Moving Day. Colder than the forecast, my hands red and dry, especially around the knuckles. Mom in her wheelchair, flinching and trying to look cheerful. This is your new start, her fake cheerfulness wants to say. The movers are late. I unlock the metal door, shove it up, revealing my stuff, anything I’d ever managed to spin into gold, within the cave-like storage unit. It murmurs old secrets to me, the ones I can’t help but keep. The air inside the unit feels like history, a crypt, an excavation of an ancient era.
I crack the pint of Johnny Walker that I’d been saving for later, and begin to poke through boxes, tease sheets off my patient furniture. Mom holding the bottle and trying to look unworried. This is your new start, her fake lack of worry wants to say. A couple hours later, the movers arrive. They have unplaceable accents, elegant apologies. Their hands are not gentle, but they lift it all up, fast and sure, and away it vanishes into the truck, and we are all driving then. We arrive at dusk before the new house at the edge of the dingle. I have been away for a long time, wandering from vale to abyss. This is your new start, the abyss wants to say, just a whisper in the dingle.
Somewhere there’s a damsel in distress.
New leaves shaken by the wind. The house is tall and layered: first dark brown, then above the ground level windows, light brown, and then grey slate roofs peaking over the third-storey windows in what must be the attic. That’s where I think, briefly, that I see a face, but maybe it’s a curtain, or a shadow. A bearded shadow, or a dark lace curtain, or a face swathed in menace.
There are two doors in the front indicating two households within one house, ivy frantic along my side, tapping against the blind windows in the dry wind. The landlord abides on one side of the house, and my side abuts the darkening dingle, where nightbirds and peepers sing, where trees and brush grow in unlandscaped tangles, turtles in their slow trespasses parting tall grasses. A river thin and dark wriggles below, whence mosquitos rise to harass my blood as the movers hurry everything inside. Mom trying to look patient, swatting air. She has not seen me in many a year and is eager now to get safely away and home again. The movers are happy to remove her, leaving me alone in my new house. Not yours, the landlord’s heavy movements next door seem to say.
But he doesn’t know where I’ve been. And compared to that, this is my home. And nothing in the closets except what I want to put there. I’d dreamt of this, when I could dream, the whole long time I was away. My hair, uncut and coiled round and round my head, was testimony to how long time could get to be.
Alone in the disorder, I find my sheets, my bed, a lamp, and a bottle. I drag a box of books within the circle of golden light by the bed, the sounds from the dingle filling the windows. Night has come, and I am home, having reached that impossible place. I smell each book as I remove it, sniffing for reminiscences, hoping not to sense the burning cinder of my regret, of secrets, and the past. Handwriting slants and drags along the margins of every book—recognizable but written by that other person, the mysterious other who had once entertained such thoughts and concerns as these. The pages of certain volumes give up hidden treasure. A dried posy, birthday cards a decade old, a one hundred dollar bill. Notes, letters, phone numbers, ephemera. The past life of a phantom shoved between the pages of my books.
Next door the landlord climbs the stairs, laughing, and then the embarrassing sensation that the house is being folded in half, his laughter pressed against my own chest. I open my mouth to see what sound might emerge from there. None. Inside me, nothing speaks. I turn to books.
Somewhere there is a damsel in distress, and Lancelot, Troilus, Romeo will find her. He will save her. He always does, although sometimes in the saving she is shamed, or reduced to a beautiful corpse, or carried away to be a prostitute. These misfortunes should not be allowed to diminish the glory of the hero, however, and his deft ability to save any number of beautiful damsels. No matter what great ill befalls the fate and physiology of them, they have been well and truly redeemed by the only thing that matters—the love of the hero. Once she has been loved, she is elevated fantastically above the fray of humping, bloody, deceitful destinies and their manly ministers, and even the heroine’s death cannot interrupt the happy ending of a true tale of romance. She must be saved! She must be loved! And so, Tristan, Perseus, Pierre puts on his boots, girds his loins with weapons, and sets off on some fine destrier down roads haunted by old dreads, harpies, and questing beasts to hasten this happy, happy ending.
Night becomes blurry. The lamp, the books, the bottle vanish inside-out, swallowed by a deep-dwelling leviathan of sleep. I do not dream, but from where I lie inside my cryptic body, I hear tremendous thuds landing on all the wooden floors, all the walls of wood and plaster, all the beams and boards and shingles and windows of the house. It is his house, the noise seems to say, knocking as though the house were being knocked down, as though my heart were beating down the door of my breast, the door of Bluebeard’s closet, where bodies lie in four bloody chambers. Later, more faintly, small animal scratchings, and then nothing but the sounds of crumpled, sifting paper. Inside the belly of sleep, the dark dingle still, my blood silent, and only the house flickering lightly like a kite high in the breeze, and I rise into the sky with it. I hover there, high up, breathing inside the twilight lungs of night, and when I wake, I hover still, morning lapping gently against the walls as though the house were an inside-out paper lantern. The translucent walls shimmer and crinkle in dawn air, and for many minutes I huddle in bed, unwilling to walk over the parchment floors, and instead I reach for a book.
