The apartment is ready for her by the time she arrives. She isn’t sure, exactly, where she is. In a city, somewhere, but it is dark and she is tired and there are no words to ask. She speaks a little to her cousin, J, but it is tedious for him, speaking in their language. The words burrow under his tongue and refuse to emerge. He grew up in the United States and prefers to speak English. Clara, his wife, claims to speak Mandarin, but that is of no use in this situation.
The couple leads her down the stairs at the side of their house and into the basement. A single light bulb hangs from the center of the room. It is empty except for a washer and dryer, a rack stacked with deconstructed cardboard boxes, and a chest freezer. A weak ray of light emanates from the bulb, its soft beam fading into the surrounding darkness. Clara walks confidently across the room toward another door. M follows.
Inside is the apartment that she will call her home. Or so she hopes. She wants to leave what has happened behind. To erase the images in her head. But when Clara opens the door to reveal the place where she is to begin a new life, M doesn’t feel anything—no trace of nervous excitement, mild disappointment, or even the slightest relief at having finally, after many months, reached her destination. No, she doesn’t feel anything. Not even the concrete floor beneath her feet nor the gust of wind forcing itself through a crack in the window.
Clara switches on the lights, and M sees that the apartment is nothing more than a studio. The lights are blinding, fluorescent—a shock compared to the dying light in the other room. The walls are the color of aging paper, a trace of yellow hidden somewhere beneath the paint. The floors are tiled with linoleum and colored the gray of dirty bath water. By the door, there is a sink and a bit of counter space, a few cabinets. There is neither a stove nor a refrigerator.
J, who insisted on carrying her backpack from the car to her room, drops the bag on the bed. He explains to M that she can store dry goods down here, but she’ll need to come upstairs to cook, to share their kitchen.
It’s no problem at all, Clara assures her.
M sits on the bed, feeling the lumpy mattress beneath her. The blankets smell of age. She tells her cousin and his wife that she would like to rest for a while. The words tumble heavily from her mouth as though they are stones.
After J and Clara leave her, she stretches out on the bed and sinks her head into the pillow. She glances around the room once more.
No, she thinks. It is unlikely that she will ever call this place home.
That night, the wind rattles the window with such violence that M thinks it may shatter. She imagines shards of glass bursting from the pane with such force that they rocket across the room, lodging themselves into the opposite wall.
The window is above her, so—she thinks—that if she just stays in bed, the glass will sail over her head. She will remain untouched.
It’s human instinct, she knows, to run as far away from danger as you can. But, sometimes, the farther you run, the more danger you find yourself in—or, at least, a different danger.
She looks across the room at the wall from which the glass will splinter.
She will stay where she is, still as a dried-up river. In the end, though, it won’t matter. The night—interminable as it may seem—will eventually pass, and the window will never break.
M is in her new home for a week before the girl first appears.
In that time, Clara walked her to the supermarket to shop for groceries. She helped her purchase a fare card for the trains and buses, and showed her where the subway station was in relation to the house. J accompanied her to a nearby community center to sign up for English classes, and her name was placed at the bottom of a list of students to be called when the new term started, sometime in early March.
The couple invites her up into their home, which smells of cinnamon and cloves, for dinner most evenings. She accepts, not wanting to seem unappreciative of their hospitality, though she already feels to be in their debt.
It will be a few weeks before you adjust, J tells her as he strokes Ash, the couple’s tabby cat. He purrs and trembles with delight at J’s touch.
Things will begin to feel normal again. Soon.
M nods. She had never met J before that night when he picked her up at the airport. He was clutching a recent photograph that her mother had sent him for reference. Throughout her childhood, M heard J’s name mentioned periodically, though she couldn’t ever recall seeing a photo of him. She certainly never imagined that she would meet him in person, let alone become entirely dependent on him. That all changed, though, when she left for the U.S. with nowhere else to go. They were suddenly forced to forge a relationship where there had been none, their shared blood their only commonality. M feels awkward for putting him in this position and then forcing him to make trivial conversation with her on a daily basis.
It is one such evening that M returns, depressed and depleted, to her apartment below and sits on her bed. She opens her English dictionary and stares at the unknown words before her. She tries to focus on them, to dust aside the veil of language and uncover the meaning, but she soon feels drowsy. She would rather drift into oblivion.
She awakens in the middle of the night. Something, she feels, has been tugging at her consciousness. She is warm and covered in a thin film of sweat. She is not alone.
The room is dark, as black as a night in the forest. It is somehow quieter, though. Stiller. Her eyes take a long time to adjust to the darkness. She shuts them tight, trying to will herself back to sleep. She wishes she were back home, in her bed, in an actual bedroom, not in a converted basement where no one was ever meant to live.
