We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  “Oh, Merricat.” She sat up and untangled herself quickly from Uncle Julian’s shawl and the leaves; “Oh, Merricat, poor baby,” she said. “We’ll hurry,” and she scrambled to her feet.

  “First you had better wash your face.”

  She went to the creek and wet her handkerchief and scrubbed at her face while I shook out Uncle Julian’s shawl and folded it, thinking how strange and backward everything was this morning; I had never touched Uncle Julian’s shawl before. I already saw that the rules were going to be different, but it was odd to be folding Uncle Julian’s shawl. Later, I thought, I would come back here to my hiding place and clean it, and put in fresh leaves.

  “Merricat, you’ll starve.”

  “We have to watch,” I said, taking her hand to slow her. “We have to go very quietly and carefully; some of them may still be around waiting.”

  I went first down the path, walking silently, with Constance and Jonas behind me. Constance could not step as silently as I could, but she made very little sound and of course Jonas made no sound at all. I took the path that would bring us out of the woods at the back of the house, near the vegetable garden, and when I came to the edge of the woods I stopped and held Constance back while we looked carefully to see if there were any of them left. For one first minute we saw only the garden and the kitchen door, looking just as always, and then Constance gasped and said, “Oh, Merricat,” with a little moan, and I held myself very still, because the top of our house was gone.

  I remembered that I had stood looking at our house with love yesterday, and I thought how it had always been so tall, reaching up into the trees. Today the house ended above the kitchen doorway in a nightmare of black and twisted wood; I saw part of a window frame still holding broken glass and I thought: that was my window; I looked out that window from my room.

  There was no one there, and no sound. We moved together very slowly toward the house, trying to understand its ugliness and ruin and shame. I saw that ash had drifted among the vegetable plants; the lettuce would have to be washed before I could eat it, and the tomatoes. No fire had come this way, but everything, the grass and the apple trees and the marble bench in Constance’s garden, had an air of smokiness and everything was dirty. As we came closer to the house we saw more clearly that the fire had not reached the ground floor, but had had to be content with the bedrooms and the attic. Constance hesitated at the kitchen door, but she had opened it a thousand times before and it ought surely to recognize the touch of her hand, so she took the latch and lifted it. The house seemed to shiver when she opened the door, although one more draft could hardly chill it now. Constance had to push at the door to make it open, but no burned timber crashed down, and there was not, as I half thought there might be, a sudden rushing falling together, as a house, seemingly solid but really made only of ash, might dissolve at a touch.

  “My kitchen,” Constance said. “My kitchen.”

  She stood in the doorway, looking. I thought that we had somehow not found our way back correctly through the night, that we had somehow lost ourselves and come back through the wrong gap in time, or the wrong door, or the wrong fairy tale. Constance put her hand against the door frame to steady herself, and said again, “My kitchen, Merricat.”

  “My stool is still there,” I said.

  The obstacle which made the door hard to open was the kitchen table, turned on its side. I set it upright, and we went inside. Two of the chairs had been smashed, and the floor was horrible with broken dishes and glasses and broken boxes of food and paper torn from the shelves. Jars of jam and syrup and catsup had been shattered against the walls. The sink where Constance washed her dishes was filled with broken glass, as though glass after glass had been broken there methodically, one after another. Drawers of silverware and cooking ware had been pulled out and broken against the table and the walls, and silverware that had been in the house for generations of Blackwood wives was lying bent and scattered on the floor. Tablecloths and napkins hemmed by Blackwood women, and washed and ironed again and again, mended and cherished, had been ripped from the dining-room sideboard and dragged across the kitchen. It seemed that all the wealth and hidden treasure of our house had been found out and torn and soiled; I saw broken plates which had come from the top shelves in the cupboard, and our little sugar bowl with roses lay almost at my feet, handles gone. Constance bent down and picked up a silver spoon. “This was our grandmother’s wedding pattern,” she said, and set the spoon on the table. Then she said, “The preserves,” and turned to the cellar door; it was closed and I hoped that perhaps they had not seen it, or had perhaps not had time to go down the stairs. Constance picked her way carefully across the floor and opened the cellar door and looked down. I thought of the jars and jars so beautifully preserved lying in broken sticky heaps in the cellar, but Constance went down a step or two and said, “No, it’s all right; nothing here’s been touched.” She closed the cellar door again and made her way across to the sink to wash her hands and dry them on a dishtowel from the floor. “First, your breakfast,” she said.