Love is just another way of admitting the inevitability of suffering, a temporary antidote for how horrible life really is. But love can be horrible, too, a particularly horrible perversion of which is raptus, Latin for abduction. Let’s not get carried away, ladies.
The windows are gone, but I can hear the birds awake now in the dingle. A streak of red faintly unscrolls across the wall, and without fearing it, I hurry over the floor to see what it is—a cardinal’s song written on the outside of the house, bleeding faintly incarnadine through the wall in an unfamiliar alphabet. Gently I press my fingertips there, and a tiny word of wonder appears. I know this word. I lie my cheek and ear against it to better hear the song outside, and when I pull away, there are 6-point exclamations of delight etched in an intricate font. I turn around to look at my room, glowing with ivory light, mostly blank except for the hasty sentence written out in my footsteps across the floor. It’s unpacking day.
I push furniture into corners and against the walls, and heavily abbreviated sounds and words emerge from them, a bold gasp when I knock a knuckle against the dresser. Room to room, and up and down stairs, boxes and odd things and armfuls of clothes are carried, and the rooms are transcribed with comforts and activity and surprise at what I’d forgotten I’d had and frustration at what I can’t lay my hands on. The day is busy and often italicized. The little bathroom fills up quickly. I brush out my hair, unpunctuated, then coil it back into its customary closed parentheses. For a time, I look at myself in the mirror until it becomes crowded with inscrutable impressions, dark text further obscured by frustrated revisions.
Long ago, in my grandmother’s house at the edge of the sea, there had been a little sign that read, A place for everything and everything in its place. I aim to make every room in my house give the same report.
Toward late afternoon, there is a bustling against the kitchen wall, and I hurry there to read news of a squirrel gnawing from the outside. Don’t eat my house! I scry, and away into the dingle the grey thing flies, leaving behind a ragged smear of silver erasure. I fix myself dinner out of a box, careful not to set the kitchen on fire, and as I cook, someone rustles from the landlord’s apartment on the other side of the wall. I tense.
I want to see you. Who are you? bleeds through the wall, backwards, like words in a mirror.
I study them for a few minutes before inscribing back, I can’t tell you that right now.
Do you like living in my house? the writing insists.
I am very happy to be in my home. And then, not sure if it were called for but wanting to be polite, Thank you.
You are very quiet, and his observation is followed by a dreadful din, as though he’d loosed a gigantic squid in his kitchen. I listen to the thrashing, trying to calm my own thumping heart, tolling his name. Bluebeard. Bluebeard. In his closet, bodies stacked and tiered.
I run down the hall to the front door, thinking to escape, but such a comforting ode to enclosure appears there, drowning the now quieting noise from next door, that I lift my hand from the doorknob and return to the kitchen, where I eat and then put all my china away in the paper cupboards. I find a box of wine, and drink some, my prolific script growing loose and free, and the next morning I am surprised to read large, wine-stained marginalia emitting the sour-sweet aroma of booze. I lie in bed and trace the course of my yesterday across the paper walls, from dreams to surprise to efficiency to fear, and then finally revelry, all in one day, and I feel luxurious in my heavily annotated home. Today is another unpacking day. Everything else kept at bay.
Raptus. She was carried away, the old goodwife tells him. Several hours into his journey, and Rasputin, Paris, Clyde is dusty, dispirited, and badly in need of refreshment. Good thing he happened upon this cottage and its congenial, if perhaps over-chatty, inhabitant of the old and female variety, who pours him steaming cups of tea as she recounts the sad story of her beautiful daughter’s abduction. You’d think an old beldame would be happy to see her daughter safely married off to a lord in such a high castle, but no. This one stank of blood and other, less colourful body fluids. His courtship reeked of abduction and his passion was rank with rape. She never trusted him, and he carried her daughter off for good, with never a word written since, not so much as a Dear Mum, miss you so much. Her bones rattle as she hobbles back and forth to fetch him crumbling biscuits from the pantry, and the crippled despondence of the crone inspires Heathcliff, Casanova, Napolean to undertake whatever dire trials must be to deliver the beautiful daughter from the horrors of her marriage. He leaps up, spilling his tea, and gallops off again, full of purpose.