She turns on her side, pulling the heavy blankets up over her nose. The dark seems like something solid, impenetrable, but she feels something—someone—beyond her, somewhere in the night. She wants to call out, but her voice is knotted somewhere in her chest. Tears gather at the corner of her eyes. The hair rises on her arms. She shudders.
There is something at the edge of her bed, beside her feet, sinking into the mattress. She glances down, over the blankets, and sees her: a figure dense and full of shadows. She somehow understands that it is a child sitting there, and a little girl at that.
M draws her legs to her chest and hides beneath the blankets. Although she doesn’t feel threatened, she is afraid nonetheless. Panicked even. At some point in the night, she falls back into an uneasy sleep and dreams that the girl is still beside her, silently watching.
The lawyer meets with M in her downtown office. Outside of her twenty-third floor window, gray towers pierce a solid sky, blue as lapis. J accompanies her. He does his best to interpret as the lawyer explains the asylum process. The lawyer pauses and grins. It is not clear to whom. M grits her teeth and folds her lips into something that she believes must resemble a smile.
M will have to wait 150 days from the time that her asylum application is submitted. M nods. She was a university professor back home. She had an advanced degree and several volumes of poetry published. A novel. She was, she can admit, not well-known, but she had an accomplished career. Perhaps, she suggests, with a tinge of shyness in her voice, she can teach again once her English improves.
The lawyer continues to explain the asylum process, a labyrinthine thing filled with interviews and forms and minutiae and tedium. She is clearly younger than M. She looks kind, serious. M wonders if, in a different time and place, they could have been friends. But what time or place would that have been? Their lives could have only ever intersected in the way that they do now. The result of suffering, of courage, of fear.
When will it all be over, M asks. She wants to know the timeline, when she can expect a decision on her case. On her future. J asks the question for her.
The lawyer’s eyes turn downward, so slightly that M barely notices. She looks sad, this lawyer. Like a tree whose roots have been ripped from the ground. Where does this sadness come from? What are the stories that resound in her ears? Where does she carry those stories? In the cavity of her chest? The depths of her bowels? The beds of her fingernails?
She takes a ballpoint pen from a drawer in her desk, scratches it against the yellow of a fresh pad of paper. The ink comes out in faint blue streaks.
Tell me what happened, she says, looking at M with those sad blue eyes.
What happened? They killed M’s brother.
Who are they? M shrugs. Does it matter?
They never wanted to kill her brother. They wanted her.
Why? Because there was a time when she had too many words inside of her. Words that she strung together like paper lanterns. Words that illuminated a truth rather than obscured it. She was dangerous when she wrote. But she had learned her lesson. It was fine to write poetry when it was about an approaching season, or a romantic love, or the sorrow that accompanies the passing of a loved one. But there were borders that she had dared to cross.
She hasn’t written anything since the publication of her novel. A fictionalized account of a true event: the grisly slaughter of an order of nuns. It had happened nearly two decades earlier. The women had lived in a remote area of the country, somewhere beyond the place where the mountains crack open the sky. They had hidden indigenous families when the paramilitary came to hunt them. The army raided their convent late one night, leaving behind only a pool of blood, ankle-deep and thick with the grit that had blown inside from dirt roads.
There were no bodies.
No one spoke about this event. It had been erased from history. Her students had never even known that such a thing had occurred. And so close to their home. As the years passed, the massacre drifted further and further away from her colleagues’, her friends’, her family’s consciousness. So M wrote fifty thousand words on the subject, and a friend at the university agreed to publish it after some convincing. There were less than a thousand copies in circulation. But they came looking for her anyway, and—when they didn’t find her—they killed her brother, leaving him dangling from a tree by his wrists, his flesh purpled and rough from exposure to the wind and rain and sun. His mouth open in a silent scream.
M sees her thoughts on the walls of the room, like insects swollen with blood and splattered across a window pane. They are distant, detached, as though someone else’s. She pulls at her fingers, sharp bursts of air erupting as the bones separate from the joints. Today—she can see from her small window—there is sun.
She runs her hands through her hair, thick with grease.
She will go outside. Later.
But to do so, she will need to use the bathroom upstairs, J and Clara’s bathroom, since the bathroom in the basement has only a toilet and sink. Maybe she’ll just rinse her hair under the faucet. She sits up and collapses into her body, as spent as a singed matchstick. She closes her eyes for what seems to be a long while. When she stands up, she pushes herself from the bed.
