We’d already been going there for weeks.
And we’d learned a few things about that old house, the tall thin one with too many stories it seemed. Like how we all felt safer in one room with all the doors closed, or that it was better to light three candles than one. Or that if me and Lita – but only us – sat in the two chairs by the indoor tree on the third floor with everyone around, noises would begin and we would all giggle and jump up and clap, happy that we’d scared everyone once again before we fell to bed, at least one of us up and watching the ceiling for spiders or rats or whatever anyone else was dreaming of that might come to life there. For everything felt possible, in the swirls of the wood grain, as the distorted faces of creatures leapt from one wall to another.
But this was our childhood, and things like that happened all the time in other towns, in other books, when a small chilly wind scares everyone out into the street. But not us, no, never us, because we’d read all those stories, seen all those ghosts, been to every grave we could find.
So we decided in our bravery to push things a little further, to bring our younger siblings; to scare them and show them we were braver and stronger, and could save them from their worst fears. But of course, our parents wouldn’t let them come alone, and even some of those decided to come along and see what we were up to—probably wanted to see inside for themselves, all of them having known the house since they were young, along with all the stories and all the ghosts. Some had probably held their own conferences in those very rooms, where footprints were dusty and old clocks still ticked and nothing was ever light, even in the morning.
We brought them, about twenty of us, all crammed into our favourite room on the third floor, with the chairs in the corner and the tree – a living beam of one wall – next to a stained-glass window covered in the grease of seasons. We ate our bread and laughed and tried our hardest to disturb the spirits and make them angry, make them do something, do something so everyone would have a small story of their own to talk about over and over again, tucked safely under their covers.
And to keep their spirits up, to feed the fear that seemed to be rising from the little ones, and in order to make the adults as scared as we had once been, we told everyone to sit in the chairs, in pairs, to feel their evil as we had already, Lita and I, who seemed to cause the house the most anger, perhaps because we were so beautiful, so young and still pink, or maybe because a portrait upstairs had eyes like ours, as if our own ancient families had been here once too, and had left their marks in oil for us to see later in wonder.
When Lita and I finally sat, together after all the others had their turn, the house began, as it always did, to softly rattle and shake as if a wind had been let loose in the rafters and was bumping into every wall as it swam up the stairs, banging on all the doors to be let into the party where everyone held a candle but stayed silent. Lita and I knew, knew nothing worse would come of it; knew that nothing else would happen. We laughed at the house because it could not hurt us, and for the first time – maybe to scare all the silent ones even more – we held hands, my palm flat and up, hers the same and down, our fingers matched in length as they hovered above our knees, trembling as we began to tremble in our seats, not because of fear but because the wind had gotten in without blowing a door down and was pushing against us, against the chairs, our candle flames, the tree. Amidst the swirling Lita kept saying things in a voice I wasn’t sure was hers anymore, that she could read minds, our minds, and knew how to use us to make the tree breathe again.
Hands still together, now clasped, fingers entwined, nails digging deep and drawing blood, I was not myself but watching from another’s eye, us two, as we sat vibrating in those seats we thought would never hurt us, our faces contorted in the dark as Lita shrieked, sending us into fear-bitten silence.
All was still in the darkness then, except the tree, which glowed like a forgotten television screen in the dark of a sitting room that had never seen the likes of one. Static frilled along its bark, back and forth, blue and eerie, forming nothing truly, but everything with the help of our frantic imaginations, all of us seeing the worst, and the worst still as Lita started mumbling, describing a woman only two of us knew.
“Her black hair is upset, her white face twisted in anger, at us, at us, at us.”
And out of my own mouth, not my voice, but a groan, like words unfolding but stoppered in my throat; like a ball of saliva too thick for the tongue to remove. And grasping, gasping, I stuck my fingers down past my tonsils, trying to clear a passage for the words to escape. Yet when they do they shake in my ears, and do not come from my mouth but from all of me, as if my entire body were saying,
“You see yourselves now, but I would see you sooner gone, gone, gone.”
None of us could help but look, look at the tree whose static had formed her horrible face; that twisted grandmotherly face which still seemed so like all of ours. And then they were all of ours, one after the other, in grotesque succession, our tongues lolling to the sides, until it was just Lita and I left alone in the silence. In the dark.
Had we been spared because we called her? Because we gave her our families to choke?
No longer did the chains that seemed to bind us rub against our throats, allowing Lita and I to flee, not out, but up, to the room with the canopy bed and all the red curtains blocking the windows, where we’d seen her face before in a painting. But beautiful as it was then, all the more it is now, with my eyes and Lita’s lips, the fruitful blood of our siblings, of our teachers, dripping from the wooden frame and puddling at our feet.
But we had been saved, and in that, elation rises, grows so fast that neither of us could look away from the woman as we linked arms and danced thankfully under her portrait, her children finally, floating, lighter than before—or at least Lita was, as she smiled at me from above and drew all the curtains, raining down to the floor as one, revealing all those we’d thought we’d lost on the opposite bank, level with us, smiling like it was some big joke they’d played on us instead.
But as we tried to go to them from the window, to meet them again and laugh about this scary night, their smiles fell, and they all, one by one, turned away…
We cannot go, says Lita, we are not free. My arm is tethered, I cannot leave.
My wrist is tied, tied to hers tightly, a captive as I look back – how could I not have noticed – that Lita bleeds and spins from the ceiling, grinning like the woman in the painting whose winning grin is true, as I scream and scream and scream at the sight of Lita hanging from the ceiling, neck tight in a noose.
Header Image Copyright Jessica Barratt