Memory Loss

by Joyce Gills

Grandly Manor held a secret, a secret everyone knew about. Under it's foundations, a poison bubbled, occasionally seeped and unexpectedly sent up tendrils of a gas so potent, it could extinguish a life in seconds. The manor house itself belied this danger, with lovely porticos and columns, balconies and ballrooms which were enjoyed by the family living there. Set into the hillside, the mansion's stone facade showed well when visitors, from far off places, arrived on the front path to dine sumptuously, unaware of the brewing death beneath them.

Overlooking the shops and taverns below it, Grandly Hall was a massive sight that towered over the lowly folk who lived in its shadow. The men and women of town, farmers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths, went about their business light of heart and relaxed in their various occupations. They conducted business and performed pleasant interactions with the hillside family but no one envied the occupants of that house.

Whenever the subject of the "fumes of death" arose, normally at a tavern fireside, there would be agreement that the actual occurrence of a death by the poison was rare. One would bet that none of the present Grandly family nor the townsfolk could exactly recall when it last struck. It might be said that the killing concoction seemed to know how long memory held hand in hand with precaution and the gas would likely show itself at the moment one let his guard down. Through time, stories of the horrible death had been told, possibly exaggerated and, though few gravestones proved this to be true, everyone seemed to have a cousin, uncle or great aunt who had died unexpectedly at its hand.

Despite the menace below ground, life was lived in high style in the manor house above. There were meals to prepare, laundry to wash and crops to plant and when there were three times as many maids, dishwashers, carpenters and cooks as there were family members, an unusual woman was added to the staff, a woman who would change the Grandly family's perception of their perfect world by bringing a child into their midst who would be found totally unacceptable.

Phineas was born without crying or fuss, as if he knew his arrival would cause his parents enough distress and by the time he had reached his third birthday, his malady was recognized as dwarfism. The child was a dear soul who never cried and who worked at pleasing his parents in every way, however, as he aged, his appearance, which held all the typical characteristics of his medical abnormality, became more apparent. Sensitive to slights and insults, Phineas did his best to hide his disappointments from is parents. Instead, he found a spot along a hidden brook where he could sit alone and dangle his fingers in the water. He watched the flow of the brook widen and tumble steadily over the falls and somehow it managed to carry his pain away.

If a mother is protective, then Phineas' mother was a shield surrounding the little person in her life but she was more than that, she was a genius. Although, her place in the world denied her any skilled occupation, she was not lettered nor trained in any scholarly pursuit, her plan to protect her son from ridicule was brilliant. She contrived a social trick and lead Phineas, Grandly Manor and the townsfolk through a series of situations designed to protect her child for all his life. Her execution was so flawless that even Phineas was unaware of her manipulations as he grew into a young person with many friendships in the mansion and village, eventually becoming a man well respected for the trade he learned on his mother's knee.

Literally, she had propped him up so that he might reach the table to roll out pastry, toss dried fruits for minced pies and stir sugar into molasses. Connoting small personal remembrances in pastry, she would have him carry these offerings to every member of the family and staff as well as governors and commoners of the township. Every diplomat, villager and thief had a birthday and there was not one person his mother could find who would turn away a little person bearing such sumptuous treats. In time, it was her son and not herself whom people associated with this practice and, when she passed, her funeral, though sweet, with staff and neighbors aplenty spreading violets on the graveside, brought mourners who were all secretly glad Phineas had survived the affliction which had killed his mother. They looked at his small wiry form and, even with his face in an ugly pout with sadness, it was hard for them not to hunger for a pastry.

Through the years, Phineas aged but did not grow, however, among the eccentrics around the Grandly dining table and their servants in the back halls, no one spoke poorly of the odd little man, least word should reach the kitchen and the offender find their birth date devoid of its special sweet. Spiced apples sealed in a flaky crust or dried fruits floating between layers of paper thin dough were looked forward to by all in the township, rich or poor. The treat, received upon one's birthday morn would arrive hot and, yet, the receiver would be hesitant to devour such an anticipated extravagance all at once. They might even question their worthiness of the divine treasure once settled in a comfortable spot with fork poised above the perfect crust. Yes, gossip around the linen closet and parlors was devoid of any mockery of Phineas and by the time he had matured, although still less than four feet high, he had risen in stature in the eyes of the family and was put in full charge of the kitchen staff.

