*Image: “After the Firebird” by Ekaterina Vasilyeva, photograph
The Lady of the House
By Constance Renfrow
The noises upstairs woke Marla again. Her phone would read, she knew, 2:08 a.m.—the same as it had every night for a week. She pressed her face deeper into the bed sheet—the pocket of air beneath the covers warm and unmoving, safe—thinking that if she could just fall back asleep the inevitable could be postponed, for as long as possible, forever. The noises would stop, she would forget them, Armand would come home from his business in Berlin, and life would go on. They would be together again and happy, the two of them.
They’d started off small, the sounds. That first night, she was watching on Netflix one of Armand’s favorite shows; just as Inspector Barnaby started up his usual routine—talking down to Sergeant Jones—Marla heard the creaking of floorboards overhead, a strange tapping. She paused the episode and sat up in bed, looking to the ceiling, at the ornate plaster where the gasoliers were no longer in situ—to use her husband’s phrase. The dog, a husky—a giant brute of an animal, too big for New York City, but meant as a guard, of sorts—was lying where Armand’s feet usually were; if it noticed the noises, it was unconcerned. So it was easy for Marla to suppose she’d only heard the wood expanding or settling, gas in the pipes. The kinds of sounds old townhouses make—and this one was nearly two hundred years old.
It wasn’t until the second night that she’d truly been afraid. Because then it was footsteps, crashing and carrying on. Then something heavy falling to the ground, shrieking open, and Marla ran out of the house. She pounded on the neighbors’ door; Armand had said before he left that if she needed anything, Mr. and Mrs. Purley next door had promised to do what they could. Armand had told her they were both Wall Street execs, nearing retirement, and when she started stammering about crashes in the attic and intruders on the stairs, they let her inside, which in itself surprised her. They kindly said nothing about her being only in her teddy, and this sheer and short, not really intended for sleep—a gift from Armand after his last trip away, the one over her twenty-seventh birthday. Mr. Purley pulled a gallant face and went to investigate Marla’s complaint, while Mrs. Purley, in her flannel robe, made her a cup of warm cocoa—the fancy kind, from a tin, made with milk instead of water—and after Marla started to calm down at last, to breathe instead of gasp, let her borrow the house phone to call Armand. He’d only been gone two days. He said he was about to step into a meeting and told her to call the cops if she was really that afraid, but Mr. Purley came back just then, smoothing his graying hair and saying loudly that he’d searched the whole house and hadn’t seen anyone or anything out of place, and it was no wonder her being scared, a sweet young wife, half her husband’s age—a mere child!—all alone in a big house like that. He blamed her imagination, for having too much of it. Armand heard everything, of course, and told her to thank the nice neighbors and go back to bed. He was the first to hang up. Mrs. Purley even patted her hand and said, like she was a child, there there.
After, when she thought of it—when she replayed the sounds to herself in the afternoons, wandering alone the aisles of the grocery store, her basket empty, or pretending to read on the park bench beside where the jazz band sometimes played—she thought the noises seemed familiar. Like metal latches being flung open, the screeching of old hinges, something being slammed shut. It brought to mind the old steamer trunk her father had given her when she left for a college across the country, years ago. An heirloom from his student days, emblazoned with his name, her maiden name, in perfect white paint. For years, it had been her dinner table—where she and her Craigslist roommates would gather for Gold Emblem macaroni and to complain about their managers, the things men said to them in bars. Marla supposed it must be in the basement somewhere, with the other boxes from her life before this house on Fourth Street. Armand had given her a spot down there for all the things she wouldn’t need anymore.
Now, she wanted only to ignore the noises. Even when, lying still in bed, the dog sprawled at her feet, the voices upstairs turned into singing, jerking her back from the warm edges of sleep, the most she could muster was a frustrated groan. The way she used to respond to her roommate’s cat mewling for breakfast too early in the morning or when the people in the apartment next door screamed after a late-night binge. The way she would sometimes pretend to stay asleep as Armand tried to wake her at 5 a.m., when he left for work, or earlier, for sex. Exasperation that no one else heard these things or else were bothered by them—that this was torment for her alone to bear.
