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The night Mary Margaret died, she dreamed the house dream once again. As always, the carved door opened to her like an old friend, and yet she knew that she had never seen these rooms before this night. Each one caught her by surprise. A small dark room full of luminescent fish tanks. A tailor’s room stacked high with bolts of opulent fabrics, guarded by large faceless mannequins. A conservatory room as long as a football field. She lingered there beside a table of silvery carnations, breathing in the clean funeral scent.
Then she found herself standing amid ruined marble columns looking down into a swimming pool full of what appeared to be kelp. She thought she could see dark shapes moving through the leaves, and light reflecting off quick, blinking eyes.
“Hello, there,” Mary Margaret said, leaning over the edge of the pool to get a better look. Fins or feet kicked out and only ripples remained. “Must move on,” she thought, as she stepped over a broken column toward an open doorway.
When she was almost thirteen, Mary Margaret walked through the house for the first time. The night was hot, close. She pushed the damp covers away from her skin. “Why can’t I sleep?” she thought, even as the dream began.
That next morning, when her eyes were still closed, in that space between waking and sleep when dreams are clear and can be described, she remembered the order of the rooms, the colors, the sounds, every detail up to an unexpected crash of breaking glass and the cold wind against her face. But already as she moved farther from sleep, the sheet grew rough to her fingers, and she lost most of the mysterious house to the daylight.
Nann was filling the coffee pot with water when Mary Margaret tried to tell her about the dream.
“Only fools explore dreams,“ Nann said, arching one black eyebrow. “Full of lies and nonsense. Just indigestion for your brain, Pog.” She pushed a button, and the coffee maker hissed.
“It’s coming out wrong then, Nann.” Mary Margaret fought against the word jumble in her mind. “The dream made sense, and it wasn’t bits and pieces like other ones. It was…whole.”
“Whole?” Up went the eyebrow again, with a sharp glance from Nann. Then the old woman looked out the window. “Wrens are back. Watch they don’t dive bomb you hanging the wash out. Nesting wrens keep watch over…their houses.”
After that first night, Mary Margaret kept a small notebook beside her bed where she quickly recorded the fading images each morning. Some were vivid. “A room painted candy red with a mossy floor – I heard frogs there.” “I walked through dust as deep as my ankles in a long gray corridor, passing pairs of gleaming black doors.” “I found a white room full of spider webs. When I brushed them off my clothes, my face, they broke like icicles.” But eventually most entries were short: “No dreams.”
And then the journal ended. She wrote: “This makes no sense anymore. I will recognize this house, if I ever find it. Until then, what’s the point?” Mary Margaret was seventeen. The journal went into a cardboard box marked “MM IMPORTANT STUFF” and was stacked on a shelf near the furnace in Nann’s basement. For a couple of years after college, the box resided on the top shelf of a bedroom closet in a fourth floor walkup off Broadway in Inwood. After that it traveled widely….
…An attic in a group house in Rochester; a storage unit in Kansas City; a brief stint in the trunk of a 1989 Geo Spectrum, passing through three national parks.
Nann called her Pog “a restless spirit.” Mary Margaret marveled that the old woman seemed to be getting shorter and rounder all at once. Her black eyebrows still arched over her thin nose, but now her old face seemed to melt into the incredible balloon of her chest and stomach. “How does she stand up?” Mary Margaret wondered, looking at the twig legs encased in support hose.
“You aren’t staying,” Nann growled, before Mary Margaret had even pulled her suitcase up the stairs. The job in San Jose had ended last week, and for once, there was a lag before the new one would start up. Two months, no plans.
“No, Nann. I’m on vacation. You know that.”
“Alone?” The bright eyes looked over Mary Margaret’s shoulder.
“I’ve got a man in my bag, just in case.” Mary Margaret was thirty.
“Order him online?” the old woman laughed. “Could come in handy.”
For Mary Margaret’s entire life, Nann had run her own house. There had been a husband, of course – James Finn, housepainter, golfer, almost twenty years older than his bride. From all exterior accounts the marriage had been no more difficult than average. Three children were born: two daughters and the baby, Jim Junior. While JJ was still in diapers, James Finn set a ladder over a yellow jacket nest while painting a house in Amity. He didn’t know anything was wrong until he stepped on the first rung, the ladder sank into the ground, and the colony exploded….
….He was working alone that day. Hours later the homeowner found him. A heart attack caused by hundreds of stings, that’s what the coroner told Nann.
When the mortician let her see James, he said, “This’ll be hard for you, Mrs. Finn.” Then he kept his hand bracing her shoulder just in case.
The face was huge and covered in dark bumps. “Your poor lips, your poor eyes,” she whispered.
“You’ll want a closed casket.”
She nodded, and the mortician left her to gather up the paperwork. She held on to the casket edge until her knuckles turned white.
Returns home had a rigid pattern. Mary Margaret did not sleep well in her narrow bed, perhaps because a night-enthused robin started singing outside her window at 3:23 a.m.
She chased after sleep using all the tricks she knew; she meditated, went to the bathroom, breathed deeply, drank a glass of water, went to the bathroom again, and counted all the inventive ways she could throttle the robin.
And then, at the moment when she came to terms with the idea of getting up, at the moment when the robin’s gentle night song ended with a sharp “tuk!”, right when her hand was reaching for the bedside lamp, she touched the smooth whorls of the familiar wooden door, and it swung open before her startled eyes.
She stood in a room full of trains. Not the little model trains that family friendly restaurants use to delight small children, but full-sized engines and cars, steam and diesel, towering over her in a room that seemed to go on and on. Gas lights flickered on brick walls. “How can a room full of engines be so quiet?” she thought. There was a pile of luggage next to one of the cars. Two old-fashioned steamer trunks were buried with nylon backpacks, three little round hat boxes, and a huge carpet bag. “All that is missing is a cage full….”
