Friday, December 6, 2019

Family Property by R. C. Capasso

An Ohio hermit plucks up the courage to meet her solitary neighbour, and finds out the dark reason for her solitude; by R. C. Capasso.

When I first moved to Westline Road, I didn't intend to meet neighbors. I wanted to be alone. But when I saw her and realized she was a woman or a girl, alone like me, I thought maybe we should at least be on speaking terms. Woman to woman. In case something happened. But I didn't expect or intend for anything to happen.

I saw my neighbor first from a distance. The way she dressed, that baggy coat hanging to her knees, shapeless pants, thick boots, and a tight knit cap, she could have been a short man. And I would have guessed old. She moved so sleepily, not like someone young. But with all that yard work every day it couldn't be a terribly old person, I thought. And although she was small, she couldn't be a child. The authorities would never let a child live that alone.

I tried not to think about my neighbor. I was there for solitude, after everything else that had happened. Yet my eyes kept turning toward the other yard.

I bought the house for next to nothing. It came unfurnished, except for some rusting tools in an old shed, and for a while I was tempted to leave it entirely empty. Nothing to lose. But even I needed a place to sit and eat, somewhere to sleep. From a thrift store I bought an old dinette with two chairs, knowing the second chair was unneeded. The woman in the thrift store talked me into a couch and easy chair, because she wanted the sales space for something better. And it was for charity, so I agreed. The different pieces of furniture sat uneasily, scattered around the house like travelers in a bus station avoiding eye contact with one another.

I had breakfast every day at the dinette in front of a picture window opening onto a rambling back yard; it was just weeds and overgrown gardens that the people before me had planted. To the east lay an immense tract of farmed land. No farmer ever appeared; it was that dull waiting mid-winter. Anyhow, the flattened fields had a silent professional competency about them; I just couldn't care about them. But my neighbor's land to the west was different. It looked wild, free. Like it could barely tolerate having been cut into a plot. Like it would never work for any owner.

By the time I made my small breakfast of cold cereal, my neighbor was always out working. She lived on the land, with the land. The coat and pants were brown gray like the trees and the dirt. I wouldn't have dared to step out into the countryside without wearing red or orange; every year there are stories about hunters shooting people in their backyards. But she blended like a doe, moving among the trees like something wild that belonged.

She always found something to do over there, even in an Ohio winter. Snow was no obstacle; she'd pull rocks out of the ground, drag fallen limbs, burn branches. I stiffened at the smell of the burning wood, but I watched the flames. I could see them behind my closed eyelids at night.

Maybe it was the fire that prompted me to go over. Once or twice I'd toyed with the idea of calling on my neighbor to introduce myself, but kept putting it off. There was never a visitor over there; hardly any cars ever passed on our road. I probably could have gone on watching forever. But one day she cut some vines and made a fire, and I sat glued in my seat, watching the flames in a marvelous harmony with the setting sun behind them. The crimson clouds and the sparking earth looked so much alike, it was as if the world agreed that it would be endurable to end in fire.

Then a movement in the figure caught my attention. The small blank face, at that distance just a pale half-moon under the cap, turned toward me. At that moment I knew it was a woman. I hesitated, like I'd been caught in some crime. Then, timidly, I raised my hand. I didn't know if the eyes could even see me through the glass, or if the sun just reflected it like a sheet of flame. The face looked my way for a minute, then turned toward the woods.

The two properties, the neighbor's and mine, are nearly identical. Westline, a dirt and gravel road, bounds them on the north, with deep woods beyond the road. My land and the neighbor's are long rectangular lots, deeper than they are wide. I'd never even walked my whole property. What did I care? The part facing the road on the north is "lawn," although not very smooth. Then come the two houses, sited at roughly the same distance from the road and in the same style: tall, dry, gaunt and gray, like two old sisters slightly estranged. Behind the houses lie more leaf-strewn grass, vegetable gardens with ragged dried stalks, sheds and some kind of arbor on the neighbor's land, scrubby field, and then more woods that just kept going. Young trees stand in the field, too; the woods are growing toward the houses, taking over the field.

My neighbor worked the land, but the woods captured the little figure every day. I looked over at my trees and thought about going out, but they were so quiet, so self-sufficient, I was afraid they'd do something like they do in old stories: whisper to each other and lead me in a circle till I was lost. It was easiest just to think of them as marking the end of my yard. But the neighbor went to the woods daily and returned like a child who'd been to see her mother. Maybe it was that strange yielding to the land that fascinated me and made me want to make contact.

