She was afraid of her sister.
When Melancholia was very young her sister did something quite cruel and unsisterly. In Melancholia's mind that one unsisterly act had grown and overshadowed everything else in her world. It was the cause of her unhappiness and the reason their parents were never home. Because at eleven years old she was so utterly convinced of that, Melancholia had to find a way to undo what her sister had done. Soon she would soon race down the moonlit halls of her house at midnight and descend down a twisting stone staircase in the dark to meet her nightmare. Soon she would find out that she was very wrong.
* * * * *
The sisters lived in the house on the hill. The house was cold and dark, old and twisted. The very structure gaunt with towers that scratched at the sky and deep corners where hid deeper secrets. The sky over the house was always two shades darker than any other part of the sky, even at night. When people in the neighborhood were being kind they said it was a strange house, when they thought Melancholia could not hear them they said it was a dangerous, derelict place that should be condemned and torn down. Melancholia had lived her entire life so far in the house and to her there was nothing strange about lights that often turned on in rooms where no one was. She thought nothing of locked doors that inexplicably opened, and open doors that suddenly slammed shut and locked. It was a house of bumps and creaks and unexplained sounds. It was a place of tales and stories and half-known accounts, to her these were all interesting features of her home that her young brain might wonder and speculate about. Even at eight-years-old she knew many thought the house was haunted, or that it was a frightening place of nightmares, and that it was not considered by anyone to be a very good place to call home.
Children at Melancholia's school whispered that on certain days it was larger than usual with an extra spire or row of windows. Sometimes they whispered louder that the sisters had murdered their parents and that was why no one ever saw them. When the children whispered loudly they looked sideways at Melancholia to see if she was watching them. She tried not to look in case they saw her and shrieked in mock terror before giggling and running away. None of the children at school were actually mean to her. Mostly they ignored her and that was fine with Melancholia.
As eight-year-olds went, Melancholia was small, with sallow skin and dark eyes that were always red from crying. On good days she thought that, in many ways, she was a healthy, normal little girl with bow lips and hair the reddish brown color of new rust. Both her parents were alive and together. She had a pet rabbit she took care of very well and loved completely. She had a best friend, Pete, who lived just down the hill from her. She enjoyed playing in the rain. She knew she was not the smartest, or the fastest, or the most creative eight-year-old in the city she lived near, or even in her neighborhood if she was being honest. Still, she would tell her self, neither was she the dumbest, nor the slowest, nor the dullest. She cried more than the average child of eight, but that was mostly with good reason. For, on not so good days, she wondered if all of what she thought was normal about her was actually quite peculiar.
When Melancholia played in the rain, it was only on stormy, thunder and lightning nights when she pretended the world was shaking apart. She liked the neighbors’ boy, Pete, because he could eat large quantities of mud without being sick. Her pet was a scrawny rabbit that had been sickly since its birth. Her parents were constantly away on vacations and she could hardly remember the last time she'd seem them although she could not forget what they looked like because of the large portrait of them that hung at the top of the main staircase. Lastly, her perfect bow lips were the dark hue of a dried bramble thorn that had withered in the sun. Yet, what bothered her most on not so good days was that she could not smile.
It was not that she would not, or thought that she should not. She was incapable of smiling because her smile had been stolen from her when she was a baby. As a newborn she had smiled, there were pictures to prove it and the housekeeper said she had a cheerful disposition to begin with, but a year later she stopped. Instead, she started to cry - all the time. So her parents, believing in the name fitting the child, changed name her to Melancholia. (She often wondered what her name had first been, but her parents refused to tell her.)
Then there were her sisters. Melancholia's younger sister was six with wild, curly hair and without a right hand - which in itself was not so odd, but the hand had been lost under questionable circumstances when Destructia was three. Destructia ran, never walked and usually yelled instead of talking in an inside voice. She also loved to take things apart and anything within reach of her remaining hand would soon be in pieces. Even if an object had been made as one, solid piece to begin with Destructia always found a way to break something into smaller pieces. She was not always able to put things together again. Despite Destructia’s gleeful, rampaging compulsion to take things apart, it was not her that Melancholia was scared of.
Melancholia’s older sister liked to terrify her for fun and general amusement, which was only part of the reason she was frightened of her. Melancholia’s eleven-year-old sister, Mischievia, told terrible tales.
