by Avery Chenoweth
“Something’s dead inside the walls, that’s what she said.”
Let’s see a show of hands, shall we? If someone said that to you, would you go and find out what’s dead inside the walls, or would you stay at home watching YouTube videos of your favorite 60s pop bands for the 1000th time?
All that lay between us and the house of death was six hours of interstate followed by 3,000 feet of ascent into the dense and autumnal rain forest of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains. We would stay overnight an hour’s drive of Thomas Wolfe’s home town of Asheville, close enough, in other words, to look homeward, angel, and hear the voices of Fitzgerald, Scott and Zelda, both, and others from the old literary world.
My enthusiasm for the trip steered me around the question of how awkward it might be take this trip with a near stranger. Until that weekend, Dr. Eva King and I had hung out, talked over coffee, discussed marketing and branding for her soap startup. But not until we actually hit the road and crested Afton mountain, flying in her Mini Cooper into the vast beyond of the Shenandoah Valley, did it hit me that this experience might turn into a disaster. What if we quarreled? Or the family we would visit were harboring some creepy side? The body in the wall was human? Or humans, plural? Or I was on the menu? Aside from neurosis, a more humble problem was right there at the steering wheel...could she drive? And conversation? What if, God forbid, we wound up listening to music because we bored and irritated each other? This is that private time when the windows feel like they’re made of cellophane and you can’t get your breath.
Soon enough hours shrank to minutes, ranges fell away, and the rhythm of conversation unfurled as relentlessly as the semis fell behind us into the morning of the world in the midsummer sky. When we climbed the drive and got out, at last, the forest was chill, pure, and vast. That evening not a light shone in the expanse of fifty miles, but for the over-the-top Milky Way, still showing off, but seriously, so talented, you know?
It wasn’t a smell. God, no. Eva inspected the closet, pulling the door, and then threw it shut, staggering out. She gasped, then gagged, covering her mouth, and faltered into the bathroom. A trooper, she then marched out to the car, and gathered tech equipment for measuring elements in the air; a body suit, boots, respirator, and goggles. She took measurements then went back inside. Still flummoxed by the noxious odors, she asked me if I’d like to give it a whiff. I know, right? How can you come this far and say, Oh, I’m sorry, but that wouldn’t be appropriate. I manned up, plausibly, and leaped into the dark.
A mule is more gentle. A mountain goat more subtle. A wild mustang more understated. Death is a kick in the head. It has no cousins in life. Not a food, not a weed, not nothing. Boom. Your mind reels. Your brain pan flips. Your guts race to the light. You batter into the door, crazy for fresh air. And you will never mistake that whiff of eternity again.
With her face mask in place, her body suit zipped, Eva attacked the feral closet, and in almost no time, but with time-outs for gagging, she found the culpable wall by whiffing it with her exposed nose. That was it. A screw driver, a drill, and a hand-saw--put into use by the husband--soon let them cut away the wall board. Behind was the plastic sheeting to waterproof the shower, and inside the sheets were the shit-smears of mice. A clump here, a mass there. They kept cutting into the wall, and soon they were staring down at a leaf mass of confused twigs and sprigs and leaves until their staring became reading.
Hundreds of mummies, mice in layers, in families, in decades, had wilted and quilted the darkness, and were continuing to crawl inside to escape either the brutal cold, or to find water, having been poisoned by pellets outside the house. The compacted odors of their passing were gassing through the walls, and with windows open, and fans going, a crucial discovery in that wall led to others in adjacent walls, and some scope around the magnitude of the infestation.
Rolling homeward under the summer sky, an eye roll from Eva was full of laughter at the gross and complicated nastiness of cohabiting the forest with rodents who will chew into a house at will. To no one’s surprise, the only thing on the menu after that gruesome find were the conversational improvisations we enjoyed, then left at last and only reluctantly.