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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.

The second woman to live in the four-gabled house pulled her children from the ground like stubborn roots. They came out of the soil smelling of pollen, with faces like tulips. They were healthy until she cut their stems, and then they withered. They returned reedy and gray-faced to the earth.

The third woman in the four-gabled house said she had no children.

The fourth woman in the four-gabled house built her children from the parts of old radios and tractors. Their cries sounded like the spinning of propellers. Some of them could blink and one could even smile, but breast milk fried their motors. In their mother’s arms, they dissolved into heaps of crackling wires.

The women had been married before, to ordinary men, but no one wanted to mention that in light of what happened to the children.

The women in the four-gabled house no longer got many visitors.

All through the month of September, the women in the four-gabled house watched as a sober, clean-faced young creature walked down their street, past their house, to the end of the cul-de-sac, then turned and walked back.

The stranger would not walk in a neighborhood as unfashionable as their neighborhood if she did not want something with the four-gabled house and the women who lived there, they were sure of it.

“We should call someone,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “Get a neighborhood watch together.”

“Nonsense. She’s probably selling magazine subscriptions,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable of the four-gabled house. “Or collecting bits of metal for the war effort, or trying to interest us in a quilting bee so the orphans can have blankets. Or she’s from some society that has asked her to come by our house, but the problem is that she’s just too scared to do it.”

“Are we still frightening?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “I thought we’d gotten past that a few decades ago.”

“She’s a young girl in a fashionable hat,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “What could frighten her more than four old mothers with nary a man between them?”

“Well,” sniffed the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “If she ever came down to my cellar, she’d know real fright.”

September became October, October passed into November, and a damp, uncertain snow shimmered on the walks when the stranger came at last to the four-gabled house.

Her knock was hesitant, as if she feared to hurt the door.

The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house came to the door. The scent of myrrh clung to all her clothes and the damp of cellar walls clung to all her eyelids. She was the least approachable, so she always dealt with strangers.

“Please, may I come in?” said the stranger, and the woman who made her bed in the first gable thought for a moment, then nodded once, solemnly, and stepped aside.

The young woman crossed the foyer into the sitting room, where the other three women were waiting. “I’ve brought a pie for you,” she said, pushing a towel-covered dish at the most approachable person in the sitting room, which happened to be the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “I hope you like rhubarb.”

“Certainly,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, and while she smiled warmly, her hands trembled when she took the dish. “Thank you, dear.” She said dear after a long, conspicuous pause, as if correcting herself.

“My name is Marigold Hest,” said the stranger. “I wonder—do you know my husband?”

“I doubt it,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, at the same time that the woman who made her bed in the second gable said indignantly, “Should we?”

“Never mind that,” said Marigold. “In fact, I’m glad. It will make things simpler.” She sat for a moment, fidgeting with the brim of her hat, then huffed out a soft little breath and added, “I’ve heard that you have children here. I need one.”

“Do you think they fall out of the eaves?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “What makes you believe we have a child for you? You’re a married woman—go get one off your husband.”

The young woman blushed as pink as rhubarb, but she persisted. “People talk about you. They say you used to be midwives, and now you’re witches. They say you’re descended from the women who they hung in Salem. They say you’re German and came to Amherst to seduce our men and spy on us. But I don’t care what you are. Somehow you get babies, lots of them. Please, let me have one.”

None of the women said anything for a long while. The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house raised her eyebrows. The woman who made her bed in the second gable stifled a laugh. The woman who made her bed in the third gable did nothing. At last, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable said, “And what sort of child is it that you’re wanting?”

“Any sort,” said Marigold. “Really, any one would do. As long as I can get it soon.”

“We’re not an assembly-line,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “Did someone tell you that we had… procured a baby for them?”

“No,” said Marigold, in a whisper that sounded more like yes.

“We wouldn’t,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “Ordinarily. Not out of selfishness… dear… but because we can’t.”

The others looked at her, noticing the word ordinarily and wondering if a stranger in a fashionable hat really counted as an exception. They had made an exception, once before. The exception was why the woman who made her bed in the third gable did not have children.

“But if you can try,” said Marigold. “If there’s any chance that you could get one for me, that would be better than no chance at all.”

“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “You’re young yet. Do you need a child now?”

“I’m afraid to say,” said Marigold. “Must I say?”

“No,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, before anyone else could speak. “We will try. Let us try.”

The woman who made her bed in the fourth gable was the first to take up Marigold’s cause. She took apart the ice box for its metal, marooning a bottle of milk and a package of frozen vegetables so she would have the materials to begin constructing a child. Sighing in resignation, the other women prepared a meal with all of their perishable foods. This had happened before, with the lamps and the radiator and the toaster oven. Wartime made metal hard to come by. Scrap-metal children had been rationed almost out of existence.

“This could be my last,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. She had a spoonful of warm grape jelly in her mouth, a soldering iron warming in her hand. “For a while, anyway, this could be my last.”

The probable lastness of the child did not make him any more eager to survive.

When he was complete, a small frame of plated steel and plastic with a hungry gaping buzzsaw mouth, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable called Marigold to the house and laid the child in her arms.

“Oh,” Marigold said. “Oh. What a miracle he is.” She kissed the shining smooth metal of his face, and held him in her arms. She said already he felt like hers. And then she went away.

For three days, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable stayed there, weeping for the child she had abandoned to another woman, drinking cocoa made with curdled milk, listening to the radio: Little Orphan Annie had adventures twice daily; the president reported on the War only once, at five. On the third day Marigold brought the pile of wire and aluminum back to the four-gabled house, tucking him underneath her pea-coat to shield him from the wind. She wanted him buried properly; she wanted to go on pretending that he was a real child; she wanted to be told sorry.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house frowned and shook their heads. But they would not say sorry. They were glad to see that a young pretty stranger could not succeed where they always failed.

