Gina nervously put on her mask, then her red gloves and picked up the keys to her apartment.
If I see a person, I will go back, I will move away from them. No talking, she thought. And I won’t touch my face.
When she opened her door, she looked around the corridor for a sign of a human. Gina was a friendly woman, who had always greeted everyone warmly, but this wasn’t a normal day.
She walked down the stairs without touching the rail. Her eyes alert and her ears listening for any oncoming footsteps. No one was at the letterbox. She felt safe.
When she returned to her apartment with her parcel, she placed it down the floor where she wouldn’t touch it for a day. She carefully took off her mask and put her clothes in the wash. She took off her gloves and washed her hands three times.
It was her birthday. She knew she would spend it alone, but she didn’t think it would be spent in a world that had gone mad. Gina laid her head on a velvet pillow, her limbs weak and weary. As she was almost napping, there came a tapping on her chamber door.
She stood up from her bed and on opening the door, her brows rose with surprise. There stood a stately raven.
Gina wondered if it had entered through the window. With the flutter of its wings the bird flew down the passageway. She followed it up the staircase. The upstairs room was cluttered, with a large shelf crammed with books. There was a rectangular table and a bamboo chair by its side and on the walls hung various artworks painted by her brother. She stepped over a pile of books that had been left on a green rug and headed towards the raven.
The bird stood near the bottom shelf and began to tap its beak on a large gray book. Gina gazed at the book with curiosity.
As she touched its binding, the book started to melt. Gina gasped. The entire shelf transformed into a liquid mass: a kaleidoscope of colour. The walls, as well as the paintings, merged into one another.
An odd feeling overcame her. Gina’s heart pounded, her breath grew heavy, she became dizzy and as she sunk into the floor, all went dark.
When Gina lifted her eyelids, she was in a different land. The wind howled and brutally thrashed her skin. Her limbs trembled as she ran through a long pathway; bare trees hovered over her with violently swaying branches.
Ahead stood a gargantuan gothic mansion among a vast secluded land; its pointed long windows appeared like eyes fixated upon approaching visitors. Lightning illuminated its turrets and clusters of infinitesimal fungi covered the building, strangling the crumbling stone.
As she entered the mansion into an antechamber, she heard a deep voice in the distance. She followed its echo through narrow passageways into a large dark room that had a leaking ceiling, ragged furniture and a bony man sat on an ornate carved mahogany chair holding a heavy book. His sunken eyes, protruding features and deathly complexion, were accentuated by the shadows cast by candlelight.
“Prophet!” He read aloud, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!”
As Gina walked closer the loose oak floorboards creaked beneath her feet. The man looked up immediately.
His brows rose. “I am Roderick Usher, the owner of this house,” he said, “Who are you?”
“I am Gina,” she said. “I am sorry to enter your house uninvited.”
“Why have you come to the House of Usher?”
“I’ve run away from the world,” she said. “The world is crippled.”
He frowned, then returned to reading the poem.
“It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore. Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.”
She delighted in hearing him read; the sombre tones of his voice, his animated face, as he spoke his eyes filled with fear and he uttered each verse with an underlying pathos.
“And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor. Shall be lifted – nevermore!”
But when he stopped and closed the book, he dropped it on the table with a bang.
Fear overtook Gina.
“Visitors are seldom permitted in the house.”
“I haven’t spoken to anyone for days,” she pleaded. “I live alone. I was lonely on my birthday.”
“Where is your family?”
“I have none,” she said.
“The world has been crippled many times before.” He said, anxiously.
“There’s a pandemic,” she said.
He screwed up his face and clenched his teeth. “I despise the world and everyone in it.”
“It is filled with greed,” he said. “I have withdrawn from society for many years.”
She wondered when he had last left the house. The stale air suggested the windows had remained shut and the disorder in the house, the scattered books and musical instruments, showed that solitary activity had been laid out for the owner to occupy himself for a long period of time.
“You too have grown weary of it,” he said.
