The House of Lost Things
In this house, I am lost, but he does not search for me.
I wander about and do my chores. I cook for guests. I attend worship.
But he does not search for me.
My love of fabrics has gotten me into trouble, and my husband has hidden my notions and embroidery hoops.
Without them, I am lost. He keeps the shed locked.
Love spells. Villagers claimed I stitched spells into the hem of my dress. The wandering eyes of married men blamed on me. The whispers always spread like wildfire.
While he is out, praying for my eternal soul, I roam and tidy. Stay out of sight. Keep my head down.
He’s late. Preferring the house of God to his own. My hands shake as I serve his meal. He reads the Bible to me.
At last, the sunset melts into darkness, and I retire for the evening. The bedroom door creaks open, and on my vanity is a needle.
A single shiny needle.
How did it get there? Did he misplace it, or did I?
I glance down the corridor. The candlelight still casts his reading-hunched shadow upon the living room wall. Swallowing my nerves, I shut the door.
I snatch the needle, cold between my fingertips, and tuck it under the mattress.
All night, I think of the needle.
At sunrise, we have animals to feed and eggs to collect. The needle pricks my mind still.
My fingers itch for it. Ache for it.
I sit at the window to watch him to do business in town. When I can no longer see his bright red hair, I slip into my bedroom.
Just as I am about to go for the needle, I spot a spool of black thread on my windowsill. Is it truly there?
As I hold them in my palm, the needle and spool of thread send tingles coursing through my veins. At the back of my wardrobe is the new dress I began just before the Very Bad Day. Closing my eyes, I shake away thoughts of the village whispers, public accusations, and private beatings.
I will finish the dress. Even if it hangs in the wardrobe, unworn and unloved for eternity, I will finish it. By the window I sit, keeping my eyes always slightly upon the road, should he arrive home early.
Stitch. Stitch. Stitch. As naturally as breathing, my fingers dance with needle and thread. Seams straight and even, just like my mother taught me. Only the bottom hem remains when the sun slides sideways through the trees and makes me squint. Time is up.
I tuck the needle and thread into the pocket of the dress and hang it at the back of my wardrobe once more. An icy breeze passes through me, bringing along a full-body shiver.
Chores. Cooking. Chores again. I complete my tasks, all the while itching for the needle and thinking about that cold, cold air. How nice it felt. Kind even. In the garden, I collect lavender and thyme. Some I place in a jar on the table and some I hang to dry.
Not for love spells. No, I am not what the whisperers would believe. I simply use herbs for protection. The scent is lovely too. I check the pocket of the dress, reaching my fingers deep enough to ensure the needle and spool are still there. Safe. Hidden. If only I could tuck myself into the pocket.
He comes home with a scowl upon his freckled face and Bible tucked beneath his arm. We speak about nothing of note. He avoids the topic of witchcraft. I avoid the topic of sewing. I serve him supper. He reads the Bible to me. I let him enjoy me in bed. He sleeps.
I stare at the wardrobe until my eyes grow dry and heavy. Where did the needle and thread come from? My dreams are made of stitches, spools, and thimbles. A frigid waft of air slides against my cheek like an icy caress, and I stir awake just before sunrise. I rub my eyes to find an embroidery hoop on the wood floor. My breath catches against my throat, and I turn to my husband, who is still under sleep’s spell.
With trembling hands, I lift the hoop, touching it all over to be sure it is real. The bedframe creaks as my husband stirs, and I shove the hoop beneath the mattress. My heart drums inside my chest the entire time I get dressed.
All morning long while we work, I think of the embroidery hoop. I think of the needle. I think of the spool of thread. What a lovely embroidered hem I shall create. Thanks to…well, thanks to whom? I think of that cold caress.
I shift my eyes to my husband as he kicks mud off his boots. Could it be him? No. Such a stoic, righteous man would never back down from a decision. Though covered with rust, the lock on the shed still holds strong. Could there be something special about the house? It is certainly old. My husband inherited it from a cousin, or so I believe. He does not speak of his family.
When he leaves for the day, I sew the Forbidden Dress by the window again. My fingers embroider a floral design along the unfinished hem. I will never wear the dress, so I embellish it without fear of modesty or fashion. The flowers are bright, and the vines are twisted and wild like my soul. My fingertips ache by the time I finish, but it makes me grin.
