In the walls, I hear her voice. She speaks very plainly. It was the same voice she used to ask me for a kiss. To invite me into her bed. To say she loved me. And finally, when the sickness had reached her mind, to ask “Who are you?” over and over again.
I put my ear to the drywall, and I could still hear her, speaking the garbled chant of a dead language. It’s a constant sermon that family and friends dismiss as a problem with the plumbing. Pipes being pipes. But they don’t listen closely. Those syllables touch upon something primal, like a surgeon poking along at the folds of a patient’s brain, pressing on the uncanny and fleshy crevice that makes you feel like you’re being watched.
Brian looked at the walls closely, glasses resting snugly on his nose, eyes darting behind the glass. “And you’re sure it’s not the pipes?”
While Brian was always my most skeptical friend, he was also the most empathetic. In the face of a thousand curt grimaces and I-just-don’t-know-what-to-say’s, true empathy was a rare commodity. He looked at me seriously, as if to say that he was taking this seriously and said, “Okay. Then we wait.”
In the past, before Elizabeth died and I became a morose wreck of paranoid visions, Brian and I used to talk about our problems over a six-pack. He had brought one today, as much a gesture as anything, and as we settled down into the living room chairs, he popped the cap off of two and gave one to me.
“Here,” he said, “Drink up.”
I didn’t want it but I took it with as much grace as I could, out of appreciation for the gesture.
There was some heavy silence as we both took sips of our beer. Brian kept looking at me, like he had something to say, or there was something he wanted to say. Probably a thousand things. But, without the business of the noises, the forced professionalism of a friend making a house call to check on the plumbing, there wasn’t much to be said. Elizabeth was dead and I was sad. And that was that.
He cocked his head as if he heard something, or as if he was trying to hear something, or as if he wanted me to think he was trying to hear something, but I knew there was no chanting right now. It was silent except for the shuffling of our bodies and the clink of glass on wood.
Finally, he said: “When did it all start?”
“Right, after she passed,” I said. The words were hard to muster. As the word ‘died’ choked my throat, I discovered the utility of euphemisms. “As soon as I got back from the funeral, I could hear her.”
Brian nodded politely, and ran a hand through his wavy black hair. He studied the condensation on his bottle and said, with difficulty, “Are you doing okay, man?”
I thought a moment, and said, “No.”
“I’m so sorry any of this happened to you.” His eyes looked as sad as my own.
I thanked him and we sat there a little longer in silence, sipping on our beers. I stripped the paper label from the bottle with my thumbnail to honor the silence.
And then, low, but intelligible, the voice came. It was plainly Elizabeth. But the words were unpronounceable perversions of language. Brian’s eyes widened, and I could see that he heard them too.
His eyes were a question mark. I nodded curtly. “Yes, that’s it. That’s her.”
I sprung up from my chair and went to the wall, pressing my ear up against it. “She’s in there,” I said. The unique timbre of air passing through her vocal cords was almost too much for me to handle, and I was on the verge of breaking down. I didn’t care what Brian thought or saw, I wanted to break down and cry, just as freely as I did alone. I wanted to smash a hole in that wall and climb in. Anything to be closer to Elizabeth.
Brian had stood up. He was behind me now, watching me press my ear to the wall with a mixture of curiosity and pity. “What is that?”
He said it to himself, but I couldn’t help but answer, “It’s her, Brian. It’s her.”
He took a step back. I couldn’t tear myself away from the wall. “I think it’s coming from below,” I muttered.
Brian might have nodded, or might have just been staring dumbly at me. I was drunk on those enchanted incantations. I’d heard that the sound of a deceased loved one’s voice is the first thing you forget. I was working hard to never let it happen for me. I studied every lilt of her cadence for a desperate taste of the past.
“Does your house have a basement?”
The thought never occurred to me. “No,” I said. But I tore myself from the wall, painfully, and looked at the floor. Brian was looking too.
“Is she down there?” I asked aloud, to myself mostly.
Brian answered, “Something is.”
I had a toolkit that my father gave me when I bought the house. “You’re gonna need it,” he said wryly. I was never much of a handyman but I accepted it with a smile, as a joke.
Now I was armed with a flat-head screwdriver, hammering it into the creases where the floorboards met, splintering wood with every levering motion. Brian was on the other side doing the same. Two city boys tearing at the work of real workmen with the feverish intensity of armageddon street preachers.
