The Cellar Dweller by Maria Dahvana Headley
Buildings were built, in the beginning, everyone knows, to hold the dead down. Every cellar floor was built over the ceiling of something else. Now cellars are used for all sorts of purposes. Roots. Paint cans. Pantries. Workshops. Other.
There’s a rhyme someone invented for children. It’s chanted in nurseries in the Banisher’s town. The nurseries are upholstered in chintz, and the walls are padded, as though they’re asylums and the babies inmates.
There is an awful thing that lives beneath the cellar floor, little darlings. There is an awful thing that comes up from beneath the cellar floor, up and through the cellar door.
The rhyme’s sometimes sung as a lullaby to pretty little ones, who curl in pretty little chairs, and play with pretty little rolling horses and pretty little rocking dogs. When they nod off to sleep, all’s well and right, but beneath their houses, things are fell and wrong. Things press their noses up through the dirt.
If you wake at night and hear a roar, perhaps you’ve heard the awful thing that roars behind the cellar door.
The children dream, and as they dream, they wriggle in their beds like worms pressed under stones. There are sugarplum visions in their pretty little heads.
There is an awful thing that lives beneath the cellar floor, little darlings, and it wants more and more and MORE.
They wake singing. They giggle and make faces. There is an awful thing that lives beneath the cellar floor. Run in circles and put on a pinafore. At the end of the rhyme, there’s a reward. Sing it long enough, and someone’ll give you candy.
The pretty little ones in the Banisher’s town sometimes tantrum from joy, but when they do, even their crying’s pretty and little. If they wake at night and hear a roar, they don’t go down the nursery stairs and through the cellar door, nor do they go to see what’s roaring beneath the cellar floor. They’re too pretty and too little for that.
The Banisher isn’t one of these pretty little children. The worst children on earth are the pretty ones, and that’s something that’s been known to ugly children for centuries.
The Banisher’s teeth are crooked, and her hair grows in knots the color of mud. Her elbows are too pointed, and her eyes are shifty and make people nervous. She’s had three broken noses, and she’s also had worms. She may still. Once, all of her fingernails fell off, and another time, she lost all of her hair, even her eyelashes, which made her even uglier than she was before. When that happened, she went underground for a while to avoid being busted. She’s got the kind of nose that runs, and the kind of skin that breaks out in rashes. She has all her limbs, which is somewhat miraculous, but she’s missing the little finger on her right hand.
The Banisher wears a coverall she found at a Salvation Army, a hat with earflaps she acquired at a lost-and-found, and a pair of cowboy boots with spurs. The Banisher doesn’t have friends, nor does she have family. She’s the only Banisher in the area. There’s no competition. This is her own business.
She’s an exterminator. Her customers have her come to the back door, her equipment hidden in a sack. It’s rare that a homeowner wishes to acknowledge that they’ve become a bed-and-breakfast to pests.
She’s made some mistakes. There’re things she’ll never be allowed to have again, but she can live without them. The Banisher’s entirely self-sufficient, though sometimes she cries. People give her food in payment. Mostly she eats bologna sandwiches.
The Banisher is nine years old.
All this happened a long time ago.
A couple drove to a big-box hardware store two towns from the town where they lived. They bought boards and a shovel. They bought buckets. They had a book of how-tos from another century. Planks, a spade, a shovel, a hammer. Nails made of iron. They read the directions aloud in the car.
“Fourteen planks of poplar,” the wife said. “Cut to size.”
“An iron nail for every inch,” the husband said, and took a left turn toward the freeway ramp.
They were a young and attractive couple. They’d been married a few years, but had already talked about their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, the way they’d throw a party for everyone in their town, the way there’d be a twenty-five-layer cake with strawberries in it, even though they’d been married in December. They would import them from some other city’s summer. Every piece of cake would be served with a glass of pink champagne. They’d talked about the way the two of them would dance, as gracefully as they danced now. They’d taken lessons to surprise their wedding guests.
The wife took the husband’s hand over the gearshift knob so that they could shift to a higher speed together.
“You’re the most handsome,” she said.
“You’re the most beautiful,” he replied.
