Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
In the middle of the dazed garden stands this four-storied cadaver of a building. Years ago, it was home to many residents: a couple of families, a few students and some retirees. Now the house is nothing more than a decrepit panorama for bleak clouds.
Wild toadflax spreads through the splintered masonry, covering its windows with lady-like fingers. Some branches diffuse through cracks in windows, others beck upwards across the roof tiles, dangling on the other side like marionettes. Ornamenting this somber palette of ossified colors, the house has lulled itself to sleep with memories of its past, not even disturbed by thuds of dry acorns on the cracked cemented path. Time has stopped here.
Every now and then curious passersby press their foreheads against the rusty gates of the garden, desperately squinting through the mist. None dare to climb over and enter.
You too have been passing by, peeking through the gates, wondering about the empty garden and the house. And like everyone else, you too never dared to enter. Until now. With your face pressed against the gates, you notice something in one of the second-floor windows. It’s a speck of light, a really tiny one. You cup your hands and squint through the mist – and there it is again!
“What is that all about?” you wonder. After all, the house has been abandoned for thirty years now, and to your knowledge, no one set foot inside ever since. That’s when curiosity finally prevails over apprehension and common sense, and so you make that decision. You look around to make sure no one is watching you. You climb on top of the gate, carefully make your way above its gothic serration, then jump seven feet down on the cemented path of the garden.
The light in the window still shimmers, flashing its gaze like a beacon from an abandoned lighthouse.
Slowly you make your way along the forking path through the garden towards the house. Your steps are quiet and soft, as if you are trying not to wake a sleeping banshee. You pass by the fountain bench, noticing some random penchants of the past: a book that must have been left by a scatterbrained resident, a gardener glove tucked between moldy pebbles.
The ghastly mist disperses as you reach the entrance of the house. You stomp your feet to shake Juniper needles off your shoes, and that’s when you hear it – it’s the house cringing in its sleep. As you put your foot on the first stair, you can feel it breathe faster and shift eyelids side to side. It must be finally noticing your presence. Second stair, and the house no longer reacts to squeaks, but only shivers with its myriads of entangled spider webs. Like a comatose patient, it momentarily opens its eyes, gapes around with multiple eye sockets, then falls back into vegetative slumber.
One flight of stairs, and the door to your left is the one you need. It’s not locked. You try to push, and after a few tries the door finally huffs and gives in.
Swarms of microscopic dust specks perform pirouettes around you in all directions before fading from sight, beckoning you–the intruder–to enter this sanctuary presided by darkness.
You hesitate. But you step in.
You light a match, and molecules of light bounce off the walls, revealing the long corridor, seemingly longer than the building itself. How? Oh wait, there’s another door to your left. You try the knob, but it’s locked. Next to the door you notice a coat rack with nothing on it, but a little headscarf. Then, to your right, you see what looks like a kitchen with a bathroom pod and piles of some debris. Don’t go in there, just keep on walking straight.
The corridor soon ends, and you come face to face with a wide set of double doors. This time you open them with ease.
Welcome to the living room. Whatever sunlight penetrates through the dappled window is not enough for you to see anything. You light another match and look around. You see rows of books with eroded titles stacked on shelves. Then further down – an open piano looking like a smiling imbecile with missing front teeth. Then – a carcass of what once was a desk, with random wood planks covering its frame. A sooty glass vase. An armchair facing the other way.
Wait. You think you see someone sitting in that armchair. You hold your breath.
“Who’s there?” you whisper.
Taking cautious sideways steps, you walk around maintaining a distance of few feet between yourself and the figure in the armchair. You can hear your own heart pounding against your chest cage. Trickles of sweat run down your brows, and you don’t notice the match burning your fingertips. You twitch and lick your finger. You pick your last match. Yes, only one left in the matchbox. You nervously rub it against the side of your matchbox three or four times until it finally draws aerial hues in the air.
As the sulphur light once again illuminates the living room, you find yourself standing right in front of that someone. That someone is still sitting in the armchair. That someone is looking right at you. That someone is me.
I am a girl about six or seven years old. I live here.
Those are my books and that vase belongs to me too. I tried learning piano once, only to be driven away by its constant throaty mocking of my poor skills. I gave up, and now the piano is nothing but a quiet observant to my daily routine.
Speaking of routine. It consists of seating in this old armchair, leaning my palms on the armrest, swooning in and out of existence. My whole existence is in waiting.
Who do I wait for? I wait for her – the elderly woman who lives in the other room. I wait for her to call upon me.