When she heard the song, it was so clear she could make out the words. I’ll not leave thee, thou lone ones. It was loud enough that she knew she’d have to get up, to investigate.
She took her phone from the nightstand and texted Armand, simply to say that what she heard this time, seeping down from the attic, was singing. She messaged him again, with the words of the song. The night had turned the covers to gray, and she pushed them off; her bare legs, too, were colorless. Even when he was on his business trips—more frequent now than when she’d first known him—she’d gotten used to sleeping naked, piling on more blankets to make up for the warmth he took with him.
Marla’s foot, when she rose, brushed against the long lace gown pooled on the floor, where she’d left it following Armand’s Skype call that morning. He hadn’t wanted to hear about the noises then, or how they’d escalated; he’d wanted to look at her, in the lingerie he filled her closet with. She pulled it on over her head, feeling the way it compressed her figure as she tugged it past her hips and let the material below flow free. So what if it was see-through, slinky—a garment devised for a man’s gaze? She felt powerful in it, because, only then, when she wore such things, did she ever have her husband on his knees.
Since the lovely are sleeping—the voice, a woman’s, was still lamenting—go sleep thou with them. An Irish tune, she thought—an old country song like she’d heard in foreign movies or from folk singers in bars or at open mics, back before Armand told her he didn’t appreciate her wasting nights on them.
Her phone buzzed ineffectually on the comforter; she saw it light up with Armand’s name. She reached for it. He’d texted back: You probably forgot to turn off the TV in the study. But Marla didn’t watch TV in his study—that was Armand’s habit—and she’d made sure it was off the morning he left for the airport. There hadn’t been anyone there to turn it on since. Quickly, a burst of rage, Marla threw the phone onto the empty side of the bed, upsetting the dog, which looked at her, its clear eyes disapproving—the scowl the breed was known for even more prominent in the half-light.
Marla snatched the phone back. She’d sworn to herself that afternoon that if she went upstairs, she would record whatever it was—whatever she saw or heard. It would be her proof. Something to show Armand or the cops or the neighbors; the next time anyone doubted, she would have something to make them understand she was telling the truth.
She grabbed, too, the framing hammer she’d taken from her old toolkit in the basement the morning after she’d gone to the Purleys, and had taken to leaving on her nightstand. A relic from her days, a few years back, at Habitat for Humanity, when she’d been pulled from behind the desk at the ReStore thrift shop and sent to the Far Rockaways to tear down and help rebuild after the hurricane swept through. One of her bosses had shown her how to use it—an older woman with broad shoulders who cursed after every blow. Bitch! Bitch! Marla never knew if it was the hurricane she was cursing or the work or the husband she’d divorced—or maybe it was just that the impact hurt her hands.
More than once Marla had thought to call her old boss, to tell her about the noises and Armand. Surely she would have something to say to fix it—something more blunt than there, there. Like she always used to, she’d tell Marla which pipes to check, or she’d come to search the house herself, to find the cause of the problem. But Marla had culled her old phone contacts after the wedding last year—former colleagues, the roommates she never had much in common with, people barely remembered from shows she’d attended: people she didn’t think she’d have reason to speak to again. And now, of course, she couldn’t. She’d even tried to find the woman on Facebook, but if she had a profile, it was under a different name than the one Marla knew.
The hammer was what Marla had clutched on another night, in terror, when she first heard that there were voices upstairs—and then, when they surged into a shriek of laughter, she had fled onto the street, gasping and shuddering, unable for a time to speak. Before she escaped, she’d pulled on the dog’s collar, but it pulled back too, refused to move from its spot on Armand’s side of the bed, and so she left it to whoever was howling in the attic. Like she’d left her phone, forgotten, just out of reach. As was usual of the city that time of night, there were still people on the streets, and they stared at the figure of Marla, wrapped in one of Armand’s robes, gripping the hammer tight to her. She knew she looked out of place here, on this street. A madwoman, run from her home. But she wasn’t mad. Furthermore, she’d read stories in the news of vagrants living in cabinets and closets in other people’s homes—and Armand’s house had so much empty space. Someone could easily live up there, if they were quiet, and neither she nor Armand would ever know. Remembering Armand’s cynical words crackling long-distance over Mrs. Purley’s phone, she nodded yes when some nice young students, dressed as though coming from a party and stumbling in their heels, offered to call the police. They apologized that they couldn’t wait and Marla understood; she, too, had once been out underage.
