by Kyle E. Miller
I cannot leave this house without your help.
I hope this note somehow reaches you through the window that only takes me to another room in this house. Perhaps, having no soul to stop it, the scroll--rolled into a tube--will fall over the sill and onto the grass at your feet.
I came here at the bidding of a friend, and a good one she is, because she knew this place would heal me. Something about the configuration of the rooms, the arrangement of chambers has realigned my mind and made me whole again. Last I remember, I had strayed pretty far into the mad forest of autumn, orange and yellow faces cackling as I lost what little I had left of myself. There's so much I don't remember.
And now that I know who I was, I would like to get back to being her. But I can't get out. If you help me solve the riddle of this place, I will give you one of the two treasures I found here.
Let me tell you about this house, the House of the Zodiac.
It looks larger on the outside than it seems on the inside, as if there are hidden corridors all up and down--and even between--the chamber walls. But I don't need to tell you what it looks like out there because if you're reading this, you're likely standing in its shadow now and wondering if you should go through the round door, its cracked paint like the scales of a ruby anaconda.
Don't open that door. I'll tell you what's inside instead.
Twelve chambers surround a central round room, like a wheel with spokes, and it turns and turns, and it knocked something loose inside my head back into place again, and now I'm stuck here. Each of the twelve chambers represents one of the signs of the Seasonal Zodiac: the frog, the fox, and so on, you know the rest. Some of them have windows that look out on sunbaked fields of knee-high corn stalks while through others I see only a rainstorm, the contents of that farther place washed away by curtains of slanting rain. I saw a blizzard through a keyhole and--reaching through a small hole at the bottom of a wall, as if for the passage of a rodent--I felt the chill air of autumn and a drop of stray rain. Each of these rooms has three doors: one leading to either adjacent chamber and one returning (most of the time) to the central round room.
In the central room there is what I can only call a music box, but it is so large that it almost needs another name. It seems to sprout from the floor like a toadstool, as if the walls of this place were erected around it, the house built to contain it. I feel that it is older than the house, and I'm sure it was here before the King of Summer came to court. Taller than me, yet not quite reaching the ceiling, the music box, or cabinet--call it what you will--has an intricate bronze and copper chassis with black and white porcelain lining its edges, marking its compartments. The whole thing is so intricate, so many little cylinders and wheels--some visible beyond panes of scratched and dusty glass--and flourishes of fine metal that it seems like yet another house.
And inside the musicians play.
When I first entered the room, the box clicked and wheezed and something shifted inside: gears or wheels or the tiny hands of a miniature conductor. When it went quiet, I saw letters flashing like cards being shuffled behind a strip of glass. When they finally settled, they spelled out a phrase: Behind the Curtain of Bees. The first thing I did was to wind the box, pulling its silver handle in a full circle--the thing groaning all the while--and when I let go, it began to turn back, this time with music. The song it played sounded old and worn, as if it were playing for one last time. Yet whenever I wind the box, it plays again, just the same.
I don't wind the box much anymore. There are other sounds here to keep my ears alive, and I find I can still hear the song long after the winch has come to rest. It seems to echo through the corridors I can't see or can't find, and the little melody always finds me one way or another.
The central room is otherwise a room of doors, evenly spaced and identical except for a sigil burned into the face of each by a skilled pyrographer. A frog, a fox, and so on, all around the Zodiac. Standing near the center and turning slowly to watch the doors makes you dizzy.
The door through which I entered the house has vanished, or else it has become one of the other twelve doors or one of the other portals or windows or holes in the wall. And all the doors that remain to me are unreliable.
I opened the chamber of the evergreen onto the chamber of the bumblebee, to give you some idea of how confused this place has become. It's as if each chamber were a puzzle piece and someone above keeps rearranging them each time I return to the central room. I suppose there's a piece missing--that narrow corridor through which I first came--but I don't know where it is or how to make the trickster hovering above put it back in place. Perhaps the solution is different for all those who come into the house. If that's so, maybe I will have to learn to like this place. But I'm not sure I can ever call it a home.
