I didn’t know whether to believe Tara when she told me that her grandmother’s house was haunted. My parents were practical to a fault and never entertained the idea of anything supernatural, including God, which later led people to believe that we were wicked. But Tara’s family was more superstitious, and more faithful, and while I lived in a new home with no history, her family scraped by as truck drivers, waitresses and tailors to keep their old, southern plantation in the family. So many people lived inside the house that I couldn’t keep track of their names, occupations, and relations to one another. There were a lot of children around our age, but none Tara liked and so we avoided them, which was easy enough on that much property and in a house that large.
The house was white, weather-beaten and with a large, leaf-swept porch supported by four equally-spaced, peeling columns. Pecan trees loomed over the house, branches casting a web of shadows like lace across its facade. Periodically, we’d be sent to collect the fallen fruits and Tara’s grandmother would sit in silence in the drawing room, year-round, with her holiday nutcracker, freeing their meat.
The drawing room also housed an impressive library, and Tara and I spent rainy days poring over the pages of a set of encyclopedias there. We learned about wars and plants and cities in Mexico, about heroes and criminals and the beasts of the African plains. Once, we discovered a deep sea fish that could light its own way along the darkness of the ocean floor: a single antenna hung as a lantern before its flat eyes. Its teeth were glass-sharp and nearly as translucent, all out of alignment so that I imagined its bite would leave a chorus of puncture wounds, as though many creatures were responsible for what was caused by one ugly bottom dweller. Gradually, that fish grew larger and larger, more and more monstrous in my mind.
There were smaller buildings along the property, most destroyed by years of neglect, some used as workshops or, as each generation of children in the house grew older, clandestine meeting spots, old towels strewn across the dirt floors as makeshift beds. One building in particular was forbidden to us, and Tara’s older brother, Kevin, claimed somewhat proudly that it had been the slave’s quarters. Peering through the tiny shed’s broken windows, we were initially disappointed by its emptiness, its lack of offering. There was no reason to go inside: no treasure to claim, no cabinets to explore.
Later, when I understood that the building was off-limits primarily because it was so near to collapsing, I felt uncomfortable thinking of its one barren room. I am often tempted to say that I grew up on that sprawling, dilapidated land, too, but it is this fact which stops me: at sixteen, Tara lost her virginity in the forbidden slave quarters, to a boy with a woman’s eyebrows. He managed the closest gas station and spoke with great authority about coffee, which he claimed to sell more of than fuel. By the time Tara told me about his bony hips and the pattern of hair on his belly, we were hardly friends and Kevin had been killed in active duty in the Middle East. Did it hurt, I asked her and she pursed her lips as though disgusted. No, she said. It didn’t hurt at all. I didn’t even bleed.
Inside the plantation home, the floors were varnished darkly and lamps fought hard to cast light through the high-ceilinged, wooden-walled rooms. Along the hallways, there were frosted sconces, which once held candles and were never retrofitted for electricity; on the stairs, which wound around the edge of the house and left an open well between stories, there were dusty hurricane lamps proudly displayed on each landing.
Family heirlooms produced their own undeniable hauntings throughout the house. The child who would have been Tara’s oldest uncle was stillborn, and his tiny posthumous footprints, cast in plaster, sat atop a piano no one ever played, in the dining room, where no one ever ate. The family—all of them—preferred the crowded kitchen with its windows and white walls. It always smelled of rendering fat or sugar boiled with fruit.
The kitchen drawers were lined with flowered paper. There was a collection of milk cups that generations had drunk from, and they were foisted upon us at each meal, too, though the milk always appeared too blue inside them. The spoons we ate from were the tiny, soft-rubber-coated spoons of children, and sported tooth marks from too many mouths.
I hated the sensations of eating there. My hand in the hand of someone whose name I couldn’t remember but who belonged, by blood, to my best friend. My mouth coated thickly with lard and saying a blessing I didn’t know, my tongue tripping through the words in a convincing imitation until, finally, I, too, knew the Lord’s Prayer, and my parents raised an eyebrow but kept driving and leaving me there. My teeth scraping against those enamel mugs of tepid milk. Each bite I took so small that I learned to shovel several spoonfuls into my mouth in rapid succession, without chewing, and so never tasted a thing for what it was.
But it wasn’t any of those familial artifacts that most interested Tara. It was the haunting. They named the ghost Jacob, which made him familiar and terrifying. Some of Tara’s relatives claimed to have seen him. Others told stories of sounds, or doors closing, or cold spots in corners. The most common story told was of Jacob’s distaste for Christmas, as he would repeatedly and invisibly sweep all of the carefully arranged holiday decorations from the drawing room mantel.
This sometimes happened when people were in the room, but at times, an aunt or cousin would wander into the room to find shattered ornaments and torn evergreen fronds strewn about the floor. Pinecones, crushed. There were plenty more where that came from, and I felt bad for Jacob, who could never change things despite his violence.
