When you’re Dead,” Samantha says, “you don’t have to brush your teeth . . .”
“When you’re Dead,” Claire says, “you live in a box, and it’s always dark, but you’re not ever afraid.”
Claire and Samantha are identical twins. Their combined age is twenty years, four months, and six days. Claire is better at being Dead than Samantha.
The babysitter yawns, covering up her mouth with a long white hand. “I said to brush your teeth and that it’s time for bed,” she says. She sits crosslegged on the flowered bedspread between them. She has been teaching them a card game called Pounce, which involves three decks of cards, one for each of them. Samantha’s deck is missing the Jack of Spades and the Two of Hearts, and Claire keeps on cheating. The babysitter wins anyway. There are still flecks of dried shaving cream and toilet paper on her arms. It is hard to tell how old she is—at first they thought she must be a grownup, but now she hardly looks older than they. Samantha has forgotten the babysitter’s name.
Claire’s face is stubborn. “When you’re Dead,” she says, “you stay up all night long.”
“When you’re dead,” the babysitter snaps, “it’s always very cold and damp, and you have to be very, very quiet or else the Specialist will get you.”
“This house is haunted,” Claire says.
“I know it is,” the babysitter says. “I used to live here.”
Something is creeping up the stairs,
Something is standing outside the door,
Something is sobbing, sobbing in the dark;
Something is sighing across the floor.
Claire and Samantha are spending the summer with their father, in the house called Eight Chimneys. Their mother is dead. She has been dead for exactly 282 days.
Their father is writing a history of Eight Chimneys and of the poet Charles Cheatham Rash, who lived here at the turn of the century, and who ran away to sea when he was thirteen, and returned when he was thirty-eight. He married, fathered a child, wrote three volumes of bad, obscure poetry, and an even worse and more obscure novel, The One Who is Watching Me Through the Window, before disappearing again in 1907, this time for good. Samantha and Claire’s father says that some of the poetry is actually quite readable and at least the novel isn’t very long.
When Samantha asked him why he was writing about Rash, he replied that no one else had and why didn’t she and Samantha go play outside. When she pointed out that she was Samantha, he just scowled and said how could he be expected to tell them apart when they both wore blue jeans and flannel shirts, and why couldn’t one of them dress all in green and the other in pink?
Claire and Samantha prefer to play inside. Eight Chimneys is as big as a castle, but dustier and darker than Samantha imagines a castle would be. There are more sofas, more china shepherdesses with chipped fingers, fewer suits of armor. No moat.
The house is open to the public, and, during the day, people— families—driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway will stop to tour the grounds and the first story; the third story belongs to Claire and Samantha. Sometimes they play explorers, and sometimes they follow the caretaker as he gives tours to visitors. After a few weeks, they have memorized his lecture, and they mouth it along with him. They help him sell postcards and copies of Rash’s poetry to the tourist families who come into the little gift shop.
When the mothers smile at them and say how sweet they are, they stare back and don’t say anything at all. The dim light in the house makes the mothers look pale and flickery and tired. They leave Eight Chimneys, mothers and families, looking not quite as real as they did before they paid their admissions, and of course Claire and Samantha will never see them again, so maybe they aren’t real. Better to stay inside the house, they want to tell the families, and if you must leave, then go straight to your cars.
The caretaker says the woods aren’t safe.
Their father stays in the library on the second story all morning, typing, and in the afternoon he takes long walks. He takes his pocket recorder along with him and a hip flask of Gentleman Jack, but not Samantha and Claire.
The caretaker of Eight Chimneys is Mr. Coeslak. His left leg is noticeably shorter than his right. He wears one stacked heel. Short black hairs grow out of his ears and his nostrils and there is no hair at all on top of his head, but he’s given Samantha and Claire permis- sion to explore the whole of the house. It was Mr. Coeslak who told them that there are copperheads in the woods, and that the house is haunted. He says they are all, ghosts and snakes, a pretty bad tempered lot, and Samantha and Claire should stick to the marked trails, and stay out of the attic.
