*Image: “Mystic’s Revenge” by D.S. West, Digital Multimedia
(photography, drawings, digital effects, and manual corruption)
The Tall House
By Amanda Rodriguez
All the unmarried women in town lived in the Tall House. We called it that because the house rested high up on long stilts. There was never any danger of flooding, though. The only body of water was a nearby creek. The girls would stand hunched in the creek with skirts bundled around thighs or jeans rolled up, their eyes searching for smooth pebbles while the water gently lapped at their ankles. Even after it rained for days and days, the creek never really flooded. All it would do is make the soil soggy around the Tall House’s wooden posts.
When the girls were young and still lived in the homes of their parents, the mothers in the town kept a close eye on their daughters and their daughters’ laundry. At the first sign of a rusted red stain on a pair of panties or on her bed sheets, the very next day her family moved her and all of her possessions to the Tall House. She’d live there with the others until her wedding day. Girls who were eleven or twelve lived in the Tall House with women up to the age of thirty-five. Sometimes there were many of them crowded in the house with two or three sleeping in each bedroom, and at some times, several rooms remained empty.
On sunny days, all of them would be out in their backyard. Some splashed around in the creek. Some lounged on towels in bikinis, the dark-skinned girls turning golden or a deeper shade of black, while the pale girls turned a ripe red. Some played badminton with that ragged, old net. Some of them sat in a circle, scouring for four-leaf clovers, their legs tucked beneath them with just their dirty toes peeking out. The teenage ones would sit in those circles listening to the latest in pop music on a static-filled radio, while butterflies flitted around them. Almost too quick to see, one of them would snatch a butterfly out of the sky. She would take the struggling creature and press its frantically beating wings to her eyelids, leaving a sheen of colored dust behind. Then she would pass the insect to one of her friends, so she could do the same, until the bug was barely twitching. Until its dull, papery wings were a crumbled mess.
Each girl in the Tall House was christened with a flower’s name. Rose, Violet, Daisy, Lily, Heather, and Iris of course, but since there were so many of them, the names became stranger. It started with Geri, short for Geranium, and continued from there with Freesia, Bouvardia, Protea, Amaryllis and Watsonia. Each mother and grandmother wanted to give her daughter a unique name. One that would make her stand out among the others when it was time for a man to claim his bride.
It seemed to us that the girls mostly got along. Occasionally, competing high-pitched voices would pierce the quiet of the night, but mostly, we saw them laughing and taking care of each other, especially the older ones. Some of them even seemed like mother and daughter, or sisters. Of course, some of them were blood relations, but all of them shared a powerful bond.
Take Violet and Geri. Violet was in her early thirties when Geri, who was only ten, moved into the Tall House. Geri was a small, shy thing. She hardly talked to anyone at school or around town, and she stared at her own shoes a lot. The first time I saw her after she started living in the Tall House was at a school baseball game. She was sitting in the stands, her paleness enveloped by the thick darkness of Violet’s arms. And that was always how it was from then on. It was not uncommon to see Violet braiding Geri’s hair in the backyard or sitting up late into the night, the only light on in the house, sewing a new dress for Geri. Anytime they went to the grocery store or when Violet walked her to and from school, they were always holding hands, Geri’s tiny palm lost in Violet’s.
I couldn’t say why Violet never got married. Maybe it was because she was such a big, round woman. I was thirteen and saw nothing unattractive about her fullness. Her brown, heavy breasts and ample hips often featured in my young, nightly fantasies. Maybe she was afraid to leave Geri all alone. Nobody really knows.
One day, Geri showed up at school with red eyes, and the purple circles underneath expanded as the week went on. When I sat behind her in class, her shoulders shook as she silently wept in the middle of our algebra lesson. Eventually I worked up the courage to ask Geri what was wrong. I had never spoken to her because she was so delicate. When she wore sundresses, I could see the bones of her spine beneath the feathery, blonde hair that always hung loose down her back. Part of me never stopped believing that she was some kind of angel, pure and fragile. But when she told me what happened, her shyness evaporated in all that desperation and bitterness.
