The Ghost in the Oak Tree House

Story no. 6. The project resumes!


day6fix

Madge has a system for everything.

She is twenty-seven years old, American, and she keeps all her pills in a plastic box with a compartment for every day. She got it from her father, who is a veterinarian. Every day: the pill to quiet the sadness, the pill to make up for not eating meat, the pill to make up for not getting enough sunlight. I don’t quite understand this last, because Madge sits outside on a towel spread over the grass on the days she does not work in the garden. But she says she needs it.

Madge has a system for every small thing: the pills, the food from the garden, the washing-up, the paintings she makes in the evenings. She has a system for when she is so sad she cannot think or move: she breathes in for twenty seconds, holds it for ten, breathes out for thirty. There is a pulsing circle on her phone-flat-box that tells her the exact pacing of her breath. Her system is to do this until she forgets what she was sad about or she falls asleep. Usually she falls asleep.

Madge has systems because she is very bad at systems. If a painting is going well or if a book grips her, she will fall asleep at five AM, but if her day of being a student at the university on the lake went poorly, she will fall asleep with her arms folded on the kitchen table after she has poured little brown bits into the cat’s bowl, at half past six in the evening. Madge is bad at controlling her sadness.

She came to this house on the edge of the woods a year and a half ago, and we have been here together since then. The kitten appeared the first April, standing on its hind legs to peer over the edge of a cardboard box that Madge held against her chest guiltily as she checked around the front door for me.

The cat liked me. And I started to like it, after it eased up to me in the quiet of the afternoon — a tiny creature, puffed up in fear, every hair outlined in sunlight. It sniffed me, or tried to, and I remembered the little cat I had had when I first came to this house. She had gone too. The kitten quieted under petting, and now Joshua the brown tabby sat with me in the late afternoon while we waited for Madge to come home.

The house on the edge of the woods had four apartments, but only Madge’s was let. The owners had tried over many years to rent the apartments to students, to foreigners, to poor retirees, to anyone they thought would not mind the leaking taps and the drafts and the reek of misery coming up from the basement. But I was their only permanent tenant.

Madge had already told me she meant to move in November, after the garden was well and truly over. She had preserved two dozen jars of apples from the descendant of the tree I had planted and brined another dozen jars of pickles from the cucumber vine that crept around the side of the house. But the garden itself was a meager square that stood in the shadow of the encroaching oaks. I had not known that oaks would lean in to the smell of old fear and desperation, but their young branches grew toward the house as if it were a second sun, until the twigs rattled against the third-floor windows in the slightest breeze.

Madge wanted a larger garden, with more sun. Peppers need sun, she explained. Chickens too.

Chickens? I asked.

Only three or four, she assured me. Hardly enough to notice. They eat kitchen scraps!

I thought Joshua would likely eat the chickens, but I held my silence.

Madge rode her bicycle to the train station every morning and rode it back to the house every night. One the days she did not come in the drive astride the thing, but walking beside it, Joshua and I knew that the sadness had been too much that day. These were the days that Joshua ran to meet her, curling around her ankles like a furry rope anchoring her to this world, yowling for his brown bits and his stroking. These were the days that I made the drawer with the knives in it stick shut and moved Madge’s pill box with the compartments to places she would not look for it.

When she fell asleep in a knot in the chair in the kitchen, I stroked the loose hairs back from her ears and hummed under my breath. Don’t forget we are here, Joshua and I murmured together. We see you. You are not invisible.

Maybe it is not the most comforting thing to hear from a person who is herself invisible; but when Madge would wake she would smile up into my face.

***

This house is very old and filled with blood, the least of which is probably mine. How old, exactly, I could not say; there had been long stretches when no one at all opened its doors or aired its closets or swept the oak leaves from the bedrooms where they blew in through the broken windows. Months or maybe years or maybe decades had passed like that, and for me nothing changed. The current owners had tried to live in the house when they were young, but they could not abide sharing it with another tenant, particularly not one so bitter and sullen as I. The knee-length skirts of the female owner had made me impatient – they were so tight around her knees she could barely walk – but I envied her the little jackets that fit snugly without stays.

It had been a long time since the current owners had left. When they had come back to give Madge a tour of her newly sectioned-off apartment (two and a half of the high front rooms where the Family had eaten lovely dinners and listened to lovely music, so far from the old kitchen where I had lived and died) both of their faces were lined and sagging and their hair was gray. Madge rarely wore skirts at all, but tight trousers and knit shirts that showed the bulges of her stomach. Sometimes at night she would stand in front of her bedroom mirror and grip the flesh of her middle, pushing it from side to side as though she could make it disappear. I had always thought that chubbiness was the province of the wealthy and the happy, but Madge was neither of those things.

***

A week before the piece of paper she had signed said she would move to a newer, uglier, happier house, with a bigger garden and no oaks trying to claw their way in at the windows, Madge stood in front of the cabinet in the wash room, brushing her hair over and over. I stood behind her, absently picking up strands as they floated off of the brush, batting them in the air and letting them float down. Sometimes I would let my palms run over the back of her skull between strokes of the brush, smoothing down the air pockets created by static electricity.

Her eyes hooked into mine into the spotted silver of the cabinet mirror, and she laid down the brush.

I don’t want to leave you here, she said. It’s cruel.