Mr. Coeslak can tell the twins apart, even if their father can’t; Claire’s eyes are grey, like a cat’s fur, he says, but Samantha’s are gray, like the ocean when it has been raining.
Samantha and Claire went walking in the woods on the second day that they were at Eight Chimneys. They saw something. Samantha thought it was a woman, but Claire said it was a snake. The staircase that goes up to the attic has been locked. They peeked through the keyhole, but it was too dark to see anything.
And so he had a wife, and they say she was real pretty. There was another man who wanted to go with her, and first she wouldn’t, because she was afraid of her husband, and then she did. Her husband found out, and they say he killed a snake and got some of this snake’s blood and put it in some whiskey and gave it to her. He had learned this from an island man who had been on a ship with him. And in about six months snakes created in her and they got between her meat and the skin. And they say you could just see them running up and down her legs. They say she was just hollow to the top of her body, and it kept on like that till she died. Now my daddy said he saw it.
—An Oral History of Eight Chimneys
Eight Chimneys is over two hundred years old. It is named for the eight chimneys that are each big enough that Samantha and Claire can both fit in one fireplace. The chimneys are red brick, and on each floor there are eight fireplaces, making a total of twenty-four. Samantha imagines the chimney stacks stretching like stout red tree trunks, all the way up through the slate roof of the house. Beside each fireplace is a heavy black firedog, and a set of wrought iron pokers shaped like snakes. Claire and Samantha pretend to duel with the snake-pokers before the fireplace in their bedroom on the third floor. Wind rises up the back of the chimney. When they stick their faces in, they can feel the air rushing damply upwards, like a river. The flue smells old and sooty and wet, like stones from a river.
Their bedroom was once the nursery. They sleep together in a poster bed which resembles a ship with four masts. It smells of mothballs, and Claire kicks in her sleep. Charles Cheatham Rash slept here when he was a little boy, and also his daughter. She disap- peared when her father did. It might have been gambling debts. They may have moved to New Orleans. She was fourteen years old, Mr. Coeslak said. What was her name, Claire asked. What happened to her mother, Samantha wanted to know. Mr. Coeslak closed his eyes in an almost wink. Mrs. Rash had died the year before her husband and daughter disappeared, he said, of a mysterious wasting disease. He can’t remember the name of the poor little girl, he said.
Eight Chimneys has exactly one hundred windows, all still with the original wavery panes of handblown glass. With so many windows, Samantha thinks, Eight Chimneys should always be full of light, but instead the trees press close against the house, so that the rooms on the first and second story—even the third-story rooms—are green and dim, as if Samantha and Claire are living deep under the sea. This is the light that makes the tourists into ghosts. In the morning, and again towards evening, a fog settles in around the house. Sometimes it is grey like Claire’s eyes, and sometimes it is gray, like Samantha’s eyes.
I met a woman in the wood,
Her lips were two red snakes.
She smiled at me, her eyes were lewd
And burning like a fire.
A few nights ago, the wind was sighing in the nursery chimney. Their father had already tucked them in and turned off the light. Claire dared Samantha to stick her head into the fireplace, in the dark, and so she did. The cold wet air licked at her face and it almost sounded like voices talking low, muttering. She couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.
Their father has mostly ignored Claire and Samantha since they arrived at Eight Chimneys. He never mentions their mother. One evening they heard him shouting in the library, and when they came downstairs, there was a large sticky stain on the desk, where a glass of whiskey had been knocked over. It was looking at me, he said, through the window. It had orange eyes.
Samantha and Claire refrained from pointing out that the library is on the second story.
At night, their father’s breath has been sweet from drinking, and he is spending more and more time in the woods, and less in the library. At dinner, usually hot dogs and baked beans from a can, which they eat off of paper plates in the first floor dining room, beneath the Austrian chandelier (which has exactly 632 leaded crystals shaped like teardrops) their father recites the poetry of Charles Cheatham Rash, which neither Samantha nor Claire cares for.
