The Clawfoot Requiem | Gwendolyn Kiste

the-clawfoot-requiem-001

 

 

 

 

When my sister Savannah set out to do something, she never failed to impress. So on the morning she opened her wrists and emptied what was left of her heart, the bathroom looked less like a butcher block and more like an altar. A dozen lit candles decorated the sink. Opened to Corinthians, a withered King James Bible sat on the floor next to the tub. And with her favorite shade of lipstick—a drugstore brand named Rose Petal—Savannah inscribed a final message on the mirror: Now we know for certain where I’m going.

Despite the impediments in both utensil and surface, even a calligrapher would have envied the flawless penmanship.

As her only roommate, I was the one to discover her. At first, it seemed the most natural thing in the world as if I intuited the moment would someday arrive. I watched her for a long time, memorizing the quiet expression across her face.

Then the invaders came. With their loud sirens and sweating brows, they descended upon our red brick house, vultures that fed not on the flesh but on the sorrow. One man waited in the white vehicle while two others defied the threshold yet offered no words of comfort. Instead, they hoisted her from the scarlet water, deposited her on a makeshift bed, and hauled her outside like a leaking bag of garbage.

“Which funeral home?” The man closed the door to the ambulance, and I realized I had followed Savannah as far as I could go.

“I didn’t know there was a choice.”

“You can use Lassiter’s. They’re downtown. Or Solenski. They’re about two miles from here.” A fly landed on his forehead and drank from a bead of perspiration. He swatted it, scratched the spot it sullied, and continued. “Or you could use McMiller’s. But almost nobody goes there.”

“The first one,” I said.

The insect revisited his face and imbibed a second time.

The man persisted with his diatribe, undeterred when I strolled back to the house and locked the door behind me. I peered out the window until he and his uniformed friends spirited my sister to whatever uncharted sovereignty awaited her. Part of me thought if I didn’t see them leave, they’d linger there until the next time I regarded our driveway. My driveway. Savannah asserted ownership over nothing now, other than the remnants of herself she left in the bathroom.

I returned to the scene that now lacked its star. Like a stagehand converting a proscenium between acts, I extinguished the candles that had already retreated to wicks and cleaned the mirror of the message I instinctively knew by heart.

After closing the bible and placing it on the sink, I kneeled before the final piece of Savannah’s magnum opus. The air was stifling, yet the stained water undulated in an almost imperceptible current. That was when I understood what Savannah learned while the passion within her faded. This blood defined her. It gave her life and it revoked it. One pint she could have spared. Two or three or maybe even four

wouldn’t have destroyed her. But this tub—the Victorian blueprint she demanded when our parents remodeled more than a decade before—contained her murder weapon. The spoiled porcelain was an unwitting measuring cup of her life.

And if I drained the blemished water, she too would swirl through the grate.

As though a silent voice commanded me, I sank to the floor, rested my head on the pink and white tiles, and fell asleep.

*

I held no funeral for Savannah. The prospect of an open casket meant spectators would search for evidence of her wounds. If I selected to bury her in a long-sleeved blouse to obscure the gashes, everyone would know that concealed beneath the cotton was a self-hatred great enough to be a young woman’s undoing. But if I arranged for a closed casket, they’d invent scenarios far grislier than the truth.

Our Aunt Adelle, however, insisted on a wake. She told me I would regret it if I failed to honor Savannah. I said she was wrong. She informed me she’d already advertised the occasion in the paper, and it was too late to rescind the notice.

To protect Savannah, I declared the second floor bathroom out of order. The downstairs one would serve better for the occasion anyhow. Just to be sure, I fashioned a sign to make my lie official. I found a piece of paper, but no pen or pencil materialized, so I used the Rose Petal lipstick on the sink.

“My writing’s never been as nice as yours,” I said to the bathwater as I affixed the notice to the door.

I flicked the light switch and plunged the bathroom—and my sister with it—into darkness. But her soul could see through the gloom. I knew because I could feel her watching me from where I stood in the doorway.

“I’ll be back soon,” I said. “No one will bother you until then. I promise.”