Her expression was drained. She was silent, thinking deeply. “I have.”
“Perhaps you presently feel liberated from all its structures,” he said.
She buried her face in her hands.
“Their greed for wealth, fame and everything in abundance,” he said. “None of them are ever satisfied.”
“It’s all shut down,” she said, raising her head.
“All of it?” he asked with a wicked glint in his eyes.
“Yes, all of it.”
“The game playing has ended and their arrogance as well.” He jolted at the sound of thunder and covered his ears. “They’re spoilt. They’re accustomed to getting whatever they want.”
Gina’s gaze turned to a figure that passed the doorway. A frail young woman wearing a floor length nightgown walked up the hallway, she appeared to be oblivious of them.
“It is my sister, Lady Madeline,” he said.
“How lucky you are to have a sibling.” She thought about her brother who died years ago. “There’s something that saddens me more than anything.”
His mouth grew longer.
“There is no one,” her voice became softer. “Not one person that I felt close enough to or trusted, that I could hide with, away from the pandemic.”
“Do you want to go back to your world?” he asked.
“I want to go back to a world where I am loved,” she said.
They were both distracted when the sweet voice of Lady Madeline was heard in the distance; she sang a sad melody.
“Madeline spends most of the day and night walking through the passageways of the house. She sleeps only a few hours at dawn.”
“Is she ill?”
He bowed his head. “She is not conscious of her surroundings; the death of our family was too much for her to bear.” His voice trembled. “A mental disorder has been a plague on generations of the Ushers.”
“I hope she becomes better.”
“Her condition grows worse by the day,” he said with a grave tone.
As the thunder grew louder, Usher looked to the direction of the sky with dread.
“Mr Usher, I have nowhere to go for the night,” she said. “Is there a spare room?”
“The chambers are filled with phantoms and madmen,” he said. “But there is one bedchamber that is empty.”
Gina followed him to a wrought iron spiral staircase, she held onto its railing, leading to an elaborate hallway. The walls were decorated with richly gilded oval portraits, the sitters bearing a resemblance to Roderick’s strong features and white complexion: the generations of the family Usher.
He opened an immense, solid oak towering door and they entered a lavish bedroom. It had a high rosette ceiling, a rosewood bed decorated with a carved floral wreath on an arched bedhead, violet curtains and black velvet tapestries hung from the walls. Roderick closed the door behind him with an anxious gaze.
The wind seeped through the cracks of the windows and she felt its chill. She glanced at her reflection as the glass rattled. There were strands of grey hair on her temple, but ebony curls hung at her shoulders, her face was fairly smooth with the exception of a narrow line on her forehead and she held an expression of numbness.
My world has made me tired. It is a shallow world, she thought. It is hard to find a person who really cares.
She jolted at the screech of the wardrobe door as it opened.
It must be the wind, she thought.
In the wardrobe, a single dress hung inside. It was a deep crimson bustle dress; the buttons on the bodice were encrusted with gems and it was trimmed with fringes. Her fingers slid across the warmth of the velvet dress as she touched it.
She took off her jeans and khaki woollen top, reaching for the dress. The velvet glided on her skin as she put it on. A slight smile crossed her lips. She had escaped her world and all its craziness. She savoured this moment of peace.
A flapping noise roused Gina from sleep. She realised she had fallen asleep in her velvet dress on top of the coverlet on the bed. Gina stood up. She caught a glimpse of a black-feathered wing entering a chamber opposite hers.
As she walked towards the chamber, she heard a man’s loud shriek. Inside, the raven was perched upon the bedpost of a bare bed, the mattress next to it on the floor. In a corner, sat a man on a chair perspiring profusely, his hands rubbing his ears.
“You don’t think I’m mad do you?” he asked.
Gina’s forehead creased with confusion.
“I’m not mad,” his voice quickened. “Contrary to your beliefs, my senses have been sharpened.”
Gina wondered where the low dull sound like a throbbing heart was coming from.