The night of the fire I watched, my chair pulled back a little into the shadows after that one glance, almost afraid, almost hopeful that the figure would look back again. Another glance would have been an invitation to visit. It never occurred to me that the neighbor would come over to see me. There was a deeply silent, barely domesticated feel about the person, an aloneness that made the rest of the world seem superfluous.

The figure never looked back to my place. As the fire died, the sky darkened and the figure gazed fixedly at the woods. It was probably five o'clock, the sun setting early in winter. Too late to pay a visit, when people might be starting supper, but the urge to go over, just for a minute, suddenly compelled me. The figure threw a last vine onto the fire, gathered tools and headed toward the house. A few more minutes and she would be gone, disappeared. I hurried to get boots and a coat. Nerves or something twisted inside me, but I refused to stop.

I pulled open the back door and set off across the yard. This wasn't a community where people bothered with the front door. My neighbor had already made it inside, and I caught my breath as I stepped onto the land uninvited. I was trespassing. But once across the invisible property line I had to move forward, to get to the house and knock, speak. Being neighborly was my only excuse for touching the land.

I've always hesitated to knock on a stranger's door; I'm not one of those people perennially assured they'd be welcome. It wasn't that I was afraid of my neighbor, that small person tending a wintry garden. Who would fear such a little one? But the silence of that place waited, and who was I to break it?

The door was placed and fashioned just like my own, and both had clearly been repainted more than once; the surfaces had a thick, deadened look. I knocked and waited; I told myself I'd count to ten before leaving. In the silence a bird called close at my back, and the shock of sound rose and whipped through me. Seven, eight. A light came on, illuminating the curtained pane of glass and spilling out from a window onto the ground at my right. Like the light would fall in my own house. The door opened.

It was a woman. The coat and gloves were off, but the boots and the knit cap were still on. The small face stared blankly, but after a moment the woman stepped back and let me in. We mumbled greetings, I concerned with my coat, the woman reacting as in a dream, when a situation is bizarre but directs you with its apparent logic. Evidently aware of how greetings go, she offered me a seat, said her name was Ann, and suggested tea.

We were in a small, neatly kept kitchen, once again mirroring the floor plan in my house. I took the nearest chair by the window, my back to the door. Ann moved to the sink, filling a kettle. She had pulled off the stocking cap, revealing fine hair like a child's, soft brown. She still wore the big boots, a size or two too large. Her coat hung from a knob on the wall behind the door, work gloves sticking out of the pockets. Once it must have been a man's coat.

Ann turned from the stove and saw me in the chair. For an instant she froze, eyes large. Then the muscles of her face eased a bit, and she just gazed, as if measuring what it felt like to see someone sitting there. I held my breath. To move might startle her and she'd leap away like a deer.

I made small talk about the area, and Ann's brief neutral replies suggested that all talk was small to her. The tea was ready, and my tongue burned as I sipped rapidly. Drinking just one cup might prolong the visit beyond our abilities to sustain communication.

We fell into silence. It was time to go, to apologize for the interruption, to plead for the salvaging of some pretended roast in the oven back in my house. Instead, I asked a question. A rude question, and one, besides, for which I already had the answer. But my voice said, "Do you live alone?"

In the moment or two before Ann answered, I actually looked at her. Up till then I'd been studying the room, the teacups, my fingernails. Now I scanned Ann's face, the fine lines along the forehead, pale, no makeup, rimmed by a plain haircut she could have done herself. Impossible to tell her age. She could have been twenty or forty. Her voice was high and soft; somehow that stubborn gardener should have had a low, hoarse voice. But she sounded like a child when she answered.

"I live alone. My mother died a long time ago. My father died, too." She turned toward the woods with a flat expression. "You're sitting in his seat." But she didn't look over at me. "He sat there to watch the birds."

I barely moved my head to stare at the window. There had once been curtains or drapes, because the metal rods were still there, but the cloth had been removed to leave the glass unobstructed. Icicles hung along the eaves.

"The day is leaving." Ann spoke into the silence. "It looks back in long shadows, because it doesn't want to go."

A chill ran up my arms. People don't talk like that. Maybe the words were from a book, but they suggested that Ann might say anything. People who have visions might say or do anything. My throat closed, and Ann kept talking.

"I was cutting vines two years ago, too. You cut them in winter, so the sap won't bleed. They were all wild, grown up in the trees like snakes trying to get to the sky. They wrap around you when you cut them, and blackberry thorns climb up with them. They get in the young trees and bend them down. Of course, vines shouldn't be out among the trees anyhow. That was a mistake." A faint smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

"I hadn't cut them in years. Father was sick, and I had to stay in and care for him. I almost never got out." Suddenly a black bird alighted on the ground near the feeder. Ann glanced at it, then quickly returned her gaze to the woods.

