—Isabel Geary Phelps
I still shudder to think of the house on Walnut Lane at the top of the hilly road in the gutters of which I would play in my younger days where, after a heavy rain, small rivers would course. It is as if memories from that house, though mostly mollified by the passing of so many years that naturally dampen the pang of emotion, still pervade at some unconscious level and test the rationality I’ve gained in my old age. The house was cavernous, and the stairs, spiraling their way around were, to me, cliffs—the long corridors dark and endless. In the beginning, there was only me and my parents in the house and they were each often obsessed wholly by their various interests and vocations; my father, a real estate lawyer, spent long hours at the office and longer hours still in his study, thumbing through some book stolen from the law library of his student days or lost in reverie, leaned over an ancient cartograph; my mother, an art dealer, could be found leafing through what she called “high art magazines'' or else she was home baking, plumping pillows, arranging flowers, positioning curtains. And while the painting only hung for a number of years and only possessed me for a number of months, even just the image in my mind’s eye of that gaze, or the thought, when I’ve woken after dozing off before bed in the armchair downstairs, silly and long out of date, that I must now climb through the dark of that old house and, thus, past the painting, in order to reach my boyhood bed for my real sleep, sends a single heartbeat of panic across my chest and down my limbs before I recall that I now live not only streets but whole towns away from my parents and that haunting painting.
My parents, great gallery goers and collectors, always present at estate sales and auctions, had amassed, after over twenty years of marriage, an immense collection of eclectic art that scattered our home. There was the one in my father’s office that, had his study been a painting itself would present as a mise en abyme, with its gilded globes in the upper right hand corner, its atlases spread wide on the table, cluttered by an unlit candlestick, a compass, and an ink set. I liked this one and would lay on the thick Persian rug of his study, though I was not supposed to be in there even when he was away, and stare up at it, imagining I was in that explorer’s room and could flip through those leather bound books and turn to see the far side of the room with, perhaps, decanters and ledgers, bifocals and an open book. And another, in my mother’s sitting room, of a woman painting beside her husband, a lounging man in bright summer dress; the two relaxed in front of a waterfall whose hard, fast drops I’d imagine I could hear. But the painting that so disturbed my young mind in those early days, when I would wander around the curves of that opulent yet emotionally desolate place in which I was raised, hung at the top of the stairs that I was forced, each night, despite my agony, to traverse. This painting gave me such anxiety that I was driven, at times, to panting, to grasping at the air with my hands were the day already over, the shadows already shrinking back out the dimming window from which they’d come, the night setting firmly in.
In the day I would study it and nearly laugh at my nighttime fears for there was nothing there at all but paint upon a canvas. A man, whose face, though objectively not entirely human but rather nearly equine, sat upon a blue couch, one leg crossed over the other in a pose that, though under the twist of nightly shadows seemed impending and nearly imminent, was, with bright daily rays thrown upon it, nothing but unhurried—leisurely. Then, with the descension of the sun, my anxiety would surge. I wanted always, not to look—to wriggle by this plotting fiend, but this was somehow an even more disturbing consideration; for I would worry to no end that his countenance would had shifted even more greatly than any other night simply for my not having governed him with my nocturnal check. I imagined his face so skewed that even my parents would have noticed were I to have pointed him out, which I never did for fear that his knowing my parents now knew what I did about his nightly mischief would have driven him to extremes I could not even imagine. And so, though fearful to my core of looking into his eyes, of taking the hallway that led from the stairs to my room, rather than the back case that had long ago been the servant stairs that would have allowed me to miss the nightmarish image, each night, shakily, I faced him and there we would stand in our routine—him looking at me, a glint in the eye, and me looking at him. Some days it would get to be that, even after my nightly check, where I found that while he had certainly shifted from the expression he’d held all day and grown a pitiless smirk, there was nothing so much more egregious as any prior night, I would lay awake in bed imagining that he had subdued his face some when he’d heard me ascending the stairs and that now, knowing I was tucked away and would not be returning, he had allowed the true cruelty of his face and posture to resume. And once I got to thinking of this I could not again consider sleep until I had checked a second time that he was where he should be looking how he ought to in the evening moon, bluely filtered through our windows. So, filled now with more trepidation even than before, I would silently crack my door and slide my feet along the maroon runner; my pulse would thud, louder than my steps, and my breathing was as that after a long cry, the type that never seems to reach the lungs. Until I finally arrived at his hanging spot and would lift my streaming eyes to his and there he’d be, even more blurred for my tears, staring back, having outsmarted me again, patient and ready.
