Nathan pulled up to the house as his phone announced, “you have arrived at your destination.” His first look was encouraging, but little more: a small yard dotted with manicured bushes, a brick walkway, and a vacant flagpole. Still, for a faded green house in the mid- 200’s, they could do a lot worse. He still didn’t see the “mature trees and park-like landscape” the MLS boasted, but conceded it had “great curb appeal.” Sort of.
He heard the passenger door open.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the real-estate lady?” he asked.
Allegra was already in the driveway. He could tell by the way her body moved, the slow, deliberate steps and the position of her hands (clenched tight in a ball against her chest) that she was close to tears. Did she hate it that much? It was only the second house; they had five or six to go, even more if they upped their price range. They would find something eventually. And if not, hell, they could always renew their lease…
He quickly unbuckled his seatbelt and slipped out of the car, gently coming up behind her and taking her arm.
“Hey, I know it’s not what we hoped, but it’s just one house. Maybe the next one…”
She turned to look at him, her eyes shimmering, a rapturous smile overtaking her lips.
“Nathan…I love it. This is it. It’s just what I dreamed of. Look at the lawn, and the windows in front. And the sun room! I can’t believe we found it.”
He almost laughed, but quickly realized she wasn’t joking. She really thought this was the one. The second house of the day. The second house they had ever looked at.
A few minutes later, the real estate agent pulled up in a tank-sized SUV. She hopped out, large convenience-store soda in tow, and apologized for being late. Shaking their hands, she rattled off the same factoids they already knew about the house: 2,910 square feet, four bedrooms/3 baths, only .39 acres, but in the best school district in the city. Allegra almost ran to the door, cupping her hands to look through the windows. The agent fumbled for the keys, said something about the “charm” these older houses had, which Nathan knew was code for “they did as little as they had to.”
Sure enough, the inside was like stepping back into a world when owning a home meant surrendering all pretensions to taste and beauty. Faux wood paneling as far as the eye could see, contrasting with garish, flowery wallpaper. A floor-to-ceiling mirror beside the fireplace only magnified the effect. The agent, with a slight wince, reminded them that wallpaper was the easiest thing to change in a new house. The mirrors, too.
“I really don’t mind—it’s charming, a throwback,” Allegra beamed. “And this wood paneling, it’s so authentic. Don’t you think?”
He gave a little shrug and smiled, but she was already in the kitchen, cooing over the olive-green oven with space-age dials and an analog clock.
“My grandmother had this exact same oven! It’s priceless! I could just die in here, you know?” she said, laughing.
They looked upstairs at the three bedrooms, the two baths. They were just empty rooms, complete with the stale odor of summer baking through the windows.
“What’s with all the crushed-up cigarettes?” Nathan asked, kicking one into plain sight. “They’re all over the place. You didn’t say anything about smokers.”
“Oh, yes, that,” the agent said, nervously. “No, I can assure you, the previous owners didn’t smoke. They were fastidiously clean, if a bit eccentric. That’s the only, ah, odd thing about this place. If you’re really interested in making an offer, we can discuss some of the finer points in my office. Probably not something we want to do in here.”
When she said “here,” she looked around, as if something was watching her, and urged them downstairs.
After inspecting the backyard (tasteful, tiny) they drove back to the real estate office and sat shoulder to shoulder in front of her desk (cluttered, tacky). The agent went over the details of the offer, what they could expect, some local inspectors they could call for an estimate, but Nathan was barely listening. Allegra, though, hung on her every word. It made him nervous.
“So, I was hesitant to mention this earlier, but as I see you’ve really taken a shine to the place...” the agent began.
“We’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Allegra said, leaning forward.
“Don’t tell me...they have some strange demands, like we can’t paint the second bedroom or hang pictures in the sunroom?” Nathan said, with a grin.
“Something along those lines,” she admitted. “The previous owners were very attached to the house. You see, they emigrated here from Russia in the 90’s…this was shortly after the end of the USSR and Glasnost. Absolute pillars of the community, their daughter went to Stanford on a full scholarship. But they were, you might say, a little different. Mysterious.”
