Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Old houses have a spirit of their own.
We don’t usually notice during the day when the sun is warm and the windows are open. Fresh breeze carries familiar scents from the garden and the flowering jasmine vines snaking their way through the crumbling stonework. There is always too much going on in my house during the evenings to notice then either, with mom bustling around the kitchen and my two brothers jostling over their games in the living room. From somewhere upstairs echoes my uncle’s warbling chuckles along with the canned laughter of his shows. And underlying it all comes the scratching, popping jazz playing from the ancient record player in my father’s den, muffled and distant around the many twists and turns of the narrow hallways.
The house is comforting and warm and safe until everyone has gone to bed and the house begins to breathe. When the shadows never stay put where they’re supposed to, and the stagnant air drags heavy with unfamiliar taste. The lights are never enough to fill the room, no matter how many switches are turned on. And the silence is never fully silent: a conspicuous sensation of
emptiness even softer than the creaking floor boards or the rustle of wooden shutters against the wind. There’s something else, something deeper, almost like someone figured out how to play the sound of silence to cover up something we weren’t supposed to hear.
There’s an unspoken rule in our house that keeps us quiet at night. Sometimes we’ll catch one another in the hallways on our way to the bathroom, or when we’re poking around the fridge looking for snacks. We’ll greet each other with a nod or a gesture, or sometimes a whisper if we have to, but we’ll never speak out loud. Even as children, my brothers and I never broke the silence at night. It always felt disrespectful, like shouting during church, as though we were interrupting something sacred that was there before we were born and would linger in those walls long after we were gone.
“Old electrical wiring can have that effect,” my father had said once. He never elaborated on exactly what ‘that effect’ was, or gave us an explanation for how a faulty fuse box could feel like something in the dark was listening to you breathe. “I sort of like it though, you know? Makes me feel all snug, like the house is tucking me in at night.”
“It has to do with the ventilation system,” my mother said. “I felt it too when we first moved in, but honestly I hardly even notice any more. Just leave a window open if it’s bothering you.”
I didn’t know how to explain to her that the house didn’t want the windows open at night. It was as if I had pushed one of my brothers off the sofa, and then immediately turned my back on him. I wouldn’t have to see his face to know that he was angry. He wouldn’t need to shout or hit me back. I would just feel the anger stirring behind me in the air, an insubstantial thing which glowered down at me until I apologized and gave him his seat back. That’s how it was with the house, suffocating me with its anger until I closed the window and let it settle down.
“No one builds a house to feel like this. If you’re asking me why, then that’s your answer. No one ever built this house, it just grew this way.”
I liked my uncle’s explanation best, even though I never fully understood it. My parents were always busy with something, and my brothers would never let me live it down if I told them I was afraid. My uncle liked having me visit though, because no one else ever did. His legs didn’t work anymore, and he never got up except to drag himself to the bathroom. I’d sit on the end of his bed after bringing him food, and listen to him while he told me about the feelings I couldn’t describe.
“Don’t give me that face. People act like I’m broken just because I don’t get around any more, but being inside all the time has given me and the house a chance to get to know one another. It told me about how people come along sometimes and cut down trees and build up houses, and how the land is hurt by it. How do I know? Because as soon as those people get up and leave, the land is going to try and heal itself. The gardens will start taking over the house, and the weeds will grow up high, and the animals will start jumping fences, and given enough time, you’ll never know that people were there at all.
“Well it’s the same way with this house, only the other way around. The land here was hurt by something a long time ago, hurt by something that was here even before the settlers came. And so the land did what it always does, it grows and it heals. Only some hurts run so deep they never heal right, and so the land has to grow up a house to trap the hurt inside and not ever let go.”
“You’re only saying that because you’re thinking about your legs,” I told him. “How is a house supposed to grow out of the ground, with all the wires and pipes and things?”
My uncle laughed, the familiar deep chuckle that was so much apart of this place that it might as well be coming from the house itself. “The house didn’t grow from scratch, carpets and wallpaper and all. The shape of it grew up, swelling like a blister on the land. And then the people came along, and they must have thought it was an abandoned house that someone before them built. So they fixed it up and made it comfortable for people to live in—as comfortable as they could considering where it came from—and now its our turn to watch over the place.”
“What about the hurt that caused it to grow? Where did that go?”
“You wouldn’t be up here asking that if you didn’t already know. You might not hear this in many songs, but there are some hurts that don’t ever go. So you might as well make them your friend, because they’re going to be there until the end of you. If the house ever decided that it doesn’t want us to be here, then you won’t need me to tell you that.”
