I could hear her breathing against my bedroom door. She had short, labored whispers. I couldn’t see her, but I knew—I knew somewhere deep in my mind’s eye that she was old, and tired, and bent in all her joints. She had impossibly thin, sinewy limbs and grayed skin. But all that was just window dressing compared to her nails. Her nails were long, dragging at the floor next to her dried, callused feet. I didn’t know what those long, brittle nails were for, but every part of my instinct told me they were for nothing good.
It was just two weeks after my seventh birthday. I started hearing her outside my door every night, starting two-weeks prior. She never entered the room. I never saw her. I just imagined her, and—for all my horror—heard her.
She whispered to me. She’d tell me, through cracked lips pressed against the even dryer wood of my bedroom door, who I was.
She’d tell me how my parents didn’t love me. How my sisters barely tolerated me. How ugly I was. How I’d never be missed, for I was foolish, and unwanted, and dismissible. She’d call me a liar and stupid, making a point of how everyone knew it—and if they didn’t already know it, they’d soon find out. She’d tell me how I was alone, and would be alone, and how badly I deserved it.
The next morning, my father woke me up for school. I told him about the long-nail woman once again. “It’s those things you watch before bed, they’re giving you nightmares,” he said.
There might’ve been some truth to that.
I had breakfast with my sister: cinnamon and sugar white-bread toast with cranberry juice. My mother chatted on the phone—to who, it never mattered—pulling the smoke from a Marlboro light into her mouth between words. Her half-sipped, now cold, instant coffee sat next to an overflowing ash tray, as always. I tried to tell her about the long-nail woman too. She batted my words from the air with her own too-long nailed hand and pointed to my half-eaten breakfast.
As an adult, in retrospect, I view my visits by the long-nail woman as my mind working through several traumas (all of which I can’t name because the people involved are all very much alive, and doing so would cause a re-traumatization of several innocent people). Also, in retrospect, it was something that more altruistic parents, that weren’t struggling with their own problems, might have seen as a red-flag and acted upon. Regardless, that didn’t happen.
Our dining room back then was large, with twelve-foot ceilings and a grand fireplace with a hand carved, ebony mantle. The size of the room around me always made me feel ridiculous, shrunken and tiny at its center. There I was, a little girl, sitting at a cheaply stamped together K-mart breakfast-table, wiping sugar off a holey nightshirt, at the center of some long dead Englishman’s grand dining room.
All the houses on our block were like that. Most of the houses in the city, in fact.
Fall River, Massachusetts was dotted with the ruins of Victorian grandeur. The English came and built the mansions, and all the factories that supplied the wealth that paid for the upkeep of those mansions, over a hundred years ago. But, when the Great Depression hit, the factories started to fold, one by one. The rich Englishmen all left, leaving their fancy houses behind to rot.
Staring at the cracked crown molding, and brown Berber carpet my mother stapled over the house’s hard oak floors, it felt very much like living within the discarded skeleton of yesterday’s opulence.
With the English long gone, and the work all dried up, Fall River became known for only two things:
1- It is where Lizzie Borden probably killed her parents,
2- It is where Boston stores people it doesn’t want to deal with.
Fall River overflowed with Portuguese and East Asian immigrants—people like me. Little over seventy percent of the city was addicted to opioids, with the other twenty percent living in resentment of the first seventy. The high school was unaccredited by the state. The police were Irishmen, mostly shipped in from Boston to help keep the peace (and sometimes break it). And every mother, vovó, and auntie spent their days in housedresses on the phone, smoking cigarettes, and complaining about the uselessness of the men.
On that day, I knew there was no telling my mother about the long-nail woman, she was too embroiled in whatever drama whoever’s husband/boyfriend/son-in-law was causing. So, I told my sister about it for the fifteenth time in a row.
“Well, I saw the ghost again!” she replied. That’s how she always replied: unsubtle one-upmanship. She was convinced the house’s previous owner, Mrs. Tacoveli, was roaming the halls of the old Victorian. My mom was also convinced of this, along with our eldest sister. They all claimed to have seen the ghost, lovingly watching over my sisters like some apparitional, doting nanny as they slept soundly.
Dad said they were lying. There was no ghost. And, to Dad’s credit, I never saw Mrs. Tacoveli. I tried. I tried hard to see the ghost every time the halls were dark. But, nothing. It remained an amusement shared by every other female in my house, excluding myself—an amusement brought up and shouted about every time I tried to tell them about the long-nail woman.
