It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.
He didn’t come back to school the next day, and even though everyone else was puzzled I knew that he had gone to search for the house. I still look for him under bridges and on traffic islands when I go into the city.
Inside my own house, I have many pictures of the house. In the oil painting over the fireplace, it is a houseboat on the Thames, moored at night in a meadow outside Oxford. The photograph next to my desk shows it as a glass-and-stucco fortress with a flat roof, temporarily alighted in the mountains that cut Los Angeles in half. I even have a linocut that captures the house as a yurt somewhere in Mongolia.
In my kitchen, there’s a map covered in colored pushpins. It marks all the places where I think the house has been. There are so many pins now that I can’t make out the borders of most of the countries, and even the oceans are furred with bright circles of plastic.
A middle-aged woman backpacking through Vietnam found the house’s footprints in the jungle. She photographed them, and when I saw the images on her blog, immense hollows in which the crushed vegetation had only just started to grow back, I ran to the map and looked to see if there was already a pin, the kind that had started showing up on their own, on the spot. There wasn’t, so I opened my box and put one there.
My mother went into the house, before I was born. She told me that inside, there are doors that open underground and others that swing open like precipices on the cold high reaches of the air. Sometimes she wrote down things that she had seen in the house, and once I found a list in the drawer where we kept the stamps that read:
Blood-bright lipstick smears on the rims of china cups.
A crow mask dangling from a newel post, shedding feathers.
Maps tacked four deep to a wall, filmy lace curtains billowing in gusts of wind and scattering thin sunlight over the hardwood floor.
One lit candle guttering, its light mirrored in the lenses of rows on rows of spectacles laid out on dirty black velvet.
She told me that she had never met any other people in the house. But sometimes she heard them in the walls.
Though the house has many doors, it has only one true entrance and one true exit. They are the same door. (The architect of the first labyrinth must have been inside the house.)
When I was a child, I liked to picture my mother as she must have been when she found the house: younger than I am now, her thick braid a glossy brown like the wing-case of a beetle, with tiny gold pinecone earrings and wide, deep-set eyes. When she caught the house taking a step, she would have halted on the thick, spongy pine needles and wondered at its bulk, its many chimneys, its great clawed feet. It would have towered over her, and she would have been afraid yet unable to turn away. Then her hand on the door, her first steps into the interior, and me turning over within her, safe in my own house of flesh.
On the night that I set up the map, I placed two pushpins: one on my hometown, where the vanished boy from my art class drew the house without ever having seen it, and one on the Tennessee forest where my mother had walked into the house while I rode inside her. When I came downstairs the next day to make coffee, there were seven pins on the map, some of which were tacky with clear film and would not come out of the paper. After that I left the box of pins from the office-supply store mostly alone, and new ones appeared on the map every so often when I wasn’t looking.
That first morning, I drank my coffee very quickly, in huge gulps that scalded my tongue and cheeks and palate. One of the five new pins marked a location in the middle of the Atlantic, right below the medieval cartographer’s admonition I’d blocked in the night before: HIC SUNT LEONES. When I finished my coffee, I got in my car and drove to the city to see my mother.
I found another list in my mother’s recipe binder when I was looking for the proportions of the many dairy products used in chocolate mousse:
A room built, walls, floors and ceiling, out of animal skulls. Birds and raccoons and cows and elephants and cats and other animals so twisted or so enormous that I do not recognize them. My boots leave a trail of crushed eye sockets.
Dirt roof, this room barely a cavity, wired with one bare lightbulb.
Water, half-light, perhaps an inch of air at the top of the room.
So low and narrow that I must crawl nearly flat to the floor. The baby doesn’t like that.
A room laid with a banquet, but the opulence of the dishes makes me sick.
The first time I asked my mother how she had left the house, she looked blank for a moment, and then said only, “The way most people do, I think.” After that, I asked her the same question at odd intervals, when she seemed distracted, hoping to jar her into a more interesting answer. But her response never changed, and eventually I gave up.
I can’t ask my mother these things anymore. Nobody can, because the person who sits in an armchair in the living room of the apartment in the city is no longer my mother.
