I got the old place for practically nothing. Mr. Walsh said “It’ll always be here. No reason you couldn’t use a little of its time,” but then proceeded to suggest that I give a cash to the man with the bony face, whose name I still did not know. I made clear to him that my residence would not be permanent, just a month or too, perhaps the entire summer. He stared at me for almost a solid minute, then shrugged and took the cash. “Walsh is right. The house hates to be empty.”
My fiancé took a lot more convincing. The prospect of a secluded life in Nowhere Tennessee did not initially appeal to her. But the financial and emotional extremities we were both facing finally convinced her that a strategic withdrawal from the world might do us both good. So it was that on May 7th, 2017, I drove her pickup, stuffed with all our worldly possessions, up the drive to the House of Dust, with her seated beside me. – “The House of Dust.” Southern Gothic
She touched the door and it swung open.
“That’s funny,” her fiancé said from behind her. “I left it locked.”
“This is community property, from what you’ve told me,” she murmured. She stared through the door and swore that for a moment she could see not the faintest sliver of light from within. From within, of course she was a black silhouette against a sheet of white, for eyes that have been so long in shadow cannot discern. Slowly, greyness bled into what she could see and she stepped across the threshold. And burst out laughing. The place smelled so old.
“What? What now?” He called, struggling to start unpacking.
“I just got the weirdest vibe, stepping into this place.”
She turned, frustrated. “Look, you aren’t bein’ romantic at all. Our first house and you want to carry that desk across the threshold before me.”
“This desk is where a lot of my work is going to happen that’s going to let us live here.”
“That desk is where you’ll be working?” She repeated skeptically.”
He looked up and grinned. “Well, part of the time.”
She walked back out onto the porch. “Get up here and carrying me across this threshold, even if it is bad luck the second time.”
Shaking his head he climbed the steps, dusting his hands off. “What way do you want to be carried?”
“Well, I suppose the normal way.”
He scooped her up, looked profoundly into her eyes for a moment in a way that made her giggle, then walked into the house. His hands crawled across her, but she slipped from his grasp and onto her feet. “Now, you ain’t even looked at the house.”
“I’ve already looked at it,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around her waist. “It’s perfect . . . for a perfect woman.”
“Ugh, stop it! You’re silly talk is sillier than most men’s.” She pulled from his grasp and stepped forward in the wide hall. He made a grunt of disappointment and went back out the door. “Don’t you wanna look around with me?” She called over her shoulder.
“I said I’ve seen it already.”
She sighed, then nearly choked as she drew in a new breath. She looked down at the floor and saw the smeared tracks of her shoes. “Dust! This place ain’t been lived in for years.”
“There’s your employment for the next two weeks,” he called.
She ignored him, steadied her breathing, and examined the hall. A door let off immediately on either side. Just beyond the door in the left wall a stairway climbed to the second floor. She went to the bottom of it and peered up, but the stairs faded from twilight into night. She could see none of the upper floor – the rectangular aperture through which the stairs climbed was the only opening. She moved back to the front of the hall and went to the door in the right wall first, moving from hardwood onto ancient carpet. Any sort of clean house would have to get rid of that stuff. Her heals went through it like lace underwear. She dug around in her purse for a handkerchief, then went to the drapes that shrouded the front of the room. Holding the cloth to her face, she grabbed a handful of the heavy curtains and drug backward, pealing the shadows away.
Light gushed in and flowed over the floor, churning around a table and six empty chairs, and piling up against a huge sofa and coffee table, then splashing against and sticking to yellowed walls, sinking into alcoves where ancient books and antique vases sat. She only saw it for a moment for a haze filled the room and she was blind. She breathed slowly, but a few thick flakes found their way into her mouth. She felt her way to the door of the room and walked out into the hall where the current from the open door cleared the air. She blinked rapidly, laughed to clear her throat, then walked through the other door, the one below the staircase.
There were curtains along the front of this room as well, but she left them be. The light, she felt, would do no good. This was a long hall, but none of its former purpose was preserved in the furnishings. Everything was either draped in white sheets or packed into cardboard boxes and pushed against the outer wall. She moved into the room, holding her purse in one hand and the handkerchief in the other. She imagined that a piano was dripping out simple notes somewhere in the dark. Her hand trailed across the boxes and shrouded furniture until she reached a gap in the line. A wide fireplace was set in the wall. The grate inside was wrapped in cobwebs and decorated with the ancient carcasses of flies. A huge mirror hung above the mantel, angled down slightly, giving the impression of staring down at herself when she looked up.
