Glen Hirshberg's novelette, "The Janus Tree," won the 2008 Shirley
“He found that he could not even concentrate for more than an instant on Skeffington’s death, for Skeffington, alive, in multiple guises, kept getting in the way.”
-- John O’Hara
That night, like every night we spent in our grandfather’s house, my older brother Martin and I stayed up late to listen. Sometimes, we heard murmuring in the white, circular vent high up the cracking plaster wall over our heads. The voices were our parents’, we assumed, their conversation captured but also muffled by the pipes in the downstairs guest room ceiling. In summer, when the wind went still between thunderstorms, we could almost make out words. Sometimes, especially in August, when the Baltimore heat strangled even the thunderclouds, we heard cicadas bowing wildly in the grass out our window and twenty feet down.
On the dead-still September night after my grandfather’s shiva, though, when all of the more than two thousand well-wishers we’d hosted that week had finally filed through the house and told their stories and left, all Martin and I heard was the clock. Tuk, tuk, tuk, like a prison guard’s footsteps. I could almost see it out there, hulking over the foyer below, nine feet of carved oak and that bizarre, glassed-in face, brass hands on black velvet with brass fittings. Even though the carvings all the way up the casing were just wiggles and flourishes, and even though the velvet never resembled anything but a blank, square space, the whole thing had always reminded me more of a totem pole than a clock, and it scared me, some.
“Miriam,” my brother whispered. “Awake?”
I hesitated until after the next tuk. It had always seemed bad luck to start a sentence in rhythm with that clock. “Think they’re asleep?”
He sat up. Instinctively, my glance slipped out our open door to the far hallway wall. My grandfather had died right out there, felled at last by the heart attack his physician had warned him for decades was coming if he refused to drop fifty pounds. It seemed impossible that his enormous body had left not the slightest trace in the threadbare hallway carpet, but there was none. What had he even been doing up here? In the past four years or so, I’d never once seen him more than two steps off the ground floor.
The only thing I could see in the hallway now was the mirror. Like every other mirror in the house, it had been soaped for the shiva, and so, instead of the half-reassuring, half-terrifying blur of movement I usually glimpsed there, I saw only darkness, barely penetrated by the single butterfly nightlight plugged in beneath it.
Reaching over the edge of the bed, I found my sweatpants and pulled them on under my nightgown. Then I sat up, too.
“Why do they soap the mirrors?”
“Because the Angel of Death might still be lurking. You don’t want him catching sight of you.” Martin turned his head my way, and a tiny ray of light glinted off his thick owl-glasses.
“That isn’t why,” I whispered.
“You make the ball?”
With a quick smile that trapped moonlight in his braces, my brother slid out of bed. I flipped my own covers back but waited until he reached the door, poked his head out, and peered downstairs. Overhead, the vent pushed a useless puff of cold air into the heat that had pooled around us. In the foyer, the clock tuk-ed.
“Voices,” I hissed, and Martin scampered fast back to bed. His glasses tilted toward the vent. I grinned. “Ha. We’re even.”
Now I could see his eyes, dark brown and huge in their irises, as though bulging with all the amazing things he knew. One day, I thought, if Martin kept reading like he did, badgered my parents into taking him to enough museums, just stood there and watched the way he could sometimes, he’d literally pop himself like an over-inflated balloon.
“For what?” he snapped.
“Angel of Death.”
“That’s what Roz told me.”
He grinned back. “You’re right.”
From under my pillow, I drew out the sock-ball I’d made and flipped it to him. He turned it in his hands as though completing an inspection. Part of the ritual. Once or twice, he’d even torn balls apart and made me redo them. The dayglow-yellow stripes my mother hoped looked just a little athletic on his spindle-legs had to curve just so, like stitching on a baseball. And the weight had to be right. Three, maybe four socks, depending on how worn they were and what brand mom had bought. Five, and the thing just wouldn’t arc properly.
“You really think we should play tonight?”
Martin glanced up, as though he hadn’t even considered that. Then he shrugged. “Grandpa would’ve.”
I knew that he’d considered it plenty. And that gave me my first conscious inkling of just how much our grandfather had meant to my brother.
This time, I followed right behind Martin to the door, and we edged together onto the balcony. Below us, the grandfather clock and the double-doored glass case where our Roz, the tall, orange-skinned, sour-faced woman grandpa had married right after I was born, kept her prized porcelain poodle collection and her milky blue oriental vases with the swans gliding around the sides lay hooded in shadow. Beyond the foyer, I could just see the straightened rows of chairs we’d set up for the week’s last mourner’s kaddish, the final chanting of words that seemed to have channeled a permanent groove on my tongue. The older you get, my mother had told me, the more familiar they become. Yit-barah, v’yish-tabah, v’yit-pa-ar, v’yit-roman, v’yit-na-sey…
“You can throw first,” my brother said, as though granting me a favor.
“Don’t you want to?” I teased. “To honor him?” Very quietly, I began to make chicken clucks.
“Cut it out,” Martin mumbled, but made no move toward the stairs. I clucked some more, and he shot out his hand so fast I thought he was trying to hit me. But he was only flapping in that nervous, spastic wave my parents had been waiting for him to outgrow since he was three. “Shush. Look.”
“I am look…” I started, then realized he wasn’t peering over the balcony at the downstairs hall from which Roz would emerge to scream at us if she heard movement. He was looking over his shoulder toward the mirror. “Not funny,” I said.
“Weird,” said Martin. Not until he took a step across the landing did I realize what he meant.
The doors to the hags’ rooms were open. Not much. I couldn’t see anything of either room. But both had been pushed just slightly back from their usual positions. Clamminess flowed from my fingertips up the peach fuzz on my arms.
Naturally, halfway across the landing, Martin stopped. If I didn’t take the lead, he’d never move another step. The clammy sensation spread to my shoulders, down my back. I went to my brother anyway. We stood, right in the spot where the mirror should have reflected us. Right where Grandpa died. In the butterfly-light, Martin’s face looked wet and waxy, the way it did when he had a fever.
“You really want to go through those doors?” I whispered.
“Just trying to remember.”
I nodded first toward Mrs. Gold’s room, then Sophie’s. “Pink. Blue.” The shiver I’d been fighting for the past half-minute snaked across my ribs.
Martin shook his head. “I mean the last time we saw them open. Either one.”
