Castle in the CopseChapter 10
“Oh, wait!” Marian’s voice shouted just as Mrs. Dolor’s bedroom door had slammed shut.
Esther sat up on the couch. “Did you hear that?” She asked the Monster.
“I saw them!” Marian’s voice shouted again from deep within the confines and corners of the house.
“That’s Marian’s voice!” Esther jumped from the couch. “We have to go! It sounds like she’s at my parent’s—”
The gong blasted; the Pendulum rattled; the house shook and Esther covered her ears. On the other side of the house, Mrs. Dolor’s door-handle was shaking in Aaron’s hand, and he and Marian were covering their ears like Esther, but about to turn to see three hairy trolls filling the hallway and capturing them.
Esther only now realized that her sister was that close to her, but she, too, was in a predicament. Her eyes drifted up to the Monster who was staring over her shoulder and seemed very agitated. Esther spun round to see Fritz standing under the archway separating the living-room and dining-room; he leaned against his cane and scowled. He had just come back from being yelled at by the Professor and was visibly much nastier.
“It’s time, you oaf,” he growled. “The Professor doesn’t care any longer about you. And I know for certain now that you have defected.”
The ugly hunchback picked his cane up and reached into his pocket for his matchbox. Recognizing his intent, the Monster jerked Esther’s hand up and sped to the little closet under the stairs where the family stored the board-games and blankets. Esther’s head spun round so quick she almost cracked her neck. She didn’t know what was happening, but she saw Fritz chasing, and the Monster pounding his fist into the door under the stairs. Then the door flung wide, and the Monster threw himself and Esther into it. The door slammed, and they were alone.
A crow cawed, scraggly and angry, from the top of a frozen, dead tree and Esther looked up at it, amazed and bewildered. The two were at the bottom portion of a steep hillside in a dead, wintry forest at the end of dusk. Snow kissed its top edge and the forest floor was covered in damp, dreary leaves and soft, melting snow. Thorny thickets and dull rhododendron hugged the steeper edges of the cliff like bizarre jungles, and lazy icicles suspended from their leaves and spikes. The forest was still and quiet, except for the distant chattering of wrens, robins, and crows, and mysterious crunch of a creature’s footstep behind snow and trees.
The Monster and Esther stood on a shelf jutting out from the hill, stamped down by years of deer and elk traffic. Wind blew up the path, and Esther shivered in her nightgown and slippers. The Monster wrapped his arms around her, though they weren’t warm like you’d expect. Nonetheless, they blocked the sharp breeze from getting to her.
“We need to move on from here,” he said, nudging her up the deer path. “Fritz will find us.”
“Why are we running from him?” Esther asked.
“Because he’s a fool,” the Monster explained. “And nothing is more dangerous than a fool trying to impress his master.”
“I’m cold,” Esther trembled.
“I know,” the Monster said.
The Monster and little Esther traveled up the mountainside in single file, the Monster leading and scanning the leafy ground for vipers and the mountainside for wolves. His stiff gait crookedly meandered up and down the rocks and fallen branches. He didn’t care that thorns grabbed, ripped, or tore at his clothing while Esther gracefully dipped and bobbed between the vines’ brittle fingers. The hard incline warmed her, but her nose and ears were numb.
A soft patter, thud, and crunch of snowy earth crossed the mountainside. The Monster froze and Esther stopped behind him. She craned her neck around his hip and watched the quiet mountain. After a few moments, something moved from under a thicket. It crouched low and bobbed in the snow like a spotted cat with strange pointy ears.
“What is it?” Esther whispered.
“A lynx,” the Monster answered. “He won’t bother us if we leave him alone.”
It dropped behind a rhododendron, and the Monster continued upward, back and forth, zigging and zagging, to keep the slope always at their side instead of their backs. Esther searched for the rest of the climb, but never saw the cat again.
As they neared the top, thick powdery snow buried the earth. It crunched under her slippers, and normally the sound would remind her of her favorite cereal. But right now, she couldn’t think of anything but a blanket and fire. She wrapped her arms around her chest and shoulders and counted the steps in her head. At the top, the trees had disappeared and the far side was a long gentle slope of snow and thin, brown grass. In the valley, Esther spotted a black copse, and behind it, an old castle.
“Where are we?”
“Romania,” the Monster answered, flatly.
Esther didn’t know where Romania was, otherwise she would have been more impressed or more frightened. “Why did you bring us here?”
“I didn’t really think of it,” the Monster replied. “It was the first place that came to mind.”
“Frankenstein!” A howl echoed from the valley behind them and bounced for miles off the distant mountains.
“Fritz found us,” the Monster muttered. Before Esther replied, the Monster picked her up in his stiff arms and raced down the opposite slope. Snow splashed up across his legs, and Esther buried her face under his coat. She noticed his chest was cold, nothing like when Mr. Dolor carried her.
The Monster bounded toward the castle in the copse. At the center, the trees dispersed, and the Monster walked again, but kept Esther in his arms. She studied it as the trees opened up. Burns, decay, and earth dismantled much of its glory decades ago. It stood as a remnant instead of sanctuary, and the dim firelight in each window gave Esther a creepy feeling.
“It looks like a haunted house,” Esther looked at the towers and crumbling rooftop.
“The whole world is a haunted house,” the Monster said.
Esther looked up at him, confused.
The Monster stared at the blue moon hanging over them. “Just because everyone acts like it isn’t, doesn’t make it any less true.”
The two stepped under the brick archway and crossed a bridge. The river had dried up early in the season and the watermill no longer worked. Esther peered through the Monster’s arms. The entrance towered overhead.
“Are we going to get back home?” She asked.
