No Matter Where; Of Comfort No One Speak
by Kate Baker
Tucked behind the cracks in the plaster and the peeling, wallpaper print, we watch you draw a blade. You stand in the kitchen, holding the steel in your right hand. A finger slides down the sharp edge, testing its strength as you do calculations in your head. The slow creep of a smile indicates you are happy with your choice. Drawn away in visions to the future, everything is interrupted by a quick slip and slice as you drop the knife. We notice the dribble of blood, a bead welling at the tip, inviting a hungry mouth. You bring the cut to your lips and suck on it a moment and then examine the depth.
No stitches required.
Despite its already proven efficacy, you reach for the knife again, and then for the sharpening block, and run the blade against stone. The familiar grating sound that would normally set your nerves afire. We cover our ears in this dark place despite the muffled transfer through your space to ours. We know what these determined machinations mean.
As we anticipate the first strike, we remember your arrival to the manor. The turn of an ornate key, the gentle and steady push of heavy wood. Your bright pink suitcase held deftly under one arm, a mop and bucket balanced in the crook of the other. Wide, hazel eyes spoke for you–both wonder and fear melting into determination as you stepped over the threshold. You rolled up your sleeves, filling the air of the foyer with optimism and hope.
Renovations would start in the master bedroom, intent on stripping us of the multiple faded layers laid upon us throughout our many years. White chair rail would come next, then the careful choosing of the right shade of color for the rest–adding an accent of blue to compliment the large picture window with the ocean view. We stare intently as your thoughts turned from the dirt and mold that had invaded every surface to warm soap and water. Down came the dusty curtains, and with some force, up went the windows, allowing in the crisp and salty air.
Our skin was finally able to breathe. Yet it exited us as more of a gasp–we had forgotten the beauty of what lay beyond the grounds–blue sky, white clouds, the crashing green waves against the rocks below.
There was a rumble from the kitchen sink as the pipes strained to bring water from deep below. You were steadfast despite the intermittent pops and fizz of liquid as it strained to fill the bucket, although we began to see a little impatience color your features. But once it was done, the addition of citrus-scented soap sliced through the stale air as the sides bubbled over.
We yearned to help you, to once again feel our hands wet and clean as they washed every surface-our every scream as you peeled inches of us away. You were able to drown them out with your music, electronic and deep driving bass, reverberating the beams which held us up. Yet, your ears would catch an unfamiliar sound, and you would turn down the speakers and listen. Could you, in fact, hear our debilitating and delicious torment?
The moving truck came the day you finished polishing the wood floors. Poor and unfortunate planning, that. The day saved by our old and dusty sheets laid to protect them as the house became fluid with a ballet of movement and dirty footsteps. One tote, one box, one piece of large furniture after another followed by pictures and paintings. In full command of the controlled chaos, you stood at the entryway, guiding the out-of-town, strong-backed teenagers up and down the stairs. Imagine our delight as an ornate, four-poster bed fit through the door in pieces, rapidly constructed in the master bedroom. We watched you dance with gauzy fabric that you draped across each wooden stanchion. The piece was a compliment to the rest of the antiques you elected to keep upon your arrival. Our contributions to your aesthetic were solid and well-crafted, each one eager to share their stories.
The sound of mowers and weed-whacking came next, cutting down the wild that had grown to shelter us, to make us invisible from the long winding road below. Rose and vegetable gardens were sown, in between the painting and unpacking. The kitchen would be largest and last of the jobs to finish, and we heard the frustration in your voice as you slammed down the receiver of the phone time and time again.
We knew what each conversation entailed; yet another local handyman or contractor declining your invitation for a quote. Not even for double the price. Some had no recollection of a house standing on the abandoned property. Even companies two and three towns away wouldn’t come to the ocean house at the top of the cliffs, and no one would take the time to explain why.
Searches on your device brought you no news, no ghost stories or tales of forlorn brides waiting for their pirate husbands to come back from the sea. It takes equal parts imagination and wonder to explain things otherworldly, a dearth of which plagued this small and sleepy sea-side town.
Instead, you roared down the hill in your car, returning hours later with all the supplies you’d need to refurbish the kitchen on your own. As you dropped the materials near the workspace, we noticed your strength faltering. We noticed the tears fall from your cheeks, your head and neck slumping down. Then, a panicked look gripped your features followed by a quick reaction to grab the nearest receptacle.
It was an unfortunate end for the newly emerged rosemary sprig as you spewed out the days contents. We heard the expletives that emerged from your mouth as you glanced at the calendar, counting back the days since you last bled. What could have been explained away by stress was now unmistakable, and later, proven by a small piece of plastic that displayed two lines instead of one. A plus instead of a minus. Pregnant vs. not.
