At night she could hear him wandering the house. Her brother. The boy who claimed to be her brother. The boy who had disappeared and now returned. His feet were light against the floor, almost like he was barely touching at all.
The house was filled with doors and mirrors. The mother was always installing a door or hanging a mirror. She put them in places where neither needed to be. There were doors for every entrance and every exit to every room and at least one mirror on each wall. She even installed a door in the middle of the upstairs hall, a door older than the others and more ornate, bisecting perfectly for no reason at all the long shadowy corridor, dividing her bedroom from the other two. It had four detailed panels depicting in relief the capture and death of some animal that looked like a dog but wasn’t a dog. It had an opaque blue glass knob.
Safe in her own room, behind her own closed door, in the darkness, she could hear the sounds of passage coming closer or moving farther and farther away, the slow creaking of hinges, the deliberate click of the latch, becoming almost unrecognizable, just one more whisper in the ever murmuring house. I am awake, she would think without sitting up or even opening her eyes. I am awake.
She decided to make a list. She wrote the following things.
He smells different.
He does not look at Mom when she talks.
He looks at other things for too long.
His fingernails are always dirty.
Things = walls, the woods, squirrels outside, his hands.
He smells sharp.
She wrote these things in a green notebook with a happy orange cat on it. At first she kept it under her pillow, then she kept in her sock drawer. Then she decided to move it every day. She woke up early and found the new place and hid it. Then she wrote the name of the location on a scrap of paper and swallowed it. When she wrote, she said the name of the place over and over to herself. When she ate the paper, she closed her eyes.
He killed a bird. I watched him do it. The bird was soft and tiny. It was not brand new but it was not old. It was in between. He did it with his hands. The bird would not stop chirping. Something was wrong with it. It was in the tall grass. It was nestled there. He scooped it up. I could not see what was wrong with it. He scooped and kissed it. Its chirping was terrible. He closed his hands around it and squeezed. He squeezed slowly. He squeezed gently.
Then one night he crawled in bed with her. He was there when she woke, his eyes on her. His strange and opaque eyes. You’re cold, he said. She didn’t say anything. I had a bad dream, he said. Oh, she said. He put his arm around her and they stayed like that for a little while. Then he said, I was following this dog into the woods. It was one of those small dogs with really large heads. The kind that looks like an old man. A man that got so old he became a dog. This dog had escaped the house, he said, and it was his responsibility to bring it back. If he didn’t there would be consequences, undefined yet dire. For the dog was a responsibility. It was something terrible bequeathed to them, something they had to satisfy. So they kept it in the cellar and fed it odd bits of meat and didn’t call it anything at all. But the woods were a different story. In the woods it was docile. He said: when I lagged behind it would wait for me to catch up. I began to feel that it had something in store for me. It was going to tell me something. It became clear to me that it was going to tell me something important about the house and its captivity. Eventually I found it in a grove. An elegant grove. An elegant grove? she said. But when I reached down to pet it, he replied, a gesture I knew would get it talking, I found myself sticking my hand in the knothole of a log. Then I woke up. He gave her a knowing look. That’s it? she said. Yeah, he said. For a little while longer they lay there. His arm felt heavy on her chest. His breathing was deep and she thought he was asleep. But then suddenly he said, When I woke up I remembered playing near the woods on vacation. Where we saw grown-ups moving slowly through the woods, dressed like they were going to church. Remember? he said. Yes, she said, though she didn’t remember this at all.
But there was also another girl and it was the girl who said it. She was tall and thin with wispy hair and large eyes. She liked green popsicles and let the juice drip on to her hand without cleaning them. They didn’t know where she came from. One day she just appeared.
They were in the backyard. They weren’t really playing, but they weren’t separate either. She was digging up plants, pulling them right out of the ground, roots and all. She liked how at first it was hard and then suddenly it was easy. She liked the feeling of the tearing free. Sometimes, she imagined she was the plant and it satisfied her. The brother didn’t look at her when she did this. He was busy doing things brothers did.
The girl stood at the edge of the grass and watched them.
Are you new? the brother asked.
No, she said.
Do you want to play? the brother asked.
I don’t know, she said.
