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 all fell to bed, at least one of us up still 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 such things happen 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.
And so, we decided in our foolish bravery to push things a little further and bring our smaller siblings; to scare them and show them we were daring and strong, that only we could save them from the worst. But of course, our parents wouldn’t let them come alone, and even some of those came along to see what we were up to; 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 even 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.
That’s why we brought them, about twenty in 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 grease. In unison, we sat and ate our bread, and laughed and tried our hardest to disturb the spirits and make them angry; to make them so angry they’d come alive and give everyone a small story of their own to talk about over and over again, tucked safely away under their covers at home.
So, to keep spirits up, to feed the fear that seemed to be rising from the little ones, and 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 young and still pink, or maybe because the portrait upstairs had our eyes, as if our own ancient families had been there once too, and had left their marks in oil for us to see.
And 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, buffeting every wall with its wails, stopping only at our door and screeching for entry into the room where everyone held three candles each. But Lita and I knew. We knew nothing worse would come of it, knew that nothing else would happen.
So we laughed at the house because it could not hurt us. We laughed, and for the first time, we held hands, maybe to scare all the silent ones even more, my palm flat and up, hers the same and down, our fingers matched in length as they hovered above our knees, all four trembling as Lita and I began to tremble in our seats, not for fear, but because the wind had gotten in and was pushing against us, against the chairs, our candle flames, the tree. And amidst the swirling Lita kept saying things in a voice I wasn’t sure was hers anymore: saying that she could read minds, our minds, and knew how 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 the seats we thought would never hurt us, our faces contorted in the dark as Lita began to shriek and all the candles went out.
All was still in the darkness then except for the tree, glowing there in the corner like an unwatched television screen, there in the dark of a sitting room that had never seen the likes of one. We watched as the static frilled from branch to branch, 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 quieted her screaming and 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, trying to clear a passage for the words to escape, I lose sight of them all, listening to the words finally broken free, not 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, not even me, could help but look. We looked at the tree whose static formed her horrible face, a twisted grandmotherly face which still seemed so like Lita’s and mine. And then, the face was ours, one after the other, in grotesque succession, our tongues lolling to the sides, until it was just Lita and I left alone glowing in the silence. In the dark.
All around us is silent, though I can barely see now the candles splayed along the floor with no one left to hold them.
Had we been spared because we called her? Had we given her our families to choke?
No longer did the ropes that seemed to bind us rub against our throats; Lita and I fled, not out, but up, to the room where she called us, with the canopy bed and all the red curtains blocking the windows, where we’d first seen her face in that 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 parents, dripping from the wooden frame over our bared soles.
But we knew again: 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, and waving too, those sisters and brothers, telling me it was time to go home.
As I try to go to them from the window, to meet them again and laugh about this scary night, their smiles fall, and they all, one by one, turn away…
“We cannot go,” says Lita, “we are not free. My arm is tethered, we cannot leave.”
My wrist is tied, tied to hers tightly, 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