Cellar Holler by Kari Larsen


Mrs. Aegis clapped her ears in horror. Her eyes were fine and would be, looking on. The matte floor would mute even broken glass, the yellow bar of light above the sink did not buzz, and the netted window, flies clinging, kept out the wind. Mr. Aegis chased a bat out of the cellar, and the holler stopped. The holler could have been her own, she was so scared. And Mr. Aegis was so good to help her. She did not want to think badly of him when he did things like that. Enough people thought badly of him. When the mason slandered him the year before, Mr. Aegis built a birdbath. It was as nice a birdbath as Lindenstrasse had ever seen. Loud going in, though. Bubbled at the base. Gurgled infernally.
     She was happy when her husband did things like the birdfeeder. She came from a class and generation of girls who married just to see why one would. Marriage was old and exotic, like phonographs and smoking. And she had some psychology and at first it was like studying, the way he careened the lawnmower and kicked it—not because it had careened, he careened it for the same reason he kicked it—and cried in the hospital with the lacerations. But she was no psychologist. Psychology was as remote to her as the blue-black yawper in the birdbath.
     When she newly was married, she was surprised to find her marriage required a certain kind of sex—not functional or generative or pleasurable. Prostitutes were the first things she thought of: sick, wearing only sable, besides their hidden-teeth grins and airy charms, like figures from fairytales. She didn’t know if she had ever seen a prostitute, if they lived under bridges, if there were a position in Iceland to clear them out, the way they did trolls.
     She didn’t know what exactly prostitutes were, as opposed to what she was—if they had confounded senses and could enjoy without understanding. She could do neither. Mrs. Aegis would wear sable because it was old and exotic. Mr. Aegis smoked and was fired and he vanished into the cellar and came back up with the birdfeeder.
     Mr. Aegis, she could only conclude, had not wanted to marry, but before she knew it there were children—Tabby and Isaac and Lys—and tiny, hand-carved boats and houses. And before she knew it there were no children. Isaac got a Linz waitress pregnant. Lys was third wife of a man with his own church. She said everybody had their own church now, and Mrs. Aegis should stop referring to it. She did. She did not talk to them to refer to churches or to ask where Tabby was. The days flooded, like a bulb floods the eye full of things. Things distracted, from the din of a pipe-kink, to the far-off sweeping and anxious shaking of chair legs and trashcans. All about the ground floor in a current the size and strength of a person, the anxiety traveled.
     Mrs. Aegis’ fear of sound, at this stage in her life, was a fun bauble. Her cousin had confounded senses—she could taste color. She always had something to pardon, could never eat Battenberg cake because it was the choleric yellow of wet leaves. Mrs. Aegis could quit any loudness, and even a wing shudder could swell into a holler from the cellar. To have such an exception about her was comforting, to have a characteristic that excused her from showing off her shock—even when it was pleasant—at what she was doing, which was clapping her ears in horror at a holler that would not stop. A holler without origin—she would rather prostitute herself, an autonomous, alien urge against which she would be powerless, than be prey to hallucinations. She wondered if that was how one became a prostitute, a viral loss of all control, like the diminishing of one’s white blood cells.
     That there were no children anymore was for the best, since she could not burden them with questions. Mrs. Aegis was overwhelmed by their Delphic qualities, Tabby especially. Tabby could sneak out of her window without sound. She had biblical eyes and an air of authority on her own experience, which Mr. Aegis suspected involved crystal meth. Crystal meth and bestiality and vital fluids flowing like bathtub gin, or so Mr. Aegis vividly imagined. How did he form these things, Mrs. Aegis wondered, that had no basis in reality—was it like the birdbath? Someone had to think of crystal meth. She knew the phrase. She knew her daughter breathed sharply. She had never known her daughter to holler. She would not know the sound. On her own Mrs. Aegis could conceive of Battenberg cake, and the brook in the village of her childhood, and the damp, uneven dolls she collected with great zeal in her children’s childhood. Purple snakes and orange doggies, jaunty and beguiled, never very upright: overflowing from the toy basket gave her a thrill unlike others. Tabby never took to them, not to spite her mother, and Mrs. Aegis believed that, and the clarity of that belief called into question the integrity of birdbaths, bats and marriage. If she had asked more questions, she might have known her children better.
     When Mrs. Aegis was seventeen, one was listed in a database, and found work through one’s listing and the timeliness and integrity of a certain, small certificate. As a teenager, Tabby knew networking was the sole means to enter the workforce—going to events uninvited, loitering, if it came to that—and qualifications, though dwindled down to certificate, indicated nothing but the ability to keep oneself busy. And Tabby kept Mrs. Aegis busy. Tabby had control, Mrs. Aegis believed—large, throbbing control, wherever she was now, seven years gone.
     Mrs. Aegis never asked for Mr. Aegis to build the birdbath. He assumed she must have wanted it, that the idea grew from underground, in the basement. But every time she looked for it, every time she fled from control and white blood cells, there was a list of inaccurate movies, or a holler.
     Her ears clapped in horror; she decided she did not like that anymore. She asked Mr. Aegis, knocking leaf clots from the rain gutter, about the bat he chased out of the cellar, the bat he said made that awful holler. White, he said it was, with sparse, fake-looking hairs, joints in its torso like one fat finger bent in accusation, pale eyes and blue-black wings, he said, blue-black from beating against the pipes. She watched the birdbath for it, frightened, forming the little villain clear in her mind.
     Mrs. Aegis consulted Mr. Aegis as to the birdbath, where it came from. He had extra concrete from another project, he said. Reconfiguring the basement. And he told her he had sealed the bat once and for all behind a new wall. She thought he chased it away, to which he said, “It came back. It wants to be down there. There is security down there.” Security, she remembered: that was it, and not control.
     Mr. Aegis had wet skin and not much hair and he had prostitutes, Mrs. Aegis believed. He took great risks to visit them, and brought his tools. She went to the cellar and it smelled like Battenberg cake. The matte floor was swept but filthy and hot like a mill of bodies. A gurgle and shift came into Mrs. Aegis—sound was so intrusive. A clap came from beyond the new wall. She clapped and felt the wall for a response. The clap from beyond directed her to the corner where a limp orange puppy was lolled, cement-flecked and wet with being held.

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Kari Larsen’s chapbook, Say you’re a fiction, is forthcoming in the summer of 2012 from Dancing Girl Press.