Thursday, May 17, 2007
This is a story I wrote some years ago. It was my interpretation at the time of a ghost story, a form I have always loved. The ending was never satisfying to me and perhaps one day I'll buckle down and do a rewrite.
Much has been said about me in the newspapers but the fact is I am a quiet girl of twenty-seven years and not in any way extraordinary. I have never found human company, save that of my father, who is dead now, of any use to me but this is only habit. I do not think I am strange or that I should be set apart from the rest of human kind. I am not of extraordinary intelligence. I most assuredly was not the originator of my father's later theories on exotic particles as some newspapers irresponsibly claim. My knowledge of Physics is rudimentary-- my conversations with my father were purely superficial as regards to his works. I am simply proud to be the daughter of Lloyd Carson Mac Andrews, discoverer of the V-Particle, which was named for his wife the late Viola Webster MacAndrews, the stage actress.
Currently I am residing with Mrs. Clarke, an old friend of my departed mother, in Charlesburg. Charlesburg seems very large to me but Mrs.Clarke tells me it is only a mid-sized town and nowhere close to being a city. I am not familiar with towns and cities. Before my father's death I had only ever been in one town and that was North Barre, which was barely more than a village. I walked into North Barre from Pantium, our house, once a month to visit the library and buy groceries that we had forgotten to ask the grocer to deliver to us. Pantium sits on a hill, overlooking North Barre. It takes a good twenty minute's to walk into town. Pantium's drive itself is a quarter of a mile long. Our nearest neighbors used to be the Clarkes' who lived about a mile down the hill but they moved to Charlesburg a few months after my mother died.
The grocer's son, Theodorus, came with a box of household goods and a week's worth of groceries every Friday afternoon at four o'clock. If my father or myself required anything that the stores in North Barre did not stock we would order it by telephone and have it delivered by post. The mailman, Mr. Ryder and Theodorus were the only ones to come to Pantium for many years. The townsfolk have an intense dislike for the house and my mother's friends gradually stopped coming after the first year post-mortum. I have a feeling they disliked the house as well and none of them ever stayed past dark if they could help it.
The house once had a different name long ago when my mother was still alive. It was the name of a character in a play. The playwright, who was in love with my mother, had written the role especially for her. This was the role that made my mother famous. She named the house the day my father took her there after their wedding. Before my parents entered the house together for the first time, my mother broke a bottle of champagne on the front door.
I'm the one who changed the house's name the day of my mother's burial. I was seven at the time and I was in the study, lying on the floor, reading an old Harlequin and Pierrot picture book I'd taken down from the library shelves. Mr. and Mrs. Clarke had dressed my father in black and had driven him to the chapel. Mrs. Clarke had brought me a black dress that she had dyed herself-- it had been her niece's blue school uniform-- and had made me to put it on. It was made of wool and was itchy and uncomfortable in the damp weather. Mrs. Clarke hadn't been able to force me to go to the funeral because my father had said that it was all right if I wanted to stay home. So they left me alone in the black dress on the floor of the study and I read my Pierrot picture book while my mother was lowered into the ground and the first shovel-full of dirt landed on her coffin.
A story in the picture book featured a clown named Pantium. He wore an olive colored half-mask upon his face and a jacket and full trousers with a braid of green material along the seams. He carried a large leather purse and a dagger. He was known as The Intriguer and though the book is gone now, burnt to ashes in a fire, I can still recall his words to Harlequin, "I have a special weakness for quarrels and I always need at least two nice, tender young girls to satisfy me. And if murdering one man is not enough I'd just as lief kill two. You may remember, perhaps, the little tiff I once had when I gutted one man as easily as pricking a bladder, and broke the bones of another as I would crush a bean."
This, our house, was now to be the protector of my father and myself. I felt Pantium would be a good protector and when I uttered the name Pantium aloud, sitting there on the floor of the library, the house seemed to answer. I could hear it answer because I was the only one in the house that morning. The walls resettled themselves, the furniture darkened a shad, and the light faltered as the house heard me utter its name. It was asserting its new identity. Or rather, I believe, it was casting off an identity that had never suited it and with relief showing for the first time its true shape, its true color.
Pantium was designed and built according to the specifications of my father for my mother as a wedding gift. My mother never liked Pantium, even though then, of course, it was not called Pantium. I remember her complaining of the house's dampness and darkness. She'd wanted something along the lines of an Italian villa but my father had, in misguided devotion, modeled the house after my mother's childhood home, a gothic Victorian, believing that he would be giving her a slice of childhood comfort and security. My mother's childhood home, unfortunately, was something of an architectural horror and offered nothing in the way of comfort or security. To most people this would have been obvious, but my father was of a scientific mind and had no eye for design or architecture. He had no taste for beauty other than that he found on my mother's face.
