Content note: This story explores themes of domestic violence.
The children grab each other when they walk past me. They dare each other to run up and touch me. Bring back proof, they say. Something from inside.
When he came inside, he kept his shoes on. That was my first clue. She took her shoes off, and looked around like she was standing in a cathedral. He rapped his knuckles hard on a wall, and I flinched.
“Old houses like these, Marthe — you never know what might be in the walls. Rats. Fungus. Dry rot.”
I was indignant. Aghast. Fungus?
But she ignored him. She crouched right down and spread out her fingers on the floor. She pressed them to her nose, inhaled the spicy smell of oak and beeswax. She curled her bare toes and smiled at the floor before looking up at him.
“This is it, chèr. I can feel it.”
I felt it, too.
He rolled his eyes and clomped across the floor. Dirt fell from the soles of his shoes, dulling the sheen of the wood, making me shudder.
I should have known right then.
Marthe screams at night. Cries. Stands at the windows and twitches the curtains. I try to wrap myself around her, to comfort her, but I don’t think she can feel me anymore. She just paces the halls, remembering what happened to her over and over again. Making me remember.
The first time he hit her was devastating for both of us. The plaster trembled with the echoes of Baptiste’s hand striking her face, and my walls continued shuddering long after she’d retreated to the bathroom. She clutched the edges of the sink as she sobbed. The porcelain warmed under her fingertips. I remember.
It took her a long time to stop crying. He cried, too. He apologized. He said it would never happen again. He said he needed help. He said he was sorry. He said he was sorry again and again and again.
Perhaps he was sorry. It’s hard to tell, in hindsight.
A few kids from the neighborhood — I still think of them that way, although I suppose they’re grown-up enough to be drunk now — force the front door. They’re dressed for going out, not for coming in, but it’s late enough and they wobble enough that I suspect this incursion was not part of the original plan. They have a camera. They film me from lots of different angles, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. I try to tell them to go away, but the only result is a whisper of wind down the chimney that makes them shriek and clutch at each other before dissolving into laughter.
It’s not long before Marthe appears. She’s trying to ask them a question — I can’t make it out, but I know her very well by now, and her howls are not of protest or fear. She’s confused. She doesn’t know why they’re filming her.
They lock themselves in the bathroom, thinking they can shut her out. They don’t realize that the bathroom is hers more than any other room in the house. When they realize that they’re trapped in there with her, they break the window and climb out.
The broken window lets the cold in, and the rain. The wall starts to mildew. I remember the accusation of fungus, years ago. I think Marthe must remember it, too, because she runs untouching fingers across the mottling plaster. The sound she makes would be terrifying to someone who didn’t recognize it as weeping.
It took about a year before he stopped saying he was sorry. And once he stopped being sorry, everything fell apart.
It was a little thing that killed her. Baptiste got home from work and dinner was on the table, but it wasn’t quite warm, and that was all it took. She saw the fury in his face, and she tried to lock herself in the bathroom — but he was too close behind her, and he pushed his way in.
He always kept his shoes on. I should have known, just from that. He treated the wood on the floors the same as he treated the dirt outside, the same as he treated his wife. Marthe, though, she always took her shoes off, and let her toes pick up the imprint of the woodgrain. She stroked the bricks of the lintel with her fingertips. She let her hand warm the wood on the banister for a moment after her feet landed on the bottom stair. She loved me.
Fallen, half-rotted figs mixed into the soil as he dug the hole; her grave was sweet-smelling, ant-infested. The ants never crossed the threshold, never came inside, but they had the run of the yard. They built a new anthill over Marthe’s barefooted corpse, and they ate the fallen figs before the sticky-sweet juice could drip through the soil to her parched lips.
There should be children running up and down my stairs. There should be breakfast-smells in the morning and toothbrushes on the sink and backpacks next to the front door. But I don’t get those things. Instead, there is only Marthe: a memory of suffering that paces through the rooms and tries to stare at herself in mirrors.
