The child is is all but spinning, her braids whipping through the air as she quickly turns her head, looking at each painted wall in turn. On the previous visit I let her stare, but the murals of sea life are not exciting or pretty to me. That time I waited with my best show of patience as she watched the aquarium behind the glass that is inset in the walls and ceiling, adding dimension and reality to the scene.
The outside of the house is ordinary, with grey-white stucco peeling at the corners. There isn't a clue to the power of the house, nor to the interior. The dim hallway from the front door meanders into brightly lit rooms that lead into one other with arched open doorways, all of those draped with green fabric rather than fitted with doors. From grey-walled halls, the first room has walls that show a desolate scene of rock and waves with a few panes of glass inset. As the rooms continue the walls are set with a greater amount of glass, until in this one deep within the house they are closer to aquarium walls with strips of mural than the other way about.
I am chillingly aware that I have to get the child out, away from the trapped water and the speed-blurred crowds of fish within. The clownfish are coloured as any would be in true nature. Clownfish are marked in Hallowe'en colours, at a stretch: orange and black, and white could be for ghosts. My resentment of their appearance is a petty thing entwined with my fear. They should be black and red, grey and purple, a cartoonish colour coding that might actually serve to warn the child in my care. They are evil clownfish. This house is full of them.
At least she had not had the child with her on the weekday she encountered the house. The house had drawn her back against her will four times now, including this. From her first visit it wrapped mental tendrils like seaweed growing into her mind. She knew from her first sight of the place that it was not, in fact, a house of fun, but the pressure to speak of it as one and pull in others was sickening.
There had been no reason for her to turn down that street, to continue as the sidewalk cracked and the houses stood further apart, then push open the ordinary swing gate in the fence. It was a tall wood fence with along the top a repeated diamond pattern that reminded her of netting. There had not been anything in the garden to hold her interest, and yet she had lingered before walking nearer to the house. Plants with ragged leaves and flat-petalled greenish blue flowers bordered the paved path to the house. The front door was enticingly ajar.
If it were not for a long anticipated birthday party on the weekend she was sure she would have had the child with her when dragged to return to the house. But her words although threaded through with the power of the house were not enticing enough when set against the cousin's party that promised ponies to ride. She had gone back to the house alone.
The door had been closed but apparently unlocked, opening with a grating sound like rock scraping against rock. That was the time the house gave her keys: as she stepped inside into the hall her foot struck them. She closed her hand around the keys, then found herself slowly walking through the rooms again. In one room she paused for two breaths too long near to a wall. Behind the glass, the largest of the clownfish shoved itself to eye level with her. She imagined a smirk on its round mouth to go with the dark stare.
Although every morning at home in the days since she felt an uncanny weight to the keys, she managed to delay to the next Saturday before she brought the child. With the child watching, those keys had turned smoothly in the front door's lock.
Although she had made that evening visit short, the house's tugging gave her no quiet until she was once again standing in daytime at the door with the child beside her. The keys felt unpleasantly gritty in her hand. Somehow she was unsurprised when the lock mechanism did not turn. The part of her inside the enthrallment hoped the child could be convinced to turn back now. There is no fun in trying again and again to turn a stuck lock, nor in watching that struggle.
When the child started to pout she hoped the next reaction would be wailing to be taken home. Distressingly, what the child said was not a wish to leave but "I want to see the fish again!" Then, before she could come up with a quelling response, the child had skipped away from her to the side of the house.
She pulled the keys from the lock, hearing a disturbing sucking noise like the tide rushing in to reclaim a hole in sand.
"I found a little door, see!" the child called. It was a dog door by all appearances, a top-hung square set in a side door in the stucco-covered wall. They crawled inside.
When the child stops spinning I put my hands to both her shoulders, our signal for her to listen carefully. "Go," I tell her. "Past the gate, out to the street, right to the big tree with the red berries, remember that one?" I had pointed it out to her as we neared the house. Fishes, not witches, but surely a rowan tree can be some protection. In addition, it is a good, tall landmark.
"I'll be right behind you." My saying that to her now sounds like every overwritten cliche of self-sacrifice. The next chapter would be the orphan shaking off the painful memory; but I will not let that be what is on the next page for this child.
While not pretending this is a game I can remind her of a similarity to one, to put something familiar and not scary into what I am telling her. "This next part's kind of like hide and seek. When you get to the tree, count slow to sixty." I will be in the house marking my own countdown before starting the fire.