The dress is nearly complete. Only the hem now. My mind wanders to the dried herbs. Oh, how I would love to pack the hem with them. No. I shake my head and trace the threads of the embroidered design. A chilly gust of air rustles the fabric in my hands.
Well, why not? He already cannot know.
The breeze sweeps past me again, knocking the needle and thread from the table. The needle spins on the floor and stops abruptly, pointing toward the dried herbs in the kitchen
I should feel frightened. I should scream. Instead, my muscles relax for the first time in weeks, and the stones in my stomach dissolve. An odd comfort settles within my bones. I snip lavender and thyme when the creak of a door pierces through the house. I drop my handful of herbs as the blood drains from my head. His heavy and sure steps clop against the wood floor. I take a deep breath and enter living room to find him holding my dress. My Forbidden Dress.
“What is this, Lilah?”
I know not what to say. He knows what it is. A dress. A dress I should not have made. With a needle, thread, and embroidery hoop I should not have found. Red splotches bloom upon his cheeks and neck while he scowls at me. I make myself small.
A tendril of cold air slithers against my side. When it tickles my ear, the sweetest and faintest voice says, “Sorry.”
I whip my head to the sound, but no one is there. When I turn back, my husband’s hands are on me, strong and hard.
“How did you get into the shed?”
“Do you want to hang?” my husband asks after getting into bed. “That’s what they do to women like you.”
Women like me. The words repeat in my mind over and over again.
“You will stay home from worship tomorrow,” he says. “I will inform everyone that you are ill.”
I wish to argue. It will only make others more suspicious. Then again, the bruises and cuts need time.
“You are not to sew until this hysteria is over,” he says. “They believe your herbs and embroidery are witchcraft. What if a neighbor had stopped by the house?”
Closing my eyes, I ignore his ramblings and rules. He at last falls asleep. Needles form in my throat as I hold back my tears. He hid my notions again. I am lost again.
All night long, wisps of cold air press against my bruises, easing the pain. The chill also rustles my hair, as if caressing my head.
“Sorry,” a soft voice tickles against my ear.
I sit up in the darkness, unsure if it was all a dream. “Who are you?” I barely whisper, afraid to wake my husband.
“Are you there?”
A sensation presses against my cheeks, like icy hands cradling my face. I should scream, but the tightness in my chest unwinds, and the weight on my shoulders floats away.
“Did you find my things?”
The cold envelopes my hand, threading between my fingers, and I know the answer. An icy tendril caresses my bruised cheekbone and split lip.
“Careful,” the small voice whispers.
“Who are you?”
The comforting coldness recoils, and I reach out, attempting to find it once more. I lace my own fingers together to recall the sweet sensation. Pain bubbles up from my chest and spills down my cheeks in tears. I press my face into the pillow.
After I wipe my eyes, something on the floor gleams in the moonlight spilling through the window. The needle. It was certainly not there before. I check that my husband is asleep and reach for it. Rolling the needle between my fingers, the word of my cold ghost echoes through my mind. Careful.
I tuck the needle beneath my mattress and close my eyes. Tomorrow cannot arrive soon enough.
My husband is silent and avoids looking at me during the morning chores. I make him look. My cheek and lip are uglier today. When he departs for church, I already have the lavender and thyme tucked into my pocket. I wander to the bedroom where the dress, the embroidery hoop, and the spool are all laid out on the bed.
“Thank you,” I whisper and set to work.
The herbal aroma is heavenly as I stitch them into the hem. He will be out all day, dining with friends who pity him for having a sick wife. I sit near the window with my notions and herbs. The hem is quick work for my eager fingers, and I complete the dress by midday. The warps and wefts of the fabric slide against my skin as I admired the garment.
Unwearable. Although it is common gray, the embroidered hem is much too flashy. My shoulders drop as an empty hollow opens within my chest.
It is done.
I am done. I am lost again.
He hid all of my fabric. Even if I wanted to gather wool, comb it, spin it into skeins, and weave my own textiles, I could not, for he sold my spindles, loom, and shuttle.
