They had answered an advertisement. "Looking for a change of scenery? Adventurous caretakers sought, couple or small family group preferred. Must be comfortable with isolated setting. Artistic &/or literary background a plus. Remuneration negotiable. Contact House@dwimmerlaikrath.sol"
Why not try? What did they have to lose? Lucy looked around at the fogged semi-basement windows, the dull industrial-cream walls, not yet disguised or made interesting with art or posters or bookshelves, the rental-buff carpet, cluttered with too-few boxes of books (to her and Hilary's eyes, yet still far too many for her family's ideas of propriety or need). Far too few boxes of household goods, most of them donated, not their own. They had had good backups of their data, and the warranties had come through with replacements without too much hassle, but this place was not a home. The job she had was a begrudged place at a cousin's shop, Hilary's was part-time online. They had both been feeling increasingly trapped [since the disaster that had stuck them here]. Why on earth not try for something new?
Hilary had jumped at the chance, and they'd written back together, fingers crossed, candle lit. A reply came the next day, inviting them to read over the attached information, which included an outline of caretaker's duties and responsibilities ("keep what out of the garden? Where is this place? Narnia? Avalon, Pern?" "Don't we wish.") and schedule a weekend to come out to see the place and meet the House. Google seemed to show a pleasant drive of a little over two hours to get there. (Which was a bit of a surprise, since none of the search engines had known anything about it on looking the previous night, causing Nathan Andrew to raise skeptical eyebrows at their enthusiasm. But their friend was skeptical about a lot of things. Didn't stop him from going along with them in the end.) That weekend. They would go that very weekend, and never mind that Cousin Margie had Strongly Hinted that Lucy should put in a few extra "volunteer" hours that weekend. And of course Nandy would come with.
The House liked them. The House liked all of them, Nathan Andrew included. Lucy and Hilary took the job on the spot, signed the contract (Narnia clauses and all) the following week, and moved in on the Spring Equinox. The House was very happy to have them, though it did rather wish Nandy had agreed to come too. He visited often enough, and with that the House had to be content. It wasn't as though the situation was any different than previous times. That didn't mean it would have to turn out the same as those others; it could hope, couldn't it, that this time they would stay, would look inward as well as out.
It was interesting that the roads past the turnoff from the state route were always straight and clear for Nathan Andrew, whereas Lucy's family complained bitterly about the sudden turns and blind intersections, the gloomy, narrow, barely paved miles between civilization and the wide spot in the middle of nowhere Lucy had chosen to bury herself in. They only made that trip once, to everyone's relief.
For the longest time, the view past the curtains in the rooms at the back of the house was the same: a bland, flat ordinariness, as dull as it was seemingly universal. It was more like a sketch of a landscape on the glass than any actual land beyond it. The front windows all showed the sloping lawn down to the overgrown edge of the stream that bordered the property, the low stone curbs (they weren't high enough to call walls) that marked the long curve of the flagstone drive leading to the fanciful wrought iron gate and the old hump-backed bridge that went over the stream. Newly polished mirrors reflected skies cloudy with spring storms and bright with early summer sun. There were no fantastical shapes to be seen in those first months.
The house seemed smaller than they thought as well. Hadn't Nandy seen a cupola - or maybe a tower? And Lucy was sure there had been a walled garden with an orchard beyond, like something out of A Secret Garden, but there was no sign of a tower or a cupola, or even a widow's walk to interrupt the roof line, nor walls on or around any part of the grounds, with or without trees.
They were certainly busy enough with maintenance and repair those early days. The House had been without a caretaker for several months, nearly half a year by the time they moved in. Lucy dove happily into cleaning and polishing, finding books under beds, knickknacks in corners, dried flowers and the remnants of expired insects on windowsills and the backs of cupboards. Ordinary rooms, ordinary cupboards, extraordinary flowers and exotic, jewel-toned insects. Where had they come from? How had they gotten there?
Hilary spent his mornings editing and formatting technical screeds, in a second floor room overlooking the drive. Previous inhabitants had obviously used it as an office - it had an interesting assortment of hardware in the closets (which were deeper than it seemed they had any right to be, though it was some time before Hilary thought to compare them to Lewis's Wardrobe), several recent generations of good computers on the (mismatched) antique desk and library tables, plenty of grounded outlets and a sturdy, several hour capacity uninterruptible power supply. Not to mention the lovingly cared for manual typewriter that had pride of place on a desk that also sported fountain pens, several colors of ink in crystal ink-bottles, and a store of very fine paper.
