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The House of Stories

By Finn Cullen

Horror / Drama

She speaks...

I was never a bad mother to my son, I don't care what you may have heard or guessed. If you know anything of him at all you will know that he is, to put it charitably, a fantasist. He always has been, spending more time in the make believe world inside his mind than he ever spent in the world that he was convinced would never accept him.

Our house was a comfortable one in Boos, the small town in which I had spent all of my life. It is quite possible that the house would have become like a prison to me, were it not for my father's patient wisdom. Following the circumstances of the child's conception, and the devastating shock of his birth it would have been easy for me to withdraw entirely from life, cowering behind drawn curtains. But my father, my dear father was always there, and with him beside me I learned that I did not need to hide away. He tried to teach his grandson that too, and in time - if he had been given the time - who knows that he would not have succeeded?

The boy idolised him, that was obvious from the moment he could express himself. As an infant he would turn his head to watch his grandfather if the old man came in the room, and follow his movements with a scrutiny that amused us both. On an evening when the boy was being put down to sleep his grandfather would read him stories to settle him in a way that my lullabies never did.

The stories became a tradition as the child grew, and he insisted on more of them, and not just at bed time. The boy demanded his grandfather's time more and more as he grew, and the old man was always happy to oblige. Where his patience came from, I never knew. It became a way that we could coax my son outside without the inevitable screaming tantrums. He would walk at his grandfather's side, bundled up against the scorching sunlight and brave the stares and catcalls of those who should have known better, and barely notice all that because he would be so intent on listening to the tales unfolding. His grandfather would point out the magnificent details on the church of St Sauveur and talk about the lives of the craftsmen who had designed and built that beautiful structure. As they walked past the castle ruins he would tell tales of warriors and heroism, grounded in history mainly but occasionally taking wing on flights of fancy that threw the boy into raptures of unselfconscious delight.

And on an evening, after supper, we three would gather in the parlour. Father would sit in his favourite chair with the boy curled almost at his feet looking up with strange eyes, eager for the ritual to begin. I would sit a little way off, usually with something to occupy my hands as I listened too, and watched with - I admit it - a little jealousy of the way that the boy doted on his grandfather in a way he never did on me.

But, oh, the stories my father told him.. told us. He had a store of them, from old folk tales and Norse mythology, to the histories of our people, the strange stories of far off places and exotic creatures. I recognised many of them from my own childhood, others were new. I never asked my father, but I suspect he invented many of them on the instant they were demanded. And I was as enthralled as the boy, drinking in the details and the color of lives beyond our experience.

Those evenings were wonderful times, an escape at the end of the day from the pressures and strains that the day itself had brought. For my son they were something more though, and I began to realise that those times of storytelling were the only times he looked forward to, that every other moment was simply a wasted time of waiting until the next tale began. How could I begrudge him that refuge? He was a child, and real life was always going to be the hardest of places for him. Let him, I decided, have his make believe while he can. And day by day, night by night, he sat at the feet of his grandfather and learned of worlds beyond his own, worlds without mocking voices and hurled stones, where heroes triumphed and natural justice always prevailed.

The old man died when my son was six years old. His heart failed him, finally, a bare few minutes of gasping pain one afternoon and that was all. One person in a household of three had died, and left the house nine-tenths empty. I grieved for him of course, but also for myself. I had only coped with my life with his aid, and my son was as much of a mystery to me now as he was when he was born. A mystery. I expected him to rage at the death of his grandfather, to scream in anger or loss, or weep inconsolable tears. But he did nothing, nothing. He took the news with seeming indifference and simply sat quietly and alone.

He did not choose to spend the evenings with me, and I did not feel strong enough to demand his presence. He would, I was sure, choose to do so in his own time. And the one time I suggested that he and I walk to the castle to take the air, his reply was an appalled "Of course not," and I never raised the matter again. He would join me for meals and then disappear again immediately after he had finished what little he chose to eat, and if I wanted to see him it fell to me to seek him out. He never chose to come to me.

