The neighbor children are stark naked in their wading pool, watching the wildfire burn. Today’s fire, in our high desert Southern California community, is the fourth in two weeks. There will be another fire tomorrow, and another the night after, before they abruptly stop, but we don’t know that yet. The neighbor children, and I, live in the ever-present now.
The neighbor children—a school-aged boy, his toddler brother, and their girl cousin not quite old enough for school—have gone feral since the beginning of the pandemic. Their parents are non-mask-wearing, non-social-distance keepers, the type of people who unironically name their baby Robert Lee, but since the shutdown, the children have run wild with even less adult supervision than before COVID-19 ravaged California.
When I pull up to the gate at the bottom of my driveway on this dirt road in rural Southern California, directly across from the wading pool in their unfenced play area, the children do not wave or say hello. They study me with predatory gazes. The toddler, Robert Lee, clambers from the water, lowers his sturdy body to the sandy dirt of the yard, and rolls until he is covered in muck. Then he stands and stares at me again. When I lock the gate behind my car, the three turn back to the orange horizon, and the thick, oily smoke roils toward us. From the house’s open door, a woman calls to them, ordering them inside. Robert Lee falls backward into the water, completely submerged, as the others howl in protest. The woman is still calling, and they are still yelling, as I drive up the hill to my empty house.
▴ ▴ ▴
When it rained in the house in which I grew up, footsteps walked the roof. It was more noticeable in the quiet of the night, but we heard it in daylight as well. Guests heard it, although we were very careful to never tell anyone that we weren’t alone in our house. We didn’t say things like that in the first place, even among ourselves. We never said, This house is haunted.
If we looked out the floor-length windows to the swimming pool in the backyard, we’d see our dogs sitting in a line, ears raised, eyes tracking a walker only they could see. If we called to them, they wouldn’t come, wouldn’t turn their gazes from whoever walked the roof. If we stepped outside to join them, as we did in the beginning, the dogs would whine and push us back with their warm, panting bodies. But when we persisted in joining them, risking a soak in the warm rain to face the walker on the roof, of course we saw nothing.
As the years went by, we stopped trying to see whatever the dogs saw. When the rain fell and the footsteps started, we barely acknowledged them at all. Maybe we’d pause for a moment, meet one another’s eyes, but we’d shrug at the most before going back to daily life. You can become accustomed to anything.
▴ ▴ ▴
When the pandemic started, it was still cold here. It still occasionally snowed. In the first three months, I went grocery shopping exactly twice. But our mail isn’t delivered here in rural hell and my elderly mother is maintaining her independence in her own home as long as possible, so I left my house every day. In doing so, I watched the neighbor children devolve into tiny barbarians, savages on a deserted island in the midst of what passes for civilization here and now.
It was in the beginning of the pandemic that the trampoline appeared on the unfenced property, dropped among the swing set, the broken earth-mover, and their long-dead grandfather’s decrepit Mack Truck. The trampoline was the type with safety netting surrounding it, but the children seemed to regard this as a challenge. They’d fill the trampoline with every toy they owned, every garden implement left unattended, great piles of primary-colored plastics and shiny chrome that they’d leap over, slam into, bouncing toys and bodies against the straining net. From my car window, it looked for all the world like a tiny, silent mosh pit, and the children would frantically wave hello, arms pinwheeling, as I drove by. At least in the beginning.
Another day found them jumping in costume. The boy was a vampire, but a vampire in a top hat. His cousin wore a pink astronaut suit complete with bubble helmet. I stepped on the brake to watch them jump, the girl’s overlarge head bobbling dangerously. The costumes were so extreme my normally taciturn husband remarked upon them.
“Did you see that little hat?” he asked when he came in. “Wasn’t it the cutest thing?”
Then it snowed, and the next time I saw the children, they’d stripped off their clothing and stuffed it into their parkas and snow pants to make doppelgängers, tiny facsimiles of themselves. Wearing only underpants and one sock for four feet, they pummeled and kicked their mannequins. An adult male worked on a car nearby, so I didn’t stop, only crossed my fingers that the nudity would be noticed before lips turned blue.