And when my father would catch me staring, either in the day or in the evening, I was grateful to never be found, nearly palpitative, there in the small hours after midnight, he would say things like, “You love that painting. A sports man and an arts man.” I hadn’t the courage to tell him that not only was I not a sports man, I’d long stopped being admitted onto the field during school soccer or onto the court when winter drove us to basketball, I was even sent to the nurse when, administratively, all students were required to run one timed mile around the outdoor field, but I too was not an arts man for I was so meek as to be frightened to the point of dyspnea by this piece of canvas plastered in oil paint.
So it lends that I preferred when the house, too often populated solely by my parents and me, was full of hustle, when my parents would host dinner parties on the veranda and thus the house, all day, would be filled with the fluttering of the maid and the caterers, when a florist would wander through the parlor and the great room with my mother planning color schemes and finding the best spot for peonies and the right place for a bouquet of hydrangeas to sprout up. The home was also frequented by workers, my father planning some constructional extension off the back of his study or my mother desiring the demolition of some wall that caged her; “Harold, don’t you think this room would be so much more inviting were it an open concept?” And in the summer of my haunting there were also painters, two men who came to paint the room at the end of the hall baby blue. But when, and this was often, I would find myself with only my parents, or, more often still, entirely alone in the sepulchral house, I would spend much of my time outside. It was a balmy and early spring in which bunnies, small as my fist, would sit in the grass like smooth stones, and twiggy nests housed little blue eggs balanced on low branches. I would lay out, sunning my pale legs, and I would move inch by inch with the sun, so that one of the turrets from the roof would keep my face cast in shade, and when the sun, though not yet set, no longer graced the grass with rays and rather lit the expanse of the lawn from somewhere beyond the spires of the house with a hazy evening glow, I would shroud myself in a sweater and sit on the near side of the oak with my back against the trunk and watch the members of my house move about without the knowledge of my gaze. My mother would stand like a picture in the kitchen; where her stare fell I couldn’t ever be sure, her hands on her stomach, she would almost rock, there at the counter, from side to side for many uninterrupted minutes until my father, who I could also see, two windows over, would rise from his desk with some noise, inaudible to me in the yard, but that always caught my mother’s attention, breaking her from where ever she’d gone, and she’d move quickly to the sink or the fridge or the door.
But sure as the sun always set, those terrifying summer nights were no different, and soon I would lose my sight, barely able to see my own hands in front of my face and I would scurry in to a late dinner with the two of them still lost in thoughts that lingered from their days and all too soon I would be sent to bed; sooner still that summer, for my mother had stopped taking a nightly aperitif for which I had always been allowed to remain present. And so I would drag myself from my stern, wooden chair and begin the ascent to greet my tormentor.
I remember the night of the incident well, for it left in me a bodily panic that rises up still when the shadows of tree branches, blowing in an unseasonable gust, cross just right upon the wall to form an eye winking or a smirk lifting. A siren woke me that night and alerted my ears to a screaming that rang out through the echoing house. A shrieking. A high-pitched wail that rose and fell. I saw him, in my mind, having finally risen to enact what he had for so long been planning; his face, further deformed, his hands—gnarled. His distorted body letting itself down from the frame, neonate in his new form. Mangled, he worked his way through the narrow halls of the house. I could not bring myself to leave my bed that night though I knew some calamity was taking place and felt certain in the knowledge that tomorrow everything would be permanently changed.
ISABEL GEARY PHELPS recently received her Masters in Humanities from The University of Chicago and MFA from The University of Colorado Boulder. Her short fiction and poems have appeared in The Greensboro Review and Plains Paradox. Phelps was a finalist with Split Lip and received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, as well as the Battrick Poetry Prize and the Ruth Murray Underhill Scholarship. Phelps currently teaches Creative Writing at CU Boulder.