We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  When we had taken out everything we wanted and could use, Constance got the heavy broom and swept all the rubble into the dining room. “Now we won’t have to look at it,” she said. She swept the hall clear so we could go from the kitchen to the front door without passing through the dining room, and then we closed all the doors to the dining room and never opened them again. I thought of the Dresden figurine standing small and courageous under our mother’s portrait in the dark drawing room and I remembered that we would never dust it again. Before Constance swept away the torn cloth that had been the drawing-room drapes I asked her to cut me off a piece of the cord which had once drawn them open and shut, and she cut me a piece with a gold tassel on the end; I wondered if it might be the right thing to bury for Uncle Julian.

  When we had finished and Constance had scrubbed the kitchen floor our house looked clean and new; from the front door to the kitchen door everything was clear and swept. So many things were gone from the kitchen that it looked bare, but Constance put our cups and plates and bowls on a shelf, and found a pan to give Jonas milk, and we were quite safe. The front door was locked, and the kitchen door was locked and bolted, and we were sitting at the kitchen table drinking milk from our two cups and Jonas was drinking from his pan when a knocking started on the front door. Constance ran to the cellar, and I stopped just long enough to be sure that the kitchen door was bolted, and then followed her. We sat on the cellar stairs in the darkness, and listened. Far away, at the front door, the knocking went on and on, and then a voice called, “Constance? Mary Katherine?”

  “It’s Helen Clarke,” Constance said in a whisper.

  “Do you think she has come for her tea?”

  “No. Never again.”

  As we had both known she would, she came around the house, calling us. When she knocked on the kitchen door we held our breath, neither of us moving, because the top half of the kitchen door was glass, and we knew she could see in, but we were safely on the cellar stairs and she could not open the door.

  “Constance? Mary Katherine? Are you in there?” She shook the door handle as people do when they want a door to open and think to catch it unaware and slip in before the lock can hold. “Jim,” she said, “I know they’re in there. I can see something cooking on the stove. You’ve got to open the door,” she said, raising her voice. “Constance, come and talk to me; I want to see you. Jim,” she said, “they’re in there and they can hear me, I know it.”

  “I’m sure they can hear you,” Jim Clarke said. “They can probably hear you in the village.”

  “But I’m sure they misunderstood the people last night; I’m sure Constance was upset, and I must tell them that nobody meant any harm. Constance, listen to me, please. We want you and Mary Katherine to come to our house until we can decide what to do with you. Everything’s all right, really it is; we’re going to forget all about it.”

  “Do you think she will push over the house?” I whispered to Constance, and Constance shook her head wordlessly.

  “Jim, do you think you could break down the door?”

  “Certainly not. Leave them alone, Helen, they’ll come out when they’re ready.”

  “But Constance takes these things so seriously. I’m sure she’s frightened now.”

  “Leave them alone.”

  “They cannot be left alone, that is absolutely the worst possible thing for them. I want them out of there and home with me where I can take care of them.”

  “They don’t seem to want to come,” Jim Clarke said.

  “Constance? Constance? I know you’re in there; come and open the door.”

  I was thinking that we might very well put a cloth or a piece of cardboard over the window in the kitchen door; it simply would not do to have Helen Clarke constantly peering in to watch pots cooking on the stove. We could pin the curtains together across the kitchen windows, and perhaps if the windows were all covered we could sit quietly at the table when Helen Clarke came pounding outside and not have to hide on the cellar stairs.

  “Let’s leave,” Jim Clarke said. “They’re not going to answer you.”

  “But I want to take them home with me.”

  “We did what we could. We’ll come back another time, when they’ll feel more like seeing you.”

  “Constance? Constance, please answer me.”

  Constance sighed, and tapped her fingers irritably and almost noiselessly on the stair rail. “I wish she’d hurry,” she said into my ear, “my soup is going to boil over.”

  Helen Clarke called again and again, going back around the house to their car, calling “Constance? Constance?” as though we might be somewhere in the woods, up a tree perhaps, or under the lettuce leaves, or waiting to spring out at her from behind a bush. When we heard their car start, distantly, we came up out of the cellar and Constance turned off her soup and I went along the hall to the front door to be sure they had gone and that the door was safely locked. I saw their car turn out of the driveway and thought I could still hear Helen Clarke calling “Constance? Constance?”

  “She certainly wanted her tea,” I said to Constance when I came back to the kitchen.

  “We have only two cups with handles,” Constance said. “She will never take tea here again.”

  “It’s a good thing Uncle Julian’s gone, or one of us would have to use a broken cup. Are you going to neaten Uncle Julian’s room?”

  “Merricat.” Constance turned from the stove to look at me. “What are we going to do?”

  “We’ve neatened the house. We’ve had food. We’ve hidden from Helen Clarke. What are we going to do?”

  “Where are we going to sleep? How are we going to know what time it is? What will we wear for clothes?”

  “Why do we need to know what time it is?”

  “Our food won’t last forever, even the preserves.”

  “We can sleep in my hiding place by the creek.”

  “No. That’s all right for hiding, but you must have a real bed.”

  “I saw a mattress on the stairs. From my own old bed, perhaps. We can pull it down and clean it and dry it in the sun. One corner is burned.”

