The House on Sorrow Hill
A Three Minute Story I thought I'd lost.
On September 26, 2010, we were coming back from Sault Ste. Marie and the radio was tuned to NPR. They were announcing another of their Three-Minute Story Contests, giving the details, including the mandatory first and last lines.
I had heard about the contest before but thought I could never write a complete story in under 600 words (which is about three minutes read aloud). But I found the first and last lines intriguing, and something must have clicked, because a story began to form. It was just after 5 PM and the deadline for submissions was that very night at 11:59 PM.
It was a long, boring drive--one we had done a hundred times before--and my mind kept wandering to the mandatory first and last lines: "Some people swore that the house was haunted," and "And nothing was ever the same after that again." I thought both lines were a bit clunky, but then a second line came into my head and kept nagging at me: "It wasn't, of course."
Well, why wasn't it? I took out my notepad and started writing, and the first three paragraphs were finished by the time we got home, just after 6 PM. I had roughly six hours to finish it, but by that time I was determined. I didn't sit at my computer the entire time, but when I wasn't there I was thinking about the story, refining it, honing it, and finally, around 10:45 PM, I finished typing and submitted it.
I didn’t win the contest, and I really didn’t expect I would, but I kept the story, thinking maybe I would expand it some day and submit it somewhere else. Then I forgot about it. Then I lost it. And today I found it, snuggled away in draft form in an old blog of mine, put there not to publish but to keep it safe.
It’s exactly the way it was when I submitted it. I see places where it could be fixed, and maybe I will someday. But for now, this is how it was. Any suggestions would be most welcome, of course. I’m a little rusty at fiction these days, and it might be kind of fun to dissect such a short piece. How about it? Want to do it?
The House on Sorrow Hill
Some people swore that the house was haunted. It wasn’t of course. If there were haunts, the people inside would tell you, they came from memories and not from specters.
The house, when the people inside were still in the habit of laughing, had been a lovely thing--all polished wood and gleaming glass softened by the sounds of gladness Often, back then, they could be heard singing—a cappella and in four-part harmony, the youngest child, Mercy, taking the lead in a voice flute-like and pitch-perfect.
Then a wicked wraith swept over the land and even the innocents were caught up. Nothing like it had ever been seen, but the occupants of the beautiful house, if they thought about it at all, pictured themselves in a fortress, a tower, a sanctuary. They would be safe because they could not be otherwise.
Even after Mercy, child of their lives, had fallen victim, they could not bring themselves to go beyond dreaming of the day when this would pass. When she succumbed, it was as if all heat and light had followed her into the earth. For weeks they clutched themselves, struck near speechless, feeble even in their breathing.
Then, in that house, grief turned to anger:
It was the father’s fault for not recognizing deadly influenza when he saw it.
It was the mother’s fault for babying and coddling and not giving Mercy a fighting strength.
It was the child’s fault for bringing so much joy the loss was beyond bearing.
It was the brother’s fault for hating them all when his protective powers failed.
The house had done nothing, yet it alone bore the brunt of their collective grief. It began to slump. Its colors began to fade. Living things began to die around it. Every season saw a weakening, a lessening, until the locals, seeing no end to the signs of sorrow, avoided coming near.
Years after, on the morning Peter, the son, the boy, the protector, would become a man, he was still living at home—in that house. He awoke to a sound outside his upstairs bedroom window. A dead branch had been scratching at his sill all winter, and he had come to depend on that odd sound. There was a continuity to it that he found comforting. He listened for it now and was relieved, as always, to hear it. But what had awakened him was a new sound. Chirping. A chorus of chirping. An a cappella chorus. He opened his bedroom window and caught himself whistling at a group of nestlings huddled together in a tiny straw bowl on a branch almost within reach. He whistled again. And then again.
From somewhere downstairs, from somewhere within the house, he heard a whistle in reply.
He whistled back, this time in song.
A singer picked up the tune and trilled back.
If a house can sigh, this one did. It sighed at the sounds, silenced for so long. It awakened. And nothing was ever the same again after that.
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