As a young girl, I had always wondered what sorts of mysteries existed beyond the high privacy fence surrounding the abandoned property at the end of the cul-de-sac on which my brother and I had lived most of our childhood. He and I could never agree as to what exactly such a fence might hide: he thought a menagerie of beasts while I suspected a hidden garden.
We often stayed up quite late summer nights—those long lost nights that preceded the rising of a new day of freedom and the accompanying unknown, nights and days now forever behind us—and imagined our journeying into that fenced land. You see, we were not frightened youths at that point in our lives; instead, we found fascinating all areas of our small, mysterious world, an increasingly forbidden world that the older humans around us, especially our worrying mother and father, had restricted from our younger selves. These shadowy lands we sought to investigate, to explore, to cast ourselves into, all so that we might discover something exciting about the world in which we meant to grow old.
Our parents had explicitly warned us against venturing into the fenced lot.
Why, they never explained, but my sister and I imagined their warning concerned the old structure founded upon that overgrown lot. You see, this particular half-acre property concealed within its center a risen, storied house that rested quietly under a copse of old shade trees, and about this dusky area rambled prickly bushes and stinking undergrowth and crawling vines and other such entangled plants. My brother and I gathered as much from our journeys into the branches of the pine trees nearby, climbing high enough to gaze down into the forbidden lot, but not so high as to frighten our stomachs into oblivion. Of course, the undergrowth of that lot was so thick as to prevent our seeing anything but green and weed and vegetation all about the lower structures of the house.
Instead, we could really only see the upper story as we peered down at it from our perches high in the pines, and even then its characteristics only vaguely appeared to us through the branches of the trees all about it: the rotten siding of the gables, the dirty dormer windows, the moss-covered brick of the chimney, the torn shingles and leaf-strewn roof and gutters. The house seemed to writhe there within this thick vegetation, a magnificent creature captured and exhausted at the bottom of a sack.
Naturally, we concocted all sorts of stories about this house, for the house lent itself so well as scenery to the usual horror stories that we had grown used to hearing as children, and these fantasies we retold to one another those late nights as we waited for the sun to bring us another day of exploration: my brother imagined an old pedophile resided there and used its basement to torture his victims, while I argued that certainly an ancient witch had called the broken down house her home so that she could live out her years undisturbed. Eventually, however, we settled upon the idea that a widow-bride lived there—we had recently somehow become infatuated with the idea of broken marriages—and with this house she made her bridal bower a trap for the various neighborhood children so that she might consume them.
Then one day—as these sorts of stories go—we discovered a loosened board in that high wooden fence, and after several minutes of tugging at it, we managed to pull it up and out of its position so that we might crawl through the fence and emerge into the yard of the overgrown lot. All about us hung creepers dangling from the ancient oak trees, and before us stood high and untouchable the house we had meant to investigate, its windows boarded over and its façade cracked, run-down, and dirty.
We dared each other to step further along the mossy brick walk until finally there I stood upon the rotten boards of the front porch, my hand against the heavy front door, my brother just below me on the steps, glancing uneasily at the windows looking down upon us. I could not help but push against that door, so enticing had the idea of entering this house become to me over the past few weeks, after all the hours we had spent building up its mythic height, filling it with ghouls and ghosts and horrific creatures as we hid in our beds, and so I found that I had to push against it with all my childish strength, and only then did the door give way to a dark foyer.
Of course, I urged my brother to step beyond me, a simple dare, and it is this dare—of all of my actions in my life—that I now truly regret the most.
My brother led me into the darkness of the foyer, and together we found our way as the dust disturbed at our shuffling feet. He lit a lighter he’d had in his pocket, and in the weak light of the new flame, we glanced excitedly all about us, and in our searching there we discovered numerous pictures lining the walls of that tight foyer: pictures of various other family members shrouded in the flickering light of his flame, pictures of someone’s ancestors posed carefully for still camera shots, pictures of men and women who had sat patiently for their own portraits, so that they too might become frozen in some stance or another in the oil paints of some unknown artist. This seemed to be the heavy word family, verbed there all across those foyer walls, and we, my brother and I, were enthralled, for what had we ever experienced in our own family but the simple faces of our mother and father gazing happily at us across the dinner table.
As we processed past the portraits, the foyer seemed to extend all around us, then, and we took one another’s hands on our hesitant path beneath these dead and silent faces, these faces that seemed to encourage us onward down into the house. Oddly, the walls extended higher above us, the ceiling and its dangling light fixture rose into the gloom above, and the foyer floor—an assortment of cracked and splintered wooden planks—did indeed seem to gently curve down beneath our feet. We felt as if we had suddenly begun a kind of descent there into family.
Near the end of the sloping corridor we discovered a doorway. On one side of the doorway stood an enormous but silent grandfather clock, its pendulum unmoving in its case. Framed on the wall on the other side of the doorway hung a portrait, a final one, of a veiled bride, wedding flowers in her hands, and her groom, his dark hair long and straight to his shoulders. Each stood silently, unsmiling in the frame, and each gazed slightly to the right behind the photographer, as if at the last second before the bulb had flashed and the shutter had clicked open and shut, some odd vision or another had distracted them from their duty to stare happily into the camera lens. In the shadow of my brother’s lighter, their faces took on another feature, and deep black dark shadows seemed to encircle their eyes, making their eye sockets seem deep and empty.