The Banisher’s ten when she banishes a horde of tiny awful things from the basement of a neighbor. The things are nothing terrifying to look at. They’re an inheritance, a collection of ivory netsuke, but by the time the Banisher meets them, they are occupied with their own agendas. They’re only little creatures, but when the household sleeps, they take to the stairs, doing damage, killing mice and swarming the occasional pet. The neighbor’s tidied them away into a box, but the box can’t contain them, and when the Banisher opens it, the tissue they’re wrapped in is flecked with blood, and all of them bare their teeth at her.
The Banisher picks them up by their scruffs and drops them into a tin formerly used for cookies, now lined with a washcloth. The Banisher isn’t cruel.
“Where will you take them?” the neighbor asks, looking worried.
“Out,” the Banisher says. In her hand, the tin buzzes and clacks.
She asks the neighbor for her sandwich and then she puts the tin of awful things into her bicycle basket.
She ferries them into the woods, climbs a tree, and then takes them from the tin. They hiss and clamor and clatter against one another. She puts them into an old squirrel’s nest. The little things spit, but shortly they curl into their new abode and look out at the sky and branches. They’ve not been outside before. She gives them some scraps of foil balloon, a ponytail elastic, and a few shiny buttons, and leaves them. As she climbs down, she hears them yammering and whispering, but she ignores them. She eats her sandwich at the base of the tree and reads a library book about ancient warfare.
The husband used the saw to cut the poplar planks to the proper length, and the wife got out the shovel and went down the cellar stairs. All that was down there was hard-packed mud. It should’ve been lined in wood, and in nails. It was damp, and the damp came up the stairs and into the house like a guest with five suitcases and no return ticket.
She pushed the shovel into the dirt and stepped on it. She laughed at herself for grunting. It was dark in the cellar. Upstairs, her husband sawed the planks, and down here she dug a hole. She thought about chintz and nursery walls as she dug, about the way she’d hang a mobile of little birds. Upstairs, the husband thought about the way he’d make a rolling duck on a rope.
There was nothing down here in the cellar yet. The wife dug and dug. No one had ever seen a couple as pretty as they were. No one had ever seen anything so lovely. She wore a white dress even to dig in. She wore a flower in her hair. Upstairs, she could hear her husband singing the song about the cellar and she joined him.
She imagined how she’d sing it one day, not so far from now, one day when all this was done. She’d sit in the upholstered nursery with a new baby in her arms and sing a song about the awful thing, but she’d never worry again. Her own mother’d sung it to her, and her mother’s mother before her.
The Banisher specializes in household inconveniences, the sorts of cellar dwellers that offer too much for the modern world. She advertises her services particularly for the banishment of gremlins, poltergeists, pixies, and nixies. She does a side business in rats, raccoons, starlings, and mice. They come with the territory.
The Banisher banishes an overpopulation of brownies who’ve lost control of their domestic urges and made a flood of porridge that’s filled a cul-de-sac. Those brownies are taken to a package drop, and overnighted to a country in the clutches of famine.
She’s called in to banish wood-gnawing fairies nested in the walls of someone’s newly-renovated showpiece home, and she draws them out with a combination of vinegar and honey. When they’re all safely basketed in individual wicker enclosures, she spackles over the holes in the walls. This is the second time she’s done this house. The client watches her nervously as she works her spatula, smoothing over the divots.
The Banisher tsks. The client’s offended. They think she’s too young to tsk.
“You’d do well to spackle this place yourself from time to time,” the Banisher says. “Any little hole, and they’ll get back in. This whole place was built on top of bad things. I know it looks like a fancy neighborhood, but it’s filthy here.”
The client pays her only three dollars in pocket change, child’s wages, and so the Banisher makes another little hole and lets the termite fairies directly back into the walls. This earns her some angry reviews and gets her thrown into foster care three towns away.
The Banisher banishes two foster fathers, one to the same forest she took the tiny awful things to. They’ve gotten bigger, and remember her. She returns to her original town.
In this town of pretty little children, the Banisher’s unadoptable, and for a while after that banishment, she lives under an awning, next to a magazine store. Something like her is never really homeless, or at least she doesn’t call it that. Sometimes she thinks about her parents. She hasn’t seen them since she was six. By now, she’s thirteen. At night, she doesn’t sleep well. The world’s filled with things that call out for banishing, but she can’t banish them all. Someone spits on her from a car, and someone else unfastens his trousers. Lots of things come out at night, but are invisible during the day.