But he already knew that. So did I. We’d last glimpsed those rooms the week before the hags had died. Four years—almost half my life—ago.
“Let’s not,” I said, and Martin shuffled to the right, toward Mrs. Gold’s. “Martin, come on, let’s play. I’m going downstairs.”
But I stayed put, amazed, as he scuttled forward with his eyes darting everywhere, like a little ghost-shrimp racing across an exposed patch of sea bottom. He’ll never do it, I thought, not without me. I tried chicken-clucking again, but my tongue had dried out. Martin stretched out his hand and shoved.
The door made no sound as it glided back, revealing more shadows, the dark humps of four-poster bed and dresser, a square of moonlight through almost-drawn curtains. A split second before, if someone had asked me to draw Mrs. Gold’s room, I would have made a big, pink smear with a crayon. But now, even from across the hall, I recognized that everything was just the way I’d last seen it.
“Coming?” Martin asked.
More than anything else, it was the plea in his voice that pulled me forward. I didn’t bother stopping, because I knew I’d be the one going in first anyway. But I did glance at my brother’s face as I passed. His skin looked even waxier than before, as though it might melt right off.
Stopping on the threshold, I reached into Mrs. Gold’s room with my arm, then jerked it back.
“What?” my brother snapped.
I stared at the goose bumps dimpling the skin above my wrist like bubbles in boiling water. But the air in Mrs. Gold’s room wasn’t boiling. It was freezing cold. “I think we found this house’s only unclogged vent,” I said.
“Just flick on the lights.”
I reached in again. It really was freezing. My hand danced along the wall. I was imagining fat, pink spiders lurking right above my fingers, waiting while I stretched just that last bit closer…
“Oh, fudder,” I mumbled, stepped straight into the room, and switched on the dresser lamp. The furniture leapt from its shadows into familiar formation, surprise! But there was nothing surprising. How was it that I remembered this so perfectly, having spent a maximum of twenty hours in here in my entire life, none of them after the age of six?
There it all was, where it had always been: The bed with its crinoline curtain and beige sheets that always looked too heavy and scratchy to me, something to make drapes out of, not sleep in; the pink wallpaper; the row of perfect pink powder puffs laid atop closed pink clam-lids full of powder or God-knows-what, next to dark pink bottles of lotion; the silver picture frame with the side-by-side posed portraits of two men in old army uniforms. Brothers? Husbands? Sons? I’d been too young to ask. Mrs. Gold was Roz’s mother, but neither of them had ever explained about the photographs, at least not in my hearing. I’m not sure even my mother knew.
As Martin came in behind me, the circular vent over the bed gushed frigid air. I clutched my arms tight against myself and closed my eyes and was surprised to find tears between my lashes. Just a few. Every visit to Baltimore for the first six years of my life, for one hour per day, my parents would drag chairs in here and plop us down by this bed to “chat” with Mrs. Gold. That was my mother’s word for it. Mostly, what we did was sit in the chairs or—when I was a baby—crawl over the carpet—and make silent faces at each other while Mrs. Gold prattled endlessly, senselessly, about horses or people we didn’t know with names like Ruby and Selma, gobbling the Berger cookies we brought her and scattering crumbs all over those scratchy sheets. My mother would nod and smile and wipe the crumbs away. Mrs. Gold would nod and smile, and strands of her poofy white hair would blow in the wind from the vent. As far as I could tell, Mrs. Gold had no idea who any of us were. All those hours in here, and really, we’d never even met her.
Martin had slipped past me, and now he touched the fold of the sheet at the head of the bed. I was amazed again. He’d done the same thing at the funeral home, stunning my mother by sticking his hand into the coffin during the visitation and gently, with one extended finger, touching my grandfather’s lapel. Not typical timid Martin behavior.
“Remember her hands?” he said.
Like shed snakeskin. So dry no lotion on earth, no matter how pink, would soften them
“She seemed nice,” I said, feeling sad again. For Grandpa, mostly, not Mrs. Gold. After all, we’d never known her when she was…whoever she was. “I bet she was nice.”
Martin took his finger off the bed and glanced at me. “Unlike the one we were actually related to.” And he walked straight past me into the hall.
“Martin, no.” I paused only to switch out the dresser lamp. As I did, the clock in the foyer tuk-ed, and the dark seemed to pounce on the bed, the powder puffs, and the pathetic picture frame. I hurried into the hall, conscious of my clumping steps. Was I trying to wake Roz?
Martin stood before Sophie’s door, hand out, but he hadn’t touched it. When he turned to me, he had a grin on his face I’d never seen before. “Momzer,” he drawled.
My mouth dropped open. He sounded exactly like her. “Stop it.”
“Come to Gehenna. Suffer with me.”
“Martin, shut up!”
He flinched, bumped Sophie’s door with his shoulder and then stumbled back in my direction. The door swung open, and we both held still and stared.
Balding carpet, yellow-white where the butterfly light barely touched it. Everything else stayed shadowed. The curtains in there had been drawn completely. When was the last time light had touched this room?
“Why did you say that?” I asked
“It’s what she said. To Grandpa, every time he dragged himself up here. Remember?”
Martin shook his head. “Aunt Paulina slapped me once for saying it.”
“Gehenna. One sixtieth of Eden.”
Prying my eyes from Sophie’s doorway, I glared at my brother. “What does that mean?”
“It’s like hell. Jew hell.”
“Jews don’t believe in hell. Do we?”
“Somewhere wicked people go. They can get out, though. After they suffer enough.”
“Can we play our game now?” I made a flipping motion with my hand, cupping it as though around a sock-ball.
“Let’s…take one look. Pay our respects.”
Martin looked at the floor, and his arms gave one of their half-flaps. “Grandpa did. Every day, no matter what she called him. If we don’t, no one ever will again.”
He strode forward, pushed the door all the way back, and actually stepped partway over the threshold. The shadows leaned toward him, and I made myself move, half-thinking I might snatch him back. With a flick of his wrist, Martin switched on the lights.
For a second, I thought the bulbs had blown, because the shadows glowed rather than dissipated, and the plain, boxy bed in there seemed to take slow shape, as though reassembling itself. Then I remembered. Sophie’s room wasn’t blue because of wallpaper or bed coverings or curtain fabric. She’d liked dark blue light, barely enough to see by, just enough to read if you were right under the lamp. She’d lain in that light all day, curled beneath her covers with just her thin, knife-shaped head sticking out like a moray eel’s.
