Discontents

By Andrew Marvin

T-2he woman in the mud-caked gown said, “I live here.”

Claire and I could say nothing back, or to each other, and this was back when we still spoke. We had been in bed when the knock came from downstairs, an hour before sunrise. When we went to investigate, the strange woman was there, with her soft voice and dirty skin. A young woman, younger than us, just out of adolescence and approaching pretty.

“We have the lease,” I mumbled. “If you want, I can show you.”

Claire stepped into the doorway and stood between the strange woman and our open house. She moved like the air was water, and she displaced it as she went. A strong woman with strong values, who now asked our visitor, “Who are you?”

The state of the young woman’s clothing should have clued us in, but it was too early to think, and this was not the kind of thing you simply understood. Only following her into the backyard did we become believers. I almost fell into the trench there, but Claire caught my arm before I could tumble in. It was a pool of darkness where there should have been absolute solidity. Around its outside a ring of mud was piled, oozing from the recent rains.

“I live here,” the young woman repeated.

I don’t know why, and maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but I felt moved to connect the three of us. So I took her right hand in my left, and Claire’s left in my right, and we all stood looking into the negative space like worshippers at an altar. I wanted my wife to say something–to slap me, snap me out of it, take an axe to the intruder–but she was under the same trance. So we’d encountered a ghost, or someone delusional. What now?

The young woman went of her own accord. She must have understood, waiting there with me and Claire, that she did not own the house in the woods. As she stepped into the emptiness, I kept ahold of her hand for support, though I don’t know which one of us needed it. Her legs were so dainty, appearing through the wrinkles in the gown as they bent and flexed and unbent and unflexed, and she was standing there in the ground, and all I could do was let go.

As soon as I did, she was gone, and so was the grave.

I wanted to pretend that it was a hallucination. I still do. Claire must have felt the same way, standing beside me, staring at the same anonymous scrap of grass that had just swallowed up our visitor.

We waited in our kitchen for the sun to rise, scanning the backyard. Nothing came or went. No holes or other strange character appeared. Only after an hour of daylight did I feel safe enough to suggest, “Maybe there’s a gas leak and we’re both hallucinating.”

“No two people hallucinate the exact same thing,” Claire said.

“The mind works in mysterious ways.”

“Like hell. I say we sell. Get out of Dodge. I’m not living in a haunted house. I’m not becoming one of those couples.”

The response triggered a nauseous reflex in me. We’d been living there for longer than I could remember and had taken years to straighten out our debts. I wanted to live out my twilight years there, and told her as much. And she told me that she did too, but not with that thing in our backyard, if it really was in our backyard, or if it had been.

I felt that I had to remind her, “That ‘thing’ was a person once.”

“And now she’s knocking on our door in the middle of the night.”

Our first argument in some time. Though we were different people with different lifestyles, our forty years of marriage had been smooth because we didn’t often disagree. Our mutual past was spotted with occasional tension, like when we found I was sterile, when she lost her job at the high school, when I started putting on weight, when she couldn’t break out of the funk that her brother’s death left her in. But we made it out of the rough patches because we had achieved a yin-yang balance. I was the quiet, introverted, steady husband. She was my loud, energetic, shoot-for-the-moon wife. That was why she’d wanted to have children, then to adopt: Claire was ambitious in the best and worst ways. I was content with three meals and a bed and a desk job. I was the chain, and she was the pit bull lunging at cars.

Now lunging at me with a cup of coffee in one hand, pressing the other into my collarbone, telling me, “You know what we saw. This is not the kind of situation that couples thrive in.”

“Most couples don’t land in this kind of situation.”

“Can you at least agree with me that what we saw was a ghost?”

“Awfully solid for a ghost. But yes.” I was not a skeptic, and neither was she. We were both content with our subjective realities.

Later, when I was showered and dressed and packing my briefcase, Claire still sat by the window, staring at the spot in our yard where the woman had gone under. The sun was up, almost over the hills, and the sector that had just a few hours before been caved inward was now flat and unmarked. So we could have been hallucinating, without any solid proof. Yet Claire’s ankles were spattered with mud, and in the shower I’d thrown out my back while scrubbing mud from my own.

“Promise me you’ll wait before doing anything,” I said on my way out.

“I promise,” she said, but didn’t turn to look at me.

When I returned home she had phoned a few agencies to ask whether our property was viable. “Just checking,” she told me, but I knew that once a downhill slide began, there was no stopping it.

 

Was it strange that neither of us were interested in looking up the history of our house? We never even mentioned it to each other. In conversation the incident was “the other night,” and the young woman was “her”. The knowledge would not have made a difference anyway, because the young woman had changed something between me and Claire. Not that either of us were different, but the very space between us grew wider and wider even when we held each other in the dead of night. Always, we waited for another knock at the door.

“I’m afraid that one of these nights, the alarm clock’s gonna start levitating,” I told her.

“I’m just afraid that I’ve been writing about the wrong thing for too long now.”

