“The Haunting”—A Short Story by Joyce Carol Oates, 2003

The Haunting

Joyce Carol Oates, 2003


Originally appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in April 2003. It was later anthologized in Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Bookmof Best New Horror, Vol. 15 in 2004; and collected in 2006 in Oates’ story collection: The Female of the Species: Tales if Mystery and Suspense.

There’s nothing! You hear nothing. It’s the wind. It’s your dream. You know how you dream. Go back to sleep. I want to love you, stop crying, let go of me, let me sleep for sweet Jesus’s sake I’m somebody too not just your Mommy don’t make me hate you.

In this new place Mommy has brought us to. Where nobody will know us Mommy says.

In this new place in the night when the rabbits’ cries wake us. In the night my bed pushed against a wall and through the wall I can hear the rabbits crying in the cellar in their cages begging to be freed. In the night there is the wind. In this new place at the edge of a river Mommy says is an Indian name — Cuy-a-hoga. In the night when we hear Mommy’s voice muffled and laughing. Mommy’s voice like she is speaking on a phone. Mommy’s voice like she is speaking, laughing to herself. Or singing.

Calvin says it might not be Mommy’s voice. It’s a ghost-voice of the house Mommy brought us to, now Mommy is a widow.

I ask Calvin is it Daddy? Is it Daddy wanting to come back

Calvin looks at me like he’d like to hit me. For saying some wrong dumb thing like I am always doing. Then he laughs.

“Daddy ain’t coming back, dummy. Daddy is dead.”

Daddy is dead. Dead Daddy. Daddy-dead. Daddydeaddead. Deaaaaaddaddy

If you say it enough times faster and faster you start giggling. Calvin shows me.

In this new place a thousand miles Mommy says from the old place where we have come to make a new start. Already Mommy has a job, in sales she says. Not much but only temporary. Some nights she has to work, Calvin can watch me. Calvin is ten: old enough to watch his little sister Mommy says. Now that Daddy is gone.

Now that Daddy is gone we never speak of him. Calvin and me, never when Mommy might hear.

At first I was worried: how would Daddy know where we were, if he wanted to come back to us?

Calvin flailed his fists like windmills he’d like to hit me with. Told and told and told you Daddy is D-E-A-D.

Mommy said, “Where Randy Malvern has gone is his own choice. He has gone to dwell with his own cruel kin.” I asked where, and Mommy said scornfully, “He has gone to Hell to be with his own cruel kin”

Except for the rabbits in the cellar, nobody knows me here.

In their ugly rusted old cages in the cellar where Mommy says we must not go. There is nothing in the cellar Mommy says. Stay out of that filthy place. But in the night through the wall I can hear the rabbits’ cries. It starts as whimpering at first like the cooing and fretting of pigeons then it gets louder. If I put my pillow over my head still I hear them. I am meant to hear them. My heart beats hard so that it hurts. In their cages the rabbits are pleading Help us! Let us out/We don’t want to die.

In the morning before school Mommy brushes my hair, laughs and kisses the tip of my nose. In the morning there is a Mommy who loves me again. But when I ask Mommy about the rabbits in the cellar Mommy’s face changes.

Mommy says she told me! The cellar is empty. There are no rabbits in the cellar, she has shown me hasn’t she?

I try to tell Mommy the rabbits are real, I can hear them in the wall in the night but Mommy is exasperated brushing my hair, always there are snarls in my curly hair especially at the back of my neck, Mommy has to use the steel comb that makes me whimper with pain saying, “No. It’s your silly dream, Ceci. I’m warning you: no more dreams.”

Now that Daddy is gone we are learning to be cautious of Mommy.

