You will forget by your fourth birthday these your shifting first memories—your father’s goats at their graze, their black tongues slathered across your face, the chickens prancing and clucking upon the dirt of the yard, the spare trembling grasses and the crazed droning song of the grasshoppers, their brown juices streaking the lines of your palm. You will forget the night you woke to the shrill anguished call of a goat, screaming that the devil had come for your soul. And you will never know the body of that same goat, sprawled eviscerated in the yard, the white vacant eyes staring outward, your father crouched before it, cursing. You will forget your mother fallen into fever save for the haze of her anguish, some sense of your own, the confusion of the dull lump of flesh, the unmoving shape where once the woman who brought you porridge and held your hand as you dispensed feed to the chickens. And you will forget the place of her repose, the soil freshmounded, and you will forget too your father before this place, how he fell to his knees and then the silent weeping until he seemed near to breaking. You will forget your offerings before the mound, plates of bluing crusty bread, saucers of milk, the flies ambling across the skin of the milk, and you will forget if those gifts were meant to feed your mother on her journey or as an offering to the god whose boundless soul housed now your mother in fixed perpetual repose. And so the hour too will come when you forget how your father withered and yellowed upon his sagged mattress, his pale blue veins amid his translucence, his choking calls for you, the strike of his knuckles when his arm fell from the bed. And in the hour after his death, the gray withered boards of the porch where you sat upon watching the goatless yard, the goats themselves wandering and screaming in their anguished way from the hillsides beyond the forests, the chickens clucking and milling and doomed in their freedom.
You will forget your pilgrimage to follow, pulled from your father’s body as if led by a hand unseen down dirt roads, sleeping in fields and ditches, until finally you wander into the heart of town. You will forget your grim filthy visage, your cavernous eyes, the eating of a rotten apple from the gutter. You will forget the man who will come to call himself your benefactor and then your husband, how he approached from his opened carriage in black frock coat and bow tie.
You will forget too those first days in his home, a vast ancient dwelling erected when his people first trod these shores. And you will forget your wanderings through the long musty halls, the immense silences broken only by the cracking of floorboards, losing your way and finding yourself in a library filled with leather bound volumes, your fingers along their mysterious golden lettering. And you will back track through the shadows, entering a room collapsing with oddities: here a yellowed skull, mapped with lines and notated in a manner beyond your insight, and a man’s skeleton suspended with mock-life by steel rods and wires, and here mysterious ancient ledgers bound in human skin, and here a wooden pipe standing taller than you, and here jars of murky yellow fluid floating with fetuses of swine and fetuses of men, with hearts and feet and kidneys and livers and brains.
Breathless and fevered you will depart the room, finding next a game room, the stiffly posed figures of bears, lions, wild dogs, enormous marsupials, their eyes of glass, their bellies fattened with sawdust. And when the marsupial seems to shift from its repose, the claws clicking upon its oaken pedestal, you will stifle a scream, fleeing again into the hallways, the dim oil glow from ornate frosted fixtures, and then into further shadows the ever deeper darkness. Here you will crouch with arms crossed before your knees, and your heart shuddering and your throat wild with dread. And so you will hear the clicking of claws upon the boards of the floor, the cold flopping of the immense dead tail. And you will press your fist into your mouth and you will scream into your knuckles, biting through the spill of blood. So you will remain until the maid stands before you with a hand outstretched. Her slight smile that you will not understand. And when you in your confusion tell her of the horrors of this house, the dead always in motion, she will not chide your assertions for she will say, “They are everywhere, Miss.”
And when the confines of the house become known you will tend to the outdoors and here an emerald expanse will pool before you, unnaturally, overwhelmingly, the outer edges looming with trimmed pines and shrubbery and beds of red and purple and yellow and blue flowers. And of the lawn, immaculate in its trim and color, you will ask the maid, “Can I walk upon it?” And beyond the lawn will lay the shimmering black pond and the white dock before the pond. When no one seems to watch you will kick off your shoes and strip free your stockings, the prickle of the lawn, and you will crouch near the banks of the pond, the mud and the rocks, the drift of lily pads, the gulping of frogs. And here in the obsidian pools you will watch the rippling of your reflection, the intense curious eyes, until your vision passes into a kind of imageless smear, and within this oblivion you will dream the passage of immense shadows, a beast measureless and eternal drifting just below the surface, the dreadful motion of its hump, glistening through the surface before delving again into the deeper unknown.
Little will you see of your benefactor in those days. You will know more the implication of the man, the white boxes tied with red ribbon containing dresses, hats, shoes, stockings, undergarments and garments to wear while sleeping and garments to wear while swimming and garments to wear while at play and little dollies of painted porcelain and dollies of stuffed cotton and dollies of gears and tin that mimic in their stiff mechanical ambulation the movements of one half dead.
And you will hear his coarse strident voice echoing in the corridors. And you will see his shadows cast into the hallways.
You will peer from around corners, watch him from the shadows, hunched in labor, his frenzied ink filthy hands, his white curly hair that will seem a mop or an eviscerated poodle, that in the night will adorn a marble bust, and later he will pace his library floor, muttering, gesticulating, sighing mournfully, for the demands of scholarship are those of perpetual brooding toil. And when the horizon fades to redness he will sit in the dim oil light, drinking brandy until his face hues purple, and now he will call you forth from the shadows. Bleary-eyed he will stroke your hair, ask you of your days, and he will kiss you upon your brow, with heavy, sloppy lips. And he will inquire of your newest outfit and you will thank him for his goodness. And he will wonder, “How is it you enjoy your new dolly?” and you will say you treasure her, although you would rather go about in the yard and the forest beyond the yard. And he will lean close, saying, “You must keep close to our home, my sweet.”
And never will he ask you of your days prior to his house. Never will he ask to know of your mother or father. And never will he know of the farm, the chickens in the dust, the haunted cries of the goats, their strange wanderings into the upper hills. And so he will never know your dreams, spent in the shadows of rocky cliffs, while the goats of your youth bay just beyond your vision, perhaps the flash of a tail, the track of a hoof, and ever you will continue forth, calling to them, sobbing and pleading for their return. Only once will you awake perplexed with the thought, “I will never know if they died” although of course eventually they did.