  Jonas sat on the doorstep in the growing sunlight looking at the kitchen with astonishment; once he raised his eyes to me and I wondered if he thought that Constance and I had made this mess. I saw a cup not broken, and picked it up and set it on the table, and then thought to look for more things which might have escaped. I remembered that one of our mother’s Dresden figurines had rolled safely onto the grass and I wondered if it had hidden successfully and preserved itself; I would look for it later.

  Nothing was orderly, nothing was planned; it was not like any other day. Once Constance went into the cellar and came back with her arms full. “Vegetable soup,” she said, almost singing, “and strawberry jam, and chicken soup, and pickled beef.” She set the jars on the kitchen table and turned slowly, looking down at the floor. “There,” she said at last, and went to a corner to pick up a small saucepan. Then on a sudden thought she set down the saucepan and made her way into the pantry. “Merricat,” she called with laughter, “they didn’t find the flour in the barrel. Or the salt. Or the potatoes.”

  They found the sugar, I thought. The floor was gritty, and almost alive under my feet, and I thought of course; of course they would go looking for the sugar and have a lovely time; perhaps they had thrown handfuls of sugar at one another, screaming, “Blackwood sugar, Blackwood sugar, want a taste?”

  “They got to the pantry shelves,” Constance went on, “the cereals and the spices and the canned food.”

  I walked slowly around the kitchen, looking at the floor. I thought that they had probably tumbled things by the armload, because cans of food were scattered and bent as though they had been tossed into the air, and the boxes of cereal and tea and crackers had been trampled under foot and broken open. The tins of spices were all together, thrown into a corner unopened; I thought I could still smell the faint spicy scent of Constance’s cookies and then saw some of them, crushed on the floor.

  Constance came out of the pantry carrying a loaf of bread. “Look what they didn’t find,” she said, “and there are eggs and milk and butter in the cooler.” Since they had not found the cellar door they had not found the cooler just inside, and I was pleased that they had not discovered eggs to mix into the mess on the floor.

  At one time I found three unbroken chairs and set them where they belonged around the table. Jonas sat in my corner, on my stool, watching us. I drank chicken soup from a cup without a handle, and Constance washed a knife to spread butter on the bread. Although I did not perceive it then, time and the orderly pattern of our old days had ended; I do not know when I found the three chairs and when I ate buttered bread, whether I had found the chairs and then eaten bread, or whether I had eaten first, or even done both at once. Once Constance turned suddenly and put down her knife; she started for the closed door to Uncle Julian’s room and then turned back, smiling a little. “I thought I heard him waking,” she said, and sat down again.

  We had not
yet been out of the kitchen. We still did not know how much house was left to us, or what we might find waiting beyond the closed doors into the dining room and the hall. We sat quietly in the kitchen, grateful for the chairs and the chicken soup and the sunlight coming through the doorway, not yet ready to go further.

  “What will they do with Uncle Julian?” I asked.

  “They will have a funeral,” Constance said with sadness. “Do you remember the others?”

  “I was in the orphanage.”

  “They let me go to the funerals of the others. I can remember. They will have a funeral for Uncle Julian, and the Clarkes will go, and the Carringtons, and certainly little Mrs. Wright. They will tell each other how sorry they are. They will look to see if we are there.”

  I felt them looking to see if we were there, and I shivered.

  “They will bury him with the others.”

  “I would like to bury something for Uncle Julian,” I said.

