On the Other Side Is Everything
Mira Ayer knew the previous owner of the house had died there. She and her husband Adam, the new owners, were not concerned with this detail—in the current market, anything that might deter other buyers was a boon. Beverly Franklin’s middle-aged daughter and a fierce-faced granddaughter turned up for the final walkthrough with the Ayer family to hand over an impossible number of keys and an ancient garage opener.
“Oh,” said Mira. “I’m sure we’ll replace the garage door before we move in. But thanks.” Beverly’s daughter, eyes brimming and clutching a dried bundle of herbs that left a trail of crumbs, stayed close as Mira made her way through the house with the realtor. Mira did not want to look at the bundle or the woman; the daughter’s desperation for conversation was palpable, and Mira hoped to avoid any maudlin outbursts.
The granddaughter pointed out the best features of the overgrown garden to Willy and Emma: an excellent climbing tree in the front yard with strong, low branches and a homemade rope swing, and two gnarled plum trees in the side yard. Emma stared steadfastly at her cell phone while her younger brother Willy attempted to listen. Mira, at once provoked and impressed by her daughter’s rudeness, said nothing; she didn’t want to give these people the impression that they would be welcome to drop in in the future.
There had been little to disclose: an abandoned sump pump in the crawlspace, a broken hinge on the door of the outside shed. The house was built in 1951 and had aged accordingly. It was at least built with more of an eye toward longevity than some of the former vacation homes they had viewed above Miwok Valley’s old shipyard district. The floor had a slight tilt Mira noted during their first visit, and the geologist she hired for the final walkthrough spent an hour underneath the house to inspect the foundation. When he emerged from the crawlspace, suspiciously clean, his conclusion was the house was in no danger of moving; at some point in the past it had just settled.
“Didn’t we all,” Mira said, but the geologist kept his gaze fixed on his clipboard as he added up the figures on his invoice. “Excuse me,” she said to Beverly’s daughter, sniffling beside her. Mira gestured to the phone in her hand as if to make a call and walked alone to the back of the house.
Marshlands ran beyond the back porch, a series of looping waterways that moved up and down with the tides. Mira’s eyes followed the course of the smaller straits as they wove into the largest channel, which poured into the unseen bay. She could only trace the water’s path so far until it seemed to dissolve into the dazzling hem of the sky.
A spasm of movement on the pavers caught Mira’s attention. It was a pair of crows—they were having difficulty flying, flapping awkwardly to gain a foot of altitude before landing roughly on the ground. They bleated at her, their pebbled eyes imploring. Mira’s realtor and Beverly’s daughter approached from the side yard, and the crows squawked and hopped away.
“There’s something wrong with those crows,” Mira said. “They can’t fly. They’re just stumbling around.”
“Maybe they’re drunk,” said the realtor, laughing uproariously at her joke. She was in a celebratory mood, bolstered by a generous helping of the champagne Adam brought.
“They’re fledglings,” said Beverly’s daughter. “They’re learning how to fly. The crows used to nest in the old fir tree. My mother fed them leftovers.” Her eyes moistened once more. Mira gave the realtor a look, and despite her impairment the realtor caught its significance.
“Mira, I have some last documents for you to sign. If you would just follow me.”
Adam and the children were inside the house, drinking sparkling cider. Through the sliding glass door, Mira could see Beverly’s daughter on the back porch. The granddaughter came to collect her, and Beverly’s daughter cast a final doleful glance at the house. She produced the crushed bundle of herbs once more, and with a yodeling scream that made the realtor drop her champagne glass, threw them like confetti over the back porch.
Renovating the house was Mira’s project. Earlier that year the company Mira co-founded was acquired and her position made obsolete. Representatives from the new company came in on planes from the Midwest, smooth-faced occupiers who mentally measured the ends of her office and spoke to her of their wives while Martin, her old partner, sat with the head of the new company in the conference room. It’s not a departure, it’s a transition, Martin had said, and Mira imagined for a moment how she might burn everything to the ground, not only incinerate the office but release proprietary information to their competitors, send certain photos of Martin to his wife. When they offered her a figurehead position as a non-voting board member, she declined.