One end of a board came loose, rigidly bent upwards. Brian and I pulled on it together, snapping it in half. I tossed the board aside and looked down.
A window, with a jagged, splintered bottom– staring deep into impenetrable blackness. We looked at each other, then back down at the hole in my floor. I felt silly for a moment. We were grown men hunting for ghosts. I was grieving. I probably wasn’t in my right mind, I should–
And then, it was Elizabeth’s voice. Louder than before. That same impeccable diction learned in an east coast boarding school, speaking impossible sounds.
“I can hear her, Brian.”
“Me too,” he said.
His face was growing worried, pale like the blood had been drained from it. He looked older now.
“I need to go down there,” I said.
Brian looked at me like he had already become acquainted with the eventuality of our actions. “Do you have a flashlight?” he asked.
I rummaged around in a kitchen drawer for a moment, back in the living room, he explained, “Before anyone goes down we should shine a light in there, see if there’s anything dangerous.”
Logic trumped excitement and I agreed. We stood over the hole in the floor, almost ceremonially. He had the flashlight turned downward, but not illuminated yet. His eyes turned upwards at me, locking with my own, “Alright, are you ready?”
It was a silly amount of suspense for a hole in the floor. It was probably just earth, or maybe a rat. Maybe it was nothing. But we were tense nonetheless, jittery with curiosity and fear. Behind this tiny black window could be nothing, but the other possibility was that it could be anything. It was looking straight into the eyes of the unknown and we both felt the nervous energy shudder like electricity through our limbs.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
He flicked the light on. He was shaking so much he missed the hole at first. Brian apologized quietly and steadied his hand and moved the beam of light to the jagged black rectangle.
Nothing, or anything.
As soon as we saw it, Brian jerked the beam away. I jumped backwards; awe and revulsion cooking my consciousness. Brian was braver, or perhaps more foolhardy. He stood over the six-inch wide sliver of black and shined the light into it again. Even having prepared himself for whatever was down there, he couldn’t handle it any better a second time. He dropped the flashlight onto the hard floor, looking numb and scrambled. I was having trouble breathing, my lungs were filled with rocks, I leaned up against the wall. Brian stepped out to the kitchen, out of the corner of my eye I saw him with his hands on the counter, vacantly staring down into the brushed metal of the sink.
When I finally caught enough air to keep me moving, I staggered to a chair and sat down. Elizabeth started chanting again. It filled the house, louder than ever.
“What did we just see?” Brian said, finally.
I didn’t have the words to describe what I saw in the black hole in the floor, and judging by his reaction, he hadn’t either. It fried every nerve ending I had, and sent me caterwauling into an abyss I could scarcely conceive.
I shook my head. My tongue was thick and dry in my mouth. Brian re-entered the room and sat down opposite of me. I saw his eyes. His irises were rimmed with blood, his cheeks and nose had the impression of frostbite.
“What was that?”
He started to speak, then stopped and slumped back into the chair and stared into the ceiling.
Elizabeth called from the blackness, dread words of an unknown origin. Perfectly pronounced and impenetrable.
“I understand everything,” Brian said finally.
I looked at him curiously. And then he repeated, “I understand everything. Literally.”
He took a deep breath and stood up and said, “I’m sorry, Paul. I can’t live like this.”
And I saw the red rim of blood around his iris spread and overcome the whites of his eyes. “There are forces… They stretched me like putty, man. I understand everything. Elizabeth isn’t dead, Paul!” He was raving now, frothing at the mouth. His lips twitched when he spoke.
He was tearing at his own face and eyes, all the while he kept saying he was sorry. He stood up, and for a moment I forgot about my grief. I was genuinely scared for my friend. “I can’t do this,” he kept saying. And then he laughed, “They understand everything and nothing.” He looked me in the eyes, with his own blood-red orbs, as if this were of particular note. His pacings kept bringing him closer to the hole in the floor.
And then he stopped, standing over the broken floorboard, “I can help you.” He got on his hands and knees and started stabbing his wrists into the sharps splinters of shattered wood. He grunted athletically until both wrists were an ugly, battered mess of torn flesh and fresh blood. I got up to stop him but he was too quick, he had both hands down into the blackness of the floor before I could get to him. I heard his bones crack.
He was being reshaped. Crushed and dismantled inside the shell of his skin. His skull was first, turning his face into a slack and bloodied tube of meat. He was being dragged into the blackness, through the half-floorboard opening. He didn’t scream, the new dimensions of his body didn’t allow for extravagances like air.