On her thirty-fifth birthday, Violet sat naked in an empty, stoppered bathtub. Geri knelt beside the tub on her bare, skinny knees. She cried and gripped Violet’s hand until it turned a bloodless white, while Violet whispered gently over and over again, “Hush. Hush, baby.” The others clustered in the open doorway.
When the clock ticked the very minute of Violet’s birth, the hand that Geri held became wet like a sweaty palm. All of Violet’s body was suddenly damp, and her features became blurry. Geri said it was like looking at Violet through a rain-drenched window. Then her hand shrank inside Geri’s, leaking all its moisture until the two hands were the same size. Soon Geri held no hand at all, and nothing but little rivulets of water remained to slide down her wrist and drip into the tub.
The clear liquid seeped from Violet’s face, too, like she was crying, but her expression remained serene. Even after Violet had completely melted away and nothing was left but a tub full of water, Geri insisted she could still hear a faint echo telling her, “Hush.”
That night, Violet’s mother came to the Tall House. It was the first time Geri had ever seen the woman. She brought with her a glass goldfish bowl. Without speaking to the girls in the house or seeming to mourn at all, Violet’s mother dipped the bowl into the tub until it was filled with her daughter. She left without saying a word.
Then Geri showed me the necklace she’d made. From a rough bit of twine hung a tiny bottle. There was a bit of Violet in it, she told me, that she would wear always and forever and until the day she died. Between two dainty fingers, she held the bottle up to show me. It was made from lavender-tinted glass, and there were a couple spoonfuls of water inside it.
It was when those soft, blue eyes looked at me with that uncharacteristically hard gaze that I decided I was going to marry her. She was the girl I would choose from the Tall House to be my wife.
The girls stopped playing in the yard or talking to anyone at school but each other. When a man would come by to pick one of them, they would put up a fuss. One guy, Ronald Johnson, complained that eggs were launched at him from the house while he tried to climb the steps. “Dude, those chicks seriously nailed my car.” Bennie Thomas told us that when he got to the Tall House, the girls opened the windows, smiled sweetly at him, and commenced throwing plates and mugs. Both Bennie and Ronald recall the girls’ whooping cries of victory as the boys sped off.
We didn’t hear the tales of the men who actually made it into the house and took a woman home. At least not from them. The weddings were always quiet affairs, but the raw scratches that covered every visible bit of skin spoke volumes about how it all went down. All us younger boys would pool our sightings of the newly married men. We’d see them at the hardware store or going into the pool hall or the bank, and we’d look for the tell-tale battle scars. Leo McGuire actually had two black eyes, and his nose looked more crooked afterward. He ended up with Dahlia, though. She was a tall, sleek beauty. A couple black eyes and a bloody nose were well worth it to walk home with that kind of prize.
This new violence just became a part of the ritual. It would reveal our worth, the strength of our masculinity, and prove how much we wanted the girls we’d chosen. All that changed in a single night. My mother was working the graveyard shift at the hospital that evening. She came home early and woke up my father and me to tell us what had happened. She was crying the whole time. I’d never seen my mother cry before.
My father picked my mother up from the Tall House when she was twenty and just finishing up nursing school. They each tell the story sometimes, and though they remember it in their own ways, both remember it fondly. After that night, I wondered at the happiness of their marriage.
My mother pinpointed the time it happened at exactly 2:37 A.M. The girls rushed into the hospital. All of them. Every single girl from the Tall House was admitted that night. Diagnosis: severe and superficial lacerations to the face, throat, and hands. Some of them held towels to their wounds, the cloth becoming heavy and soaked through until it could be wrung out. Pools of red collected in the lap of some of their dresses while they waited to be seen. Their hair was wild and matted to their faces. The blondes looked like they’d dyed their hair pink. Their limbs were either sticky or caked with the stuff.