“I need to make sure we lose Fritz first,” the Monster answered. “He won’t stop trying to kill you.”
The Monster put her down on the front steps of the castle. She shook, but not from the cold as much as from the ugly understanding running down her spine that she was between Fritz trying to kill her and a scary fortress entrance. Cobwebs and abandoned nests hung from the nooks in its walls and corbels. A colony of bats peeped and screeched above the doorway. The Monster opened the front door and stepped into the darkness.
Esther hesitated. The Monster turned and bent low in the shadows.
“It’s alright,” he said. “The master’s not here. Only the hired hands, and they aren’t near as bad as Fritz.”
“Who lives here?” Esther’s voice trembled. She wanted to be brave, but wondered how long it took until bravery became foolishness.
“This is the Professor’s home.”
Esther’s eyes widened, and she wanted to object, but the Monster grabbed her wrist again. The hair on her arms stood on end and she tried to pull away. But the Monster dropped to his knees, covered her mouth, jerked her into his arms. His mighty arms turned her around and pointed beyond to the slope they had just descended. Along its dim, snowy bank, she watched the precarious bouncing movements of a little man with a cane shimmying down the slope.
“My hope is he thinks I’ll avoid this place,” the Monster whispered. “But my fear is that he will look here first. Rarely do my hopes outweigh my fears. Come.” The Monster led Esther into the dark entrance and shut the door behind them.
Esther felt the air in the unlit foyer and knew it wasn’t a small space. Her breath and slippers echoed along the stone floor.
“Can we turn a light on?” Esther asked.
The Monster stayed silent in the darkness.
She held his hand as he made his way through the dark, around corridors and tunnels, under chandeliers and archways, down steps, and up stairwells. She heard meek whispers in the shadows, and every once in a while caught a glimpse of a light flickering out behind a passageway. But she never saw or met anyone, always following and trusting the Monster knew what he was doing and where he was going.
They entered another room, and she guessed it was as grand as the first one must have been. In the far corner, a single candle flicked and gently fluttered, illuminating the surrounding room. Esther let go of the Monster’s hand and ran to it, but stopped short when noticing the floorboards had rotted through at the center of the room. She tiptoed across the creaky, wobbly boards. Termite dust and wings flitted into the air and dropped through the cracks to the story below them. She balanced her way onto sturdier boards and approached the light. The Monster waited against the far wall, his silhouette nothing more than a black amorphous shape in the shadows.
“Please,” she smiled. “We can carry it and use it to see where we go.”
The Monster didn’t reply.
“What’s the matter?” She asked.
“It will hurt us,” he replied.
“What?” Esther was incredulous. “It’s just a little candle. It won’t hurt anyone. Well, I burnt my wrist with the wax from a birthday candle once, but you get over it quick.”
The Monster took a step forward, drawn into the light, but stuttered, second-guessed it, and quickly backed up like a dog that is hesitant to meet a new person. “No!” He hollered and slammed his fists against the stone wall. “We can’t go near the fire.”
“Okay!” Esther held her palms up. “It’s okay, we don’t need to use it!” She leaned over and blew the candle out. But as she did, a part of her chest ached. The light was so beautiful, but now she had to follow the Monster’s lead through the darkness again. Her hands flopped to her sides in submission. “Now what?”
“I don’t think Fritz came into the castle,” the Monster replied. “And we’ve made it deep enough in that he won’t find our door out.” The floorboards creaked, and she realized his heavy feet must have stepped forward into the darkness and onto the rotten boards.
“Oh, wait!” She hollered. “The floor is no good!”
The Monster didn’t react in time. He stomped forward her and his foot broke through the frail floor. He roared in terror and lurched backward to the stronger footing. Esther leaped across the rotten wood and shoved her little body against the Monster’s. The floor gave way under her, a beam snapped, the Monster reached the stone wall, Esther fell at his feet, a crash, a shriek, a chandelier falling, glass shattering many stories below. The castle echoed.
Esther gasped for air and held the ground under her for several seconds until she felt the courage to reach out her hands and touch the hole in the ground behind her. She felt its edge and gazed below. Cold air swept over her face. Dust fluttered in the moonlight. She silently whistled and giggled uncontrollably.
“Wow!” She flopped onto her back and looked up at the Monster’s dark silhouette.
He stared with a furrowed brow and said nothing.
Something was scurrying in the depths of the hole, knocking around and cursing under its breath. She turned and peered down again, this time with the Monster leaning over her. Below was the short, little gray and white silhouette of Fritz rummaging in the dusty dark. He looked up at them from several stories below and pointed his cane into the air.
“Frankenstein!” He shouted.
“THAT’S NOT MY NAME!” The Monster growled and Esther jumped back in fear. It was the first time since seeing the Monster shove the witch into the oven that he had genuinely terrorized her.
“Give me that, Dolor!” Fritz wobbled on his cane to the stairwell and ascended the steps.
“Get back,” the Monster whispered.
Esther backed against the stony wall. The Monster thundered to the entrance of the room. He slammed its wooden door shut and began pounding on its center.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
He flung the door wide, and Esther heard the piano’s song humming from her house again. In front of them was the downstairs hallway between her mother’s room, restroom, and study. The amber glow of flickering lights and dusty air filled it. She smelled the nasty, stale stench of urine and mildew again. At first she smiled to see her house, but it faded to repose when she remembered the ugly state it was still in.
“Stop!” A large gravelly scream echoed from the downstairs hall and frightened her.
“What was that?” Esther held the Monster’s hand and looked up to him.
“Sounds like one of the troll brothers,” he replied.
“Come on!” Another voice shouted back at the troll.
“That’s Marian’s voice!” Esther yelped. “We’ve got to help her—Quick!”