Alex Jaros is currently an MFA candidate and a recipient of the Follett Fellowship at Columbia College Chicago, where he also teaches as an English instructor. He earned his BA in English from the University of Missouri in 2011. His work can be found in the upcoming issue of Bird's Thumb, Epic, and among varied zines littered across the Midwest.
In the Darkness
Ramuli lay spread out on the floor of an oak planked living room. The room was bare around him, empty of all things, as was the rest of his home. He felt long, thin pinches down his bare back where the floorboards, old and warped, spread apart and left gaps, some as wide as a human finger. They were ancient, rough-hewn planks stained a deep red-brown. Turning his head, he could see them running the length of the house: out of the living room, through the dining room, into the back kitchen only to stop at the rear wall. The house was a slender, elongated galley home. It had been built to accommodate the narrow gap between two other homes, a way to make use of every available inch of real estate. Years later, it was now sandwiched, not between two other, similar homes, but by two empty lots — sparse landscapes of weeds and rubble, weathered remnants of the demolished structures.
He stared at the ceiling, sighed, and rolled himself over to give his back a rest. He felt the floorboards dig into his stomach and pinch the hairs of his black, forest chest. A passerby might figure the house was being sold, all his belongings gone, the house emptied and ready to be put on the market. Balloons might grace the front walk on a sunny afternoon as he hosted an open-house, inviting guests in, showing them the attractive features, pointing out the second bathroom here, the rear staircase there, and, Did you know, the trim is all original? Sorry, no basement, but there’s good storage space in the attic. The illusion would be shattered when they saw him face down in the living room, naked, his white skin standing in pale starkness to the flooring. They would shake their heads, no. We were hoping for a home with less naked men in it. Ramuli sighed again at the thought, a pile of drool beginning to form under the side of his mouth.
It was not uncommon for Ramuli to lose things among the clutter of his house: his keys, a pair of glasses, a felt-tipped pen. Items that were moved around, handled often, and had a way of moving to one hiding place or another. They seemed like minor inconveniences and so he would curse his carelessness after looking about his home, give up, replacing it if necessary, or moving on without it if not. It became his habit to keep spare keys around, or extra pens, a safeguard against his customary misplacements.
Ramuli lived happily with his wife, Martha, and their beautiful daughters, Josephine, Abigail, and Rosa, the youngest, who he often called Row. She would sit in laundry baskets, scooting herself across the expanses of hardwood, singing in a soft voice, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the steam. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” She hung on to the last notes, extending them out as she scooted the basket back and forth through the rooms. When he would ask her why she never sang another song, she would just stare back and smile, “But I like this one.” So he took to calling her Row, for Rosa, but for the song as well.
Now, lying on the floor naked, he could neither hear the singing of his youngest daughter or the scratching of the basket as it slid across the wood. He lifted his head for a moment, the memory of the sound forming into the sensation that dimly, somewhere far away, he could faintly hear her. He let his head fall heavily and the knock echoed out across the vast space of hard surfaces, of rooms evacuated of their usual furnishings. He tried to consider how it was that he had gotten himself here, how it was that he lay naked, alone, among nothing, in a house that he had once believed to be protector and holder of all that he loved, coveted, and desired, but which now held nothing but his frail, aching body, lost among the hollowness of a vacant home.
Some three months before, on a bright afternoon, Ramuli took his family out for ice cream. Their oldest, Josephine, who was now fourteen, did not want to go. She had stayed home alone before, since she was twelve, and Ramuli smiled as they left, waving and teasing that it was her misfortune, that they would have all the ice cream without her. She feigned disappointment and waved from the upstairs window as her family walked down the street.
When they came home an hour later, Josephine was gone. She never returned. They never found her. The police were called, the home searched, the alerts sent out; there were interviews and investigations, the national media picked up on the case and it became a sensation of sorts, this beautiful young girl, a dancer, whisked away from her home. There was no sign of forced entry or struggle, which lead the police to consider those known to the family—she may have gone with them willingly, they said. It became a lesson to those reading the newspapers, watching the news reports, following the coverage from the comfort of their own homes that even those living in happiness could have it all shattered in the hour of an afternoon.
