Grandmother Wilson’s Heirloom Curtains

A maternal aunt of mine, a very reasonable and down-to-earth woman, told me this story at a family function whose precise nature I now forget.  It might not be untrue to say that the extraordinary nature of the events my aunt related were enough to make any other details of the time, place, and situation indistinct.  For sake of shedding some light, however contrived, on a tale rife with obscured truths and unknown facts, we may hazard it was Christmas.

My aunt was reminiscing about the early years of marriage to my uncle and happened to remark to me, offhandedly, that she did not recall ever telling me the story of a unique pair of curtains that had come into her possession during that time.  I replied that indeed, I had heard no such story — and with the sullen impatience of a young man trapped in the grasp of an older relative, silently hoped she would not feel obliged to tell me since, quite naturally, I assumed a story about curtains was not likely to be exciting by any measure.

Amanda — my aunt — did not heed my wordless wishes and so, without a moment’s hesitation, calmly recounted the story of Grandmother Wilson’s heirloom curtains.

It was, as I have said, Amanda’s early years of marriage to my uncle, Donald.  Their daughter, my cousin Victoria, was three years old and growing quickly.  Donald’s advances in the law firm where he worked had allowed the couple to purchase the tidy suburban house where they still live today, and they were just finished moving in when Donald received word that his Grandmother Wilson, of the distaff side of his family, had passed away in Utah.

Donald left his wife and young child behind for a week to attend his grandmother’s funeral and, with the help of other family members, sort through the remainder of her belongings.  Upon returning he produced for Amanda a pair of large, heavy curtains, off-white in color and patterned in tightly wound forest-green arabesques.  It was a doubly fortuitous find: first, because the den of the new home featured a bay window of irregularly large size and Amanda could not find curtains to fit it properly, and second, because the wallpaper of said den was of a pattern and hue not at odds with Donald’s recent prize.

It should come as no shock to the reader, assuming you are acquainted with stories of this nature, that the curtains fit the bay window perfectly; furthermore, as Amanda describes them, they were of such singular, startling character that they brought to the den an unanticipated air of antiquity and taste.  Amanda remarked upon the change in the room, asking Donald if the curtains had indeed been hanging in his grandmother’s house and if they engendered a similar atmosphere there.

Donald admitted that the curtains had not been hanging in Grandmother Wilson’s house, but folded away in an attic or crawlspace gathering dust.  However, he had distinct memories of the curtains being in his grandmother’s own sitting room when he was a child, and as he recalled they were just as regal then, lording over the expansive room and seeming to make it somehow smaller and denser, like a parlor of a bygone era.  At some point in his childhood the curtains were taken down, though he could not say exactly when.  Upon rediscovering them in the attic, memories had stirred of Grandmother Wilson telling him many times in the humoring manner of the aged to the young that he, being her only grandson, would inherit everything she owned and, she hoped, one day have the curtains hanging in his home.

Amanda and Donald both understood this as meaning the curtains probably had a much richer history than either could suspect, and decided that they were probably heirlooms passed down from a prior generation.  In order to preserve the fabric, Grandmother Wilson had likely put the curtains away in the attic, protecting them from constant exposure to the sun.  Both my aunt and uncle agreed that the next course of action should be to find a way of treating the curtains chemically to ensure that they would survive for Victoria, and her children, and so on.

In the meantime, the curtains hung in the irregularly sized bay window of their tidy suburban house.

They had been there perhaps a week, Amanda told me, before one day young Victoria toddled into the kitchen and asked for apple juice.  Amanda and Victoria were alone in the house; Donald was at work and Amanda, at this time, was content to stay at home and take care of domestic matters, such as Victoria’s desire for juice.  As she was pouring her daughter’s cup, she inquired as to the child’s play activities so far that day.

Victoria described, in her usual precocious manner, of the imagination games she played in the backyard with a handful of neighboring children, whose mothers Amanda was in the process of befriending.  Amanda half-listened for most of the monologue, but her attention was grasped sharply by a bizarre mention Victoria made of “the man who lives in the vines.”

Amanda, thinking like a parent, assumed her daughter was speaking of some stranger who had approached her and the other children through the back garden, which featured a trellis of clematis.  “What do you mean, the man who lives in the vines?” she asked (I reproduce here their dialogue as I imagine it, a liberty I hope the reader will allow).  “Was there a man in the backyard?”

“No,” Victoria said curtly.  “Not the vines in the yard.  The vines in the other room.”

“The other room?” asked Amanda, handing the apple juice to the child.

Her daughter gestured flippantly toward the den.  “There.  The vines in there.”

Amanda was accustomed to Victoria’s sudden flights of imagination — it was, after all, the prerogative of children to interlace reality and fantasy — but something about this did not sit easily with her.  “What did he do?” my aunt asked.

