Before the #NaPoWriMo kicks in with its 30 days of 30 new poems, (who is taking part?) here is a little chilling tale of ghostly goings on between the window panes…
Between the Panes
A short story by Damien B. Donnelly
I am a wife. I am a mother. There is a brown house with a red picket fence surrounding it that has our name upon the old fashioned and out dated post box. I can’t remember ever really receiving post. Real post, letters stamped with fondness and posted with a hope of reply. Now everything is emailed instead of mailed. Things change so quickly and I am slower every time with keeping up. I was single once and lived in a cramped cottage that was cold in summer and stuffy in winter. I used to walk barefoot in the mud out back after the rainstorms. My skirt hitched above my knees. My brother would try to push me over. He succeeded only three times. That’s how long it took me to learn that I didn’t like being pushed. I adapted quicker back then as if change was easier. A necessity, a requirement of growth, development. When I was 14, we moved closer to town. My mother cried. Father said something about a fresh start. I got to choose my own bedroom now that it was just my parents and I.
I am a wife. I am a mother. My daughter doesn’t like mud. I thought she would. I imagined she would find comfort in my footsteps. I assumed she would follow her mother to the ends of the earth. That was not to be. You see, she doesn’t like walking. She likes laughing. She can almost choke herself while covering a fit of giggles if she thinks I’m not in the mood. My husband is also not a walker and finds no grounding, no comfort to be barefoot in the mud. Not like my father once did. My husband is funny. My daughter is devoted to funny. I never acquired the taste. My husband is always on the verge of choking.
I am a wife. I am a mother. I have lived for 32 years. I have inhaled the same air as everyone around me but it didn’t kill me. Others have disappeared. Others that shared my air. Others that often begrudged me my very own breath. Sometimes I see their faces in window panes, fleeting flickers trapped between the glass, their voices faint and distant as if an echo of what once was entangled inside an echo of what is no longer. When I was old enough to start working and earn my own money my parents vanished. Somethings I guess happen for a reason. It’s all about timing. I used to hang their photographs on the white polished walls of our brown house with its red picket fence until one day, walking barefoot in the back garden, alone, I caught them looking out at me between the panes of glass in the kitchen window. Their appearance was fractured, like a reflection in a mirror after it’s been smashed. It offered me no clarity but only a cold comfort until I dug my toes deeper into the wet earth as if I could push down that which was trying to rise back up. After that day, I took their photographs down in case their memory was bound in some such way within the picture frame, like that final vision I have of them, the last time I saw them fighting for air in that old attic of our new home near the town, that would always and forever be shackled to some part of my soul. I never liked being up in that draughty attic. I couldn’t wait to get out. It was so stuffy, like our old cottage, like my dead brother, like my parents. I loved my father very much and he loved me. But love is not something you can always hold on to. Sometimes you need to clear out so you can start fresh.
I am a wife. I am a mother. Before we had our daughter, my husband would spend hours, days, entire weekends with his fingers, his tongue, his penis, exploring every inch of my flesh. He had an insatiable thirst that could never be quenched and I never let it. I wanted him to match me in all that I desired. I gave myself up to him like a vessel to be filled, feasted on, fornicate with. We were feverous. Fucking was not just a nocturnal pastime but our daily need. I was his trainer without him ever knowing it. I had learned how to be a silent master. It is so much easier to get what you want when the other person believes he is giving it all up on his own terms. I can at least thank my father for this. I am a wife in a marriage but the terms have never been shared. He is my husband. He always came when I called.
Until I became a mother.
I was a wife. I was a mother. I didn’t enjoy one more than the other. In fact, I can honestly say I only managed to endure them both. I derived no satisfaction, no comfort from those roles my life lead me to. When I was a young girl, my own mother cried often behind the door of the pantry. Occasionally, if I approached her slowly, she would let me take her hand. That was her only outlet. That was her moment of releasing all the pain she embodied but couldn’t speak of. Those minutes behind that door, shrouded with the smell of cinnamon sticks and muslin cloths hanging to dry, were the darkest moments of her day. They were my happiest memories. The only time in my life I felt truly capable to comfort and be comforted.