Their family coped the best they could with the attention, and when that faded, with the realization that Josephine was truly lost. What haunted him more was the inkling that perhaps she had left on her own volition, that perhaps she had left because she did not love her family. There were no signs to support his theory, but he could not help thinking it all the same.
The weeks after her disappearance left the home dull and stale. Any attempts Ramuli made to distract his family were met with apathy and cold stares, particularly from Martha, who often sat in Josephine’s old room for hours, silent and vigilant, as if waiting for the moment Josephine might return home—might run up the stairs, throw the door open, and exclaim it was all a surprise, all a big joke! But she never did and Martha stayed, sitting, her vigil continuing through the days.
Abigail became more inward at age nine than ever, going lengthy periods of time without speaking, simply slinking around the house, from corner to corner, shadow to shadow, appearing when it was time for dinner, and then once more slipping back into the recesses of the house to do homework or to wait, in her own way, for Josephine’s return. Rosa seemed least affected, or so Ramuli thought. The five-year-old was more than ever attached to the laundry baskets of the house, scooting around singing her nursery rhyme, smiling contentedly and somewhat oblivious to the gloom that had settled itself over the home.
When Martha left, neighbors and family shook their heads but understood. How was a mother to cope? She couldn’t go on in that house, no, reminded each day that her eldest daughter had gone missing, been snatched up from the very place she went to sleep each night. No, she couldn’t. No one can blame her. I’d do the same. We’d have left weeks ago. They said, they said, but no words consoled Ramuli. No words helped him understand. He was left with Abigail, who blinked steadily when he told her that her mother had left, and Rosa, who simply smiled and hummed to herself, nodding. He cried to himself in the dark hours of the night, picturing endlessly where Martha may have gone, what corner of the world she had run-off to. Her parents claimed not to know, either, but Ramuli suspected they were simply covering for their daughter.
It was without surprise then, that in the days and weeks afterwards, Ramuli began to notice varying possessions—small things at first, then later, cookware and lamps, and eventually entire pieces of furniture—go missing. She had kept her key, he figured, and would come back while he was at work, or while he slept, creeping quietly throughout the house to divide their belongings between them. It only seemed fair. She selected them with delicate care, never taking too many things at once, or too many of one type. Ramuli’s possessions dwindled through the days: bathroom sets, collected books, kitchen chairs, soap dispensers, and even some of the girls’ toys—reminders for her, he thought, of Josephine, of Abigail, of Rosa.
The house became more and more sparse until, not more than week before, Ramuli had awoken to take the girls to school and discovered there was only Rosa. He panicked at the thought of her missing, and then realized, it was probably Martha, come back to get her daughter. He had expected this would come, hadn’t he? That she would return to take her other two daughters away from him? And yet he felt a powerful rushing, a sensation building in him that suggested it was not Martha at all. It whispered to him, Josephine. It told him she had left and that now, Abigail had done the same. He could not tell the police—they would take Rosa from him! It had to have been Martha, it had to have been her. So he took Rosa to school that morning, telling her Abigail had gone with their mother, and that it would just be the two of them, now. She smiled and slipped off the car seat, running into school, her pink backpack bouncing as she went.
Ramuli went home, deciding it was time to pack and put away those things that reminded him of what had been lost. He boxed up Josephine’s room, the rest of Martha’s things, and now Abigail’s as well. He carried each box up to the attic to be stowed away, kept with some dim hope that perhaps they would all one day return to him. He was left with very few things, his bedroom nearly empty, Rosa’s room the only lively one left in the house, full of toys and other colorful decorations. He figured if Martha wanted anymore things, she could take them from the attic.
But Martha was not so kind. Every day when he got home from work, a few more of his remaining things were gone. And now from Rosa’s room as well. A dinosaur, a shaving kit, a set of snifters. He began to feel ill each day, arriving home to find something new missing, and Rosa, staring back at him, humming, would ask in a sing-songy way, “Where did the carpet go?” or “Where is your bed, daddy?” and he would smile and say that he wanted to get new things for them, and that he had to get rid of the old things first. He did not want to tell Rosa that Martha was still there, still looming in his life, coming in each day to retrieve what little left there was.