Pantium seemed destined from the very beginning of construction to be an off-balanced house, one that few people could make use of as a home. The architect had in mind the French Mansard style that was popular in this country after additions were made to the Louvre in Paris during the third quarter of the 19th Century. Departing from this he added a main tower, a sort of stylized anthropomorphic being and a hexagon at the right-hand corner of the building whose roof was faceted like a gargantuan gem. The fenestration was narrow and twined and ornamentation was kept to a minimum. Later, in an attempt to add some sort of beauty or delicacy to the facade, my father added an arcaded piazza and a cavernous portal but this only served to render the house more hideous. The portal looked like the entrance to a mausoleum and the piazza hardly accorded with the heavy walls pierced with their narrow windows.
My father worked most of the day in his study. Journalists have asked me what I did all those days, all those years, alone in those rooms. Really, in retrospect, I suppose sixteen years is a long time to live in such isolation, seeing so few people, leaving the house so seldom, but when weeks are so very much like one another, when small rituals develop which give each day of the week its own particular flavor, when the only measure of the passage of time are the seasons in their repeating progressions, time flows easily and my father and I accepted it to the point of being unaware of it. There were daily chores and weekly ones. Certain rooms, for instance the tower rooms on Tuesdays, were used on certain days. When the chores were completed I had time to read, or play the piano that was in the music room on the first floor, or mend my mother's clothing that I wore, preferring them to the items in the catalogues I had stopped subscribing to, or cook. When I was twelve I had attempted to grow a garden in Pantium's grounds, but its soil was not fertile and the seeds I planted rotted in the ground.
My father subscribed to all the important scientific journals and kept quite up to date on the latest theories and experiments, as one can do in Physics even if one never leaves one's home for sixteen years. I do admit that I read the journals once my father was through with them. I even read transcripts of conferences his former colleague, Dr. George J. Williams, would send to him every month or so.
My father and I discussed articles but I can't say I influenced or added in any way to, his theories on exotic particles. Yes, I am proud that my father's work contributed significantly to the creation of the first American particle accelerator but Lloyd Carson MacAndrews was not interested in recognition, nor was he particularly interested in what effect his work might have had on the world as a whole.
Many words have been used by journalists and colleagues to describe my father: an eccentric, a recluse, a genius, a hermit. I feel he saw the world differently. He had little interest in the world most people live in and perceive. Language made up of words and letters and sentences was not his primary way of seeing the world. To him, a cup was not a cup so much as it was a geometric shape, a collection of particles, a world of photons, an equation. Perhaps the reason he choose not to live in society was that he saw himself becoming less like other people, even other scientists, and maybe even less human. As long as my mother was alive he had some link to human society, his love for her, his love for her and interest in who she was and what she did and what she thought brought him out of his equations.
I am nothing like my mother. Whereas she was fair and luminous, I am dark and moody. I am contemplative and melancholy and my looks are and always have been plain to the point where when I was a young girl and would look in the mirror I felt I had no outstanding feature, nothing that was altogether uniquely mine. I imagined that this stranger looking back at me, so anonymous looking, was like a girl someone found dead in the streets of a foreign city whom no one could identify. Each time I looked in the mirror I was surprised because there was nothing I could have remembered my face by. I heard my mother tell some friends once, "Yes she is an unremarkable girl. Lord knows who will marry her. I'm afraid she spends too much time alone, dreaming." And this was so even before Pantium closed itself, more or less, to the outside world.
My first week in Charlesburg I couldn't sleep. The Clarkes own a large house on the main street, just two streets down from the post office and the bar across the way. I wasn't used to the noise of the cars, nor was I used to strange voices floating into the house from outside or from the next room. Many people came to visit the Clarkes that week. They all wanted to meet me. We would sit in the drawing room and they would try very hard not to ask me any questions about my father. Really, it was him they were interested in and not I. A few of them couldn't help themselves and they would blurt out questions such as, "But what was your father really working on?" "Is it true that he had a degenerative disease that ate his skin?" "Why did your father really become a recluse?" Finally Mrs. Clarke had Joanne, her daughter who is living with them, answer the door and tell visitors that they would have to wait until I was settled and more comfortable with my surroundings before they could meet me. This offered some relief. For one thing I am not used to socializing and polite conversation. I have forgotten what my mother had taught me. I also dislike the ridiculous rumors the townspeople have made up about my father.
