A house birthed me and will likely be the death of me.
Somehow the faces of all the ghosts were familiar. I opened one of the upstairs bedrooms to see if they were there. I saw shadows in the shape of people. When they turned to see me, they soared quick as breeze. But House slammed the door, shutting us apart. She shut me out from the past, wanted me to be the clean part of her, untouched by the pain I saw through that door. She believed the pain should die with the bodies of those ghosts.
Yet their memories lived on in my dreams, lived on in my flesh as they did in House’s walls. Maybe she thought silence protected me, but it was the very thing killing me.
I grew lonely, sensing presence with no body behind it. Nana tried to provide presence in the ways she could, open curtains when the sun was out, a steaming pot of greens and turkey necks, stories about how we used to have wings that flew us free to milk-and-honey places. But I wanted her by my side more than I wanted the things she left for me. The heart of each day was the unspoken agreement between Nana and House on how to manage me, one that didn’t curse the way the other loved or hurt. Nana was kindness, because bitter was too infectious to hold; she pumped in lifeblood where she could. House was a fist, shutting out the leftovers of yesterday, not realizing the past was too permeable to hide.
The other ghosts continued making themselves known. Cigarettes burning in ashtrays. A child’s laughter rushing down the hall. But no mouths, eyes, or limbs ever found me. I came to understand these were lives before mine. The closest thing I had to family.
I wanted to understand House, but she never spoke to me, just held me within her walls—which I had to believe was out of love, the only love she knew: isolation. “What about my love?” I asked her one day. “What if my love requires a place for me to see outside of you?”
After a no shaped as a long silence, the door flew open and I saw brown-skinned girls the same shade as me playing double Dutch and patty-cake. Though I knew I was too old for rainbow chalk and children’s rhymes, I was jealous. Their touch had more flesh than mine. The slap of pudgy fingers and rhythm and song was a joy I wondered if I would ever fit into. How big and loud their smiles were. Did anyone else notice this display, want to consume it like I did? That amount of freedom seemed dangerous, easy to snatch away, because they were left unattached, no hands to protect them.
What would happen if House was no longer there to protect me? Once I stepped off the porch, I didn’t know what I had to offer the world, or what it would take from me. They could kill me before I had a chance to live, and I’d be just another shadow trying to find my way back home. Or a nightmare, plaguing the next generation’s slumber. There’d be no one to mourn me or say I told you so. No gravestone to mark the life I tried to find, my only memory a horror story like the ghosts I held in my dreams.
Maybe freedom was safer in dreams and memories, spaces that had already been lived in and didn’t step into the unknown. My fear was House’s, an inheritance that she knew would keep me leashed to her porch, in a world she controlled. As I went back inside, I realized House had only opened the door because she knew I’d close it.
Sleep remained a doorway into other lives. The ends of them, at least. In the first dreams I felt fire, entered the bodies of the couple who smelled of cigarettes. Sometimes I was the man, other times the woman, or both. The torment was always the same. No crime was ever listed to explain why we were there, only death. So many white faces drowned out the couple’s, strung them up to a tree, rested a lit torch against their calves. I tasted flesh before the flames reached their faces. Voices that were not my own screamed—for each other, for God, for mercy, all things that were out of reach. My breath always smelled of smoke when I woke.
Then there were the water dreams. A younger body; I felt her laugh. The child who hid behind her mother’s skirt. She followed a white boy, still rosy cheeked, out to a lake. They picked fallen chestnuts and played conkers to ease the day’s boredom. When she won, the boy sulked: “You’re not supposed to win. I can’t lose to someone like you!” As the girl responded, “Too bad,” he pushed her in the lake and sunk her victory. She couldn’t swim and reached for hands that never came. Her eyes and mouth filled with pondweed.
The old woman was the only one who allowed me to see her peace, and for that I was grateful. I couldn’t breathe in the other bodies, but in hers I felt open as sunset, leaving the world at my own pace. She sat in a rocking chair on the front porch, listening to crickets scratch in the grass, the wind sweeping through the wrinkles on her hands and face. The smell of smothered potatoes wafted out the window next to her. It was a state of being that felt earned. Her hand touched her chest as if she knew I resided somewhere within her. Whenever she did this, I looked down to study her hands, hoping I wouldn’t forget them when the dream was over. “We’re safe here,” she said. “Nana’s here.”
At first, I thought she was a prayer that I didn’t want to end with an amen, but eventually the dreams only made me more aware of my solitude, my desire for flesh outside of my own.
