We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


  “Yes, Constance?”

  “I want to say I’m sorry. I was wicked last night.”

  I was still and cold, looking at her and remembering.

  “I was very wicked,” she said. “I never should have reminded you of why they all died.”

  “Then don’t remind me now.” I could not move my hand to reach over and take hers.

  “I wanted you to forget about it. I never wanted to speak about it, ever, and I’m sorry I did.”

  “I put it in the sugar.”

  “I know. I knew then.”

  “You never used sugar.”

  “No.”

  “So I put it in the sugar.”

  Constance sighed. “Merricat,” she said, “we’ll never talk about it again. Never.”

  I was chilled, but she smiled at me kindly and it was all right.

  “I love you, Constance,” I said.

  “And I love you, my Merricat.”

  Jonas sat on the floor and slept on the floor and I thought it ought not to be so difficult for me. Constance should have had leaves and soft moss under her blanket but we could not dirty the kitchen floor again. I put my blanket in the corner near my stool because it was the place I knew best, and Jonas got up onto the stool and sat there, looking down on me. Constance lay on the floor near the stove; it was dark, but I could see the paleness of her face across the kitchen. “Are you comfortable?” I asked her, and she laughed.

  “I’ve spent a lot of time in this kitchen,” she said, “but I never before tried lying on its floor. I’ve taken such good care of it that it has to make me welcome, I think.”

  “Tomorrow we bring in lettuce.”

  10

  Slowly the pattern of our days grew, and shaped itself into a happy life. In the mornings when I awakened I would go at once down the hall to make sure the front door was locked. We were most active in the very early morning because no one was ever around. We had not realized that, with the gates opened and the path exposed to public use, the children would come; one morning I stood beside the front door, looking out through the narrow pane of glass, and saw children playing on our front lawn. Perhaps the parents had sent them to explore the way and make sure it was navigable, or perhaps children can never resist playing anywhere; they seemed a little uneasy playing in front of our house, and their voices were subdued. I thought that perhaps they were only pretending to play, because they were children and were supposed to play, but perhaps they were actually sent here to look for us, thinly disguised as children. They were not really convincing, I decided as I watched them; they moved gracelessly, and never once glanced, that I could see, at our house. I wondered how soon they would creep onto the porch, and press their small faces against the shutters, trying to see through cracks. Constance came up behind me and looked out over my shoulder. “They are the children of the strangers,” I told her. “They have no faces.”

  “They have eyes.”

  “Pretend they are birds. They can’t see us. They don’t know it yet, they don’t want to believe it, but they won’t ever see us again.”

  “I suppose that now they’ve come once, they’ll come again.”

  “All the strangers will come, but they can’t see inside. And now may I please have my breakfast?”

  The kitchen was always dark in the mornings until I unbolted the kitchen door and opened it to let the sunlight in. Then Jonas went to sit on the step and bathe and Constance sang while she made our breakfast. After breakfast I sat on the step with Jonas while Constance washed the kitchen.

  Barricading the sides of the house had been easier than I expected; I managed it in one night with Constance holding a flashlight for me. At either side of our house there was a spot where the trees and bushes grew close to the house, sheltering the back and narrowing the path which was the only way around. I brought piece after piece from the pile of junk Mr. Harler had made on our front porch, and heaped the broken boards and furniture across the narrowest spot. It would not really keep anyone out, of course; the children could climb over it easily, but if anyone did try to get past there would be enough noise and falling of broken boards to give us plenty of time to close and bolt the kitchen door. I had found some boards around the tool shed, and nailed them rudely across the glass of the kitchen door, but I disliked putting them across the sides of the house as a barricade, where anyone might see them and know how clumsily I built. Perhaps, I told myself, I might try my hand at mending the broken step.

  “What are you laughing about now?” Constance asked me.

  “I am thinking that we are on the moon, but it is not quite as I supposed it would be.”

  “It is a very happy place, though.” Constance was bringing breakfast to the table: scrambled eggs and toasted biscuits and blackberry jam she had made some golden summer. “We ought to bring in as much food as we can,” she said. “I don’t like to think of the garden waiting there for us to come and gather growing things. And I’d feel much better if we had more food put securely away in the house.”

