The Rowhouse

by Jeremy Megargee

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The rowhouse is small, the rooms cramped, and there’s a vague sense of claustrophobia when moving through miniscule hallways and climbing narrow stairs. When it’s daylight and Baltimore is alive, it’s a modest museum, and people crowd into the tiny rooms to get a sense of who he was, why he was, and what lived in his haunted heart. You can buy keepsakes, candles, leather journals, t-shirts, and talismanic objects, purchased from within the walls where he once breathed and labored. That’s the surface of the rowhouse, a skimming of shallow water, but there are depths that remain unseen, a caul that breaks open when the hour grows dark and the museum closes for business. Midnight oil burns in rooms of memory, and there are sights and sounds to be heard. The past tends to stain, and the rowhouse is no different.

There’s an infinitesimal attic, emaciated rafters and a lonely window. There’s a mountain of bird bones here, a brittle Everest. Ulnas, femurs, carpometacarpus gleaming beneath weak moonlight, once-feathered wings, and skulls polished clean by mice and insects, beaks no longer able to caw…

Ravens shatter the window every few months, drawn inward as though by magnetism, and they die gasping in the attic, their insides equally shattered. The window is frequently replaced, but the bones are never touched, for it would be unlucky to desecrate the graveyard that the ravens have chosen for themselves.

We won’t linger, for the bird skulls resent being watched, and it’s not polite to stare. Down through the ceiling, the walls pressing inward, making you feel like you must bend and contort to navigate from room to room. There’s a bedroom, and a feverish scratching from inside, quill on paper, desk rattling, ink pooling and bleeding blacker than sin. The sound represents desperation, a yearning to rise above the station he was born into. There’s a smooth, fruity flavor overhanging the room, the smell of brandy hitting the belly and lighting fires there, fuel for ideas after dark, literature being born. A tugging, a rattling, like a wounded heart beneath floorboards. Some writers give birth over and over again in their lifetimes, sending their beautifully repulsive children out into the world to be admired or disdained. It takes a toll, those mental exertions, and sometimes it drives one to drink and drink until death is almost blissfully certain…

We creep on, and mind the wooden planks, they’re sensitive, they squeal, and splinters are a constant gift. The next bedroom is smaller, closer to that aforementioned attic, and it feels crooked, never quite solid, a nest for bent angles and walls that were never taught to remain straight. During daylight it’s the quietest room, but at night it’s the loudest, a nocturnal element in play, for every tortured soul finds a voice that’s been lost in the witching hour.  

Sporadic noises, ragged coughs full of viscous liquid and infinite suffering. It’s hot in here, a taste of Hell’s precipice, and the sauna-like temperatures make the invisible cougher even more vocal. It brings to mind images of a brow with skin thin like parchment, beaded with sweat, and a pallid literary man’s hand wiping at it hour after hour with a wet rag, hoping to give her just a sliver of comfort…

Sometimes the coughs come with a splatter, and a red mist will stain the hardwood floor, blooms of blood from nowhere, roses that never last, disappearing with the dawn. It was called consumption because it consumed. The disease made one as frail as a cadaver, lips forcibly crimson from the coughing, and a human in such a state was a pitiful thing to see, clutching at blankets in hopes of warding off a cold so deep it chilled the marrow.

If the rowhouse has a soul—and I believe that it does—surely that soul wasn’t born with a lust for the macabre. It was imprinted, stamped into the architecture of the place, as inevitable as a wound never allowed to close as a knife keeps splitting it open and refusing it the chance to heal. A cloud lorded over the life of the man who lived and wrote here, and he was so accustomed to the shadow of it that he never expected it to leave him be. If history teaches us anything, it never did…

If the rowhouse is a part of him, the streets of Baltimore are as well. His last steps, his final mysterious delirium, his fall, skull cracking cobblestone, and all the stories and poems yet to be told draining from him as his life approached the lesser portion of the hourglass. The insult of an obituary written by an enemy, a life lived destitute, a path almost predestined to glorify tragedy. A servant of sorrow to the bitter end, and isn’t sorrow one of the most inspiring emotions of all?

So the next time you’re strolling through Baltimore, that special pocket of gloom where the streets are dark and might have teeth, stop to admire the rowhouse, and let your gaze drift up to a window. If the night is right and the stars shine phantasmorgically, you might see a face looking down at you. Pale, drooping, a broken moonflower of a face, and hair as black and wild as the circumstances of his life. You’ll meet his eyes, and behind them is a murderous orangutan, a black cat, a heart pounding under floorboards, and a legendary raven that perches and speaks from a familiar chamber door…

All that he is, all that he was, all that ever lived and lurked inside of him. Lift a glass of cognac, and hold tight to a rose until the thorns pierce your palms. The monsters that were in him are in us all, and it just takes a little push to get them out…

It’ll all make sense in time…

The rowhouse will show you.

©️ 2020 by Jeremy Megargee

“The Rowhouse,” by Jeremy Megargee, was first published on September 24, 2020 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe, Volume I: A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe.

Interview with Jeremy Megargee, Author of “The Rowhouse”

What inspired you to write “The Rowhouse”?

I was lucky enough to visit the Poe Museum in Baltimore a few years ago, and it was surreal to walk through that cramped little rowhouse and think about how Poe lived there, suffered there, and wrote there. I’m a big boy at 6’3, there was a certain sense of claustrophobia ducking through the narrow stairways and trying not to bang my head on the low ceiling. It felt almost oppressive, an undercurrent of the macabre waiting behind a veil of civility. I started to think about the rowhouse as a character, a haunted house that comes alive at night when all the tourists leave…haunted not so much by visible specters, but by the tormented memories of Poe’s tragic life. The ravens that lingered in his dreams, the cousin-wife that died coughing up blood, and the hardscrabble circumstances of living in poverty and trying to scrape out a living as an author…

Is it true that you have a tattoo of an Edgar Allan Poe quote?

I’ve always related to Poe as a writer, and his work has always moved me. I have his quote “there is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion” tattooed into my forearm…and I believe that the strange should always be celebrated. I tried to capture haunted beauty, strangeness, and a little piece of who the man behind the myth was when I wrote “The Rowhouse,” and it was a highly enjoyable experience.

Tattoo that states "There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion."

What’s your favorite gothic story or poem?

I like a quite a bit of gothic literature, so I’d go with Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, and Poe’s “The Black Cat.”

What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?  

I’ve been writing horror fiction for several years now, and most of my stories delve into a dark Poe-esque direction. You can follow my work on Facebook at JMHorrorFiction and on Instagram at xbadmoonrising.