The house on the hill just beyond the rice paddy was an unusual sight, and Dean Solis loved every bit of it. Built before his great-great-grandfather was even born, the Villa Dela Rocha remained to this very day, the same ominous stone giant that overlooked the little town of San Andres. Thirty years since Dean last set foot over the wrought iron threshold of the estate and still, nothing has changed. The two stone dogs by the wooden door remained, sitting with their backs arched as if ready to pounce at the slightest hint of unfamiliar movement. Just like the last time he saw them.
Dean stepped out of his green Volkswagen and honked the horn. A long, low blast echoed across the estate, causing a nearby flock of birds to fly out of an acacia tree. He wasn’t worried of causing any disturbance. After all, the next house was probably a kilometer or two away. He blasted his horn again, this time, with two short ones.
Soon, a small door carved into the larger wooden one, opened. Out came an old man dressed in a tartan shirt and brown overalls. The man had a toothbrush moustache that covered a toothless mouth. A straw hat blackened with dirt sat on a weird angle above his head.
Dean gave the old man a quick salute. The old man gave a wide grin and hurried towards the gate, gait shuffling, due to rubber boots two sizes too big.
The iron gates creaked as the old man pulled them open with much effort. Dean muttered thanks before getting back in his car, and driving it into the estate.
The old man’s name was Francisco. He has been the caretaker of the villa ever since Dean could remember. Like the house, Francisco didn’t seem to age as much as he should. Aside from a few greying strands of hair on his moustache, Francisco seemed fine, for a man of his age.
Francisco offered to bring the rest of Dean’s things to the master’s bedroom, which Dean gladly obliged.
“Feel free to take a look around,” Francisco said, taking two of Dean’s bags and carrying them towards the second floor. Dean nodded. Taking a tour of the house wasn’t a bad idea, Dean thought. He could use a memory refresher. Being gone for such a long time, there were some aspects of the villa that Dean had forgotten. If he was to live here for the next couple of months, he needed to familiarize himself with his surroundings.
Saying that the Villa Dela Rocha was huge was an understatement. It was colossal. The entrance itself was enough to house a simple two-story house. A twelve foot door made from carved oak stood at the center, with two staircases with golden railings, flanking both of its sides.
Dean reached for the brass knob and turned it slowly. He knew very well what lay beyond that door. It was what he came here for in the first place. Growing up, Dean had heard stories. Stories his grandfather used to tell him before taking his afternoon siesta. Dean’s cousins never wanted to hear about these tales, because it frightened them to bits. But not Dean, he would anticipate each of his grandfather’s tales about the lady of the house. The beautiful maiden who stood guard over the house on the hill, her arms outstretched, waiting for her beloved to come back to her, forever.
“They said she comes to life at night, and roams around the villa, searching every room for the lover that she lost,” Dean’s grandfather would whisper over his grandchildren’s scared faces.
“Stop it papi! We promise, we’ll go to sleep now,” one of the children would say, eyes tightly shut.
“Good girl, now close your eyes and you’ll have a cup of warm milk waiting when you wake up,” Dean’s grandfather would say before giving each of his grandchildren a kiss on their foreheads.
Little Dean hated it when his grandfather’s stories would end. If he had the choice, he would want to listen to the tale of the stone maiden, over and over again.
The oaken door led to the grand ballroom. It was circular, with varnished wood for wall panels, and parquet floors. And there at the center of the room just below a golden crystal chandelier, she stood. Her arms were outstretched, white and sculpted in marble, outstretched as though inviting one to enclose the rest of her in a tight embrace. Her face was like a diamond, with a wide forehead and a delicate chin. Ringlets of what could have been ebony hair fell down to her waist. He could only imagine dark hazel eyes, sensual and imploring as they gazed at him, lifeless like the rest of her. As he stared, he wondered whether those cold, dead lips would feel real, if not close to real, as the statue’s hands. Those marble hands that seemed to have been tailor-made to hold him, to pull him, to lock him in an eternal kiss. She was glorious.
