I used to have dreams about my Aunt's place, without the burden of context. It sits like a jagged protrusion bursting out of the earth, as if it were forced upon the landscape without it's knowledge. The drive up seems longer than I remember, the winding uphill road sways back and forth as you make the climb, causing the house to lurch into view through the windshield from the right and the left as you draw closer. Deep in my gut I can feel a roiling spike of dread gouge and push at my insides as I draw closer, and I try to tell myself that it's just nerves, just anxiety. It can't be the house. Not from this far away. My fingers grip the steering wheel tighter and I internally sag when I remember the first time I saw it. I must have been four or five. Back then, the house looked like a palace. An alluring maze of hallways and rooms that seemed to spiral deeper and deeper with every doorway, drawing you further from the light of day. I wonder if it was really even the same house. Was I just too young to look very hard at the paintings hanging from the walls around me? To chart my circular paths through room after room. Or maybe it was part of the trap, a deception intended to draw me in like flies to sugar. What changed more as I grew older, the house, or myself?
I think that I'm the last person to arrive. I add my car to the line up and walk through the biting, late autumn air as the house looms over me, annihilating the outside world. I pause for a second outside of the doors, considering my options as I admire the metal decorations facing me. The whirling wrought iron fence still gleams as though it were new, grime and rust afraid to touch the metal. The world ends beyond that barrier.
Some small, innocent part of me says that nothing binds me here. I could get back into my car and run. I could go somewhere warm, somewhere far away. Or I could walk in and emancipate myself, say that I'm renouncing my stake in this family and let them argue among each other. But I don't hate them enough to do that. Not one of us was able to turn their back on the rest, even though we all knew this day was coming. And now it's my duty stand among the others too frightened or too noble to flee. Maybe it really is a sense of duty, or maybe it's just another trap. I never walked into this one. I was born inside of it, and all I did was learn how to see the iron jaws closing around me.
I glance upwards at the looming, stone birds that line the awning above me. Miniature gargoyles that act as a final barrier between the house and the rest of the world. I don't even need to knock at the front door, it just swings open of it's own accord. It always has.
The front hall wears shadow like drapery. I half expect my Aunt to come down the stairs, giving me the same tired, miles away stare that she always did. Maybe she will. The one thing that you can rely on when you come to the house is that everything it has ever contained is still there, in some form or another. Nothing that has ever walked in has ever really left.
People say that places they knew in their youth seem smaller when they revisit them. That may be true of a playground, or a favourite clearing in the woods by their old house, but here everything seems even larger. The dark spaces are deeper, the hallways longer. Everything stretches away from you, until it escapes perception. I struggle to keep my feet underneath me as my head swims. Against the west wall, a five-foot tall portrait of the man who built the place glares into the middle distance until you aren't looking at it. Past the grand staircase, a long line of doors all lead into the same room, and the same room after that.
Sometimes I wonder how this came to be. How what was once a dwelling, a home, could degenerate into this cesspit. I wonder if that man in the portrait knew what he was creating, or if it was something that had always been here, even before the foundation was poured. Perhaps this place was intended to imprison something, before the locks were sealed upon the warden.
I stand against the staircase, listening to the muffled noises from the utility closet. Once when I asked, I was told it was the sound of a secondary heater rattling to life. I didn't think that heaters sounded like someone whispering in a language I couldn't recognize. I doubt the thin wooden door to it would open, even if I wanted it to. Maybe some nights it does, all on it's own when no one is around to see what's inside.
The way to the parlour is unobstructed. I know everyone is waiting, but I need another moment. Some desperate, scrabbling part of me wants to rip at the wallpaper. To break the fragile wooden furniture and to burn every damnable, leering painting that I can tear from the walls. The more that I muddle past the initial impulse, the more I recognize it as a pitiable defiance. A mouse clawing at the cat that has pinned it down. No matter I what I do to this house, in whatever severity, it will pay me back in kind. One day, somehow.
It's done it before.
I wonder if my father had the same spark of defiance in his heart once. The same angry flare and need to cast away the shackles that had been rusting against his body, pressing into his shoulders since he could remember. Had that spark become the fire that consumed him? Or had it gone out? Had he been left so utterly alone when that last flare within him was extinguished, that he withdrew from sense, from reason and even instinct? What abject, thought annihilating dread would compel a man to flail at the looming predator, when every logical and natural law would tell him to withdraw, to let it pass over him?
I think about the choices he made so very long ago. I think about how it has brought us to this very moment, and when I do that, I cannot help but think about the tear.