Martin’s hand had found mine, and after a few seconds, his touch distracted me enough to glance away, momentarily, from the bed, the bare dresser, the otherwise utterly empty room. I stared down at our palms. “Your brother’s only going to love a few people,” my mother had told me once, after he’d slammed the door to his room in my face for the thousandth time so he could work on his chemistry set or read Ovid aloud to himself without me bothering him. “You’ll be one of them.”
“How’d they die?” I asked.
Martin seemed transfixed by the room, or his memories of it, which had to be more defined than mine. Our parents had never made us come in here. But Martin had accompanied grandpa, at least some of the time. When Sophie wasn’t screaming, or calling everyone names. He took a long time answering. “They were old.”
“Yeah. But didn’t they like die on the same day or something?”
“Same week, I think. Dad says that happens a lot to old people. They’re barely still in their bodies, you know? Then someone they love goes, and it’s like unbuckling the last straps holding them in. They just slip out.”
“But Sophie and Mrs. Gold hated each other.”
Martin shook his head. “Mrs. Gold didn’t even know who Sophie was, I bet. And Sophie hated everything. You know, Mom says she was a really good grandma, until she got sick. Super smart, too. She used to give lectures at the synagogue.”
“Lectures about what?”
“Hey,” said Martin, let go of my hand, and took two shuffling steps into Sophie’s room. Blue light washed across his shoulders, darkening him. On the far wall, something twitched. Then it rose off the plaster. I gasped, lunged forward to grab Martin, and a second something joined the first, and I understood.
“No one’s been in here,” I whispered. The air was not cold, although the circular vent I could just make out over the bed coughed right as I said that. Another thought wriggled behind my eyes, but I shook it away. “Martin, the mirror.”
Glancing up, he saw what I meant. The glass on Sophie’s wall—aimed toward the hall, not the bed, she’d never wanted to see herself--stood unsoaped, pulling the dimness in rather than reflecting it, like a black hole. In that light, we were just shapes, our faces featureless. Even for grandpa’s shiva, no one had bothered to prepare this room.
Martin turned from our reflections to me, his pointy nose and glasses familiar and reassuring, but only until he spoke.
“Miriam, look at this.”
Along the left-hand wall ran a long closet with sliding wooden doors. The farthest door had been pulled almost all the way open and tipped off its runners, so that it hung half-sideways like a dangling tooth.
“Remember the dresses?”
I had no idea what he was talking about now. I also couldn’t resist another glance in the mirror, but then quickly pulled my eyes away. There were no pictures on Sophie’s bureau, just a heavy, wooden gavel. My grandfather’s, of course. He must have given it to her when he retired.
“This whole closet used to be stuffed with them. Fifty, sixty, maybe more, in plastic cleaners bags. I don’t think she ever wore them after she moved here. I can’t even remember her getting dressed.”
“She never left the room,” I muttered.
“Except to sneak into Mrs. Gold’s.”
I closed my eyes as the clock tuk-ed and the vent rasped.
It had only happened once while we were in the house. But Grandpa said she did it all the time. Whenever Sophie got bored of accusing her son of kidnapping her from her own house and penning her up here, or whenever her ravaged, rotting lungs allowed her enough breath, she’d rouse herself from this bed, inch out the door in her bare feet with the blue veins popping out of the tops like rooster crests, and sneak into Mrs. Gold’s room. There she’d sit, murmuring God knew what, until Mrs. Gold started screaming.
“It always creeped me out,” Martin said. “I never liked looking over at this closet. But the dresses blocked that.”
“Blocked wh—” I started, and my breath caught in my teeth. Waist-high on the back inside closet wall, all but covered by a rough square of wood that had been leaned against it rather than fitted over it, there was an opening. A door. “Martin, if Roz catches us in here—”
Hostility flared in his voice like a lick of flame. “Roz hardly ever catches us playing the balcony ball game right outside her room. Anyway, in case you haven’t noticed, she never comes in here.”
“What’s with you?” I snapped. Nothing about my brother made sense tonight.
“What? Nothing. It’s just…Grandpa brings Roz’s mother here, even though she needs constant care, can’t even feed herself unless she’s eating Berger cookies, probably has no idea where she is. Grandpa takes care of her, like he took care of everyone. But when it comes to his mother, Roz won’t even bring food in here. She makes him do everything. And after they die, Roz leaves her own mother’s room exactly like it was, but she cleans out every trace of Sophie, right down to the closet.”
“Sophie was mean.”
“She was sick. And ninety-two.”
“I’m going in there,” Martin said, gesturing or flapping, I couldn’t tell which. “I want to see Grandpa’s stuff. Don’t you? I bet it’s all stored in there.”
“I’m going to bed. Goodnight, Martin.”
In an instant, the hostility left him, and his expression turned small, almost panicked.
“I’m going to bed,” I said again.
“You don’t want to see Grandpa?”
This time, the violence in my own voice surprised me. “Not in there.” I was thinking of the way he’d looked in his coffin. His dead face had barely even resembled his real one. His living one. His whole head had been transformed into a waxy, vaguely grandpa-shaped bulge balanced atop his bulgy, overweight body, like the top of a snowman.
“Please,” Martin said, and something moved downstairs.
“Shit,” I mouthed, going completely still.
Clock tick. Clock tick. Footsteps. Had I left the lights on in Mrs. Gold’s room? I couldn’t remember. If Roz wasn’t looking, she might not see Sophie’s blue light from downstairs. Somehow, I knew she didn’t want us in here.
I couldn’t help glancing behind me, and then my shoulders clenched. The door had swung almost all the way shut.
Which wasn’t so strange, was it? How far had we even opened it?
Footsteps. Clock tick. Clock tick. Clock tick. Clock tick. When I turned back to Martin, he was on his hands and knees, scuttling for the closet.
“Martin, no,” I hissed. Then I was on my knees too, hurrying after him. When I drew up alongside him, our heads just inside the closet, he looked my way and grinned, tentatively.
“Sssh,” he whispered.
“What do you think you’ll find in there?”
The grin slid from his face. “Him.” With a nod, he pulled the square of wood off the opening. Then he swore and dropped it. His right hand rose to his mouth, and I saw the sliver sticking out of the bottom of his thumb like a porcupine quill.
