Fear is the heart of love.
a short story
All night flight. I came here on an all night flight. Only a few months ago it was back in the fall, the autumn, yes, I remember it no don’t tell me I was always here haunting this house – these houses – on N Street, these twin brownstones standing side by side from a hundred years before Citizen Kane and Star Wars no no no I have not been here forever no I only came here last fall, last autumn, flung across the sky on wings of steel don’t be silly humans cannot fly no no no my little poetry man if you came here at all it was by railroad or perhaps you expect me to believe you drove one of those new-fangled auto-mobiles all the way what? You insist on saying you flew here very well then you flew here yes I did I remember it I am not a ghost I am a human being alive and in the flesh yes I am please no…
I have not been here for two hundred years I am not sleeping on the stairwell, the carpeted steps cushioning my head I am not hiding from the ghost, the banshee, the mistress haunting spirit I am not running away from all of the rooms and huddling under a blanket in my giant woolen peacoat no I am not dreaming I am awake no I am asleep I have not been here for two hundred years I only came here last fall on an all night flight – a red-eye flight from the west – Is that what you call it, my little poetry man? The “red eye” why how quaint yes you have much to teach me little man it has been years since anyone slept here and spoke to me no no no – I have not been here for a hundred years or more, not infested this spot of ground since the slaves dug out the first street paths, not haunted these twin brownstones built on top the ruins of a tiny shop and house and livery stable just east off Connecticutt avenue in the mud in 1832, not haunted in this pair of town houses from the days of Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, not this piece of dirt dug down for a basement where the 20th century furnace roars into life and the huge water-heater huddles back somewhere under the kitchen.
Not the first floor either, that splendid entry hall with double doors against the bitter winter cold and steaming summer heat, not the grand front staircase sweeping upwards toward the floors of bedrooms, not the lovely front parlour with its picture window looking out over the street, not the middle sitting room that later owners – the man and woman ghost pair couple who haunts my every waking and sleeping hour – the middle sitting room converted into a 1940s and 1950s downstairs bedroom, not the dining room beyond with its huge swinging door leading into and out of the kitchen, and its sliding service hatch, not the kitchen, either, with its tiny back service stairs leading down and up, its big back door letting out onto the alley where a coach-house used to be the “back-alley” theater behind Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, no, not that. That does not haunt me I am not here I am not dreaming this these rooms are not all empty empty empty I am I am I am I am not no no no no…
Not the second floor, no, with its endless row of vacant bedrooms leading back back back from the front bathroom toward the back, and then the very back bedroom with its opening door into the solarium – that wonderful screened and glassed in porch, where echoes sing toward the outdoors but nothing escapes the windows, no, no, none of those rooms, not the bathrooms with their ancient claw-foot bathtubs where I sit and soak for hours in giant pools of hot hot hot water, not the bedrooms one after another where two generations of upper middle-class girls grew up with their cheaper by the dozen brothers and bureaucratic father and social climbing mother struggling to reach toward her betters and be kind to those below her station but not let them in with her no not yet, no, not that telephone cabinet down the hall where the first “phone” was put in in 1888, no, and not that grand staircase coming up from the first floor rising on up further toward the third, no no no I am not haunted I am not dreaming I am asleep.
