THE MEN FROM NARROW HOUSES
Editors' Note: For an audio version of this story, visit PodCastle.
The men from narrow houses come up the stairs when Gabby is sleeping. They sit on her bed, place their long fingers on her coverlet, and say, Tell us, love, tell us everything. We've been gone for so long. Except sometimes it sounds like You've been gone for so long.
The men from narrow houses have voices like Halloween. Dead of night voices, blown in on a cold wind. They talk almost until dawn, leaning this way and that, their tall hats never slipping from their heads even when they stir like restless trees in a breeze. They pluck at Gabby's coverlet and say, How interesting, and Tell us more.
When the sun comes up, the men from narrow houses are gone, but they always leave her with the same nonsense rhyme: Count your fingers, count your toes. Count your buttons, count your bows. Before they vanish, they lean forward and put their lips next to Gabby's ear. Sometimes the men are only one man and she's certain she's seen him somewhere before. He's an uncle, the kind who does magic tricks. His face is in an old family portrait hanging on a wall she can never quite find. Tell me, love, he says. Where were you before you were here? Except when he says it, it sounds like before you were her.
Fred loves Gabby. He's told her so a thousand times. He is perfect for her, and they are perfect together, and everything will be perfect and happily ever after for all time. Gabby isn't so sure.
Fred is sweet, but Fred is dull. He is safe, and sometimes Gabby wishes she was the kind of person who could love him the way he loves her. Other times she looks at Fred and doesn't know him at all. Fred is always talking about building memories. He brings Gabby trinkets to commemorate every little thing—their first kiss, the sailing trip they took where she taught him how to fish. She has crystal figurines in the shape of lips and fish for these two things.
On their first date, Fred took Gabby to a carnival. She won him a stuffed pig, and he bought her sweet, sugared pears. They rode the Ferris wheel, and he held her hand. A delicate crystal pig, a pear, and a wheel sit lined up along her bookshelf. The latest crystal is actually a diamond, sitting in a ring on her left hand. Not a memory, but the promise of a memory waiting to be born.
Sometimes Gabby thinks there is something to be said for memories made solid, ones she can pick up and hold in her hand when she feels like she's lost or suffocating inside her own skin. And it isn't just her. Sometimes Fred looks at her like he's trying to remember a name on the tip of his tongue, a recollection forever sliding away from him.
Gabby steps onto Fred's balcony while Fred is in the shower. At the horizon, the sky is orange, stained with city lights. Above, it purples, and in-between are tattered clouds. The orange reminds her of flames. Gabby holds up her hands and counts her fingers against the smeary light. She isn't sure the hand belongs to her at all. A question lingers like the afterimage of a dream.
Where were you before you were her?
The men from narrow houses have smiles like melon rinds, white slices of apple, the sliver of the moon before it disappears. Their clothes smell like earth, and their eyes shine like old coins—copper, silver, and gold. As the wedding draws closer, Gabby begins to see them during the day. They pluck at her with long fingers, like a hard wind worrying at her clothes. They slide around her in subway cars on her way to work; they ride behind her on the elevator on her way to the fifth floor; they lean over her shoulder as she studies spreadsheets on her computer; they dangle their legs over her cubicle wall. They are like reflections on water, always whispering, Tell us, love, tell us everything you've seen. You've been gone for so long.
The distraction makes Gabby type the wrong numbers into her spreadsheets and turn in reports that cause her boss to look at her with concern.
Her boss gives her well-meaning advice about eating right and going to bed at a reasonable hour. There's nothing about men whose clothing smells like earth, men with fruit-and-sickle-moon smiles. Nothing about eyes like coins vanishing up a magician's sleeve. Gabby avoids looking at the men standing just behind her boss's shoulder, leaning forward like they're starving, like they're expecting her to perform some trick, something worthy of their applause.
Tell us, love, their smiles say. Tell us every little thing.
Gabby dreams of a house underground. She moves through the house at the same time she sees it from the outside, a cross-section diagram. The house is wide at the top, and narrow at the bottom, the attic branching like roots, while the basement sprouts leaves to push up through the ground.