Perhaps, like the long-nail woman was my mind processing my own issues, the loving, grandmother-like spirit was what their minds needed to deal with their own? Maybe where my mind punished me, theirs—through some collective conspiracy—worked to bring them comfort?
Regardless, that day I gave up trying to tell my sister and got ready for school. I packed my binders along with my newest obsession: a stack of Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark books. I wasn’t supposed to bring those types of books to school, seeing on how I attended a Catholic school and those types of things weren’t considered proper for young minds, but I brought them anyways. It was my own tiny rebellion in response to the Goosebumps books ban they instituted the year before. The school didn’t know about these scary books yet, and thus had not officially banned them. My young mind got off on the tiny legal loophole I thought I had found.
When I got to school, I ran up to my teacher to tell her I saw the long-nail woman again. She did as she always did, stared at me and said, “That’s creepy,” followed by, “You’re just a creepy little girl, huh?”
That made me happy. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because for all that statement’s dismissiveness, it still implied that my teacher had listened to and processed what I told her? Or maybe being a creepy little girl sounded enough like an identity I felt I could latch onto it, make it my own? It really didn’t matter which. I was usually just happy that an adult was talking to me.
At recess that day, I did as I always did, and hid behind the dumpsters with my friend, Jin-yi. I told her about the long-nail woman again, and she smiled, saying, “Oh, that’s weird!” She smiled at me a lot. Her English was bad, and her Portuguese was nonexistent, so she had trouble understanding what I was saying half the time, but she always stayed close to me, for the simple fact I did talk to her.
She liked being talked to, being included, even if she didn’t know what was going on exactly. She couldn’t understand most of what I said, but she seemed to love that I said it all anyways. Plus, she had one skill I didn’t—a skill that I was ashamed of not having mastered already at the age of seven: she could read.
She didn’t know all the words, but she could read them aloud clearly. She also never got scared reading horror stories, unlike the other kids. She’d never ask to stop, but just keep going, smiling, giggling at me, until the end. For a creepy little girl, it was the perfect friendship.
I gave her one of my Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books that day. She pointed to the creepy, graphite etched drawings and repeated over and over, “Scary!” giggling, as if her telling me they were scary added to the suspense of the story.
I loved the drawings more than the stories, I think. They weren’t cutesy illustrations, like in most kid’s books. They inspired a real sense of dread in me—an exciting type of dread. It was a type of grotesqueness that I couldn’t look away from and didn’t want to. It was a horribleness I could examine and pick apart the details of with all that horribleness locked securely behind the covers of that book, and away from me. It felt safe. It was a controlled scare, like a rollercoaster or haunted house.
In retrospect, it made all the traumas of childhood—especially a childhood in the rotting corpse of that old mill city—feel easier to process. It was a tiny trauma on a page I could control. I could pick it up and put it down at will. I could force myself to experience it when I wanted to, in the dosage I demanded.
It was a trauma I consented to; unlike all the others I’d experienced up to that point in my life.
Even under the most ideal circumstances, I now believe childhood is inherently traumatizing. For all the careful considerations the nuns at my school gave in shielding us from the terrible with their book bans, I now believe they did us a great disservice. They weren’t banning material that might traumatize, rather they ended up banning a tool we could use to cope and conceptualize the inherent trauma of being a child, growing up in the place we did.
I forgive them. They might have looked around at a disintegrating, impoverished, crime riddled city, saw scary stories and thought, “Don’t the kids have enough of that at home already?” How could they have known that for some children that was the exact reason they needed books like Goosebumps or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
I went home that day, unpacked my bookbag for homework. My father saw me unload my scary books. He frowned and pointed, “See, that’s why you’re getting nightmares.”
I didn’t respond, just nodded a silent, “Okay, Daddy.”
Before bed I watched some documentary on haunted castles on PBS, as the rest of the house did whatever it was that they did when I watched TV alone at night. It was neat. It had demon possession stories. I made a note to tell my teacher about it the next day. I giggled, hoping it would earn me another coveted, “You’re a creepy little girl.”
My dad eventually gathered me for bed, giving another frown toward the subject matter of on the TV. He didn’t have to say the, “See, child, this is why you have nightmares,” this time. It was implied.
Before he tucked me in that night, he handed me a pair of nail clippers and nodded. “In case your visitor returns,” he said.
I remember laughing. It was an imperfect gesture from an imperfect father, trying to fix their daughter’s problem. He didn’t know it at the time—he might have even thought of it as a joke—but those nail clippers symbolized the most important thing I needed as a child right then: a sense of control over what was traumatizing me.
She did not return that night.
By M.M. Schill
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