Even if I wanted to discard the blood—which I had no inclination to do—I couldn’t touch the water to drain it. That would be akin to putting my fist through her heart.

My aunt arrived early, carving a path of domestic destruction through my home. Every chair from the garage came clanging into the living room. My mother’s punch bowl was set free of a quarter inch of grime. The vacuum whirred and whined and then released a rattle of misery and died.

I guarded the upstairs bathroom. My aunt might demand to inspect it for mildew, and I couldn’t let her disturb my sister.

A squawk rang up the stairs. “Sabrina, come help me.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

They tumbled into our home, one after another until the driveway overflowed with rubber and chrome. The familial shell bulged at its seams and the steadfast bricks threatened to shatter from the mortar, but still a dozen more late arrivals swelled into every recess of the house. I was certain that if I opened a hamper or a top shelf cabinet, I’d find a mourner hiding there, eager to offer a corny phrase that was more trope than sympathy.

Most of the people never met my sister. They were patrons of my aunt. From cathedral pews and bingo games, they swarmed to her. They did whatever she said. And on this day, she commanded them to mourn. So they mourned, passing around apologies like churchgoers sharing a collection plate.

“Thank you.” Despite a lack of tears, my aunt dabbed her eyes with a floral handkerchief. “At least my sister Gladys didn’t live long enough to see her baby go.”

I figured she would invoke my mother’s name at some point, but she might have had the civility to wait until hour two or three instead of opening with it.

Uninterested in hearing her recount my family’s tale of woe, I faced the stairs to ensure no one intruded on Savannah. My sign forbidding entry might not hold the most curious at bay.

As I played sentry on behalf of my beloved, a hand caressed my shoulder.

“I’m so sorry about Savannah,” a man whispered.

I stared at his face but could make no sense of his features. The individual components—the chestnut brown eyes, the cleft in the chin, the thick yet colorless eyebrows—signified some passing familiarity but put together, I could discern nothing outside of an ordinary man with an ordinary visage. I recognized him much as one pedestrian recognizes another on a city sidewalk. You’ve passed each other before, but you don’t know where and you don’t care to find out.

“Sabrina, are you all right?”

The stranger knew my name. That was never a good sign.

“My sister’s dead,” I said. “How do you think I am?”

He embraced me. I squirmed.

“Joseph!” My aunt maneuvered me to one side and flung her arms around the man.

Based on his uncomfortable response to her affection, he was apparently in attendance more for my benefit than hers. I wondered if I called him Joseph or Joe. Or maybe we had some pet names for each other like Honey or Peach. My fingers fluttered to my lips, and I suppressed a gag.

Like rubble from a ship, splinters of memories surfaced and submerged, but I endeavored neither to bury nor retrieve them. I knew him. Maybe I loved him. Maybe I didn’t. My aunt adored him, and that was enough to make me wary.

Adelle mixed back into the crowd, and the man named Joseph gave me a half smile, the kind that apologizes for your problems yet at the same time insists you cheer up.

“Your aunt’s in good spirits… considering.”

“She likes to call herself indomitable,” I said. My mind ran through a list of adjectives I preferred to call her instead.

A gentleman with a red, creased face shifted through the door. I almost pilfered my aunt’s handkerchief and bestowed it on him. He clearly needed the solace more than she did.

“Who is that?” I asked.

My aunt glanced at the man. “Someone who doesn’t belong here.”

She glided toward him, a queen arrayed in her blackest couture. A whisper into his ear, and he departed before I could learn his name or anything else about him.

For the next few minutes, the noise in the room fell out like the false bottom on a gravity carnival ride. Mouths dropped up and down and lips pursed and parted, but all the time, I wished to hear Savannah, see Savannah, even just sit next to the bathtub sheltering Savannah.

Much to my disappointment, sound reemerged in the world. At first, only a few rehearsed words penetrated the air—emissaries to ensure this was indeed the house where they belonged—before the whole, reprehensible din rushed into the spaces where silence had been, threatening to crush me under the weight of make-believe bereavement.