“Ah, cloak and dagger,” he interrupted. “Are you trying to tell us they left bodies in the attic? A radio that transmits straight to the Kremlin?”
“Nathan,” Allegra said, rolling her eyes. “Please, go on.”
“What I’m trying to say is...they brought over some rather strange customs,” the agent continued, haltingly. “Russian folk beliefs, that sort of thing. Naturally, they packed most of it away, their strange decorations, paintings, and the like. But there was one thing they couldn’t take with them. Something that refused to leave the house.”
Nathan and Allegra were all ears and eyes and hushed breathing. What secrets were creeping in the shadows of this late-seventies bungalow with its miles of wood veneer (besides termites)?
“They call it a domovoi,” she said, lowering her voice. “You might call it a house spirit. They had it since their honeymoon, back in Russia, but instead of coming with them to Tampa—where they plan to retire—it insisted on staying behind. Really, it’s pretty harmless, and you probably won’t even see it around.”
“You mean, like a ghost?” Allegra asked.
“No, not like a ghost exactly; it isn’t dead.”
“How do you know…I mean, is this something they just believed in, or have you seen it yourself?” she asked.
The agent gave a weak grin, checking her phone as if expecting to find a message to pull her away.
“Yes, a few times, mostly at night. It’s quite small, and it looks…maybe like a cat? It’s hard to tell, it was very dark. I was upstairs and it knocked down some dishes in the kitchen. I also found some of my papers in the toilet. Things like that.”
“So more like a poltergeist,” Nathan said, playing along. “Pranks and whatnot. But nothing…violent? Not blood-sucking or spontaneous combustion?”
“No, I wouldn’t say violent, just—ah, mischevious. As long as you observe the boundaries.”
“So is an exorcism included with the home inspection?” he replied, with a laugh.
Allegra nudged him with a look in her eyes.
“That’s why you saw the cigarette butts,” she explained, rubbing her phone clean with a sleeve. “It likes tobacco. It doesn’t smoke, mind you, but it likes them crushed up. I leave a few here and there and it always finds them. And salt. You can sprinkle some salt in the basement or on the stairs.”
“Just table salt?” Allegra asked.
“I think it prefers kosher.”
Nathan threw his hands up in a get the fuck out gesture. This was nuts! A grown woman, a professional real state agent, telling them about “house spirits” and sprinkling kosher salt on the stairs! Allegra instinctively grabbed his arm and held him in place, begging him silently to just wait, hear her out. For this house, crazy as it was, just might be worth it.
“So all we have to do is make it happy? The cigarettes and the salt? That’s it?” Allegra asked.
“Well, yes, though there are a few other quirks I should probably mention,” she said, opening up her desk drawer and removing a yellowed folder.
She flipped through a few papers in the folder—most of them written in Russian, he noticed—and removed a smaller page ripped out of a composition notebook. On it were several lines of instructions written in sloppy, almost illegible script. The agent read off the ones she could as Allegra silently repeated them and Nathan almost fell out of his chair.
“So, you don’t want to swear in the house, like ever. It hates swearing. English, Russian, it doesn’t matter. It also prefers having a pet to take care of. Do you have a dog? Not even a cat? Hmm…couldn’t hurt to get one from a local shelter. It won’t go in a room with mirrors, so you’ll never find it near the fireplace. But other rooms, especially the ones it likes, you don’t want to hang any mirrors, even a vanity. That’s why the bathrooms…no mirrors at all.”
“Are you hearing this?” Nathan said, shaking his head. “We’re not supposed to use mirrors because of some mythical house-elf?”
“I always did want a cat,” she said, with a weak smile. “You promised me last year, if we could find an apartment that allowed them. And now...”
“Yeah, you hit the jackpot: a cat and a domo-voy! Who needs kids?”
“Anything else?” Allegra said, ignoring him.
