It never rains but it pours. Which is one of those sayings that is so useful it survives despite being patently untrue. For instance, in early December of that year it seemed to do nothing but drizzle in Westchester County, a fine mist of water that perversely refused to find its own level but instead hung gusting in the air, making everything damp. Day after day it rained while steadfastly refusing to pour. The residents of Grimbly Hall quickly reached a point where they just wished the sky would have a good thunderstorm already and get this nonsense out of its system.
Mrs. Patavatsky, the housekeeper of the Hall, cursed the drizzle volubly and often, though mostly in Russian, her native language, so no one else in the Hall had the opportunity to be scandalized. “Is capitalist plot,” she told Hughes, the ghostly butler of the house. He did not reply. “They seed clouds, make oppressive weather to deaden political sensitivities of working class.” She found it impossible to keep the house’s linens dry, and when your employer is a four thousand year old mummy wrapped head to toe in bandages, the state of one’s linens is a matter of some import.
Neville, the mummy in question, was of a perpetually sunny disposition but even he seemed put out by the quasi-rain. “If it would just snow already, we could go tobogganing. If it would let up, we could play tennis on the lawn.”
His chauffeur Reggie was a werewolf and prone to brown studies, and the weather didn’t help. Not even the thought of getting to chase stray tennis balls (one of his most shameful guilty pleasures) seemed to cheer him up. He spent those drizzly days eating and staring out of windows at absolutely nothing.
An air of lassitude had consumed the house and everyone prayed for something to break the tedium. What they didn’t know was that they were going to get it. Rather a lot of it, in fact. They were due for a busy day.
Neville had put the word around, through various discreet channels, that certain guests would always be welcome at Grimbly Hall. Guests like himself and Reggie, guests who were of a particularly unnatural nature, as it were. Monsters, if we must, had a standing invitation. He’d begun to despair when no one showed up. But then someone did.
Had anyone been looking out the front-facing windows of the hall toward the road they might have seen something curious. A little patch of air that was clearly unoccupied by any material object, but which seemed different somehow. Maybe it was a greenish blur, or a bit of space that contained a fraction more sunlight than the surrounding gray. As it approached it seemed to take form, though it never quite got as far as having a distinct shape. Perhaps it resembled a human woman in general outline. It certainly had feet, as it left footprints on the wet and squishy lawn. In fact, wherever the shape passed, tiny wildflowers and curled-up ferns poked up through the yellow grass, miniature little heralds of a spring that was still months away. They didn’t last, but for a while Grimbly Hall was possessed of a peculiarly linear new garden.
The shape approached the steps before the Hall’s main door. Moss sprouted suddenly from the chipped marble there, green as Ireland in summer. The shape knocked on the wooden door and a creeper of ivy twisted outward from the spot of contact.
Hughes answered the knock, no more than a spectral hand holding the door open as the shape stepped inside. Without a word or any kind of introduction the greenish figure walked through into the main hall, leaving patches of mold on every surface it touched. Giving Mrs. Patavatsky a whole new thing to grumble about (though to be fair, it was one of her chiefest pleasures, grumbling).
By this point Neville had become aware that he had a visitor. He rushed out of the library like a puppy greeting a mailman and wringed his hands together in sheer ebullience. He did everything but jump up and down.
This new visitor was one of theirs, it was plain to see.
“Welcome!” Neville said. “Welcome, indeed. I’m Neville, and this is my house. But no need to stand on ceremony, please come in.”
The vaguely female patch of light neither spoke nor made any gesture that it—she—was even aware of his presence. As if she knew the layout of the Hall perfectly, she walked through a doorway into the conservatory wing. Neville followed after, careful not to get ahead of her.
The conservatory was a rather busy place, and therefore difficult to describe. We shall essay an attempt, anyway.
It was all one long room, enclosed in panes of glass that were now streaked and smeared with condensation. A complicated maze of pipes ran overhead, suspended from thick cables, which allowed the gardeners to spray the plants with water as needed. This apparatus was controlled from a wrought-iron mezzanine overlooked a profusion of green life and wandering brick paths kept scrupulously clean. Tables full of terra cotta pots shared space with tanks that held water lilies and hyacinths, between which were stands of bonsai and saplings that would one day become fruit trees. At the far end of the conservatory was a fenced-off array of carnivorous plants gathered from around the world.