Adam came up with the idea that buying a fixer-upper in Miwok Valley would be a fresh start, an opportunity for Mira to “funnel her executive skills into creating something of value” for their family. Mira, while unenthused at the idea, couldn’t think of a compelling reason to stay in their cramped North Beach condo where there was not enough room to politely ignore one another. She and Adam were in the throes of something neither was inclined to address.
Where a younger couple would have had a baby to fix the problem, they bought a house. Mira had given up resisting the waves of inevitability; Miwok Valley was where all upper middle-class families ended up.
Still, she had a nagging feeling that buying this property and moving into the suburbs was an irreversible mistake. There was a tightening in this house, an invisible tether being fastened. Even Mira’s body seemed foreign to her: her pants fit differently, pulling awkwardly across her stomach and hips, her chin had lost its shape and gained a down, and the hair on her head was coarser, with more silver streaks to be kept at bay.
She did not expect any real difficulty renovating the house: it was only a matter of updating appliances and hardware, removing the kitschy ’70s remodel details, choosing the new paint colors. Mira had ten spreadsheets for the renovation before they closed. Yet almost immediately, she and the house were at odds. Their new home was full of rude surprises below the surface—a hidden asbestos chimney, faulty wiring in the kitchen. One of the walls in the small room that adjoined the master bedroom had an inexplicable lip; when she examined it with a flashlight Mira realized the entire wall had been mirrored and then painted over. There was a sneakiness to this house, and things that should have been easy were difficult and stubborn.
Adam hired Ken Russo, a local contractor who had done a job for one of Adam’s co-workers, to head up the renovation. Mira disliked Ken from the start, but Adam insisted he came highly recommended; Adam wanted to “take something off her plate.” This was the dance they were stuck in, Adam and Mira: strained niceties on an eggshell floor. Mira was unsure if Ken was even licensed—Ken was vague when questioned on his credentials, referring always to Adam’s co-worker’s recommendation. This was the coven of men, Mira thought: unspoken agreements and invisible courtesies that skittered from female observation like minnows.
Ken was a head shorter than Mira, with bandy legs and a chest that strained against his collared shirts. He called her “Myrna” instead of Mira so often she stopped correcting him, and then began giving her jocular nicknames on the false name. Ken was a ringmaster when he showed the work from the previous day, grandiose and eager for praise, but less articulate when it came to explaining the rising cost of the construction. His wife often accompanied him, as beautiful and forbidding as a sphinx, stationed at a little round table Ken placed in the dining room.
The kitchen remodel began one month into general construction. The beige relic of an oven was removed and the centers of the weight-bearing walls scooped out so the kitchen would overlook the dining room, and beyond that, the marsh.
“See, Myrn,” Ken said to her. “I got all that wall down for you. It’s nice and open now like you wanted. And we’re ready for the countertops, ahead of schedule. Just waiting for those countertop people you hired.”
“Is it—does it look crooked? There, that plywood where the countertop is going to go.”
Ken shifted from one foot to the other, and Mira found herself staring at his shoes, polished and heeled, as diminutive as a child’s. “Oh, no. That won’t be a problem. Once the countertops go in, it’s all going to be first class. And see.” He pointed to a spot, discolored and uneven, higher on the kitchen wall. “We—I got up in the attic yesterday and went through all the venting. It’s extra work for me but I closed up that vent you don’t need and drywalled the hole. I did that extra for you, no charge.”
Mira frowned. “Why wouldn’t I need that vent?”
“Well, you know, there’s that other vent right there in the living room. And now everything’s nice and open for you.”
“It’s a kitchen, Ken. It gets hot and smelly. I’m not sure why you would think we wouldn’t need a vent.”
