sunset over the back field

At the Core

Fat, red, the grocer’s sticker still adhered to its egg-smooth skin; it rested on top of some other fruits in a tattered basket whose stained wicker unwound itself and broke with a snapping sound when touched. There was always a bright, delicious apple in among the Bartlett pears, the purple plums, the fur-covered peaches. The basket had been the centerpiece of her grandmother’s kitchen table until the day she died, which was that day.

The basket had been delivered with the news. Was she stunned? They had all believed the old woman would live forever.

“She wanted you to have this.” Her mother, stalwart and effective, handed the basket over as though the fruits held poison within their flesh. The apple stood out like a flame among the other muted greens and yellows, all of them dulled by the brilliance of that first fruit.

Isobel took the gift with suspicion; her hand trembled as she grasped the frayed wicker handle. It was only an apple — wasn’t it? The idea of Grandmother’s death did not strike her as immediately as did this burning symbol of a childhood spent in her grandmother’s care. Grandmother, the witch. Was this some sick joke her mother was playing?

“The funeral is on Saturday.” That was the extent of it. Isobel watched her mother drive away; the basket dangled from her fingers. What to do with it?

She felt that she could reasonably place it on her own kitchen table, and did so. It was only a basket, with fruit, after all. Much later, as she poured herself a glass of vodka, ice clear and cold, she plucked the apple up. It was smooth, unblemished, and firm. She turned it round and round in her paint-stained hand.

She almost wished she could cry, react in a normal fashion to death. And yet, she was resigned to the dry skin of her cheeks. A hollow woman, she knew, does not miraculously fill with tears.

She was alerted by a late call from a crying aunt that they would empty Grandmother’s house the very next day. She would want to be there, the aunt made clear, to claim some pieces for her own.

Would she go? Yes. She would. She wanted that trunk, the one that had grown cobwebs in the far corner of the attic. She wanted it badly, had done so since she had first encountered it, years ago, in one of several unauthorized explorations of that forgotten room.

*

It had been twenty years since her feet had last climbed the brick steps that led to the front door of Grandmother’s house. Nothing had changed. The same arching evergreens laid spindles and needles over the pitted brick steps that led up and up, to the front door. Even the flowers that grew beside the steps had reappeared, year after year, with blooms she remembered from her youth. They didn’t seem as large, or as magical, now. In her time-wizened eyes, they seemed as though they had been painted there and that any life that once grew within them had turned to stone.

The foyer was musty, as the rest of the house must be. Grandmother had lived for one hundred years, spending the last fifteen of them alone in her home. At her age, Isobel suspected, one did not bother much with cleaning. Yet, it had been this way when Isobel lived there. Exactly this way. It was eerie to see the same silver candle-snuffer that had fascinated her as a child still wrapped in a doily, place carefully in the drawer of the small bureau that guarded the entrance to the dining room. Funny. There had never been a candle on that bureau to be snuffed. Grandmother hated fire.

Aunts, cousins, her mother and assorted uncles swarmed through the hallways. Did any of these people share her blood, after all? They filtered though the hallways, picking over Grandmother’s things like sparrows, pecking here and there for a bit of bread on the sidewalk. Isobel was uninterested in their finds. She reached behind a kitchen cupboard to pull down the ring of keys she hoped would still be there. It was.

Six years old she had been when she watched, unseen, as her grandmother hung the ring on its hook. It held the only key to the attic, a room kept locked at all times and left mostly undisturbed. Every so often Isobel would hear the old woman up there, moving things around, looking for some artifact of her childhood, perhaps, though she never brought anything down. The attic held all of the mysteries and all of the terrors that had plagued a very small Isobel, once upon a time. And, of course, because she wasn’t allowed to go there, she did.

Before she challenged the stairway leading up, Isobel wanted to wander once through the remainder of the rooms on this, the first floor. She wanted to make sure she hadn’t imagined this life.

“Isobel, is that you?” A woman approached. “Look at you!” she said, jowls shaking, a sodden tissue clutched in one hand.