“A pity, that I could not make a better child,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “But not, I suppose, a surprise.”

“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.

“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say anything.

They let Marigold bury the child; she had already purchased a headstone for him.

“Bury him anywhere you like. Just, please,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable, “not where water can reach him. He’ll fry if water reaches him.”

Marigold didn’t say what she thought, which was: he’s already dead, why should it matter what reaches him? She only nodded. She shifted his small body in her arms, and she handed the women a printed invitation to a wake that none of them would attend.

The woman who made her bed in the second gable felt a sort of pity for Marigold, now that the girl was grieving like the rest of them. That Marigold considered herself their superior, that she came to them in secret with her fashionable hat hiding her prim face, only made the girl more pathetic. She had not realized yet. She didn’t know. Some women simply aren’t meant for children.

The child that the woman who made her bed in the second gable made for Marigold would be a calla lily, with a decorative white face and a stem that wouldn’t wilt—at least not for a while. “Come twice a day and feed her,” she instructed Marigold, tipping a watering can over her own brood of children.

The wet soil darkened to a rich, nourished color. Marigold studied the ground attentively. “What is that you’re feeding them?”

“What does any mother feed her hungry infant?”

The girl’s eyes widened. She said, “I don’t believe I can do that, ma’am.”

“Don’t you ever call me ma’am,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “When your child pushes her way out of the ground, when she looks at you with her hungry mouth wide-open, then you’ll believe you can do it. The milk has to be yours, understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” said Marigold, cowed but unrepentant, watching as a row of robust, root-colored children uncurled their long tendril-arms and lifted their faces to the sun.

The woman who made her bed in the second gable had garden clippers that she kept in perfect condition. She polished them before and after use, kept them from rust, and removed them from their leather case for one reason only: to cut loose those children who had come to term. It was with great reluctance that she handed the clippers to Marigold, who cut her child out of the ground and then, minutes later, sent her back to it.

“It seems wrong to bury her where she grew,” Marigold whispered.

The clippers rested in the pocket of Marigold’s flannel skirt. With uncharacteristic gentleness, the woman who made her bed in the second gable took them and returned them to their leather case.

“We could try again,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable, but she said the words so Marigold would know she didn’t mean them. And Marigold, sniffling, obediently shook her head no.

“I think my husband suspected, after the first child,” she said. “Perhaps it’s a blessing that this one died so soon. It would be wrong to try again. Wouldn’t it?”

She wanted to be told: no, it’s not wrong. Let’s try. This time your child will not be fed on borrowed breast milk. This time you will not make a diagonal cut down your child’s stem, as if she is a flower you are preparing for a vase. This time you will be better.

“Years ago, I let them grow too long, and they hurt me,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. How many years, the girl would not know. “They made my insides ache. But I wanted them to stay with me longer, that’s why I did it. You don’t yet know what it feels like, to lose them again and again.”

“It must be dreadful,” said Marigold.

Later, she baked an apple tart. She smudged all the lipstick from her mouth and let her fashionable hat sit crooked on her head, and she sought the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house found each other in tabloids, then in Sunday papers, then finally in a medical journal that three times failed to pass a peer review. But before then, the woman who made her bed in the third gable had lived alone. And the house had only one gable, and she could bear no children.

To the woman who made her bed in the third gable, this was a tragedy.

To the rest of the world, it was a great relief.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable gasped in fright when Marigold came to her door. Visitors, when they came to the four-gabled house at all, never climbed the staircase to the rooms where the women made their beds. When the woman peeked around her bedroom door, she sighed softly in relief and stepped aside. Marigold removed her hat, then stepped over the threshold.

“Is that apple?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“Yes—a tart.” Marigold handed over the steaming dish as if she could not wait to be rid of it. The woman who made her bed in the third gable set the dish aside, and did not look in its direction again.

“I suppose you heard what happened to the last baby,” Marigold said, after a moment.

“I’m so sorry, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, her voice quivering on the final word. “That must have been very hard for you.”

“Yes,” said Marigold. Then, steeling herself, she added, “I want to try again.”

“I’m afraid that’s how all her children come out… dear. They simply cannot survive without the earth to nourish them.”

“Not from her,” Marigold said. “From you. Please. It would mean the world to me.”

“How much is the world?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, frowning. She studied Marigold. “I’m not sure you’re ready to bear and bring up the sort of child I would make, dear.”

“When will I be ready?”

“There is one other woman in this household you have not asked for a child.”

“I had not thought she would say yes to me,” said Marigold. “I rather thought she disapproved of the whole thing.”

“She said no to you when you were young and childless. She did not want you to be happy. Now you have lost two children, and you ask her only for the chance to lose another.”

“So I will lose her child too?”

The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say.

In the cellar, the air smelled like rust and formaldehyde and old gardenia petals. The temperature was many degrees lower than it was in the rest of the four-gabled house, and Marigold wrapped her coat tightly around herself as she descended the stairs. She had no tart or cake for the woman who made her bed in the first gable, for she suspected that nothing baked or roasted would satisfy such a woman, and she was right. The woman who made her bed in the first gable liked pickled things, things crunchy with salt and long-preserved, and she hated how fresh dough collapsed on her tongue. When she saw Marigold, she always thought of that fresh-dough feeling.

“I know already what you are coming to ask me,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.

Marigold stepped down off the last step, making it squeak. “What will you say?”

“I don’t know yet,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “You’re not much of a mother so far, with your hat on straight and only two children in the ground. You don’t deserve my child.”

“And how many children do you have in the ground?” said Marigold.

“Two thousand, four hundred, and eighty-one,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “Some were twins,” she added.

“None lived?” Marigold said.

“None,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, with a touch of pride.

“Then I don’t think I want one of your children,” said Marigold.

“I don’t think you do,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, “I shall give you one.”