He has been reading the ship diaries that Rash kept, and he says that he has discovered proof in them that Rash’s most famous poem, “The Specialist’s Hat,” is not a poem at all, and in any case, Rash didn’t write it. It is something that the one of the men on the whaler used to say, to conjure up a whale. Rash simply copied it down and stuck an end on it and said it was his.
The man was from Mulatuppu, which is a place neither Samantha nor Claire has ever heard of. Their father says that the man was supposed to be some sort of magician, but he drowned shortly before Rash came back to Eight Chimneys. Their father says that the other sailors wanted to throw the magician’s chest overboard, but Rash persuaded them to let him keep it until he could be put ashore, with the chest, off the coast of North Carolina.
The specialist’s hat makes a noise like an agouti;
The specialist’s hat makes a noise like a collared peccary;
The specialist’s hat makes a noise like a white-lipped peccary;
The specialist’s hat makes a noise like a tapir;
The specialist’s hat makes a noise like a rabbit;
The specialist’s hat makes a noise like a squirrel;
The specialist’s hat makes a noise like a curassow;
The specialist’s hat moans like a whale in the water;
The specialist’s hat moans like the wind in my wife’s hair; The specialist’s hat makes a noise like a snake;
I have hung the hat of the specialist upon my wall.
The reason that Claire and Samantha have a babysitter is that their father met a woman in the woods. He is going to see her tonight, and they are going to have a picnic supper and look at the stars. This is the time of year when the Perseids can be seen, falling across the sky on clear nights. Their father said that he has been walking with the woman every afternoon. She is a distant relation of Rash and besides, he said, he needs a night off and some grownup conversation.
Mr. Coeslak won’t stay in the house after dark, but he agreed to find someone to look after Samantha and Claire. Then their father couldn’t find Mr. Coeslak, but the babysitter showed up precisely at seven o’clock. The babysitter, whose name neither twin quite caught, wears a blue cotton dress with short floaty sleeves. Both Samantha and Claire think she is pretty in an old-fashioned sort of way.
They were in the library with their father, looking up Mulatuppu in the red leather atlas, when she arrived. She didn’t knock on the front door, she simply walked in and then up the stairs, as if she knew where to find them.
Their father kissed them goodbye, a hasty smack, told them to be good and he would take them into town on the weekend to see the Disney film. They went to the window to watch as he walked into the woods. Already it was getting dark and there were fireflies, tiny yellow-hot sparks in the air. When their father had entirely disappeared into the trees, they turned around and stared at the babysitter instead. She raised one eyebrow. “Well,” she said. “What sort of games do you like to play?”
Widdershins around the chimneys,
Once, twice, again.
The spokes click like a clock on the bicycle;
They tick down the days of the life of a man.
First they played Go Fish, and then they played Crazy Eights, and then they made the babysitter into a mummy by putting shaving cream from their father’s bathroom on her arms and legs, and wrapping her in toilet paper. She is the best babysitter they have ever had.
At nine-thirty, she tried to put them to bed. Neither Claire nor Samantha wanted to go to bed, so they began to play the Dead game. The Dead game is a let’s pretend that they have been playing every day for 274 days now, but never in front of their father or any other adult. When they are Dead, they are allowed to do anything they want to. They can even fly by jumping off the nursery bed, and just waving their arms. Someday this will work, if they practice hard enough.
The Dead game has three rules.
One. Numbers are significant. The twins keep a list of important numbers in a green address book that belonged to their mother. Mr. Coeslak’s tour has been a good source of significant amounts and tallies: they are writing a tragical history of numbers.
Two. The twins don’t play the Dead game in front of grownups. They have been summing up the babysitter, and have decided that she doesn’t count. They tell her the rules.
Three is the best and most important rule. When you are Dead, you don’t have to be afraid of anything. Samantha and Claire aren’t sure who the Specialist is, but they aren’t afraid of him.
To become Dead, they hold their breath while counting to 35, which is as high as their mother got, not counting a few days.
