The Century Room
The butterfly creaked faintly as Madeline’s aunt pinned it to the page. Around her the great worktable was spread with the evidence of a lifetime of experiments: French crayons, scraps of fabric, broken glass sorted by color — amber, purple, sea green. On the shelves above them, great unmarked leather-bound volumes lurked like incognito encyclopedias. Inside were pressed thousands of blossoms collected over half a dozen seasons. In the shadows below the shelves lay the richly enameled pots in which Aunt Lucy had cultivated her orchids until the day Madeline’s mother died, when Aunt Lucy had carefully arranged almost sixty of the delicate plants in the snowbound garden. Freezing rain had fallen that afternoon, turning the strange blossoms to gems: yellow shot with red, perfect white, furious pink. This was one of Madeline’s first memories.
Madeline sat beside her aunt on a green lacquered stool.
“Does it hurt her?” she asked.
“She’s dead,” her aunt told her, as if that finished the question.
In the wide windows over the table, the sun had been falling steadily down the sky. Now it vanished beyond a stand of black trees.
Madeline slipped down from the stool, and padded off to the Century Room.
The Century Room was a library, with fine shelves that stretched to the ceiling on all four walls, broken only by the mouth of a massive fireplace. A bright fire danced over the empty iron grate, as always. Ten thousand books looked down on divans, ottomans, pillows and thick rugs scattered in several inviting groups, exactly as Sarah Laine had arranged them a hundred and fifty years ago. This was because no matter who covered or moved her furniture or how soundly it was fastened, Sarah Laine always put it right back.
She did this with such dexterous alacrity that the hired men of an earlier generation had made a game of it. They had chained the coffee tables and settled great rocks from the surrounding fields on the covered couches to weigh them down. When she convinced them of her strength by shattering the rocks to dust and deftly slipping her prized pieces whole and unharmed from the coiled chains, the men decided to catch her in action. But Sarah Laine would not be watched at work. Time after time, as they tried to keep watch, the men fell asleep for what seemed like a moment to find the room transformed again to her original specifications, their white tarps neatly folded and stored out of sight inside a vast mahogany chest. Finally, one of the younger men came up with the idea to trick her by making a show of leaving and then rushing in again. But when the men turned back the moment after exiting the room, she had already completed her task, although a few of the figurines clattered on the tables, and the candle flames shuddered as if recovering from a great blast of wind. These last details were a matter of long debate amongst the men, some of whom held that they had, indeed, almost caught her in the act, and some who alleged that, as complete master of the game, she was only showing off with the noise and flame.
Today, Madeline picked up a small turquoise bird from the table by the door as she entered. This was one of her favorite games. Depending on Sarah Laine’s mood, the bird might vanish immediately from her hand, or she might carry it a good way into the room. Occasionally, and only because Madeline was family, Sarah Laine wouldn’t return the bird to its rightful place, but would make it swoop and dive and flutter, or alight on the brass branches that supported the burning candles in the wall lamps.
This time, Sarah Laine reclaimed the bird almost in the instant Madeline grasped it. She was in no mood for tricks.
Sarah Laine stood as she usually did, stoking the great fireplace, wearing her favorite blue dress. Her delicate blonde hair escaped in wisps around her flushed face, glowing almost to white in the hot light. Rose sat on the divan behind her, flickering into and out of sight as the flame cast its uneven light on the divan’s pale green brocade. Robert, perfectly solid, read the ghost of an ancient newspaper in one of the far wing chairs, his back to them. He preferred the real books that watched over them from the high shelves, but although he could easily knock them from their places, he had difficulty turning the pages. This was how Madeline had learned to read: turning pages for him as he, in exchange, voiced the stories.
Madeline made her way over to the nook she had claimed beside the far fireplace. A cozy bench had been built into the corner of the room and filled with pillows and a small rug that just covered her young legs. From it, Madeline could see everyone.
As Madeline settled in among the pillows, Rose appeared in the opposite seat. She had evidently been waiting. Rose had died at the age of nineteen, giving birth to Madeline’s father. She always dressed in pale lace and silk party dresses from the turn of the previous century. She considered herself Madeline’s friend.
“Well, dear?” she said, with poorly concealed eagerness. “How has your day been?”
Momentarily contrary, Madeline answered, “Just fine.”
Her young grandmother frowned like a disappointed child and fingered the silk hydrangea at her waist.
Madeline relented. “It’s raining,” she offered.
Rose’s face lit up. “I love the rain!” she exclaimed. “Once a storm came up, but I didn’t want to wait in the garden house. By the time I got home, my dress was in pieces. The gardeners kept finding silk flowers on the lawn!” She had confessed this charming transgression to Madeline a dozen other times. Madeline still nodded.