The woman who made her bed in the first gable no longer made her bed there. She holed up in the cellar with a block of brie and a feather-stuffed duvet, and she emerged only to wash her wine glass or collect the lukewarm cup of Earl Grey that the woman who made her bed in the third gable left out for her each afternoon.

The women did not like to interfere in each other’s creative processes, so none of them peeked down into the cellar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not care to discuss the child she was fermenting, though if she had, she would have told them that he was fashioned from the heart of a white rabbit, four dollars at the pet shop around the corner, and twice embalmed in myrrh and soda ash.

He had to grow in his mother’s womb, so she washed out the pie pan that Marigold had brought and sealed it with a glass cover.

Inside his tin womb, the child soaked and swelled and slowly became animate.

Inside her duvet, the woman who made her bed in the cellar dreamt of all the children she had lost inside her wombs.

The child reached such a size that he no longer fit inside the pie pan, then such a size that he no longer fit in a three-gallon pickle jar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar was stubborn, she wanted to see Marigold mourn, so she dug a hole, four feet deep, in the cellar’s dirt floor. When she was finished, she padded the floor with rock salt and lowered the child into the hole. February was halfway over, the temperatures were still low, and the cold and the salt would preserve the child for a few days more—long enough to make the girl believe, long enough to make her miserable when he rotted.

The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not always produce beautiful children, but this one was exquisite, a wet blood-colored salamander-like creature whose arteries worked like legs and whose eyes could see even in the depths of the cellar. In the womb of the earth he grew to three feet in length before he cried for release.

The woman who made her bed in the cellar telephoned Marigold to announce the child’s birth, knowing at half-past five her husband would be home, knowing that Marigold herself would be away at one of a dozen equally useless ladies’ society meetings and thus unable to intercept the call.

“Your son is crying for you,” said the woman who made her bed in the cellar, when a man answered.

She laid the phone down, waiting to feel satisfied, instead feeling hungry.

Before they had been women who lived in the four-gabled house, they had been:

A maiden aunt.

A minister’s wife.

A washed-up stage actress.

A nurse.

They did not resemble themselves anymore.

When Marigold came to the cellar, the woman who made her bed there had already left. The feather-stuffed duvet and frozen block of brie were gone; fourteen cups with shallow pools of Earl Gray in their bottoms remained. Marigold looked at each of the teacups, listened for her child’s cries, and felt reluctant to walk any closer to the dark end of the cellar.

Upstairs, the women who made their beds in the four-gabled house were making dinner.

Damp, rich sounds came from the dark end of the cellar and echoed off the brick walls until Marigold could not hear the banging of pots and pans upstairs, nor the record spinning on the player, nor even the sounds of the women’s voices.

She was afraid, but she would not leave the cellar without a son. She took up the iron bar propped up against the wall—she did not think, “someone might have put this bar there”; she thought very little—and walked forward until her child leapt up from the grave where he was born, four feet tall, hungry, hissing wetly at his mother.

Marigold swung the iron bar and struck the child in his moist, blood-colored forehead, then struck him again. She flew at him in such a fury that she did not stop to wonder what or who he was until he was already dead.

“Bury him yourself,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable when she heard. “Didn’t I already dig a suitable grave?”

“Won’t you have some shepherd’s pie before you go back down there, dear?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

Buttered baguette slices, tin cups of milk, heaping cuts of pie: a good meal by ration standards, a good meal even by pre-war standards, and they had ruined it for her. The women smiled proudly at their visitor.

“I suppose I might have a little,” Marigold said, polite in her fashionable hat, black blood drying on her hands.

When all five plates were empty, the other women retired to their gables. The woman who made her bed in the third gable washed each plate, carefully, methodically, while her guest waited at the table.

Then she said, “It hurt to lose that one, didn’t it, dear?”

“Yes,” Marigold whispered. “It was my fault, this time.”

“You’re ready now,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, “for the sort of child I could give you.”

“I don’t know if I can bear the pain of another child,” said Marigold.

“I know,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. She dried the final plate and wiped her hands clean on her apron, then made for the staircase. “Come along now, dear.”

“Where are we going?” said Marigold.

“The fifth gable,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “We’ll need privacy.”

Marigold’s husband waited at home for the arrival of their adopted son. Marigold could not leave empty-handed. Marigold was unaccustomed to wanting something that once lost could not be regained. She followed the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

The fifth gable was smaller than the others, drafty, the walls windowless. A vase of dying gardenias rested on a small end table in the corner. The gardenias had been wilting for longer than Marigold had been alive, which comforted the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“Sit down,” the woman said, motioning to the armchair in the middle of the room. A thin layer of dust covered its seat and arms and high, narrow back. Marigold settled into the chair and held her crumpled hat in her lap like it was a small and ill-behaved dog.

“Do you expect you’ll have to be tied down for this bit?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.

“What are you going to do?” said Marigold.

“Oh, I do very little, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You said you wanted a child, any child, isn’t that right?”

“Ye-es,” said Marigold, in a lilting voice that sounded more like no.

The woman who made her bed in the third gable got to her knees and rested her clasped hands in Marigold’s lap, as if comforting, as if pleading. “Whatever else you do, dear, remember to blame yourself.”

She rose to her feet and turned and left, locking the door from the outside.

Inside the fifth gable of the four-gabled house, dampness became cold and dimness became darkness, and Marigold’s skin felt like wax beneath her fingers when she tried to rub her gooseflesh off.

The women who lived in the four-gabled house buried Marigold’s cellar child together, all but the woman who made her bed in the first gable, because she could not make herself look at the mangled body of the child she had made.

“We should sing a hymn,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.

“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable.

“It’s conventional. She’d like that.”

The women contemplated the idea of being conventional for a while. Their eyes lost focus as they studied the raised mound of earth with the cellar child inside.

