NO BETTER REASON THAN THIS
by Torrie Jay White
The cabin smells like my grandfather as a young man. Like my mother’s skin in her last days. Like the gunpowder in my father’s pistol. Like the earliest parts of my remember life.
The key grinds in the lock; the door in its frame. No one has opened it in over a decade. I haven’t in three. I put my shoulder into the door, and only then does it give way. It swings open to a pounding dark. Behind me is the pounding sun.
I take a moment, and breathe in the rot. A melee of stench. A whole century of skin and must and moss and mice, bodies rotted fat and round in the walls my grandfather built. I step into the cabin. I’ve forgotten there is no electricity.
My eyes acclimate, the black becoming a brown haze. I grope my way to the disintegrating curtains, and open them. Outside, I see the lake, the small children I heard when I pulled in. A little boy, with water wings. A little girl, with a fringe on her bathing suit. They’re both laughing, both tiny. From the shore, someone splashes them.
I turn my back—I didn’t come for the company of strangers—and open more curtains. Let forth whole furies of dust and moths. It looks like rotting snow. I hear, rather than see, the squeak and scamper of mice. Thank god I can’t see them. Thirty years ago, forty, they wouldn’t have bothered me, but I’ve gone soft. My grandfather would be disappointed.
I remember. I came for him.
A half century of grime frosts the windows, but the light coming through is getting stronger. It opens the room, and lets me survey the postage stamp of property that is now mine, for not better reason than because everyone else is dead.
The room is a photograph, an almost perfect snapshot of everything I remember. It’s become brown and brittle in the years since I was last here, but then, don’t photographs? (Didn’t I?) Newspapers, once stacked next to my grandfather’s armchair, have spilled, their yellowed headlines panicking over events only they remember. My grandmother’s umbrella, its nylon worn and chewed, stands in its corner, point held in place by her rubber boots. I shudder. What’s made its home inside their toes?
As a child, I saw this room with the narrow specificity of youth: the tiny yellow flowers stitched into my grandfather’s arm chair, the oak and iron chest with letters carved into the top, a palm sized cement cat that my grandmother kept on the windowsill. She once told me that the cat’s eyes had fallen out, and sent me to the beach to search for them. I feel pebbles between my fingertips, my thick toddler hands trying to coax sight back into her stone sockets.
It comforts me that I remember this room clearly. It means I’ve done little to tamper with these memories. This half of my inheritance, at least, is still familiar, even after thirty years.
It’s the second room, the closed door I’m facing, of which I’m less certain. My memories of the bedroom aren’t as solid. Even back then, it was private—my grandparent’s room into which I could only be invited—but the past thirty years have blurred what I knew of it. The years rifled through the memories, edited them until I had only fragments of what’s behind that door. I don’t know which are real, which are created.
I know it’s a bedroom. I believe there are gas lamps. I wonder if inside are the cat’s blind eyes.
A shiver on my spine betrays me. Decades of disuse have left the cabin cold, an icebox chill preserved between its walls. I run my hand over the gooseflesh to make the pimples disappear. I remind myself that fear can’t be placated as easily as cold, but still, I give myself a reason to leave the cabin.
I have a cooler packed with food enough for three days, and an overnight bag packed with clothing enough for seven. I didn’t want to be here one night, let alone multiple, but hadn’t wanted to admit that to myself. I find crackers and a knife among the dry food. I’ll sit outside a few minutes. Eat summer sausage and cheese, like I did as a child. On the grass outside the cabin, I feel the strength of sun. A relentless, beating heat that lends itself only to the lake. If I closed my eyes and dipped my toes in the water, I could be eight years old ago again. Only as heavy as this hot air.
My grandfather bought this land in 1921, a small parcel given up for auction by the state. He’d planned to be a logger, like his father, but war came, and in the perverse way the world turns, this secured a kinder life for my grandfather than his father had. He came home from France, got hired as a railway postal clerk, and earned enough money to buy for his leisure a slice of the land that, thirty years earlier, had been his father’s labor.
