HOUSE OF SHADOWS

By John Thomas Tuft

It sits back a ways off the dirt road, a small lonely house with red shutters. It’s a fair distance from the paved road. And even further away from the new four laner that helps one avoid yesterdays and promises endless, bountiful tomorrows, as we expect all new roads to do. The siding is faded in lots of places, the front door sits askew, and the screens on the windows are rusted and torn. The beds of four o’clocks have turned into thick jungles of, well… overgrown four o’clocks. Vines advance relentlessly up every wall and threaten the roof while holding the chimney hostage. The late afternoon sunlight begs to differ with the canopy of protective foliage high overhead as Miriam clutches my arm while we walk up the remnants of a pathway. “I haven’t been back since forever,” she whispers, hushed by unseen forces at work. I press her hand reassuringly, acutely aware of the awful wonder of the unforgiveable. Wondering at the awful power of the unforgiven. None escape it.

The front door registers its disgust as I put my shoulder into it, ‘scrooping’ over the warped floor and settling with a moan. Miriam stands in the middle of the musty living room, looking pale and seeming to shrink within her own clothes. She touches a drooping armchair. “This was Daddy’s,” she says. Her fingers linger on the faded fabric, “before he…you know…” Her voice trails off and disappears as though the chair itself swallowed it. A sewing basket peeks out from under a tattered afghan beside the couch. She touches it with the toe of her shoe. “This was Mama’s. They would sit here in the evenings, listening to opera records. Mama loved opera.” She crosses to a small table beneath the lone window where an old Kenwood still awaits the next aria. “Why would anyone want to…do such…?” Her question hangs in the dense air between us, smelling of decay.

“Where are you?” I ask finally. She motions with a turn of the head toward the bedrooms in the rear. “How old?” She stares at the floor, lost in the shadows. “Twelve,” she whispers. I go through a doorway and find myself in the kitchen. A country sink is chipped and cracked around the drain. I peer into it, half expecting dirty dishes, and only half relieved to find it empty, save the orange stains from the iron in the well water. The rubber seal of the old Frigidaire hangs in strips from the chrome handle, too tired to care any more if cold air escapes or warm air gets in. Foolishly I yank on it. The door crashes to the floor, and I hear skitterings behind closed cupboards. I jump back and bump into the red Formica table in the corner, still waiting for the remnants of this famished family to gather.

”Dinner was at 6.” Miriam’s voice startles me. “Sharp. Every day, no exceptions. Daddy said if I couldn’t be bothered, then why should Mama bother? Be there or be skinny!” She allowed a sad smile. She tried to fit the door back on the evolved icebox, but some things cannot easily be refitted. Reformed. Or restored. She gave up and looked at the doorway leading to the darkened hallway. “I’m here,” I say as I see her shoulders sag. “I won’t leave you alone in the shadows.” She gathers herself, pushes her hair from her face and steps into the darkness. After a moment, I follow.

I find her in the second bedroom, standing in front of an old highboy. An oval mirror is propped on top and she stands before it, examining her reflection. “My uncle said I was getting very pretty,” she says as I come in the room. “That I was a special girl, almost a wom…” she stops, the pain and fear in her eyes tainted with resignation. The late sunlight searches its way in around the blinds, drawn against random intrusion. “I could hear Pavarotti in the living room,” she says, almost in disbelief. Never looking away from the mirror. “Nobody came.” She touches her cheek with elegant fingers. “Nobody came.”

After a while, she reaches out toward the mirror, touches her reflection. “It’s like you said,” she says, then asks. “Isn’t it?” I stand still on this holy ground, waiting. She continues. “Shadows and reflections have something in common.” A deep breath. “Neither one has any depth.” Her fingers return to her face, stroke her hair. “And they are both defined by light.” She looks over at me. “Yes?” A tear works its way from the corner of my eye and yet appears on her cheek. “Yes,” I whisper.

She reaches behind the mirror, pulls something out of hiding. Holds it up triumphantly. It’s a small crystal bottle with a stopper. She opens it and catches the tear. Takes one last look in the mirror. Tells it, “No more.” She sees the question in my eyes. Puts the stopper back in. “I kept them here, but no more. No more secret tears.”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.