Household Gods by Shannon Viola


Driven by an atavistic instinct, Maura climbed the stairs and entered the sick room, where her great-aunt Daria lay, and where her mother and three aunts circled the moribund woman like vultures, or black widows, or God’s messengers. Her cousin, Ellison, was a beat behind her. They approached the bedside with linked arms. Maura willed her muscles, veins, organs, follicles and cells to freeze; she held her breath. She didn’t want to inhale in the death, to carry another’s demise inside of her.

Maura peered sideways at Ellison, who was watching a drop of liquid trickle out of Aunt Daria’s nostril. Ellison was examining Aunt Daria’s wispy eyelids, like crepe paper.

Maura’s mother rested a hand on the bed. She leaned down towards Aunt Daria’s wilting countenance, and her sisters mirrored her.

“Do you want water, Auntie? Does water sound good?”

Aunt Daria breathed a ragged yes.

Maura’s mother turned to her daughter. “Get a glass of water for you great aunt. And make sure there’s a straw in there—a bendy straw.”

Before Maura could move, Aunt Daria gasped. She gagged on air; she was struggling to find words. Her voice was throaty, yet chimed in the stale air of the room. “No, don’t go. He wants you to stay.”

Maura’s mother cocked her head. “Do you see Jesus, Auntie?”

“He’s in his chair, Maura. It’s 5 o’clock, time for his scotch.”

“She’s delirious!” Maura’s mother said. “Maura, leave. You’re instigating her.”

Maura felt the blood drain from her cheeks. The saliva pooled in her mouth—she was too frightened to move.

Aunt Daria said, “He needs his scotch before dinner.”

Maura’s mother seized her daughter’s shoulders and turned her towards the door, hissing in her ear, “Water!”

Once in the kitchen, Maura rested her forehead against the wall just above a watercolor of a lighthouse.

“Maura,” Ellison said. “Should I get the water?”

“Where are my keys?”

“They’re near the sink, why?”

“I’m not getting her water. I have a blanket in my trunk. We’re going to the cove.”

The road was masked in a shuddering mist, but it was island mist. Island fog is more viscous than honey, and island fog waits on the surface of the ocean for days until enough clouds gather to pull it into the air, back to life, when the air is heavy and humid, Maura wove around pastel-clad couples with their labradors on an evening walk.

“Go home, tourists,” Maura mumbled.

“We’re tourists.”

“Not this summer I’m not.”

The closer they came to the cove, the larger the houses became. Stout shacks flanked by lobster traps morphed into cottages that grew taller and wider and soon became mansions that teetered on cliffs. Mangy hydrangeas ballooned into bushes of beach roses that shrouded estate driveways. Subarus became Range Rovers.

Yet the ocean circumvented it all. Sea spume weathered the paint on both shacks and mansions. Every window was shut against piscine breezes. Maura and Ellison were baptized in that spume, had breathed those breezes. Throughout the fall, winter, and spring, they sat in Jersey classrooms and ate diner food, dreaming of the sure promises of their summers: lobster meat, wildflowers, and the overwhelming calm of existence on a Maine island.

At the cove, Maura and Ellison hopscotched over rocks and driftwood. The tide was rollicking into shore faster than they had ever seen. The incoming water nipped their toes.

They found a tall rock that hung over the water. They climbed—heels clinging to chalky precipice, toe off—until their legs dangled. They covered themselves with Maura’s blanket. They picked at the periwinkles and finger-combed their hair before Maura said,

“My heart hurts. Once Aunt Daria dies, I’m going to have to go back and sleep there and wake up and eat my yogurt while staring at those photographs of the great, great, uncles and grandmothers on the fireplace.”

“This is your home, Maura…for the summer at least.”

“You would sleep in the house where Aunt Daria died? I already feel like I’m being…admired or something when I’m there, I don’t need the memory of Aunt Daria’s body on that bed to follow me around too.”

“You let your imagination run wild sometimes.”

The trees behind them rustled.

Ellison turned around and searched the canopy.

“It’s probably a squirrel or something,” Maura said.

Ellison snuggled closer to Maura. “I hope Aunt Daria doesn’t die either, you know.”

“We should have taken some of her vodka out here.”

“And not because she always lets us come to the island, or because she’s the great aunt, and we’re supposed to revere her.”

“She is a pretty formidable figure.”

“But because I don’t think our summers will be the same if she’s not shuffling around the house in her Isotoner slippers.” Ellison tucked her knees into her chest.

“No, that’s not it. There’s something about that house.”

