[as published in Crossed Genres magazine, issue #5]
“He’s an artist. And he desperately needs a housekeeper.”
Vivian Mare sat prim in her navy skirt and jacket, supremely self-confident. “You have my references.”
Frank Shekle opened the folder on his desk. The pool of acceptable applicants had been narrowed down to her. Nesselrode was very particular about the qualifications. But never mind what that lunatic wanted; the challenge was to find someone who would put up with him.
The woman sitting in the chair in front of Frank’s desk was tall, her dark hair braided and pulled back into a bun (whoever did that nowadays?) with stern, brown eyes and firmly set mouth. She had a brisk, masterful manner (she’d need it) and a record of efficient competence. Not an exceptionally attractive woman, but pleasant enough to look at. A healthy thirty-two, unmarried, no children (lesbian?). He glanced through the folder again.
“Impeccable.” Frank Shekle clasped his hands over the neat, orderly paperwork. “You’ve heard of him, of course.”
“He makes things,” she said with indifference.
Frank pointed a pen to a small Lucite cube on the desk. In it was a black-spotted, orange salamander, curled up around a white and grey marbled stone. Frank tapped the cube lightly, and the salamander opened its golden eyes. A fly emerged from behind the stone. The salamander’s tongue darted out and caught it. Then it crawled on top of the rock and regarded them both thoughtfully.
“My word!” Ms. Mare exclaimed. “Is it alive?”
“Some sort of holograph?”
Frank shook his head.
“What is it, then?”
“No one knows.”
She picked up the cube and the salamander fell off the rock. It glared at her. “Hasn’t anyone ever tried to take one apart?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” Frank assured her.
He shrugged. “The image disappears. The cubes are empty.” He took the cube from her, setting it back down on the desk. “Lovely, whimsical little mysteries which can’t be mass-produced, and thus are fantastically expensive.”
“How does he make them?”
Frank said to her significantly, “That is what you are to find out.
Ms. Mare’s eyes narrowed and she gave a slow nod. “I imagine that secret must be worth a great deal.”
“As his sole agent and manager, you must already make a very comfortable living.”
Frank Shekle smiled. That was the thing about money; one can always use more. He leaned forward, handing her an envelope. “You’ll be paid handsomely for your trouble. And I suspect it may be trouble. It’s an extremely unusual household.”
“I shall manage,” Ms. Mare replied briskly, accepting the envelope.
She arrived at the gate of the secluded estate, her suitcases in the trunk of the rental car, her purse on the seat beside her, Frank Shekle’s instructions folded neatly next to her purse. They included an emphatic warning to wait at the gate when she arrived. Under no circumstances was she to attempt to open the gate or to venture alone up the driveway. When she asked why, Shekle made references to the “security system.” He would not elaborate.
Ms. Mare did not care much for Frank Shekle, but she had worked for other employers that she did not care much for. This was a highly unusual assignment, and she relished the challenge. The spying aspect was somewhat distasteful, but it was vastly preferable to straightening out the domestic chaos of yet another dull, stuffy executive. The compensation was most generous, and one did have to earn one’s living, after all.
The gate didn’t seem terribly forbidding, merely wrought iron perhaps seven feet high with bars and an ivy design. A bit rusty. She parked the car and got out. As she did, a flock of brilliantly colored birds rose from the hedge with an astonishing commotion. She shaded her eyes, watching them take off. How lovely! Unlike any sort of bird she’d ever seen before.
The gate was locked. Ms. Mare checked her watch, noting that she was precisely five minutes early. Her instructions were clear. She’d simply have to wait.
Presently she heard a voice call to her.
She turned. Standing at the gate was a slender man wearing tattered khaki pants and a baggy blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His hair was quite long, a reddish brown color, and he had a pleasant smile.
“Ms. Mare, if you please,” she corrected him politely, “Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Archimedes Nesselrode?”
“You do,” he replied with a slight bow. “You are the housekeeper that Frank found for me?”
“I am. I have all my references with me, and–”
Nesselrode waved his hand dismissively. “I’m sure Frank looked into all that business. We’ll know very soon if you’re suited to the position. I hadn’t the first idea how to go about hiring someone, you know. That is, the right sort of person. Rather a lot to deal with.”
