I crept into the dark, vacant stairwell, the source of many family ghost stories and nightmares. The wind vibrated through the walls. The ocean was so close I could hear its hum even here. Time felt slower in the dark, I couldn’t see the change of things, flies in the dust or the dandelion behind my ear getting droopy. The moment itself felt narrow and dark, jagged on the bottom, smooth on top, slanting down to a closed door. I loved how hide and seek could change a day in this way. Breakfast was at ten o’clock and lunch at two o’clock, but when all the cousins played and we crawled into dark places, the day had hiccups of eternity. The o’clock’s zig-zaged up and off as I zig-zaged down into my own secret timeline. And of course, it was also a little frightening, waiting for someone to prove I’m here. When you were discovered, daylight coiled you into the agreed upon time-and-place of your presence; you were firmer in yourself after being alone and still for so long.
Once Helga put her palms over her eyes and began the countdown, the house was inspected for its recesses, its nooks, caves, underbellies, alcoves, and crypts. Njörður, which is what Grandma Margrét’s house was called, was massive, with hallways and stairways tentacling around rooms that sat empty with wind in their bellies until summer when all the cousins arrived. There were, however, certain rooms we never entered, zones loosed from their very architecture, extending into great imagined darkness. I compressed my body into a ball in a stairwell seldom entered, hoping to disappear into my center. Though alone in the ocean of black, around me stretched a great silver fence, a line familiar and friendly, which, if held firmly in my mind, would protect me from the demons who bloomed in darkness.
My cousin Jerry had told me about black holes, about their energy and direction. “A star collapses and there’s so much energy it creates a black hole, it sucks everything into it, time and space.” “Can they happen here?” I asked, wondering about the cosmic pull of sink drains, dark pupils in photographs, and the ocean. Jerry thought for a moment, “probably,” he shrugged. I wished I was thinking about black holes the way I supposed Jerry was, intrigued by their scientific peculiarity rather than imagining all the horrible things that would happen were one to pop up in Grandma Margrét’s living room. My body stretched like a rubber band, twisting with the spines of buildings torn from far away cities, my arms ripped from their sockets… I especially worried about all of Grandma Margrét’s books which she loved very much and arranged by genre and in alphabetical order along tall, dark, wooden shelves. In the dark I could see a great cloud of paper rising over the house, big enough to rival the ocean, all sense lost in a spiraling darkness, words sucked dry of their meaning. And, I wouldn’t be able to talk anymore, an anxiety I shared once with Jerry who responded that this would be “tragic.”
Jerry was only a year older than me but he had read big, heavy books about plants and animals and outer-space, and he’d lived in an American city for a year where his father worked. I knew Jerry wasn’t afraid and I wouldn’t have chosen this spot upon the stair if he were the seeker. But it was Helga this round, one of the younger cousins, and she’d never peek down here, even if she were certain someone was hiding in the darkness. Later, Jerry would tell us he once saw a ghost down here. Actually, he said he saw a specter. “What’s the difference?” I asked. He said, “the way it looked at me.”
That summer Grandma Margrét kept scolding Jerry for his “sarcasm” and I ran my finger down a smooth column of sarc’s to find the meaning. Not realizing that the dictionary I’d found was an etymological dictionary, I learned “sarcasm” as the stripping of flesh. And I saw Jerry from a few summers ago, rolling his tooth over his tongue. He was the first cousin to lose a tooth and kept it in his cheek for weeks until he swallowed it by mistake. There was also in this word the whispers of the skeleton horse, the galloping bones that roamed the corridors and empty rooms at night. In the afternoons, I sat under the cool, dark dining room table acquainting myself with the ancestors of new words, remembering my way to their image. While I read, the heads of nosy cousins bobbed into the house of Greek and Latin roots and the mysterious fossils of Proto-Indo-European. In the sarc’s I discovered sarcophagus, a word which now belonged to all the unopened doors of Njörður.