I could never understand the things my wife wrote. They were all wordy and dense, and though I liked to consider myself a well-read and well-educated man, I found them impenetrable. I never told Claire, though. That was not the kind of thing a man told his wife, especially when she was out for glory and he was a simple anchor.

“What do you mean, the wrong thing?” I asked.

“I’ve always been so focused on what people do that I never looked past it,” she said. “The things we say, the way we live. What does it matter if one day we’ll find out we were wrong?”

Back then, I understood this as well as I understood anything else she wrote. Claire the Writer had infiltrated Claire the Person, I thought. I now know that I was just blind, and it was as close to a solid fact as she’d ever give me.

Two weeks came and went, and still we couldn’t fall back into our regular habits. I went to work and Claire typed, but I functioned in a sort of haze, and Claire’s work ended up in the waste bin. One night, while she showered, I picked a crumpled wad out of the basket and pried out several pages. They told a story of vines coming from beneath the ground and winding their way through the foundations of a home like ours. Inside, a couple like us went about their lives, unaware, until one day the vines pulled the whole thing under. The last sentence I still remember: “The grass grew over, and the rains came, and nobody remembered the house that sank underground or the people who sank with it.”

Though I was a quiet and wholly average man, I thought that I was strong. I felt that I could save our marriage, which after just two weeks of turmoil seemed to be on the verge of collapse. With what I thought was bravery, I tried to salvage what we had. It meant that whenever Claire spoke, I rejected her. She asked for hamburger, I got meatloaf. She told me the water heater was breaking down, I told her it was fine. She tried to put our house on the market, I resisted, yelled, even punched our bathroom door.

God bless that woman. She tried so hard. She massaged my aching knuckles and filled a bucket with ice for me to numb my hand in. After those first two weeks of silence, she endured one week of my kicking and screaming before giving me the ultimatum:

“We go together, or I go alone.”

It took me some time to respond, and Claire took the other end of our living room couch. Against the opposite wall stood our bookshelf, and we could only look at it, the abstraction of our lives. It had grown and matured with us. On the bottom-left, where we’d started, were the thin volumes about sex and drugs and rock and roll. In my head is a snapshot memory of a young Claire kneeling before an empty shelf and propping into place the first book of many. On the top-right shelf were the heavy-hitters, postmodern masterpieces, or so Claire assured me whenever I asked her what they were about.

When I could finally utter something, I said, “Nothing has happened, Claire. Not since that first night.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Her voice shook. She was on the verge of tears. I didn’t care, or tried not to. “I can feel her in the bones of this place. I can feel her when I sleep, which isn’t often. I eat her for breakfast. She washes my hands. I smell her when I sit by the window and try to enjoy the day. Even when I go into town, she’s there, tagging along with me, holding my hand, trying to make me pull things off the shelves that I don’t even eat. The other day, I went to the register with a box of Pop Tarts. I’ve never had a Pop Tart in my life.”

Shakier and shakier her voice grew, until I couldn’t help but shift over to the center of the couch. My muscles were stiff and I groaned with the effort, but still I pressed Claire into my torso and took her hand in mine as she began to cry.

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” I said. “You need to trust me. We’ll be just fine.”

Was that my way of giving an answer or trying to get out of one? Regardless, she felt in it something different than I had, and even as she buried her face in my chest, staining my shirt with her tears, she told me in muffled undertones that she didn’t want this to be the end.

Neither did I. Which was why I took the next, last, fatal step.

It took some time. I waited in silence, whether she screamed at me and beat my chest with her fists or sealed her lips and looked into a distant corner of the room. I waited while Claire packing her clothes and keepsakes, her laptop, her jewelry. That’s what I remember the most: the jewelry box departing her nightstand. I’d grown accustomed to it, as though it were a concrete pillar rising through the floor and nightstand, not something removable. It had a photo of us slotted into the top, both smiling on the beach, back when we could call ourselves young. I didn’t remember who took the photo. And when the box was gone, it left an outline in the dust on her nightstand. After a few days, that outline was gone too.

The day she left was the easiest, somehow. The night before was tough, when we lay in bed knowing that it would be the last time we slept together. And every night afterwards, when I lay in that bed alone, was worse than the last. Even after she packed her luggage into her car and drove away, I could not spread out across the bed. Confined to my half, I would sometimes wake at night and stare at the empty indentation in the mattress and pillow, wondering where the woman who was supposed to fill it had gone.

She never told me where she was going or who would be there for her. I never asked. Claire was so self-assured and self-sufficient that I less like a fixture of her life than like furniture, something decorative but unnecessary. I tell myself this on my more cynical days, when I want to feel like a victim, when I need to deny what we had together. But it was worse for her than it was for me.

A week passed, then another, then a month, then two months. By the time I figured out that Claire wasn’t going to call or write, three months had passed since her departure. Three months and three weeks since the woman had come out of our yard. I tried to go to work, but the haze got hazier, and nothing made sense. Words blurred together. Numbers flew across the page. I told my boss that I needed some time off, and he gave it to me. I would never return.