  “I will go on my winged horse and bring you cinnamon and thyme, emeralds and clove, cloth of gold and cabbages.”

  “And rhubarb.”

  We were able to leave the kitchen door open when we went down to the vegetable garden, because we could see clearly whether anyone was approaching my barricades and run back to the house if we needed to. I carried the basket and we brought back lettuce, still grey with ash, and radishes, and tomatoes and cucumbers and, later, berries, and melons. Usually I ate fruit and vegetables still moist from the ground and the air, but I disliked eating anything while it was still dirty with the ash from our burned house. Most of the dirt and the soot had blown away and the air around the garden was fresh and clean, but the smoke was in the ground and I thought it would always be there.

  As soon as we were safely settled Constance had opened Uncle Julian’s room and cleaned it. She brought out the sheets from Uncle Julian’s bed, and the blankets, and washed them in the kitchen sink and set them outside to dry in the sunlight. “What are you going to do with Uncle Julian’s papers?” I asked her, and she rested her hands against the edge of the sink, hesitating.

  “I suppose I’ll keep them all in the box,” she said at last. “I suppose I’ll put the box down in the cellar.”

  “And preserve it?”

  “And preserve it. He would like to think that his papers were treated respectfully. And I would not want Uncle Julian to suspect that his papers were not preserved.”

  “I had better go and see that the front door is locked.”

  The children were often outside on our front lawn, playing their still games and not looking at our house, moving awkwardly in little dashing runs, and slapping one another without cause. Whenever I checked to make sure that the front door was locked I looked out to see if the children were there. Very often I saw people walking on our path now, using it to go from one place to another, and putting their feet down where once only my feet had gone; I thought they used the path without wanting to, as though each of them had to travel it once to show that it could be done, but I thought that only a few, the defiant hating ones, came by more than once.

  I dreamed away the long afternoon while Constance cleaned Uncle Julian’s room; I sat on the doorsill with Jonas asleep beside me, and looked out on the quiet safe garden.

  “Look, Merricat,” Constance said, coming to me with an armful of clothes, “look, Uncle Julian had two suits, and a topcoat and a hat.”

  “He walked upright once; he told us so himself.”

  “I can just barely remember him, years ago, going off one day to buy a suit, and I suppose it was one of these suits he bought; they are neither of them much worn.”

  “What would he have been wearing on the last day with them? What tie did he have on at dinner? He would surely like to have it remembered.”

  She looked at me for a minute, not smiling. “It would hardly have been one of these; when I came to get him afterwards, at the hospit
al, he was wearing pajamas and a robe.”

  “Perhaps he should have one of these suits now.”

  “He was probably buried in an old suit of Jim Clarke’s.” Constance started for the cellar, and then stopped. “Merricat?”

  “Yes, Constance?”

  “Do you realize that these things of Uncle Julian’s are the only clothes left in our house? All of mine burned, and all of yours.”

  “And everything of theirs in the attic.”

  “I have only this pink dress I have on.”

  I looked down. “And I am wearing brown.”

  “And yours needs washing, and mending; how can you tear your clothes so, my Merricat?”

  “I shall weave a suit of leaves. At once. With acorns for buttons.”

  “Merricat, be serious. We will have to wear Uncle Julian’s clothes.”

  “I am not allowed to touch Uncle Julian’s things. I shall have a lining of moss, for cold winter days, and a hat made of bird feathers.”

  “That may be all very well for the moon, Miss Foolishness. On the moon you may wear a suit of fur like Jonas, for all of me. But right here in our house you are going to be clothed in one of your Uncle Julian’s old shirts, and perhaps his trousers too.”

  “Or Uncle Julian’s bathrobe and pajamas, I suppose. No; I am not allowed to touch Uncle Julian’s things; I will wear leaves.”

  “But you are allowed. I tell you that you are allowed.”

  “No.”