And so, I sit, and I stare at the dim window looking from the rear side of the building. There are trees that grow there, and from time to time I see blotchy specks of sunlight slicing through the evergreen maze of conifers. Other than that, nothing is happening. No visitors and no occasional intruders. Only in my imagination. Including you.
Evening creeps in, drawing strange gallows on the ceiling. When it gets darker, I hear thousands of voices oscillating through the corridor and the room and the imbecile piano and the armchair. The voices, cognizant of my presence, intensify like a pendulum in reverse motion, calling me by my name.
These are the voices of the yore, of places and sounds and smells. Names, long-forgotten, eclipsing slowly like smoldering grass. This quiet peace is only disturbed by the clamor of dripping faucet in the kitchen every hour and pacing of the elderly woman in the adjacent room. She paces, paces from one corner to another. I dare not enter her room, not until she calls me.
And that’s when I suddenly hear it. First it sounds like a distant “aah”. There it is again – this time a bit more pronounced. I move towards the door of my sanctuary, my living room. I stand by the doorstep. And I hear it again, this time much clearer.
That cannot be a mistake. It’s her.
Goodbye, piano. Goodbye, armchair. Goodbye, books.
I float down the corridor, gently caressing the ceiling with my hair. As I come closer to the bedroom, the voice resonates with overlaying echoes. Like this: “Chi… Chi… Child.” And dormant echoes retort to her in their peculiar unison.
The door to her bedroom is locked. But it isn’t locked for me. I open and I float into her room, hovering above the floor like an apparition.
Faint light from a lantern, situated on a nightstand, is enough to only uncover a few feet of the room, and one may wonder if this is the same light that beacons through the window, inviting adventurous intruders.
As I enter the old woman’s room, I gaze through the sumptuously furnished room, down the arabesque wall tapestry with arching necks of draped chandeliers. I’ve never been here before, and my childish curiosity takes over. Below the tattered decorations of oval coving I notice old photographs hung on manifold nooks. The aura above the lantern gives some unwanted colors to the otherwise black and white photographs. I notice sallow inscriptions in the corner of each photograph. I try to read at first, but I hear a voice reading it for me.
“Jacob F. Haynes…”
I turn to the far corner of the room, where the voice came from. It must be her. The elderly woman sitting in the armchair in the dark corner of the room.
“Jacob F. Haynes,” says the voice again. “That’s the name of the photographer, the person who took that photo. The first photograph on the right was taken in March of 1932. Me and my brother Henry, the very year he died. We grew up in a much larger house by the Delmar Gardens off Morgan Street. A big patio with… there’s that patio in that photograph to the left.”
Her croaky sentences finally cease, and I can feel her shivering stare through the brown darkness. I can hear her taking loud sips of breath between words like ebb and tide of an ancient ocean. If I take another step, I will see her face. But she stops me and commands to take a seat on the ottoman.
“My name is Ariadne,” she says. “I was only nine when Henry died.”
She pauses to repel the sudden onslaught of painful memories, then takes a deep breath and slowly goes on. “Henry… My brother Henry was always an ill boy, but before the great depression hit, it was not something we worried about. Father’s business was blooming. We had access to the best specialists, we had enough money for expensive prescriptions. Then the great depression came, and the businesses that we owned slowly but surely went up in smokes. The photograph in the upper left… yes, that one. It’s my father in front of our old house. We sold it the next year. I cried. So did mother, even when she tried to soothe me.
That is when we moved here – to the second-floor apartment in this residential building. This is my room. Mine and Henry’s. He slept right there, exactly at the same spot where those photographs are.
While we tried to make ends meet, his disease only got worse. Doctors gave it a medical name. Polio. Other doctors gave it a scary nickname, plague of the century, and they told my father that Henry had to be hospitalized. Henry died on Christmas Day. His body, weakened from numerous childhood illnesses, could not withstand another challenge. He was lucky. I knew he was. Others like him that I saw in the hospital lived on. Children of his age, some older, some younger. They were being placed in wooden boxes, where nurses stimulated their lungs to breathe. They called it “iron lungs”. It was supposed to save them, but it only inflicted more pain. Henry never went through that. He was lucky. He died peacefully on Silent Night.”
She stops again. Emotions must have combed through her throat, weakening tongue muscles for a moment, but she knows she has very little time left. And her words like columns of blind men meander towards me, never breaking formation.
