Serafina and the Black Cloak - Robert Beatty

Biltmore Estate

Asheville, North Carolina


Serafina opened her eyes and scanned the darkened workshop, looking for any rats stupid enough to come into her territory while she slept. She knew they were out there, just beyond her nightly range, crawling in the cracks and shadows of the great house’s sprawling basement, keen to steal whatever they could from the kitchens and storerooms. She had spent most of the day napping in her favorite out-of-the-way places, but it was here, curled up on the old mattress behind the rusty boiler in the protection of the workshop, that she felt most at home. Hammers, wrenches, and gears hung down from the rough-hewn beams, and the familiar smell of machinery oil filled the air. Her first thought as she looked around her and listened out into the reaching darkness was that it felt like a good night for hunting.

Her pa, who had worked on the construction of Biltmore Estate years before and had lived in the basement without permission ever since, lay sleeping on the cot he’d secretly built behind the supply racks. Embers glowed in the old metal barrel over which he had cooked their dinner of chicken and grits a few hours before. They had huddled around the cook fire for warmth as they ate. As usual, she had eaten the chicken but left the grits.

“Eat your supper,” her pa had grumbled.

“Did,” she had answered, setting down her half-empty tin plate.

“Your whole supper,” he said, pushing the plate toward her, “or you’re never gonna get any bigger than a little shoat.”

Her pa likened her to a skinny baby pig when he wanted to get a rise out of her, figuring she’d get so furious with him that she’d wolf those nasty grits down her throat despite herself.

“I’m not gonna eat the grits, Pa,” she said, smiling a little, “no matter how many times you put ’em in front of me.”

“They ain’t nothin’ but ground-up corn, girl,” he said, poking at the fire with a stick to arrange the other sticks the way he wanted them. “Everybody and his uncle likes corn ’cept you.”

“You know I can’t stomach anything green or yellow or disgusting like that, Pa, so quit hollering at me.”

“If I was a-hollerin’, you’d know it,” he said, shoving his poker stick into the fire.

By and by, they soon forgot about the grits and went on to talk about something else.

It made Serafina smile to think about her dinner with her father. She couldn’t imagine much else in the world—except maybe sleeping in the warmth of one of the basement’s small sunlit windows—that was finer than a bit of banter with her pa.

Careful not to wake him, she slinked off her mattress, padded across the workshop’s gritty stone floor, and snuck out into the winding passageway. While still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and stretching out her arms and legs, she couldn’t help but feel a trace of excitement. The tantalizing sensation of starting a brand-new night tingled through her body. She felt her muscles and her senses coming alive, as if she were an owl stirring its wings and flexing its talons before it flies off for its ghostly hunt.

She moved quietly through the darkness, past the laundry rooms, pantries, and kitchens. The basement had been bustling with servants all day, but the rooms were empty now, and dark, just the way she liked them. She knew that the Vanderbilts and their many guests were sleeping on the second and third floors above her, but here it was quiet. She loved to prowl through the endless corridors and shadowed storage rooms. She knew the touch and feel, the glint and gloom, of every nook and cranny. This was her domain at night, and hers alone.

She heard a faint slithering just ahead. The night was beginning quickly.

She stopped. She listened.

Two doors down, the scrabbling of tiny feet on bare floor.

She crept forward along the wall.

When the sound stopped, she stopped as well. When the sound resumed, she crept forward once more. It was a technique she’d taught herself by the age of seven: move when they’re moving, stay still when they’re still.

Now she could hear the creatures breathing, the scratching of their toenails on the stone, and the dragging of their tails. She felt the familiar trembling in her fingers and the tightness in her legs.

She slipped through the half-open door into the storeroom and saw them in the darkness: two huge rats covered in greasy brown fur had slithered one