A woman—whose name I may have forgotten or may simply never have known—moved toward me and presented a brief condolence. I focused on the strange geometrical design on the linoleum. If I stared long enough without blinking, the patterns started to move.

“I just met Joseph.” She smiled. “What a nice young man. You’re very lucky, Sabrina.”

“He seems agreeable enough,” I said.

Across the room, my so-called lover shook whatever hand outstretched to him.

“Are you two planning to wed soon?”

I examined my fingers. No ring.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

The woman had no other conversation starters in her arsenal, so we sipped the syrupy potion Adelle had poured into my mother’s punchbowl.

After an uneasy interval, she settled on a safer topic. “Where is the restroom?”

I flailed toward the doorway. “Past the kitchen.”

An accomplished eavesdropper, my aunt pointed to the stairs. “There are nicer facilities on the second floor.”

“No,” I said without inflection. “Those facilities are out of order.”

The woman excused herself and walked toward the kitchen.

My aunt inhaled. “Do you need a plumber, dear?”

I shook my head.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“My sister’s dead.”

“I meant about the bathroom.”

“So did I.”

I retired to the room my father called his study back when he could declare things his own. The door closed behind me. At last, I was alone.

But not alone. On my father’s dusty desk—a shrine my mother left just as it looked the morning his heart avowed no more—I found a necklace belonging to my sister. I lifted the piece of jewelry to the window as though the movement could somehow reveal what the silver chain and charm were doing so far adrift. Savannah had worn the necklace only a week before, so it hadn’t sat in the stale room for seven years. But why she bothered to visit our father’s study defied my understanding. I shoved the trinket deep in my pocket and decided to return it to its owner later that evening. Then I searched each crevice for an answer.

The bible.

There it sat in its rightful place on the bookshelf. That was why my sister had come into this room. But I had no recollection of returning it. If someone had asked me where our family’s bible resided, I would have guessed the decrepit text remained on the sink upstairs. Still, I supposed it was my work. Savannah was in no condition to replace it.

My fingers fumbled to her last selection. Page 686. Or 687. I couldn’t tell which passage between Corinthians chapters two to six inspired her. But something there proved the final words on my sister’s mind, and I wanted to decipher the secret.

The murmur of mourners pierced the room, and I glanced to the now opened door. Joseph loitered at the threshold of the study.

“Is there anything I can do?” He was the first person I believed all day.

I smoothed the crackling, thin pages. “Why do you think she chose Corinthians?”

He secured the barrier behind him and sealed out the invaders’ whispers. “First or Second?”

“I forgot there were two.” I glimpsed the top of the page. “First Corinthians.”

With one hand lightly stroking my back, he examined the bible. “Maybe there’s no reason. Maybe she just opened it and left it there.”

I looked at him. “Do you know who that man was? The one my aunt sent away?”

“I’d never seen him before.”

“He knew Savannah,” I said. “He was so upset he must have.”

Joseph nodded but said nothing else. Together, we squinted at the printed verse and tried to interpret the hidden signs my sister left behind.

*

After the wake, I hoped I would be alone. Yet once the funeral guests departed, more visitors arrived, and their stay came with no clear expiration. I first heard their gossips three days after Savannah’s exodus. Roused from my sleep on the cold tiles, I peered over the edge of the bathtub and caught them in the midst of defiling her. I reached to protect my sister, but the creatures proved too quick for any perfunctory attack. And though they knocked at no door, I should have expected them. They manifested anywhere death resided, but I wondered how they learned about hers. Perhaps even flies read obituaries.

I should have viewed them as minor nuisances. After all, the bathroom accommodated a postmortem cistern, so like a bevy of pallbearers, the scavengers had a function to fulfill. But with each quaff of decay, the pests stole an iota of my sister. Again and again, they came to the tub to drink the ambrosia, and I realized given enough time, they’d whisk off her blood like the men in the ambulance had abducted her body.

I found a swatter and obliterated as many of the ghouls as I could. But what to do with the carapaces? For every fly that took a piece of Savannah, the tiny corpse retained a fragment of her soul. I supposed I could collect the leftovers—in a jar perhaps, next to the tub where Savannah had deposited the bible—but the thought of assembling their crushed bodies nauseated me.