Taking his wrist, I leaned over, trying to see. In that murky, useless light, the wood seemed to have stabbed straight through the webbing into his palm. It almost looked like a new ridge forming along his lifeline. “Hold still,” I murmured, grabbed the splinter as low down as I could, and yanked.
Martin sucked in breath, staring at his hand. “Did you get it all?”
“Come where it’s light and I’ll see.”
“No.” He pulled his hand from me, and without another word crawled through the opening. For one moment, as his butt hovered in front of me and his torso disappeared, I had to stifle another urge to drag him out, splinters be damned. Then he was through. For a few seconds, I heard only his breathing, saw only his bare feet through the hole. The rest of him was in shadow.
“Miriam, get in here,” he said.
In I went. I had to shove Martin forward to get through, and I did so harder than I had to. He made no protest. I tried lifting my knees instead of sliding them to keep the splinters off. When I straightened, I was surprised to find most of the space in front of us bathed in moonlight.
“What window is that?” I whispered.
“Must be on the side.”
“I’ve never seen it.”
“How much time have you spent on the side?”
None, in truth. No one did. The space between my grandfather’s house and the ancient gray wooden fence that bordered his property had been overrun by spiders even when our mom was young. I’d glimpsed an old bike back there once, completely draped in webs like furniture in a dead man’s room.
“Probably a billion spiders in here, too, you know,” I said.
But Martin wasn’t paying attention, and neither was I, really. We were too busy staring. All around us, stacked from floor to four-foot ceiling all the way down the length of the half-finished space, cardboard boxes had been stacked, sometimes atop each other, sometimes atop old white suitcases or trunks with their key-coverings dangling like the tongues on strangled things. With his shoulder, Martin nudged one of the nearest stacks, which tipped dangerously but slid back a bit. Reaching underneath a lid flap, Martin stuck his hand in the bottom-most box. I bit my cheek and held still and marveled, for the hundredth time in the last fifteen minutes, at my brother’s behavior. When he pulled out a Playboy, I started to laugh, and stopped because of the look on Martin’s face.
He held the magazine open and flat across both hands, looking terrified to drop it, almost in awe of it, as though it were a Torah scroll. It would be a long time, I thought, before Martin started dating.
“You said you wanted to see grandpa’s stuff,” I couldn’t resist teasing.
“This wasn’t his.”
Now I did laugh. “Maybe it was Mrs. Gold’s.”
I slid the magazine off his hands, and that seemed to relieve him, some. The page to which it had fallen open showed a long, brown-haired woman with strangely pointed feet poised naked atop a stone backyard well, as though she’d just climbed out of it. The woman wasn’t smiling, and I didn’t like the picture at all. I closed the magazine and laid it face down on the floor.
Edging forward, Martin began to reach randomly into other boxes. I did the same. Mostly, though, I watched my brother. The moonlight seemed to pour over him in layers, coating him, so that with each passing moment he grew paler. Other than Martin’s scuttling as he moved down the row on his knees, I heard nothing, not even the clock. That should have been a comfort. But the silence in that not-quite-room was worse.
To distract myself, I began to run my fingers over the boxes on my right. Their cardboard skin had sticky damp patches, bulged outward in places but sank into itself in others. From one box, I drew an unpleasantly damp, battered, black rectangular case I thought might be for pens, but when I opened it, I found four pearls strung on a broken chain, pressed deep into their own impressions in the velvet lining like little eyes in sockets. My real grandmother’s, I realized. Roz liked showier jewelry. I’d never met my mother’s mother. She’d died three months before Martin was born. Dad had liked her a lot. I was still gazing at the pearls when air gushed across me, pouring over my skin like ice.
Martin grunted, and I caught his wrist. We crouched and waited for the torrent to sigh itself out. Eventually, it did. Martin started to speak, and I tightened my grasp and shut him up.
Just at the end, as the gush had died…
“Martin,” I whispered.
“It’s the air-conditioning, Miriam. See?”
“Martin, did you hear it?”
“Duh. Look at—”
“Martin. The vents.”
He wasn’t listening, didn’t understand. Dazed, I let him disengage, watched him crab-walk to the next stack of boxes and begin digging. I almost started screaming at him. If I did, I now knew, the sound would pour out of the walls above our bed, and from the circular space above Mrs. Gold’s window, and from Sophie’s closet. Because these vents didn’t connect to the guest room where our parents were, like we’d always thought. They connected the upstairs rooms and this room. And so the murmuring we’d always heard—that we’d heard as recently as twenty minutes ago—hadn’t come from our parents at all. It had come from right--
“Jackpot,” Martin muttered.
Ahead, wedged between the last boxes and the wall, something stirred. Flapped. Plastic. Maybe.
I spun so fast I almost knocked him over, banging my arms instead on the plaque he was wiping free of mold and dust with the sleeve of his pajamas. Frozen air roared over us again, as though I’d rattled a cage and woken the house itself. Up ahead, whatever it was flapped some more.
“Watch out,” Martin snapped. He wasn’t worried about me, of course. He didn’t want anything happening to the plaque.
“We have to get out of here,” I said.
Wordlessly, he held up his treasure. Black granite, with words engraved in it, clearly legible despite the fuzzy smear of grime across the surface. To the Big Judge, who takes care of his own. A muldoon, and no mistake. From his friends, the Knights of Labor.
“The Knights of Labor?”
“He knew everyone,” Martin said. “They all loved him. The whole city.”
This was who my grandfather was to my brother, I realized. Someone as smart and weird and defiant and solitary as he was, except that our grandfather had somehow figured out people enough to wind up a judge, a civil rights activist, a bloated and beloved public figure. Slowly, like a snake stirring, another shudder slipped down my back.
“What’s a muldoon?”
“Says right here, stupid.” Martin nodded at the plaque. “He took care of his own.”
“We should go, Martin. Now.”
“What are you talking about?”
As the house unleashed another frigid breath, he tucked the plaque lovingly against his chest and moved deeper into the attic. The plastic at the end of the row was rippling now, flattening itself. It reminded me of an octopus I’d seen in the Baltimore Aquarium once, completely changing shape to slip between two rocks.
“There,” I barked suddenly, as the air expired. “Hear it?”