“I loved the old man,” he said, dropping his hands to his side. His countenance became momentarily calm. “I was kind to him before he died.”
Gina sat on a chair beside him. “Was the old man your relation?”
“I was his carer for many years,” he said, with a slight shake in his voice. “He was a difficult man, he was demanding.”
“He was fortunate to have you care for him.”
“The old man showed no kindness in return for all the time I had spent looking after him.” He glanced to the floor.
“I can tell you miss him,” she said. “The people I miss have died too. They were the only people who truly loved me.”
After a long silence he lifted his head, his eyes bulging. “The world has rejected me.”
Gina nodded, understandingly. “I too have felt out of place.”
“People are disappointing,” he said. “They always find a way to ignore me.”
“I only found a few people who cared,” said Gina.
He stared at her silently; before an expression of paranoia and madness overpowered him. “Where do you come from?” he asked, his tone suddenly grew angry. “Has Roderick sent you to check on the old man?”
“No, Mr Usher was kind enough to let me stay the night,” she said. “Doesn’t Mr Usher know of the old man’s death?”
The man shook his head, crazily. Gina’s mouth gaped with surprise. He looked at the floor anxiously.
“It was the old man’s evil eye that made me nervous.” He had difficulty talking through his erratic breath.
The throbbing sound did not cease. Gina realised the sound came from under the man’s chair. The man grasped his head, as it ached.
“One of the old man’s eyes bore a likeness to a vulture’s eye,” he said.
The raven fluttered to his side. The man stood abruptly, violently knocking over his chair and paced the room.
Gina stood up and stepped back.
“I’m not mad.” His voice grew loud.
“But sometimes we all feel like we’re going mad!” she said.
“Are you mad?”
“I’m trying to stay sane,” she said, looking down to the floor.
“If you are honest with yourself, you will find that you are glad to leave it all behind!” he said.
The throbbing sound grew faster and louder.
“I failed in the world,” he said.
She offered another understanding nod. “The world has become a crazy place.”
He bent down on his knees and removed three planks from the floor. Gina’s eyes widened with horror and she screwed up her nose at the vile smell. Underneath the planks lay what appeared like a yellow vulture’s eye with a penetrating stare. Scattered alongside was a dismembered corpse.
He picked up the head of an old man; the old man’s eye had been taken from its socket and the eyelid sagged. A throbbing heart laid near a severed arm. The noise under the floor was the throbbing of the old man’s heart: still throbbing after his death.
“The world was always a crazy place!” he shouted.
Gina grew pale.
“I killed the man.” He continued to grip the old man’s silver hair. “It was a perfect crime.”
Gina ran out of the chamber.
The raven’s loud cry echoed through the passageway as Gina ran. She stopped at a tiny opening in the wall in the shape of a square. She bent down and peered through it. There was a tunnel leading to an unknown place.
She got down on her knees and began to crawl through the tunnel.
Gina’s knees hurt after a while. She nervously looked around the tiny space she was enclosed in. Her breath grew erratic and she stopped to wipe the sweat on her forehead. She squinted at the long way ahead, took a deep breath and kept going.
The tunnel led to a room with a red hue and a large table in the centre. The room was otherwise empty of furnishings.
A young woman lay on the table dressed in white, still as a corpse. Gina’s lips quivered with fear. As she neared, the woman stirred and slowly rose.
The young woman’s skin had a stony pallor, narrow brows arched over her large eyes and her pale lips curled in the shape of a bow. The yellow curls of her hair coiled around her waist and the death upon her eyes made her hauntingly beautiful.
“What is your name?” asked Gina.
“Lenore,” she said, with an ethereal voice.
“You’re the sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore,” said Gina.
Lenore was preoccupied with her own thoughts.
“He doesn’t weep for me,” Lenore said sadly.
“Who doesn’t weep for you?”
“Guy de Vere.”
Lenore walked to the window; her silk dress brushing the dirty floor.