Ken glanced around at the workers on the periphery and his wife, glowering at her phone on the table. “You could always get a fan. Lots of good little fans you could put right on the counter there. I can pick some up for you at the hardware store.”
Mira walked the neighborhood while Ken and his workers took their lunch; she knew they needed a break from her as much as she needed one from them. She traced the children’s path to their new middle school and took photos of gardens she liked. On the sidewalk near her house a graying specter in blocky sunglasses and a faded fishing hat stood frozen, holding an equally grizzled dog at the end of a lead. Mira raised a hand in greeting, but he remained in place, as still as an egret.
“Who are you waiting for to die?” he called out to her.
“Who are you waiting for to die so you can snap up their house?”
“I’m your next-door neighbor,” Mira said, stepping closer to him. “We bought Beverly Franklin’s old house a month ago. We’re still renovating and not quite moved in.”
“I thought you were a realtor,” the old man said. “They circle like vultures. Looking for dirt lawns and Cadillacs. Waiting for someone to die so they can buy a house for cheap.”
“I’m afraid we’re one of those,” said Mira.
“Oh well,” he said. “Come over for a cup of tea once you’ve moved in.”
The side room connected to the master bedroom was a vestige from the days when women did their hair and makeup in a separate space to preserve the mysteries of female beauty. Mira had had every intention of prying the mirror off the one wall and knocking out another wall to enlarge the bedroom, but her desire to rid herself of Ken outweighed anything else. The number of necessary projects was dwindling, and with no small amount of satisfaction Mira gave Ken a final deadline of two weeks to complete his work, hoping he would be done in three.
Ken met her that morning with a grave face. Mira had become accustomed to the underlying intent of his theatrics; she suspected he was behind schedule, or ready to show her a fresh problem that required more money.
“Myrna, I have something serious to tell you.”
“Last night, the guys and I were working here late. Because you know, you’re on that tight schedule, and even though these things take time we’re trying to do that for you. We were sitting there in the living room, having a little dinner break, and we start hearing these noises above us in the attic. Knocks and scraping and stuff. The guys got real spooked. You know, they’re spiritual, like me.” Ken produced a cross, gold and enameled, from beneath his shirt. It looked to Mira as though it had come from a vending machine.
“Probably raccoons,” Mira said. “I’ll do some research and call someone.”
Ken’s face furrowed. “Oh, no. No, no, no. Not raccoons. I’m religious but also what you call intuitive. I can feel energy. And there’s a bad energy here. All the guys left last night after the noises started. But I can handle this for you, Myrn. No problem. I’ve done this sort of thing before.”
Mira regarded Ken with incredulity. The previous week she had brought him to tears when they went over the bills and his updated estimate, even as she kept her voice low and reminded him it was business, nothing personal. Ken called Adam later that night to discuss the bill, saying Mira had grown emotional when discussing it and that he hoped the two of them could work out the business end of it. And yet here he was, resilient as ever, with a new line item for ghost busting.
“It’s fine,” Mira said. “Let’s move on. What’s the status of the bifold door?”
“Myrna, this is a real problem. I don’t know if I can get the crew to stay on. And you got children moving into this house. It’s no good. But I can take care of it for you.”
“Give me a ladder. I’ll check it out now.”
The attic was oppressively airless, and Mira’s shirt soon stuck damply to her back and breasts. The low ceiling forced her to crouch as she shone the flashlight of her phone into the attic’s dusty corners. There was a tangle of electrical wiring against a wall and a single vintage mousetrap, but no fresh tracks or scat to suggest any visitors.
“Nothing,” she said as she climbed down the ladder. “Other than a potential fire hazard. What’s going on with those wires?” Ken gave her a look of great sadness. He worked half-heartedly for the rest of the day, emitting the occasional sigh and leaving early. Mira knew he would not call Adam about this specific issue.
The children were starting school in less than a month. Mira paid Ken what she hoped was his final bill and hired a locksmith to change the locks. The moving company transferred all the items from their house in the city a week later. Mira unpacked the boxes with renewed vigor, reveling in her solitude and efficiency, the broken-down cardboard out with the recycling that Friday.
