It is a place of dusty dreams. The twisted light cord hanging from the center is gallows rope, its naked light bulb, an abandoned blackening body when lit, barely gives life. The floor grades down to a centered sewer hole for plumbing that was never finished. Stagnant water encircles it, left from old rain that drips in and stays for weeks. Nobody comes down here much but when they do, it is for jars of fruit in the room buried in the far corner; the ‘cold locker’ the young boys call it. It is cold, as cold as a tomb.
A tower of boxes near the stairs seems to shift. Bundles of yellow newspapers stacked next to them huddle like crooked gnomes; they reek something grim. There are paint cans and open tins of varnish near a barren worktable. Long hooks grip it, holding it tight against the wall. Rows of cigarette burn decorate its edge. I remember them. The burns. The partially sealed room next to the worktable allows no light. It is the old coal chute.
A newspaper lays crumpled on the worktable, open to a page, damp with age, wrinkled like old skin. Cold air seals the headline news and photos of the Garrisons. There is a photo of Red Garrison being led handcuffed from the house. There is a picture of his wife Cora, slumped in the back seat of a police car. A blanket partially covers her head. In the corner, a picture of Beale, their oldest daughter, head crooked to the camera, her eyes – shark eyes – staring dead into the lens. Their faces are grainy black and white. Their faces are the same face I see reflected back on the glass jars in the cold locker. My face. No. That’s not true. My face is different. The eyes are the same. Maybe. There are no photos of me. Only reflections.
Beale Garrison moves about upstairs, pattering alone with the cats. I sense their smell. They sense me too and they don’t come down. Beale comes for the baskets of fruit stacked along the wall in the cold locker. She doesn’t venture to this side of the basement. She returned to the house after Red and Cora were sentenced to prison. She was never implicated. I know better. I know what she did. What they did to the child.
Ruth was her name. My name. Time muddles memories. The years meld and twist, bind up in a foggy dream. It feels like a dream. I don’t know if it is. There’s no one to set it right. I am happy to be her, to be Ruth, to be someone. Ruth is gone. She didn’t survive. It says so in the newspaper under the stairwell. Every moment is thick, fuzzy as if looking through a cocooned web. My thoughts come down to me, dream-like, a milky gray and then blackness.
They burn me. Tie and cut me in the coal chute where it is private. I am born different. Deformed. “God’s mistake!” echoes in my dream. “God’s mistake!” There hands are eager. Deliberate. Impatient. There is hurt and blame. I read it in the paper. I don’t know how that is possible. I don’t know how to read. It said I died when I was two. I don’t remember dying.
Red Garrison built this house. He was a craftsman, the newspaper said. He was good with his hands. He made a hobby of carving intricate wood pieces, birds and animals, innocent creatures. I was his hobby too. I remember his fingers. Long. Agile. His hands would harden. Turn dangerous. Cora knew. The doctors at the hospital rebuilt her cheekbone. She said it was an accident while working on the house. We know the truth.
Two neighborhood boys sometimes visit Beale. They are young too. They’ve heard the stories. They’ve been told to stay away from this house. Young boys don’t listen. They are curious. They come to taste the peaches that she preserves in jars. I want to play with them when they come to the cellar. They don’t want to stay. They are afraid. They lurk together, watching the darkened corners. The edges are black cement, an abyss. The minimal light never ventures far. ‘Spider-child’ I hear them say. ‘In the coal chute. Where the spider-child was kept.’
I’m drawn to the cold locker. The baskets stacked along the wall hold the fresh fruit - apples, peaches, pears. They smell sweet. Alive. The light glows on their skin. They were taken from the tree. A tree of life. I know that somehow. I sense it. The fruit did not die. It was given a second life. A new life. The light is warm. It sparks bright on the golden glass jars. I watch the boys gather them, full of the fruit I’ve never tasted. I see their faces as they open the tops and slip out the dripping wedges. ‘She won’t know,’ they whisper licking their fingers. ‘Sweet,’ they say. I wish to taste too. I wish to eat with them. I wouldn’t hurt them. I hear Beale shout for them not to dawdle if they know what’s good for them. Their eyes quickly dart about. They don’t stay long. They gather the jars, then quickly scramble up the stairs, clawing over each other, neither wanting to be the last up. They think something like a hand is reaching for their leg. It is.