Tunnels connect the rooms, low enough that sometimes Gabby has to crawl. She slinks like an animal on her belly until she gets to next room where she can stand again. She tastes dirt at the back of her mouth, and sometimes blood—hot and straight from the heart, and marrow cracked free from delicate bones. Sometimes she moves faster on all fours than she does on two legs.
The rooms are filled with familiar objects that don't quite belong to her. She picks them up and puts them down again and moves on. Not all of the rooms are furnished. Some bear circles beaten into the earth, as if an animal paced there before settling down. Others hold piles of feathers and bones—nests, or the remains of a satisfying meal. There is a formal dining room with a crystal-dripping chandelier, and a parlor with high-backed silk-upholstered chairs.
In the parlor, there's a picture of her uncle above the fireplace, the uncle who is a magician, the uncle she can't quite remember all the time. He himself sits underneath the portrait, in front of the cold hearth, which holds ash that looks suspiciously like more bones.
"Sit down, love," her uncle says.
He wears a tall hat like the men from narrow houses, but his clothing doesn't smell like earth. Not yet. There's a sheen to his lapels, like satin, and Gabby knows she was right about the magic tricks all along. His long-fingered hands shuffle cards, vanish coins the color of eyes. They pull scarves from his sleeves, but never doves, and his cuffs are spotted rust-red.
"Let me tell you a story," he says.
Gabby leans forward, but bites her tongue before she can say, "Tell me everything. I've been gone for so long."
"Before I was buried, I knew the best magic trick a magician can know. Do you remember?"
Gabby shakes her head. It all sounds achingly familiar, like the taste of blood on her tongue. Her uncle holds up one hand, then the other, twitching his cuffs to show sleeves as empty as the sky.
"I knew how to turn a girl into a fox, and back again. Isn't that clever?"
He holds up a card, not a playing card, but a brightly-colored tarot card. It's The Magician, except the image looks more like the magician's assistant, a woman in a spangled leotard and fishnets, a top hat and a bright smile. Gabby's uncle flips the card and the woman becomes a fox, flips it again, faster and faster, like the card trick that closes the cage around the bird, blurring woman and fox into one.
Across from her, her uncle grins. He splits into one, two, three, until the whole array of men from narrow houses fans out before her.
Tell us, love, they say. Tell us how the trick is done.
Sometimes, Gabby thinks the men from narrow houses are all the same man spread out at different points along her lifetime. She sees them whether she's awake or sleeping now. They trip around her heels, like leaves on the sidewalk. They follow her up and down the steps of her brownstone building to her third floor apartment. She rides the elevator to the top of Fred's eleven-storey building, and they are waiting for her when Fred opens the door.
Fred takes Gabby to buy furniture for the new house they don't own yet. Fred has told her about the house a thousand times. It is the house of his dreams. When he talks about it over eggs and bacon at his kitchen table, she sees the blueprint beneath his skin, sees him in cross section—each room occupying a different part of him in place of his heart, his liver, his lungs. The house will be perfect, he tells her, just like them.
In a lonely corner of the furniture warehouse, a single light shines like a full moon, a magician's spotlight, illuminating a cabinet taller than she is, but narrower than her outstretched arms. The men from narrow houses cluster around the cabinet, hanging from its edges, perched on its top. Their smiles say ta-da, the magician's reveal, but their midnight-cold-wind-Halloween voices say nothing at all.
The cabinet is black, spattered with copper, gold, and silver stars. Looking at it, Gabby remembers her spangled leotard. She remembers her top hat, like the hats worn by the men from narrow houses, but not quite as tall. She remembers her smile, bright and white as she faced the crowd. Beneath the tails of her coat was another tail the color of fire, with its tip the color of ash, the color of smoke, the color of the wood left over when the flames burn down.
Memory is like dropping into a hole in the earth, falling into the house buried upside down. The men from narrow houses—though maybe it was only one man then—take her hand and help her step inside the cabinet spangled with stars while the audience holds its breath and leans toward them. The men from narrow houses seal the box up tight, rapping it with their knuckles, turning it round and round so the audience can see there are no hidden levers or doors.