I shuddered to think of this happy couple, and my brother clutched harder at me.
In some slight way, I imagined they resembled our own mother and father. I had long studied the wedding portrait they had taken, and had in the course of my studies memorized its features: my father’s upright military bearing, my mother’s petite figure slightly before him, the toothless smile on his face and the glint of his grey eyes, my mother’s wide-open laughing mouth and shoulder length raven-black hair. Of course, the two couples drastically differed, but I could not help but feel as though their looks, the way they each seemed to look above and off the camera, signified something in my life.
My brother disagreed, and as he pointed to the portrait to explain to me his reasoning, a shrill voice echoed throughout the house.
My brother made to grab me and run, but I could not move from my place there in the foyer. So we stood still in the half-dark, wondering what we ought to do, and then the voice called down to us again from above, freezing him to his footprints as well.
Hello, my darlings!
We heard, then, the sudden shifting of a mattress giving up its occupant, and the slight clomping of feet as whoever moved across the floor above us. We stood unmoving as the sounds of footsteps descended into the stairwell and then slowly fell towards us, seemingly with much effort, until the figure slowly paused in the shadow of the landing slightly above us.
My brother raised the lighter to better glimpse whatever had befallen us.
Down upon the landing stood the figure of a woman, half-shrouded in a dirty and torn veil and faded hospital gown, it too hanging in tatters around her rotten body. Blood seemed to have stained the fabric there upon her figure, a harried and unemotional blood, a blood that spoke of countless horrors in this woman’s lifetime, and then, to our horror, she raised a disfigured and withered hand to the banister at her waist, and the blood from her living corpse spattered there upon the handrail, dripped slightly onto the dusty floor below her as she stared at us. Then we noticed that she lacked another hand, and in its stead she held a stump to her flat breast.
I love my house, she said. It used to be so happy.
I’m going to make it happy again, she said.
And with her bloody hand she gestured up the stairwell behind her, down which we suddenly witnessed the screaming, tumbling, clawing, falling, toddling, tripping mass of flesh that she considered her birth forms. We saw toddlers with their guts wrung out, and babies without their laughing mouths, infants rolling in their bloody swaddling, and young children clambering upon their bleeding stumps. She had collected about her a menagerie of broken and devastated progeny, and these she threw upon us, her devilish sign.
Oh, children, I have waited long for you too, she said.
If only you could join me and the others, I would be so pleased, she said.
She leapt from the landing across the banister, her arms spread out and her mouth wide agape as if she meant to eat us whole. We shuddered beneath her devastated form, and then all light in our world was extinguished. Much of our time in that house we spent in darkness, both physically and figuratively. I have since lost the specifics of our enslavement to that horrific woman. My brain refuses to count the time we spent in that labyrinthine house: had we disappeared for hours, days, weeks, or years? When I attempt now to recall that phase of my life, I feel as though I have fallen beyond the edges of time and into an incessant pit, the tortured sounds of animals suffering in the darkness around me.
My doctors doubt my story of that house, of course.
Still, though, I try to convince them. And so nights I stay awake mostly and attempt to figure out what exactly I experienced, what exactly had my brain done to me while I suffered there at the hands of that witch. Even my parents could not help but pester me, for each morning during their visits they asked me if I had remembered some new and damning detail, but no matter how hard I tried throughout the night to remember the specifics of my time in the house, I could only describe to them how I lost my brother, how I had to care for the other children.
They do not believe anything I tell them.
So I write in order to better remember, though I fear such remembrance.
My brother, he fared worse than I, for she took him to the basement and made him into a bloody teetering doll, a kind of broken time piece to fix him at the perfect age: he shuffled around on his stumps, mumbled from his tongueless mouth the babble of a young toddler.
Under her parenting, he failed to grow up.
I lost him finally amongst the other children.
He had become unrecognizable.
As for me, she held me for quite some time, forced me to become her nurse, her servant, her caregiver, a kind of terrible nanny to the other children. I too wore tattered rags upon my body. I too became slick with blood. I too surrounded myself with these grotesque children, and I cared for them as best I could, offering to them the comfort of my body when they wept, the touch of my soft hands when they fell, the tender sounds of my voice when they feared her violent rages. And I mourned each of them as they died, and I welcomed each new one as she ‘gave birth’ in the horrific basement of that house.
From where she collected her children, I do not know.
I only know she had ripped from me the essence of my childhood.
Then she finally released me.
She lay weak in her bedroom one evening, her dying and dead children snuggled in about her, or tucked into their cribs nearby. She turned her head to look at me and raised a single bony finger.
You may go, she said.
And so I left the house, passed under the brambles and bushes, squeezed through the wooden fence, and emerged into a gray, now-colorless world. Above me a murder of crows lined the telephone wire, and beyond them I discovered a chalky, ashen sky devoid of all life. A light smoky snowfall began, and in the distance I saw the looming façade of a hospital, its lights casting their harsh glare through the passing weather.
I turned and stumbled to my home, weeping.