When I became a wife, my husband took me to his family cottage to live. We had fields instead of neighbours. No one saw us. We had animals instead of friends. No one came to visit. We had a stifling stillness instead of the city’s sound and speed. No one heard me scream. The entire building and surrounding landscape of mounting mud and baying sheep became the pantry I cried in. To hide for a moment behind one door wasn’t enough. My pain, my loss, was bigger, I believe, than my own mother’s. I married a man who was bigger than my father. Stronger than my father. I saw this as seductive and secure. But it was all a myth. He was no less than a monster imitating man.
At night, I often woke alone on the soiled sheets. Battered and broken I would rise up and watch him from the window walking barefoot in the mud across the back fields. It comforted me, momentarily, to watch him from behind the window pane as if somehow that solid sheet of glass could shield me from the sinister spirit that haunted his shadow.
I was a wife. I was a mother. A parent is not meant live beyond their children. That is not the natural order but I grew accustomed over the years to understanding that I had been taken far from anything that was natural. Anything that was expected. We lived on a large farm, in a fading cottage, with that mud and those sheep and the stretched out fields and a sky full of burnt-out stars still shining because no one had told then they were already dead and yet none of that was ordinary.
Ordinary was not the night I woke to a sound so cold, so crippling that I grabbed my husband’s arms to plead with him to hold me in his careless embrace. It sounded like a stick being broken but more fragile, more finite. It caught the cottage in its reverberating echo and all contends trembled in its wake. My husband found the boy. Our boy. My boy.
We had two children. The daughter came first. My husband claimed her early on for himself and later on for something unforgivable. They shared that foreign fondness for bare feet in the freshly formed mud. She liked to hum to herself as I worked in the kitchen even though she knew it bothered me. She never took my hand in the pantry. She never took my hand at all. And I was glad. Even as a baby her touch felt uncharacteristically cold to me. The boy was my son. He came afterwards. I saw his flesh in my blood. I saw my weakness in his silence. I saw his affection when my side became his side. When my reason became his objective. Our offspring could not have been more different. They were stern shadow and stilted light. I encouraged him, as he grew older, to stand his ground. To hold his place against her. I had been wrong.
My husband found him, that night, the night of the snapping wood and reverberating echo, face down in the mud on the other side of the rusty gate. My husband said he must have been sleep walking and somehow climbed the gate and slipped. His neck had snapped in three places, the doctor told us afterwards. But I knew he never liked the darkness. I knew he would never go outside alone in the night. Not even in sleep. Not alone, at least. And so then there was just myself and my husband and his daughter who grew closer to each other as my son grew moved further from my vision, now existing only in brief glimpses as light cast confusions onto window panes that occasionally carried whispers of his reflection.
I was a wife. I was a mother. We had moved closer to town when it happened. A silly house with a white picket fence that my daughter would one day, long after, paint red and too many windows that had no memory of my son. I don’t know if a house, a vessel that has housed so many restless souls, can know what the future holds for it but I am certain that the moment we moved in, it sealed our fate as simply as the shutting of a front door. I had no idea at the time how this house would hold us. I spent too long looking in the windows for a glimpse of the past to notice the reflected projections of what was yet to be, already finding a place within the panes.
I was a husband. I am a father. I was deceived by the first and saved by the second. I was lost for a long time behind a glass wall I couldn’t see through. All I could see was a reflection of my own desires and it wanted more. But it wasn’t me. It was a shadow manipulated by longing and lust. I was held between the frame of a moment caught in time. I had no past or future. I had only the intensity of the structure I was encased in. My wife had lead me there. To that place. That house with its white picket fence she insisted on painting raw red. I had no idea I had become no more than a belonging. A longing she festered to own. I was ravenous for her. I was becoming her beast. Feeding from her breast an intoxication that both fired and confined me. When I was a boy I thought my 8 speed silver racer could take me across the world. Every year the distance extended from the back yard, to the end of the street, into town, across Jackson’s field. I could not get enough. That was all I lived for. To see everything that existed beyond the blue door of our two story semi in a neighbourhood that grew more and more affluent without ever wondering what else life had to offer. When I met my wife, all of that changed instantly. Our bedroom and our hunger became my only existence. I thought it was a choice I had made. I thought I was free within the foundation of our union. I was wrong. My daughter thought me that. It was she, this fragile, bright, smiling little girl who revealed the truth about what was good and all the rest that slips into your bed, under your skin and sucks the spirit out of you in the same way a serpent injects its venom. I never knew how easy it was to fall victim until I finally realised the thing I was now addicted to was vicious.