Pride of place, however, went to an oak tree of medium height but considerable breadth, with its topmost branches almost brushing up against the glass roof. The tree had in fact been there even before the house—in fact, the conservatory had been constructed around it so that it wouldn’t have to be cut down. The gardeners had always taken very good care of that tree, as if it were the only thing keeping the Hall from falling down.
Said gardeners might require a bit of explanation. They were ushabtis, eight inch tall blue pottery men, forty of them in all. They had been buried with Neville so they could do farm labor for him in the afterlife. As Neville had never entered the afterlife, they had to content themselves with his botanical collection. They did not speak or complain, though they’d been known to give visitors to the Hall the occasional nasty look.
When they saw the greenish shape enter their domain, every single one of them dropped what they were doing and kneeled down on the floor, their tiny clay hands touching the tiles as they prostrated themselves before this new presence.
She ignored them just as she had ignored Neville. With measured steps she approached the oak tree. It really was a proud specimen, with thick roots that had broken through the floor tiles and wound around the legs of the standing tables, and a trunk as thick across as an elephant’s waist. Should it ever need to be uprooted (perish the thought), it would be necessary to demolish the entire conservatory to get it out.
The shape climbed up on one of its mighty roots, then placed her hands against the thick trunk. The shape had fingers, which it ran through the wrinkled bark as if it were combing hair. After a moment the fingers sank through the bark, into the wood. The shape pressed itself up against the tree and slowly, with much labor, began to fuse itself into the oak’s mass.
It took a while.
Reggie wandered in at some point, a roast beef sandwich in his hand. He was nibbling around the bread. By that point only the head and part of the back of the green shape remained visible.
“Dryad?” he asked.
“Hamadryad,” Neville said, rather breathlessly, and with the ironclad authority of a man holding a reference book. Which in this case was nothing more exotic than Bullfinch’s Mythology. “A dryad is simply a wood nymph who lives near a tree. A hamadryad is the actual spirit of the tree, part of its being.”
The last of the green shape disappeared into the bark. The oak seemed to shiver in ecstasy, its leaves rattling in exhilaration, its sinuous branches twining together.
Reggie looked away, a little embarrassed. “What’s she doing here? Got your embossed invite, sure, but why here specifically? There’s only about a million trees out in the woods.”
“One of which I assume was her former home. I daresay she’s looking for a warm place to spend the winter. You know, it’s funny. I’ve looked at this tree a thousand times since we moved in. I never quite noticed that those burls in the wood resembled a face so much, before.”
Reggie frowned. “That’s because they weren’t there before, boss.”
Three brand new knots had indeed appeared in the thickest part of the trunk. They looked exactly like an expressionless mouth and two round eyes.
“Please make yourself at home,” Neville called out, a trifle louder than necessary, and completely pointlessly since the hamadryad had already done exactly that. “If there’s anything you need, just—”
He stopped because one low branch of the oak dipped gently, then—no more than it would have if caught in a sudden and localized breeze—and pointed at a nearby watering can. Neville took a step toward it, but the ushabtis beat him by a considerable margin. A round dozen of them lifted it high on their backs, then tilted it to sprinkle its contents on the tree’s roots.
It looked like the hamadryad was fitting in nicely.
“Perhaps,” Neville said, “I’ll let you be for now. You’ll probably want to rest after your… relocation. But maybe we can speak, later? Or I can just talk, if you’d be willing to listen.” He had read somewhere that plants did better when someone took the time to talk to them. It didn’t sound terribly scientific, but then, he was an undead mummy animated by a dark curse, so he really wasn’t one to balk over experimental rigor. “That is, if you’d like that.”
He received no answer. He might have continued to speak, for all the good it might be expected to do, but he had to stop as just then he was called away. For, from the front hall, he’d distinctly heard someone knocking on the front door.