three occupants of an empty home by Klaus Castellano
With “three occupants of an empty home,” Klaus Castellano gives us three separate narratives that work together as one, full of resonant images, admirable language, and interwoven themes of loneliness, isolation, annihilation. In this story we travel back and forward in time, from the recesses of the dark basement to the expanse of space, from the mind of one with dementia to one truly alone in the universe. Please enjoy this piece, which was an honorable mention for the 2018 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Jim Shepard. —CRAFT
- Siris, 73
- Emma’s Friend
- Space Song
Note from the author:
This piece comprises three contextually distinct but thematically related episodes. I wrote it not as an arbitrary anthology of three stories, but as one complete work involving three intertwining accounts.
Siris is a seventy-three-year-old man who looks into his mailbox every morning and never finds anything.
Siris is a seventy-three-year-old man who lives in a cabin that is surrounded by snow. In the cabin there is a girl, who has neither a name, nor an animated body. The girl lies beneath the red bedsheets of the single guest room bed. Her skin is pale, and her hair appears to be dark from wetness. There are never guests, so she is always alone. Sometimes, Siris opens the door to see her, but he does not advance through the entryway. He is afraid that she is dead. He stays behind the door because, from outside the room, the truth is unclear. If she appears to him from far enough away, it is not necessarily true for him that she is dead.
Where Siris lives, extreme cold preserves corpses. He does not feel it. Lukewarm blood dribbles through his veins, and besides, he is accustomed to always being cold, just as he is accustomed to always being alone.
It is not that Siris never invites others to visit him. No. He brings envelopes with him on his matinal excursions to the mailbox. Within the envelopes are letters. The letters read as follows—
Dear Jacinto, friend of mine throughout so many years,
I miss you, Jacinto. How is everything with your father? and your sister? Has she grown at all? Does she still play with trains? I’d like to gift her one of the new ones that they make, of metal rather than wood, but you never respond, so I do not know where you live.
Why is it that you never write me letters, Jacinto? I miss you. Do you remember when we found those dotted frogs beneath the fallen tree, behind the school? when we saw the toad that appeared as though it were mocking us? how we ran back to the house, as we’d done during so many evenings, over the course of so many summers? Do you remember how you took my hand and how, together, we ran down those dirt paths? do not you remember, Jacinto, old friend, my friend?
Well, I suppose that you are very busy—what with moving to that new town they built, and that new school and all. I hope that one day you are able to find the time to write to me. No more than a sentence would warm my heart and make everything all right. I am worried about you, and I miss you, and I don’t wish for us to grow apart.
your friend, Siris
Thus read the letters that fill his mailbox. Not verbatim, but all including friend of mine, and I miss you, and, Until then, your friend, Siris; directed to Jacinto, to Mara, to Agustín, to Lucía. It has been years since he last wrote an address on the front of an envelope. It isn’t worth the effort. It is doubtless that the prospective recipients no longer live where they once did, nor do they traverse the same paths that once they traversed. Their homes are now graves, their paths those gnawed by worms through their disintegrating bones.
Upon reentering the house, Siris thinks of how he is to occupy the rest of the day, but the thought is arbitrary, useless. Every day is the same. He prepares mint tea and takes it steaming. He sits at the kitchen table and he reads the OBSERVADOR ARGENTINO, edición MCXXXIV, del 14 de julio, 1975. He has read every word printed in the newspaper many times—those of the sports section, the business section, the crosswords, even the advertisements—all but those of a small division on the back page. On this page there is: an advertisement for “DENIM-SOL” jeans, a notice offering a small sum of money in exchange for information regarding a boy last seen in 1950, a brief report dealing with the indigenous community of Buenos Aires, and a section in the bottom-right corner that is covered with a shred of paper.
