Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Chapter Nine: Haunting Houses

Compass’ mother’s house had a history. It had more than a history, it had a past. There’s a difference, after all, between a history and a past. Pasts were things that were italicized, and spoken of in greedy whispers over cocktails. Histories were things that could be written about in respectable textbooks and dozed over by high schoolers. It was a great story that Compass loved while her mother lived here. Now that she was living here, at least for the moment, the story kind of creeped her out.

In all the excitement of a run-away mother, Compass had forgotten about the house’s interesting history. She was rather forcibly reminded when she brought her cats to live with her, and she kept losing them, only to find them blissed out in the attic. Every once in awhile one or both of them would start loudly purring for no immediately apparent reason, and while cats are notorious for doing inexplicable things, Compass’ cats were by and large too lazy to indulge in odd behavior. Their focuses were food and sleep and body heat. Not a lot of mystery there.

One evening just after sunset, the less-chubby of the chubbettes started purring. She lay on her side, rolled on to her back, moved her head exactly as if someone were rubbing it. A moment later, she stopped, got up, and headed up the stairs to the attic where she banged her stupid head against the attic door until Compass came to open it. And then Compass remembered.

The day that her mother had first seen the house, Compass was with her. They were out driving around, looking for signs and checking out open houses. As they passed this house, they saw a young couple trying to erect a “for sale” sign in the front yard. It was still cold and the ground was fighting back. The couple was laughing and swearing and had no idea what they were in for.

“Excellent!” said Mina. “Do-it-yourselfers always undervalue their homes. Let’s go. And Compass . . .” and here Mina poked a finger at her daughter, “I talk. You don’t. Your sympathy is too expensive.”

They toured the house which was nice, but unspectacular from an aesthetic point of view. The young couple had bought the place from the grandson of the man who had built it, and they worked hard to keep it looking the way it had looked for the almost hundred years it had stood. They kept the old, scratched, hardwood floors, they resurrected the ancient crown molding with sanding and paint; even the wainscotting was original. The doorknobs were brass or iron and rattled loosely in their fittings, and the chandelier had apparently been swung from by a couple of generations of drunken uncles; the whole tour was a bit like walking backwards in time.

The last room they visited was the attic, which was where the original builder had kept his study. A moderately famous writer, this had been his library, his sanctuary, and just being in the room made Compass feel more at peace. She lingered behind for a moment after her mother had given the space her usual cursory glance and moved on. As Compass stood alone in the late-evening light that came through one window, she was vaguely aware of distant music.

Back downstairs, she found her mother in early negotiations with the young couple. Mina was convinced that she could get a bargain from these sellers, and she was pushing her advantage.

“There’s a lot of work to do here,” she said, and even if she didn’t actually say “tsk tsk tsk,” you could hear the echo of it in her voice.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Zack, the young husband. “But we wanted to keep it-”

“More here than a coat of paint can fix,” said Mina.

“The building’s been entirely rewired,” said Julie, the wife. “It’s all up to code, so no problem with insurance or fire hazard.”


“Where does the music in the attic come from?” asked Compass.

The young couple froze, jaws dropping almost in unison and to the same depth.

“You heard it?!” said Julie. “You see?” And here she turned and gave her husband a whack across the chest. “I told you! You wouldn’t believe me!”

Zack laughed. “OK, you’re not crazy. Congratulations.”

“You don’t hear it?” Compass asked Zack. “It’s opera. Is one of your neighbors a fan?”

“No, that music doesn’t come from any of the usual sources,” Julie said.

Mina’s lips parted and Compass could tell that her mother had already had enough of this conversation which, after all, did not include her.

“You have to buy this house,” said Julie, “We'll only sell it to someone who can hear it sing.” And Mina’s lips managed to simultaneously snap shut and twist into an evil little smile – a feat which gave Compass chills.

The story went like this: the house had been built in 1919 by a soldier home from the Great War. While on R & R in London, Henry met Sophie, a nightclub singer and the most intriguing woman Henry had ever seen. He went to hear her sing every night of his leave, and every night he had a single flower delivered to her by a waiter. Finally, on the last night of his stay, his flower was returned, with a note.