But Martin was busy wedging open box lids, prying out cufflinks in little boxes, a ceremonial silver shovel marking some sort of groundbreaking, a photograph of grandpa with Earl Weaver and two grinning grounds crew guys in the Orioles dugout. The last thing he pulled out before I moved was a book. Old, blue binding, stiff and jacketless. Martin flipped through it once, mumbled, “Hebrew,” and dumped it behind him. Embossed on the cover, staring straight up at the ceiling over my brother’s head, I saw a single, lidless eye.
Martin kept going, almost to the end now. The plastic had gone still, the air-conditioning and the murmurs that rode it temporarily silent. I almost left him there. If I’d been sure he’d follow—as, on almost any other occasion, he would have—that’s exactly what I’d have done. Instead, I edged forward myself, my hand stretching for the book. As much to get that eye hidden again as from any curiosity, I picked the thing up and opened it. Something in the binding snapped, and a single page slipped free and fluttered away like a dried butterfly I’d let loose.
“Ayin Harah,” I read slowly, sounding out the Hebrew letters on the title page. But it wasn’t the words that set me shuddering again, if only because I wasn’t positive what they implied; I knew they meant “Evil Eye.” But our Aunt Pauline had told us that was a protective thing, mostly. Instead, my gaze locked on my great-grandmother’s signature, lurking like a blue spider in the top left-hand corner of the inside cover. Then my head lifted, and I was staring at the box from which the book had come.
Not my grandfather’s stuff in there. Not my grandmother’s, or Roz’s, either. That box—and maybe that one alone—was hers.
I have no explanation for what happened next. I knew better. That is, I knew, already. Thought I did. I didn’t want to be in the attic even one second longer, and I was scared, not curious. I crept forward and stuck my hand between the flaps anyway.
For a moment, I thought the box was empty. My hand kept sliding deeper, all the way to my elbow before I touched fabric and closed my fist over it. Beneath whatever I’d grabbed was plastic, wrapped around some kind of heavy fabric. The plastic rustled and stuck slightly to my hand like an anemone’s tentacles, though everything in that box was completely dry. I pulled, and the boxes balanced atop the one I’d reached into tipped back and bumped against the wall of the attic, and my hands came out, holding the thing I’d grasped, which fell open as it touched the air.
“Grandpa with two presidents, look,” Martin said from down the row, waving a picture frame without lifting his head from whatever box he was looting.
Cradled in my palms lay what could have been a matzoh covering, maybe for holding the afikomen at a seder. When I spread out the folds, though, I found dark, rust-colored circular stains in the white fabric. Again I thought of the seder, the ritual of dipping a finger in wine and then touching it to a plate or napkin as everyone chanted plagues God had inflicted upon the Egyptians. In modern Hagadahs, the ritual is explained as a symbol of Jewish regret that the Egyptian people had to bear the brunt of their ruler’s refusal to free the slaves. But none of the actual ceremonial instructions say that. They just order us to chant the words. Dam. Tzfar de’ah. Kinim. Arbeh.
Inside the fold where matzoh might have been tucked, I found only a gritty, black residue. It could have been dust from the attic, or split spider sacs, or tiny dead things. But it smelled, faintly, on my fingers. An old and rotten smell, with just a hint of something else. Something worse.
Not worse. Familiar. I had no idea what it was. But Sophie had smelled like this.
“Martin, please,” I heard myself say. But he wasn’t listening. Instead, he was leaning almost into the last box in the row. The plastic jammed against the wall had gone utterly still. At any moment, I expected it to hump up like a wave and crash down on my brother’s back. I didn’t even realize my hands had slipped back inside Sophie’s box until I touched wrapping again.
Gasping, I dragged my hands away, but my fingers had curled, and the plastic and the heavy fabric it swaddled came up clutched between them.
A dress, I thought, panicking, shoving backward. From her closet. I stared at the lump of fabric, draped now half out of the box, the plastic covering rising slightly in the stirring air.
Except it wasn’t a dress. It was two dresses, plainly visible now through the plastic. One was gauzy and pink, barely there, with wispy flowers stitched up the sleeves. The other, white and heavy, had folded itself inside the pink one, the long sleeves encircling the waist. Long, black smears spread across the back of the white dress, like finger-marks, from fingers dipped in Sophie’s residue…
I don’t think I had any idea, at first, that I’d started shouting. I was too busy scuttling backwards on my hands, banging against boxes on either side as I scrambled for the opening behind us. The air-conditioning triggered, blasting me with its breath, which didn’t stink, just froze the hairs to the skin of my arms and legs. Martin had leapt to his feet, banging his head against the attic ceiling, and now he was waving his hands, trying to quiet me. But the sight of him panicked me more. The dresses on the ground between us shivered, almost rolled over, and the plastic behind him rippled madly, popping and straining against the weight that held it, all but free. My hand touched down on the Playboy, and I imagined the well-woman climbing out of the magazine on her pointy feet and finally fell hard half out of the attic opening, screaming now, banging my spine on the wood and bruising it badly.
Then there were hands on my shoulder, hard and horny and orange-ish, yanking me out of the hole and dragging me across the floor. Yellow eyes flashing fury, Roz leaned past me and ducked her head through the hole, screeching at Martin to get out. Then she stalked away, snarling “Out” and “Come on.”
Never had I known her to be this angry. I’d also never been happier to see her pinched, glaring, unhappy face, the color of an overripe orange thanks to the liquid tan she poured all over herself before her daily mah-jongg games at the club where she sometimes took us swimming. Flipping over and standing, I hurried after her, the rattle of the ridiculous twin rows of bracelets that ran halfway up her arms sweet and welcome in my ears as the tolling of a dinner bell. I waited at the lip of the closet until Martin’s head appeared, then fled Sophie’s room.
A few seconds later, my brother emerged, the Knights of Labor plaque clutched against his chest, glaring bloody murder at me. But Roz took him by the shoulders, guided him back to his bed in my mother’s old room, and sat him down. I followed, and fell onto my own bed. For a minute, maybe more, she stood above us and glowed even more than usual, as though she might burst into flame. Then, for the first time in all my experience of her, she crossed her legs and sat down between our beds on the filthy floor.
“Oh, kids,” she sighed. “What were you doing in there?”
