“This is where I died..,” she said, pointing her fingers at the murky hollowness that had once been a fireplace. A teeny aperture somewhere near the ceiling of the dungeon made way for a vein or two of smudged sunlight to pierce through the obscurity. In the feeble light, the abandoned fireplace looked like a yawning cavity amidst a jungle of shades.. the darkness that lingered around it seemed to lead one away from everything else, deep into the shackles of infinity.. “Here?” I asked, a frosty ripple of inexplicable horror trickling down my spine.
I could barely see her nod. The blurred edges of the whiteness that whispered ballads of some long-forgotten beauty contrasted sharply with the shadows that hemmed her. Her silver tresses flowed like a cascade all the way down to her ankles.. the gleaming white robe wrapped around her frail stature seemed to steal all luminosity from every corner of all existence. I looked at her lips.. two petals of blood roses that could speak without speaking.. She turned her face towards me, her eyes were closed.. I never saw them open. She said I never would, for the boundless black would scare me to death, that’s what she said. And feared, perhaps. But then, this pair of closed eyelids held a universe trapped within, I found myself lost amidst the forest of her eyelashes, desperately trying to find my way back, knowing there was none. It felt as if, all of a sudden, any moment now, she would open her echoing eyes that had no beginning nor an end … I waited for that moment with a fluttering heart. I had been waiting for some time now.
The mansion dated back to the 1800s, according to my estimations. The architecture was partly gothic- revivalist and partly Victorian. Most of it was in ruins, though. From what I found out, it belonged to a Scottish Aristocrat, the Marques of Huntly,who went by the name of Lord Meldrum.. the dilapidated remains of what had once been a flourishing banquet hall still boasted of a life-size portrait of the sadist from beneath films of dust gathered over the century. Sadist he was, as I believe after I came across the ghastly display of chainsaws and medieval manacles in one of the more concealed dungeons. But then, the portrait was one of the finest illustrations of impressionist art. The artist, however, was of little repute.. one William Ballantine, (who, I deduced, might have been a possible relation of the Scottish poet and painter James Ballantine), the entirety of whose works amounted to a paltry number of five, and all neglectfully harbored within the walls of this manor.
The only mention of Ballantine I came across was, curiously enough, in a journal of one Miss Aileana O’Cain, whose identity or existence I could not be entirely sure about. The circumstances that led an art enthusiast like me find the chronicles of a hapless maid from a bygone era, was peculiar and somewhat unexplained. I was rummaging through the books in the fine art section of the local library , when the journal evolved from between a hard-cover edition of “Vanished Smile—The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa” by R.A. Scotti and another lesser known art theologist’ s critical appreciation of Van Gogh. The journal was a small leather-bound affair, with the name of the owner neatly printed in black ink on the first page. It had no existence, as far as the library records were concerned, nor any claimant. The librarian was not aware of its presence amongst the books and was too busy to make further investigations about it. I could only conclude that Miss O’Cain could no longer evoke any interest in the lawful owner and hence, like millions of other nondescript journals over the ages, was carelessly slipped in between fat volumes and left at the mercy of unemployed men blessed with infinite leisure and exorbitantly inquisitive intellects… in a word, men like me.
I devoured the chronicles of Miss O’Cain over the night and a couple of days later, found myself in the second-class compartment of a trans-continental express that pierced its way through undulating terrains and the vast blueness of the Scottish firmament. I got off at Perthshire, and realized that I was the only one to do so.There was not a mortal in sight at the station, but a fine specimen of a vintage station wagon greeted me outside . The driver was an old hunchback , nearly a nonagerian I presumed, but quite efficient in piloting the extant work of art through meandering roads of the wild countryside . I bid him farewell at the outskirts of the Caledonian woods, when the slanting beams of the six o’clock sun trickled down from the leaves of pines and aspens. Rucksack on my back, there I was, a lonely traveler, listening to the unheard voice of an unknown woman, following an unfamiliar path into god knew where.
