Widow City by Adam Browne

by Adam Browne

Aurealis Award winner Adam Browne was a runner-up in the SFWP year 2000 literary awards program. His work has appeared in HQ, Aurealis and Orb. In 1999 and 2000, he was on the Aurealis Award shortlist. In 2002, the Aurealis went to “The Weatherboard Spaceship,” which will be featured here in October.

In 1884 Mrs. Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, began, on the advice of a Boston psychic, the construction of a mansion.

A mansion for the confounding of ghosts.

A labyrinth forever growing – a fractal architecture sprawling always outward – a weatherboard cancer billowing across the Winchester greens.

For Mrs. Winchester knew that as long as construction continued, the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles would be thwarted in their attempts at retribution.

As long as construction continued, Sarah Winchester would live.

So construction continued.

The mansion began as an eight-room Californian farmhouse – swiftly digested, subsumed by the Victorian Gothic efflorescence. Hundreds of artisans worked around the clock, every day of the year including Sabbaths – raising fairytale spires, minarets and cupolas; crafting crafty trap doors, secreting secret passageways, hanging doors that opened onto dizzy air; busily adding to an ever-growing Gormenghast maze of sick whimsy… Rooms too low to be entered, staircases leading to ceilings against which ghosts might comically bump their heads, observation towers with views of nothing but more observation towers.

And at the architectural epicenter of her lunacy, Mrs. Winchester crookedly sat (ears pricked at voices only she could hear, listening to the faraway laughter of absent strangers).

She was a Gothic figure worthy of Poe, complete with pipe-organ, her ill-tempered clavier bawling her thundersome sorrow moonward… A woman afflicted with a colossal conscience, possessed of an heroic madness; a derangement of the temporal lobes, which, if neurologically modeled, would closely resemble the mansion’s snaking, branching spaces.

And the house grew.

Mrs. Winchester at its center, racked now by a dire arthritis (the distant voices coming closer), growing hunched and knuckly, parchment-skin stretched taut. She was a twisted creature, a lipsticked spiderwidow in a ballgown of coral pink organza.

Her pain was monumental.

But Mrs. Winchester (the voices a little clearer. Closer still) was in a hell too deep to be discommoded by mere physical aches.

Simply, she referred the pain – focused it through a lens of self-will, batted it around, tossed it disdainfully away from her brittle boneframe, delivered it into the objects around her (paintings on nearby walls warping, smearing into visual migraines, Munch nightmares)… Her pain-tendrils wafted outward, radiating from the mansion’s watered-silk hub. Hypersensitive ghostnerves reported to her the progress of the house’s proliferating perimeter.

Which, it pleased her to find, was growing apace, crossing the San Jose border into neighboring townships, and moving on, accelerating. Brave new architectures enhanced the labyrinth’s intricacy: M’bius corridors, Escher staircases, Chinese-puzzle doors . . . rooms containing rooms containing rooms containing virus-sized rooms with infinitesimal dining tables set with cutlery carved from single atoms of a most superior silver.

And the house grew…

And now even while sleeping she was conscious of the immense spaces about her, the threads of her sleep winding quietly outward – drifting sleep-tendrils the color of a chameleon atop a mirror; dreamwebs patrolling corridors that arthritically flexed and jinked and tottered out past the California coastline.

Oceangoing architecture sloping under the waves.

Deeper and down.

Bluerippled light-of-the-deeps at play among golden chandeliers and exquisite parquet floors; millions of mullioned Tiffany windows with picturesque views of abyssal seascapes: kelp-forested alps and the grandest of canyons, strange submarine chapels where blue whales reverenced a cetacean christ, vast gentle harvester-squid husbanding trees bearing barnacles as fruit, tubeworm metropoli of Gordian complexity – artful invertebrate labyrinths that the Winchester house emulated, then grew on.

And on… Mile after nautical mile of Gothic corridor aching with deepsea pressure and chill; 20,000 leagues of bedroom and ballroom and antechamber brushing against South America, Europe; twining along the redolent beaches of the East; boldly advancing into Africa: sculleries and belfries and dim oaken libraries (silent but for ponderous clocktick) alongside ox-dung kraals and malariascapes rich with hippopotami.

Still the house grew – an immense spidermaze to baffle any Ariadne – a painweb electric with widowy madness.

A labyrinth perpendicular to reality.

As was Mrs. Winchester (the voices close now, very close), ghost colored ancient sitting translucently at mansion’s sleeping core… Time-eroded widowspider, wondering if it was her eyesight or her flesh that was fading.

And always the voices.

Women chatting idly, a child crying, a man’s mocking chuckle.

She could see them now, dimly – people everywhere, plump, unremarkable, brightly dressed, taking photographs, clattering up and down her staircases. Tourists, she realized with loathing, all deaf to her imprecations.

All except a little girl.

Who had stopped to look at her.

The Widow Winchester, long-dead and dreaming in her stalled and tumbling mansion.

Forever caught in her own web, the only ghost in the house.

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