“Where are mom and dad?” Martin demanded. The shrillness in his tone made me cringe even farther back against the white wall behind me. Pushing with me feet, I dug myself under the covers and lay my head on my pillow.
“Out,” Roz said, in the same weary voice. “They’re on a walk. They’ve been cooped up here, same as the rest of us, for an entire week.”
“Cooped up?” Martin’s voice rose still more, and even Roz’s leathery face registered surprise. “As in, sitting shiva? Paying tribute to Grandpa?”
After a long pause, she nodded. “Exactly that, Martin.”
From the other room, I swore I could hear the sound of plastic sliding over threadbare carpet. My eyes darted to the doorway, the lit landing, the streaks of soap in the mirror, the floor.
“How’d they die?” I blurted.
Roz’s lizard eyes darted back and forth between Martin and me. “What’s with you two tonight?”
“Mrs. Gold and Sophie. Please, please, please. Grandma.” I didn’t often call her that. She scowled even harder.
“What are you babbling about?” Martin said to me. “Roz, Miriam’s been really—”
“Badly, Miriam” Roz said, and Martin went quiet. “They died badly.”
Despite what she’d said, her words had a surprising, almost comforting effect on me. “Please tell me.”
“Your parents wouldn’t want me to.”
Settling back, Roz eyed me, then the vent overhead. I kept glancing into the hall. But I didn’t hear anything now. And after a while, I only watched her. She crossed her arms over her knees, and her bracelets clanked.
“It was an accident. A horrible accident. It really was. You have to understand…you have no idea how awful those days were. May you never have such days.”
“What was so awful?” Martin asked. There was still a trace of petulance in his tone. But Roz’s attitude appeared to be having the same weirdly soothing effect on him as on me.
She shrugged. “In the pink room, you’ve got my mother. Only she’s not my mother anymore. She’s this sweet, stupid, chattering houseplant.”
I gaped. Martin did, too, and Roz laughed, kind of, without humor or joy.
“Every single day, usually more than once, she shit all over the bed. The rest of the time, she sat there and babbled mostly nice things about cookies or owls or whatever. Places she’d never been. People she may have known, but I didn’t. She never mentioned me, or my father, or my brother, or anything about our lives. It was like she’d led some completely different life, without me in it.”
Roz held her knees a while. Finally, she went on. “And in the blue room, there was Sophie, who remembered everything. How it had felt to walk to the market, or lecture a roomful of professors about the Kabbalah or whatever other weird stuff she knew. How it had been to live completely by herself, with her books, in her own world, the way she had for twenty-two years after your great-grandfather died. Best years of her life, I think. And then, just like that, her bones gave out on her. She couldn’t move well. Couldn’t drive. She couldn’t really see. She broke her hip twice. When your grandpa brought her here, she was so angry, kids. So angry. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to be dependent. It made her mean. That’s pretty much your choices, I think. Getting old—getting that old, anyway--makes you mean, or sick, or stupid, or lonely. Take your pick. Only you don’t get to pick. And sometimes, you get all four.”
Rustling, from the vent. The faintest hint. Or had it come from the hallway?
“Grandma, what happened?”
“An accident, Miriam. Like I said. Your goddamn grandfather…”
“You can’t—” Martin started, and Roz rode him down.
“Your goddamn grandfather wouldn’t put them in homes. Either one. ‘Your mother’s your mother.’” When she said that, she rumbled, and sounded just like grandpa. “’She’s no trouble. And as for my mother…it’d kill her.’
“But having them here, kids…it was killing us. Poisoning every single day. Wrecking every relationship we had, even with each other.”
Grandma looked up from her knees and straight at us. “Anyway,” she said. “We had a home care service. A private nurse. Mrs. Gertzen. She came one night a week, and a couple weekends a year when we just couldn’t take it and had to get away. When we wanted to go, we called Mrs. Gertzen, left the dates, and she came and took care of both our mothers while we were gone. Well, the last time…when they died…your grandfather called her, same as always. Sophie liked Mrs. Gertzen, was probably nicer to her than anyone else, most of the time. Grandpa left instructions, and we headed off to the Delaware shore for five days. But Mrs. Gertzen had a heart attack that first afternoon, and never even made it to the house. And no one else on earth had any idea that my mother and Sophie were up here.”
“Oh my God,” I heard myself whisper, as the vent above me rasped pathetically. For the first time in what seemed hours, I became aware of the clock, tuk-ing away. I was imagining being trapped in this bed, hearing that sound. The metered pulse of the living world, just downstairs, plainly audible. And—for my great-grandmother and Mrs. Gold—utterly out of reach.
When I looked at my grandmother again, I was amazed to find tears leaking out of her eyes. She made no move to wipe them. “It must have been worse for Sophie,” she half-whispered.
My mouth fell open. Martin had gone completely still as well as silent.
“I mean, I doubt my mother even knew what was happening. She probably prattled all the way to the end. If there is an Angel of Death, I bet she offered him a Berger cookie.”
“You’re…” nicer than I thought, I was going to say, but that wasn’t quite right. Different than I thought.
“But Sophie. Can you imagine how horrible? How infuriating? To realize—she must have known by dinner time—that no one was coming? She couldn’t make it downstairs. We’d had to carry her to the bathroom, the last few weeks. All she’d done that past month was light candles and read her Zohar and mutter to herself. I’m sure she knew she’d never make it to the kitchen. I’m sure that’s why she didn’t try. But I think she came back to herself at the end, you know? Turned back into the person she must have been. The woman who raised your grandfather, made him who he was or at least let him be. Because somehow she dragged herself into my mother’s room one last time. They died with their arms around each other.”
The dresses , I thought. Had they been arranged like that on purpose? Tucked together, as a memory or a monument? Then I was shivering, sobbing, and my brother was, too. Roz sat silently between us, staring at the floor.
“I shouldn’t have told you,” she mumbled. “Your parents will be furious.”
Seconds later, the front door opened, and our mom and dad came hurtling up the stairs, filling our doorway with their flushed, exhausted, everyday faces.
“What are you doing up?” my mother asked, moving forward fast and stretching one arm toward each of us, though we were too far apart to be gathered that way.
“I’m afraid I—” Roz started.
“Grandpa,” I said, and felt Roz look at me. “We were feeling bad about grandpa.”
My mother’s mouth twisted, and her eyes closed. “I know,” she said. “Me, too.”