“So I’ve been informed,” Ms. Mare replied briskly. “I am sure I shall be equal to it.”
“We’ll see,” he murmured. “Well, now, mustn’t keep you standing here. Allow me to open the gate. Drive in, but wait for me.”
She did as she was instructed, and Archimedes Nesselrode got into the car after locking the gate securely behind them. “I can’t be too careful,” he explained. “I used to have a dreadful problem with intruders. Now I have to make certain that no one innocently blunders in here.”
“Mr. Shekle mentioned your ‘security system,’” she said, glancing over at him. His profile emphasized a long, rather crooked nose and prominent Adam’s apple. His skin was smooth and fair over fine bones, and his eyes were pale grey, almost silver.
“I have quite an effective security system,” he said. “Sometimes a bit too effective, I fear. Ah. Here she comes now. Do stop the car. I’ll introduce you.”
Vivian Mare stopped the car. She stopped it very suddenly and stared in speechless astonishment at the creature which came trotting across the lawn to meet them. The thing was some twenty feet long including its whip-like tail, blazing red eyes, green scales, long claws and fierce fangs. It crouched in front of the car and growled menacingly. But as soon as Nesselrode got out, it went to him, a rumble strangely like a purr coming from its throat. The monster bumped its broad, flat head against his legs affectionately.
“Come on,” he said to Ms. Mare, motioning to her.
She emerged from the car slowly, her eyes wide, staring as her prospective employer stroked the scaly head of the beast. He grinned, his silver-blue eyes twinkling. “This is my basilisk. I assure you, once she knows you are part of the household, she’ll protect you the same as me. That is, if you still intend to become part of the household.”
“Your basilisk,” she echoed, mustering her wits with difficulty. “One of your creations?”
“Well, then. I needn’t be afraid of burglars, need I?” She took several steps towards the thing. It stopped purring and sniffed her tentatively.
“Good girl,” he cooed to the basilisk. “This is our new housekeeper. She’s here to look after us.”
The basilisk resumed purring and thrust its nose towards Ms. Mare, who stood her ground, reaching out a hand to pet it gingerly. “Must cost a fortune to feed,” she observed.
Archimedes Nesselrode laughed with delight.
At his instruction, she drove the car around to the side of the house, parking in front of a barn desperately in need of paint. The house itself was in reasonable repair, if a bit worse for wear. He accompanied her up to the side door.
“I hardly ever use the front door,” he said. “I don’t think I could even get it open. It sticks dreadfully. This goes directly into the kitchen. More handy for you, I’d guess.”
“Most likely,” she agreed. She stepped into the entryway, the door closing behind her. She caught her breath. The condition of the interior was appalling. She walked into the kitchen, expecting the worst, and was greeted with a scene beyond her expectations. They surprised half a dozen black monkey-like creatures tearing apart a loaf of bread on the kitchen table. Nesselrode shooed them away and regarded the mess unhappily.
“Are they your creations, too?” she inquired.
“Oh, yes,” he admitted. “They’re terribly naughty, I’m afraid.”
“Can’t you do anything about it?”
“Not really,” he said with a sigh. “All my creations have some measure of independence once I’ve made them. The marmosets have a bit more than one might prefer.”
Ms. Mare surveyed the rest of the kitchen. The sink was piled high with dirty dishes, although a few clean ones in the drainer testified to a half-hearted attempt to tackle them. The floor hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, perhaps months. Perhaps years. She peered through into the dining room and the living room. There were broken dishes on the hutch. The windows were grimy and the curtains were soiled; on the sills were sadly overgrown and under-watered potted plants. The corners of every room were thick with cobwebs and every unused surface was covered with dust.
“I hope you don’t find it all too, ah, daunting,” her prospective employer said timidly.
She took a deep breath–which made her want to cough; the place was in dire need of airing out–pulled up her sleeves and folded her arms across her chest. “There is no task,” she declared, “that I am not equal to, given sufficient time and resources.” She turned to face him. “Where am I to stay?”
“Ah,” he said eagerly, “You should find your room quite pleasant. Heron and I worked hard to get it ready.”
“Yes. You’ll be meeting her presently. She’s a bit stern, but don’t let her intimidate you.”
