I. THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE LANE
The First Time over the Garden Wall
I remember well the towering old house at the end of Browne Street, with its wildly overgrown garden hemmed in by a mossy, vine-ridden stone wall. As a child, I thought that it was the most fascinating place in Munster County, maybe even the whole of Ireland. My mam once told me that it had been abandoned for as long as she could remember. Whenever I looked out my window and down the street at dusk, I could see fairy lights zipping around the treetops that peeked over the wall. My brother Sean told me that fairies weren’t real, and that I was stupid, but I never quite believed him – because really, what else could they be? There are no fireflies in Ireland, after all, and you’ll only see glow worms in caves or the bogs.
One muggy summer evening, on my way home from a friend’s place, I had to pass by the faded red house and its craggy garden wall. It looked foreign amidst the telephone poles that lined the street and the sepia homes with their garages and picket fences. I was arrested by the rugged stones that were piled haphazardly on top of one another, furry green moss blanketing them. To my enthralled eyes, I was standing before a steep stone stairway draped with a lush green carpet. With only a fleeting glance down the street towards my home, I allowed my curiosity to get the best of me, and, using the cracks in the chipped-away stones as foot-and-handholds, I scrambled up the wall and perched triumphantly on top, staring down in awe at the crumbling, magical world I found myself in.
As I lowered myself down into the mass of weeds and vines and trees, the first thing I noticed was that the entire garden was hushed, as if it had been cut off from the rest of the world. On the other side of the wall, there had been crickets and birds, but in the garden, the silence was stifling. My heart hammered, and the tingle down my spine told of the magic that resided here.
There was a cobblestone pathway, overgrown with grass and dying wildflowers that strained between the cracks. I followed it, drinking in the stillness and the dying beauty of the abandoned Eden, and I thought that the garden was much bigger than it looked on the outside. Near the center was a small, immaculately groomed pond with crystal water – unexpected in such a wild place. I looked down at my reflection, and a scared young girl peered back at me with curious hazel eyes, her dark red curls springing from the long plait draped over her shoulder. The longer I looked at her, the more unnerved I became.
My grandmother, a woman so old and wrinkled that she resembled her bloodhound Mathúin more than anyone else in our family, was fascinated with mirrors and reflections. “Our ancestors thought mirrors were magic,” she once told me. “They believed the image that stares back at you is not a mere reflection, but another living being, like a doppelgänger, with the power to predict your future, reveal your fate.” I had never believed that a reflection could have such power, but now, gazing at an image of myself in the mirrored pond, I had a hard time not believing it. The longer I looked, the less like me the girl in the pool became, even though her features never changed. I thought that her eyes looked wiser, and older, and sadder, like they belonged on the face of someone who had lived for hundreds of years. My palms began to sweat, and the back of my neck prickled, the hairs standing on end, as if there were someone lurking right behind me. I felt cold breath on my shoulder, and I could have sworn that my reflection offered me a ghost of a smile.
I pivoted around, both relieved and bewildered that nothing was behind me except the cobbled path and the garden wall. The feeling that I was being watched didn’t diminish when I turned, however; if anything, it grew stronger. No matter which way I faced, that lingering presence persisted. It didn’t necessarily feel bad, just powerful and maybe even a bit curious.
I glanced at what I could see of the house from where I stood. Even from inside the garden walls, the towering trees surrounding the house blocked most of it from view. To get a good look at it, I’d have to go deeper into the garden – I would have to venture into the trees. From my vantage point, I could see the top floor’s dormer window, which looked like a rust-colored spire. Black shutters clung to the chipped red wood. Sheer, gauzy curtains blocked any view into the room. They fluttered faintly, as if blown by a gust of wind or brushed by someone passing by. Except there was no breeze, and the house was meant to be abandoned. With a shudder, I imagined I was being watched from behind the gossamer shroud.
My feet dragged on the loose pebbles as I backed away, and then darted for the wall and scrabbled to the other side. I ran all the way home, but the sensation of being watched stayed with me for hours.
For the rest of the week, whenever I crossed paths with the house at the end of the street, I averted my eyes and tried to pretend that I was not still transfixed with the eerie place – perhaps more so now than before. On one such occasion, I was walking home from school with my brother, who was two years older than me, and at least two times as annoying.
“Hey look, Blakey,” he squawked as we rounded the corner of old Mr. O’Riley’s dilapidated toolshed and emerged onto our street. Sean was at that awkward stage straddling childhood and adolescence, his voice warbling constantly between reedy and throaty. “It’s the haunted house you want to live in,” he called out, pointing to the end of the street where the tallest window just peeked out between bare branches and hunched willows. “Wanna go check it out?”
“No, Sean, don’t you dare!” I yelped. To my surprise, my emphatic answer had less to do with a fear of returning, and more to do with a reluctance to share it with anyone else, especially my pest of a brother.
“Baby,” he taunted.
“I’m not the one who squeaks every time I talk,” I shot back, breaking into a sprint before he could find a worm and put it down the back of my shirt – it wouldn’t be the first time.