Dean reached out for the statue’s hands and held it. They were cold and unfeeling, just like the rest of her. Slowly, he loosened his grip. Disappointed over the unknown. What was he expecting to happen anyway?
“Your things are all set Mr. Solis.” Francisco said as he entered the ballroom. “Anything else you need, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Francisco beamed. He looked like a walrus, only one without its tusks. “I’ll be at the garden,” Francisco added, before giving Dean a low bow.
It was late in the afternoon when Dean decided to visit the glasshouse. Francisco, who was busy trimming a box hedge, was bathed in his own sweat. Not two minutes had passed since Dean entered, that he felt an icy trickle down his spine.
“He truly loved her, didn’t he?” Dean said. He was busy examining the floor, which was covered with the mosaicked face of the lady. Albeit weathered, Dean thought the alternating red and black tiles amidst a circle of white jasmines, looked out of place.
“I couldn’t agree more… sir,” Francisco said. The old man stopped for a moment to look at Dean. “Although, I believe adored would be the proper term,” he added.
Dean stopped short in front of a small jade Buddha that sat beneath a roof of pink plum blossoms. “Care to elaborate?” he said, scanning the jade statue. It was a curious ornament to an otherwise, strictly European themed glasshouse.
“Well, it’s the same story. I’m sure you’ve heard it hundreds of times.” Francisco placed a hand at his collar and started tugging at it, as though his shirt just turned tight. He wasn’t smiling anymore. The old man’s face, which looked taut before, was now etched with deep lines, aging him greatly.
A flowered bench made from whitewashed wood was situated just a few steps away from where Dean was standing. Thinking that it was about time to rest his swollen feet, Dean took a seat. He gestured to Francisco, who was now standing still as a statue himself, to sit by his side.
Slightly apprehensive at first, the old man took tiny steps and then did as he was told.
“Tell me about it,” Dean urged. His eyes were filled with child-like interest that Francisco found it hard to refuse.
The old man inhaled until his nostrils flared. Then, he sighed until he was out of breath. Before inhaling once more, this time, with his eyes closed. “Captain Dela Rocha was a powerful man,” Francisco began, opening his eyes slowly. He decided it was best if he kept them focused on the ground as he retold the tale. “Rich, intelligent and famous. He owned half of San Andres, and according to the records, even had frequent dinners with the governor-general and the friars during that time. He had everything a man of his stature could ever desire.”
“Except,” Dean interrupted, “…a wife.”
Francisco nodded his head. “A fine gentleman such as himself deserved nothing more than a fine woman. Everyone knew that. So, before his fiftieth birthday, Captain Dela Rocha decided that it was time to look for a wife. The captain threw a ball, and invited all of the eligible young ladies in the land. Ladies and gentlemen from all over attended this grand ball.”
“When the captain was about to take his leave, just a few minutes before midnight, that was when he saw her.”
“She was dancing, wasn’t she?” Dean said excitedly.
“Yes,” Francisco answered. “Arabella. This young, fair-skinned and raven-haired maiden, who was moving across the dance floor, swirling in her blood-red dress, caught the captain’s eye.”
“He was smitten. Never had he seen such youthful beauty. In a trance, he ran down the stairs and scooped the young girl into his arms. He said he was in love and he wanted to marry her. The next day, the whole town celebrated their wedding. Arabella was twenty.”
“Twenty and very beautiful,” Dean said, more to himself.
“Arabella was beautiful. And she knew it,” Francisco continued. “She had the captain deeply under her spell.”
“No surprise there,” Dean whispered, thinking of the marble statue in the ballroom.
“But unlike other men who soared in the presence of their beloved, the captain fell to utter despair,” Francisco said. “After spending most of his riches to build Arabella this marvelous house, he became a recluse. The few people who saw him stated that he seemed to have aged a hundred years in just two. While Arabella, she seemed to grow more beautiful with time.”
