Short story by Iris Carden
My mother’s family dies young. That’s my heritage. Around the age of 50, family members just start to get sick. By 60, they’ve usually died.
That’s what happened with my mother. I was just out of college and starting my career when she seemed to suddenly just seem to be weak all the time.
Blood tests showed she was severely anaemic. Iron supplements didn’t help. Then the doctors started giving her regular transfusions. She’d perk up for a bit, but be weak and frail again a week later. After a year or two, that week shortened to a few days, then a single day, then the transfusions seemed to make no difference at all.
As she grew weaker, she became photosensitive. It started with her eyes, the sun always hurt them. We got the darkest sunglasses we could, and she would always wear a hat, but eventually she just avoided going out.
When she was 55 and weakening, her brother, who had the same symptoms but more advanced, died. Then she inherited everything.
That’s the other thing about my mother’s family. They were loaded. Huge amounts of money and property were passed from one generation to the next. In some families, that would end when the money ended up with some spoiled, wasteful offspring. In my mother’s family, that didn’t happen. My mother, my uncle, my grandmother and presumably everyone who came before them just knew where to invest and when. It was as if they could foresee every movement of the property market or the stock market. They knew when to move assets from one country to another in anticipation of wars. My mother’s family, for generations, had just been money making machines.
It was with my mother’s strong encouragement, that I had studied economics, accounting and finance. I was groomed to be the next to know everything about money, and to preserve the family’s financial heritage.
Since my mother died. I was the last of the line. I thought about marriage and kids, but then I thought, what if I, like everyone before me, fell prey to that same degenerative illness? I couldn’t put a wife, or possible children, through all I had been through when caring for my mother.
So when everything came to me, it was to me alone. No family to share it with. There was enough money for a million lifetimes. I thought about what would happen to it after my death, before making a will, I would have to decide which charities would do the most good with it.
Then there was the property. My mother’s family accrued property for centuries, and never seemed to sell any of it. Apartment buildings in the USA, tourist resorts on exotic islands, vast outback cattle stations here in Australia all made sense. Historic houses dotted throughout Europe at least earned rent. Then there was the castle in England and another in Eastern Europe, castles that cost a fortune to maintain. Castles which did nothing and generated no income. I couldn’t see why a family with such financial intelligence would keep such a burden. What would I do with crumbling castles? My mother’s will said I should not sell them. Her brother’s will had said she could not sell them. Their mother’s will had said my Uncle was not to sell them.
I decided to go and at least look at my useless crumbling piles of stone.
I thought I would see the one in England first. At least I knew the language there.
I met the caretaker, Arabella Smart, at the massive gateway to the castle.
“A castle was not just a noble family’s home,” she told me, “but an entire community. The outer wall protected many families who lived there and either worked within the castle or in the fields around it.”
We walked up a hill from gate and outer wall towards the large stone building in the centre.
“Out buildings are long gone now, she said, “apart from the gatehouse where I live. But the central building, the keep is still maintained ready for your family to return. This was the strongest part of the castle, the place that would never fall to an enemy. It was where all of the people who lived within the outer wall would retreat to if attacked. The area within the wall, apart from the gatehouse and the keep. is now all gardens. You see the decorative gardens here in front of the keep, heritage roses, lavender and other flowers. Behind the keep is an orchard with a large variety of fruits. Some of those trees are hundreds of years old. Adjacent the fruit trees, you will find the kitchen garden, with vegetables and herbs. Many are heritage plants. I and my predecessors have saved seeds from each harvest to plant the next crop. You will find everything as your family have always expected it to be.”
Ms Smart was a wealth of information, but she still hadn’t answered my biggest question, why had my mother’s family kept this monstrosity for centuries?
I had planned to spend a few nights in the castle, figuring I would save on the cost of a hotel room. That’s another trait of my mother’s family, a genetic predisposition to miserliness.
Ms Smart had anticipated this. Apparently she’d worked for the family for a while. The master bedroom was ready, and dinner was ready. There were fresh vegetables from the garden, and roast pork which Ms Smart informed me came from the family’s neighbouring farm. Of course there was a neighbouring farm to provide meat.
I had eaten very well when I went to bed, and despite the huge space, the strange hangings on the walls, and the uncomfortable amount of stone around me, I fell quickly into a deep sleep.
During that first night, I dreamed that my mother, now young and healthy, visited me. She woke me by running a finger along my cheek. “You’re here too soon, James,” she said. “You’re not due for many years, not until your child is ready to take responsibility for the heritage.”
“I’m not planning to have a child,” I told my dream-mother. “Too many of our family get sick and die far too young. This has to end with someone. I choose for it to end with me.”
“You don’t understand, my boy,” she said. “None of us has died. Nothing can end. The time will come for you to come home, but you must have an heir first.”
When I woke the next morning, I dismissed my dream. I decided to do an inventory of the castle’s contents. I would need that when I decided what to do with it.
I took my phone and wondered the corridors, describing rooms and their contents into the voice memo app. The castle was huge, and I lost track of time wandering from room to room to room.
Down a narrow staircase, I found myself in a basement, or as I soon realised, a crypt. A history of the family told in coffins ranging from the ancient and almost crumbling to the new, sat in shelves in the wall. That was when I saw it. My mother’s coffin. The one I had chosen for her, with her name on the brass plate fixed to the polished rosewood lid. How could it have come here? It had been buried in Brisbane only six months earlier. Beside her coffin was her brother’s, which had also been buried in Brisbane.
Someone had robbed my mother’s and uncle’s graves! It was an absolute outrage!
I found my way to the kitchen, were I found Ms Smart polishing silverware. I demanded answers. How and why had my mother and uncle been transported to this ancient monument after death?
“Surely you already know the answer to that question, Mr James,” she said.
“No I do not know the answer to that question!” I berated her. “That’s why I asked it.”
“All of your family comes here after their supposed death,” she said. “This is their home. In the generations before your family came here, they went to the older castle in Romania.”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“I am talking about your heritage,” she said. “The heritage of a thousand generations. The reason your family’s wealth has been so carefully preserved, so the castles can be maintained.”
It was later than I realised. The sun was beginning to set outside, when my mother and my uncle appeared by my side.
“Our heritage,” my mother said, “is a life few people can understand. None of us dies. Nothing ends. We just transition. Go back to Australia. Live your life. Find someone to love. Raise a child or even two. Then when the time is right, come home.”
“We’ll be waiting for you then,” my uncle said. “We’ll be here. The whole family will be here when you come home.”