It wasn’t until Grandma Margrét died and Jerry and I were clearing out the house that we entered some of these rooms for the first time. Jerry and I had volunteered to take out all of Grandma Margrét’s furniture. It was a pity, but none of the cousins were willing to take over the house, live by the ocean, which was “more trouble than it’s worth.” I didn’t have a family, it made no sense for me to live here alone. That’s what Grandma Margrét did for many years. Walked from room to room, read her books, waited for summer. None of the books, I noticed, were stirred by her absence, none of them had been flung into the darkness with her.
Jerry was married and had three kids and I wanted to ask him why he hadn’t taken over Njörður. But he seemed very tired and very sad and I never felt right asking him. There was a picture of me and Jerry at his wedding framed on my desk which I kept referring to in my mind as I looked at him that first day of emptying the house. It was like he was wearing a mask and I couldn’t really see Jerry, the presence of him I’d known. His eyes were sunk deeper, cheekbones and chin jutting out as if his skin was getting thinner and paler and revealing his skull. There’d been a ten year pause between now and our last meeting and although he was still charming, still Jerry in his obscure references, he’d lost the poetics of someone who lives with the ocean, lost his teeth for stripping flesh. He used to have beautiful things to say about the depth of the water.
The house was quiet and we hardly recognized it this way, with only the wind left pacing the corridors. We opened up all the rooms and the floating voids settled into sediment of furniture and paintings we’d never seen before. These rooms weren’t set up for use; sofas and big wooden frames facing the wall, rugs rolled up and chairs stacked. I entered a room with the same collage of dusty objects and began assessing the furniture for its move. But here was a strange glint, a point of white light opening up from the smooth face of a man in miniature. A photograph in a silver frame hung next to a closet door.
“Hey, Jerry! Come look at this.” On the frame was a small plaque with Tómas Benediktssón inscribed. “I’ve never seen this guy before. Think he’s a relative?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jerry.
I opened the closet door which revealed a narrow jagged drop, a dark vacant stairwell, and incommensurable blackness. I poked my head in deep so I could feel the darkness on the sides of my eyeballs.
“Oh! Remember these stairs? I hid here once during hide and seek.”
“Really? So you’ve been in this room before.”
“I must have.”
“And you’ve seen this photograph before, too.” I leaned back into the light and examined the photograph again.
“No, definitely not. But didn’t you see a specter down here?
“A—what? A ghost? No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ghost.”
Tómas left the sea, the crawling waves and wind, to work in the petroleum and steel industry in Cleveland. The topography there was manmade, it was a landscape that aspired to bigness, an ugly bigness, without the reference of mountains or oceans or caves. Tómas worked in the day and at night couldn’t sleep, felt still and slow in the darkness. He plucked wings from dead house flies he’d find in the window sill—he enjoyed the crunch of the loosed socket. One night he began arranging the wings into fictional maps. These new lands were contained in iridescent spirals, circles nestled within circles, recalling the ocean, calling into his small room the language of his home, the wind. When the spiral ended, he touched a wing, let it cling to his finger, and placed it delicately into the passages of a book, unmaking the little lakes on the desk until the next night.
He often roamed corridors of Cleveland streets and through his wandering divided the city into four ways—river, street, building, and smoke—everything that could be found in the city, belonged to one of these ways. It was the river, though, which was most important, and if it weren’t flowing, the city would collapse into itself. It was from water, he believed, that language had emerged. Tómas married the daughter of a man he worked with and began planning his return home; there would be the wind again, fields, horses, and a house. He’d made some money and left thoughts pickling in drums of petroleum. Walking one last time along the Cuyahoga river, he imagined a proto-river in the sky, high up and hidden by smoke, mirroring the jaunt of the one below, and arcing, unmistakably, towards the ocean.
“Well, he’s got a weird look about him,” I said.
Jerry and I had been moving furniture all day and Njörður was mostly empty now. We collapsed onto a fringed red sofa, the temporary centerpiece of the foyer, and stared vacantly at our greatest task ahead: the dining room table. We sat still and silent, the wind and ocean taking up the talk in lively swooshes and creeks and whistles through the walls. The longer I listened to the water, the more it’s murmur sounded like real words and I kept turning my head to make sure there wasn’t someone really there talking to me.
