MR. GRAY’S FOLLY by JOHN CONNOLLY
It was, said my wife, quite the ugliest thing she had ever seen. I had to admit that she was correct in her assessment.
This was not, generally speaking, a typical occurrence in our relationship. As she approached late middle age (with all the grace and ease, it should be added, of a funeral party stumbling in a cemetery), Eleanor had grown increasingly intolerant of views that diverged from her own. Inevitably, mine appeared to diverge more often than most, so agreement in any form was a cause for considerable, if muted, celebration.
Norton Hall was a wonderful acquisition, a late-eighteenth-century country residence with landscaped gardens and fifty acres of prime land. It was an architectural gem and would make us a wonderful home, since it was simultaneously small enough to be manageable yet spacious enough to permit us to avoid each other for significant portions of the day. Unfortunately, as my wife had duly noted, the folly at the end of the garden was another matter entirely. It was ugly and brutal, with unadorned rectangular pillars and a bare white cupola topped with a cross. There were no steps leading up to it and the only way of gaining access to the interior appeared to be by clambering over the base. Even the birds avoided it, preferring instead to take up positions in a nearby oak tree, where they cooed nervously amongst themselves like spinsters at a parish dance.
According to the agent, one of Norton Hall’s previous owners, a Mr. Gray, had built the folly as a memorial to his late wife. It struck me that he couldn’t have liked his wife very much if that was what he had built in her memory. I was not overly fond of my wife much of the time, but even I didn’t dislike her enough to erect a monstrosity like that in her memory. At the very least, I would have softened some of the edges and stuck a dragon on the top as a reminder of the dear departed. A little damage to the base had been caused at some point by Mr. Ellis, the gentleman who had owned the house before us, but he seemed to have thought better of his original impulse and the area in question had since been repaired and repainted.
All things considered, it really was a frightful eyesore.
My first instinct was to have the blasted thing destroyed, but in the weeks that followed, I started to find the folly appealing. No, “appealing” isn’t the right word. Rather, I began to feel that it had a purpose, which I had not yet surmised, and that it would be unwise to meddle until I knew more about it. How I came to feel that way, I can trace to one particular incident that occurred about five weeks after we took occupancy of Norton Hall.
I had taken a chair and placed it on the bare stone floor of the folly, as it was a beautiful summer’s day and the folly offered the possibility of both shade and a pleasing aspect. I was just settling down with the paper when the strangest thing happened: the floor moved, as if, for a single moment, it had somehow become liquid instead of solid and some hidden tide had caused a wave to ripple across its surface. The sunlight grew sickly and weak, and the landscape shrouded itself in drifting shadows. I felt as if a strip of gauze from a sick man’s bed had been placed across my eyes, for I could faintly smell decay in the air. I stood up suddenly, experiencing a little lightness in the head, and saw a man standing among the trees, watching me.
“Hullo, there,” I said. “Can I help you with something?”
He was tall and dressed in tweeds: a distinctly sickly-looking chap, I thought, with a thin face and dark, arresting eyes. And I swear that I heard him speak, although his lips didn’t move. What he said was:
“Let the folly be.”
Well, I found that a little rum, I have to admit, even in my weakened state. I’m not a man who is used to being addressed in such a way by complete strangers. Even Eleanor has the good grace to preface her orders with a “Would you mind…?” followed by the occasional “please” or “thank you” to soften the blow.
“I say,” I replied, “I own this land. You can’t come in here telling me what I can and can’t do with it. Who are you, anyway:
But blast it all if he didn’t repeat the same four words.
“Let the folly be.”
And, with that, the fellow simply turned around and vanished into the trees. I was about to follow him and escort him off the property when I heard a movement on the grass behind me. I spun around, half-expecting him to have popped up there as well, but it was only Eleanor. For a moment, she was a part of the altered landscape, a wraith among wraiths, and then all gradually returned to normal and she was again my once-beloved wife.
“Who were you talking to, dear?” she asked.
“There was a chap hanging about, over there,” I replied, indicating with my chin toward the trees.
She looked in the direction of the woods, then shrugged.
“Well, there’s no one there now. Are you sure that you saw someone? Perhaps the heat is bothering you, or something worse. You should see a doctor.”
And there it was. I was Edgar Merriman: husband, property owner, businessman, and potential lunatic in his wife’s eyes. At this rate, it wouldn’t be very long before a couple of strong men were sitting on my chest until the booby carriage arrived, my wife perhaps shedding a small crocodile tear of regret as she signed the committal papers.
It struck me, not for the first time, that Eleanor appeared to have lost some weight in recent weeks, or perhaps it was simply the way the light reflecting from the folly caught her face. It lent an air of hunger to her appearance, an impression reinforced by a brightness to her eyes that I had not seen before. It made me think of a rapacious bird and, for some reason, the thought caused me to shiver. I followed her back to the house for tea but I couldn’t eat, partly because of the way she was looking at me over the scones like an impatient vulture waiting for some poor chap to give up the ghost, but also because she talked incessantly of the folly.
“When are you going to have it demolished, Edgar?” she began. “I want it done as soon as possible, before the bad weather sets in. Edgar! Edgar, are you listening?”
And damn it if she didn’t grip my arm so tightly that I dropped my cup in shock, fragments of pale china littering the stone floor like the remnants of young dreams. The cup was part of our wedding china, yet its loss did not appear to trouble my wife as once it might have. In fact, she barely seemed to notice the broken cup, or the tea slowly seeping through the cracks in the floor. Her grip remained tight, and her hands were like talons, long and thin with hard, sharp nails. Thick blue veins coursed across the backs of her hands like serpents intertwining, barely restrained by her skin. A sour scent seeped from her pores, and it was all that I could do not to wrinkle my nose in disgust.
“Eleanor,” I asked, “are you ill? Your hands are so thin, and I do believe you’ve lost weight from your face.”
Reluctantly, she relinquished her grip upon my arm and turned her face away.
“Don’t be silly, Edgar,” she replied. “I’m fit as a fiddle.”
But the question seemed to make her uncomfortable, because she immediately busied herself among the cupboards, making the kind of racket associated more with anger than purpose. I left her to it, rubbing my arm where she had gripped it and wondering at the nature of the woman to whom I was married.