  She sighed. “Well,” she said, “you’ll probably see me wearing them.” Then she stopped, and laughed, and looked at me, and laughed again.

  “Constance?” I said.

  She put Uncle Julian’s clothes over the back of a chair, and, still laughing, went into the pantry and opened one of the drawers. I remembered what she was after and I laughed too. Then she came back and put an armload of tablecloths down beside me.

  “These will do you very nicely, elegant Merricat. Look; how will you feel in this, with a border of yellow flowers? Or this handsome red and white check? The damask, I am afraid, is too stiff for comfort, and besides it has been darned.”

  I stood up and held the red and white checked tablecloth against me. “You can cut a hole for my head,” I said; I was pleased.

  “I have no sewing things. You will simply have to tie it around your waist with a cord or let it hang like a toga.”

  “I will use the damask for a cloak; who else wears a damask cloak?”

  “Merricat, oh, Merricat.” Constance dropped the tablecloth she was holding and put her arms around me. “What have I done to my baby Merricat?” she said. “No house. No food. And dressed in a tablecloth; what have I done?”

  “Constance,” I said, “I love you, Constance.”

  “Dressed in a tablecloth like a rag doll.”

  “Constance. We are going to be very happy, Constance.”

  “Oh, Merricat,” she said, holding me.

  “Listen to me, Constance. We are going to be very happy.”

  I dressed at once, not wanting to give Constance more time to think. I chose the red and white check, and when Constance had cut a hole for my head I took my gold cord with the tassel that Constance had cut from the drawing-room drapes and tied it around me for a belt and looked, I thought, very fine. Constance was sad at first, and turned away sadly when she saw me, and scrubbed furiously at the sink to get my brown dress clean, but I liked my robe, and danced in it, and before long she smiled again and then laughed at me.

  “Robinson Crusoe dressed in the skins of animals,” I told her. “He had no gay cloths with a gold belt.”

  “I must say you never looked so bright before.”

  “You will be wearing the skins of Uncle Julian; I prefer my tablecloth.”

  “I believe the one you are wearing now was used for summer breakfasts on the lawn many years ago. Red and white check would never be used in the dining room, of course.”

  “Some days I shall be a summer breakfast on the lawn, and some days I shall be a formal dinner by candlelight, and some days I shall be—”

  “A very dirty Merricat. You have a fine gown, but your face is dirty. We have lost almost everything, young lady, but at least we still have clean water and a comb.”

  One thing was most lucky about Uncle Julian’s room: I persuaded Constance to bring out his chair and wheel it through the garden to reinforce my barricade. It looked strange to see Constance wheeling the empty chair, and for a minute I tried to see Uncle Julian again, riding with his hands in his lap, but all that remained of Uncle Julian’s presence were the worn spots on the chair, and a handkerchief tucked under the cushion. The chair would be powerful in my barricade, however, staring out always at intruders with a blank menace of dead Uncle Julian. I was troubled to think that Uncle Julian might vanish altogether, with his papers in a box and his chair on the barricade and his toothbrush thrown away and even the smell of Uncle Julian gone from his room, but when the ground was soft Constance planted a yellow rosebush at Uncle Julian’s spot on the lawn, and one night I went down to the creek and buried Uncle Julian’s initialled gold pencil by the water, so the creek would always speak his name. Jonas took to going into Uncle Julian’s room, where he had never gone before, but I did not go inside.

  Helen Clarke came to our door twice more, knocking and calling and begging us to answer, but we sat quietly, and when she found that she could not come around the house because of my barricade she told us from the front door that she would not come back, and she did not. One evening, perhaps the evening of the day Constance planted Uncle Julian’s rosebush, we heard a very soft knock at our front door while we sat at the table eating dinner. It was far too soft a knock for Helen Clarke, and I left the table and hurried silently down the hall to be sure that the front door was locked, and Constance followed me, curious. We pressed silently against the door and listened.

  “Miss Blackwood?” someone said outside, in a low voice; I wondered if he suspected we were so close to him. “Miss Constance? Miss Mary Katherine?”

