They'd called it the Bungalow, back then. Single-storeys and semi-detacheds had lined the streets then, and the additional floor of number 32 towered above its surroundings. But now, hemmed in on both sides by the new developments, the old house looks almost pitiful, shrinking away from the high concrete walls beside it. It sits in the middle of the plot, its windows shuttered, brooding, dreaming the dreams of old buildings and other abandoned things.
The gate stands closed. It is exactly as Hannah remembers it, plain, black-barred, no-frills - with the exception of a padlock and chain, securing it from the outside. New. No rust.
"I haven't been here in months. What's going on?" She gives the gate a loud rattle.
Isa sighs. "Move," she says, pushing the younger woman aside. She inspects the lock and chain, running over it with her fingers, and traces a pattern in the metal. A flower, a mandala - then something clicks. For a second, it's as if a pattern really does appear, glimmering fingernail scratches and silver. White sparks shower, and Isa swears - "Goddamn arthritis!" She tries again. This time, the lock and chain fall to the ground. There is a shiny smell of handrails.
"What the hell was that?" asks Hannah. The smell is alien to her, foreboding, and childhood memories surface, triggered by the act, the inexplicability in front of her eyes. No, not her, too. Just like Mother…
"Basic black-line working." Isa's wry smile curls like the tail of a cat, picking up the fear in her voice. "Not for everyone. Maybe not for you." Isa unlatches the gate, and the two of them step onto the driveway.
She composes herself. "Did she teach you this?"
"Her art was… another end. Not that she would call herself like that." She wrings her hands and cracks her knuckles. "You seem… uncomfortable."
Hannah waves it off. "It'll pass. It'll pass."
They walk down the driveway, which is drowned out in a wash of coarse grass and weeds, onto the black-and-white mosaic-tiled patio. The cracks in the tiles where Hannah remembers, and quite a few more where she doesn't. The porch roof sags. Without Mother, the house gives her a feeling that it didn't quite fit together like it used to: corners out of place, walls falling together and pushing up against each other at all the wrong places. Was it some last remaining charm, some arcane entwining of the heart and home - or is it all just an illusion? Does her mind's eye, still reeling from Mother's absence, begin to see the house fall?
The front door is locked; they unlock it, this time with Hannah's keys. The sudden ringing startles her. A burglar alarm? Hannah looks up in confusion - she's never installed one, Mother never let her.
The sound knifes into her ears. Isa stops, tilts her head, as if listening for something. She raises her hands towards it and contorts her fingers, focusing intensely on something just beyond the reach of her vision. Then, abruptly, she puts her hand down. The ringing stops, but the contraption continues flashing its angry red light.
"That's not helping!" screams Hannah, hands over her ears. What has she done, this woman…
"You make a lot of fuss considering you've just broken into your own house." Isa trots down the hall, massaging her hand. Hannah scowls, and follows. What other choice has she?
Stale air greets them in the hall. The place seems bigger now - like the space itself has expanded to replace the gaps. The late afternoon light filters through the half-closed windows, casting ribbons of yellow glare across the floor and walls, filling it with an emptiness, a substantial kind of emptiness. Nothing creaks or moans; aside from their footsteps, the house is silent.
There is also a camera on a wall.
It's not even a good place for a camera. It faces the wall opposite it, fixating expectantly on a spot where the paint has slightly peeled. Four brand-new screws stud it neatly into the concrete.
All Isa offers is a shrug. "Someone has been here."
There's more of them, further inside. She'd removed most of the furniture when Mother moved out - sold the more sentimental pieces, threw out the rest - and the cameras stand out all the more, the only objects left, blank lenses staring dumbly at exposed walls.
Other things, she realises, are slightly different too. Patches of discolouration or peeling on the walls, like the one near the front door. In the dusky interior of the house, they look like silhouettes cast on the walls after a nuclear blast. Some are even human-sized. As she stoops to inspect one of them, she coughs; the floor is caked in a layer of fine cement dust.
Amidst the quiet, the emptiness breeds a certain kind of nostalgia. The ledge by the front window, where afternoon sun illuminated the sepia-toned pages of library books; kitchen counter of sandwiches made and consumed at six in the morning, every morning, for years; the corridor from the kitchen to the back porch, walls familiar under her touch, a path traced routinely in charcoal-black night by hands and bare feet and wide-open eyes. Memories set in the geometry, engraved in the masonry - extending, perhaps, to the very foundations. But foundations shift and sink in the monsoon-drenched soil. And shadows appear, and cameras crop up in empty houses.