“I am not easily intimidated, Mr. Nesselrode.”
“So I see. This way. Mind the starfish.”
“Starfish?” Sure enough, there was an enormous starfish in the middle of the hallway, a sort of cinnamon gold color with blue spots along the ridge of each arm. It was as big around as a good-sized doormat.
On the table in the hallway sat a long-haired, orange and white cat who stood up, stretched, and jumped into the artist’s arms as he walked by. It climbed up onto his shoulders, purring.
“Is that one of your creations, too?”
“Oh, no!” he laughed. “Madam Beast is just an ordinary cat.” He stroked her head. “Forgive me, my lovely. I shouldn’t call you ordinary, should I? No. You are hardly ordinary, are you?” He started up the stairs. “I have seven cats at the moment. Strays. They wandered in and made themselves at home. My basilisk didn’t prevent their entry. In fact, I rather suspect she encouraged them. She’s fond of cats. On the other hand, the Bishop dislikes them. He spends most of his time in the silver teapot on the dining room table, contemplating the Divine nature, I suppose. But he insists on blessing all the meals. He comes out of the teapot, muttering Latin, and everyone must put down their forks. The cats ignore him, of course, which annoys the Bishop to no end. But you simply can’t tell a cat what to do. Not even if you are a bishop. Cats are thoroughly Pagan creatures.”
“Yes, of course.” Ms. Mare threaded her way carefully up the stairs, which were piled high with stacks of envelopes and papers. “What is all this?” she asked, catching a tower which was starting to fall.
“Oh, mail mostly,” he replied. “Don’t worry, it’s not important. I forward anything important to Frank Shekle’s office and he takes care of it. I’m not sure what to do with the rest of it.”
“One generally throws it out,” Ms. Mare said.
“Oh. Yes. I suppose one would.” The notion had evidently never occurred to him.
They reached the top of the stairs and went to the end of the hall. He opened a door. “Here we go!” he said brightly, and shooed a large, emerald green lobster off the bed. It clacked its claws irritably.
Efforts had indeed been made to welcome her; the room was clean, aired out and uncluttered. It was a pleasant room, rather old-fashioned in its décor. A roomy wardrobe compensated for its lack of closet space. There was a dark cherrywood bureau, and a matching dressing table and seat with an ornate mirror hanging on the wall above. The connecting bath was adequate, the fixtures fairly modern. She nodded, looking around herself. “It will do.”
“Then,” he inquired hopefully, “You will be staying?”
“I believe so,” she said.
“Praise the numina!” he exclaimed, jubilant. “I’ll help you with your suitcases!”
“I should think not, Mr. Nesselrode,” she said, striding past him out of the room. “That is my job.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” he said meekly, standing aside.
It was not an easy house to run. Just the initial rescue of the place from its deplorable state of neglect took weeks. She learned that she needed to keep the cabinets tightly closed or the marmosets would get in and tear open the cracker boxes. It was annoying to have to step over the huge starfish which crawled leisurely along the floor from room to room. And she dropped a tray the first time the winged snake flew through the kitchen. She was assisted–or just as likely interfered with–by Heron, a stern bird about four feet tall who wore spectacles and a hoop skirt with a very large bustle. The bird never spoke—none of the creations did—but she made it quite clear that she considered herself in charge of the household. Ms. Mare found herself going toe to toe with the bespectacled Heron over such domestic differences of opinion as the preparation of meals and the proper way to do the laundry. It was really quite remarkable how dexterous the matronly bird was with her beak, and how eloquently critical her squawks could be. Gradually, the two of them worked out a truce.
Her employer pretty much left her to do as she saw fit. Ms. Mare organized her schedule, planned meals, went into town to shop and pick up the mail, without any interference from him. He spent most of his time on the third floor, in his studio, which was strictly off-limits to her. She would have to gain his confidence if she was to make any headway discovering his secrets. The only real opportunity she had for doing so was at dinner. The evening meal was a daily ritual never to be missed, although Nesselrode sometimes showed up at the last moment in his dressing gown and slippers with his hair tousled.