"Father died in his bed. The same room where Mama died. But I don't remember her much."

Already I knew I couldn't leave. Ann was going to pull down her past and hack at it, trying to save something before it was choked.

"He was cruel to me. He said he loved me, but he didn't. He..." She paused for a moment, her eyes still locked on the woods where silver light drained away like water. "It was dirty."

My stomach settled into a knot. This was terrible, yet at least it was horribly normal, something that happens to so many. There were agencies for such nightmares. No wonder Ann seemed distant, estranged, as she kept talking.

"When he got older, he stopped coming to me. We had a truce, I guess. We stayed in the house together, but not in the same room much. If he came in, I walked out."

"Why didn't you leave?" My voice had a will of its own. And polite rules about discretion and privacy seemed pointless now, even cruel, because they would have signaled indifference when, truly, I felt myself caring.

Ann looked at me and seemed to make an effort to think back. "I tried, when I was little, but I didn't get far. He brought me back. Later, it didn't seem to matter. I had nowhere to go. And I wanted this land. I wanted the birds and the trees. I thought they would be mine." Her voice changed cadence, softened, as if she were talking about a lover. "Sometimes, if you go into the woods when the sun is shining, the light falls between the leaves and lands on your hand like a butterfly. The bark of the trees is gray and smooth, and when you touch it, when you kiss it, you can feel the life. But there's no heartbeat." She didn't smile, but there was a momentary easing around her eyes before her face darkened and grew older.

"When he got sick, I had to care for him, clean him. I didn't want to touch him again; it was almost like before. I did it, washing and feeding him, because they said I had to. But then finally one day he died. I found him, and then I just came in here and sat. It was sunny, and no one had touched the snow. Icicles hung all along the eaves, fine and strong. It was so beautiful, the light inside the ice. The world was so beautiful. I could finally go out in it again. I wanted my chest to open up and take in the cold air, because it had been so long since I'd breathed. The ground was there; I knew how it would feel under my feet. The light was there; it had been moving without me, while I was locked in with him."

Ann turned and switched off the red shaded lamp over the table. The room was thrown into darkness, and I gasped. The pale gray of the sky, veined with fine dark tree branches, drew our eyes.

"I can see the woods better when the light is off." Ann spoke softly. "The next day, when I went to cut the vines, I saw him. At first I wasn't even surprised, because he used to walk the woods so much. Then I remembered he was dead." A slight ripple in her voice seemed like an aftershock, a faint legacy of that great revelation. My chest could not lift to let in air.

"I was... afraid. I ran to the house and locked the door. As if he could be kept out of his own house! I watched him come through the woods and cross the snow, not marking it. Then he was here, at the table where he always watched the birds." Her eyes almost flickered to the place where I sat, then looked away. "At first I thought he might have come for me, but he didn't. He didn't want me anymore. He came for the trees and the birds. He couldn't leave them. And they're still more his than mine." She took a slow breath. "He comes here now every day. Sometimes in the morning, here in the kitchen. Sometimes I see him on the land; he walks past me while I work. I haven't heard his voice, but if I work too hard and breathe too hard, I hear his breath mix with mine. It's been two years since he died, and he's always here."

I couldn't move, though I ought to have given a sign I was there, another soul, a living soul. But Ann didn't turn; the edge of the woods held her fast. She spoke as if sending her words off to float across a dark sea.

"And I can't leave. I won't. The land is mine now, too. My trees, my grasses, my dark wet leaves." It seemed almost an incantation, and with it her face grow calmer. "Besides, it doesn't matter now. I only have a shape when I'm here on this land; it's the only place where I can breathe. It's like I'm a ghost myself."

The darkness throbbed. Of course that was why she was watching. He must have had his day in the woods and would be coming back. I stared at the table because the black window was to my right and the black empty house opened to my left. Ann slowly rose and got my coat, held it out and said, "You'd better go."

I stood on the steps and felt the cold damp air, Ann silent behind me. I sent one quick glance back at Ann before the door closed, then forced myself to turn toward the woods. A small man was walking out of them.

I ran.

After that evening my eyes kept going over to the house. I didn't doubt what Ann had said. Her father was coming back to walk his land, sit in his chair, watch his birds. He returned and owned the land, oblivious to his daughter, selfishly, sensually, viscerally hungry for the world. And Ann faced him alone.

