First published April 12, 2018
My husband, M, is already awake and having breakfast. As usual, I’ve lingered in bed, drifting in and out of dreams. But this is not a dream. Or, if it is, it’s an extremely lucid one. It feels more like “imagining” and “seeing” than dreaming.
I am in the very musty attic of an old house somewhere in northern Europe; maybe Bruges or Antwerp or Groningen. A small window under the eaves looks out onto the street. I can make out the other houses across the way, looking as I imagine they have for hundreds of years.
The footprint of the room is fairly large but without a lot of usable space. The roof is low and steeply canted; parts of it are even too low for a small child to be able to stand up. There is a strong smell of mildew and rot. It is quite dark inside — the only light is coming from that tiny window. Still, I can just make out some kind of old broken discarded wooden equipment off to the side – perhaps a spinning wheel or loom. I can’t tell.
The room is not only unused but hasn’t been entered in a very long time. Decades at least. Maybe much longer. The people who now occupy the house below don’t seem know this room exists, but I don’t understand how that can be. The small window should be clearly visible from the street. Most of the other houses are built roughly to the same plan. They all must have attics. Wouldn’t the current owners assume this house has one, too?
I sense that at some time in the past, access has been sealed off and the doorway plastered over, in a very purposeful way. Still, with real estate everywhere being at such a premium, I find it strange that none of owners since, were curious enough to do some exploring. I cycle though possible logical explanations why that might be, but none make sense.
And then I start to get a story about this room. It pops into my head as fully-formed knowledge.
A long time ago a servant girl lived up here. She was very young when she came to work, maybe 8 or 9. She slept in a corner, on a mattress made of ratty ticking which had been taken from an old bed downstairs. It was stuffed with leaves, rags, old horsehair from discarded family mattresses – anything she could find or they would spare. It barely kept her tiny body off the cold floor. The roof leaked and her bedding was damp, smelly, moldy and very lumpy.
Another servant — an older female — was put in charge of her training, and taught her the basics of housework; instructed her in low-level chores such as cleaning, fetching firewood and coal, washing dishes. The younger girl almost never interacted with the family. They left the managing of the girl to the older maid, who abused her charge.
This girl was terribly lonely. She had no friends, no family. The only person she came into contact with on a regular basis was the abusive maid. She hadn’t had much love in her own home, but this was so much worse; never a kind word or comforting gesture. She was too numb to cry. What was the point, anyway? Nobody was going to help her. This was her life now.
She was fed once a day, a paltry meal of negligible sustenance. Sometimes, she managed to grab a scrap or two before it went to the dogs. In the summer, the attic was brutally hot and stuffy, and when the autumn came, it was cold and raw. There was a small stove in the corner of her room, but she was barely allowed any wood or coal. By the winter, the attic was freezing. Her breath plumed out in grayish puffs.
She died before spring came, from a disease which could have been easily prevented or cured if she’d been fed properly and kept warm through the brutal northern February.
Had I made the whole story up or had I been channeling something from The Great Beyond? I honestly did/do not know. I can only say that it did not feel like a normal daydream, nor was it anything like the process of creating a written story. I felt, I saw, I smelled that room. I can still see it clearly in my head.
As a writer, I am happy to take inspiration from wherever it comes, so I wrote it down, then went to eat breakfast. I assumed it was just a one-time experience. Boy, was I wrong!