The Purleys never stepped out once, even though she saw the light from their TV flickering in the bedroom upstairs. When the police finally came, they searched the house; they took her statement, and when—back in the kitchen, where she’d been led—she left a voicemail for Armand, explaining that one of the cops had inadvertently knocked over some piece of his mother’s Waterford crystal, he called back immediately, demanding to speak to the officer in charge. She waited, biting the nails of her free hand, but when he handed her back the receiver, the officer’s expression had changed. He asked her to give him the framing hammer she still held; he promised to put it back in some toolbox they’d found in what Armand’s parents had called the tea room—though Marla had taken to calling it, when feeling especially perverse, the mud room.
This time, as Marla prepared to follow the sound of the singing, she already knew the dog wouldn’t come. It lay sprawled on Armand’s side of the bed, its paws over its eyes, as though it were pretending not to hear the song, or Marla calling softly to it. It looked almost human, ignoring her. She knew enough to understand that it wasn’t going to go with her; it would stay there and sleep, as it had every night that week. A day or two ago this might have kept her afraid. It might have prevented her from unlocking the bedroom door, from slipping out into the hall and turning on the staircase light, but not tonight. The singing had grown louder. Multiple voices now—three of them, she thought—in harmony. She found the recording function on her phone and tapped it. She hefted the hammer.
“Bitch!” she said, practicing a swing, and it made her feel stronger for saying it. Whatever was up there, it wasn’t going to take her by surprise, either.
The staircase rose high and steep in the ancient row house, the home where Armand had grown up, where his parents had grown old and died. Marla started climbing. She’d never gotten used to the tall, shallow steps, and still they made her nervous. One slip-up—if the dog got underfoot or her gown caught—and she’d go tumbling down, unable to stop the plummet, or find a handhold to cling to. Armand had never mentioned it, but the first owner had died this way, Marla knew. A Victorian woman, more than a hundred years ago. The house was a stop on the neighborhood ghost tour, and Marla had stuck her head out the window on Halloween to listen. From above, she’d caught a glimpse of the enlarged photograph the tour guide held up; the lady was tall and severe, scowling at the cameraman in her high collar and tightly knotted hair. It was taken, supposedly, just days before she went crashing down the stairs, her neck snapped and bent. Her death throes echoed up through the whole house—trapped in corners.
She hadn’t lent it much credence then, but these days it occurred to her, more than once, that the tour guide might have been right—maybe the Victorian lady was haunting the place. Maybe she was causing the noises in the attic.
Maybe she was unhappy with the way the house had changed since her time and was making her displeasure known. Maybe she didn’t like electricity or the modern plumbing, or that Marla always did what Armand said. The lady had lived on her own her whole life, never married. Maybe she didn’t like that her home was now so fully a man’s.
It was hard juggling the phone and the hammer and keeping her lace gown up above her knees. On their Skype date, he’d asked her to turn around and bend over and sashay—a sight for sore eyes, he’d said—and she’d done so, reluctantly, each time trying to find the right way to bring him back to the noises, the problem on her hands. She hoped he’d notice the dark circles under her eyes or the way her shoulders were hunched and strained, but he didn’t. He said only that the image of her body would have to last him awhile, as his trip was being extended; just like that. He explained the reason, at length, but all she heard was that he’d be gone another week. He wasn’t coming back to help her in her distress; he was leaving her in his house, in his neighborhood, still alone. When she told him she didn’t think this was a good idea, that she wished he could come home sooner, like he was supposed to, he demanded, “What do you want me to do about it?”