This foolish empty life continued for years. Empty of light and warmth, but not of incident. I shan't burden you with the tally of each day's events though there were many - and not all doleful darkness, lest you think I am seeking sympathy. He occasionally surprised me, and himself I think, with flashes of wit and occasionally juvenile humor that left us both near helpless with laughter, or with questions and insights so profound for one of his years that I was left feeling awed and a little helpless.

But I realised that he had lost interest in the world beyond the doors of our home in the Rue Nungesser, it could never compare with the worlds he wanted. And while that suited my own inclinations perfectly I could not allow him to retreat from life so completely, so one day in June I took my courage in my hands and risked his anger by entering his room one afternoon, determined to challenge him to step outside and walk with me.

I never made the challenge, and surprisingly he did not become angry with me. He was sitting on a low stool before a table, and on the table...

"Wherever did you find that?" I asked him in surprise. He turned his head toward me, his eyes alive with excitement behind the holes in that cursed mask he insisted on wearing.

"Do you recognise it?" he asked, "You certainly should, I think."

I did of course. When I was a girl my father had bought me a beautiful dolls' house - almost a mansion to my young imagination, with a front that opened on hinges like two doors to reveal a dozen rooms within, and staircases, and furniture and.. I had no idea it still existed. He must have discovered it in the attic of our home and retrieved it.

I knelt by him and looked inside, smiling like a child again. It seemed that he had not only retrieved it and cleaned it, he had repainted several of the rooms with what must have been painstaking effort. The great drawing room was a particular delight, in delicate shades of pale blue with a trompe l'oeil design of windows on the rear wall with flower gardens beyond.

"How long have you been-"

He cut off the end of my question, as always impatient with having to wait for anything that did not interest him directly. "I can't remember. Some time. Why should that interest you?"

He didn't wait for a reply, but reached inside the dolls' house and extracted a small figure, no more than an inch and a half high. He placed it on his palm and held it.. no, not 'it', 'her' up for my inspection. A beautifully carved wooden piece suggesting a woman in a gown, a train of golden hair, a fan.

"She is Cendrillon," he said as though stating an obvious natural law, "attending the ball at the request of this fellow here..."

Once more his fingers darted inside and drew out another wooden figure, male and handsome, grandly dressed in royal blue. "Marcassin can be boastful, but his heart is good. He fought a duel."

I was enchanted, not imagining my son to have such innocent and charming thoughts.

"Why did he fight a duel?" I asked. The boy tutted as though it was the most asinine of questions he could imagine. "Because his temper overruled his reason," he said, and then as an afterthought, "and he believed he had been slandered by Sir Bors."

"Sir Bors of the Round Table?" I said eagerly. My son nodded and produced a third figurine from another room within that miniature house. This one was painted in silver and white, like a knight in a tabard. I took the knight between finger and thumb and looked at him more closely. They were all of a similar style, an economy of line and curve that suggested rather than detailed the person they represented, painted so cleverly. "He looks very fierce," I added seriously, "but why did he slander the other fellow? That does not seem chivalrous."

The boy tilted his head and his eyes showed that he was grinning.

"Why would you think he slandered anyone?" he asked innocently, "I am quite sure he would do nothing of the sort."

I was happy to play his game, so rare were the times we spoke of anything unnecessary. "You told me that he did."

"Nothing of the sort," he answered, "You are imagining things."

"I am not! You said.."

He giggled and interrupted, "I said Marcassin believed he had been slandered. He was mistaken, but they fought a duel anyway. Bors was badly injured for a while, but he recovered."

I joined in his laughter, he had always chosen his words so carefully. "So why did Marcassin think he had been slandered if he had not?" I asked.

My son carefully took the three figures that he had presented to me and placed them one at a time back within the miniature house, exactly where they had been before. Then with exquisite care he reached carefully in and hooked his forefinger behind one of the columns in the upper balcony, pushing into view another carved figurine. He removed it carefully, reverently and held it up for me to see. It was smaller than the others and looked twisted as though its upper body was turned almost entirely around from the way it should have been facing, painted mainly in black and grey it was hard to tell what it was supposed to represent.

"This is Erik," he said conspiratorially.

"What a curious name," I answered, not recognising it as the figure from a story. "And who is Erik?"

