At sundown, it was part of Cécile’s daily routine to return to the spartan teachers’ dormitory, located behind the chapel in an inconspicuous corner of the expansive campus. In contrast to the luxurious buildings elsewhere on campus, which were elegantly furnished in oak for the use of the aristocratic students, the teachers lived in plain box-like structures built in extremely spartan style without any excess ornamentation.
The faculty quarters were separated into male and female dormitories. Spacious rooms large enough for a family were located on the second floor of the male dormitory. A small pond lay in between the two square buildings, and every springtime, small birds would go there to visit, resting their tired wings on the way back north from their yearly migrations.
Cécile and her fellow teachers enjoyed leaving breadcrumbs in the pond to feed the birds. This served as a placid, calming ritual to signify the advent of spring….
On one particular night, Cécile finished her day’s work and came back to the dormitory. As she rubbed her constantly aching back, she tossed breadcrumbs into the pond as usual, and flipped through the pages of the ladies’ magazines she subscribed to, all while massaging small circles into her skin. She began chatting with a friend from her school days who lived in the room next to hers.
“I hear that the music teacher, Mr. Jenkins, has taken rather poorly lately,” her friend said.
Cécile made a sympathetic murmur in reply to her friend’s gossip.
Mr. Jenkins had been the music teacher ever since Cécile had been a student, and he was getting up in years. His health had declined, and he had recently been admitted to a hospital in Sauvrème, the capital of Sauvure.
“Once Mr. Jenkins dies, there won’t be anyone left to play that harp.”
“You’re right…” Cécile couldn’t help nodding at the sound of her friend’s somber tone. Mr. Jenkins was a talented harpist, and on weekend evenings would often invite other teachers to his and his wife’s room on the second floor and treat them to a fine tea party.
Oh, Mrs. Jenkins made some delicious milk tea, and those baked scones…. Cécile sighed wistfully. And then those sandwiches with salmon and fluffy cream cheese. And her cherry cake…
Realizing the direction her thoughts were taking, she blushed to herself. No, no, his harp performance. Right, I should think about that instead. …And those scones piled high with blackcurrant jam and clotted cream—no, not about that!
Cécile struggled to banish the thought of a between-meal snack from her mind as she relieved her nostalgic memories.
“But either way, Mr. Jenkins will probably never perform again,” continued her friend.
“Are you sure?!”
“That’s because I heard that a new music teacher will be coming here next week. I hope it’s another good one.”
Now feeling truly contrite, Cécile thought of the kind Mr. Jenkins, who had always always been gracious to her in those days when she was a carefree student, even though her grades were not exactly the best. He was patient, taught the students to appreciate the beauty of the piano and of music, and was like a grandpa who always had a smile on his face….
Cécile slept fitfully that night. She woke up the next day at her usual time, ate breakfast, and then headed to St. Marguerite’s Library, her face clouded by worries and unhappy feelings.
Unsure of which books to take with her, she picked out five appropriately heavy-looking tomes, and hefted them up in her arms with a grunt of exertion.
Outside, a tiny bird tweeted a song in the sunshine.
Under considerable physical strain, Cécile walked to the gingerbread house as she already done many times before. Just as she was about to turn the doorknob, which was shaped like a small shortbread cookie, the door suddenly flew open from the inside. She cried out in surprise when a group of students—blond-haired, blue-eyed children from aristocratic families—burst out of the house at the same time, shouting, “Whoa!”
None of them bothered to pick up the books that Cécile had dropped to the floor in her shock.
“Oh, it’s you. Say, what’s this building for? Why would someone build a dollhouse on campus?” asked one student.
Several children crowded around Cécile, who was gathering up her books from the ground . “W-well…” she stuttered.
“It’s full of books, and there’s nobody around. It’s creepy to have a dollhouse with no dolls in it.”
“There’s nobody around?” Cécile repeated. The students exchanged a look among themselves, then nodded.
Cécile felt her heart pounding in her chest. “Come on, it’s getting late. It’s time to get back to the classroom,” she scolded, trying to project anger through her voice as she shooed them away. Then she rushed inside the house and closed the door behind her.
