You’ll smell my house before you see it. I would tell you what you should look out for, but it’s hard to place—part swamp, part trash, part dead cow that’s been run over by a truck. It starts a few streets away. You might be walking down what you think is the sidewalk. Do you know how close death creeps each time a car zips by? The vehicles so fast you can’t even see them; you only feel the absence of air for a second, and then the gush of sound, the burst of dirt, the stagnant rainwater sighing onto your clothes, leaving stains. Everything here leaves stains. Even the smell. Especially the smell.
And there is no sidewalk. But you don’t know that yet.
How long do you think it’ll take to stop smelling swamp and cigarette and other dead things on your clothes, on your limbs? Wrong question; how long do you think it’ll take to forget the smell, to be so fully immersed in it, you can’t even sense it anymore? Not half as long as you think. Probably one-fourth what you think, or maybe one-seventh, depending on how upbeat you are.
This is the place where you should look up. There’s a gift shop to your left with a billboard that says Girls Wanted for Sale. That should be Girls Wanted for Sales, as in a salesperson, a salesgirl (but why girls? you might ask, and that’s a question for another story). How many girls do you think walked by this and dragged their parents forward, waved their hands around hoping to distract them, keep them from seeing the sign, that invitation, because they were convinced they would be sold, that their parents would give them away to this odd little gift shop? Not for money or need, but because that sort of thing always seemed like a possibility.
here is a cow. here is a truck. here is a dead cow.
It’ll take you a while to realise how death here is an alive thing. Slinging its hands over your shoulders. Tickling a single feather under your nose. Watching you sneeze and sneeze and keep walking.
Keep walking. If you’re close enough to touch the dead cow, you’ve gone too far. Trace your steps back again, find the swamp. Find the house before the swamp and the pathway before the house. The pathway does slope downwards; you’re not imagining things. Each year they build a new road here, setting new tarmac over the old. Each year, something is buried. Each year the house sinks lower, as if it’s falling, settling more deeply into its grave, being buried alive. Each year we eat and talk and sleep further underground, being buried alive.
A few feet away from where you stand is a small dip in the road, studded with stones sharp enough to break a car down in a heartbeat. A girl was once attacked by a pack of dogs here. They circled in on her trembling, pulsing figure, nipping at the meat of her calves, growling deep in their throats. She’d ridden her bike too close to one of their tails and that was it. The entire pack, all twelve of them, had come after her. She tried to flee, pedaling as fast as she could on her tiny plump legs, and she’d fallen. Her legs were bruised for weeks afterwards. That was the worst of it, fortunately, since another kid chased the dogs off. This is what the girl believes and this is the story the girl tells, but to be honest, she no longer knows. Did the kid truly exist? She remembers a boy—all sharp angles and bony limbs. But was this only her fantasy, her imaginary knight in shining armour? Did the dogs exist? Did she ever ride a bike so young? She splays her legs out from her sometimes, places her fingers right below her knees, over the tiny little scars there, so subtle they might not even exist. She imagines the sharp sting of dirt on open skin. The growling of the beasts, so steady and synchronised it’s like they share a body. Her tiny heart fluttering, red and meaty, yanking her breath deep into her gut. I’m not a dog person, she says often. But I like cats.
There are no cats here. The cats are smart; they know enough to not come near this place, to wrinkle their noses and turn their backs on the swamp. Not like the dogs. The dogs, unfortunately, are beyond saving. Let’s be clear on this: if you notice one nearing you, do not engage. Do not run. Do not stare too hard at their missing limbs, the chopped tail, the red eye, the bloodied fur. Stand very still and take cover as soon as possible. It goes without saying that if they bite, call your loved ones immediately. This is the safest course of action.
The girl who likes cats (but not dogs) used to live in the house once. Then the family moved and remade the house, broke down its walls and built them up again, painted them over. Used air freshener. Lots of it. It took them three years to find someone willing to move in. And then those tenants left after a month, and the house was empty again. This time they didn’t put out the ads, didn’t use the air freshener. It was all too exhausting. The house stayed empty. It held its breath.