Tara’s grandmother, who wore the same flowered housecoat every day, called Jacob “petulant”—Tara and I looked it up later and mouthed it out to each other, faces close in the eerie green of the bookshelf’s shadow—and kept rearranging the decorations in spite of their increasingly shabby appearance. I love Christmas, her grandmother would say, drawing the I out as though creating several new vowels.I don’t care what Jacob wants. I was more afraid of Tara’s grandmother than I was of Jacob.
There were no bleeding walls. No one fell down stairs or felt pushed toward the licking flame of the stove. The stillborn’s footprints were never meddled with, though the piano was sometimes purported to play, and clumsily.
It wasn’t until Kevin claimed to have seen Jacob standing over him in his bed one night that I began to believe in his powers. According to Kevin, Jacob wore a Confederate soldier’s uniform and appeared to him as a photograph, two-dimensional and faded in color.
Tara, Kevin and I whispered over the kitchen’s plastic tablecloth while one of the aunts tended to rice on the stove. Her shoulders were small and pulled inward as though she were stretching. Her fanny was wide and flat. I watched the distinct line between her two halves waver like heat on pavement as she stirred, and asked Kevin if he knew, having seen him, how Jacob had died.
He had a huge hole in his heart, Kevin said with gravity, without fidgeting, holding my gaze. His eyes were moping and brown, like a hound dog’s, like Tara’s. It was the only feature they had in common.
Was he bleeding? Tara asked, and held my hand beneath the table. She and I could have been siblings more believably than she and Kevin. We were both so nervous and pale. Our hands were even veined similarly, though her fingers were smaller enough that I could not wear her rings, and often worried at her fragility. When we walked to the gas station in the summers, we pretended to be twins, which to us meant buying the same things, sipping out of our straws the same way.
Kevin shook his head. No blood. Just a hole. I could see straight through it to the wall behind.
Got dammit, Tara’s grandmother said as she pushed her way into the kitchen. Jacob’s gone and broken my favorite nutcracker.
Tara and I spent a lot of time in the shed her grandfather used as his car shop before he passed. There were old street signs and license plates stapled to the walls. Tools we didn’t understand and could barely lift lay abandoned on workbenches. The place smelled of cat piss.
Her grandfather had been a collector of old-fashioned oilcans, and we played robot the way that some young girls play dress-up. I stood in the chilly shade of the shed and swung my arm around and around in circles, letting a pathetic squeak issue from my lips.
Tara, whose blonde hair was always pulled back into a tight ponytail with a red ribbon, approached me with an oilcan in each hand. She cooed at me—sounds that weren’t quite words and weren’t quite sympathy—and pretended to lubricate my joints. There, there, she’d say, as I began to unwind from my tight stance and allow for fluidity.
She dipped the thin nozzles of the empty oil cans into each folded part of my skin, each crook between bones. I thrilled at it, making jerking motions to show her that she was right, and mattered. I came to life for her, and I couldn’t keep from giggling as I did.
Robots don’t laugh, she chided me. With no inflection. And I got so tight-lipped she then had to oil me there, too. The cans were dusty and sticky with age, and my lips parted just enough to take them in, place my tongue upon the sickly tang of their tips out of a desperate attempt to keep quiet, which I only knew how to do by keeping busy. Otherwise, I expelled sound like an untied balloon zipping through a silent room.
I mouthed the nozzle of the oilcan, nearly suckled. Tara drew it away quickly, wiped its tip on her white shirt, leaving a smear along its hem. All better, she said, and I worked my jaw like a true hinge, felt a popping as I opened, closed.
Tara never played the robot. On the day that I suggested it for the first and only time, it was close to Christmas, and as cold as southern winters get. Even beneath her coat and scarf, I saw her grow stiff in all the wrong ways. She suggested that we go inside the house to drink some hot chocolate instead.
But Jacob, I said, not even certain I believed in him.
We have to sleep there anyway, Tara snapped with startling authority. Don’t be scared, she said then, softening a little, and put the oilcan’s tip gently behind my newly-pierced ear, which was already throbbing with the heat of pain. I let my chin fall against the can, and swiveled my head back and forth as though dancing to our favorite song.
Tara’s second-floor bedroom was covered with the same paper as the insides of the kitchen drawers. The daybed had a trundle that required one of us to pull from a kneeling position, and once, my fingers were caught in its mechanics as we lifted it into position. My nails were black and blue and it took me weeks to make a fist. My penmanship never quite recovered.
Since then, I stood in the doorway while Tara yanked it out from beneath the lace bed skirt and Kevin hovered in the hallway, watching. He did this often along the days. I could feel him without looking; sometimes I whipped my head over my shoulder to be sure it was just Kevin, human and warm and familiar, and not Jacob.