I love Marthe, of course I love her — but she is a little selfish. She tortures herself by remembering what happened to her over and over again. She does not acknowledge that I suffered, too, and that I should be allowed to move on. I can’t move on as long as she’s here, reliving the memory of her death over and over again. I’ve tried to tell her but the little drafts I’m able to push through the chimney are not enough to catch her attention.
She won’t leave.
The “for sale” sign has put down roots in the front yard. My hopes soar whenever a couple from out of town stops to look. It happened just the other day — a pulled-over car, a tall man shading his eyes to look up at me. His partner, also tall, pulling out his phone to call the number on the sign. They had a child’s carseat in the back. I notice these things.
But then Marthe stood in the upstairs window and made a horrible noise, and the tall men got back into their car and left. With them went any hope of feeling sock-feet slide down the smooth floor of the entry hall; with them went the dream of someday-crayon-scrawl on the walls. Toothbrushes, backpacks.
And I’m still alone with Marthe.
That night, Baptiste used a full roll of paper towels to wipe what was left of Marthe from the bathroom tiles. He threw the soiled paper into the kitchen trash by the fistful, like carrot peels. Then he took a long shower, and he reheated his cold dinner in the microwave, and he ate every bite. He climbed into their bed and lay down right in the middle of it, and he slept like a stone as I mourned the woman who had loved me.
Marthe sat under the fig tree for a week. The freshly-turned soil didn’t compact under her weight, but the ants moved around her, like a stream parting around a boulder. She watched them for hours, unblinking, unmoving. I’m not sure when her gaze shifted from the ants to the windows. At first, I thought she was watching Baptiste; but later, I realized that she was watching me.
Baptiste told everyone that Marthe had run off with a boyfriend. That she had been unfaithful. He pretended heartbreak, and these people who hadn’t known Marthe at all believed him. Comforted him. When he said he had to move back to Atlanta to get away from it all, his friends threw him a going-away party, at which he got very drunk. After they’d all gone home, he threw up in the breakfast nook — red wine and bile. The stain was awful. The next morning, he called a realtor, and the sign appeared, staked into the lawn.
The very first people to consider moving in were wonderful — a family. They had two children, little ones with sticky hands and wide, wary eyes. I was delighted. Not all houses are meant to hold families, but I am. I loved the idea of them exploring the attic, or finding the crawlspace between their bedrooms. Building a fort out of pillows and whispering secrets inside of it. They saw that there was a backyard and burst out into it before their parents could stop them.
They ran to the fig tree, and the older child started to tell his little sister all about treehouses and tire swings. His foot was flattening the top of the anthill. Marthe stood not far from them, watching; her head was cocked at an unnatural angle, and her eyes had taken on a hard, hateful gleam.
The boy could not have known that he was standing on Marthe’s grave. And Marthe could not have known how badly she could hurt a person without touching them. It was nobody’s fault, really. She didn’t mean it. She didn’t know her own strength.
She didn’t mean to hurt him.
I have been empty save for Marthe for six years now. Six years does not seem like such a long time, but when the years echo, six is too many to bear. Six winters of sleet and cold, with nobody spicing cider over the stove. Six summers in which the ceiling fans collected dust and the ice trays went unfilled. Six years of Marthe.
It’s terribly lonely. I never would have thought that I could be lonely with Marthe, but I am. She doesn’t love me anymore, not the way she did when she first moved in. She only notices the things that break — the window, the mildew, the mice that chew holes in the baseboards. It’s been a long time since she’s stopped to linger in the patch of sun that comes in through the kitchen window. I can’t recall the last time she rested her cheek against the green doorframe that stands between the kitchen and the backyard. She used to love lingering in her home, but now it is torturous to her.
And to me, of course. I forget, sometimes, because I’m too busy attending to Marthe. But it hurts me, too.
It is December when Baptiste comes back.
