A Wordless Verse

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Start your story with somebody taking a photo.... view prompt

8 comments

Horror Speculative Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

(CW: murder/suicide, domestic violence, childhood trauma)


An exceptional photograph is poetry: through inspired choice, meticulous composition, and language of a kind, the still subject comes to life in the eye of the beholder. 


Ju Yeon’s hand was plenty steady, but under the roof of a drafty and eerily silent house, she struggled to find life on the other side of her camera’s viewfinder. An ocean-blue wingback chair occupied the bottom half and leftmost two-thirds of the frame, while a long, dark hallway created a nice leading line in the rightmost third. Above the chair was an oval-shaped mirror, in which she could see her reflection, face obscured by the camera. A tall lamp in the corner of the room cast long, horizontal shadows, evoking a floodlight. The composition was textured and dynamic, to be sure, but it did not quite feel alive. The problem, Ju Yeon realized, was the old man who sat in the chair—the one with the slack jaw and the bullet hole between his eyes. There was no fixing that, so she decided to press the button and move on. Fine. This photo did not need to be a poem. It needed to be proof.


Ju Yeon sat at the dining table and began to consolidate her belongings. First, she removed the lens attachment from the camera and placed both pieces in their carrying pouch. Next, she unscrewed the silencer from her pistol, which was still warm, and wiped it clear of prints. Once everything but the pistol was loaded into her backpack, she put on a pair of black leather gloves and rose from the table, setting the gun in the man’s hand and the man’s hand in his lap before moving to the writing desk. After digging through a few drawers, she found a decent writing sample. Using the dead man’s pen and custom embossed stationery, she carefully forged him a suicide note: To whom it may concern: However it may seem, I am not dead. I am finally awake. Free.


She sealed the note in an unmarked envelope and tucked it away in the man’s breast pocket. The job was done. But as she started for the door, something gave her pause. The house settled as an old house is bound to, except that the settling seemed to come from below. It was an unfamiliar, disorienting feeling, as though the basement were pressing up against the main floor. Immediately, Ju Yeon’s eyes went to the open basement door, and through it, to a crooked wooden staircase leading down into pitch dark. She instinctively retrieved her camera from her bag, turned on the flash, and snapped a photo. To no avail. Harsh as the light was, the darkness beyond verged on nothingness. That was quite enough to satisfy her curiosity.


Standing in the hall, the in-between place, it struck her suddenly that there was something vaguely familiar about her surroundings. Not quite to the point of déjà vu, but close. In fact, every strange house at first felt like a funhouse mirror of her childhood home, with the right parts in the wrong places, at the wrong scale. Fascinating, she thought, gears beginning to turn. She wondered if the carnie who designed the funhouse ever came to see himself as crooked, the way all of us shape our sacred space and then take it with us wherever we go. Her memories manifested as condensation on the walls, prisms bending light and time to transpose the past on the present.


Ju Yeon now knew what to look for. Hoping to capture a feeling, she put the viewfinder to her eye and started making her way around the rest of the house, heart racing with the thrill of discovery. 


***


Through her lens, the black pleather couch turned brown corduroy, its cushions dented, its color neutralized by age. Dozens of cigarette burns appeared on the arm, one after another like heavy raindrops on freshly-tilled soil. But nothing could be allowed to grow; nature was not motherly here. Click.


Through her lens, the kitchen cabinets lost their stain. Fist-size craters appeared in the cabinet doors, and were quickly replaced with glass, as though that had been the plan all along. “See?” Ju Yeon could hear her father say. “Not so bad.” The same could not be said of the deep, ugly scratches along his cheek and neck. What was the excuse again? That’s right—he said he had been clumsy and fallen into the roses out back. Sure thing, Dad. Ju Yeon was too bright. At a very young age, she could see straight through the ways her father tried to rewrite history for her. Closed doors did a poor job dampening the sounds of her mother’s viciousness. They may as well have been windows, and Ju Yeon may as well have been the rosebush, watching innocently from outside, thorns sharpening with each passing day. Click.


Through her lens, the foyer flooded with sanguine red wine. Her father was there, frozen in what would become the worst moment of both of their lives. He had been crawling toward the door, jagged pieces of a broken bottle sticking out of the side of his face. This was the very instant he decided to stop crawling, to give up. It was also the moment ten-year-old Ju Yeon decided to sneak away to a neighbor’s house and call the police on her mother. Click.


Each time she lowered the lens, the house returned to normal, thank God. Upon reviewing her work in the camera roll she found that, while her memories were not literally visible in the images of the house, they were palpable. That process of translation, the wordless verse: that was what made the work worth doing.


Up in the attic, the separate place, the higher place, she found something that vexed her. Inside the triangular prism that was the room, there were dozens of easels, each covered with ghostly white cloth. Moonlight shone through the far window, illuminating the motes of dust which flitted about like little comets. Ju Yeon put her camera away and approached the easels.


