A steady knocking reaches my ears. “Hello? Anyone home? I have glassware for sale. Herbs. Saints’ bones and all manner of minerals.”
The house brings me to my feet. I try to fight, but it bats aside my efforts. A newly formed bone, inexpertly made, cracks the second I put weight on it. The house makes me walk anyway, has me put on clothes then go to the door, stringy umbilical ropes stretching from my shoulders to the flesh beneath its stone.
A little man stands before the door, mustache bristling beneath a red face and a gray cap. He blinks at me, one hand raised to knock again. The house has no words, so all I can do is wait.
“Oh. Good morning, sir. Sorry for hollering there.”
I blink once. Inside I’m screaming. Go! Run! Bring fire, bring axes! Here be monsters! The words build in my throat, push against my teeth.
“Well, sir, I’m a peddler by trade. A purveyor of fine wares. I saw the Guild of Alchemists seal above your door and thought, ‘There’s someone who might be in need of a thing or two.’ Eh?”
He grins, as though I am his best friend. The house stares blankly through my eyes. I want so desperately to return that smile, just to prove I’m not the monster.
His smile wavers. He looks down and coughs. “Is there anyone else I could talk to, perhaps?”
At last, the house stirs, bullying my thoughts down a new path. “Yes, of course. Come inside.”
It steps me aside and has me open the door, careful to keep the strings at my back hidden from the peddler’s sight.
Smile returning, the little man shoulders his pack and steps inside, nodding and thanking me.
As I close the door behind him, he’s hit with the smell of rotting corpses. Ever the salesman, he tries to think of something nice to say even as my hands close around his neck. I push him against the wall.
Stones in the wall open like teeth to reveal pulsing, festering flesh. The peddler tries to scream, to fight, but he is a little man and I was once a fisherman, used to hauling heavy nets all day. I think that’s why the house uses me for this. I stare into his eyes, trying to let him know I’m sorry, this isn’t my fault, I have no choice, but the gesture is wasted. There’s nothing but fear in his eyes now, and pretty soon, I feel his soul join us as the house swallows him whole. His soul disappears into a dark sea, made from a hundred captive minds, and his body is stripped of its flesh. Skin and muscle flow away beneath the walls, while his bones become part of the foundation. And since the house no longer needs me, it drags my mind back into the sea with him.
This is how it always goes.
I don’t know what the house is. I don’t think any of us know. It looked old even when I first found it, back when I knocked on its door to sell fish to the motherly figure it used as bait. Not even the house seems to remember its age. Perhaps, somewhere beneath the many layers of people taken, there is someone, the first one, who knows what the house was before it took root. Sometimes, when the house focuses its hunger elsewhere, I catch glimpses of something. A world distorted behind glass. Hands cradling me, telling me something. Something about protection. But it soon gets consumed in the roaring sea of souls.
We howl without voices from beneath the floorboards, groan in pain from out the walls. The rafters are our rib cage, the stone our skin. The house pulses beneath and between it all, a great beating heart made from our stolen meat.
I fall to the ground like a landed fish. Stones chatter against one another as they furl back in behind me, leaving exposed only those fleshy strings connecting us. How long has it been since it last gave me form? Not long, surely. I can still feel the house feeding on the poor peddler, his mind growing ragged in my thoughts.
The cold air cuts like a knife. I can taste the memory of snow. Nighttime shadows pour down the empty hearth and pool in the house’s corners. A single window looks out onto the street, but there’s so much grime on the glass that even the moon is turned into a silver smudge. Everything is silent and still. Why has the house called me up?
The door settles against its hinges. Then someone sneezes.
I’m pulled to my feet, and I see a shadow through the gaps in the warped planks. Someone is sleeping on our steps. And the house, ever hungry, wants them.
It drags me over to the peddler’s clothes, dresses me even as new muscles worm beneath my skin. It remakes my body each time, grows it from stolen flesh. But it needs my mind. It doesn’t know how to speak without a mind to puppet.