Evenings found them both (or all three if Nandy was with them) in one or another of the several rooms with bookcases, windowseats, and comfortable couches, going through the drifts of books and putting them in some kind of order. Many of the books were illustrated, and some of the most beautiful -- ones by Arthur Rackham, Jan Pienkowski, Pauline Baines to name only a few -- were obviously very well loved, though also well cared for. The library proper (because of course there was an actual library-room, two stories tall and walled with deep carved shelves, lit by high clerestory windows and beautiful great lamps) had an alcove supplied with everything that might be needed for the care and maintenance of books, including several step-by-step how-to manuals. The House cared about books. They were even in the Contract.
It wasn't until the day that a sudden downpour sent Lucy stumbling blindly into the Conservatory and Nandy found the room they eventually dubbed the Aumbry trying to locate dry towels for her that they discovered/woke to the true nature of the House.
The view through the windows changed with the curtains. Not every door in the house led to the same place every time. The three of them looked at each other with the same expressions they imagined Peter and Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie must have had, stepping through the Wardrobe, Mary Lennox finding the Secret Garden. Magic. Real magic. In their hands, their house. Wonder and awe mixed with a healthy apprehension and sense of responsibility.
The Taj Mahal, the Chicago skyline, the Italian Alps and Egyptian desert were breath-takingly beautiful, but silent. Distant pictures framed by the windowpanes and open, unchanging heavy drapes. (Drapes that could be drawn over the inner layer of curtain-cloth, leaving the scenery undisturbed, muffling sound and sense and light from the outside. Most of the time Lucy and Hilary forgot they were there. Nandy would be the one to remember them later.)
Until one day, Hilary was browsing through a stack of illustrated storybooks, stopping to read here and there, and A Necklace of Raindrops fell open in his hand to the page in the middle of the tale of the Three Travellers, with the silhouette of the train between the mountain and the castle. Perfect for cutting into curtain-cloth. When he looked up from re-reading the story there was a fold of material and the glint of silver scissors. That evening (evenings were often the best time to change the scenery) all three of them helped mark and hang the curtain, grinning like children in anticipation. The scissors in Hilary's hand needed little guidance, making the turns and tiny detail cuts precise and effortless. It was only one window, swiftly done. The summer breeze was suddenly scented with pine, and the distant chord of the train-whistle was clear in the air. Puffs of smoke floated up from the chimney stack of the engine car, and the whole universe seemed larger, full of possibilities.
Maybe Narnia and Middle-Earth and even Pern were not so impossible after all.
They were careful at first, choosing travel books with pictures showing clear skylines, marking out the path the scissors should take first in chalk and then in ink before hanging the curtain-cloth and actually cutting. They had tried, once, cutting the cloth before hanging it, which had been a thoroughgoing failure. Not only had there been a palpable sense of wrongness the moment the blades touched the unhung cloth, they had all manner of difficulty getting the curtains on the rods and the rods up in the brackets. Once they managed to get them up, they hung limp and lifeless against flat, drear, blankness. The windows were not even black behind them, reflecting back the light in the room, but blank, looking like nothing so much as a broken monitor screen. Hilary scrambled to take the things down, barking knees and knuckles in the process. Lucy gathered up all the scraps, fingers flinching from the oily, angry wrongness that imbued the pieces, bundling the lot into an uncut curtain length and put it on the shelf of the linen closet that ought to have been the Aumbry.
They didn't go back into the Conservatory for nearly a week after that, and even avoided the Observatory for the next day or two, afraid of what the windows might - or might not - show. The windows in the rooms they did go into at the back of the house tended to a dense and unseasonable mist, though the front of the Hose was enjoying sunny blue skies dotted with bright white cloud-castles. Not until the mist let up did they even look for the Aumbry door again. Nathan Andrew was not there for that mishap, and they never told him about it.
They were doubly cautious after that scare, but it didn't depress their spirits for long. Soon they were looking forward to the subtle shifts of atmosphere that heralded finding the special pair of scissors and a fresh stack of neatly folded curtain-cloth. Not even Nandy knew how it appeared, though he suspected it was the House itself somehow doing it.