I watched Ann go out the next day and cut again at the invading vine, pulling it down around her into a twisted heap. Dimly thoughts began to form. I could not stand by and let the old dead man keep returning. I had never planned to stay in my own desolate house forever, but now that I knew what was happening to Ann, I couldn't up and leave. For her to live every day with a visitation of evil, to see it come like the sounding of an hour, as natural as shadows - this was something I couldn't accept.

Yet it seemed inevitable. Every day the changeless figure walked across the land as if he loved the feel of it under his feet. He stood in the woods and stared, motionless, thin and gray-brown like an old tree, absorbing the air into himself until, fixing him in my mind, I still lost him.

With all my watching I began to know the woods a bit. After a snow when everything was still, a wind could pick up the flakes and draw them through the trees like a woman trailing a sheer scarf, then letting it fall. Ice coated the branches in gleaming, delicate light, waiting to shatter. Abandoned nests hung high up in the trees, and from one tree to another sometimes a limb had fallen and been caught, suspended, so that in the midst of all the lines that seemed to go up always, up to the sky, there was this one that drew my eyes away, to the tangle, till I wondered when it would break, bringing twigs and branches with it in its fall.

I didn't love Ann. There was so little of her left as a person that all anyone could feel was an overwhelming, aching pity. We hardly spoke at all; Ann had told me everything that first time, and there was nothing to add. We had only one thing between us: Ann's soul.

Things couldn't continue like this. I knew my first effort would fail, but it made sense, at least to me. I tried to get Ann to leave the house. The local paper listed a few properties to rent. There weren't many choices; new people just didn't move in. Everyone had deep roots, and the ground didn't open easily. I only got my house because of a death. But I found a couple rentals in the county. I couldn't take Ann to a motel; she would have stood staring at the glasses wrapped in plastic and not known what to do. The little thing, half wild, needed land. A drive by the addresses confirmed that both had large lots. I got money out of the bank for a deposit and the first month. Things are at least cheap in the middle of nowhere.

I pondered how to approach Ann. She couldn't be bullied or jollied into leaving, and to trick her like an animal would be cruel. I could only be honest.

I waited until Ann stepped out of the house one morning. We'd both need the energy and courage of daylight to make the move. I'd considered going over at twilight, when the fear of him was strongest. But my nerves were only so strong, and, besides, I had to catch Ann before the woods cast its spell.

We met in the field. Ann listened as I nervously explained about the houses. I remembered to mention a big tree I'd seen in front of one of them.

"What was it?" Ann lifted her head. "Oak? Maple?"

I could only shrug.

Ann fastened her eyes on a large tree near the edge of the woods. "That's a quaking aspen. It should live further north, but it got lost and settled here. As the leaves dry in the fall, they shiver and clatter together like hundreds of voices, thin and wise."

A tiny flicker, like anger, stung my chest. "You have to leave here. You can't let him keep coming, turning you into something like him. It isn't right; it isn't fair."

Ann dipped her head once, slowly, then turned and walked into the woods. My hands almost grabbed her, almost shook her. But I couldn't force anything on that small body, so close to drowning, so in love with the sea.

My other hope was to drive him away. I spent three days trying to ready myself. I've never been a fighter in my life, and now I had to wrestle for someone else.

Late one afternoon I saw him walk out of the shadowy woods and head toward the house. I was dressed and ready, stepped out, and pulled the door closed behind me.

He was slight, and something in his air, more even than in his appearance, showed him to be Ann's father. He wore a loose coat, like hers, dark work pants, and heavy boots. He walked easily, as if accustomed to pacing along uneven ground. To my eyes he appeared the color of evening, muted, fading, at home in the cooling air.

He stopped as I planted myself before him but looked at me with no more interest than if I were the real phantom. He had large pale eyes and a high brow, with thin hair ruffled as if by a breeze. His face, narrow and spare, with the nose strong and the lips dry, could have come from some sepia image of an old farmer. Wrinkles creased his forehead and ran down his cheeks like cracks in tree bark.

I could barely whisper. "You can't go in."

He stared. I couldn't tell if he'd heard, or even if he could hear. "This is not your place anymore."

Still he looked at me, then with an easy grace he stepped to the garden, squatted down and ran his finger through the soil, feeling it. There was an inward, silent passion in the gesture.

I moved to be between him and the house. "You have to go. You don't belong here."

He turned the soil between his fingers, then gazed past me with an indescribable emptiness, an unspeakable hunger that brought bile to my throat.

"Leave her alone." The words barely breathed past my lips.

He stood and looked around the land, then back at me. In his eyes appeared a rapacity I had never imagined before. The pain of anger tightened in me, settling hard behind my ribs.