▴ ▴ ▴
It wasn’t only footsteps in the rain. We didn’t dare fight unless we wanted lights to flash on and off or books to leave the shelves or paintings to fly off the walls, defying the laws of gravity to sail under the pass-through between the kitchen cabinets and the counter where we ate our breakfast before school every morning and violently crash into the kitchen sink. One night a painting of a magnolia blossom was ripped off the wall to make this journey and destroyed our mother’s favorite teapot. Beds left unmade were neatly covered when we reentered the room, but the coverlet was folded in an old-fashioned style neither we nor the housekeeper used. We didn’t leave our beds unmade if we could help it.
What scared visitors the most, though, was meeting the other family as they lived their lives beside ours. It was startling, we’d admit, the first few times we saw the dark-haired woman in the calico dress walk down the hall into the living room. The man with the mustache mostly stood at the bar in the kitchen; he liked to watch our mother bake bread. The little girl with the baby in a sling on her back was seldom seen, for which we were all grateful. For reasons we could never articulate, she was upsetting. According to our stepfather, it was because she spoke to the baby so hatefully.
But everyone loved the little black dog who would run under the dining room table during gatherings. Our mother’s poodles would chase after him in joy, only to emerge from the tablecloth’s edge on the other side looking confused and disappointed. The dogs would meet our eyes, asking for an explanation we couldn’t give, begging us to bring their new friend back.
One of our friends stopped by with a new boyfriend. While we sat at the table eating cake, the boyfriend asked, “Oh, is your dog allowed under the table?”
We all went silent. The poodles were gone by then, re-homed or dead. The only dog left wasn’t ours. He wasn’t real. We looked to his girlfriend because we didn’t know him and didn’t wish to be judged.
“It isn’t there, is it?” he finally said. “That’s okay. I’m from New Orleans.”
He was the most understanding; we appreciated his attitude. When new neighbors moved in next door, it took a few months until the woman worked up her nerve to ask us if we’d noticed anything strange.
“Does the family visit you too?” our mother asked her. “They aren’t anything to fear.”
This wasn’t entirely true, but my sister wasn’t home at the time, and we don’t talk about that one experience unless we are together. Even then, we prefer not to speak of it. I am uncomfortable writing about it now.
▴ ▴ ▴
As the pandemic progressed, and the season changed, the neighbor children lost interest in the trampoline. They cut poles from the pampas grass in their yard and engaged in mighty gladiatorial battles. One day, I witnessed a rock fight so intense their rickety grandmother finally staggered from the house to intervene. Robert Lee was present, but as a noncombatant he sat in the dirt and wept. For a while after, their play seemed to calm; there was a tea party complete with baby dolls wearing tiny hats, Robert Lee swigging from his own bottle. Another day, the older children allowed the toddler to drive their mechanical Jeep, leaping onto the hood to grab the wheel when he veered too close to the road.
Then came the day when I pulled up to my gate, and even with my back to the neighbor’s property, felt the hair rising all over my body, goosebumps covering my skin. I pivoted to scan the yard and met the stare of the two oldest children. They squatted on their haunches, both wearing only swim trunks, sharpened sticks in their hands. At their feet was a dead, bloody animal, possibly a rabbit, large squirrel, maybe even a small cat. They’d been taking it apart. Their little arms were red to the elbows. When I raised my hand and tentatively waved, they didn’t acknowledge me. They slowly backed away, maintaining eye contact all the while, into the safety of the screening chaparral behind them.
▴ ▴ ▴
If you ask my sister about the experience of which we don’t speak, she’ll giggle nervously as her eyes fill up with tears. She’ll look at me for assurance and validation, and my own eyes will start to weep. We’ll laugh in embarrassment, but we’ll cry. It’s been over thirty years, but this reaction hasn’t changed since the morning when we had to share the story of what we’d experienced the night before.
When I call my sister to ask her again about that night, it is the day before our other sister’s birthday, and the day after this sister has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Our other sister, who is the exact middle child, was in the house that night. She and her children were camping in one of the larger bedrooms. All the bedrooms were taken by siblings and partners or nieces and nephews, which is why my eldest sister and I were sleeping on the two sofas in the den when it happened. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for the entire family to converge on the weekend, celebrating nothing except a large house with a pool and each other.