The next day I went back to witness more childhood from the window, but instead I saw a white boy. Unlike other people, he saw me, smiled and waved. How unusual he must have been to be able to glimpse me. I smiled back and the sun hit the gap between my front teeth. It was the closest I’d come to being touched. The closest thing to love, the physical kind, that I’d ever had. It made me feel like I mattered, like I could be someone’s joy and perhaps he could be mine, even if it was only for a moment. I didn’t know where things would go between us, but surely it’d be better than the nothing I’d been living. There would be fingers, voice, and warmth in his touch if I could only make it outside.
Before I could take a step toward the door, the floor tilted and sent me flying down the hall against a father clock.
“Leave the child be,” a muffled, matronly voice said. It came from above, one of the bedrooms upstairs. It was Nana.
While I appreciated her standing up for me, I thought my voice deserved to be heard on its own. “Why are you doing this?” I asked House.
For a few moments, the only response was the dust that floated down as House made the floor level again. Several photographs that hung on the wall across from me fell, shattering glass into outstretched fingers. I got up and looked at the monochrome images of the people I had dreamed about. The couple, mother and child, grandmother. My family. They were mine.
Even in black and white, I felt the differences in our features, our hair, our skin, and could tell all that made our world a separate one. Just like them, I could disappear, my body and story hidden beneath a white person’s need to consume. These thoughts were more than my own, belonged to a deeper wisdom, to the shadows tucked away upstairs and the pictures in my hands. They had spoken into my mind a lesson I didn’t ask for or want but knew I needed.
Perhaps House thought I had no right, as her child, to question her or our family’s history. But I wanted to know what could make me whole—heal me, not just hurt me. Why was it that House could bring forth life but not know how to sustain it? All she knew was how to shield me from the nameless threats that took our family away from her. While there was a part of me that empathized, feasted on her grief like it was my own, it wasn’t enough. If House and the ghosts wouldn’t talk to me, I would run away to someone who would.
But when I reached the front door, my body felt lighter, no longer mine. My arms had fallen off and melted into the hardwood. House must have known that if I left this time, I wouldn’t come back; my life would go wherever that white boy led me. That frightened her, to imagine a life without me. If she had to exist on her own, would there be any purpose? There was fear of being left to nothing but the past, the violence of previous generations lived over and over without end. She needed to haunt me because the past haunted her.
I wouldn’t come back; my life would go wherever that white boy led me.
I used to think House couldn’t speak, but as I listened to the creak of her hinges and contractions in her wooden frames, I realized therein was her language. Stillness meant safety. Silence was safety. Anything else led to rage. Not just her own—the ghosts’ too. Their lives had been stolen from them. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to be here. We’re not supposed to be here,” they moaned through the walls. Their anger was all they had left, and they wielded it hoping one day it would set them free. It never did.
Their voices filled my spine, but I didn’t know why. I wasn’t the one who hurt them. There was nothing I could do to lay them to rest. And yet I carried them as though their lives belonged to me. Maybe that’s why I felt so shattered and exhausted.
Sliding to the floor, I remembered that my body came from House, and therefore I belonged to her. She could take what she wanted. My tears and screams filled the silence. “Take all of me, then. I don’t want this. I don’t want you.” As my voice soared, so did the ghosts.
House’s body erupted for days. Slammed dishes against walls. Cracked mirrors into spiderwebs. Food turned to rot, inviting roaches into fruit pits. Black and red light filled her like nightmares and blood. My arms reappeared on the kitchen table one morning, bruised and splintered, itching as they reattached. I struggled to make my way through her hallway to the stairs. It all became a maze.
I ran upstairs toward one of the bedrooms, kicking open the door and throwing myself in. Whatever was in that room was better than being alone one more second. Shadows approached in the shape of a grandmother, the old woman who called herself Nana. She had pigtails, and several letters branded underneath her eye. She offered to do my hair, which looked like a storm. She used a tortoiseshell comb to gently scratch my scalp and part my curls. It was more about soothing than braiding. Her thick wrists and fingertips had already begun our conversation.
“House does love you. In her way. She hides you here to protect you. Especially since she couldn’t protect us from dying.”
Nana’s form shifted into the slender man and woman who smoked cigarettes. The man’s charred skin was practically ash. The woman’s neck had boysenberry rope burns. Then the child appeared, bloated and dripping with pond scum. She smelled of the drowned.
Nana appeared again, plaiting my hair. “The path of the white boy that smiled at you is different for us. He treats us worse than House could ever treat you.”
I picked up the braid of my hair that connected to hers, observing the shadow of it against the wall. “When are you from?”
Nana shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. What happened to us could happen anytime.”
My scalp tingled from her fingers. House was watching us, feeling both flesh and spirit like a sparrow’s feet on a tree branch. But it didn’t matter. I’d been trying for ages to talk to her, touching each window, door, chair, table, and wall, hoping to find a mouth filled with some compassion or eyes that were soft. There were parts of House she never wanted me to find, parts that she herself wanted to forget. The kindness I needed was not a place she was willing to go. So I had to go to those places myself, uncertain, ready to find any kind of touch to prove I was living and wanted.
