BREANNE MC IVOR
It was like the bones of a once beached whale. Stripped of any flesh or meaning, the house made white arches against the sky. I had never met my Great Aunt Cynthia. The house had been hers, well hers and my Great Uncle Hector’s. But, when they had split up, he had remarried a twenty-five year old and moved into Port of Spain. He always called it her house. No one had lived here for years and yet no moss grew on the white bones of the building. The key was a cold weight in my hand. Of all the things to inherit. Of course, Uncle Hector’s children with his second wife as well as the wife herself had gotten the money and the big house in town. The old Jaguar and the new BMW. But, my brother, always his favourite, had gotten the villa down the islands. And what did I have? An abandoned house in the country.
The gate was free of vines and I could not open the rusted padlock. Eventually, I hauled myself up the iron fretwork and clambered over. The dirt track of the steep hill looked as if it had been trod on recently. If it were so easy for me to climb over the gate, how much easier would it be for the enterprising thieves of Trinidad? I walked up slowly, putting my hands on my knees to exhale at the top. I was getting married in May and Penelope had suggested that we could move out of the shoebox that we rented and live here.
Up close, the house was even larger. It had colossal Doric columns holding up a gypsum ceiling of fantastical height. Looking up, I saw empty light fixtures gaping like mouths. Eventually, I eased my neck down and tried the key in the lock. I felt as if the lock was pushing back against me but I turned the key. The lock gave way and I forced the door open.
This must have been the living room. The windows ran from the floor all the way to the ceiling on the east side of the house but only faint light filtered through the trees inside. It was empty, really like being inside a whale.
There was a marble island in the kitchen, a lamp hanging above it, swinging in a pendulous motion. I tried the light switch but of course it would not come on. An old-fashioned gas stove was rusting besides snow countertops. It was the first sign of decay that I had seen.
The upstairs bedroom was palatial. I entered the en suite bathroom and, to my surprise, the tub was full of water. This place must be a breeding ground for mosquitoes. I slapped an arm but nothing was biting me. The water had a greyish-green tinge but no algae grew inside. I hesitated and then plunged my hand into the water, looking for the plug. My fingers scraped along something on the bottom of the tub and I recoiled. An animal? I waited for a sign of movement in the tub. A rat’s pink tail to come to the surface. Nothing. I dipped my middle finger in and then my whole hand.
The rat was drowned. I pinched the slippery tail hesitantly and threw the corpse on the floor. Its eyes were open, the colour of a rotting rose. Its fur was so white, it was almost transparent. I told myself that I had to let the water out. My hand went in for a third time and my fingers found the plug. It was stuffed full of something coarse and stringy. I pulled and my hand came up clutching hair. I dropped the hair on the rat, black strands on white fur.
The water splashed on my shoes as my hand plunged back in. Another sopping clump came out in my fist. But, the water did not even tremble. I could not hear the suctioning sound of the drain emptying. One more time. More black hair curling around my fingers but the tub would not empty.
I did not move. What if the reason the house was so clean was that drug dealers used it as a holding place for cocaine? Maybe illegal immigrants hid out here as a midpoint between Venezuela and Port of Spain? My heart was a jackhammer. I waited in silence, crouching between the white rat and the white tub. Eventually, I stood up. It was nothing. I wiped my hand on my jeans.
The child stepped out of the bedroom just as I entered. I saw the hem of a dress disappear around the corner. “Hello?” I called.
I left the bedroom and walked down the corridor. Something yelped. I turned a corner and saw a brown dog, licking itself. One leg was cocked and its tongue was working along the ridge of its balls. Fleas scuttled along its inner thigh. Had I thought the dog’s tail was the hem of a dress? But, I was sure that I had seen human legs. I wondered suddenly if the dog would bite me. I backed away, never averting my eyes from the creature. It seemed singularly dedicated to its manic licking.
“And then it bit you?” Penelope asked. She was holding cotton dipped in Savlon to my ankle.
“Came tearing down the steps,” I told her.
“You weren’t in your right mind,” she said.
“Your Great Aunt suffered from depression too?” Penelope asked. I felt attacked. “Manic depressive, isn’t that what they called it then? Maybe you thought you saw the child because you were so scared.”
“I know what I saw. I’m sad sometimes; I’m not crazy.”