With all of my time now free, I stared at the space in the backyard that had regurgitated the wanderer. It was difficult to tell where the hole had been, but I kept staring at one particular patch, even when I ate my meals, even when I fell asleep at the table with my head in my arms. The image of the backyard was seared into my brain after so many days of looking at it, always at its center the quadrant that the young woman had come from and returned to. I could not have known whether that space was where my tormentor slept, but somehow I knew it beyond doubt. And after so many nights alone, waiting for it to come to me and swallow me up, I decided that I would go to it.

It was just before sunrise, and I had been awake, thinking, plotting. So many ideas circled about my head that it was like I existed in a cloud of static, but when I struggled through, I found that I was in the backyard with the shovel in my hands, staring at that flat, grassy patch. For the first time in months, I was conscious and seeing clearly, and I was alone with the forking paths: did I go down this road and to an uncertain future, or restore the shovel to where it leaned against the wall and return to the house?

The decision was made for me, whether I knew it or not. As I sank the shovel’s blade into the ground, cursing and grunting and promising I would dig that woman out of our yard, that I would unearth and dispose of the tumor, I felt that I was finally doing something right. I hocked clods of dirt over my shoulder in an unending spout. Every seam of my being ached, but still I fought to find that woman, to make things right. So I dug and dug, ready for everything but what I found beneath the soil. Would it bring Claire back? I did not know. Some mistakes cannot be corrected. But I hoped that somehow, a shred of my remaining decency would reach her, a fraction of her quiet lover. The man I thought I was and the man I had become were incompatible. One had to go, and that night, I tried to drive away the lesser half through my labor.

Opening up that unholy plot of ground, I broke through the first layer of clay and found a hellish darkness unlike any other. It was a thing so solid that my legs seemed to have been amputated at the knees–and I plunged myself into it. Every shovelful that I flung seemed imbued with a special weight, a mass different from our reality’s, almost impossible to heft but lighter than air. Truth be told, I almost gave up. But Claire wouldn’t have. So I kept going.

It was here, below the surface of our world, straddling the divide into another, that the facts of my existence faltered. In that hole, I saw immense and terrible things. Could I have imagined them? If I did, I hope not to ever revisit that area of my consciousness again, because I could not survive another journey. I dug until I was four feet, five feet down, burrowing into this indescribable freak show, looking for the source. As I fought onward, warding off the horrors within, I derived strength from my totem: Claire. She was my fire, my lifeline. She was the torch shining through me. I was aglow. And there, at the bottom of things, hands raw and bleeding from the splintered wooden handle, I swung into the earth, carving away another scrap of it, and the shovel pinged off of something solid. Something that even my surety and love could not conquer. Something that was unbreakable, confronted by a mere man. Here, in shock, the haze drifted over me again, and I fell.

That I had made it so far was remarkable, for I’d never encountered something like that solid darkness before. It might have been in spite of my age, or because of it. Whatever I saw down there, I cannot remember. I had confronted the night and been driven back by it. Waking the next day, I found myself spread-eagle in my yard, the shovel on my chest. The piece of ground I’d turned over was pristine, the grass wild and verdant. For a moment, I doubted that I had dug at all, before I felt the buzzing pain in my hands, before I saw my pajamas stained with dirt.

Could I have dreamed all of that? Could I have made it up? I am not sure. There are darker things in our lives than I can understand, and I doubt any other can understand them either.

After cleaning myself up, I called a real estate agency and asked whether our house was viable. It was, as it turned out–very much so. I stood to somehow make a profit off of it, which was odd considering its remote location and the state of the market. That might have been why Claire was so eager to sell it and run, but she would not have given up all we had without a good reason. As I discovered the night I dug, there was indeed a good reason. I do not blame her for fleeing me at my worst, but I do not regret my refusal to surrender. Had it not been me, someone else might have fallen to that young woman, clad in the gown of her burial and the dirt of her home. I was an old man, ready to go. I am still an old man, and I am still here.

Claire might one day find this brief account of our trial. I have never been much of a writer myself, and certainly cannot match her skill. She would paint a different picture of what we went through. One more beautiful and more horrible. The truth of things, as she always saw it. Or her own truth, at least, which was more nuanced than mine. But this must suffice.

I am alone, and I have left that house behind. However, my past still journeys with me, concealed in my soul. There has been no sign of Claire since she left our town, but I intend to find her one day, and ask for some sort of forgiveness. And if you should read this, Claire, my darling, my wife, you who I swore my loyalty and love to, I hope that you forgive my trespasses, and understand if you do not. But I would like to see your face one last time before I depart this world for a stranger one. What happened has happened, and what is gone is gone, but what lies beneath is still there. So please, Claire, find me, and tell me what really happened. You might knock at my door one night, exhausted from a long journey, and collapse into my arms. And if you should, I will carry you to bed and set you there, because that is all I can do.

——————–

Andrew Marvin has been writing fiction and nonfiction since 2012. He lives and works in the United States’ woodsy parts. There is nothing more to tell.


Comments are closed.