The Walls Speak of Purgatory

Sadia Reza

© Copyright 2023 by Sadia Reza


Image by liatit from Pixabay
Image by liatit from Pixabay
We all thought of her as 'the woman with the dead husband'. She lived upstairs above us, yet I would never meet her. It happened before she’d moved here – she found him hanging from the ceiling, a rope around his neck. He’d served in Afghanistan, I heard. Bits and pieces of her story I gathered from various figures, the landlord, my husband’s family. Yes, she had struggled, the poor woman, everyone thought; what a tragic story, very sad. So long as she paid the rent.

In the silence when I was home alone, I could hear them upstairs. The staircase leading to the basement of my room had the most ideal acoustics for traveling sound from the uppermost floor all the way below. Within this hollow space where musty silence reigned amidst the oil tank and that feeling all basement cellars have as if a body had been buried somewhere behind the walls – I listened to the voices that carried between the domains above and below. Shouts, cursing from her son, heavy thudding, her voice shouting back on the verge of tears.

The shouting was erratic, violent, and it was as if I had not left my own home just three months ago after all. There I was again, the home I’d known for twenty-seven years, eternally quaking, eternally on the edge of an explosion. And here I was again, standing here in purgatory between the floors, miles away from it – or so I thought.

The first day I had moved in and had a moment to myself, the silence was deafening. I did not know what to do with it. The silence after nearly three decades’ worth of a mortar-shelled warzone – you never knew where the next explosion was going to come from; and now it echoed a little too loudly in my ears.

I listened to the voices upstairs and wondered if I should call the police. I had never done so before in my own childhood home.

But soon, the noises subsided, and I was relieved that I did not have to go through the hassle and the awkwardness of police reports and statements. I returned to my desk to work.

She had a dog, an older mutt named Ollie. In the massive backyard that could fit several houses, she walked the dog sometimes. I’d see him roaming happily, joyous to be let out. But sometimes, when he was left alone for long periods of time, I’d hear Ollie whining in the empty darkness. His cries echoed overhead us all night long.

Once, as she walked Ollie outside and I worked in the kitchen, she looked through the window. There she stood, a leash in her hand, Ollie chewing on something in the ground, and she looked straight through the window at me. Anguish contorted her features, pain so deep in her eyes that they pleaded to be seen, pleaded for me to see them; for me to say something. For anyone to say something, for anyone to see.

I wanted to wave at her through the window, smile. But I couldn’t do it. My body was frozen, my face could not move, only my eyes held hers. Perhaps it was for the same reason that I’d always been afraid to move in my own home my entire life, the possibility of shattering a moment of fragile calm; but here in this house it was for a different reason: as others judged, weighed, evaluated my every move, my every breath. I was to uphold manners, docile and obedient, smiling at all times, laughing, working alongside in the kitchen, the perfect daughter-in-law.

The woman’s eyes held mine, and I could not look away. The others moved around me in the house as I stared through the kitchen window back at her, someone ordering me to put the dishes on the table, the sink filling with water slowly, the swishing of the dishwasher running, running. It would all rise until it spilled over, I felt, filling the entire room with water, rising up to our necks, and my eyes would still be held by the woman outside, as we all drowned inside.

I don’t remember when I turned away from her, but I hated myself for doing it. When I looked again, she was gone.

I tried to bake cookies, knock on her door to deliver them. Perhaps it was to compensate for not waving at her that day; for looking away. But each time, only Ollie barked at the door, and she never arrived. She was lying in bed, I knew, staring at the wall, her limbs unable to move.

Eventually, I stopped trying.

In the fall we went up to Vermont for a week. When we returned, the glass door was shattered, a window forced open, footprints all over the house. We checked the cameras. Two young boys flickered across the screen in black and white, stumbling through the rooms. It was her son, with a friend. He was drunk and locked outside of his house. He’d thought he could get inside through our door. It was all a great misunderstanding, she cried.

My husband’s family didn’t press charges. My father-in-law was kind, he wanted to give people second chances. He just wanted an apology from the boy, was all.

One evening she came down herself, speaking in hushed tearful voices with my mother-in-law, that she was sorry for what her son had done.

I swear he is not himself,” she cried. “It is as if…when he is like this, when he gets angry…I don’t know who he is.”

From below through the basement door, I listened. I wanted to go up, to say hello, but I realized I could not disrupt this moment now. There would be something wrong about it.  

W“I don’t know who he is,” she whispered again, and I saw my brother’s face, floating above me. The rage in his eyes, the contorted anger, the violence in his words. When he would become someone else, someone we both feared, someone we both hated and never wanted to be like; someone against whom we would have to be ready at all times to rush against, to protect from. Protect. And yet what had it turned us into? I did not know – because the rage behind my brother’s eyes, I did not know who it was. It had taken my kind, gentle brother, and I did not know where to find him beneath the rage.

I swear he’s not a bad kid,” the woman whispered to my mother-in-law. “I swear he’s good underneath.”  


In the summer a year later, they could no longer pay the rent. It took a month for them to move out.

My husband and I would be moving in. I celebrated to myself: No more musty basement for us. And the thought of my own kitchen, my own dishes, my own space and time – I could have been dreaming it.

The ceilings rose high, higher than anything I had ever lived in, than anything I ever thought I could live in. Vast windows flooded light into the rooms, so much light that I thought I could cry from happiness. I’d faced a brick wall my entire life.

From high above on the upper floor, we could look below to the streets, the other houses, the balcony looking out onto the backyard that now appeared to me a sprawling English garden, the trees swaying in the breeze. In the night, when we had not yet put up the curtains, I lay in bed and watched the tree branches against the sky; I listened to the whispering of the wind. I wanted never to put up the curtains at all.

As I cleaned through the pantries, the cabinets, the closets, I found bits and pieces of her life. Old toys her son must have played with as a child, an outdated version of R2-D2 robot. Chess boxes, cards. And in the master bedroom closet, I found a stash of photographs. A small boy, smiling straight at the camera, in a shirt with a cartoon Mickey Mouse, a smile as wide as his own.

In another shot, a woman with blond hair faced the camera, her eyes sparkling, happy. The breadth of time loomed up over me and began to choke me – the breadth of time between these eyes and those of the haunted gaze of the woman through the kitchen window. The walls of the closet closed in upon me and I could not breath.

I had never met her, never spoken with her. But I could feel her inside the walls, in the four-by-five closet as I stood there. Did she ever look back at the photo again, I wondered, unable to recognize herself?

Perhaps she refused to believe that the man whose voice boomed across the rooms at her was the smiling boy in the photo. Perhaps her son lived inside the photograph now, forever entombed within it.

But I could not believe such a thing. I had to believe that, somehow, somewhere, the boy still lived outside of the cold, hard edges of the fraying, yellowing photograph: that the boy still lived inside the man, and someday, he would find him again.


White blossoms grew along near the backyard fence in late summer, visible from our bedroom window. They bloomed up as if reaching for something, for the skies perhaps. Bluejays, waxwings, orioles fluttered over the branches, singing a chorus to each other. I imagined they sang to me.
My husband would berate me for working all the time, for not sitting down, unwinding, for being unable to stop moving. I did not know how to. I had never known the secret.
But now, as I watched the birds and listened to their song, I tried. For the first time, I thought there was a chance that I could discover their secret.

I am an English Lit Lecturer at CUNY in New York, an educator and sociologist. I attained MAs in English & Sociology from Columbia University and Queens College. I have experience in teaching, but do not have any published creative writing. Thank you for the opportunity to submit my work. 

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