“He was such a fine boy,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “But I’m glad she hurt him, I must admit.”

The woman who made her bed in the third gable could only bear children in the womb of another woman’s suffering.

Marigold came from the fifth gable of the four-gabled house looking smaller, with hair like straw. The women had a luxurious breakfast prepared for her, butter on the toast and sugar for the coffee. Marigold stirred cream into her coffee with one hand and supported her squalling, red-faced child in the other.

“A hideous creature,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, after Marigold and the child had gone. “No offense.”

“None taken,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “He wasn’t really mine. None of them have been.”

“If you made me one, he would be different,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “My hurt would be the furthest thing from hers, and the child who came from it would be strong and strange and proud.”

“Perhaps in a few years,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You haven’t felt enough yet. I couldn’t be sure of the outcome if you hadn’t felt enough yet.”

And the woman who made her bed in the first gable knew this to be true, having seen many dozens of the small dead fish-like things that came from half-felt suffering. She could not rush suffering, so she returned to her cellar and shut her door and set to work on her next child. This time, she thought, perhaps she would love them enough. Perhaps they would hurt her so deeply that she could at last ascend to the fifth gable and bear a child that would live.

end-of-story-nov

Kay Chronister ‘s fiction has appeared in
Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld.
She lives in Seattle with her miniature
dachshund, Victor Hugo.

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A July Story, 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.

The sky grew orange, pinkish blue, then muted violet and freckled with stars while Kitten enjoyed being outside. His nose was numb, his eyes watered small icicles whipped up by the wind, and his stomach gurgled, but Kitten kept his back to the house just as the house kept its back to the sea. How long had it been this time? Was there a town nearby? Would they have good things to eat?

Kitten dug a socked hand beneath his scarf, shoving at the coarse licks of hair that itched his neck. He’d yet to see a mirror. He removed one sock and blew on his fingers to keep them warm, dug under the scarf again, yanked. The hair could just be seen in the fading light. Gray now, perhaps even white, but still black near the tip. The wind snatched the hair from his fingers. Kitten didn’t watch it go. There never had been, never would be, anyone to care about his hair, and besides, had nature been allowed its usual way with him, Kitten’s hair would be like spider silk, lining the bottom of a pine box.

Gray hair led to golden hair, green eyes, and Kitten found himself thinking about Angelica Wilson, the young schoolteacher he’d fancied in his youth. Angelica was kind to Kitten on his fifteenth birthday, his last day in the world. She’d lent him the few coins he needed to purchase the bestiary he’d been eyeing on the bookseller’s cart, and she’d given his baby sister, Mousie, a sweet. The bestiary was like the scarf: one of the few items the house has let him keep. Kitten suspected it had something to do with them being gifts.

Kitten glanced back at the house. Angelica Wilson would be dead now. Like Mousie. Like Mum and Father and the mates who, on the afternoon of his fifteenth birthday, dared him to go inside the strange red house. For the first few decades, Kitten liked to imagine that Angelica had married one of his mates, that Mousie found herself an upstanding young man and borne children of her own. He would pretend a child he passed in a July street was his nephew or niece. But these stories grew cold as a century turned and time marched on without him. Everyone Kitten once loved was dead. He should be, too.

july01Facing the sea once more, he spoke aloud. “My name is Kitten Blankenship.” The wind would hear his usual prayer. “My parents were Margaret Hudson and Roger Blankenship, and I had a sister, Marcella. I was born in Yorkshire in 1853. And I would like to be free of the house now, please.”

The bazaar of murres rose as one body at the echo of his voice and made bleating for a rock formation that rose from the sea. Their departure drew Kitten’s eye to distant electric lights. From their sparseness and height, he picked out the perimeter of a small town. Kitten smiled, but remained sitting on the cobblestone beach. A waning half-moon sagged low on the horizon, and he’d found a hollow in the rock face, its entrance swollen with small bones and matted fur. He didn’t like to venture into the towns on his first night out of the house. Better to marvel at the natural world in a new place, enjoying his discoveries and regretting all he’d never been allowed to learn. The bones and fur, for instance. Kitten couldn’t even say what they probably were; he didn’t know where he was or what lived there, what sorts of animals nested in rock hollows on stony beaches. The bestiary might tell him, but probably not. Kitten was sixteen or seventeen when he learned to tell stories to himself.

Hunger drove him back to the house. Some Julys, he slept outside. Even if no better shelter were available and he had to huddle against the house’s oxide-colored walls, he’d never forsaken the mercy of a July. Not this time, though. This new place too cold, its wind too harsh and its town too far , so Kitten grudgingly pulled open the door that scraped loud on dry grass and reentered his prison.

On the table: a loaf of sweet bread, its crust steaming in the chill, an apple with reddening green skin, a smallish hunk of orangish cheese, a pot of hot water with lemon, and none of it there when he’d stepped outside. A July news bill told him the year was 1912 before Kitten stopped trying to catch the house in the act of providing his food. And 1946, a radio said, before he accepted the house was smarter than him. Food simply appeared, three squares, when he had his back turned. The fare was never complex, but what Kitten appreciated more was the secret of its appearance that the house kept from him. He didn’t want to see a hallway extend from a wall gone soft as clay, couldn’t stomach the thought of the house reaching into other empty spaces to steal for him.

More often than not, Kitten dreamed of meat. A roast Cornish hen dripping in juice, sizzling belly of pork, a fat slice of ham. In his meat dreams, there was tea, too, and butter and jam for the bread, tall tin tumblers of fresh milk, lemony crumpets with a bit of clotted cream, peppermint sticks. Tonight’s humble meal, he pretended was a fast for July Eve. Tomorrow, he would go into the town. He would learn the year, see what new marvels the passage of time had wrought, and find the good food. He would gorge himself on it, carry it in baskets wherever he went, and never share a morsel of it with the house.