“We were to be married,” said Lenore. “Now I am alone.” She looked through the window at the ferocious waves. “The angels coveted our love.”
“I too am alone,” said Gina. “I wish I had one person to share this mad life with.”
As the moonlight beamed through the windowpane Lenore’s face appeared sickly, with dark circles beneath her gray eyes.
“I fell in feeble health.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Gina.
“He kissed me on the brow and then we parted,” said Lenore. “Since then I have felt my days have been a dream.”
My days too have seemed like a dream within a dream, thought Gina.
“The wretchedness of the world takes hope from all of us,” tears emerged in Lenore’s eyes. “Is all your hope gone?”
“Some hope remains,” said Gina.
“Do you have a good life in your world?”
“Things are far from ideal,” said Gina. “But I suppose there are some happy days.”
Lenore turned to face Gina. “All my days are sad.”
Gina reached for Lenore’s bony hand but felt no flesh. Her hand sunk through Lenore’s fingers. Gina gasped.
“My spirit has flown away from him forever.”
A loud sound of bells could be heard from afar. A chiming of bells.
Lenore covered her ears with her hands and shook her head frantically. “The bells, bells, bells,” said Lenore. “There is no time, time, time.”
Lenore rushed out the door.
Gina screwed up her forehead and walked to the window; the sound of the bells drifted from the river. She saw the violent waves of a stygian river, where Lenore boarded a long boat. A tall man with a long beard and big crooked nose, gripped a large pole and paddled Lenore down the river. Lenore lifted her sad eyes up to the window. Gina watched until the boat disappeared into an opaque fog.
Gina walked to the other end of the house; down a hallway lined with crimson doors. Filled with temptation, she pushed open the first door. A man with greasy hair, white whiskers and a deathly thinness lay on a bed with a mesmerist waving his long hands over him.
The next door was closed, but Gina curiously peeped through its keyhole. A man in a jester’s motley was chained to a wall. His captor stood before him drinking Amontillado. Gina’s blood curdled.
She heard a scream from the following door. When she opened it, she saw a man with a wooden frame on his back, the rope that he had been tied with was being gnawed by rats. A pendulum with a sharp blade swung from the ceiling; with great speed it neared the man’s thin frame. Gina gasped.
She ran down to the final chamber; its door was open. She peered into a tiny room that was aligned with bookshelves. A man with dark hair sat on an antique bergère chair by a blazing fireplace with his nose buried in a newspaper. He wore a suit that was tattered but tailor-made. A round wooden table was piled with books, papers and a plate heaped with chestnuts. Gina salivated.
The room was filled with a rich scent of tapers. As she walked in, she glanced at the headline on his newspaper: Extraordinary Murders.
“Good evening, Madam,” said the man, with an amiable French accent. He lowered his newspaper. “I am Auguste Dupin.”
“My name is Gina,” she said. “It is late, but I need to talk. Will you be going to sleep soon?”
“No, I usually keep strange hours,” he said. “Sit with me.”
As she walked to him, she felt the warmth of the fire caress her skin. She sat on the chair beside him.
“Are you an actress?”
She shook her head.
“Then you’re from a different time,” he said.
“How do you know?” she asked, puzzled.
“Your hair is worn down,” he said. “Only an actress wears her hair down for a performance in the nineteenth century.”
She nervously touched her hair.
“Mr Dupin, I’ve been at home by myself for three months. I haven’t been anywhere.”
“Because of the pandemic? It’s like the Red Death.”
“You are isolated,” he said. “I have spent many hours alone. But the mind can travel.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your mind can travel to different places through books, through different ideas you may have, through writing prose.”
“I have been reading,” she said.
His eyes darted to the shelves of books around him. “Books sink into my soul.”
Gina licked her lower lip when she saw the chestnuts again.
“Would you like a chestnut?”
“Yes please,” she said.
He lifted the plate and she grabbed a few. Gina ate hungrily. She had skipped dinner.
