Michael Holtzman

The House at the End of the World

 

The little girl presses her face through the blown flap of mesh in the porch door and looks out past the tawny clumps of dead grass that lay scattered across the spare dirt plot, down to the wood where the first gusts reach in to rock the loblollies along the riverbank.

Storm’s coming baby her mother says.

Monsters are coming the little girl whispers.

***

The dog an old lanky mutt with a whip of a tail that whirls and bobs without the obvious consent of its owner and patches of brown hair missing on his hind quarters on account of his gnawing where the bees bit him when he strayed too close to their bramble paces nervous as thunderheads crack and grumble in distant plumes of yellow they are like muffled martial drums bomb thuds and cadent flares in some faraway battle over the Atlantic.

The Neuse River crooks only three hundred feet from the house its banks are still swollen from the drenches that flooded the whole of the Piedmont up to Pamlico just a week ago.  Dark fingers of rogue river water had crept close to the house during the worst of the storm which followed another and another leaving the forlorn parcel on County Road 1310 a sodden graveyard of withered grasses which die outstretched and pleading like the hands of martyrs raised to an indifferent God.

***

The little girl awakens one rainy morning not long ago it may have been the wailing and groaning that startles her and she searches the house for her mother she rubs her eyes she looks through the stained porch window she sees the woman on her hands and knees down by the river taking handfuls of dirt and eating it. Her mother’s eyes are not the eyes she has come to know and this scares her they are neither half-lidded and stuporous nor wide and smiling. The mother just stares blank unfocused and unseeing, tears awash with rain, thick clumps of black soil squeezes through her fingers and falls from her mouth.

The mother is with child again and soon after they arrive at their new home in Kinston she takes to eating pica from the yard. This is not a habit before Lucy’s birth but then she does not have this smell of wet clay about her in Trent Court.  The mother doesn’t understand the strange desire it comes most often when it rains and the soil perfumes the air with a warm sweet primitive scent that draws her to the earth. The woman from the health department says something about the minerals in the clay and how the expectant crave the things that their bodies lack it is nothing to worry about it is beautiful it is life finding a way.

***

For weeks the winds gather in the soughing eastern seas they raise an army of mountainous white hooded waves that advance now towards shore. The ramshackle line of boarded beach houses from Portsmouth to Hatteras has been breached many times before during hurricanes and gales but the storms come more frequent and savage now the swells split the bights and rush the dunes like heavy cavalry through cowered fodder, leaving a few missing teeth where some of the stilted shacks wash away.  Under the crackling neon sky a party of furies stalks inland to possess the pines at the river’s edge, bending them into pikes that taunt the house where the mother and child live.

OK it’s time Lucy. Let mama close the door.

The mother yanks hard at the handle of the flimsy screened door because the frame is swollen from humidity and it doesn’t fit squarely in the jamb and the latch is hard to set. She closes the heavy oak door behind it she turns the deadbolt and she leans her forehead into the door for a moment and closes her eyes.  The hound barks and whines its paws scatter on the planks.

Hush now! the mother says she opens her eyes she lifts her head.

Mama they’re coming. I see them.

What do you see baby.

The monsters mama. They’re in the woods.

Lucy away from them windows baby. They can break and cut you. Let’s go down to the basement now like the nice man said. Come with mama.  Stop all that talk about monsters. Come on dog. Downstairs boy.

***
The ancients in their wisdom know the world is made only of earth water wind and fire because chaos is unthinkable and the elements are as old as the planet itself indeed they are all there ever was and from where all things come. Earth water wind and fire possess the stardust and humankind once sees in them the hand of all of the gods and all of the devils and vested in them all of the angels and all of the demons, the givers of life and the bringers of death. The ancients know favor follows reverence and communion and appeasement because the spirits are potent and capricious. They even give the monsters names like undines, sylphs, gnomes, and salamanders.

***

The hound rambles down the open-treaded stairs he looks back at the mother who follows with Lucy in her arms she rests the girl on her hip to pull the hollow door closed behind them. The basement is a small dark stale pit with tangles of wire that hang like cobwebs from the ceiling beams. The air is cold even in summer owing to the Kinston clay that doesn’t hold the water when the rains are heavy and the moisture swells and cracks the block concrete walls and gray floor slabs.

A light bulb dangles from a slack wire in the center beam it spills a little pool of jaundiced light on the cement floor which is stained with paint and rusty can rings and seeps of fetid water that settle in brown puddles after the rains. In this pale halo are a few blankets a box of crackers a jug of water a magazine a lawn chair and a purple polka-dotted lion.

Are the monsters in my room yet mama. Mama are the monsters in my room. Mama. Mama are the

Lucy hush let’s get comfy. It’s just a storm baby there ain’t no monsters.

***

This place is supposed to be heaven surely better than the red brick community house that grinds down her soul in Trent Court. Being poor and lonely can bring demons of another kind and that’s how it was for her but Kinston is a new beginning and while those demons didn’t steal after her others more wicked and determined lay in wait here. They too prey on her poverty and her isolation they can smell her from hundreds of miles away. They know her defenses are weak and being poor no one would care of her fate.

For more than a century the rich people from the nearby cities claim prized lots along this same riverfront their houses spring up not in thickets but alone like mighty trees fortified by money and politics so while their bulkheads and fortifications can resist an overthrown riverbank they send the displaced waters raging downstream to flood the low-lying places where the poor and the powerless live.