The socks limited his dexterity, and Kitten’s hands grew numb while he ate. Finished, he rose and stood before the lone small cabinet by the window. Shivering, with his hands tucked in his armpits, he said, “Gloves,” then counted to ten, and opened the cabinet. Only the sewing kit there on the shelf. Only ever the sewing kit, full of needles and thimbles, but lacking thread. The expectant smile he’d worn since the house touched down, the front door opened, and he knew it was July faded from Kitten’s face. He could feel the knot in his throat. It made him sound like he was whimpering when he said, “Please? I’m cold.”

The door to the second room, the hated room, the one that could expand and contract, reach through space and push beyond time, creaked open, swung itself shut again. In the cabinet, the sewing kit skittered.

“No,” Kitten moaned. “It’s July. Please?”

The eldritch door opened and slammed, opened and slammed while Kitten squeezed shut his eyes and wrapped his arms about his head. Sometimes the house got angry with him, and it would tilt on its unnatural axis, befriending gravity to send him sprawling through the door. There, in the house’s warped second room, roamed all of Kitten’s lost time. All the months and years he should have aged but didn’t, so long as he spent them wandering through the house’s unmeasurable, self-contained maze. It was July, though, and Kitten had been let outside. The door shut itself once more, made a sound like the clicking of a lock, and when Kitten opened his eyes, a blanket rested on the back of the table’s only chair, and the wood-burning stove crackled to life.

Kitten sniffled and wormed the socks back over his hands, readjusted his head scarf, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and settled down with his bestiary in front of the stove. Hours later, when the moon’s light grayed the barren front room, a muffled sound drew Kitten back from the edges of sleep. He squinted at the new shadow beside the door. When he made it out, he sighed.

“Bicycle,” he said. “Thank you.”

Tucked into the basket on the bicycle: fleece-lined gloves, a wad of ten-dollar bills. The house provides. Its reach extends beyond closed doors and down long hallways, into empty rooms, abandoned atriums, and untrod stairwells. It connects to all forgotten and vacant places, into sealed-up voids and architectural blanks. The second room with its closed door is in perpetual communion with all the world’s closed doors so that its pets may never escape. Kitten, like others before him and more sure to come, attempted, in his younger Julys, to leave the house behind. To run, hitchhike, beg clemency, seek asylum in a new city, a new building somewhere far from where the house touched down. All of them, the house’s pets, hundreds of miles and weeks away, thinking themselves free, have once opened a closed door, crossed the threshold, and found themselves back inside the house.

july02Call it a cuckoo building. A spat-up space. Its learning curve is slow, recursive. It knows not what it does, only what it needs. A damned, demanding thing. Like a child. It killed its first pet, not out of malice, but for lack of knowing when its pet needed feeding. First a starving pet, moaning low, then a rotting pet, full of stink. So the house chose to return to its first pet’s home, to use its hidden geometries to slip the bones through unoccupied walls. It put its pet back where it found him. Like a child.

Learning to mistrust doors, other pets have run away, not to other places, but to other sides, determining death preferable to the house’s love. The house hurts, but does not know how it came to hurt. It knows that it is broken, that some part of it is torn, ripped from its moorings and made sick inside. It cannot form ideas; its communication is nonverbal, crudely symbolic, like a child’s. It shakes the sewing kit at its pets, but they don’t know what to do.

The pets rail and leave, come back and leave again, come back and kill themselves. The house hurts. It keeps them alive well past their times, its brokenness wronging them, too, from the inside out. It waits for one to come who can mend the tear, who knows the proper use of needle and thread.

Kitten stays. He is the oldest. He no longer tries to leave. He pales when the sewing kit appears, screams at the walls and weeps. I don’t know what you want me to do, he says. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. The house hears him, wishes it knew. Kitten would do it, the house knows, if he could. He would mend the tear, sew them both up, house and pet, seal them up safe and together forever, the house and its Kitten.

Highway 101 graced the coastal Oregon town for two and a half miles before hair-pinning back along a picturesque but desolate shore. The people there prided themselves on their cows, and Kitten had his fill of cheese and burgers, ice cream and taffy and smoked jerky. He fished pale shells and marbleized rocks from the waves, explored junk shops, rented a kite from a beach shack and spent an afternoon flying it, huddled in the town’s small library, filling his mind and his eyes with history he’d never lived, learned that the century had turned again. Not just a century, but a millennium this time, and Kitten thought that this must make him unique among men, but there was no one to tell, none who would believe.

Sometime in the town’s past, a train ran through it. When the train stopped running, the town planted a caboose at the dead line-switch. The day Kitten discovered he was experiencing a new millennium, he took to pacing the rusting tracks until, five paces from the caboose, he saw a tie catch the light, and he knelt to look. Keys, a few dozen of them, from tiny gold ones meant for padlocks to thick silver ones made for deadbolts, were nailed to that tie and that tie only, and Kitten crouched low, finally sitting on the ground to run his fingers over the keys and wonder a new wonder.

“You know what they’re there for?”

Kitten looked up into the face of a young girl. She had long, black hair, like Mousie’s. Kitten had seen her more often than anyone else in the town; he suspected she was the daughter of one of the waitresses at the town’s breakfast diner.

“You’ve been following me, haven’t you?” he asked.

The little girl shrugged. “Maybe. You want to know about those keys, though?”

Kitten nodded. The girl smiled, plopped down beside him in the dirt, put both small hands on the tie as though she could touch all of the keys at once if she tried hard enough.

“I think they’re very beautiful,” she said. “All the colors and shapes and the different ways people nail them.” She looked up to see if Kitten shared her feelings on this matter and, apparently not finding what she sought in his expression, lifted one skinny shoulder. “Anyway,” she went on, “my mom says people treat these old train tracks like a wishing well, but opposite-like. These keys, they’re for locks that people can’t open. To places they’ve lost or can’t go back to or that aren’t there anymore. So they nail the keys here so the places won’t be forgotten.”