He pulls up to the driveway and walks inside, and I am alight with dread. I don’t want him to see me. The front door has swollen with the humidity that precedes winter storms here, and he has to put his shoulder to it to get it open. He walks inside — shoes on, but at this point, I can’t blame him. He holds up a camping lantern and looks around, taking in the state of me. Filth crackles under his feet. Insects scatter before him. Water damage blooms brown across the ceiling over his head.
I am a ruin.
I realize, under his scrutiny, just how bad it’s gotten. I realize that no family will ever decide to make me their home; how could they? I am irreparable. I am unloveable. I am haunted.
The thunder that booms outside covers my shuddering sob. Baptiste startles at the way the walls shiver around him. I find that I cannot make myself hate him, even though this is all his fault. The part of me that should hate him is drowning in shame. There is no air for hate. His lip is curled, and I cannot muster indignance this time. He’s right to sneer.
There is another peal of thunder, and a downpour begins. Water drips from the ceiling onto Baptiste’s head and I let out another mortified sob. Because what is the point of a roof, if it can’t keep the water out and the warmth in? Marthe stands on the stairwell, watching Baptiste take in the shambles that used to be their home. She presses the back of one trembling, incorporeal hand against her mouth. Her eyes are wide, and she stares at him without blinking.
When Baptiste uncaps the first plastic jug, my first thought is that he’s cleaning me. It is an absurd notion, and doesn’t survive for long. The liquid Baptiste pours out of the jug stings — the fumes are strong enough that he turns his head to one side, burying his mouth and nose in his elbow. Marthe is still watching him, motionless.
As he uncaps the second jug and moves into the kitchen, splashing every surface, I begin to understand. Marthe cocks her head to one side, and that hard, hateful gleam enters her eyes again. She crouches down and lays an untouching hand on the warping wood of the foyer floor. She, too, is starting to understand. Her expression has shifted from fear to fury. She looks toward the kitchen. The water that drips from the ceiling falls right through her, splashing in the puddles of gasoline.
Baptiste empties five jugs in all, upstairs and down. He is thorough. Marthe watches him the whole time. He startles at the occasional thunderclap, mutters to himself. I tremble with the anticipation of what is to come. I push a draft into the places where mice and birds have nested — my sole living occupants. I hate forcing them out into the storm, but it’s the best I can do for them.
When all the jugs are empty, Baptiste goes into the bathroom. He eyes the mildew that bruises the wall around my broken window, and I want to crumble under the weight of his disdain. He turns in a slow circle, clears his throat.
“Marthe? Are you here?”
She is. She’s right in front of him. He doesn’t realize, but she’s right there, close enough to kiss.
“The realtor says that the house won’t sell because people think it’s haunted. I told him that’s ridiculous, but… he told me about the boy. What you did to the boy. I don’t believe in ghosts, but — if you’re here, Marthe, I just wanted to tell you.” He shakes his head, makes a face like he’s going to spit. “Jesus, this is ridiculous.”
She is staring right into his face, but he can’t see her. She’s not letting him. Not yet. Her eyes are animal, insect, glittering. He’s shouting as if she might be down the hall somewhere.
“I wanted to tell you that you haven’t won. I know you’re still trying to ruin my life, but you won’t. You can’t. I still have the insurance on this shitty house you made us buy. I might not be able to sell it, but who cares? It’s worth more to me now as a pile of ashes.”
A lot of things happen all at once, then.
Marthe lets out a howl, right in Baptiste’s face, and she lets him see her.
Baptiste screams, dropping his lantern. The bulb in the lantern shatters, and the light dies.
Thunder cracks overhead, directly overhead, immediate, and that means:
The white arc illuminates everything. If any children had been foolish enough to come peek into the haunted house during the storm, they would see the fungus rotting my walls, the filth and leaves scattered across the tile where Marthe’s blood once pooled, the sagging ceiling. They would see Marthe, plain as day, her feet a few inches above the ground, her mouth stretched impossibly wide with rage. They would see Baptiste, on the floor, slacks dark and clinging, as he scrambles towards the bathroom door in a crab-scuttle of terror.