"The Nibelung," he said, "From grandfather's tale. He's a powerful sorceror, but filled with mischief. You can be certain," he added sadly, "That he is behind much of the trouble here."

He gestured at the house and its many tiny inhabitants.

"A wicked person indeed," I answered solemnly, "But surely the Nibelung was Alberich?"

He snatched the figurine away from my gaze and turned away fitting him back inside the house.

"He has changed his name," he answered in a sharp tone, "I should think such a thing would be an easy matter for a sorceror of his power."

My son hated to be wrong, and I guessed at once that my noticing his simple error was almost unforgiveable. I began to apologise and asked a question, I cannot recall what, about one of the other figurines.

"Why must you pry?" was his only response and I realised that I would have no more from him this day. Saddened I crept from his room and closed the door on the whispered conversations of the many characters in his house of stories.

I saw little of him for several days, he did not join me for meals though I did occasionally hear his footsteps in the night and early morning as he emerged from his room to help himself to food and water from the kitchen. I know that I should have made the effort to approach him, that I should have been less cowardly and simply talked to him - about the dolls' house, or dinner, or anything at all... but I did not. His sullen moods could last for weeks and during those times the lightest interaction with him was a burdensome trial, and he would seize on the smallest word or inflection i used and seek offense in it, or demand clarification, or more simply just glare at me in contempt until I stopped bothering him. It was too much for me sometimes, and as now I allowed him his distance.

It was a trial for me though. As the days went by I felt the lack of his company more than usual, the more so because of the moment of playful intimacy that had preceded my faux pas, such as it was. More than once I went to his door, not knowing whether my intention was to enter and embrace him, or to rail at him, or simply to be near him. He was my son after all, and as secluded as he chose to be, my loneliness was surely no less. I did not have a dolls house and stories without number to lose myself inside. For that is what he was doing. Each time I approached his door, I got no further than standing outside it with my head resting on the panelled wood, listening to the soft voice of my child in the room beyond. He was talking, talking to himself in tones that changed with each character in the tales he told. I pictured him deftly manipulating the tiny figurines as his narratives grew and intertwined, and no doubt became complicated by the crafty mischief of the misnamed Nibelung.

I could not make out the words he used, and I knew that if I entered he would stop his play at once and regard me with cold curiousity. The stories that enraptured him were denied me, I knew that, unless he chose to share them. So I left him in his room, on his own, surrounded by countless characters, countless worlds, and I remained by myself in the house outside until I could no longer bear the solitude any longer. Feeling ridiculous for my trepidation I opened the door to his room, not knocking as that would simply invite a refusal. My son turned to me happily. He was not wearing his mask, and he smiled in as much as he could manage and indicated the dolls house that he was now kneeling by.

"It is a fine day," he said, "there is to be a wedding. Cendrillon and Marcassin are to be married."

It was as though we had not spent more than a week apart from each other, as though our last conversation had continued. I almost sobbed with relief that my exile was over, and kneeled down beside him to look into the dolls house. He had repainted more of the rooms, and there were more characters.

"Will Erik be causing more mischief?" I asked, eager to join in with his game, to make a connection.

"Undoubtedly," sighed the boy with resignation. "You never know when he will be up to his nonsense. But he had better not spoil the wedding. Father has built a chapel specially for them, look." And he indicated one of the smaller rooms on the very upper level of the house - it had been a nursery, but now it was painted in sombre tones though with the appearance of a glorious window of stained glass on the side wall. I didn't take in the beauty though, something in his voice, a longing tone, had chilled me.

"What do you mean, 'Father has built it'?" I asked, feeling an old nausea begin to roil in my belly.

By way of answer he reached into the chapel and drew out another figurine, a little taller than the rest, painted as a gentleman in a frock coat.

"My father," he said, "he built the fine church in the town, and he built this chapel here. He is a very skilled man, mother."

I shook my head. I had never mentioned the boy's father to him, never even spoken of him for years. The boy kept talking eagerly, disgorging the story he had constructed with a desperate intensity as though hoping to convince the world with sincerity that his story was fact.

"He is a skilled architect, and a master mason," he went on, "you would be amazed at the things he can build. Tall cathedrals and great palaces, with the most advanced-"

"STOP!" I cried the word aloud and placed my hands over my ears. "Stop! You.. you stupid boy! Your father was none of those things, he was not!"