M runs the water at her sink in the corner of her room. As she waits for the water to warm, she notices that the paint on the wall is bubbling. Soft, yeasty bubbles that rise steadily like dough. She places her hand over one of the bulbous cysts. It feels like a blister, hollow inside. She curls her fingers around its edges and pinches. It pops. A quick release of air. And something else.
A streak of a thick red liquid leaves a trail on the wall.
One day Ash disappears. Through the ceiling, M hears Clara calling to him all afternoon. When she goes upstairs for dinner, Clara looks pale and sickly. J holds her tight, his arms a boundary to her grief.
He’s not here, Clara repeats through sobs. Where could he have gone?
J shakes his head. Ash never leaves the house, would never leave the house. Where is he then, Clara asks, her tone suddenly venomous.
M joins them in searching the house yet again. Upturned cushions, furniture moved to the middle of the room, cabinet doors swung open. There is nothing left untouched, and nothing to be found.
This classroom is so different from the lecture halls that M used to teach in, auditoriums intended to hold hundreds of students. This room is small with barely enough space for twenty students, a teacher, and the long plastic tables around which students cluster. The instructor has long, curly hair that ribbons past her hips and bounces in rhythm with her sentences. Her voice is a singsong, an incantation.
M sits beside a woman named Josie. Her hands are folded over a new notebook. Her pencil is freshly sharpened. She seems studious, serious. During the first activity, M and Josie face one another and introduce themselves. M learns that Josie is from Haiti, that she came here after an earthquake—one that leveled her family’s house—and that she has lived in the U.S. for several years already. She apologizes for her poor English with an embarrassed smile. She hasn’t had much time to study the language. She often works in a hotel, cleaning, in order to send money home to her mother. M feels as though she too should be embarrassed of her English. After all, Josie speaks much more assuredly and seems to understand much more than she does, nodding along to the teacher’s instructions and jokes, while M stares blankly, trying to piece the sounds together in order to create some semblance of meaning.
After their brief conversation, M introduces Josie to the class, and Josie introduces M. Afterwards, the pair will walk out of the station toward the train together. M will wonder if this is the beginning of a friendship, if Josie will be a companion to her in this new, dark place. But for now, they flip through a packet of worksheets and try to make sense of the past tense.
The girl appears to M again, but she does not wait until night. It is late morning. M has her notebook open in front of her, her English homework stretched out like an ancient scroll, incomprehensible in its infinite mysteries.
A soft reverberation slowly moves toward her like slippers shuffling in the night. M looks up. The girl stands in the doorway. She is a dark mass, one with humanlike features. M feels a heavy stillness move in her. She can no longer hear her heartbeat inside of her body. The air around her feels suddenly thick and humid and oppressive.
The girls stares at M. Her face is flat. She has no eyes, yet her stare is plaintive and curious. M wonders if the girl would like to ask her something. She wonders if, in turn, she would like to ask this girl anything. What happened to you, she would like to ask. Who did this to you, she wonders. But her voice is lodged in her throat, the words tangled like prey in a spider’s web. She reaches out for the girl, her fingers stretching toward the slender body—can it even be called a body?—before her. But she is just beyond her reach. The girl remains static, unmoving and immovable, her head cocked at an awkward angle toward M.
M closes her eyes. She feels the walls close in on her like a tomb. She feels them press up against her, folding her body into itself. She feels her bones grind into dust. There was a time when she longed for this feeling—this sense of being enclosed in something, protected from the outside world—but now she longs only for an absence of consciousness.
When she opens her eyes, the girl is gone. The room feels just a little tighter.
M sets out with the sinking sun. She heads south on the main street, past the corner stores with their doors locked for the evening. It’s unseasonably cold for April—even in this northern city—and her neighborhood seems uninviting and hostile. The few people on the streets are wrapped in their bulging winter jackets, knit caps pulled over their ears, wool scarves hiding their mouths and noses. M’s breath dances in front of her before disappearing into the night beyond, only the barest trace of what was once part of her left behind.
She pushes her hands into her pockets and folds them into tight fists. She walks and walks and walks. She is still on the main street, but in a neighborhood that she no longer recognizes. Empty lots border the abandoned buildings around her, their windows boarded up with plywood and scratched sheets of plastic. The darkness is punctuated by the occasional streetlamp, a meandering ellipsis of light along this stretch of desert. A flutter of panic rises in M’s chest. It seems impossible that this is the place in which she now lives.
She turns to begin the long trek back to the house. She wishes she were home.