But this night, thirty years later, now that our sister is ill, we never talk of ghosts, revenants, terrors of the past. We talk about exposure times, infection statistics, why men are so fucking selfish they won’t wear a simple mask. My sister is angry, and I marvel over it, silently. Our eldest sister normally never reveals anger or bitterness or resentment. Those emotions are bottled within my sister, the beauty of the family. They leak out only as tears that escape along with nervous laughter. I don’t know who taught my sister she’s only allowed positive emotions. She’s the eldest of us all. She was almost fully grown by the time I was born; she’d have a child of her own when I was nearly two years old.
I’ve never known a world without my sisters in it. The idea of one feels eerie, wrong; the middle child contracting COVID-19 feels like an omen for all of us.
Our mother won’t go to graveyards where someone she loved lies buried. She used to take us on hikes and picnics to old cemeteries when we were children, frequently in company with her adored elder sister, Rose, who will die in that year of aberration 2020, but our mother refuses to visit the grave of anyone she knew in life. She won’t explain why this is so, but now that I am an adult, I believe it’s because she’s afraid of what—or rather who—she might see.
I dimly remember tap dancing on an in-ground headstone during a funeral for our step-brother, but I know with certainty that it was my eldest sister who yanked me off, not our mother. I remember the word “disrespect” hissed at me, but I saw nothing untoward about using the shiny stone to make my hard-soled Mary Janes sing. The night I first write these lines, my biological father’s sister, my tía, sends me a photograph she’s taken of my father’s headstone. I don’t know why she sends it, I don’t even ask, but I recognize the stone on which I danced in that memory. I don’t believe my father would find my dancing disrespectful. Children live in a world of the present, the rules of which are nothing similar to our own.
▴ ▴ ▴
My brother might have researched a little about our old house, but whatever he found, he kept to himself. What explanation would ever be enough for the fourth bedroom’s entity, composed entirely of warm light, that would lift the covers to lie next to whoever happened to be there paralyzed in an aura of fear, unable to move, run, or call out for help? What could explain the lamp in the first bedroom that turned on night after night at 1 a.m. even after being unplugged, moved across the room, the lightbulb removed?
You could give me or my sister signed affidavits, land records, death certificates, written histories of atrocities committed against the local Natives—but none of that would make what happened to us understandable. No amount of discussion would ever help us reveal to you what took place that night, what we lived through, what it felt like when that woman appeared, standing between us, screaming words we didn’t comprehend. We didn’t need to understand her words to feel her rage and intent. She didn’t want only to hurt us; she didn’t just want us out of her space and time. She wanted to annihilate us as individuals, she wanted to erase us from memory. She wanted us to have never existed at all. And then she was gone.
▴ ▴ ▴
We don’t pretend to understand our haunting, our mother’s avoidance of cemeteries, and that we’ll never to be able to explain our home life growing up. And those who know me don’t pretend that my fascination with the neighbor children is anything other than an after-image of my lost children. My own babies, dead in the womb, were never anything but a thought of people-yet-to-be. Somehow the idea of them lives in the bodies of the feral ones running wild next door. Those children, unsupervised, unwashed, half nude, or covered in animal blood are more alive than any children I’ve met before.
What would have been my children were flushed down the toilet, bleached in the wash, forgotten by everyone but me. Two years ago, when our septic tank was emptied, I had to leave the property. I could not be there, and I could not explain why. This was the day I understood why my mother avoids graveyards. That day I was not afraid of what I might see (dear god, the thought) but of letting others see what I felt. I couldn’t risk anyone seeing me kneeling in the dirt, keening, mourning what to everyone else appeared to be shit.
That day, although it was Southern California end-of-summer dry, we weren’t yet worried by fire or pandemic, so I picked up my mother and we went grocery shopping without masks or gloves or fear of contagion or conflagration. The neighbor children were in school, preschool, the womb—there was no one to watch or wave to, the play equipment abandoned, the dirt yard forlorn, as I departed or when I returned. The septic tank was empty, the pantry was soon filled, and whatever my mother and I talked about that day, it wasn’t about the ghosts that haunt us.