Siris had concealed the section many years ago, without having read it. It is always, he had said to himself, good that a man have something for which to wait. He has designated the date he is to unveil it, and decided the manner in which he is to unveil it—it will be the first morning that the sun melts the frost, the first that Siris is able to emerge through the door and walk out to the trees and listen to the songs of the fauna that make the forest their home; that day, Siris will bring the old newspaper out with him, and there, beneath the nearest branches of the nearest evergreen, he will let the shred fall to the ground, and he will read the only words of the paper that he has not yet read. But until then, the section remains in the same place—taped over, unread atop a kitchen table.
Siris whittles away what remains of his days cleaning, at times cleaning the same spot once, twice, three times, four times within an hour. He looks through the kitchen window as he does it, and he watches snow fall from the sky. He counts snowflakes until he cannot count anymore, which does not take long in coming.
and he cleans, and he counts snowflakes, and he returns to his cleaning, and he returns to his counting, and there are times when he stops, thinking that he has heard something from the guest room, and, trembling, he walks toward the guest room door with a semblance of hope, of the hope that the girl will awake and, that after so much time, he will no longer be alone, though only with a stranger. With this hope, he opens the door, little-by-little, only to see the same collapsed figure, pale, immobile, dead everywhere but in the imagination of an old man who is desperately, hopelessly alone. He returns to the window, he returns to his cleaning. So it goes without stop, each day contracting more quickly, each minute another step towards oblivion. But Siris doesn’t know.
Siris is a seventy-three-year-old man who remembers nothing but his name, the names of the friends he had when he was a boy, and a few memories of his childhood. As nothing lingers in his memory longer than twenty minutes, each new extension of time is, for him, a life in full, a circumscribed universe. The past is names and faces at a distance nearly a century long from the present. He forgets all hopes and expectations and fears for the future in the time that it takes for him to heat his tea.
For Siris, the present moment is all that exists, all that has existed, and, because he will be this way until death finishes with him, all that ever will exist. And he continues to write letters and leave them in the mailbox. And his daughter, who cares for him despite the fact that he knows neither that she is his daughter, nor that she cares for him, collects the letters and places them in bags, and places the bags in the basement, where they disintegrate with time. And the old man continues covering sections on the back pages of the daily papers with shreds. And they are never removed.
Emma’s friend lives in the far-right corner of the basement. She sits between a TV set with a broken-in screen, and a box filled with the shards of shattered glass. The single bulb left whole and incandescent hangs over Emma’s friend from above, illuminating her face, her neck, and the top of her chest. Emma is glad to have a friend who does not leave her. She doesn’t much think of Charlie anymore, she says. She doesn’t need to think of Charlie anymore.
Emma rarely sleeps. Instead, she lies awake on her mattress, closes her eyes, and thinks about her friend. In her mind, in the darkness of a windowless room, Emma imagines her friend unfurling herself upwards, emerging from the basement stair-by-stair, exiting through the basement door, lurching through the hallway to the staircase, ascending the staircase, lurching through the hallway to Emma’s room; she imagines the creaking of a shifting doorknob and figures that, in some way or another, she’ll see it—the turning brass—even when she can see nothing else. She’s heard that carrots improve seeing, so she eats a carrot before and after bed in the hope that when the time comes, she will be able to see the first notice of the materialization of her fantasies. She imagines the door opening, and the looming outline of her friend in the grayer darkness beyond. She imagines her friend approaching the side of her bed, and taking Emma by the hand, and with a fingernail of her other hand tracing the outline of a door on a bedroom wall, and flying out with her over the town, over the city, into and out of the sea like flying fish, through the jungle and below the jaguars and leopards that prowl on branches above the ground, and being lifted on the wings of birds who have bodies as long as whales. Such fantasies constitute the entirety of her nocturnal existence.
Emma does not go to school. She did, in the distant past, with Charlie. Together they traversed the fields between the house and the single bus stop that inhabited their world. She did not think at all about her friend then, for Emma’s friend did not exist as such. She was nothing more than another crumbling object discarded below the surface of the ground. No, here, there was Charlie, who bit the grains from stalks and held frogs between his hands. Charlie had freckles that Emma was never successful in counting—he’d know when she attempted to do so; he would stand still and act as if he did not, and when she had nearly finished, he’d shake his uncut hair over his face and laugh, and run into and amid fields of wheat, leaving her behind with a number that was never entirely accurate. So it was with Charlie.
