Photograph via Flickr by Phillip Ingham
The three people who lived in the house called it the Mansion. Last spring they’d found it abandoned and taken it over. The house was a sagging two-story with a wraparound porch, the curled white paint uncovering gray shingles. A tall metal frame stood to the left, as though the structure had been abandoned mid-renovation. The front door was missing its knob. By the time I came upon the Mansion, I’d been wandering for days. I was on the outskirts of a city and for miles everything I’d passed had looked deserted: the string of empty row houses, the church with the cracked steeple, the railroad tracks I followed out of the city and to the Mansion’s door.
I was allowed to sleep on the second floor, in a room with a bare mattress. A window overlooked the backyard, snow-covered earth and slender, leafless trees. The ceiling leaked. The floral wallpaper was worn bare in spots, the glass chandelier empty of bulbs. The Mansion had architectural features I’d never seen before. Darcie, who was fond of wearing angel wings, gave me the tour.
“This house will play tricks on you,” she said.
In the living room, Darcie picked up the thin white string lying on the floor and pulled. The trap door was the size of a dumbwaiter. She crouched inside it, the tops of her wings brushing her ears. Darcie was twenty, like me. She had been pleased when I turned up at the Mansion. She said it was nice to have another woman around.
I heard running and soon Nelson and No Name skidded into the room. They were older, though it was hard to tell exactly how much. They had been playing Cops and Robbers. Nelson was the robber, a red tie cut with eyeholes wrapped around his head. No Name was mute and never went without his chipmunk mask. It had the sheen of cheap plastic, oval eyes with cartoon lashes and a red smile that revealed two square white teeth. He was always the cop.
“Has Darcie shown you the basement yet?” Nelson asked.
I said that she hadn’t.
He listed the things they’d found down there: rusted scalpels, beakers, needle casings, a Bunsen burner, piles of black tubing.
“Someone was doing experiments,” he said.
“Experiments in what?” I asked.
“Darcie loves the basement,” Nelson said. “That’s where she thinks she can talk to God.”
Nelson had been wrong about that. Darcie didn’t think she could talk to God. But in the basement there was a steel door and behind that door, a tunnel. The floor was made of dirt, the walls dark and smooth, the ceiling just high enough for us to stand upright. You could walk a quarter mile before it ended, cut off by a stone wall. And it was in this tunnel that Darcie heard the voice of her mother, who was dead.
At first, she was reluctant to show me how she talked to her mother, but I kept after her. I had lost my mother too, years ago, and I’d never missed her as much as I did then.
It’s not as simple as walking in and saying hello, Darcie explained when she took me to the basement for the first time. There was an entire ritual. The ritual started with opening a round tin and picking a pill to take. I ate a pink one with a heart in the center. Next, Darcie said, we had to take off our clothes. It was cold. Cobwebs sagged from the concrete ceiling like dead skin.
“Do we really have to be naked?” I asked.
“Just think of yourself as an offering,” Darcie said.
She went first. I couldn’t say how long she was gone. I had become trapped inside a little pocket of time, like the watchtower, the hands stuck at noon, I’d seen on my way to the Mansion. She could have been in there for minutes or for days.
When she returned, she was crying, her pale hair stuck to her cheeks. She crossed her arms over her stomach and shivered.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did you not hear her?”
“The voice doesn’t always say what you wish it would,” Darcie replied.
I had been feeling warm inside. I had been having thoughts about invisible hands reaching through me and cupping my organs. But inside the tunnel the cold hit. I stumbled forward, patting the walls, waiting for some kind of instruction.
I was near the end of the tunnel when I heard the singing. It sounded like a nursery rhyme. It was familiar, the words billy goat and axe and wooden leg.
“Don’t leave,” I whispered when the voice began to grow fainter. But it did.
Darcie and I kept visiting the tunnel. Every time, I heard the singing. Every time, it faded into nothing. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. Once Darcie cried so hard, she started hiccupping. I pulled her close and felt her body jerk in my arms, like something was trying to kick its way out.
The last time I saw her go into the tunnel, I’d taken a blue pill with an angel in the center, but had kept my ability to understand time. I became certain that Darcie had been gone for many hours. Finally I opened the door and called her name. Then I started down the path, my feet twisting against the dirt floor. I didn’t hear anything, not even the singing. When I reached the wall, I knew her mother’s voice must have eaten her, and then I felt those ghost hands back inside me, squeezing my heart. I turned and ran.
In the basement, I put on my underwear and a black sweatshirt and went up the wooden staircase. I found No Name and Nelson in the living room, but that wasn’t all. Darcie was there too, her back to the doorway. She was dressed. Her wings hung from her shoulders.
“How did you get up here?” I asked.
She turned and looked at me like she didn’t know who I was.
