My Name is Ellie
by Sam Rebelein
My name is Ellie, and I like figurines made of ceramic.
Not the little angels or the ones based on paintings, but the ones that are just little people.
Which I know is not what most 10-year-olds are into, but I like them.
Which is something my mom says I picked up from my grandma.
Which is my mom’s mom.
Which is funny because I also got my name from my grandma, whose name was Ellen.
Which, for a while, was pretty much the only thing I knew about my grandma, who died before I was born.
Which my dad once said, at a party when he was very drunk, is a good thing.
Which is because she scared him.
Which my mom told me is only because my dad is intimidated by women who know things he doesn’t.
Which she said is all women.
Which my dad said isn’t true and she knows it, that’s not why he was afraid of her.
To which my mom said, “Shut up or I’ll dip you in glaze and pose you myself.”
Which I didn’t really understand.
“Intimidated” isn’t really a word I understand either.
The only other thing I know about my grandma is that she lived in a large lonely house in the middle of the woods.
Which my mom says smelled very nice when it rained.
Which she says was one of her favorite things about living in that house when she was my age.
Which always makes me wish I’d gotten to meet my grandma, and see her house.
Which is gone now.
Which is sad, because my mom says it was beautiful and had lots of stained glass and “gables”.
Which sounds fancy even though I don’t know what a gable is.
My mom says that the house was surrounded by pine trees, and that the air was always misty so you couldn’t see the tops of the trees, and that the house was so high up in the hills that when you couldn’t see the tops of the trees, it felt like you couldn’t see the very top of the world itself.
Which my dad says is horseshit.
Which my mom says is a bad word, and whenever he says it, she makes him put a dollar in a jar on our counter.
Which my dad always does without grumbling.
Which my mom says is because he’s actually very nice (and he is!); he just gets scared when she talks about my grandma, that’s all.
Which Mom says is also why Dad won’t go in my bedroom at night, and why he sometimes won’t even go in there by himself during the day.
Which can be annoying sometimes, if she asks him to go in there to get my laundry, to help her with the chores, or something.
But which she also understands, because of all the ceramic figurines in my room.
Which he says he’s never liked, ever since he met my grandma.
Which my mom says was in college, during a winter break.
Which was about a year after they’d started going out.
Which I think is gross to think about — my parents going out.
My mom says that my dad really liked Grandma’s house, too, and that he even liked all the figurines at first.
Which was good, because Grandma Ellen had lots of them on the shelves all around her house.
My dad says there were hundreds. All standing around in suits and fine dresses, waving to each other or playing games or doing other simple poses. All over the house. On shelves, in cabinets, on the mantel, on tables, on the stairs, and just standing on the floor. At Christmastime, they hid three Christmas figurines in the house, all wearing Santa suits, and whoever found them got a candy cane.
Which my grandpa never approved of, because he thought candy was the devil, but which is one reason why my mom says I would have liked Grandma Ellen’s house.
My mom says I also would have liked the house because everything was a dark, rich wood, and all the ceilings were carved into arches, and all the rooms echoed if you yelled, and you could stand in one corner and whisper to someone in another corner and they’d whisper back, and the wallpaper was very pretty, and there was a library filled with books (which sounds like heaven to me), and because there were people who lived inside of the walls.
Which my mom says she told my dad about before he visited for the first time.
Which she says she was really nervous about — even more than him meeting her parents.
Which she says is because she thought he might think she was crazy.
Which, my dad says, he did.
My dad says he thought the house was too big. He hated all the open space. He didn’t like how lonely it was. And he says the “altitude” (which means it’s very high up, which I said already) messed with his head and made him dizzy whenever he climbed the stairs. He didn’t like looking out the windows at the trees and not knowing where the trees ended. He says the mist made him nervous.
Which my mom says is only because he doesn’t have a sense of mystery.
Which I understand, because my dad is always the one who plans everything and keeps track of stuff.
Which my mom calls “being grounded”.
Which she likes about him.
But which she also says can be a bad thing, because it means you’re not open to new and weird stuff.
Which is why my dad didn’t believe her about the people in the walls, and why he still doesn’t like all my figurines. He’s just not open.
To which my dad says, “That’s definitely a way to put it.”
Which he says without looking at Mom or me.
My dad says he figured my mom was just hearing mice in the walls, or some other critters. He says she must have been scared sleeping as a little girl in a big lonely house in the middle of the woods.
Which my mom says is wrong because the woods never bothered her, and the sounds she heard were definitely people sounds.
