tags: Haunting of Hill House (1959) – Shirley Jackson, domesticity, the pursuit of a home, drama, ambiguous ending, perhaps the real haunted house was inside our head after all
Eleanor awakened with a feeling that someone was holding her hand all night long. Her fingers twitched around the nothingness—around the ghost of a touch that covered her palm and each crevice between her knuckles, wanting something concrete to hold on to, not wanting to acknowledge that she was alone or neglected. Before her eyes was a room that was clean and fresh and airy with an abundance of sunlight; and it dawned upon her that she had had a little sleep on a warm bed and gained a little comfort and a little peace. On her right side was a dent in a familiar shape, the remains of the person who had lied beside her the previous night, some lingering traces covered in wrinkled yet spotless linen hanging to the edge of the mattress.
The open window engulfed her in a snug blanket of wandering sunrays. It had been a long time since she had awakened with an acute sense of awareness, of existing, of starving and wanting breakfast immediately, of wanting to feel the crisp morning on her skin like a single plant thriving under the light of the day. Her curious feet guided her to the center of the apartment, a space of rich colors almost unable to be confined within its four walls, with a fine dining table and its shiny marbled top. The room was in no way scant—there were plenty of things to take in at once, domestic things, old furniture, poetry books, dainty statuettes. The kitchen, painted in vibrant red and white and connected to the central room, was anything unlike Eleanor’s mother’s—the dark and narrow space where everything anyone cooked never had any taste or colour—and between the red and white was a young woman in Eleanor’s distinct bright sweater, occupied with assembling breakfast, a handsome white cat loitering around her ankles.
Theodora. Theodora. Eleanor thought Theodora had thrown her away, banished her away from the gates of Hill House with fake promises of letters and visits to soften the betrayal. But she was right there, among the soft-colored china and other delicate little things, and she was serving breakfast. Her fingernails were as vividly colored as Eleanor remembered, and sunlight seeped through her hair like a halo swaying left and right along the rhythm of her busy shoulders.
“Glorious weather today.” Theodora clanked her spatula against the metal pan. “The sun is up beautifully—almost like gold. And it’s Saturday. Eggs?”
Eleanor was not sure what the correct answer would be. Theodora looked from beyond her shoulders and smiled, perhaps taking Eleanor’s silence as a yes. Journeys end in lovers meeting, Eleanor thought, Theodora smiled at me and offered me eggs and therefore I am in the right place. The smell of tea, toast, of fresh laundry hanging in the balcony—the smell of home—and the sight of the bright red sweater might have led her to believe that she belonged there. That everything had always been this welcoming. That she still deserves a cup of tea and hot breakfast and a civil bade of good morning and having her presence acknowledged at the dining table.
Theodora set the breakfast tray of toast, eggs, berries, tea, and little sugar cubes beside the morning newspaper. Petting the white cat and basking in the lovely scene of a home, almost intoxicated, Eleanor drank her tea to discover stars in the bottom of the cup. Bright stars, painted, a constellation illuminating the sea of brown water. She looked up to Theodora, in the way of a believer after a granted prayer, thankful. “What’s wrong, Nellie?” Theodora asked. “Something wrong with your cup of stars?”
“No,” Eleanor said. “It’s perfect.” It’s everything she’s ever wanted.
Theodora had allowed her to linger on her tea, to observe the freshly cut flowers on the windowsill, and to absorb the warmth of the dying embers calling out to her from the concrete hearth. After the last of the crumbs had disappeared she then sat next to Eleanor, a little comb and a yellow ribbon in hand, and tucked several strands of stray hair behind Eleanor’s ears. “Let me do your hair,” she offered, sounding more as if she was making a polite request than she needed to be. “I would like to see you in a neat braid today. Perhaps weave it with some flowers or colorful feathers or maybe even have it with some majestic jeweled crowns, but we have to make do with this simple ribbon.”
Eleanor thought that yellow did not suit her, that she did not intend to become a stray sunbeam today, but remembering that Theodora dislikes being with women of no color she nodded timidly and let the woman decorate her. Theodora ran the comb through Eleanor’s bed hair at a painfully slow speed, two minutes, perhaps five minutes, and Eleanor thought that it had been a very long time since someone had touched her hair. Theodora’s repeated motion, like a mother cat thoroughly grooming a kitten, had almost lulled Eleanor into another sleep, another peace, another comfort. Eleanor prayed, silently, as if fearing that Theodora would hear, dear God, do not let this end, I want this to go on forever. I might have been horrible and selfish but please let me have this. When Theodora finally let go of the comb—to Eleanor’s disappointment—she parted sections of Eleanor’s hair into three, her fingertips grazing the curve of Eleanor’s neck lightly. Eleanor felt her own breath hitch.
“Don’t move, Nell,” Theodora whispered firmly between each brush of her fingers. “Stay perfectly still.” And to that command Eleanor was trying her best to not move, holding her breath, considering perhaps not breathing at all, wanting to carry out Theodora’s order perfectly. She was to be a silent and soundless statue so as to avoid breaking the spell. Eleanor could feel her hair being lifted, twisted, tucked safely, with a gentleness of a certain kind, a tenderness that was almost brutal.
