Moon of the Forgotten
By: Steve Carr
The road has become a wild place, a place returning to nature. I was a young boy the last time I was here, when the pavement wasn't cracked by evading clumps of fingergrass and hydrangea bushes. The air is thick with the aromas of untended blooming flowers wilting in the late summer sun and moist earth in the shade and shadows of the vine and moss-smothered dying trees. Mosquitoes and gnats buzz around my head escaping the frequent swats from my hands. We have climbed over the broken rail gate that blocks the entrance to this road and ignored the no trespassing sign nailed on a post beside the gate. My footsteps and Rita's footsteps are the only ones that have been on this road in a very long time. Rita is walking a few feet ahead of me. She swats at the insects with a palm frond that sounds like a hand clap each time it makes contact with the naked flesh of her arms and legs. "I warned you about not putting on enough bug repellent," I say to her, my own shirt drenched in sweat and sticking to my torso like clinging cellophane. "You northern girls know nothing about how insects will eat you alive down here if you let them." She ignores me, walking on.
The long winding road is overgrown with weeds and bordered by trees dripping with gauzy strands of Spanish moss or choked by the ubiquitous kudzu. Other than the sound of dried blades of grass snapping beneath our shoes sounding like small Fourth of July firecrackers, it is silent here. As a boy and walking this road I could hear the cry of peacocks on the well-groomed grounds around the house. There were birds in the trees then that darted in and out of their nests in the trees lining this road and chirping and singing like a welcoming party to this place of stunning visual beauty. The marble birdbath with putti carved around the base and an angel with his wings spread wide and is still here, covered in vines that wind around it like a thousand garter snakes growing from the ground up.
The man who owned this property bought it on a trip to Rome one summer," I say to Rita who is tearing vines from around the angel's wings. "Mother said it was indecent, an angel shouldn't be naked."
Before we move on, we stand and look at the uncovered birdbath. There is still some sheen to the marble even after all these years. The bath itself shaped like a half of a clam shell is filled with dirt through which small blades of grass stick up like a miniature lawn.
Just beyond the birdbath the road ends and the circular driveway leading to the house begins. Here we stop and looking across the blue and green algae covered pond and the tall brown grass, Hardwick House stands like a castle of gray stone blocks transplanted here from another era. In the glare of noon day sun there are few shadows in the tall, layered spirals pointing into the sky or under the flying buttresses. Pointed arches extend upward above windows of dark blue glass. The deformed upper bodies and heads with menacing faces of dozens of gargoyles stretch out from the structure. I take Rita's hand in mine. "I forgot just how spooky the whole thing is," I say.
I look at Rita. She looks mesmerized, her crystal blue eyes wide open, her mouth agape. Her only movement is the slow rise and fall of her chest. A shock of her blonde hair dripping with sweat is glued to her forehead. I reach over and push it back. At my touch she turns to me and as if stunned and half-whispers "I can't believe it's now ours."
At the large bronze doors, a replica of Rodin's "The Gates of Hell," I reach into my pocket and take out the large metal key I had been mailed when my mother's friend's will was finalized and the deed to Hardwick House was turned over to me. Rita is slowly and silently running her hands over the bronze figures along one side of the two doors. I slide the key into the lock and slowly turn it and hear the click of the doors being unlocked. I slowly open the doors, pulling both outward and stand back with Rita staring into the cavernous entrance hall lit gloomily in shades of blue by sunlight streaming through one of the large windows. A gust of air is exhaled from the house, like the soft brush of a gentle kiss on my skin. The scents of age and dust waft out. As my eyes adjust from the bright sunlight to the dim light of the interior of the house I see the dust-covered sheets that are draped over the throne-like chairs along the walls and the numerous large paintings in their huge, gilded frames. The memory of this entrance, of the chairs, and especially of the paintings, rushes over me.
"These are works of vile imaginations," my mother had said when I first saw them, staring once again as I did when I was a boy at the portraits of nude mythological heroes locked in combat. "Men from decent upbringings keep their clothes on at all times," she once said.