Which she says included things like laughter, utensils clicking against plates, bootsteps, teeth-brushing, and whispers.
Which she says would only happen at night, and only after everyone else was asleep.
That’s when she’d hear them wake up.
Which she says sounded mostly normal — like people yawning and shuffling around and making coffee and making that sleepy murmuring you hear people do in bed just after they wake up — except smaller.
Which she says is because they were much smaller — only about a foot tall.
Which meant their days were shorter.
Which she says always started with them making tea.
Which she always thought was terrible because she could hear the kettle on the stove whistling, shrill and loud, through the wall.
Which was then followed by the sounds of the people going about their day.
Which included them reading the paper, playing games with each other, two meals, and a snack right before dawn, when they would go to sleep.
Which my mom says she heard every single night, for years, ever since she was a very little girl.
My dad says she told him this, and he thought she was kidding.
But then, he says, he heard it, too.
The first night he stayed at my grandma’s, my mom fell asleep right away (forgetting about the people in the walls, she was so used to it), and my dad was left alone to listen to their sounds all night long, scared stiff.
He heard them make tea.
He heard them read the paper.
He heard them play chess.
He heard them laughing.
He heard them dancing.
And then, at dawn, he heard them pick one of their people and tear them apart limb by limb with their bare hands.
Which he’s only told me once or twice, and both times it made his hands shake.
He says he could hear all of it.
He says he knows it happened because he could hear, through the wall over the bed, the skin bursting and the joints ripping and the screams of the one chosen and the chant of the ones doing the killing.
Which went, “This is our choice. This is our choice. This is our choice.”
Which my dad says he could hear all over the wall.
Which he says must have been filled with hundreds, maybe thousands of people.
“This is our choice. This is our choice. This is our choice.”
Which they said over and over as they did the “butchering”.
Which my dad says is the only word for it.
Which he says was then followed by all the people in the walls, very formally, saying good night to one another.
Which was followed by silence, as dawn slid through the window.
In the morning, Grandma Ellen smiled at him and asked him if he heard the people in the walls.
Which my mom says she’d forgotten about, she’d been so tired.
Which she said she was sorry about, because she’d meant to stay up with him so he wasn’t scared.
My dad said he did hear, and did they know the people in the walls killed each other?
My dad says that this was the worst part because Mom and Grandma Ellen just laughed and told him that was normal. They’d always thought the people in the walls were just regular people, except that they were smaller and they made “sacrifices”.
Which we learned about at school when we were talking about the Mayans.
Who made sacrifices all the time.
Which didn’t make them bad, just different.
Which my mom and grandma explained to Dad.
My grandpa said the people in the walls didn’t have jobs, and called them “communists,” but I don’t know what that means.
My mom says none of this made my dad feel better.
My mom says he spent the rest of the day staring at the walls, jumping when anyone said his name.
My mom says she caught him scratching at a rip in the wallpaper once.
My mom says he didn’t want to go to bed.
My mom says they lay there together in the dark, talking, and she promised she’d stay up with him.
My mom says she feels bad about it, but she drifted off again, leaving him alone, staring at the ceiling.
My dad says he thought about shaking her awake, but something told him not to.
My dad says he didn’t move a muscle all night.
My dad says he heard them again, and he could hear them so clearly that he could picture what was happening in his head, step by step, when they did the butchering.
They’d chant, “This is our choice. This is our choice. This is our choice.”
They’d tear and break and crush and twist and rip.
They’d press the sacrifice’s eyes back into the sockets until the eyes popped, then they’d tape the mouth shut (he says he could hear the peel of the duct tape).
They’d saw open the neck and then tape that shut, too, so the sacrifice bled into their throat and drowned in it, and because their hands were already twisted off, they couldn’t take off the tape so they’d just wriggle around like worms until they died.
Then the people in the walls all said good night, very formally, and went to bed.
My mom says he didn’t need to tell me that part.
My dad says it’s the only part that matters.
Which always makes my mom angry.
Which makes my dad stop talking.
My dad says, at the time, he didn’t know why they killed their own, how they chose the sacrifice, or what they did with the bodies.
Which he says he imagined simply piling up behind the walls, for years and years, slowly filling the house until the walls warped and small person parts began sliding out through cracks in the wallpaper.
Which he told my mom.
Which she was nervous about, because she was scared that she was scaring him away.
Which she tried not to do, by assuring him that the people in the walls just had a very different way of life.