There was something else there besides her shadowy form. The longer she looked at it the more she became convinced it was not a part of the dust-film covering the glass. It was like the frosting on store windows or office doors – an opaqueness. This opaqueness took on the form not of letters, but of a shape, like . . . like a wagon wheel, except there was no hub in the center; all the spokes ran into each other. She reached up with the handkerchief and batted at the glass, just to make sure it was real. The dust was so old that most of it stuck – the shape kept its form. It was part of the mirror. She smiled slightly. Here would be something to do, figure out what that symbol meant.
She continued through the room, cluttered fragments of past lives on one hand, the empty floor on the other. “This was a dancehall,” she said aloud. She abruptly spun out across the empty floor, spreading her arms. The phantom piano increased to match her movements, and dust rose around her, raised by her tapping feet.
“There are lights, you know.” There was a click and yellow radiance glared down on her. She dropped her arms and turned. Through wobbly vision she saw her husband standing up at the front of the hall.
“Aw,” she took a tottering step. “It was nicer dark.”
“Who were you talking too?”
“Myself. I said this was a dance hall.”
“Look here,” she swayed toward the fireplace, pointing up. “What’s this?”
He came over, placing his hands on his hips. “Huh. There’s one of those on the front door. Must be a family mascot.”
“Like a coat-of-arms. House symbol.”
“That’s medieval stuff.”
“I know. Maybe the people who lived here had an ancient bloodline. I could look up their records if I cared too.”
“Anyone could – don’t act like your job’s so high and mighty.”
He rubbed her back. “You thought it was when we met.”
“A lot can change in two months. Especially if you keep boasting about it.”
“I was never boasting.”
She stuffed the now dirty hanky in his shirt pocket. “Go turn the lights off, I was enjoying the atmosphere.”
“I’ll need your help with a couple things,” he said as she wandered off.
“You? My help? Fancy that.”
“Missy, Missy,” he murmured and walked back to the front of the hall. She was disappearing through a door at the far end when he flicked off the lights.
She was in a dining room. A table and fourteen empty chairs waited there. In the middle of the table sat a glass cup, half full of water. In the water was a yellow daffodil. She looked at it for a long moment. She felt her lips twitch at the corners. Coming forward, she leaned out and felt the smooth petals of the blossom. Tiny ripples spread through the water from the stem. “Nice to see you in this dusty old place,” she said. “Any idea where you came from?” She imagined a buzzing – a protests of life cut short – vibrated from the petals through her fingers.
She rounded the table. The curtains across these windows were thinner and easier to pull aside. But the light these windows let in was far more diminished than at the front. They looked out on a screened-in porch, and beyond, the remnants of a once fine looking garden. The beds that lush flowers had once inhabited were now dominated by weeds and large clumps of daffodils. “Perhaps there?” She said, pointing. She laughed a little and stepped back to the table, plucking the flower from the jar. “Someone’s either being friendly or unfriendly putting you in here.”
Holding it to her nose, she left the dining room through a second door and found herself back in the main hall of the house; a few dozen feet away she could see her fiancé through the front door, though her view was partially blocked by the staircase. Just across the hall was the doorway into another room, and beside it, in the back wall, another door – the door to the back porch, she supposed. Next to her here, just a step outside the dining room, was another yet another door. This one was built oddly into the corner where the back wall and the wall of the dining room met. The wood of the door was almost black, and even before she opened it she knew there was coldness and absolute silence standing on the other side. When the knob did groan around and the door creaked back she found another daffodil in another jar on the top step. This one was orange in the center with yellow petals. Her smile widened even as her heart quickened. “Well, well.” She stooped down and drew this one up as well. “And I see you, halfway down the steps there. Leading me all the way down, aren’t you?”
She looked back, still crouched down.
He was coming down the hall. “Who are you talking to?”
Missy held out the flowers. “These are for you.”
He blinked. “You been out back?”
“No. Someone left them.”
“Someone’s been in our house.”
“I think a lot of people think of it as theirs.”
“Well, it’s ours. Why are you holding those out, I don’t want them.”
“They go all the way down the steps.”
“I’ll have to do a little target practice to let them know I have a gun.” He stood closer. “Boy, that air does feel good.”
She looked back into the darkness and felt the draft stroke her face. “Smells, old though.”
“Door probably hasn’t been opened in thirteen years – here, why don’t you come help me? We can look around when the stuff’s in.” He wiped his forehead. “You never can tell when it’ll rain on a day like this.”
