Delmarva Review editor’s comment: The author uses sparse, carefully chosen language to create the authentic voice of an aging woman who, from the first paragraph, wonders what possessed her to remember the importance of an old harp in storage after so many years. Is she the woman whose head, with an open mouth and flowing guilted hair, is carved into the crown of the instrument? The stage is set. The language is flowing and true. Description is precise. Each word, each character contributes to an evocative, rewarding story.
The Harp in the Cellar
The crown of the harp was a woman’s head. The woman had flowing gilt hair and an open mouth. Were there teeth? Don’t be impertinent, Eleanor. Teeth or no teeth did not signify. The woman on the instrument’s crown was a singer, her voice rising from the nether regions on strings of gut. Watching Randolph come down the stairs with a box of her neatly folded undergarments, Eleanor wondered what in the world possessed her to remember the harp all these years on.
The man held up the box. “In the bedroom, I’m guessing. That right, Miss Malkin?”
She looked away, mortified at this inadvertent intimacy. But what choice did she have? She had decided to move onto the ground floor and needed help to make that happen. The stairs were an accident waiting for her to happen. Randolph–she suspected that was not his name, but he fulfilled the mental function of Randolph for her–worked cheap and followed orders.
Now that the harp was in her mind, she recalled that back when it was properly strung, before it donned an overcoat of dust, her mother used to play the thing. No, that was wrong. It wasn’t her mother, it was her grandmother, a woman known for her flowing gilt hair. Of course, the harp did not live in the cellar in those days. Eleanor would give her eye teeth to recall when it had been transported thither, and by whose agency and hand. The topic fascinated her, although she had the wherewithal to realize nobody else would give a damn.
She sat to collect herself, but a moment later here came Like Randolph clomping down the stairs with another box of her clothing. It was a relief, really, no longer being so deeply moved by the sinews of a man’s arm that she could not think, could only quiver in fruitless response. Root cellar fruit cellar coal bin harp, who sewed shut my pussy in the dark? Now where did that come from? Unbidden, the little ditty horrified her.
Taking a breather, Randolph screwed his face into a social smile to let her know, “It’s on the chilly side in here, Miss Malkin. You want me to caulk them windows before the snows begin with a vengeance?”
She shook her head. “It’s not cold, it’s just my poor circulation.”
“Arrowhead’s an old house, isn’t it? Among the ancientest in Bradford County, or so said my ma in her day, God give her rest. And Malkins have been living under this roof for many a generation.”
“My grandmother’s grandmother sang harmoniously. She was known for her octaves.”
That was not exactly how she had wished her response to come out, but once it got loose there was no calling it back. Then, when the man said, “How ‘bout I hot the pot for tea?” the question took her by surprise. What did this Like Randolph want? Perhaps, she thought, nothing more than a cup of tea. She nodded, and they sat in the kitchen at either end of the table, which may or may not have figured in her past life; she could not say with certainty. The slippery nature of her recollections—that was another feature of a trying day like the one in which she found herself aswim. Like trying to scoop up fish with your bare hand from a fast-moving creek.
She watched the man dump half the contents of the sugar bowl into his cup, saying in his reassuring offhand manner, “Mind if I ask you a question, Miss Malkin?”
“Suit yourself.” That sounded curt, so she rephrased it. “You go right ahead and ask.”
“It’s two questions, I guess. How come you left Pennsylvania? And how come you came back?”
“I was in the information industry, in Southern California. I wanted a career, you see. And, of course, the weather.”
That made her California life sound like more than it was, although she had never tired of living near the Pacific. Even when the sea was turbulent, its under-calm steadied her. She started out as secretary to a newspaper editor, scaling the company ladder through the years to positions of more administrative responsibility. She bought a bungalow. There was a young pindo palm in the tiny front yard. As her career advanced, the tree grew. Six months ago, long retired, she had gone out into the yard to pick up the newspaper one morning and was taken aback by how old her tree looked. She had felt its rough bark with the palm of her hand and decided to come home.