  “Good,” said Constance. We went together to the stairs and took hold of the mattress awkwardly; it was unpleasantly wet and dirty. We dragged it, pulling together, along the hall, with little scraps of wood and glass coming with it, and got it across Constance’s clean kitchen floor to the kitchen door. Before unlocking the door I looked out carefully, and even when the door was opened I went out first to look around in every direction, but it was safe. We dragged the mattress out onto the lawn, and put it in the sun near our mother’s marble bench.

  “Uncle Julian used to sit right here,” I said.

  “It would be a good day, today, for Uncle Julian to sit in the sun.”

  “I hope he was warm when he died. Perhaps he remembered the sun for a minute.”

  “I had his shawl; I hope he didn’t wish for it. Merricat, I am going to plant something here, where he used to sit.”

  “I am going to bury something for him. What will you plant?”

  “A flower.” Constance leaned, and touched the grass softly. “Some kind of a yellow flower.”

  “It’s going to look funny, right in the middle of the lawn.”

  “We’ll know why it’s there, and no one else will ever see it.”

  “And I will bury something yellow, to keep Uncle Julian warm.”

  “First, however, my lazy Merricat, you will get a pot of water and scrub that mattress clean. And I will wash the kitchen floor again.”

  We were going to be very happy, I thought. There were a great many things to do, and a whole new pattern of days to arrange, but I thought we were going to be very happy. Constance was pale, and still saddened by what they had done to her kitchen, but she had scrubbed every shelf, and washed the table again and again, and washed the windows and the floor. Our dishes were bravely on their shelf, and the cans and unbroken boxes of food we had rescued made a subst
antial row in the pantry.

  “I could train Jonas to bring back rabbits for stew,” I told her, and she laughed, and Jonas looked back at her blandly.

  “That cat is so used to living on cream and rum cakes and buttered eggs that I doubt if he could catch a grasshopper,” she said.

  “I don’t think I could care for a grasshopper stew.”

  “At any rate, right now I am making an onion pie.”

  While Constance washed the kitchen I found a heavy cardboard carton which I took apart carefully, and so had several large pieces of cardboard to cover the glass window in the kitchen door. The hammer and the nails were in the tool shed where Charles Blackwood had put them after trying to mend the broken step, and I nailed cardboard across the kitchen door until the glass was completely covered and no one could see in. I nailed more cardboard across the two kitchen windows, and the kitchen was dark, but safe. “It would be safer to let the kitchen windows get dirty,” I told Constance, but she was shocked, and said, “I wouldn’t live in a house with dirty windows.”

  When we had finished the kitchen was very clean but could not sparkle because there was so little light, and I knew that Constance was not pleased. She loved sunshine and brightness and cooking in a light lovely kitchen. “We can keep the door open,” I said, “if we watch carefully all the time. We’ll hear if any cars stop in front of the house. When I can,” I said, “I will try to think of a way to build barricades along the sides of the house so no one will be able to come around here to the back.”

  “I am sure Helen Clarke will try again.”

  “At any rate she cannot look in now.”

  The afternoon was drawing in; even with the door open the sunlight came only a short way across the floor, and Jonas came to Constance at the stove, asking for his supper. The kitchen was warm and comfortable and familiar and clean. It would be nice to have a fireplace in here, I thought; we could sit beside a fire, and then I thought no, we have already had a fire.

  “I will go and make sure that the front door is locked,” I said.

  The front door was locked and no one was outside. When I came back into the kitchen Constance said, “Tomorrow I will clean Uncle Julian’s room. We have so little house left that it should all be very clean.”

  “Will you sleep in there? In Uncle Julian’s bed?”

  “No, Merricat. I want you to sleep in there. It’s the only bed we have.”

  “I am not allowed in Uncle Julian’s room.”

  She was quiet for a minute, looking at me curiously, and then asked, “Even though Uncle Julian’s gone, Merricat?”

  “Besides, I found the mattress, and cleaned it, and it came from my bed. I want it on the floor in my corner.”

  “Silly Merricat. Anyway, I’m afraid we’ll both have the floor tonight. The mattress will not dry before tomorrow, and Uncle Julian’s bed is not clean.”

  “I can bring branches from my hiding place, and leaves.”

  “On my clean kitchen floor?”

  “I’ll get the blanket, though, and Uncle Julian’s shawl.”

  “You’re going out? Now? All that way?”

  “No one’s outside,” I said. “It’s almost dark and I can go very safely. If anyone comes, close the door and lock it; if I see that the door is closed I will wait by the creek until I can come safely home. And I will take Jonas for protection.”

  I ran all the way to the creek, but Jonas was faster, and was waiting for me when I got to my hiding place. It was good to run, and good to come back again to our house and see the kitchen door standing open and the warm light inside. When Jonas and I came in I shut the door and bolted it and we were ready for the night.

  “It’s a good dinner,” Constance said, warm and happy from cooking. “Come and sit down, Merricat.” With the door shut she had had to turn on the ceiling light, and our dishes on the table were neatly set. “Tomorrow I will try to polish the silverware,” she said, “and we must bring in things from the garden.”