Kitten wished he had a key. He hadn’t taken a key to the house in Yorkshire with him that day. He’d only meant to be gone with his mates for an afternoon, meant to go home to his birthday dinner before the sun had set, and he thought how out of place his old key would look next to all of these modern ones. He exhaled, slow and shuddery, and said, “That’s pretty.”

“Pretty sad,” the girl said. “I’m Lana. And yeah, I’ve been following you. I follow all the travelers. Not much happens here except new people coming and going.” She seemed to have lost interest in the keys, having instead pulled a wad of mismatched yarn and string from her pocket, and she sat, trying to untangle the hopeless knot. She didn’t look up from this project when she asked for Kitten’s name, but when he replied, she dropped the pile of threads in her lap. “A boy named Kitten? You aren’t BSing me, are you?”

“I don’t know what BSing means.”

“It means,” —Lana leaned in close, whispering— “bullshitting.” She giggled, but Kitten still looked confused, so she rolled her eyes and said, “It means I think you’re making things up. Where are you from, anyway?”

“A long way away,” Kitten said.

“Like how far?”

“Like England,” Kitten said, surprised at himself for mimicking her speech. But she reminded him so much of Mousie, it felt like playing one of their old games.

“Oh,” Lana said, drawing out the word. “I get it. We talked about England in social studies last year. Mrs. Mullen said you still speak English there, but it’s sort of a different type of English from here.” She nodded, satisfied with her own explanation. “Where’re you staying?”

“Outside of town,” Kitten said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of where the house had come down. He didn’t like thinking about the house while talking to Lana. “On the beach.”

“In a motel, or like camping?” Lana asked.

“Like camping.”

Lana wrinkled her nose. “My mom took me camping once. I hated it. There weren’t toilets, and I couldn’t shower. Do you get to shower at your campsite? You smell like you get to shower. You’re not one of those weird people who refuse to have jobs and jump trains and camp all the time because of politics, are you, Mr. Kitten?”

“I…” Kitten cocked his head, tried to figure out what the girl meant, couldn’t. He’d have to see if the library had any books on such subjects. It was embarrassing to know less about the world than a young girl, so he gave her a mischievous grin and said, “Well, what do you think?”

She crossed her arms, looked him up and down, left and right, then shook her head. “No,” she decided. “You’re not a weirdo. Even if you are camping on the beach and your clothes are funny.”

“Funny how?” Kitten asked.

“Old funny.”

“I’m an old man.”

“How old?”

“Would you believe me if I said I’m a hundred and sixty?”

“No!” Lana laughed. “How could you be that old and not be dead?”

“Maybe I should be dead,” Kitten said, and he looked down at the keys. They caught the light, reflected it, dazzled his eyes, and before he could stop himself, he said, “Maybe I have a secret house with hidden rooms and endless hallways, and when I get lost inside it, time stops passing for me. Maybe I’m trapped there, and I only get to come out for one month every couple of years, and when I go back, the house erases my years. Maybe that’s what’s happened to me.”

The sound of Lana’s laughter broke the keys’ spell, and Kitten’s eyes got wide with the realization of what he’d said. A thing he’d never said to another, but even as Lana mocked him, he couldn’t deny that telling someone, speaking it aloud, had felt good.

“Okay, now you’re BSing me,” Lana said. “You’re funny, Mr. Kitten. I like that.”

Something very close to them made a musical, chirping sound, and Lana pulled a flat, black phone from her pocket, poked it and frowned at it, then announced she had to go. She mounted the blue bicycle she’d left leaning against the side of the caboose and rode away, pink streamers fluttering from handlebars.

Kitten remained on the tracks, feeling the cool shapes of the keys, thinking about what Lana had said about them, feeling clean and light from his confession.

Lana cropped up again, again. When Kitten least expected her, she’d slide into his booth at the Cow Belle Café and steal his fried potatoes, or flop down into the seat next to him at the library’s long table and ask what he was reading, or find him on the beach and start skipping stones if the sea was still or drawing in the sand with a stick if the waves were high. She asked him questions about himself, sometimes, but mostly she talked to him about her own life. About the boys and girls at her school and who liked who and how nobody liked her, not like that; about her mom and her mom’s new boyfriend, who drove a big, Mack truck and smelled all the time of beer and cigars; about video games and the Internet and how her mom wouldn’t let her use certain sites. She used Kitten to rehearse her arguments about why she should be allowed to wear makeup (Susie Dilligner did) or shave her legs (the swim team girls did) or have her own Facebook account (she was going to be in middle school this year, after all, and did her mom want her to be unpopular forever?).

And Kitten listened, asked questions in return, offered what little advice he had to give, and imagined that Lana was a new millennium’s Mousie. He told Lana about Mousie, about how his mum had given five babies back to God before his surviving sister was born, how her name was Marcella, but she was Mum’s Miracle, and if he was Kitten, then she was his Mousie, and when Lana asked, instead of his story about Mousie marrying one of his mates, he told Lana the truth: that he’d sent Mousie back home from the market on his fifteenth birthday and gone to meet up with his mates, and he entered the house on a dare, and he never saw Mousie or Mum or Father again. And when Lana’s phone summoned her home and Kitten went back to the iron-red house, he thought about all of the Julys he’d passed alone, wondering if he could call Lana a friend.

july03A column of names, places, and objects decorated the inside of the house’s front door. Kitten started it in the beginning of his tenure in the house, when he hadn’t an inkling of how or why he was there, what would happen to him the longer he stayed. It was his list of remembrances and desires, started with ‘Mum and Father and Mousie,’ followed by ‘Angelica Wilson’ and the names of his mates. It got vaguer from there on out, included things like ‘mutton’ and ‘my good shoes’ and ‘a real bed.’ In more practical moments, he’d included the dates from the two times the whole world had gone to war and a sort of genealogical tree he updated every time he learned about a new member of the royal family. The notation ‘John the dog’ helped him recall a shaggy, gray puppy that had followed him through a 1970s July. The hound bayed piteously when the house made its departure; Kitten wept at the decision to leave John in the world. If he hadn’t, maybe he’d still have a dog-friend, maybe he wouldn’t need the passing fancy of a little girl.