Elsewhere, the geometry is more subtle. Clusters of black on the monochrome mosaic-tiled floor, coalescing in patterns that only her eyes recognise; browned stains where table legs once stood. Bit by bit, the memory of the place flows back into her, and when she closes her eyes for a moment the image of the house surrounds her like a cocoon. In a way, it was a cocoon - she'd spent most of her years growing up here, the years that really mattered - the years of schools and books and teenage heartbreak, its dreams dreamt under this very roof. Maybe some still even survive, collecting softly in the eaves.
Hannah clears her throat. "Alright, what are we looking for?"
Isa paces across the hall, hands clasped behind her. "I was very interested, when you said Mother was gone. Erasure, this kind of erasure - can't be done alone. Needs contagion… needs sympathy. Part affects whole. Like affects like." She turns and fixes Hannah with a gaze. "Now you were raised by her, you should know. What part of the sculpture is not part of the artist? How much of the sculptor in the sculpture?"
"I don't know, I was never really -"
"Of course you don't know." She sighs. "Art has power. There is art, and then there is art. Your mother was the latter." A pause, thoughts recollecting to the present. "Her studio, where was it?"
Hannah rolls her eyes. "Well, say so, then." She tramps up the stairs with aching feet and reeling head.
A loud peeling-cracking noise from downstairs.
Skeeerlch. Like plaster stripped off a wall.
For a moment, Hannah thinks to herself - absurdly, fearfully - that the house is coming down. Then, the sound of stone scraping against stone. Isa stops in her tracks.
Up the stairs, footsteps - staggered, muted sounds, feet of clay. Trod-trod. Trod-trod.
A gray cracked hand grips the edge of the banister, pulling the rest of its body into view. It's almost human - or once was. Cracks run across its trunk. It lurches forward and catches on the last of the steps, body lunging, grasping, legs spasming like a dead cockroach's, kicking, kicking, still clawing. Hannah screams, runs towards the studio, fumbles for the door, shuts it, jiggles the handle - it doesn't lock. A voice inside her reminds her that she'd removed them herself for Mother's safety.
The thing continues, undeterred and unaware, arms dragging the broken half of its body forward, kicking-thrashing towards them, mouth opening and shutting in a silent wail. It nears, its jaws gape and melt, concrete hardening and gurgling in its throat, now twisted into yawning chasm and cement-mixer maw and Hannah's eyes widen in sudden recognition -
She kicks it in the face. The effort unbalances her, and she half-backpedals, half-trips onto the floor, stumbling. Still the thing advances. Arthritic fingers grasp her shoulders and she finds herself being pulled backwards, impossibly, through the wall -
- and then they're through, like passing through a velvet curtain. Outside, the thing with her mother's face clawed, and hardened, and died.
The new space is dark. The air feels musty, confined, giving the sense of a very small room. No breeze. And the heavy breathing from behind her is, thankfully, Isa's.
"Memory construct," she says, hardly out of breath. "Mostly harmless."
"It tried to - it was coming for - you panicked, and ran - "
"A dead thing. Never alive. It meant no harm."
"But its face, did you see its face - "
"A dead thing. Nothing more."
The darkness parts, and now Hannah can see that they are in an unlit alcove, with a translucent partition separating them from the studio. In front of them, the concrete figure lies stiff as a board. She passes her hand through the gap, and the space reflexively withdraws from her touch.
She emerges to inspect the body. It's the pallid gray of fresh cement, completely hardened, and its surface is as dry as dust. It stares at her through grossly distorted features, likely damaged from the agitation earlier - eyes now golf-ball sized gouges, nose a flattened mess, mouth a knife-slash idiot grin - she thinks to herself that perhaps the resemblance to Mother was only imagined, like the emptiness of the house. An illusion. There is no nostalgia here: the contorted form on the floor fills her with contempt, bordering on pity. But there is also a poignancy in its grotesqueness, like looking at broken dolls, or mannequins - or old yellow photographs, its inhabitants long dead.
So close to life, yet so far…
"Should we… do something about this?" she asks, kneeling to get a closer look. Despite her apprehension, despite the fear she knows she would have felt, approaching the body in all its misshapen unnaturalness - there is a calm about her, one she did not previously knew she could have had. This is new to her.