He glanced back at his newspaper. “Have you heard of the grotesque murders in the Rue Morgue?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“In the rear of the building they found a ghastly mutilated corpse and the decapitated head of an older woman,” he said. “And a corpse of a young woman who had dark bruises and deep indentations around her neck. Parts of the surface of her skin had been removed, her tongue had been partially bitten through and her body hung from a chimney.”
Gina shuddered with horror. “A robbery perhaps?”
“No, there were bags of money left unopened.”
She glanced at the newspaper. “May I read it?”
He handed it to her.
She skimmed through it. The bodies scarcely retained any semblance of humanity.
She gulped nervously. She gave him back the newspaper.
Dupin reached for a piece of paper on a table in front of him and pulled a fountain pen from his waistcoat pocket. He quickly drew a sketch.
“This is the size of the hand that killed the two women.”
He held up his drawing of a large hand with curled claws and hair on its fingers.
“The hair removed from the older woman’s fingers was not human hair. The murder was not committed by a man,” said Dupin. “It was something inhuman: a beast.”
“You have a brilliant analytical mind, Mr Dupin.”
“Thank you, Madam,” said Dupin.
Dupin struggled to keep his eyes open. It was less than two hours before dawn.
“You’ve been given a pocket of time,” said Dupin. “Find a way to grow with it. Per asper ad Astra.”
“What does it mean?”
“Through hardships to the stars.”
“Thank you, Mr Dupin.”
“Enjoy the day, even though it isn’t perfect,” said Dupin, with a hint of a smile. “It’ll never be perfect.” His eyes shut and he drifted to sleep, his head resting on his armchair.
She stood up and ran to the backdoor, leaving the Usher House.
A gibbous moon lit the path that led Gina to a nearby garden. The ground was covered with dried petals and dead leaves crackled beneath her feet. She imagined the garden was once beautiful; the tulips had been a vibrant violet colour; the scent of the Hyacinth was honey sweet and the grass was a vivid green. But the flowers had perished with the strangulation of weeds and the passing of time.
Gina walked to the end of the garden and found herself before a maze with gigantic hedges. She had never been in a maze and stepped into it with enchantment.
She explored the different pathways as she turned many corners. After a while, each corner began to look the same.
Where do I go now? she thought.
She ran right, left and wondered if she should turn back. Her limbs felt drained.
As she continued through the maze, she caught sight of a scraggy old black cat, larger than most cats and with a frightful appearance. A feature that seemed most prominent was its left eye. The skin around it was joined with dry blood and its eyelid dipped inwards.
“Cat,” she yelled, running after it. “I wonder what your name is. But there is no point in asking, you can’t speak.”
The cat stopped running and let out an unusual moan as if it was trying to pronounce the letter M.
“M-My n-n-name is Pluto,” said the cat.
Gina was stunned. “But cats don’t speak.”
“I do,” said Pluto. “I can only speak in my world, not in yours.”
Pluto had a deep scar around its throat, as if a previous owner had brutally attacked it.
Gina turned her attention back to the path and frowned. “I can’t find my way out.”
“Patience will lead you out,” said the wise old cat.
She followed Pluto through the maze.
“Do you miss your world?” asked Pluto.
“No, it’s no longer what it once was,” she said. “My world has changed.”
“The world constantly changed throughout my eight lives.”
“What do I do with change?”
The cat momentarily shut its eyes deep in thought. “You must accept the change and adapt to it with time.”
She listened carefully, remembering that is how she had survived all her tragedy. The path had remained straight for a while. As they turned a corner, a swarm of bugs with a brilliant golden colour flew overhead. The moonlight shone on the bugs’ shimmering golden scales, revealing two round black spots on each of their backs.
Gina ran ahead of Pluto, curiously following the bugs. She turned right a few times and finally found herself at the end of the maze. Gina stopped to catch her breath. Her eyes lifted as the bugs flew away.
