There is a house in New Orleans. A house full of history, as promised by a dozen advertisements. She gripped the paper proclaiming her sole owner of the property tightly in her hands. Iron, was the plate displaying proudly a name long forgotten. Only some letters remained untouched by rust, spelling out what the house must have been called: Rising Sun.
Upon entering for the first time, she felt herself overwhelmed with the sheer beauty of the house. Lavish life it must have been. Dust filled her nose, the heady smell of flowers, heavy like roses and yet fresh like lilies, burned wood and the hint of the past entangled to an enticing scent, she instantly felt herself become addicted to. She found a treasure of stored furniture, a bookcase and chair, both in pristine condition and a cabinet and writing desk, waiting to be resituated in the living room. A pleasant flutter ignited itself in her stomach, that child inside her, never ridden of entirely, gleaming in excitement. Portraits, of beautiful women, caught in eternal predicament, banned to the canvases of a dusty attic.
A shame. The thought, new and yet quite powerful, presented itself to her with the idea of putting the pictures up again, a reminiscent of the past she had been trying to avoid for so long. Men and women, refined to empty stares from long closed eyes now filling up the halls wherever she went. They offered a sense of belonging, watchful faces tracing her movements, shielding her from outside influence, like guardian angels. An alley, deep within the house itself, having rested for the majority of a decade, now re-established when she had gotten hold of the key to her new home. Memories of before overwhelmed her, while she pulled at a loose thread on the jeans her mother had sewn. She had taken her here, to look in from outside the gate, a promise ready on her lips, of the day that she would call it her own. It had come, that day, like a prophecy fulfilled. Absentmindedly, she traced a pattern of flowers on the kitchen table, a meal untouched in front of her.
All the while, an insistent voice in her head kept warning her about a strange influence, covering the entirety of the house with a veil of darkness, barely perceptible and yet tinting the air to a point where it settled in the lungs, threatening to suffocate. In an instant, the impression made itself known that something had happened here, something beyond rational thought. A tragedy. If pressed, she would not have been able to point any which direction, other than her own, indeterminable where that certainty had come from. It sat deep within her, guiding her through the house, heavy curtains not allowing a glimpse of the sun. An attempt to lift them, to let light flood the rooms, had been unsuccessful. The furniture, chairs, counters, even the escritoire, it refused removal, movement in general – just like herself, it was caught in limbo. A pillow, she had taken up with her the previous night, was miraculously replaced on the very ottoman it had been moved from. A reprieve, ever so slight, offered the library with its large windows, sans the curtain-restricted view. She spent days lounging about on armchairs, hallucinating being on an adventure, a treasure hunt, whatever else a book provided inspiration for. She longed for company, those days, for a fellow soul in the old house.
When night fell, and fall it did with rare intensity, seldomly ever experienced by city folk, did the building change its atmosphere. Her ears might have picked up on noises, laughter even, in the downstairs living room, dishes clattering in the kitchen. The human mind, it was a frightful thing, she was well aware. Lonesome would elicit a response from the brain, would it not, she argued with herself. Until, one night, she descended the stairs and entered the hall, where she had heard the piano play. A man, clothed in a tuxedo, dark as the instrument itself, let his fingers glide over ivory with smooth movements, the sound resonating with her core. She allowed herself to linger in the doorframe, to listen to the artful mingling of music and talent to a melody divine in its perfection. The moonlight cascaded over the figure, drawing shadows behind the piano player like people watching over his shoulder. He would not remain for long, nor would he be the only one who appeared, who came to her. Shadows of the past, in the middle of the night, in the broad light of day, no matter the hour.
Some had names, some had none, some spoke to her in soft voices, some demanded to be heard with thunder in their speech.
The very first time she spotted him, leaning against the wall in the poker room, arms crossed in a faux-relaxed pose, perceptible by the tension in his shoulders, she thought him undeniably handsome, his appearance intriguing. With onyx eyes, he caught her gaze, black hair complementing the sharpness of his jaw. He glistened with warmth, heat seeming to erupt from his very core. His song, it was full of fire, telling the story of flames, of summer. She could not help being drawn in by him, a pull in her stomach urging her to step closer. An attempt, nothing more, to catch his attention, which, in that precise moment, seemed like a precocity, more important than jewels, money, even the world.