I amble to the bedroom to hide the Forbidden Dress, cradled in my arms like a baby I always wanted. The air jumps from my lungs as I pause in the doorframe. There on the bed, is a stack of fabric. A cool sensation tickles the back of my hand. I look to where someone would be standing. Only a sparkle of dust floats through the air, but nothing more.
“Why can I not see you?” I ask, turning my palm to meet the pleasant chill. “Please?”
“You will be frightened,” the whispery voice says.
“Should I be?”
“Then I will not be frightened.”
The cold hand slips from mine, jarring my nerves with desperation. The fabric on the bed lifts into the air and ripples in the lowering sunlight before settling back into its neatly folded pile.
“Thank you,” I say. “But not today. You know I must hide all of these things.”
“I know.” Like ice against my broken skin, she caresses my lip. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I say, attempting to lean into her spectral touch. “You have returned my sewing to me. Without it, I am lost.”
A faint shadow floats out of the room. Where does she go?
Kneeling before my wardrobe, I lift the bottom board and tuck away my precious and sinful items. He cannot find them. Not again. After completing my chores for the day, I take my Sunday bath. As I comb out my wavy black hair, something touches my scalp, sending a shiver down my spine. The chill runs across my hand and snatches the comb from me.
I turn to see the comb floating in the air. “Is it you?”
“Yes,” my secret ghost answers, all sweet and quiet.
I relax once more on my stool and allow her to fix my hair. The gentle slide of the comb’s teeth against my scalp and nape gives me perpetual goosebumps. I close my eyes as a fluid calmness melts through my veins. I’ve never been so taken care of since I was a girl. Even when we lost the baby, my husband stayed away. I was barely healed when he moved us into this house. I have felt nothing but lost until now.
“What is your name?” I ask, watching the comb float behind me in the mirror’s reflection. “Can you at least give me that?”
Ophelia. The name ribbons itself through my ears and into my heart.
“I’m Lilah,” I whisper, worried if I speak too loudly, she might drift away.
“I know,” she says, pulling the comb through the length of my hair.
We sit in easy silence as she continues to pamper me. I close my eyes again to enjoy every touch. A chilled breeze rustles my clothes, and I think it is just her.
“Witch,” my husband says.
I jerk my eyes wide open to find him in the door frame. The comb crashes to the ground. My heart thrums in my throat, blocking the scream that wishes to escape.
His brutish hands are one me once more. I think of Ophelia’s gentle touch as my husband strips me of my clothes and pushes me to the bed. He lifts a candle from the dresser and holds it near my ankles. His eyes of raging glass scour every inch of my skin.
“I have kept you safe from the hysteria. Now I must know,” he says, lifting my arm. “Are you familiar with the devil?”
I shake my head, straining to remember Ophelia’s kindness. Her voice. Her touch.
“There could be a witch’s mark, they say.” He examines my scalp and neck before shoving me onto my belly. “Answer me. Are you familiar with the devil?”
“No,” I cry out as his rough hands search everywhere.
My husband lowers himself to the floor and leans against the wall. I reach for my dress to cover myself from his hateful eyes. The fabric is shredded at the neckline where he ripped it. He runs his hands through his devil-red hair and heaves his breaths.
“I saw the comb,” he says, voice eerily steady. “I saw it.”
“You know not what you saw,” I say. “A trick of the candlelight.”
“There have been more accusations. It happened years ago to my cousin’s wife and they hanged her. Hanged her!” His piercing gaze meets mine. “I would rather not testify against my own wife.”
“But you would?” I ask. “You would watch me hang?”
“If this continues,” he says pointing to the comb. “I will have no choice. I need you to behave. I need you to be good.”
When I finally am allowed to sleep, Ophelia’s cold hand strokes my hair.
We begin chores at dawn, all the while the things hidden at the bottom of my wardrobe needle at my mind. I give my husband a list of things we need from town since he still won’t let me outside the house. The house of lost things. I wonder if anyone has truly accused me, or if he was just jealous. I dare not ask.
When he leaves, I feel the air for Ophelia, extending my fingers this way and that for her cool, calming touch. I sigh after searching the house and resign myself to sewing the fabric she found into a dress.
