The house was a mess. The previous occupant had cared little for hygiene and even less for style. Although we had tried to stay focused on the task of moving in, the house and surrounding land with all its atmosphere of shrouded secrets proved a great distraction. This meant that on our first morning there we awoke with the majority of the work still before us. A prospect neither of us enjoyed. – “The House of Dust.” Southern Gothic
“My leg still hurts,” Missy called.
“It’ll probably do that for a while, baby. That was a nice scrape you made.” He stood in the bathroom across the hall. She couldn’t see him from where she lay in bed. Through the silence the soft rasp of his razor was audible. She looked about at the old room, with its scared floorboards, yellow paint and peeling wallpaper, and porcelain washbasins on oaken nightstands, and cracked dusty mirror on the dresser, and . . . yes, another rusty little wheel hanging above the closet door. And another door, which was closed.
“It was your fault, really,” she said absently, drawing the covers closer, despite the warmth. Then she realized they were not hers, and that they smelled mildew. Throwing them off, she climbed out of bed and searched around for her clothes.
“How is it my fault that you push me off the dock, jump in, then try and climb back out when a something touches your toe, and hurt yourself in the process? How is that my fault?” He was standing in the doorway.
She picked up the fallen towel and wrapped it about herself. “I don’t like your tone. Don’t sound so hostile.”
“Just answer the question.”
“I don’t need to answer the question.”
“But you do. See, baby, its needless little barbs like that that make life hell for a couple. We should always be honest and straight with each other. I can’t stand a lie. In my occupation I see firsthand where lies and pointless conflicts can get people. I see it all the time.”
“Your occupation.” She scooped up her underwear and brushed by him.
“Yes, my occupation. What about it? Why say it like that, Missy? Why – hey! I’m not done in there!”
She smiled through the closing bathroom door. “I won’t be a minute.”
He let out a long breath. “Come on, baby. Let’s not start this day off the wrong way. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ll have to cooperate.”
She flushed the toilet, washed her hands, and put on her bra and underwear. Then opened the door. “See, that didn’t take long.”
He looked at her. “It’s the thought that counts.”
“Is this really our only bathroom? The place is a mess.”
“You can clean out the one beside the bedroom, if you care too.” He went back in and silently resumed shaving.
“What one?” She murmured. She went back in the bedroom and walked to the closed door. It scrapped open when she pulled. Inside was a landscape of dirty, fractured tiles, drooping, flowery wallpaper, and hundreds of empty tin cans. The bathtub was full of dirt. A large window was partially open, and morning wind stroked the seedlings sprouting from the dirt. “Well,” she said. “What a pigsty.”
She turned and walked to the mirror, carefully avoiding the minefield of debris. She examined herself in the mirror she decided that, much as she might like to go through the day with next to nothing on, the bugs and the sun would make that impractical. She turned this way and that, wondering if this is how he had seen her that first night at the club. Had he seen nothing but a body? Been hungry for nothing but a good time? “Course, not much more I could give him, I guess. Can’t talk literature or anything like that.” Her eyes drifted slowly across her bosom and down her navel to – a daffodil.
She laughed as she plucked it from the sink basin. It was sitting in one of the tin cans, filled with a couple inches of dirty water. “Now how did I miss you there?” She turned it slowly, sniffed it, then stuck it between her breasts and went back into the bedroom.
“What is that?” He said flatly.
“These little friends are popping up all over the house aren’t they? Where’s my suitcase?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“It was in the sink. Where’s my suitcase?”
He rubbed his cheek, shaking his head. “It’s in the closest. But I’m sure that wasn’t in there.”
She pulled the closet door the rest of the way open and pulled the blue hard case from among the musty foliage of faded dresses. “Maybe it grew up while you weren’t in there.”
“Maybe . . .”
She drew out a pink frock and pulled it over her head.
“Which just reminds me how much junk we’ll have to dispose of before we can put our stuff in place,” he went on. “Look at this. A washbasin and pitcher. Who needs a washbasin and pitcher when they’ve got a bathroom ten feet away?”
“Looked more like a greenhouse to me.” She found her hairbrush and stood before the dresser, brushing vigorously. Her fiancé dressed and read a page in a little blue book he said his mother had given to him. “Didn’t you like the way that daffodil looked in my hair yesterday?” She asked.
“Very fetching,” he agreed.
She took the new one and did the same twining her hair around the stem and letting the blossom rest by her right temple. “Yes, it is rather nice.”
“As long as it helps you work I’m fine with it.”
She groaned. “Do we really have to move all this stuff? I don’t mind it. If the place was just a bit cleaner I could live happily–”
“Yes, we have to move it. I’ll never feel at home if the previous owners are still here in all their furniture.”
“That’s almost spiritual.”
“It’s logical. We need our stuff in place to make it our space.”
“Hmm. Look at this,” she pointed to the peak of the wood paneling surrounding the mirror.
“It’s like eyes.”
He came over. Two half-spheres, about two inches apart, looked out at them from beneath two gentle rows of delicate, horizontal lines that might have suggested a pair of eyebrows. “I think you’re right. Great. Eyes and bicycle wheels.”
“And bathtubs of dirt and flowers in the sink. No wonder you got the place so cheap, my dearest dear.” She smirked at him in the mirror.
“You said you liked the place last night,” he complained.
“And I never said I didn’t this morning. I just say it was owned by creepers.”
“Well, all the more reason to clear their trash out of here. You should put on your shoes – there may be needles laying around.”