Always it was Daddy to look out for. Daddy driving home, and the sound of the pickup motor running off. And the door slamming. And Daddy might be rough lifting us to the ceiling in his strong arms but it was all right because Daddy laughed and tickled with his mustache, and Daddy brought us presents and took us for fast swerving drives in the pickup playing his CDs loud so the music thrummed and walloped through us like we were rag dolls. But other times Daddy was gone for days and when Daddy came back Mommy tried to block him from us and he’d grab her hair saying, What? What the fuck you looking at me like that? Those fucking kids are mine. He’d bump into a chair and curse and kick it and if Mommy made a move to set the chair straight he’d shove her away. If the phone began to ring he’d yank it out of the wall socket. Daddy’s eyes were glassy and had like red cobwebs in them and his fingers kept bunching into fists, and his fists kept striking out like he couldn’t help himself. Especially Calvin. Poor Calvin if Daddy saw him holding back or trying to hide. Little shit! Daddy shouted. What the fuck you think you’re doing, putting something over on your fucking Dad-dy? And Mommy ran to protect us then, and hid us.

But now Daddy is gone, it’s Mommy’s eyes like a cat’s eyes jumping onto us. Mommy’s fingers twitchy like they want to be fists.

I want to love you, honey. You and your brother. But you’re making it so hard ….

Our house is a row house Mommy calls it. At the end of a block of row houses. These are brick houses you think but up close you see it’s asphalt siding meant to look like brick. Red brick with streaks running down like tears.

This is a city we live in now, it’s a big city and far away from w-here we used to live. Mommy says nobody will follow us here, and nobody will know us here.

Mommy says don’t talk to neighbor’s. Ever.

Mommy says don’t talk to anybody at school. Any more than you need to talk. Understand, kids?

Mommy smiling at us. Mommy’s eyes shining she’s so happy

Nothing was ever proved against Mommy.

Mommy says, Know why? Because there was nothing to be proved.

When Daddy rode away the last time in the pickup we saw from the front windows. We saw the red taillights rapidly receding into the night. We were meant to be sleeping but we never slept, the voices through the floorboards kept us awake.

Later there was Mommy running outside where a car was waiting. Whoever came to pick her up, we didn’t know They drove away and later I would think maybe I had dreamt it because Mommy said she had not left the house and how do you know what’s real and what you have dreamt? When they asked me I shook my head, I shut my eyes not-knowing. Calvin told them Mommy was with us all that night. Mommy slept with us, and held us

I was only five then. I cried a lot. Now I’m six, and in first grade. Calvin is in fourth grade. Calvin had to be kept back a year, for learning disability. That’s all right with him Calvin says, he doesn’t get picked on so much now. He’s one of the big boys now, nobody better pick on him

Whoever came to question my brother, if it was the nice social worker lady bringing us oatmeal cookies she baked herself, or the sheriff calling us by our names like he knew us, Calvin would say the same thing.

Mommy held us all that night long.

The cellar. That is forbidden to Calvin and me.

Mommy says nothing is down there. No rabbits! For Christ’s sake will you stop, both of you. There are no rabbits in this house.

The cages are still in the cellar, though. There are some outside in the back yard almost hidden by weeds but there are more in the cellar, rabbit hutches Calvin says they are. Mommy has called about the cages in the cellar, and the smell in the cellar, and the cellar walls that ooze oily muck when it rains, and the roof too that leaks, and Mommy starts to cry over the phone but the man hasn’t come yet.

The cellar! I wish I didn’t think about it so much. In the night when the rabbits cry for help it’s because they are in the cages in the cellar trapped.

Let us go! We don’t want to die.

In our other house built on a concrete slab there was no cellar. Then Daddy moved into a mobile home as he called it, that was on just wheels. Here the cellar is like a big square dug in the ground. The first time Mommy went away and we were alone in the house, we went into the cellar giggling and scared. Calvin turned on the light — it was just one light bulb overhead. The steps were wood, and wobbly. The furnace was down there, and a smell of oil, and pipes. In a corner were the rabbit hutches, Calvin called them. Ugly old rusted wire cages stacked together almost to the ceiling. We counted eight of them. The cellar smelled bad, especially the cages smelled. You could see bits of soft gray fur stuck in the wires. On the concrete floor were dried rabbit turds Calvin said they were, little black pellets. Oily dark stains on the concrete and stains Calvin teased me about saying they were blood.

