Crumbling Columns

by Daniel Galef

In the lightless gaps between the cobalt flashes of the television, the weight made no more than a dull thump over the patter of the hail on the french windows, now long since opaque, the once breathtaking view from the manor all the way to the purple hills over the creek now doubly obscured by a layer of grime as thick as a sheet of the mistress’s clean, white writing paper and almost a mile of charcoal fog. Alone, they had seen none other than each other and the cat for nigh on half a year now, Constance’s husband, Francis, having been plowed down by a blue Ford going faster than had anything in town since the tracks had been pried up for scrap. That night, too, had been spent here, one of the last of the rooms deemed worth the expense to keep habitable. Into it had been dragged (by Sara and Constance; by the time they had begun to pawn the furniture, they had been the only two for months) the remaining furniture from the rest of the house, creating a mismatched array of the least valuable items that gave the room some semblance of dignity and wealth, a paper-thin illusion even in the flickering light of the television, which revealed only the largest of the tears and stains. The television was the only thing in the room firmly rooting it in the present; old Lawrence Dellamonte had insisted on having one installed as soon as one could be delivered from New York City, and, in lieu of any truly appropriate room in the house, it was placed in the ballroom, the same room that, being large and relatively well-lit by the row of french windows on the south wall, now constituted the entire house apart from the parlor with the gray sofa– Constance called it a longue. At night, the only light came wan and cold from the huge chandelier, the only other object in the room to use electricity. Since, when it had been installed, Danville had no lines of any sort, Lawrence had had a windmill built between the house and Jedidiah’s Wood. Sara’s reflection looked back at her from the french window, as reflective as a mirror on the starless, moonless night. Half a year ago she had held a weeping Constance in her arms, close to fifty years old, looking like eighty, but acting like a child. She’d held Constance’s head in her lap, shushed her and comforted her, until the first yellow rays had shone in the pinprick gaps in the caked dirt on the windows. She had talked, told stories, jokes, confessions, true and fabricated, but never ceasing, and for hours with neither respite nor reply from the motionless form, both of them bathed in the light of the silent television, its endlessly shifting projections turning them both the color of rain. As Sara talked, she didn’t know whether Constance listened or slept or occupied some trance-like state, but she stared at the screen, the silver knob that controlled the noise turned to the left. Sara continued, finding in long-unused corners of her memory fodder for her speech, telling of childhood sicknesses and lost loves and her mother’s barely-remembered folktales from her homeland. Dimly, she noticed the enigmatic scenes on the screen slide by like water, a visual accompaniment to her tales. Now a smartly-dressed couple walked arm-in-arm into the vast, gaping maw of a leathery-skinned black fish; now three vertical lines grew slowly wider over the course of minutes to fill the screen; now a grinning man wearing only sandals stabbed a seven-foot-long pike through the back of a weeping maiden. She told of her own children, now long-dead, and of her children’s children, every one of whom she had outlived and buried. When the sun rose, Constance silently picked herself up and left. Sara turned off the television and chandelier, and later that day emptied Francis’s room of items that could be pawned. In the ballroom, the chandelier tinkled lightly in the breeze that wafted through the broken windows. Sara despised it. Though she had long since ceased its maintenance, being far too old and having far more important things to worry about, it was always the winking devil in the corner of her eye, everything false and thin. She had not seen incandescent light until she was older than Constance was now, and always it seemed a loathsome artifice, for no real reason she knew. She read only by warm, flickering candlelight, not this monstrous and looming image of a pristine, twinkling winterscape. The thousand spearhead crystals of Italian glass made ethereal music with the lightest gust of wind, and the light emanating from its depths at night was cold and dim and blue, contrasting starkly with the swelteringly stagnant August air and bright, low sun in the daytime. Three times the chandelier was lit and snuffed again before Constance returned. She never uttered another word when Sara knew her, nor smiled. Over the course of five months, she grew thin and the color of the light the television threw against the peeling flower-print wallpaper. She would eat what Sara put in front of her, but no more. By November, as Sara was stuffing torn strips of old quilts in the various cracks and gaps to keep out the chill, Constance began not to recover, but to change. Whatever pit, whatever blackened and fog-obscured valley Constance had descended into following the death of her last kin, it became evident that she was not returning the way she’d come, rather, emerging on the other side. The Constance Sara had known appeared to have all but died. The being sleeping on the couch next to hers in the shadowed ballroom seemed to be what remained: an aged body, a functioning, if tortured, mind, lacking only the spark that had driven Constance Dellamonte through the loss of everyone and everything she’d known. All that remained to her now was the maid. The only reason she could fathom for her to stay on, surely almost twice as old as her and with a better life sleeping on the cold earth, was to wrench from her her land, her house, her final possessions that declined with herself. She resented Sara bitterly for this perceived slight, and the feeling was evident. Sara, whose voice had always remained that of a twenty-year-old midwife, who was blessed with close ties and long-enduring health, who had always had comfort and steady room and board at someone else’s expense. Sara, like whom Constance had wanted nothing more than to live since she had been raised by her, the face above her bed already wrinkled when she had been a toddler. Sara noticed this sinister shift in manner quickly, but was still, early in the new year, surprised to awake suddenly in the night to the sound of the cat, and turn to find a silver knife clattering to a standstill on the bare boards, spinning and skittering until it pointed accusatorially at the blind glass face of the television, which hummed quietly even when off. For the next few days, nothing happened, but Sara kept a close watch on Constance’s every move, and was rewarded a week and a half later, when she found her slipping a gnarled moly root, coated with slick, black mud, under her pillow. Checking under Constance’s own, she found the milk-white flower, its edges now curling into brown parchment. A quick search of Constance’s drawers revealed similar artifacts of superstitious and physical harm, and Sara waited for her at nightfall, armed with an ice pick. The steady, thoughtful hum of the television, the tittering of the chandelier’s frozen laughter, the crisp patter of hail on the windowpanes, and the purring of the cat were her companions as she sat tirelessly in the grand, but patched, armchair, the color of which some white man in a suit had probably called “burgundy,” but which reminded Sara of the onion-paper-thin jacket swaddling peanuts in their shells, which she’d eaten as a girl because her mother had told her it was better for her than the peanut, like apple peel and chicken skin. She woke to the creaking of a floorboard in the center of the room, which the chandelier’s frigid ray revealed to be the cat, fleeing from Constance’s silhouetted form, holding the icepick Sara had left on the floor. Rising quickly enough to topple the armchair behind her, she made no attempt to explain or talk to Constance, only took a step backward, not even glancing back as she navigated around the horizontal chair. Constance stepped closer. Sara stepped back again. There could only be perhaps three more steps before she hit the wall, and she didn’t dare turn and flee. As she made to take another step, a loud shrieking noise made both women forget their situation and look up. The noise continued from the lightless heights of the tall ballroom ceiling, which extended two stories up with colonnaded galleries, now collapsed, until it was followed by an even louder snap, and the great chandelier descended as if drawn to the spot upon which stood the gawking Constance. The cobalt light of the television was thrown in a dazzling kaleidoscope projection of a myriad tear-colored dots on the walls by the thousand razor-tipped spearhead crystals, in each one of which Sara saw her own reflection, its ageless face still twisted in terror. As she watched, it smiled. So she did, too.