The manor burst upon my sight, I should say, for I can find no other phrase with which the strange phenomenon can be explained. It suddenly loomed into view from beyond a thick foliage of unruly vegetation, almost as if, it never existed before that specific moment. It seemed to be somehow suspended on the edge of a steep cliff that went down deep to meet a dense gorge. The bolts of the iron gates, weary with age, yielded to pressure , their groans of protest penetrating the silence that hung all around. Marble statuettes , yellowed over time, adorned the overgrown driveway, the faces of the sculptures whispering stories of horse-driven carriages and footmen , of tight-lipped butlers and jittery housemaids, of well-dressed aristocracy and pretty ladies carrying laced parasols.. time could never wipe itself out of this place.
I walked into the hallway, mesmerized.. and then,in that wretched moment, I saw her. All that my thirty year old eyes had ever seen since inception dissolved into nothingness in an instant..I knew this too that I could never envision anything else in my life..
“You have come,” she said, and led me through the ballroom towards the darker shades that hung around the corners.. “Aileana…” I whispered..
I knew she was an apparition from the very first moment I set my eyes upon her. And yet, all the trepidation I felt within my heart was not born out of any anxiety… it was the flutter of a newly found love, an irrational and preposterous craving for the impossible. It seemed all the invisible threads of destiny that had brought me into existence some thirty years ago, had done so only to lead me to her.. it was as if my being was meant to converge into hers from the beginning of eternity, and no pull of logic, no reasoning or rationality, nobody and nothing on this earth and beyond could prevent it from happening..
“What do you know of love?” She asked in that soft whisper of that voice of hers one day. She was lying down on the couch in what had been her bedroom. Above her, nailed against the stone wall, was a work of Ballantine, perhaps the most exquisite one. There, in the picture, and with all the burst of colors and light that impressionism could hope to imitate, was Aileana lying down on the same couch.. her eyes closed, her naked skin emanating the sheen of all beauty that there could be in this world, her rose-red lips slightly parted , as if, she wished to say something which would better remain unspoken.. and perhaps, unheard.. “What do you know?” she asked again… “All that there could be..” I replied and sighed at her painting.
She showed me the place where she died. Lord Meldrum was a sadist, as I mentioned before. Among many of his hideous pursuits, was this pastime of bringing beautiful virgins from the surrounds and beyond, to this manor, as captives and exposing them to prolonged periods of gruesome torture of the body and soul. Aileana was a personal favorite.. so much so that she was gifted with a room of her own and the luxury to be captured in the frame forever by a promising artist. She was dearly loved by the Marques at times..at others, her shrill screams of pain aroused the lustful depravity of the demon within him.. after a few months, she crawled into the fireplace, feeding her flesh to the raging flames , letting herself get consumed by ashes. “The fire burned through my eyelids , my bones and soul.. when it all ended, and I left the shrunken carcass of my own self, I rushed to the mirror and stared at the endless hollow that now formed my eyes..”
The unseen eyes haunted me day and night. I could no longer keep count of the days or even hours. The supply of tinned food I had brought with me in my rucksack was running out fast. I knew I had to leave this accursed place, had to somehow flee from the clutches of this imperceptible bondage. My thoughts and dreams were bordering on insanity.. wherever I looked I found Aileana with her closed eyes..my ears echoed with whispers from her blood-smeared lips .. sleep turned its face away from me and I spent moonlit nights staring at her painting, yearning to make her mine and knowing that I never possibly could.. Far beyond in the valleys, wolves howled and hoot owls screeched. From the casement, I could see the sinister silhouette of the forests beyond, conifers and aspens that pointed towards the ink-bleached skies above.. I felt my soul ensnared within the grip of this satanic conspiracy.. I was this ill fated creature enmeshed within labyrinths of desire and lunacy , and all for a being who was neither dead nor alive.It dawned upon me that my freedom lay in her eyes.. if they would truly be those despicable scalded cavities that she claimed them to be, I could possibly cease to pine for her with the same primal hunger that now had me within its grasp..
“I need to look into your eyes and say that I love you”, I said to her the next evening. She said I wouldn’t be able to love her once I looked into them. She said the terror of her hollowed eyes was too much for a mortal to bear . “I will”, I tried to persuade her with the calmness of an ocean. “ I must..” I pleaded. She hesitated for a moment. And then she turned her dead face towards me …