Part of which must have been eating their own.
Which must have been where the bodies went.
Which she assured him is perfectly natural — lots of cultures eat strange things, including dogs and people.
Which my dad says he asked my grandpa about.
Which my grandpa denied, because the small people sounded much too polite to eat their own, despite all that killing they did very regularly.
Which my grandpa almost said more about, but stopped himself.
Which made my dad really wonder where the bodies went.
Dad says he spent several days sitting in a chair in the corner while Mom ran around the house, trying to find the Santa figurines.
Dad says she asked him to join her, but he couldn’t.
Dad says he was too scared to even think.
A few days into the trip, he went looking for Grandma Ellen, who he found in the attic.
Which is where he found her kneeling by a small metal latch in the wall.
Which was about three inches tall, and which was in the wall right by the floor.
Which he says she had open, and was scooping something out of.
Which, when he got closer, he saw was parts.
Arms. Legs. Heads.
Small person parts.
Which made him want to throw up.
Which made my grandma get a chair and tell him to sit down.
Which he did, as he waited for her to get him a glass of water.
He stared at the small open door, and at the little basket of parts she’d been scooping (all the fingers and feet sticking out), until she came back.
Which she did, carrying a glass of water he was too scared to drink.
Which is when she explained about the limbs.
Which started, she said, when my mom was in middle school.
Grandma said, one day after my mom came home from school, she and my mom were wondering about the people in the walls and wanted to know what they looked like.
“They seem so sweet,” my grandma said. “Saying good night so politely every night, and making tea.”
My mom, who hated the sound of the kettle when they made tea because it woke her up (which I said already), only half agreed.
“But,” she said, “I do think I’d like to meet them one day. Maybe peel apart the walls and look inside.”
Which gave them both the same idea at the same time.
Which led to them tearing apart a wall in the kitchen that very minute, giggling and looking around with flashlights.
Which revealed hundreds upon hundreds of people, each about a foot tall, hanging from beams like bats, arms crossed over their chests, fast asleep. They were dressed very nicely, in vests and trousers and house dresses and pant suits and gowns and tuxedos and all kinds of things. Even a monocle or two.
Which my mom thought was just adorable.
Which is why she took one.
Then they covered up the wall hole with cardboard, nailing it in place.
The person she took screamed and squealed and kicked, even bit. My mom tried to keep it in a glass jar but it suffocated (which my dad says means “ran out of air”), so she had to get another one.
Which she did by peeling up the nails in the cardboard, plucking another person out of the wall, and putting the cardboard back in place, holding in one hand the still-sleeping person.
Which, according to my grandma, she kept in a terrarium.
Which lasted a while, until the small person broke their head against the glass wall and killed themselves.
Which led to my mom taking another. And then another. And another. All of them killed themselves, or died by accident. One made a rope from her little pants and hung herself in the cage.
“Some people keep guinea pigs, or fish,” my grandma explained to my dad. “They die all the time. It’s not any different. Pets are hard.”
But my grandma started feeling really bad that my mom couldn’t keep any of them alive.
So she took the most recently dead one, fixed it up, and dipped it in glaze, then baked it, turning the person into a little ceramic figurine. Keeping it locked in the same little position forever.
My grandma surprised her with the first one, and then dipped the next dead pet (which came a few days later) in the glaze, too, so the first would have a friend on the shelf. They posed them together on the mantel, my dad told me. Two little figures waving at each other. Then my grandma and mom started taking people out of the walls and making figurines together, which became their favorite thing to do together.
But the small people got tired of this. They got tired of losing people at random all the time. So every morning, they chose one of their own and served them up in the attic.
“Isn’t that a hoot?” my grandma said to my dad, laughing.
He wanted to know why they killed each other so violently.
Grandma Ellen said the butchering was actually very helpful because it made turning the people into figurines much easier. This way, my mom and grandma didn’t have to scoop out the blood or the eyes or try moving the limbs through “rigor mortis” (which is when a dead body gets too stiff to move). They just had a bunch of parts they could adjust like they wanted. The people in the walls did it to “appease” Mom and Grandma Ellen, which means make them happy.
“They think we’re gods,” Grandma Ellen told my dad.
Which I understand, because of the Mayans.
I asked my dad why he was never really into the figurines, and he gave me a strange look.
I asked him why he decided to stay with Mom if he didn’t like them so much.
Which is when he told me that my mom told him that if he tried to leave, she’d sacrifice him to the giants.