Seven more months passed in a blink of an eye, despair turning into determination once again as you worked through your anxiety and fear of the unknown. We gasped in sympathetic response, at the first kick, or felt the full outline of a tiny foot through the too thin skin of your belly. We sat with you on mornings that the nausea was too much, the cabinets filled with saltines and various forms of ginger that would keep the sick at bay. The kitchen was only half complete when your water broke, fluid splashing against the newly washed wood. And again, we shuddered at the violence of a tossed phone against us when even the paramedics would not retrieve you. Immediately remorseful; a mental note drawn within your chaos to fix and patch the bruise to our body. Able to work through a contraction and building anger, your resolve hardened as you knew you were on your own.
Only after screaming down the crackling line did they finally agree to meet you at the base of the hill. As another contraction racked your body, you fought through it with gritted teeth and grabbed your pre-packed over-night bag. The door, too heavy to slam on your way out, slid into place with a click. It was then our attention turned to a window that had been left open, and we watched storm clouds as they drove inwards from the sea.
We felt both fear and relief when we heard the tires on the packed gravel of the driveway just days later. We heard more than your voice this time: the whine of a hungry newborn, and someone else. They herded you into the house like a sheep dog nipping at your heels. Of all the times we watched you cross the threshold, we had never seen such a hurried, but exhausted defeat.
The deep voice reverberated through us as he barked his orders filled with self-importance and impatience. The tone of someone who would always “know better.” Muttering words beneath his breath, he tossed aside clean items of your clothing while the baby screamed still trapped in the car seat at the foot of the bed. We saw your tired eyes move towards the window and look out at the white caps crashing against the rocks before closing completely. It was only after he had pulled out something suitable in which to change into, that he realized you had already fallen into a deep sleep. He left the room surrounded by more than whispered expletives and once-neatly folded discards.
We followed this unwelcome stranger as he stomped heavily down the stairs, announcing his arrival to no one. We knew his type. We had dealt with many like him as far back as the construction of our foundation, and watched as he established a silent ownership over things to which he had no claim. As he moved through each room, his eyes took their own stock of things he would immediately change, of furniture that he would burn in a pile out back. We would all slowly turn to ash as our smoke rose up forever. We knew he meant to destroy all of it.
All of us.
Our halls, our bones, our existence, was reborn the minute you stepped in through the door. We had settled for isolation and disrepair, only memories to feed our hunger for what was. We not only reminisced about our time in the sun, but of the parties that were thrown in the same space.
Large white tents sheltered friends and family from the elements. The once-working fountain where children splashed each other in jest. The smell of abundant rose gardens intermixed with the salt of the sea. The impossibly green grass. We were paradise which was only half-finished in places, but we weren’t about to let anyone destroy it. We had come so far.
We continued to watch him as he walked through lushly carpeted rooms, taking stock of the dark, Brazilian mahogany door frame that showed its age and history. Expertly crafted and carved by only the best, he nodded his approval. He knew that deforestation and conservation efforts had turned this type of wood into a highly sought-after and rare commodity. Well acquainted with this knowledge, with it came a sardonic grin. In truth, we had made our own mistakes too.
It is no surprise that in his head, these would remain untouched, signaling steady and unmovable structure. His head swam with visions of placing more like them, everywhere. If he wasn’t burning extensions of us, he was already selling parts of us off to pay for another expensive remodel. He would darken the corners that you had helped to brighten. For him, they evoked a once unattainable status symbol—a richness that seductively spoke the words, “exclusivity and wealth.” He imagined inviting those even more dangerous to these rooms, those who held power he so desperately coveted, cowardice prohibiting his climb. He would show all of them that he now meant business.
As he continued to examine, a frown marked his lips. His eyes narrowed upon ruler lines made by a sharp knife, marking the height and age of a previous resident–those of a little girl. Written in almost faded charcoal, she had been age six and nearly four feet tall, when the last measurement had been made. He ran his finger over the wood then, and we filled him with story.
One of a mother who had gone missing, leaving behind a little girl. The papers reporting that she had been “lost” while sailing. We were young then, newly built and we watched as the girl’s father had come back alone from that trip with nary a drop of water upon his clothes, his sail completely dry. He blamed his sudden misfortune on a storm that never reached the shore. Content with his performance in front of the detective, the officer left able to swallow how slippery the deck had been on such a sunny day. How raucous the wind had blown. How the boat would not need to be looked at, as the widower had more important things to do now, like look after his daughter.
It is hard for us to relive, but we continue to pour memory into this new intruder, this angry force meant to seize upon the past and dance in its cycle. We continue.
