I don’t remember falling, just getting up and turning out the lights. It seemed so bright.
The silverfish noticed the moisture before we did. They seemed to take it as a welcome, and I didn’t give them any thought while unpacking. We were new to the house. I was figuring out which room to begin peeling wallpaper off of. Maybe the kitchen first, with its loud walls pasted in repeating daisies, queen anne’s lace, the occasional frog. Or no, I’d begin in the upstairs hallway, removing olive stripes and roses. I didn’t notice any wallpaper discoloring, or later, insects lingering along its seams.
It wasn’t that bad when the silverfish came at night. The house was large and I didn’t mind sharing with them. They were quiet. There would be the occasional flash of antennae under the baseboards in the hall. Or a silver flicker down the drain. A few here and there were harmless enough. At night, I didn’t like to flip the light on anyway. I’d rather make my way to the bathroom without disturbing the air. And in the bathroom, lights on, silverfish hid behind the old picture of mom while I urinated.
From afar, I considered them inoffensive.
We were getting settled. I wasn’t exactly new to the house, but estranged from it. The place smelled exactly like I remembered, dusty paper and something vegetal, but enough time had passed everything else was unfamiliar. With the old furniture gone, I was seeing rooms empty for the first time. The wallpaper no longer toned the background, picking at my eyes instead.
There was something heavy in the air.
It had been at least two weeks, no, months, probably. I never imagined us living in mom’s old house, yet since I got sick it just made sense. The house was mine now that she was gone. And our entire apartment fit inside. In her old bedroom was our bed, my nightstand on the left and yours on the right. Lining the upstairs hall were my pictures from the lake, set on the ground beside the boxes of photo albums. The kitchen counters easily accommodated the bills and medical records I needed to sort through. There was your favorite wing chair in the living room. Our shoes by the door. Your hair in the bathroom sink.
The moisture became apparent when the silverfish gnawed the wallpaper. The worst seemed to happen around the olive stripes in the upstairs hall. They chewed along seams in the paper, avoiding the darkest colors and nibbling puce roses down to the plaster. The damage then spread to the beige damask in our bedroom, entering the shared bathroom, and finally seeped downstairs to the living room. I noticed flowers and stripes thinning in patches around the house.
The silverfish densely populated the walls. And when I closely looked, the plaster shone with beads of condensation. It was inexplicable, the gathering insects and moisture. It hadn’t rained. No plumbing issues at a glance, nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing out of place. We had just moved the last couple boxes to the basement, unopened. We weren’t getting to them just yet.
First the walls sweat. Then dribbled pools of water that wet the baseboards. The air thickened with excess moisture and could only be drank in mouthfuls. Dark mold blushed where the wall and ceiling met. It became a problem.
The ground was slick from the weeping baseboards. Upstairs, the wood floors had begun to buckle and cup. Occasionally a lifted plank would snag my sock while walking through the dark. I must’ve tripped, fallen down the stairs and cracked my head against the banister. I think I lay there for a while; I don’t remember it happening, just getting up and turning out the lights. It was so bright. I didn’t want to disturb the air.
We had no choice but to tear out the walls.
We started in the hallway where the water had formed a trickle. Using a hammer, I broke the soaked wall easily in one swing. A large chunk of plaster fractured, sending grit down in a shower. Behind, the lath was swollen and soft. The smell, putrid.
Yet the odor fascinated me, evoking mulch after a summer rainstorm or rotten baby bella mushrooms. I dug my fingernail into the wood, which easily gave way in soily chunks. I scooped out fistfulls of slats and flung them to the ground, moving down quickly. Reaching waist height, I realized there was something piled in the wall behind the lath. Hard edges and shapes disguised by chunks of dusty plaster. They were geometric, precise and smooth. I pulled more lath away, spilling the contents onto the floor.
The shapes came tumbling out, thick-cut letters like parmesan, translucent and greasy with droplets of sweat.
Words fell out of the wall. Some in opaque ivory, others with striations and yellowing flecks. THEN, LET and AWAY fell and hit the ground. I watched ENOUGH skitter and break along a fissure. Filling the space between the studs were piles of brittle words and letters stuck together. The air hung with a fungal, chalky smell. Fine particles clung to my eyelashes. I stared at the words scattered across the floor.