Isobel squinted. Who could it be? Isobel wanted to distance herself from this mass of flesh, just as she had distanced herself from the entirety of her grandmother’s world, but she held her ground. Those many lessons in manners had crept into her marrow and could not be dislodged.

“Of course you don’t remember me,” the auntie blubbered. “You were such a tiny girl when I saw you last.” On she went, detailing some happily forgotten incident involving a cereal bowl, some slurping, and a quick smack to Isobel’s young cheek. Her words fell into Isobel and echoed in the spaces. In someone else those words might bounce from nerve to nerve, touching memory and activating the sensors that recognize pain. In Isobel they were lost in the silence of her emptiness.

“Oh. Hello.” Isobel attempted a smile. She was sickened by this scene, not only by the aunt wallowing in assumed pain but also by all of them, immersed in grief over the death of a woman who, in life, had broken every one of them, in one way or another. It stunk. Isobel sneezed. The woman passed on to her next victim.

The living room, too, was just as she remembered it. Not a figment of her imagination, then. The piles of books were still intact. So many stacks, enough to begin a small library, that, just for a moment, Isobel was transported back to a time when those books had been her shelter.

It was not the words within their brittle pages. Isobel had hardly been able to read them. She had not been particularly interested in the life of Benjamin Franklin or of Queen Victoria anyway. Spencer, in whom she had been interested, was too much for a four year old to fathom. No, the words had not been her haven. It was the actual, physical books. She had used them as building blocks. Her playroom had once been the site of a vast and dark forest (if only in her mind) and she had labored long and hard at constructing a tower within its midst. A tower made of books. She built it with herself in the center, from the inside out, so that by the time she was done its walls loomed above her head.

In this manner she hoped to hide from the witch, and in this tower she had learned to still her fear with the smell of brittle pages.

Enough of this, she thought. Isobel left the room, and the books, and headed for the stair.

Hardwood, unpolished, steep and creaking steps led to the second floor. There she would find the bedrooms, three of them, and a bathroom, and the locked door to the attic. No one had yet made it up the stairs; they were too busy sorting goods below. Isobel was alone, and grateful for it. The hole in Isobel’s chest shifted, stretched. This was where it had begun.

Down the hallway, to the left, an open door led into what had once been her very own bedroom. It was there that she went first. Did she want to make peace with the child she had been? Did she want to see if the ghosts were still in residence? She felt no presence as she stood above the chipped vanity, gazing into the mirror that warped her shape beyond human recognition, turned her into a freak at the show.

The brush that her grandmother had used on her hair, one hundred strokes each night (one for each year of the woman’s life—had she known?) was there below the mirror, just where she had left it. She loved that brush, loved those good, quiet minutes when Grandmother had steadily moved the bristles over her scalp. Isobel picked it up and ran it through hair that fell to her waist. Those strokes had not been in vain. Or had they? Isobel prized her hair, coppery and strong.

By the time Isobel had escaped to college, she knew more about fear and the cold, hollow thing a person must become to escape it, than any person should. She had often wondered, as the years passed away, if there really had been ghosts, or if, somehow, the terror that her grandmother had instilled in her was given external voices in the secret depths of the night. It could not be analyzed. Perhaps it was both. She called them ghosts and they had hollowed her out. Isobel knew this.

There was no fear in her now; it had all been swallowed up long ago. She recalled without feeling the voices that had poured out of the attic. She remembered how in those moments before sleep, she’d had the very clear sensation of falling deeply into herself. It was as though she became dizzy, lying there in her bed, sucked down into a black vortex inside her skull. That was the hole, slowly growing within her. In the hole she heard the voices begin, whispering, growing in volume, pounding her ears with their fury until her senses finally restored themselves. Then, the voices would move out of her, or was it only then that she was able to hear them echoing from the room above her head?

The attic was dusty, dark, full of noises she later learned were squirrels, and cobwebs, huge cobwebs, hung from the rafters, and things lay scattered around from centuries past. The concept of time was brought home early. Old books, old things littered Grandmother’s house. She was an avid collector of everything old. She was old, even then.