Don’t pity me, I said. I have been here a long time, and I will be here a long time after you are gone.

Madge threaded her fingers through the bristles of the brush.

It makes the emptiness outside less awful when there is someone inside with you, she said. And it makes the emptiness inside-inside less terrible when you know that there is someone who sees it.

I could almost feel the warmth of the blood beneath her skin when she turned and clasped one of my hands in both of hers

***

The plan that Madge came up didn’t seem like it could work.

It matters to the soul where the body that used to house it remains, she said. Otherwise why would the Egyptians have cared so much about making mummies? Why would graveyards be uncertain places full of whispers?

It matters to the soul where it felt things, I said. Where it knew love. Where it knew fear.

She hesitated, then repeated, I don’t want to leave you here.

So I passed through the house, touching walls and doors, trying to remember. Most of the knobs and handles had been changed; they had no memory of the sadness and the blood. The walls had been painted and repainted, whatever secrets they held muffled under layers and layers of pigment.

In the back of the other apartment on the ground floor, which the owners had not attempted to rent since rats had chewed through the wiring around the stove, there an old fireplace. This fireplace I remembered. It had been scrubbed and maybe even bleached, but the memory had not left. I pressed myself into the corner just to the left of the hearth, as I had so often in life. The stones had usually retained some warmth even at the end of a very cold day, and the shadows had made it harder for the Family to find me during the night.

I have been a tenant in this house far longer than I had been a servant here, but the sudden remembrance of how my servanthood had come to an end still made the shadow of my heart clench.

I passed back into Madge’s apartment, where she sat by her desk. The lamp that stood beside her illuminated the tools she had laid out: pliers, a long, stiff knife, chisel and hammer, a shovel, and a large cardboard box.

We need to get into the cellar, I explained.

The handles were new but the windows are old, and Madge could stand behind the hedges outside the kitchen window and slide a knife through the crack between the two swinging panes and lift the latch. It swung open. She stood on a chair she had brought out from the kitchen and climbed inside.

The cellar door was across from the fireplace. The owners had put a series of locks on it, but the sadness corroded them, and the lust of the oak trees eased them open, until a slight push was all it took to get past the door to the staircase.

The composition of my self changed as we descended. In Madge’s apartment, I collected sunlight, cat hair, cinnamon flung past the bowl while baking, Madge’s hairs, dry watercolors that had whispered off paintings, dust from the tops of books: I had built these things up into a self, a person who walked across the cracked floorboards and read poems by the window. But down here the sadness rose up and filled the cavity of my former existence. I had never been allowed in the Family’s particular rooms, so I could let Madge fill them up in my mind, but the kitchen, the cellar: I could not shake the weight of those memories.

I stopped by the brick wall that continued down from the fireplace above. It had held a wood bin, long before. Here, I said, and pointed. It’s here.

Madge took the chisel and hammer and began to work at the bricks. The mortar was loose enough – it was a messy job and had been done quickly. She pulled out one brick, then another, then another. The wall above began to crack threateningly. She looked up nervously.

It’s all right, I said. It’s not supporting anything. The real wall is behind.

She put down the hammer and pulled bricks down from the ceiling, standing on a wine crate she found in the corner. The false wall came apart faster and faster, until she could pick up her flashlight and aim it through a person-sized hole.

Can you really say, when looking at the mortified bits of flesh that used to hold you, that I am there? That is me? Did we find me? We found something behind the wall, of course. It must have reeked after the Family had first blocked it up: most of the body had rotted away in the wet of the basement. Some of the bones were still left, sitting up against the fireplace, dressed in a few scraps of cloth. There was a little headcloth, once white, with some hair stuck to it lying on the floor next to the skull, which had fallen off the top of the spine.

I had died in the kitchen, been murdered in the kitchen, my remains hidden down here. But I am still here. How could I have died?

Madge took a sheet from her bag and laid the remains on it, piece by slow piece. What penetrated the sadness was the sight of the slow care she took with each bone, the utter lack of disgust as she cupped her hands around the skull and laid it in a cloth nest on the top of the disintegrated ribcage inside the cardboard box.

She carried the box up the stairs and put it on the kitchen table, then returned to the wall. Madge is not good at systems, but she is very good at affairs of fear and of love. She had purchased mortar and a bucket, and slowly and methodically she rebuilt the wall that had once hidden me.

***

We have been in the new house for a year now, and Madge is half-done being a student in the university on the lake. She painted a box for the remains that may or may not still be me with patterns of flowers and pumpkins, and Joshua likes to sleep on its lid when the sun comes in through the south window. It matters where a soul has felt fear: sometimes I find myself back in the house behind the oaks, touching the doors and the walls, crouching in the corner by the kitchen fireplace where I once hid, standing in front of the fireplace where I died.

But too it matters where a soul knows love, and as one part of me is tracing the rebuilt wall that hid my murder for so long with pale fingers, another part of me is sitting in the secondhand brocaded chair that Madge found on a street corner on trash day, following the patterns of the camellias in the cloth with transparent hands that are delineated by dust and garden dirt instead of memory. She is working outside the window weeding rows of beans, a straw hat protecting sunburned ears. Two days ago she brought home four volumes of poetry, thin chapbooks from far-away friends that take little effort for me to open and read.

I hope her soul remembers this as a place where it knew love, as well.

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