Each time I pass through the gate, I forget. I forget about the rusty nail, and it pricks my palm in the same spot, over and over: right hand, the bottom left mound of my palm, just above the wrist. The nail on the gate is rusted and twisted. Changing it would be a simple fix, were the problem not that I was always forgetting about it. Pass through the gate, descend upon the property, and suddenly it becomes difficult to remember anything at all. The soil here is rich and dark, and between a live oak tree and a small grove of palms sits a narrow but tall late Victorian home. The branches of the oak roll and intertwine as silhouettes against the side of the house, a shadowy flux upon the decaying red siding.
I have no memory of first arriving at this place and hardly a memory outside of it. A memory, like a house or a tree, should have a foundation, roots, a trunk. And yet for me there are only the idle days spent here, maintaining the home, exploring its rooms, and stopping for a snack in the garden. I am the property’s personal preservationist. It is idyllic but difficult work, for between the cracks and the holes in the walls the house is spilling with moss, mold, and fungus which spread out and infect the framework. Just as Queen Victoria passed a blood mutation off to European royalty around the world, the houses built under her reign and in her name would come to suffer a similar kind of hemorrhaging.
Though I live within the property, I am not its owner. I am merely keeping up its appearance for my boss. The only reason she allows me away from the property is so that I may meet with her and report to her on how the house is doing. It is rare that she calls for me, though lately her invitations have become more frequent. The last time I saw her, I was invited to dine with her in the gardens of her corporate office. She had her attendant come, pick me up from the house, and take me straight to her building. She was sitting on a golden chair as her workers waved fronds above her head to keep her shaded. She is of a petite frame, but at times can seem like a giantess. Sprawled out at her feet, a naked body lay facedown on a log, and from the bare back she snacked on caviar, rare fish, and peeled mandarins.
“I would like to see that shabby dump turned into a beautiful garden, like the one Eve lived in before God sent her away,” she said. Her eyes were black, always pitch black, and she always kept a smirk which hid any hint of discomfort or disagreement. Her attendant kneeled at her side and presented a turquoise box. She waved it open and pulled out two cigars, which she lit with a snap of her fingers and handed to me. “Now, tell me something interesting.”
I bristled and her eyes narrowed in on me. I thought of something to say, but for a moment was sure I had told her once before. I hesitated, but spoke anyway against my better judgment: “Alles ist architektur. Everything is architecture. And everyone an architect.”
She cackled. “So, you think yourself an architect? Or rather, a poet?”
“It is just a saying, ma’am. It means that everything is built up from something, and that everyone facilitates that growth.” She took a puff from her cigar. “It’s like the way the trees grow,” I added, thinking of the shadows of the branches.
“Would you like to hear a saying that I know?” she asked. I nodded. Again she snapped her fingers and the trees behind her burst into flames. “Fire is blood, and blood is wood. Fire makes the blood rush, which turns humans into fine, hard wood.” I blushed. “From you, I want only the finest wood.” She laughed again. “And don’t call me ma’am. Call me master.”
That night I refused sleep, and spent the night instead carving arabesques into the crown molding of the home.
It is strange how memory works. How sometimes you can remember the ways of the world while forgetting your own experiences. I think about this while repairing squeaky faucets and scraping at bathroom tiles. Recollecting a feeling, preserved in a moment, causes a reaction within the gut. In the bathroom, mold covers the walls and the ceiling. I brush it, wash it, even occasionally find myself conversing and laughing with it. I have heard of others who stiffen at the sight of mold, stricken with fear at the mere form of it. It is as if the gut already knows all about the horrors of nature, the destiny of the body to be devoured and disintegrated, even if the brain is able to recognize it as momentarily harmless. The gut houses a second kind of memory.
The master’s attendant waits outside for me; she has invited me to her private room. When I arrive she sits me down on her chaise and recounts a story from her past, the first she has ever shared with me. It is the story of how she was expelled from college after jealously setting fire to her younger sister’s knitting club. She tells me how she angrily grabbed at the scissors, how her hair fell into her face, how she felt at that moment something else taking over her soul. There is no reason for her to tell me this. She excuses me as soon as her story is over, no explanation for why she shared it, no explanation as to why such an event would happen.
When I return home, the kitchen is on fire. I pull out a fire extinguisher from the closet, casting foam upon the flames until I can identify the source: a teapot, left boiling on the stove during my visit to the master’s room. I open the windows and allow the smoke to dissipate. It takes three hours for the room to clear and the kitchen is left black, the appliances melted. The only thing that has survived the fire is the moss growing between the tiles on the floor.
I have read in a book from the house’s library that when an untrained medium or a psychic leaves their mind open to spirits, occasionally an animal presence can take control over the mind in order to play tricks on humans. In the silence of the charred house I am able to give my thoughts to vessels—to the prophets, to Shiva, the god of destruction, riding on the faithful bull Nandi’s back. Was I too just a pet to a destructive god? What could be the point to this job, of merely slowing the inevitable processes of decay? I leave the house and kneel in the garden, reaching my arms out in front of me to stretch the notches of my spine. I lie there for four hours until rain begins to pour down, and then I lie there for another two hours.
