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2nd place, Prose in the Randall Albers Young Writers Award: “Inviolable” by Charlotte Hensley

Thursday, May 9, 2024


I brought out a silver platter loaded with poached eggs, toast, glistening cherries, and sugar-coated pastries—much more than she was ever able to eat. Still, I made it for her, as always, with precision and care. We were alone here, the two of us, except for the endless cycle of housemaids living downstairs, none of whom stayed for long. Perhaps such acute isolation was not their dream, as it was mine.

Mrs. Branson was waiting at the head of the long dining table, slumped so deeply into her ornate velvet chair that she was starting to slide out of view. With her hands in her lap, she looked wistfully, if not forlornly, out of the window. She wore a long purple dress with ruffles at the neckline and a thick layer of stage makeup; her sharp cheekbones sprung with ruby red. She methodically put herself together this way every morning, despite the fact that she had not left the confines of her home—or had any kind of visitor—in almost a decade.

The sun streamed into the marble-floored room at odd angles; the sky outside, overlooking vast gardens filled with manicured hedges and flowers threatening to wilt, had a silver haze that barely let the sun shine through. One particular sunbeam cast onto the bits of gray that were starting to grow into Mrs. Branson’s dark brown hair. Some especially wiry ones stuck straight upwards around her tightly pulled-back bun, giving her an air of messiness. Lately, I had been feeling just as disheveled, with my plain green dress and my dirty blond hair pulled carelessly back.

She jumped suddenly as I set the breakfast tray down in front of her; lost in her own thoughts, she hadn’t noticed me until she heard the clatter of the tray. Immediately, she corrected herself and smiled warmly, the heavy makeup under her eyes cracking slightly. “Oh, thank you, Lucy.”

I nodded. “And how are you doing, after . . . last night, ma’am?”

Her smile quickly fell. She’d been having night terrors for months; I knew this because I was always the first person to rush to her side when she began her screaming. They’d been rare at first, but recently they’d been happening almost every night. The night before was the worst I’d seen. She’d screamed as if unable to move, as if she were trapped somewhere, unable to release herself, as she tried to rip her covers and scratch her arms. And when I shook her awake, she’d whispered unintelligible things before coming to her senses.

“I’m doing all right,” she replied. “Just tired.” I nodded again, sympathetically, and began to look around. Some sort of vast sadness emanated from that room. The air was oppressive and stale. This, despite its opulence—its shiny mahogany table, its gold wallpaper, its intricate mantlepiece that stood tall behind the head of the table.

“Lucy, dear, please read to me,” she instructed.

I grabbed a book from a large pile that lay on the end of the table and went to sit in the chair beside her. This was my morning routine. I got to do this, I suppose, because she saw something of herself in me. She often told me that I was her favorite. Well, of course I was—all the housemaids thought she was a kook, perhaps even mad. They didn’t understand her in the least.

I opened a well-worn book and began to read to Mrs. Branson. Just as she liked, I used the animated voice of a storyteller—but I’d read no more than five pages when she began to stare out the window again. She shivered and, for a moment, would not blink.

“Mrs. Branson?” I asked quietly.

She snapped back to reality. She looked at me, her face grave, her eyes almost pleading. “Lucy, I want to tell you this. When I have my nightmares, or visions, or whatever you’d like to call them, they always happen not while I’m asleep, but when I’m, I suppose, half asleep. I wake up because I hear these noises outside.”

I blinked at her. “What sort of noises, Mrs. Branson?”

“I hear—screams. Coming from my gardens.” She pointed loosely toward the window, at a large, spiral-shaped hedge. “And then I start having some sort of reaction to it, I don’t know, I can’t exactly control it. And they remind me how I am not safe. Or, rather, how it is not safe outside of this house. Why I must stay in this house. It scares me.”

I listened to her, my face attentive, empathetic. Perhaps she wasn’t really hearing screams, but I perfectly understood the irrationality of her thoughts. I, too, had once known what it’s like to feel constantly at risk, unsafe. Perhaps that feeling was always with me, in some way.

“Lucy, I trust you more than anyone in this whole house,” Mrs. Branson continued, her voice quiet and frightened. “And so, I must ask you: will you please, please go out there and figure out what I’m hearing? If I were to know it isn’t real, maybe I could go out there, one day.”

I stared at the floor, thinking about why Mrs. Branson hadn’t left the house for so long. She had once been an admired stage actor, with moderate fame—there were newspaper articles hung in lopsided frames throughout the building, filled with words like “glamorous,” “formidable,” and “brilliant.” But then one day her husband, who doubled as her manager, decided her career was done. At forty-five, she apparently could no longer be glamorous, formidable, nor brilliant; she was spent. Gossiping newspaper stories reported about raging fights between them.