I know this, because I have a both a deed and a letter confirming it. It’s what you receive when people die: documents. The deed from a lawyer who handled the deaths of my father, my grandmother, and finally, my mother. The letter from a box marked “FAMILY – DON’T THROW” stored in my mother’s hall closet. The box full of the same collection of ephemera and detritus that every family saves, confident that its meaning will remain longer than we do.
The cabin itself wasn’t built until 1942. A project my grandfather gave himself and his only son after a work injury earned him a summer away. I know this from family lore. Every visit, my grandfather would show me the work of my father’s hands, pointing out the nails his boyish fingers had hammered, first haltingly, then competently into place. My father would speak softly at night about sleeping, in the first weeks of that summer, on the ground the cabin sits on.
And herein lies the flaw in our recordkeeping. This land wasn’t supposed to pass, as it did, from his mother to my mother to me, but rather from father to grateful son.
I finish my snack, and can’t think a justification to remain, lazy, in the sun. I haul the cooler to the cabin door, then leave it to circle the building. When I arrived, my eyes and memory colluded to show me only what I remembered, but slowly, I’m beginning to see the decay. Weeds choke the cabin’s cinder block base. My grandfather’s crude imitation of a lawn has been preserved, but only by a layer of disintegrating pine needles, and, I assumed, the deadening snow that falls each winter. The paint, once red, is chipped and sun-bleached. I’d call it the color of wood, but the wood itself is gray. The windows, dull inside, are covered in spider webbing and leaf debris. The blinds are still closed inside the bedroom windows, and the filth makes them look like eyes gone blind. Again, the cement cat.
Back inside, and again, the darkness assaults me. So does the smell. I place my blue cooler and my purple duffle in the middle of the room. The cabin draws in on itself, suddenly fiercely small. It’s as if it knows I’ve come to colonize its dark corners. It’s ghosts crowd me, and again, gooseflesh rises on my arms. From the corner comes a sharp scrabbling. It takes one hysterical second before I remember that ghosts aren’t real. That I’m an adult woman, of nerve and flesh and matter, and years enough to know that space can’t be occupied by anything invisible. I’m not a child. I can’t be taken in by the fears I had when I was one. I close my eyes, and count out my breath
There is a reason that I haven’t been here in over thirty years.
I want to run.
I don’t let myself.
It takes several minutes, but eventually the tension in my chest eases, and I come back to myself. Grown me. Skeptical me. Middle-aged me who, in a different dimension, lectures young women about the fearlessness of growing old. I put the child away, and demand that she stays hidden. I have work to do.
I carry my bags back out of the cabin. I shouldn’t have brought them in in the first place. I’ll need the space to separate the detritus from the heirlooms, the valuables, the family relics.
I begin my labor, starting with newspapers, the sun still cool this side of the dirty glass. I unfold each spilled paper, and peel disintegrating pages apart to search for a lost note or piece of marginalia. I feel a small bead of hysteria crystalize, once more in my gut.
I am awake.
I go from sleeping to waking so fast the transition is violent. Darkness lies on top of me, a pitch so black I’m blinded. To my right, I hear something—fingers digging in the earth?—and above me, nails scratching the ridged roof. My mind thrashes—where is my mother? where am I?—but my body is paralyzed. Panic. I taste it on my tongue.
I tell myself to lie as still, waiting, listening to these faint noises. They can’t be fingers. They can’t be fingers. They can’t be. I want someone to wake beside me, and tell me they’re not fingers. Nobody does. There’s nobody there. I remain paralyzed, but gradually, my breathing begins to slow. I find I can blink again. The black begins to lighten, and slowly, my reason, hijacked by panic, returns. The stiffness in my bones reminds me that I’m not a child, but that I am lying on a floor. Grandma and grandpa’s cabin. My cabin.
I’m the adult I was waiting for.
I sit up, make myself sit up, heat rolling through my body—the indignities of middle womanhood, and of this childish reversion. The sleeping bag I brought from home is too hot for this humidity. Sweat has pooled underneath my breasts and in the crevice of my spine. I unzip myself, pull off my pajamas. Naked, the air becomes comfortable.
I berate myself for this foolishness—acting like a child again, when I haven’t even felt young in years. I didn’t come here for nostalgia, nor to feel like girl again. I stand among the furniture, and still, it hulks like shadowed monsters. Can I be grown here? In this place where I was, most essentially, a child?
