by Robert Stone

Finally, or so they thought, they had come to the last room in the house. After months of living like squatters in this grand old place, he said. She said that was just an expression people used. Even so, there was a pile of empty boxes in the hall. Their belongings had for weeks looked like lots arranged for sale, reduced to paraphernalia, all so inconsequential. Now they had moved in and much of what had been in this old house had been moved out. The arrangement had been forced upon them. The house had been emptied and filled again. Another family had arrived.

There was only the lumber room left. Their name for it. It had been crammed with the obsolete and the defunct. The usual things that several previous families, one assumed, had not brought themselves to believe they would never need again. Crates containing almost-empty medicine bottles, broken spectacles, watches without hands, impossible furniture, standard lamps non-functioning for no obvious reason, the shades dirty beyond redemption. This family had begun to take this stuff out, not without a sneer, and, temporarily, to think about putting some of their own things in there, as if they had shuffled themselves into the house. As though moving house was a three-dimensional patience.

It was an old house. Light had been pouring into it for a very long time. But now the lumber room, even, was empty of everything but itself and the four of them stood looking into it with an unmotivated hesitation. The floor was the bare, uncertain boards, which she had come to think of as what the house was really made of. Almost all of itself was inessential, and what was indispensable was hardly there. Like rigging. A web of wood.

There was something odd about the room.

Animal, vegetable, or mineral? asked Jake, aged ten.

Vegetable, said Elsa promptly, who was very young, didn’t yet understand the game, and always answered that question in the same way. She thought she was being asked to choose, not guess. There was an organic feeling to the place. None of the corners were right angles, none of the walls were plumb straight. Tom, the man, rapped on the wall by the white china light switch, which sat like a dimple in a fat cheek, and it felt and sounded . . . 

Soft, Ivy said.

What soon became clear was that the walls of the room were coated with many layers of wallpaper. Many, many layers. The room they now looked at was biscuit-colored, patchy certainly, maybe honey-colored in places. The only room in the house treated in such homely, edible shades. The stone of the house was similar, its impressive façade, and she thought that though this room did not look made of stone, perhaps the house might now look as though made of paper. A friend had seen it for the first time after dark and so missing the colors, had called it Dracula’s Castle. He had not read Dracula, she thought, nor much else.

Tom stepped into the room, picked at a dog-eared tear, and ripped off a horizontal strip. The exposed layer was a violent red shot through with zany yellow zig-zags. Paper for a child’s room. Allowed to choose the paper for himself, for the first time. All four of them were in there now, tearing, coughing in the dust, eyes watering and itching.

Ten minutes later, the floor a junk yard of ribbons and a rubble of strips and the air thick with pulverized paper and paste that settled on the skin like ash, no one had found the bare wall, nor anything like it. Everyone, over the years, who had ever decorated this room, had done simply what their predecessors had done and papered over. Not this family. This family did things differently.

The room will be perceptibly larger, just for taking off the paper, he said.

It’s like peeling an onion from the inside, said Jake.

They had found out nothing about this old house that had interested them. No stories. It had the look. You might have expected ghosts, a murder, famous people, scandalous parties, or events. But no. Just the house. Surprisingly bereft, unless these things had been forgotten or erased. 

They had stood in the garden, looking at the front and she had said, of its lack of history,

We will haunt this house when we are dead.

The children looked at her. He had turned away with a theatrical gesture of exasperation, spreading his arms and holding out his palms as though to say,

See. See.

But there was no one to see. 

Now he took charge, with a plan that was also a game. They would remove the paper carefully, layer by layer. He was concerned about the integrity of the plaster. They would recover each room, as it had been, and see what they might surmise about who had lived in it.

An archaeological endeavor, said Jake, precociously.

Unable to sleep or unwilling to try, she reads downstairs during the hot nights. Reading anything, leafing through the dictionary, sipping her drink and brushing away the hair that falls persistently in front of her eyes, she slowly becomes aware of the many moths that invade the house through the doors and windows she quite deliberately leaves open. She looks at them steadily. It is entrancing to watch them fuss about, cluttering the air. These are the big torpid moths of summer, not the eerie slender winter varieties she had watched in their old house.