“I read once that hauntings are just residual energy. That when emotions get really intense, the water and the rocks and the earth absorb it, and sometimes those emotions get released over and over again. Even words. So that’s what hauntings are, just past conversations and feelings that were so emotionally powerful that they hang around. There’s no such thing as sentient entities.”

“I never said I believed in ghosts.”

Ellison found a fat rock and tossed it. Plunk.

Maura was staring at the water. “It’s green. I wish we could go swimming right now.”

“Me too. But I know it’s too cold right now.”

Maura buried her face in her sleeves. She wanted to swim, but not with Ellison. Whenever Ellison swam, she ran into the water. She dived and surfaced with a smile, and then dived again. Swim to the buoy with me, she always asked. Maura, however, liked plunge so deeply that she was immersed in pure ocean. She savored the moments when the pressure above her body popped her eardrums. When Maura swam, she washed her body in ocean green and closed her eyes and daydreamed.

Maura slipped off her Birkenstock to see how her feet looked against the ocean green. Her feet were so cold that they were purple. The colors together were sickening.

They were silent as night descended and as the fog coagulated into what looked like pustules of vapor. The tide undulated farther and farther up the shore.

Ellison tugged the blanket up to her chin. “It’s impossible to be unhappy here. This,” she thrust her arms to the ocean, “is breathtaking.”

“I used to feel that way. I think I’ve just been here too much and too long.”

“I could live here forever.”

“I could do summers here, and the year in New York or something. I think I need things to look forward to.”

“There’s no one around. I love it.”

“That’s what I think sometimes, but it doesn’t make me feel any less scared.”

“What if there’s a man up there? Up in that house?”

“Really, Ellison? There aren’t even any lights on.”

“He could be the one making all of the noise.”

“There’s no murderer on the island.”

“There are no ghosts on the island either, Maura.”

“I never said I believe in ghosts.”

“Let’s go home. Do you think she’s dead already?”

“Where are my keys?”

A seagull soared over their heads, and the little animals in the trees scurried down to the ground. The trees shook.

“Ellison! Where are my keys?”

“Right here. They fell down this crack.”

They hurried back to the car, trying to navigate through impending darkness. Ellison’s sneaker squeaked as she tripped on a slick rock. Maura gasped.

“I’m okay, I’m good.”

They barreled into the car.

Ellison said, “Lock the doors.”

Just as Maura was about to pull out, her eyes were blinded by headlights coming towards them. “I’ve never seen another car down here.”

“Well let’s go!”

Maura’s car climbed the hill, and the headlights were still behind her. She had to drive at a creep—there were too many sharp turns, too much fog.

“I heard,” Ellison said, “that if you take a right turn three times, you’ll know if someone’s following you because three right turns is a circle, and if someone’s going somewhere, they’re not going to go in a circle, but if they’re following you they will.”

“There are only two roads on this island, Ellison. That’s not an option. Turn around—who’s in the car?”

“I can’t tell.”

“I can’t see anything. Why don’t these fog lights work?”

The road narrowed into one lane. Maura squinted into the darkness. Her headlights didn’t illuminate the road. They only augmented the fog.

Suddenly, Maura swerved to the shoulder of the road, and something bristly and coarse scraped the side of the car. Ellison shrieked. Maura steered back from the bushes, and her laughter overwhelmed Ellison’s yelps.

“I hate you! That’s not funny.”

“It’d be easy,” Maura said.


“I said, ‘You’re too easy.’ To scare.”

“That guy is still behind us.”

“There’s no murderer on the island, Ellison!”

“There’s no ghosts either!”

“I hear the ocean. I think we’re at that turn where the mansions are.”

The car was grappling the hill. She slammed harder on the gas, and the engine revved. “I know where we are now. We’re where that giant rose bush is.”

Maura clenched the wheel and pumped the gas. They were almost vertical now, just about to crest the hill.

Suddenly, the headlights flashed past them. The accelerating motor made a tunnel of sound, and the lights came at them in a dazzling flood of light. Ellison was screaming, and Maura veered right, onto a lawn, if there was a lawn here.

The headlights rolled down their windows, and a brusque voice cried out, “Could you go any slower?”

Maura and Ellison, however, were in the ocean. Maura hadn’t turned onto a lawn; she had zoomed off a cliff. As the car catapulted away, the inertia pulled them sideways, and Ellison’s head rammed against the window.

The fog broke once the tide had reached its peak and turned again. Once it had receded, Maura’s and Ellison’s ocean-drenched bodies undulated onto shore, as silently as apparitions manifesting themselves.

Shannon Viola is a student at New York University studying Classics and Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Cleaver, The Wayfarer Journal, and forthcoming in The Review at NYU, among others.