Perched by the window, I unfurl the gray fabric and stare at it. I need scissors. Sharp scissors. Good scissors that my husband locked away. Not an average pair, so nicked they would fray the fabric.
I wander about the house once more, arms outstretched. When I reach the bedroom, a grin breaks across my face. There on the vanity next to my comb are the scissors. The cold metal sends shivers up my arms.
I heat the iron to press wrinkles from the fabric and cut out my pattern. I lay the pieces together and shake my head. I need pins.
I wish she would speak to me. Maybe she’s sorry about what happened last night.
“Do not blame yourself,” I whisper to the quiet house. “He was like that before you came along. I rather enjoy your company.”
Icy hands press against my back, coaxing me to the bedroom where my pincushion rests on the bed. A laugh escapes from my lips, and I search for her. Something flickers in the darkened corner near the curtain. I tiptoe toward the faint outline of a young woman, who is barely a shadow. I squint to make out her soft features, her yellow hair peeking from a bonnet, and her plain dress.
“Is it you?”
I reach out, and she touches my hands. Her spirit, cool and comforting, eases my muscles.
“Would you like to sit with me while I sew?”
“I would, indeed.” Her faint blue eyes twinkle at me.
In the light of the window, it is more difficult to see her, but I feel her presence. She watches while I sew the dress. My husband’s words about his cousin’s wife rush back to me, and I turn to her.
“What happened to you?”
She lowers her head. “They accused me of witchcraft.”
“I suppose I am a witch,” she says and points to me. “As are you.”
“What?” I shake my head. “No.”
“There’s nothing evil about you, no, but the dried flowers in your hems,” she pauses to caress my cheek, “and your beauty are bewitching.”
I swallow and lean into her touch. “Why did they kill you?”
“I drew negative attention for writing poetry,” she says and droops. “Many people in town also feared I would inherit this land when my sickly husband died.”
“Little did they know he had a long-lost cousin to pass the property to,” she says. “I’m so sorry it brought you here to this cursed house.”
I rest my hand on her knee. “Do not be. He was cruel well before we arrived here.”
“Who could be cruel to you?” she asks, stroking my hair.
My heart aches. “This may sound strange, but may I ask where you were buried?”
Ophelia leads me outside past the yard, through the gate, and beyond the field near the forest, where there is a small graveyard. In the daylight, she is a slight glare, nothing more. I strain my eyes to follow her every move. She points to a plain headstone with her name.
“Without me to care for him, my husband died shortly after I did.”
“I am so sorry, Ophelia,” I say and kneel next to her grave. “I wish there was something I could do to help. I feel as if I have stolen your life.”
“You stole nothing. I was lost well before you arrived.” She kneels next to me, so close her iciness chills the side of my body. “It was nothing to steal: an unloving marriage in a town that hates unique women.”
“He was never cruel like your husband, but I did not love him,” she says as her eyes study my face.
I reach for her hand as a few tears slip down my cheeks.
“You are in danger, Lilah,” she says. “If the hangings are happening in other towns, the hysteria could return here.”
“What can I do?”
“Be careful,” she says. “And if you must go to town, keep your head down. This will pass, eventually.”
We return to the yard and head toward the back door. I pause near the garden where the spring blooms catch my attention.
Ophelia turns to me, glistening in the slanted sunlight. “Are you coming inside?”
“I will be right there.”
She nods. “I’ll hide your things.”
Once she enters the house, I pluck a heaping armful of flowers and tie them with twine to create a bouquet. The fragrance of the peonies, irises, and roses is lovely. I rest them on Ophelia’s headstone and think about her admission of never loving her husband. They way her gaze lingered on my face. The way her cool touch caresses my skin. Could she ever love me?
I shake my head at such a silly thought. She is a ghost, and I am stuck in this house. Both forever lost.
I trail my fingers around the edges of her gravestone, when footsteps from behind startle me.
“What do you think you are doing?” he asks, glaring at the floral bouquet.
I open my mouth to speak, but my voice hides away, deep in my chest.
He grabs the flowers and chucks them into the woods. “Mourning a known witch? Are you trying to get yourself accused?”