Gabby breathes the scent of cedar and earth. She breathes the scent of being buried alive. She holds it in her lungs like the memory of a thing that hasn't happened yet, but will. Outside, the magician speaks the magic word.
Gabby flickers, she blurs like flame—two feet and then four paws. When the walls of the cabinet fall away, she's a fox, and the audience oohs and aahs. Gabby runs a lap around the stage, calling high, strange barks into the air. The audience thunders. She wants to leap over the footlights and tear their throats out, each and every one. After the performance, her uncle feeds her the doves hidden up his sleeves.
"Tell me," the men from narrow houses say, their voices trebled and doubled and trebled again, but spoken from a single mouth. "Tell us how the trick is done."
Gabby opens her mouth. She almost remembers. But a hand touches her arm and everything she almost knew drops away.
"There you are," Fred says. "I thought I'd lost you."
Gabby chokes on a breath, clawing up from deep underground.
"I thought..." she says, looking at the cabinet, feeling the blur, the softening of her bones. Remembering skin like fire and doves crunching copper-sweet between her teeth.
Fred's fingers, short and blunt, tug at her sleeve, leading her away before she can remember what she thought she wanted to say.
Walking through the rooms of the upside down house, Gabby remembers everything. Once upon a time, she was a fox stitched into the skin of a girl. She was a girl wearing a fox's clothes. The men from narrow houses buried her underground and dug her up again, their long fingers plucking grave-dirt from her sleeves. Their smiles smelled of apples and the cold slice of the moon. They drank her in with their burnished coin eyes—hungry, so hungry, asking again and again, "What do you remember? What did you find? Tell us every little thing."
The wedding is three months away. Yesterday, Fred put an offer on the house of his dreams. Gabby looks around her apartment at the clutter of objects and the piles of moving boxes waiting to be filled and tries to skip over all the spaces where the men from narrow houses are tucked away. They dangle their feet over the top of her refrigerator, peek out from behind the futon and under the bed. They fold themselves into corners and behind her potted Amaryllis and curl around the blades of the now-still ceiling fan.
Gabby moves around the apartment, lifting things and putting them down. They're all familiar, but did they ever really belong to her?
Where were you before you were here?
Gabby breathes condensation on the window and writes the words with the tip of her finger. Then she crosses off the last 'e'.
She must have a good reason for marrying Fred. But no matter how she tries to jam them together in her mind, the pieces don't fit; she is jagged where Fred is smooth, she is hollow where he is full. He is safe, which is something she thought she wanted to be, but now she isn't so sure.
In the kitchen, Gabby opens the junk drawer and upends it on the table. The men from narrow houses peer over her shoulder, watching her with hungry, precious-metal eyes.
Gabby sorts elastic bands and thumbtacks, boxes of matches and spools of tape. It's the least important part of her life to deal with as she prepares to pack up and leave, and thus the only one that interests her now. She imagines Fred tsking at her when he arrives to cook her dinner, after she spent all day filling boxes and hauling things around.
Gabby finds a skein of ribbon the color of rust, and a scatter of buttons that aren't just the color of old bone.
Count your fingers, count your toes. Count your buttons, count your bows.
She winds the ribbon around her hands. Over and under, finger to finger, finger to thumb, binding them tight. No longer a hand, more like a paw. Gabby has the urge to knot the ribbon around her toes, wrapping them in silk, changing their shape and coloring them dark as old blood. She wants to press the buttons into her skin, a line of them like teeth, waiting to be undone. A magic trick; what will step out of the girl's skin when the doors of her ribs are opened, the secret revealed?
Once upon a time she was a fox inside the skin of a girl, or the other way around. Both. Neither. She knew how to change, flicker quick, no need for a magician and his star-spangled cabinet. She buttoned herself into her lovely fox skin and strutted around town with a ribboned top hat and a wicked grin. Fox and girl, one and the same. Until she met the men from narrow houses on the road.
Except they were only one man then. They hadn't learned to split themselves infinitely yet. Their eyes weren't old coins, and their smiles weren't sharp slices of fruit.