I crawled over to Martin’s bed. My mother held us a long time, while my father stood above her, his hands sliding from her back to our shoulders to our heads. At some point, Roz slipped silently from the room. I didn’t see her go.
For half an hour, maybe more, our parents stayed. Martin showed them the plaque he’d found, and my mother seemed startled mostly by the realization of where we’d been.
“You know I forgot that room was there?” she said. “Your cousins and I used to hide in it all the time. Before the hags came.”
“You shouldn’t call them that,” Martin said, and my mother straightened, eyes narrowed. Eventually, she nodded, and her shoulders sagged.
“You’re right. And I don’t think of them that way, it’s just, at the end…Goodnight, kids.”
After they’d gone, switching out all the lights except the butterfly in the hall, I thought I might sleep. But every time I closed my eyes, I swore I felt something pawing at the covers, as though trying to draw them back, so that whatever it was could crawl in with me. Opening my eyes, I found the dark room, the moon outside, the spider shadows in the corners. Several times, I glanced toward my brother’s bed. He was lying on his back with the plaque he’d rescued on his chest and his head turned toward the wall, so that I couldn’t see whether his eyes were open. I listened to the clock ticking and the vents rasping and muttering. A Muldoon, and no mistake, I found myself mouthing. Who takes care of his own. When I tried again to close my eyes, it seemed the vent was chanting with me. No mistake. No mistake. My heart seemed to twist in its socket, and its beating bounced on the rhythm of the clock’s tick like a skipped stone. I think I moaned, and Martin rolled over.
“Now let’s play,” he said.
Immediately, I was up, grabbing the sock-ball off the table where I’d left it. I wasn’t anywhere near sleep, and I wasn’t scared of Roz anymore. I wanted to be moving, doing anything. And my brother still wanted me with him.
I didn’t wait for Martin this time, just marched straight out to the landing, casting a single, held-breath glance at Sophie’s door. Someone had pulled it almost closed again, and I wondered if the wooden covering over the opening to the attic had also been replaced. Mrs. Gold’s door, I noticed, had been left open. Pushed open?
Squelching that thought with a shake of my head, I started down the stairs. But Martin galloped up beside me, pushed me against the wall, took the sock-ball out of my hands, and hurried ahead.
“My ups,” he said.
“Your funeral,” I answered, and he stopped three steps down and turned and grinned. A flicker of butterfly light danced in his glasses, which made it look as though something reflective and transparent had moved behind me, but I didn’t turn around, didn’t turn around, turned and found the landing empty.
“She’s asleep,” Martin said, and for one awful moment, I didn’t know whom he meant.
Then I did, and grinned weakly back. “If you say so.” Retreating upstairs, I circled around the balcony into position.
The rules of Martin-Miriam Balcony Ball were simple. The person in the foyer below tried to lob the sock-ball over the railing and have it hit the carpet anywhere on the L-shaped landing. The person on the landing tried to catch the sock and slam it to the tile down in the foyer, triggering an innings change in which both players tried to bump each other off balance as they passed on the steps, thereby gaining an advantage for the first throw of the next round. Play ended when someone had landed ten throws on the balcony, or when Roz came and roared us back to bed, or when any small porcelain animal or tuk-ing grandfather clock or crystal chandelier got smashed. In the five year history of the game, that latter ending had only occurred once. The casualty had been a poodle left out atop the cabinet. This night’s game lasted exactly one throw.
In retrospect, I think the hour or so between the moment our parents left and his invitation to play were no more restful for Martin than they had been for me. He’d lain more still, but that had just compressed the energy the evening had given him, and now he was fizzing like a shaken pop bottle. I watched him glance toward Roz’s hallway, crouch into himself as though expecting a hail of gunfire, and scurry into the center of the foyer. He looked skeletal and small, like some kind of armored beetle, and the ache that prickled up under my skin was at least partially defensive of him. He would never fill space the way our grandfather had. No one would. That ability—was that the right word?—to love people in general more than the people closest to you, was a rare and only partly desirable thing. Martin, I already knew, didn’t have it.
He must have been kneading the sock-ball all the way down the stairs, because as soon as he reared back and threw, one of the socks slipped free of the knot I’d made and dangled like the tail of a comet. Worse, Martin had somehow aimed straight up, so that instead of arching over the balcony, the sock-comet shot between the arms of the chandelier, knocked crystals together as it reached its apex, and then draped itself, almost casually, over the arm nearest the steps. After that, it just hung.
The chandelier leaned gently left, then right. The clock tuk-ed like a clucking tongue.
“Shit,” Martin said, and something rustled.
“Sssh.” I resisted yet another urge to jerk my head around. I turned slowly instead, saw Sophie’s almost closed door, Mrs. Gold’s wide-open one. Butterfly light. Our room. Nothing else. If the sound I’d just heard had come from downstairs, then Roz was awake. “Get up here,” I said, and Martin came, fast.
By the time he reached me, all that fizzing energy seemed to have evaporated. His shoulders had rounded, and his glasses had clouded over with his exertion. He looked at me through his own fog.
“Mir, what are we going to do?”
“What do you think we’re going to do, we’re going to go get it. You’re going to go get it.”
Martin wiped his glasses on his shirt, eyeing the distance between the landing where we stood and the gently swinging chandelier. “We need a broom.” His eyes flicked hopefully to mine. He was Martin again, alright.
I glanced downstairs to the hallway I’d have to cross to get to the broom closet. “Feel free,” I said.
“Come on, Miriam.”
“You threw it.”
Abruptly, the naked woman from the well in the magazine flashed in front of my eyes. I could almost see—almost hear—her stepping out of the photograph, balancing on those pointed feet. Tiptoeing over the splinter-riddled floor toward those wrapped-together dresses, slipping them over her shoulders.
“What?” Martin said.
For the second time that night, Martin took my hand. Before the last couple hours, Martin had last held my hand when I was six years old, and my mother had made him do it whenever we crossed a street, for his protection more than mine, since he was usually thinking about something random instead of paying attention.
“I have a better idea,” he whispered, and pulled me toward the top of the staircase.
As soon as he laid himself flat on the top step, I knew what he was going to do. “You can’t,” I whispered, but what I really meant was that I didn’t believe he’d dare. There he was, though, tilting onto his side, wriggling his head through the railings. His shoulders followed. Within seconds he was resting one elbow in the dust atop the grandfather clock.