  Constance was quiet, looking at her fingers which lay still and long on the table. “Uncle Julian is gone, and the others,” she said. “Most of our house is gone, Merricat; we are all that is left.”


  “Jonas. We are going to lock ourselves in more securely than ever.”

  “But today is the day Helen Clarke comes to tea.”

  “No,” she said. “Not again. Not here.”

  As long as we sat quietly together in the kitchen it was possible to postpone seeing the rest of the house. The library books were still on their shelf, untouched, and I supposed that no one had wanted to touch books belonging to the library; there was a fine, after all, for destroying library property.

  Constance, who was always dancing, seemed now unwilling to move; she sat on at the kitchen table with her hands spread before her, not looking around at the destruction, and almost dreaming, as though she never believed that she had wakened this morning at all. “We must neaten the house,” I said to her uneasily, and she smiled across at me.

  When I felt that I could not wait for her any longer I said, “I’m going to look,” and got up and went to the dining-room door. She watched me, not moving. When I opened the door to the dining room there was a shocking smell of wetness and burned wood and destruction, and glass from the tall windows lay across the floor and the silver tea service had been swept off the sideboard and stamped into grotesque, unrecognizable shapes. Chairs were broken here, too; I remembered that they had taken up chairs and hurled them at windows and walls. I went through the dining room and into the front hall. The front door stood wide open and early sunlight lay in patterns along the floor of the hall, touching broken glass and torn cloth; after a minute I recognized the cloth as the drawing-room draperies which our mother had once had made up fourteen feet long. No one was outside; I stood in the open doorway and saw that the lawn was marked with the tires of cars and the feet which had danced, and where the hoses had gone there were puddles and mud. The front porch was littered, and I remembered the neat pile of partly broken furniture which Harler the junk dealer had set together last night. I wondered if he planned to come today with a truck and gather up everything he could, or if he had only put the pile together because he loved great piles of broken things and could not resist stacking junk wherever he found it. I waited in the doorway to be sure that no one was watching, and then I ran down the steps across the grass and found our mother’s Dresden figurine unbroken where it had hidden against the roots of a bush; I thought to take it to Constance.

  She was still sitting quietly at the kitchen table, and when I put the Dresden figurine down before her she looked for a minute and then took it in her hands and held it against her cheek. “It was all my fault,” she said. “Somehow it was all my fault.”

  “I love you, Constance,” I said.

  “And I love you, Merricat.”

  “And will you make that little cake for Jonas and me? Pink frosting, with gold leaves around the edge?”

  She shook her head, and for a minute I thought she was not going to answer me, and then she took a deep breath, and stood up. “First,” she said, “I’m going to clean this kitchen.”

  “What are you going to do with that?” I asked her, touching the Dresden figurine with the very tip of my finger.

  “Put it back where it belongs,” she said, and I followed her as she opened the door to the hall and made her way down the hall to the drawing-room doorway. The hall was less littered than the rooms, because there had been less in it to smash, but there were fragments carried from the kitchen, and we stepped on spoons and dishes which had been thrown here. I was shocked when we came into the drawing room to see our mother’s portrait looking down on us graciously while her drawing room lay destroyed around her. The white wedding-cake trim was blackened with smoke and soot and would never be clean again; I disliked seeing the drawing room even more than the kitchen or the dining room, because we had always kept it so tidy, and our mother had loved this room. I wondered which of them had pushed over Constance’s harp and I remembered that I had heard it cry out as it fell. The rose brocade on the chairs was torn and dirty, smudged with the marks of wet feet that had kicked at the chairs and stamped on the sofa. The windows were broken here too, and with the drapes torn down we were clearly visible from outside.