“You’re my choice,” she told him.
He said that made him nervous.
I asked him if she meant she’d sacrifice him just like the small people did.
Which is when his eyes got really wide and he said, “Yes, but Ellie — everybody is the small people.”
“But we’re not small,” I told him.
“Yes, we are,” he said.
“But we don’t live in walls,” I told him. “There aren’t any giant people around.”
“We do live in walls,” he said.
He told me that every so often, the giants pick someone. They bring them up out of the wall, they fix them up, and dip them in ceramic. They pose them however they want. Sometimes, if the giants are taking too many people, it’s easier to sacrifice someone. If someone’s really old or really sick, we sacrifice them to the giants.
My dad says that’s what happened to my grandpa.
My dad says he had Alzheimer’s, which is when your brain rots before your body does.
My dad says he asked to go.
My dad says they all got together in the living room and cut him up. Dad couldn’t do it, so he was the one who handled the duct tape.
Which he also almost couldn’t do.
My mom popped the eyes, he says, and Grandma Ellen twisted off the hands.
Which he says is the worst thing he ever saw.
Which he says was only made worse by my mom and my grandma chanting as they worked.
“This is our choice. This is our choice. This is our choice.”
He says he felt watched by the people in the walls. He says he felt their fingers wriggling at the boards, pushing their faces against the wallpaper and trying to see. He could feel hundreds of curious faces looking at him from all around the room.
He says once they’d butchered my grandpa, they got all the pieces in a basket and then hauled the basket outside.
He says they carried it into the woods.
He says they got the basket on a rope and pulley on one of the trees.
He says they worked the rope and hiked the basket up the tree.
He says that after ten minutes of work, the basket disappeared into the mist.
He says that they could feel something tugging on the rope, up there, beyond where they could see, at the very top of the world.
He says that when they pulled the basket back down, it was empty.
Which is why, he told me, he went nuts and burned my grandma’s house to the ground.
Which he says was terrible, because he had to make sure he didn’t get caught, and because he could hear all the little voices in the walls screaming.
He says he could see their little hands flailing outside the wallpaper.
He says he could hear their bodies burning.
He says he could see them tumbling out of the walls as they died.
Melting, bleeding, and popping like cooked sausages.
He says he felt bad that Grandma got trapped in the fire, too.
He says he doesn’t feel that bad, though.
All of which he says I am never allowed to tell my mom.
Which I told him I wouldn’t.
Which is also why he doesn’t like to go in my room.
He doesn’t like to think about the figurines in my room.
He doesn’t like to think about where my mom keeps getting them.
He doesn’t like to think about how I get one every year for my birthday, and how sometimes my mom will surprise me with one at random.
But my mom just says that’s because he’s not open to new experiences.
Because he’s “grounded.”
My mom says that when I hear our house settling at night, it’s not the house at all.
She says it’s the people in the walls.
My dad says that’s not true. He says it’s the house moving of its own accord, and his hands shake when he says this.
My mom says that’s ridiculous because no house does anything of its own accord, and there are no accidents, there are only things that the people in our walls do not want us to see.
My mom says that every house acts according to the people in its walls.
That even our house acts according to the people in its walls.
That Dad should be careful, or she’ll sacrifice him to the giants, and feed his parts to them in a basket, which they’ll haul all the way up a tree so someone larger than us can scoop them out of a latch in the attic.
Just like Grandpa.
Which my dad never says anything to.
Which makes my mom laugh, and then she ruffles his hair and says she loves him.
Which she also says to me. “I love you.”
Especially when she gives me a new figurine.
Which is all the time.
Sometimes, I stay up and try to hear the small people in our walls.
Sometimes I listen very hard.
But I never hear anything.
My dad says this is because they’re scared, and don’t want to be found.
My dad says they’re scared of people like Mom, and Grandma, and me.
My dad says I shouldn’t like the figurines.
My dad says it’s cruel.
But I think Mom’s right.
I think he’s not thinking about it the right way.
Plus, Mom says I’m almost the same age she was when she started.
Mom says, soon, she’ll show me the hole in the attic where she gets the parts.
Mom says she’ll show me how to use a knife, so I can help take care of Dad when he gets old and sick.
Mom says she’s excited to show me how to make my own figurines.
Mom says it’s like having a Mr. Potato-Head, and you always have new ones to play with.
Which I’m excited for, too.
I like Mr. Potato-Head.
And I like ceramic figurines.
Copyright © 2019 by Sam Rebelein