“Nothing,” Victoria said.  “He just hangs in the vines.  He’s like a little monkey.”  And with that she spoke no more; having drunk her juice she ran outside to play.

Amanda was troubled by this exchange for no reason she could adequately describe.  An hour or two afterward, she ventured into the den to see what could stimulate Victoria’s imagination so; it was then she saw the heirloom curtains, and remembered their tightly curled arabesque pattern.  Could the child have meant those when she spoke of vines?

Suddenly it all seemed very clear, and my aunt laughed at herself for her small moment of unease.  Obviously the pattern on the curtain was not a pure arabesque — as was the pattern of the wallpaper of the den — but of that particular variation which, within its twists and curls of leaf and plant, almost seamlessly entwines distorted figures of animals, so that when looking at it one is surprised by the sudden appearance of, say, a wildly plumed exotic bird or, in this case, a leering monkey.  Such phantasmagoria had no doubt inspired her daughter’s imagination.

Satisfied, Amanda returned to her household duties, though she made a mental note to tie the curtains back further in the future because, as they currently hung, the room seemed rather gloomy.

I cannot say how much time passed before Victoria once again came to her mother in the kitchen, this time from watching cartoons in the den at what Amanda was slowly realizing to be an unreasonable volume.  “Mommy,” Victoria said, “the man in the vines is being too noisy!  I can’t hear the TV!”

“What do you mean?” asked Amanda.  Despite herself she was unhappy at the recurrence of this phenomenon.  “How is he being too noisy?”

“He just is,” Victoria said irritably.  “Make him stop, please?”

“What noise is he making, exactly?”  My aunt, I imagine, was beginning to feel a bit curious.

Victoria brightened instantly and, with a wide smile on her face, began to stomp around on the tile floor in her pajamas, hissing and spitting like a riled cat.  “Like that!” she said, and for her mother’s benefit, began to repeat the act.

Amanda put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder to still her.  “Show me where he is,” she said, “and I’ll make him stop.  He’ll listen to me.”  Amanda told me that when she said this last part, she was attacked by the grim but groundless suspicion that she was lying to her daughter.

Victoria led Amanda into the den and pointed at the bay window, where the heirloom curtains hung heavily, a whole three feet of space between them and yet still somehow occluding the majority of the outdoor sunshine.  Amanda, marshaling her courage, walked to the window and peered out.

It was a nice day; the window looked out on a green expanse of lawn and, a few yards away, the privacy fence of the neighboring house.  Between the backs of the curtains and the wall there was not so much as a cobweb.  She pulled her head out from the curtains and looked at her daughter.  “I’m not seeing him,” she said.

“He went away,” Victoria told her, already turning down the volume on TV.

“Well,” Amanda said, once again starting to feel a bit silly for being so off-put by her daughter’s imagination, “if he comes back, you tell him to shut up.  I’m sure he’s more scared of you than you are of him.”

Victoria didn’t respond to that, but instead returned to the couch, where she had left a coloring book, and went to work while the TV played on.  Amanda, feeling the room was much too dim, pulled the curtains back further and refastened their ties.  She studied the thick, antique fabric as she did so, tracing the loops and whorls of the vine-like arabesques for the bizarre animal shapes she knew were hidden there.

The reader may be unsurprised to learn she did not find a single one, not even an exotic bird, but at the time she assumed she simply wasn’t looking closely enough.

Again an interval of uncertain length passed, during which nothing notable occurred.  The young family was pleased with their new house, though my uncle Donald, a light sleeper, often complained that he was awakened in the night by a neighbor’s cat howling.  Other than that they were integrating well into the community, and so it happened that one weekend a few of the other young couples and their children from the neighborhood came to my aunt and uncle’s house for a barbecue.

The children had played outside in the late afternoon but as the light fell and mosquitoes worsened they, led by Victoria, ventured inside to take stock of her toys.  The adults, for their part, remained outside, smoking, drinking lightly alcoholic cocktails, and hoping someone would eat the rest of whatever food they brought so they would only have an empty dish to take home.

At some point Amanda became aware of the sound of Victoria shouting from inside the house; at first thinking the children were having a serious fight over some toy or another, she shot Donald a bemused look and slowly made her way toward the door.  Two things happened then.

First, she became aware of what exactly her daughter was shouting, something like, “Go away!  Shut up, go away!  I’m not scared of you!”  Second, Amanda heard another sound below that, a sound her daughter was not making and could not make, something like the chittering buzz of a cicada.

And then one more thing happened: the children, all of them, began to scream.

Amanda burst into the house, running into the kitchen table and bruising her hip, but she continued straight for the den.

