We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  I am walking on their bodies, I thought, we are having lunch in the garden and Uncle Julian is wearing his shawl. I always held my groceries carefully along here, because one terrible morning I had dropped the shopping bag and the eggs broke and the milk spilled and I gathered up what I could while they shouted, telling myself that whatever I did I would not run away, shovelling cans and boxes and spilled sugar wildly back into the shopping bag, telling myself not to run away.

  In front of Stella’s there was a crack in the sidewalk that looked like a finger pointing; the crack had always been there. Other landmarks, like the handprint Johnny Harris made in the concrete foundation of the town hall and the Mueller boy’s initials on the library porch, had been put in in times that I remembered; I was in the third grade at the school when the town hall was built. But the crack in the sidewalk in front of Stella’s had always been there, just as Stella’s had always been there. I remember roller-skating across the crack, and being careful not to step on it or it would break our mother’s back, and riding a bicycle past here with my hair flying behind; the villagers had not openly disliked us then although our father said they were trash. Our mother told me once that the crack was here when she was a girl in the Rochester house, so it must have been here when she married our father and went to live on Blackwood Farm, and I suppose the crack was there, like a finger pointing, from the time when the village was first put together out of old grey wood and the ugly people with their evil faces were brought from some impossible place and set down in the houses to live.

  Stella bought the coffee urn and put in the marble counter with the insurance money when her husband died, but otherwise there had been no change in Stella’s since I could remember; Constance and I had come in here to spend pennies after school and every afternoon we picked up the newspaper to take home for our father to read in the evening; we no longer bought newspapers, but Stella still sold them, along with magazines and penny candy and grey postcards of the town hall.

  “Good morning, Mary Katherine,” Stella said when I sat down at the counter and put my groceries on the floor; I sometimes thought when I wished all the village people dead that I might spare Stella because she was the closest to kind that any of them could be, and the only one who managed to keep hold of any color at all. She was round and pink and when she put on a bright print dress it stayed looking bright for a little while before it merged into the dirty grey of the rest. “How are you today?” she asked.

  “Very well, thank you.”

  “And Constance Blackwood, is she well?”

  “Very well, thank you.”

  “And how is he?”

  “As well as can be expected. Black coffee, please.” I really preferred sugar and cream in my coffee, because it is such bitter stuff, but since I only came here out of pride I needed to accept only the barest minimum for token.

  If anyone came into Stella’s while I was there I got up and left quietly, but some days I had bad luck. This morning she had only set my coffee down on the counter when there was a shadow against the doorway, and Stella looked up, and said, “Good morning, Jim.” She went down to the other end of the counter and waited, expecting him to sit down there so I could leave without being noticed, but it was Jim Donell and I knew at once that today I had bad luck. Some of the people in the village had real faces that I knew and could hate individually; Jim Donell and his wife were among these, because they were deliberate instead of just hating dully and from habit like the others. Most people would have stayed down at the end of the counter where Stella waited, but Jim Donell came right to the end where I was sitting and took the stool next to me, as close to me as he could come because, I knew, he wanted this morning to be bad luck for me.

  “They tell me,” he said, swinging to sit sideways on his stool and look at me directly, “they tell me you’re moving away.”

  I wished he would not sit so close to me; Stella came toward us on the inside of the counter and I wished she would ask him to move so I could get up and leave without having to struggle around him. “They tell me you’re moving away,” he said solemnly.

  “No,” I said, because he was waiting.

  “Funny,” he said, looking from me to Stella and then back. “I could have swore someone told me you’d be going soon.”

  “No,” I said.

  “Coffee, Jim?” Stella asked.

  “Who do you think would of started a story like that, Stella? Who do you think would want to tell me they’re moving away when they’re not doing any such thing?” Stella shook her head at him, but she was trying not to smile. I saw that my hands were tearing at the paper napkin in my lap, ripping off a little corner, and I forced my hands to be still and made a rule for myself: Whenever I saw a tiny scrap of paper I was to remember to be kinder to Uncle Julian.

  “Can’t ever tell how gossip gets around,” Jim Donell said. Perhaps someday soon Jim Donell would die; perhaps there was already a rot growing inside him that was going to kill him. “Did you ever hear anything like the gossip in this town?” he asked Stella.

  “Leave her alone, Jim,” Stella said.

  Uncle Julian was an old man and he was dying, dying regrettably, more surely than Jim Donell and Stella and anyone else. The poor old Uncle Julian was dying and I made a firm rule to be kinder to him. We would have a picnic lunch on the lawn. Constance would bring his shawl and put it over his shoulders, and I would lie on the grass.

  “I’m not bothering anybody, Stell. Am I bothering anybody? I’m just asking Miss Mary Katherine Blackwood here how it happens everyone in town is saying she and her big sister are going to be leaving us soon. Moving away. Going somewheres else to live.” He stirred his coffee; from the corner of my eye I could see the spoon going around and around and around, and I wanted to laugh. There was something so simple and silly about the spoon going around while Jim Donell talked; I wondered if he would stop talking if I reached out and took hold of the spoon. Very likely he would, I told myself wisely, very likely he would throw the coffee in my face.