Years later, and on her own terms, the now not-so-little girl fell into the sea on her eighteenth birthday, her greasy, neglected hair resisting the blowing wind. She took with her the whispered phrases of transference–of guilt by a man who in the next breath and action took the comfort he sought, instead of earning it.
She looked back at us, with her blue and newly black eyes blurred with tears, despite the new autonomy laid at her feet with age. She had thought of running, going as far to pack a suitcase with the few possessions that wouldn’t directly remind her of him. She had stopped calling him father a long time ago.
As she tried to exit our heavy door, we saw the weight of everything push even further down, slumping her shoulders, making the wood creak beneath her feet as she tiptoed. It was in those few steps she realized that she would always be a prisoner, no matter where she ran. She had finally succumbed to the exhaustion of defending against the strong hands of a weak man.
We tried to stop her. We implored the vines that crept up latticework to snake up around her feet, to try to hold her bruised calves and thighs as she jumped. Even together, we were not strong enough to hold her or to keep her safe.
In the days that passed, as more officers without the evidence of a body gave up their search and let the widower be, we grew a sea of our own–big and beautiful blue fungi. Poisoned caps popped up in hallways, upon banisters, within the softer woods that held the metal of doorknobs and hangers that held business suits. We opened all of our windows, allowed the wind to blow through the dust. We let spores engulf our entirety and watched as he, this self-made widower, this murderer by a thousand bruises and shames, met the same fate by drowning in waves of beauty. When the first of the mushrooms tore through the moist muscle of his tongue, he screamed. We felt his fear as more emerged from places upon his aged body and through his heightened awareness, we saw his heart–dark memories emerging despite the endless beauty around him. Completely alone, we were the only entities to hear his pitiful cries. Cowards do not like having their fates assigned, nor do they like to act when opportunity presents itself. Even if he had been able, he wouldn’t have tried to run.
The vines that couldn’t hold his daughter from jumping now circled him, holding him in place, pulling truth from his soles. And as if we were there, we saw him push his wife from their boat on that gorgeous and sunny day, a confirmation of the dread we already knew. The small getaway had been offered as an apology for the bruise he’d left on her upper arm. Upon calm waters, and after the third glass of wine, years of resentment found their way to his fists. Knowing how this dance ended, she reached for a life-jacket, looking for any escape, and he seized on the moment knowing that she had never learned to swim.
We saw him contemplate going in after her, a touch of regret more for the punishment he knew he would face if she died. Too late to retrieve her, she had sunk faster than he could have imagined. Eerily calm and resigned, she stared up at him, her eyes open as she let the weight pull her down like blocks of cement tied about her body.
And he waited for a moment more as she disappeared, left only then with the sun rippling over the gentle waves created by her jump.
As we remember her, we focus upon those cuts in our wood again, the stinging battle scars that we now wear with pride. We finally let our newest intruder go, and he shakes the fog of memory without effort. There is no empathy here. No desire to learn from past mistakes. In response to this new knowledge, we bristle. We let out a groan underneath his feet as he began to move then, more than what an old house who has held on to too much weight—and in it, contained a lingering moan that became a blanket around his too-squared shoulders. We hoped he would notice the warning, the building roar filling our expanse, but in our first attempt, we understood that certain people don’t listen to anyone but themselves. He had already tuned us out with years of practice from drowning in the sound of his own thoughts. His own realities.
On the day your water broke and you fought your way to a hospital to meet your new daughter, rain drenched both our in- and outsides. It was a refreshing, cold rain that had the faintest hint of salt. Cleansing us while making a mess of the work you had poured both heart and soul into. When the water rose to small outlets scattered along our skin, it was enough to trip the breaker, but we are adept at turning things back on. Ask the contractors who refused your call. They were here once, fulfilling visions of those with less determination and creativity. Ask the…
We formulated a plan as he continued to craft his own, only stopping a moment to scoff at the empty bassinet you had placed by the window.
We felt him as he devolved into anger and pride. He couldn’t help but shiver when a breeze blew the gauzy fabric, billowing it out like the wings of an angel. Surprise shuddered through us then–we have not been visited by the heavens in a very long time. It was such a brief moment caught in time, as the fabric stayed in that form for a moment too long to be natural, promising more than just holy vision. A shiver ran down his spine, but one that does not accompany a change in temperature. In response, we whispered warning, “Do Not Touch.” He scowled then, almost entertaining the idea that we were there, but this was too much a leap of faith of which he had no desire or drive to explore.
His gaze turned to the kitchen then, surveying the open window and the receding waters that still partially covered the half-finished floor. Hesitant at first to cross the threshold, he flicked the switch to the chandelier overhead. He wasn’t stupid.