There was nothing left but the sound of silence.
The darkness writhed silently, closing in on Cécile like a dark velvet blanket, just like it had every time she entered the house.
She should have been used to this atmosphere by now, this thick, suffocating darkness.
And beyond it…
Cécile breathed a sigh of relief.
Beyond it, she saw that girl, like a porcelain doll, sitting in her usual position.
She wore a lavish black and white dress, and a bonnet replete with floral-patterned lace upon her head. Her tiny feet were encased in leather boots fastened with fabric-covered buttons. Her long hair flowed down to the floor like melted gold, curling around her small body.
“So you were here after all.”
Victorique betrayed not the slightest reaction to the sound of Cécile’s voice.
“Weren’t there some students in here just now? They said there was no one inside.”
“I’ll leave your books here for you. Later on I’ll bring some black tea, a soft-boiled egg, and cherry salad for your breakfast. …Miss Victorique?”
She heard no response.
Victorique’s face moved with the tiniest suggestion of a twitch, forming an annoyed frown. Cécile sighed and quietly left the gingerbread house, but not before turning back to look at her one more time.
A warm spring breeze blew. A sweet scent from the flowers outside tickled Cécile’s nostrils. As she walked briskly back to the school, she thought of that small girl who was confined inside her house, ignorant of the warmth of the spring breeze, or the sweetness of the flowers. The little rose thorn embedded in Cécile’s heart twisted inside of her again. She shook her head glumly, and hurried along the winding path through the gardens.
And then one morning, several days later…
It was that dazzling time of year when the sunlight grew warmer by the day, heralding the transition between the end of spring and the first days of summer.
In the gardens, white butterflies danced upon flower buds as they bloomed open one by one…
That morning, with one hand supporting her back, Cécile walked into the faculty room. She sensed that she was a few minutes late when she happened to walk in on a middle-aged man being introduced to the other teachers. The new music teacher had arrived. He had graduated from a famous music college in Sauvrème, and by all appearances brimmed with confidence.
Once they finished exchanging introductions, the new music teacher called out to Cécile, who was preparing to run out of the room. He accompanied her as she rushed to her classroom, and questioned her about Mr. Jenkins. She replied by sharing her reminiscences about harp recitals and tea parties.
“Hmm, recitals. That sounds lovely,” the new teacher responded, making appropriate sounds of admiration.
“Yes, it really was. So everyone is really heartbroken to lose such a dear friend.”
He nodded. “I see. He must have been a fine person.”
The moment he spoke, a strong gust of wind blew past them. It was the dry wind of early summer.
Cécile knitted her brows, and raised both hands to rearrange her large round glasses, which had been blown out of place.
That evening, Cécile once again left St. Marguerite’s Library with a stack of books in her arms, grunting to herself as she made her way to the gingerbread house.
When she opened the door, she ended up bumping into a student who was in the process of leaving.
“You’re back here again, Miss Cécile?” The student curiously eyed the stack of books Cécile carried. Then she looked back inside, and glanced uneasily at the piles of heavy books which crammed the house in such tall stacks that they seemed to transform into extra walls.
“Oh, it’s you.” Cécile recognized the student, with her bright blond pigtails the color of wheat, as one of the girls in her homeroom class.
The girl narrowed her eyes into thin slits. “Why are you here again, Miss Cécile?”
This student had apparently come to the gingerbread house by herself today. Cécile fell nervously silent, uncertain of how she should respond.
The girl continued in an awed tone. “It’s a dollhouse with no dolls and no people—exactly what I expected to find at a haunted school like St. Marguerite’s!”
“Well, no, that’s not exactly it—” Cécile stopped herself. “…Wait. Did you say there’s nobody here?”
“No, no one at all.” The girl yawned widely, apparently tired of investigating, and strutted out the door, sassily shaking her small behind from side to side.
Cécile lowered her books into the claw foot table, then went searching through the house. “Miss Victorique!”