She looked over her shoulder for Pluto, but the cat was no longer there. A woman with black hair dangling from a witch’s hat stood there instead. The woman’s cat-tail wiggled as she walked back into the maze.
A leaden mist cloaked the way as Gina walked on an uneven path traced with tombstones. She started as a figure appeared through the mist. The man had raven coloured hair which was swept around a pallid square face, large eyes, bushy brows and a thick moustache over thin lips. He was clad almost entirely in black and his expression held a deep melancholy.
“You’re Edgar Allan Poe,” said Gina, astonished.
“Yes,” he said, with a Bostonian accent. “I was informed of your arrival.”
A pungent smell permeated the air, as they walked past decaying tombstones covered in moss.
“Are you waiting for life to return to normal?”
“Nearly everyone is in a hurry for the world to go back to normal,” she said, a sadness descending on her. “They can’t wait to get back to their daily routines.”
“But you’re not?” He cocked his brow inquisitively.
She shook her head. “I’m not.”
“There’s so much of the world that I don’t like,” she said. “I feel safer at home, without people’s judgement, superficiality, the structure and rush of it all. It’s exhausting! I feel I can live more on my own. Around them, I am continuously playing a game and trying to pass their tests.”
She followed him to a tombstone, engraved with the name Virginia Clemm Poe.
He lay an Oleander on the grave.
“She was my dear heart, my wife.”
“Your life was hard,” she said. “As mine is hard.”
He nodded. “She was my only stimulus to battle my uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life.”
“Do you have family?” asked Gina.
“I was an orphan; my father abandoned the family and my mother died a year later,” said Poe.
“I am sorry to hear that. I have no family either.”
She glanced at a large monument of a weeping angel engraved with Berenice.
“I’m hoping the suffering the world is enduring will make it better. I want to live in a world where people don’t think they’re better than others, a world of equality, a world with warmth, empathy and even no competition. A world of freedom.”
“You’re searching for a perfect world,” he said. “Sadly, it can’t exist.”
“But will people at the very least become better somehow?”
“Some may,” he said. “We will hope for the best.”
“But if most people go back to being their selfish selves,” she said. “Then how will I cope?”
“I know you have many lands in your imagination. You can enter them and leave as you please.”
“I would rather stay here, in your world.”
“Why would you want to stay here? It’s filled with horrors.”
“But it’s all make-believe,” she said.
“You sometimes need to live in the real world too,” he said. “The world will fix itself with time. You must venture back.”
She craned her neck to see the silhouette of the Usher House in the distance. “I will miss this gothic world.”
“You can visit us whenever you like. Keep up your heart in all hopefulness and trust. Better days are at hand.”
He moved in closer to her, hugging her. She flinched, but then remembered it was safe to touch people in this world. Warm tears ran down her cheek; she hadn’t been hugged by anyone for a long time.
As she held onto him tightly, his body began to melt. She gasped. The tombstones melted and the cemetery had turned into a dark flood.
Gina’s heart pounded, her breath grew heavy, she became dizzy and all went dark.
Gina wore her khaki top and jeans. She held a book in her hand: The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. She smiled, placed the book back on the shelf and ran down the stairs.
The early morning news would be on soon. She sat on the couch and grabbed the remote control, wondering what had happened in the world since her adventure.
The newsreader wore black and a bleak expression as he announced the headlines. “An eighteen year old woman has been the twenty-sixth woman to die due to domestic violence this year… Australian organisations are currently being targeted by a cyber-security attack…Six teens have been charged over the stabbing death of a fifteen-year-old boy…Victoria records a double-digit spike in new coronavirus cases for the third day in a row.”
Gina turned off the TV. Her face turned pale. She sat for a while, numb. She grasped her head and shut her eyes.
Gina could only hear the loud ticking of a clock as the hours went by and day turned to night. Her eyes opened to a different noise – a tapping in her study. Her jaw dropped as the tapping noise grew louder. Her smile returned. As she walked back upstairs she saw the tip of a black-feathered wing.