Kneeling, I watched his shirt pulse with each tuk, as though a second, stronger heart had taken root inside him. Too strong, I thought, it could pop him to pieces.
“Grab me,” he said. “Don’t let go.”
Even at age ten, my fingers could touch when wrapped around the tops of his ankles. He slid out farther, and the clock came off its back legs and leaned with him. “Fuck!” he blurted, wiggling back as I gripped tight. The clock tipped back the other way and banged its top against the railings and rang them.
Letting go of Martin, I scrambled to my feet, ready to sprint for our beds as I awaited the tell-tale bloom of lights in Roz’s hallway. Martin lay flat, breath heaving, either resigned to his fate or too freaked out to care. It seemed impossible that Roz hadn’t heard what we’d just done, and anyway, she had a sort of lateral line for this kind of thing, sensing movement in her foyer the way Martin said sharks discerned twitching fish.
But somehow, miraculously, no one came. Nothing moved. And after a minute or so, without even waiting for me to hold his legs, Martin slithered forward once more. I dropped down next to him, held tighter. This time, he kept his spine straight, dropping as little of his weight as possible atop the clock. I watched his waist wedge briefly in the railings, then slip through as his arms stretched out. It was like feeding him to something. Worse than the clock’s tuk was the groan from its base as it started to lean again. My hands went sweaty, and my teeth clamped down on my tongue, almost startling me into letting go. I had no idea whether the tears in my ears were fear or exhaustion or sadness for my grandfather or the first acknowledgement that I’d just heard rustling, right behind me.
“Ow,” Martin said as my nails dug into his skin. But he kept sliding forward. My eyes had jammed themselves shut, so I felt rather than saw him grab the chandelier, felt it swing slightly away from, felt his ribs hit the top of the clock and the clock start to tip.
I opened my eyes, not looking back, not behind, it was only the vents, had to be, and then Roz stepped out of her hallway.
Incredibly, insanely, she didn’t see us at first. She had her head down, bracelets jangling, hands jammed in the pockets of her shiny silver robe, and she didn’t even look up until she was dead center under the chandelier, under my brother stretched full-length in mid-air twenty feet over her head with a sock in his hands. Then the clock’s legs groaned under Martin’s suspended weight, and the chandelier swung out, and Roz froze. For that one split second, none of us so much as breathed. And that’s how I knew, even before she finally did lift her eyes. This time, I really had heard it.
“Get back,” my grandmother said, and burst into tears.
It made no sense. I started babbling, overwhelmed by guilt I wasn’t even sure was mine. “Grandma, I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry—”
“BACK!” Roz screamed. “Get away! Get away from them.” With startling speed, she spun and darted up the steps, still shouting.
Them. Meaning us. Which meant she wasn’t talking to us.
The rest happened all in one motion. As I turned, my hands came off Martin’s legs. Instantly, he was gone, tipping, the clock rocking forward and over. He didn’t scream, maybe didn’t have time, but his body flew face-first and smacked into the floor below just as Roz hurtled past and my parents emerged shouting from the guest bedroom and saw their son and the clock smashing and splintering around and atop him and I got my single glimpse of the thing on the landing.
Its feet weren’t pointed, but bare and pale and swollen with veins. It wore some kind of pink, ruffled something, and its hair was white and flying. I couldn’t see its face. But its movements…The arms all out of rhythm with the feet, out of order, as if they were being jerked from somewhere else on invisible strings. And the legs, the way they moved…not Mrs. Gold’s mindless, surprisingly energetic glide…more of a tilting, trembling lurch. Like Sophie’s.
Rooted in place, mouth open, I watched it stagger past the blacked-out mirror, headed from the pink room to the blue one.
“Takes care of his own,” I found myself chanting, helpless to stop. “Takes care of his own.And no mistake. No mistake.” There had been no mistake.
My grandmother was waving her hands in front of her, snarling, stomping her feet as though scolding a dog. Had she already known it was here? Or just understood, immediately? In seconds, she and the lurching thing were in the blue room, and Sophie’s door slammed shut.
“No mistake ,” I murmured, tears pouring down my face.
The door flew open again, and out Roz came. My voice wavered, sank into silence as my eyes met hers and locked. Downstairs, my father was shouting frantically into the phone for an ambulance. Roz walked, jangling, to the step above me, sat down hard, put her head on her knees and one of her hands in my hair. Then she started to weep.
Martin had fractured his spine, broken one cheekbone, his collarbone, and both legs, and he has never completely forgiven me. Sometimes I think my parents haven’t, either. Certainly, they drew away from me for a long time after that, forming themselves into a sort of protective cocoon around my brother. My family traded phone calls with Roz for years. But we never went back to Baltimore, and she never came to see us.
So many times, I’ve lunged awake, still seeing the Sophie-Mrs. Gold creature lurching at random into my dreams. If I’d ever had the chance, I would have asked Roz only one thing: how much danger had Martin and I really been in? Would it really have hurt us? Was it inherently malevolent, a monster devouring everything it could reach? Or was it just a peculiarly Jewish sort of ghost, clinging to every last vestige of life, no matter how painful or beset by betrayal, because only in life--this life--is there any possibility of pleasure or fulfillment or even release?
I can’t ask anyone else, because Roz is the only one other than me who knows. I have never talked about it, certainly not to Martin, who keeps the plaque he lifted from the attic that night nailed to his bedroom wall.
But I know. And sometimes, I just want to scream at all of them, make them see what’s staring them right in the face, has been obvious from the moment it happened. My grandfather, the Muldoon who took care of his own, during the whole weekend he was away with Roz, never once called his mother? Never called home? Never checked in with Mrs. Gertzen, just to see how everyone was? And Mrs. Gertzen had no family, had left no indication to the service that employed her of what jobs she might have been engaged in?
My grandfather had called Mrs. Gertzen’s house before leaving for Delaware, alright. He’d learned about Mrs. Gertzen’s heart attack. Then he’d weighed his shattering second marriage, his straining relationships with his children, his scant remaining healthy days, maybe even his own mother’s misery.
And then he’d made his decision. Taken care of his own, and no mistake. And in the end—the way they always do, whether you take care of them or no—his own had come back for him.
© Glen Hirshberg, 2009
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.