Like a flap of gashed flesh flailing in the wind, there’s a sizely patch of them loose just beside the dormer nearest the attic crawl space, where I lie. It’s a new house. So new that one wouldn’t expect any such superficial unravelings, and the Cretas, Matteo and Stara, cringe at that architectural weak spot just as the protoliterate Sumerians of the Uruk Period cringed at spilt salt upon the hearth. Yesterday, as the first snowfall’s crystalline fingernails scratched testingly against the eaves; yesterday, as the night’s first crystal-sharp inhalation of the Fentanyl rose over my bloodstream like a wooly warm fog, their bedtime consults climbed into the ear that I keep pressed to the space between the joists. Matteo will call someone about mending that domiciliary hangnail first thing Monday morning. A good nor’easter gust might rip the whole patch right off, he told his wife (her muffled sighs swirl up to me like rumpled foreheads hoping for consolatory kissing). Might fling however many of those asphalt rectangles right into the wilds of the front lawn like a safecracker flinging away a picked deadlock, and that is true. Quick as a subliminal message, I gave three knocks against a joist just to let them know exactly how true it was. Then what? Buried beneath the snowdrifts, the moisture and the cold would soon begin to decode the unique riddle of the shingles’ part asphalt, part cementitious togetherness. Come spring the lichen and moss would throw a more penetrative wedge into this material until the summer sun munched its essence into crumbling apartness. The Cretas, though, from the day they laid out their welcome mat and hung their honeymoon pictures along the staircase (a Hawaiian getaway, by the looks of their booze-filled pineapples and lei’d necks) it was obvious that they weren’t the most penetrative type. No regard for the magnifying glass, the loupe, the cipher, all the probing instruments. This is why, closing my eyes in the whistling dark above them, I now concentrate on the silent intervals between their sleeping inhalations, concentrating images of telepathically sent pickaxes and trowels and crowbars into the impressionability of their dreaming minds. On the rafter beside my head I have even drawn, with the chemical residue of my smoked destroyer, crude stick figures of them in their bed, arms reaching out for the inquisitorial tools that float just overhead. A kind of sympathetic magic, as the warty pig and ibex were painted onto the caves of Indonesia and France by hungering Paleolithics.
I’d been studying. For nearly twenty years I must’ve carried around the same crumpled printouts of the undeciphered Cretan hieroglyphs and the Minoan Linear A script, and I was again going cross-eyed before those cryptic shapes and zigzags when Matteo got the call. I could almost see his nervous blood throbbing through the rafters’ grain-veins. The restraint with which he tempered his boyishly bursting footfalls on the staircase bespoke far more than the final “Thank you very much” that had consummated the phone conversation, and I made like a lumbering, hunchbacked yeti over the joists towards the bedroom, where he was certainly headed. Stara was in there, I knew, readying for a night of work-hard-play-hard wealth-waggling (they always stepped out on Saturdays), and there was the billowy whoosh of a lightweight fabric accordioning to the carpet when, just crossing the threshold, he said, “I got it.” She would feel for firmer confirmation: “You got the job?” The winded hrmmph of the mattress beneath their conjoined weight became his full-on affirmation. This house seems to totter in the mildest breeze, to tilt at the foundational level when squirrels gambol down the vinyl siding, when starlight collects in the gutters, and as he bore, drilled, augered into her his chimpish triumph, I was prepared for the whole side façade to go bellyflopping onto the lawn and splatter their wicker light-up reindeer if he hadn’t pogoed off her just as suddenly, top-dogging out with the spank of a puttylike glute and a sportsmanly “See you downstairs.” The hole he had opened in her was still howling, however. The blusteriness of the twilight was howling in the walls’ cavities, staved back only by the threads of pudenda-pink fiberglass with which they were stuffed. Through the ceiling I could then sense the half-makeupped, half-sparked fuse of her swinging underneath the bed (there was a mauve, eight-speed, pulsing, penny-smelling toy in a shoebox down there). A screw, I noticed (and one should never use screws during structural work), had at some point wriggled out of its place onto the flamingo furs of insulation between the joists. I located the small perforation from which it had dislodged itself. Investigationally I attempted to twist it back into its slot, the electric motor buzzing below me, a robot choir of pseudo-religious humming, above which there spiked the sheet-gagged squeaks of her—what could it be called?