The Driftless Unsolicited Novella Series • Release Date: November 12, 2019
Print ISBN: 978-1-948559-41-6 • EPUB ISBN: 978-1-948559-44-7 • Kindle ISBN: 978-1-948559-42-3 • PDF ISBN: 978-1-948559-43-0
Brain Mill Press offers Ivywood Manor in ebook and trade paperback editions. Ebook buyers receive access to MOBI (Kindle), EPUB, and PDF files, offered without DRM restrictions. Print book buyers receive a physical copy of the book and access to the ebook files in all formats.
When orphan Charlotte Herring arrives at Ivywood Manor, nothing in her experience has prepared her for the gauntlet of living in the ancestral home of the discordant van Kirks. Mr. van Kirk’s decision to adopt her is as cloaked in silence as is the truth of Charlotte’s past. When the patriarch’s preference for Charlotte spawns a one-sided rivalry between her and his son, the injurious dynamic stands in the way of Charlotte’s attempts to unravel the family’s secrets and her own. Charlotte sleuths from her position at the margins of the family until she discovers and takes utter possession of the knowledge that has been withheld from her and wields it against the monsters of Ivywood Manor.
Tani Loo’s atmospheric neo-Gothic debut is a gripping Victorian mystery of a biracial woman coming into power through her victories against violence, inherited lies, and colonial legacies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tani Loo was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Her short fiction has appeared in Hawaii Review, Honolulu Civil Beat, and CircleShow.
AN EXCERPT from Ivywood Manor by Tani Loo
© Tani Loo, 2019. All rights reserved.
I was nine when the man fetched me from the orphanage as the sun rose, burnt orange turning cerulean before my eyes. He was thin, and his head was topped with a mop of dark hair. When he flashed a smile at me, his skin looked as if it were being stretched too tight. His pupils were toffee and his eyebrows thick, but his voice was smooth, silky almost. The sounds emitted reminded me of warm milk sliding down my throat.
Nancy, the plump woman in charge, dragged me out of bed and coaxed me into the garments the orphanage provided. It was the first time I’d seen the stained white dress and matching bonnet, and both items were constricting. But Nancy paid no mind as she urged me to stand closer to the man, even closer as we neared the front door.
Outside, drops of water from the rooftop splattered upon my head. It must’ve rained the night before. The man was holding a stack of adoption papers, and he shifted it beneath his armpit the way that I unstuck horehound candy from the roof of my mouth and slid it beneath my tongue; he kept it hidden from the sun’s rays.
“She has no possessions?” the man inquired.
“None,” Nancy confirmed. “Her mother told us the girl’s name before she passed, but that’s all she managed to do.”
Though I watched Nancy carefully as she spoke, I detected no sign of sympathy from her. My mother’s death was simply another one laid on the orphanage’s doorstep. The man, on the other hand, shifted uncomfortably.
“Charlotte Herring,” he murmured, glancing at me. “Yes, my solicitor has arranged for her to keep her name in the paperwork. You will see it has been sorted out.”
Nancy narrowed her eyes. “If you don’t mind me saying, sir, it’s mighty unusual to let the girl keep the name Herring. I understand that you’d rather she didn’t take yours, but most like to cut ties to the family.”
The man’s smile was tight. “This adoption is unusual in itself, is it not?”
Nancy’s face fell momentarily, as if she were concerned that the man would no longer take me. Then she pasted a wide grin on her face. “Unusual perhaps, but a decision you won’t regret.”
The man nodded, proffering his hand to me.
I hesitated, so he introduced himself to me. He called himself Morton van Kirk, told me of an estate called Ivywood Manor, and pointed his finger toward an open carriage door. In response, I stared at the mud on my slippers, dirtied by the brown water running down the street. I didn’t know this man with the sweet words dripping from the corners of his mouth.
But when I glanced back at Nancy, I realized that nothing waited for me there. I accepted his help into the carriage but not his hand. He wasn’t shaken by the way I ignored his kindness, and I thought better of him for it.
When we arrived at Ivywood Manor, Mr. van Kirk helped me exit the carriage. We traversed the last few feet of the path on foot, my toes rolling over pieces of gravel like they were marbles, before he stopped and knelt in his spotless pants. He reached for my hands to press them between his own, and I was shocked by the heat emanating from him. I shivered.