Neither of us went near the house that day, but that was when I realized that I couldn’t stay away. I resolved to go back and explore some more on my own the next time I had the chance, which happened to be later that same week.
Sean was at a friend’s house, and my mam was working late. Dad was visiting Gran, who’d been ill. Exhilaration tinged with foreboding flooded me as I retraced the steps of my first visit, scaling the wall and crunching down the path. This time, I hastened past the pool to avoid facing the stranger in the water again.
I looked up in wonder as I passed trees that towered over the house and the wall. There was a statue of an angel hiding its face, weathered and chipped. Despite its eyes being covered, I got the eerie feeling that it was watching me. My skin prickled, and when I turned, I physically felt the weight of something’s gaze drilling into my back. Shivering in the muggy summer air, I kept moving until the angel was completely out of sight.
A few yards into the trees I found a stone bench, as old and damaged as the statue. I sat, and drank in the wild, wonderful world that embraced me. I was in a small courtyard, floored with the same stones as the walkway. Grass and tangles of weeds had forced themselves between tilted and skewed stones, making an uneven surface. Trees stood a silent vigil around me, some of them bones with cobweb skin barely clinging to the highest branches, and some leaning, aching, groaning willows that looked too old and too tired to stay in this world. They made me sad.
The most interesting thing about where I sat was my view of the house. It had been imposing when I could just see parts of it, but now, sitting a mere fifteen yards from its front door, it was a castle – a grotesque, gothic castle, equal parts enchanting and ghastly. It was four stories tall, and although the base was compact, it sprawled upwards and out. The hue was a murky red, somewhere between the color of blood and rich, wet dirt. What survived of the roof was steep and angular, dotted with faded black shingles.
The first floor had no windows, despite the shutters placed on either side of the door. It was as if those shutters were still waiting for windows that didn’t show up on building day. My spine tingled. If there was a building day. It was difficult to imagine this house being built by human hands. It seemed to be as much a part of the earth as the trees and the weeds.
The second floor had great yawning arches for windows that stretched across the outside of the house like an open wound. They branched out and up, straining to break away from their stations and flee. The third floor was much too long, jutting out on either side like a ledge, and all its windows had been bricked in completely.
The fourth floor was wider and longer than any of the lower floors. It shouldn’t have been able to balance so precariously on top of the hodge-podge of smaller layers, but there it was, not even wobbling a little bit. Only one window was on this floor – the large dormer I’d seen the first time I came. It nested on top of the mad structure, still, silent, and watchful, an eagle on a cliff, eyeing its prey as it scurries along, unaware of the death about to swoop down and snatch it up.
I fought the urge to retreat like before, determined to fathom out the secrets of this wondrously haunting estate.
As I immersed myself in this strange realm, the lights began, little darting flashes among the wildflowers and weeds and – looking up – the gnarled trees choked by vines.
“What are you doing here?”
I lurched forward, almost falling off of the bench. The old man had appeared out of nowhere. I had been watching the flickering, floating lights, and he hadn’t been there. I blinked, and he was. He was the oldest person I’d ever seen, including Gran, with leathery, spotted skin and wrinkles folding his thin face. Dark eyes peeped out from sunken sockets. He didn’t look angry, only surprised. “You don’t belong here,” he said evenly, as if he hadn’t just walked out of thin air.
“I… Do you live here?”
His smile was thin, and it hinted at secrets yet untold. “This is my house, yes.”
“But… it’s meant to be abandoned.”
This time, when he grinned, he displayed a mouthful of perfectly straight, white teeth. “Apparently not.”
His name was Mr. Donn, and he was actually a rather kindly old man. If one looked past the fact that he had come from nowhere, he was as normal as, and much nicer than, most of the elderly people on our block.
“Blake,” he considered after I introduced myself. He was sitting across from me in an old wooden rocking chair I was sure hadn’t been there a moment ago. “Interesting name, that.”
I scowled at my hands folded in my lap. “It’s a boy’s name, I know,” I said. “Mam thought it’d be sweet to use it for a girl. But other kids at my school used to tease me about it.”
“Yeah. Until I beat one of them up. I got sent home, but they stopped calling me Mr. Callaghan, so it was worth it.”
I looked up at the small chuckle that escaped Mr. Donn’s lips. I blinked up at him shyly.
“The name Blake means dark and light in old English,” he mused. His voice was barely above a whisper, silky and deep. “Appropriate, don’t you think? You are full of the light of childhood, but you were still drawn to this dark and dreary abode by your insatiable curiosity.”
I regarded him silently, not at all sure how to respond to that.
“I wonder, child,” Mr. Donn said at once, “Do you like stories?”
“Then I shall tell you a tale of the Dullahan, and a man who ran from death.” He cleared his throat, smiled indulgently, and began, “Mr. Brennan MacCarthy was a wealthy man. He lived on a large estate in northern Ireland, in a two-story home of brick and lumber…”