She turned the daffodils in her hand, slowly rising. “I wanted to see what’s down there.”
“We’ll see when we take all the junk from the dance hall down there. Come on, darling.”
“Fine.” She twined the yellow daffodil into her hair and stuck the orange and yellow one through his button hole. The door closed as he pressed her up against it.
In the dark, the cold air retreated down the steps. As the wave passed by the flower on the middle step the blossom shriveled and the stem drooped over the rim of the jar.
They sat on the front porch and ate warm chicken salad sandwiches with grimy fingers. Diminished, seven-o’clock wind blew through the trees and stirred her hair. She let her head lol back and it slid across her neck, cooling her skin. “Ah! Nothin’ like an evening breeze.”
“I’m proud of you, Missy,” he said between sips of beer. “You actually did some work. You dropped the T.V., but otherwise . . .”
“I was tired!” She complained. “And it’s not broken.”
“Hmm.” He yawned enormously. “Shame they left all that junk in the hall. What a chore!”
“Used to servants doing all your work, aren’t you?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Secretaries and such, people who carry all your papers.”
“That’s different from people drawing my bath and helping me dress.”
“Don’t expect me to do that stuff,” she said. “Just because we’re in the middle of nowhere don’t mean you can start abusing me.”
“First, I’ve never abused you. Second, asking to you to iron my pants once in a while doesn’t constitute any sort of felony. It should be part of a healthy, give-take relationship.”
She crunched a chip thoughtfully. “What are you giving me?”
He glanced at her with a smirk, then seemed to realize it was a genuine question. “Safety, darling. Security. Shelter. All you could want.”
She looked at the field, just visible through the trees that shrouded the house. “How do you know what I want?”
“Don’t sound so morbid, dearest.” He set down his bottle and scooted across the steps to be directly next to her. “You made it plain enough what you wanted not so long ago.”
“Love,” she said.
“Love,” he repeated. “And haven’t I given that to you? All of this,” he sighed and looked out at the land, “this whole little island, is just part of my expression of that love.”
“Island? What are you talkin’ about?”
“We’re on an island. Didn’t you know?”
She shook her head.
He stood up and brushed off his hands, then held one out. “Come. I’ll show you.”
Their voices were muffled by leaves, and steam, and dripping light, and thick night air. The insects and mice listened as the couple voyaged passed them through the field.
“Wet spring,” she remarked. It hadn’t rained that afternoon as he had warned, but the grass swishing around her legs was damp. “I bet I’ll pull a thousand ticks off myself after this. Feels good to be out in the open, though.”
“All this,” her fiancé said, flinging out his arms. “All this is ours. Our northern shore is the river here.”
She looked down the muddy bank at the water. She could see the bottom for a good way out. A pile of rocks was set up where the water became a deeper green. A few trees grew along the bank, but it was mostly clear. The far shore was completely forested. “Look,” She exclaimed as they walked along the bank. She pointed across the water at the clouds of fireflies rising from the trees.
“On this side too,” he said, and she watched them rise across the field and drift up through the twilight.
“Never really see those in the city.”
The little, blinking points of light had become a canopy by the time the shore led them back to the road. They walked across the rough concrete to an ancient dock surrounded by weed infested gravel that spilled into the water.
“Now we’re at the east end of the island,” he said. The planks groaned as they walked onto the dock. “The bridge is down at the west end, straight down the road there. This is where they’d ship the cotton and tobacco from back when this was a plantation. In the early days, at least.”
She walked all the way to the end of the dock and rested her hand on the support post. A lightning bug sitting there took this opportunity to turn twice and leap into the air. “It is nice,” she said, looking up the river at the twilit sky, and the sky in the water, and the fuzzing avenue of trees on either side. “But ya don’t think it’ll get lonely?”
He was behind her, wrapping his arms around her. “How can you be lonely when you have all the people you want right with you?”
“I’m not people, I’m just one.”
“And that’s enough.”
She smiled suddenly, and laughed. “That’s your way, isn’t it?” She turned into his embrace and kissed him luxuriously, and leaned back in his arms.
“Now don’t pull me into the water,” he chuckled.
“Then hold me right.”
He pushed her up until she sat on the post – by some mysterious happenstance the ancient would did not splinter. She balanced on the perch, resting her hands on his shoulders as he kissed her neck and her bosom. “I do love you,” she said contemplatively, looking at the rustling field and thick forest of the island. “I really do.”