It’s only an instant. Then the illumination from the lightning is gone, and Baptiste is pounding his way down the stairs in the dark.
It’s curious: even though the white light is gone, all is not dark. There is still a flickering glow coming through the window. It is the fig tree, which has grown unchecked for six years and which leans against me like a drunk friend at the end of a long night. The fig tree, which is now split down the middle. The fig tree, which, despite the continuing rainfall, is blazing bright with fire.
The flames climb the tree’s branches quickly and then, just like that, they are touching me. By the time Baptiste is at the bottom of the stairs, the fire is hot on my shingled siding. I am not afraid for myself. I am afraid for Marthe, a little — where will she go? What will happen to her, when she has no halls to wander, and her tree is a blackened stump? I resent her too much to want her to stay; I love her too much to want to see her forced out.
It’s hot. It’s too hot, and then the fire goes from being outside of me to inside of me, and then it hurts.
Baptiste is at the front door, both hands on the knob, yanking. It won’t budge. The doorframe swells when it rains, and the door is stuck fast. Marthe is standing behind Baptiste, watching him struggle. Her focus is absolute; she does not notice the flames that are tripping their way down the stairs.
It hurts, it hurts, and now there is fear curling alongside the pain. What will happen to me? Will I be stuck here, like Marthe, wandering the remnants of my own foundation?
Baptiste is screaming. His eyes are wide, because he sees her. He has realized that he cannot get out through the front door, and he has turned around, and he has been confronted by his spectral wife. He did not believe that his house was haunted, not really. But now he must believe. Now he sees, by the light of the fire, the animal rage in her eyes.
Marthe didn’t realize, before, how much she could hurt that little boy who wanted to climb in her fig tree. She regretted hurting him so badly. She wailed under the tree for days. But now, she knows what she is capable of. This time, she will have no regrets.
I am thankful that the pain of the fire keeps me from attending too closely to what Marthe does to Baptiste. I am distantly aware of his screams, and I am certain that he will not be leaving before I am — how did he put it? — “A pile of ashes.”
There is nowhere the flames cannot find. There is nothing I can hide from them. Baptiste was thorough, and the gasoline is everywhere. The fumes are thick in the air and it won’t be long before I am gutted. The rainfall is slowing, and there is nothing to stop the flames from spreading, consuming, destroying.
Marthe stands over Baptiste’s now-unconscious body and stares down at him, her face glowing with triumph. She will stay, then. She will stay to watch him die.
I will not. I am surprised to find myself drifting away from the pain — the pain, which had seemed so omnipresent, but which turns out to be escapable. I wander away from it, following the trail of the smoke that pours out of me, joining the diminishing thunderclouds in the grey sky. I am looking down at a burning house that used to be me, and I realize that this is how I can fix things with Marthe.
I cannot make her leave me. But I can leave her.
It does not happen all at once. I snap back to myself several times — when Marthe’s favorite mug, left behind in a kitchen cupboard, shatters. When a mouse that did not leave with his fellows succumbs to the smoke and dies in my eaves. When my roof, the thing that made me more than just walls, the thing that made me a home for Marthe, finally caves in. I come back to myself during those moments, and in those moments I suffer. But then I leave again, drifting back up with the smoke, and the leaving is easier each time.
After the roof has caved in and the fire has begun to smother itself, I stop returning. I turn away from Marthe, who is still standing in the ruin of the foyer, exultant. I cannot worry anymore about what will happen to her. I leave my ashes behind. I let the self that has seen so much pain dissipate with the clearing smoke.
And I am not haunted anymore.
About the Author
Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native, currently living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. Her fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and Fireside; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable, Tor.com, and the Boston Globe. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Watch for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from Tor.com in 2017.