The corner of his lip curved upward, sympathetic. “Now then, I know this journey has been taxing for you, but we have finally arrived. We are going to enter Ivywood now. Ivywood will be your home, and if you ever want for anything, you come to me.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I nodded.
He extended his hand and patted me on the head—a gesture that I found oddly comforting. Then, he straightened and revealed his open palm for me to place my hand within his. I stared at it, nearly even grabbed it, when I realized we were being watched.
A boy with dark hair and brown flecks in his eyes stood opposite us. He stared at me through the wrought iron gates with his face pressed against the bars. His eyebrows were thick and umber like the hair on his head, but his lips were almost puce.
“Father,” the boy said.
“Victor, open the gate, will you?”
The boy, Victor, inclined his head, but his eyes never left mine. His gaze was so open, so grave, that I began to imagine the flecks in his eyes were changing colors. Were they really brown? Or were they black? Was it the sunlight hitting them that made it seem so? He continued to stare at me, but I found no answer.
Victor took a step backward and opened the gates.
“Victor is my son,” Mr. van Kirk informed me. “You are only a year apart in age. He is younger, yet I trust you will get along well.”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
Mr. van Kirk led me past the gates, pausing to place a firm hand of acknowledgment on Victor’s shoulder. The gesture bunched up Victor’s fitted suit. He inclined his head toward me.
I jumped, nearly forgetting that I should curtsy back.
The manor reminded me of a church in Ascot, except the manor’s walls were made of brick instead of stone and the grounds stretched twice as far and wide. Instead of other buildings on its sides, the manor had trees with branches extending so tall that I wondered if they could touch the clouds. I couldn’t imagine that I’d live in this castle. Nancy hadn’t even allowed me inside the church; she’d said I came from the womb of a woman who knew too many gods, though she’d tell me no more than that.
Water spilled over the edges of a large, ornate fountain in the center of the grounds. It accumulated into one slate gray pool, then the next. On its sides were dirt-covered remnants of a garden. I memorized the way the few brittle stems drooped and tangled with one another, so that I could look up whether the flowers could be salvaged later.
Mr. van Kirk called to us both in his silky voice, and we continued toward the manor. That’s when I noticed the ravens: gnarled, stone carvings piled upon blocks until they were equal in height to the door’s entrance. Every angry, minute detail was carved into their beaks and feathers. Their wings were tucked into their chests, but their eyes glared at visitors.
I leaned closer to inspect them when the front door swung open.
A squat man bent at the waist, revealing the balding nature of his head. His mustache was the thickest I’d ever seen. It curled upward at the ends in the same way that I gave an extra loop to the letter y when I wrote. His head twitched just a tad in what I thought might be a bow, and he held the door open as we all entered the manor.
I found myself on an ornate rug with maroon swirls linked together to create intricate patterns. A large wooden table was set up across the entrance with an ornamental jardinière filled with green fronds extending from the center. The fern was so clearly alive in comparison to the garden by the fountain that I decided to take note of these too.
But before I could so much as turn my head to either side, Victor placed himself in front of me.
Up close, his eyes gleamed. His pupils darted left and right, examining my face as if I were a new cardboard insert for his zoetrope. He wanted to know how I spun, if I disrupted his collection of birds’ wings spreading or toy soldiers marching.
“She has got some very bright eyes,” he declared.
I took a step back, attempting to find relief in Mr. van Kirk’s coattails. It was rather rude that he was addressing Mr. van Kirk as if I wasn’t there, and I didn’t like being stared at so closely.
“I thank you not to frighten her,” he told Victor coolly.
Victor turned his head, abashed. “My apologies. Charlotte, is it?”
I meant to answer “yes,” but I was distracted by Mr. van Kirk giving instructions to his butler. He was speaking of mail, clothing, rooms, and that evening’s meal. I was exhausted from being woken early, and I could’ve done with a short rest and light refreshment, but I didn’t think it was my place to request either.
Victor cleared his throat. His lips had formed a slightly crooked smile, and his head was inclined just so.