The brother shrugged. The girl continued to stare. The dirt from the plant’s roots fell lightly onto her arm. She carefully rubbed it into her skin.
Later she and the girl were friends. It happened like this: She was in her room, playing with her dolls. It wasn’t going very well. There were too many of them and it was hard to tell what they wanted from her. She pushed them around desultorily. The girl was at the door. How long had she been there? She didn’t cross the threshold. For a while all she did was stare. You’re doing it wrong, the girl said finally. She didn’t say anything. You need at least one more to play “End of the World,” the girl said. This shocked her. She didn’t think she was playing anything. She looked around. Here, the girl said and entered the room. She arranged the dolls on the bed and they sat on the floor. They stared at the dolls and the dolls stared at them. Now we’re ready, the girl said. See?
The mother thought the girl was a school friend and they let her believe it. My goodness, the mother said, just look at you! She took an orange dishrag to the girl’s face and wiped it brusquely. There, the mother said, satisfied.
When the girl stayed overnight, they would tell stories about melancholy ghosts and watch the brother in secret. This was not an easy thing to do. The brother was sullen and clandestine. Usually he was in the basement. In the basement it was cool and damp and there were stacks of old books and too many chairs and shelves with porcelain animals and clocks that did not work. She did not like it. It smelled musty. It was under the ground. Who likes to be under the ground? Crawling things, that’s who. But when the girl was there they went down anyway. They snuck down the staircase on their hands and knees, whispering admonitions to each other as they went. The girl always went first. They always peered around the corner to see.
One night, they saw him talking to himself. He stood in different places and said things in different voices. Sometimes he was agitated, sometimes he was calm. At one point it seemed like he was choking. He grabbed his own throat and his eyes got big and he sank to his knees. His eyes closed. He slumped to the ground. He was going to be dead, she thought excitedly. Dead, dead, dead. But he didn’t stay there at all. He got up and then did other things, spoke in other voices. She didn’t really see him do these other things. She just stared at the spot where he had lain.
Does he always do that? the girl asked, after they had crawled back upstairs. They were in the kitchen, eating cereal out of big bowls.
What? she said.
Talk to himself like that.
I don’t know.
He does different things, she said.
Like what? the girl said.
I don’t know, she said and put a spoon in her mouth. He’s always doing something, she said after she swallowed.
The girl glared at her a little. Clearly she was unhappy with the answer. For a while they scraped their big bowls in silence.
He didn’t used to, she said, quietly. I don’t think he did. I can’t remember. I want to, but I can’t.
The girl looked at her thoughtfully. Do you feed them? she asked, finally.
She looked at the girl.
Your memories? the girl said. Do you feed them?
She wanted to say yes, but she didn’t know what it would mean if she did.
Here, the girl said. She took her by the hand and they went into the mother’s room. For a little while the girl looked in some of the porcelain dishes that waited on the mother’s darkly burnished bureau. The dishes had tops that resembled the heads of different, delicate flowers. She opened them one by one. She reached into one and fished around. Its top was a swirling pink rose. Here, she said, pulling out a single needle and holding it between her fingers.
Give me your hand, the girl demanded.
It’s important, the girl said.
She gave the girl her hand. The girl held it gently. She caressed it with her thumb and forefinger. See? she said. Then she quickly stabbed the pad of her index finger with the pin.
Ow, she cried out.
Shhh, the girl said and then squeezed the finger hard. Shhh. A small dollop of blood emerged from the pinprick. A red pearl.
You have to feed them, the girl said. If you want them to come. You have to feed them.
Meanwhile, in the living room, the brother sat with impunity in an antique chair. The mother knelt beside him and rested her head upon his lap. Her eyes closed.
The room was dark in the way it was always dark—shadowy, cavernous, unpronounced. Inside, objects were waiting. When little, she would stand at the threshold of the room and peer. Her brother told her that inside the room was a witch and if you stopped long enough in the center of the room the witch would appear and spirit you away to her nest underneath a lake to feed your fingers, one by one, to her hatchlings. But she could only take you if you believed that she was real.
In a gesture both gentle and aggressive he brushed the mother’s hair, stopping intermittently to pull long gray strands out of the brush and carefully place them in his pocket.