My son stopped talking and looked at me in horror, his face contorting in dismay and rage. He had never learned to conceal his emotions behind a calm expression, and his ruined face showed his feelings clearly now.

"Don't lie to me, mother," he said, "I know you're embarrassed because he cast you off. But he was a fine gentleman and you.."

I slapped the figurine out of his hand, my own temper bursting out. We were always alike in some ways, my son and I. The impact must have stung his hand, and the carved falsehood flew across the room.

"He was none of those things!" I screamed at him, my face just inches from his, watching him flinch and his lips twitch in shock. "I don't even know his name! A fairground gypsy passing through Rouen!"

The boy tried to pull away from me, but I grabbed him by the wrists and pulled him closer to me. "That's the truth of your father," I shrieked at him, "And none of your stories can change that! A dirty vagrant, and when fair words failed him, he took your mother by force in a stinking field behind foul canvas tents!"

"LIAR!" the boy shouted back, his voice shrill with terror and anger, "LIAR! He told me.. he told me..."

He tried to look around for the figurine that I had sent flying across the room but I shook him.

"He told you!" I said scornfully and let him drop. He sank limp to the floor and scrabbled round, eyes filled with tears, lips quivering, until he found his mask and fixed it in place. I knew he wanted to hide from me what he would consider his weakness. I stood up, trembling myself with the temper still in me.

"You can't hide in stories forever," I told him in a voice as level as I could make it. I pointed at the dolls house. "If you don't start spending more time facing the world, I shall take that from you. It is not healthy."

He flinched bodily but said nothing, and I slammed the door behind me as I left the room, stamping downstairs and waiting until I was in the parlour before bursting into tears. My temper rarely flared up as hotly as that, and it burned away quickly leaving me ashamed and exhausted, alone once again.

Could I blame the boy for creating a more pleasant fantasy than reality could ever have offered him? He had created a past that gave him at least a share in some inherited dignity, and why would I expect otherwise? I'd never mentioned his father to him, not once, and it was, I supposed, natural that his mind would seek to fill that vacuum of knowledge. I had behaved like a child having a tantrum and I knew that no matter how painful the encounter would be, it was my responsibility to put things right. I waited a short time however, knowing that he would be upset and that he would be enraged to display that sort of emotion, knowing that if he were defensive things would not go well.

Finally though I climbed the stair and knocked upon the door of his room. There was no answer so I turned the handle and entered. There he was, standing upright and undismayed, masked and composed by his bed.

"If you have come to take my house of stories away from me," he said with cold anger, "you are welcome to it."

The dolls house lay in fragments, shattered beyond all recognition on the table, and around the table on which it had once stood so gloriously. The wooden walls were reduced to matchwood, the floors likewise. The furniture crushed and stamped upon. Among the debris of ruined beauty the figurines lay, discarded wooden shapes and lifeless now.

"No..." I said weakly, "I didn't mean.."

"You said you would take it," he said, "well there it is. Be careful of splinters, mother. You might hurt yourself badly."

I knew at once why he had done this. The threat I had made was a real one, one that could hurt him if I had carried it out. And he could not bear to be so vulnerable. He had stolen the initiative and destroyed the house himself so that he no longer had that weakness to exploit.

"I'm sorry," I said, and fell to my knees, starting to gather up the pieces into a single pile of shattered stories, the easier to remove. "Your lovely house, all your little people.."

He gave a sharp 'tut' of irritation and I glanced at him, noticing for the first time that he was still clutching one of the figurines in his hand, one he had chosen to keep though the rest were cast off. Seeing my gaze he put his hand defiantly behind his back.

"Erik is tired of your company," he said loftily, "You should leave now, before his fatigue turns to anger."

Something in his voice startled me, something new. I stood up, hands filled with splintered wood and crumpled pasteboard.

"I will.. make us something to eat," I said, holding out little hope for sharing his company now.

He tilted his head, a mocking gesture I knew too well, "Erik has no appetite. Goodnight mother."

His words were a dismissal. I left the room, and left my son to whatever story he had left.

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