Marla had answers. She wanted to tell him to leave—leave whatever issues the company was having this time to the people he hired to deal with such things, and come home to her, the person he had promised to care for. Instead she said, “I don’t know.” She tried not to sound too bitter, to make him wonder why he bought her pretty things and paid her bills—not that there were many; she didn’t buy herself the luxuries her old roommates had imagined she would, when she told them she would be leaving to marry, as they called him, her “silver fox.” She had caught them once, her last night in that grimy three-bedroom over the dive bar, calling her a “trophy wife,” a “gold digger,” while she was in the bathroom brushing her teeth. Perhaps, she thought now, they weren’t even wrong. After all, Armand’s money had let her quit her job. She didn’t cook or clean or do any other things a man of his age, his upbringing, might expect of such a marriage. Other than a knack for making cocktails and looking glamorous in lingerie, Marla was acutely aware she didn’t bring much to the marriage. The cocktails were something she’d learned just for him; she’d felt early on Rum and Cokes, her old standby, were not enough for these parlors, with the Waterford and the silverware made of actual silver, and the artwork by painters she’d studied in school. So, relying on YouTube videos and books from the Strand, she’d experimented with Pegu Clubs and Moscow Mules and, Armand’s favorite, Whiskey Sours with fresh lemon juice and simple syrup she prepared herself, and homemade maraschino cherries. The first time she’d served them, he’d called the whole thing “exquisite.”
“I just want you to believe me about this.” It would be, at least, a start. There’d been silence on the other end of the line. If he hadn’t hung up yet, or held the phone from his ear to whisper something to his assistant, he was about to, and Marla hung up on him. She’d never done that before, and he didn’t call back.
At the landing to the third floor, the staircase turned on to a hall. The steps to the attic waited at the very end of the long, narrow corridor. It was strange, Marla thought, but the song, as she grew closer to it, was quieter now, muffled, as though it were actually coming from an old television set. As though Armand were right, and she felt the muscles clench in her throat, her stomach—the gown, for a moment, going slack at the waist. But of course Armand’s top-of-the-line TV didn’t sound like that, antique; even from the hallway, she could always hear him watching his financial reports, CNN, in perfect clarity. She made for the light switch but found the bulb was burned out. It must have gone sometime that evening, because it had been working hours earlier, when she’d made her now daily trek up to the attic and back down, searching for signs of anything strange or out of place, while there was still daylight to comfort her. She tightened her grip on the hammer and told herself this was no sign of anything—how many times had she flipped a switch only for the bulb to flash and the filaments to pop, the whole thing needing to be replaced? Why was her first impulse always to be afraid?
But then again, she hadn’t heard anything pop. It made her glad for the recording. It made her glad, too, that the camera’s image would not pick up the Duncan Phyfe chairs in the corner of the hall or the antique clock that stood, unwound but filigreed, on the display cabinet beside them. These were the things that caught people’s eyes when it was day and the lights were on. The things her friend—an old one, from college—had seen when she came by the other day for coffee and to catch up. To see the house on Fourth Street Marla had mentioned at the wedding, the last time they spoke. She was stopping, she explained, in the city for a day or two, before going on again, to another town, another story, always someplace new on the road, and soon she had Marla put the china in the sink and asked to see everything, on every floor. The furniture impressed her, and the price of her mother-in-law’s prized figurines, and she looked longer at the paintings in their heavy, ornate frames than at Marla, who tried, because it seemed to interest her, to tell her what she could recall of these things. And finally, when they climbed the stairs and Marla could contain it no longer, she confided about the noises, and the voices, the sounds she heard in the night. The friend only laughed, a deep roar of envy, and said, “I’d put up with all kinds of weird shit to live here.”
Marla thought the darkness didn’t feel oppressive in the way it so often did. It wasn’t pitch black, it didn’t envelop her. Threaten her. She’d often felt her bedroom in this house was like when she’d been onstage—college theater followed by community shows, pre-Armand, pre-New York, even. Fully lit and blinding, mid-performance, and the black all around, unknown and impossible to ever explore. Made up of monsters, sinuous and whorling. Now, though, the dark was calm and lived-in. Not empty but occupied, the hum of the melody an invitation.