They all waited patiently. Some of them laughed from time to time. None of them cried. This is what shook my mother up so much. Carnage was one thing, but for them to be calm about it was another. While each girl was treated, my mother rushed about to find bandages and cloths to staunch the flow, but she worried that there weren’t enough in the whole hospital to help them. She said she couldn’t imagine how all of them survived such heavy blood loss, but live they did. All of them walked away that night with countless sutures. Their skin was strung together with silk and steel, full of stitches and staples.
For days afterward, my mother kept saying the same thing. Sometimes she’d mutter it, and sometimes she’d look me directly in the eye as if I could give her the answer to this mystery. She said, “They did it to themselves. They did it to each other.”
Everyone in the town saw the aftermath of that night. The girls came to class as usual, but they were suddenly social again, hanging out in their backyard and coming to games. They seemed like their old selves. Like they were before Violet melted away. But they were no longer the visions they used to be. We no longer looked at them with awe, wondering what they smelled like or how soft their skin was. Like broken dolls, they were sewn together with black thread and reminded me of nothing more than The Bride of Frankenstein.
When the stitches and the staples came out, there were angry scars down their faces, under their eyes, and all down their arms. Sometimes I had nightmares. I never told anyone about it because I was too old to admit to being frightened by bad dreams. In them, I wasn’t even there, or maybe I was hiding in a closet somewhere watching. The girls were in the Tall House cutting each other, slashing away the beauty of their own faces. They laughed maniacally as they used butcher, carving, paring, and even butter knives from the kitchen to hack away at each other. The walls were stained with gore. I’d wake up with my heart throbbing and my pillow damp with sweat.
The only one who wasn’t mangled beyond forgiveness was Geri. The whiteness of her skin still glowed despite the thin, pink scars lining her cheek and forehead. It was as if the other girls couldn’t bring themselves to destroy her perfect face. Destroy it, no. Mar it, yes. Some of the other guys thought I was crazy for my continued insistence on her absolute beauty. I didn’t care. In fact, I was glad because she would be all mine. No one would challenge me for the small girl with the sliced-up face.
Time went by. The girls put up bars on their windows and extra locks on their doors to keep potential suitors out. They even made sure to go places in pairs to prevent any one of them being carried off, but it turned out that nobody wanted any of the girls in the Tall House after they’d cut themselves. Everyone was sure the girls were insane, willful and violent. The town sentiment was that since all the girls were now ugly, they should at least have the decency to be humbled by their hideousness.
The men just looked for girls outside of town. They climbed the steps of other Tall Houses in other towns instead. The only bruises they came home with were from the men living in those places who didn’t appreciate the depleted selection. Healthy competition, everyone said. By the time I was seventeen, guys my age were driving out of town by the car-full to meet women, but I always stayed behind. I was waiting.
Geri and I started talking on the phone around then. She had a soft spot for me because all those years ago, it was my shoulder she cried on about Violet. Without pushing, I made myself available if she ever wanted or needed me, but I was never smooth. Maybe it had a lot to do with her getting taller and growing curves. Instead of the arrow-straight body she’d had as a girl, now she had little bubbles for breasts and knobby hips. Maybe she fantasized about my hands pulling those hips to mine just as I did, but maybe in her fantasy, the hands didn’t even have to be mine.
Soon we were sneaking off to secluded places like the woods or the junkyard, feverishly making out and clumsily feeling each other up. Both of us were jumpy that we’d be discovered, so sometimes we’d scheme all day about where we would go, only to find it was impossible because there were people there or cars could see us from the highway or it was raining. Then we’d have to spend sweaty nights alone, whispering over the phone.
One night, we hadn’t managed to slip away for a few days, and I was getting desperate. We waited until the quiet of night, and she met me in her backyard. There were distant lights from some of the neighboring houses, but at this point, we didn’t care who saw us. Geri laid down a blanket by the creek, and we pawed each other for a while. Despite the cool of the night air, her skin was hot and slick. She was just as desperate as I was…maybe even more so. Her nails dug into my back through my shirt, and she pressed my face to her surprisingly big, hard nipples.