And maybe, only, yes, maybe just perhaps the third floor my favorite floor where I sleep when I am not afraid of the ghostly spectre who rules this abandoned bourgeois palace, yes, in the third floor suite of rooms, the front bathroom in ancient style, and then the front room, middle room, and back bedroom, the suite of sleeping and sitting rooms, one with a fireplace and mantle where I dare to light no fire, no, and then the back bathroom rather modernized in 1939 beige moderne, yes, and the windows of the room that let out onto the fire escape metal ladder by which means I first entered this wonderful abandoned palace only a month ago was that all it was yes I have only been here a month, two months, maybe three I flew east from California no I have not been here haunting this brownstone this townhouse I have not been here for a hundred years and more since before when there was only a tiny shack and an old livery stable no I have not been here all that time trapped in the staircases and rooms no no no I only flew in last November from… what? And now I’m back? Oh yes welcome home my little poetry man from out west how wonderful of you to come back to come back east to your ancient banshee mother how sweet of you to come home I have been waiting for you yes I have you you you have finally come home to your old ghost back east yes yes yes yes yes…
So in my dreams I see her come to me and take me, the incubus or is it succubus I don’t know which but she comes first as an old crone, Momma Davis, the ancient landlady of this boarding house from the 1940s and 50s, from the 1960s and 70s, with her dozen rooms here for rent to students and other petty travelers from far and wide around the world they came to Washingtown D.C. and got stuck in her rooms like flies upon a trap and the great imperial capital sucked all the life out of their bones and Ma Davis locked them up in the walls and drained their spirits of energy and left them alone to go home again to Kansas and Kenya and they hardly knew what no no no my little poetry man it was not like that at all I welcomed them just like I welcome you all my dozens of rooms here full of students and young government workers from Africa and America, no no no it was not like that these whispers in my dreams your wrinkled cheek like a thousand broken furrows across the dust bowl, this ancient, ragged cheek pressed against mine, her lips sucking at my brow drawing out my life and energy while she whispers no no no it was not like that no my little poetry man it was sweet and delicious as young life can be yes yes yes it was and it still is her cracked lips breaking into my ear who knows who knows but one of my boys from east Africa will marry a girl from the midwest and get her with child in the wild and turbulent 60s and that child will grow up to be the first mulatto president of AT&T or IBM or maybe even yes your beloved USA what no of course it is mine too I only meant oh dear little poet man dream on dream on in my empty rooms yes yes yes what room are you sleeping in tonight? Where are you now?
I will find you, yes I will, you cannot hide from me why would you want to hide from my delicious embrace my kiss of history I am so full of life from so many people who have passed by my way and left me with their lives, yes, come to me and tell me your life and I will tell you what all of them told me what you are my little poetry man where are you sleeping tonight? Come, tell me, make me transform with your breath, let the old crone, the haggard woman grow young with change, the aged banshee transform from howling hag into loving, caring mother, prowling the halls of my abandoned boarding house once upon a time it was even more, the home of my youth, three floors of bedrooms and sitting rooms where my brothers and sisters and I grew up a hundred years ago before any automobiles prowled these streets outside where you walk and walk and then come back to tell me what you see. In my dining room and kitchen and parlour, yes, I will find you where are you now my little poetry man I go floating from room to room searching upstairs and down, whispering whispering whispering in the night while sirens howl outside and streetlamps flicker and die. Ah look here you are I lie down beside you, taking into my spell your young body of flesh and blood, incubus of your dream, you are the succubus of my rebirth. Transform me living skin and bone, make me young again.
The middle-aged mother. Woman of feeling and power, of love and protection come to me make me young again and I will tell you secrets and give you power over the outside world where I cannot go but you can wander each day and find new adventures to tell me and feed me feed me feed me yes yes yes yes yes yes… oh yes I am transforming from ancient hag into guardian mother I am becoming my own mother a hundred years ago when all the children ran screaming through the house, upstairs and down, yes yes yes we went running in and out of each others’ rooms chasing each other from room to room shouting upstairs and down until father hollered be quiet you wild rapscallion hooligans and we would laugh and laugh and tumble down the tiny back stairs into the kitchen calling Mother! Mother! Mother!
She was there in the kitchen, yes, she was, just now taking her youngest from her breast and settling that last crippled baby into her crib by the door to be rocked to sleep in the cradle ever rocking rocking out of the cradle ever rocking yes yes yes no. No. This was before they sent her away to be locked up in an institutional “home” outside of town yes Mama had just laid her down for the last time at home and now with tears in her eyes was turning slowly slowly away toward the oven with the giant hot-mitts on her hands, to open it slowly slowly slowly and pull out a huge tray of chocolate chip cookies to set on the stove top and cool cool cool before we could have any we did not know this was baby’s last day in the house that father had decided she must go soas not to take more from us altogether no.
I tell you this, dear poetry man, because I have found you again and can lay myself down beside you and whisper my secrets while I breathe in your spirit your life your essence your living energy so young so sweet so strong and then one of the children steps forward, Virginia the Virgo it is, yes, and she reaches out her hand for a cookie, her young hand so pure, so untouched, so virginal, yes, and when she reaches out for you and me then all my brothers and sisters disappear, and Momma disappears, and Papa in the front parlour harumphing over his evening newspaper with the latest news from New York, they all disappear, yes, they are gone and no no no now there is only this one young girl, the pure, the untouched virgin, lying beside you, dear poetry man and now I am done you may sleep good night and goodbye.
And I wake up. To write this down. God have mercy.