Rhonda Eikamp grew up in Texas and lives in Germany. Stories of hers have appeared in Birkensnake, The Journal of Unlikely Observances and Lackington’s, among others. When not writing fiction, she translates for a German law firm and blogs here. “Golden Rules” began with an online quiz “What fairy-tale are you?” and its surprising answer about her relationship to order and chaos.
I am an orderly man. Possessions, thoughts—these must slide into place, a click, a brusque shove into a dark cabinet, the door slammed. These millstones of life, the things and ideas, all have their place and when they stay there it’s as beautiful as a work of art. What is happening now is ugly. Ugly and impossible.
My wife and son know this. They dart tiny glances my way, darts that stop and fall in midair when I turn on them.
“What is this,” I say. My voice has its own place here. Big, in control. My wife lays one hand on the dining table as if she will speak and doesn’t.
The dirt started at the door and leads here, into the dining room. The footsteps are small and yet full of leaves and grit and quite possibly insects, happy little smears all out of line that form a dancing pattern around our dining set and then end at the far wall, as if the perpetrator waltzed right through it. When I come through the door in the evening I expect a level of comfort for my mind, compensation for my travails in the world out there, supper on the table, a wife and son standing behind their chairs waiting. A quick glance. They have the indoor slippers on. Clean, never worn outside.
“I went to the kitchen for a ladle. I was only gone for a second.” My wife is one of that rare species that gets thinner with marriage and childbearing rather than fatter. She’s a waif now. Petite in all aspects, nails and dark hair kept short, neatness to the bone, for my sake. She is obviously as shaken by this intrusion of chaos as I am. She keeps looking down at the soiled floor, then—oddly—at the table.
“I was upstairs, like, doing homework.” My son’s speech is as sloppy as it always is, sounds not in the right place, but I can’t concentrate on that, because I see our bowls now.
Fatty globules of stew have run down the side of the terrine to crisscross the table. All the bowls have been dirtied. A bowl—mine—is spattered all over, cracked in the middle where the spoon that so haphazardly sampled from the pot was apparently hammered down on it in rage.
“It was just like this. From one second to the next.” My wife’s voice cracks. Her hands fumble at the table, these hands I rely on to keep order with me. “I’ll clean it up.”
These are the visitations I’ve had these past months: the rush of feet on stairs at midnight, a giggle, glimpses of shadows where I have placed lamps, where I’ve ordained light. A perfume, some woodsy flower, two-dimensional, so that I step through the scent draped like a sheet in the middle of a room and can no longer find it when I turn back. A bright thing-child, standing at the far end of the upstairs hall, on a moonless night, gone when I stomp toward it to investigate.
There is something out of place in my home. A trespasser.
“Maybe it’s an experiment,” my son says. We look at him. “Like scientists did this thing where they kept moving things around while people weren’t looking and it made them feel really weird after a while. The people, not the scientists. Maybe scientists are sneaking into the house to mess things up and we’ll be like in their book when it’s finished and be all famous.” His voice dies at my look. It has no place here.
I step to the wall and study the section where the footsteps end. My home is my head and there is no place in my head for impossibility. I will catch the bright thing-child and kill it. It will not walk through walls. It will not slop my food.
Near the baseboard I spy a single hair and lift it. A long golden hair, in its curl a scent of white woodsy flowers, and I turn and hand it to my wife for safekeeping.
Dirt, by its nature, is always out of place. As is blood. If you can see blood, it is a trespasser, outside its bounds of skin and vein. I stare at the entrance hall floor the next evening. A sea of dirt begins just past the door and ebbs left to the dining room, right to the den, too broadly churned to form any one path. The vase from the hall table lies shattered. There are reddish smears on the wall, more dirt, or clay. But no—on the newel-post the miscreant becomes clear, this out-of-place fluid. Blood, thick.
“Here! We’re up here!” my wife calls.
I am a careful man. I take the stairs at my regular pace.
They are cowering on the bed in my son’s room, clutching each other. I see only eyes at first, their too-wide eyes, forest creatures caught in light. She is shaking her head, as if she can sort left from right, real from unreal, with those wide eyes.
“It started when I set the bowls on the table. I straightened one of the chairs and went back in the kitchen for something. I heard it, it was so . . . loud, and when I came back through there was—” She stops to moan. “There was the dirt and the broken vase, and then. Then.” Her voice is a lost item, confused as to its ownership. “I saw . . . the dining room. I stepped back and fell, on the vase. I cut myself.” She does not show me the cut.