I erased the unexpected massacre from the bathroom and apologized to my sister for sacrificing part of her essence in the process. As recompense, I promised to buy a couple strips of fly paper.

“That might catch them before they get to you.” I hoped the consolation might appeal to her, but that familiar honeyed voice provided no opinion either way. Stoic and still, I regarded the claret water until my eyes could no longer focus on its maddening homogeny.

Over the next week, the days assumed a pattern. Purge the room of its unwanted visitors. Adorn our newly adopted bedroom with any stray trinkets I discovered lounging about the house. Answer galling phone calls from Joseph. Listen for my aunt’s unannounced raids.

She arrived in grand form each visit. Because my mother gave her a key when we bought the house, Adelle could waltz through the front door any moment of the day and disrupt what little bliss I preserved.

A pile of groceries sprawled onto the counter. Most of what she brought included dairy or soy. I was allergic to both and had been since childhood. But she did her service by bringing an offering of food, and that was all that mattered.

Her grievances opened the morning’s dialogue. “I talked to the groundskeeper,” she said. “You haven’t been to the cemetery yet.”

I sat on the landing to keep her from violating the second floor. “Why do I need to visit her grave?”

“Because, dear, that’s what you do. That’s how people mourn.”

“You act like there’s only one way to do it.”

A faucet somewhere in the house dripped, and I glanced upstairs to ensure it wasn’t in Savannah’s asylum. Another droplet struck a pan with a metallic thud. The kitchen, I thought. Sighing, I rested my head on the railing.

“I’m worried about you, Sabrina. You should join me for Sunday services. It would be good for your soul.”

“I doubt that. But thanks for the offer.”

Another drop. Definitely in the kitchen.

“Have you called a plumber yet?”

I shook my head.

“Do you need the number of someone?”

I shook my head again. “Who was that man at the funeral?”

“No one.”

“Whoever he was, I think he loved her. An old boyfriend maybe.” I hesitated. “Or a new one.”

“Who can be certain about anything when it comes to your sister?” My aunt drifted toward the downstairs bathroom. “She was a ghost even when she was alive.”

The door locked behind her, sealing out any truth I might glean about the unknown gentleman.

But in that moment, something else transfixed me. On the counter sat my aunt’s keys. Glinting back at me was the one that unlocked my front door. I listened to her movement in the adjacent room and predicted she would skulk in front of the mirror for another minute. My fingers slipped the teethed silver around a series of scuffed grocery store cards and pressed the furtive treasure against my palm.

She appeared in the doorway. “I’ll stop by again next week, so let me know if there’s anything you need by Wednesday.”

I nodded. Even if I provided her a detailed list, she would bring the same dozen items she had deposited on the sacrificial altar every week since our parents died.

The key ring swayed in her hand, and I self-congratulated my cunning. But when we reached the door, she halted. Her wide eyes examined me, and I was certain I’d been caught.

Instead, she crinkled her nose. “You should get that bathroom fixed sooner than later. I can smell it backing up.”

Another drop against the pan.

After waving farewell to Adelle, I retreated to the kitchen and adjusted the cold knob on the faucet. The water seized in the pipes.

At eight that night, Joseph phoned. He talked about us going on some silly vacation. Something about me needing to get away for awhile. All I wanted to discuss was the man my aunt wouldn’t mention.

“Maybe he broke it off with Savannah. Maybe he’s the reason she killed herself.” I paced the perimeter of the kitchen, dodging leftover chairs from the wake.

“Sabrina, the reason your sister killed herself was because she was despondent.”

I remained silent, curious what other drivel he might spew.

“You could search through the name of everyone she ever met,” he said, “but that isn’t going to bring her back. Or excuse her for abandoning you.”

“She didn’t abandon me,” I said and hung up the phone.

