“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
– The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
The idea of being alive is so fragile. The way a body ages, how it decays- the walls of a house are compared to the bones of a body that can die. My walls, though old and decaying and moldy, are not bones. They give me structure, but is there more?
A house, created in reality but alive in a fantastical realm, deviating so far from what is normal and sane. I stand, not alone in some mystical place, but in plain sight of the city, visible and real. The freeways and trees and apartment complexes shade me from the harshness of an urban sun, and the buses and taxis and cars and people walking on the street pass by in exuberance, proving to me that I am both here, planted firmly on the earth beneath, and not here, far removed from the minds of the people who are supposed to be my owners and neighbors and friends. I am real, but no one knows me. Like a dream or a nightmare, I am in the back of the minds of the people who surround me, though none live here.
A beating heart is fragile, fragile life- needed to survive. I do not have a heart, so how do I live? I need a heart and a soul to go on, but whenever someone enters my door, dark and green from the vines that climb up from the siding, they don’t stay long. They can feel my hold, and they are terrified that they may be devoured by the wallpaper, or that they will fall into the floorboards, dead with their heart still beating for the rest of the world to hear and then sufficiently ignore. I am more than this monstrous presence in the lives of the people that walked my halls in the past. If they have left me, I am still with them in their past and in their memories. Memories of damask walls and sturdy wooden floors. Temperance from the past, my form is modest and elegant and all-consuming in my windows and doors that let people and light and energy in, but rarely let those things leave.
I was sturdier when families inhabited me, their life bringing me life. Life sustaining life: a cycle of energy flowing in both directions. I provide shelter and comfort and home, and they give me life and soul and heart. But when a house is not a home, these things fade. These people die and I go on. If they were still here, secret ghosts, walking the halls and moaning at the windows in the dark nights that are damp and consume the sense of hopefulness in humanity, I would know. But there are no ghosts here. I am the only ghost, a glimpse of the past peeking out through my overgrown garden and black wrought iron fence. The windows are my eyes to the world that fall upon humanity in the streets, “lads” and “ladies” are now just people, which is all the same to me. The homeless and addicts and workers on the street are all the same. They lie on the pavement just out of reach, none daring to enter my gate, none daring to enter my door. A few years ago some youth came to me with flashlights and backpacks and cigarettes, and the night scared them away in less than an hour past their arrival. I tried not to enjoy the energy since it was chaotic and confusing and too young for me really, but it was all the life I had for some time and it was good.
Then she came.
One thundering and stormy night, upon the witching hour, she stumbling through my fence, dripping from the rain. I could barely feel her life, it was faded and sad and she tasted strange running her damp hand along my walls. Trying to describe the anatomy of a house is difficult. My structure does not line up right with any anatomy of a person or animal or living thing, if the definition of anatomy is “the branch of science concerned with the bodily structure of humans, animals, and other living organisms, especially as revealed by dissection and the separation of parts.” I am a living thing- I feel and feed and form thoughts. This girl, walking my hall was heading toward what most describe as my heart. She was breathing heavy as she entered the kitchen, dripping and dragging along.
Having someone home felt good, even if she seemed weak.
In the kitchen, she righted a chair that had been turned over for a good quarter of a century and sat. This girl must have been through something awful before coming to me. She was huffing and puffing something crazy, her hands to her chest and her face stained and wet with mud. The water from the rain almost hid the tears sliding down rough cheeks. Her clothes were soaked and ripped and scratches were visible through the tears. She sobbed along with the thunder that was rattling the window panes.
Not being alone, even though my new companion was in such a state, felt good.
I was starting to feel better, her life giving me life, renewing the cycle. A house is not a home without a person to inhabit it. Enough energy and I might dare to turn on a light for the poor girl, whose sobs echoed against the tiles of the kitchen floor. She sat for a while this way, and being a house and not a home there was nothing much I could do to comfort her. The night dragged as the storm rattled on, and over time the girl’s sobs slowed and the ticking of the clock in the hall started.
Her energy renewed me.
The ticking grew louder and louder and the girl took notice. She stopped her tears and stood, jerking her head around to look at me. She knew she wasn’t alone, but she would never know how. A little longer and I was able to start a fire in the oven hearth, even though the wood there was damp with years of neglect. The crackling of the fire behind her caused the girl to jump. She scoured the room with her eyes.
“I know you are here.” She said to the crackling fire and the ticking clock.
“I can feel you here.” She moved toward the heat in the stove, the dampened clothes clinging to her skin. She didn’t say anything while she warmed at the fire. Eventually, she dragged the chair to the hearth and sat cross-legged with her hands just out of reach of the flames. She sighed in the warmth and the energy she gave me was growing. I wished to do more, maybe this would keep her here.
“I have heard stories about you.” She whispered to the fire. “I know you are here.”
I wondered what she could mean, though the longer she stayed the stronger I became. My walls were strengthening and the vines on the door receding. She was healing as well, her body warming and her clothes drying.
“Are you doing this?”
Was she talking to me?