  “Going somewheres else,” he said sadly.

  “Cut it out,” Stella said.

  I would listen more carefully when Uncle Julian told his story. I was already bringing peanut brittle; that was good.

  “Here I was all upset,” Jim Donell said, “thinking the town would be losing one of its fine old families. That would be really too bad.” He swung the other way around on the stool because someone else was coming through the doorway; I was looking at my hands in my lap and of course would not turn around to see who was coming, but then Jim Donell said “Joe,” and I knew it was Dunham, the carpenter; “Joe, you ever hear anything like this? Here all over town they’re saying that the Blackwoods are moving away, and now Miss Mary Katherine Blackwood sits right here and speaks up and tells me they’re not.”

  There was a little silence. I knew that Dunham was scowling, looking at Jim Donell and at Stella and at me, thinking over what he had heard, sorting out the words and deciding what each one meant. “That so?” he said at last.

  “Listen, you two,” Stella said, but Jim Donell went right on, talking with his back to me, and his legs stretched out so I could not get past him and outside. “I was saying to people only this morning it’s too bad when the old families go. Although you could rightly say a good number of the Blackwoods are gone already.” He laughed, and slapped the counter with his hand. “Gone already,” he said again. The spoon in his cup was still, but he was talking on. “A village loses a lot of style when the fine old people go. Anyone would think,” he said slowly, “that they wasn’t wanted.”

  “That’s right,” Dunham said, and he laughed.

  “The way they live up in their fine old private estate, with their fences and their private path and their stylish way of living.” He always went on until he was tired. When Jim Donell thought of something to say he said it as often and in as many ways as possible, perhaps because he had very few ideas and had to wring each one dry. Besides, each
time he repeated himself he thought it was funnier; I knew he might go on like this until he was really sure that no one was listening any more, and I made a rule for myself: Never think anything more than once, and I put my hands quietly in my lap. I am living on the moon, I told myself, I have a little house all by myself on the moon.

  “Well,” Jim Donell said; he smelled, too. “I can always tell people I used to know the Blackwoods. They never did anything to me that I can remember, always perfectly polite to me. Not,” he said, and laughed, “that I ever got invited to take my dinner with them, nothing like that.”

  “That’s enough right there,” Stella said, and her voice was sharp. “You go pick on someone else, Jim Donell.”

  “Was I picking on anyone? You think I wanted to be asked to dinner? You think I’m crazy?”

  “Me,” Dunham said, “I can always tell people I fixed their broken step once and never got paid for it.” That was true. Constance had sent me out to tell him that we wouldn’t pay carpenter’s prices for a raw board nailed crookedly across the step when what he was supposed to do was build it trim and new. When I went out and told him we wouldn’t pay he grinned at me and spat, and picked up his hammer and pried the board loose and threw it on the ground. “Do it yourself,” he said to me, and got into his truck and drove away. “Never did get paid for it,” he said now.

  “That must of been an oversight, Joe. You just go right up and speak to Miss Constance Blackwood and she’ll see you get what’s coming to you. Just if you get invited to dinner, Joe, you just be sure and say no thank you to Miss Blackwood.”

  Dunham laughed. “Not me,” he said. “I fixed their step for them and never did get paid for it.”

  “Funny,” Jim Donell said, “them getting the house fixed up and all, and planning to move away all the time.”

  “Mary Katherine,” Stella said, coming down inside the counter to where I was sitting, “you go along home. Just get up off that stool and go along home. There won’t be any peace around here until you go.”

  “Now, that’s the truth,” Jim Donell said. Stella looked at him, and he moved his legs and let me pass. “You just say the word, Miss Mary Katherine, and we’ll all come out and help you pack. Just you say the word, Merricat.”

  “And you can tell your sister from me—” Dunham started to say, but I hurried, and by the time I got outside all I could hear was the laughter, the two of them and Stella.

  I liked my house on the moon, and I put a fireplace in it and a garden outside (what would flourish, growing on the moon? I must ask Constance) and I was going to have lunch outside in my garden on the moon. Things on the moon were very bright, and odd colors; my little house would be blue. I watched my small brown feet go in and out, and let the shopping bag swing a little by my side; I had been to Stella’s and now I needed only to pass the town hall, which would be empty except for the people who made out dog licenses and the people who counted traffic fines from the drivers who followed the highway into the village and on through, and the people who sent out notices about water and sewage and garbage and forbade other people to burn leaves or to fish; these would all be buried somewhere deep inside the town hall, working busily together; I had nothing to fear from them unless I fished out of season. I thought of catching scarlet fish in the rivers on the moon and saw that the Harris boys were in their front yard, clamoring and quarrelling with half a dozen other boys. I had not been able to see them until I came past the corner by the town hall, and I could still have turned back and gone the other way, up the main highway to the creek, and then across the creek and home along the other half of the path to our house, but it was late, and I had the groceries, and the creek was nasty to wade in our mother’s brown shoes, and I thought, I am living on the moon, and I walked quickly. They saw me at once, and I thought of them rotting away and curling in pain and crying out loud; I wanted them doubled up and crying on the ground in front of me.