As I struggle with the shirt buttons, I realize something is different this time. I’m not quite what I should be. My movements are clumsy, my thoughts more my own. The house is still there, still pulling the strings, but it feels…lazy, as though puppeteering me with only one hand. It takes me three tries to open the door.
And there he lies: a beggar, shivering beneath a scrap of cloak. Little more than sackcloth, really. I stare at him, admiring the way the moonlight picks out his dark curls, the curve of his lip. In another life, perhaps…
The wind cries. The man whimpers into his cloak.
So alone. So hungry and alone, a voice whispers.
I jump at the sound. My head whips around, but there’s no one there. I look at the beggar, but he’s still asleep. I just moved my head.
Take him, the voice whispers again.
It’s the house. I’ve never heard it before. How can I? It uses our voices. But why now? What’s happened?
I don’t move. And it doesn’t make me.
Searching for answers, I do something I’ve never done before. I explore our connection. With my body to anchor me, it’s like standing on the edge of a great abyss. I look down into it, upon minds wrapped in and around themselves, wailing and clawing at one another in our anguish. It all washes over me, tearing my mind’s edges, threatening to pull me back into that sea. Somehow, I keep my ground and grit my teeth against the pull. That’s what lies within the house’s being.
There! Amidst the many minds, I spy the peddler. He’s not a brave man. Not a strong man. But his presence is still fresh enough to draw the house’s attention. It has wrapped itself around him, an amorphous thing of stolen voices and endless appetite. The part of it which reaches me now is just a fraction, a piece small enough for me to hear its individual voice.
The wind blows across my skin, calling me back. Dry leaves rattle down the street. The sleeping beggar mumbles and turns over, the moon shining full upon his youthful face.
He doesn’t matter. This is my chance. I stare out at the empty street, feel my legs tense beneath me, ready to run. I will not die a monster.
The skin on my back bursts into flame. I hear the familiar sound of chattering stone as the flesh-ropes tighten to reel me back in. The house knows something is wrong. I resist. I attempt to pull my body free, biting down against the pain. Despite it, I’m nearly laughing. I’m commanding my body. Me! Somewhere inside that dark sea of souls, the peddler screams, and the house tears its attention away to focus on me.
Little time remains, but I can still do something.
I pull off the peddler’s jacket. It is well-made and warm, perhaps the most precious thing he owned.
The skin on my back is pulled like pine tar. The flesh-strings haul me back, but not before I bundle up the jacket and throw it at the sleeping figure. My aim is good, and he shoots to his feet, as frightened as a startled rabbit. His eyes meet mine.
The house retakes control of me.
Calmly, it nods my head and closes the door. Then it turns me on my heel and walks me back across the floor. The wall opens up to welcome me back into its hellish embrace, but as my body is slowly broken down and my mind returns to the sea of captives, I smile.
I woke the beggar up. He got away. I’m not the monster.
The house wraps itself jealously about me, shoving me deep beneath its captured minds. Clawing, screaming, endless, maddened minds. And I scream with them. Our cries are the wind passing through the chimney, the creak of the floorboard, the chink and scrape of settling stone. The monster, which wears the building like a mask, moves with our fear and pain.
I wish I were dead. Dead and nothing. Oblivion is better—far better—than this. I try to fight my way free. My mind flinches as other thoughts pass through it. I drag them out of me, keep myself apart, tear at these other minds with imagined claws and teeth. I have tasted freedom. I cannot let it go. I will not!
But the minds pile in on mine and soon I am crushed beneath them, their selves mixing with mine, a thousand droplets running together to form a sea.
An image flickers past. A memory. I’m not sure if it’s mine or someone else’s. The docks. Fishing nets dragging through my fingers. A wooden bucket in which things scrabble. Crabs. No lid is needed, our father says. The crabs struggle to keep each other down, too caught up in themselves.
The memory fades. I drown in the sea.
I emerge again to hear a knocking sound, and the house’s control wraps tight around me. A dozen captive minds cling to me like fog, but as soon as the house puts me in my body, their voices are snuffed out. There is only the house, and this time, it holds its connection, its need flowing into me through the strings.
The knocking comes again. A face appears at the grime-covered window. They smear the dirt with a sleeve and try to peer inside. I get an impression of long, black hair and pale features.