Under the first cloth was a watercolor of an Easter-yellow house in the suburbs. Standing in the foreground, next to the mailbox, was a woman tightly wrapped in a housecoat, sipping tea. Her face had been left blank, but with her long, straight black hair and slender frame, she could have been an older version of Ju Yeon. A version of her, had many, many things been different. The woman appeared again in the painting under the next cloth, this time standing in a large farm kitchen, holding a rolling pin with one hand and wiping sweat from her brow with the other. It was a different house, so the woman looked different: her face was a little plumper, her hair a little shorter. The painting under the third easel showed the woman in what appeared to be a cramped city apartment, sitting sideways on a couch. This time she held a hockey stick in her hand like an oar, which Ju Yeon supposed made the couch a boat, and the rest of the city an ocean. She knew for certain after seeing this image that the woman was meant to be her; they shared a distinctive crescent scar on the pad of their right foot. There were other reasons, too.


To each of the watercolor women, the house was their world. This was evident in the way their bodies blurred into the space, and the way the space bled back into them. In that sense, none of them were really Ju Yeon. Ju Yeon kept strict boundaries, because when the first home is broken, no place ever feels quite like home again. Not for long. The cracks in the foundation will always be there, slowly creeping up the walls, threatening ruin.


There was a more pressing matter. Had the man in the chair painted these? Had he been expecting her?


***


The man was still in the chair, just where Ju Yeon left him. But something had changed: the envelope in his breast pocket had been opened, and the note inside was laid out in his lap beside the gun. She picked it up to examine it, and her stomach dropped. Someone had written a response.


Free. I thank you for that, truly. If it were up to me, you would go and be free as well. Unfortunately, you will not escape the consequences of your actions. The house won’t allow it. I was its steward for many years, and now that you have taken my life, you must take my place. 


You will have questions as I did. Happily, some of the answers you seek are in the basement. But tread lightly.


Ju Yeon did not fear much anymore, having learned to live with the horrible things she had seen and done. It went like this: if she could intellectualize a thing, turn it into a subject for her mind to manipulate, then she could feel more powerful than it. But the dead man’s letter, the paintings, and the blackness beneath—bright as she was, those were all well beyond her grasp. 


It was mere curiosity that carried her through the basement door and onto the first step. Then real, animal fear set in. She resented fear, was disgusted by it; fear made people weak. It made her father weak, which made her mother angry, and vice versa, ad infinitum. As their child, she had a bit of both on her heart. Perhaps for no other reason than to defy fear, she clenched her jaw and took a large step, descending two stairs at once.


Her foot was met with air. Nothing. She fell, and fell….


***


A falling sensation shook young Ju Yeon half awake. 


“Appa,” she whispered, rolling around beneath her shooting star blankie. “It happened again… I was old like you….”


Muffled shouts from across the house echoed in the hallway, waking her fully. Her mother and father were fighting again, and this was one of the worst ones yet. Sighing, she sat up in her bed. Blue-white light shone through her window, casting long, horizontal shadows. Ju Yeon looked in the mirror at the foot of her bed and saw her pale face lit up like a half moon over a sea of stars. She liked her mirror. She liked things in frames, because a nice frame allowed her to ignore all the not-so-nice things outside of it.


And as she sat there, admiring the composition of her reflection, she heard glass shatter.

May 01, 2022 11:43

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8 comments

Kairi Longoria
14:29 May 16, 2022

I love the story it felt like I was right there with her as she was experiencing every thing.🙃

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Michał Przywara
21:58 May 09, 2022

I like it. I've reread parts of this a couple times, as there's a lot going on here. Horror, yes. The mundane horror of growing up in a broken home, and the supernatural horror of what's happening in the house. (And perhaps the horror of being watched, since it certainly seems Ju Yeon is not alone, and for part of it it's at least possible that someone is screwing with her.) Beyond that, Ju Yeon is a fascinating character. Her behaviour of lingering after the kill might seem irrational to us – the very opening scene even – but "She liked...

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A.G. Scott
22:18 May 09, 2022

I love making people re-read :) it means I'm adequately mysterious. And you're right, there is someone messing with Ju Yeon (me). She's actually based on an impression of an instructor I had in a class that discussed, among other things, the poetics of space. Take for example the house (wink wink); for the poet the attic is reasonable, ascended, keeps out the rain... but the basement is irrational, dark, abyssal. Thanks for the read!

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Amanda Lieser
13:04 May 08, 2022

Hello! Oh my gosh! Another stellar piece as per usual for you! I really love that you chose to incorporate paintings because they captured moments before photography was invented so I thought that was a clever take on the prompt. I agree with the other comments that the phenomenal element of this piece is the stunning imagery. I was also very intrigued by your MC. I am dying to know more about what makes this character tick. The last thing I love is that you included details about the camera and the act of photography itself. Thanks for crea...

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Riel Rosehill
08:06 May 07, 2022

Hi! This was such an enjoyable read, with great imagery throughout and so many twists and turns. The reply on the note... That was so creative! Great job with this, it's an awesome take on the prompt. Also, I love the title.

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Rochelle Miller
23:43 May 01, 2022

A.G. - I really enjoyed this story and the creative packaging. The experience of this story is so vivid. It's one of those that I think will stick with my memory. I'm a fan!

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Michael Mc Kean
21:34 May 14, 2022

Can’t believe this didn’t win! But I feel better knowing Reedsy doesn’t always get it right when choosing the winners. I lost a few rounds ago, yet the story ended up making money on another platform. Keep writing and keep submitting!

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A.G. Scott
21:44 May 14, 2022

lol... the better I feel about a story, the worse it seems to do. Appreciate the read!

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