Like Randolph nodded, stirring the sugar with a spoon that had belonged to a high-spirited Malkin bluestocking several generations back, or so Eleanor thought had been the case. The man across from her was rail thin and had what people used to call a shock of black hair, lightly streaked with gray. The frank expression marking his broad face led a person to trust him, and his teeth were virtuous. How strange he should wear the same green workpants the real Randolph used to wear.
“I came back to set my affairs in order.”
His smile was comforting. “You’re not thinking about giving up the ghost any time soon, I hope.”
“That’s not what I meant. I am sorry for not saying more. These are weighty matters, or they are to me.”
“No need to apologize. I don’t mean to be nosy. It’s unusual, is all, a woman of your years moving into a humongous old mansion by yourself. Maybe you’ll have friends to stay with you, help you look after the place.”
She asked him to repeat his name. The instant he did, she lost it again. That was simply a game her mind enjoyed playing on her. Never mind.
He was right about the snow. It fell that night for the first time since her return to Towanda. She sat in a Hepplewhite chair by the bow window, wrapped in an ancestral afghan, watching the white make steady, quiet progress covering the sloping lawn as the lights of the borough disappeared behind a curtain of the swirling stuff.
The lawn looked enormous, even as the snow reshaped its contours. There must be a full acre. Come April, it would need regular cutting. Perhaps Like Randolph could be persuaded to take on the job. Was there a mower in the barn out back? She had not thought to look.
She rested in her nest for a long little while, beset by a sense of anticipation. At a certain point, the snow stopped, a gap appeared in the clouds, and the moon appeared, fat and sassy, like a pampered princess. The story of a little girl came back to her. It involved a wagon hurtling down the drive that bisected the vast lawn of Arrowhead. It was the green season, and she smelled lilacs. Surely the child must go smash. But at the last moment Randolph stepped into the drive and lifted her from the careening wagon, bruising her underarms where his strong hands grasped her. That was a mighty narrow miss, Missie. The obvious pleasure in his laugh punctured the swelling bubble of her fear, and she laughed as hard as he did.
That was Randolph, to a T. Being so wrapped up in forgetting other men, she had neglected all these years to remember the one who deserved her gratitude. He worked for the Malkins back when jack of all-trades was a respectable calling. He treated her, from a distance, as a doting uncle treated a niece to whom he was particularly partial. Candy canes at Christmas, a song from the lawn as he worked on a hot day, a bunch of peonies presented with a courtly bow.
Rising from the chair, she went to the mahogany secretary where Malkins traditionally kept papers of a certain magnitude. There was a letter from Ferguson, who in addition to his legal duties acted as steward of what remained of the Malkin money. She disliked the arid, chiding tone with which he admonished her not to die intestate. Why not? Let him go ahead and tell her why not. She had no heirs. No heirs, no hair, nothing left down there. They were coming fast and furious today, the ditties. It was exasperating. In his letter, Ferguson recommended a mix of conservative charities but of course had the delicacy not to mention the fees accruing to him as executor. Let him stew in his beef. She would not respond until she felt like responding.
Since coming back, this was the first night she had slept in the guest room. The family had always referred to it as the Cornsilk Room, although why was beyond her since for as far back as she could recall the walls were papered in a plum pattern. The bed was a high four-poster requiring her to climb a cherry step stool that a seafaring predecessor had brought back from a famous archipelago whose name she never had mastered, an Oriental port city where the men went around half nude due to the extreme heat. They carried a type of dagger in their belt; it had a name, now gone. She settled onto the comfortable mattress but had to get up immediately to locate another blanket. Maybe she would let Randolph, Like Randolph, caulk those windows after all. She fell asleep secure in the knowledge that mornings she was better, stronger physically and her mind less fractious. In the morning, she promised herself, the situation would be clearer.
