Fiction - The Wormwood Collective, Absinthe Literary Review

The Darkening
fiction by
Beth Hahn
 
 

I will try to describe this to youwhat I feel, who I have become: I see this space, this imaginary territory, as being physically analogous to a maze. It is a deep and verdurous impasse.  I have created something impenetrable out of an underbrush of psychological shadows. But I have tangible proof, evidence if you will, of the way in which this all began. There were the phone calls, and more recently, the photograph. These serve as landmarks to both the beginning and the end of my solitary descent.

At first I thought the calls were impersonal, an accident. When they came more frequently I began to suspect something different. Everything was different before I found the photograph.       

I used to believe that history was linear—that life occurred on a sort of timeline that couldn’t be tampered with. But now I doubt that. Things are more extreme, more sensitive to atmosphere. I stay in my room a great deal.  

It shouldn’t be so complex, my roommates say, when they ask me to come out: Please, Lauren, please come out. We want to talk to you. We’re worried. They have tried to convince me all together, standing huddled in the narrow hallway, and then one at a time, separately, knocking softly and calling my name. I am surprised by how maternal they seem. But that’s beside the point since they’ve stopped asking. It’s been so long.

They push my mail, bundled with rubber bands, under the door. Sometimes they attach notes asking if I need anything.  Whether they’ve effectively given up or are planning something, I don’t know. They probably want me out of the house. Sometimes I can hear them whispering outside. I wonder what they think. They must have made excuses for me, believing my strange isolation too personal.

I live in a house constructed of man-made shapes. The stairway twists and turns like a backward S and casts bits of shadow and light between the railings. The world is darker at the top than at the bottom. I am forced to use electric light no matter what time of the day. The house has four stories, and the basement is like some deep catacomb. I live on the top floor on the north side.

The pathways of my maze began to open quietly, creeping and twisting through my mind in such a way that I failed to realize the density of their shadowy shape, the strange texture of their mass. I still thought I could leave the house. I always paused at the front door, worrying that if I left the house, I’d lose the picture, that I would misplace it. And what would I do then? One can't go back, scouring every inch of the city and saying to strangers, “Have you seen my photograph?”

It’s happened on occasion that I myself have found other people’s pictures lying abandoned on sidewalks. The images have a forlorn, lost feeling. They make me feel that whoever owned them didn’t care enough to put their pictures away in a safe place.

I found the photograph last fall in a book of poems that I checked out of the library. It’s a black and white Polaroid that’s slowly darkening. The black areas encroach upon the white, and every day the image grows more obscure. It’s not due to anything I’ve done to the surface of the picture, though surely I’ve mishandled it since I first came upon it. I used to press my thumb against the face as though to smear it away or into the wood grain of the table, to form one pattern within another. I wanted to blot it out.  It made me angry to come upon this lost image so many years later. But I don’t do that anymore as it made the expression more difficult to read. And since the face is half turned away from the lens, it is very important that I do not abuse it. 

The photograph has a life of its own. I expect it is supposed to be dissolving this way. I think it has a goal, a limit to how long it can sustain itself; it is an hourglass of sorts. What will happen when the entire thing goes black?

It has something to say to me, but I don’t know what just yet. I’ve kept the library book because I think it must be a clue. The book is by John Clare, and the picture fell out, so I don’t know which poem it marked. As far as I’m concerned, it could apply to any of them. I checked it out on a whim. James once said, “I know this man.” But of course he meant it in the abstract sense. Clare’s been dead for ages.

The photo is of James.

When we were eight, James looked at me. He made a gesture with his arm and announced, “I just caught you in my metal net.” He did not laugh. I have been fearful of this net. When he spoke to me about his trap I responded, “But it’s a very big net,” and ran away.

  

In the picture, James is standing in front of a building.  He looks a little stiff, posed. I am convinced that I’m unfamiliar with the place. When I found the picture, I could still see his surroundings but since then all has become indistinct in the dark dilution that is taking place. I thought the building might be Victorian because its lines were heavy and pale and made of marble or some other light stone. Worked over and into the surface, the geometric botanical type of detailing was obvious—arches with white and black edges—ridged with unintelligible starts and stops. Between the stone was brick.

“Hey, you down there. Up here.” He is lying on his stomach, looking down at me from a tree house. His face is red. He drops a rope ladder toward me.

“You-hoo, hey you,” he whistles, “Come up.” 

I have been zigzagging through suburban backyards. It is winter. Night is descending and I’m late for something, I’ve forgotten what. There is snow on the ground and the blue light of television sets moves like waves across the yard. My boots make an empty noise in the snow.  I look up and say quickly, “Sorry, I can’t.” The ladder sways in front of me, brushing sometimes against my body, reminding me of the metal net.

“I saw you coming,” he says, “Oh, must’ve been, from ten yards. Not yards, yards, as in—what?” He rubs his red brow and than hits it, like a cartoon character. “Like feet yards!” He seems excited. “But backyards.”

“James,” a woman calls, her voice hesitant. “Come in now.” There is a pause as we look at one another.