“You never lived here,” Claire says. “Mr. Coeslak lives here.”
“Not at night,” says the babysitter. “This was my bedroom when I was little.”
“Really?” Samantha says. Claire says, “Prove it.”
The babysitter gives Samantha and Claire a look, as if she is measuring them: how old, how smart, how brave, how tall. Then she nods. The wind is in the flue, and in the dim nursery light they can see the milky strands of fog seeping out of the fireplace. “Go stand in the chimney,” she instructs them. “Stick your hand as far up as you can, and there is a little hole on the left side, with a key in it.”
Samantha looks at Claire, who says, “Go ahead.” Claire is fifteen minutes and some few uncounted seconds older than Samantha, and therefore gets to tell Samantha what to do. Samantha remembers the muttering voices and then reminds herself that she is Dead. She goes over to the fireplace and ducks inside.
When Samantha stands up in the chimney, she can only see the very edge of the room. She can see the fringe of the mothy blue rug, and one bed leg, and beside it, Claire’s foot, swinging back and forth like a metronome. Claire’s shoelace has come undone and there is a Band-Aid on her ankle. It all looks very pleasant and peaceful from inside the chimney, like a dream, and for a moment she almost wishes she didn’t have to be Dead. But it’s safer, really.
She sticks her left hand up as far as she can reach, trailing it along the crumbly wall, until she feels an indentation. She thinks about spiders and severed fingers, and rusty razorblades, and then she reaches inside. She keeps her eyes lowered, focused on the corner of the room and Claire’s twitchy foot.
Inside the hole, there is a tiny cold key, its teeth facing outward. She pulls it out, and ducks back into the room. “She wasn’t lying,” she tells Claire.
“Of course I wasn’t lying,” the babysitter says. “When you’re Dead, you’re not allowed to tell lies.”
“Unless you want to,” Claire says.
Dreary and dreadful beats the sea at the shore. Ghastly and dripping is the mist at the door.
The clock in the hall is chiming one, two, three, four.
The morning comes not, no, never, no more.
Samantha and Claire have gone to camp for three weeks every summer since they were seven. This year their father didn’t ask them if they wanted to go back and, after discussing it, they decided that it was just as well. They didn’t want to have to explain to all their friends how they were half-orphans now. They are used to being envied, because they are identical twins. They don’t want to be pitiful.
It has not even been a year, but Samantha realizes that she is forgetting what her mother looked like. Not her mother’s face so much as the way she smelled, which was something like dry hay and something like Chanel No. 5, and like something else too. She can’t remember whether her mother had gray eyes, like her, or grey eyes, like Claire. She doesn’t dream about her mother anymore, but she does dream about Prince Charming, a bay whom she once rode in the horse show at her camp. In the dream, Prince Charming did not smell like a horse at all. He smelled like Chanel No. 5. When she is Dead, she can have all the horses she wants, and they all smell like Chanel No. 5.
“Where does the key go to?” Samantha says.
The babysitter holds out her hand. “To the attic. You don’t really need it, but taking the stairs is easier than the chimney. At least the first time.”
“Aren’t you going to make us go to bed?” Claire says.
The babysitter ignores Claire. “My father used to lock me in the attic when I was little, but I didn’t mind. There was a bicycle up there and I used to ride it around and around the chimneys until my mother let me out again. Do you know how to ride a bicycle?”
“Of course,” Claire says.
“If you ride fast enough, the Specialist can’t catch you.”
“What’s the Specialist?” Samantha says. Bicycles are okay, but horses can go faster.
“The Specialist wears a hat,” says the babysitter. “The hat makes noises.”
She doesn’t say anything else.
When you’re dead, the grass is greener
Over your grave. The wind is keener.
Your eyes sink in, your flesh decays. You
Grow accustomed to slowness; expect delays.
The attic is somehow bigger and lonelier than Samantha and Claire thought it would be. The babysitter’s key opens the locked door at the end of the hallway, revealing a narrow set of stairs. She waves them ahead and upwards.