On their first night in the house Willy woke up screaming for Adam in a way he had not done since he was a toddler with night terrors. Mira, restless in her own bed, ran half-awake across the hall to her son’s room. He was in a dream-like state, wailing and incoherent, vaguely dissatisfied that she was not his father. She gathered him to her chest awkwardly, his long legs hanging off the bed. Through his sobs he tried to describe a nightmare, crying harder every time he spoke of it. Mira rocked and shushed him until he fell asleep, his gentle hiccups at her back as she closed the door.
She paused in the living room, gazing out through the glass patio door. Outside the marsh and night sky were an inky monolith, dimly lit by an unseen moon. It was unaccountably stuffy in the living room, the air thick and pressing upon her. There was a pressure building in Mira’s chest and she realized she was holding her breath, listening for one of Ken’s phantom noises. She returned to her bedroom, musing as she got into bed that she would have to get into the usual things—yoga, meditation, acupuncture—whatever people did when they were having some sort of midlife crisis.
Mira had taken to visiting John Brodie, their ancient neighbor, in the afternoons before picking the kids up from school. He had waited for her one day on the pavement outside her house. “I’ve come to collect on our deal,” he told Mira. His dog had died and he needed someone to converse with.
On her initial visits Brodie served Mira tea, but they soon fell into conviviality and stiff drinks in etched tumblers. The friendship surprised Mira. She normally found the paternalism of older men irksome, but Brodie had a plain way of speaking she enjoyed, one that did not treat her as young or old or incapable of understanding or arguing with anything he said. Mira thought he must understand women in a way few men did.
Brodie had lived in his house for nearly sixty years and knew much of the history of the neighborhood and its inhabitants. His memory of past and present events had a certain fluidity, as if all time existed on the same plane in the boozy glow of their afternoons. He told Mira the channels in their backyards were man made. Before the township cut the channels, storms and king tides would bring the waters of the bay right up to their doorsteps. Herons and egrets overtook the backyards of the houses bordering the marsh and Brodie could fish from his patio, once even catching a small leopard shark. The constant threat of flooding made the neighborhood a wilder place, but also a more interesting one.
Mira offered to host some afternoons at her house, but he always refused. Brodie had a strange hostility about her house, as though it were a neighbor he had had a falling out with.
“Bad juju at your place,” he said. “I haven’t been since before Beverly died.”
“Jesus,” Mira said. “You’re as bad as that sham contractor.”
The Ayer family had been living in Miwok Valley for nearly half a year when the smaller things in their house, knickknacks and decorations, started to rearrange themselves. It was as if everything in the living room had shifted, only slightly. It was so imperceptible that Mira wondered how long it had been happening before she noticed. Her first impulse was to dismiss it as her imagination, or to credit it as the collective work of her husband and children.
But one day she realized the wall clock in the living room had moved at least six inches from its point of origin. The clock was memorable because Mira had agonized about where to place it; it required a sturdier nail for hanging, and she did not want to pockmark the wall with her mistakes. There was now no evidence or nail mark at its original position, no scrapes across the fresh paint to record its journey. Adam sometimes took it in his head to tackle a minor house project without notice, but this was not his work. This was elegantly and invisibly done.
The smaller objects of the house shifted fractions of centimeters each day, as if on the same plane of some gently twirling surface. Mira did not understand how the items moved; she only observed each day that they had done so. She said nothing to her family, waiting to see if one of them would comment on the changes in their home. It should have been obvious to them; they spent more time out of the house than she did. But her children were too absorbed in their new school, their activities, and their social lives. Adam also said nothing, even as he had to scoot the rolling chair in their home office to match the slowly moving desk.