When Isobel felt brave, in the daylight, and her grandmother was away, she would sneak into the attic. She had seen the key. It always caught her, that sense of age. Dresses, black and crinkled, from a Victorian woman’s closet, a shoe so tiny that, no matter how she tried to force her foot into its satin form, could not fit. Ivory corsets turned russet and stinking with the stale sweat of a hundred years ago. There were toys, wooden toys from a pre-Hitler Germany, little pained faces painted on little men. There were trunks full of rusted and dented musical instruments. Isobel used to imagine them being played in a Prussian court. But all of these wonders frightened her; she felt so very young, and as though she shouldn’t be young at all. The hole, as it grew larger, had swallowed her youth along with her fear. The voices came from the attic. Whispering—first one, then an entire chorus of them, calling her name. Over and over again until she was afraid she would wet the bed. The bathroom door lay beyond the attic door, trapping her neatly in her room with the voices.

A breeze blew in through an open window. Isobel shut it. She smoothed the coverlet on the bed; she fluffed a pillow. She wasn’t here for this.

She had spent the last twenty years forgetting that she had a grandmother. Her grandmother, she had been told, had spent all of that time forgetting that she had this particular granddaughter. That was fine with Isobel. She wanted nothing to do with the woman who had raised the belt over her head, put soap in her mouth, and stated to all who would listen that here was a girl going straight to Hell. The Devil’s own child. She let the hole eat the spark of pain as it flickered in her breast. All she wanted was that trunk.

She could see the garden from her bedroom window. There, the holly under whose prickly limbs she had sheltered from fierce tirades. There, the dogwood, covering the grass in fallen blossoms. There, the sunken pool, full with tangled weeds and broken stones. Isobel smiled. Of all the memories she had carried with her, the finest had grown in that garden. The hole had been unable to digest the weeds.

The attic called. Not the voices, no, they were silent. Perhaps the ghosts had moved on.

The key turned in the lock. Beyond the door lay the genus loci of fear. She had suspected that her grandmother climbed these steps and brewed foul potions above her head at night. She had imagined that dried carcasses, puppy-dog tails and snails, hung from the rafters. Even though she found no evidence of this in her few sojourns into the attic’s depths, still she knew they were there. Craftily hidden by the old woman, to be sure, but there nonetheless. These were the ingredients, which, when combined and ingested, made Grandmother mean.

Isobel understood, in her maturity, that these were childhood fancies. Then why did her hand tremble on the knob? There was nothing above to reveal the cause of her grandmother’s wretched behavior. She knew this. She knew, after years of therapy, that there would be no naming the monsters that had driven the woman to sin. Isobel had spent her adult life removing herself from that sin, unable to comprehend it or to wash it off her skin. Without the fear, there would have been no hole, but she had long since given up her attempts to fill it. Isobel was resigned to being hollow, but had never learned not to resent Grandmother’s part in making her so.

She must move forward.

The steps creaked, agonized by the unfamiliar weight placed upon them. She pressed on the light, its switch a relic from decades past, two knobs in a plate. Motes of dust traveled in gloomy circles above her head, illuminated by the wavering bulb at the top of the stairs.

She knew where she was going. She pushed the dresses aside; they were still hanging on a pipe which had been suspended by frayed rope from the ceiling. Behind them the alcove welcomed her—old friend, distant playmate. She had secreted herself here, pretended she was Cinderella sweeping the floor. The dresses rustled. Once that would have driven Isobel away, certain the ghosts were coming for her. Now Isobel recognized that the rafters were not so as tight as they should be and that a draft could easily slip between the beams, if it were in the mood.

At the back of the alcove, hidden beneath a moldy blanket, was the trunk. Isobel sneezed yet again and wished she had a tissue of her own. Nothing had been touched here in this secret compartment of the house. Her grandmother, she knew, had never bothered with this trunk. Her business had been in other corners of the attic.

Isobel removed the blanket, causing a flurry of debris to swirl about her head. She held her nose, this time prepared. Something small scampered away across the floor. A mouse, Isobel thought. The place was plagued with them.