“No.” I close my eyes to think. “She was your cousin’s wife, I thought I would visit their gravesite.”
He drags me by the arm all the way to the bedroom. I brace myself for his hands, but he marches away down the hall only to return with tools.
“Please, no,” I beg, when he fixes the door to lock from the outside.
He shuts me in, and I rattle the knob. How long will he keep me locked in here? A hammering sound comes from the window as he nails it shut. I pound my fists against the pane and shout until my throat is raw. I hate him.
I sink against wall and sit on the floor. Did Ophelia have time to hide my things? Time drags as I wait in the room. The scent of burnt food tells me he’s trying to cook. A few moments go by before the doorknob turns. He leaves food and water for me on the floor. I scowl at him.
“This is for your own good,” he says. “I will sleep in my chair tonight.”
I do not eat and, when the sun goes down, I do not sleep. In the dim candlelight, I pace the room and think about Ophelia. I imagine a place where we could be together. A place where we wouldn’t feel lost. When the moon is high in the sky, the doorknob twists without a sound. My heart hammers against my chest. Slow and steady, Ophelia opens the door, carrying my things. She grins and closes the door behind her.
She appears more solid and human in the moonlight, and I struggle to breathe. After setting the items on the bed, Ophelia approaches me and clasps my hands. Even now, they feel firmer than before.
“How are you?” she whispers, and I am lost in her shining eyes. Nudging me, she asks again, “Lilah, how are you? Did he hurt you?”
I shake my head.
She lifts the dress and notions from the bed and extends them to me. “Will sewing lift your spirits.”
We close sit on the bed, and Ophelia watches me sew.
“Did you ever enjoy sewing?” I ask her.
“I was not good at it like you,” she says, admiring my work. “I suppose poetry was my gift.”
“Any you can share with me?”
She stitches her light brows together and shrugs. “They were mostly about nature.”
“I bet they were beautiful.”
She blushes and looks at her lap.
“What is it?”
“There is one that has been tumbling inside my head ever since I met you.”
My cheeks burn with heat. “Will you recite it to me?”
Ophelia sits up straight.
“I was once lost—
mere dust in the air,
dim shadows in the night,
until another lost witch arrived.
she found me—
heard my voice,
saw my true shape,
and set me awake and alive.
We were lost things—
her and I, her and I
and mended our battered souls
her and I, her and I
Warmth blossoms in my chest as I touch her hand and lean forward, pausing a needle’s length from her lips. Ophelia caresses my cheek and closes the distance by brushing her lips against mine. Tingles of heat alight my skin as our lips play and tongues dance. She runs her cool hands through my hair, and I wrap my arms around her waist.
The moments and sensations blur as we lose ourselves. Her sure fingers undoing my buttons. My eager lips upon her neck. Her body wrapped up with mine.
“Lilah,” she whispers against my ear. “You have sewn yourself into my soul. I never knew why I stayed behind, lost and roaming. Now I know it was so I could meet you.”
I stroke her cheek. “I am so glad you waited.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I say, shaking my head. “He won’t let me leave.”
“Do you want to leave?” she asks, eyes drooping.
I tilt my head and find the true meaning behind her kind gaze. “No. Not anymore.”
Wearing my Forbidden Dress, I sit on the edge of the bed, sewing. Ophelia and I speak loudly and giggle. The door rattles and swings open with a bang as my husband furrows his brows at me.
“Who are you talking to?” he asks. “Where did you get that?”
I hum a little tune and continue my stitching.
“Answer me!” He barrels away and returns with the Bible, thumbing the delicate pages. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
When I ignore him, he seethes a deep breath and raises his fist. Although he cannot see her, Ophelia stands behind him with a needle.
“Do not touch me,” I lift my needle into the air.
Ophelia pricks August’s neck with hers, which makes him flinch.
“How did you do that?” He rubs his neck and glares at me. “You are a witch?”
She pricks him again, and he yelps.
“You’ll hang for this.”
I hope so.
I thought I would have been frightened. I thought it would have been difficult. To have words cut me, judgmental eyes pierce me, and a rope threaded around my neck.
But it was easy knowing Ophelia would be there to find me.
We are no longer lost things.
Her and I.
Her and I.