I was a husband. I am a father. My daughter came as a shock to my wife and a jolt to me. It unnerved her and awakened me. I would wake to the pounding rain in the middle of the night and, from the bedroom window, see her walking naked, her swollen belly exposed to the night’s eyes, in the back garden, traipsing through the mud as if trying to pound her weight upon the earth. As if trying to crush all that was growing beneath her. Later I came to understand that she was really trying to stamp out the life that was growing inside her, the stirring within that had never been her intention. But at the time, I couldn’t see this. It is not always easy to see what’s right in front of you. It was even more difficult to see through our windows. The windows of our house, which in fact was my wife’s house, which had been her parents house before they disappeared, had shadows in the corners of them where there should have been clarity. I swore at times that there was more restless movement between the panes than there was outside in the world. This coming from a man held captive on the inside without knowing it yet. Summer came with a different light, it poured in through the windows and drowned out all possibility of shadow in pane and in partner. My daughter was born of the summer sun, a radiance almost bigger than her own little body. Eyes of an emerald and hair the colour of corn. She was an eye opener in every way. She was a summation of all I had once dreamed of and all I had left outside when I first walked through the doors of that brown house with its white picket fence soon to be stained red. I love my daughter. I thought I loved my wife but it revealed itself finally as lust entangled within the curse of something not of this world. Something mixed with mud and murder.
I was a husband. I am a father. It was my daughters laughter that cracked the spell finally. It came upon me like fresh air into a stale house when the windows are opened and the air invited in. It was that simple and yet so significant. Every day more laughter. Every year more air, more light to wash down the shadow. And then it started. The end. Even ends have beginnings. We came home from an afternoon movie in town to find blank white walls in the hallway where once faces had watched over us. They were not the Instagram finely filtered faces of today. They were not altered of defects or Facebook selfies. They were faces of those who had come before us. Faces that told stories in their lines, in their captivity within the frame, frozen in their own moment. My daughter noticed them first and it was the first time I saw her cry. The faces in the photographs now missing were the faces of her grandparents she had never seen in life. Lost souls who had once walked through the very rooms we called home. My wife was as dismissive of the pictures disappearance as she was of her parents actual disappearance. Why remember a weak mother or a father who had been eaten by his own strength and desire? That was all she said. That was all she was ever going to say on the subject. We are who we are, she told our daughter from the doorway of her bedroom as I tucked the blankets around her tiny frame later that night, pictures just capture a single reflection, like light trapped in the window. You don’t want to be trapped between a sheet of glass, do you?
I was a husband. I am a father. My wife was not who I thought she was. After the lust had settled, after the laughter had arrived, I then began to be aware of fear. For the first time in my life, at the age of 35, on the edge of a town I never managed to cycle far from on that 8 speed silver racer now being recycled into something someone else will also never use to its full extent, in a brown house with a red picket fence that looks like blood soaked swords shooting up from the afterlife, I found myself face to face with fear.
After the photographs vanished and we were left with only the memory of their existence on once pristine white walls, my daughter began a fascination with sitting by certain windows in the house. At first I thought she was watching the world and wondering, like I once did, about how she could become a part of it. But it was more than that. When she was 9, I caught her, while I was taking out the trash in the back yard, staring from the window without looking out. I can’t really explain what I mean by that, suffice to say I was on the outside of the window, she was inside but she didn’t see me. She saw something else. Something between the panes of glass. A trick of shadow and light I told her when she finally whispered about the movement in the windows to me one day. It’s just the sunlight casting reflections on something which isn’t really there, although in the back of my mind I recalled once feeling something similar. Glass is just something to let the light through, it holds nothing of itself. No daddy, she told me at 9 years of age, there are people within the panes. I can see them, she confessed. They are not just shadows. Mammy thought she was getting rid of them by hiding their photographs. But it’s not true. Grandma and grandpa are still here. They tell me things. They show me things that happened but I can’t understand. I can’t always make out the shapes. They are fuzzy like the tv when you don’t tune it in properly. But I know that neither of them are happy.
I was a husband. I am a father. I owed it to my daughter to protect her whatever happened.