I ask for your help. I've relied on the kindness of strangers before, and all I want is my life returned to me. Write to me and slip your note through the window at the base of which you found this note. Hopefully it will reach me in one of the rooms, if not the one in which I found the window originally.
No, don't come inside; I will tell you about the rooms. Their contents remain nearly the same, though sometimes the furniture is jumbled and misplaced: an armchair near a fireplace instead of a cabinet, a previously stable dresser now rocking on three legs instead of four. Each has its own character, its own objects and motifs. It's as if twelve very different people took up residence in a single house, one room to a person, and suddenly they evacuated, leaving tea in cups, incense burning, paper on tables and ink still dribbling from a pen. Perhaps, summoned by the wild conductor, they grabbed their instruments and evacuated to the music box, where they now play, all except the water organist, whose instrument was too heavy and stubborn to come along.
Where should I start? Everywhere is a beginning and an end. How about early spring, where we most often think to begin?
And so we begin with the chamber of the frog. The man who lived here was as old as the seasons. I can smell sweet decay and the musk of the marsh. This is the only room in which there is no furniture or anything resembling it. The carpet is like a bed of moss, and my feet leave prints behind that slowly vanish as the fabric rises again. Sometimes it really is moss, and I see the little woman who worshipped a dozen powers, but just one each day, determined by the toss of a die.
She removed something from her pocket--an orb, a gemstone?--and held it in the sunlight cutting through the aspens. No, it was a die, with twelve sides, fashioned from violet glass.
She rolled it across a flat, smooth rock.
"Seven," she said.
"Which one is that?"
"Have you ever looked at moss closely?"
I hadn't and told her so.
She pulled some from the ground and separated one strand from the rest. "If you look closely, you will see that it looks like the bough of a pine tree in miniature. And if you were able to see even closer, you would see that it is further divided into additional boughs, and so on."
"He's the god of these things. Having no mouth, he wrote his name down, but it was too small for anyone to read, and so he remains nameless. His single eye sees the real shape of the world."
"Can he read his own name?" I asked.
She didn't know if I was mocking her. She was so grave, so sullen. She treated her gods with something near to contempt. They were capricious, she said, and so would she be in worshipping them, if she must do it at all.
"And if, as they say, all is meant to be, then it all works out in the end, doesn't it?"
She asked for my blessing, and I gave it to her and watched her wander over the lichenous stone bridge into autumn.
In the room of the fox, it is nearly always raining outside the two windows, which are mere holes sawn in the wall. Another ancient one lived here, all of the things he needed to live concentrated in one corner of the room so he wouldn't have to move his aching bones, the rest of the space left open for emptiness, which the dull rain-soaked light coming through the window seems to flood. The only evidence of the fox are the dead birds. I've never seen these species before, and--the man who lived here had some of the humor of the fox--they're arranged in macabre postures and patterns, different each time I enter. This man sat on logs, drank the rain from his hands, and slept in a pile of furs. He was a lonely man with little to keep his hands busy except for his instrument: a scrap of animal skin pulled tight over a hollow log, perhaps.
Everything comes in pairs in the chamber of the two-headed snake. There are two beds, two tables, two fire pits full of ashes. There are pots, jugs, cups, and wooden spoons, and each has a partner, though the potter made one more swiftly than the other or more decorous. There are two wreaths of wild flowers nailed to the wall. I see the faces of spring sprites in the flowers: little winking eyes, pointed hats, pollened tongues. Everything here is primitive, made of stone or poorly worked wood, a strip of bark still attached to the leg of a table. Maybe there were two men here. Lovers, perhaps, or rivals, and each had to have what the other brought into the room and in doing so became so like one another that, in the end, when they fled the room at last they had forgotten who was who. But did it ever matter?
The gloaming of an early summer night pervades the chamber of the firefly, as does a cool humidity, rising from the ground with a smell like old seasons. Lamps glow along the walls and hang from the ceiling. Sometimes they flicker. A blind man lived here, and sometimes I hear him clicking, like the blind man I blessed under the bridge.
He turned to face me before I announced myself. His eyes had been taken from him at birth by the King of Winter, and he praised the flaming King on the throne for taking it from the cold one.