I wouldn’t have remembered those words if they’d been wrong. I think my house really did care for my uncle. And my uncle must have cared back, because even when he got worse he wouldn’t let my parents bring him to the hospital. He never raised his voice, but he was adamant that there would be anger if they made him leave. I remember thinking at the time how odd he said it, that ‘there would be anger’, and not that he would be angry. But the only thing that seemed to matter was that he was staying put and my parents were very worried. And like the house, they never told me exactly what was wrong.
I didn’t sleep much that night, and I was awake when I heard my uncle gasping for air. It surprised me that my first thought was to be angry at him for making so much noise when the house wanted it to be quiet. The sound from my uncle was getting more desperate though, and it didn’t take long for me wake my parents. Everything was loud after that: my brothers shouting, my parents arguing, and even the wail of an ambulance screeching up our street. I think my uncle would have tried to fight them off if he’d still been awake when they carried him out. I know he would have done more to convince us if he could, to make us believe there would be anger when he was gone.
My parents both rode with the ambulance, and it was just me and my brothers that knew what happened. We were already scared and anxious about our uncle. It wouldn’t have taken much to set us off or make us imagine devils out of the darkness. My brothers were so worked up about what happened that they wouldn’t stop talking though—about all the neighbors standing on their porch, about the beeping machines the medical responders carried, about what was going to happen to my uncle. Back and forth, louder and louder, then shouting again when one of them said my uncle was going to die.
The shouting didn’t stop, not even when both of them had finally shut their mouths. It sounded just like my brothers, the sound reverberating through the halls upstairs, only the voices weren’t shouting about my uncle anymore. The voices were threatening each other with such cruel and violent acts as to make me flinch in phantom agony. My brothers didn’t seem to understand what was happening, and they kept getting angrier at one another, threatening each other for real as they accused the other of trying to frighten them. Then one of them got his hands around the others throat, and the other did in kind, and both were flaming red in the face as each precious breath was squandered on a snarl of hatred for the other.
I involuntarily held my own breath from the tension as I tried to drag them apart, and it was then I noticed that something beside us was still drawing breath. Hot and heavy and angry, the force growing with every disembodied breath. The air dragged over us so powerfully as to draw us up the stairs, the blast of each rhythmic pull whipping the curtains, twisting the rugs, and ripping pictures from the wall. Hot and wet and insatiable panting, and all the while my brothers doing nothing but fight each other as they tumbled end over end.
The cruel shouts and threats filled the air more powerfully up here, joined in by the voices of others I did not recognize. Men and women of all ages, their voices filled with such despising loathing hatred as though we alone were the cause of every harm and misery in their lives. Spitting, roaring hatred, wishing our deaths and shouting at us between each infernal breath. Hardest to bear were the voices of children, wailing and screaming at us with such revulsion and betrayal. Their suffering made me feel so guilty that in that moment I was absolutely convinced that I deserved whatever punishment I was about to receive.
One of my brothers had stopped fighting back by now. He lay limply on the ground with the others hands still clamped around his throat, both faces nearly unrecognizable for the savageness of their exertion. The heat and the pressure was subsiding around us, however, and the wind was retreating through the cracks in the floorboards and walls. Now suddenly the air came sharp and cold as each window and door was hurled back against its hinges, snapping brittle into place like the fracture of bone. I knew at once the house was giving me this chance to leave it to languish in its hurt and its hatred. I can’t explain how, but I knew that I would be safe if I ran for it now, leaving my brothers to whatever fate was bestowed them by the others hand. But just as clearly I knew that I would carry the hurt of what I let happen with me from that day until the end of me, and no redeeming glimmer of solace would ever turn that hurt into my friend.
I went through one of the open doors that was offered me, but not to go outside. Instead I went to my uncle’s room, climbing into his bed and pulling up his blanket that was still damp with his sweat. I covered myself in that blanket and I cried until the last haunting echo of anger had settled into quiet, and then into something deeper, that sound of soft chuckling that had always come as though from the house itself.
There is a spirit in the house that no one built. And with it carries a hurt so old that I don’t think will ever heal. But I know that spirit by name, and I call him my uncle. I told him that it’s okay if he never leaves, because I’m never going to leave him either. At night I keep the windows closed and I stay very quiet, and together we have found peace. And someday another will name their hurt, and they will know that it is me, and I will never be alone.
WRITTEN BY: Tobias Wade
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