“I don’t want to exist under this kind of protection. It’s just another trap,” I said.
When Nana finished, my hair was loosely braided into her shadow’s. I wasn’t sure if it was to connect or chain me. She opened the window. Sun haloed the children outside, all of them dancing in water spouting from a fire hydrant across the street. “Joy’s too loud for us. Living in small spaces is the only thing that’s quiet enough. Children can get away with happiness sometimes because they don’t know any better. But it is nice to watch them.”
Watching boys and girls skip through the rushing water, pushing each other into puddles, letting water run between their fingers and over their heads, made me want so much it hurt. I wanted to know the joy that made fear worth abandoning. Even if fear was what had kept me alive and House functioning, I needed laughter and sunshine.
Below us was House’s backyard, overgrown with weeds gnarled as a witch’s hands. It was more cemetery than garden, a haven for crows. The dirt surrounding withered greenery resembled burnt flesh, with scars shaped like gravestones. I inhaled the warmth, leaned until my hair unraveled from Nana’s. I let myself fall from the window, resolved that if I was broken, I’d be broken on my own terms.
I fell into thorns, welcoming the pain after going so long without feeling at all. The neighborhood continued their play as if I wasn’t there. Maybe I wasn’t. Not yet. I pulled myself from the thorns, arms bleeding, shirt torn. There was no way to tell whether the pain was House’s anger lashing out on me or my own.
A gate led to the sidewalk. I decided to clear a path to it. When I pulled at a spurweed, it hissed and made House’s porch shake. I held on, letting the weed’s thorns dig into me as deep as they could. Somehow, I knew it hurt House more than it hurt me. It was a necessary pain. The healing kind. She needed to understand that loving me meant respecting the what, who, where that I chose.
It scared me as much as it did her to enter a world that didn’t know me, a world I didn’t know how to speak to. But in order to live, I needed to learn. There was more to life than the shadows our family and I had lived in. The ghosts told me they weren’t supposed to be here—well, neither was I. I needed to live my own stories, be more than just their wounds. And House needed to lay them to rest. We all deserved to move on.
Weedsprickled and hissed as they wrapped around my legs, spiraling up like a snake after prey. House was never more dangerous than when she realized I was leaving. Would she rather kill me than set me free? I tried pushing the weeds off, but they only grew hungrier. They had a bite similar to the men who had killed my family, except House called her violence love.
Nana’s voice rattled all of House’s windows in warning: “Be better than the men who made ghosts of us.”
House’s rage was focused only on capture. As I twisted around, I saw a pair of shears resting against a dried-out bush. The weeds and I both reached, but in my desperation I caught hold of them first. I cut off the plant stems with metal teeth and watched them bleed out.
Maybe House thought that if I left it would prove that she’d failed as my mother, failed at loving and saving me as she had with our ancestors. Or perhaps she just didn’t want to be alone. What House didn’t realize was that her ghosts were mine—their traumas were my inheritance, as much a part of me as she was. I had no say in the stories and family that occupied my space; I could only try to figure out how to make my peace with them, like the weeds. There had to be boundaries, paths only I could take, just as the ghosts had.
I fought my way through more weeds. “If you love me, you’ll let me go. The peace you need is more than I can give.”
I was not an extension of House, but my own. To see and live the differences between us would force us to admit that we were not enough for each other. We needed more than the past to make up our present and future.
House continued fighting, throwing wood planks from the porch, shooting rotten food from the kitchen. The spiteful weeds finally fell limp with House’s fatigue. Once she stopped fighting me and let me clear the space between us, I knew I’d always be there for her. Because when I came back, it would be my choice.
I didn’t want to fear her anymore; I had to trust her. Trust that when our fears settled and our wounds healed, House could be a real home. A place for me to take a family of my own, to show them the place that made me, and then she’d see the joy we lived out loud.
House’s foundation settled into the soil; her trim and posts calmed. She was ready to accept what was coming. My leaving was not a rejection of her, but an acceptance of my own life. Soon, the ground was bare enough to breathe again. The ghosts watched me, taking a breath that almost felt like life. I walked out of the gate, ready to find new seeds to grow.
Jeneé Skinner has a degree in Creative Writing and studied Renaissance Literature at the University of Oxford. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Tin House Summer Workshop and Kimbilio Writers Retreat. Currently, she is the Writing in Color Book Project Fellow for Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her work has been nominated for Best Microfiction 2020. In Fall 2021, she will begin her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can follow her on Twitter @SkinnerJenee.