Once, very long ago now, a girl walked towards a house. She had come through an ornate doorway, carved into the trunk of a grand willow tree. It had not been used for some time and the lion’s head door knocker had rusted significantly. On the other side of the door was a library. It was warm and splashed with rich emerald greens and wine reds. Candles flickered on the shelves and cats frolicked on the wooden floor. Why would she ever want to leave that? Something drew her to the secret doorway – she had not gone looking for it.
The girl chose to leave the doorway in the willow tree; she didn’t know if she would ever see the library again. In front of her stood two imperious stone posts, both with rusting hinges still attached to their sides serving as remnants of a long-lost gate. Through the posts lay a neglected garden, and behind the labyrinth of stray flora and rampant shrubs stood a decrepit wooden structure, despite its bedraggled appearance the house retained a sense of sinister grandeur. The girl trod delicately through the front garden, trying in vain to follow the slate path peeking out from under the tangled green every now and again. It was dark outside, although it wasn’t nighttime. The house was separated from the rest of the village by a long track that was riddled with signs advising travelers to retreat to the safety of society. Locals had labeled the house as a ‘Property of the dead’. It had played host to many people over its long life, none of whom ever really left. The girl didn’t mind; the dead comforted her.
The house was old: you could feel it in the air. It was syrupy and thick, flecked with dust and a hint of longing. Nature’s tenacious fingers had broken through the crumbling stone walls that once caged her in; the ivy and wisteria had tumbled over the gate long ago. A natural orchestra surrounded the house: the cacophony of crows perched on the trees, the wounded howl of the wind, the unidentified chiming that echoed from the windows. The property overlooked a rather private lake, secluded by imperious willow trees. The girl stepped forward; the details of the front door were now visible. The dark wood was splintered, and the arch above crumbled precariously. The girl stood in front of the door waiting, not hesitating, just waiting. Then three raps.
Unsurprisingly, no one replied. The girl decided to let herself in. She twisted the brass doorknob which was unexpectedly cold in her hands. Her footsteps were muffled temporarily by the squealing of the door's hinges. If the dead weren’t aware of her presence already, she was sure they were now. The girl stopped and looked around her. To her left was a large sitting room and to her right a large dining room, but that was not what stole her breath. There were keys everywhere: rusted keys, gleaming keys, ornate keys, simple keys, skeleton keys. There were keys suspended from the ceiling, teeth down, with withering string tied around their heads. There were keys, in jars, set on every conceivable surface. Keys with red and gold ribbons tied around their heads resting in wooden frames.
Flickers of movement in her peripheral vision would cause the girl to swivel her head frantically. More than once she hit a key with her head, which would cause a chain reaction of chiming and clinking as the keys knocked into each other like dominoes. She wished she could meet the spirits, though she knew they were not interested in being met. So many people are afraid of the dead. Little do they know the dead have no interest in the living. A thick layer of dust covered the house, as if it had been pulled on like a jumper. The keys still gleamed, however, unaffected by the dust. They swayed and swung mellifluously depending on the strength of the wind blowing through the broken windows. The girl wondered where all these keys had come from. Who needed them? What did they unlock?
The girl navigated the house further. As she ascended the stairs – that creaked loudly enough to rival the front door – she noticed a change in the atmosphere. There were no more keys on this floor, but rather masks. They were of the Venetian variety: stained masks, gleaming masks, ornate masks, simple masks, vibrant masks. It was now trickier to move without hitting something. Again, masks rested in wooden frames with red and gold ribbons to attach around your head. The masks seemed, like the keys, unaffected by the dust that drowned everything else. The string that suspended these masks looked relatively newer than the string downstairs. The girl thought perhaps the decorator of this house had worked their way up.
The air had changed the girl. It was ancient and malevolent, it felt like an invisible hand holding her breath hostage. She turned and made her way towards the stairs, knocking masks into one another as she moved. The stairs once again groaned at her presence as the girl retraced her footprints in the dust. Back to the keys. She tried to dodge them, but still brushed a fair few. Her eyes were fixed on her own trail in the dust. Then it stopped. The door was no longer there.