I was a wife. I was a mother. I was a disappointment in both. Not intentionally but I failed in both roles nonetheless. I lost a son. I laid his bones in the ground for the earth to comfort in ways that I could not. Now I wonder if he has found that comfort yet. I worry so, because after dying, I realised that I was not yet free. I am still shadow cast upon reflection in pain between the panes of glass that hold me prisoner. That keeps me timeless but without any concept of time passing.
I was a wife. I was a mother. The former was my greatest mistake to begin with. To not be able to see beyond the glimmering pretence of a man so immensely monster was my failing. My mother, in that pantry, with her hand in mine, cried because she had no time to be herself except in tears. She did not know what bruises were beyond what she kissed on the knees and arms of her children. She did not know what torture meant aside from the monotony of her daily life. She did not know what a monster could rip from you beneath the covers of a marital bed. She had a husband, my father, who drank too much and laughed too little. I would have given anything for such a man as that.
I was a wife. I was a mother. But I was an outsider from the moment my daughter was born. They were the couple, my husband and his daughter. They took the wet walks in the newly fragrant mud in bare feet. They found the broken body of my son, that night when I woke to the sound of something snapping, of a bond breaking. They took the decision to move from the place that held the only memory of my boy who always took my side. They took over the use of the stuffy attic in that new brown house that never felt like a home to me but a sentence to be served. I took control only once in my life. I do not regret my actions, even if the truth later revealed itself as a back to front reflection in a picture taken of a moment that shattered my concept of our world, my so-called family and the final crack in a glass wall that could take no more stress.
I was a wife. I was a mother. I opened the door to their attic room one morning when I thought they were out walking. I opened the door and felt my weakness slip from my grasp. I was solid as stone. I was impenetrable in that moment, at the sight laid out on hands and knees before me. There was an old mirror, almost floor to ceiling, that the previous owners had left behind. My daughter and husband were not fond of reflections and all they revealed and had moved it away to the shadows of the attic. It was rusty and the glass had taken a liking to mildew like a man takes to the scent of a woman. But it still has purpose. It still revealed truths that were possibly too difficult for the eyes to see directly. In the ravaged glass I saw my daughter. In that musty glass I saw my husband. He was on his knees before his daughter. She was open legged on the edge of a bed before him. That was how I lost my weakness, finally. I gave it to the reflection in the mirror as I took hold of the old bed pan hanging by the door frame. My husband never had a chance to see his ending begin. With one solid crash, his head split even before it fit the floor.
I was a wife. I was a mother. I thought killing my husband had set us free. I thought I had smashed the monster and only the floorboards would echo with all he had done against us. That was what I thought in those first few minutes. I had killed the monster that had made us meek. I thought that. But I was wrong. I saw it instantly when I looked into the eyes of his daughter. I saw it. In that attic. In that brown house with the white picket fence she would soon stain with the blood of us both. My husband had been a monster but he had planted his seed to root in my body and I had borne nothing of my own likeness and all of his. But she had learned to be more. She had learned to hunger for more. She was already growing tired of being daddy’s little girl. And now I had eliminated him for her. I thought I had lost my weakness but, in part, I had been turned and twisted into fulfilling her desires. Now all that stood in her way was me. Her mother. I knew I had but minutes. Time ticked away from me like the sun descends from day. And she was upon me like the eye of the moon taking hold of the night. Her shadow engulfed me in its clasp. It was cold, like the touch of her skin when she was a baby. But she was no longer a baby and I was no longer for this earth. There was no air. There was to be no more. Or so I thought.
I was a wife. I was a mother. Now I am but shadow. Now I am but a partly forgotten memory of something that once moved. I am the trick you think is light in the corner of your eye when you look out into the world from within. I am at times static and stationary. I am at times a fuzzy blur on the brink of burning out. But I am not alone. I cannot see him but I know he is here with me in between the panes of glass that we no longer have the strength or limbs to shatter. The monster is here somewhere. That monster I married and murdered.
I was a wife. I was a mother. But it was my granddaughter who finally looked out into the world and saw me trapped between it. I whispered into her thoughts and she whispered into the man who my daughter that tired to turn into her prey. But she had been wrong. She had been so wrong to bring a new life into this world. Evil does always bare its likeness into its offspring, just as goodness does not always bare the brightest fruit. I had given birth to both. She had given birth to a light that was too bright to blanket in the shade.