But in the morning, she woke jostled cheek by jowl in the guest room bed. Hoo boy, what a crowd. Her mother was there, and her grandmother with the little sack of horehound candies she used to carry like ammunition, sweet little bullets she spread in scattershot fashion in a feeble attempt to keep the peace. Eleanor’s father was in the bed along with them, in his absent way. Prince Malkin was anecdotes, to his daughter, always and only anecdotes, capped by the story of his departure from Arrowhead in a chauffeured Packard. From the library his wife, Madelaine, had watched, through mullioned windows, the car disappearing down the drive, Prince slumped in the backseat with his tie askew, preemptive tears of regret glistening on his cheeks, a bottle of the finest rye on the seat next to him like proof positive that one thing led to another.
Crowded though it was, the bed in the Cornsilk Room contained yet another occupant. Eleanor knew him by his profile but could not look him in the eye, not on an empty stomach. Then, by the time she sat in the kitchen before coffee and toast with marmalade, she was distracted by the enormity of the task she had foisted on herself, coming back to Arrowhead. All the upkeep, the echoing empty space, the sheer size of the place, she had no business taking it on. There was a standing offer for the property that Ferguson had so often urged her to accept she suspected he would get a commission if the sale went through. The proprietor is a little old lady. A spinster, as it happens. Lives in Southern California. She severed ties with Towanda and her family decades ago. Leave it to me and I’ll bring Miss Malkin around.
It would be foolish to stay on just to thwart the designs of the family retainer. She was capable, she had learned the hard way, of extravagant foolishness. But now, with the winter wind rattling old windows in their panes, the furnace laboring, the drive unplowed and no arrangement made, getting through winter felt daunting, let alone spring and the relentlessness of grass.
The smart thing would be to junk the whole idea. Let Ferguson sell Arrowhead. Take the money and go to Tahiti. Learn to drink. Write a new definition of profligate. But there was no way she would be smart. She had come back to Towanda for a reason. With time and luck, memory would serve rather than betray her. It was not only criminals who returned to the scene of the crime.
She heard an engine and made her wobbling way to the front windows to see a blue pickup with an enormous red plow clearing the drive. Relief felt like the instant after a spasm of gas. She watched the driver expertly manipulate the plow until she was sure it was he of the green workpants. Then she went back to the kitchen and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. There was no time to bake, but she fished some powdered doughnuts from the bread box and arranged them on a plate.
She waited, doing her best not to fret over paying him. She hoped he would simply hand her a bill but feared he would leave the amount up to her. She had no idea what the job was worth and dreaded insulting him with too little, or too much. She waited.
Waited. Until she heard the truck going away. He was not coming in to see her. Why? As she poured the coffee down the sink, her vexation with the man knew no bounds. She held the empty carafe for a moment. The room spun, its individual objects refusing to stay put in their assigned place. She closed her eyes and gripped the sink edge with her free hand. Opening her eyes again, she threw the carafe at the refrigerator. It smashed brilliantly, like a rejected present. Now here, thank goodness, was a mess she knew how to clean up.
“I’m scatterbrained. You’ll have to tell me your name again.”
“Izaak, Miss Malkin. Izaak Walton Duncan, after the famous fisherman.”
“Fisherman,” she echoed.
That was a mistake. Izaak was the word she needed to net, not some fish. Izaak. She had it. Now to keep it.
She was relieved he had come back, though it took him two days to get around to it. Thoughtfully, he’d handed her a folded piece of paper with the bill for clearing the drive written in legible numbers. Handing him cash, she had no idea she was going to say to him what she did.
“You put me in mind of a man who used to work here. His name was Randolph.”
His smile was large. “Randolph Boggs. I’m sorry to say, Mr. Boggs passed quite some time ago. But he lived to a ripe old age. There was a big turnout at the funeral. People respected Mr. Boggs.”
“He was kind to me.”