Oh no. No, no, no. He can’t have come back. I saved him, I woke him up, the house didn’t get him!
The face disappears, and the knocking resumes. The hunger rises in me, through me, as the house pushes me forward, forces me into clothes and to the door.
No. Not again. I won’t be a monster again. I won’t!
I lock my muscles up, but they are muscles made from the house. I am its body, just as it is mine. It pushes my shuffling steps forward. It’s desperate. Even with everyone it has taken, it is still desperate.
The beggar stands before the door, outlined in the predawn gloom. He smiles like a man who has forgotten how. In his hands, he clutches the peddler’s jacket.
“Hello. I’m…This is yours, yes?”
I clamp my jaw shut. The house creaks its frustration. It nods my head.
The man looks down at the jacket, then he thrusts it back out to me. “Thank you, sir. It was very welcome during the night, but…I don’t want charity. I know your heart is in the right place, but I can’t take this. You don’t look much better off than I do.” He casts his eyes around the house—at its cracked and crumbling walls, at its small windows and deep, dust-filled shadows. “Is this house yours? Or…”
The question hangs in the air. I try not to think, not to let my mind dwell on what the missing words could mean, but meaning comes regardless. He thinks I’m a squatter. Just another beggar like him, but with enough good luck to find this run-down alchemist’s house sitting empty.
The house reads the thought and twists my lips up into a welcoming smile. “No. I found it empty.” I open the door a little wider, the house still careful to keep its connection to me hidden behind. “You’re welcome in, if you need shelter today.”
The man takes half a step forward, then hesitates. He eyes me. This is someone who has survived this city’s streets, where body snatchers stalk the alleys in search of body parts to sell the alchemists. Suspicion and paranoia are hard habits to break. I stare back, willing him to flee. Surely, he can tell something is wrong here.
The wind gusts past, sudden and sharp. He shivers. “Alright,” he says. “But so you know, I’ve got a knife.”
The house nods my head and steps me back to let him enter.
He steps across the threshold, and immediately the house rises up to meet him. Biting mouths and grasping hands push flagstones out of their way. They take hold of the man’s foot. He doesn’t even have time to scream before I am upon him, too, pushing him to the ground, where the house opens its floors to greet him.
A line of fire drags across my chest. Hot, black ichor spatters the floor and white-hot pain explodes inside my skull.
The beggar has his knife out. He slashes me again, then stabs the blade upward through my bicep. A feeling like ice water pours down my arm, leaving wretched, tingling numbness in its wake. The house feels it too. Rafters splinter, exposing bone and muscle inside the wood, but still, it does not let me release its prey.
The beggar is sinking into the floor now. Fleshy tentacles crawl over him, cover his mouth, his nose, his eyes. I sink down with him, feeling him begin to slip into our sea of souls.
He panics. His arm flails, knife blade flashing. Again, that burning lash of fire. Something tears free from my back, and the house is gone.
I fall hard to flagstones, which move like the deck of a ship at sea. All around me, faces push their way through the walls, half-made hands clawing at the air. The faces wail with pain. I can feel it, but its muted, distant.
The strings. I reach back and find them hanging from my shoulders, dripping more black ichor from severed ends. The beggar cut me free! I stumble to my feet, laughing. I can laugh again! I cry, I laugh, I scream, I make every noise I can because, by the gods, I’m free!
But then my leg buckles, and I fall to one knee. Numbness spreads up my uninjured arm, and I look down to find the skin sloughing away. I am a dead thing, a mind stuffed into a meat puppet. Without the house, I’m falling apart.
But I will not die a monster. I climb again to my feet. I see the door. The floor rocks, tries to trip me up, but I was a fisherman, I know how to walk through a storm.
I am nearly to the exit when something catches my foot. It’s his leg. The man who cut me free. He’s nearly gone beneath the writhing viscera, but still, he fights, weak legs kicking wildly.
The door beckons to me. An open street lies beyond. A place to die as myself. I will not die a monster.