Weather was a great source of interest for the ghosts because they could not see the world beyond the Century Room’s vast windows. This was a fact none of them would admit. Madeline had found it out by accident one night early in her childhood, when none of them had commented on the ferocity of the weather, despite the blizzard rattling the glass. Already sly, she had led Robert to one of the windows and asked him to tell her what he could see over the velvet half-curtains that obscured her child’s view. He had told her a lovely story: a little girl in an open carriage, a redbud in bloom, a lone peacock wandering the lower lawn. But his description bore no relationship to the great gusts of glittering snow she could clearly see breaking again and again on the high windows.
For a while, this had been another favorite game of hers. Through the bitterest part of that winter, Robert had created a whole set of adventures for the little girl in the open carriage. Sometimes it was adorned with garlands of spring flowers. Sometimes a little boy rode with her. Once the pony spooked and broke into a gallop, the blue ribbons in his mane whipping in the wind as he dragged the carriage and the little girl, who squealed with delight and terror, out of sight down the lane.
But one day, when Madeline had asked to hear about the view out the windows again, Sarah Laine had lifted the velvet that fell across the pane with her own hand. “Why don’t we play a different game,” she said. “What do you see, Madeline?”
A few chestnuts, windfall on the front lawn, and that was all. But Madeline hadn’t dared to embellish what she saw.
“Did you go out in the rain?” her grandmother asked.
“It only rained in the morning,” Madeline said. “I sat with Aunt Lucy.” Lucy was her father’s sister, older than him by a year. For some reason, Rose didn’t like to speak of her.
“Lucy,” Sarah Laine repeated. “What was she doing? Building sand castles? Collecting wind?”
“She’s pinning butterflies,” Madeline said. “I help her chloroform them.” Absently, she twisted a piece of lace on the side table. Just as quickly, it lay flat in place again.
“So it’s spring,” Rose whispered conspiratorially. “There will be dances!”
“I’m eleven,” Madeline reminded her.
“But they’ll let you go, and look at the dresses.” Her young grandmother had a voracious appetite for the eternally-changing details of fashion.
“Madeline.” Her father stood in the door of the Century Room, tall and straight as a flagpole, his mouth almost hidden by his well-kept beard, his intelligent gray eyes watery with drink.
“Richard,” Sarah Laine said. “How good to have you.”
In the wing chair, Robert dropped the newspaper to his lap. “Hello, Dick.”
“I hear it rained this morning,” Rose offered.
As he did every night, Madeline’s father crossed the room, took his daughter in his arms, and carried her out, pretending not to hear the voices that rose around him.
Madeline had seen her father address the ghosts only once before, almost six years ago, about a week after her mother’s death. Her family’s ghosts and their properties had become part of her life at such an early age that they were simply a fact to be negotiated, like the weather-not a topic for thought or debate. Freed finally from the unfamiliar circus of the wake, funeral and burial, Madeline’s steps had turned toward the Century Room that evening out of habit, not from any hope.
But when her father appeared in the door a few moments later, scanning the room with a sickening mix of lover’s impatience and horror, Madeline was frozen by a new thought: he was looking for her mother.
Sarah Laine had smiled cruelly.
“Where is she?” her father demanded, crossing to the fireplace to stand before her.
Sarah Laine didn’t answer.
Madeline’s father raised his hands to catch her shoulders, but Sarah Laine only swayed faintly, like a piece of cloth so threadbare that even wind can’t catch it. His fingers closed on nothing.
“Have you seen her?” Madeline asked Sarah Laine eagerly.
“Please,” her father said, begging.
With enormous grace, Sarah Laine had turned away.
In Madeline’s room, her father laid her gently on her bed and pulled the lace cover over her with equal parts care and clumsiness, although both of them knew she would need to crawl out from under them after he left, to dress. He never spoke while doing this. But tonight he asked, “Are you warm enough?”
Surprised, Madeline nodded.
Her father took an inventory of the room’s shadows with the watchfulness of a man accustomed to seeing them take shape. He searched for his daughter’s hand under the fine covers, found it, and pressed it through the fabric.
Then he went out.
Among the ghosts, death was the only obscenity. Like any obscenity, the deaths of others were gleefully reported, while the details of a ghost’s own death were carefully guarded. This was true even for the children. When Madeline was seven, she had been struck by a sudden curiosity when playing marbles on the oriental rug with her cousin Bernard, who had died at age seven almost a hundred years ago. Bernard, like all the other children, lacked the substance of the adult ghosts. He seemed to Madeline like a movie begun before the house lights were brought down: shadows and faint splashes of color that barely added up to a pale face with huge dark eyes under a mop of straight dark hair that was constantly disappearing into the spines of the leather books behind him.