“Theo,” Eleanor called out, slowly and carefully so as to not disturb the woman. “Did you hold my hand when I slept?”
“Did I?” Theodora asked, completely riveted by the weaving of Eleanor’s hair in her busy fingers that Eleanor knew she did not pay attention to the question. Eleanor confirmed, “You did not?”
“I do not recall,” Theodora replied. Eleanor’s thoughts raced; Theo did not recall, it happened again—whose hand was I holding?—and she tried to recall the shape of the hand while her thoughts coalesced with the sound of the morning; of the footfalls on the streets and of racing vehicles and of chimes of doorbells; whose hand was she holding? For how long?—the thoughts were interrupted as the last of Theodora’s breaths fell against her exposed nape. Theodora was finishing up, she was tying the ribbon, this was coming to an end. “There we go,” Theodora exclaimed gleefully at her work of art. “Aren’t you a charming lady?”
Then, after breakfast, to the little tune of music wandering from the streets under, their feet pranced all around the apartment—from the kitchen to the verandah and in and out the living room—and her body was as light as a feather as Theodora spun her around once and twice and up and down in circles. The soles of her feet brushed against the floor in tiny, unending footsteps; her brand new braid flying fiercely behind her ears that she was afraid the ribbon would come undone. An eddy of wind carrying the delightful harmony drifted across the tip of her chilly nose, sweeping Theodora’s hair softly on her cheeks with every turn, and she wondered at how in the moments they shared she could feel like a small whirlwind running wild, jovial, uncontrollable—daring in all the improper ways she knew her mother would not approve of.
Eleanor huffed after the dance was over. “I have to go.”
“Where? It’s Saturday. A perfect morning for lazing around in the verandah. You could sew the curtains while I paint. And we could have a very nice tea party,” Theodora offered, hopeful. Eleanor fumbled with her hands in her pocket; she needed to care for her mother, but the thought of a tea party was very enchanting indeed. “I—I think I need to leave now,” she glumly muttered.
“But you can’t leave.” As if smelling her hidden excitement, Theodora asked, “What about the tea party?”
“I have to come home.” She had to come home, no matter how agonizing it was for her to miss the tea party. “I need to look for Mother. She must be calling for me. Thank you for the breakfast, Theo. It was wonderful, but I need to go home.”
“What are you talking about? You’re home.” Theodora frowned and for a second Eleanor was convinced. Was she home? Was this world of soft colors also hers? “I- am I?”
But was she ever home at all? In bewilderment Theodora held her hand and intertwined their fingers. “Why, of course. You’re here. In our own little place, our own apartment, where all our things are. Isn’t this what you want?”
Eleanor had almost nodded—all her life, in her pursuit of a home, the apartment was the nicest place she had ever stepped in—it had a hearth for cool evenings and a dashing white cat. But what about what Theodora wanted? Theodora had never wanted to pick up stray cats, Eleanor recalled, and therefore I have never been wanted in her house. The Theodora that picked her up was a strange being; a foreign imitation, a jagged piece that did not fit in the puzzle. To that Eleanor thought, I had better leave or I will also become jagged in the wrong ways. “I think I better go now.”
“You can’t.” The grip on Eleanor’s hand grew tighter. She watched as Theodora’s lovely face grew stoic, the life sucked out of her gentle eyes, the corner of her lips stiffening. Eleanor felt as if the house was trying to wrap her within its padded surfaces, to lull her into a mindless stupor, and wait for the perfect moment to swallow her like a sinkhole. Theodora said, grimly, “You can’t abandon me. Even if you go—can you find your way home?”
“I know my way. Doctor Montague told me. After Hillsdale, turn on to Route Five going east to Ashton; then to Route Thirty-nine, and then I will be home. I know it.”
“That is not the mother house. You’ll get lost. Stay.”
“I know the way. I’ll come back soon.”
“You’re home!” Theodora yelled hysterically, and in her voice was wrath and madness. The spell of the perfect Saturday was broken; Eleanor flung herself off her seat and raced to the door at the end of the entryway—the door was nailed shut—she wanted to get away from Theodora, she was not even sure that the woman was the Theodora she had known, and she asked, why is the door shut? Eleanor banged at the door, and when that did not work she turned at the kitchen, where Theodora stood in her red sweater, foreign and jagged, a sweet make-believe, a pretend-family that fulfills her lonely and greedy demands without Eleanor even having to articulate it. The walls grew cold and malicious into a violent confinement. The house was elated to have her—they wouldn’t let her go before they consumed her completely.
In the last of the banging against the door Eleanor thought with clarity, Why is she doing this? Why is Theo doing this? Why is the house stopping me? I am lost. Lost. Lost. Help me come home.
“Poor thing.” Theodora gave her a cold little smile. “You are home, sweet Nellie.”