He did not react in a way a part of her had hoped he would. Instead, his eyes remained focussed on the chandelier above their heads. She directed her gaze towards it and saw not one thing of interest. Once she turned her head back to him, he had gone.
The first time she appeared to her, long curls dripping wet, clothed in blue silk with skin so pale, it glistened in the low light of the moon, she thought her pretty. Her features seemed aligned by divine intervention, portraying almost ethereal beauty. Topaz eyes, framed by golden hair, resembling a crown sitting on her head. And yet, the light with which she radiated, it was cold, a gruesome opposite to her hair, her eyes. The song she sang, with lips white and crisp, it spoke of the past, of winter.
The air of the basement made her shiver, goose bumps erupting all over her skin. The girl, however, she did not tremble, even though her clothes were drenched with water. Her eyes caught sight of her too then, a gleam entered them that had not been present before. Recognition, perhaps, or resemblance of someone the girl ought to have known. She could not decipher the look. She had quite a familiar way about her, head tilted to the side in deep thought, lips, blue from the cold, bitten raw by her teeth.
And yet, she noticed, not one drop of blood spilled over. The girl’s entire appearance, from her hair to her skin, her clothes even, seemed void of colour, a striking opposite to the boy who had radiated heat. She startled a little upon drawing that particular parallel, even though she could not have elaborated why that was. A feeling of unease crept over her spine, causing her to stand up straight and clench her fists. She did not like being measured up, stared at with such intensity.
The girl either did not care or did not know. One step forward, the girl took, and revealed with that innocent movement, the object behind her. Instantly, she recognised it as a bathtub, edges splintered and nasty stains covering the ceramic surface. Her stomach rebelled at the sight and she averted her gaze. Now that her mind had time to connect the girl with the horrendous object behind her, her appearance lacked its former sense of oddness. The girl must have drowned herself in that very bathtub, she knew beyond doubt.
They’re revealing themselves to her, telling their stories, they let her see them for what they were. Unhappy, caught in eternal misery with no hope for redemption. The boy with the dark mop of hair, she learned, had died in a fire. Only ashes had been found after the flames had been extinguished and the house left in ruins. The girl, with the air of coldness surrounding her, had drowned herself, in the bathtub in this very house not half a year prior to that. A sense of satisfaction took hold of her upon reading those lines. After all, she had been right about the bathtub. The note attached to the police report, the officer’s blatant refusal to rule the girl’s death as a suicide, when she had clearly ended her own life in such a tragic way, confused her. Investigations took time, of course, but grasping for straws, trying to find a culprit when there so obviously was none, other than the girl herself, was quite inappropriate.
Bodies, she thought, the house was built on blood and bodies, like every other grand house. The souls of the unlucky, damned even, haunted its halls and it would fall to her to release them from their existence. Once more, she found exile in the library, studying documents meticulously, like an accountant might consult his books.
Whenever she took a stroll through the house, exploring its secrets, she never set foot in the poker room. The fire, she learned, had cost not only the boy his life but all of the family, among them, the father, forty years of age, a keen piano player and the mother, an excellent cook, her specialty being apple pie with cinnamon. She remembered the smell of it, the faint promise of a sweet treat in the air for hours on long afternoons, suffocating whoever passed the kitchen.
Every night, the piano would be awakened in a different symphony, another tune, so often tinged with sadness that only the moon would encapsulate. The player – motionless apart from his ever-moving fingers – she observed a change taking hold of him. Each time she stepped inside the room, her eyes found the piano in a pavlovian reaction. She noticed, one of these cold nights, when the fireplace was not lit and the moon stood up high, its pale light covering the room like a veil, the features of his handsome face more haggard than before.
