It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window. We’d just moved into the place, but the drain had been working and the glass had been intact, and then one morning they weren’t. My wife tapped her fingernail lightly on the crack in the pane and it sounded like something was knocking, asking to be let in.
Then the spices went missing. The sea salt, the marjoram, the rosemary, even our custom poultry blend. Finally, the saffron – forty dollars’ worth – and I asked my wife if she’d been reorganizing the kitchen. She said she hadn’t. A few days later I found the soft red threads sprinkled in each cup of my bra. I’d have gone to her and produced it as evidence – though evidence of what, I was not certain – but she’d been out of town the night I’d shrugged the bra onto the floor before bed and was still gone when I picked it up the next day. I tried to gather the saffron but it dissolved to dust beneath my fingers, coloring the tips a burnt orange that didn’t wash off for days.
We blamed the neighbors. We blamed the cat. We blamed each other, especially when I was in the bathroom and she was in the bedroom, and I heard her say, ‘Love, did you hear that sound in the basement? Can you investigate?’ and she heard me say, ‘Darling, did you hear that sound in the attic? Would you go and see what it is?’ Luckily we crossed paths when we did, in the hallway in between, otherwise who knows what would have been waiting for us in those cramped orifices of the house.
But that only occurred to me later. At the time, we accused and accused, then agreed to not talk about it anymore.
The strangeness fed our discontent. We’d already been aloof, tender, and now we were fluttering around in our own rafters, sensitive as infants. We’d been discussing counseling even before the clogged drain and the crack in the window, but who can take the time to see a counselor when your wife won’t tell you why she’s crying and an invisible presence is tapping icy splinters of Morse code onto the palm of your left hand, as it did to mine the evening the power went out?
After that, something moved around at night. It sounded like the cat until the cat disappeared; then the padding continued, looping our bed like a satellite, soft-pawed but no longer comforting. We lay there in the dark asking each other questions: ‘Do you remember when we met?’ ‘Do you remember when you spilled that bottle of champagne all over the hotel bed in Reno?’ ‘Do you remember that old woman we saw at the grocery store, the one carrying the baby doll?’ ‘Do you remember when your cousin fell down the stairs at our fifteenth wedding anniversary?’ ‘Do you remember that time I was trying to gently nibble your finger and I bit down so hard, by accident?’ Whatever walked around us gurgled like a pot at low boil whenever we fell silent, so we talked until we were too tired to care. We went to sleep in pajamas and woke to find them neatly stacked at the foot of the bed. One morning, my wife had a blue ribbon tied around her ankle, to which was knotted a tiny silver bell.
My hairbrush vanished and showed up in the toilet bowl. My wife’s daily vitamins were replaced with eightpenny nails. On Tuesdays the full-length mirror only showed us our reflections as we were as girls: her gawky, me fat, both awkward and years away from the revelation that led us to one another, to this house. I broke the mirror, not by accident.
We did research at the library, at city hall, at the local historical society. It turned out there had been a graveyard for criminals on the property where our home now stood. Also, a woman had been strangled by her lover in our bedroom just after the house was built. Also, a man had hanged himself in the attic during the Great Depression. Also, a teenage girl had been kidnapped and held in the basement for a year in the seventies before the kidnapper, who had never bothered offering a ransom, sent pieces of her body to her family in sets of Russian nesting dolls and then burned what remained of her on the front lawn. We tracked down the tenants who’d lived there immediately before us. Their eight-year-old son claimed the seam between the world of the living and the dead ran through the foyer.
We called a priest, who prayed in every room and tossed holy water at the wallpaper but eyed us suspiciously from each doorway, until he finally asked us if we were sisters. We called a psychic, who moved around the house like she was bored until she opened the lid to the dryer, which caused her to snap into the air like she was hanging from an invisible crucifix and recite something in a language we didn’t recognize, but which sounded unfathomably ancient. We set a Ouija board on the kitchen table but before we could ask anything the planchette shot through the air and buried itself in the drywall next to our heads.
Last, we called a woman we heard about through word of mouth, who only went by the name ‘Miss.’ Others swore up and down that she specialized in succeeding where others had failed, but she failed, too, and when she left she recommended we burn all of our possessions and move out. ‘Stories like this don’t have happy endings,’ she said, picking glass fragments out of her hair and waving smoking sage around her body as she departed.
My wife and I had a fight about that, too. She wanted to leave, I didn’t. ‘I can’t handle this,’ she said. ‘I just want to live my life.’ She blew her nose into a coffee filter because every tissue in the house had turned to ash.
‘But our life is here now,’ I said. ‘Also, we can’t afford to break the lease.’
That was the biggest indignity: the landlord had rented us a haunted house for above market rent and we didn’t have the money to move. We left him a few voicemails about the matter but aside from sending a handyman – who dredged up clumps of blonde hair and a sparrow bone branded with an unreadable symbol from the depths of the drain – he didn’t seem particularly concerned with our plight.
That final afternoon, I opened the bedroom door and instead of seeing our bedroom, where my wife had been resting with the curtains drawn, I was looking into the boudoir of a young woman from a long-ago century. She was sitting nude before a mirror, pinning up her hair, and did not seem to notice me. In the bed, beneath a gauzy canopy, a body was moving like it had just emerged from a long and languorous dream. A foot poked out from beneath the blanket, and the sole was grey with dirt. For the first time in months, it was not the interior that felt full of threat. How long had it been since windows had kept the many dangers of the world away, rather than held them in? But this room was safe, all swaddling and perfume and late-summer, early-morning quiet.
The young woman smoothed her hands over her hair, tilted her chin upward, and tugged on her lip before letting it moistly snap back over her teeth. Then she crawled into the bed, where her lover – another young woman, with ruddy skin and a smile that carved trenches into her cheeks – sat up and stroked her face. They pulled close and I heard them laugh, and their kiss was wet and tangible, like an oyster passed between them. I felt a tingle of tears. I slammed the door shut.
When I opened it again, my wife was standing there, looking just-woke and mournful.
After that, we were alone, together.
Photograph © Mario Arruda, 2015