As a young girl, she had insisted that her grandmother purchase the no-kill traps for the creatures. She had felt a sense of solidarity with the tiny beings. They, too, scurried and ran in futile attempts to hide from the tall humans that inhabited their world. Isobel shuddered. She did not like mice, now. Grandmother had scoffed at the idea. They would only return to the house, she reasoned, and nodded with satisfaction when the metal snapped their necks.

The handles of the trunk were made of cloth that had long since rotted away. She angled herself over its bulk, thinking to drag it from its hole. It was heavy. She maneuvered it from its corner, pushed it to the front of the alcove. Impatient, for she heard voices below, she shoved aside the dresses and pulled it out from behind them. It was as far as she managed before they came up to see what she was doing.

“I want this piece.” Isobel made it very clear to the uncles, come to investigate the noise, that this was her chosen inheritance.

“What do you want that old thing for?” one of them blustered, unable to comprehend her desire.

What, indeed. How could she explain to this very ordinary man that the trunk held the last secrets?

She had made her escape on an autumn day after her eighteenth birthday. She had waited patiently for Grandmother to sleep and then she had dropped herself from her bedroom window and run as far as she could, away. By then she had learned to replace fear with hatred, but the hole choked down that, too, in due time. Now she felt nothing, but as she had run down the hill and ducked into the shadows on the street, her mind locked on that trunk and the belief was born that inside of it she would find the answer.

Over the course of the long summer before she left, Isobel had opened every cupboard, drawer, and closet in the house, determined to find—what? Some proof of her history? A clue to her origin? Something that would connect her to the witch and subsequently sever that connection? She still could not explain her own behavior, but by the time that summer was over she had even gone so far as to pry up loose floorboards. She had raided the attic, scoffing at ghosts, and only one thing had evaded her. The trunk.

It was locked. It had always been locked and there was no key to be found. This trunk, she imagined, had once traveled the world on steamers and trains, had lived through the death and birth of nations, had been used by ancestors long gone to dust. She knew, somewhere in her own secret heart, that it contained, if not treasure of a more usual sort, baubles and gems, the treasure of her past. Why else would Grandmother, so intent on leaving questions unanswered, have kept it locked and hidden for so long?

There was no way to explain to this uncle that, in all of her years away and forgetting, this one item had remained with her. Like a gray hair which, when plucked, returns the very next day, or a remnant of pain from an ankle broken years before, it had lived with her since she had discovered it. Because it was locked up so tightly, she had a fiery need to open it. The idea of this trunk had settled in her belly and while the hole had grown around it to swallow all the rest of Isobel, it had been left untouched, unpalatable.

“Well, if that’s all you want (was that avarice in his eye, or pity?), then I guess me and the boys will carry it out for you.”

Isobel nodded her thanks.

Her truck was parked on the street in front of the house. She opened it up to the men, who shoved the trunk in with panting grunts and snorting.

“How’re you gonna get that thing in your house?” one of them asked, a concerned cousin.

“I’ll find a way,” she smiled.

They shrugged and stomped off, back into the house to claim some booty of their own. Keys in her hand, she looked, for what she knew to be the last time, on the castle that had contained her in her youth. Enclosed by tall pines, the house seemed empty, as dry and as dead as its owner. The breeze blew a limb from out of the sun’s way. The attic window, revealed in a glint of light, winked at Isobel. She got in her car and drove off.

She asked for, and received, the help of a neighbor, and with a painful effort they got the wooden mass of the trunk into her living room. There it stayed. Isobel’s muscles ached from the strain. Now, in her possession, it lost its urgency. She took her time cleaning it, gently ran a damp cloth over its pitted surface, along the seams of the wood, over the leather straps that bound it together. She left it with the scent of oil soap in its pores. She sat with it that night in pleasant solitude. At last. It was hers.

She called her employer the next morning. “Death in the family, yes, my grandmother. No, I won’t be in. I’ll call you when I’m ready to return.” They were kind, they understood. She was free.

