All Stories, General Fiction

A Noise the House Makes On Its Own by Jack Caulfield



Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
the steadings and the fields.


Dear ————,

Sorry I could not respond to your letter sooner. I received it, it must be said, with a peculiar sense of apprehension, even dread. Peculiar because the contents were old news at that point, in the conventional sense, and I really could not expect to lose (nor gain) much from reading it. It was, if you’ll excuse the phrase, a dead letter. Yet it was a long time before I began reading, and the reading itself was not quick. I stared at your letter all day, for many days, until the words dissolved into one another, at which point the notion of a reply began to strike me as absurd. That impression has not left me, but so be it—I begin the task.

I suppose firstly I should tell you how things stand with me, though you did not ask. I am in bad shape. The days pass me by in a sort of haze; already it is several since I wrote the paragraph above, which drained me terribly. I am not sure what month it is, though if pressed I could narrow it down to two, which is not bad. I cannot say precisely that anything is physically wrong, but when asked I describe myself as ‘convalescent’, which implies recovery, which implies an illness. I swear to you that for a time my arms stopped working, from loneliness. You might ask whether that is something that can happen. It did, anyway. Fortunately, this passed, though the loneliness did not, and I have regained feeling enough to write.

To describe my surroundings, the house, seems redundant since you surely know the place as well as I do, so I will try to limit myself to accounting only for what has changed in the months since you were last here. I am afraid the alterations have mostly been for the worse. With increasing consciousness that I am doing so, I have been accumulating sources of shame and placing them in my room, in locations where they cannot be missed, so that in the morning I see hanging in the open wardrobe my unwashed clothes; by the bed the non-functional lamp I have not yet found a replacement bulb for, weeks after it stopped giving light; the anonymous clutter on the desk; the little clumps of hair on the floor, concentrated around the legs of the chair I spend all day sitting in; and so on. The space between sleep and waking inflates these signs dramatically, turning them into talismans of a greater, wider shame, and in the morning light I work myself into an absurd self-loathing over the others, elsewhere or in the past, material or interpersonal, of which these visible never fail to trigger painful recollections. The depth of my lethargy, my sloth, is brought home to me. I am not infrequently brought to tears. You would expect the situation to preclude shame over such petty objects, but somehow it does not.

(There is a sort of objectless dread hovering in here, which is really a dread of waking the next day and finding things the same as they already are. This is rock bottom, but how much worse is day ninety of rock bottom than day one? This is not a state of affairs which it feels possible to get used to. The human spirit of adaptability does not apply here. But I am getting ahead of myself.)

Generally, that is the full extent of my world at present. But I must admit I am not bedbound; circumstances sometimes force me beyond the walls of this little hell, however reluctantly. I try to shut most people out, preferring, as you have no doubt gleaned, to remain isolated to the fullest possible extent. But a stalwart few—you know our mutual friends’ persistence as well as I—cannot be dissuaded from dragging me out into the world. Any pretence will do: they insist on my spending a leisurely afternoon in town, or invent a light errand on which I must accompany them, or simply tell me directly that my hermitism worries them. Once out of the house, the simplest things disturb me. I become alarmed and upset by images on billboards, posters and screens. I know that the woman on the poster, her mouth an exaggerated O of horror, is not really afraid, is acting for the photographer, for the advertisement. I know this, after a second, but my dismay outlives the realisation, and I am left feeling uneasy, dispirited, and a little sick. Our friends do not seem to understand the futility of ‘leisure’ for me while such spectres assail me, and I lack the reasoning to convince them. For dread of these occasions, I do not answer the phone or the door any longer, and I tell myself I will demand the return of my spare keys from those who have copies, but lack the willpower to really do so. I sorely wish you were here to intervene on my behalf, but I will not waste time imploring you.

When I have the energy to talk, I tell our mutual friends—if you ask why I am vague, I must answer firstly that it is because the conversation goes much the same with any of them, and secondly, that I have too little energy left to distinguish between individuals who are neither you nor I.—I tell them that I do not have the energy left over to think about anything besides this great hollowness which has swallowed me and which they have somehow avoided but to which they continually risk themselves by approaching me. They answer with platitudes.