That first week I covered my arms and legs with bruises from walking into doorways and furniture. I had become entirely used to Pantium's measurements. I have measured the doors here and they are two and a half inches wider than the doors of Pantium. The third night I was in Charlesburg I rose thinking I would go to the third floor balcony for some fresh air and to count meteors. I have always had difficulty sleeping and when I lived in Pantium I would often pass away the early morning hours thus.
I wandered about the second floor a good fifteen minutes before Mrs. Clarke emerged from her room and asked me what I was looking for.
"The stairs to the third floor," I told her.
"But my dear, there is no third floor in this house."
I must have not been fully awake because I then told her, "Yes, in the
She answered, "There is no tower. You are thinking of Pantium. You no longer live there. Remember Pantium has burnt to the ground."
I pushed her out of my way then, thinking I saw the door to the balcony over her shoulder and it was only Mrs. Clarke and Joanne, who had stepped into the hallway that minute, pulling with all their strength that kept me from going out the window. The Clarkes told Dr.Bryant they were afraid it might have been a suicide attempt.
I've heard Mrs. Clarke say, "God knows, Violet was a good friend of mine but think of the responsibility. If anything happens to her or if she does anything foolish I don't want it happening in this house. She is a grown woman even if she has not been taught to behave properly. I will do all I can for the girl, for dear Violet's sake, but I can't bear having her in the house much longer."
I've begun to plan what my future will be like. I will have to find some way to make a living. My father did not trust banks and kept his money in a safe in his study. All of the money and bonds in the safe were left to the research sector of the university he once taught at. There were also my mother's jewels. The Clarkes asked me about them the day after the fire. I told them I didn't know where they were, which was the truth in part because when I was eleven I had buried them, individually, all over the property. I've long ago forgotten exactly where. Mrs. Clarke was not satisfied with my answer because every few days she asks, "But you must have some sort of idea what happened to them?"
In fact I know where one of them is but I am wary about removing it. I think it might be bad luck to do so. There is an oak tree at the end of Pantium's drive. Lester Smart, a rich society bachelor with a fondness for acting in amateur productions, turned the curve too quickly in the coupe one bright September afternoon and plunged the car right into the tree. Lester died instantly but my mother who had been sitting beside him in the car bled to death on the way to the hospital. The same week I buried the jewels, I took a ruby necklace she often wore to evening parties and thrust it into the crevasse of the tree.
I am an excellent cook. My father always complemented me on my muffins that I baked every Friday morning and I would save a few for Theodorus and he liked them as well. Perhaps Pantium's kitchen is still standing and I could clear out the pieces of broken ceiling and charred table and chairs and maybe the gas stove can be made to work again and I could bake muffins and bread. Each day I could walk with a basket full of muffins into North Barre and sell them in the square. But Mrs. Lyons does the baking for North Barre and it would not be right for me to start selling muffins when she has been the sole supplier of baked goods for so many years. Besides, my poor father would not want me to stoop to the level of common merchant, not with my level of education. It isn't that I am overly proud but I'm afraid the townspeople might gloat to see what the daughter of Lloyd Carson MacAndrews has been reduced to.
I shouldn't expect to return to Pantium. They tell me it is unlivable and reconstruction impossible. Mrs. Clarke tells me exhorbent amounts of money would have to be spent and that no one in their right mind would want to go to the trouble. I haven't seen the house since the night of the fire when they led me away because I was becoming hysterical and they were afraid I might harm myself . I don't remember who it was exactly-- a man and a woman, perhaps a fireman and his wife. They each held one of my arms and led me across the field and under the poplar trees that line the drive and out to the main road into town. They held me firmly by the arms and spoke not a word the entire time. Then I was at the police station and the couple had disappeared and an officer let me sit on a bench until Mrs. Clarke came to get me.
The firemen and townspeople spent a long time looking for my father and when they couldn't find him in the smoking ruin that was by then Pantium, they assumed his body lay charred and buried under the collapsed roofing. Mrs. Clarke broke the news to me gently while Joanne held my hand. She told me that as soon as it was light enough a group of men would dig through the debris and find his body.
This is when I told her that my father hadn't died in the fire, that he'd been dead since Tuesday last (it was then Friday morning) and that I'd buried him in the back garden, about ten meters from the entrance of the forest which lines the back of the house.
"Well why didn't you tell anybody?" she asked and then gave a quick look at Joanne.
"I was going to today. Friday is the day I walk into town," I answered.