He kept extremely irregular hours; she had given up trying to make his bed early on, since he was as likely as not to be in it. But he always managed the ritual of dinner. It was to be served in the dining room, and was always blessed by the bishop in the silver tea pot. The cats ate with them, each with his or her own dish served on a place mat on the table. Her employer insisted that Ms. Mare eat with them as well, in spite of her protests that this was quite improper. He sat at one end of the table and she at the opposite end, and he always waited for her to finish serving and sit down before he began eating. She was not accustomed to cooking–in other households where she had served, there had always been a cook. Fortunately, he was very easy to please when it came to food. He never failed to praise her efforts, even when they were modest or when she, herself, was dissatisfied with the results.
Heron and the winged snake also joined them at the table. They ate politely, but of course never spoke, which left the conversing to Ms. Mare and Archimedes Nesselrode. They made small talk, or she discussed with him matters concerning the running of the house. She asked if the starfish could be induced to go somewhere other than living room when she needed to clean there, and was there something that could be done about the marmosets? The kitchen linens were quite worn, and did she have leave to replace them? Could the little striped emus be put outside? They kept trying to nest in the potted plants. Should she air out his room, and did he want his bed changed? If so, when could she count on him not being in it?
He promised he would have a word with the marmosets and the emus, but the starfish pretty much did as it wished. By all means, purchase new linens; whatever she thought was best. And Thursday around two o’clock she could do his room.
The striped emus agreeably went out to nest among the violets, but the marmosets were naughtier than ever.
Things continued on like this in a more or less manageable way, until something occurred that was completely intolerable. Picking up a basket of folded laundry, Ms. Mare found a spider. Not just an ordinary spider, but one as big as a cat and just as shaggy, with red, white and gold bands. Ms. Mare could not abide spiders. She dropped the laundry basket with a scream.
“Mr. Nesselrode!” She charged to the bottom of the attic stairs. “Mr. Nesselrode!”
“Gracious,” he said, hurrying down the steps, “What is the matter?”
Ms. Mare led him back to the basket of laundry. “Is that one of yours?” she demanded.
“Ah, yes. Isn’t she a beauty? Perfectly harmless, of course. Aren’t you, Arachne?” He picked the spider up, petting its back.
“Get rid of it, if you please.”
He looked at her in astonishment. “Get rid of it?”
“Yes. Un-create it, put it in a cube and sell it, whatever. But I will not have that horror in the house.”
Archimedes Nesselrode bristled. “I beg your pardon. I do not un-create things, nor would I put my lovely Arachne in a cube and sell her! Those cubes are mere bubbles I blow to amuse the public. A sacrifice of trifles to satisfy the likes of Frank Shekle. Arachne is not a trifle!”
“No, she is a dreadfully monstrous spider. Mr. Nesselrode, I have put up with a great deal, that you must admit. I have tolerated the black marmosets stealing the potatoes for dinner, the winged snake knocking the dishes off the hutch, finding the lobster in my underwear drawer, and Heron criticizing my choice of linens and rearranging the flowers in the vases. But I cannot tolerate this. Either she goes, or I go.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I most certainly am!”
“Pish!” he sniffed, putting the spider on his shoulder and sailing out of the room. “I’ll not be told what I can and cannot create in my own house.”
She demonstrated to him just how serious she was when she came down the stairs with her coat on and her bags packed. No amount of generosity on Frank Shekle’s part could induce her to remain in the same house with such a thing. It was more than she could bear. Heron hastily fetched the artist, who met Ms. Mare in the front hallway.
“Ms. Mare! You can’t leave!” he cried in alarm.
“I can, and I will,” she replied firmly.
“B-b-but, how will I manage?”
“That is your affair. Will you drive me to town, or must I summon a taxi?”
“Oh, this is dreadful! A calamity! Ms. Mare, you mustn’t leave! What if I kept Arachne in my studio? Yes, yes, she’d be no trouble to you there. Would you stay then? Please? Oh, please, you simply must stay!”
His silver-blue eyes pleaded. Behind him, the marmosets peeked out anxiously from behind the drapes. The Bishop lifted the lid of the teapot to peer out, frowning with worry, and Heron watched from the kitchen doorway with concern.
Vivian Mare sighed. She didn’t really want to leave them. It was certainly the most interesting household she had ever worked in. She’d gotten accustomed to the odd creatures. And the poor man did need her. He was absolutely hopeless when it came to practical matters. Terribly grateful for all she did. Rather a dear, really.
