along the razor edge of the belt, unfastening it with difficulty. Limp though my body was, I forced the door open, falling to the ground. My hip and side struck the pavement; I twisted in agony, flopping weakly over onto the shattered glass.
There he was, beyond me, sideways in the smashed car.
Yet a child of seven with my cousin’s blue, blue eyes.
I crawled forward, my blood pounding in my head.
“Cameron…,” I’d thought I could change time, but time isn’t meant to be toyed with. I wasn’t special like my forefathers, I wasn’t the one who could change the future, I was only a hopeless fool trying to save two lives and in the end, cost one life.
“G-G-Get away f-from m-me,” he sobbed brokenly. “P-P-Please!”
“I’m sorry…I.” love you. And as I gasped out the last words, my uncle’s pocket watch, the one I’d carried since finding it among his personal effects, shattered, its time forever stopping.
AN: Found this unfinished in my doc box, decided to polish it up and finish it while I had time. Thanks for reading Good reviews are a writer’s food.
One of the last remaining members of the Cartier family learns Time isn't easily defeated.