We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


  “That young man is not to touch my papers, Constance. I will not have that young man going through my papers.”

  “This is all my fault,” Constance said, turning to me. “He should be in a hospital.”

  “I will put my papers in that box, Constance, my dear, if you will be kind enough to hand it to me.”

  “He has a happy time,” I said to Constance.

  “I should have done everything differently.”

  “It would certainly not be kind to put Uncle Julian in a hospital.”

  “But I’ll have to if I—” and Constance stopped suddenly, and turned back to the sink and the potatoes. “Shall I put walnuts in the applesauce?” she asked.

  I sat very quietly, listening to what she had almost said. Time was running shorter, tightening around our house, crushing me. I thought it might be time to smash the big mirror in the hall, but then Charles’ feet were coming heavily down the stairs and through the hall and into the kitchen.

  “Well, well, everybody’s here,” he said. “What’s for dinner?”

  That evening Constance played for us in the drawing room, the tall curve of her harp making shadows against our mother’s portrait and the soft notes falling into the air like petals. She played “Over the Sea to Skye” and “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” and “I Saw a Lady,” and other songs our mother used to play, but I never remember that our mother’s fingers touched the strings so lightly with such a breath of melody. Uncle Julian kept himself awake, listening and dreaming, and even Charles did not quite dare to put his feet on the furniture in the drawing room, although the smoke from his pipe drifted against the wedding-cake ceiling and he moved restlessly while Constance played.

  “A delicate touch,” Uncle Julian said once. “All the Blackwood women had a gifted touch.”

  Charles stopped by the fireplace to knock his pipe against the grate. “Pretty,” he said, taking down one of the Dresden figurines. Constance stopped playing and he turned to look at her. “Valuable?”

  “Not particularly,” Constance said. “My mother liked them.”

  Uncle Julian said, “My particular favorite was always ‘Bluebells of Scotland’; Constance, my dear, would you—”

  “No more now,” Charles said. “Now Constance and I want to talk, Uncle. We’ve got plans to make.”

  7

  Thursday was my most powerful day. It was the right day to settle with Charles. In the morning Constance decided to make spice cookies for dinner; that was too bad, because if any of us had known we could have told her not to bother, that Thursday was going to be the last day. Even Uncle Julian did not suspect, however; he felt a little stronger on Thursday morning and late in the morning Constance brought him into the kitchen which smelled richly of spice cookies and he continued putting his papers into the box. Charles had taken a hammer and found nails and a board and was pounding away mercilessly at the broken step; from the kitchen window I could see that he was doing it very badly and I was pleased; I wished the hammer to pound his thumb. I stayed in the kitchen until I was certain that they would all keep where they were for a while and then I went upstairs and into our father’s room, walking softly so Constance would not know I was there. The first thing to do was stop our father’s watch which Charles had started. I knew he was not wearing it to mend the broken step because he was not wearing the chain, and I found the watch and the chain and our father’s signet ring on our father’s dresser with Charles’ tobacco pouch and four books of matches. I was not allowed to touch matches but in any case I would not have touched Charles’ matches. I took up the watch and listened to it ticking because Charles had started it; I could not turn it all the way back to where it had formerly been because he had kept it going for two or three days, but I twisted the winding knob backward until there was a small complaining crack from the watch and the ticking stopped. When I was sure that he could never start it ticking again I put it back gently where I had found it; one thing, at least, had been released from Charles’ spell and I thought that I had at last broken through his tight skin of invulnerability. I need not bother about the chain, which was broken, and I disliked the ring. Eliminating Charles from everything he had touched was almost impossible, but it seemed to me that if I altered our father’s room, and perhaps later the kitchen and the drawing room and the study, and even finally the garden, Charles would be lost, shut off from what he recognized, and would have to concede that this was not the house he had come to visit and so would go away. I altered our father’s room very quickly, and almost without noise.

  During the night I had gone out in the darkness and brought in a large basket filled with pieces of wood and broken sticks and leaves and scraps of glass and metal from the field and the wood. Jonas came back and forth with me, amused at our walking silently while everyone slept. When I altered our father’s room I took the books from the desk and blankets from the bed, and I put my glass and metal and wood and sticks and leaves into the empty places. I could not put the things which had been our father’s into my own room, so I carried them softly up the stairs to the attic where everything else of theirs was kept. I poured a pitcher of water onto our father’s bed; Charles could not sleep there again. The mirror over the dresser was already smashed; it would not reflect Charles. He would not be able to find books or clothes and would be lost in a room of leaves and broken sticks. I tore down the curtains and threw them on the floor; now Charles would have to look outside and see the driveway going away and the road beyond.

  I looked at the room with pleasure. A demon-ghost would not easily find himself here. I was back in my own room, lying on the bed and playing with Jonas when I heard Charles down below in the garden shouting to Constance. “This is too much,” he was saying, “simply too much.”

  “What now?” Constance asked; she had come to the kitchen door and I could hear Uncle Julian somewhere below saying, “Tell that young fool to stop his bellowing.”