“Do I look different to you?” Mira asked Emma. Adam was staying late in the city for drinks with his co-workers, and Mira and the children were waiting for dinner to finish up in the oven. Mira had subscribed to one of those meal delivery kits that condensed meal preparation to opening plastic bags and heating their contents. Tonight’s chicken parmesan was beige when it came out of the package, so Mira chopped up garlic and added the purple potatoes she bought at the farmer’s market. Emma, sitting at the dining room table, looked up from her homework and considered Mira.
“You look like a mom,” Emma said.
“Well, that’s refreshing.”
“Like a mom mom,” Emma clarified. “Not like one of those underage hot moms.”
Mira stood before the hallway mirror, the reflection of the marsh behind her. She knew she was becoming objectively less attractive. It wasn’t her imagination: Adam had difficulty looking at her directly, as if she were a too bright sun. Her entire face was different, changing in small but accelerated degrees. These things happened to women; they lost their youth and the world averted its eyes so it wouldn’t have to witness such a thing.
Mira felt curiously dispassionate when she considered it. She was more interested in tracking the recession of her beauty than chasing it. She was noticeably older—at once brittle and soft—but her skin was brimming with electricity. She got little shocks when she touched things: the decorations that kept moving, the children, Adam. It was the glimmering of something, a shoot pushing through resistive earth.
After discovering the house’s movement Mira spent most of her days inside, leaving only to take the children to school or to run the most necessary of errands. She stopped visiting John Brodie; it was enough of an effort to keep up with her family’s conversations. The house was still her secret, but Brodie might be able to pry it out of her. Sometimes he would pause at the pavement in front of her house, coming no closer than the farthest edge of the walkway before moving along.
Adam asked if she might want to do more things out of the house—join the school’s PTA, see if there were any local volunteer opportunities. He couldn’t imagine what she did all day in the house. It was fine, he stressed, after working hard for so many years. He just couldn’t believe she was satisfied with so little to do. Mira did not debate her husband on the exhaustiveness of domestic duties. She did not tell him things were moving in their house, all the time, and that it was more than enough to keep her occupied.
There was a spiraling structure to what was happening, the items always moving in the same counter-clockwise manner. Pictures of the Ayer family, arranged in a deliberately casual manner above the living room mantle, left their position and traveled across the bifold door. They passed over the dining room, the thin stretch of wall above the open kitchen, and orbited back to their original spot by the time the children returned from school.
The largest concentration of activity was in the living room and lessened as it radiated outward to the surrounding rooms, the decorations and furnishings moving at a slower pace in the kitchen and bedrooms. Mira sat for hours in the living room trying to catch the movement but she could not—not out of the corners of her eyes, not even as she was sure the couch itself had shifted while she was on it. If she had some way to graph the movement, she was certain it would have a natural symmetry, like the innate geometry of a nautilus shell.
The objects in the side room—the room that had evaded major renovation—did not move at all. Mira had furnished it sparsely when they first moved in, and now she brought in additional decorations to see if anything would change, but the room remained still. Mira didn’t know what to think of it, this static refuge in an ever-moving house. She ran her hands over its walls, trying to find a pulse, but instead the brimming shocks in her hands quieted.
Her fingers found the wall’s mirrored lip, and this seemed to be a clue, an invitation even. Mira retrieved a screwdriver from the garage and picked at the edge. A chunk of the mirror broke off, and as Mira turned the piece over in her hand she caught a glimpse of her own face. When she saw herself she felt the electricity return, whisking the blood back and forth in her veins. She was overcome with the need to see the mirror in its entirety.
Mira drove to the drugstore and filled her cart with nail polish remover. The checker hesitated as he rang the last bottles up but said nothing. Though she intended to start the next day once everyone was out of the house, as soon as she returned home she doused a rag with the remover and held it to a section of the wall. She scrubbed furiously with the rag and scraped at the loosened paint with her fingernails.