Once inside we pull the doors closed behind us and momentarily stand breathlessly looking down the hallway, at the closed doors lining it between the paintings, at the curved marble staircases on each side leading up to the second floor, then like children let loose in a playground, we run from one painting to the next pulling off the sheets. We then fling open doors, and each take a separate flight of stairs up to the hallway at the top and uncover paintings and throw open doors. The sounds of our unbridled laughter echoes throughout the house. In a large bedroom with blue and white oriental vases standing in each corner we fall onto the bed with a rose-colored canopy. We are all hands and arms and lips. After making love we lie side by side, our sweat-drenched bodies bathed in the late afternoon fading blue light coming through the window. And then we nap.
I awake and the room is dark with the exception of a lit candle on a dresser that casts flickering shadows on the walls. Rita isn't in the bed. I get up, pull on my jeans, and walk barefoot out into the hallway. From the first floor I hear the sounds of Rita's shoes. I look over the railing and see a dozen lit candles in the hallway and Rita pacing slowly back and forth in front of the paintings.
"How long have you been up?" I ask but get no response. I walk down the stairs, the gray stone and marble cool and slick beneath the soles of my feet. At the bottom I stand watching her.
"Those paintings are worth millions alone," I say.
Rita has stopped in front of a large portrait of a man dressed in slacks and a white shirt sitting on a large rock with a landscape of Romanesque ruins in the background. I go to Rita's side and look at the painting. The man is staring forward, as if looking out from the painting, his hands firmly placed on the rock at his sides. Beneath his black curly hair, large eyes glistening with flecks of green and gray are both playful and yet sad.
"He looks a lot like you," Rita says staring at his eyes.
When night has fallen, moonlight from a glowing white moon shines in through every window, bathing the hallway and rooms in shades of blue. We sit at a long oak table in the dining hall, me seated at one end, Rita at the other. "I feel like royalty," she says, and I agree. What few foodstuffs we brought in a cooler to last a couple of days has been portioned out. We're having a late dinner of cold cuts, raw baby carrots, fresh kale, and bottled water. Though it's not needed because the room is lit by moonlight, a candelabra with six candles is lit and sitting in the middle of the table. With night comes the sounds of frogs croaking from the pond and the less distinct sounds coming from within the house; the settling of wood in the cooler air of night and the rustling of drapes teased by infrequent winds in windows we were able to open.
"No matter how many times you have told me, I'm still not clear why he left all this to you," Rita says as she sits back in her chair looking around the room. Signed paintings by Boucher, Rubens and Fragonard adorn the walls.
"I have no idea either. I only met him those few times when I was a boy and he and my mother were, as she liked to say, 'acquaintances.'"
As Rita rises from her chair, I imagine it is to clear the table of our few dishes. Instead, she goes to the window and stares up at the moon, as if hypnotized by it.
In the light of the full moon, I stand in the open doorway of Rodin's "Gates of Hell" and listen to the night sounds; the frogs, chirping crickets and the occasional hooting of an owl. The scene in front of me is a tangle of trees and shadows with moonlight reflecting dimly off the dark water of the pond. Rita has gone to bed and here alone in the constant warm breeze I imagine the swaying of the dead grass to be ocean currents. I feel somewhat adrift in this place I knew very little about but have returned to. A lone errant cloud passes briefly in front of the moon and for that moment everything is cast in darkness. From the interior of the house, I hear a whisper. I turn and hear it again. It's my name being spoken. "Rita?" I say. "I thought you went to bed?" There is no reply. I go in and close the doors and look around the hall. With the candles blown out, the chairs with sheets still over them and awash in moonlight laughingly appear too much like the ghosts from tales of haunted houses, yet the scene is unsettling. I climb the stairs quickly and go into the bedroom where we're sleeping. Rita is standing at the window, the drapes apart, looking out. Her face is aglow with moonlight. "Were you calling me?" I ask. She turns and says as if surprised to see me, "back already?"
"What do you mean?" I get no response.
After a breakfast of bagels toasted in the fireplace, cantaloupe, and fresh squeezed orange juice we go out the back kitchen door and follow an overgrown almost impassable winding path toward what looks to be a circle of trees.
Rita had tossed fitfully in her sleep all night which kept me awake for most of it. At sunrise with the first light of day beaming through the open window I get out of bed and wander through the house. In the downstairs hallway I stop in front of the painting of the man that Rita said looked like me. I look for a signature or a mark of some kind that might tell me who painted it but find nothing.
"You must know by just looking at it, who a work of art is by," my mother always said. "It's what people of class and culture do better than anyone else."