"Why did you want to wait until Friday? Why not tell people immediately?"
"What good would that do? No one could do anything about it."
And then Mrs. Clarke explained to me the matter of a decent Christian burial and the forms and documents that had to be filled out. She spoke to me as though I were simple or a child. Really I knew about all those things, although I stood there and dutifully nodded, and I knew what I should have done, but when I found my father, sitting there at his desk as he had all my life, rigid and eight nails curled into the desk, the thumbs balanced in the air, like a gunfighter. I knew he wouldn't have wanted people touching him, even dead. He wouldn't have wanted strangers, entering his study, moving furniture aside, examining his wide-eyed stare. I didn't close his eyes when I buried him. I knew he wanted to see everything: the worms sliding above him in the dirt, a beetle's antennae brushing his eyelash, perhaps a ruby tiara glowing, out of the corner of his eye. Observing, under the earth, until the eyeballs hardened and turned yellow as custard, and then black. Then that would be the end. But perhaps that is more by death then his. Perhaps I have imposed my death on him.
Mrs. Clarke had them dig him up and cremated.
"Butter?" I asked Joanne with false horror.
Joanne giggled nervously, "No no no. They burn the remains to ashes. Mother says it’s the cleanest and least expensive way. The Baptists approve."
My mother was born in Savanah Georgia and came from a well-known Southern family. My father dismissed organized religion completely. In the few conversations we had on the subject he said that the human tendency to invent an all-powerful being to bargain and plead with was ridiculous. He quoted Einstein, "'The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.' We scientists are merely charting the waters, feeling our way through a dark room as best we can. It's all there only we have to figure out ways of seeing it. That's the language of science. It's the order and beauty of it which I worship, the reason I've dedicated my life to charting it out."
He refused to be baptized and the wedding took place in a friend's house, a semi-religious ceremony conducted by a pastor. My mother's family never forgave her and I think they pretty much disowned her.
A doctor checked my father's body before letting Mrs. Clarke cremate it. He said that my father had died of a heart attack. The journalist began coming around after the body was unearthed. There was talk that I had killed him. They all wondered why I'd buried the body back behind the house and didn't tell anyone about it until after the fire. They even tried to work up a story about Theodorus and I being lovers and wanting the house and money for ourselves. The police questioned me but they were very polite and once the doctor's report appeared they left me alone
Theodorus came once a week to deliver groceries. I had the check ready for him, I invited him to have tea and muffins. We talked about the weather, the next scheduled meteor shower, if anything was wrong around the house--plumbing, cracks in the ceiling, electrical or heating problems--I would tell Theodorus and he would fix it. Working on the house, however, made him nervous and he never liked to stay on the property too long. Perhaps he never got used to the idiosyncrasies of the house.
Every once in a while furniture would change rooms all on its own. I would then have to ask Theodorus to help me move it back to its proper place. I would not have mentioned it to him but sometimes the pieces were quite heavy: bookcases, trunks, sculpted busts. I should have told him that I simply wanted to redecorate but when it happened the first time I was only sixteen and didn't think of it. I'd gotten so used to Pantium's particularities that it didn't occur to me that other people would be surprised and disturbed by them.
These sorts of things began happening after my mother's death. I remember a spring morning when Mr. and Mrs. Clarke visited the house. We were all sitting having tea in the library, and the room began to shake violently causing the books to fall off their shelves and the teacups to break on the floor. We assumed it was an earthquake until we opened the door and found Louisa, the maid, dusting quietly in the hall. Upon asking her a few questions we discovered that she hadn't felt any disturbance and oddly, though she was in the very next room, she hadn't heard any of the noise from the falling books and porcelain. When the Clarkes left that afternoon, it marked the beginning of the end of any sort of social life for myself and my father. There were similar occurrences when other visitors came to the house. After a few months of this people ceased coming altogether. Louisa even gave her notice after seeing a rose from a rosebush outside the kitchen window bend and go through the glass of a closed window, intact. I didn't bother replacing her.
Once Louisa left, the rooms stopped shaking for good and all I had to contend with was the occasional wandering chair and footsteps and animal sounds at night. My father had made a half-hearted attempt to register and measure the occurrences but eventually gave up saying, "Science is not always the appropriate tool for understanding." He was therefore uninterested.