"You are dead." My voice rang against the empty air, flew back and struck the trees at the edge of the wood. "You must go. Leave this place and let her be. Take any other place. Take the rest of the woods." My breath failed, my voice dropped. "Take my land."

He looked at me with a sovereign scorn, then thinned away into the air. When I turned, searching, he was in the house, seated at the table in the lamplight, opposite Ann. A bird picked at the eve over their head, scattering dried leaves from the gutter as it hunted nesting materials.

Finally it was Ann who found the way. One late afternoon when the sunlight was bleak on drying ground, she took a step toward my land, saw me in the window, and lifted a gloved hand. I went at once. Ann too had been thinking, and a suppressed excitement lit her eyes. She believed that one thing only would end the visits. I listened, throat tightening. But this was Ann's horror and her solution.

The way to keep him from the land was to mar it, to burn a scar across the earth that would offend him.

"What about the woods?" I looked over my shoulder. Would the trees even allow this?

"We'll only let one or two trees go." Ann's voice was soft and calm. "The ground and the wood are wet, we'll be able to control it. Then I'll mend it later. I can plant new trees. He won't come back to something damaged. He can't love something damaged. But I can."

I followed her gaze into the woods. It seemed to be listening, waiting. When something moved, deep back among the trees, I whirled away. "All right."

By that time of year the snow was gone, and the next day Ann prepared the ground. She spread branches and dried vines, old boards and paper in a line that snaked from the garden into the field and also toward the house. I measured the distance with my eyes. Tiny tips of green poked up from mounds of dry leaves mulched around the foundation of the building.

"You're not too close to the house?"

"It's fine." Ann almost smiled.

We piled up kindling around a tree that stood out in front of the others in the field like an advance guard, its head holding an abandoned nest of bird or squirrel. This was the hardest for me, and Ann's face went grim and dogged as we worked. But we did not speak. We spread straw around the base of the tree and along the line back to the house. The line had no special shape; it was raw and jagged like a cut.

When it was ready, we lit twisted strips of newspaper and touched them to the straw. The fire exploded with a cry of joy and ran down its bed like a river.

My eyes locked on the young tree caught in the hiss and sigh of the flame's first touch. It was like watching an execution, and my legs would not turn away. A flame stretched like a hand and caught the bottom of the crumbling nest. Though there had been no wind, from nowhere a wind blew up, and the disintegrating nest broke and flew. Sparks flying, dancing in the air, scattering into the debris from the gutters, the leaves mounded at the base of the house. I sucked in breath and took a step toward the house, but Ann caught me. Her hands closed on my arm, and I stood, a pillar of salt.

Flames licked up the dry boards, curling with the paint, creaking and moaning. Heat pressed toward us, surrounded us, the smell choking and clean at the same time. I made myself look at Ann: her eyes had taken on the color of fire. Glass shattered as the wooden casements gave way, and she pulled her hands off me, moving like she had to be there. Behind the broken window.

Light as a bird, Ann went straight for the back door. She bounded up the steps, leapt over the flames that filled the doorway, and slammed the door behind her.

I froze, but only for a moment. Then, stumbling over the broken ground, smoke in my eyes and my mouth, I ran to the house. Flames shot across the door, and I stopped, terrified. Then I pulled off my coat and flung it down to make just that momentary break, a small passage to go through. But the door would not open; I couldn't get to her. I tried around the house, but fire was everywhere like a band. An explosion came from within, then another.

I called for help, but they came too late. They said later that there were several centers of the fire, torching a bedroom, the kitchen, a hallway. Gasoline had been thrown everywhere like holy water.

Police and a psychiatrist talked with me, but they brought no charges. They knew Ann bought the gas; they saw the burns from my attempt to get in the house and had the record of my frantic call for help. But I understand their questions.

When they released me, I went back to the house on Westline Road to pack my few things. I'll let a realtor sell the house.

But there is one more point, the most important thing. While people fought the fire, while they treated my hands, I kept my eyes on the woods. I had to know.

And I saw. The heat of the fire sent the air shimmering, so the figure wavered. But it was Ann. At the edge of the woods she stood. She lifted one hand, then turned toward the trees and went home. Like a child going to its mother.

Now I need to find my place somewhere else.

3 comments:

  1. Very well written. Excellent job of creating and maintaining the mood and emotion. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  2. Seems like the main character found her own shadow side. Spooky. Well written kept my interest throughout.

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  3. Good dark, creepy storytelling. Think I'll be avoiding that part of Ohio. ;)

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