The House of Glass
… was perched atop the knoll that swept its broad green skirt along the troubled county’s west face. The roof of the house of glass was a steep cone whose centre was spouted and from where at night smoke issued; its lower walls a slim circular ribbon that reflected the outside world.
At the foot of the green hill stood a milestone for the village that held a market each day.
Each day the farmer and his son, sitting atop their cart, would pass by the milestone on the low mud road and the boy, known only to the villagers as ‘Boy’, would stare up with wonderment and desire at the gleaming house, and though such daydreaming would cost him a thrashing down at the hands of his father – a man who liked to say, ‘Do this now,’ and, ‘Do that now,’ and for the ‘thises’ and ‘thats’ to be done right now; a man at odds with daydreaming – still with each new dawn the boy would forget such consequences as his eye was drawn to the twinkle on the hill and his dreams soared ahead to a time when he might one day own and occupy such a house.
In the evenings, as the farmer grew old and the boy grew taller, so grew the squabbles in their isolated farmhouse: all the while, the father shouting, the boy protesting, until the boy had grown tall enough to realise his power, and that he could be the one to do the shouting.
Not long after the boy came of age, the old man was swept away by a rare disease that befalls farmers of a certain breed of sheep. Before the earth had shrunk back on his father’s grave, the son, now a stout young man, sold off the farm and all its livestock, and for these he earned a handsome price. And so it was, that on a bright day in the crisp decline of autumn, the lad set off on foot, up the long green slope, towards his dream, a bag of sovereigns swinging proudly by his belt.
Approaching the house of glass at the summit of the hill, the young man observed that a neatly tended garden surrounded it, yet in all his years of passing day-by-day he had not once seen any living thing do the tending. Not for the first time, he wondered that the house was indeed magical, as folk about testified. Locally, any talk of an occupant was conducted with a kind of reverent apprehension that the young man found comical. It was told that a woman lived there, alone, that the house was of her own design and that of her late husband, that they had constructed the house of glass following the civil war that had left so many broken in spirit. Yet again, not one person in the region could bear witness to the building of the house, or could say with any certainty what had stood there before it. But nevertheless there it stood.
Stepping within its grounds the young man hesitated. It struck him that although the glass before him seemed bright and clear, he could not see a single thing inside. This alarmed him so that he was afraid to step closer, and yet closer he stepped, driven by a lifelong desire, until he was close enough to reach out and touch his goal. At this point, though, he did withdraw, reluctant to fuel his desire any further until negotiations had been entered into. It was then he realised incredulously, that although unable to see inside the house, he was apparently looking right through it, to a crop of twisted hazel and the yellow field beyond them; a view uninterrupted.
Unstinting in his persistence the young man set off to pace the full circle of the surrounding gardens, pausing at intervals to observe whether the contrasting angles of the sun would break the illusion of the building’s odd transparency and assist his curiosity to see inside. But before long he stood right at the spot he’d set off from and was none the wiser. It was at that instant, however, that a seamless door opened outwards and a woman stepped into the frame of his widened eyes.
‘Can I be of help to you?’ she asked. ‘You seem lost.’
The young man was taken aback, because the woman was not old as he had anticipated, indeed her smile was fetching and her manner pleasant.
‘Madam, I am not lost,’ the young man said amiably. ‘I ventured here with a purpose, to request of you one small consideration.’
‘I see. And what is it you would bid me consider?’
‘I have come to make you an offer,’ he stated, ‘for the price of your house.’ He could not prevent his eager eyes from searching the open space behind her, only to find his vision thwarted by an odd wall of white light.
‘But, you must be mistaken,’ the woman replied. ‘My house is not for sale.’
The man was unswayed by this predictable reaction and held up between them the bag of gold from his belt, easing apart the drawstring so that its contents might be observed.
‘I understand what you are saying, dear lady, but nevertheless am here to make you an offer.’
‘I can pay you far more than the property is worth,’ he said, rather pleased with himself, ‘and I am prepared to do so because, forgive my frankness, I have greatly admired this house for as long as I can remember and have dreamed constantly of the day I would own it. In fact I have thought of little else.’
To his annoyance the woman did not so much as glance at the money.
‘Oh, I am sorry that you have built your hopes up so,’ she said. ‘Your admiration is a credit to us, but I could not possibly sell you the house. Not for any price.’