“Soon, the captain died. Some say it was due to sadness because of Arabella’s inability to produce an heir. Others say it murder. But one thing’s for sure, after the funeral, Arabella closed the doors of the villa, and she was never heard from again.”
“And the statue?” Dean asked, unable to restrain his curiosity.
“No one was aware that Arabella had a sculpture of herself made. True, the woman had hundreds and hundreds of self-portraits made, everyone knew that. But the life-sized statue remains a mystery. It was found many years later, when the local government decided to re-open this place as a cultural museum. Since then, no one has ever laid claim towards its creation. The statue of a woman… standing sentinel over the villa.”
There was a long pause. Around them, Dean felt a chill, as though the temperature had suddenly dropped.
“Well, as you can see, the museum didn’t work out as planned,” Francisco said. He raised his head to face Dean. “While working on its restoration, workers complained that things just didn’t seem right, if you know what I mean.”
Dean shook his head.
“You know? Things disappearing then reappearing in places different from before, cold spots, whispering voices… Men before me often lost their minds on the first week of the job.”
“What made you stay, then?” Dean said. He jerked his head to the left, on a spot a few inches above Francisco’s ear. He thought he saw something move. He then decided that it was just the wind.
“Why? It’s because I fell in love with the place. It made me feel like a king. This place doesn’t deserve to be forlorn. Beauty must be preserved. And this place is a thing of much beauty. I don’t believe in ghosts. Well, I would like to believe I don’t. Besides, I need the money.” Francisco shrugged.
Dean regarded Francisco for a moment, before giving the old man a light pat on the thigh. “Good story, interesting.”
Francisco smiled his toothless grin. His face brightened immediately. “Glad you liked it Mr. Solis.”
“I do.” Dean returned a smile.
“Dinner will be ready soon. I hope you like crab.” Francisco bowed, and then exited, leaving Dean alone.
Francisco proved to be more than just a grounds-keeper. He was also both chef and server, an all-around butler, without the fine clothing. The crab was good, although a bit messy. Dinner was great, but the dining room with its twelve chairs felt empty. Despite his invitations, Francisco declined the offer to have dinner with him. According to Francisco, it was disrespectful for servants to eat in the presence of the master of the house. A bit unnerved to be addressed as such, Dean had to admit that it felt good. Francisco was right, the place did make one feel like a king.
Before retiring for the night, Francisco informed Dean of the schedule for the next day. And that he would be in the servant’s quarters near the kitchen. Dean made a mental note of the path from his bedroom to the kitchen, in case he needed Francisco.
While heading to his room, Dean passed by a portrait of the captain and Arabella. It stood from floor to ceiling, adorning the wall just behind a grey bust of the captain himself. Dean stopped to admire the painting. The artist did a splendid job, he thought. Each crease and wrinkle on the old captain’s jacket looked as real as the scowl on the captain’s face. His grey hair held neatly by a blue ribbon, while a violet feathered hat covered his head. He was standing behind a young woman, who was seated on a velvet chair. She was dressed in a silver flowing gown, each bead and sequin sparkling under an invisible light. Her dark eyes were judging and unkind, so unlike that of the stone goddess locked in the grand ballroom.
Dean changed his mind. Sleep can wait.
The statue was the same. It was still. However, now, it seemed like it was about to breathe. They say the statue comes to life. Distant voices echoed inside his mind. He shuddered at the thought. Arabella’s likeness was uncanny – the gentle curls that fell to her waist, the hazel eyes, and the outstretched arms. Lost in the moment, Dean stepped closer. The marble hands were just inches away from his skin. He wondered how it would feel to have them around his face. Somewhere, a clock struck midnight.
Dean’s mind was on fire. The fingers were cold, just like the lips that touched his. If only they were real…
He drew himself closer, wrapping the rest of her in a tight embrace. His eyes were shut tightly as he drew her in, tighter, closer. Pushing his entire being against her.
“My darling,” she whispered.
And the cold hands drew him tighter, still. Locking him in an eternal embrace. The cold lips kissing him. Just as furiously, back.