“You’re seven, too,” Madeline had said, holding a glassy sea green shooter between her thumb and forefinger, like a god momentarily forgetful of a new world she had just called into being.
Bernard nodded warily. She had beaten him at marbles now three times running. This could well be some kind of trick.
But she continued with complete innocence. “Then you must have died when you were seven,” she reasoned. “What happened?”
In an instant, Bernard was on his feet. With one swift kick, the marbles scattered in every direction. Then he turned on his heel and disappeared into the charred stone of the cold chimney.
Still, the stories trickled down to her. Some she overheard when two ghosts gossiped together: the eerie accuracy with which Robert had predicted the day of his own passing. Other ancestors who had died of cholera, of heartache, of old age.
The only death which was never mentioned was Sarah Laine’s. She was young, that was clear. Although Madeline would never have dared to ask her age, her figure was still trim, her eyes clear, her hair richly blonde, her back straight. Madeline’s own Aunt Lucy was thirty-eight, she knew, and to Madeline, Sarah Laine and Aunt Lucy looked to be about the same age. If anything, Aunt Lucy might be older: more lines marked her face, and in recent years, Madeline had often plucked strands of gray from her aunt’s thick auburn hair as her aunt leaned over her maps or insects or Japanese paper.
It never even occurred to Madeline to ask another ghost about the manner of Sarah Laine’s death. Even when she wasn’t visibly present, it was clear that she could hear everything. So Madeline asked Aunt Lucy instead, from the safety of her perch on the green lacquered stool. “How did Sarah Laine become a ghost?”
Her aunt didn’t even look back from the needle she was threading. “We’re all ghosts, honey,” she said. “It’s just that some of us haven’t left our bodies yet.”
The next morning, her father was gone.
Madeline understood at once. During the first few weeks, she played along out of politeness with her aunt’s assurances that he’d return any day. As summer took the stage from spring, her aunt stopped promising.
Madeline turned twelve that June. Aunt Lucy began to leave her alone in the evenings, to take vaguely described journeys to neighboring houses or the small town that sparkled almost a mile below, at the foot of the long slope their home was perched on. She returned with gifts for Madeline: ribbons, smashed pieces of cake and wilted bouquets, all presented with the sheepish smile of a woman past her prime struggling to recall her own age. None of her offerings made any impression on her niece.
The ghosts had noticed no change in Madeline: the first sign that led her to suspect that they were not her friends. She was thinner. She smiled less. On rare occasions, her eyes were red. Inevitably, the ghosts repeated the same stories and requests. Still, they were her only companions. Each night, terror of the house’s empty rooms, devoid of all souls but her own, drove her back to the Century Room.
One night, after Aunt Lucy had left her for the evening, Madeline entered the Century Room to discover her father standing just inside the door, as if he had been waiting for her.
She realized what had happened before she even reached for him.
“How did you die?” she asked quietly.
“Madeline,” he said, kneeling down beside her. “I want you to leave this house. Do you understand? Tell Aunt Lucy, but you go even if she won’t.”
Madeline didn’t ask him where because she knew he wouldn’t have an answer. When she didn’t respond, her father tried to take her shoulder, but his hand only pushed through it, giving her a deep thrill of sorrow.
“Do you hear me?” he asked.
“How did Sarah Laine die?” she whispered.
For what might have been the first time in his life, her father looked at her with full recognition. “She’s a suicide,” he said, after a moment. “She can’t remember why.”
As he said this, the fire in the great fireplace winked out, as if clapped suddenly between two giant hands. The flames of candles in the chandelier and wall lamps grew to enormous height, long bands of fire streaking up through the ceiling and into the night. Books began to tumble from the highest shelves. The curio cases shattered. Figurines and shards of glass began to spin through the room in several small tornadoes. Her father vanished. The furniture moaned in agony. Behind her, Madeline could hear the door scraping closed .
She darted back down the dark hall into the den, where a pair of candles burned on the mantel. She yanked the curtains from the windows, dragged them onto the rug, and dropped the candles onto them. Then she stepped into the front hall. On the table by the door, her aunt had displayed the blue and black butterfly under its glass dome. Carefully, Madeline gathered it against her ribcage and went out, leaving the front door open.
When she was halfway down the hill to town, she turned back. Great columns of light shot up into the night from the Century Room, which belched white smoke. Orange flame leapt greedily from all the windows of the den, and eager outliers had already begun to caress the frames of the windows above them. The front door was still a gaping patch of darkness.
Inside the butterfly’s dome, something tapped on the glass. Madeline shuddered and lost her grip on it. For a moment she scrabbled blindly in the wet grass. When she lifted the dome to the moonlight again, the butterfly’s dark wings beat frantically inside.
She smashed the glass against a stone and the butterfly rose between the jagged sides and vanished in the night.