“No more spiders?” she asked him sternly.
“None. Absolutely. I swear.” Then he took Arachne from his shoulder and put her on the table, kneeling down to look her straight in her multiplicity of shiny black eyes. “Arachne, my lovely, you must listen carefully.”
The spider regarded him solemnly.
“Ms. Mare dislikes you,” he said with regret. “Some people are terribly afraid of spiders. That’s simply the way it is. We must be understanding. You must promise me that you will not come back down here again. If you do, we might lose Ms. Mare. We cannot allow that to happen. I should be lost without her. Do you promise, Arachne?”
The spider gracefully waved her two furry front legs in acquiescence.
“She promises,” he said, looking up at the housekeeper hopefully.
“Very well, then.” Ms. Mare set down her suitcases.
The Bishop withdrew into the teapot, Heron gave a sigh of relief, and the marmosets disappeared, no doubt off to seek new mischief.
Ms. Mare went upstairs and unpacked. The lobster assisted her.
She had very nearly forgotten the less savory purpose for her employment in the household when she was contacted by Frank Shekle.
“Have you been able to find anything out?”
“Very little,” she answered truthfully. “I’m not allowed into his third floor studio. However, I may have won his confidence enough that I could approach the subject with him.”
“Good, good. Give it a try and get back to me.”
Ms. Mare hung up the telephone and frowned. At that moment she disliked Frank Shekle even more than she had before. But he had hired her, and she had agreed to do the job, and that was that.
At the evening meal, she spoke up as casually as she could. “Mr. Nesselrode, if I may be so bold, how do you create these things?”
He grinned at her and winked, touching a napkin lightly to his lips. “I believe you’ve earned an answer to that question, my dear Ms. Mare. Come up to my studio after you’ve cleared and I’ll show you.”
She hadn’t expected him to be so forthcoming. She almost wished he hadn’t been. And yet, she had to admit she was dreadfully curious, never mind her obligations to Frank Shekle.
So when she had gotten the table cleared and the dishes washed and put away, she went to the door to the third floor. Squaring her shoulders, she knocked. The door opened, and blinking up at her was a squat toad dressed as a proper butler. It bowed its broad head and stepped back, ushering her through the door with a sweeping gesture.
She smelled dust, but also a strange subtle fragrance, like rosewood or patchouli. When she reached the top of the stairs she stopped, astonished by the sight. It was, like most attics, a repository for odd and assorted items, cluttered and piled high. But what an assortment! Wardrobes hung open trailing ruffled dresses and feather boas. There were sheet-shrouded chairs with open umbrellas, bookcases lined with jars filled with polished stones, tall brass vases, bird cages and music boxes; dress-maker’s forms, a statue of a bearded man in a toga, a bird bath in the shape of a cupped hand, dusty gilded mirrors, yards and yards of all sorts of cloth, silk and brocade, corduroy and flannel hanging off of racks and draped over furniture; cardboard boxes and wooden crates, barrels and bags, all in no apparent order whatsoever.
The toad butler came puffing up the stairs and hopped up next to her. With another solicitous bow, he gestured, and led her through the labyrinth. She followed, gazing about herself in consternation. The attic was filled with chirps, squeals, squawks and whirring. A peacock was perched on a trapeze. Half-seen rodent-like creatures dashed through the clutter. A winged fish flapped lazily from the top of a spiral staircase that ended in the air, made impassable by the piles of shoes, clothing, blankets and hats on every one of its stairs. A bright pink grasshopper regarded her blankly from a wicker love seat upon which it was methodically chewing. Diffuse light came from a source she couldn’t identify. She remembered that somewhere in this inorganic jungle crawled the spider Arachne, and she shuddered.
Then the clutter gave way to a more open space, well-lit by luminous globes that seemed to hover in the air near the ceiling. And there was Archimedes Nesselrode at an enormous table covered with piles of clay of every color, brushes, crayons, pots of pigment–an absolute riot of artistic debris. Around the table were at least a dozen easels, some with canvasses, some with pads of paper, covered with sketches, paintings, patterns, designs.