Izaak nodded again. He was a patient man, which helped. They were standing out of doors, under the portico. The weather had moderated, and the snow was gone. It felt deceptively like spring, the leaping time of year. Eleanor had a black woolen shawl over her shoulders, knitted by a grieving female hand after a relation fell in the trenches at Belleau Wood. The shawl had the weight of ages, not such a bad thing. The sun made the trees stand straight. Izaak wore dungarees, a leather belt around his waist bristling with the tools of his various trades.
“Would you like to go inside, Miss Malkin? You look a little peaked.”
“No, I would not.”
He gave her his arm, and they strolled on the drying pavement of the drive. She said, “I suppose you know all about my father.” That was unfair. She should not have put him on the spot. She tacked leeward and began again. “My father, Prince Malkin, left the family when I was a girl of ten. Irreconcilable differences, I believe is what they call the category.”
“At that time, Randolph–Mr. Boggs–was working for us.” That might not seem germane, but it was. She took comfort from Izaak’s patience, deep as seven wells, and inhaled before going on. “After the Packard, that is, after my father left, my mother wrote to her brother. Lambert Thierry was the name. They are French-Canadian, originally. She wanted a man around the house to see to things.”
“Seems natural enough.”
It was coming. No, it wasn’t. There was a block keeping it back. The block was her. Izaak pointed to a red fox going into a hedge on the edge of the yellow grass, its stiff brush pointing as if to indicate a direction for her to take. The direction was backwards.
She said, “There was a problem.”
The way he said it made it sound as if she had been perfectly clear. Why didn’t more men have that faculty, or choose to exercise it?
“Down in the cellar,” she said.
It was all she could manage, and he walked her to the front door.
She had a restless night and got up to drink a finger’s worth of rum. As she sat with the afghan over her knees in the study, pictures of her life out west came into her mind. They were snapshots of things that seemed to stand for more than themselves. A view of the unruffled Pacific from a sandy bluff at Torrey Pines. The aggressive fin of an enormous blue Cadillac in which she once rode very fast. At a stoplight, one summer afternoon, she had looked over at the driver of the car in the lane next to her. It was Milton Berle. He lifted a hand and waved, like a gentleman. She had made a life in California, her own life. She had persevered. Maybe that was enough.
It was not. When Izaak–she had his name, finally–showed up to caulk the windows, she stood watching him at his task. She had always enjoyed that, seeing a man apply himself to a job, losing and finding himself in the work.
“My Uncle Lambert.”
“I cannot recall why I was in the cellar.”
He kept caulking, which was the right way to go about this conversation.
“He bothered me.”
Izaak turned around, understanding perfectly. With a level voice he said, “Your uncle molested you.”
She nodded. All these years on, and she could not stop trembling. The tears were hot as shame on her face. “Randolph happened to come down. It must have been winter. In those days, the house had a coal stove, and he meant to feed the fire.”
Izaak nodded. “Why don’t you sit down, Miss Malkin?”
She let him guide her to a chair.
“Randolph beat my uncle. Beat him badly. It was a terrible thing to watch. I felt myself to be at fault. What was I doing down cellar in the first place? It was not a place for little girls. The next day, my uncle was gone. No one ever referred to the matter, or mentioned Uncle Lambert again. Mother cried for weeks. She would hold me to her for hours on end. That’s why I came back to Towanda, you see. Back to Arrowhead.”
“To tell someone the story.”
“Not just anyone.”
Being in his work clothes, Izaak spread a tarp on a chair before sitting down in it. “I am sorry, Miss Malkin. Can I do something for you?”
“You already have.”
He stuck around longer than he needed to when he finished the window job, which was kind of him. She baked ginger snaps, and he ate ten or a dozen of them with hot coffee. A thin man could get away with eating cookies like that. He told her jokes she seemed to remember having heard when she was a child. He showed her pictures of his several daughters, which he kept on his iPhone. And he had the decency not to say a single thing that ought not be said.