Together, we pulled a condom onto me, and we made love. I had to cover her mouth a couple times because she kept making noises that threatened to wake up all her sisters in the Tall House. It was over quickly. But Geri wasn’t done with me yet. She didn’t have enough time to come, so with a heaving chest, she splayed her legs and pushed my head between them. The scent was a mixture of her and me, and she was already sticky with the condom lubricant. I didn’t like the idea of tasting traces of my own semen or the latex of the condom, but I wanted to satisfy her. My jaw became tired almost immediately, but I didn’t stop until she yelped and shivered.
Geri was suddenly covered in goosebumps, so I wrapped the corners of the blanket around her. She tugged up the faded yellow underwear that were still around an ankle and told me she’d better go before someone saw us.
After that, each time we made love, it was a little longer and better. I scraped enough money together to buy an old Buick with lots of backseat space, and from that point on, we didn’t have any more trouble finding places to be alone. Geri always managed to wear me out and want more than I did. I’d be dozing off after we’d torn each other up, and she’d wake me with her mouth on my cock. I couldn’t resist her. Not even when she begged me to sneak off in the middle of basketball or football games to find an empty classroom.
I asked her to marry me. She said she’d have to think about it. The wait nearly killed me, but after three weeks and four days, Geri said yes. I never knew how much grief she took from the other Tall House girls about our engagement. People had stopped sending their young girls to the Tall House after that night they all spent in the hospital, so the number of women living there had neither diminished nor swelled since that bloody night…except for the loss of one white dove of a girl.
We were married after she graduated from high school. It was a simple, inexpensive ceremony, and even a few of her friends showed up. Two of them even helped her with her dress and make-up, capturing tremulous butterflies in their cupped hands and pressing them against Geri’s cheekbones and eyelids. Her friends’ disfigured faces stood out in the small gathering, but I was elated to see them because I didn’t want our marriage to start off with bad blood. I didn’t want Geri to have to bear that. Even though she was so demanding when it came to sex, I still thought of her as a fragile creature to be handled delicately.
The first few years of marriage were an exciting time. The freedom of it was a novelty. We moved into a tiny apartment, where we christened each room and each sizable piece of furniture with our lovemaking. Geri and I went shopping at dollar stores and thrift shops for cheap decorations, furniture, and clothes. I brought home flowers that I’d picked for her out of fancy yards and gardens, and she cooked beautiful meals from a recipe book her mother gave her as a wedding present. I worked the night shift at one of those “big box” stores that stay open 24-7 and took classes during the afternoon. Geri slept during the day so that we would be on the same schedule. I’d come home from work, and she’d be waiting for me.
Though we only lived a few blocks away, as far as I knew Geri never went back to the Tall House again. There wasn’t any open hostility between them. They’d have friendly enough chats when they ran into each other in the grocery store, but there was just a separateness about them. Geri broke their pact, and things could never be the same.
When I’d graduated from college with a degree in computer science, Geri and I started hearing stories that some of the older women in the Tall House were melting. Geri was distraught over it. She would go through their names and birthdates, trying to figure out which ones were gone. “Gladiola was nearly 30 when I moved out. Her birthday was March 24th. No, that was Tulip’s birthday, but Tulip was only 28. It couldn’t have been her.”
She spent hours and hours writing and crumbling up condolence letters. At her request, I even drove her by the Tall House a few times. No amount of indulging or consoling her made any difference. She became withdrawn and silent.
I got a good job and bought a house down the road. It was a quaint, two-story number with a pretty little balcony on the second floor outside the master bedroom. I hoped this change of scenery would pull her out of her funk.
