I keep my nails
In the nineteenth-century Victorian house where the girls grew up, there were always at least seven ghosts. Ghosts with bullets in their brains or stab wounds on their sides. Ghosts wearing suits and top hats. Ghosts with mustaches and long beards. The older sister had an intrinsic desire to retreat back into her body every time one appeared, preferred the ghosts inside the fairytales the maid told them instead of a few feet in front of her. She would later die in a car crash the third week of college, and her sister would be called to identify her mangled body, stomach smashed in because of the force of the car in front of her. The younger sister, who would eventually grow up to become a production artist with no children, always snuck alongside the portrait-covered walls, watching the ghosts slip by. So when she finally caught up to a ghost the night before the girls turned thirteen, she asked the first question that came to mind.
“Do your teeth ever fall out?”
The ghost, the former impression of an old man with exactly three teeth, only rattled morosely and, tipping its head towards the wall almost as if he was about to nod, slipped through a solemn-faced portrait of their father.
On the day of their thirteenth birthday, the maid woke the girls early to prepare for their father’s arrival. They wore matching light green flower dresses and braided each other’s hair. When their father knocked on the door, they stayed back as the maid rushed forward to open it. He stood in the door frame, his hair whiter than in his portrait, which, the girls knew was painted the year they turned one, the year their mother died.
He stepped inside, handing each a single red rose.
“Girls,” he said as he spread his arms wide, “I’ve never been so happy.”
When it was time for dinner, the maid set the red birthday cake on the oval table.
“What have you girls been learning lately?” The father asked.
“We’ve been reading poetry.” The older girl sat up straighter in her chair.
“The Garden of Eden.” The younger added. “Adam tells Eve that she is the gate of the
As the evening passed, the father stared at the empty chair as he waited for the girls to
finish their cake, and when they’ve cleaned the plates, he stood up abruptly.
“I have the best present planned for you girls,” he smiled.
He led them alongside the portrait-covered walls, toward the second room beside the
staircase, the one they were never allowed in. Pulling out a small brass key, he opened the door and, turning around, winked at his daughters. In that second, the father felt his heart beat so fast that he was sure the feeling was love, but would later be diagnosed with heart failure and die from his fourth heart attack. Gravediggers would bury him in the backyard of the mansion.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dim lighting of the room. As they squinted trying to see, they saw that it was a small room with no furniture, a big four-paned window, and dozens of paintings of women on the walls. There were women who stood next to armchairs, their backs impossibly straight. Women with dark hair and brown eyes. Women who wore tight dresses and corsets. Women who wore nothing but semi-transparent silk gowns. But their eyes eventually found the woman they searched for all their life. She lay across a velvet sofa, stomach slightly bulging.
“The painter got it wrong,” their father’s voice said behind them. “Her eyes were green.” Later, he would tuck the girls in bed and kiss them good night, and the younger sister would pluck up the courage to ask him for a story about their mother. He would sigh and sit back down on their bed and look into their eyes and be reminded of their mother. He would tell them the story of how they met, how they fell in love, and how he proposed at the edge of a cliff. How his favorite thing about her was that she always made him feel better with her soft hands and green eyes and a cup of tea.
Tomorrow morning the girls would sneak out of bed before their father and steal the key from his heavy chain. They would use the key to sneak into the forbidden room every night until the older daughter grew out of it. They would eventually move into different rooms just before their sixteenth birthday. Their father would’ve stopped visiting them by then. When the younger sister gets married at twenty-four, her husband would not have told her about the debt, and in the following five years use her inheritance to pay them off. On her thirty-third birthday, the younger sister would go back to her apartment to her husband surprising her with a candle-lit dinner and a small piece of cake. She would remember to forget her sister. Her husband would start pouring his fourth glass before she finishes her first, and when she tells him to slow down, he would lean back into the sofa. You know, he would say, if you take the number thirty-three, flip the left three so it’s facing the right, you’ve got yourself a pair of ears. The younger sister would put down her half-empty glass on the table and say what’s that supposed to mean and her husband would hold on to his fourth and say, Jesus Christ, Maria, they just look like a pair of goddamn ears. In the silence, Maria Adams would stare at the many Monroes on the white walls. She would not remember how she and her sister used to sleep under their tent made of blankets and pillows, and their bodies would still be children bodies, slowly morphing into the shadow of ghosts.
SHREYA VIKRAM is a writer based in India. She is the recipient of the Dorothy West Scholarship 2020. Her work is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, GHLL, Salmon Creek Journal and elsewhere. You can find more of her writing at shreyavikram.com