By Easton Smith
My grandmother Greta Johnson used to sneak spiders into the house. She lived with her parents in the back quarters of a rust colored Victorian mansion. Renters in the dreggy bits of former luxury. The kind of old home that rose from the roots of its trees, pulled itself together in a knot of tension fixed between its decay and its sturdiness, wrestling with its own being. Like it was breathing. And against this breathe her father stacked heavy, modern furniture and her mother scrubbed with chemical solvents. The spiders never lasted long. But Greta would snatch new spiders from the garden or the alleyways, and hold them however she could. Crawling up the arm, in a jar, in a closed fist. Greta would bring them inside quickly, because after all she didn’t like the thought of so many delicate legs tapping at her skin like piano keys, crawling up the moist crevice of her her lips, ears, or armpit. She would run to her room and then shake wildly like a conjuring, flicking the tiny beast to some corner or another.
Rat and mouse
Haunt my house
I remember how my grandmother would whisper her song to me as I sat on her lap. I could see the veins in her face, streaking red from the socket of her eye down to the violent edge of her chin. She was skinny at the joints and soggy at the torso, a mawing slump of life. Her stories seemed to keep her insides thumping. Between the telling her mouth hung open like a corpse, her breath turned rancid, almost visibly green.
She told me about her spiders, her mice, and all of the other twiggy bits that she brought into the home. She let the dust accumulate on her dresser and night stand. She stored bones in her top drawer. She did everything she could to rot that home, to encourage its haunting. Se would tear the sheets from her bed, cut open the eyes, and run around a ghostly little girl. But the webs would disappear, she told me. The dust seemed to float away into the air, out the window. Every time I closed the heavy curtains, my father would open them again, tie them up above my reach to let in the bright sun.
My grandmother never saw shadows dancing across the hall at night. She never had her haunting, even after her father got his promotion and bought the entire house. She had a whole wing to herself, replete with a trapdoor to the attic and a moldy staircase to the basement. She would tiptoe about at midnight singing nursery rhymes in hushed tones. But her voice never echoed back to her, her foot never lost its grip. Her mother would wake up and eat ice cream with her, sit in front of the television to watch reruns until she was fast asleep in her arms.
When she was older and she inherited the house, Greta was sure that she could find some way to bring its demons to the surface. She stripped off the old wallpaper and exhumed the wooden bones of the house, paying special attention to accentuate the thick, dark lines in the wood floor. She tore out the central heating and used woodstoves, which left the bedrooms chilly at night. Her own children slept under heavy quilts, listening to the quiet creaking of a house with a thousand tiny holes.
But they were unaffected, at least in the spiritual sense. They called their mother a luddite. Their rebellion was to buy phones and to read modern magazines. Her children never seemed to take ill or develop eccentricities. They were neither pale nor blush. Your father was born in a blue business suit my grandmother told me once. It’s still the way I imagine him, shaved and cinched tight by a perfectly fitted suit. The only stories he ever told me were in the form of complaints: his mother was ‘witchy,’ his father was ‘irresponsible,’ and his life was, at all times, ‘busy’.
After my grandmother took ill, my father took possession of the house. It was the sort of coup that flies over the heads of children. I’m sure if the same thing happened today I would be irate with words like ‘grandmother’s wishes’ and ‘the deed to the house’. But there was no one to intervene in this plunder by my grandmother’s executive children. First, they cleaned and remodeled the house. They painted it baby blue and put in energy efficient lights. They put in a new refrigerator and an electric stove. Sinks with marble, square shaped drainage basins. A cornucopia of styles. So luxurious that it became keitch, a parody of itself.
Still, the house didn’t sell. The only offer that came in was for lot itself, and they took it. The home would be demolished along with the entire city block to make way for a new concept. A sort of live-work-shop conglomeration with perfectly square corners and flat roofs. The sell made my parents quite rich, and they put some of the money in an account for me. They hired the best doctors for grandmother, patted her hand in a condescending way on their monthly visit.
My grandmother’s objections about the house were enfeebled by the various diagnoses that were thrown upon her, like water over a flame. She’s pre-alzheimer’s, geriatric, or sometimes just ‘old’, my parents would say. But to me she seemed as sharp as ever. When I entered her whitewashed room in the ‘retirement’ home I could see her journal and writing supplies out on the desk and her sheets wrapped up into a sort of living mound on the bed, like she had been sculpting them into a beast. Only later did I discover that she hadn’t been writing at all, but drawing. Animating ghosts into the world, studies of her twisted white sheets rising from the bed full of shadowy limbs and expressions.
She would ask me about the house, the progress of its demolition and then the progress of its replacement. She wanted to know the look of the workers who took it down, the sorts of plants that grew along the edges of the construction zone, the kinds of insects that I could locate in the dirt of its ruin. In those moments Greta treated me like the daughter she never had. Like her only connection to the world as it was becoming to be. An equal distribution of questions and directives. And what about the alley behind the house? and Don’t clean up your messes too well, or you might not remember what you dropped yesterday. I loved to sit and talk with her, even though she didn’t have cookies and silver dollars like my other grandmother. Greta looked as wretched and spare as a tree branch in winter, and likewise grounded to some trunk covered in the rough bark of life.
She died not long after the new construction project finished. I remember how I would think of her throaty voice every time I passed by the ‘for rent and lease’ sign, which had a graphic rendering of the very same building in front of which it was staked. Even as the development filled up with tenants it remained empty in its corners and manicured green spaces, like no one had bothered to bring in the spiders.
Near the end my grandmother only told me one wish that she had for herself. Let me die and decompose like a normal person she said. This might mean little in certain circumstances but it meant a lot given her context. My parents had been talking with the doctor about their new boutique genetic containment project called Hope, which placed samples of a loved one’s DNA into stable, portable capsules the size of an ibuprofen. They had all kinds of garish options for containers featured in a glossy catalogue.
So, my grandmother’s DNA ended up in these sealed, airtight containers. A few silver pills that sit in a metal cartridge like bullets. While my parents would have needed her consent to take an organ, these mementos only require a fingernail or a lock of hair, and so they can be constructed from any throwaway fragment. Her penchant for uncleanly spaces probably aided my parents in obtaining a sample. I was at school for the hour of her final passing and when my parents told me about it the next day they already had a gold and dustless heart-shaped locket for me that opened up to a picture of Greta and one silver pill of her DNA. They told me that it was there, should you live to see the day when we can bring her back.
‘From the dead’, they didn’t say. Just bring her back from some ambiguous and fluffy nothingness. But I imagine that beneath that smooth silver case lies a festering chunk of finger flesh, a bit of human irreconcilably corrupted by its death. A double helix broken up and bent in on itself. I imagine that if I were to bring Greta back from this DNA then she would be hollow. A white sheet without eyeholes. A development more vacant than the lot on which it sits.
Now that my parents are gone and I am old, now that the container in which we tried to bind the world has come undone at the seams, now that the sharp cornered building that replaced the victorian mansion has been overgrown by the tampered earth beneath it, I wait for some vine to grow from the inside of this locket, for a spider to burst from its seam. I wait for it to jump from my desk, crack itself upon the floor. I wait for a misty soul to seep out, and to whisper to me all of the repressed magic of its time. But it doesn’t. Greta sits still and sterile, as unhaunted as ever before.