I got a handful of credit cards to buy furniture for the house. An elegant glass coffee table, a hulking four-poster bed made of cherry wood, and shining, new kitchen appliances to replace the decade-old ones that came with the house. When I came home from work each evening, the heavy velvet curtains were drawn, and I suspected they stayed that way throughout the day while she sat quietly in darkness and half-light. Slowly, the house became populated with plants that I brought home after work. Some of them were exotic flowering things, and some of them gangly ferns.
They all died. She never watered them or gave them sunlight. The only ones that survived were the ones out on the balcony. I bought her a kitten. It was a silky, gray thing that I named Snapdragon because she nipped at my toes while we slept. Geri never took to the cat, even as it grew, even when it tried to nuzzle or play with her. She simply ignored it. Snapdragon became lean and quick to scratch before I realized that Geri wasn’t feeding it. She was barely feeding herself. She would just leave her unfinished plates out, and Snapdragon would lick them clean. In the end, I opened the front door and left it that way until Snapdragon bounded to her freedom.
During all this time, our sex life remained as heated as ever. Only there was no affection to it. Geri stopped looking me in the eye at all. She’d use me to satisfy the needs of her body. Then she’d turn away from me, lost to my touch, faraway on her side of our colossal bed. Even still, she was this precious thing that I just wanted to keep close to me.
Once I came home to find her soaking in the tub. She was wrinkled and shivering in water that had long since gone cold. Without looking at me, she told me that Iris had melted yesterday. I don’t know how she heard about it, but the news had somehow broken her. She let me dry her off and lead her to bed, where she was still staring at the ceiling when I fell asleep. Her hands lay folded against her belly, and my hand rested on top of them. I don’t remember the last time, but I do know that we never had sex again after I found her in the tub.
The next evening, I found her in the same place as before. The water was icy as before. I couldn’t get the image out of my head of her sitting in that tub all day long. It went on for weeks until I requested an emergency visit from a plumber to seal off the pipes. After that, some home repairmen came by to remove the tub and replace it with a shower unit. The construction took a long time, but it solved the problem.
Geri started sitting out on the balcony instead. This, I thought, was a lot healthier. She was getting fresh air and sunshine, though she continued to get skinnier and skinnier with each passing season. One beautiful Saturday, I poked my head out to see how she was doing, and openmouthed I watched her pinch one, two butterflies out of the sky that were darting around our plants. With a tightness across my chest, I prayed that she would use the insects for eye shadow like she did as a young girl. Instead, she crushed them in her fist and wiped their shimmering guts on her skirt.
Shocked, I asked, “Why did you do that, Geranium?”
She stared out at the tops of houses, at the Tall House. From the balcony, we could see just a bit of its roof across the way.
When I thought she hadn’t heard me or was ignoring my question, she answered, “It’s better for them this way.” Between her insect-smeared fingers, she twirled her necklace of Violet.
That night, she insisted on leaving the door to the balcony open, and there was a terrible thunderstorm. The curtains whipped back into our room, and rain pooled on the hardwood floor. It was hard to sleep with all the noise, but eventually I managed to doze. When I woke up, Geri was gone.
I called out to her, my voice muffled by the wind and the boom of thunder. When she didn’t answer, I went in my robe and boxers to look for her. The house was empty. The front door was left open to the gray night. Lightning lit the sky. There she was, standing in our driveway. Her sheer, white nightgown turned the pink of her skin as the wet material clung to her body.
I called to her again, but she didn’t even turn. Her arms were raised up to the pouring, dark sky. The gravel stabbed the tender bottoms of my bare feet as I rushed out to her. My footing was unsteady, and I slipped a little. When I looked at her, I was overwhelmed. Even after she’d lost so much weight, even though she’d cut her golden hair short, even though she was almost naked in the rain and probably crazy, I still loved her.
There we were, Geri reaching toward the heavens while I frantically clutched handfuls of her soggy nightgown. Her nipples were hard, and fine, blonde hairs stood up on her cheeks. I could hear only snatches of her perfect voice through the storm. It was like a prayer. “Melt me. Dissolve me. Take me away.” Over and over she said it. “Melt me. Dissolve me. Take me away.”