He looked up. “Ah,” he said, “Ms. Mare. Thank you, Bufus, you may go now.”
The toad bowed low and withdrew silently.
“My word!” she gasped. “This is where you work?”
He pulled a stool out from under the table. “Not what you expected?”
“Not really,” she admitted, sitting down.
“I’ve never brought anyone up here before,” he said, “But I believe you can be trusted.”
“Thank you,” she said weakly, a most uncomfortable feeling in her stomach.
“This is where I do it. Would you like to see how?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied, her emotions most decidedly mixed.
“It is a very strange world we live in,” he said, reaching under the table and rummaging around in a cardboard carton. “People are so accustomed to being confronted with the incomprehensible that they simply accept it. The technology that surrounds them is far beyond their understanding, it might as well be magic. Most people haven’t the faintest idea how it all works. No more than they understand what I do.”
He pulled out a Lucite cube, empty and sealed, and held it in his hand. “They buy my little creations without question, assuming there’s some trick to it, that they are made like the other marvels in the world, manufactured, programmed. And oh, how certain people would love to know how I do it, so that they could make money on the process, too!”
“I expect that is true,” she said in a small voice.
“But it is really quite simple.” He set the cube on the table. A star-nosed mole with bat wings landed on the artist’s shoulder and nuzzled his neck. He stroked its chocolate brown fur and spoke to it fondly. “What do you think, Benjamin?” It squeaked. He nodded, and placed his hand on the cube.
Vivian Mare watched him, fascinated. He took a deep breath, half-closing his eyes, letting his breath out slowly. His long, slim fingers caressed the sides of the cube, then tapped it lightly.
There in the box was a dragonfly with green eyes and a scarlet body. It cocked its head and whirred its iridescent wings.
“Dear God!” she gasped.
Archimedes Nesselrode laughed, a high, half-mad sound. “There! You don’t know much more now than you did before, do you?”
She gazed in wonder at the strange, gentle genius. “There is no trick, is there?” she said in awe. “It’s you.”
He nodded. “I create. That’s what I do. It isn’t a process that can be stolen, mass-produced, mass-marketed. That is what those business people could never understand.” He smiled ruefully. “But then, I could never understand business. What Frank Shekle and his like do? Utterly beyond my comprehension. So I suppose we’re even.”
“Oh, no, Mr. Nesselrode,” Ms. Mare said softly. “Not hardly. Not even close.”
Ms. Mare had been working with the black marmosets, coaxing them into performing useful chores as a way of distracting them from mischief. The clever creatures had dried and put away the silverware from lunch without dropping a single fork. She rewarded them with a cracker each, and they went off chittering with delight.
The telephone rang.
“So, Ms. Mare, have you got any news?”
“Ah, Mr. Shekle,” she said, tucking the phone against her shoulder as she folded the dishtowel and hung it on the rack. “As a matter of fact, I do. However, I’m afraid it may disappoint you.”
“Why, did he refuse to let you into his studio?”
“Oh, no, quite the contrary. Mr. Nesselrode was quite obliging.”
“So you’ve seen how he does it!”
“Yes, I have.”
“Well?” he demanded, “Well?”
“I could not possibly explain it to you.”
“You just didn’t understand it, then. We’ll have to get someone out there who can.”
“I’m afraid it would be a complete waste of time.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. At any rate, you may serve your notice to him and report back to me. I’ll pay you the minimum that we agreed to.”
“No, Mr. Shekle, I don’t believe I shall. I have grown quite comfortable in this position. Mr. Nesselrode has expressed complete satisfaction in my performance, and a very strong desire for me to stay.”
“Look, Ms. Mare, I am the one who hired you!”
“That is quite true, but Mr. Nesselrode is my employer, and it is with him that my loyalties must lie. Good bye, Mr. Shekle.”
She received the impression that Frank Shekle had a great deal more to say. It was quite irrelevant to her.
Glancing upwards, Ms. Mare murmured, “Those cabinets do desperately want a thorough cleaning out, and a coat of paint. Perhaps I shall tackle that tomorrow.” With a nod, she retrieved a basket of clean linens from the laundry room, checking reflexively for spiders. Stepping over the starfish, she took the linens upstairs and with the assistance of Heron, put them neatly away.