This is of no account. The mother takes the house because the woman from social services says it’s a fine house with room for a nursery and property enough for Lucy and the dog. The mother thanks the Lord because a place of her own is a prayer answered. So here she lives.

Shelter in place the man from the county says when reports first came of a storm rising far at sea. Stay in the basement he says. A husband and wife died in a fire in the floods at Fayetteville last week and God willing the river don’t rise more he says. Stay off the roads and be watchful he says though she has no car and no means anyway.  So here she stays.

***

There is a dull patter overhead in the thin metal gutters. The sky is steeped and dyed a sickly orange by the dirt and sand and smoke swept up by the winds that come from the east and the pines no longer thrust as spears but sway wild with spindled arms raised overhead as if in a spell. The dog is spooked he whines and yelps to the top of the stairs. A sylph’s breath is upon the wick of a Duke pole along the roadside and the frail light in the basement flickers and dies.

Mama.

It’s ok baby. The lights will come back up when the storm go away.

The hound is barking now at the wall that braces against the storm the wall the mother faces and prays for its fortitude prays for the laws of physics to disappear prays for angels to come and spread their wings against. Tufts of tacky leaves torn from the tops of the loblollies flatten against the little hopper window that even on sunny days allows only a shard of amber light into the tiny room. Moans and shrieks whirl above and the rain which had been falling like fingernails tapping on the windows above now comes a battery of a thousand fists on the walls and ceilings.

Hush dog the mother pleads.

But the dog won’t abide he yaps and bays and scratches at the wall that shivers between them and the monsters that race now from the seas they blow their horns in a wicked cacophony they storm the teeming river they rip through the wood they topple trees in the loose earth they claw across the knotty tangles of drowned crabgrass towards the house.

Mama who is Charlie barking at?

No one baby. He’s just scared.

Why is your voice shaking mama?

Dear Lord the mother prays it is a prayer she learns from the preacher while she is in the county jail for crimes of poverty and despair and Lucy is in the care of strangers in Raleigh she recites it every morning then and every day since.

I don’t know who or what will cross my path today. But I do know that you are my rock and my fortress. You are my shield and my strong tower. Help me to anchor myself to you today. Teach me how to stand strong in you and choose only your way today.  I can’t wait to meet with you again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

A fine powder of old dust and hair and dead skin and lint and spider webs pours from between the floorboards above and the mother and the little girl are but shadows now. Glass breaks upstairs and there comes a ferocious knocking at the screen door.

Mama who is that the girl cries.

Baby it’s the door it’s ok.

Who is at the door.

It’s the wind baby.

It’s the monsters isn’t it, Lucy whispers she tucks the purple lion under her chin the way her mother holds her now.

There comes a long unforgiving creak the house wrenches and rattles then a cruel silence that lingers like mercy and then an explosion of windows above them and the furies spill into the house they scream into every corner up the stairs and through the roof which heaves then collapses its bones broken.

Charlie howls now and the mother cries no no no.

***

It is darkness underground where the mother and child cling to one another as the sylphs and gnomes savage the house splinter by nail and gnash and claw at them from above they torment with their shrill war cries. There comes a violent rattle of the door at the top of the stairs and the mother pulls the child fast into her breast and the girl drops her purple lion. Footfalls shatter in the kitchen overhead and there are frenzied peals like the screams of rabbits in the flaying of gypsum and panel.

They built this house sixty-three years ago and twice it has fallen first from flood and then from electrical fire and still no one bothers to grade the land so the waters run off. Twice it has fallen to be rebuilt on that lot of thick Kinston clay.  This house was born to die for it was no Carolina basement lot and the monsters know it.

The mother shrieks as a face yellow and brackish presses out of the darkness it wipes away the pine needles from the hopper window to have a look inside.  The undine is stalking along the foundation it is testing it searching for a crack or a bit of loose mortar the one vulnerability it needs to get inside it will not give up.

Mama, cries Lucy as the monster rises in the window. Don’t let it in mama.

***

The monsters are relentless for they are hungry and vengeful nothing can prevent their cruelties not kindness not innocence not thoughts or prayers not money not poverty no bulkhead no door nothing of equal determination or fury. Tonight the monsters take the toys and the old dog. They take the girl and her mother. They take the house the town the soul of the earth.

***

In the morning somewhere to the north the storm is spent it disappears like a gang of phantoms the seas withdraw the winds scatter the fires molder the flayed loblollies sag and weep.  There are two bodies buried in a collapsed basement that is filled with clay and water they are undiscovered for days until the fire department reaches the small brown house on County Road 1013 and a volunteer paints an X on a board where the oak door used to be.  Mother and child are dragged from the muck their faces pained nothing about them simple or meaningless but they are forgotten even before they are buried beside each other in Oak Hill Cemetery, not far from the river.

***

Somewhere in their fallen garden of broken boughs and drowned grasses a seed lies hopeful beneath the fallow soil it grows both stem and root but it is connected to nothing and no one, not to earth nor to person. The root cannot be nourished it cannot grow deep and strong and entwined with others to keep it the flower cannot shoot and bloom and spread life. Nature has made kin of everything and everyone, and yet all is asunder here.

This is why the monsters come.

They will keep coming until it is all theirs again every trodden eddy every bleached bolt of sky every cowering tree-line every evidence of human trespass and selfishness until it is they alone, as it once was.

***

Mother and Child credit:  Emily Holtzman

Credit:  Emily Holtzman

 

 

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