Eventually, she pulls herself up and starts banishing at a higher level. She banishes a hobgoblin from the mayor’s office and then demands certain things in the way of subsidization. By the time the Banisher’s fifteen, she’s become a fixture in city politics. All the office basements are overrun. They’re relieved to pay her salary, and she’s relieved to have a living situation that includes walls and a ceiling. No one looks at her. She comes to the back doors of buildings. She banishes bad things, and though the city’s built upon the dead, most of what she sees is lost and living. She uses jackhammers on drains full of trolls. She pries up tiles and plucks out ragged house demons trapped in the grout. If she sees something else below the cellar floors from time to time, that’s nothing anyone discusses. The city has its ways, and she’s its Banisher.
The city officials look at her with their pretty little mouths pursed, and she puts the flaps of her hat down and gets to work.
Buildings were built in the beginning, everyone knows, to hold the dead down. That’s a line from the town charter, but it is hyperbolic. Buildings were built to hold the living. The rest is a side effect.
Up in each of the nurseries, the pretty little children sang for cake, and their parents sang to them about the awful things beneath the cellar floor. It was tradition. Who’d change it? It was one of the things that made the place so lovely. Everyone wanted to live in a place like this, where everyone was beautiful and no one was bad.
In the kitchen, there was a pile of sawdust, and in the cellar, there were planks. All the nails had been driven into the wood, and the planks were carefully laid against one another, over the mud, over the dark.
The lovely young couple sat at their kitchen table, eating their first lunch after the cellar’s completion. She gave him a bite of her sandwich, then opened her mouth and closed her eyes. He fed her a strawberry he’d brought out from the fridge as a surprise. She laughed in delight.
She put a record on the record player and put her arms around his neck, and he looked down at her.
“So beautiful,” he said.
“So handsome,” she said.
There was a sound from behind the cellar door, but the music muffled it, and the young couple danced in a lovely circle through their sitting room, past the yellow upholstered couch and up the yellow carpeted stairs, past the nursery with its upholstered walls and the rolling toy on the landing, which had a broken wheel, a missing eyeball and a crushed leg. It had started as a pretty and perfect little wooden horse.
The wife stumbled. She caught her high heel on the rope meant for tugging, but her husband lifted her off the ground and carried her into the bedroom as though they were honeymooning all over again.
When the Banisher goes to college, she majors in literature. A professor confidently insists that the most beautiful words in the English language are ‘cellar door.’
“Fuck that noise,” says the Banisher, who doesn’t care about beauty.
The Banisher graduates with honors. She still has a coverall and a hat with flaps, but she’s a normal person, and everyone agrees on that. She’s not become pretty. She’s tall and thin as a tine, her knots of hair still the color of mud, her eyes the color of moth wings. Her nose is even more crooked than it was. Now she calls herself Agatha.
She’s got a list of losses, but awful things up from hell only ever wanted to go to the forest. Awful things from under the hill were starving for milk and bread. She gave them sandwiches and cups of milk. She treated them as she wished to be treated. She took the rats to dine on garbage, and the raccoons to wash their food in wading pools. She took the poltergeists to rooms full of pots and pans and let them play.
She lets it slide, the employment of childhood. When people ask, she refers to banishing as her lemonade stand, the way she put herself through college, the way she found a home after she was orphaned. She doesn’t tell people what really happened. Her parents were there, and then they weren’t.
She puts her memory of banishing into the darkness where she keeps all the things she’s found behind cellar doors. Those stellar scores, tiny hoards of gold pressed beneath the floorboards by little men. Those yeller roars, howled into the night by wormhounds. Those hell armoires sometimes found in the oldest of the basements, doors that opened into darkness. Occasionally, she unearthed a nevermore in one of the cellars, and she whispered to it and took it to the woods or to the sandwich counter, took it to a brightly lit room where it might look at tanks of fish. She knew what nevermores needed. They were only lonely.
Eventually, the Banisher’s childhood is nearly twenty years in the past, and if sometimes she goes into a closet in her apartment, if sometimes she wanders in the basement of her building, it’s no oddity. She’s a woman alone, and always has been. There are some things she’s not allowed, nor will she ever be.