They were hurt. They were broken. She would have passed by, tipping her hat, swishing her tail, but they cried. Oh, how they cried, a piteous, yipping thing. They smelled like kin. An uncle with flame-colored fur.
"Help me. Oh help me, please," they said with only one mouth, reddened with blood. They looked like a man, but she could see the fox inside them.
"What do you need, uncle?" She doffed her hat, holding it in one hand and sweeping a low bow.
"My skin, oh my skin," he cried.
He smelled like her, but wrong—blood instead of flame, stillness instead of flicker quick change. He stretched out a hand, pointing. Dirt under his nails, earth streaking his arms.
"My skin, my skin," went his yipping cry, fox and human, sobbing both.
Where he pointed she saw something snagged in a tree. Skin in the shape of a fox, but burning, like a leaf clinging to the branch, colored with autumn flame. Already turning from bright to ash, charcoaled bits streaming in the wind.
"Who did this to you, uncle?" She crouched low.
"They were frightened of me," he said, his voice smoke-hoarse. He wiped blood from his lips with the back of his hand. "They called me devil, but they killed me all wrong. They buried me upside down, and burned my skin. They should have buried my skin and burned my bones. I dug myself back out of the earth. Oh, it was a long crawl, and I lost so many things along the way."
He held his hand up again, pleading, showing her again the crescent-moon smiles of dirt under his nails. She placed her hat on his head, and took his hand.
"Lean on me, uncle," she said and helped him stand.
"You could do it," he said, his eyes fever bright as his skin-burning-into-flame. "You could help me find the things I lost underground. You could help me remember how to change."
She let him lean on her, kind when she could have been cruel. Even tricksters weary of tricks sometimes.
"Memory is a house," he whispered. "If I could only walk though its rooms once again, I would know who I am. I would know what went wrong."
With the ribbons wrapped around her hands, with the buttons like bone pressed against her skin, Gabby remembers. She was a fox and a flame and a girl. She traveled with her uncle, playing at magician and assistant, conning coins, making money disappear. But the thought of what he'd been before gnawed at him, leaving him hollow and hungry. The more he forgot, the more he need to know. Plucking and plucking at her with desperate fingers.
Tell me, love. Tell me everything you remember. I've forgotten so much. I've been gone for so long.
He fed her doves. He brought her buttons for her boots and ribbons tied in bows. They were kind to each other for a while. That was before he buried her underground. Before he split himself again and again, trying to find his way back to what he'd been. Before he dug her up with long-fingered hands, leaning over her with his ripe-melon smile, whispering, Tell us, love, tell us everything.
She'd gone underground and come up, coughing dirt, shivering cold, and always the men from narrow houses were there, waiting. Until the day she buried him instead.
Gabby's fingers ache, tingling with the flow of blood cut off by the sharpness of the ribbon. She lets go, lets out a breath as blood flows back again. Keys jangle in the lock. There are sharp teeth behind her smile, the crunch of hollow bones between them; she tucks them away just in time.
Fred carries in grocery bags, glancing around in dismay at how little she's done—the still-empty boxes and the scatter of junk across the table. The men from narrow houses crowd behind Fred's shoulder. They wink copper, silver, and gold. They put their long fingers to their lips, sharing a secret, and they grin.
Something glints in Fred's eyes, a reflection slipping out of the frame.
"I know you," she says.
Fred's expression changes to one of concern.
"Of course you know me." He puts the groceries down, feeling her forehead. "What's wrong?"
Gabby remembers shaking clods of earth from her hair. Climbing out of the ground and gasping in the fresh air. She remembers wanting to run.
Fred starts to move away, but Gabby grabs his arm, holding him still.
Where were you before you were here? Before you were her? Tell us, love, tell us everything.
Once upon a time, she was a magician's assistant. Once upon a time, there was a man in the audience who looked very much like Fred. Safe and dull.
"I need an assistant from the audience," she'd said, even though that was the magician's line.
She held out her hand, and Fred climbed up on stage, ignoring the blood on her cuffs and the dirt in her hair. Dazzled by the lights and by her smile.
"I'll show you a trick," she whispered in his ear and led him to the cabinet spangled with stars. "It's a really good one."