“Have you stopped taking your medication again?” Penelope fiddled with the imitation string of pearls she wore around her neck.
“You say that you saw a child without a face and that is why we’re not moving into a mansion? Is this like when you thought that the dove was telling you to kill yourself? Do you remember that?” She grabbed my hand and turned it palm up so that the white gashes on my wrist were visible.
“That isn’t the story,” I said. “The dove was on my windowsill; the owl swooped down and killed it. It made me feel so low. And that was shortly after…”
“I found you!” she shouted. “I know the story! You’re the one who can’t remember the end, with the rope cutting into your neck and the blood running all down your hands!”
“I’m better now,” I said.
Two weeks had past. I felt as if a deep weight underneath us was pulling Penelope and me down. The wound on my ankle was closing up. I began waking up at night and feeling the dog’s jaws on me. It had bitten because it was scared. I know it saw the child too. We both ran out the door and as I turned back I saw her. At the bottom of the steps. Faceless. Bone where the face should be.
Once, Penelope woke up when I was crying. “You never get better,” she said. “You just think you do and then we have another incident.”
She would not stop insisting that I take her to the house. One evening, when it was almost twilight, I took a taxi to the Diego Martin River. The water snaked below me. As I fished the house keys out of my pocket, the tissues I had wrapped them in shifted and a key touched my flesh. It was like ice.
I threw them into the river.
“I’m sorry about Penelope,” Jackie said. Her famous white mushroom and okra soup was simmering on the stove.
“At least we didn’t send out the invitations,” I said.
Jackie sighed. I knew that she must be able to smell me even in the kitchen. The apartment was tiny and I hadn’t bathed in days. I could smell the sourness of my pits every second. The darkness between my legs was festering with dried urine spots.
Jackie had washed the stack of dishes that had clattered in my sink every time a door had slammed. She had thrown a combination of vinegar and nail polish remover in my kettle to eliminate the lime scale. She had made order out of the stacks of delivery boxes in my fridge. “I miss your Great Uncle too,” she said. “Since he died, I keep reaching for him on our side of the bed.” A tear splashed into the soup. She scrubbed her cheek with the back of her hand. Straightened her spine.
“But, I didn’t give up, sweetheart.” She turned the soup in a strong circle in the pot. “I always knew it would happen. He is— was so much older. And even though the children are gone to the US, I do things. Get out of the house. Visit friends.” She paused and I knew she was wondering if I had any friends to visit or if they were all Penelope’s friends, no longer speaking to me now that she had given back the ring.
“Did you know Great Aunt Cynthia?” I asked. Jackie stopped stirring.
“I met her,” she said stiffly. “Only once.”
“Was she bipolar too?” I asked.
“She was crazy.” Jackie shook her head. “Saw things that weren’t there. Said demons stood at the foot of her bed during the night. Thought that she had to say twenty Hail Marys at twenty to two or something would come crawling out of the earth. I don’t know how Hector went so long without the divorce.”
“What made him divorce her eventually?”
Jackie tilted her head to the left and looked at me. She was deciding something. “It was a long time ago,” she said.
“My mother promised me that she would let me know when I was older. And I’m older.”
“Your mother probably thought that— well, with everything you don’t need any more morbid news. I think she had the right idea.” Jackie said this firmly. She was ladling the soup into bowls. It was like the drowned rat had been liquefied into a clumpy milk. My stomach roiled. “Look at you,” she said. “Your mother was definitely right.”
“If you tell me, I promise to go outside tomorrow,” I bargained.
Jackie paused, accidentally put a finger on the hot bowl and shuddered. “Do you really promise?” she asked.
Jackie exhaled and wiped the edges of the bowls with a cloth like she was still in her restaurant. “You know they had a daughter?”
“Yes, Mummy told me that the daughter died. Fell down the stairs.”
“Cynthia drowned her,” Jackie said. “In the tub. Said that whatever was in the earth was also in the child. She said that your Great Uncle couldn’t see it but that the girl had no face at all. Just bone and evil.”
Breanne Mc Ivor (MSc, Edinburgh, MA Cambridge) is a Trinidadian author who works in Human Resources. She is the co-founder of People’s Republic of Writing (PROW), a populist writing group created out of the belief that writing belongs to everyone. In her free moments, she reads, dances, practices yoga and supports Arsenal FC.