As she entered she saw the children, some dozen of them, standing together in a cluster by the coffee table, all shrieking in utter terror and staring with wide eyes toward the bay window.  In the second it took her to turn her head, Amanda saw only the green arabesque curtains, thrust out into the room for a moment and now suddenly falling back in billowing waves to hang straight, as if a gust of wind had abruptly died way.

The other adults, upon hearing the children scream, had followed Amanda and now entered the room behind her, rushing to their still sobbing children.  My uncle Donald asked my aunt something to the effect of “What the hell just happened?” but Amanda had not looked away from the curtains.

They had fallen in such a way that they obscured the bay window almost entirely, save a sliver of night that leaked in from the outside.  But Amanda was quite certain that the curtains had been tied back earlier in the day, as they always were, and it was as she stepped toward the window to inspect the strips of cloth that served this purpose she saw, glaring at her from the splinter of darkness between the edges of the curtains, what was unmistakably an eye.

In her brief glimpse Amanda insists she could make out not only an eye, but a crescent of bare, greasy forehead (there was no hair), a fat cheek and dimple of nostril, and a section of a thin-lipped mouth overcrowded with jagged yellow teeth.  Because of its position only a foot or so above the window’s seat, the owner of that horrible face was either leaning into the house through the window itself or possessed of inhumanly grotesque proportions.

It was the disgust prompted by these notions and the self-preservation inspired by the malice radiating from that terrible face that caused Amanda to reach out and, with a fierce growl, rip the curtains from their rod.  Before they had even reached the carpet she began to stomp the fabric, hoping to feel the satisfying crunch of bone beneath her heel, to hear a squeal as something monstrous felt fear.

It was only about a half-minute later she calmed, her stomping on the curtains becoming less forceful, as she realized there was nothing below her feet save old cloth.  She saw, through the tears of fear and rage that had come to her eyes, that the bay window was shut tight.  With a deep, shuddering breath, she turned back into the room.

Her neighbors stood across from her, their arms clasped protectively around their children; Donald and Victoria were near the front.  They all stared at her with white, frightened faces — the children more so than their parents.  Amanda suddenly felt vulnerable, standing alone on the ruined curtains, and she kicked them away in distaste, dashing across the room to her daughter and husband.

This seemed to break a spell; the adults began to whisper to one another, to discuss their plans for leaving, and the children did their best to explain to their parents the situation: “It was crawling around in the curtains” — “It kept trying to get me to go to it”  — “It said my name!”

Amanda knelt, looking Victoria in the face.  “Are you okay, sweetie?” she asked.

“Mommy,” said Victoria earnestly, beginning to regain her composure, “I think you were wrong.  I don’t think he was scared of me.”

Though if you were to ask Victoria — Vicky, as she likes to be called — she would deny it.  She claims the entire incident never happened or, in the unlikely event it did, she certainly doesn’t remember it.  My uncle Donald, for his part, is largely a silent man and apparently has no opinion on the matter.  He at least does not discuss it.

My aunt Amanda, who in time overcame the disastrous evening of the barbecue and was accepted back into the fold of the neighborhood where she has now lived for most of her life, tells me she takes solace in the fact that, though the thing in the curtains was not scared of her daughter, it has very good reason now to be scared of her.

Later on — after they had been folded up on the barbecue grill, doused in lighter fluid, reduced to ashes, and scattered to the wind — Amanda made some calls to her husband’s family regarding a pair of heavy antique curtains once owned by Grandmother Wilson.  Many recalled them having been in the old woman’s sitting room at a point in the past, but other than that they knew nothing.  Finally, though, Amanda came into contact with a slightly senile great-aunt, sister to Grandmother Wilson, who knew not only the curtains, but the method in which they were acquired.

They were found one day many decades past at a flea market in Salt Lake City, an item of utmost quality for an unbelievably low price, and Grandmother Wilson, upon discovering them, immediately made the purchase.  She had explained gleefully to the great-aunt (who, as a shopping companion, was jealous at not having spotted the deal herself) her intent to preserve the curtains as best as possible and, in time, ensure their status as a family heirloom.  The great-aunt recalled that, after a few years of having them in her house, Grandmother Wilson had taken the curtains down, though she could not recollect why, and she insinuated that, since her sister’s passing, she would be glad to have them herself should they be found among her belongings.

Amanda assured her the curtains were likely lost for good.

The bay window of my aunt’s house is currently dressed with a set of cheap, plain blinds.  They are slightly too small, not reaching fully to the edges of the windowpane, and thus let in an excess of light.  My aunt is not displeased by this.

Occasionally, though, no more than once or twice every few years, she says she enters the den to find the plastic slats in disarray, as if someone of an ill temperament has hastily lifted them to peer outside.  The reader no doubt can guess my aunt’s grim but groundless suspicion: that from time to time, through means unknown and unthinkable, something very ill tempered returns to peer in.

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