There was a door at the end of the hall that closed off the attic staircase—intended to keep it out of sight and so out of thought, concern. At the top of the steps—if one deigned to climb to it—four large rooms opened onto a large workspace in the middle. It held furniture and clothes and paintings from Armand’s parents—collections he had no use for at the moment or reason to display. The pieces of his inheritance he couldn’t part with, which was most of it—even though she knew, from those days at the ReStore, he could sell each piece for more money than she’d ever held, or even, if he were feeling charitable, donate it to such a cause. Marla had said once that the rooms were big enough they could rent them out to students from the university nearby. It would be a little extra money each month—Armand had laughed at this, squeezed her ass and laughed—but mostly Marla had liked the thought. Of twenty-somethings—closer to her in age than she to Armand or to his friends—just upstairs, talking about poetry over beers, or setting up their easels in the common space. Strumming guitars, running lines. She could bring them Rum and Cokes, the meals she would practice making. It would have been nice to have that sort of energy in the house—a part of the house where she could feel, perhaps, like she belonged.
When the Victorian lady had lived here, the attic had been where the servants slept. There were always three girls. Some went, others came. Irish girls, looking for work, Marla remembered. They came from home to earn money, and service was better than tenement houses, better wages that might save their mothers or fathers or siblings from the conditions of their homeland in those days. She’d read about girls like them at the museum a few blocks down. The old houses of the old city.
What if they were up there now? The ghosts of them, their imprints. Returned because the house had a lady again—a lady alone, with no one to look after her. What if they’d mistaken her for their mistress, summoning them to their duties? What if they saw she was kind—nicer by far than the Victorian woman, or after, Armand’s mother? What would she do if she saw their afterimages?
Marla pulled open the attic door and shivered. It wasn’t just her lace gown or the feeling that one is supposed to tremble at the opening of doors—it was colder here, even though it was summer and the heat was supposed to rise. Escaping with the turbid air, she could just make out the faint words—so quiet now, like dust, seeping into her skin, itching her: Oh! who would inhabit this bleak world alone?
The last note was lingering, held, the song at its end, and Marla—
Suddenly Marla couldn’t stand to be in ignorance any longer. She thundered up the stairs, her feet slamming up the steps, the weight so heavy, pulling her down, and the framing hammer clanging metal when it hit against the railing. Footsteps could be heard, quiet, retreating to the opposite side of the room, and Marla ran onto the landing, crying out, “Wait!”
She heard the footsteps stop.
“Wait, please wait!” Marla gasped, out of breath and shaking from the strain of the mystery she’d waited so long to solve. Her plea shuddered through the closed-up workspace—the furniture piled high, near to the ceiling, all around. Covered in white sheets and shadows from the moon streaming down from the skylight. She didn’t know what she was looking for—a person living inside the old oak hutch or a specter or thieves come finally to take their haul—but she searched blindly for it in the gloom.
And then Marla saw them. The three servant girls, or the shades of them. Or the Victorian lady, with two of her maids. Gray and ethereal. Silhouettes in the middle of the dust that swirled with every one of Marla’s breaths. She thought she could see aprons around their middles, ill-fitting dresses that bulged at the shadows’ waists, around their arms. One wore her hair loose, hanging down past her shoulders. Another knotted it up high, severe and stiff. The third held her arms to her chest as if in prayer.
Here, confronting them, she felt elated. Not scared at all like she had thought, but joyful, glad. They hovered there, silent now their song had stopped.
“Are you here to help me?” she asked of them, holding up the phone, still recording. “You are, aren’t you?” Her gown had wrapped itself around her legs, lace and elastic binding her where she stood, opposite them. She could not step forward, go toward them at all—not without looking down, away, and then, she feared, they might disappear.
“Please,” Marla was saying. “I can’t take this anymore.” The shades still and towering. “Can’t you say something—do something? Please,” and she was pleading, “help me.”
Her phone vibrated and Marla nearly jumped. It was Armand again. Did you turn off the TV yet?
Her stomach clenching. Her knuckles straining against the hammer’s padded handle. She could feel a callus forming.
“Do something,” Marla hissed into the silence. “Do something.”