In the kitchen, I boil water for tea, hearkening again to the birdsong outside the paper windows, exulting in the day’s glow beyond the walls. As I unpack clanking pots, a song both delicate and ravenous traces along the cupboards and the shelves, until I find a caesura, snack on walnuts and dried cranberries. I might have to shop soon, I think, hanging my grocery bags from little hooks piercing the paper walls, and immediately in bolder letters, But for that you’d have to leave home! Here you can never starve. It was my thought, surely, but it was also the house thinking back to me. I resume my work, and as I handle china and knickknacks and odd things from the boxes, memories and laughter and sobs and melancholic moments only expressible in hieroglyphics unfurl above my head onto the walls in sagely glittering ink. I reflect and wonder and retrospect on my belongings through the afternoon, my rooms filling up with whispered rumours and randy anecdotes.
The sun begins to set, fierce against the western wall facing the dingle, when I hear the landlord stomping up the stairs, and suddenly the house buckles and closes in upon itself, folded in half again, anger from next door pressing against the length of my body with horrifying intimacy. I struggle to escape the page’s embrace, wildly careening through the rooms, and now the neighbour says in bleeding, backwards letters, I’d like to meet you. I think I’ll come over.
You can’t, I bleed back. The place is a mess.
Suit yourself. It’s always a mess over here. I don’t really care.
But I care, and don’t want the front door to open and admit someone to my story. I know I shouldn’t say it, but I really just want to be alone shoots out against the wall.
I listen carefully for birdsong. The walls are thicker now, folded, and light penetrates less vividly. By pressing my whole body against the wall, I can traverse through the pages, leaving only watermarks behind. I begin to see my rooms differently, to inhabit them despite their altered dimensionality. I leaf through until I come to the last page of the house, where evening light lingers, nocturnes sung out against the outer wall by birds and crickets and breezes rustling against the new leaves, yet too young to throw green hues against the house’s binding. I cling to this page, this final page connecting me to the world just outside, wondering how I would like to leave home and leap into the dingle below, where wild music lives and thrums. Instead I apprehend the pages back to the kitchen, where I find my box of wine and a glass. Carrying both, I seek the library and several dozen boxes of books waiting to be unpacked, adventures remembered and recounted.
There’s no contentment in solitude. For every duck, a drake.
Electric light splits the pages of the house, and at the very end of its chapter, night grows utterly dark without even a moon. Canting orchestras of insects reverberate through the pages as I drink and pull book after book from the boxes, caressing their covers and flipping through their leaves. My bookshelves fill as the night sings on, and I wonder about all I have read and the spaces inside it consumes, filling mystery, abstruse, incomplete inquiries into the contents of my own mind darkening the library walls. The wine box grows lighter, and night creeps by as I toil. Bluebeard must be sleeping right above me, for at one point I hear him sigh and turn over in his sleep, and again the house folds, a foreign dream landing as gently as a moth on my forehead. It flutters there for a moment, as I again grow accustomed to the new dimensions of the house, a cozy octavo. So steadily becoming thicker and denser, and some of my text now palimpsests of Bluebeard’s, the letters of his words forming ligatures with my own, the subtext of this house threatening to take over my narrative.
He shot and ate a wild duck, its juicy breast hot with campfire flame. Still, that night D’Artagnan, Jesus, Orpheus endured many torments of bitter cold and driving hail, shaking in his chain mail and thin cloak. He slept on a bed of serpents and frogs, while insects roved over and made a feast of his skin. Succubi and Night-mares rode his lean thighs the night through, filling his thoughts with phantasmogoria. Never was night so dark, so long, so hard. And grey dawn with its howling winds and chilly pale light was cold comfort for the hero, who scraped his limbs off the ground, saddled his miserable beast, and slogged forward intent on his happy ending, his heroine to be saved.
The night’s darkness seems more absolute, emerging from deep within the spine of the house, where all the pages meet, forcibly bound into one entity perching there high upon the shelf above the dingle, under a moon I cannot see, within a thicket of nature I cannot reach. Maybe the moon itself is made of paper, the trees cardboard, the birds cleverly wired tissue puppets. And what am I, so sleepless and wary within my book, my folded house? Pulling the old sheets up to my chin eases something in me, as I peer out at the dreamless dark like the child I used to be. Of all the things I ever was, this is what I am now, a body of pulp and possibility, veins coursing with fear and ink. Somewhere above me, Bluebeard groans in his sleep, and a kind of illegible anguish spills across the ceiling, making the dark darker yet. It’s ok to be afraid, I say, and again, It’s ok to be afraid, and then I believe it and the night closes on me like a velvet fist. No one is coming to get me. I let a deep sigh out of the abyss of my lungs, releasing the oldest air, and letting my darkness leak into the night, I sleep.
