Adam Rodenberger

Orchids & Moonlight

In this house, where decay has made a home, the father walks aimlessly through the hallways, searching for his name in the dust motes that flit through the sunlight striping the walls. He will shuffle around the entirety of the square footage of the home and examine every nook and cranny. He will run his calloused fingers along every splintered edge of wood, stopping only a moment to suck the blood when stuck. But he knows every edge of this house and knows that his name is lost somewhere in its walls; behind the wilting paper peeling down in several places where he has gone exploring behind its surface; behind the load-bearing walls; behind the plaster; behind everything.

The son is outside, shining. He plays with metal cars and planes in the grass, each blade of sunlight striking against their surfaces, slicing through the steaming hot afternoon in bright flashes of memory lapse, of synapse collapse, of instant brain-fry. Even the birds are made of sweat, their beaks stilled, their mating calls muffled by the thick air. The boy swings the plane around him in a circle, makes whooshing noises with his mouth. The trampled grass beneath his shoes rises briefly before being stomped down again. The boy is watched by several pairs of eyes hidden behind wispy curtains up and down the street.

The father cannot remember where he lost his name. Or when. Something inside him, a voice or a mouth or another him, gnaws at the inside of his brain and chews at it from morning until night. The voice or the mouth or the other him tells him that his name never was, that he could not possibly lose something that had never ever been in the first place. Soon the voice or the mouth or the other him quiets, goes to sleep inside him and he goes back to looking, to running his calloused hands along the body of the house like the cautious lover that he never was.

The boy has no friends; the neighborhood has not grown any since the others went away. When the boy gets older, he will randomly yell and scream at inanimate objects. He will feel the rage build up inside him like steam, warming him from the inside out until his skin is a splotchy, angry red. He will become pure id, a ball of black hatred coming out of nowhere. He will kick at the grass and throw his fists at the sky. He will reach out to hurt anyone and anything that crosses his path, no matter their good intention.

The walls have fingernail-shaped divots running up and down, left and right. The father has sought his name in every inch of house, his fingernails caked with the white powder of drywall and the crumbled nature of peeled paint. His arthritic hands ache from the work, but he continues to search because he knows his name is hidden in the walls of the house somewhere. It is not a buried treasure, his name; it is an object, a thing he holds dear, an abstract that makes him whole, though he does not understand how.

The father fancies himself a kind of mortician, digging his fingers into, and under, the skin of the home. He imagines the framework like some great skeleton, the bones inside the walls holding up the house and keeping its skin safe and intact. He wants to slide his fingers beneath the surface and let them find whatever they wish to find. The father hopes his name is a part of the family secrets hidden inside the walls. He does not remember how long he’s been seeking the name out, but it is on the tip of his tongue and fading more with every passing day. The name is blurred, fuzzed out, a shimmer on his brain. When he tries to speak it, the name sticks in his chest, clogs his throat, refuses to come out and make itself known.

The name has become a secret, a myth, a legend. Though the father was born with it long before he ever had the name ‘father,’ it still escapes him and hides in this home of his with all the other secrets that burn from the inside out, flameless.

The mother is in the backyard, staring down into the pool. It is a bright, unnatural blue and her reflection in it feels inappropriate. A half-empty handle of vodka hangs limply from her left hand. It is the same vodka she drank yesterday, and the day before. She will stand there, drinking and swaying to the rhythm of the waves blown around the pool. Will she fall in this time the way she has a hundred times before? Or will her wobbly legs keep her firmly on the cement edge the way they have the other hundred times before?

The father screams at the walls, calls them names, makes up epithets to make the plaster really feel his wrath, to know that he’s serious. He clutches at the blackened walls, rips apart the paper and the trim work and the wires and the paint and the glue and the insulation and then finds himself inside a black room that never was. The father decides that he is ready for death to come and take his nameless body from him, to wrestle it from his palsied grasp and steal away with it across the skies. He turns to look back through the entrance he’s made and says nothing as he stares back into the dim light of the living room.