My eyes drift upwards, along the slabs of oak and carpet that form the stairs, and darkened halls beyond. I know the path that I have to take. The map of the house is burned into my mind. When it wants to, it will even let me follow it. Some days I could wander lost and hungry for hours, stepping into the same room over and over again. But it will always let me find the tear. Always let me see the wound that has been rent into it, whenever it thinks I need to see it. I'll give it this, the house has no ego, if it is capable of such a vagary. It wears it's scar openly, as fresh as the day it was made. My Aunt never made any attempt to close it, and I doubt she'd be able to if she ever wanted. Even the fallen statuette that was used to create it lies untouched on the floor, covered in dust. It wants to remind me, remind everyone of what happened that last time any of us tried to fight back. What happens when we defy it's will.
I think about the long scar rent into the wall, the way that the torn wallpaper hangs and flutters there, the edges yellow and flaking. Every once in a while a piece drops away, left to moulder on the floor. More of the plaster beneath is exposed, still damp and black. I don't know if it has somehow putrefied on contact with the air, or if that's what it always looked like beneath the bleached pattern facade. There's no smell. Something about this place deadens the senses. And amplifies emotions. When I look at it, I think about the actions that followed. My mind is haunted by grim tableau of my father's final moments. How long he must have lay there, gasping on the floor when he finally collided with it, feeling the bones of his neck grind together unnaturally...
Even from here, I can simply look up the staircase and see the loose tear in the carpet where he lost his footing. It also remains right where it was, the only other mark. The entire timeline can be traced, from the damage to the wall, to the loose carpet at the top of the stair, to the spot in the hall where my father passed. Only now do I realize I have been standing in that exact spot for the last several minutes, drawn to it like gravity.
There is no shock to be had within these walls. No jolt of discovery or sudden chilling realization to be had. I have been here too long. I have known all that I can understand, I have felt all that I can feel. The cold, creeping terror gripping my spine as I stand on the spot that my father died when his bid to destroy his prison ended in a broken neck is commonplace. Accepted.
Someone calls for me, cutting through the ice water above and below. I turn slowly and glance through the doors that lead from the atrium and into the parlour, where the others have already assembled. Details, faded by their own memorable distinction, leap out at me as I walk in. The lace on the table, kept flat by the heavy stone vase of dried flowers on top of it. The chipped and scratched wooden frieze above the cold, ashen fire. It depicts carved angels in a grim mockery of innocence. Sometimes they look this way or that when you avert your gaze for even a moment. The tall cabinet at the far wall, locked tight and stocked with crystalline glasses that catch and hold the dim light. Standing in front of them and gazing in will show you a dozen shadowy reflections of yourself, each one slightly different, some older, some younger, and some gazing back at you, shouting silently. The fat, wine-coloured sofa squats in the room like an amoebic growth, it's leathery upholstery folding against the laps of those who rest on it, for lack of options. These others, these people, gaze back at me.
There are moments when I forget I am standing in a room full of people. This many have not gathered within the house for ages. I think it likes to be alone, with only a single keeper, a single plaything, or pet, or parasite to tolerate. I still don't know how it sees us. Maybe we are toys to be pulled apart, or hosts to nurture it's virulence. I believe we are nothing to the house, simply doomed to weather it's crushing grip while it just exists, unheeding of our needs or lives, a black sun consuming the world beneath it.
These strangers, my inmates, my family. My brother stands against the mantle, sighing to himself. My sisters are at opposite ends of the room. My uncle hovers in the threshold between the parlour and the dining room. I count three cousins, one staring through the cracked, foggy glass at the outside world as if for the last time, one glaring at a portrait of a stag and the third turning a simple brass ashtray over and over in her hands. My niece is sitting on the floor, trying in vain to get a signal on her phone. People are looking at the floor, are looking at the walls or the masonry or the few portraits that don't stare directly back, or simply off into the middle distance. No one is looking at each other.
Upstairs, my Aunt is breathing her last, ragged breaths.
My family is not a closely knit social organism. Holiday gatherings elude us, and we arguably meet more often by accident than choice. We all carry the same weight, even though we can hide it, or try to. I try to think of my life that I have built outside of these walls, of the one waiting for me at the apartment I call home. I think of the brightness of colours and how good I have become at pretending, at telling myself that I exist somewhere else outside of this space. My mind drifts to the people I have left behind, the facsimile of a life that I have constructed away from the house. Learning how to act is second nature for my family. Smiling the way that you're expected to smile, being among people and telling them the things they need to hear. Telling someone that you love them in just the right way that they believe it. The moments I live for, the few seconds that are given to me, are when I can forget, even for an instant, that I am who I am, and that I know the things that I know. For just a few seconds, I can believe it. I can be someone else and just be at peace. But only for a few seconds. Then the smiles around me fade into the background and my heart fills with poison and the noises blur again and I am alone.
