It was the scraping which awoke me. In the unfamiliar darkness it carried a distinct vivid tone that seared through my slumber. The rasping clawed straight into my recent insecurities, playing a terrorizing tune from behind the partition. Now that my eyes were open silence descended upon my bedroom. I could not return to sleep, however. I strained to capture every eerie nighttime note: the slight creak of a wooden floor board contracting in the coolness, the faint hoot of a neighbor owl, the maddening hum of the radiator. There it was again. Peculiar methodic scratchings as if a fountain pen was furiously scribbling on sandpaper or a coterie of rats practicing their military raid. From the rim of the raised sheet my eyes peered about the bit of viewable chamber. Nothing moved. My right arm groped the nightstand searching for the lamp. The piercing click of its switch brought an abrupt end to the abrasions. The subsequent insipid citrine effulgence showed a bit of unremarkable ivory shag rug, pieces of broad cream leaves peppering the odious teal hued wallpaper, and an edge of the brick-laid fireplace. I scanned the abandoned hearth, its depth obscured in sooty gloom. The building inspector had promised me the disused chimney had been properly sealed, but the gaping maw smirked, assuring me of macabre possibilities. While the apartment was illuminated the scuffing was tranquil. Nevertheless, it took two hours of staring at the grate before slumber overtook my chafed nerves.
On the following morning I inspected the flue. It was secured with new concrete; nothing would be able to get through. I wondered if a stray bird or squirrel had been entombed accidentally in the process and was attempting to escape. Hesitantly I rapped against where the metal damper used to facilitate ventilation. I gleaned no answer. I knocked louder, but received no response. Dusting off old grime from hands and knees I surveyed the empty recess. I would have preferred it functioning; its warmth and cheer thereby dispelling the general melancholia of the house. I fled shivering downstairs and out to the tangled wilderness where the sun dappled greenery chased away some of my chills. I gazed towards the mile-long lone dirt track which wends its way to the one lane road to civilization, considering whether I had made a grave mistake in buying my pastoral cottage. Its remote location nestled in the pine-forested Plumas County hills had attracted me. After twenty-four weeks of writer’s block in a San Francisco compact loft shared with my sister, I craved scope and solitude. I could no longer stomach the morning gymnastics ritual of leaping across the pull-out bed to brew coffee or deal with the incessant brouhaha of city traffic and construction. The offer of a cozy bungalow named Sylvan Manor, hidden by abundance of trees, for the price of two-months bay area rent seemed a fantasy come true. I had hatched plans not to be disturbed in order to concentrate on my writing: stocked up on food and supplies, discontinued my phone service, pre-scheduled the quotidian necessities of my regular life so that I would not be disturbed.
Now my isolated position daunted me; I wished I were in a village or that I had a neighbor nearer than five miles. I had my desire — a remote hospitable ivory tower surrounded by placid nature in which to immerse into the world of my novel. Yet, somehow my haven and I were not harmonizing. I had imagined a quaint Thoreau cabin whose rustic simplicity would fuel my plot. Instead, my hideaway proved to be some madman’s idea of a Tudor english cottage. Its brick exterior and cross-gabled roof created a dank drafty interior turned somber by the enclosing woods. Its narrow casement windows, asymmetrical structure, and irregular compartments bespoke gothic without the romanticism. In all, my retreat had the appearance of a morbid asylum despite its lyrical moniker even before the strange visitations behind the fireplace commenced.
I have been here thirty days and in that time written exactly three sentences. This space oppresses my imagination. Also the scuttling has returned. Yesterday as I was about to map the exposition of my main character I heard it — furtive fingers dragging along the cinders. I tiptoed to the hearth and listened with my ear against its facade. Crick, crick, crick. Crick, crick. I scuffed my nails against one of the stones, holding my breath in anticipation. Crick, crick, crick, crick it replied. Eagerly I selected a short sequence: tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap. I stopped and counted to five then — crick, crick-crick, crick-crick-crick it said. I tried another arrangement: tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap. Either my concatenation was too complex or I had scared the phantasm. It remained mute. I am convinced now there is something sentient roaming within the smokestack. I will remove the blocks tomorrow to discover what hides there. I will start on the right hand corner pieces which I noticed were loose.