"You want to bury it?" asks Isa incredulously.
Hannah shrugs. "I suppose. Or something."
"It was never alive," repeats Isa. She stoops over the body and prods it with the edge of her sandal.
"Well, it doesn't feel right, just leaving it out here like this."
Hannah rummages in her purse, fishes out some kind of cloth, and lays it over the deformed hollows of the figure's eyes. A shallow gesture, but a gesture nonetheless.
Isa raises an eyebrow. "Spectacles cloth?"
"It's the best I can do. You got anything better?"
She gets up. Behind them where there once was wall, a mirror now stands, not really there but all there, shimmering in the windowpaned evening light. Hannah now sees that the space behind is not an alcove, but the beginning of a corridor, long and unlit, stretching into the dark. Further on, there is another emptiness, the sensation of a larger space beyond.
"We never had one of these here before." Hannah stares at the mirror in disbelief.
"Could be you refused to see it." Ignoring Hannah's glare, Isa runs her hand along the mirror's rim, embossed with - what, exactly? Chinese? No, too freeform, too jumbled-up. They glitter in response to the touch, bringing to mind memories long forgotten. Pottery glaze. A glass of water in the July sun. Its surface ripples, and bends.
The older woman steps through the mirror. Hannah follows, and together they pass through the darkened space, reflections doubling and annihilating each other in their wake.
Hannah traces her hand along the brick wall as she passes, and her fingers come away with dust. The light from her phone illuminates the way, showing blank walls, until the passage opens and no sooner do her feet cross the threshold when bright white light blazes down above her and burns into the new space beyond. A large hall, high-ceilinged and square, adorned with plinths and wooden tables. Above, the lights are set into wide, sloping rectangles that give the illusion of open-air skylights, of sunshine bursting through clear glass. She always did like bright spaces.
She dizzily imagines the space jutting out from the side of the old house, impossibly so, five metres above the ground, and reels momentarily. But the floor underneath her is solid, with not even a little give or hollow feel behind the wood.
Pottery wheels, all manner of tools old and new. And shards: clay, porcelain, ceramic, stone - shards and shards of material, as if a whirlwind had laid waste to a gallery. In all actuality, this probably was a gallery at some point - a private, secret one, bright and skylit, kept by one woman for one woman alone.
This is where she put them. Hannah remembers clearing endless piles of figures and lumps of fired clay, arranging them in the living room, wondering if there was scarcely enough space in the hall to fit it all. And one by one they'd disappear, hidden away, her mother complaining that she'd lost them again. They'd ended up here, it seems - that is, until whatever event had befallen this place and smashed them all to pieces.
She goes along the pedestals, sweeping her hands in the dust. The fragments look as if destroyed with purpose, with vigour; she traces the trail of some ochre pieces - feet, or small hands, she decides - fragmented across the room, their trail ending at a thick heap at the foot of a wall where they'd been flung. Sky-blue ceramic spread across a table like rock candy, crushed almost to dust. The faint imprint of large hands.
Some pieces display hints of their former selves. A cloud of red shards whirl angrily in circles. Marble pieces extend futile tendrils that grasp at nothing but air. Piles of mildew-grey dust, pulsing to an unheard beat in complex nodal patterns.
"What do you think?" Isa not so much asks, as proposes the statement.
"Somebody came in here, destroyed all her work?" Hannah scratches her head. "Did someone have it out for her?"
"She wasn't without enemies. Other artists. The suits." Clay and ceramic careen around her, gyrating in their places like exotic clockworks. "Some of them… it would not be too much, to destroy everything she made."
"As an insult?"
"As precaution." She steps over a crushed sculpture with some level of disdain. "Never know what a woman can do, all of this garbage… "
Hannah isn't listening. She's looking at a low, heavy bench set against the wall in the far corner of the hall. Something lies below it, bulky and limp and decidedly not made of clay. Debris surrounds it in a circular heap. "Hang on, is that - ?"
As she approaches closer, she can see that the thing is covered in something dark. Closer still and she discerns that the dark substance is blood. A dead body, not a concrete one, real; battered beyond recognition, crusted in black congealed blood. And on its forehead, carved, a sigil: twin circles, interlocking, encompassing each other.
"Oh my god," she mutters, hand clasped over her mouth.
Far off, the sound of sirens.
Isa's face is grim. "Hannah. We have to go."