Sometimes the windows were blank, mist indistinguishable from curtains (or was it that the curtains were indistinguishable from mist?) all that could be seen from any window in the house, not just in the rooms they had taken to calling the Observatory and the Conservatory.
Winter was the time for the most fantastic landscapes to be seen (invoked, incised), cut from the curtain-cloth that seemingly wove (re-wove?) itself in the curtain-press. Snowy mountains, spires of ice and rock, crystalline castles, cities of glass that gleamed like opal and pearl in low, rain-dimmed light. Hard stars sparkled over scoured plains, reflected in blue crevasses and frozen lakes. Sometimes, on particularly long, dark nights, howls and cries would echo over the desolate expanses, and they would shiver at the sounds, wondering at the creatures that made them, if the House would hold against them should one (or a pack) should try to get in. There was no safe way to know if the House was even visible from the curtain-worlds.
They knew by then - having lived there nearly three years - that the gardens were (almost always) part of the house, but overlapped with the curtain-worlds. Only the front drive stayed stubbornly and consistently congruent with what they were coming to think of more as their original world, and less the real one. The places they saw through their windows were no less real than whence they had come. They could go back - and, indeed, did, for the occasional shopping expedition, to visit Lucy's family or Hilary's friends - but as time passed they did so increasingly rarely. It was easier to shop online for the few things the House did not provide, and the market in the small town-hamlet-collection of buildings that stood somewhere between the turnoff from the road that led back to ordinary-spacetime (as Hilary called it, laughing), and the top of the long drive provided a fine selection of fresh produce and other groceries. They would even deliver.
And Nathan Andrew visited them often, sometimes staying several days or even a week or two, until he finally relented, letting their arguments, persuasions (and other blandishments) overcome his hesitance, and he came to live there with them. The House certainly never minded that they were three, not two-and-one. Other of their friends would beg off after one or two times of making the trip out (Lucy's family never managed to make it out there at all, after the initial move, but for the one cousin who was more imaginative than the rest].
Sometimes, though it seemed the seasons were quite different in the curtain-worlds. Chill winds outside the front door would contrast with warm breezes in the conservatory. Sweltering summer would find blue-green ice-castles and snowy hillsides beyond the glass at the back of the House. Usually these opposite landscapes would be transitory, lasting a day or two, a week at most, before the scissors would manifest on the table with a stack of fresh curtain-cloth. That was always a sign that the scene should change. Often as not the appearance of the scissors and cloth would herald in a change in the weather in the everyday world as well. But the more often it happened, the more Lucy and Hilary and Nandy looked for the other shoe to drop. It meant something, but none of them knew what.
Even when the seasons were the same - the general length of day, when the sun rose and set, phase of the moon (or, occasionally, moons, as in more than one, and wasn't that an intriguing and frightening idea?) largely the same as that of the 'real' world, the one they had come from, always visible through the glass panes in the entryway, the fanlight and the door-within-a-door that was part of the iron door-knocker assemblage - just about everything else about the landscape and weather was often very different. Desert, forest, mountains, rivers, cities, oceans, all manner of colors of sky and water and plant life were possible.
More and more they were coming to the conclusion that the House and they had a part, were actors, not just spectators, in the life of the curtain-worlds. Only spectators on Earth, in Ordinary Time, but more than that everywhere else.
There came a day -- of course there did -- when Lucy and Hilary stepped beyond the grounds and into a curtain-world, leaving the House behind. But it was different this time. The House was not alone. Nathan Andrew lived there now, an inward explorer, tending the rooms, the garden, the books and the scenery.
Mist like curtains cloaked the windows of the conservatory, making dim and uncertain shadows of the trees and shrubs that grew near the walls, entirely hiding the garden and the farther hedges. The whole world seemed a silver, shifting mystery. There were no shapes at all in the curtains, open to expose the entire expanse of glass. Nathan Andrew looked out into the grey fog, feeling anew the tug at his heart. The House was his home now, but Hilary and Lucy his family, and he had never stopped missing them.
Were there shapes coalescing in the mist, where the edges of the garden might be? Two figures, holding hands, coming up the maze, coming home?
Cut the cloth, open the window. Love will find a way.