The son screams at the plane, calls it names, makes up epithets to make the imaginary passengers really feel his wrath, to know that he’s serious. The quiet birds above stare at him curiously as he throws the plane down hard into the ground. The nose sticks in the soft dirt, the tail high in the air, and then falls over shortly after. Soon, he is jumping up and down on the plane, hoping to break it into a million pieces with all the people still inside. When he stops, the birds take flight and move to a tree farther down the street.

The mother screams at the pool, calls it names, makes up epithets to make the water really feel her wrath, to know that she’s serious. The sun screams back at her from its reflection in the pool, blinds her briefly, and she loses her balance. As she falls into the pool for the one hundred and first time, the bottle of vodka shatters on the pool’s edge; the shatter sprinkles and breaks the pool surface, and now the mother is treading glass and trying not to breathe in the sharp. She feels the vodka-coated slivers cut into her buoyant arms; tiny rivulets of blood begin turning the blue water a shade of purple. The mother leans against the edge of the pool and closes her eyes.

The father sits, cross-legged, on the dark and dirty floor of the hidden room that never was. He exhales as he does so; it is the sound of time and old age escaping from inside him. It is a reminder that his body, though it never really had been, is no longer a temple. He knows that he is rotting from the inside out. His body is fighting against an unseen enemy, an invisible force. The father is content with sitting on the sidelines and letting his body fight the war for him. He can feel his organs changing on him; they no longer pump and undulate the way they should. The medication no longer works; the water he drinks with his pills always tastes of poison and revenge, and so he comes to hate the mother, believing she has changed the quality of the water coming out of the faucets.

Slow, swirling smoke begins to fill the room. A single wisp that grows in length and breadth. Its origin is a mystery, like everything else in the house. The father inhales and the smoke finds its way into his nostrils; he can feel its heat inside him, running its rough, peppery edges along the surface of every vein and artery, coating his bloodways in ash and odor. The father inhales the wisp again, becomes one with the smoke that now has found its way back out through all the pores and hair follicles running up and down his legs.

The room allows the smoke to leave, and he watches as it trails out through the hole in the wall. He knows the wife will have something to say about the smell, but he shuts his eyes and keeps his mouth shut for the moment. He will put her future anger on the backburner. He will let that particular fight simmer elsewhere while he continues his search for a name that is both his and completely out of reach.

When the day is done, the boy returns home with his broken toys. He will place them in their proper place, but he will never play with them again. Though he seeks her out, he cannot find his mother. Though he seeks him out, he cannot find his father. The boy is on his own, left to fend for himself in the coming dusk that is nightfall.

When the mother awakens, the sun has gone. In its place, a half-hearted moon. The mother lifts herself up and out of the pool, cutting herself over and over on broken glass floating on the pool’s surface and scattered along the concrete edge. In the light of the moon, her skin appears purple. She holds her hands up to the light; she is bathed in midnight. She removes all her clothing and stands naked beneath the sky, the wind kissing every inch of skin.  

She prowls along the concrete like a feral cat, glass cutting her open again, exposing her. The mother reaches out and grabs a handful of the dying orchids that line the fence around the pool area. Brittle petals crumble and fall at the trauma of her fingers clutching them to her palm. Her blood mixes with their blossom; she drips a deep violet on the ground. Soon she is rubbing the leaves onto every streak of blood. Soon she is all purple warpaint. Soon she is hunting.

The son’s stomach turns, rumbles. In his haste to play all day, he has not eaten. The kitchen light beckons him, and soon he is standing in front of the refrigerator looking up at its large doors. A smell leaks from within and, when he opens the right door, he is awash in the smell. It coats him and bathes him in its funk. The smell reminds him of several colors at once: sickly olive, diarrhea yellow, a deep and neon green, slick and shiny motor oil black, contagious red.