With the bed, Tara was never careful enough, but I didn’t know how to talk about the pain, so she kept on being careless and I kept letting her. My teeth gritted and the sound mixed with that of the metal frame as it elevated, protesting, beside Tara’s mattress.
The night I asked Tara to be inhuman and she refused, I lay on the thin trundle mattress, feeling the offensive collapsing frame beneath my back, and listened to her untroubled breathing. I looked at the faint lines of the wallpaper in the dark, mere suggestions of geometry, and worried about Jacob. I thought of his open, bloodless heart. I thought of his flatness and blanched transparency. I thought of him as wallpaper and then I thought I saw him there, in the pattern.
I was silent and still, and held my breath. I said his name in my head and prayed, for the first time of my own volition. I asked God to let Jacob rest, and then, because he remained like a paper doll against the wall, I shook Tara’s bony shoulder to wake her. She did not stir. I shook her again and said her name, but nothing. Tara, I hissed at her, and pinched her thigh. Nothing.
My leg wound like a spring and struck out, landed in the small of her back with such direct aim that my heel hurt from the impact. She woke with a scream and before I knew it, the lights were on in our room. One of the aunts stood over us, mouth pursed at the inconvenience of being woken in the night.
What in the name of God? she said and placed her hands on her hips. Tara began to wail and thrash about in her white sheets. My bed rolled a bit away from hers, and I stayed quiet, pressing my lips together again. I told myself, make yourself a machine. I told myself, with no one to oil you into motion. I blinked my eyes in imitation of waking and mouthed, What? and was pleased by how hoarse the word sounded, erupting into the room of my indiscretion.
The next morning, the house was buzzing with news of Jacob’s first cruelty. The shades were drawn and the interior of the plantation was brighter than it ever had been, though it was still dark. Tara walked hunched, like an old woman, and rubbed her back periodically with her hand. Wounded. A survivor. She was fed pancakes by some aunt or another, and I felt guilty that I was, too. I kept each bite in my mouth too long, until it grew soggy and tasteless, and then swallowed dryly, reaching for the blue milk.
She could’ve really been hurt, I said to Kevin when Tara retreated for a nap. My knee throbbed, my heel felt dry.
Oh, she’s all right, he replied and placed a hand on my bare knee in consolation, his thumb moving across my skin like wiping it clean. She’s just—he paused. Dramatic.
I could have really been hurt, too, I heard myself saying before I could think it through. If she hadn’t woke up screaming—
Shhhh, Kevin, the big brother, put a thick finger to my lips, kept me quiet.
Later that day, I woke Tara from her nap with a tender hand upon the cheek. She blinked up at me and seemed relieved. Let’s go exploring, I said, and she sprang up, as though her back had never been hurt.
Where are we going? she asked.
Upstairs, I told her.
The top floor of the house was not a part of our domain. At least two of Tara’s aunts slept in rooms there, but we only knew about the rooms because we heard doors opening and closing. The railing at the top of the stairs had been broken years before and as with the slave shack, the adults were strict about keeping the children of the household safe by refusing them entry. That danger was enough to keep us moored on the lower floors for years, and the previous night’s assumed paranormal activity had driven nearly everyone outdoors for the day: there was shopping to be done; there were shifts to pick up; there were creeks to play in and less dangerous sheds to explore.
The whole point was the newness, the novelty of the third floor. Instead, when we got upstairs to the broken rail, we stood in the darkness on that open precipice, peering down at the place we’d just come from: the familiar foyer, the dull glow of lamps spilling out from hidden corners. That was the place I knew, and it was not. Up there with the bird’s eye view, I understood myself to be a tourist, looking out from the inside. It was here I caught the fear that traveled, clung to me like the stink of a campfire.
We started at the sound of a screen door slapping its wooden frame, hinges vibrating. Kevin’s shadow melted from wall to floor to wall; it was leaner than he was, and longer. He called Tara’s name, waited, called again. Just out of sight, his voice was a man’s voice, and without patience.
Tara stayed still beside me, her breath thick and heavy as someone sleeping. I felt an accordion wheeze in my knees. I wobbled toward the splintered banister, praying against a creak that, mercifully, did not come.
Peering down, I imagined each globe of fading light in the foyer as the lantern above the encyclopedic sea monster’s brow. I envisioned it lurking in every darkened doorway, listening for us, too. So ugly and quiet. So hungry. I hated that fish, but I felt sympathy for it, too: forever behind its own light, and never quite within it.
Katherine Fallon received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Meridian, Passages North, Permafrost, Colorado Review, and Foundry, among others. Her chapbook, The Toothmakers’ Daughters, is available through Finishing Line Press. She teaches in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, and shares domestic square footage with two cats and her favorite human, who helps her zip her dresses. She and her favorite bread recipe can be found at katherinefallon.com, and she is reachable on Instagram @ghostelephants.