Theodorus was the only male my age that I saw regularly and the journalists' conjecture that we could have been romantically involved, I admit, is a feasible one. I did hold certain feelings toward him when I was sixteen or so but I soon realized that he was only a village boy and absolutely ordinary though kinder and certainly more decent than the other North Barre boys, the ones who used to call me names when they saw me walking down the main Street. I tried to educate him and I did manage to interest him in Astronomy; at least I was able to teach him the basics. Still, he was a boy that was satisfied with the thought of one day taking over his father's store and having a house of his own and marrying a girl from the village. Despite all this, something might have developed between us as I believe he did have a fondness for me, if it hadn't been for the man in the woods.
I had caught a glimpse of him once when I was thirteen. I had played in the woods daily during childhood and had never encountered more then a ferret or a fox disappearing behind a tree but at thirteen while picking mushrooms (which grow in great abundance at Pantium), I came upon a man reclining against an oak tree. At first I thought the man was resting and I saw what I took to be a scarlet handkerchief about his neck. When I approached I realized that the handkerchief was in reality a great gash in a red crescent moon across the throat. Blood was filtering into the fibers of his white shirt and he couldn't have been dead very long. I had recognized the man as Pete, North Barre's resident drunk. He wandered the streets and the village girls were warned not come too close to him.
I turned and retraced my steps down the path and back to Pantium. That afternoon, as my father and I were taking tea on the second floor of the tower, I happened to look out the window and in the fading twilight saw a light through the trees. A figure was moving, barely perceptible but it was late November and the trees were bare. I could see him, his back hunched over a shovel, digging and knew at once he was burying the body of the town drunkard.
A few months passed and then, one Spring morning, I came upon five lovely little girls dancing in a circle. One of them, a plump rosy-cheeked cherub, extended her arm, inviting me to join them. I took a step forward but then a man emerged from the forest and warned me against joining the circle ("They will not let you out and you will go mad.") He was tall and muscular and wore a wolf skin across his shoulders. I could tell he knew that I recognized him from the night I saw him digging.
I saw him but once after this encounter. He lay on the marble platform of a kiosk (which I have never since found though my searches for it have been numerous). His head rested upon his hands and he appeared to be playing a game of some sort. I hid among the surrounding trees and approached quietly. It was a game of chess. The pieces were fashioned of black and white ivory and the sunlight speckled them through the shadows of the overhanging trees. I stood watching him until dusk whereupon I was forced to leave in order to fix dinner for my father. That night I began a series of dreams in which the man in the woods figured. These dreams took me down, through the ages, to ancient Abysinnia and a palace where he was master. Tigers and lions were kept in cages on the garden hillocks, slaves wept in their quarters, and I observing it all from a balcony were the posts were carved of human bone into the shapes of chess pieces would hear his steps in the room behind me. Then I would feel his hands about my waist, moving up to my neck, bending me forward.
I awoke from these dreams twisted in my sheets, damp under the arms, between the breasts and thighs and behind the knees. I had a feeling of having traveled far in the night. I lay exhausted.
I was dreaming such a dream the night of the fire. I was sleeping in my mother's bed, which was something that I had never done before. I woke in the middle of the night to find a candle lit on the table beside the bed. I rose and stepped out onto the balcony which overlooks the front lawn. It was a warm night with a fair breeze. The forest was obscured by the jutting facets of the Hexagon. It was then I heard the soft laughing behind me, the muffled voices which I recognized as those of the amateur actor and my mother's. And, as if I were seven again, I thought, "They cannot see me because of the curtain. I must wait quietly until they leave." Everything was happening at once: I heard, in the distance at the end of the drive the sound of a car smashing into a tree, I saw a lamp swinging and a figure on the lawn below, the laughter and the sound of crisp sheets as a body is thrown upon them, the footsteps behind me and the hands on my waist. . .
There were trucks and people crowding the driveway. Villagers pointed delightedly at the flames in the upper story windows; small boys climbed the poplars, trying to throw stones onto the roof. A man in a fireman's uniform spotted me as a drifted through the crowd. I felt their hands sliding up my forearms and I pushed them all away, shouting at them to leave me alone. And then the couple, each grabbing a shoulder and leading me away.
Perhaps I can go to Pantium tomorrow and find one of my mother's dresses. Perhaps the trunk I kept them in has protected them from the fire. I can hang the dress on a laundry line and air it in the brisk autumn wind to draw out the smell of smoke. I can ask Joanne to take me to the Charlesville Hunt Club and introduce myself to the prosperous men there as the daughter of Lloyd Carson MacAndrews. And maybe if he finds the dress pretty, and maybe if he has heard of the great physicist, and maybe if he likes the idea of touching a suspected murderess' neck lightly along the jawbone, he will rebuild Pantium for me.