The young man allowed his irritation to show, while maintaining the charm that had seen him through many an awkward situation. ‘But I’ve spent so much time and effort in raising this money, and have given up a great many things that are dear to me, that were dear to my family, who are now all lost to me, in order that I can come here this day to present you with an offer.’ He smiled, looking at her simple clothes, ‘Which is surely beyond all expectation.’ He digested a flicker of warmth in her eyes and allowed his smile to broaden. ‘Can’t you at least give some thought to my proposition, after all the pains I have gone to?’
The woman, who had been raised to be polite, smiled in return, while maintaining her refusal of the young man’s offer, but in being so gracious unwittingly allowed him the hope that she would eventually yield. And so he stayed at her door for far longer than was reasonable, putting his case in the strongest terms until the woman, tired and even a little afraid by then, said she would give the matter some thought and post her decision to the Inn where the young man was staying. She then retreated inside, immediately regretting her weakness.
The following morning the young man awoke to find a note slipped under his door. It was from the woman: It stated her regret at misleading him but reiterated her insistence that the house of glass was not for sale, nor ever would be.
The young man threw himself into such a fury of stamps and clatterings that his host, a man of bullish stature, insisted he vacate the Inn that very day, leaving suitable compensation for the damages. The young man did so grudgingly, noting his losses, and immediately wrote back to the woman complaining of this. He insisted that, as he had been led to believe his proposition would be considered, then it should indeed be considered, fairly and properly. He sealed and sent his letter with a paid messenger boy, who tied it with tremoring hands to the shrubs that surrounded the house of glass, before scurrying back down the hill like a hounded hare.
No reply was forthcoming. The young man took to writing repeatedly, each time protesting more vehemently than the last and, on finding no one willing to deliver his communications, took them there himself. When he was again unable to relocate a door, he pressed the envelopes with the sticky, ground up guts of toads, to the woman’s unending window.
With each new day the young man returned to find the last letter posted in this way to have vanished, leaving him bitterly ignored. His fury swelled, distorting him like a palsy. Despite the chill of the season he determined that he would camp out on the hill in order to make his protest more visible, and to see at what point of day or night it was that the woman came out to steal his letters; he also fancied that he might catch her by the arm, not to hurt her so much as to make her see reason. But over many long days, all he discovered was that the last letter he’d penned, along with the brownie clag that secured it, would vanish at whatever point he was distracted by sleep or the need to eat or relieve himself. The writing of letters was futile, he concluded. On the morning he awoke to this realisation, the very morning of the last day he would lay eyes on the house, he began beating fiercely at the glass.
No longer was the young man reluctant to touch the house for fear of not having it, for he would have it now, by God, or the Devil take him. Once more he trod the wide circumference of the house’s exterior, pummelling its occupant’s late blooms with his booted feet, while pounding her walls with bared fists. By eveningtime the soles of his spent boots yawned and his fists ballooned like the offal filled pig bladders old hags sold at market. Exhausted, he fell weeping into the soil churned wild by his own feet. But on realising that the woman would have witnessed this moment of weakness, his rage returned with a purpose. He rose to his feet; his hate-blackened eyes glared into her world; ignoring the pain searing his bloated hands, he picked up a rock from her garden and made ready to bring its jagged edge down into the face of her glass, to reduce each shard, should he so wish, back to sand.
And then, right before his eyes, a door swung outwards.
Now the woman, like the lover she had lost, was possessed of extraordinary powers in healing and potioning, the likes of which only fall to the just. In their lifetime they had witnessed a world of suffering, countless wars over nothing but greed, until the last of the battles had broken her dearest’s spirit, being as he was, such a peaceable man by nature. So, after many a long year of tending the sick and dying, the two had retired to the green knoll and constructed themselves a house; one that would be a secret from the world, whose walls would reflect only outer beauty; a house made entirely of glass; a glass infused with potions so cunningly able to trick the eye that the onlooker’s vision would effectively be turned inside out. Sadly this refuge had come too late for the man she loved and soon after their settling his heart had beat its last. The woman wept over him for a day and a night, and then, as he had bade, buried him deep in the earth at the centre of the house of glass.
‘Come in,’ the woman beckoned gently. ‘You must be tired.’
The young man was once more taken aback by the youthful kindliness of the woman’s demeanour. Shamed, he at once let go the rock from his hands, humbly nodding his agreement: Yes, he was very tired.
On entering the house of glass the young man whirled in delighted fascination. For gazing outwards it seemed that he could survey new and impossible distances, so much further than just outside the glass. Each horizon in his circle of vision was unexpected and wondrous: snow-capped mountains rising up from banks of rambling turquoise rivers; the fading sun seeming brighter, picking out and praising each vivid colour in the landscape.
