They say the apartment next door has always been haunted. That it was first owned by a secretive and solitary woman who had woven one too many spells or cooked up one too many schemes, and that the darkness which grew in one of its corners had eaten her alive. That since then, soon after moving in, its owners would be awakened by murmurings in the kitchen or bubbling laughter in the sala. That when the last occupants had borne a child, its opaque front windows had cast a greenish hue upon her, and as she grew, her skin went from a melon-tinged green to a rich, uneven avocado color. The distraught parents had tried everything to remedy the situation, from exorcism to a house blessing to breaking the thick, dull glass of the front windows, but nothing worked. And then they moved away.
At an early age, I had been warned many times and without explanation against playing too close to the wall that our garden shared with the apartment next door. Just as many times, I had nightmares of shadowy trees leaning over the wall to scoop me up in their leafy arms and smother me. Then one day, my aunt, who had come from the province to study at the college nearby, told me the story of the green girl.
She told me about the haunted apartment next to us, about other haunted houses elsewhere, and about other elsewhere containing creatures that either ate or befriended humans. Often the unusual friend-ships brought demands or sacrifices beyond what I thought I could endure.
“Stop scaring the boy, Hilda,” my mother would chide her. But when no one was looking, I leaned on our living room wall and listened to the silence next door. Sometimes, I could almost hear something: a muffled scrape as if a chair were being moved, a sudden hiss as if fish were being fried, a girlish laugh right at my ear, as if I had been secret sharing. I began to talk to that sound of laughing. “Hello,” or “What are you doing?”
Outside, by the garden wall, there were sounds other than the wind in the fraying leaves of mango, banana, and coconut trees, or the piercing screak of crickets at night. I would hear something moving in the grass, from shrubbery to shrubbery, breaking the stalks of plants, crunching the gravel, and then withdrawing, scampering away. “Come back,” I would call just above a whisper. “I am a friend. My name is Milton.”
And then one day, my new friend stopped to listen, and I, finding a captive audience, could not stop talking. “I don’t have to go to school now, the teachers need a break from us kids. My aunt has gone back to the province. I thought I would go with her, but my mother changed her mind. She keeps saying my father is abroad, but abroad is not on any map I have looked in. He has not come back. My mother always pinches me—”
And then suddenly, there stood my mother, pinching me. “What is the matter with you, Milton? Why are you talking to the wall? Did I not say there might be snakes next door that might bite you if you stand too close to the wall?”
“My mother is a witch,” I whispered behind the sofa, where my mother had told me to sit down, while she prepared lunch. My new friend giggled.
After lunch, my mother lay down for siesta. The heat seeped into every corner of our room, through the mesh Of our windows, through the electric fan that churned the air hopelessly, into the weave of the mat where I pretended to nap. I watched my mother’s prone body, the rise and fall of the hand on her chest, and when she began to snore softly, I crept out of the house.
Everything outside was so bright I had to blink several times. The dry, packed soil of our garden oozed a hot vapor, and the air above the brown, sparse grass growing near the wall wobbled in a haze. It reminded me of jelly, though it seemed barely visible, and when I tried to touch it, my hand went right through and touched the wall. The wall itself shimmered; it swallowed my hand, my arm, my head, and I found myself tumbling into the garden next door.
I tried to tumble backwards the way I had come, but the wall had turned solid again behind me. Something scaly brushed against my arm and nipped my ear, saying in a scraping voice, “You are smaller than I thought, Milton.” Its fiery whisper burned my ear and the side of my face. I whirled around to face the wall and saw nothing, no snake, no bird, no monster, nothing but the moss drying and scorched upon it.
“I’m not small!” I cried.
A shadow darkened upon the wall and laughed. “Too small to be a tasty morsel.”
I recognized the laugh at once—the low chuckle, the girlish giggle. I had heard them come from the same creature I had tried to befriend all summer. I did not want to look at its shadow, the horns on its head, the ridges down its spine, the curve of its maw near my ear. My ear and everything attached to it—was as good as lost.
I looked away, at the apartment that shared a wall with ours, at the huge broken windows in front and the weathered door below it. Its paint had peeled, its wood was scratched and splintered, its doorknob was askew. I wondered if I could run and hide inside. And then I did. My heels pushed, my knees unbent, and I sprang like a cat towards the door. My feet did the running, while I listened for sounds of pursuit behind me, the rustling of grass, the leap from crackling bush to crackling bush, the breaking of dry twigs, the skittering of tiny stones, the thump of a huge, ungainly tail. I stopped with my hand in mid-air, sure the creature was right behind me, breathing down my neck. Its tail had opened the door.