Neither were we.
Anticipating such a move, we had been working as we had watched him dismantle us in his mind. Slowly turning the light-bulbs counter-clockwise, we made sure it wouldn’t betray the power that still flowed through these old but sturdy circuits. Satisfied, we watched him step over the threshold then and into the small hole that was undergoing repair. Another curse left his crooked lips as water seeped into the soles of his fine leather shoes, wicking up the dark grey pants of his bespoke business suit. We thought maybe he would back away then, but we caught the upturned corner of his mouth as he imagined you ironing a new set of expensive clothing. We showed immense restraint in that moment, needing both feet to complete the circuit through his heart. Defiant, he brought the other dry leg into the room.
The lights flickered above you as you slept. We kept watch to see if you would wake as he cried out and fell to the floor. The ongoing screams of your daughter masked them.
We saw him in his last moments–trying to move, to crawl like a toddler against the floor, his muscles seizing as we continued feeding the jump from socket to wet wood. In his eyes, we relived everything. The abuse. The lies. We saw him pull you back with promises, only to fall into old habits when the chips were down.
We saw you through his eyes. Weak. Loyal–like a dog that cowers at the feet of a master. We saw the day you gained enough courage to finally leave, following a tenuous confidence as you grabbed your pre-packed, pink suitcase and a letter from a lawyer charged with the task of delivering gifts from the dead–the deed to this very manor.
We felt when his heart stopped.
The baby is quiet now. Looking up, she watches the lights dance across the ceiling. Our lights. Our movement. Our welcome into a house that so desperately needed you both.
A giggle. Pure. Simple. Something too long unheard.
You stir for only a moment as all of this unfolds allowing us a glimpse into your nightmare. We see the doctors in the hospital, demanding to know the name of the father. Against your plea, we see them disregard your concern, and instead offer admonitions and judgement. They direct reluctant nurses to call him, despite you finding your freedom long before you knew you carried his child.
We saw his face, full of rage, as he opened the door to your room, taking the baby from your breast in an immediate assertion of ownership.
And as we reclaim his body and move him out to the rose garden, a gift for thorns and petals on which to feed and flourish, we wipe those memories from your mind. A kindness to avoid such dreams; be it in slumber or standing in front of you, threatening a fist.
His soul struggled as we absorbed him into us, and we didn’t stop until we made him a silent part of these walls, a strong and rich structure made to support those who live beneath our roof. We bound him to the Brazilian mahogany he so loved and to the tiny cuts that marked the age of that lost, not-so-little girl. We hoped you would make your own marks despite the temporary pain it would cause–in a house where our vines could be used as a swing both in child and adulthood. Where when both of you jumped, we would catch you this time, warmth and laughter infusing themselves within every living part of us, within every inanimate nook and cranny.
Tucked behind the cracks in the plaster and the peeling, Gothic wallpaper print, we watch you draw a blade.
You dig in behind the tile of the back-splash, listening for the snore of your toddler in the next room overlooking the ocean. Instead, you hear a happy giggle and the jingle of toys within the playpen. She is up and is ready to make the world her own.
We shall help her.
In goes the knife. The pain is almost unbearable as you pierce through the layers, removing paper, paint and tile. The scream is involuntary but we know even as we release, our half-finished paradise is almost complete.
About the Author
Kate Baker is the Podcast Director and Non-fiction Editor for Clarkesworld Magazine. She has been very privileged to narrate over 350 short stories/poems by some of the biggest names in Science Fiction and Fantasy for multiple venues. Kate won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine in 2011 and 2013, the British Fantasy Award for Best Magazine in 2014 and the World Fantasy Award for Special Award: Non Professional in 2014 alongside the wonderfully talented editorial staff of Clarkesworld Magazine. Kate is currently situated in Northern Connecticut with her first fans; her wonderful children. She is currently working as the Director of Operations for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow her online and on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer. He is a Hugo Finalist in multiple categories including Best Fan Writer, and a British Fantasy Society Best Non-fiction finalist for his weekly pop culture newsletter The Full Lid.
His nonfiction can be found at numerous genre and pop culture venues, including regular columns at the Hugo Award-winning Ditch Diggers and Fox Spirit Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.
He co-owns Escape Artists and hosts their horror podcast, PseudoPod, along with the Hugo Award nominated science fiction podcast, Escape Pod. He is a frequent guest and presenter on podcasts, with voice acting credits including winning the 2020 Audioverse Award for his work on the The Magnus Archives.
His second collection of expanded essays from PseudoPod, The PseudoPod Tapes Volume 2: Approach with Caution, is available from Fox Spirit Books.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.