I cannot claim that I do not also try to distract myself from my contemplations. Sometimes when I sense a bad night looming, I try to bury myself in words, in reading something, anything. It may surprise you to learn that I no longer read anything weighty. It is all fluff. Even if it were something weighty, it would be fluff. I keep reading because I need the continuity, the fact that the words go on even if they aren’t saying anything, a cascade of comforting clichés, a sense of there not being an ending. This works less than half the time; more often than not my brain begins thrashing about within my skull, rebels, makes demands of me that cannot be fulfilled by my reading the next chapter, unfocuses my eyes so that I cannot make out the pages. I fantasise about screaming, I do not scream, I am too afraid someone will come knocking, but I imagine myself screaming at the top of my lungs KILL ME. KILL ME. My throat feels sore and my heart beats faster and faster. I am warm, dehydrated, sweating. I am silent.


You are waiting for me to address the elephant in the room, but I am hesitant. I hesitate on the edge of a precipice. So long as I suspend the critical moment, the letter’s critical passage, I feel that I can continue to pretend, to take refuge in vagueness. Once I bite the bullet, I fear I will be forced to move on with my life, the problem having finally been addressed, the baggage neatly packed away, having run, finally, out of excuses. Like Prospero I am stranded but do not wish to be rescued.

I will therefore be grateful, dear reader (dearest possible reader!), if you permit me a last detour, an oblique approach. I must confess to you something: I no longer remember your face. I remember, vividly, every moment that passed between us, all the expressions which must have passed across that face, all the backdrops which framed it. The wind which tugged the hair across that face’s forehead. The shadows which crossed it, obscuring features I once feared, then knew, then forgot. In every memory your face is obscured. My attempts to summon you are an infinite gallery of redundant portraiture, one study done over and over until the colours bleed together. This is where my mind lives. I can see all the frames, but it is as if someone has scrubbed out every face. I cannot make it cohere, the whole picture. What did your eyebrows look like? Your nose? Your chin, did your chin stick out far? I cannot say. I glimpse small impressions from which I lack the faculty of mind to be able to reconstruct the whole. I glimpse a caution in your eyes gradually dissolving into ease over the course a mile of talking; an endearing twitch in your nose that gave me the impression you must experience smells more vividly than the rest of us; a pale collage of bruises dripping blood. Even excluding this last, I cannot for the life of me make these glimpses add up to a face. I remember there was no trace that ease left in your eyes the last time you told me you would be okay. It had become a mantra, the assertion. You told me you would be okay, which proved misleading. This frantic attempt to regain the image of your face consumes most of my hours, a whirlwind in my mind always. I remember you smiling, and my leaning in and halting that smile, warmly. I remember knowing the exact dimensions of your face, the smile and everything else. I cling to the memory of knowing. I remember holding your hand in the quiet buzz of the hospital, though you know nothing of this, in essence you were already gone, you had already written your letter. At the wake I remember speaking to people I did not know, whom I could not believe you knew, telling them with alternating numbness and hysteria that I would always remember your face. Which proved misleading.

I suppose this collage is my way of coming to the point. It all came to pass. You hoped but did not know, as you wrote the letter, that the fall would kill you. It did, though I am sorry to say only after a messy interval of failed treatment which the doctors assured me was not painful, for you. I hope they spoke the truth. I am sorry it had to be messy. I am sure you did not intend it when you wrote the letter and jumped.

If you are anything like me—and if I am to avoid outright madness I must go on believing you are—you want the thing to have gone smoothly. My suicide would have to take place on a perfect day, the weather just right, no interruptions, the right method and no unexpected distractions, an affectively determined event. And yet I cannot plan it. It must go off without a hitch, but to calculate anything beforehand is certainly one of the many things which would ruin it, make me think twice. Forgive my slipping in and out of the irrealis. I would have to arrive at the need, and the execution thereof, intuitively, go through the whole thing with a kind of grace. I am a perfectionist, much as this whole bloated letter contradicts the impression. I am a perfectionist.

Every second, I can feel the intervening distance further altering what you were to me, mottling your pristine face. I know this is unfair, you have (had) a life outside of mine, but I have difficulty reconciling myself to the fact. Pictures of you still exist, but none of them capture quite the right thing. When your face flashes through my mind, its expression is always one that isn’t in any of the pictures. I get these flashes less and less often, and find it impossible to reconstruct these lost faces. Last week I saw your face in moonlight. I rotated it in my mind all night but lost it with sleep. You are receding, you are moving further and further away, always receding. I fiercely wish that I could hold on.


This is the part where I talk about the future. I am announcing it in order to keep myself on track. You have noted my tendency to digress. Signposting is good practice.

At this stage, I am agnostic about the future. I could see it happening or not.

