Harmony House - Nic Sheff


There’s a feeling like my stomach is trying to climb out my throat. I drop on my hands and knees in the tall grass and retch. The sun is hot and bright overhead, so I’m sweating through my clothes. I take off the heavy topcoat and unbutton the shirt around my neck.

A pain cuts in along my thigh and I pull up my petticoat and see the vibrant shock of red turning dark and sticky along the white of my skin. I must have fallen on a sharp rock in the grass. There’s a purplish bruise already forming there.

I spit on the cut and rub it with my thumb.

I stand.

A snake, black and glinting in the sun, slithers past.

I jump back and start to cross myself.

But it’s too late.

I let my arm drop.

From the branches of the low-hanging willow tree a kestrel falcon darts out into the clear morning—its markings black, painted around its eyes like a bandit. The bird flies high up over the field and I watch it silhouetted against the yellow-orange sun. It dives down in a flash and grabs a small wood rat from out of the dandelion. The rat screams a terrible, piercing scream as the falcon’s claws dig in and it is carried off over the dense forest.

My cat, Jonas, comes running from under the white-painted front porch at the sound of the wounded animal. He scans the yard, but sees nothing.

From inside I hear my mother calling.

Her voice carries through the still air.

She calls my name. Again and again.

“Cornelia? Cornelia Barron?”

The windows are pushed up all around the house because of the warm weather and I can hear her getting closer.

I grab my coat off the ground and limp back behind a line of white-blossoming cottonwood trees.

My breath feels sharp in my lungs and I taste blood, like tin, at the back of my throat.

Mother steps out onto the porch, calling my name again. Her long hair is pitch-dark, curled, and tied with ribbon. She wears a crimson dress, bound tight around her waist. Mother and father are taking the kit and buggy into market this morning. I can’t face seeing her again—not now. I’ve already said good-bye.

So I ignore her calls and slip away down the worn deer trail through the tangled blackberry and poison ivy and pale beech trees with the bark peeling white. Her voice fades behind me and soon I am out in a field of sweet-smelling lavender and sunflowers grown up taller even than I am. The pain in my leg is gone and I run fast—trying to get clear of the house and the sickness and my mother and father and this sin growing here, inside of me.

I run until I cross the wide dirt road and then I double over sick again. I vomit and taste more blood, but my stomach is empty, so only a little yellowish liquid comes up.

I am very thirsty now.

I have no choice but to cut down through the woods to where the stream pools in an almost perfect circle of brackish water and mossy rocks. The cut over my knee opens up and I can feel the warm blood drip down my leg as I drink the water from my cupped hands.

The taste is nauseating.

Everything seems to be.

The demon has taken hold of me.

It lived dormant all these years—waiting—biding its time—until I was weak enough. Then it came upon me in my sleep, crawling spiderlike up the outside wall and coming in through my open window. It lay with me. It drank my blood. It covered me with its damp, rough body. It kissed me so my face was red and swollen. Its breath was hot and stank of whiskey. It drove itself into me. And it left this curse behind. The curse that swells my belly and makes my bleeding stop and turns the world stinking and noxious.

The curse that damns my soul to burn in white-hot flames.

For all eternity.

There’s no going back now. I deserve all the pain and the nausea and the swelling. I deserve more.

On the road above me I hear the jangling of the bridle and the creaking wheels and the heavy gait of my father’s bay horse. Mother and father riding to town in the bouncing carriage. They travel fast and soon are out of hearing. I whisper good-bye to them one more time. I whisper good-bye to the big bay.

The demon takes my hand. I grab a fist of my hair, long and black