Back down at the dining-room door I stop and survey. A chair is broken. That’s not the right word. Shattered. Dismantled. The chair has taken items with it in its demise; it’s been used like a bat, swept across the table, the soup terrine a flyball into the corner, dinner a home run on the flocked wallpaper. Bowls smashed, the other chairs knocked over. The weaponized chair no longer exists as such, reverted to its woodsy origins, kindling scattered throughout the room. I imagine a monster of weight, huge and ghostly, sitting on the chair and crushing it, flinging the pieces in rage. I imagine the bright thing-child, girl-child, as I saw her at the end of the dark hallway, all that lightweight delicacy an illusion, her specific gravity a dense hot lead, centering the weight of the universe in one spot. I do not enjoy imagining.
There’s a painting on the dining-room wall. Stately, my wife proclaimed when she first saw it and so I allowed it to be purchased, a ballroom from another century, minuet dancers in silly clothes: frilled white skirts and neck ruffs. A broken-off leg of the chair has been rammed through this painting and presumably the wall behind. A thick stake, straight through the spot where a male and female dancer have lifted their hands for the first step. Dividing them. I move close to examine it. The stake, thick as my wrist, meshes seamlessly with the hole it’s made, the remainder of the picture undamaged. As though drilled in slowly. The force required for this is not imaginable and so I do not. Not girl-child muscle. Not muscle at all.
The perfume in the room is blatant. The soup we are meant to eat this evening. I won’t.
I hear them come into the door behind me, still breathless.
“I will kill this child,” I vow to them. Tooth and claw, that’s me. Kill it and eat it. Show it what’s for dinner.
I order them to clean and after a moment of hesitation, like broken shards, they begin to.
What can she destroy next? What is more essential, more integral, to my home than this order the golden child has already shattered, my peace of sorts, of all things sorted, now jumbled? I lie awake at night as I never have, phosphenes bouncing before my eyes, random stars that cannot be caught or categorized. I listen to the noises from the kitchen, a banging, slurping, perhaps singing. My wife’s order prevails there, to the extent that I am not the preparer of food, only the eater. It will not affect me. I will not imagine it. My wife pretends to breathe deeply beside me. I can sense her eyes in the dark, wide-open.
After a week, my son brings a book bearing a library tag into the den. We have been subjected to smaller intrusions during this week: little jumblings, like crude conversations. A lampshade, switched on, reveals childish birds in obscene acts, drawn in mud on the inside of the shade. Drawers have been rearranged. Ash in the bathtub. In our well-ordered closet my wife’s clothes are mixed in with mine, mine with hers. This morning the axe I use for firewood and keep in the root cellar was lying like a one-tooth smile in the middle of the den floor.
My son places the book on the perniciously dusted coffee table and opens it to a page he has dog-eared (for which I will not punish him, not now). A chapter on poltergeists.
“Some scientists believe in them. My biology teacher Mr. Anderson asked me loads of questions when I told him after class, like about my house and you. I think he believes, too, and he’s really smart.” At the word smart, a pencil I have been using to note times and fury scales of visitations rolls off the table. I stare at the words on the page. Print is a splendor of cleanliness and I have always loved it. I see a soul motivated to cause mischief and further down subjective validation. Letters each in their place, thousands of pretty pictures nestled up against one another, and yet I can make no sense of them. They could just as well be poetry. Poetry would be an earthquake to my home.
My wife has come in and lays a hand on our son’s shoulder. She bends over the book. She looks exhausted, starving with ghostly longings. She will tell me something, I realize. These are not thoughts I usually have.
Quietly I close the book in her face and slide it, carefully aligned, to the edge of the table.
“Leave,” I command my son.
“But—” He sees my eyes and obeys.
For a moment my wife and I study each other.
“You speak to her when I’m not here.”
“No.” She is shaking her head, sorting the truth again.
“You see her.”
She does not answer.
“You allow her to live here. She cannot remain. She is a danger, to all of us, to our son. My son is important to me.” A possession; my most valued one. The thought is suddenly discomfiting, as out-of-place as the visitations.
We are unraveling, the three of us. We cannot be four. Through the door I can see the dining room. The chair leg is still in the painting. I look down at my fury scale, but it is not fury or rage it tells a tale of. It is abandon, golden abandon. The thing-child’s need to fling, to track in dirt and dance and smear. She is an ignorer of ownership. Rules are radishes to her, bitter stupid adult things to be tossed in the yard. She will have what is pretty, use it, break it.
A plan must be made. Must. Be. I am breaking, a weight sitting on me. I am being drilled through. I am too hot or too cold, and the lord of order will spit me out.
“Tonight,” I growl. “Tonight I will tidy my house. Spring cleaning. We will all work together.” A well-tuned mechanism. Of three. “And then she will be cooked and eaten.”
There have been no more disturbances since my proclamation. We are waiting, all four of us.