“I am talking to you, house.” She looked around again, “Or ghost, or whatever you are.”
I couldn’t answer, but if I could I don’t know what I would have said. Humans could feel my pull, but they never spoke to me before. The flickering from the fire was licking light across the girls face, drying the mud. She wiped away at her cheeks with the back of a sleeve.
“I didn’t know if you could talk, I guess you can’t.”
“Well, maybe you could listen.”
The girl told me her story. She told me of her walls and how they were broken and beaten until they couldn’t stand anymore. She told me how her floor was penetrated and how her door was covered in vines. She told me how the world around her, the freeways and trees and apartment complexes shaded her from experiencing the warmth of an urban sun, and how the buses and taxis and cars and people walking on the street pass her by in a hurry, proving to her that she was both there, fragile and hopeless in the world, and not there, far from the minds of the people who were supposed to protect her.
She told me how her heart kept beating even when she wanted it to stop. She told me how her body wasn’t right for the world, too much here, too little there and that no one would leave her alone about it, no one would let her be, and how she had never a house before and never a home. She told me she didn’t feel real, and that she just wanted to be away from every single person who wanted so much from her.
“So I came to you, house.” She said, her tears had come again, but they were slower now. “I came here because someone once told me there was a ghost here that ate the souls and sucked the life of the people who came. Is that true house? Can you eat my soul? Can you suck out my life?”
I wanted to tell her it didn’t, that was not how it worked at all, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t say a thing. The ticking in the clock was becoming louder and the flames from the hearth grew.
“Is this how it works house?”
No! I wanted her to know that was not how it worked. I wanted to tell her to stay in my heart and here she could have a home and we could live and the cycle could go on: Life sustaining life. How could I show her? Humans had never asked so much of me. She stood and backed from the fire. All I could do was wait as she explored my halls. She made her way to the dining room, embarrassingly enough, where a window had been blown in, scattering the floor with glass and leaves and grass. She shuffled through the debris, opening the china cabinet that was inhabited by a squirrel family a few winters ago. There was still a nest and fur and shit in the drawers. I could feel my walls stiffen as she cringed at the sight. She moved to the parlor and the study, which were better preserved. She sorted through papers and books left lying about, touching a curtain and a cushion here and there. She stopped at the stairs leading to the bedrooms above.
“Should I go up, house?” She asked.
I wanted to tell her no, she would not like what she found up there.
The stairs groaned under her weight, creaked and squeaked with each step; a protest from her moving forward to the worst of me yet. She didn’t yield to the objections, she went on. Reaching the top of the stairs she went for the nursery, pushing the door with a clenched fist like it was repulsive. The door, slightly off its hinges, fought her but gave way in her efforts to enter the room.
“Oh,” She took in the view of the forlorn horror where a baby once slept. The walls were blackened with soot, the windows broken, the sills scorched. The bassinet was turned over, the half singed, infant-sized mattress barely visible under the crib. The girl went to the babe’s bed and lifted it upright, setting the mattress back in place. As she turned to leave the room, her foot crunched over a rattle. She bent and touched it with the tip of her fingers.
“I see now,” She said to the air in the room, picking up the rattle and placing in the crib like she was tucking it in goodnight.
She left the nursery, turning to the bedroom. The door had been broken long ago, it was leaning against the wall in the hall. She stopped just outside the room. I wanted to tell her not to go any further. But she went.
Her fingers swept lightly over the dressers and wardrobe and mirror. She spun around once and the dust from the ages lifted around her. She went to the blackened wall, the twin to the nursery. The pictures of the family that lived here once looked at the girl looking back at them.
“I see now,” She said again touching the picture of the three: the father, the mother, the baby. Life sustaining life: the cycle was broken. No shelter, no comfort, no home, and in return no life, no soul, no heart. The girl broke from the photo of the family, and she laid on the bed that was covered in the years after the fire. Almost nothing had changed. She lay there on her back staring at the cracked and discolored ceiling.
“You are just like me, house.” She said. “We are both broken and beaten and penetrated. We both have been taken advantage of. We have both lost people. I came to you broken, but you are broken too. We are both wrong for the world, our bodies are too much here and too little there and we are broken.” She sighed and rolled over, looking again at my family in the pictures on the wall. “I had a man, and I thought he loved me. I had a friend and I thought she loved me too, and I was wrong both times, and every time after that. And none of that mattered. There was never a place for me in this world, house, and I thought I could come here and you could take me and then it would be over, but you don’t take. You didn’t take. You gave, just like me, house. We are the same.”
We are the same.
“The idea of being alive is so fragile. The way a body ages, how the bones take the weight of the world like the way the walls of a house take the weight of the life inside. We both decay: your walls, my bones. They gave us structure, but what more?”
So much more. I could tell her if she could listen.
“Can I stay here house, away from the world?”
Yes, but you are not away from the world. We are both here and not here.
The heart of the house, beating on in a time when the family has gone, is not the kitchen. The walls are not bones. The house is just a house, a structure decaying in time. The heart of the house now beats on with the memories of those that once lived here when the house was a home.