  “The lettuce is full of ashes.”

  “Tomorrow, too,” Constance said, looking at the black squares of cardboard which covered the windows, “I am going to try to think of some kind of curtains to hide your cardboard.”

  “Tomorrow I will barricade the sides of the house. Tomorrow Jonas will catch us a rabbit. Tomorrow I will guess for you what time it is.”

  Far away, in the front of the house, a car stopped, and we were silent, looking at one another; now, I thought, now we will know how safe we are, and I got up and made sure that the kitchen door was bolted; I could not see out through the cardboard and I was sure that they could not see in. The knocking started at the front door, but there was no time to make sure that the front door was locked. They knocked only for a moment, as though certain that we would not be in the front of the house, and then we heard them stumbling in the darkness as they tried to find their way around the side of the house to the back. I heard Jim Clarke’s voice, and another which I remembered was the voice of Dr. Levy.

  “Can’t see a thing,” Jim Clarke said. “Black as sin out here.”

  “There’s a crack of light at one of the windows.”

  Which one, I wondered; which window still showed a crack?

  “They’re in there, all right,” Jim Clarke said. “No place else they could be.”

  “I just want to know if they’re hurt, or sick; don’t like to think of them shut up in there needing help.”

  “I’m supposed to bring them home with me,” Jim Clarke said.

  They came to the back door; their voices were directly outside, and Constance reached out her hand across the table to me; if it seemed that they might be able to look in we could run together for the cellar. “Damn place is all boarded up,” Jim Clarke said, and I thought, good, oh, that’s good. I had forgotten that there would be real boards in the tool shed; I never thought of anything but cardboard which is much too weak.

  “Miss Blackwood?” the doctor called, and one of them knocked on the door. “Miss Blackwood? It’s Dr. Levy.”

  “And Jim Clarke. Helen’s husband. Helen’s very worried about you.”

  “Are you hurt? Sick? Do you need help?”

  “Helen wants you to come to our house; she’s waiting there for you.”

  “Listen,” the doctor said, and I thought he had his face up very close to the glass, almost touching it. He talked in a very friendly voice, and quietly. “Listen, no one’s going to hurt you. We’re your friends. We came all the way over here to help you and make sure you were all right and we don’t want to bother you. As a matter of fact, we promise not to bother you at all, ever again, if you’ll just once say that you’re well and safe. Just one word.”

  “You can’t just let people go on worrying and worrying about you,” Jim Clarke said.

  “Just one word,” the doctor said. “All you have to do is say you’re all right.”

  They waited; I could feel them pressing their faces close to the glass, longing to see inside. Constance looked at me across the table and smiled a little, and I smiled back; our safeguards were good and they could not see in.

  “Listen,” the doctor said, and he raised his voice a little; “listen, Julian’s funeral is tomorrow. We thought you’d want to know.”

  “There are a lot of flowers already,” Jim Clarke said. “You’d be really pleased to see all the flowers. We sent flowers, and the Wrights, and the Carringtons. I think you’d feel a little different about your friends if you could see the flowers we all sent Julian.”

  I wondered why we would feel different if we saw who sent Uncle Julian flowers. Certainly Uncle Julian buried in flowers, swarmed over by flowers, would not resemble the Uncle Julian we had seen every day. Perhaps masses of flowers would warm Uncle Julian dead; I tried to think of Uncle Julian dead and could only remember him asleep. I thought of the Clarkes and the Carringtons and the Wrights pouring armfuls of flowers down onto poor old Uncle Julian, helplessly dead.

  “You’re not gaining any
thing by driving away your friends, you know. Helen said to tell you—”

  “Listen.” I could feel them pushing against the door. “No one’s going to bother you. Just tell us, are you all right?”

  “We’re not going to keep coming, you know. There’s a limit to how much friends can take.”

  Jonas yawned. In silence Constance turned, slowly and carefully, back to face her place at the table, and took up a buttered biscuit and took a tiny silent bite. I wanted to laugh, and put my hands over my mouth; Constance eating a biscuit silently was funny, like a doll pretending to eat.

  “Damn it,” Jim Clarke said. He knocked on the door. “Damn it,” he said.

  “For the last time,” the doctor said, “we know you’re in there; for the last time will you just—”

  “Oh, come away,” Jim Clarke said. “It’s not worth all the yelling.”

  “Listen,” the doctor said, and I thought he had his mouth against the door, “one of these days you’re going to need help. You’ll be sick, or hurt. You’ll need help. Then you’ll be quick enough to—”

  “Leave them be,” Jim Clarke said. “Come on.”

  I heard their footsteps going around the side of the house and wondered if they were tricking us, pretending to walk away and then coming silently back to stand without sound outside the door, waiting. I thought of Constance silently eating a biscuit inside and Jim Clarke silently listening outside and a little cold chill went up my back; perhaps there would never be noise in the world again. Then the car started at the front of the house and we heard it drive away and Constance put her fork down on her plate with a little crash and I breathed again and said, “Where have they got Uncle Julian, do you suppose?”

  “At that same place,” Constance said absently, “in the city. Merricat,” she said, looking up suddenly.

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