Nonetheless, one day he gave Lana two dollars and asked her to buy him a permanent black marker from the drugstore. She asked why he wouldn’t do it himself and he told her that the house wouldn’t let him keep anything that wasn’t a gift. She said she didn’t believe it, but came out with the marker tied up in a red ribbon. To the painted, carved, and penciled-in list, he used the marker to add the name ‘Lana.’

One day, Kitten didn’t go into town. He talked aloud, telling himself lies about wanting to explore the parts of the coast people didn’t inhabit, to see the animals and contemplate the black waves of the sea and its cobblestones. The truth gnawed at him. July was winding down, a week left at best, and he needed to distance himself from Lana. She occupied his thoughts when he returned to huddle by the woodstove at night. He’d recall games and jokes he’d shared with Mousie and wonder whether Lana would like them or if they were too old. He’d flip the pages of his bestiary in the slim stove light, looking for neat tidbits to share with her. And though he wasn’t ungrateful, he wondered if it had been a mistake to make a friend. One hundred and fifty years he’d missed his family, his friends, and the time made the missing fade. He hadn’t had to miss anyone new, and suspected it would hurt all over again, like he’d never missed anyone before, because already it hurt to think about how, once the house left, he wouldn’t get to see Lana again. The house hadn’t chosen the same place twice, not since Kitten had been with it, but even if it picked this part of Oregon again, another century might have passed, and Lana would be dead, the railroad tie rotten, its keys sunk into hard-packed gray earth.

Kitten didn’t go to town the next day, either. He rode his bicycle in the opposite direction instead and delighted to find the factory the people had built for their cows. He spent the day going on the guided tours, learning about the making of cheese and ice cream and watching the cattle grazing in a pen so huge, Kitten felt he’d traded seas of water for seas of beef. He tasted free samples of ten different kinds of cheese, tiny spoonfuls of 36 flavors of ice cream, sampled snippets of jerky, and watched children crank a machine that left smiling cow faces stamped into their pennies. With a bloated belly and a smile on his face, Kitten rode back to the house, where a pink bicycle streamer fluttered in the grass by the front door.

By the time he found Lana, pouting over a cup of hot cocoa in the Cow Belle Café, the cold on Kitten’s skin seemed like a side effect of the cold in his belly. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to admit to the house, not after he’d told Lana the truth about it, so he ordered a cup of coffee and sat across from her, enduring her scowls, waiting for them to turn into words. Lana’s silence continued until Kitten suggested they go sit on the boardwalk across the street. There, Lana admitted she thought Kitten had left without telling her goodbye, so she biked along the beach, looking for his camp. She demanded an explanation for his two-day absence, and when Kitten said he’d only wanted to see what was in the other direction, Lana sneered and said it was only the Tillamook factory, that she’d been on a field trip there for every year she’d been in school, and she never wanted to eat another piece of cheese in her life (a statement she undermined the next day when she helped herself to half of Kitten’s grilled cheese sandwich). She also admitted to finding the house, which had never been there before, and she wanted an explanation for its appearance. She refused to believe it wasn’t his, an edge in her voice when she recounted his tale of a moving, mysterious building capable of swallowing time and life. But Kitten couldn’t humor her. Kept seeing the pink streamer from her bike curling in the grass and getting a feeling like he was sweating inside when he thought about her pushing at the door or standing on tip-toe to peer in a window. He pointed to a jagged rock formation.

“Look, Lana,” he said. “Look at all the murres.”

Squinting at the ocean, Lana nodded. “Did you know that a group of murres is called a fragrance?” she asked. “I know you like words and information and stuff.”

“A fragrance? My bestiary says they’re called a bazaar,” he said. “A fragrance. Like the fragrance of myrrh. I like that. I think I like that one better. I’m going to miss you, Lana.”

“You are leaving, then.”

“Soon,” Kitten said.

“How soon?”

“Soon.”

“And will the house go with you?” she asked. “If I go back there, after you’re gone, that house’ll be gone, too, won’t it? You weren’t lying to me or making up stories. I felt it, when I was there. This strange feeling. The same feeling I got the first time I saw you. I didn’t go in. Just so you know.”

“Don’t,” Kitten said. “Don’t you ever go in. Promise me, Lana. Promise me you won’t ever go into a strange house by yourself.”

But Lana didn’t promise. Wouldn’t promise, talked instead until the sun slipped low in the sky. She pulled her wad of yarn and string from her pocket and picked at it while she talked about wanting to leave Rockaway, Oregon. How she thought she never would and her mom didn’t seem to care, and how Kitten had become a better friend in a few weeks than anyone she’d known in her whole life here. Kitten patted Lana’s back and stroked her black hair while she sniffled adolescent girl sniffles and despaired of her future. Told her she’d leave Rockaway one day, she just had to be patient, and she’d grow up strong and smart and beautiful, move away to a big city, live a brilliant, exciting life. But Lana only bit her lip and thanked him for trying. When her phone squawked, she got on her bicycle and rode off without saying goodbye.

The sewing kit scrabbled at the walls of the cabinet throughout the night, flung itself at the cabinet’s door, keeping Kitten awake. He got up, once, opened the cabinet, removed the kit, walked it through the crisp night air to the overhang, used all of his might to throw it into the Pacific, and waited for a splash he’d never hear above the waves. By the time he got back inside, the kit was back in the cabinet, and the cabinet dripped saltwater from its corners.