They made their way back through the syrupy darkness that lay beneath the trees of the southern shore. A deep creek – her fiancé said it was actually called “Deep Creek” – separated them by about fifty feet at its widest point from the farther shore. Branches and vines leaned out and trailed their fingers in the water, creating thick ripples in the water that was as dark and slow as uncured molasses. They whispered to one another breathlessly and she clung to him, and giggled, and he acted very brave as they listened to an animal rustling around a few trees away and a fish jumping in the black creek.
Then the darkness thinned a bit and an orange glob popped into existence. They found a little boathouse and a tiny, decaying dock. “Who turned on this light?” He wondered aloud. He tousled her hair. “Missy, did you turn on this light? Did you sneak down here while I was working and turn on this light?”
“I never seen this place,” she exclaimed. “But it looks delightful! Look, here’s a little boat tied up.”
“Half full of water, though. Surprised the thing hasn’t sunk. Probably a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Ah!” He slapped his neck. “They’re thick in these trees.”
“Turn it over,” she said. “Turn it over so the little things die.”
“They won’t die,” he said, testing the sagging planks of the dock. “They just won’t like the moving water as much as this homemade pond.”
“Turn it over!” She whined.
He crouched down and lifted the edge of the boat. “It’s heavy.”
“Try from that end and I’ll lift on this end,” she said. He edged out to the end of the dock and she bent and grabbed the bow. As he reached for the back of boat the boat, she leapt up and charged the intervening feet, barreling into him. He bellowed and toppled in the water. She bent over laughing as he came up, gasping and cursing. He surged toward the dock and clawed at the hem of her dress. She was ready, slipping off her sandals and toppling willingly into the blackness.
The cold was what shocked her. For the second that she was under she could see nothing and feel only the cold fire of numbness. Then she came up screaming and gasping like he had. From below, they were figures in a void, moving back and forth across the light of a dying sun.
“We both needed a bath!” She protested as he attacked her with curtains of water. “Don’t it feel good after the heat and the skeeters?”
“I’m freezing! I’m getting out.”
“Hurry!” She screamed. “It’s ghost water! Ghost water’ll freeze in the middle of summer and kill you!”
“It’s not ghost water,” he complained, hauling himself out. “It’s a spring; probably lots of springs on the bottom, letting out water that’s ice cold.”
She paddled over to him. He sat on the dock, his shoes still dangling in the water. She jerked at one foot abruptly, and he looked up from examining his watch, then shook his head. “You probably will get bitten if you stay in. Probably snakes and snapping turtles infesting that water.”
“I ain’t scared.” Then she abruptly lifted her hands. “Help me out.”
He smiled compassionately. He reached down, then grabbed the shoulders of her dress and pulled it over her head. The dripping garment slapped onto the boards. “Come get it, Missy.”
“You don’t care a thing for me,” she said. She pulled herself up on her elbows, and looked at him with the same imploring eyes she had used when he first came to the club. Of course, she had meant it then.
He lent down on one elbow and kissed her wet lips, and ran his hand over her shoulder and down her back to unfasten her brassiere.
It was then that something in the water grabbed her left foot and pulled on it brief and hard. A real scream blasted their kiss apart. Panic exploded inside of her. She seized his shoulders, and the wood, and her sodden dress, and anything else her fingers could touch and dragged herself from the water. Pain seared in her left thigh. She didn’t care. She raced across the dock. One board cracked as she pounded across it. The only thing she heard as she ran up through the dark trees was the chattering of her own teeth.
Wheezing, she came at to a break in the trees. She stumbled upward through the weeds until she hit something – the screened in porch of the house. She leaned against it and shook violently, and tried to laugh until she remembered her thigh. Since she couldn’t see the stuff she smeared off it with her fingers, she tasted it. Blood.
Back in the woods, he was calling her name.
“Something probably just brushed your foot.”
She sat on a dusty bed, wearing a dusty towel, while he examined her leg.
“See, nothing on your foot. This, though, is real.” He brushed the gash, and wiped away more blood. “It could have been a nail, or the splintered end of a board.” He poured in peroxide and she winced. It sizzled, but didn’t bubbled up too much.
“It’s a shame,” she said. “I always thought I had the prettiest legs. Now there’ll be an ugly scab, maybe a scare.”
He wiped away the peroxide and bent to kiss the wound. “Feel better?”
Around three a.m., down on the pier, two children sat in the orange light and looked up at the house. It was just visible through the trees. They looked at the dark windows, then at one another and giggled. They held hands and swished their feet in the water. But they left no ripples.