The Woman Is Always Haunted Long Before the House—Amy O’Neil

She wafts in and out of endless rooms with mops and dusters, scrambling for pills in the medicine cabinet. Doors slam behind her. The house is extravagantly large. Wooden floorboards, seventies decor, creaky doors. She glances at the clock. When will he be home? 

She tells her husband about the noises, the shadows lurking in mirrors, the girl in the painting.

‘It’s all in your mind,’ he says cheerfully, kissing the crown of her head, as if being haunted from the inside out makes any difference.

‘The house is too big.’

But he must dash. He’s late for work.

She touches her belly. She prays. What other options are there? Her drinking habit is getting out of hand.

In the painting, a little girl sits behind a window. Raindrops smear her mouth into a frown. As the woman studies the girl, we study her. Uncomfortably close. We could count her pores if Hollywood hadn’t erased them. In any case, we are offered delicately parted lips, a pert nose, darting, frightened eyes. The lost gaze of nothing to do, nowhere to go.

Discordant piano music reaches a crescendo, like a toddler is clumsily slamming the keys. A warning. The girl in the painting twists her mouth, struggling to form words. But what is she trying to say? She must be evil.

The husband finds his wife sleepwalking dangerously close to the pond in a white, sheer nightie. Her only other garments are dresses he bought to cheer her up, necklaces he clasped around her neck while she watched him in the mirror. Now she reaches fingers towards the pond as if groping for something impossible and her hair is clotted with mud. She’s jolted out of her stupor at his touch. The fallen strap of her nightie tells us this can only end one way: insanity or death.

‘We’ll fix it,’ he says, drawing her close. She believes him. We believe him. He carries her into the safety of the house. ‘You must sleep,’ he says. 

Everybody is relieved when she’s unconscious.

He flushes her pills, pours the whiskey down the sink. He holds her wrists while she thrashes against him, eventually collapsing on the kitchen floor in ugly tears.

He resolves to end the affair with his secretary, to give her what she so desperately needs. We all know what she needs. The only thing a woman could need. The camera slides to her stomach.

It’s dark and the windows are open, and she wraps a shawl around her shoulders rather than close them. She puts the kettle on, gazes at the empty lawn stretching towards the forest. A thought holds her there. The camera zooms closer. We no longer perceive her as a whole; she’s an eye, a cornea, a stray lash. We can almost climb inside her skin.

He hacks at the painting with an axe. This will save them. 

The little girl is still trying to say something. Mouthing silent words between strokes of the blade with more urgency than ever. Her attempts are buried in splintered wood and canvas. The woman is crying, clutching her belly, crying.

‘You must sleep!’ he insists.

The little girl is begging her to listen. 

It’s no good. The husband has got into his stride and is grunting with effort. Piano keys crash and clamour. The woman’s face is warped by tears. The camera recoils. 

The painting is a heap on the floor, but he continues with the axe, smiling, laughing: catharsis. 

‘We’ll buy a new one,’ he says upon noticing his wife’s face. 

She searches for a dustpan and brush.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she whispers. We nod. We understand. 

Even if the girl’s voice could raise itself from the rubble and tell a different story, no-one would believe her.

Amy O’Neil lives in Brighton, UK. Her stories have appeared in Mslexia, The Forge, Vestal Review, Flash 500, and others. She recently won the Grindstone literary Flash Fiction contest and Globe Soup Summer short story contest. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @amygraceONeil.

photo by Maria Orlova (via pexels)