A smell down here of old musty things. Muck oozing through the walls after a heavy rain. Calvin said, Mommy would kill us if she knew we were down here. He scolded me when I reached inside one of the cages, where the door was open, saying, “Hey! If you cut yourself on that, if you get tet’nus, Mommy will give me hell.

I asked Calvin what tet’nus is.

In a sneering voice like he was so smart, because he was in fourth grade and I was only in first, Calvin said, “Death.”

I was afraid Calvin would see, I had scratched my arm on the cage door. I don’t know how, it just happened. Not a deep cut but like a cat’s scratch, it was bleeding a little and it stung. I would tell Mommy I’d scratched my arm on the sharp edge of a packing crate.

It was then I saw something move in one of the cages farthest back in a little cry, and grabbed at Calvin, but he shook off my arm.

Calvin made a scornful snorting noise he’d got from Daddy. When Daddy would say drawing the word out like he liked it — Bull-shit.

I told Calvin that almost you could see a rabbit there. You could see the other rabbits in their cages. Almost.

Calvin called me a dumb dopey girl. Yanking at my arm to make mc come with him, back upstairs.

Lots of times now Calvin calls me worse things. Nasty things to make me cry. Words I don’t know the meaning of except they’re meant to be nasty like words Daddy called Mommy in the last days Daddy was living with us.

Saying now, “If she finds out we’re down here I’m gonna break your ass. Anything she does to me, I’m gonna do to you, cunt.”

Calvin doesn’t mean it, though. Calvin loves me. At school where we don’t know anybody, Calvin stays close to me. It’s just that words fly out of his mouth sometimes like stinging wasps. Like with Daddy, and Daddy’s fists.

They don’t mean to hurt. It just happens.

Now Daddy is gone it’s so strange to us, Mommy plays his music.

Daddy’s music she complained of. His CDs. Heavy metal mostly, Calvin calls it. Like somebody kicking kicking kicking a door. Low and mean like thunder.

Now Daddy is gone Mommy buys bottles like Daddy used to bring home. One of them has a mean-looking wild boar head on it Calvin says is a giant pig living in a swamp that’s been known to eat up a little girl alive and kicking.

Now Daddy is gone Mommy has his guitar, picking at the strings and trying to strum chords. Daddy’s old guitar he hadn’t touched in years he’d left behind when he moved away. One of the strings is broke but Mommy doesn’t care. Mommy gets loud and happy singing on the banks of the O-hi-o and yonder stands little Mag-gie, suitcase in her hand. Mommy has a way some nights in the kitchen straddling the guitar across her legs and strumming it and moving her head so her long beet-colored hair ripples to almost her waist. Songs Mommy doesn’t know the words to she sings anyway. Yonder stands little Mag-gie, suitcase in her hand, little Mag-gie was made for lovin’, cheatin’ another man another man man man! Calvin says Mommy can’t play that old guitar worth shit but Mommy’s so pretty now her face is mostly mended and her hair grown out, nobody’s gonna notice.

In school I’m so sleepy my eyelids keep shutting. My head falls onto my folded arms on my desk top and there’s a woman asking is something wrong. I don’t recognize her right away then I see she’s my teacher, leaning over me.

I can’t remember her name. She smells like erasers not like Mommy who smells so sweet and sharp when she goes out.

“Ceci? You can tell me, dear. If there’s anything you wish to confide. If …. ”

I shut my eyes tight. It’s like wood smoke in my eyes, how they burn and sting. I feel myself freezing like a scared rabbit.

“…there’s anything wrong at home. Every morning you look so ….

My teacher pauses licking her lips. Not knowing what she means to say. When Daddy went away, and we were told he would not be coming back you could see in people’s eyes how they didn’t know what words to use. They could not bring themselves to say Your father is dead. They could not say like Calvin Daddy is dead. Dead-daddy. My teacher can’t bring herself to say Every morning you look so haunted for this is not anything you would say to a little girl whose father has gone to Hell to dwell with his own cruel kin.