On the counter next to a block of orange cheese that needed no refrigeration was a lone Mason jar. It was surplus from three weeks earlier when my sister and I preserved a bundle of fresh tomatoes from our garden. The rabbits and groundhogs probably thanked me for forsaking our rows of corn and pumpkins since Savannah died. At least someone was eating well.

The clear jar reflected against the overhead light.

Twenty-five cans. No matter what fruit or vegetable was in season, we preserved exactly twenty-five cans. But Savannah always prepared an extra jar.

“A failsafe,” she’d say. “In case one breaks in the water.”

I curled my hand around the glass and stared through the dust and grime to the other side. Cradling the souvenir, I retired to my newfound bedroom and talked with my sister long into the night. She was an excellent listener.

*

I feared I couldn’t keep her forever. The flies descended upon the bathtub with ever greater frequency as if the first few escapees had alerted the whole of their kin. A despairing aroma overtook the air and obliterated the remnants of jasmine and patchouli Savannah once considered her trademark.

And they’d soon be arriving. For the previous two days, the phone calls and resultant messages plagued me no more, and while I preferred to believe Adelle and Joseph had simply surrendered in unison, it was far more likely they were concocting some devious scheme together.

To prepare for one final invasion, I crossed the invisible border between the upstairs hallway and the kingdom my sister built in a twelve by ten space. Until then, I hadn’t dared to disrespect it. But Savannah asked me to go there. And I couldn’t ignore her wishes.

An hour later, they appeared. My aunt toted a bevy of brown paper bags, and Joseph carried the overflow. She groped at the door for almost a minute, searching in vain for her key. I stood on the other side, reveling in her protest.

Finally, she knocked. As a greeting, she thrust a bag at me.

“Help us with these.”

I vacated my usual post at the landing to drudge another grocer’s special of anaphylaxis through the door.

With a series of heavy sighs, my aunt unloaded several more blocks of cheese.

Joseph frowned at the loot.

“Aren’t you allergic?” He mouthed the words, and I nodded.

But Adelle cared only about her thwarted entrance. “I can’t find my key,” she said and inspected me. “You don’t know anything about that, do you?”

I stared at her, employing as vacant an expression as I could muster.

She sniffed. “What is that disgusting odor?”

Before I could block her, Adelle ascended the stairs. I didn’t pursue her. Perhaps if I pretended not to care, she’d conduct a brief search and return to the first floor, filled with nothing more than complaints of my poor domestic skills.

Then I heard her open the bathroom door.

I braced for the inevitable scream while Joseph grinned with an almost endearing innocence.

“Oh my god!”

I sighed.

“Adelle?” Joseph rushed up the stairs, and I followed placidly behind.

By the time I arrived in the bathroom, they were already gaping at my sister. I parted my lips to tell them she didn’t appreciate their gawking when my sometimes lover interrupted.

“Is that—” But the smell recalled the rankest of summertime carrion and inspired Joseph to abandon his question and blot out the stench with his sleeve.

“Savannah,” I said to assist him.

My aunt gagged. “This is madness.”

She reached toward the plug, but I lunged before she could disturb the water. We toppled to the tile, and I hoped she might strike her head against the edge of the tub, inducing a temporary—or permanent—stupor.

Unfortunately, my gambit simply annoyed her.

“What is wrong with you? Have you lost your mind?”

“Sabrina.” Joseph took my arm and helped me to my feet. He tried to cradle my face in his hands, but I pushed him toward the sink and turned to my aunt.

“You won’t touch her.”

“Her?” She stared at me. “It’s dirty bathwater filled with rancid blood. There’s no one in there!”

“You can’t take her away from me.”

I charged, ready to add more red décor to the room, but Joseph caught me in midair. He wrapped his arms around my waist as I flailed toward the water, desperate to destroy my aunt before she could hurt Savannah.

“This is for your own good.” Adelle speared her fake nails through my sister’s core and removed the colorless plug. For a moment, she even permitted the chain of the would-be life preserver to dangle from her fingers, just so I would know the deed was done. My body pulsed forward, but Joseph pinned me against his chest.

The water gurgled as it disappeared.

“She’s screaming!” I wept.