Life for Phineas was good in those years and it was not until he was well into middle age that his world was greatly changed. The new boy, who came to Grandly Hall that year brought the favored little man more joy than he could imagine but also brought him to an excruciating end. The boy arrived in a shroud of soot from his previous occupation and it was not until after a harsh scrubbing with the wash woman's brush that his beauty could be seen. While his past life was being dumped from the washtub to nourish dry soil of the kitchen garden, the fair boy with unkept hair was nourishing the need for the master's family to expend some bit of their wealth toward charity. The new boy would not, of course, be placed in fine knee britches or wear the lace collar of their breed, but he would be better off. He would wear the apron of a baker and learn a trade which would not blacken his lungs and see him die young.

Within the world of Grandly Hall, life seemed to brighten after the boy's taking-in and word from town was that folks spoke of him in endearing terms, terms which had never graced the lad's ears before. When passing him on the street, a glance from a passerby would initiate a second look and then a third as his beauty could not be appreciated all at once. People described him as sweet, strong, modest and handsome. He was known as helpful and courteous, bashful but sincere. He seemed to become what each onlooker wanted to see in the child who had been transformed and, although these sentiments may seem disingenuous, none were concocted.

Phineas, in particular, took a liking to Jefferson, as he was so christened by Master Grandly, and the little cook looked forward to the sound of the boy's boots running that last length of the hall where no one could see him. After the boring lessons in manners and reading, Jefferson showed great enthusiasm for mixing a batch of hot stew, kneading fistfuls of dough or tramping through the kitchen gardens searching out eggplant, squash and herbs. The challenges Jefferson faced when recalling the scent of basil, or the habit of a thyme plant became enjoyable to the lad and it was not long before both teacher and student beamed when the correct ingredients were retrieved.

As the boy grew, as boys will, seemingly overnight, Phineas faced a challenge of his own. His step-stools allowed him access to stovetop, shelving and pantry items but the stool where he taught Jefferson culinary secrets brought Phineas only to counter height and, as Jefferson grew, Phineas was forced to add crates under his stool until it became quite a ramshackle ladder.

By his teenage years, Jefferson had become an accomplished baker but moreover, he had reach six feet tall by the time his growing was done. It was distressing to Phineas that the young man's height was well beyond reach but this dilemma was remedied by his thoughtful apprentice. When Jefferson spied an orange crate of the perfect size, he nailed it tightly on top the step ladder and presented Phineas with his creation. Thereafter, Jefferson affectionately referred to the old stool as Cook's crows nest. Phineas perched there in his corner by the fireside and grew old, surveying the activity of the kitchen and reaching out to tousle Jefferson's hair whenever he had the chance.

By the time Jefferson was a young man ready to seek a wife, the danger of the poisonous gas was hardly spoken of, if there ever was a danger. Sections of old the tunnels were even used for storage. Those cavernous openings were dry and cool and perfect to keep salt herring and ground hominy for lengths of time. Apple cider aged well in barrels as did finely ground flour and other treasured ingredients. Long forgotten was the heavily latched door at the end of the back corridor and no one bothered to check the lock on that door with the rusty hinges anymore. That had been the one place Phineas had been warned against as a child and he had wanted no parts of the darkness, spiders and the unknown but Jefferson was never warned. To Jefferson, a warning would have become a challenge, an invitation to explore and Phineas knew the youngster well enough to say nothing. Better warn him off exploring hiding places in the manor house, where nosy maids would invariably scoot him out of any place he might get into mischief.

When old Phineas came upon the door at the end of the corridor and saw it ajar, a horror ripped through him which he had never felt before. The door had been opened and he knew instantly who had opened it. A little light came from within and, heedless of any danger to himself, Phineas moved along the dirty corridor. At the turn, he came upon Jefferson lying as still as sleep but Phineas knew the young man's beauty was frozen in death and at the sight, the tears he had never found cause to shed in life began to blur his eyes. He backed away and ran from the cavern as fast as his old legs could carry him. Sobbing with grief, he ran to the little brook where he had long ago found refuge from is pain. He slowed and stumbled through the undergrowth to the spot that was his alone. He sat on the ground and let the tears run down his cheeks and off his pointed nose and spill from his sleeves and boot tips. The old man was so filled with tears unshed during his life that they continued without end. They flowed down his apron and soaked his breeches as if doused by a heavy rain. So devastated was he by the death of his young friend that his deep sadness dissolved him entirely. The tears flowed into rivulets, joined the water of the brook, and washed the little man away.

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