She helped him climb inside. She sealed him up tight, rapped her knuckles against every seam.
"Abracadabra," she said, and at the last moment, she jumped into the cabinet with him and pulled the door closed.
When the magician opened the cabinet, they were both gone.
"I'll show you a trick," she said, and changed into a fox with sharp teeth and flame-colored fur. "It's a really good one," she said, turning back into a girl. "I'll teach you another trick, too. I'll teach you how it's done if you do a little favor for me."
She nipped at his skin with sharp-glittery teeth. She made a little hole, and buried a fragment of trickster inside. She unzipped her skin, winking as she put her coat the color of fire into his hands.
"Hide it," she said. She caught his hands and kissed him. "And kill the magician when he comes after me. Help me bury him deep underground, and I'll marry you. When we wake up, all of this will feel like a dream."
Fred blinks at Gabby, her hand still on his arm. When she lets go, the pale mark of her fingers remain on his flesh like a ghost. In the morning, he might have a bruise. Over Fred's shoulder, the men grin their apple-slice grins.
"Where is it? Where did you hide my skin? I need you to remember everything."
Fred stares at her, bewildered. "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't even know who you are."
Gabby looks at Fred, really sees him for the first time. Sweet and dull. He did her a favor once upon a time, but that isn't a reason to stay.
"It's okay," she says with a grin, and drops a kiss on Fred's cheek. "I know enough for the both of us."
Then she's gone.
Memory is a house, Gabby thinks as she runs down the stairs. It should be a simple trick to find her way through to the room where Fred buried her skin. Past the second floor, past the street level, and down to the basement.
The men from narrow houses buried her again and again, and Gabby is oh so good at remembering, walking from room to room, trying to gather up everything they lost and left behind. She learned the trick of it, but they never did.
She finds her way by the blueprint inside her skin, like a negative image of Fred's perfect dream house, all twisted and strange, but wholly and utterly hers.
Beyond the furnace is a tiny door barely as high as her knee. When she moved into the building, the landlord told her they used to store firewood there. Or maybe there was never a door here until now, until Gabby needed there to be.
Inside, it smells like wood and earth, like moonlight and apples. It's a small space made for storage, nothing more. It's an endless space where the men from narrow houses emerge to creep up the stairs.
Gabby gets down on her belly, and crawls through the door. It's not big enough for a grown woman, but it's just right for a fox.
The walls narrow until they aren't walls. Until she's falling into the house built upside down. She tumbles into the parlor where her uncle sits shuffling brightly-colored tarot cards. In the fireplace, flames lick around a pile of bones.
As she crashes to the ground, he reaches for her, dirt beneath his nails like he's been digging at the walls, and blood inside his smile.
"Take me with you, love," he says. "Oh please, show me the way."
His legs tangle as he runs after her, but Gabby is faster, crawling through the rooms to the attic which is a basement in the house turned upside down. There, beneath the floorboards, is a star-spangled cabinet just the right size to hold everything she's been. She picks the lock with nails that were always too sharp for human hands. The lid falls back; inside her skin glows like flame.
A footstep creaks at the top of the stairs. Her uncle barks a high, piteous cry. A shadow paints the wall. A shadow divided again and again.
The men from narrow houses creep up the stairs, up from the attic, down from the basement. Their long fingers, like bone, are ready to catch at her hair, at her clothes. Ready to bury her and dig her up again and again. Ready to whisper their grave-cold voices in her ear, Tell us love, tell us everywhere you've been. Her uncles, her magician, the fox she saved once upon a time. Step, step, step, go the men from narrow houses, slinking up and slinking down, their hungry eyes like coins.
"Tell us, love," they croon as they slip and slither and creep toward her.
Gabby doesn't let them finish. She knows, and she remembers, and she's going to keep the secrets she found under the dirt all to herself this time. Up and out, she unburies herself. The men from narrow houses are coming for her. It's time to be fleet, to flicker-change. It's time to run.
©2016 by A.C. Wise
A.C. WISE's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, and the Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015, among other places. Her debut collection, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, was published by Lethe Press in 2015. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a monthly Women to Read column to SF Signal. Find her online at www.acwise.net.