A significant period has passed in the writing of this letter, and I am frankly ashamed how little has changed in my situation. I still lead the same sedentary lifestyle, buffeted between shame and grief. I engage in bouts of compulsive onanism and bouts of crying, both, I fear, equally hedonistic. I am occasionally driven out to purchase necessities, but fantasise about never being obliged to leave the house again, and find ways to contrive such a circumstance. I have sporadic yet alarming chest pains which I ignore in the hopes that they will eventually kill me. I could no longer tell you what morning looks like; I would have to reason it out from first principles. I am trying to minimise the extent to which I actually live here. That is to say, I stay here but try not to move anything. I try to let the dust accumulate as if the place were uninhabited. I imagine foolishly that if I keep it up I might truly disappear. I will not go on, you have seen it all before. Pathos of an unclean household, a dishevelled sitting figure, the crestfallen domestic.

I paint a sorry picture, I know, but I am trying to give you an honest account of things as they stand before I talk about possibilities for the future. It is important to know where one stands. To talk more abstractly, I feel I have been overtaken by fate. The sense of your loss has become dislocated from my person, sheds its wrong light over the whole visible world. I have generalised the tragedy so that its pallor hangs over everything in the house. I feel cut off from what I imagine to be the course my life would naturally have taken. I think of relationships, of my former ambitions, and desire them with a terrible fervour, but know or think I know that even in the presence of such things, something would always be off now. Under such circumstances, the self is a shrivelled hollow thing at the bottom of a well. I increasingly feel that all I can hope for is rest.

I am troubled, too, by a dream. You will expect something profound, but it is nothing like that. In the dream you are sleeping beside me, that’s all. The fact of your presence. It’s the same every time. I see the small movements your back makes as you breathe. That’s all. The first time this happened I was shaken, woke up ecstatic, was unable for a few minutes to process your absence. On the border of sleep and waking, it seemed to me that you had gone to fix breakfast, that you would be back any minute. The realisation left me numb. Yet the dream recurs, has recurred so often now that when afterwards I wake, and stretch, and turn to see you are not beside me, I can no longer muster surprise.

I am encased in a dreadful cavernous silence. The house never felt large before, but now seems labyrinthine. Without you, this is a big empty box, and I am constantly afraid that something will fill it. The problem is that something must. A place cannot remain empty forever, needs filling up with some substance to relieve the lack. I thought a couple of times that I heard your voice in the corridor, but it turned out to be a noise the house makes on its own.

I said I would not digress, I am sorry. I was going to tell you about the future. I do not know what you can do with the information, but it would feel wrong to keep you in the dark. It has been some time since the mourning period was meant to end. I am behind schedule. I try to tell people I am better, but I am not, not yet. I sense impatience. I am trying to cease this inbent wallowing without simply pivoting to an asceticism which would only be an inverted display of the same solipsistic impulse. I do not know yet if I am succeeding, but loath as I am to do so, I sense bringing a decisive close to our correspondence will help.

I will end by saying that in the case of past despairs—miseries orders of magnitude smaller than this one, but miseries that felt exhaustless in their own way—there has always come a particular moment, the moment after a long malaise of hours or days when one first consciously re-experiences the ease and wellness which have been so conspicuously absent. Perhaps it happens gradually, and one feels it creeping back in through the bones. Perhaps one simply wakes on a particular morning and knows. Perhaps it is so invisibly rejuvenating that not until one looks back on it a month later does one sense that there must have been a change somewhere along the way.

The dream has not woken me in some nights.

Certain small omens give me the impression that I am on the right track. All of a sudden leaves have begun to appear in the house, where they have no right to be. I view this as a small miracle rather than a nuisance, and do not seek clarity. The other day I went outside without specific purpose, simply to be outside. Small rituals buoy me up. Making the bed though no-one but me is likely to see it. Looking presentable for the supermarket cashier. Waking early though there is nothing to do with the day. The small hollow things that beat despair. I am not yet sure for what reason I am doing any of it. I tell myself you can do it for any reason you like, but you have to do it.



Jack Caulfield

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3 thoughts on “A Noise the House Makes On Its Own by Jack Caulfield”

  1. Nice touches. I view this as a symbiotic metaphor; the mind describes the place, the place describes the mind. (Gadzooks! Had to pay off a hundred grand student loan for the privilege to use “symbiotic metaphor” in a f@#&*?g sentence. )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jack,
    It is a fair old skill to write a story by this medium alone.
    The writer only said as is and as he was feeling.
    Sometimes that is all you need.


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