It isn’t as dark in the attic as they had imagined. The oaks that block the light and make the first three stories so dim and green and mysterious during the day, don’t reach all the way up. Extravagant moonlight, dusty and pale, streams in the angled dormer windows. It lights the length of the attic, which is wide enough to hold a soft- ball game in, and lined with trunks where Samantha imagines people could sit, could be hiding and watching. The ceiling slopes down, impaled upon the eight thickwaisted chimney stacks. The chimneys seem too alive, somehow, to be contained in this empty, neglected place; they thrust almost angrily through the roof and attic floor. In the moonlight they look like they are breathing. “They’re so beautiful,” she says.
“Which chimney is the nursery chimney?” Claire says.
The babysitter points to the nearest righthand stack. “That one,” she says. “It runs up through the ballroom on the first floor, the library, the nursery.”
Hanging from a nail on the nursery chimney is a long black object. It looks lumpy and heavy, as if it were full of things. The babysitter takes it down, twirls it on her finger. There are holes in the black thing and it whistles mournfully as she spins it. “The Specialist’s hat,” she says.
“That doesn’t look like a hat,” says Claire. “It doesn’t look like anything at all.” She goes to look through the boxes and trunks that are stacked against the far wall.
“It’s a special hat,” the babysitter says. “It’s not supposed to look like anything. But it can sound like anything you can imagine. My father made it.”
“Our father writes books,” Samantha says.
“My father did too.” The babysitter hangs the hat back on the nail. It curls blackly against the chimney. Samantha stares at it. It nickers at her. “He was a bad poet, but he was worse at magic.”
Last summer, Samantha wished more than anything that she could have a horse. She thought she would have given up anything for one—even being a twin was not as good as having a horse. She still doesn’t have a horse, but she doesn’t have a mother either, and she can’t help wondering if it’s her fault. The hat nickers again, or maybe it is the wind in the chimney.
“What happened to him?” Claire asks.
“After he made the hat, the Specialist came and took him away. I hid in the nursery chimney while it was looking for him, and it didn’t find me.”
“Weren’t you scared?”
There is a clattering, shivering, clicking noise. Claire has found the babysitter’s bike and is dragging it towards them by the handlebars. The babysitter shrugs. “Rule number three,” she says.
Claire snatches the hat off the nail. “I’m the Specialist!” she says, putting the hat on her head. It falls over her eyes, the floppy shape- less brim sewn with little asymmetrical buttons that flash and catch at the moonlight like teeth. Samantha looks again and sees that they are teeth. Without counting, she suddenly knows that there are exactly fifty-two teeth on the hat, and that they are the teeth of agoutis, of curassows, of white-lipped peccaries, and of the wife of Charles Cheatham Rash. The chimneys are moaning, and Claire’s voice booms hollowly beneath the hat. “Run away, or I’ll catch you. I’ll eat you!”
Samantha and the babysitter run away, laughing as Claire mounts the rusty, noisy bicycle and pedals madly after them. She rings the bicycle bell as she rides, and the Specialist’s hat bobs up and down on her head. It spits like a cat. The bell is shrill and thin, and the bike wails and shrieks. It leans first towards the right and then to the left. Claire’s knobby knees stick out on either side like makeshift counterweights.
Claire weaves in and out between the chimneys, chasing Samantha and the babysitter. Samantha is slow, turning to look behind. As Claire approaches, she keeps one hand on the handlebars and stretches the other hand out towards Samantha. Just as she is about to grab Samantha, the babysitter turns back and plucks the hat off Claire’s head.
“Shit!” the babysitter says, and drops it. There is a drop of blood forming on the fleshy part of the babysitter’s hand, black in the moonlight, where the Specialist’s hat has bitten her.
Claire dismounts, giggling. Samantha watches as the Specialist’s hat rolls away. It picks up speed, veering across the attic floor, and disappears, thumping down the stairs. “Go get it,” Claire says. “You can be the Specialist this time.”