“Well, you want to sleep on your side, never on your back. Otherwise it might…it’s been known to sit on your chest, making it hard to breathe.”
Nathan made a gasp that skittered between laughter and outrage, settling on the latter.
“And if you feel it touching your hair, try not to react. Whatever you do, don’t scream or run out of the room. It doesn’t like that. I can tell you from personal experience,” she said, with a shudder.
Nathan muttered darkly, though the two women scarcely noticed. Allegra was entranced, asking if she could take the list home to study. The agent agreed, smiling as if she’d finally discovered a long-lost sister. How many people had listened tight-lipped to her spiel about the domovoi and then run for the hills? Surely all of them. So why was Allegra immune? What about this excited her, made her squeeze his hand and turn red all over?
When they returned home, Allegra immediately started researching the domovoi, reading folktales, ethnographic studies, and even some weird page for a Russian art-band, Domovoi. She found a few books in the university library which she placed on hold, the whole time making notes and chattering non-stop about how few cases had been cited in the US, but always from expatriate Russians. Nathan had trouble keeping up, and almost ran into the next room to call his mother-in-law. But he wasn’t that desperate (yet).
Instead, he started combing the MLS, hoping that a similar house (a better one) would knock her out of this rut. Whenever he found something promising he would shout across the room, “look, mature trees and spacious sidewalks!” but she only replied, “did you know there are female domovoi called kikimora?” He printed out a few of the houses and laid them next to her keyboard, but she scarcely noticed, asking again if he had called the inspectors.
“Ally, this is only the second house. I know you love it, but shouldn’t we look at a few more? Like these? See, this one is close by, even: it has a larger yard and an updated kitchen. No grandma ovens!”
“But I like grandma ovens,” she said, eyes wide. “And I don’t need to look at the other houses. I love this one. It has everything we ever wanted. Do the other houses have their own resident spirit, a guardian to protect us? No, they’re just houses, flat, nothing. I’ve always wanted to live in a house with character.”
“Character, sure; but we’re talking monsters. Look, do you really believe in this stuff? I think she’s a nut.”
Allegra stopped scrolling and looked up at him, her eyeglasses askew, hair tangled around them.
“She is? Or I am?” she asked.
Her eyes gazed at him with an intensity he’d seen often enough, typically when something unknown offered the promise of ultimate fulfillment. For a few weeks she lived and breathed everything about this state, ordering books, buying maps, planning scenic drives to offbeat diners. Then she became obsessed about Istanbul when her DNA test came back with a 25% match for Turkey/Western Asia. Months of Turkish pop songs were still burned into his brain, though she only played them occasionally now.
“Look, I know how it sounds, and maybe you’re right—maybe she is nuts,” she said, weighing her words. “I just don’t want anything to go wrong. Not with the inspectors, not with the down payment, the loan, the domovoi. They all sound like obstacles to me, and if we just approach it correctly, seriously, then maybe…they won’t be?”
“Just tell me this,” he said, kneeling beside her. “Why this house? It’s old, it’s not that nice. It’s full of cigarette butts. I couldn’t even get one of the windows open. You deserve a house, the nicest one we can afford. You deserve to have a life here. So why does it have to be here?”
She looked away for a minute, wavering between what looked like anger or disappointment. But he could tell she was thinking, not ready to blow. If anything, it reminded him of his mother’s expression when he threw a tantrum and she was trying, sensibly, to calm him down. To bring him by slow degrees to reason.
“Okay, I’ll answer a question with a question: how did you know it was me? After how many girls? Three? Four?”
“Ah…is this a trick question?” he said, with a startled laugh.
“No, I mean serious, live-in relationships. I only know about your soul-mate, Eileen.”
“Yes, you never let me forget her,” he muttered. “Okay, but if that’s how you’re defining it, only two, really. Eileen, and someone else back in college. But that’s it. And none of them were anything like you, like us.”
“So how do you know? Shouldn’t you have lived with nine, ten, a baker’s dozen? I mean, come on, the rest of your life with me? Like the house, I’m a relic from the 70’s, full of these ‘grandma’ parts.”