He took me on a tour of the pond--strange blue fish leaping from the water onto the land and crawling back again on tiny fingers--and never bumped into a tree or misplaced his foot. He had no cane or staff. In between our conversation, he clicked, his cheek bending a bit each time.
"Have you ever seen a dolphin?" he asked and went on before I could respond, knowing that I had not. "Or a bat? There are bats on the far coast that roost on cliff faces and escarpments. They hang upside down to sleep. We learn from them that eyes are not the only way to see." And he clicked again, and I gave him my blessing, though I'm not sure he needed it.
Inside the chamber of the hermit crab, the floor is littered with hollow pieces of iron, scattered so thick I can hardly walk from one end to another. Each time I enter, it seems the room has been shaken, the objects within tossed about and rearranged. Some of them I recognize as a type of helmet. I admit to trying a few on, though the room is so stiflingly hot that I soon feel about to suffocate. Other pieces resemble other parts of the body: arms, legs, feet, torsos. It's as if a hundred iron men suddenly fell to pieces, though these must be primitive suits of armor. Or perhaps these are costumes or disguises, each one discarded for some reason. When he was finally summoned to the music box, did the mad hermit musician find one to his liking?
In the chamber of the deer fly, a restless revenant sleeps between the walls. The bed, the desk, the water organ (which no longer makes its drowning bird sounds), and the bookshelf are constantly being rearranged. You can see the scuff marks on the floorboards where the organ's taloned feet tore into the wood. The one constant is a hole in the floor, always in the same spot, always stinking of rancid meat. The late summer heat makes the smell worse. I can't see into the hole, so I reached inside once. My hand plunged into moist sponginess, and I withdrew a clump of maggots. I could easily climb into the hole, and sometimes I wonder if that is the way out.
Next is the bumblebee. A young man lived here, or someone I would call young, and he tended this garden of a room, always slightly abuzz with the hum of bees and the fiddling of crickets. The air is thick and honeyed and my head spins. Once I fell into the flowers, a bee trapped beneath my wrist, its stinger just out of reach of my flesh. I had broken its legs, but I lifted it to a flower where it might have one last gulp of nectar as I once lifted a broken-legged man from a crevice and he took gulp after gulp of cloud and sky.
I lowered a lantern into the darkness and it revealed writing on the wall--the secret alphabet of ivy--and centipedes, their alternating black and orange segments rolling away into the greater dark.
The man had broken both legs; they lay pushed in the wrong directions beneath him. He had a backpack, a staff--now sundered--and a guitar made of some beautiful pale wood.
I told him I would drop a silken rope and that he was to tie it first to his backpack and guitar and, after I had lifted them from the pit, to his torso. With my arms and his, he would make it back up. "Tie it that way, no, put that over your shoulder, yes. Like that. The rope might burn a bit, but use your arms."
When I had him over the edge, he hugged my legs, which was all he could do just then, and I chuckled and kissed him on the head. He was filthy, he had soiled himself, he was hurt and broken and embarrassed, but still he smiled.
"I thought I had written my last song down there."
I asked him how it happened.
"Something pushed me."
I looked around, as if it might still be there: some autumn sprite with a baleful grin and tusks that could lift us both into the pit. But there were only trees as far as I could see, their bronze leaves piled beneath them and still falling through the air.
"I'll write a song about you," he said, and he grabbed his guitar and began it right there.
"I'm afraid I'm not the best audience," I said, and I told him how music sounds to me, how I've never quite been able to hear it as others do.
"But the song isn't really meant to be heard by you," he said. "It's for the world to hear. So they'll know you."
He was full of such silly praise as we made our way back to his cabin, its windows cobwebbed and mosquitos breeding in a stagnant pool on the sagging roof. He traveled often.
I never saw him again, and I may have heard the song again, but who am I to know?