“That photograph in the middle is of me and my mother in 1944 at the train station. Few days after we received the Western Union telegram from Adjutant General, who was deeply saddened to inform us that my father, who was previously reported missing in action, was killed in Holland. The day after we received the death telegram, I informed my mother that I was joining the military. She did not try to dissuade me. I remember her look. Like an abyss staring back at you. We stood at the train station and posed for one final photo for 30 cents. That photo right there. And then I was off on a train to the naval base in Newfoundland. Then – across the Atlantic to tread on the battlegrounds where my father fought once. Military nurse. Army Nurse Corps. Blue khaki olive uniforms.
Then the war was over. That photograph below. That’s me in Paris. 1945. Late Spring. Flowers that they used to sell only on Rue de Lyon. His door with the cowbell ring that made me laugh – I can hear it. That putrid stench of the nearby canal – I can smell it. The loaves he baked for me with shelled peas, he called it Pois Pain. I can taste it. And the way he looked at me when I came by their family bakery and rang that cowbell and asked for another Pois Pain and the secret signal that only he and I shared. I cherished it. The alcove where we met under the pillows of lilac and my name that he pronounced so funny. Aghee-Adnah! It made me smile. The letters we wrote to each other with those strange curves he would put above vowels that made his hand-writing so special. And then – our dreams. Our funny dreams that whirled in the air, tap-danced on monastery towers, before dispersing in the lagoon sky.”
She looks at the tall clock on the other side of the room. It doesn’t work, she knows that, but old reflexes are hard to break. She coughs, and hollow echoes play parrot with her.
“1947. The photograph on the top right. Me back in this apartment after three years of being away. Like a pebble thrown in the air. I came back to say goodbye to mother. That tumor they found in her skull was supposed to keep her alive for only one month, enough for me to come back and lay her down to rest. She lived for two years. It was just the two of us in this apartment – me and her tumor. We shared our days in this room, sometimes walking downstairs and glistening under the fountain in the garden. Me reading. Tumor nodding and asking me for a release. I refused to grant one. Tumor understood and obeyed. I spoke to the apathy in her eyes and to the tumor. The fountain water would occasionally splash dead mosquitoes on her gray dress. I wiped them. From time to time she tried to talk, but that sounded only like croaking followed by a gasping cough and drooling. My one-month return home turned into two years, which then turned into a lifetime. I stayed by her side all that time, and I stayed when she passed on, and I stayed thereafter.
“1959. That photograph right there, yes. Oily and yellow. The last photograph of me. The last photograph of this building, while it was still alive. A few years before that I managed to buy the building from previous owners for a very cheap price. They wanted to sell it quickly, and frankly, no one was interested in buying an old decrepit house. No one but me. Little by little all residents have moved out. You can see the house in the background in that photograph – only our window is lit, others – dark. Like an eternal pendulum, I remained the sole beating heart of the house.”
Hollow echoes of the room cough harder, turning the moribund space into a compilation of sibilating blasts. She plays parrot with them.
I am sensing the end.
“Child. Come closer. Closer. Closer.”
She is lifting the sateen veil off her face, and for a moment stares into the emptiness of the room with memories curling up like coils of white smoke, then drifting towards me. I catch them all. I am gliding right above her. I am imbibing her memories. I am an infant popping soap bubbles.
Her last thoughts are pulsating like concluding baritone of the tall clock, pushing into its final slow-motion ticks. I can hear her.
Time – it plays with musical notes on her faces, hops between waves onto the parched shells of her lips, toys with the crest of her wrinkles, then gyres upwards with hissing sighs.
I come. I come closer. Closer. Closer.
Until my curls become hers. Until my young body and hers become one. Her voice, her face, and that empty apathy in her eyes turns into a childish curiosity. Blooming flowers tessellate the raptured skin like a warm spring rain after a dry winter. The world is new again.
The house takes its last breath and dies. The elderly woman’s head rests on the armchair. They die together, and the speck of light slowly floats out of her chest towards me.
I reach out, and I catch it. The speck of light – the same one that you, the intruder, saw moments ago behind the gate. The same light that ignited your curiosity and made you climb over the gates through the misty garden, down the forking path to the staircase upstairs to the apartment through the corridor to this very room. Only to find nothing in here.
By then I will be already gone. I will have already bid my farewell to the dead house and parted with the garden and the gates and the needled Junipers and the derelict fountain.
I am outside the gates now. I stride merrily down the street to the market square on my way to the new life. I am ready to live again. I am alive.
My name is Ariadne. I am six or seven.
Credit: Simon Simonian
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