The grasses around Njörður were tall and shook like fringe in a wind sweetened by the sea. Margrét sent Ada and Karla out to gather arctic thyme to make tea, as she did when expecting guests. The ocean was a deep blue, family-iris cold blue, and watched in a tilting watery gaze two heads bobbing in and out of the field. The girls hastily pinched the small pink flowers, fingers perfumed with the crushed petals. They acted as snakes, sunk into the grasses, weaving through the blades with eyes alert for stones, bones, bugs, and slugs. Ada and Karla liked to put on plays for their mother’s friends and they saught decent props. Karla suddenly spotted something smooth and white and opening up towards her in the ribbons of green. She dropped her tea flowers and crawled towards the object until she was tooth-to-tooth with the massive ever-gaping jaw of a horse. A small palm rubbed the smooth white cheek, thin fingers walked the rows of loose teeth. They’d found a few sheep teeth, a dead bird, or stones with faces—but nothing as wonderful as this. Ada appeared beside her, having sensed her sister’s discovery in the change of the grasses. “It’s like he’s singing,” Ada said. “I bet flies ate him up,” said Karla. They each placed a hand on the bone, slowly raising the jaw from the grasses and pointing it towards the horizon to present the ocean. The sisters saw the delicious prospect of a leg, a skull, maybe a few ribs and the horse would be complete. They crawled in the scratchy moss, trampling all the small pink flowers. They returned eventually to the house to prepare their play, knees crisscrossed with scratches, the rest of the horse hidden in layers of stone and moss and kept deep in the earth by a pressing wind.
The sisters wrapped a long piece of twine around either side of the jaw to create a kind of band to be worn around the neck. They were unable to fashion a proper mask out of the bone, but it could hang as a monstrous and heavy necklace, the jaw jutting out of Karla’s belly when she wore it. She practiced her gallop in the hallway. The jaw, however, was so heavy she bent under the weight, oddly contorted with bursts of horse-like energy; her prance appeared as a limp. Ada somersaulted through the foyer before the audience, rising into her role as lost girl. Karla sauntered in—a writhing walk—the helpful horse.
The dining room table weighed at least a hundred pounds. Jerry and I unscrewed the metal legs leaving one massive slab of wood which we temporarily propped up against the bare walls, like a door that led to nowhere. I knocked. The house moaned and creaked. The wind was peeling paint off the walls that day and pushed us towards the field as we barely held the table up transporting it to the car. Outside, I noticed the sun bracketed by hazy cloud-bound bands of color, a rainbow made of air and sinewy clouds. The silvery halo stretched into the sea, and I imagined it dive into the deep and the circle completed underwater. The light agitated my vision and black holes began swirling in my very own eye. The wind and the water and summer light were in full possession of the house now and Jerry and I had no choice but to stay the night, it was too dangerous to drive. We slept side by side, though neither of us slept really, kept hearing the wind pacing in the upstairs rooms, coloring in our childhood nightmares. The air had calmed by morning and the ocean was an unbelievable black, a magnificent flattened pupil breathing deeply as we watched it. Jerry and I collected lozenge stones along the shore as we once did.
I emerged from the gloomy canal when I heard Helga and the rest of the cousins calling out my name, no one had found me. After hide and seek we all walked through the field picking flowers and stones on our way to the shore. We gathered the smoothest, roundest stones we could find, would press them gently into our eye sockets to feel the cool sphere and to make sure it was the right size. “It needs to be completely round and completely smooth, then it’ll make the best shooting star,” Jerry the Astronomer instructed us. The goal was to get the stone into the deepest part of the ocean, to give it the longest voyage down into the darkness. Jerry and I would keep our best stones inside our cheeks to save them for last and would throw them into the water at the same time. “Three…two…one!” and we hurled our rocks into space, enjoying that first splash, and pictured the stone falling deeper and deeper into a timeless dark. It wasn’t so much about the actual depth the stone reached, but rather about who could imagine the greatest descent, who could best hold an infinite fall in their mind.