This is difficult, leaving the lights on past the appointed hour. I assign positions—my son, upstairs on the edge of his tautly made bed, door open to the hallway. When I lead my wife into the kitchen she says, “Please don’t make me.” She sits on a chair, straight as a pencil, yet she is trembling. Beyond her, past the locked window, the forest opens its black mouth. A poor utensil, this waif-boned thing, I think, this moaner, my wife, and the discomfiture is back, for why should I consider my wife a tool, as empty as the pots around her? Have I always done so? There must be tales inside of her. I am overcome by a desire (a visitation, I will not call it that) to touch her hair, ruffle it instead of comb it into place with my fingers.
This is what the golden thing-child has made of me.
“There must be another way,” my wife says. “Maybe she can learn rules—”
I angle the gooseneck lamp low, inviting, and leave her there.
I open all the doors between rooms, doors usually closed for my peace of mind, and then sit in the den where I can view at least some part of every downstairs room.
The silence ticks by.
Is this life then, sitting and waiting for the impossible to happen? There must have been something—someone—that made me the way I am. In the silence I conjure a papa and a mama, but can get no further than a recollection of unhappy snouts poked at me, a home not much better than a cave. I made myself, all by myself, decided what I would be. I tell myself that, sitting here in the silence.
I have begun to tremble, too, by the time the noise starts. It comes not from the kitchen, or the cellar.
A bump, a shout (my son, in danger). A shattering of a mirror, or a window.
I’m up the stairs in a bound, I’m a bear, the sounds suddenly more savage, but the lights have gone off here, who turned off the lights? I hear his voice—inexplicably—from our parental bedroom, but when I stumble in and throw on the light it’s empty. Something’s been at our bed (in our bed?), something that likes feather pillows, likes to tear them apart and extricate the organs. The day quilt is a hill on the floor, covered in down, the sheets shredded.
In his room the lights won’t work.
“In my bed!”
I fall upon it, catch only air. A giggle. “What is it?” I shout and hear him reply, “Whatever it is, it’s still here!”
His voice is unlocatable. The hall, the roof, the chimney.
Past his open door a shape flits through the hall. Golden-haired in the scant moonlight from the hall-end window. I leave the bedroom and chase it. Crash my hip against a side table that’s been pulled out of place. The shape has frozen now, silhouetted against the locked window. Trapped. It doesn’t move as I approach. It seems all glowing hair, hair down far too low, no taller than my throbbing hip, then I swipe out and she’s in my hands, just as the lights go on. I crush her surprisingly soft head, knead it, and when I look down she’s become a blond wig, fake golden curls, twisted in my fingers.
A noise. I turn back.
The golden thing-child is standing in the hallway, looking at me. She is beautiful and ugly. In a frilled dress that was once white but seems made now of nothing but soup stains and soil. Rosy cheeks and red lips, which can only be applied colors, for beneath she is forest-pale, frightened of me. Too-wide eyes. She should be frightened. This is manipulation and I see through it. She is infinite evil, invader of my family space.
From behind me comes my son’s voice (I tell myself it is from behind me): “She wants to live here, Papa. She has nowhere else to go.”
I am the bear. I have sworn to eat.
Tears rush into his voice. “Please let her stay.” Like blood, tears are trespassers, going where they shouldn’t. Dark contents spilled from cabinets meant to stay closed. I want to push it all back in, slam the doors, but it is spilling out of me now too.
Beyond the girl at the far end of the hall, my wife comes to the top of the stairs, looking from the child to me and back. Her face is resolute, all the trembling gone. Hopeful, for my sake. She approaches the girl. In a moment she will touch her, lay a hand on her shoulder.
We cannot be four. I have no room, no drawers in me for more. Three is just right, and I need just right, I’ve never tried to do without it.
My son’s voice, from behind me, from everywhere, whispers, “This is the only home she knows. I need her. Please, Papa.”
My son is important to me. My son, my possession, yet I see I’ve never owned him. This, I think, is love. To rearrange, reshelve. Or to leave the untidy contents where you find them. Maybe we need dirt. Because she is beautiful there, even in all her abandon. I cannot abandon her. I see a future in which we will leave our doors open to the forest. She will come and go, perhaps. This is not impossible. She can walk through walls anyway, be in any bedroom.
We will be four bears, for my son’s sake
Now and then I will close my eyes, when the chaos inside and out is too much. Other times—perhaps—I’ll smile.
Photography by Toni Holtzman. Toni lives in Gaylord, Michigan, where she works as a hospice R.N. by day, and often night. She loves to travel, and recently returned from visits to Rome, Greece, and Israel.
All Special Issue photos are © 2016, Toni Holtzman