Slowly, it became more apparent, a gradience on a scale, his face tiring out, cheeks hollowing to the bone. She wished for him to look up, see her, observe like she had him, there in the doorframe. Yet, he never did. His sole focus, sole reason for existence, it seemed, was joined to the instrument and the melodies he could lure from it. Lost to the everlasting glide of his fingers over keys, she forced herself to turn away. The next night, no music echoed from the hall, no sweet song filled the room. She did not dare look, did not dare cross the threshold again. If she had, she would have seen a corpse’s head, not more than a skull, pressing against the claviature.
The sun greeted her in a sharp contrast to the horrors of the night and its silver light. Golden warmth flooded the library when she caught a glimpse of it through the door. A faint smell of sweetness, rich in its sugary flavour, drifted through the house. Breakfast occupied her mind upon entering the kitchen. She froze on the threshold. It should have not come as a surprise to see a woman bent over the oven, an apron snug around her waist and black hair cascading down her slender frame.
Her presence in the doorway did not seem to disrupt her, while she cut apples and doused them with cinnamon. The smell thickened to a layer of spice coating her lungs, threatening to suffocate in its intensity. She realised then, if by chance or deduction, that each of the people whom she had spotted, had lacked colour in a certain way. The woman, like the boy in the poker room, had a sepia touch to her, warm and yet not at all so. The girl in the basement and the piano player brought frost with them, chilliness. It may have been a result of the light, the player associated with the moon and the baker with the sun, or a simple play of mind. But their opposition provoked a strong response within her that she herself found bothersome. She wondered, if every morning, from now on, the smell of cinnamon would accompany her breakfasting. Not brave enough to confront that particular sight every day, she refrained from entering the kitchen at that specific time.
The woman, she firmly believed, would grow bored of baking, would surely move to other activities, once she realised that her silent spectator was no longer present. Frankly, her irritation rose when each day, without failure, the smell of cinnamon greeted her in the morning, like clockwork. There was no escape, no absolution from it and she desperately wished back the insistent perfume of roses that had coated her nose upon first entering the house.
One morning, when a headache had woken her up, she did not pay any attention to the handles of the clock on her nightstand and wandered into the kitchen. The sight, and it was a sight indeed, gave her such a shock, she staggered back. Like the piano player, the woman had changed. Slim had become haggard, the apron had turned from snug to loose-fitting. Her eyes bulged from their sockets, reminding her oddly of a hound on a trail, lips thinned out, her hair had lost its vital sheen. What drew her in, apart from the appalling decay, was the left side of the woman’s face. Where flesh should have covered teeth, a wound had opened up a gaping hole, displaying the entire left set of her denture. Involuntarily, she took another step back and collided with the wall, the impact hard on her shoulder.
The woman, unbothered by the sudden movement, resumed baking apple pie while she stumbled out of the kitchen with a shortness of breath that made her light-headed.
The basement, it still held her mind captive with a certain curiosity that the last visit had not satisfied. Yet, when she put her nerves aside and descended, the girl was not present. She used the illusion of privacy to walk around the room, careful to avoid the bathtub at every turn of her feet. Down beneath the grandness of what had been fortune in its purest form, the air was full of humidity that left cold perspiration on the bare skin of her arms. She let her gaze travel with genuine interest, over smooth surfaces of metal, a sink, tiles with extravagant patterns that had seen better days and still strangely vibrant while simultaneously remaining its frozen silver of an aura. A noise made her whip around, senses suddenly on high alert. Water dropped to the floor with a metallic clink, similar to a leaking tap. Her stomach plummeted when she cautiously peered over the rim of the bathtub.
