The sign has long since been illegible. For far, far longer, in truth, than it was ever read by human eyes. The letters, carved by hand with great care – the flourish of the final ‘S’ being a particular point of pride for the woodworker commissioned for the task – have been slowly, steadily, scoured away by rain and wind and the tramp of wildlife. To even fully see the sign is now an impossibility. A rectangular cut of wood, about the size of a small dinner table, with brown whorls darkened by exposure to the elements, it lies mostly buried in deadfall. Its few visible segments are moss-encrusted and split with rot.
Although it named a building that had been abandoned for at least five years, the sign had still been in its rightful place, still swaying when the breezes gave it a nudge, until The Night of Fires, when the ground heaved beyond reckoning and the sky burned orange. The sign fell to the earth that night, clattering on the front porch, one of its tinctured brass hinges bouncing – pock, pock – off the porch and into the tall grass. This was centuries ago. The building to which the sign had been attached did not fall in so spectacular a fashion. It crumbled slowly, even painfully, though no one was around to describe it in such terms.
It was a strange name for an apartment building. Thomas Grassmere knew this when he submitted the paperwork with the town hall in the spring of 1898. He would break ground in the summer and be renting three of the four rooms – one on the ground floor and two upstairs – by the end of the year. The fourth room would be for him. When he had finished the frame and started planing the first timbers for the floorboards, little woodcurls scattered like golden leaves at his feet, he felt like his heart might beat out of his chest.
Thomas Grassmere wasn’t entirely sure why he chose the name, although he thought he knew where it came from. He could recall owning an oversized, hard-bound book on Greek mythology as a boy, which he poured over with great attentiveness. His grandmother had given this book to him, may she rest in peace. The colourful paintings paired with each god fascinated him. Apollo ringed by fire. Hephaestus thundering away at his anvil, his thick, armoured forearms a blur. Artemis, a long orange braid over her shoulder and silver arrows blazing in her fist, scanning the ragged edges of the forest over which she ruled.
In quiet moments later in life, when he sat in his green armchair in room 1A and looked out his window at the sign easing on its bright brass hinges, he thought there must have been something about the shape of the forest on the town’s edge when he was looking for plots of land that had pulled his mind back toward the book from his youth. Artemis, goddess of forests and of the hunt – that picture had been his favourite. She had been his favourite. Whatever the case, he came to think of his room as a world entire, the building, his pantheon.
Thomas Grassmere lived in 1A until 1931. He died alone, suddenly, while on his knees cleaning cold ashes from the narrow fireplace that he had mortared with his own hands. His final thoughts were pure and clean: milk, soap, the whites of his cuticles.
The fireplace, once the visual and spatial centrepiece of room 1A, with its careful pattern of orange and brown bricks scaling up through the ceiling, is now a mound of crumbled masonry that, from a distance, might be mistaken for a large anthill.
Thomas Grassmere willed the apartment to his only living relative, his nephew, Sloan Grassmere, who lived in 1A until 1939. Sloan Grassmere drank to slake an unquenchable thirst, dark whiskies in the fall and winter, clear, crisp gins in the spring and summer. Although drink rendered him mostly immobile and harmless, he once smashed a glass tumbler into the dark corners of the fireplace that his uncle had built. A few small chips of that glass were never cleaned out of the fireplace, and these tiny shards softened and hardened countless times whenever a fire crackled. If you dug down somewhere near the middle of the ruined fireplace that, from a distance, looks like an anthill, you might find one of these miniature baubles, smoothed and clouded by a secret history of flame.
Sloan Grassmere was followed by Margret Terry, who was a tenant from 1939 until 1988. Margret Terry’s husband, Laurence, left for the war the morning they signed their rental agreement, and thus Margret Terry slept alone in her bed in 1A for the rest of her days, even though she always referred to the apartment as “ours”. Two days after the Thanksgiving holidays, Margret Terry would fry up a hash using leftovers: strings of turkey sheared from the bone, small cubes of potatoes, onions, and quartered brussel sprouts. To this she would add crumbles of bacon and a few scoops of whatever gravy remained. She would take a bowl of the hash and a small glass of white wine and eat in front of the radio, and later, the TV. The smell would float up through the floorboards, and in 1955, Lawrence Danforth, who lived directly above Margret Terry in 2A for three months, could not stop his mouth from watering. Lawrence Danforth thought of going downstairs, knocking on Margret Terry’s door and introducing himself. He never did. Had he done so, they might have chatted in the stairwell, a space now occupied by an immense cedar tree, nourished by the ruins of the building itself.
Randall Darvish moved in to 1A in 1988 and immediately began writing his letters. Vicious, threatening letters to those that had done him wrong, which he left unsigned, or signed with invented pseudonyms that he found ominous. Hector Slaughter was his favourite. Randall Darvish lived a spartan existence, pouring most of his being into the letters that both fed and feasted upon his ruined mind. The only trace he left behind happened the night he was apprehended by the authorities. During the struggle his jaw was smashed into the doorframe and one of his yellowed molars escaped down through a gap in the corner of floorboards that Thomas Grassmere had never been able to get quite square. The tooth is there still, somewhere, buried beneath the weight of its merciless, verdant future.
Iris Podorovski lived in 1A for five happy years, from 1989 to 2oo4. She hung her Christmas cards from the fireplace (which she never lit) and her tenancy smelled of fresh cut flowers and vanilla-scented candles. She burned these candles in the evenings, and the seeds of glass from Sloan Grassmere’s tumbler often caught and twisted the candlelight, though Iris Podorovski thought this was just a trick of her tired eyes.
Ellory Downstreet, Private First Class, came back from Ramadi with a bullet in his thigh and needed a place where he could sit and think things through. 1A was his home from 2004 to 2016. When he lay in bed at night, he often looked at the shadows of leaves cast through the window on to the upper half of the bedroom wall. It made him think of shadow forests and shadow worlds and shadow versions of Ellory Downstreet, Private First Class, who did not carry bullets in their thighs, and it made him think of the sniper in Ramadi, who must still be living in that shadow world somewhere, notching confirmed kills on the stock of his shadow rifle.
An Cheng was the last person to live in 1A, from 2016 to 2037. The room was musty and the floor creaked like a horror movie, but she couldn’t beat the rent. The way the sign outside caught the rain and moved in the wind calmed her. It was the first time she had lived alone, and she kept a small gun in a shoe box on the top shelf of the closet. But her heart wasn’t in it. She never loaded it, never even bought bullets for the thing. When she abandoned the apartment, she forgot to take it with her, a lapse that she regretted within days. After she was gone, and after the sign outside had fallen, the box that held the gun slowly mildewed to shreds, and then the shelf decayed and sloughed off the wall and the gun fell to the rotten timber that had set Thomas Grassmere’s heart to bursting. The gun is lost for all time, a silver whisper clutched by the lush heart of the forest.