“Ha, ha, point taken,” he said, shaking his head. “But I think you know the answer to that. We talked. Spent weeks together, went to movies, vacations, all that stuff. It took time, but within a few days, I knew. How can you do that with a house?”
“Because you were the house. For me, anyway. It didn’t take weeks, I knew almost at once. The first time I saw you. The way you looked at me. The way you shook my hand. I felt it here,” she said, patting her chest. “I felt it in my toes. I’m sorry it took you longer. But I guess it always does.”
“What the hell does that mean? How does it take me longer? About what?” he asked.
“Nathan, come on. Moving in together? We danced around that one for ages.”
“Yes, we did, it was mutual.”
“I didn’t need convincing. I indulged you because I saw you were scared, looking for excuses. But you can’t ask me to do that again. This house represents more than just some real estate: it’s our life together, making something that no one can take away from us. And when I saw that place, I knew immediately--that’s where we could do it. Or where I wanted to start. I know you don’t care, not really, it could be anyplace—or no place at all. So why can’t I choose where to start?”
He took a breath, thought carefully about what he wanted to say next, as if this was the turning point. Life could veer in one of two directions after he said it. So he raised one of her hands and kissed it, seeing the chipped purple polish on her nails.
“And what if it doesn’t like us?”
“What, the domovoi?”
“I don’t know a word of Russian. Okay, da and nyet.”
She smiled in what looked like half-delight, half-relief.
“That’s why I’m doing research. The more we know. And I do know a few words. Dobray ootra: good morning. Dobray vecher: good night.”
“Do-bray oo-tra,” he repeated, clumsily. “No, that’s crazy. Maybe I can do something else?”
She danced over to the computer desk and retrieved a sticky note of names and titles.
“You can get these books I have on reserve at the library. And dinner, if you wouldn’t mind. But no Chinese: you said you’d help me be vegetarian this year.”
She leaned in and pressed the sticky note to his nose. He snatched it off and they kissed, at first just a peck, but then a longer, more appreciative embrace.
“Just give it a chance. That’s all I ask,” she whispered.
“My mom was a smoker. I can’t stand cigarette butts,” he muttered.
“Then focus on the salt,” she said, licking her lips.
A few days later he came back to the house with the inspector, a guy who looked about sixty in dusty overalls, with a clip pad of yellowed pages. As they approached the door, he gave a click of recognition and pointed to the roof.
“Sure, I was here maybe twenty years ago, and I didn’t find nothing wrong with it,” he said, opening the screen door (which seemed loose). “Some wires in the attic that weren’t connected to anything, but that’s about it.”
Nathan followed him inside and the inspector went to work, peering under the sink with a flashlight. He waited in the kitchen for a few minutes, wondering if he was supposed to make conversation, but figured the inspector would prefer to do his business alone. Nathan wandered upstairs, the creaking of the stairs echoing through the empty rooms of the house.
In the master bedroom, he found the first signs of cigarettes. He couldn’t remember if this is where the agent left them, though they looked more or less untouched. With a nervous glance behind, he removed a Christmas-tree salt shaker from his pocket. He sprinkled some in each corner of the room, just as Allegra instructed. Then he stepped back, holding his breath, waiting for…he didn’t know what exactly. A puff of smoke? Glowing eyes? The devil?
In the end nothing appeared. Maybe it didn’t like to eat in public? Or maybe it was waiting for something else, something better?
“Oh, hell,” he grumbled.
He removed a pristine pack of cigarettes from his jacket, the first he’d ever purchased, and felt damn silly doing it, too. The cashier seemed to know he didn’t smoke and smiled the entire time she rang him up. Oh well, let them laugh: the cashier, the inspector, even the domovoi, if it wanted. Ally, this one’s for you.