That night, she knew before her head hit the pillow what fell to her to do. She slept well. Her dreams were densely textured, like so many blankets being laid over her passive body. In the morning, she took her time. She made oatmeal and drank a second cup of coffee watching four crows work the lawn for insects in a crew, their feathers glinting in the sun like the sleek, unloving creatures they were.
At some point somebody had put in a new staircase down into the cellar. It was sturdier than what her feet remembered, going down the steps. But the old-fashioned round black light switch was in the proper place, the light it cast as weak and evocative as ever. This bitch will sing, the skies will ring. No. That was not what she meant. There would be no more ditties, unbidden or otherwise.
The cellar was large, the size and outline of the entire first floor of the house that sat on it. There were crazy crooked rooms, there were nooks and crannies and gloomy corners. She twisted a block of wood that held fast the door of the coal bin, half expecting the harp to be inside, but no luck. The walls were black with coal dust. She traced a straight line with a finger on one wall and closed the door again.
The place had a smell, powerfully familiar, that no basement on the West Coast ever had or could have. It was a vegetable taint, what vegetables had in common with people, what they left behind. There was grease in the smell, too, and used-up oil. There were secrets, and old understanding. A whiff of the Devil’s sweat. She moved carefully, keeping an eye out for stray objects that could trip her up.
It gave her a start when she finally saw the harp. Up against the back wall of what used to be Randolph’s workshop, leaning at an odd angle, the instrument had a presence she briefly mistook for human. She stood there looking at it for the longest time, not daring to approach. The weak light abetted her imagination, and she sensed the thing was in distress, alone and unplucked in the Arrowhead cellar for so many years. Such neglect was a savage thing and made her shiver. Yet somehow the harp had kept its identity as a machine designed to produce beauty.
When she was ready, she grasped it by the column and pulled it to her. There were strings. They must be older than Eleanor was. She was careful not to touch them.
She pulled the harp by the base with extreme care, one hand on the column guiding. It took a long time to get the instrument out of the workshop and onto the rough concrete floor. She was breathing hard and felt sweat blossom under her arms, cold and damp as it was in the cellar. Her throat felt scratchy. Once, the base bumped over something on the floor as she dragged it, and the instrument moaned.
“I am so sorry,” she said, not feeling the slightest bit foolish apologizing to a thing.
She took a break, sat on an upturned apple crate breathing deliberately until her strength returned. What was likely a rat scuttled somewhere low in the dark. Damn the infernal creature. What was there to subsist upon in a cellar like this one? Overhead, outside, the world tore by in its customary frenzy. She felt, for a moment, safely distant from the viciousness of people bloodying one another, from the high, maniacal scream of them.
She was worn out by the time she dragged the harp to the foot of the stairs. If she had thought ahead, she might have brought something to eat. That way she would keep up her strength. But if she went up now, she would not come down again.
She sat on a stair, not minding in the least any dust on the seat of her skirt. She rocked back and forth a little. Then she did the one thing that remained to do. She reached out a hand and touched the strings.
The sound her touch produced was horrendous. It was tuneless and discordant. With growing pleasure, she raked the fingers of both hands across the old strings. The harp responded the only way it could. The anguished, angry sound moved her deeply. A matter, now, of taking her time. Pulling it up she would have to lean the thing, somehow or other bracing it, when she stopped to breathe. But by day’s end–there was absolutely no doubt in her clarified mind–by day’s end, the harp would rest above ground where it belonged.
Mark Jacobs has published five books and more than 130 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Iowa Review, Evergreen Review, and Delmarva Review. His stories are forthcoming in The Hudson Review and several other publications. He lives in Virginia. Website: markjacobsauthor.com.
Delmarva Review publishes the best of new short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from thousands of submissions annually. The independent literary journal is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Print and digital editions are sold by Amazon and other major online bookstores. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.
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