Soon after, Mr. van Kirk and Victor left me in the butler’s care. The butler led me down the hall without a word. The walls were lined with elaborate hangings so tall that I had to stand on my toes in order to reach the tops of them. The portraits were equally intimidating, featuring what looked to be a long line of descendants of the van Kirks. Each background was darker than the last, from maroon to plum to black on black, so that their suits and gowns blended in with the brushstrokes.
None of their faces were welcoming or familiar. I paused every once in a while to return their stares and even attempted to fix a portrait that was atilt. But the butler fixed me with a steely look that warned me to keep moving, so I let my heels touch the ground and kept my head down too.
He led me up a winding staircase, past multiple closed doors, and around sharp corners, though we never stopped for long. Light shone beneath some doors, and I longed to explore them. I asked him every time, “What’s behind that door?” But he made no reply.
Finally, I said, “May I ask what your name is?”
He came to a stop and faced me, straightening the lapels of his jacket. The creak of floorboards and rustling movement sounded from an open door nearby, but I couldn’t see inside from where we stood. His voice was surprisingly gentle.
I looked around and spotted a portrait of Mr. van Kirk above my head. He looked much the same except his hair was fuller and it gleamed in the dark. Next to his was a portrait of an astute strawberry-blond woman.
Williams cleared his throat, and I turned my attention back to him.
“That cannot be your Christian name,” I said.
I didn’t understand why Williams was so secretive. I’d tell him my Christian name if he didn’t already know it.
Williams’s face softened. Even the edges of his mustache seemed to uncurl as his lips formed a small smile. He bent, just a little, so that his face was level with mine.
“You’re a young lady now, Miss Charlotte. ‘Williams’ will do just fine.”
Before I could ask anything else, he stepped into view of the open door. The room was covered in off-white silks and frills. The plain colors were offset by wooden bedposts and an ornate dresser. The window looked out toward the grounds with the sun’s rays breaking through eggshell curtains.
“Your room, Miss Charlotte,” he announced.
“Mine?” I repeated.
“Indeed,” he said, bowing toward a shadow emerging from behind the door. “Lady van Kirk.”
The woman looked very much like the woman in the portrait next to Mr. van Kirk’s in the hall. She was dressed in an apple-green gown with a sweetheart neckline. A copious amount of glass beads adorned it, so much so that I imagined the light reflecting against them blinding Williams if he turned the wrong way.
“Ah,” Mrs. van Kirk murmured. “She has arrived. Wonderful.”
Mrs. van Kirk’s voice was nothing like her husband’s. It was high-pitched, and she spoke quickly, so that her words jumbled together into one breath of air; it was sweet, too, almost sickly. Her eyes roamed over me.
I took a step into the room, clutching my skirts.
Williams coughed, rather indiscreetly.
I felt pink creeping up the side of my neck, and recalling my manners, I curtseyed.
Mrs. van Kirk smiled in turn, revealing her extra-white teeth. “Hello, Charlotte. It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Dorothea van Kirk, the lady of the manor. I was ensuring that the maids have made the room to our standards. It has not been in use in quite a while, you understand.”
I didn’t have a maid, nor did I have a room quite like this one, so I didn’t understand. But I nodded.
“Do come in,” she urged, beckoning me closer with a flick of her wrist. “You may get settled here, and someone will fetch you when it is time to eat. We dine relatively early, but I am sure you will grow used to it in time.”
I thought this request odd, since I was already in the room, but I stepped more fully into it. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” she replied stiffly, stepping toward the door. “I understand that you have begun your schooling in your . . . previous home.”
“You arrived earlier than we anticipated, but we will send for a governess to monitor the rest of your schooling no later than the end of the week. Whomever we hire will accompany you throughout your day-to-day activities.”
Before I could respond, she had swept out of the room with a short, “Good day.” I could hear the swishing of her skirts down the length of the hall until she presumably reached the staircase. Williams informed me that he’d send someone to help me dress, and then he closed the door.
Until it was time to dine, I saw no one but a stout woman who helped me dress in silence. I asked her numerous questions about whether the gown was supposed to itch so much and if we couldn’t fix my hair in a less tight manner. In an attempt to adjust my hair, I yanked a pin out, and she rebuked me.