A body, drenched and pale, lay in it, motionless. Her breath caught in her lungs, refused release even though her jaw had dropped. The blonde hair was familiar, eerily so. She recognised the girl with her aura of winter but, like the woman in the kitchen, her body had started to decay. The face itself, it had swollen, her cheeks no longer haggard but full in a way that they, naturally, should not have been. She leaned over, horrid fascination urging her to take a closer look. A few inches separated them, her breath roused the water otherwise unearthly still. She did not dare reach out and touch, but felt a need to all the same when she focussed on the pale skin peeking out beneath the clothing. Her finger dangled over the girl’s collarbone, a hair of an inch between them. Her skin tingled when it made contact. A curious feeling, she mused, that she could not have told the difference of a living body compared to the dead by the sense of touch alone. Almost incidentally, her gaze swept back to the girl’s face. Grey eyes, open when they had previously been closed – of that she was certain – stared at her. They held an emptiness, a vacuum, within them, caught somewhere she herself could not see. That blank expression, so completely void of emotion, it scared her.
And, even then, she still did not see the distinction that separated living from dead. A touch of decay, a slight re-arrangement of features, wounds and missing flesh, were undeniably present but she had yet to see definite proof of the threshold that served as a partition of worlds. Some sort of fascination took hold of her, a desire to determine quite what that difference consisted of.
The girl, meanwhile, heaved herself out of the tub, the water swapping over the rim and hitting the floor with a loud splash. She walked on wobbly feet, towards her, hands outstretched without posing a direct threat. Or so she thought. The second, she reached her, fingers, cold but strong, closed around her throat, ready to throttle her. She batted the hands away with less ease than she had been prepared for and stumbled towards the door. It fell close behind her, leaving the horrors of the basement where they belonged, contained by the veil of the past.
Something in the house – and she suspected that it had always been there from the day she had stepped inside, maybe even longer – warned her. Every room held a promise, one of death and terror, every corner, she held her breath, scared to run into another one of them, find them coming for her with claw-like fingers and haggard faces. She sped up the stairs to the attic, now void of portraits and beholding the charm of dusty bookshelves, with an unease that refused to settle. Her grip around the door handle tightened, knuckles turning white, when a sudden wave of emotion hit her. The image in front of her eyes wavered for but a second. Time had left its trace on the objects surrounding her. A chair was missing a leg, toppled over as if someone had fallen over it in their haste to reach the door. One of the cabinets stored right behind a large writing desk, had a blackened patina, crumbling when she ran her fingers over it. The wall before her, crumbling. All of it was not quite in accordance with what she knew to be a grand house. The first time she had come here, the attic had been as glorious as the rest of it, no signs of demolition detectable in the dust on the shelves.
Now, the furniture she had cherished, had been eager to use, she found disposable. As if the veil over the house had lifted – and she could not quite name a definite time when it had – she started to observe with sudden clarity. Unease, once more, settled in her bones. She was afraid to leave the attic, not ready to see what else awaited her. For a long time, she remained there, a refugee from the onslaught of pictures that clouded her mind. Images of bathtubs and splashing water, of golden-haired girls and women with aprons baking apple pie. That pie, that particular smell, she could not stomach even one minute longer.
Without conscious decision, the boy reappeared in her mind. He, whom she had not seen decay like the rest of them. Curiosity, and even more so, a desire to know, erupted in the depths of her brain. It fuelled her to stand up and leave the attic, eyes fixated on each step, determined not to lift her gaze beyond what was necessary.
The stairs themselves looked like they had taken the brunt of the force of an existential hit, pieces missing, the former carpet a pile of dust and threads. Careful not to stumble, she entered the poker room. And found him already there, eyes on the chandelier, like he had never left.
She closed the door behind her, like it could hold the others off, could spare them from discovery and grant her a chance to speak with him undisturbed. When, after addressing him by his name, he still refused to meet her gaze, she reached out, lay a hand on his shoulder. The muscle still held firm in her grip, just like she remembered. Confusion crossed her mind briefly, a refusal of sorts, to believe that ghosts – and they were ghosts that much was evident – could even be touched or held onto. It worked in her favour, the prospect of touching him again, feeling his skin against hers. She had missed him, more than she had thought possible. Years had passed slowly after losing him to the flames and more often than not she had deeply regretted her actions. Necessary, unavoidable, she had told herself, had reasoned and pleaded with her guilty conscience. If only he had given her a chance.