“…look so hollow-eyed, dear. Don’t you sleep well at night?”

I shake my head the way Calvin does. Tears spill from my eyes. I’m not crying, though. Before anybody can see I wipe my face with both my hands.

In the infirmary the nurse removes my shoes and pulls a blanket up over me so that I can sleep. I’m shivering and my teeth are chattering I’m so cold. I hold myself tight against sleep but it’s like the bulb in the cellar suddenly switched off and everything is dark and empty like there’s nobody there. And after a while somebody else comes into the infirmary. Her voice and the nurse’s voice I can hear through the gauzy curtain pulled around my cot. One voice saying, “This isn’t the place for that child to sleep. Not at school. She’s missing her school work.”

The other voice is the nurse’s. Saying quietly like there’s a secret between them. “She’s the Malvern girl. You know….”

“Her! The one whose father….”

“It must be. I checked the name.”

“‘Malvern.’ Of course. The boy Calvin is in fourth grade. He’s fidgety and distracted, too.”

“Do you think they know? How their father died?”

“God help us, I hope not.”

Nasty things were said about Mommy. Like she’d been arrested by the sheriff’s deputies. That was not true. Mommy was never arrested. Calvin ran hitting and kicking at kids who said that, jeering at us. Mommy was taken away for questioning. But Mommy was released, and was not ever arrested. Because there was not one shred of evidence against her.

During that time Mommy was away a day and a night and part of a day, we stayed with Aunt Estelle. Mommy’s older sister. Half-sister Mommy spoke of her with a hurt twist of her mouth. We didn’t have to go to school. We were told not to play with other children. Not to wander from the house. We watched videos not TV and when the TV was on, it was after we went to bed. In that house there was no talk of Daddy. The name Malvern was not heard. Later we would learn that there had been a funeral, Calvin and I had been kept away. Aunt Estelle smoked cigarettes and was on the phone a lot and said to us your mother will be back soon, you’ll be back home soon. And that was so.

I hugged Auntie Estelle hard, when we left. But afterward Mommy and Aunt Estelle quarreled and when Mommy drove us a thousand miles away in the pickup with the U-Haul behind she never said good-bye to Aunt Estelle. That bitch, Mommy called her.

When Mommy came home from what was called questioning her face was sickly and swollen and there were fine white cracks in it like a plaster of Paris face that has been broken but mended again. Not too well mended, but mended. You could hardly see the cracks.

Eventually we would cease seeing them. Mommy grew her hair out long to shimmer and ripple over her shoulders. There was a way Mommy had of brushing her hair out of her eyes in a sweeping gesture that looked like a drowning swimmer suddenly shooting to the surface of the water. Ah-ah-ah Mommy filled her lungs with air.

With a lipstick pencil Mommy drew a luscious red-cherry mouth on her pale twisty mouth. Mommy drew on black-rimmed eyes we had not seen before.