The chamber of the pumpkin overflows with food. A fat man with incense-mad eyes and ruddy cheeks lived here. The incense drawing tendrils in the air almost immediately draws little creatures out of the walls. This is where I get all the food I eat here. I can never find the source of the incense, and sometimes when I think I've gorged myself on sweet potatoes and the flesh of tiny birds, I come out of the room with a rumbling stomach. I fill a basket with what food I can and escape to another room to eat. Staying there, I could starve, despite being surrounded by mounds and towers of brown bread loaves, golden carrots, and sacks of the finest, most fragrant grain I've ever eaten. I wonder how much of it is real, and how much is the work of the autumn incense.
In the chamber of the cat, there lived the laziest musician. He never finished a composition. There are perhaps five hundred songs begun on sheets of thick, honey-colored parchment: just a few lines, bars, a note and its tail, drawn too long by a careless stroke of the pen. This is where I found the paper I write on now. I wonder if the music from the box in the central room is inspired by something here, or if perhaps one of these sheets of paper holds the key to my escape. Skeins of colorless string hang from a wheel on the ceiling. The shape of it reminds me of the lost one I helped return to the Vault of the Seasons. He had a wheel too.
The lost one was just a bit of wind to most, but to me he was really here. The hair on his naked body kept escaping him on the wind, only to be blown back into place a moment later. And he was forever spinning a wheel in his hands. The effort seemed to cause him some discomfort.
I started leading him toward the well, though I don't think he was conscious of it, only aware of a voice and a bit of warmth.
"How long have you been gone?" I asked.
That made me very sad, and I told him so.
"And how many more to wander?" he asked.
"I'll tell you."
"How can you?"
"I'll tell you in a moment." We passed a caravan of puppeteers just then, and I think the little boy who sat on the back of the last wagon saw us both. He stopped kicking his legs and wet himself, leaving a little trail of damp spots in the road like the remains of raindrops.
"Why are you spinning that wheel?"
He didn't seem to understand the question.
When we finally came to the well, I told him to step inside the ring of mossy stones.
"Yes, you can. Climb down."
"Give it to me. Give it to me and climb."
He did, and he climbed down the well and passed into the Vault and into another season, where he might find some peace.
But the wheel spun and spun and sucked my breath away and nearly sucked my life away before I could throw it down the well after him, though by then it had already pulled my mind apart and put it back together in a way that made no sense to me.
I wandered and wailed and tore my clothes apart until a friend caught me and dragged me far away. I think she was the one who opened the door to this house and pushed me inside. She probably closed the door too, the door I can no longer find.
The chamber of the evergreen is next. Winter seeps in through the floorboards, through the crack in the wall, through the window, out of which I can see the child who lived here. But no, there's nothing there really, just a little bit of snow eddying in the wind and empty land, maybe the same field of corn I saw out another window in another season. Maybe the view through each window is the same, just seen at a different time. Of all the rooms, this most closely resembles what I remember from my world, but somehow this doesn't comfort me.
In the chamber of the bear, there lived a little boy or perhaps a babe, just opening his eyes. Where is his mother now? The floor is like the fur of a long haired bear, and this is where I sleep, the carpet so full and thick I can wrap it around myself. But the room is otherwise full of objects I have never seen before. Strange ornaments of metal and glass and things that are neither, things I never saw outside this house. There is no power in this room, otherwise I think some of these things might light up, move about, or otherwise serve some function. But they're just silent gargoyles that watch me as I sleep. I think it's better that way.
And lastly, the lichen chamber, the coldest and barest, its walls made of some stone that is not stone. I get the feeling that the man who lives here hasn't yet been born, and that I'm walking in a room that has yet to be built. I've only been into the room twice, and only once by choice.
These are the chambers of my imprisonment.
I am Saint Lu of the Bees, of Bridges and Ghosts and Gaps and all who fall into them. But no one ever said a saint can help herself.
This baffled saint needs your help. I am in a puzzle so old the maker has forgotten the solution.
May you have the blessings of the twelve seasons.
And if you help me, I will give you more than my blessing.
I am wandering the House of the Zodiac, awaiting your words.
Sincerely, Saint Lu.
Kyle E. Miller is currently wandering, shedding stories as he goes along. They can be found in Betwixt Magazine, Strange Constellations, and Lackington's Magazine.