  It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one another dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”

  I thought that he was moving his head from side to side to make sure that he was not seen. “Listen,” he said, “I got a chicken here.”

  He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie. I hope you can hear me.”

  I could see that Constance’s eyes were wide with wonder. I stared at her and she stared at me.

  “I sure hope you can hear me, Miss Blackwood. I broke one of your chairs and I’m sorry.” He tapped against the door again, very softly. “Well,” he said. “I’ll just set this basket down on your step here. I hope you heard me. Goodbye.”

  We listened to quiet footsteps going away, and after a minute Constance said, “What shall we do? Shall we open the door?”

  “Later,” I said. “I’ll come when it’s really dark.”

  “I wonder what kind of pie it is. Do you think it’s as good as my pies?”

  We finished our dinner and waited until I was sure that no one could possibly see the front door opening, and then we went down the hall and I unlocked the door and looked outside. The basket sat on the doorstep, covered with a napkin. I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

  She took out the chicken, wrapped in a napkin, and the little package of cookies, touching each lovingly and with gentleness. “Everything’s still warm,” she said. “She must have baked them right after dinner, so he could bring them right over. I wonder if she made two pies, one for the house. She wrapped everything while it was still warm and told him to bring them over. These cookies are not crisp enough.”

  “I’ll take the
basket back and leave it on the porch, so he’ll know we found it.”

  “No, no.” Constance caught me by the arm. “Not until I’ve washed the napkins; what would she think of me?”

  Sometimes they brought bacon, home-cured, or fruit, or their own preserves, which were never as good as the preserves Constance made. Mostly they brought roasted chicken; sometimes a cake or a pie, frequently cookies, sometimes a potato salad or coleslaw. Once they brought a pot of beef stew, which Constance took apart and put back together again according to her own rules for beef stew, and sometimes there were pots of baked beans or macaroni. “We are the biggest church supper they ever had,” Constance said once, looking at a loaf of homemade bread I had just brought inside.

  These things were always left on the front doorstep, always silently and in the evenings. We thought that the men came home from work and the women had the baskets ready for them to carry over; perhaps they came in darkness not to be recognized, as though each of them wanted to hide from the others, and bringing us food was somehow a shameful thing to do in public. There were many women cooking, Constance said. “Here is one,” she explained to me once, tasting a bean, “who uses ketchup, and too much of it; and the last one used more molasses.” Once or twice there was a note in the basket: “This is for the dishes,” or “We apologize about the curtains,” or “Sorry for your harp.” We always set the baskets back where we had found them, and never opened the front door until it was completely dark and we were sure that no one was near. I always checked carefully afterwards to make certain that the front door was locked.

  I discovered that I was no longer allowed to go to the creek; Uncle Julian was there, and it was much too far from Constance. I never went farther away than the edge of the woods, and Constance went only as far as the vegetable garden. I was not allowed to bury anything more, nor was I allowed to touch stone. Every day I looked over the boards across the kitchen windows and when I found small cracks I nailed on more boards. Every morning I checked at once to make sure the front door was locked, and every morning Constance washed the kitchen. We spent a good deal of time at the front door, particularly during the afternoons, when most people came by; we sat, one on either side of the front door, looking out through the narrow glass panels which I had covered almost entirely with cardboard so that we had each only a small peephole and no one could possibly see inside. We watched the children playing, and the people walking past, and we heard their voices and they were all strangers, with their wide staring eyes and their evil open mouths. One day a group came by bicycle; there were two women and a man, and two children. They parked their bicycles in our driveway and lay down on our front lawn, pulling at the grass and talking while they rested. The children ran up and down our driveway and over and around the trees and bushes. This was the day that we learned that the vines were growing over the burned roof of our house, because one of the women glanced sideways at the house and said that the vines almost hid the marks of burning. They rarely turned squarely to look at our house face to face, but looked from the corners of their eyes or from over a shoulder or through their fingers. “It used to be a lovely old house, I hear,” said the woman sitting on our grass. “I’ve heard that it was quite a local landmark at one time.”

 
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