And then on Friday, they came home and the house was empty. He was shocked, amazed even, at how expertly it had been cleaned out. Not an item remained, not a single dish or scrap of paper; the house looked as though it had never been lived in. Ramuli ran up to the attic where he had stored all the boxes of items but they were gone, too. Removed. The house felt like an empty cave, the noises sharp and echoey on the bare walls and rooms. “Where are all my things, daddy?” Rosa asked him.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” had been his response.
He didn’t know where to take her, or where to go. He felt delusional and haggard; he only wanted to keep Rosa. He couldn’t stand to think of her leaving him as well. If he called anyone, or tried to explain this, they would think he was crazy—they would surely take Rosa and leave him nothing. Martha would have succeeded in taking everything, everything. And what of Josephine, he thought, as he lay next to Rosa that night, where, where was Josephine. She had left first, had been taken before all this began. He fell asleep on the hard oak, cradling Rosa in his arms, wondering of all the places she might have gone.
He awoke swiftly in the silence, his eyes at once open. “NO!” he shouted, for he knew that Martha must be taking Rosa now, too. “NO!” But it was too late, the house was empty, Rosa gone, taken from his arms while he slept soundly dreaming of Josephine, of Abigail, of Martha and all that she had stolen.
The next day he scoured the empty house, looking in every closet, nook, cranny, corner and crack. He searched all over for anything that had been left, for any single piece he could hold onto, something that Martha had forgotten or left behind. He went through the downstairs, the upstairs, and the attic, moving in circles, repeating, repeating, searching for anything at all. Without even a single hammer, he had to dig and scratch with only his hands, peeling back drywall and cabinets with the edges of his fingernails. By the evening, he had exhausted himself and collapsed on the floor, breathing heavily, sweat trickling down his entire body, soaking into the floor beneath him—somehow he had lost his clothing in the search, as well.
Ramuli groaned, rolling himself once more onto his back, the bare skin peeling itself slowly off the wax-coated floor. He cringed at the thought of someone looking through any of the uncovered windows to see a naked man spread eagle on an empty living room floor. The silence of the house devoured his senses and he lay still, listening for any slight change, any interruption at all. His fingernails were dry and cracked, and blood ran down from where the nails and splinters had caught in the soft flesh below. Nowhere: not in any room, not on the first or second floor, nor in the attic, had he found any trace of his daughters—nor of his wife, or all that he had once owned. He had dug and scratched but the house yielded nothing. It had taken them, he knew, but why? And where! Where were they now! But then, softly, he heard her humming. “ROW!” he shouted, “Rosa!”
He sat bolt upright, clamoring to his feet, looking for his daughter. “Rosa!” he called once more. “Come back, Rosa, come back!”
And then I saw, not Rosa, not my youngest daughter, but another. I knew it was them, the one who had taken Josephine so many weeks ago, so many days before, and I knew that I must get them. Grab them. Snatch them. And so I went quickly, but they were fast, and they moved through the dining room, empty, the kitchen, empty, and then through a new door. But I kept up, shouting, Stop! I went through the new door and down the stairs to the basement. The steps were thin with steep drops and they moved down them so smoothly, faster than I could manage, but I was desperate, so I kept up, I threw myself down after them, following, following, but they moved so quickly, so surely, and now in the basement, it was dark, the lights gone, and where was the light switch but I would not know, I had never been here, but I heard them now, the humming louder and I called Rosa! Rosa! moving through the dark, through furniture now, things that were once familiar to me, and towards the noise, after them, the one who had taken Josephine. I know, I know they took her so I moved faster, running through the basement, into a new room, some back room of stone, of soot and dampness full of rotting, soiled objects, a house packed into this very small room, back into the corner of the deep, and I had them trapped! I had them and I could not see them but I could hear them, the humming, clearer as I moved towards it, my eyes open or closed, there was no difference. But the song! The song was there so I followed her voice—Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. I chased it with my hands now, there was nowhere for them to go. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. And I found them then, grasped them, had them all in the dark, I could feel the one who had taken it all, feel all that I had lost, all that had been taken from me: it was a person, I could feel their face, but it was made of Martha and Abigail and Rosa and Josephine, oh Josephine! And all my things, all our home had been, each item I could feel that made up arms and legs and torso and beating heart, pounding in the darkness until my face was next to theirs breathing and I felt it taking me, too, swallowing me, taking me from the house, from the basement, taking, taking, taking me.