His stomach turns again as he shuts the door, content to let his belly rumble until he can find his parents. The boy walks through the house to his room and sees a single plume of smoke winding through the house. He follows it down the hallways, in and out of rooms, back outside (and then back inside), before finding its end in the father’s office, though the father is still missing.

The son sits in the father’s chair and thinks it too cushioned to be comfortable, but he stays put. The smoke begins to creep toward him, slowly begins spiraling around him and the chair, hanging midair in front of his face. The boy opens his mouth and begins inhaling the smoke, feeling it fill him. It fills his nose and his throat, and he can feel the spice of its aroma coating his insides, blackening them slowly as he stares up at the ceiling, unseeing, while the plume disappears deep within him. His perception of time disappears; he falls down a black hole within his mind. He is falling, falling down into the depths.

The mother slinks and crawls through overgrown backyard, eyes turned to the house. She imagines herself scaling the elevated patio. She imagines herself sliding through an open window like an outsider, like a thief, all purple and predatory. She is a single, throbbing nerve that has been awakened by its own knowledge. She has placed her rational brain somewhere deep inside and locked it away. Her mind is hostage; her appetite is all that remains. The mother is now all animal brain; she is action and reaction. She is hunger, and she is snarl, and she is red on tooth and nail.

The grass tickles her underbelly as she slithers across the yard. Her throat emits guttural noises that feel natural and right. The noises let other animals know to stay out of her path, to avoid her. She is a thing they’ve never seen before, so they stay hidden in the shadows, watching as she moves. She seems to hover across the yard to the house. She digs her nails into the siding and begins climbing to the roof with ease.

When the father opens his eyes again, it is well before dawn, but the sun is slowly creeping over a thousand horizons somewhere. When the father opens his mouth, a plume of watery black gushes forth, but remains suspended in the air. The black spins around itself, meets, splits into several parts, spins again, splits again. It is like floating mercury and he cannot stop watching as the black moves from the tiny hidden room out into the hallway as if by some unseen current.

The son comes to hours later, his head cocked back and facing the ceiling. His neck is sore; his body feels as if it has been shaken and emptied of all its contents. He leaves the chair and walks around the office, stretching his legs as he runs his hands along the spines of all the father’s books. Some are old and worn and have a rough texture to them; others feel slick and brand new. They all smell of ink and parchment and dust and hope and the fallen fragments of nightmares and dreams. The son has read none of them as he is normally not allowed in the father’s office without permission or supervision. Outside, it’s dark. It is probably past his bedtime, but neither of his parents seem to have found him yet.

He walks out into the hallways and notices that the smoke is completely gone. The house smells like his home again, like something has been put back in place and made everything fine again, though he doesn’t understand the feeling.

This close, the mother can smell the decay and the rot emanating through the walls. She can smell the years of neglect inside the frayed insulation. She can feel each and every crack and crevice allowing the outside air to come in. Once on the roof, she feels it begin to move beneath her feet. Silently, shingles and roofing begin splitting and sliding off the roof as the home opens itself up to her, spreads a small crack wider and allows her to view every room at once from above. She cocks her head and scampers around the growing hole, seeing neither the father nor the son from above. The house is quiet and silent save for a single plume of smoke winding and swirling its way through the home, infecting all the fabric with its aroma.

The father stands up to follow the shimmery liquid, unsure of how it emerged from within him. The substance seems to spread apart, slides along the surface of the walls. In its wake, names and dates and places and threats and hopes and fears begin to materialize. The words and images blend together in a visual language made of slick onyx. He recognizes the names and the dates and the places and the threats and the hopes and the fears. He understands that the language is his, though he cannot read all of it. He is able to translate less of it the deeper into the house he goes.

The mother spiders down into the gaping maw of the home, dim starlight following closely behind her. The rooms are darkened and look strange to her from her perch, but the starlight soon makes a home in the shadowy corners and slowly brightens up the angles, diminishes the shadows. She climbs along the walls and the ceiling, believing that setting foot on the floor will be the end of her, that somehow contact with the floor means the animal in her will become uncaged and set loose, never to be seen again. Beneath her hands and feet, the walls have been inscribed with words and images she barely recognizes, though she understands that she knows them all the same.  