“Did you bring my sandals up from the dock?”
“How nice.” She went back into the hall. So this was the mysterious place she had starred up at the day before. It wasn’t nearly as dark as she remembered it seeming. Light came from a window at the other end of the hall – the front of the house. The head of the stairs was here not too far from the bedroom door. She walked passed it, brushing her hand along the banister, listening to the floorboards creak. There were three doors besides the one into the bathroom she and her fiancé had used. The first two opened into silent bedrooms which were shockingly tidy and had windows – shrouded by gauzy curtains – looking out at the upper portions of the trees. The third door, the one nearest the front, was locked.
She gave it a good kick and a sour look. Inside, nothing moved. She went to the window, looked out briefly at the drive and the miserable excuse for a yard, then to the opposite door. It gave her grudging access to a light and spacious room where grey snow had fallen. Her bare feet made prints in the dust, and each inch of book, and globe, and desktop, and quill pin she touched left crumbly dryness on her fingers. “You might be able to shovel the dust out and make this your study,” she said, feeling his presence behind her. “I can see you years from now, lookin’ up from some thick book to take our son on your knee and tell him a story. You’ll have this room jam-packed with the most dry, boring stuff in the world. But you’ll love it, and it will all be very clean.”
“Our son? You’re not pregnant are you?”
“It was just a metaphor.”
“Really.” He looked around. “Yeah, I guess it could be nice. With some work, like everything else.” Going to the large front window he heaved it open, then did the same with the two smaller ones at the side. “There. We’ll let the wind make a start. Time to get to work, baby.”
Missy wrinkled her nose. “Work? What about breakfast?”
“We’ll eat some leftovers. Come on.” He took her by the hand and led her from the room, carefully closing the door.
“Leftover what? Chicken salad?”
“Yuck. I’m eating a real breakfast or not at all.”
He gave her a strained smile. “What will you make a real breakfast with, Missy?”
They went down the stairs. She glanced at a pair of eyes painted in the white on the dark wall, but did not draw his attention to them. At the bottom she said, “I’ll go get my sandals, then go into town and buy some stuff.”
“No, we don’t need to take that much time just for breakfast, baby. We’ll eat something nice for dinner.”
She was already going down the hall. “What would we eat if we don’t have anythin’, silly boy? You decide where you want everything, and get the heavy liftin’ done, and then I’ll have a nice breakfast ready for you.” She flung a sweet smile over her shoulder. “I’m hopeless at plannin’ or anything like that, you know. You’re the smart one.”
That would put him in good mood – all he needed was a little honey.
The light was still on at the little boathouse.
The night before it had been a solitary sun floating in the blackness. Now it was an ineffectual glimmer in the bright morning. She walked suspiciously out on the dock and picked up her sandals and sodden dress. The boat sat as it had, partially submerged, filled with dark water. The creek crept along, glancing at her sidelong as it passed. She tried the door to the little dock house. It fell inward. She took just a peek and saw all the dusty fishing utensils she expected. Putting on her sandals, she climbed back up the hill to the house, finding it a much shorter distance than she remembered in the dark. She left the dress on the back steps and threaded through the trees away from the house – she didn’t want him to see her and try pull her back in and feed her chicken salad and make her work all day. Why, she’d done him a favor even coming here. Kinda creepy, she thought, going off to live in the woods like this with no one around for miles. What if he was an ax murder? Perhaps everyone who had ever lived in the house was an ax murder. She shrugged, then scowled as the mosquitos descended on her and boiled up from the undergrowth. She broke into a run. The ground was mushy in places, and she almost fell twice, catching herself on a tree each time, leaving long ruts in the substrate of leaves. No cooling breeze accompanied her passage. She had always considered herself a fast runner but the monotonous landscape of the forest made her less and less sure she was actually getting anywhere. She thought she would reach the road fairly quickly but after a couple minutes without its appearance she was forced to slow her pace.
She pounded to a halt and flopped against a tree. Sucking in air, she looked up at the sunlight filtering through the canopy. Her gaze followed the shafts down through the silent air. It stopped at the noose. Pushing away from the tree, she walked to the ground directly beneath it. It was an ancient loop of rope, black with age. Vestiges of its final victim clung to the inside edge – the decayed material that had stuck and hardened when the neck and body finally separated and fell away. She walked carefully in a wide circle around the noose, but found no remnants. Something had probably dragged away the bones a long time ago. Looking at the saplings and bushes in the immediate vicinity, and the enclosing circle of established trees, she realized this had once been a clearing. “A hanging glen,” she said, pulling the term from the empty air. “What fun.”
A glen meant a meeting place, and that would require a path for people to reach the meeting place. Perhaps after so much time it was too much to ask. Still, she went to the quadrant of the circle she suspected lay in the direction of the road and searched along its edge. Something resembling a trail slithered off into the trees. She took it, followed it, and within a few minutes came in sight of the road.
It was cracked, and barren, and blisteringly hot even at this hour of the morning. She wandered across it, looking down across the green fields toward the river. She looked to her right, along the island in the direction the dock where her fiancé had said they shipped cotton from in the old days. It was barely visible in the distance through the ripples rising from the road. She glanced briefly at the sky – clear, as far as she could see – and wished for her sunglasses. Then she turned on her heel and walked toward the bridge.
Slowly, her figure receded into a rippling smudge. The smudge crossed the clay-stained bridge and vanished down the forest road.