I had no choice but to step inside. It had planned this all along, to get me inside, spread me on the kitchen table, slice me up and devour me within hearing of my mother on the other side of the living room wall. And did she not wake and notice me gone? If I screamed, would she be able to save me?
Then I realized there was no sound behind me, no rustling, no wind, just a vacuum of summer stillness. When I peeked over my shoulder, there was nothing, just the wild, tangled-up garden. It was as forsaken as the rooms before me. And the house beckoned: search me, search my emptiness, fill me.
Despite my fright the temptation was too great. Was I not on the other side of the wall at last? There was little to look at, in every room, just more dirt-crusted floors, broken chairs, dun-stained walls, cob-webs as snarled as the shrubbery outside. Still, I wanted to see, and up the stairs I went, to inspect more of the same rooms, with their thick carpets of dust and waterlogged ceilings.
At the very end of the upstairs hallway was the smallest room, and there I found a little bed, a tiny desk, a wooden seat by a window too high for a child sitting to look out. The old and filthy mattress on the bed had been chewed on by rats. The desk, though battered and covered in dust still looked useable. When I lifted its sloping flap, I found a dead mouse and photographs too faded and watermarked to view. I stood up on the seat and looked out the window. And I saw my mother aflutter, looking for me in her garden, where the sparse grass was trimmed and sometimes watered despite the ration laws.
It was easy enough to climb the rusty, padlocked gate and bang on ours so that my mother could let me in. It was not easy explaining what I was doing out in the street, or why my knees were scabbed and my hands and face grimy. In fact I couldn’t, and for my silence, she marched me to the bathroom and then to bed. To make up for the siesta I had not taken, she said. But she also punished me by not giving me any supper.
I was hungry by midnight, so I crept down the stairs to our kitchen in search of a bite to eat. The creature was waiting for me there. I could see the huge triangular shape it cast upon the kitchen table as I opened the refrigerator door.
“How did you get in?” I asked, still too sleepy to be surprised, as if I had walked into a dream.
“The same way you got into my garden,” it said, and one shadowy talon pointed towards the wall we shared with the apartment next door.
“Why did you not do so before?”
“Because you would run from me, like you did, this afternoon.” “You wanted to eat me,” I said, pulling out a plate of cold fried chicken and putting this on the table I wondered whether I was offer-ing the chicken in my stead, or WI really did intend to eat it. “I might have been made whole then. Maybe. Perhaps. But you are so small, how would you contain me?”
This did not make any sense. I took out a fork and knife from the kitchen drawer, making sure nothing clattered that would waken my mother. I turned to the chicken, thinking I would feel better after I ate. And perhaps this dream would go away.
“Let me continue your Aunt Hilda’s story,” it said.
“Which one?” I asked, for she had told me many.
“The one about the green girl. She lived until she was nine years old. They succeeded, you know, in washing away the green from her.”
I forgot about the chicken. “They did? How?”
“An old woman helped them. She had brought many candles, a bag of ash, a washcloth she wiped the girl with, and a basin of day where the water slowly turned green as it drained away from the girl.
And that basin of green, they emptied in the garden. The garden grew the most splendid plants, fat, juicy tomatoes and eggplants; rare, one-of-a-kind ferns; beautiful sunflowers, chrysanthemums, roses, and orchids. But as the garden grew, the girl weakened. She grew paler, more transparent, and when they could barely see her outline, she breathed her last and disappeared altogether.
“Her parents moved away, but they burned the garden first, using most of their furniture. Why did they want to change her—what was so wrong with her lovely green skin?”
I could not answer that; I did not think green such a lovely color. I tried to peel away the brown skin of the chicken; it was my favorite part, though it was cold, wafer-thin, and flaccid. I could not eat it.
It was still sitting there. “I am the green that had been washed out of her, and I am no longer green. I have grown wild and unwieldy, hungry and unloved. Will you love me, Milton?” It was asking for friendship. It was promising adventure. Like all the stories my Aunt Hilda told. It was tempting. Then I remembered what sacrifices the hero would have to make to remain friends with such strangeness.
Summer vacation was almost over. I did not love school, but I cared about what my classmates thought of me. “No!” I said.
The creature, its shadow, dissolved before my very eyes.
By school time, I believed it was a dream, a dream I had dreamed because I was so hungry, and could not eat cold chicken.
Outside my room’s window, just across it, an old, murky window leers at me, and below, a jungle has grown, trees linking branches to mask the underbrush, keeping me out. When I sleep, I stumble into this jungle, where I glimpse something completely green, except where it is dappled golden by the sunlight. It moves, always ahead of me, promising adventure, but I am never able to touch it.