M’s arms are stretched above her, limp and numb. Her hips are heavy, pulling her body down, toward the orange dirt beneath her. Under the strain, her arms separate from her shoulders. The pain shatters, splintering into needles that shoot through her body. The sound of teeth grinding rings in her ears. Through the blurred veil of tears, she sees three figures. Men in black masks. Their shoulders broad, their hands black with grime and dirt. One holds a crowbar, raises it high. M feels her chest heave with her breath—a quick, deep intake of air. And then it comes down hard against the side of her face. It sends a shock through her body, the vibrations settling in her toes.
After some time, she regains consciousness. A burning sensation winds its way up her arm, coursing through her body like blood in an artery. Something inside of her rips. The men begin to lift the skin, peeling it back like a stamp ready to be licked. The flesh beneath is red and raw, slippery with ruby blood. M screams and screams until she wakes up in the empty darkness of her room. She is damp with sweat.
The girl kneels beside her bed, watching. Always watching. They stay like that for a long while. M, with her blanket pulled up to her eyes, choking on her sobs, and the girl beside her, her presence neither comforting nor menacing, until she moves—or glides, rather—to the edge of the bed and curls up like a stray cat at M’s feet.
The next day, M asks J about the girl. She asks if he knows of the families who have lived in this house before him. Maybe one of them had a little girl? He shrugs. He doesn’t know and he doesn’t care to indulge her. He’s on his way out the door and already late to work. M asks Clara, but she doesn’t know either.
Could someone have died here, in this house? M insists. Clara’s eyes widen with alarm. She shudders at the thought, then goes into the kitchen to make tea. M stands alone in the front room for a very long time.
When the lawyer meets with her a second time, she asks M to retell her story.
M does. She pronounces each word slowly, enunciating clearly so that J understands. He speaks her language fairly well, and his fluency has improved since M arrived. But she doesn’t want her fate to hang on the nuances of language. She knows that the lawyer is checking for holes in her story. If there are any, she assures M, she will help her to fill them. She will conduct additional research and compile affidavits and fill out lengthy documents. She will spin a narrative out of the threads of memory and fear that have found a home in M’s life. She will take the facts of M’s life and make a story of it. A story to be told and believed.
M was once a writer. She understands how this works.
M returns to the apartment from English class. She took the train with Josie for most of the way. She considered asking Josie if she could move in with her. She would have offered to pay a portion of the rent. She still has to wait another three months—at least—for her work authorization to be approved, but she thinks that maybe she can find something informal, in a restaurant perhaps. She understands now that she won’t be able to work at a university again. That was a different life.
In the end, she doesn’t ask Josie. There’s no reason for her to not ask. She just doesn’t. Maybe she will tomorrow.
M sits at her desk and places her English worksheets in front of her. She makes a neat pile of them, then pushes them to the side. She stares at the wall in front of her. She leans forward, inspecting a hairline crack that falls just above her eyeline. It winds up to the ceiling, like a long thread trailing a balloon, waiting to be yanked back down to Earth. She wants to pull on it to see what comes down. Maybe this is where her friend, the girl, lives. M thinks that maybe she will find her inside. That maybe she will set her free.
I can do that, M thinks. That, I have the power to do.
She stands up and pushes the desk to the side. She props herself against the wall, leaning into it, her left hand flat against the plaster for balance. She begins to pick at the crack. Pieces of paint flake beneath her fingernail, lodging themselves in her nail bed. Soon, she is scraping, leaving behind a comet trail of blood on the once-white wall. She digs and digs, finally punching through the plaster. A small fist-sized hole gapes at her with an open mouth. M cries out for the girl, but she does not come when summoned.
M lies on her bed, waiting for the sun to set, for the time when she will sleep.
The girl lies beside her. She opens M’s mouth. Pushes herself in and in. That night, M dreams of what happens to girls that are too curious, girls with too much imagination. It is much worse than what happened to her brother.
When she wakes up, M will fly into a frenzy. She will stumble from her bed, to her desk. In the dark, she will bang her toe against her bedframe and she will mutter a curse beneath her breath. She will sit in front of her incomplete worksheets and cradle her head in her hands, trying to make sense of the images projected in her mind, the sounds that reverberate in her ears. In a desperate, violent act, she will pick up her pen and she will begin to write, on the backs of her worksheets, then between the printed words on their fronts, and then—when there is no more space—on the desk itself. She will write with rage, with vengeance, with force.
But for now, M observes her own fears as she drifts to sleep.
Gisella Faggi has had short fiction and poetry published in such magazines as About Place Journal, Grey Sparrow Journal, and War, Literature & the Arts, among others. She calls Philadelphia, Rome, and Chicago home. Find her online at www.gisellafaggi.com and on Twitter @gisellafaggi.