—cobblery. I thumbed the screw so forcedly into its place that my wrist trembled like a stilt beneath a planet. Stara was a dormouse being flagellated by a weedwhacker. I twisted the screw as I pressed, trying to catch its threading in the wood. Stara pressed a button on the device that upped its Hertz until I nearly expected her to combust like an untended boiler, making toothpicks of the house. The screw fell limply into the cowlicks of pink cotton candy once more (though unlike that fluffy confection the fiberglass would not simply melt with exposure to precipitation, but mold and mold). I might’ve blamed this on dyskinesia, an overall discombobulation of muscle motility as a result of the blankets of smoke in which I wrap myself. I might even blame it on the potentially stripped interior of the perforation in the wood, or simply the unherculean arms of a scholar, but that would be ignoring the fact that holeyness is contagious. A howling hollowness fills into a hole that is opened only absentmindedly. If a hole is to be augered open it’s curiosity that should do the augering. The child-pure desire to find out what’s inside. Otherwise: the hollow hole-howling. Otherwise such a hole fears itself, bawls to be stuffed up, cobbled over with insulation of a sort. Matteo’s new coding job (he repeated this a hundred covetous times as they ate their Chinese delivery some weeks ago) will promise a warm, plushy 90K a year. At Northeastern I would’ve snorted a yachter’s pink-stuffed snort at that figure. But no alpha wolf’s per annum can halt the holing. One hole opens and soon another follows, and whether honest curiosity or trypophobic absentmindedness does the initial opening is the treasure-seeker’s blessing, the desecrater’s curse.
When the electricians (Maurier & Sons had been decaled onto the company trucks, along with a key on a highflying kite) rolled the spools of 15, 20 and 30 amperage wire into the yet walled house I’d been bimbling through these neighborhoods of identical tract housing with a croissant and a hot cider (what but unworrying sameness ever came of a man feeding from croissant and hot cider?). I’d been watching as lightbulbs on the second floor, then the first, then in the lamppost beside the flagstone walkway all, eventually, slathered the whitewash of illumination over end-of-the-day dimness (it took the crew of two only three 8-hour shifts). Now there is never not the low-frequency surge of an activated illuminator in this house. Never not an up-flicked switch, an on-spun dimmer, a juice-spewing outlet that interrupts the pyramidal darkness of night. A student once asked me why there were no windows in the pyramids of Saqqara if so much had been inscribed on their walls. Because, I said, pausing, suffocating on my own amazement, my eyes two ruddling embers aimed at the kerosene of their welling humiliation. Because, do you think the soul needs a flashlight to see what the darkness contains? When the bedroom TV and the bedside lamps are snicked off (although, at their unspoken agreeance, a pulsing Red Sox nightlight remains ever fulgent under a heating duct) all the talking unplugs in this house. Talking, here, is a light-necessitating activity. Mummy-postured in my roost upon the joists, the only adulterant of this much deeper dark is the fleeting flame of the Bic baking beneath the tinfoil. I absorb the inbreathed, ever so slightly sweet fumes into the censor of my lungs, inviting that lacy fog-wad to become detoxified within me, transmuting it into a plumose papyrus inscribed by the dark. As I exhale, as I unspool it through the grates of the heating duct, I instruct it towards their closed lids. Keep them closed, I whisper as I blow, the smoke leaving me as coolly as a catacombic draft. So faithfully closed. Closed as surely as sarcophagi, and tell one another what it is you read upon the endless rows of darklit pictographs. Then, though, the sunrise cracks the tan speckled eggs of their lids, commencing to scramble the scotopic yolks that had been preserved in an encasement of shelly lightlessness. They then stub toes against dumbbells (“Ahhhhh! Matteo, can you PLEASE stop leaving these out!”) and nick elbows against doorjambs (“Fucking, ow!”) as they feel their way downstairs, leaving a trail of activated 29-Watt halogen bulbs and 14-Watt LEDs and 32-Watt fluorescents in their slippering wake, rubbing their sun-seared corneas with sun-zealous relief. Despite the smoky well-wishes I have sent them through the duct, there is still only the daytime, aboveground, during-dishwashing, during-facetiming, during-online-shopping kind of talk that goes on in this house, about as cuspidate as a wine cork (he likes white Australians, she likes red Californians). And as the unstoppable sands of sundown begin to pour into nooks and crannies, the tiny margins behind hutches, the little scurry-slit under the fridge, like an hourglass filling with fine obsidian, there is nothing more than a juiceless, snuffed, total parlance-outage. And so I have descended from my lookout’s post the last two nights, crept out from the