  “I think I can close the shutters,” I said, as Constance hesitated in the doorway, unwilling to come further into the room. I stepped out onto the porch through the broken window, thinking that no one had ever come this way before, and found that I could unhook the shutters easily. The shutters were as tall as the windows; originally it was intended that a man with a ladder would close the shutters when the summers were ended and the family went away to a city house, but so many years had passed since the shutters were closed that the hooks had rusted and I needed only to shake the heavy shutters to pull the hooks away from the house. I swung the shutters closed, but I could only reach the lower bolt to hold them; there were two more bolts high above my head; perhaps some night I might come out here with a ladder, but the lower bolt would have to hold them now. After I had closed the shutters on both tall drawing-room windows I went along the porch and in, formally, through the front door and into the drawing room where Constance stood in dimness now, without the sunlight. Constance went to the mantel and set the Dresden figurine in its place below the portrait of our mother and for one quick minute the great shadowy room came back together again, as it should be, and then fell apart forever.

  We had to walk carefully because of the broken things on the floor. Our father’s safe lay just inside the drawing-room door, and I laughed and even Constance smiled, because it had not been opened and it had clearly not been possible to carry it any farther than this. “Foolishness,” Constance said, and touched the safe with her toe.

  Our mother had always been pleased when people admired her drawing room, but now no one could come to the windows and look in, and no one would ever see it again. Constance and I closed the drawing-room door behind us and never opened it afterwards. Constance waited just inside the front door while I went onto the porch again and closed the shutters over the tall dining-room windows, and then I came inside and we shut and locked the front door and we were safe. The hall was dark, with two narrow lines of sunlight coming through the two narrow glass panels set on either side of the door; we could look outside through the glass, but no one could see in, even by putting their eyes up close, because the hall inside was dark. Above us the stairs were black and led into blackness or burned rooms with, incredibly, tiny spots of sky showing through. Until now, the roof had always hidden us from the sky, but I did not think that there was any way we could be vulnerable from above, and closed my mind against the thought of silent winged creatures coming out of the trees above to perch on the broken burnt rafters of our house, peering down. I thought it might be wise to barricade the stairs by putting something—a broken chair, perhaps—across. A mattress, soaked and dirty, lay halfway down the stairs; this was where
they had stood with the hoses and fought the fire back and out. I stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up, wondering where our house had gone, the walls and the floors and the beds and the boxes of things in the attic; our father’s watch was burned away, and our mother’s tortoise-shell dressing set. I could feel a breath of air on my cheek; it came from the sky I could see, but it smelled of smoke and ruin. Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.

  “Come back to the kitchen,” Constance said. “I can’t stay out here.”

  Like children hunting for shells, or two old ladies going through dead leaves looking for pennies, we shuffled along the kitchen floor with our feet, turning over broken trash to find things which were still whole, and useful. When we had been along and across and diagonally through the kitchen we had gathered together a little pile of practical things on the kitchen table, and there was quite enough for the two of us. There were two cups with handles, and several without, and half a dozen plates, and three bowls. We had been able to rescue all the cans of food undamaged, and the cans of spice went neatly back onto their shelf. We found most of the silverware and straightened most of it as well as we could and put it back into its proper drawers. Since every Blackwood bride had brought her own silverware and china and linen into the house we had always had dozens of butter knives and soup ladles and cake servers; our mother’s best silverware had been in a tarnish-proof box in the dining-room sideboard, but they had found it and scattered it on the floor.

  One of our whole cups was green with a pale yellow inside, and Constance said that one could be mine. “I never saw anyone use it before,” she said. “I suppose a grandmother or a great-great-aunt brought that set to the house as her wedding china. There once were plates to match.” The cup which Constance chose was white with orange flowers, and one of the plates matched that. “I remember when we used those dishes,” Constance said; “they were the everyday china when I was very small. The china we used for best then was white, with gold edges. Then Mother bought new best china and the white and gold china was used for everyday and these flowered dishes went onto the pantry shelf with the other half-broken sets. These last few years I have always used Mother’s everyday china, except when Helen Clarke came to tea. We will take our meals like ladies,” she said, “using cups with handles.”

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