Her fingers clenched on his shoulder. His attention finally shifted. Dark eyes caught hers. She startled at the hatred in them, the disgust ever so present in the flutter of his lashes. Plainly, she read in his demeanour that his feeling towards her had not changed. He recognised her and yet did not see her for who she was. An accusation played around his lips, even though no sound made it past them. He was mute, like the others had been and yet she heard every word like he had said them out loud. He would not love her, refused, even, to love her, would not look at her like he had looked at that damned girl. Like she had not earned his affection. Like she had not single-handedly provided him with an appropriate suitor in the form of herself.
Why would he not love her? That nasty bitch in the basement deserved what she had gotten. The way she had squirmed when she had pushed her under water until the bubbles, the air escaping her mouth, had popped, one right after the other. She had waited for him to call her and yet, half a year had passed without so much as a word. How furious she had been.
He had to lover her.
It was all she had ever desired, all she had ever wanted. Her wish had not been granted, even though she had prayed with all her might and had done all there had been to do, to ensure her success. That was how it should have been.
Get rid of the competition, her mother had whispered when, at school, another girl had impressed the teacher and she had only been awarded second place. Get rid of the competition, her mother had told her years later, when she had vied for a position in a bookshop that someone else had received in her stead.
Get rid of the competition, get rid of her, that voice in her head had continuously seduced her. And she had followed the order, had executed a plan, vicious in its core that had left her sole contender for the boy’s heart. Or so she had thought. He simply had not seen how good she was for him. She had cornered him in that poker room, laying her heart out on the floor where he had stomped on it, boots destroying every hope she had held dear.
She watched him stare at the chandelier, just like he had that day, and her memory overwhelmed her with a biting force. That night, he had kept staring at the forsaken object of furniture too, ignoring her pleas, deaf to her pain. An idea had come to her then, with destructive momentum. A flame ignited inside her head. Ironic really, considering how the match had dropped from her fingers the second she had stepped outside the house.
She had watched the flames rise high above the roof, swallow every nook, every corner of that grand house she had dreamed herself to live in, side by side with her loving husband. Standing in the very room where her heart had been torn to pieces, she noticed the destruction, realised how all-consuming her wrath had been. In her ears, the screams of the family had resonated with the crumbling of the walls.
Those screams had not haunted her then.
It had not been her fault, she should not have been held accountable. She had only ever wanted to be loved.
He had refused her.
He was to blame.
A neighbour saw a light in one of the windows that night. At first, he was unsure if his eyes had tricked him, if perhaps, a car had driven by and the headlights had reflected in the large windows, but then it happened again. He alerted authorities, thinking it a silly prank, children on a midnight stroll through the ruin, but that had not been the case. The lock, it would later be announced in the news, had not been forced, instead, she must have stolen the key from the attorney tending to the ruin.
They dragged her out and into the car, trying to make sense of the gibberish coming out of her mouth. She must have been a beautiful young woman once, but now, in her forties, life had caught up to her, as had time. Her hair, dirty curls without the healthy gleam one observes in TV commercials, teeth rotten to the core, some missing.
What shocked him, beyond the absurdity of this woman living opposite him in the ruin of a house that was not hers to possess, were her eyes.
Never had he seen such a stare before, without emotion, vacant and yet vibrant with hysteria. Two black abysses caught his gaze and held it until she was safely deposited in the police car.
He would swear, later on, when officers questioned him, told him her story, that she had seen right into his soul and had found every last secret, had unravelled every guilty memory in his head. And she had enjoyed it, relished it even, to see him cower, shrink back from her. An animal, a nasty voice in his brain piped up with a drawl, she looked just like an animal. In the morning, he would pick up a newspaper with a catching headline, would recline in his armchair and read:
There was a house in New Orleans…
Jasmin Fürbach, geb 1997, BA in Deutsche Philologie. Currently studying at the University of Vienna for the BA programme English & American Studies and the MA programme Deutsche Philologie. Published short stories: "Asche zu Asche", "Schau nicht in den Spiegel", "Du sollst nicht töten", "Das Lied der Tiefe".