Williams came to fetch me once I was ready, led me to the correct room, and then left me to stand near the head of the dining room table. The room itself was long and formal, capable of accommodating at least twenty guests comfortably. I began to count each chair that had been set out—one, two, three, four—but Mrs. van Kirk interrupted me.
“Will you be seated, Charlotte?” she said pointedly.
She sat on the left side of the head of the table, and she inclined her head toward the chair two seats in on the right side. The first chair, I assumed, was reserved for Victor, while the seat at the head was for no other than Mr. van Kirk himself.
As soon as I lowered myself onto the chair, Victor took the seat next to mine. The chair was hard and uncomfortable, forcing me to sit upright. I wiggled around in it, but I couldn’t find a position to settle in.
I thought I saw Victor eyeing me warily, but I tried to ignore him. He hadn’t grown used to sitting in chairs that sunk with your weight or material so faded that the design could’ve been anything at all.
His stare drew Mrs. van Kirk’s attention, and she scrutinized me.
“Must you do that?” she asked.
Immediately, I stopped.
I glanced around the room for a reprieve, only to spot Mr. van Kirk entering the room. Williams held the door open for him, and Mr. van Kirk walked straight to his seat. He looked in good spirits as he surveyed the small party.
Mrs. van Kirk addressed me, her tone less harsh. “I hope you have found your room to your liking, Charlotte. Settled in now, are you?”
“Yes, I have,” I responded. “Thank you. It’s a beautiful room.”
“A beautiful home,” Mrs. van Kirk amended, straightening her fork so that the prongs aligned with the top of the other utensils.
Mr. van Kirk’s gaze swung to his wife, but I couldn’t read it. She didn’t meet his eyes at first. But when he addressed her to ask her about her day, her head snapped up, and she spoke quickly. “My day was quite uneventful. I made sure that the room was ready for Charlotte’s arrival and that the menu for dinner was adequate.”
“And yours, Victor?”
Victor stared at the empty place in front of him. “Adequate.”
“A man of few words,” Mr. van Kirk murmured. “Shall we eat?”
The courses arrived then, one after another. First was savory soup, which was so hot upon arrival that I burned the tip of my tongue. Second was chicken fricassee served with rice, and the thought of licking my plate briefly crossed my mind. Third was a plate filled with vegetables that I ate, though I noticed Victor pushing his around his plate. Fourth was citrus ice, and fifth was dinner rolls with sweet cream butter. By the time we reached the sixth and last course, I was so full I thought I’d never be able to eat again. But the jams, jellies, and sweet pickles were too good to resist.
The conversation was stilted while we were eating. Only Mr. van Kirk spoke without hesitation. He asked me if I found each course to my liking, and I responded every time that I thought the food was positively delightful. Mrs. van Kirk occasionally took my response as an opportunity to tell me about other dishes that were much more delightful from all over the world.
“I shall ask Molly to prepare a cake soon. The one with the fruit preservatives, perhaps,” she mused.
“That cake is my favorite,” Victor said, his eyes wide.
Mrs. van Kirk’s face lit up. “Is it, dear? We shall have it then.”
Mr. van Kirk turned to me. “Is there anything you would like to have, Charlotte?”
“I would not know. I have not had the opportunity to try most of the food we have spoken of,” I answered truthfully. “I think I would like mince pies immensely though. Or sweet rolls would do for the rest of my days.”
Mr. van Kirk smiled at me encouragingly. “I am awfully fond of sweet rolls myself.”
The conversation came to a lull not long after. I didn’t mind it, since I was beginning to feel the exhaustion set in. The combination of moving into Ivywood Manor and enjoying a meal larger than I’d seen in my entire life was draining.
Mr. van Kirk was the first to rise from his chair, citing work as his reason for leaving. Mrs. van Kirk stood next and said she’d grown tired due to the excitement of the day’s events. Victor rose almost instantly after Mrs. van Kirk, but he gave no indication if he was going here nor there. I was last to rise.
With my feet dragging against the floors, I trudged up the stairs. I miraculously found my room without a hitch and closed the door behind me. Then I plopped down on my bed, still in the clothes I dined in, and dreamed of ravens circling my head.