What to do with the thing? It was an antique, perhaps three hundred years old. She had no way to know for certain. If she pried the lock, she would destroy its value. Did she care about that? Not really. There were other options, but she didn’t want to cause it any damage. It was a childhood friend restored. She cherished it.

The real dilemma behind the making of these superficial decisions was simple. Did she still believe this trunk held any answers? And, what were the questions? At this late date, she felt that perhaps her origins no longer mattered. She wondered how Grandmother had acquired the trunk and remembered when she had tormented herself by imagining that a body lay locked beneath its lid. Mummified, ancient, a dread corpse that would spring out at her should the thing be opened. Silly child.

She circled around it, a big cat coming in for the kill. If she smashed it—no! How did that thought sneak in?

She was thirsty. In the kitchen she noted the basket with surprise. She had forgotten it was there. She would never be able to eat all of the fruit before it spoiled, so she bundled the green apples and yellow pears and purple plums into a bag and carried them across the street, offering them as a gift to the neighbor who had lifted the trunk with her.

Back in the kitchen, the red apple waited. She did not trust it, would not eat it, could not give it away. The witch, handing her an apple from beyond the grave. Daring her to take a bite.

The basket was lined with a faded dishtowel that had seen far better days. How long since Grandmother had washed it? Gross, Isobel thought, as she folded it up and tossed it into the garbage pail. Beneath it was a key.

Isobel stared at the thing as if it was a bug where no bug should be. A key where no key should be. What key? Could it be? Her nerves made nonsense rhymes out of fear. She had done this as a child, too. She stuffed it all into the hole. She picked up the key, her slim fingers meeting around cold metal.

It was old, scarred and rusted, and bent. Three connected circles graced its top, and at the bottom of a long stem the teeth grew out in a pattern that begged to be fitted into a matching lock. She put it by the apple and sat down at her kitchen table, thirst left behind.

How many years had she thought about that trunk, considering how many ways to pry it open? Thirty? How simple, so simple she never would have thought of it in her youth, the hiding place had been. She admired her grandmother’s canny ability to conceal something so important almost in plain sight.

Isobel was good at ignoring things, she pushed them into the hole and they were gone, as though they had never been. She pulled this talent into play now. Ignore the questions, ignore the possibilities, ignore the voice in her head that said wait, think about this. She took the key and put it into the lock, turned it clockwise and heard a pop as the middle latch sprang up, eager for release. On either side, two other latches waited; she slid their knobs aside and gave them their space. They, too, stood up with ease.

The lid lifted with an awful creaking and from within a cloud of dust rose to greet her. She waved it aside, coughing. On top of the contents rested a yellowed newspaper, spread out to cover what lay beneath. She looked at the date: 1932. My God, she thought. Had anyone opened it since then? A tremor ran down her spine. The hole gaped, hungry. It sensed her emotion, knew that feeding time was near.

The paper crumbled as she removed it, and made a nice mess on her living room carpet.
She tried not to be shocked when the contents of the trunk were revealed. She failed. The hole opened wide. The room faded and one of those moments, those falling into herself moments, came upon her. The rush of blood was all she could hear, and beneath it a pumping heart, as the dizziness swept through her veins with a strength she had forgotten. The voices flooded through her mind, symphonic and drowning out all else, calling her name.

She came to her senses a few minutes later, prone beside the trunk. She used its rim to heave herself up, onto her knees, resuming the position she had held when the spell brought her down. All was as before. Book upon book—she guessed that there were hundreds of them—lined the trunk. No wonder it had been so heavy. She lifted one, opened its cover. A diary. 1920. Grandmother’s diary.

It took hours to stack them all in order, to remove them, one by one, to sniff them, peer into them, place them on the rug. By the time the trunk was emptied, she had built a tower around herself much like she had done as a child. It struck her that this was so and she giggled, young again.

Night had fallen and she did not notice. The years extended from a small pile dated 1920 to another small pile dated 1950. For some of those years there were twelve books, for others, only three or four. The last, lone diary was dated 1964. The year of Isobel’s birth. The trunk had been opened; the newspaper on top had misled her.

An alarm sounded in the bedroom upstairs, reminding her that it was time to dress and go to work. She had been awake the entire night, sorting through the mess. Her nosed itched, her allergies loud in protest of these new additions to her life. She had not read a single one. She was afraid. The fear had come out of the attic and lived now with her. She was too tired to consider what this might mean.

Alarm silenced, she collapsed into her bed and did not rise until nightfall.

It was then that she began to read them. One after the other, for three days she read without stopping. She carried the diaries with her into the bathroom; she held them as she poured herself a drink; she read on as she pulled mail from her box, tossing it aside, uninterested. She was possessed by them, by these frail pieces of paper encased within covered board, decades old, lined with ink. Real ink. Time passed and she was unaware of it. Neighbors knocked and she ignored them. The ringer on her phone was off. She read until, at last, the last was in her hand. 1964.

It had tempted her, this survivor, this slim volume that had come to life as she had, when she had. But, no. She had refused to be swayed. She wanted to read them in order; she wanted a clear sense of the passage of time. She had it now; only this remained. She set it aside. She was hungry. Had she eaten? She could not recall.

Isobel sat at the kitchen table and ran her fingers through her hair. One hundred strokes. The only means by which her grandmother could reveal kindness. The diaries had contained within them stories of cruelty, poverty, and abuse. Starvation caused by the Depression, war, black anger at a mother who was never there, a father who raised a belt, a switch, his hand. A young girl forced to replace her mother at too delicate of an age who had built towers, and hidden in the trees. In so many words she spelled out, in her neat hand, the word fear. Hers had created an anger which had spilled out onto those she loved, made her incapable of showing that love, while Isobel’s fear had been swallowed by a ravenous hole, a hollowness created to protect her from Grandmother’s anger. Isobel was stunned at how very connected they were, after all.

She saw these glimpses of herself in the mind of the woman whose words she read. At first she fought against this, but it was a battle she could not win. Each syllable sank into her cells, echoing there, resounding, harmonizing. Grandmother had been small and afraid, had ghosts in her attic, and a witch for a mother. They were a family of witches, brewing potions of terror and forcing their offspring to drink them. Soap in the mouth, a belt to the back. The Devil’s own children.

One more to read and it was done, but she could not do it. Not yet. She had to fit these pieces into place; she had to rearrange her memories, place reason behind the actions that had confused her. One hundred strokes held all of the affection her grandmother was capable of giving. She had not been pretending. One hundred, every night, like penance.

The diary waited for Isobel. It said, pick me up, read me, unleash my secrets. Yes. It was time.

Isobel read. Her left hand held the book, thumb marking her place between pages. Her right hand committed mutiny. While her mind was engaged elsewhere this traitorous hand reached for the red apple, closed its fingers around it, and brought it to Isobel’s lips. Unthinking, absorbed, she took a bite. And another.

The last page: December, 1964.

“She’ll be one year old soon. Papa and I will bake her a little cake, and put a candle in it. What was I thinking? I am too old for this. But I couldn’t leave her there, in the garden. Damn her mother for that. The child, Isobel. She is my only hope. Perhaps in her I can undo all that I have done in error. She’ll find these diaries one day, I’ll make sure of it. I’ll lock this trunk. I know she’ll pry, and I know it will drive her mad. She’ll say I’m a witch, I know that, too, just like I said of my mother, and she her own before that. No hope for it, we are what we are. I know you’re there, Isobel, reading these words, and that if you are, I’m dead. Do you see it now? This is the end, then. No time for diaries with you in the house.”

A rush of air whistled from her lips, emptying her lungs entirely so that, for one brief moment, she was all hollow and deflating. She drew her breath back in and with it came the voices calling out her name and she was filled with the sound of her grandmother, crying in the night. There had been no ghosts, after all, only the sound of an old woman, calling out her name in sorrow. She held the book in one hand while the other, having completed its deed unnoticed, dropped the remains of the apple, eaten to the core. Isobel, full, put her head down on the table and slept.


[At the Core was first published in Fantasy Magazine, 2006.]

[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]


Leave a Comment