  “Merricat,” they called, “Merricat, Merricat,” and moved all together to stand in a line by the fence.

  I wondered if their parents taught them, Jim Donell and Dunham and dirty Harris leading regular drills of their children, teaching them with loving care, making sure they pitched their voices right; how else could so many children learn so thoroughly?

  Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

  Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

  Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?

  Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

  I was pretending that I did not speak their language; on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world; I was almost halfway past the fence.

  “Merricat, Merricat!”

  “Where’s old Connie—home cooking dinner?”

  “Would you like a cup of tea?”

  It was strange to be inside myself, walking steadily and rigidly past the fence, putting my feet down strongly but without haste that they might have noticed, to be inside and know that they were looking at me; I was hiding very far inside but I could hear them and see them still from one corner of my eye. I wished they were all lying there dead on the ground.

  “Down in the boneyard ten feet deep.”


  Once when I was going past, the Harris boys’ mother came out onto the porch, perhaps to see what they were all yelling so about. She stood there for a minute watching and listening and I stopped and looked at her, looking into her flat dull eyes and knowing I must not speak to her and knowing I would. “Can’t you make them stop?” I asked her that day, wondering if there was anything in this woman I could speak to, if she had ever run joyfully over grass, or had watched flowers, or known delight or love. “Can’t you make them stop?”

  “Kids,” she said, not changing her voice or her look or her air of dull enjoyment, “don’t call the lady names.”

  “Yes, ma,” one of the boys said soberly.

  “Don’t go near no fence. Don’t call no lady names.”

  And I walked on, while they shrieked and shouted and the woman stood on the porch and laughed.

  Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

  Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

  Their tongues will burn, I thought, as though they had eaten fire. Their throats will burn when the words come out, and in their bellies they will feel a torment hotter than a thousand fires.

  “Goodbye, Merricat,” they called as I went by the end of the fence, “don’t hurry back.”

  “Goodbye, Merricat, give our love to Connie.”

  “Goodbye, Merricat,” but I was at the black rock and there was the gate to our path.


  I had to put down the shopping bag to open the lock on the gate; it was a simple padlock and any child could have broken it, but on the gate was a sign saying PRIVATE NO TRESPASSING and no one could go past that. Our father had put up the signs and the gates and the locks when he closed off the path; before, everyone used the path as a short-cut from the village to the highway four-corners where the bus stopped; it saved them perhaps a quarter of a mile to use our path and walk past our front door. Our mother disliked the sight of anyone who wanted to walking past our front door, and when our father brought her to live in the Blackwood house, one of the first things he had to do was close off the path and fence in the entire Blackwood property, from the highway to the creek. There was another gate at the other end of the path, although I rarely went that way, and that gate too had a padlock and a sign saying PRIVATE NO TRESPASSING. “The highway’s built for common people,” our mother said, “and my front door is private.”

  Anyone who came to see us, properly invited, came up the main drive which led straight from the gateposts on the highway up to our front door. When I was small I used to lie in my bedroom at the back of the house and imagine the driveway and the path as a crossroad meeting before our front door, and up and down the driveway went the good pe
ople, the clean and rich ones dressed in satin and lace, who came rightfully to visit, and back and forth along the path, sneaking and weaving and sidestepping servilely, went the people from the village. They can’t get in, I used to tell myself over and over, lying in my dark room with the trees patterned in shadow on the ceiling, they can’t ever get in any more; the path is closed forever. Sometimes I stood inside the fence, hidden by the bushes, and watched people walking on the highway to get from the village to the four corners. As far as I knew, no one from the village had ever tried to use the path since our father locked the gates.

  When I had moved the shopping bag inside, I carefully locked the gate again, and tested the padlock to make sure it held. Once the padlock was securely fastened behind me I was safe. The path was dark, because once our father had given up any idea of putting his land to profitable use he had let the trees and bushes and small flowers grow as they chose, and except for one great meadow and the gardens our land was heavily wooded, and no one knew its secret ways but me. When I went along the path, going easily now because I was home, I knew each step and every turn. Constance could put names to all the growing things, but I was content to know them by their way and place of growing, and their unfailing offers of refuge. The only prints on the path were my own, going in and out to the village. Past the turn I might find a mark of Constance’s foot, because she sometimes came that far to wait for me, but most of Constance’s prints were in the garden and in the house. Today she had come to the end of the garden, and I saw her as soon as I came around the turn; she was standing with the house behind her, in the sunlight, and I ran to meet her.

  “Merricat,” she said, smiling at me, “look how far I came today.”

  “It’s too far,” I said. “First thing I know you’ll be following me into the village.”

  “I might, at that,” she said.

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