We had to get to work tearing out every wall in the house. First, the rest of the hallway. Then, the living room, bedroom and bath. While the words varied in smell, all would relentlessly sweat, leaving greasy halos wherever they were set. I heaped them onto tarps, bundling them to take outside.
I began airing words out in the backyard where they shrunk in the sun. It was late spring, warm enough to dehydrate words like INCOMPREHENSIBLE and BROKENHEARTEDNESS in a few days. They dried to the size of a thumbnail and I’d gather them up, scooping brittle shapes into milk crates lined with dish towels. The words smelled delicious and funky, meaty with varying degrees of a slight fecal odor.
I don’t know what tempted me to taste the first word. I couldn’t help but eat a “THEN.” There were plenty, and this one had hardened into a wavy chip.
It dissolved in my mouth like a packing peanut. No taste at all.
I had to try another.
“C’MERE” was almond scented, slightly sweet, and rock hard. It hurt to bite down on. “HOMECOMING” was briny and soft, rich like a salted egg yolk.
I wondered about the different tastes. Was it the length of the word? The letters it contained? Where I had pulled it from the wall? I regretted throwing them all in piles onto the tarps. It seemed the easiest way to bundle the words and get them outside.
I had lost track of what the silverfish were up to. It was hard for me to keep track of most things though. I would pick up the crowbar and find myself drifting through boxes of medical records. Or I’d stare at the picture of mom in the bathroom. I noticed dark spots in her hair that weren’t there before, and turning the picture around, saw holes dotting the brown paper sealing the back. The insects had eaten through the backing and glue holding the picture in place.
I began flipping through my books which were in boxes piled in the center of the living room. The first book I pulled out disturbed three or four silverfish that dashed deeper in. I flipped the book open, dismayed to find words redacted from the pages and others eaten clean through. Holes bloomed across the text like stars. The moisture was here too. Dark spores colored the pages matching the spots near the ceiling.
Everything was supposed to be in its place by now, books out of boxes and onto shelves. One of the bookcases was still on its side behind the sofa, covered by plastic tarp for the demolition. We had moved all the photo albums to the basement for safekeeping. I had no clue where my summer clothes were.
I took to walking around in the dark. Adjusting to the light in the evening made my head throb and whoosh, vertigo worsened by the distorted floors and plastic draped everywhere.
It was time to demolish the bathroom. I wasn’t allowed to use tools because of my concussion, and I wouldn’t be able to anyways. The noise was excruciating as I lay on the sofa downstairs and listened to the crack, crack, of plaster being chipped off the walls, wondering how long I could wait before needing to get up and urinate. Unable to bear it any longer, I made my way upstairs.
That’s when I saw.
Lodged in the corner where the stud met the ceiling was a flowering fungal growth, webs of words nestled in thread-like mycelium. I could see the beginnings of words that looked familiar. GABAPENTIN and AMITRIPTYLINE from a phone call with the pharmacist. There was DEFICIENCY and FRUSTRATE, NEED nestled behind MASK. YET and RESTED mingled with ONIONS, SILVERFISH, THENs and WHENs. I saw your name and we found mine. I wanted to tear it all out and crush it in my hands.
The walls were made of paper, and I didn’t want to disturb the air.
I took to sorting and cooking down the words.
They grew like mushrooms and could be chopped and sauteed accordingly. The dried words were especially useful, stored in glass jars with silica packets to keep them fresh, they were added to every meal. I grated some into shavings to serve atop bowls of creamy tomato soup. Others added crunch to salads. I rehydrated the hardest, sweetest words and braised them in wine. IFs were softened overnight in jars of oat milk topped with berries. Every EVER was processed into powder that, combined with butter and chicken stock made a silky white sauce tasting of truffles and sage.
I couldn’t stop the silverfish from getting to all my paper. They ate through cardboard boxes, inhabiting the bills and tearing through my bank statements. They destroyed the medical books, perforated albums of photographs and found our receipts in the drawers.
We ate pasta and stood together in empty rooms.