She sits on her couch and reads library books about ancient warfare. She teaches classes at the college. No one who knows her now knows anything about her history. The town proceeds. Every house has its couple, and every nursery has its baby. Agatha lives in a building full of the rest of the unpretty from everywhere, not in the town at all, but on the outskirts. If it still feels like home, she can’t blame herself for that.
A newly-wedded couple in the town buys a house with a cellar full of dirt. The house is a shameful thing: a fence without paint, a yard overgrown, abandoned for years, at last sold at auction. Nothing unusual. The couple’s seen all the paperwork. The problem’s always been the cellar.
It’s just a dirt room, dirt from the bottom to the top, and when the cellar door’s opened, dust puffs out into the kitchen.
It’s a pretty little house, and so the pretty little couple moves into it with their pretty little child, a nursery on the top floor, but still, there’s this trouble. It’s part of the square footage the couple paid for, but it’s unusable.
Their pretty little daughter wants to go down those stairs. She can hardly be kept from it. The couple puts their heavy kitchen table on top of the cellar door, and their daughter plays beneath the table with her rolling dog and her dancing dolls, and all’s well and good for a while, but then it isn’t. The daughter sprawls upon the cellar door, listening to the kitchen floor.
Something screams one night, and then every night after, in agony and futility. It screams that it’s trapped.
The couple panics. The couple consults. Someone at the church, someone less-than-holy, finds them the Banisher’s phone number.
The Banisher steps into the house through the back door. It’s like every other place in the town. She looks up to where the nursery is, and there are the stairs, and there’s the pretty little daughter in her pretty little white dress.
“Hello,” says the child. “What are you?”
“Right,” says the Banisher. She’s wearing her coverall. It’s stained. She fumbles with her earflaps. “You want to show me the problem?”
She walks behind the mother of the house, down a hall painted yellow, toward a kitchen door painted white, and everything in her wants to run, but there’s no reason for that. Her name is Agatha. She lives alone in an apartment with nothing particular in it. No small ivory objects. No mementos.
“I don’t even want to go near that door,” the husband says and shudders. “Not even near it. It’s weird, right? Whatever happened down there?”
The wife pushes a plate of sandwiches across the table toward their guest. “He’s not kidding,” she says. “Have a seat.”
The wife pulls out one of the kitchen chairs. There’s a sound from below the floor.
A crying sound, a wailing sob, something miserable. Something large.
“I’ll just do what I came to do,” says the Banisher, and heaves the kitchen table from off of the cellar door.
“You might want to leave the house for the afternoon. No telling what I might need to use to clear this.”
The pretty little girl runs down the pretty little stairs, her toy in her arms. She stares at the Banisher.
“It’s stuck,” the little girl says as her parents take her from the house. “It’s been calling for a long time.”
The Banisher turns toward the cellar and kneels to unlatch the door. All’s dust, then, in the base of this building, its foundation full of dirt, the cellar and its planks, its iron nails, and all around her, the sound of the wailer’s wails.
If you hear a wail, if you hear a roar, dig your fingers deeply beneath the cellar door. If you feel a cut, if you feel a score, it’s only something awful trapped beneath the cellar floor.
The Banisher moves the dirt. There’s enough to fill the kitchen, but it’s loose, not packed down. At last, she touches wood. At last, she touches iron.
She pries up a plank and finds a place where no plank is, the wood splintered and broken, the dirt beneath it moist.
The Banisher whispers, and there’s an answer. There’s a set of glowing eyes in the dark, and she holds out her hands and takes the awful thing into her arms, kneeling on the wood and iron, her body bending into the hole.
A plate. A bologna sandwich. A sliced apple. A little girl looked up and smiled at her mother’s pretty face. Her mother in a white dress with a white flower over her ear. Her mother with a smudge of mud on her cheek and a shovel in her hand.
When she woke, she was trapped, heaviness around her body, her hands stretching. There was a ceiling made of wood. Her parents were gone. She’d banished them somehow. She cried in the dark, but it didn’t get light.
She cried for days and nights, perhaps for weeks, and above her, the sound of a record player, and then a baby crying, and then a song. Above her, the sound of a rolling toy, but she was below it, beneath the cellar floor, in the dark and grime, in the underneath.