But Emma does not need him. Emma has her friend, and her friend is enough for her. Though she is sometimes angry with her friend—if she looks at Emma wrongly, or if she implies wrongly behind her sewn eyelids, or if the constellation of pale dots below these slits grows too brilliant, or if her hair grows too long over her eyes; then, Emma pleads with her to stop, and then Emma screams and cries, and then she watches, through the liquid that moistens her reddened eyes, as her mother flips the pages of magazines or brushes her teeth in the kitchen sink, never saying anything, never doing anything, always silent. This is how Emma spends her days.
There is a little card that belongs to Charlie above the refrigerator—Emma knows. When she believes that her mother will not come—deep into the bright hours of the day—she drags a chair to a spot beside the refrigerator and stands atop it, wobbling, steadying herself, reaching over until she feels a familiar serration. She takes the paper down, and there, standing in the clothes in which she sleeps, trembling atop a chair, observes the front, which reads—
FLY HIGH, CHARLIE
and then the back, on which are scrawled the signatures of Miss Wilson and those of the fourteen students of her third grade class. Emma traces her fingers over her own signature, once, twice, and then says his name under her breath, and then returns the card to its place, and the chair to its place, and returns to her place in her room.
Emma is afraid that her friend will know. That Emma still thinks of her brother Charlie. That she still remembers him. Emma’s friend is large, and imposing, and has long red fingernails that she drags scraping against the ground. There are times when Emma thinks about locking the basement door, and allowing it to stay locked forever, but she never does, and she never will.
Emma’s friend is all that Emma has.
or, the final account of an extraterrestrial on its final day in orbit around the earth
january i, 20XX
man’s first voyage to mars
i. fragments in ice
it is cold here, and i am alone and afraid. through the window, i watch ice crack on the lake. there is first a fracture, and then there are fractures, and fractures spiral out into circles of jagged white so that the expanse of ice is like gossamer. it is cold here, and i am breathless.
i am tired. i am the last to go and i am alone and i am afraid. the command said to be prepared for extended periods of isolation, but forever? could they have meant forever? there must always be a first, they will say. as there was an aldrin, there was a laika. an apollo, a challenger. always a first, but what value is there in being the first to die? yet i cannot say that i am the first. there were four before me.
i am the fifth.
i have spent too much time with cold bodies to believe in an afterlife. i wouldn’t wish for one if i could. though i tremble at the thought of being gone, i cannot bear the thought of being without end. i prefer oblivion, but with oblivion comes not only destruction—of my presence in the world, of legacy, of writings—not even the end of my mother and my father and my brothers, but of even the ideas of love, and family, and meaning. annihilation, which is not the end of something, but the end of everything, will come, and all that I have ever cared about will be gone, and so will be all that i have ever hated, and even care and hate will be nothing, and i will be nothing, and that will be the end.
there is no use in bothering to repair anything any more. i did, we did—5 of us working like rats in a maze to shut off the sirens and the constant flashing emergency lights, acting like it was some big deal, like there was something that we could do about it. then it was 4 of us, and we worked harder, and 1 was at rest, and then there were 3 of us, and we worked harder, and 2 were at rest, and then the cold bodies outnumbered the warm bodies, and we no longer bothered with anything any longer. and the penultimate put up a fight before low oxygen did her in. and one moment i was helpless but accompanied, and the next, i was helpless and alone. okay.
perhaps you believe me to be fortunate. but my time is coming. i watch the window crack. soon it will be fragments. soon it will be nothing, and the cabin will depressurize, and i will die, and that will be it. for this, for everything that is.
ii. eyes that do not see
i turn from the window, and then there is the cold body of the final survivor before me, and i think of her as she was when she was alive. i assume that she once saw the world as i do, and thought of me as i did her.