“No,” the babysitter says, sucking at her palm. “It’s time for bed.”
When they go down the stairs, there is no sign of the Specialist’s hat. They brush their teeth, climb into the ship-bed, and pull the covers up to their necks. The babysitter sits between their feet. “When you’re Dead,” Samantha says, “do you still get tired and have to go to sleep? Do you have dreams?”
“When you’re Dead,” the babysitter says, “everything’s a lot easier. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to. You don’t have to have a name, you don’t have to remember. You don’t even have to breathe.”
She shows them exactly what she means.
When she has time to think about it, (and now she has all the time in the world to think) Samantha realizes with a small pang that she is now stuck indefinitely between ten and eleven years old, stuck with Claire and the babysitter. She considers this. The number 10 is pleasing and round, like a beach ball, but all in all, it hasn’t been an easy year. She wonders what 11 would have been like. Sharper, like needles maybe. She has chosen to be Dead, instead. She hopes that she’s made the right decision. She wonders if her mother would have decided to be Dead, instead of dead, if she could have.
Last year they were learning fractions in school, when her mother died. Fractions remind Samantha of herds of wild horses, piebalds and pintos and palominos. There are so many of them, and they are, well, fractious and unruly. Just when you think you have one under control, it throws up its head and tosses you off. Claire’s favorite number is 4, which she says is a tall, skinny boy. Samantha doesn’t care for boys that much. She likes numbers. Take the number 8 for instance, which can be more than one thing at once. Looked at one way, 8 looks like a bent woman with curvy hair. But if you lay it down on its side, it looks like a snake curled with its tail in its mouth. This is sort of like the difference between being Dead, and being dead. Maybe when Samantha is tired of one, she will try the other.
On the lawn, under the oak trees, she hears someone calling her name. Samantha climbs out of bed and goes to the nursery window. She looks out through the wavy glass. It’s Mr. Coeslak. “Samantha, Claire!” he calls up to her. “Are you all right? Is your father there?” Samantha can almost see the moonlight shining through him. “They’re always locking me in the tool room. Goddamn spooky things,” he says. “Are you there, Samantha? Claire? Girls?”
The babysitter comes and stands beside Samantha. The babysitter puts her finger to her lip. Claire’s eyes glitter at them from the dark bed. Samantha doesn’t say anything, but she waves at Mr. Coeslak. The babysitter waves too. Maybe he can see them waving, because after a little while he stops shouting and goes away. “Be careful,” the babysitter says. “He’ll be coming soon. It will be coming soon.”
She takes Samantha’s hand, and leads her back to the bed, where Claire is waiting. They sit and wait. Time passes, but they don’t get tired, they don’t get any older.
The front door opens on the first floor, and Samantha, Claire, and the babysitter can hear someone creeping, creeping up the stairs. “Be quiet,” the babysitter says. “It’s the Specialist.”
Samantha and Claire are quiet. The nursery is dark and the wind crackles like a fire in the fireplace.
“Claire, Samantha, Samantha, Claire?” The Specialist’s voice is blurry and wet. It sounds like their father’s voice, but that’s because the hat can imitate any noise, any voice. “Are you still awake?”
“Quick,” the babysitter says. “It’s time to go up to the attic and hide.”
Claire and Samantha slip out from under the covers and dress quickly and silently. They follow her. Without speech, without breathing, she pulls them into the safety of the chimney. It is too dark to see, but they understand the babysitter perfectly when she mouths the word, Up. She goes first, so they can see where the finger-holds are, the bricks that jut out for their feet. Then Claire. Samantha watches her sister’s foot ascend like smoke, the shoelace still untied.
“Claire? Samantha? Goddammit, you’re scaring me. Where are you?” The Specialist is standing just outside the half-open door. “Samantha? I think I’ve been bitten by something. I think I’ve been bitten by a goddamn snake.” Samantha hesitates for only a second. Then she is climbing up, up, up the nursery chimney.