Cursing, I reach down and grab the man’s legs. To my amazement, he starts to come free. The house is all-consuming, but it is not strong. It needs us to be its strength.
Arms burst from the floor, pulling the beggar from my grip. I don’t have enough strength in my rotting muscles to contend with all of them. All I can do is watch as the man is dragged back into the house’s grasp.
A hand seizes my ankle. I look down into a skinless, blood-streaked face. A mind touches mine, filled with agony and fear. It is trying to claw its way out, but really, it is only dragging me back down with it. While trying to free myself, I remember the bucket filled with crabs. No prison is needed when they fight one another for freedom.
I grab the hand and let myself flow back down into that sea of souls.
Our minds are swarming. The house is piling us on top of its latest victim, filling us with hunger. Its attention is far from me right now.
I’m not sure what I’m doing, but I let my assailant’s mind into mine. She’s a sad, gibbering thing, someone who spent far longer in this darkness than me. I share with her my thoughts. I show her the way out.
In response, her hand claws up my leg, and I help it. A shoulder follows. Then a head, wrapping itself in raw flesh. She cannot make skin, hair, or teeth. Those abilities are beyond us. But soon, her body breaks free. She stumbles upright, eyes wide, crying bloody tears. Then, without a word to me, she turns and staggers out the door.
There’s no time to wonder what will happen to her. I let myself fall back into the sea, so I can help the next one. And the next one. And the next one. More and more come, bodies clambering out, piecing themselves together, escaping as a shambling, screaming, joyful horde. Most flee, but some stay to help free ourselves from ourselves. And with each mind freed, the house is weakened.
Suddenly, I feel the house take hold. I fall, ribs splintering, skull cracking. It wraps itself around my mind, crushes me with the sheer weight of its attention. It tries to shove my awareness down below the minds it has taken, but there are now fewer to drown me in. My awareness swims through the darkness until I stand again in that abstract ocean of thought and misery. Minds surround me, and I brace myself for the worst, but they do not fight me. Instead, they carry me to the ones still pulling us free. For a second, I’m back in my body, watching as the beggar drags himself out and flees with the others. Then the thing which lives within the house cries and pulls me to its center.
The darkness is empty. There are no other souls left. I hang suspended there, listening to silence. Endless emptiness envelops me. I have forgotten how beautiful it is to be alone.
Not entirely alone. I hear weeping, like a baby. I stretch out to it, and for a moment, I see through the eyes of my jailer, trapped in a glass jar, the only home it had, cradled by a man, its creator. He named it Homunculus. Gave it a duty: to protect all that was his. Then he poured out his tiny creation and, with its flesh, mortared his home. After he died, his soulless creation was alone.
The half-formed mind looks up at me.
Stay. Stay. So alone.
“Do you want to leave?” I ask at last.
The little mind settles in next to mine and lets itself dissolve into my thoughts. It never had a body, not a real one, so I share mine.
When I open my eyes, there is only us inside the house. Stone walls, their flesh mortar gone, are breaking apart.
I stumble over to the door so the homunculus can look through my eyes to the world outside. It’s a bright, crisp morning. The street is filled with skinless corpses. Some have already fallen apart, others are dying, with their flayed heads turned toward the sun. We are free. All of us.
I collapse as I cross the threshold, and the house collapses with me.
He finds me later, the man who slept outside our door. My savior. My flesh has almost completely unraveled, my lower half buried beneath stones and timber.
He looks down at me. There’s not enough life left in me to close my eyes. That face, that beautiful, gaunt face, hunger-pinched and frostbitten, twists with disgust, fear, and hate. And fascination. He bends down, tries to get a better look at me without coming too close. He looks at me the way someone looks at a monster.
The thought almost makes me smile. I can’t blame him. It will be my face in his nightmares. Not a crumbling prison for a sad, lonely creature. I curl my thoughts around what’s left of the homunculus.
The beggar shudders, then produces a tinder box.
A scrape. A spark. Then fire.
Before long, my skin is peeling away like paper, and my eyes are crumbling into dust.
I sigh and sink into my true death. I’m happy to be his monster.
Copyright © 2023 Samuel Poots