(Fiction) The House

The house hadn’t always been a house. It had been a house first, but then it was a train station. It was probably more things between. After being a train station, it was abandoned. After it was abandoned, it was lost. After it was lost, it found itself a house again, a kind of refuge or dormitory in the heart of the city. I liked to think it felt good about that. It was almost always full. No sooner did a room become available than someone appeared to claim it. No one seemed to own the place, or if they did, they never bothered to show. Housework was distributed equitably by room, each of which had a color. The Scarlet Room was brown. The Azure Room was gold. I was in the Viridian Room, which was responsible for cleaning the fireplaces, among other things. That distribution, along with the rules of the house, had been painted in large letters on the wall of the Great Room, as it was known. More than one rule had been subsequently painted over and replaced (who knew how many times), including the rule that allowed for modification of the rules, which presently required a two-thirds majority but which I suspect had once been by unanimous vote only.

The house was constrained to its narrow lot, taller and longer than it was wide, which told me that that lot had once abutted others, but if so, they were long gone, replaced by buildings which all seemed to face the other way. No one looked down on the house, nor was it visible from any street. A spiked wrought iron fence, complete with swinging gate, guarded its boundary while two pairs of train tracks ran along the veranda at the rear. The human occupants of the house, who were always in the minority but acted like they were in charge, only took note of the tracks once, when they moved in, after which the tracks disappeared from everyday thought the same way hustling city-goers around the world cease to notice the vestigial remnants of long-vanished streetcars poking from the concrete under their feet — just another layer in a city that seemed to grow by them, like the sideways rings of a tree.

Beyond the tracks, at the back of the lot, was a grove of trees we called the Wilds. A fringe of weeds and shrubs grew in front of it and entombed the occasional trash that blew in from the outside — a kind of filter that kept the interior of the grove as pristine as an ancient forest. The view from the back of the house was cramped. The buildings rose up on all sides and made the little lawn seem like a courtyard, a place you stepped through on your way to other places, and we never spent much time there. But the Wilds seemed to go on forever, if you were standing inside it: a dark forest whose outer limits were obscured by an overlapping pastework of trunks and branches that seemed to peel away as you moved through them. It was widely believed other things moved through them as well, which is why we rarely entered, even to answer the phone. Inexplicably, a doorless phone booth stood just inside the margin of the trees, carpeted in dirt and leaves and sheltered by the branches, all its glass have long since disappeared. But the light at the top still worked. In fact, it was never extinguished, although it occasionally flickered when the phone rang. I could see it at night from the window of the Viridian Room. Every spring, at least one pair of nesting birds would try to make a home in the nook under the payphone, where the Yellow Pages would’ve gone, only to be scared away a few days later by the ringing, which sometimes went on for the better part of an hour. They would leave behind a husk of a nest that was eternally resumed but never finished.

I answered the phone once, shortly after I moved in, only to hear the insistent buzz of a dial tone urging me to get on with my business or else return the phone to its slumber. That was the first of only two times I entered the Wilds, which neither the sounds of traffic nor a cell signal seemed able to penetrate.


a rough cut from Bright Black, the fifth and final course of my forthcoming occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS