When coral and poppy lipsticks melt into waxy pools they are scraped away. Yet the empty tubes remain, rimmed with colorful remnants of time.
The residues of laughing painted lips cling to hollow silver shells. The stifled air, moist with trapped memories, turns acidic, tarnishing the silver bullets in blues and greens. The weaker metals succumb to corrosion and the smooth geometric objects of vanity descend into the mirrored surface, an infinite reflected universe of pock-marked moons and rust-cratered pits. Glass perfume bottles, their contents long since evaporated, reveal droplets of gooey condensation on the inside.
Every time I turn on a faucet, the water splutters in mud-brown streams before finally fading to a pale yellow trickle.
Inside this house there is no letting go.
We can’t even replace the carpets, until the carpets speak for themselves—abruptly unraveling to trip us up. Failing plumbing stains the walls in murky teardrops, rivulets cascading down, down into the earth—and the same shade of paint is used to cover up the blooming mold. The wallpapered rooms are less lucky—if the wallpaper is no longer in production then it stays, doomed to gradually be absorbed by the sweating house. A bathroom with walls of vibrantly colored, life-sized birds has faded from ornate detail to abstract shapes. The yellow finch that used to watch me with a discerning eye has been reduced to the silhouette for a toddler’s puzzle.
The house gasps, groans, wheezes and secretes…
There are birds of all materials here: porcelain eagles, taxidermy ducks and pheasants, delicate glass swans, a bronze peacock figurine.
Mounted on the wall of the den is the head of an indeterminate creature, its mouth open to reveal pointed white teeth. I see my brother and I reflected in its protruding marble eyes.
“It’s a fox”, I say.
“No”, my brother responds resolutely. “It’s an opossum.”
The toy box is an archaeological site, where the heavy wooden blocks of my mother’s childhood lie at the bottom and my own plastic toys float towards the top, all webbed together by the roots of tangled doll hair. We prefer to play with the bronzes—a collection of dog-sized statues line a room, an infinite circular migration. We climb onto ungiving saddles, little hands grasping cold buffalo horns and clutching at the faces of stoic Mohican chiefs.
I am all too aware of the constant surveillance that follows my padded footsteps. The walls are covered in heavy oil paintings, depicting dramatic scenes of nature—a ship caught in the throes of an angry sea, horses (so many herds of horses) in various landscapes—galloping, grazing, leaping into the air with rolling white eyes—and two large portraits of them, stationed in the heart of the house.
The grand piano sits below their looming faces—a glossy sacrificial altar. The ebony surface is covered in a clutter of picture frames, the many factions of a tangled family tree. The newest faces and unions vie for the front, dangerously close to the edge, while past, ended marriages and children long grown linger in the back. It’s the photos that don’t make it in the frames that matter—those candid moments that break through the glossy sheen.
I enter rooms on tip-toe and hold my breath, always waiting for…what? To see the statues scramble back into place? The portraits conversing? I can’t even find peace in the bathroom, where a framed, larger-than-life nude woman bathes in the moonlight, glancing accusingly over her shoulder at me.
And when it all becomes unbearable—all that empty, heavy space, all the unblinking eyes—I defy the house the only way a child can. I open the home stereo system, installed under the old record player, and press play on the album Now That’s What I Call Music 9. There is something immensely satisfying about filling the space with the pulsating base of Missy Elliot and dancing frantically around the house, pausing in front of china cabinets and display cases to flail my limbs wildly. I am both defying the on-looking artefacts and also moving, running, prancing, and crawling for them. I scream the obscene lyrics and, when I don’t know the words, I fill the void with howls, yelps and guttural cries.
In the summer, we collect dozens of inky black tadpoles from the pond and bring them inside to observe their evolution into frogs. With transfixed satisfaction we watch the wiggling amphibians absorb their tails and gills to sprout webbed feet, gradually preferring the floating branches to the depths of the tank.
By the time the frogs are leaping and croaking, their startling ruckus is too erratic and I can feel the house expelling their presence. When I release the frogs, I think of the mounted fox, collecting dust in his perpetual snarl, glass stags frozen in flight, the bronze boar petrified in everlasting terror and the hounds eternally tensed to lunge.
We have granted these things a power and their stillness now vibrates with a tension that will surely crack if the white porcelain arms of ballerinas, extended high over heads, don’t finally rest.
Every closet and drawer is filled with them. Racks of dresses hang in a shocking burst of color that even years of mothballs can’t subdue. Stacked boxes of white leather gloves wait to either mold themselves to my skin in a permanent grasp or disintegrate from the shock of warm, pulsating flesh. His imposing army of suits, the outgrown shells of a larger-than-life man.
Over the years, we grow bolder and shift through her dresses, fingering the stiff fabrics and choosing our favorites.
“Try them on girls”, they whisper.
We are all silent as the rigid materials swallow our wiry bodies, but there is no warm encasing or folding of fabric over our slight frames. The dresses stubbornly maintain their womanly shapes, and we are just sticks propping up the figure of her.
It’s when we start to move that the ritual commences. There is something intimate and precious, and thrilling, because we know it is wrong to be wearing her clothes. In these gowns we feel elegant and graceful and hold our heads high as we twirl and pirouette through the house like a coronation—a sense of importance and birth-right.
We baptize the stiff dresses in our sweat and the dusty-dry fabric greedily soaks in youthful beads of perspiration…a secretion of inheritance.
10 years later
“Now that I’ve left, when I come back to the house I feel like Holden Caulfield,” he says with a half-smile. His posture is rigid though, and I find my brother’s resigned behavior maddening, him acting as if we hadn’t spent our childhood living here. Hands stuffed in his coat, he winds through the room, giving the furnishings a wide berth.
“Remember,” he continues, “how Holden loved the Natural History Museum as a child and suddenly he can’t bear going back because he’s changed and everything remains the same inside the museum?”
I only vaguely remember something about a red (or was it orange?) hat and a carousal. His eyes finally land on the oversized portraits of our great-grandparents, dominating the living room, and his expression sets.
“Meg.” He is resolute, but I can sense a dread in his voice that alarms me.
“I love you and I want to set you free.” He emphasizes “free” as if it means so much more than I understand.
“Sometimes the power of a place, an artefact, or a story, can help guide us into our own. But this has gotten way out of hand. We,” he gestures around the room to indicate our family, “we were once the weavers of our truth. But, suddenly our hands couldn’t keep up with the loom, or it was like the loom didn’t need us anymore…and now we’re tangled, trapped, suffocating in our own creation, while the story shuttles on.”
He is staring at an amethyst geode, displayed on a little pronged easel. He reaches out, hand hovering just above the violet clusters of pyramid tipped crystals.
“I hope that you are able to let it all go…leave this tangled mess where it lies. Perhaps pause to wonder at the knots, frayed ends, and faded dyes…at this jumbled creature that has enveloped you, and what it once was. I want you to feel the blood start to circulate back into limbs that you haven’t even realized are numb, wrapped up in this vice-like thread. When all this is over, maybe take a strand or two with you to carry around as a reminder.”
In the back of my mind, I can hear my cousins’ comments about how lost my brother is. How ungrateful he is to turn his back on all that our family has worked so hard to achieve, and how our spoiled upbringing is the only explanation for his disaffection.
“I don’t understand…”
He surges on:
“You know how Great-Grandpa taught me how to fish? And how I was so excited that I nearly hooked myself in the eye?” I smile fondly as he touches his brow, where a small scar disrupts the arc of hair.
“That never happened. I got this scar from hitting my head on the coffee table. I don’t even like fishing. And I barely remember them!”
He gestures accusatorily at the serene, smiling faces on the wall.
I am horrified.
I was born shortly after my great-grandparents died and grew up envying and reveling in everyone else’s memories of them.
“I started to catch on that everybody in our family had these special moments with them, and that there was never any kind of timeline or specific setting. And everyone is always trying to one-up each other with how meaningful their memories are. Aunt Susan got herself into trouble when she went a bit too far with her sailing story, involving that storm and shipwreck, forgetting that Grandpa never learned to swim.”
He picks up a porcelain horse from the mantle-piece and snaps a leg off. For a moment I swear I hear the terribly crisp ‘crack!’ of breaking glass, resounding through the house. Instead, there is only my own sharp gasp and a dull splintering sound.
“This isn’t hand-made, limited edition porcelain from Vienna. It’s acrylic. Probably from China. Maybe there was an original figurine once-upon-a-time, and maybe Grandma really did smuggle it back from Europe in her jacket, but this particular one is the third acrylic replica—in our lifetime—to be placed here.”
He looks at me pleadingly, “surely you must have caught-on that something was up…”
I look around the room; was there an imperceptible dulling of color and light? Had there always been so much…stuff? Every surface is covered with the treasured belongings of my great-grandparents. I finger the scratchy wool of pillows she crocheted. Here was his rifle collection, above a desk littered with her stationery and a heavy glass paperweight. And suddenly I feel those binding ties that he had been talking about. Every object, painting, and photograph eternalized in my memory over the years is connected to me by hundreds of threads tied to my ribcage. As I stare at the tremoring silky strands, I wonder whether I spun this web or if the objects themselves cast the net. And now I can never unsee or un-feel myself caught, suspended, propped-up in this thing. I realize that these are ties only I can sever. But what if these little connections are what hold me upright? I picture myself in a crumpled heap, with no more wonder and certainty to buoy me back up.
“Hurry!” My brother says, an edge of desperation in his voice, “before it is too late.”
I frantically begin to pull…and pull and pull and the fibrous strings just keep coming….slipping, wet and glistening, through my skin… and then with a panic I press on my stomach and, instead of my bottom ribs, all I feel is soft, vulnerable intestines. I am unraveling myself. I am this thread, and I was moments away from unmaking myself.
Suddenly, my brother’s face transforms. As I watch, it continues to mutate between gender and age, and yet there is something familiar looking back at me. In skin that is soft, taut, and lined—all at once—I glimpse iterations of that same eye-shape and pointed chin. And I am not afraid. “You have passed the test. And so, you have earned these—The Scissors of Acceptance, and The Stone of Truth.” They pass me a pair of small silver scissors and a whetstone that sits reassuringly in the palm of my hand.
“But ask yourself: why was it so easy for my little tale and demonstration to nearly unspool you?”
When does the silence of family secrets, glaring omissions and mysterious gaps, accumulate to become more substantial than what is known? Perhaps the unspoken and unacknowledged is the backbone of the narrative. Perhaps one doesn’t necessarily contradict, or negate, the other.
I cannot pull or exorcise this thing from my body; I must accept it for what it is and be grateful that it supported my trembling legs until I could stand on my own. I use The Scissors of Acceptance, sharpened by The Stone of Truth, to cut the strings. Each snip of the scissors is a snapped chord—a violent jerk, quivering, and finally stillness.
I leave the house. And these ‘orts’—leftover fragments of the past—trail behind me in a soft silver wake. As I continue moving, the ghostly little strings begin to tentatively seek each other, connect like grasping hands, and eventually these remaining ties are the beginning of something new, something whole. A sheening garment, light as air, covers me like a second skin—as comforting as a blanket, as protective as armor.
Meghan Murphy is a writer and artist from Chicago, IL. She is currently working towards her Masters in Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art, in London.