I saw him, that night, that night the river broke its bank at the end of the back garden. It had never burst free from its bed before but rivers are water and a water is like a mirror, is like glass, it shows to the truth if you look closely beneath its depths. He was wading through the mud that my daughter loved and he hated, looking for the source but what he found was not what he ever imagined. If you push something down deep in the ground, it will one day find a way to rise back up. No late night walking, stomping can ever keep fate down for long. I had long since been lost to my body, snared behind the pane but my body was no longer lost to the world. Nor that of my husband and the further he looked for the source of the flooding, the closer my daughter’s husband came to the bones of it all. Our rotting remains came up from hell like a man coming up from air after almost drowning. And suddenly there was the light, crashing against this feet and suddenly there was the darkness revealed to him in the muddy water of his back garden that was once my back garden and had, 15 years earlier, become my grave of utter unrest. He had been looking in all the wrong corners but had finally found, in the depths of night, the truth he had been sleeping next to.
When my daughter returned that night, I turned within the pane of glass from looking outside to a world I was lost to, to looking inside to a daughter I needed to be avenged. He was waiting for her. Standing right next to the bones that had once been mine. The bones that had once been her fathers. He thought he could reason with her until he lost that fight. He thought he could take her until she was on top of him. He thought it was over as her hands chocked the life out of him and I began to see a shadow appearing next to me in the glass. I thought he was finished. I thought evil had finally won. But I was wrong. I had been away from the light so long that I had forgotten how powerful it was. And there it was. In the doorway. And I recalled another doorway and the feeling of my mother’s hand slipping around mine, and the feeling of her tears on my cheek as she leaned her head against mine. And I remembered the comfort I had given her and the comforted folded itself around the memory that I had become. And I whispered to the light. And I reached out deep into the mind of that light. And I offered it comfort as it raised its arms onto all that was comfortless. And the light that was my granddaughter brought its force upon her monster mounted upon her father. And instantly the shadow next to me shifted. And instantly I recognised something cold in its form.
I am a wife. I am a mother. But now I am dead. So I don’t know if I can still call myself either. I didn’t know I was dead until I felt the glass press upon my flesh on all sides. I didn’t know I was dead because I could still see the living, picking up the pieces all around me. In losing life I lost time. I lost the ability to follow one thought to the next. To define one moment from the other. Suddenly I found myself in a continuum of being present and feeling a descent from my own self, my own processions, my own desires. I was vague when I had always been veracious. I shifted in shape between the sheets of glass, limbs disconnected as if I’d been shattered. Parts of my being belonged to someone else, older, weaker, people once vanished by my own hands. I knew I was dead when I looked at my hand, a hand that wasn’t my hand, and recognised it to be that of my mother.
And then I saw them coming towards me, moving in slow, solid motions to where my reflection had collected into a featureless form on the cold corner of the frosted glass of the front window. I saw them coming towards me with spears of broken wood from the red picket fence I had painted, yielding it like swords. I saw them coming towards me, the man I had married and the child I had pushed out of me, and I knew, right before the glass shattered, that even death had an ending.
I was a husband. I am a father. I will never falter again I told myself as we packed up the car with the basic essentials and drove away without looking back at all that lay broken in our wake. We did not speak, my daughter or myself. There was nothing left to say. All that once was had been smashed to pieces. All connections, all reflections released as if we’d amputated ourselves from our past. Or so I thought until we hit that turning on the interstate and I signalled left but my daughter said no. We had still one thing left to do. Someone was still trapped. Someone needed us to release them before we could completely release ourselves from the horror we had endured. One shaft of sorrow still stood in a shadow of pain. And so we turned right and eventually feel upon the old cottage, now rotting by the roadside and partially swamped in mud. My daughter knew where to find him. His mother, her grandma had told him where he’d be. And she was right. The window was still there, still unbroken and still captive to the soul of a young boy with a broken neck in search of salvation. I didn’t cry when we killed my wife. I didn’t cry when I smashed every window in that brown house with the red picket fence to send her soul to hell along with her fathers and let her mother find rest without them. But I cried when I broke the last pane of glass that divided fear from freedom.
I was a husband. I am a father. I have a daughter. We have a connection to each other. It is real. It beats. It is palpable. It cannot be shattered. It is more than just a reflection. We are more than the reflection we see in the mirror, in the glass, in the cold corners where the shadows congregate. It is possible for us now to see beyond the pane.
All Words and Photographs by Damien B. Donnelly