And then suddenly Mrs. Branson went silent, divorced and alone in her remote country estate. She no longer showed her face to the world—only to herself in the mirror, painting her face for hours on end, camouflaging a red, knotted burn scar on her cheek with a heavy coat of rouge. Her legs also had burn marks, although her long dresses usually covered them.

The scars were caused by her husband, that much I knew—though I’d never received the full story. I didn’t push. She didn’t know much about my own story, so why ask for hers? We both felt, viscerally, the things the other had endured. We instantly recognized it through a simple glance, a sad smile, a sudden start, or when I shut the window some negligent housemaid had left open as Mrs. Branson stared at it in horror.

I took in a shaky breath, wanting to help her, to allay her fears, and said, “Yes, I suppose I could look into what you’ve been hearing.”

She thanked me profusely, and it seemed as if an enormous weight had been lifted from her. Then she requested, as always, that I keep reading to her.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, I asked, “Mrs. Branson, how would you feel if I read you something I wrote? Or, have been working on, I suppose. It’s not done yet.”

“Ah, well, of course, I would love that!” she replied.

I still had the notepad full of writing in my faded green dress pocket from the night before, when I had written into the early hours of the morning.

I had always loved to read and to write, ever since I was a child in a small cabin. I had learned how to read with my mother by the stove, my bare feet warmed by its glow. And in our bedroom I would dramatically act out the stories I wrote for my younger brother, my voice becoming low-pitched and musical, as it did now for Mrs. Branson.

The plot of my newest novel wove the story of a young woman seeking adventure and discovery, resisting the man who tried to contain her. Mrs. Branson listened closely, nodding her head with understanding as I went along. She snorted at various moments that focused on the villain, confiding, “That man sounds like my old husband, the bastard.”

And, of course, the man was also very much like my father. But the villain of my novel did not lay a hand on the heroine—this was where the real and the fictional men differed. The heroine of my story would not have to hear the door slam open, watch shadows dance near the flickering fireplace, watch as thick leather like a striking snake swung up into the air and cracked down. And she would not be ridiculed for wanting more. No, she would never have to feel any of that; I made sure she would not.

In my novel, the heroine escaped in the same way I did: she waited until her father was filled with ale and fast asleep. She warned her mother of her departure and tearfully left a letter for her younger brother. She walked out the front door and into the night. She was amazed at how easy it was to be free.

But whereas my heroine then began her sweeping adventures, starting somewhere in the mountains, I followed a newspaper posting for work in a local estate. It wasn’t far from home, but it was far enough. And whereas I gave my heroine the gift of fearlessness, I could not edit away my own backstory; the past weighed me down too heavily, especially with my father mere miles away. And so I traded my freedom for isolation, an isolation coated in a dripping sense of sanctuary, one that kept me stuck tight to the estate, like viscid honey.

As I finished reading my latest chapter, I closed my eyes for a moment and smelled the dusty, stale air of the room. It was then that I realized I would not simply humor her request: I would go out into the gardens that evening, and I would find out what was frightening Mrs. Branson so horribly, making her scream out into the night—and what was keeping her from experiencing the world that still lay so vastly in front of her.


I sat down on a cold step of the main, grand staircase, staring out into the wide foyer that lay ahead. There was a red silk rug, and the sun streamed in from a tiny window on one side, pouring a small yet blinding beam of light into the otherwise dim room.

It was here where Mrs. Branson found me. She came from behind me on the stairs, and her echoed voice startled me as she asked, “Will you be going out soon?” I turned around and looked up. In that moment, I could imagine her onstage, glimpse how her intelligence and radiance had once commanded attention. But now the only thing amplifying her voice was the reverberation of the room.

“Of course,” I said. “I can go look for you right now, Mrs. Branson.” She smiled at me with gratefulness brimming in her eyes, and simply said, “Thank you, Lucy.” She drifted down the stairs with a hesitant step, took my arm, and led me toward the back door.

I felt queasy as we moved through the mansion. It was getting dark outside, darker than it should’ve been in the late afternoon. No beams of sunlight gleamed across the marble floors. Only dust and shadows lined the walls.

Mrs. Branson opened the door leading to the estate’s vast grounds, filled with row after row of prickly flowers, knobby trees, and carefully maintained hedges. She smiled down at me, and a small flake of white makeup fluttered down from her cheek. She was on the verge of tears as she left, then, back into her shelter, closing the enormous double doors behind her.

It was only a little bit dark, I told myself. There was only a little bit of fog.