I taste the tinny corrosion of rust. The taste of blood. Panic rises in my throat again, my body ready to topple into this abyss of fear. Stop, I say out loud. Stop. Go outside. I pulled the curtains down this afternoon, and now I can see the night through the naked panes. It’s a pearl, soft and milky. I step out of the cabin, try not to run.
Out here, my fear lessens with the darkness, the moon high and bright above me. The air is same temperature as my body. Bathtub hot. That’s what I called this weather when I was a kid. I walk to the lake. The surface is glass, but small lips lap the sand along the shore. I always wanted to swim at night. I used to imagine that I would, when I was older and not scared.
I didn’t find anything this afternoon.
I spent the remaining sunlit hours picking through all the physical objects left inside the living room. Searching each newspaper for significance, emptying each drawer, appraising each item, opening each book for something tucked inside, or written on its pages. I even checked a canister of infested four, dumping it outside the cabin to check for something hidden inside—a note? a photograph? What had I expected? A TV detective to come through the trees, and take my rotten flour to a lab for testing?
Nothing. Garbage bags filled with the junk of fettered lifetimes.
I wade into the water, letting the faint ripples nibble my ankles, my calves, my thighs. It’s cleansing, after the epic filth of the afternoon. I walk in until the waterline reaches my breasts, and for a moment, the surface tension holds them up. Across the lake, I can see a fire, can hear Hank Williams singing. I’m not alone after all. The water is trying to lift my feet from the sandy lakebed. The night wraps itself around my ears, and its faded sounds are like a lullaby. I could sleep here. Float on my back, and finally rest.
I take one more step, suck in my breath, and plunge my head under. The water runs on my face, cold and bracing. I kick away from shoreline, finding my legs powerful, and my arms long. I dunk again. Here, underneath, all I can hear is the beat of my own heart. I stay below long enough for the melody to turn frantic.
It was dark, the night my mother shook me from my sleeping bag. And cold. I remember first her hand on my chest, then her nose in my ear before I realized I was wake. We have to leave, sweetie. We’re going to sleep in the car.
She nudged me out of my sleeping bag, into my jacket, my limbs wobbling. I’d been sleeping on the floor, my parents on the hide-a-bed couch. She tugged my feet into boots, my head into a hat, and then my body out the door. I thought I heard men’s voices. My daddy, and my grandpa.
It was snowing. That I remember well. Sleep-drugged, I thought the snowflakes were the moon, busted open and falling to earth. The cold stung my nostrils and my tongue, smelling sharp and empty, and then I was inside the car, smelling heavy and old. My mother slid me into a seatbelt like she’d slid me out of my sleeping bag.
She took the passenger seat, and I closed my eyes. Dad must be getting our bags, saying goodbye. I didn’t say goodbye. It was just Grandpa here. Grandma didn’t come in the winter. We didn’t usually either. We never left in the dark. I slumped into myself, almost back to sleep.
Then, a blast. Muffled, but loud. Like part of the world, small, but heavy caving in.
I jerked, the way I sometimes did when I dreamed I was falling. Melted snow streamed down the windshield, and down my mother’s cheeks. The dashboard lights lit the twin rivers. My father came out of the cabin. He slammed the door so hard it couldn’t catch the lock. It bounced, and swung back open.
My father took the driver’s seat, breathing heavily and smelling of something I didn’t recognize. My mother stayed silent as he shifted gears, staring over my head to find tire tracks in the dark driveway. His eyes gleamed red, light refracting through melting snow. My eyes stayed on the door, watching for my grandfather’s hand to reach out and latch it properly.
Three weeks later—snowing again—I heard the same softened blast in my own house. Another part of the world caving in. I was eight.
When my grandmother drove up to the cabin to tell my grandfather, wintering alone like he had since retiring, that his only son, my only father, shot himself, my grandmother found my grandfather dead. Police ruling? Another suicide.
The morning of the funeral, I heard my grandmother tell my mother that it was unusual, wasn’t it? For a man to shoot himself in his own chest. That’s not how he did it, she wept, and from my hiding place, I knew she meant my father.