What was inside the house, however, the young man found not so impressive: for the carpet beneath his feet, although warm and swept, was not of the fine, woven fabrics of his imaginings, but merely bare earth, from the centre of which sprang a tree, whose vast branches all but scraped the height of the glass ceiling. Not something you would wish to have growing wild inside a house, even though, from what he could gather, the tree seemed to bare in abundance every fruit known to man. Around the expanse of its bough ran a spiral staircase, its spindly metal frame winding up to support a glass platform; this in turn held the weight of an iron stove, its chimney craning up and out of the spout at the uppermost centre of the house of glass. Plump downy pillows dotted the platform’s surface. The ceiling above wept long glass tears, each capturing an array of colours selected by the sun.
Still the young man found all of this to be basic and highly displeasing. In his hands the house would be transformed into a thing of grandeur, something he could proudly display to the noblemen of surrounding cities.
‘Please, sit down,’ the woman said.
The young man was led to a wicker table by a water spring, none of which he had noticed on entering the house. Then there were chairs, and cushions.
‘Thank you,’ he said, seating himself opposite the woman.
On the table sat a hand fashioned pitcher and glasses. The woman poured sweet pure water from the one to the others, and the young man, needing no further invitation, drank eagerly.
‘I have decided,’ the woman said, ‘that it is necessary you sleep within my walls this night. That you should think carefully about what it is you want.’
‘And after that?’
‘That is what you must decide.’
The young man held his tongue, no longer wishing his intentions to be known. And when the woman brought food he ate his fill. And for the first time in a long time he felt bliss. Enough so that when dark arrived and the woman led him quietly up the winding staircase to the bed chamber, he had no mind to complain of sleeping on a simple mattress, and indeed, found on lying down that this bed held more comfort than any he’d ever known. From this position he watched the woman patiently tend the stove until it blew smoky kisses out to the stars; such constellations as the young man had never seen – white, bright and swirling, the perfect canvas for dreams. So apt that he determined he would, that night, sleep with his eyes open. And as he drifted from consciousness, the thoughts that would transport him to such dreams surfaced and made perfect sense. Although an ill tempered man like his father, he had strived in his limited adult experience to cultivate an air of respectability in the surrounding communities, even gaining favourable acknowledgements from those in authority. He had made it known of late that this woman, whose mystery and isolation was evidently feared hereabouts, had all but promised him the house of glass. As expected, many were putting his recent bouts of anger down to her having gone back on her word. And so it would transpire, that on the morrow, with his strength and spirits revived, he would drag this stubborn woman to the village square, exposing her ordinariness, and before all declare her insane. The rest was not so clear as yet, but all actions would inevitably lead to her condemnation and to him securing what he desired for his own – to occupy, to possess, to mould into a shape that would please him. And as he slept, the stars filled his mind, and his dreams became visions, so alive that he witnessed them dance out their themes along the walls of the house of glass.
As the sun spread a scarlet cap on the horizon, the woman rose from where she had been knelt by the stove, patiently watching one version of the future. The stove’s soft amber light filled her tears of glass. Reaching up she cradled one pearl-like droplet, snapping it neatly from its stem. This she placed in an iron ladle, which she eased into the belly of the fire. Once the tear had completely melted she drew the ladle up close to her face and, drawing on the little coldness in her heart, blew the liquid cool with one breath. She then knelt beside the sleeping man, pleased to find his eyes open. Carefully she cupped his face, tipped the ladle, and poured a small molten tear into each eye.
And so it happened, as the full circle of the morning sun cast its beam on the house of glass, crafting itself a diamond, the young man awoke to find himself outside and in darkness. And his grappling hand caught upon the rough edge of the milestone at the foot of the green hill. In confusion he raised a hand to his face only to find his eyes wide open. Yet when he cast his gaze up to where the house of glass should be, it was no longer visible to him, nor indeed was anything outside of himself. All that remained to his vision was what he harboured inside his head. And as time unfolded, and he studied the depths of it, he could not bear the truth of it.
After achieving a Northern Promise Award (Northern Arts UK), I was highly privileged to be mentored by Sara Maitland (On Becoming a Fairy Godmother – Far North and Other Dark Tales), a visionary writer of the contemporary fairy tale. Sara herself was mentored by Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber). It was in the spirit of these two great authors, that I penned The House of Glass.
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