I can only wonder what it must be like for the others. The ones who don't live in the house. I'm not so self-absorbed to believe that no one around me has problems, or fears. Beneath the words and actions of the others, I imagine that they are a sea of turmoil. Of doubt and stress. I wonder if it's any easier for them when they stare up at the blackness of an unlit room and try to fall asleep. I hope that they know how to pass the quiet moments while waiting for a bus or preparing a meal. Do they have to constantly try to keep their eyes on the page of a book, or keep the music in their ears turned up to full blast in a desperate attempt to drown out the thudding, pounding truth of things that keeps it's icy grip wrapped around their thoughts?
In my worse moments, when frustration and pain grow too intense, I hope that I'm not alone. I wish that everyone could experience what I feel and what I am so that at the very least, I do not have to suffer in solitude. But I suppose that's what family is for.
My brother sees me standing in the threshold of the parlour and weakly nods. He doesn't speak, none of them do. We all know why we're here, we all know what is going to come next. And there's the very real chance that any attempt to reconnect will simply be wasted effort. One of us will vanish today, and that will be that.
I look down at my niece. She's so young, maybe she even has a spark of vitality left within her. I want to grab her, to shout in her face, tell her to run away and never look back. That she still might have a chance. Instead I stand there, feeling the eyes of a thousand nameless voices against my back, crawling up my spine. I know that they are there, just as they know me. Then, there is a breath, just for a second. I do not feel the weight, the dread or the pressure. The house seems to withdraw, daring me to carry out my impulse. For a moment, I cannot feel it's fingers around my mind, like a cat releasing a mouse. It wants me to run. It wants me to defy. Just so it's jaws can snap around me while I struggle.
I cannot flee the house. I can't rebel and I can't destroy it. But I do not give it what it wants. And so I stand, silent, until my niece returns my gaze and the house creeps back into my mind, like ink in water.
My uncle leans against the door frame he is occupying, sallow and weak. He's older than most of us, but by how much, I cannot guess. He visits his sister now and again in an act of charity, and it shows. Even frequent visitors are withered by their time here. Every time they come, a little more is taken away.
I cannot imagine my aunt having anything left in her heart but despair and hate. I am flayed, raw and hollow, but still, I know that I am floating above the true abyss. I can only imagine how much farther I have to fall. As much as I think about those who can live beyond my spectrum, I think about what awaits below me. To truly be a part of the house. To live within it. To be steeped in that oblivion. I see my aunt when she first stepped through the doors, staring into the open jaws of a predator. I imagine her trying to sleep as cold, wet things whisper into her ears and keep her from rest. I imagine her with her eyes fixed on her own hands, or on the floor to avoid looking at the walls. The details in the woodgrain, the stubble of the masonry, the weave of the carpets. Look too hard at any of them, and you see the same face staring back from the patterns. I think about how my aunt must see everything as though it were coming down a long tunnel. And I can only imagine the deep, burning spite she must feel for my father.
The house should never have been hers to bear.
I look at my siblings, and we share the same thought. It's going to be one of us. My aunt would only ever choose a descendent of her jailer. She was next in line after my father, and her fate was sealed after he got himself killed with his brief whim of defiance. The fact that I may be robbed of any scrap of a future all because of him has crept into my thoughts, poisoning any happy memory I once had of him. All I can do is imagine the whether and whys and what-ifs as every path and scenario leads to a dead end. All because of him. And so I too can only hate him. Because of that doubt, that fear. Because of that possibility.
The house needs a host. An owner. Below, we wait for the final words to trickle from my dying relative's lips before she fades. A lawyer is who she will share her final moments with. Someone untouched, untainted, free of desperation and the horrors they stand in.
I wonder what is to become of her. Maybe there truly is some release in death. Even to simply vanish, to cease existing, would be preferable. That would mean to stop thinking. To stop fearing and hating and sobbing. Maybe she can ascend. To slip the hold that the house has on her. Or maybe once it has withered her of every ounce of life, then it will truly have her. Her body will be disposed of as the final anchor against the pull of that great, overwhelming shadow and she will be consumed. I try to imagine a worse hell than the one she has been living for the past thirty years and cannot, whether from the weariness of an exhausted mind or fear of what I may visualize.
My Aunt's role in this family is nearly over. Soon, we will receive her final message.
It's time to learn who she left the house to.