I have no idea who painted the picture in front of me, and I don't recall it from when I was here when I was young. Looking into the subject's eyes is unsettling. It's like looking at my reflection in a mirror, yet also like looking into the eyes of a complete stranger.
Rita comes down the stairs and grasps my hand. "Let's take a stroll outside."
"Okay," I say, chuckling at the lightness, the lilt, in her voice.
It's of the sleepless night and the painting that I'm thinking about as we step into a clearing surrounded by gnarled trees dripping with moss. The grass here is short as if it had been recently mowed. Also, in a circle just inside the circle of trees are marble statues on columnar pedestals. Vines snake around the lower half of the columns. The statues are gray and weathered, but who the statues are of is easily recognizable. We slowly go from one statue to the next observing the carved details of each statue and who it is. The shield and spear held by Mars. The thunderbolt carried by Zeus. A branch of laurel around the head of Apollo. On and on, twelve in all.
"Until now I almost thought I had just dreamed it," I say, "but I remember getting lost out here once and Miller Hardwick finding me and carrying me back to the house, me crying in his arms. I thought I had gotten lost in a cemetery and would never get out."
My mother said more than once, "The entire place is like a New Orleans mausoleum. It's not a fit place for the living."
"I need a short nap," Rita says, gives me a peck on the cheek and goes into the house.
"A nap so soon?" I want to ask.
Rita has been up in the bedroom for some time, having slept on and off throughout most of the day. I wander into the library on the main floor. It's a large room, two stories high, with shelves lined with books from floor to ceiling. In the middle of the ceiling is a skylight of crimson glass which bathes the entire room in shades of moonlit red. I light a candle and carry it as I walk around the room fingering the embossed gold titles on the leather-bound books. They are here, all the classics, plus many, many more. On a pedestal in the middle of the room is a large very old Bible. I thumb through it very slowly, looking at the red and black ink images peppered throughout it. At the back of the book is the genealogy in chart form of the Hardwick family. I trace it from the top of the first page starting in the 17th century and flip page by page until ending on the bottom of the last page. There I see Miller Hardwick's name with that of my mother’s at the end of a line extending across from his. At the bottom of the page the last entry is my name below a line extending down from theirs. Unlike any sensation I have ever had, the feeling of being so surprised to the point of feeling faint overcomes me. It left so many questions unanswered, except why I had been willed this house and all its contents. In the distance, coming from the upstairs, I hear a door open and close. I go out into the hallway. In the light of the full moon shining through a stained-glass window I see the figure of the man who I look like is no longer in the painting, only the rock and landscape remain. I stumble back in shock and dismay. Then "The Gates of Hell" doors open, and I'm flung by an invisible force out into a patch of dead grass in the light of a white-hot moon. The doors slam closed.
Every window in the mansion is aglow. I'm on my feet instantly and at the doors trying to pull them open. Unsuccessful at that, I pound on them with both fists while shouting for Rita. Around me all other noise frogs, the owl, even insects stops. Looking for a way to climb up and in the house the gargoyles along the spirals stare down at me with their gaping toothless grins. In this moment I recall that the back door to the kitchen is unlocked, and I run around the house, my feet pricked by thistles along the path. I fling the door open and rush inside. Going through the downstairs hallway I see the man from the painting is still not there. I rush up the stairs and into the bedroom. Rita is on the bed. The man from the painting is standing by the bed. Moonlight coming in through the open window covers them both with brilliant ghostly incandescence.
"You brought me this beautiful gift my son," the man says.
I lunge onto the bed and take Rita by an arm and pull her from it, us both landing on the floor. With only one thought, to get Rita to safety, I help her to her feet, take her hand, pull her out of the room, and down the stairs. I shove open the "Gates of Hell" and push Rita out and turn back into the hallway. He, the man in the painting, my father Miller Hardwick is coming down the stairs. The pigment of his body is alight with hues the color of a raging fire. Without really thinking about it, and no time to question it, I pull the painting from the wall and carry it to the doors and throw it out into the moonlit grass. As it spontaneously ignites into flames, I hear the voice of Miller Hardwick screaming out in agony from the burning canvas.
I go to Rita and take her in my arms and tap her lightly on her cheeks. As if awaking from a dream, she looks up at the house illuminated in the light of the moon and asks, "What happened? Aren't we going to go in the house?"