  I looked out quickly; the broken step had clearly been too much for Charles because the hammer and the board lay on the ground and the step was still broken; Charles was coming up the path from the creek and he was carrying something; I wondered what he had found now.

  “Did you ever hear of anything like this?” he was saying; even though he was close now he was still shouting. “Look at this, Connie, just look at it.”

  “I suppose it belongs to Merricat,” Constance said.

  “It does not belong to Merricat, or anything like it. This is money.”

  “I remember,” Constance said. “Silver dollars. I remember when she buried them.”

  “There must be twenty or thirty dollars here; this is outrageous.”

  “She likes to bury things.”

  Charles was still shouting, shaking my box of silver dollars back and forth violently. I wondered if he would drop it; I would like to have seen Charles on the ground, scrabbling after my silver dollars.

  “It’s not her money,” he was shouting, “she has no right to hide it.”

  I wondered how he had happened to find the box where I had buried it; perhaps Charles and money found each other no matter how far apart they were, or perhaps Charles was engaged in systematically digging up every inch of our land. “This is terrible,” he was shouting, “terrible; she has no right.”

  “No harm is done,” Constance said. I could see that she was puzzled and somewhere inside the kitchen Uncle Julian was pounding and calling her.

  “How do you know there isn’t more?” Charles held the box out accusingly. “How do you know that crazy kid hasn’t buried thousands of dollars all over, where we’ll never find it?”

  “She likes to bury things,” Constance said. “Coming, Uncle Julian.”

  Charles followed her inside, still holding the box tenderly. I supposed I could bury the box again after he had gone, but I was not pleased. I came to the top of the stairs and watched Charles proceeding down the hall to the study; he was clearly going to put my silver dollars into our father’s sa
fe. I ran down the stairs quickly and quietly and out through the kitchen. “Silly Merricat,” Constance said to me as I passed; she was putting spice cookies in long rows to cool.

  I was thinking of Charles. I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

  He had not even bothered to fill in the hole. I could imagine him walking here and noticing the spot where the ground was disturbed, stopping to poke in it and then digging wildly with both his hands, scowling and finally greedy and shocked and gasping when he found my box of silver dollars. “Don’t blame me,” I said to the hole; I would have to find something else to bury here and I wished it could be Charles.

  The hole would hold his head nicely. I laughed when I found a round stone the right size, and scratched a face on it and buried it in the hole. “Goodbye, Charles,” I said. “Next time don’t go around taking other people’s things.”

  I stayed by the creek for an hour or so; I was staying by the creek when Charles finally went upstairs and into the room which was no longer his and no longer our father’s. I thought for one minute that Charles had been in my shelter, but nothing was disturbed, as it would have been if Charles had come scratching around. He had been near enough to bother me, however, so I cleared out the grass and leaves I usually slept on, and shook out my blanket, and put in everything fresh. I washed the flat rock where I sometimes ate my meals, and put a better branch across the entrance. I wondered if Charles would come back looking for more silver dollars and I wondered if he would like my six blue marbles. I was finally hungry and went back to our house, and there in the kitchen was Charles, still shouting.

  “I can’t believe it,” he was saying, quite shrill by now, “I simply can’t believe it.”

  I wondered how long Charles was going to go on shouting. He made a black noise in our house and his voice was getting thinner and higher; perhaps if he shouted long enough he would squeak. I sat on the kitchen step next to Jonas and thought that perhaps Constance might laugh out loud if Charles squeaked at her. It never happened, however, because as soon as he saw that I was sitting on the step he was quiet for a minute and then when he spoke he had brought his voice down and made it slow.

  “So you’re back,” he said. He did not move toward me but I felt his voice as though he were coming closer. I did not look at him; I looked at Jonas, who was looking at him.

  “I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to do with you,” he said. “But whatever I do, you’ll remember it.”

  “Don’t bully her, Charles,” Constance said. I did not like her voice either because it was strange and I knew she was uncertain. “It’s all my fault, anyway.” That was her new way of thinking.

  I thought I would help Constance, perhaps make her laugh. “Amanita pantherina,” I said, “highly poisonous. Amanita rubescens, edible and good. The Cicuta maculata is the water hemlock, one of the most poisonous of wild plants if taken internally. The Apocynum cannabinum is not a poisonous plant of the first importance, but the snakeberry—”

  “Stop it,” Charles said, still quiet.

  “Constance,” I said, “we came home for lunch, Jonas and I.”

  “First you will have to explain to Cousin Charles,” Constance said, and I was chilled.

  Charles was sitting at the kitchen table, with his chair pushed back and turned a little to face me in the doorway. Constance stood behind him, leaning against the sink. Uncle Julian sat at his table, stirring papers. There were rows and rows of spice cookies cooling and the kitchen still smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg. I wondered if Constance would give Jonas a spice cookie with his supper but of course she never did because that was the last day.

  “Now listen,” Charles said. He had brought down a handful of sticks and dirt, perhaps to prove to Constance that they had really been in his room, or perhaps because he was going to clean it away handful by handful; the sticks and dirt looked wrong on the kitchen table and I thought that perhaps one reason Constance looked so sad was the dirt on her clean table. “Now listen,” Charles said.