“Coming,” he answers, still looking at me. “You’re in a hurry, Lauren Moore,” and then adds in a whisper, “Moran Lure.”

In another moment James is politely calling, “Mother, may I invite a friend to dinner?” He scrambles for the rope ladder. He pulls and pushes the top of it so that it moves around me. “You want to come to dinner?” he says as I step out of his reach.

“Sorry,” I say again. “I can’t.”

“Okay goodbye then.” He’s crouching at the edge of the tree house like a gargoyle, poised to begin his descent down the rickety ladder. He speaks without looking at me.

“Goodbye,” I respond uneasily and after a minute of looking at him, I take off, running.

“Sure you are, sure.” He yells, “Hey Moran Lure, it’s a big net.”

  

Five years later as I sit in my basement watching television, a ghost face appears in the window. I know it is James. I watch him with one eye from under my blanket. Metal net, he mouths, and vanishes as I stand to confront him. In rain, in snow, in summer, in winter, James is at my window, waiting just outside with his metal net.

  

In the photograph, the sun hits James’s face from an angle.  I only have one shoulder, his cheek, and the way his mouth is turned at one corner into a half smile. His hand is held up toward the camera—not to obscure—but to invite or to greet, I cannot tell which.  I can’t imagine who would have taken this photograph.  James seems too solitary a figure to pose for a  snapshot.

In the faded sunlight, I still have one of his eyes. He is squinting, or has just finished laughing about something. I stare into the eye. What is he saying? “Lauren, I am here” or “Where have you gone?” I have not seen him in ages.

   

Here is a postcard that came last year. I know it is from James now, though I didn’t at the time. Will you go with me through this sad non-identity? it says. The words are typed. On the front there is a holographic still from The Wizard of Oz. The characters are in the woods.  

It was James on the telephone.  

How did he find me?

I would like to show the photograph to someone, but who?  I could show it to them without any clue of what I’ve thought, of who I have become. I could pull myself up, one last time, tethering myself to their words, to their air. Through the vine-like depths of my maze I would ask, “What do you see?” That should sound normal.  It would be like any other question people ask at all hours of the day and night. What do you see? Look at me. What do you see? I am afraid though. I am afraid that someone might say, “I see nothing” and then move away, leaving me to silently drop back down into darkness. I’m also afraid that, when I wake up in the morning, the photo will be black, gone—that I will never be able to retrieve it.

I see James so it hardly matters what others might see if they look. So I stay with it, all the while asking myself questions.

    

Maybe it is good to be alone, to listen to what has gone by.  Maybe I should not fight it. 

Well, I have stopped fighting. I simply live. I have pared myself down. I’m waiting to find out what it is that he wants. Once I know, maybe it will all end.

The photo is gray and dull now, only one eye discernible, but it seems shiny, as if there is a preserving solution fixed to the matte paper. I lie on my bed and hold the picture close to my reading light. I hold it sideways to see the surface and it seems unmarred.

  

The picture has gone black except for the eye. Now I know that something will happen, something must happen. I’m waiting for him to make his next move. I have a kitchen knife under my mattress for protection, though I won’t use it. I’m too weak. I can barely get up. There is ice on my windows and the telephone begins to ring downstairs as soon as my roommates leave the house. It rings all day long and into the night. It has occurred to me that it could be help. If I answer, it may be someone who could save me from James. But if I don’t confront him now he will continue to track me down, to put me back into the maze.

I lie here under my blankets. I cannot remember the last time I bathed. 

My essence is nothingness, it is fluff, air. Stripped of the skin of an inhabitable life, I realize how insubstantial I am. In here I am stone. I am made-up of elements and humors. I am a mummified version of humanity. Days and weeks and months wash into each other. Without appointments, time falters. My life becomes one long night in which I wait for James.

There is always my unopened mail. The postmarks carry the code of time.

Here is a letter. I pull back the adhesive sealing tentatively. The paper rustles as I unfold it. Every noise sounds sharp. I think I can even hear what the light sounds like downstairs as it moves in long strips across the floor in the afternoon. 

I recognize the handwriting, though I have never seen it before. It is James’s handwriting. The letter says: Lauren Moore, Can your life be led to join the living with the dead? I think maybe it can. Or is it, after all, such a big net? 

I can hear James in the basement. He is on the stairs and is moving up and into the darkness. He is coming to get me. I can hear him breathing just outside.    

From here I can see the keyhole, and the slips of metal that make a hinge. Beyond is my maze—cumbersome, unexplored, fragrant. It is alive with a supple wind. It is dark there and deciduous, the leaves make heavy beds of themselves.

I see past my maze—to its formative nest—the place where it eddied and crept into the once shiny exterior of my childhood and then opened for me, its hugeness engulfing even its own pathways.  I felt them—those weedy tendrils that caught and wrapped the slightly ajar, backward-watching places in my mind.     

So I lie here trapped like a lame mouse as the door swings open, my hand reaching for the knife, then suddenly withdrawing. I know now what James has known all along.

He will silence me.   

  

© 2005 Beth Hahn

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