This woman woke up six years ago at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the house she used to live in with my father. The first words out of her mouth, and the last ones for a long time after that: “My head. I hit my head.”
I know this because I was there. I was the one who had turned and knocked her off-balance at the top of the stairs. It was my scream that had followed hers as she fell, my hand that had missed hers by half an inch.
The house changes people. That’s true, too. Some people are afraid of going in and coming out different than they were before. If only they knew that they do the same thing in their own houses, day in and day out.
I do not like visiting my mother. But I went, on the first day that the new pins showed up in the map. I got there just as the man who brought Meals on Wheels was leaving, so I didn’t have to wait for her shuffle to the door. Her chair faced the living room window, and one pale hand angling off into space told me that she was sitting there. I walked up on her right, making my footsteps louder so she would notice me coming, and sat down on the ottoman. We looked out the window together. In the glass, the faintest hint of our reflections, side by side.
The voice, slower and fainter than I wanted it to be, every time.
Part of me (the same part that keeps looking for the house although I know perfectly well that the more I learn about the house the less likely it becomes that I will ever find it) still believes that one day I will find my mother here exactly as she was before she landed on the hardwood floor and lay with her body splayed wide as a starfish. I want to walk in and find her ready to pick up the fight we were having as we went up the stairs, and I want to hear whatever she was going to say after I finished asking when she was going to deal with my father’s things.
“There’s a map now, Mom. That’s all.”
She smiled at me, and because my mother had never smiled in that closed, vague way, without showing any teeth, I wanted to hit her. Instead, I turned to the window so I wouldn’t have to look at her, and took her hand. She didn’t move away.
Some things that are not true about the house:
That it is not a house at all, but an entrance to the underworld.
That it is owned by a witch who scouts the countryside in a flying kettle, and who steals the genitals of young men to string on her bloody necklace.
That it can never be found by the same person twice. In 1880, a Rhode Island man who suffered from short-term memory loss entered the house twice in one year; both visits were recorded in his pocket diary.
Under my house are innumerable tunnels, some flooded, some collapsed, and some simply empty. The ground is rich, veined with metals. Some of the mines, including the one that runs beneath my house, have been abandoned and now harbor only echoes. One hill away, though, when miners blast into the ground, I feel the vibrations through the walls and floors.
When he was alive, my father would have told you there was no such thing as the house. If you looked at all doubtful, he would have said that the real house is inside us, that we visit it when we read Bulgakov or Borges or Angela Carter. (My father should have been an academic, but he wasn’t. He never finished college.)
My parents’ opinions differed on many subjects. My mother wrote, in the very first note I ever found, that she gave birth to me the way animals do, alone in the dark in a distant part of the house. My father told me, when I asked him, that I was born in a private mental hospital.
I decided after a while that they were both right. I pictured my mother, her distended belly rising and falling, asleep in her room, unaware of the house or anything else. Something enormous treaded softly on the wet grass, walked up to her window, which suddenly gaped wide. (The house changes objects as well as people. The world is mutable.) The house reached through the window, lifted my mother out as she slept, took her inside itself to give birth.
The house cannot walk on water, but it can walk under it.
The only true records are those that are never kept.
I was born in the house, and one day I will find it. I will be a true record, after I have forgotten everything I know, and no map will chart my course. Maybe I will find my mother, too, in the place on the map where there are only lions.
Until then, I will lie in my bed at night, listen to the explosions in the far-off mine, and feel the trembling of the earth, my house set on the earth, my body set inside this house. And I will smile in the darkness, and think how much that trembling feels like footsteps.
L.M. Davenport works as a magazine intern at the same Southern university from which she received a B.A. in English in 2016. She has read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness a ridiculous number of times, and once knitted a five-and-a-half-foot-long giant squid. Her work has previously appeared at Hobart.
The Fifth Gable, by Kay Chronister – The first woman to live in the four-gabled house fermented her unborn children in the wine cellar. When they came to term, she broke them open on the floorboards. Her heartiest son weighed half an ounce at birth. His face, curved to the shape of the Mason jar womb where he developed, stayed pink for an hour before he died in a puddle of formaldehyde and afterbirth.
A July Story, by K.L. Owens – Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.
Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Rachel Acks Welcome, honored guest, to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.