Mommy strummed her guitar. It was her guitar now, she’d had the broken string mended. Saying, “It was his own choice. When one of their own comes to dwell with them there is rejoicing through Hell.”

~~~~~~~~

By Christmastime in this new place Mommy has quit her job at the discount shoe store and works now at a café on the river. Most nights she’s a cocktail waitress but some nights she plays her guitar and sings. With her face bright and made up and her hair so glimmering you don’t notice the cracks in Mommy’s skin, in the drifting smoky light of the café they are invisible. Mommy’s fingers have grown more practiced. Her nails are filed short and polished. Her voice is low and throaty with a little burr in it that makes you shiver. In the café men offer her money which she sometimes accepts. Saying quietly, Thank you. I will take this as a gift for my music. I will take this because my children have no father, I am a single mother and must support two small children. But I will not accept it if you expect anything more from me than this: my music, and my thanks.

At the River’s Edge Mommy calls herself Little Maggie. In time she will be known and admired as Little Maggie. She’s like a little girl telling us of the applause. Little Maggie taking up her guitar that’s polished now and gleaming like the smooth inside of a chestnut after you break off the spiky rind. Strumming chords and letting her long beet-colored hair slide over her shoulders, Mommy says when she starts to sing everybody in the café goes silent.

In the winter the rabbits’ cries grow more pleading and piteous. Calvin hears them, too. But Calvin pretends he doesn’t. I press my pillow over my head not wanting to hear. We don’t want to die. We don’t want to die. One night when Mommy is at the café slip from my bed barefoot and go downstairs into the cellar that smells of oozing muck and rot and animal misery and there in the dim light cast by the single light bulb are the rabbits.

Rabbits in each of the cages! Some of them have grown too large for the cramped space, their hindquarters are pressed against the wire and their soft ears are bent back against their heads. Their eyes shine in apprehension and hope seeing me. A sick feeling comes over me, each of the cages has a rabbit trapped inside. Though this is only logical as I will discover through my life. In each cage, a captive. For why would adults who own the world manufacture cages not to be used. I ask the rabbits, Who has locked you in these cages? But the rabbits can only stare at me blinking and twitching their noses. One of them is a beautiful pale powder-gray, a young rabbit and not so sick and defeated as the others. I stroke his head through the cage wire. He’s trembling beneath my touch, I can feel his heartbeat. Most of the rabbits are mangy and matted. Their fur is dull gray. There is a single black rabbit, heavy and misshapen from his cage, with watery eyes. The doors of the cages are latched and locked with small padlocks. Both the cages and the padlocks are rusted. I find an old pair of shears in the cellar and holding the shears awkwardly in both hands I manage to cut through the wires of all the cages, I hurt my fingers peeling away openings for the rabbits to hop through but they hesitate, distrustful of me. Even the young rabbit only pokes his head through the opening, blinking and sniffing nervously, unmoving.

Then I see in the cellar wall a door leading to the outside. A heavy wooden door covered in cobwebs and the husks of dead insects. It hasn’t been opened in years but I am able to tug it open, a few inches at first, then a little wider. On the other side are concrete steps leading up to the surface of the ground. Fresh cold air smelling of snow touches my face “Go on! Go out of here! You’re free.”

The rabbits don’t move. I will have to go back upstairs, and leave them in darkness, before they will escape from their cages.

“Ceci? Wake up.”

Mommy shakes me, I’ve been sleeping so hard.

It’s morning. The rabbit cries have ceased. Close by running behind our backyard is the Cuyahoga & Erie train with its noisy wheels, almost I don’t hear the whistle any longer. In my bed pushed against the wall.

When I go downstairs into the cellar to investigate, I see that the cages are gone.

The rabbit cages are gone! You can see where they’ve been, though, there’s empty space. The concrete floor isn’t so dirty as it is other places in the cellar.

The door to the outside is shut tight. Shut, and covered in cobwebs like before.

Outside, where cages were dumped in the weeds, they’ve been taken away, too. You can see the outlines in the snow.

Calvin is looking, too. But Calvin doesn’t say anything.

Mommy says, lighting a match in a way Daddy used to, against her thumb, and raising it to the cigarette dipping from her mouth, “At last those damn stinking cages have been hauled away. It only took five months for that bastard to move his ass.”

Burned alive were words that were used by strangers but we were not allowed to hear. Burned alive in his bed it was said of our father on TV and elsewhere but we were shielded from such words

Unless Calvin heard. And Calvin repeated to me.

Burned alive drunk in his bed. Gasoline sprinkled around the trailer and a match tossed. But Randy Malvem was a man with enemies, in his lifetime that was thirty-two years he’d accumulated numerous enemies and not a one of these would be linked to the fire and not a one of these was ever arrested in the arson death though all were questioned by the sheriff and eventually released and some moved away, and were gone.

Now the cages are gone. And now I hear the rabbits’ cries in the wind, in the pelting rain, in the train whistle that glides through my sleep. Miles from home I hear them, through my life I will hear them. Cries of trapped creatures who have suffered, who have died, who await us in Hell, our kin.

-End-

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