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They came to a vacancy in the woods. Birches parted revealing a slice of sky and barren earth. It was a good spot--covered in the soft detritus of trees, shielded from both east and west by leaves. But, best of all, it was far from the closest House. Nearby a lone apple tree stood. Come late August the tree would ripen and color the clearing with its sweet, rotten scent.
Mother sighed. Twilight surrendered to the dead of night. Miriam sensed Mother’s fear in the tremor of her breath as she lowered to her knees, shifting the clanking behemoth that clung to her thin shoulder blades. The family stood silent in a circle around Mother as her breasts fluttered up and down. House was heavy and Mother was getting older. There were spots of grey now in the hair behind her ears.
The silence of the clearing made Miriam feel like the whole world was about to pop. One minute they’d be standing there and then the next, poof, the whole family would suddenly burst. Miriam desperately wanted to say something, anything, but she didn’t know which words would be best. Even after dozens of moves, Miriam was still unsure of the right thing to do.
She should go to her Mother. Put her hand on her shoulder, wipe the sweat from Mother’s cheek. But Miriam wasn’t allowed. Watching Mother sit alone in the middle of the clearing, head hanging low, House towering above her in its thick cage, made Miriam’s whole body grow heavy. It seemed to the little girl that water had overtaken her, saturated every cell. In order to move she needed fins not fingers.
Then, like an invisible current running through live wire fallen to the ground—something happened, something Miriam couldn’t see. Where just a moment ago there was nothing—only a family standing in the clearing silent and still—Father suddenly shifted forward as if responding to an inexplicable need. He crossed to Mother’s side and tugged at the lanyard stitched into his right hip. There, at the end of the long red cord, hung his key.
Ever since she’d first noticed it Miriam thought Father’s key was beautiful. It was so old the metal looked blue instead of silver. She was half Essie’s age when she’d first seen the key dangling above her, swinging back and forth in a flash of quiet color. She’d grabbed hold and yanked as hard as she could. Father yelped. Careful, he told her. That hurt.
Iridescent under the light of the moon the key flickered like some strange insect caught in Father’s grip. Mother lifted up her shirt, revealing a little lock hidden within a tiny seam of flesh. Miriam always marveled at the unassuming hunk of metal embedded within Mother’s hip: Father-held-key-Mother-held-lock-Lock-held-House.
“You ready?” Father asked.
I’m not ready, Miriam thought.
Mother nodded and he slipped the key inside the lock. Miriam watched her Mother close her lips, then her eyes, hold her breath. Miriam knew it must hurt. This key inside.
Slow, rhythmic clicks could be heard from Mother’s hip to the top of her spine. With each ting House came undone. Together the family listened to Mother’s body as you would a clock, waiting for the ticks to lead you to a chime. Such a quiet noise and yet the unlocking was all they could hear. Louder than the woods in the wind, louder than the crickets— House was louder than it all.
Chh ch, Chh ch, Chh ch, Chh ch, Chh ch, Chh ch, Chh ch.
Oh, little family, always waiting for House to fall…
In a harmonious clash of metal, wood and bells House tumbled to the earth.
Each time Miriam’s parents set House down they moved slower. The act of unlocking and relinquishing House became such a laborious task for Mother and Father that now the simple process took close to an hour. Miriam was certain that each gesture and sigh contained its own code—that within every ritual an entire language only her parents understood was both invented and destroyed.
The family stood in front of House, splayed out on the wet leaves. No one spoke. Mother held her hand to her hip, biting her lip. House rippled with the breeze.
“All right, let’s get going,” Father said.
Young Miriam set Baby Essie on the ground so she could help her parents arrange House. There began a rhythm between the family: Mother and Father rigged tarp and cardboard, hung slivers of glass for windows and scraps of mirror in their bedroom, while Miriam and Essie organized the dishes, arranged their eight books and laid rugs against the warm dirt. In a matter of hours they’d managed to disassemble and reconfigure an entire exoskeleton composed of collected fragments amassed over Mother’s lifetime.
As they settled into darkness and ceremony the family heard it. Emanating from the depths of the woods, from the very Hollow itself, came a throaty howl. The sound grew louder and louder until the family felt as though the Wild Thing crouched at their backs—its muggy breath on the nape of their necks. Just as the howl arrived without warning, so it was gone. In no time, Mother, Father and Daughters were left alone again in the particular silence of a forest at night.
Soon House was finished and without a word or a wave goodbye, Father slipped into the space between the trees as if answering a silent call. The little girl watched the small of her father’s back shrink into nothing but a glimmer of light in the dark wood and fought the urge to run after him, to sit on his feet and clutch his calf the way she did when she was little. To become a barnacle that would never let go. Take me with you, she wanted to scream. Come back for me. Miriam noticed Mother flinch as Father drifted away and yet Mother said nothing. She didn’t even look up to watch her husband disappear within the leaves. Run after him! Miriam wanted to shake Mother as she watched Mother’s eyes grow cloudy. Fight!
“This will do nicely,” Mother said, rolling out strips of bubble wrap and blankets for Miriam and Baby Essie’s bed.
I told you, Miriam wanted to say. I told you nothing would be different. But today was not a day for meanness. That, at least, Miriam knew.
“Yes, it will do nicely,” Miriam reassured Mother instead, although she was merely nine-years-old and had no understanding of what made the perfect place to pitch House. But something in Mother’s voice told Miriam what she needed to say. Even then Miriam had a premonition that she would spend the rest of her life repeating her mother’s words—to comfort, to calm, to reassure. The line between what her Mother needed to hear and what Miriam needed to say blurred until the sense behind her words became difficult for Miriam to decipher. Yes, this will do nicely.
To carry a House is a cumbersome trade. It takes strong shoulder blades, a stiff neck and speed. You never know when you might move again.