I crash through the thin skin of the water, and in doing so, hear the ghosts of gunshots echoing across decades.
My father killed his father, and then he killed himself.
On the water, the moon breaks into pieces. I am a child again, and I can smell the cold, but I am also an adult, and I repeat these words to myself. My father killed his father, and then he killed himself. This much I know is true. The why is what I don’t know. What I’ve been avoiding for thirty-five years. First, by refusing to ask my mother any questions, then by refusing to ask them of myself. Her death snaked his back to me via this cabin. I’d assumed it had been sold or lost to the bank—my mother never mentioned it, nor had my grandma before she died. Then, a week after I buried my mother, there was lawyer, and the will, and the deed, and when I didn’t believe him, my father’s will, my grandfather’s will, my grandmother’s will.
“It was always meant to stay in the family,” he told me.
You can ban yourself from questions, bury them, braid them with excuses, but that won’t get them answered.
My energies crystalize here—my father killed his father, and then he killed himself—as I swim back to shore. My naked body is awake, and ready, as I hadn’t been when I’d arrived.
I keep a battery operated flood light in my trunk, and when I get back to land, I fish it out. Set it up in the middle of the living room. It does what it’s supposed to do, and floods the cabin with light. Translucent spider webs crisscross the closed bedroom door, a thousand tiny “x”s. My brain tries spin the imagine into metaphor here, but I don’t let it. I’m done playing the poet, playing the fool. Something specific happened here, something I almost saw. The water made me strong and tall, and, even though what I’m about to do doesn’t require either, prepared.
The door handle, at one point brass, is gritty and brittle. I turn it, but the door doesn’t move. The wood has expanded, warped. I press first my shoulder, then my hip, then my whole chest into the crosshatching spider webs, and after a few seconds of applied force, it opens with a keening shudder. To my anxious, excited brain, it opens with another gunshot.
The door swings open into the room, smaller than I remember. It reeks. The smell in here is so overpoweringly rotten than I have to suppress gagging. It was what was in the big room, but multiplied. Bloated rodentia, animal piss and droppings, dust and mold, and, a note I didn’t catch earlier—rust.
I cup my hands around my nose, and look over the top of my knuckles. A haze hangs in the air, like time suspended and made solid. This room has remained even more immaculately unchanged than the big room. In the middle, the bed my grandparents shared. Flanked by bedside tables. A leg of the left table has buckled, and it’s leaning, drunken, against the mattress. On the bedspread, face down, a picture frame; on the wall, a tiny cross-stitching of a bride and groom, faceless and holding hands. Kitschy, except I know my grandmother stitched it herself in the weeks before her wedding.
Elsewhere, mold blooms on the wall, dark patterns scratched into the wood. A small bookshelf with dime store paperbacks—romance, mostly, but a few murder mysteries thrown in for good measure. Many of these, I can see, are shredded, easy bedding for nesting mice. On the very top shelf are three photo albums—two I recognize, one I don’t.
These thrill me, but I restrain myself, make myself keep looking. Two photographs still hang, crooked, on the right wall. My father and grandfather in front of the cabin, and my great-grandfather, the lumberjack I never knew, standing before a cart piled with timber. My grandmother’s dresser in the corner. Please let it be empty. She spent so little time here after my grandfather’s death; I wonder if she had the forethought to clear out the clothing. My throat constricts at the thought of what could have made a home for itself inside my grandmother’s sweaters.
This, I stand at the head of bedroom, is where she found my grandfather. This, if they aren’t anywhere else, is where I’ll find my answers.
I start in the far right corner, deciding to work myself clockwise through the room. It’s stupid that I’m doing this in the dark. Already, I’m having to contort my body to keep the single source of light on the small section that I’m searching, but I’m determined. On an elemental level, I’m ready for an answer. For explanation. I run my fingers along the seams of the floorboards, boards my father helped plane. He was gone from my life so early, and in such an overwhelming and frightening way that my memory of him has all but receded. I only remember his face in pictures, and can’t even imagine what his voice sounded like. I’m looking for something that would anchor him, forever, in cruelty and inhumanity, yes, but also in my memory. Because I’ve spent so many years, my entire adult life and most of my adolescence, actively looking away from him, this hunt is a tribute to him.