  “I cannot work in here if that young man is going to talk all the time,” Uncle Julian said. “Constance, tell him he must be quiet for a little while.”

  “You, too,” Charles said in that soft voice. “I have put up with enough from both of you. One of you fouls my room and goes around burying money and the other one can’t even remember my name.”

  “Charles,” I said to Jonas. I was the one who buried money, certainly, so I was not the one who could not remember his name; poor old Uncle Julian could not bury anything and could not remember Charles’ name. I would remember to be kinder to Uncle Julian. “Will you give Uncle Julian a spice cookie for his dinner?” I asked Constance. “And Jonas one too?”

  “Mary Katherine,” Charles said, “I am going to give you one chance to explain. Why did you make that mess in my room?”

  There was no reason to answer him. He was not Constance, and anything I said to him might perhaps help him to get back his thin grasp on our house. I sat on the doorstep and played with Jonas’s ears, which flicked and snapped when I tickled them.

  “Answer me,” Charles said.

  “How often must I tell you, John, that I know nothing whatsoever about it?” Uncle Julian slammed his hand down onto his papers and scattered them. “It is a quarrel between the women and none of my affair. I do not involve myself in my wife’s petty squabbles and I strongly advise you to do the same. It is not fitting for men of dignity to threaten and reproach because women have had a falling out. You lose stature, John, you lose stature.”

  “Shut up,” Charles said; he was shouting again and I was pleased. “Constance,” he said, lowering his voice a little, “this is terrible. The sooner you’re out of it the better.”

  “—will not be told to shut up by my own brother. We will leave your house, John, if that is really your desire. I ask you, however, to reflect. My wife and I—”

  “It’s my fault, all of it,” Constance said. I thought she was going to cry. It was unthinkable for Constance to cry again after all these years, but I was held tight, I was chilled, and I could not move to go over to her.

  “You are evil,” I said to Charles. “You are a ghost and a demon.”

  “What the hell?” Charles said.

  “Don’t pay any attention,” Constance told him. “Don’t listen to Merricat’s nonsense.”

  “You are a very selfish man, John, perhaps even a scoundrel, and overly fond of the world’s goods; I sometimes wonder, John, if you are every bit the gentleman.”

  “It’s a crazy house,” Charles said with conviction. “Constance, this is a crazy house.”

  “I’ll clean your room, right away. Charles, please don’t be angry.” Constance looked at me wildly, but I was held tight and could not see her.

  “Uncle Julian.” Charles got up and went over to where Uncle Julian sat at his table.

  “Don’t you touch my papers,” Uncle Julian said, trying to cover them with his hands. “You get away from my papers, you bastard.”

  “What?” said Charles.

  “I apologize,” Uncle Julian said to Constance. “Not language fitting for your ears, my dear. Just tell this young bastard to stay away from my papers.”

  “Look,” Charles said to Uncle Julian, “I tell you I’ve had enough of this. I am not going to touch your silly papers and I am not your brother John.”

  “Of course you are not my brother John; you are not tall enough by half an inch. You are a young bastard and I desire that you return to your father, who, to my shame, is my brother Arthur, and tell him I said so. In the presence of your mother, if you choose; she is
a strong-willed woman but lacks family feeling. She desired that the family connection be severed. I have consequently no objection to your repeating my high language in her presence.”

  “That has all been forgotten, Uncle Julian; Constance and I—”

  “I think you have forgotten yourself, young man, to take such a tone to me. I am pleased that you are repentant, but you have taken far too much of my time. Please be extremely quiet now.”

  “Not until I have finished with your niece Mary Katherine.”

  “My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead, young man. She did not survive the loss of her family; I supposed you knew that.”

  “What?” Charles turned furiously to Constance.

  “My niece Mary Katherine died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister’s trial for murder. But she is of very little consequence to my book, and so we will have done with her.”

  “She is sitting right here.” Charles waved his hands, and his face was red.

  “Young man.” Uncle Julian put down his pencil and half-turned to face Charles. “I have pointed out to you, I believe, the importance of my work. You choose constantly to interrupt me. I have had enough. You must either be quiet or you must leave this room.”

  I was laughing at Charles and even Constance was smiling. Charles stood staring at Uncle Julian, and Uncle Julian, going through his papers, said to himself, “Damned impertinent puppy,” and then, “Constance?”

  “Yes, Uncle Julian?”

  “Why have my papers been put into this box? I shall have to take them all out again and rearrange them. Has that young man been near my papers? Has he?”

  “No, Uncle Julian.”

  “He takes a great deal upon himself, I think. When is he going away?”

  “I’m not going away,” Charles said. “I am going to stay.”

  “Impossible,” Uncle Julian said. “We have not the room. Constance?”

  “Yes, Uncle Julian?”

  “I would like a chop for my lunch. A nice little chop, neatly broiled. Perhaps a mushroom.”

 
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