The house is quiet, eerily still. The floorboards do not creak beneath the son’s footsteps, the walls do not contract or expand, their insides do not crack like knuckles of the young or the ankles of the aged. Hallway lights flicker, turn off, return again and blind him as he walks beneath them. Every wall has writing on it; every wall has images emblazoned upon it. The son does not understand what the words or images mean or where they came from, but the same feeling of everything in its right place cocoons him as he stops to let the blindness pass. When he opens his eyes again, his vision is fine, but there is a difference as he heads toward the living room.

Somehow, soft starlight dapples the inside of the house. The son can tell it’s real and not a reflection. Tiny dots of light have fallen inside the home, brightened it up, made a home in all its shadowy corners. They hang aglow and give the hallways a fairy tale quality, a dim magic that haunts the wood paneling and the family photos and the other reminders of generations past, each more faded and more colorless than the last.  

Soon the father is standing, motionless, in front of his bedroom door. The knob turns easily. The room is quiet and dark, though moonlight spills in from the window overlooking the backyard. He sits on the edge of the bed, looking out into the night and sees the color of the pool; purple. He notices the moonlight hitting the water in strange and bright, angular ways. He tells himself he will check it out in the morning as he lays down on the bed and waits for the mother to join him, wherever she has gone. He does not go to look for her; he does not go to look for his son.

By the time he falls asleep, he will have forgotten that he sought out a name for himself. He will have forgotten that it is buried somewhere in the house. If he wakes in the daylight, if his spirit is not snatched from him while he sleeps, then he will have forgotten everything.

She scampers along the hallway wall toward the bedroom she shares with the father. She enters the room and proceeds to crawl along the ceiling hanging over the bed. Directly below her, the father sleeps, oblivious to her nighttime activities. She does not know how long she stays there on the ceiling, watching the rise and fall of the father’s chest as he snores, but eventually she climbs down and allows her bare feet to touch the carpeted floor. She notices her reflection in the dresser mirror and begins to run her nails along the skin, scraping every bit of purple off of her into a slowly growing pile of purple skin shavings.

When the mother is done scraping off her new dead skin, she will reexamine the entirety of her body, making sure there is no sign of the orchid’s blood left on any part of her. She will limp toward the bed, an unimaginable sense of exhaustion filling her from the legs up, and she will slide beneath the covers and fall asleep next to the snoring father.  

The home is now a wonderland of light and spectacle, but the son is focused on his empty belly. His hunger makes him irritable and tired, and so he finds his room. He shuffles across the floor, kicking the pieces of toys, both broken and not, out of the way. He climbs into bed, cocoons himself in cool blankets, feels the wind from the open roof breezing across his face as he falls quickly into dreams.

*          *          *

In the morning, they will rise when their bodies allow. The sun will be high in the air, piercing the upstairs corridor. An explosion of hot white will warm the house up. Sweat will bead on foreheads and in the crevices of arms and legs. They will wake, feverish, and having forgotten the events of the previous night. They will awake to a home that has been exposed to intense light searing the house slowly. When they rise, when they begin to stumble about the hallways, they will wonder why there are flecks of purple scattered throughout the house. They will wonder how the roof opened up to the heavens and allowed god knows what into their home. They will wonder why the pool is in such a bright and shiny shambles.

In the morning they will, without speaking, begin to clean the house. In the afternoon, they will finish cleaning and fall into a satisfied nap on the couch. The father’s head will fall straight back; he will snore at the ceiling with his arms folded across his chest. The mother will have made a pillow of her lap, her head cocked on a propped arm running along the back of the couch. It is an uncomfortable sleep, but the son lays between them, his head nestled there in her pillow-lap. They will slumber until the starlight comes and builds its home within the corners again.

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