When at last grey light begins to invade the wall, I have decided to find a wormhole, maybe to leave the house, which is really something else altogether at this point, a book of plays, of poems, or maybe a dense, multi-volume history that no one would ever get through. If I can find my way out, I might pick up that book, read it, and vanish back into its pages as though I’d never been in the world at all. Or I could kick the book into the dingle, giving the jays something to scream about. I don’t know how I feel about the book at this point.
The hero never just disappears from the story. Poof. He can make a miraculous entrance — frog or beast into prince, dispelling sleep with a kiss, but no poof. Never, never poof. For all his pains, there must be payoff.
The bed reluctantly lets go of me, all my soft sheets a tangle. Stiff and clumsy, I make for my bureau, which renders up all the wrong clothes for escape. An ancient and swirling skirt of fraying velvet that catches on all the furniture and leaves shreds all along the floor. A blouse so tight I can hardly breathe; it tears as I lift my arms to release my hair from its messy pile. Plaits swing down with the force of a bell, clapping against the walls of text, spraying glyphs I no longer recognize with glittered gold. As I decipher them, I know that I have been sought, loved for the wrong reasons. Translating myself to the front door, I unlock it with a deft interpretation, but it pops open to reveal only endless annotations leading to pages and pages of bibliography. Undaunted, I find the staircase and transliterate swiftly to the higher realms of the house, until I reach the attic and, hands pressed against slanting appendices, I strain to see beyond the words into the world that must surely lie beyond. Do I dare to tear the page? The sky seems worth it, the birdsong in the dingle, the ivy that clings to the side of the house. The world outside the house might yet accept me, in my outlandish garb, with my dangerous hairdo. I finger the page for a second, reflecting, and then rip it open.
Popeye squints at the object in his hands — a book. He had followed the signs, followed the evidence along the path, but when Sherlock arrived, there was no castle, no vile thug, no damsel in a tower praying for deliverance with bewitchingly wet eyes. Only this book, a little damp from the grass, and Rochester decides to sit, then and there amongst the birdsong on the dingle’s edge and carefully consider what it might mean. Gawain is weary, he has ridden all night, and poor Gryngolet that doughty steed seems content to chew the dew-soaked grass, all his ornamented trappings dangling and spangling in the sunshine. Another hero might read the book, but Cuchulain is so tired, and if he is to ride again, first he requires rest. Just as depression begins to set in, a nymph appears with a song on her lips to cheer him, and Aeneas sleeps with his head on her lap, his hand on her thigh. When he awakes, the nymph, the book, and the sun are gone, and Solomon wanders into the deep dingle, the darkening valley, his adventure always ahead of him, a beloved waiting and waiting his ardour and courage and other tokens of manliness.
Air spills across the open book, its pages torn and bent from use, and colour, light, and music pour into me. The world lies just there, just without, just below the tower of text I stand atop, but from this perspective, it looks like a clever forgery, a cluster of contradictory true tales. My hair dangles in morning winds, and I survey the vast anthology below, so pleased by the quaint tininess and distance of everything, my rarefied vantage condensing all to rich colours and clarified lines. How did the story go? In a book once, someone, some arch-hero had climbed up a heroine’s plaits, and how that must have hurt. And what good is it—both of them now tower-trapped together? Outside, I cannot descry a hero; and inside there is only a palpitating cypher with unbelievably long hair and a great many books. I laugh. Someday I will cut my hair and climb down there by myself, but not today.
Within the darkness of an unturned page, Bluebeard grunts, and the house folds again, closing the rupture of day’s invasion, pressing emendations against my breast. These are emendations that I am free to reject, however, should I decide to remain errant. I reach down, mistress of this book now, for this truly is my home. I have chosen it and have read it all the way through, even the closets standing empty of corpses—and one by one, I peel each of his monstrous connotations off my body. Author, character, text, I construe the way back to my library. Tatters of torn velvet ripple all along the margins, and I know that someday I will come across them again, read them, and they will tell yet another story.
Story copyright © 2014 by Jenny Terpsichore Abeles
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein
Jenny Terpsichore Abeles is a writer, wandering scholar, and cat fancier extraordinaire. She sometimes teaches college courses on magic, fantasy literature, and creative writing. Other times she makes enchanted jewelry for Stella Midnight’s Magical Bedizenments. Currently, she lives in the Middle East with her two cats Anoush and Urish where she works to train English teachers and lead women’s empowerment yoga classes (although she daydreams daily about her little home in western Massachusetts).
Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein is an illustrator, printmaker, and graphic designer who works in traditional and digital medias. Her interests lie in juxtaposition and layering, contrasting humanity with elements of monstrosity, phantasm, the macabre, and spaceships. Her sensibilities are influenced by kimokawaii culture, her hometown in Hawaii, and the time she spent in Mexico and Denmark as a child. Follow Rhiannon on Twitter @charibdys.