…of parrots, an umbrella, and some guide books,” Mary Margaret thought. “And a destination.” She considered stopping to check the bag tags, but the dream moved her forward.
Time accelerated, and the rooms blurred together. In a pink room, a human-sized Ken doll sat in a plastic saucer chair. “There’s the man in my bag.” Somewhere there were Corgis and chainsaws, but she could not see anything clearly, because she was moving too fast.
She reached a dark room. She could only see a window’s outline, and moonlight pooling on the floor. “I know this place,” she thought. But then the clatter of breaking glass, and a gust of cold air, and the dream was over. The robin still tweedled up and down to a chilly dawn. Mary Margaret slipped a blanket around her shoulders and went downstairs in search of coffee.
“You look like hell,” Nann said, eyeing her carefully.
“Pretty accurate judgement call, Nann. Not enough sleep, too many robins.” Nann’s coffee was never very good, but it was hot and plentiful.
Nann watched her closely; her bright eyes lingered on her granddaughter’s hands holding the cup. When Mary Margaret walked across the kitchen to the table, every movement was considered. Nann seemed to be collecting details for some reason. “You know, Pog, I do have one super power,” the old woman said, quietly. “I don’t miss a damn thing.”
Mary Margaret sat very still.
“You’re tired, beyond tired. I don’t like the color of the skin under your eyes, or how dry your hair is. When you reach for something, there’s a slight shake in your wrist, and you hold that cup so hard right now your fingers must hurt.” Nann shook her head slowly. “There’s a lightness that has left you, Pog, and when you aren’t thinking that anyone is watching, you pass your hands over your eyes and brow as if something deep inside aches. You tell me nothing, except you’re fine. Fine! Your left leg drags a little when you walk…
“….I’m betting you concentrate when you’re climbing the stairs just to make that leg keep up with the other one.”
Nann walked over to the sink and looked out over the back yard. “When your mama fell the first time, right there under the clothesline, she was hanging out a load of your diapers. My bit of a girl.”
Mary Margaret felt the long pause push against her chest.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Drink the coffee,” Mary Margaret thought. “Breathe. Don’t answer. Nothing is set in motion. Nothing certain. Stall. Run away!”
But instead, Mary Margaret stood behind Nann, and rested her cheek on the old woman’s back, feeling her world quake.
Restless spirits may not be bound, but their journeys can begin to spiral closer to home. Mary Margaret worked in Baltimore, then Philadelphia, then Scranton. “At this rate, I’ll be working in Hell next,” she thought, on a particularly dank morning in Scranton. Dirty snow skimmed the slag mounds around the city. Mary Margaret was turning thirty-three. “I am as old as Jesus Christ,” she told Nann when she called.
“What do you want for your birthday?”
Mary Margaret looked at the state-of-the-art walker parked by her desk. “A resurrection?”
“It is time, Pog. Get home.”
“I’m fine, Nann, really.”
“Who says we’re talking about you?”
The taxi driver lifted her bag out of the trunk as she shifted her weight onto the walker. “I’ll get this to the door for you,” he said, sprinting ahead of her. Her walker tilted over the frost-heaved sidewalk, and the wheels caught in the cracks. As she reached the front door, it opened, and a tall young man held it for her.
“You must be Pog,” he boomed, as she slowly climbed to the stoop. “I’m Andy, Mrs. Finn’s aide.”
“She has an aide?”
“She has two. I’m days only.”
Nann sat in her recliner wrapped in blankets, like a perfect egg in a nest. “It’s about time,” she whispered.
“She has a bit of laryngitis from coughing,” Andy explained, opening the curtains to let more light into the room. “She caught pneumonia and got a staph infection while she was rehabbing the new hip.”
“They did their best to kill me,” Nann muttered. “But failed. You here for good?”
By spring, Nann had recovered enough to take care of herself, but Andy stayed on to help with Mary Margaret. The walker was retired for an electric wheel chair. She climbed her last stair, stepped into her last shower, and pulled out her last contact lens. “My life is whittled down,” she told Nann. Mary Margaret was thirty-six.
Nann cupped her grand-daughter’s hand in her knobby fingers, like something too fragile to touch. Her fierce gaze took in the debris of infirmity around them; she studied the wall of pill bottles on the counter. “We can’t breathe in here,” ….
…she scowled at Andy.
“What are you up to?” he asked.
“We will sleep under the stars tonight,” Nann informed him. “It’s warm enough, and you can build us a fire at the edge of the patio. Use that chimney thing Pog bought me. You can drag the recliners out. Before you go home, just lift Pog into hers. I’ll take care of her. Lots of blankets. And a thermos of tea.”
“This isn’t really a great idea,” Andy started, but Nann cut him off.
“This is the only idea. Help, or I’m getting my chainsaw.”
Mary Margaret searched the darkening sky to find a star. A poetry fragment fluttered in her mind, a line about cutting a face into stars, but she could not quite place it. Something about death, something sad. Venus sparkled through the haze of western clouds, but planets did not count. Finally, over the crown of a large oak, a faint point of light punctured the blue. “First star, Nann!”
“Here, sit back up a bit so you can drink your tea.” Nann pushed the button and Mary Margaret’s recliner whirred. “I promised Andy I’d keep you warm.”
The bitterness, mostly masked by lemon and honey, made Mary Margaret think about flowers.
“Bergamot and lavender,” Nann said. “Thought it might be nice. Drink it all down.”
The logs in the chimenea crackled as Nann poked at them, and sparks rose over their heads. The night sky was split with the heart of the Milky Way.
“This was a good idea.”
Nann curled into her own recliner, pulling a comforter around her chest. “Rest, my girl, you deserve rest.” The firelight danced across her old face and gold tracings ran down her cheeks.