In a matter of seconds, the only thing left of my friend were the remnants of a six-pack and a pool of blood seeping down between the crevices of the floorboards.
The toolbox sat lonely on the floor next to the hole, and I decided to give it some company. I rummaged through it idly, not sure yet whether I was searching for anything in earnest. Maybe I wouldn’t know until I found it.
As I poured over the tools I was keeping my mind busy, counting the degrees of separation between myself and tangible reality. It was like everything I knew was painted on a flimsy sheet that I could see billowing in existential winds.
Elizabeth was still speaking an impenetrable essay in that same casually affluent tone. Even with Brian dead, sucked into the chasm below my starter home, I still grieved for her first.
My fingers found themselves on a hammer. I gripped the shaft of its handle solidly, its absurd weight brought me careening back to earth. It hurt to breathe. My muscles ached. I was eerily aware of my own heartbeat. But, I was here, and just like the hammer in my hands, I had weight and purpose. I looked at the hole in the floor and was overcome with the desire to make it larger. To stare into madness again, if only to get a glimpse of Elizabeth. I started swinging the hammer, the sharp thwacks could probably be heard around the block. I didn’t care. Let them hear, I thought. Let them complain. The widower is at it again, they’ll say. And they’ll be right.
I ripped out floorboards like weeds in a garden. I tossed boards aside, soon there was a pile. The blackness lay in front of me like a slab of lightless eternity.
Without taking my eyes off of it, I reached for the flashlight Brian dropped and switched it on without hesitation.
Beneath my floorboards was a nightmare of colors and inverted flesh– a phantasmagoric menagerie of life and light that pulsed and swelled on a scale as large as the universe. And there, floating in membranes and fluid, was my Elizabeth. The pool she lay in looked like the giant pupil of a massive eyeball. Just like Brian said, she wasn’t dead. They were putting the finishing touches on her skin, her hair was growing. Her lips were moving, chanting those awful syllables.
I wanted to look away. I could feel my eyes burning with hot and salty blood. I knew I was seeing something I wasn’t supposed to. Like a child walking in on intimate parents. But she was there. She was alive, and breathing. And yet, impossibly, I knew she was not. She was in a churchyard in northern Connecticut. She was decomposing. And yet, she was also here, born again in a kaleidoscopic web of organs beyond my capacity to comprehend.
I was piecing together the secrets of everything. Overloaded with stimuli, it was like identifying ingredients you’ve never had in foods you’ve never eaten. I stared into the abyss, never taking my eyes off Elizabeth. If you concentrate, you can pick out the broad strokes of anything. Meat. Broth. Sauce.
I knew what Brian meant when he said he knew everything. I knew now why he laughed.
They reconstituted a vessel. But not a living one. They made from scratch a person who’d already been alive. I shuddered excitedly at the thought, smiling broadly while my irises began to bleed.
I reached down into the corporeal cosmos and grabbed Elizabeth by the wrist, she floated up with my touch like a balloon. And soon she was gripping the edge of the floorboards and I was helping her out. She lay naked on the floor, amniotic fluids pooling around her new body as she gasped her first breaths of air.
They needed a proselytizing sack of organs and bone.
They didn’t realize they were performing a miracle.
I was very lucky.
In the coming weeks, we started a new life. We moved quickly to a place we’d never been; a place where the sun shines. There were questions about Brian, but the floor was repaired and there was no trace of our sacrifice. I discovered a bevy of loose ends could be tied with a shrug and an earnest, “I don’t know.”
She only remembers what I told her.
I’ll keep her as long as I can, before she’s urged away to do their bidding. Even now, she has strange intrusive thoughts, but they haven’t consumed her yet. Next time, I’ll be more prepared for her leaving. For now, we’ll enjoy lazy days and Sunday mornings. We’ll laugh and kiss and cook dinners. We’ll make new friends, people who never had the pleasure of meeting her. In some time, there’ll be another funeral, with an entirely different group of mourners, lucky to have loved her. I’ll be the only one who was there for both services.
Elizabeth was reborn to spread the gospel of those strange and wonderful Ancients, but for now, she’s mine.
We lay in bed, close to each other, high on each other’s warmth. My fingers brush her hair to the side, just like I did the first time I kissed her. When she sleeps, her lips move in those old, impossible shapes. I smile and hold her close, thankful for God’s folly.