A scratching noise drew my attention downward, to the trap door. Nelson explained that a raccoon had gotten inside. He and No Name had trapped it and now they were deciding what to do. Darcie yawned, uninterested. When she started out of the room, I called after her.
“How did you get up here?” I asked again. I stood over the trap door. The raccoon whimpered and thrashed below. When I was looking for Darcie in the tunnel, I’d felt certain she was gone forever. For a moment, I wondered if the woman who had materialized in the living room wasn’t even her, but some kind of double.
That night, it rained. I was curled on my mattress, listening to water drip onto the floor, when Darcie came in and lay next to me. She folded her hands under her chin; her wings drooped over the edge of the mattress. I checked for signs that it was really her—the freckle under her eye, the chipped front tooth—but I didn’t get very far before she started telling me about her mother.
When Darcie was a child, her mother would leave her alone for days and when she returned, the scent of smoke trapped in her hair, she would say that she had met a little girl that was a far better little girl than Darcie. It’s a miracle I ever came back for you, she would say. I mean, why should I want to come back to a lesser little girl? She’d hoped her mother would be better somehow, in death, but in the tunnel, it was all the same. Darcie was that lesser little girl again and her mother was alive and well, hating her still.
“I’ll never go back down there.” Darcie slipped her index finger between my lips. I blocked it by closing my teeth, the same way the tunnel ended with a wall. Her skin had a bitter taste.
She pushed her fingertip against my teeth, but still I didn’t open my mouth. She sighed and pulled her hand away.
“How did you get out of the tunnel? Where did you go?”
“I don’t know.” She looked like she was about to cry again. “I was there and then I wasn’t.”
Fragments of the song drifted through me: wolf, ocean, tomato. I saw my own mother watering ferns in the backyard with a garden hose, barefoot and humming. The sun made the outline of her body glow.
“I wish I could understand things more,” I said.
“Maybe it’s better that you don’t,” Darcie said, closing her eyes.
She spent the night in my room. I stayed awake, watching her and looking out the window, listening to wind and water move over the roof. By dawn the sky was clear again and it was then that I saw No Name step into the backyard with a burlap sack. From the way he carried it, I knew it wasn’t empty. He kneeled and opened the bag. The raccoon jumped out and looked around, its nose in the air, before bolting toward the trees. “Look,” I said to Darcie. She raised her head from the mattress, but it was already gone.
Once Nelson and No Name brought home a pack of sparklers they’d found in a Dumpster. We lit them in the backyard. Nelson and Darcie ran around in garbage-bag jackets, slipping on the slushy ground, leaving behind arcs of gold. Darcie’s wings pressed against the black plastic, making her back look humped. No Name stood beneath the metal frame with his sparkler, cutting through the dusk with slow circles of light.
I hadn’t been back to the tunnel since that night with Darcie, though when I moved through the Mansion, I could feel it shifting below me. And the song was always playing in the back of my mind. Whale. Antelope. The wooden leg again. It was a terrible feeling, to be stuck on the cusp of figuring something out, a detective that had all the clues but couldn’t put them in the right order. I would keep trying, I told myself. For as long as it took. I didn’t yet know that one morning, not long before the start of spring, I would wake unable to stand that stuck feeling anymore.
I used my sparkler to write my mother’s name until the heat traveled low enough to make my fingers burn.
After I left, it was like this: I would feel bitterly toward the Mansion for a while, would ask myself why I stayed in that ruined house, with those ruined people. Later I would trick myself into believing the three of them were still together, that if I ever went back I would find them playing hide-and-go-seek, ducking under the trap door, disappearing into the tunnel, looking just as they did. Later I would see the real question was not why I had stayed, but why I ever left.
I did go back to the basement one last time, in the middle of the night. I didn’t undress or take a pill. My mother was a direct woman, who liked people who went about things in a direct way, so I went right inside the tunnel and began talking her. My mother was never mean like Darcie’s, but she was sad. Sometimes she would lay her head on the kitchen table, her dark hair fanning around her, and cry. I asked if she remembered the nights when we watched The Price Is Right and how she had an uncanny knack for guessing the value of things. How much for a TV? A pair of roller skates? You had all the answers then, I said. I told her I needed her help. I needed to find a way out of here. For a while, there was nothing, and when the voice finally came, it wasn’t singing. It was clear and strong. And I listened, even though it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
Laura van den Berg‘s stories have or will soon appear in Ploughshares, One Story, Boston Review, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXXIV. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award. “Mansion” is adapted from her novel-in-progress, Find Me.
Since I’m working on my first novel, I have been trying to read a bunch of first novels and have been especially dazzled by Jessica Anthony’s The Convalescent and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, to name a few. Anthony and Russell are writers in possession of stunning imaginations and thrilling voices.