She looked in the bedroom. But Victorique was not in the charmingly-decorated canopy bed, nor was she under it. Cécile then raced up the spiral staircase and ran into the dressing room on the second floor. She parted the suffocatingly thick sea of white lace, pink frills, and black ribbons, in hopes of finding a tiny little girl hidden among them.
“Miss Victorique?! Where are you?”
Cécile systematically looked under tables, inside closets, and even under the cushions of the rocking chair, as if looking for a lost kitten.
But Victorique was nowhere to be found.
“I guess you really aren’t here, then…. Where could you be?”
Cécile sank down upon a rectangular chest nearby, exhausted from her search.
The chest began to make a creaking noise.
In between creaks, she heard a brief, low moan that was filled with deep displeasure.
It came from under Cécile’s bottom.
For a moment, an expression akin to that of a dove who had just been hit by buckshot appeared on Cécile’s face, her large drooping hazel eyes nearly crossing together.
Cécile slowly rose from the chest, then took a close look at it.
Through a crack in the rectangular box, which looked too small for any person to fit inside, she caught a glimpse of something.
Something white and fluffy…
Frills, which were apparently in a very foul mood.
Cécile eyed the chest suspiciously, not wanting to believe what she saw. She slowly lifted the lid.
An exquisite porcelain doll—no, a tiny, beautiful girl, enveloped in frills, lace, and calico ribbons—sat inside, a highly aggrieved frown creasing her face. She held a book in her arms. A lollipop peeked out from her smooth, cherry-red lips.
“M-Miss Victorique…!” Cécile cried out in horror. “Wh-wh-why are you in a place like this again? This box is meant for storing clothes. It isn’t somewhere for you to sit. Wait… Um, Miss Victorique, might I ask…” Cécile hesitated rather than continue with her next words.
Victorique, looking very peeved, huddled motionlessly in a ball, like a wild animal whose pride had been hurt.
Could it be that you were hiding…? Cécile thought silently. Are you afraid of people? You are, aren’t you…?
Victorique sullenly pouted, and showed no signs of wanting to come out of the chest for the rest of the day.
“Hey, mister, have you been busy lately?”
The sun was setting on a day close to the start of summer.
While watching white-winged birds float on the surface of a pond in the gardens, Cécile called out to a heavy-set old gardener who was hard at work.
The grizzled old man, his large frame draped with a pair of overalls, answered gruffly. “Yeah? What kind of question is that? Of course I’ve been busy. Imagine if you were the one who had to look after this huge garden day after day. Huh?”
Although he came from a humble background, Cécile had known him ever since she was a schoolgirl, and considered him a friend. As the gardener continued to mumble under his breath about how busy he was, Cécile pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and said, “There’s something I’d like you to make for me.”
“Another toy boat or something, I’ll bet. All you want is stuff that’s a pain in the ass to make.”
“No, I don’t mean that. Actually, what I want is a flower garden.”
“A flower garden?!” the gardener repeated in bafflement. He paused in the middle of trimming a hedge, his enormous gardening shears halting in mid-movement. “Where do you want it?”
“Well, you know that little gingerbread house that went up recently?”
“I want you to build a garden around it. You know, like a lot of estates had in the Middle Ages. A garden maze. Something that winds around and around, where only people who know the way can get in. That sort of thing.”
“A garden maze!” The old gardener rose to his feet. His body, like a small mountain, shook merrily. “Hmm. Could be interesting. You’re saying I could make it any way I want to?”
“All right, I’ll do it.”
Cécile sighed in relief.
And then she silently looked over her shoulder in the direction of the little house. A breeze was blowing, rustling the white flowers. The sun was setting, and the garden would soon be plunged into blackness. To Cécile, it felt as if the darkness that had suffused the inside of that house had come to invade the outside world.
The sky faded from twilight to nighttime.
The pale moon rose in the eastern sky.
With skillful hands, the old gardener began to plant a garden maze around the perimeter of the dollhouse.
Geometrical patterns wove around and around the small house, and grew steadily taller, warding off any intrusions from curious students.
And then, around that time…
A certain incident occurred.