My aunt rolled her eyes. “It’s only the drain.”

In under a minute, my sister had departed.

“Savannah.” I panted, swallowing my tears. “Please forgive me.”

“She has nothing to forgive you for. She needs to be the one asking for forgiveness.”

Joseph adjusted his grip on my now limp body. “Because she committed suicide?”

My aunt fluttered her eyes and moved away from the bathtub. “Because she had too many secrets.”

He inched toward her. “Like what?”

Impatient to play Greek chorus, the drain emitted a final rattle.

“The man at the funeral,” my aunt said, lowering her voice, “was carrying on with Savannah. His wife told me so.” She shrugged. “My niece was a sinner. And I made sure she knew it.”

I heaved, remembering the message on the mirror. “Did you happen to mention hell in the conversation?”

“I told her the truth. By having that dalliance, she damned herself.” Adelle shrugged. “Simple fact.”

As he recognized the murderer sharing the room with us, Joseph shifted his stance, and this time, his grasp around my waist began to slack. “How could you do that?” he asked.

Sensing his waning resolve, my body seized into tight stillness. One calculated thrust would shatter Joseph’s bones and free me to eradicate the inhuman thing standing near the sink, acrylic caressing her pancake face.

But the unexpected calm belied my intentions.

“Leave,” he said to her. “Now.”

She exhaled, one eyebrow lifted. “Or what?”

“Or I’ll let her go.”

Adelle’s gaze flitted from Joseph to me and back again. Her masterfully feigned empathy melted away, and without another word, she exited the room.

When he was certain she had gone, Joseph released me.

I kneeled before the pink stain left in my sister’s wake.

“Sabrina,” he whispered, “she wasn’t in there anymore.”

I glared at him. “What do you know of souls? How can you be sure she wasn’t there?”

Quivering, he gaped at me, yet his face again assumed the look of a stranger.

My fingers pressed into the porcelain tub, searching the invisible pores for any trace of my sister.

At some point, Joseph vanished. I thought of checking the driveway to ensure he’d gone, but there in the bathroom, I was already alone.

*

A stream of pleading messages coalesced into static.

“Forgive me.”

“I was wrong to hold you back.”

“I love you, Sabrina.”

“Please call me. Please.”

I unplugged the archaic answering machine and flung it against the wall. The consequent shards sprang apart like glints from a Fourth of July sparkler.

A week later, Adelle returned to the house and knocked unabated for ten minutes. I cracked the door but left the chain in place.

“I talked to my friend,” she said as though she possessed only one acquaintance. “He’s a lawyer. He told me I could get power of attorney over you.”

I scoffed. “Not without Joseph’s testimony. And now he loathes you too.”

“I won’t go away.” She crossed her arms. “I’ll keep knocking until you let me in.”

“I’ll call the sheriff and tell him you’re trespassing.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I won’t call the police. I’ll put you in that bathtub instead.”

She stiffened on instinct. “I could have you committed.”

“You could try.”

Her car departed the driveway, and I waved goodbye.

In the afternoon, my sister called to me. The voice in the bedroom beckoned softly in a lilt no longer her own. In lieu of words, this new Savannah used a singular code of floorboard creaks and white noise purrs that only I could understand.

“Don’t worry,” I said to assuage her latest fear. “She’s gone now. And I don’t think she’ll come back again.”

I moved to the dresser and, with a careful hand, slipped open the top drawer. Tucked between a lacy camisole she hadn’t worn since high school and an armory of colorful underwear, Savannah waited inside the leftover Mason jar.

“You were right,” I said. “This was the safest place for you.”

I positioned Savannah on the nearby vanity and watched as graceful waves rippled through her.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t save all of you,” I said. “They didn’t give me enough time.”

My ring finger caressed the glass barricade that estranged us. And for the first time since my sister swapped shells, I smiled.

A motorcycle whirred past the house, and Savannah hummed in reply.

“But we fooled them all,” I said. “Didn’t we, darling?”

Giggling, Savannah smiled back at me.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her stories have appeared in Nightmare, Shimmer, LampLight, and Interzone as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).

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