High-heeled shoes danced around the kitchen, and the leather soles shuffle-stepped, and the bare feet of the little pretty one learned to walk.
She cried for something, and finally something came.
It dug around her with its long claws and shoveled the dirt away from her face and hands. She discovered her finger was gone, chopped off by a careless shovel. The awful thing licked her face and brought her food. It curled around her and comforted her.
Later, she’d emerge, in the night, into the kitchen. Later, she’d leave muddy prints across the tile. Later, she’d run from the house and into the street, covered in mud, her clothing rotted from the dirt, her hair in tangles, her eyes flicking across every face. Later, no one would see her or know her. Later, she’d put up a flyer to earn food by helping the things she knew from her time in the dark out into the light.
All this was a very long time ago.
Now its claws scrabble on the planks. Its eyes are large as plates. The nevermore’s been down here twenty years.
The Banisher wraps the nevermore in a blanket and carries it up the cellar stairs, up and through the cellar door. It’s as large as she is. It’s the only one who knows her. She gives it milk and bread. She gives it her hand to hold.
The most beautiful words in the English language are well known to those who know them, but they are not the most beautiful words to everyone.
She bundles the nevermore into the front seat of her car and drives it to a night market. She and the rest of the ugly city roam, the ivory awful things grown large as men now, their joints stitched with sinews stolen from wild animals, their jaws rattling when they see her, the wood-gnawing fairies selling carvings of bees and hummingbirds. The Banisher barters for Christmas roses gathered into a bundle of burgundy and black. She buys her nevermore a cup of hot milk, and her nevermore buys her an abyss contained inside an acorn.
She looks for them now, though they’ve never looked for her. They’re still here, of course, though they abandoned their house.
One day, the husband went down and saw a hole in the floor, a hole without a bottom. They filled the cellar with mud and moved to the other side of town.
It’s twenty-five years since the December day her parents married, and they’re having a party. The whole town’s invited. There’re lights strung up around the center of the city, and under the town there’re cellars and more cellars, and beneath every building, secrets. Buildings were built to hold the dead down. There are no ugly children here, no ugly young couples. There’s only light and sunshine and padding. There’re only nurseries full of pretty songs.
The Banisher saw them as she banished. Little skeletons in the dirt beneath the cellar floors, one or two, or sometimes more, planted there. Houses built atop them, and the houses bloomed with flowers and the families were more lovely, and the little children sang the rhyme to keep the things from screaming, though the dead were done with screaming. All the things beneath the ground came here. All the fell were called by the sorrow of dying children, but the Banisher is the only one they found in time. They brought her out into the light.
It’s snowing, and the Banisher drives, her nevermore beside her. In the backseat, there’s a bouquet. The car’s filled with creatures, all of them things from the dark and damp.
The Banisher walks into the kitchen in her coverall, and the kitchen staff rustle nervously. None of them are for viewing. They’re not from this town. The ivory accompanies her, a troupe of netsuke with scavenged fox teeth, and the kitchen staff consults with itself and departs out the back door.
The band’s playing, and all the guests are giving speeches about beautiful and handsome, and all the townsfolk on the dance floor are spinning on their toes. The two of them are there in the middle, a white dress on her, a white tie on him. They are no less beautiful, though her hair’s brighter and his is streaked with silver.
The Banisher looks at them for a moment. There is their other daughter, a pretty little lovely with her pretty little love. All of them are wearing shades of pale. All of them have had all of these years, and none of them are different.
Beneath the dance floor where every lovely couple whirls in their fancy dresses and tuxedos, awful things are singing in the tunnels, sweeping out the dust that holds the ground together, planning for a festival, planning for a parade.
The cake’s in the kitchen spinning too, in the center of a susan, lazily turning, twenty-five layers filled with strawberries out of season. The Banisher decorates it. There’s a table stacked with glasses of pink champagne, all of them poured, and the Banisher and her brownies garnish them with petals.
And later in the evening, when the town eats hellebore, when the dancers fall to shambles through the broken dancing floor, when deep beneath the city, there is heard a horrid roar, all the something-awfuls come up to settle their score.
Her creature holds her hand and whispers, and the word it says is, “More.”
It is a fell thing with a tail, and she’s the one the fell adore.