The next morning I have a recollection, my first memory. I remember being a kid and collecting caterpillars in an open terrarium for observation as they transformed into butterflies. I must have watched them for days or possibly weeks, but in one afternoon of inattentiveness, I left the terrarium outside and uncovered after going back inside to play. I forgot about the terrarium and left it outside and uncovered overnight, when it happened to rain. The next morning when I went out to check on the caterpillars, the terrarium had filled with water and the bodies of the caterpillars floated bloated in the brown water. The boy next door slapped me across the face at the sight of it, knocked me down, and kicked me in the stomach as I cried.
I do not know how to repair a burned kitchen. As far as I can remember, my job has only been one of conservancy. I have not been able to create or fix things anew, except for the occasional leaky faucet or hole in the ceiling. When there is no turnaround, no hope for salvation, it is the heart that loses out to anguish and apathy. I have no choice but to visit my master again in her room, my first time seeing her at my own behest.
I find her lounging on the chaise this time, puffing a cigarette and looking out her window at the buildings below. Buildings that she herself had designed and seen built, the landscape practically one of her own terraforming. I tell her what I have done and she says nothing, just allows me to weep in her lap. She strokes my hair with her cigarette hand, the ashes falling against the back of my neck.
“Would you like to hear another story?” she asks me, and I nod into her thigh. She tells me about the time she went big game hunting in the African savanna with a group of prominent investors and moguls. Wanting to impress them, she went after the biggest game she could fathom: a lion, proud and reclining, still growing into its long red mane. She stalked the lion all the way over to a large rock where it sprawled out in the sunlight. She watched it yawn, took a deep breath, and shot it right between its eyes. As she watched the blood trickle down its snout, she walked over to it, embraced it, and sobbed into its fur.
“Sometimes, things fall apart, rot, and die,” she explained to me as if speaking to a child. “But if the lion had lived, I wouldn’t have my favorite, warmest, and softest coat.” The sun had set but neither of us got up to turn on a light. The master put the cigarette up to her lips for an inhale, but instead dropped her wrist down to the ashtray to extinguish the flame.
Returning that night I prick my finger on the gate as usual. The hole the nail has created in my palm is turning black with infection. Tetanus. I feel my throat close up. Once again I lie awake through the night. The bed on the second floor is canopied with mosquito netting, and as I toss on the mattress the net wraps up around me, tightening with each thrash. The scientific community once thought Chernobyl would be uninhabitable for centuries. Now it is home to one of the most ecologically diverse populations on the planet. When creatures die at Chernobyl, there is no mold or fungi to break down their bodies. Instead their corpses are left perfectly intact, immaculately preserved. If I could stand up, on my tiptoes, I could brush the moss in the corners of the ceiling. There is no stopping it or holding it back. The mold is the owner of the house, and I am just a guest within it.
The next night the master again invites me back to her room, but I am too weak to meet her. I am forced to turn her down, and her attendant arrives to leave behind a gift: a preserved jungle ant, with a parasitic plant pushing out and blossoming from a crack in its skull. Its exoskeleton is covered in plant-like fur that has pushed through the shell of its body. It is beautiful; colorful; like a small fountain. I weakly bring it back to the library and place it on a coffee table. I am the ant; I understand why it was given to me. I open the small note attached at its base, which reads, “Don’t call me your master. I am your owner.” The ant and I are the gatekeepers, stuck between life and death, both caring for bodies neither of us actually own.
I spend the last day on my own in the library. I replay my only memory over and over in my head. The mold and the moss creep through the cracks in the walls like the caterpillars. They have all come out to watch. If I cannot keep the house preserved, how will its memories continue? What of my own memories, the memories of my owner? And who is keeping the memories of the Earth, while I am cleaning mold and repairing pipes?
I see colors and I believe it to be death. I see the wildness and the decomposers spread out and replace us on the land. I believe it to be death until she comes to me, not death, but my owner, to carry me out to the garden.
She lays me down against the brick foundation while she waters the flowers. There are tears rolling down her cheeks and I ask her if she is crying because of me. She says no, she is not crying because of me, she is crying because of something that she remembered just then. This is the first time I see her in the house and she is beautiful here, and the house is perfect with her in it. The shadow branches arabesque down her back and arms like tattoos. Empty and abandoned cicada shells cling to the stone ornaments and tree trunks. I watch her noticing something, and she sets her watering can down and kneels to be closer to the ground. She brings her palm down to the dirt and allows a small garden snake to twist around her wrist. She cooes at it, strokes it, and winds it around her as I feel my own spine coiling.
I am having a dream where all the continents are twisted around my owner’s wrists. In the ocean everyone is standing on each other’s shoulders. Everyone is there and we are all building a tower. I am the last one left. The tower is stretching into the heavens. I climb up the backs of everyone, their faces laughing and familiar. When I reach the top, I sit atop the second-to-last person’s shoulders. I reach my hands up to the sky and feel hands and wrists, streaked with soot, reaching back for me. I laugh because we have done it at last. We have rebuilt the spine.
Amanda Depperschmidt is a bookseller in the PPR zone at Powell’s City of Books. Her writing focuses on archival theory, climate destruction, and animals.