scuttle hole as liquidly as the moon itself creeps down the ladders of the sky. Attaining the kitchen, I have de-electrified all the appliances (green glowing microwave clock, blue flashing dot of a charging vacuum, the blinker, green again, on the self-cleaning Mr. Coffee machine). I have also detached the umbilical cords among the living room’s many entertainment luminescents before making way towards the upstairs bathroom, where they have installed another nightlight just under the vanity, a plastic Jesus cradling a bundle of grapes. I jimmied him from the outlet. Afterwards I would tenderly place him back down on the stone sinktop with Matteo’s hair-growth serum and a container of Stara’s falsies (inutile grave goods), but I first tucked him into my blazer pocket along with a providential pair of left-out nose hair clippers. Before gliding back up into my crypt of a crow’s-nest I, devolving to my belly like an adder, so very prudently squirmed my way over towards the Red Sox nightlight under the heating duct and disarmed it with a series of soundless tugs. The slivery croissant of moon had boomeranged across half the area of the lone bedroom window before I backwardly army crawled into the hall, though not without having removed the plastic Jesus and running the sharp edge of the nose hair clippers between his lips, as in the Egyptian mouth opening ceremony, which permits souls borne by the darkness to speak.
Such a bad fight earlier this afternoon that I seemed to witness their expletives wriggling up through the ceiling like so many Mesopotamian demons before piercing the house’s walls and scattering into the needly acres of evergreen that surround the property. They perch there still: a nightmare of spying shadows. Even a top-tier decipherer, one who had, say, won the Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit for classical studies, who had come within a hairsbreadth of unearthing a possible linkage between modern Turkish and the markings on the Phaistos Disc—even such a one as this would know better than to attempt a decryption of the demonic faces that now gawk in from the branches outside the windows. They are the ancient denizens of the chthonic domains within the two houseowners. The language of their horns and fangs and talons will resist true translation by outsiders. First Matteo took with her a tongue made hot-tempered by timorousness: “Well what the hell do you want me to do about it? It must be something like an electrical pulse or something. Something that’d jolt them out of their sockets.” Then Stara took with him a tooth made cruel-tipped by her aloneness: “And you think I’m being far-fetched? No. You know there’s something not right here but you’re too hardheaded to say it.” And months ago, when the hardhats had put up all the wall studs and braces and struts I had shadowed into the fully framed house one night, stargazing through the unroofed rafters like a brain staring up through the unboned skull of a fetus, cloyed by the soothing musk of hardwood. Oakwood, in specific. Expensive because sturdy, because water-resistant, pest-resistant. Yet the buyers are completely ignorant of a wee chubby chirper who has discovered a loose seam in the vinyl siding and the underlayment, who has beaked it enough ajar to shimmy its Ping-Pong ball of a breast right up against where the plywood sheathing nails into the framing. This tiny invader becomes, while keeping quite quiet, a quiveriness of quills when the wind punches in with its snow-plated brass knuckles. I, though, have become too invested for relative quietness. I have taken to pounding my boot against the joists when the warring words within this house vulgarize into mere curse-casting. I pray, in my most earnest Latin, that every booted rap from above sounds in their ears like the million inspiring pickaxes of an archaeological dig. I have prayed that they hone away all the “Go screw yourself,” “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child,” “OK, yea, sure, Mr. Tough Guy” bluntness of their sad lingua franca in exchange for the piercingness of real, uncowardly diggers. Stara, consummate atheist though she may be (I hear you, Stara, when you cast your wistful Our Fathers into the en suite bathroom’s mirror), has convinced Matteo to allow a priest to come smudge the house in what I’m oh so sure will be a lovelessly lackluster Latin. If a never-married man with a holy water squirt gun can dispel the demons they have unleashed in and around this house (funny, the backwardness of the usual warning: DO NOT open, excavate, debar, unlock for fear of demons) then I will butt-slide right down their chimney and kiss him as though he were a better healer than the sandal-wearer he so adores. As it is I’ll razor out a fine white slug on the foil, fire my bedeviling brimstone and hold my breath, hold my breath, hold it as things far colder than the piney squalls outside glare through every knot in the lumber at their hosts. No, not even the hardiness of oak can withstand those needling eyes.