The three sisters were watched over by the housekeepter, a man named Gregman. Although Gregman was the housekeeper he was also the children’s caretaker. He was the one who marched down the road to the irregular school uniform liquidators store and bought new dresses and tights and shirts when Mischievia outgrew anything. Melancholia only wore Mischievia’s hand-me-downs and Destructia only wore Melancholia’s hand-me-downs. If the irregular uniform liquidators store is mentioned, then it should be explained that the girls were always dressed in irregular school uniforms. The dresses were dark woolen things that had asymmetrical hemlines, or one shoulder strap that was shorter than the other. The shirts were all an over starched and itchy white with crookedly sewn buttons or one sleeve that was longer than the other. As a result, the sisters looked like lopsided and rejected dolls. Except for Mischievia, there was something in the way she pointed her nose about authoritatively that made her look less silly in the irregular clothes. Or maybe she did look just as silly, but people were afraid to say so. It also helped that her tights never had holes in them as Melancholia’s sometimes did and as Destructia’s always did.
When not at school, or out playing in a storm, Melancholia’s days were spent wandering in the tall, drafty halls of the house on the hill, or on cloudy days exploring the expansive and near lifeless garden beside it. She took care of her ailing pet, Drop, and waited for Pete to come and see her. (He was never allowed to go and see her.) In Melancholia’s eight-year-old world that was all there was.
That and her sister’s stories.
“Melancholia, you shouldn’t suck your thumb.”
“Because if you do the scissor men will come and cut it off. Snip, snip. Just like that.” And Mischievia would demonstrate, cutting off the thumb of a doll. And then she would laugh.
Mischievia’s laugh was almost as terrible as her stories and always lasted exactly three seconds longer than it should. Although, Melancholia had noticed, her laugh always lasted an extra half second longer than that when she told the story about the scissor men.
Melancholia was four when her sister first showed her the picture of the men with scissors for hands. They were cutting off a boy’s thumbs in an old book of German nursery rhymes. The picture was cartoonish and painted with bright greens and pinks and reds. It was the same day Destructia (who was only two at the time) had taken apart the bathroom and eaten soap. Destructia had perhaps hoped that when she ate the soap bubbles would come out of her little, O-shaped mouth. Instead she only got watery suds on her tongue and a stomach ache. She still had both hands at the time and a tendency to try and stick both of them in her mouth at once, though usually only the right one fit.
Melancholia never said anything, but secretly, she did not believe the stories that Mischievia told her. Melancholia did not have a large imaginative and seldom believed anything she had not been given proof of. She believed in the skritching that came from behind the tile in the upstairs bathroom, because she had heard it (sometimes it skritched out patterns that might have been Morse code). She believed in the thing behind the always locked broom closet at the back of the house, because she had laid on the cold floor and spoken with it though the space under the door. She even believed in the Sometimes Room on the third floor landing because sometimes it was there and sometimes it wasn't. Yet she knew Mischievia's stories were all from her sister's horribly overactive imagination, dreadful fairy tales meant to frighten her, because sometimes Melancholia would suck her thumbs, or play with matches. The scissor men never came, she never caught fire and burned to a crisp. None of Mischievia’s stories scared her because they weren't real. So Melancholia would change the end of the stories to suit herself. Even though she never spoke her endings outloud she loved creating them and she changed the endings of all Mischeivia's stories. All except for one.
Gregman told Melancholia that it was about a year after her birth that her sister started telling stories about the man who lived in the room under the house. One of Melancholia’s earliest memories was of her sister standing over her crib, her face half hidden in shadows, telling the story.
“I don’t suppose mother and father have told you about the man who lives in the room under the house. He goes anywhere he wants, even into bedtime stories. Sometimes you can see him peeking out from the corners of paintings. Inside the frame. They should have told you, he is the one who stole your smile after all. But be careful, he thinks it’s his now and if you ever tried to smile he would think you were trying to steal it back from him. And then . . . and then he would come and sew a zipper over your mouth and lock it.”
Mischievia always laughed a full seven seconds too long after telling that particular story.
As the sisters grew, so did the story. The man who lived in the room under the house was tall, with spidery limbs all clothed in a black and gray striped suit. He had a top hat and shoes that whispered to him. He only played on spider webs in the moonlight, lunched on midnight shadows and liked to spend his spare time sitting in his chair, watching fish drown. He was the one who had stolen Melancholia’s smile and he would never give it back.
So, Melancholia did not smile. She had tried once while looking in a mirror one night when she was five. Yet as soon as she twitched the corner of her mouth, even though it twitched down instead of up, she heard a rustling up by the back corner the ceiling. There was a light whispering and a brief scuttling, the kind of sound feet small enough to dance on cobwebs might make.
At the sound, Melancholia scooped up Drop and fled the room. Clutching the wheezing rabbit to her, she ran straight to Destructia’s bed where she dove under the covers and huddled close to her sleeping sister.
There were many strange things in the house on the hill, but Melancholia was only afraid that one day her sister might send the man who lived in the room under the house after her to take something else away.