i do not believe that i am the center of existence. but i see the openings of her body, and i think about how i could crawl in and see as she saw, and touch as she touched, and hear as she heard, and i could be with her consciousness, and i could see what it is like to not be me. but try as i might, i cannot distance myself from the idea that i could never see as she saw, because if i did, i would no longer be me but her, or, i would be seeing me seeing her, not her seeing me. so it is futile.
what is there between now and then? is there distance between the two? she is in my vision, the penultimate. why should i be any more alone now with her unseeing eyes than when i was with eyes that saw? and, before we—before i—left, that crowd of thousands, and the engineers and command and the senator and the president, and friends and family and people that i love, and i said thank you for the privilege and god bless the united states of america, and thousands cheered—what is there between now and then?
if i saw her and i felt her, was it not my own mind producing the sensation of having seen her, of having felt her? was it not my own eyes that imposed upon me the image of a figure that did not seem to be myself? and my skin, the touch of something that did not seem to pertain to me?
when we sleep, we meet lost loved ones and we believe them to be real. and we awake alone and aware that they are nothing but inventions of our mind’s design. why do we ever believe anything to be different? our memories of others are fantasies of others that that were only ever ourselves. there is no history, only illusions of what was. and when we are most vulnerable to illusion? in her arms comparing the half-moons of our fingertips. it was my mind that imposed upon me her weight, her scent, her voice—it was me, after all. we think that we could enter the minds of others and see the world through their eyes, but it never could be them. i can never be another mind, because if i were to enter another, either it would be my mind observing theirs, or it would be i becoming them, and i would no longer be i. two observing minds cannot coexist. we are alone. i am all that ever was and ever will be.
what is left then, at the end of it all? so it is only i. but what am i? it is not myself when i was a child, because all that remains of him is a fantasy, and that is not real. it is only the i that exists in the present that conjures his image, and the i of the present that conjures the image of that i conjuring the image of him.
it is not the impression that i left in her mind, even when she was here, because she only ever was what my mind told me that something could be. and the past exists only so much as it exists to me now, and the future exists only so much as it exists to me now, and i exist only so much as i exist now. all that ever exists for me is now, now, now… and the only sound that i know of is that of sirens, because all other sound is memory, and so, fantasy. the infinite? there is not countless things. there is not even a thousand things, or a hundred or ten or two. there is but one single thing—and that is this, what you hear, what you feel beneath your feet, it is all one thing, one state of being, and this is the only state of being that ever was and ever will be. this is ‘i’ and this is it all. there is but one you, and one here, and one now. all else is trifles. it is futile to think otherwise.
you will stay, and i will go. or do i invert our relationship? do not you give me life by comprehending my thoughts after the time of my demise? if you were not reading me, what would i be? ink on parchment? what the printing press of your generation has copied has copied has copied from dots and dashes that a once very-warm body marked on to an empty page? but would i not exist at all had i not, now, here, written these words? and if my existence is linked to you, do i not cease to exist when you cease to read what here is written? no, another reads, and i am resurrected. do you not torment me then? giving life to a miserable body floating aimlessly through the ether?
is our relationship not symbiotic? for i am here now, and it has flashed red and bright, and it has screamed for so very long that i am used to it, and all that it is for me now, all that i am now is a boy in a winter cabin looking out to a world of snow, and you are here too and i think of you, reader, though i do not know you. you are here with me, and if you give me life by acknowledging my existence, i give you life by acknowledging yours.
so the airlock is loosening
and i feel everything rushing in, and something outside
of my mind is telling me that humanity’s first manned space flight to
his sister planet is but moments away from collision and annihilation but
for now, i am in a winter cabin
and you are in a winter cabin
and i am dying
how is it, you ask
i don’t know.
why don’t you try it
and come back
and we can be memories together
and this can be our home
KLAUS CASTELLANO is an undergraduate student of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, though he has also studied at the University of Salamanca and the University of Alabama. He was awarded first place in the fiction category of the University of Alabama’s university-wide Creative Writing Contest as a freshman, recognized as one of The Authors Guild’s Breakout 8 writers alongside MFA graduates, and selected by Joyce Carol Oates for her short fiction seminar as a sophomore. He has been published in various literary magazines.