I pray I’ll see him,
There’s nothing of interest on the floor. Dried droppings and tiny spiders curled on their backs, but nothing else. Same with the walls. I’m reaching, I know, to think that I’ll find something scrawled on the wood or tucked into the logs, but I look anyway. Why not? Why not. I take the two photographs off the wall, and set them on the bed to look at later. I open each drawer in the dresser. Thank god no clothing. More tiny bones, and underneath the skeletons, dark stains where the animal’s body rotted and leaked. I move the dresser, and there’s nothing underneath. A small colony of mushrooms growing in the wood.
This whole place will need to be demoed. It’s unlivable, unsalvageable. I’d only learned that this was part of my inheritance a month ago, and hadn’t yet thought about what I would do with the place after I ransacked it. Turning it back into a summer home was never going to be the option.
To the bookshelf. I pull each book out gingerly, each coughing dried and dusty rot. My eyes water, and my nose stings. One book yields a bookmark—“A book is a friend you carry in your pocket.” Another a grocery list. But nothing more. Emptied, I search the wood for holes or chips. Did the bullet leave my grandfather’s chest? Did it mark this room somehow?
I empty the drawers in the bedside tables. Use my bare fingers to search the dark undersides of the furniture. I press my toes along the length of each floorboard, waiting for one to creak or lift open. I open each picture frame and look for an inscription. Blank. Thumb through all three photo albums—my father with a hammer, my grandparents on their wedding day, crooked landscapes, me holding a fish. I shine my floodlight underneath the bed. I tear back the bedclothes. I find a knife. I tear open the bed.
Feathers, like moonlight, like snow, fall. I am sitting in the middle of the room, in the middle of what, thirty minutes ago, had been the bed. I brush clumped down from the floor in front of me. There’s a dark stain spooling out towards the wall. The shadow of blood? Of a decayed body? I’m grasping. It’s just filth. It’s all filth. I’m covered in it. The cabin is covered in it. Whatever I’d hoped to find is buried in it.
I stand up, brush down as best I can out of my hair and clothes. The weight that a lifetime of accumulated questions bears hard on my shoulders. I feel my years.
Two bullets. I heard both of them. Bshoom. Bshoom. That’s how they line up in my childhood. One shot. Two shot. Then the emptying echo.
I pick up the floodlight, and carry it outside. I walk the perimeter of the cabin. This heirloom of our family. This archive of our neglected rot, our shed skin, our buried sins.
It’s small, really.
In the predawn black, I pack the few things I brought.
I light a match.
Then a second.
Then a third.
My car is running behind me, my headlights already facing out, towards the road. I throw a fourth match through the open door.
After I packed, I blanketed the floor in those fragile newspapers. I see sparks snap against the black. I add another match. Another. My hands are trembling. One catches a single pine needle, tracing its skeleton in red. A flame cracks as it catches oxygen. Carbon. I see the dark print on the newspaper. Then I hear a roar.
Eight seconds later, a wall.
I leap backwards. The door is pushed, smashed shut from the inside.
Already, the heat is scalding, but I stand for a second beside my car and watch. The cabin has eyes. Red and rolling, white, orange with the flames. It’s awake. Alive. It makes another groaning sigh, the flames greedy for the brittle wood.
I take the driver’s seat, hands still shaking, and find the grooves that my grandfather’s wheels ground into place. I maneuver slow down the logging road. The cabin is still in my mirror. It’s a riot. I can still see its structure, like bones, but even they are crumbling now. Melting.
I reach the road, and one last time, I turn. The patterns in the flame shift. The pyre rises, a tongue of flame lashing against a sky that’s lost all its stars. It falls, and I hear a scream so unworldly I believe, for a moment, that it must be human.
About the Author:
Torrie Jay White is a writer who uses her work to understand identity, pain, and our place within the world. Her short fiction has been appeared in fields, Litro, and Rock & Sling magazines, and she is finishing her first novel. Born and raised in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, she now lives in the Washington D.C. area. torriejaywhite.com