Since you’re here, you might as well hear about the spirits. Or the possibility of spirits (compare to the possibility of the dog attack; the possibility of girl selling; etc). The girl who likes cats (but not dogs) walked with her father down this street once. It was late—maybe ten at night, or earlier, or later—and they could only see as far as the next step, and then the next one, and so on. They were walking together, his left hand wrapped around her shoulders, holding her close.
(The girl who likes cats does not remember what they were talking about. She insists it is not important to this story when questioned. The story, of course, being the possessed man.)
The father saw him first and his hand tightened around her. He shifted her to his right so that he stood in between the possessed man and the girl. This was when the girl saw him.
The first thing she noticed—or the first thing she remembers she noticed—was his ground. He seemed to walk on another ground altogether, one that was tilted up and to the side, so that his entire frame stuck out to his left; his right foot landing at the same, elevated angle each time he walked. It was strange to her, but she knew that spirits could make you do strange things.
Then she noticed his eyes, which confirmed her suspicions about the possessed man. His eyes were red. Not fully red—there was still some white and dark brown in them. But they were shot with just enough red that she could see the spirit shining through, curling out from the liver, where it had infected him. Spirits always infected the liver first, she knew. The possessed man was looking at her directly now. The spirit tugged at the corners of his eyes, making them leer at her body, her lips, the fear in the palms of her hands. She said to herself quietly, I’m not scared. I’m not scared. I’m not scared. so that she wouldn’t smell like fear anymore. Spirits could smell fear, like dogs. (This is what she does even now, whenever a dog creeps close to her. She never thought it worked but she does it anyway. I’m not scared, I’m not—)
The third thing she noticed about the possessed man was the briefcase. The briefcase was black and heavy, so heavy it seemed as if it was pulling him towards the left, causing his uneven ground. She was thinking now that the possessed man was possibly divorced, possibly fired, probably both. Yes, she decided, this was what had made him vulnerable to the spirits. He was looking at her now, smelling her fear, smelling her love for her father, and he was thinking he should kill her, kill her after doing unspeakable things to her, things she was distantly aware of but couldn’t articulate, like what the gift shop would’ve done to her once her father had sold her. She was glad she’d saved herself from that situation—that’d been a close one. She turned to her father, who was still holding her close, and whispered, we should run. She did this quietly, with one eye still fixed on the possessed man and the briefcase and the liver spirits. Her father looked straight ahead; he refused to acknowledge the man. Don’t worry, he was saying. Don’t be scared. I’ll protect you. The girl who likes cats (but not dogs) was entirely unconvinced but said nothing. She only walked quicker, dragging her father behind her, hoping to reach the house before the spirits got them, before they possessed her too and fooled her father into thinking they were the real daughter, before he was convinced, before he loved the spirits instead of her, before he kicked her out of the house, before he sold her to the gift shop, left her as dead as the dead cow on the streets.
(Within the house, the girl who likes cats pleaded with her father to make passwords. We’ll need them now, she said. We need to be sure we’re who we really are. The father kept saying, I’m here for you. I’ll protect you. You don’t need to worry. and still, the girl made her passwords; she whispered them to herself again and again until they curled under her tongue like a piercing.)
Later, her father will ask her, don’t you think I’ll know you? darling, I love you, no spirit can take you away from me, and still, the girl keeps her passwords.
Without, the possessed man is still possessed. The girl thinks about him often.
The girl who likes cats (but not dogs) comes by every six months. She stands right where you’re standing. She looks at the house, analyses the changes in its body. Some tobacco-stained spit on the walls. Red, like blood. The crumbling of paint and brick at the edges; the slight sagging of roof. The dead cow pulsing deep in the earth, lulling everything in with each breath. She stands there for minutes, considers walking in, and then decides against it. Each time she does this.