There were layers of paint—not just the warm gray Ken’s painters had applied, but a light peacock hue Beverly must have chosen. Mira was covered in sweat and slightly high from the fumes of the acetone. She scrubbed until she saw her own face in the speckled mirror, blurry, as though it had not yet found its final shape. She could see the channels of the marsh behind her in the mirror, even as she knew the marsh was in the wrong position; it would not be reflected here. Mira’s eyes followed the winding lines of the water in the mirror until she was dazzled. The room had gone humid. She scoured and scraped until she felt the walls of the room start to awaken.
“Mom.” Emma’s exasperated voice cut through the thickened air. “Mom, I can’t find my….” Her voice trailed off. “Dad!” she shouted. “Mom has scratched up the wall! Come and see it.”
Adam shuffled in, and seeing the mirrored wall, was quiet. “I thought we were going for beachy minimalist,” he finally said.
Adam’s company was having its annual employee review period, and for two weeks he would have to work extended hours. After sitting down with him and bearing his interrogations about her afternoon with the wall, Mira convinced him she had only suffered a moment of renovator’s remorse, exacerbated by the inactivity of her days.
Mira stayed out of the side room and volunteered at the children’s school. When she came home in the afternoons with Willy and Emma, the house’s silent admonishment pressed upon her. Mira had grown uncertain after her day in the room; she did not trust herself or the house. She remembered what Ken had said about bringing the children into the house, and it occurred to her that she had failed them on some basic maternal level of protection.
But the children remained blissfully unaware of anything that did not revolve around them. They were mildly embarrassed to have Mira in their classrooms, re-shelving books and filing paperwork for their teachers. Emma did not acknowledge Mira on school grounds, and Willy gently asked if she wouldn’t want a real job, like she used to have. Being in the classroom was unbearably dull, and Mira wondered what the house’s decorations were doing, if they had frozen in her absence or if they continued in their fatalistic pattern.
Adam left early for work Monday morning, and Mira decided she would not join the children at school that day. After dropping them off, she stood on the pavement outside the house, its half-drawn windows staring back at her. John Brodie was watching her from the window of his living room and raised a hand of greeting.
Two crows perched on her porch’s railing. Mira was sure they were the same crows she saw when they bought the house, but they were no longer awkward—they were fully formed and beautiful. Brodie, his face stern, beckoned to her through his window, clawing the air as though he could pull her to him. Mira’s hands, static since her afternoon in the side room, were tingling. She turned from Brodie and made her way up the stairs. As she approached, the crows launched themselves into the sky, their feathers gleaming like oil slicks.
Adam had kept the door to the side room closed after Mira’s incident, but now it was open, and Mira entered and sat before the mirrored wall. At first she saw only her own reflection. She stayed there so long she memorized every line of her body, even as it changed before her eyes. Mira stayed in that same place until something within her constricted, and time circled and doubled back on itself. Parts of her were trickling out, and new parts washing in.
The sounds of her family on the other side of the door, increasingly distinct, pulled at Mira. When she emerged from the side room, it was night. All the lights in the house had been turned on. The contents of their home, all the furniture and knickknacks, were in a violent circle of disarray, as though they had been placed in a giant blender with no lid.
Willy let out a cry when he saw her, and Emma pressed against her father’s side. Adam stared at her nakedly, unable to wrest his gaze from her face. She was irresistible now. The hallway mirror reflected what her family saw: her body had devoured the little shocks. Her face and chest were a droughted landscape, raised and scarred. But her feet—her feet were just skimming the ground. She was strong and graceful, like a dancer. Mira laughed, and that too was new: percussive, an echoing rasp of a sound. Behind her in the mirror, the waters of the marsh had broken free of their forced channels and were lapping at the back porch.
Her body was molten, and the cooling waters of the marsh beckoned. Mira swept past Adam and the children into the awaiting evening, her electric fingers propelling her forward through the night like a breaststroke.
It’s not a departure, it’s a transition, the bracing air sang. She wasn’t leaving—there was no here or there anymore. The waters of the marsh held a duplicate of the night sky. They met Mira with the grace of a practiced host, welcoming her home, and removing the rest of her burden like a cloak.