“This flower looks wilted. It needs liquid, and so do I. Put the poor thirsty thing in a glass full of gin and bring it to me yourself.” It was signed, simply, “Sophie.”

The gin was terribly diluted. Their romance was 100 proof. Every chance Henry got, he came to visit her and hear her sing: in one tawdry nightclub full of drunken soldiers after another, he would sit, more at attention than for any drill. When he was discharged, Henry went back to Seattle to build a home for Sophie.

Sophie finally made it to Seattle in 1922. They were married and lived one of those rare, joyfully companionable partnerships, their house full of laughter and song and the wittiest, edgiest, most charming friends Seattle had to offer. They had fabulous children who led interesting lives, and by all accounts they loved each other and even liked each other, and their children remember them dancing and laughing through the hallways of the house.

The years from 1922 until 1952 were the most prolific in Henry’s life. In addition to dozens of articles for The New Yorker and Life and the Saturday Evening Post, Henry wrote some 19 novels. He was neither hugely popular nor critically acclaimed, but he made enough for them to live comfortably. As he sat in his study, Sophie would sing in the room just below the attic. He could faintly hear her as she sang and pounded on the old piano, and if he took his shoes off, as he usually did, he could feel the vibrations of her music through the hardwood floor. Every book was dedicated to her, and because she was so instrumental in the creation of his manuscripts, Henry insisted that she sign every one, just below “The End.” She always signed, simply, “Sophie.”

Sophie’s death was completely unexpected. In 1952, while visiting family in England, she boarded a train near Harrow-Wealdstone. Two express trains crashed into a commuter train, leaving Sophie and 112 others dead.

Sophie had long ago made known that she intended to be buried in Seattle. “It’ll be wet. I’ll be dead. I won’t know the difference,” she told Henry, and he promised her they would be buried together atop Capitol Hill. Her body was brought back to Seattle, and Sophie was laid to rest. For 4 years, Henry didn’t write a word. He sat in his house, drank too much whiskey, watched too much television, and missed his wife. Henry’s children and friends were sure that Henry wouldn’t outlive Sophie by long. They were less a married couple and more a set of Siamese twins, people said. One can’t survive long without the other. But as much as Henry might have wanted to die, he didn’t, though the existence he had without Sophie barely qualified as a life.

One day, almost four years to the day after Sophie’s death, Henry needed paper. He knew there was a ream of unused paper in the attic, so for the first time since her funeral, he climbed the stairs to the attic and opened the door. He was winded – too many cigars and too much whiskey – so he sat for a moment at his desk. He may even have drifted off. The warm sun was coming in the attic window, the chair was comfortable and familiar and still molded to the contours of his body, even four years changed. He awoke to the sound of singing. It was faint, at first. Henry sat listening quietly for a moment or two, then picked up a pencil, still sharp, and wrote the first words of what would become his most famous novel: “It itches where my wife used to be.” The music and voice grew louder. Henry leaned down and pulled off his slippers and felt the faint vibrations through the floor.

In the fifteen years that Henry outlived his wife, he wrote another 8 novels, each one more haunting than the last. Critics raved about his writing during this period, saying that the books were so melodic it was “as if they were written to music.”

In the last year of Henry’s life, his eldest son had gotten into the habit of checking on Henry every day. In August of 1967, Jessie found his father upstairs in the attic, slumped over the last page of his final novel. Just below the words “The End,” was a signature: Sophie.

Sophie and Henry were still in the house, Compass knew. She'd heard the music a few times when visiting her mother, and once dreamed of a couple of jazz-agers dancing and laughing in the hall. Compass stood now at the attic door, her hand still on the doorknob, her cat bumping its head against her ankles.

“I'm not a real writer, not like Henry was,” she whispered, by way of excuse. Compass turned away and walked back down the stairs, not even sure what she was really afraid of.


NuclearToast said...

Dragonflies AND ghosts? This thing gets more intriguing with each new chapter!

Ash said...

I LOVE this chapter! :)