Stara had said, with the vacant humor that comes at the end of one’s wits, that she felt like a poltergeistic cliché, but she was sure there was something here that wanted them gone. Wanted, also, to sunder their union. If either of them had been a scosche more exploratory, if they had only tight-roped over the joists to the remotest end of the attic crawl space, they might’ve uncovered what they could’ve happily mistaken as the blazered something that had it out for them. They might’ve deemed me the methylene chloride to their latex and semi-gloss painted walls. Might’ve cast me as a corrosive chemical that had leaked out from the ceiling and trickled all icky yellow down their wainscotting and trim, leaving the sage paint of the pantry, the ivory paint of the kitchen, the orange creamsicle paint of the bedroom to goiter and ulcer in my wake. But that would’ve been wrong. Unjust, even. Better if they’d zipped up here with a candled cake of thanks and hugged me like the best thing that ever happened to them. Especially since the priest proved as useless as an English dictionary among the pre-Colombian Massachusett. Not a day had passed after the blessing before further demons and dybbuks and jinn and divs spewed forth (“If not for your ridiculousness I wouldn’t have paid the coot a fucking dime!” “Of course you wouldn’t have. You wouldn’t pay a fake farthing for our sake”) from their cores. Imagine the sound of a hammer hitting a stake, but so delicately that it never actually strikes it into the uncharted chest beneath. I could stand the sound of that stagnant sort of striking no longer and so, imagining myself a giant disembodied hand, during the darkest part of the night’s bag of tricks I spidered down from the scuttle hole on skittering fingertips. Soon I was floating in front of the downstairs mantle above the fireplace. In the grasp of the giant hand that I now was there appeared the coaly gunked tinfoil of my own destruction. Laboring in the dark, the hovering hand pressed this crude paintbrush into the pumpkin-colored wall until every black letter seemed carved into a scooped-out gourd. The next morning they both read aloud from this easy-peasy Rosetta Stone in the engrossed unison of horror (“Peel for real. No need to squeal. Peel for real”). Once the words were liberated they gasped, as though to spaghetti-slurp them back into themselves, as though something evil had been summoned. The best way to crack any lingual riddle is to voice it over and over. Kids know that cryptographic rule. But the Cretas, they were not the penetrative type. They have vacated, in fact. First Stara, whose footfalls vomited another screw out from a rafter as she turned tail upstairs to pack (“If you have a deathwish that’s your business, but I’m not stupid enough to stay here anymore”), then Matteo some days later. It wasn’t only a fear of the creaks and the Aramaic murmuring from above that made him flee, but the feeling that something here had guided them to reach, or nearly so, into their respective hidey-holes. Now when they look upon their Hawaiian honeymoon photos they will see no more than two very pretty portraits whose oils were about to run at the merest sprinklet of turpentine. And so the house will be called hexed. Snakebitten. Bad juju. Unlivable. And so the phrogger now becomes the squatter. Poetic potential alone prefers the former term. There are forbidding passageways, unreadable fortunes in the cookie of myself as well, try as I might to spackle them over with the dissipating fumes of my destroyer. But acknowledging myself as a frog, a Frog Prince even, a Frog Prince on a high schooler’s dissecting table, I humbly wait upon this lily pad of an attic for Nature’s metamorphosing smooch. With that lip-to-lip smack of love she will drive her scalpel into the slimy belly of my bitterest innards. She will flay me, spread eagle, as she will flay every other extension of her with a “Cool!” “Wow!” “Awesome!” From my and Stara’s and Matteo’s darknesses she will tweeze the fist-wagging demons like little black beauty marks, translating their flea-voiced boogity-boos beneath a microscope, her nerdy glasses fogging up with breathy wonder for all her take-apart-able creations.
Nicholas D’Olimpio holds an MA in Literature from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is a professor at Worcester State University. He is currently at work on a book of short stories tentatively titled Mad Ape in CarnivalLand with Chickadees and has a completed novel that takes the silent film era and disability/chronic illness as its themes. He is also the violinist, pianist, guitarist and mandolin player for a number of musical projects in the greater Worcester area.