Four more days. Four more days of hot food and the sight of people, being in the world, and Lana’s company. The girl acted subdued. On the fifth day, Kitten woke to the knowledge that this was the last of July. That he’d go back to the house that night and not emerge again for decades untold, and for the first time in years, he found himself wondering if he could outwit the house. Perhaps he could live on the beach, camp like he’d told Lana he did. Find a job, save money, build a house of his own, one he wanted, one without doors. Yet even as he thought these things, he knew it was useless. Who would hire a gray-haired man with no experience in any trade, who barely understood what a computer did, who’d never once spoken on a telephone? If he’d learned anything from Lana, it was how ill-fitted he was for this new millennium, or it for him. His thoughts opposed themselves. Maybe he’d never come out of the house again. He never understood why it let him out some Julys but not others, and maybe it was to keep him human, to keep him sane, and the real way to end it would be to never come out, to fall deep, deep inside, to go mad with the house, become its soul.

Kitten took the rest of the money to town with him. He’d spent some time looking around the house for some token to give to Lana, but the only thing that seemed appropriate was the bestiary, and Kitten couldn’t bring himself to part with that. Instead, he treated Lana to a big waffle breakfast and ice cream for lunch, bought her a knapsack she coveted from a shop on Main Street. He assumed he’d return to the house once Lana’s mum called her home. He hadn’t expected it to be so early. Midafternoon when she jumped up from the railroad tie where they’d sat to contemplate the keys together one last time, and she said something about a dentist’s appointment, how she’d begged her mom not to make her go, to change the appointment to a different time or day. She hugged Kitten long and hard until his neck ached, and he hugged her back, sorry to see her go.

One last meal at the Cow Belle Café before walking his bicycle through the main street of town, saying silent goodbyes to Rockaway, Oregon. Kitten rode slow, looking at the coast but not seeing it, thinking instead of all the places he’d been, the places the house had taken him: The tip of Florida where no one would look him in the eye; a deserted Italian shore where he hardly saw another living thing; the coast of North Carolina, where he’d met John the dog; a frozen lake where the inhabitants didn’t speak any language he knew, and who gave him salted fish and a hard, flavorless bread in exchange for his coins. Only the sight of the Tillamook factory shook Kitten from his memories and, confounded, he pointed his bicycle in the other direction. He rode back and forth, seeking the house and not finding it, secretly hoping it had gone without him, suspicious of that thought from the outset. He sought the overhang and the forked rock formation instead, the one always covered in a fragrance of murres, and when he found them, he dropped his bicycle to the ground and stumbled forward, sobbing before he even knew what he saw.

Pushed-down grass marking the footprint of the house. Empty ocean shore and the sound of waves rattling the stones. A hollow in a rock full of fur and bones. A blue bicycle with pink streamers on its handlebars lying in the weeds. And nothing more.

Lana is nineteen by her own clock and twenty-eight by the world’s the first time the house lets her leave. She experiences an acute sensation whenever she remembers her initial hours in that warped and damaged place. How she opened the knapsack Kitten had bought her, the one she stuffed full of all the things her ten-year-old mind thought she’d need to hide out there and run away with Kitten. How she found the knapsack empty and was convinced she’d freeze or starve, because she hadn’t believed Kitten when he’d told her the house would provide.

She still trembles a bit when the second door opens and the floor shakes and groans and tilts sideways, giving her a glimpse of a plain, unfurnished room that unfolds, unfurls into a growing black spiral, finding depth, seeking distance, Euclidean geometry stretching itself thin before it sucks her through. It has happened so many times now she’s lost count and isn’t as terrified as the first time she got lost in the house’s secret, shifting maze.

july04The sewing kit bothered her a lot those first few years. It pounded and scraped, battered the cabinet, might as well have been battering the inside of her skull. She doesn’t remember when she fished the knot of tangled thread from her pocket, when she set the knot next to the kit and watched, tears pouring down her face and a bad feeling in her stomach, while the two objects danced. Lana only knows that this is a recent development, this sense of what she needs to do.

The July air is warm when she steps out of the house. She doesn’t know where she is, and hardly thinks it matters. Lana doesn’t wait. She walks to the nearest town as soon as she picks it out, inquires, finds a crafting store. She spends all of the money she has, save the price of a hot meal, on yarn and twine and embroidery thread, then she goes back to the house.

It is excited. It knows that she knows. Atonal, piping music plays from behind the second door. The sewing kit jigs on the table, spins in circles and hops up and down, its needles sharp and shining, ready to be used.

“Shut up,” Lana snaps. “I figured it out, no thanks to you. Have some patience.”

She finds the marker she bought for Kitten when she was ten. It still has a red ribbon tied around it, though the ribbon has faded and split, and Lana cries a little bit, thinking about it. She wonders if she’ll be able to find Kitten again, if it’s as simple as she thinks and the house will be fixed and she will be free. She tries to remember being ten and what it was she’d been thinking. She goes to the front door, runs her fingers down the list Kitten made. She’s read it so many times she can recite it by heart. Then she kneels, lowers herself to her elbows so she can reach the door’s bottom-most edge, uncaps the marker, and makes her first and only addition right beneath her own name.

Kitten, she writes.

 end_of_story

kami

K.L. Owens is a picture framer who occasionally tends bar at gallery openings. She holds a B.A. in existential philosophy, and received her MFA from the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. In 2004, Owens received the Quarante Club Prize for Women in Literature, and in 2015, she was the runner-up for the Svenson Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Riding Light Review, freeze frame fiction, and Fur-Lined Ghettos. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and three cats, and while she moves with some acumen through space, she has yet to successfully travel in time.

 

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