My withered arms are bent at the elbow, my hands hooked down, but yesterday I managed to climb to the top of the cellar stairs for the first time. At the far end of the kitchen, the two boys sat waiting. I stood in the darkened frame of the cellar door as Beale moved past. I filled the doorway. I’ve grown some. I don’t know how. She didn’t feel my breath kiss against her neck. She was carrying a bowl of peaches. They were soured. I wanted to reach out and touch her. Tonight I will. Tonight.
Clarence Downe was waiting by his truck when Hawkes showed up. Two other men leaned against a flatbed parked behind, smoking harsh hand-rolled cigarettes.
“Moanin,” Hawkes said as he spilled out of his Suburban. A wide Panama hat covered his round bald head; a pair of blue bib-overalls did their best to stretch over his massive frame. He puffed when he spoke.
“You must be Clarence,” he said, stretching out a beefy hand.
Clarence gripped it and gave it a fair shake. He was a short stocky man with a tall shock of ‘70’s curly black hair and his skin shone black as oil in the morning heat.
“Yes sir, Mr. Hawkes, pleased to meet you,” he said, his steel blue eyes peering at the sky. “Looks like it’s ‘gonna be a blister peeler.”
It was a cloudless day, cicadas already beginning to sing. Hawkes nodded at the flatbed behind Clarence’s truck.
“Brought the bruiser I see. I think we’re going to need it.”
A large Cat bulldozer, school bus-yellow sat dirty on the flatbed. It had seen better days.
“Yep. She’s all primed and ready to do business. Brought a couple of my boys along too.”
He nodded toward the two smokers, then to the house.
“What we got here?”
Hawkes reached awkwardly through the cab window and pulled a rolled document from the cab of the Suburban and waved it at Clarence.
“It’s the old Garrison place. Got a court order here to tear her down, the whole she-bang.”
He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.
“I figure if we set the Cat over in the west side corner there we can get her started, get her going. Should start to collapse I hope.”
Hawkes moped his face with a rag.
“Sure as hell don’t want to go in there,” he said.
Clarence surveyed the property.
“She don’t look so bad. What’s wrong with the place?”
“You ain’t from these parts I see,” Hawkes said.
He took a long, silent look at the house.
“It belonged to the Garrisons some years back,” he said. “Place never seen anything but misery.”
He paused and spat, as if the words had been distasteful in his mouth.
“They killed their little girl in there. Ruthie.”
Clarence looked up at him, his head slightly cocked, his eyes thin.
“Got them life in prison for it. Their oldest daughter Beale got off. Couldn’t pin nothing on her.”
The other two men had stamped their cigarettes and moved closer.
“Beale came back and took up residence again,” Hawkes continued. “There was a public outcry but well,” he paused, “it’s a free country for the supposed innocent, ain’t it? Turned out to be a big mistake.”
He stepped towards the house and stopped at the fence, ran his hand along the gate.
“Where is she?” Clarence said. “This Bea person.”
“Beale,” Hawkes said. “Well she’s dead now too.”
Clarence squinted up at him.
“There were two young neighborhood boys used to visit her,” Hawkes said. “They didn’t know no better, just kids, told to keep away but they didn’t. Beale murdered them. Poisoned them. Used some tainted fruit she was luring them in with I guess.”
“Then she hung herself in the basement.”
Hawkes shook his head.
“Cops found her swinging down there.” He paused, rubbed his slack jaw.
“Didn’t make sense though.”
“Why’s that?” Clarence said, studying him.
“Cops couldn’t figure how she did it, hanging herself I mean. There was nothing beneath her feet for her to stand on. Nothing near her at all.”
Hawkes stood unsteadily at the gate.
“It’s as if she was put there.”