Rain flings in spasmodic gusts against my window. Though I have turned on every light in every quarter, shadows creep into my periphery haunting the lodge crannies. The monotonous ticking of the hallway grandfather clock, the bubbly dripping of the sink’s leaky faucet, the gentle swoosh of curtains dancing to an unknown breeze — these homely noises bear sinister anathema to me while the storm rages outside. There are days when I unmistakably get the impression this place intends me harm. Perhaps every furnished property conveys this sensation. Since neither the bed nor the ottoman nor even the kettle belong to me I feel indifferent towards them and they know it. For this reason the wing-back in the salon leers at me like an obscene spider; the built-in dining cabinet monitors my perambulations; the scrolled end railing waylays me whenever I cut the corner too sharply. In an endeavor to personalize the domicile I have arranged a few of my knick-knacks throughout, displayed my beloved books on the mantel. The dwelling has not embraced these overtures. I am left with the suspicion that it bides its time scheming to strike against me. I have detached the fireplace frontage exposing mottled drywall and sagging mortar but no grotesque pneuma. I believe my rustling companion has emigrated to the rear of the leafy motif encasing my boudoir. I swear those buxom blades heave and pitch when I glance away. If the troublesome brute would desist its irritating scouring I may ignore the ambling through my manse.
Scrutinizing the noisome pattern I have found one portion of the wallpaper easily peels off. I spent a large portion of today skinning my suite rather than writing. My manuscript can wait, this demon skulking inside the walls must be dealt with first. Every strip I unravel hems in my nemesis, therefore carries me closer to vanquishing it. I am confident I will succeed. Once this bedroom is naked of its florid decor I am certain the lurking apparition will dematerialize and Sylvan Manor will irrevocably belong to me. Unfortunately my task has raised a ghastly odor, akin to boiled rotting meat, so I have been forced to sleep in the parlor upon the dingy velveteen couch. Finishing my conquest of the ornamental paper has become nauseating — I am compelled into cloaking my lower face with a handkerchief doused in perfume while working. The job is taking longer as well since, despite my scented mask, I cannot stomach the stench for more than twenty minute intervals. I will not waver though whiffs assault me at different intervals and locations. This is merely an impediment devised by that infernal loitering specter. Whatever the cost I press on.
The imp is cunning. I have completely gutted my bedchamber yet the prowling goblin has managed to elude me. It has taken on the form of that mephitic vapor which now encompasses the grounds. Did I not say the creature was clever? Even the nap of my tufted sofa has absorbed the smell. I have hauled the upholstery out to the garden where I have been forced to withdraw. Nonetheless, I sense the fiend’s presence wafting about me as I lie torpefied. Peeling off that wallpaper took the last of my strength, or maybe it was this unbearable fume. No longer capable of doing much I recline here choking in the wicked miasma and dream of the entirety burning down to ashes.
A puff of fresh air has inserted some logic into my brain. The solution to the whole mess had already occurred to my subconscious — I must set fire to this abomination. It is the only way to destroy the evil spirit on the premises. My decision is not an easy resolution but a most painful one which I seek to accomplish with a heavy heart. A habitation is a sacred venue, worthy of worship. A home should exude a convivial atmosphere, it should comfort its owner, be an impregnable bastion sheltering its possessor. What a chimera! The secluded idyll I had envisioned has continually sabotaged my efforts to befriend it. I will not permit this devious lodging to do the same to some other hapless human seeking solace in its embrace. I must be iron-willed, I must not let anger and fear take control. I prepare my besiegement in secrecy since I know that the edifice watches me vigilantly. I pretend to weed the disheveled garden when I am really gathering fodder for my conflagration. No part of this accommodation must be allowed to survive so I require a deal of dry logs and desiccated branches. I dump bits of them inside on various surfaces as if I were fashioning new-fangled frippery. When I set them all ablaze the silly house will not know what befalls it.
It is the hour. Everything is in order. I have doused gasoline upon all the kindling which has momentarily trounced that fetid fragrance from the wallpaper. I inhale mouthfuls of the sweet petrol aroma in gratitude. I ignite the collected brush in the bedroom first. The diabolical scraping has begun again. It knows what is about to happen but it is too late, too late! Sylvan Manor cannot thwart me anymore. “Not this time, not this time, not this time,” I croon skipping my way through the residence, lighter in hand, as the crackle of the flames expands from hall to stairs. The scratching tries to eclipse the roar of the sizzling timber but my inferno is too greedy. I gawk, fascinated, at the speed with which my cavorting red-orange tongues devour the grimacing settee, the snarling tallboy, the conceited candelabra. My calamitous firestorm and I are getting the last laugh on this vexing abode.
Hunched between two brooding evergreens I ogle the fiery scene through my fingers, swaying back and forth to the music of my raging estate. I am finally at peace, my mind at rest. Crick, crick, crick. Crick, crick. The unmistakeable notes rasp behind me. I press the heels of my palm against my eyes, exhale slowly, then scream. ❦
Atreyee Gupta weaves immersive narratives at the crossroads of science, history, and philosophy about the ways our shifting perceptions alter our layered identities. She is also the creator of Bespoke Traveler, a creative nonfiction blog about the transformative power of travel. She has been published by Main Street Rag, Hayo Magazine, and Elephant Journal among others.
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