This short story was, in some way or another, a-brewin’ in the depths of my brain, and possibly somewhere deep down in that little, cranky dark place I occasionally refer to as my heart. My recent trip home for Easter, a short story my friend Lindsey had me read, and my own recent reflecting on the Pittsburgh area were apparently the necessary catalysts to bring this out.
I’ve not seen my grandmother’s house since the last time my family was there to pack things up and move her in with us. A lovely family moved in, and apparently it’s changed quite a bit. There’s something about that I can’t actually cope with, so I’ve stayed away.
Anyway, I’ll stop lollygagging and get to the important part: the story, which is titled “The Old Castle on Meridan Street”. This story took several emotionally-draining hours to write, and it made me feel a curious mix of nostalgic joy and sadness. I hope it translated into some good writing. Enjoy, and feel free to share similar locations from your past that have left permanent impressions on your heart in the comments.
Quite some years ago, when I was still just a mischievous little brat (although it could easily be argued my mischief has continued along with me to the present day), I lived in a beautiful old castle. That castle sat high atop a mountain, standing proud over a great and bustling city surrounded by rivers. Honest truth, or at least as close to the truth as I can remember. The old castle belonged to my grandmother, and there were always plenty of rooms for weary travelers to call their own.
A handful of steps, carved from the very earth itself, lead up to a short path and a wooden set of stairs. I’d spent so many hours here, enjoying stories carried along a warm summer night’s breeze. Those very same summer breezes would one day conspire against the castle and, in a mighty whirlwind, attempt to tear it to the ground. The castle, like my grandmother, stood strong and endured through the wind and the rain and the hardship.
The castle’s exterior could be a bit intimidating, and left many a visitor standing in awe just outside of its front doors. Immediate feelings of warmth and welcome waited just beyond the threshold. To the left, a vast gathering room with an open view of the great dining hall, where family and friends would gather regularly. Holidays were especially exciting, when family from near and far would travel to that very gathering room to sit around the unlit fireplace. Gifts were exchanged, of course, and everyone had news to share of their lives while they were elsewhere.
The dining hall’s enormous wood-framed doorway let all sorts of fantastic smells lure us its way once the food was set out. There was never a lack of food there, either, with such staples as pineapple upside-down cake to tempt us towards dessert before we’d even gotten started on the meal proper. No matter how plentiful the company happened to be, there always seemed like there was an excess number of chairs. Looking back on it, I know the old castle loved such company, and asked for more in its own little ways.
Off to the right, just within the entrance, were the mysterious winding wooden stairs. They bent at angles here and there, and had an abundance of landings that featured beautiful stained glass windows. Once, not too long ago, I nearly fell through one of those windows, and I’m quite glad I hadn’t. It would’ve been a shame to ruin such lovely art, and I imagine the long drop and abrupt stop wouldn’t have suited me particularly well. There were a couple hidden staircases, too. They were secrets kept by a small handful. I spent a fair bit of time sneaking about through these lesser-known passages.
The first set of winding, old stairs stopped outside of the many bedrooms the castle offered. There were plenty of places for guests to stay, but the rooms owned by the castle’s permanent fixtures—my grandmother and great aunt—had their own character about them. I can still see the view from my grandmother’s room sometimes, if I close my eyes and think about it long enough. I can only vaguely remember the look on my mother’s face when she’d once discovered my sister and me climbing out of one such window and onto a lower roof.
The one bedroom, which I had shared with my mother and sister for years (until, finally, I was granted my own room), had magical properties. I’m certain of it. Some nights, once the lights were extinguished, I could feel the castle stretching upwards. I knew the room was drifting gradually skywards, and if I didn’t concentrate hard enough it would get lost in the clouds and drift away forever. It’s how I developed my perfectly rational fear of heights, actually.
Up another set of stairs, which creaked and groaned and muttered things just at the edge of my hearing, but never quite clear enough for me to make out the words, existed two rooms rarely visited. The third floor was a place of mystery and curiosity, divided into two large rooms filled with congealed memories. There were all sorts of old oddities from earlier in my grandmother and great aunt’s lives, and perhaps some from even earlier than that. My sister and I would sneak up there, our stealth regularly betrayed by the stairs, and we’d spend hours exploring the dusty remnants of years gone-by. These rooms afforded a view that could leave even the highest-flying birds envious. There are still days I wish I could sneak up some of the hidden stairs, creep up the more boisterous steps from the second floor to the third, and appreciate that view again. My vocabulary’s grown so much over the years, and it seems a shame I can’t use it to taunt those lofty sky-rats.
The castle’s dungeons required braving rickety stairs that threatened to drop into the abyss below. The dungeons themselves were carved out of the ground beneath the castle and fortified. They were made up of a vast, open space, with small dividers here and there to distract the eyes from whatever creatures might have lurked in the darkened corners the light feared to reach into. This also explains my completely rational fear of the dark (as well as my fear that there are things hiding in the basement, just waiting for me to shut off the lights). There were plenty of times I had to run up the steps as fast as I could, shutting out the light and slamming the door behind me, because I knew there was some manner of hitherto undiscovered beast whose jaws were only inches away from snapping shut around me.
Beyond the dungeons, visible from entrance, are the modest kitchens, and a small sitting room just within the exit to the castle gardens. My grandmother and great aunt created many amazing feasts in this small kitchen. My sister and I, in our efforts to follow their lead, would experiment with our own recipes. As it turns out, mixing water and flour does not amount to proper pizza dough, and ketchup is not a suitable pizza sauce. It was also a sort of torture chamber on a handful of occasions when I was sick, but too stubborn to take medicine without the helpful persuading of one or more adults. There is much evil in trying to convince a child the red, questionable-looking liquid that stunk of cough syrup on his ice cream sundae was actually strawberry syrup instead.
Outside, just beyond the pantry doors, stood the pool of revitalization. Perched on stilts above the waves of green grass, the pool provided my family much relief on hot summer days. Friends and family would travel great distances to spend time with us on its deck, sitting in the sun on those perfect July afternoons when clouds seemed to be off doing things that didn’t involve hiding the sun away. The very tornado that tried to lay waste to the old castle did succeed, however, in taking the pool away. That lousy, breezy monster swept up the cinder block garage and deposited it in a neat, chaotic heap directly on top of the pool, ending years of late afternoon swimming.
When my grandmother’s health began to decline, she moved out to live with my mother, stepfather, sister, and I. Much of the castle seemed to move with her, and remains in the addition she lived in to this day. No matter how the furniture in that room is arranged or rearranged, I can still see her old recliner sitting at the perfect angle for watching afternoon soap operas while snacking on cheese curls dipped in blueberry yogurt.
The castle’s still there, though I’ve not visited it in a number of years. It’s changed quite a bit, or so I’ve heard, since my grandmother moved away. Whenever I’m visiting near enough, I can still hear the old place as though it was calling me home. I stay away, however, happy to remember things the way they were when my grandmother lived there, always ready to welcome me home.