He took out two cigarettes and crumbled them in the walk-in closet. The air was a bit hot up here, as the AC hadn’t been on reliably throughout the summer. It made him feel watched, claustrophobic. He quickly backed out and closed the door. There, it was done. Now he could say that he did it, that he believed in their little adventure. And when she asked him what he saw, he could just say—
Wait, what did he just see?
Just as he was backing out of the bedroom he saw a shadow flit under the door. Like two little feet. He froze, and holding his breath, got down to his knees, craning his neck. The shadow stopped moving.
He crawled a step closer, still holding his breath. The shadow remained; a thing, not a trick of the light. Nathan couldn’t tell anything about it, not its size or shape, just that it was there, a presence that hadn’t been in the closet a minute before.
Curiosity quickly gave way to fear. His first impulse was to bolt down the stairs. But then he remembered the agent’s advice—don’t run away from it. Let it see you, feel you if it wants to. It’s not here to harm you. In fact, you’re the one that’s intruding on its domain.
The shadow flinched slightly, followed by the scraping of frantic, cat-like claws. Yes, it was unmistakable now, something was in the closet; something was eating the cigarettes; a ‘something’ like a cat that he had never seen in the house.
I have to open the door, he thought to himself. He couldn’t go back without seeing it, without having something to tell her. Otherwise, he would doubt what he heard, tell himself it was the heat, the closeness of the room. He had to prove it to himself now or he never would. But what would it take to open the door? What kind of strength and resolve? In what world did he actually see himself laying hold of the knob and twisting it open?
He crept closer, stifling a gasp of fear. The shadow paused—he could almost swear it breathed. Another shuffle forward. The door was mere inches away. Of course, that meant he was closer to it. What if it preferred him to a few mangy cigarette butts? The agent had hinted at being assaulted by the creature at night. Of broken dishes, devilish mischief. It wasn’t too late, he could still back out of the room, run like the dickens downstairs.
“Hey, you up there?” the inspector called.
The shadow bolted. He heard it scurrying up the walls, into the attic! With a surge of fear, he threw himself against the door and opened it. Looked up and saw, for the merest of seconds, a long, black tail snake into the crawlspace above. Too high to reach, even if he was fool enough to hoist himself up there and follow. Instead, he covered his mouth and dropped to his knees, shaking all over.
There, on the floor, were the remains of both cigarettes. Ripped to pieces.
He found himself laughing when the inspector came in, looking alarmed, flashlight in hand like a weapon.
“Jesus, son, you okay? What is it? A raccoon?”
“No, it’s nothing; just lost my balance.”
The inspector gave a sigh of relief, scratching his head.
“Well, they get in here sometimes. Possums, too. I haven’t seen any droppings, but I’ll look in the attic. You’re sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said, clutching his knees.
“It’s a big step, home ownership. Hitting you all at once?”
“Yeah…a lot of responsibility. Sharing a house like this.”
“Having cold feet?”
His reflexive answer would have been to say ‘yes,’ but he stopped himself. Cold feet? They were on fire.
“She was right, you know,” Nathan blurted out. “Right about everything.”
“Your wife, I take it,” he said, smiling. “They usually are. They pay more attention than we do.”
“But how did she know it was here? What about this place made her see? She must have just felt it.”
“Sure,” he nodded, distractedly. “It’s a nice old house. Has a good feel about it--or as my mom used to say, good spirits.”
Nathan laughed abruptly at that word, so much so, the inspector took a step back. Wondered if there wasn’t a gas leak.
“I think you should get some air, maybe wait on the porch,” the inspector said, offering his hand. “It’s a bit hot up here.”
Nathan just nodded, getting to his feet and stumbling out of the closet. The inspector took a quick look in the closet before closing it, noting the chewed up cigarettes. Withdrawal. The kid must really be feeling it.
Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at a small university in the middle of Oklahoma, where he teaches classes in everything from Batman to Beowulf. He is the father of two boys, both almost college age, and the owner of an aging home for his dogs and cats (all of them strays). His stories have recently appeared in On Spec, Tales to Terrify, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and Roi Faineant.