After wandering for a bit, I decided to follow the spiral pattern of the central hedge. It was massive, its spiral the centerpiece of the immaculate garden. The bushes making up the spiral were short enough to see over; I could keep an eye on the whole of the garden as I moved closer to the spiral’s center.

As I continued down the hedge’s path, the world got a little quieter, as if watching me. I took deep breaths and took a series of turns on crunching gravel, readying myself for any sounds or sights that could be considered out of the ordinary.

But the farther I walked, the taller the hedge seemed to grow. Its bushes suddenly became so tall that they loomed far above my head, darkening the world around me. I knew where I was going, I thought to myself—in a spiral. But the hedge began to feel like an airless, narrow maze, with irregular patterns, sharp turns around corners that definitely weren’t there before, and separate pathways.

Sounds—owls, cicadas, twigs snapping under god knows what—became louder and more overpowering, and the wind blew through my hair, which had fallen out of its bun. The leaves of the hedges began to tremor violently, and the gravel under my feet began to shake. No, I couldn’t do it. I turned around and ran back toward where I had entered.

The wind whistled, became colder, and grew stronger. Blowing into my face as I ran, it seemed to pull me backward. Suddenly, I noticed a thick wall of leaves at the end of the path in front of me—a dead end. Everything was dark. I stopped running.

A flickering glow began to emanate ahead of me. I blinked hard, and when I opened my eyes, an image appeared: a room resembling a dressing room with a lightbulb-covered mirror, filled with costumes, flowers, and framed awards. And from within this room, a man appeared, his face red and his graying hair in disarray. He struck a match from a box in his hand and 

dropped it upon a sequined dress. As he left, the fire began jumping from item to item, coating the room with a thin layer of flame. The hedges that enclosed the scene shone brightly with orange.

Then, a scream—Mrs. Branson burst into the room. She was noticeably younger—her hair dark, her smooth face free of imperfections. As she dove for the objects that had defined her life, a clothing rack crashed and pinned her to the ground, catching her in the flames. She screamed, intermixed with coughing and sobbing.

I ran away from the vision, fast. It was so dark again that I couldn’t see—I tripped over gravel and fell, twice, feeling the sharp stones cut into my skin.

Then, a light. A few feet in front of me, it shone onto a wooden desk, small and simple, with a woman seated in front of it, writing ceaselessly, vigorously, with a large stack of papers beside her. I saw, as she turned, that her face was the same as mine, only slightly older—more refined and wise.

Suddenly, a figure stepped out of the shadows, a match in his hand. The woman stopped writing, and I, too, went cold: I saw the cruel, gnarled face of my father. He took her stack and lit his match upon it. The paper began to crumple at the edges with flames. She dove at the pages, but he hit her hard across the face, casting her a few feet away. As she fell, the whole scene disappeared into thin air, leaving only a reddish glow.

I shouted at her not to go, reaching out toward the now-empty air. But when I looked down at the hand I had extended, it was not my hand. It couldn’t be. My crying turned to confusion. My hands were shriveled, gnarled with arthritis. The nails were yellowed and veins bulged. I tried to scream again, but I could not summon the energy, as my tired lungs refused to work in their usual way. I had become frail all over. I felt my neck with my knotted hands and realized that it was saggy and dry.

I tried to start moving again. As I made a sharp turn in the maze, a rush of wind whooshed past my body, so strong I felt I would be lifted into the air. I shut my eyes. This was the end of the maze, I thought. Or maybe it was death. But, no, there was more—the air in the hedge was now suffocating and dense, and there was a nauseating smell.

I opened my eyes. In front of me was a vision of Mrs. Branson’s dining room. At first, I noticed the wall: it was much dustier than usual; there were even a few patches of what looked to be mold clinging onto the ornate gold wallpaper. Then I turned around to face the dining table, with its vast, shining wood, and looked to the head of the table.

Surrounded by piles of rotting food on plates, Mrs. Branson sat in her chair, her eyes wide and glossy and her mouth hanging slightly open. She was old. She was very old. Her hair was a thin white tuft on the top of her head and her skin was loose with wrinkles, far worse than the ones that had appeared on my own skin. She was small and shriveled, in a threadbare purple dress. Her face was hollow, her body was limp. She was dead. A singular fly flew from a plate of rotten fruit and landed on her cheek, on the still-knotted burn mark.

It was then that I realized we would be stuck in the stale air of this estate forever, Mrs. Branson and I, unable to find a way out. And so I began to scream, for all that was lost, for all that would never be, until the hedge began to echo it back at me, until the world began to spin.

And somewhere in the far-off distance, I received a response: the anguished cries of Mrs. Branson, tossing and turning in bed, trying desperately to answer my calls. We screamed, in perfect unison.

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