She finds that when she looks at them, carefully and unafraid, they resemble little men flying in Victorian winged machines, hanging vertically between the great silk sails stitched and painted by their devoted wives. They are from another age. She is not afraid of the moths, but when one flies too near her face and she waves at it gently and it collides accidentally with her, it tingles through the back of her hand. She cannot catch them, and doesn’t want to. She supposes they must simply die in this room eventually, these moths.

The clock chimes. She takes no notice of the actual hour. Periodically, the children become obsessed with the chiming of the clock. They stop whatever they are doing and come into the hall to listen to it. To watch it chime, in a sense. It is one of their rituals. Then they stop doing this for a week and then start again.

She thinks of the children, at times like these, alongside the other animals of the house; the mice in the sheds, the foxes and the frogs in the garden, the swallows in the eaves, and the many bats she sometimes sees scribbling over the summer sky and which must roost in the trees across the road.

She looks up lumber. It means chopped-down trees, timber, as in lumberjack. And it means miscellaneous belongings, chattels, odds and ends. It may have derived from Lombard as Lombard immigrants were sometimes pawnbrokers. It also means to move in an ungainly way because you are so big and bulky but also perhaps because you are lame. Lomere meaning lame was a Scandinavian word. She thought of all they had and how they moved around like a shambling monster shouldering its way into too-small spaces encumbered by all their pots and pans, dishwashers, water butts, and empty sideboards. A lummox. Of unknown origin, early nineteenth century, perhaps influenced by a dumb ox (which she doubted). And then limber, meaning the opposite of lumber. Supple or pliant, perhaps from the Latin for light, or a plank that might be moved to let light in (nautical). A light hole.

Words change, lose their identities. Words can become so vague that they hardly mean anything. Like the way the children speak, their words content-free, reduced to gestures merely. Words can become the ghosts of what they used to mean. Empty. Empty shells.

Shells that are still beautiful after their occupant has died. Nacreous. Or a dud shell, empty of gunpowder. The words themselves become more lumber.

He had said that he thought the house would be good for her. A project.

A project, she replied, and paused. I don’t know what I shall do with myself when it is all finished. How I shall keep myself busy, she added, hurriedly.

He is a nice man, but, wearyingly, he is too often out of his depth. A flounderer. There should be more to him. Is any of this meant to be good enough? She decides she must act as though nothing is wrong. She falls asleep in the moonlight, a half-full glass of warm dark wine by her side.

They began to get an idea of what the room had looked like, the many rooms, over the decades. Different rooms inside one another like Russian dolls, like Chinese boxes, each room a life, or a part of one.

The paper often came off with a crackle, the paste now so dry. They began to wonder about preserving some of the paper which might be old or unusual enough to be valuable. It came off so easily and so entirely. More lumber, she thought, but another reason for proceeding carefully. Some thin-skinned sheets came off as fragile as membranes.

Had the earlier families laid on paper after paper as a kind of joke, realizing that what they were doing was absurd? None of the other rooms in the house had been papered over and over.

Elsa struggled with the stripping. She was so little. She was proud when she tore off a whole piece and greeted what was underneath with a jubilant sneeze. What would she do when there was nothing left?

They recovered some rooms as they must have been, empty but papered, so really as they had been only for moments. They were a little sad to have to destroy these rooms with the next stripping. Elsa really was sad and when they got back to what had obviously been the room of a girl of her own age (ladybirds and snails with shells like a simple labyrinth) she had wanted to stop and to have this room for herself.

But you already have your own lovely room, darling.

It was too interesting not to continue, like opening the next present at Christmas.

They decided to bore a hole in the paper, Jake’s idea, to see just how far it went. Boring a hole into the future and into the past, prospecting for it, gouging at it. Inches. More than one inch, anyway. That’s all they really found out. Ivy thought this might be cheating and she went to make some sandwiches. Elsa loved sandwiches and whenever anyone said the word she would repeat it solemnly, under her breath. When Ivy got back they were arguing in that teasing way that they liked, Tom and Elsa anyway.

One of his sayings, he had a few, was that he had forgotten more than they would ever know.

She had always considered that a boast that required a lengthy footnote. But Elsa had long ago changed it to something that she could understand and which she also knew was absurd and she enjoyed the absurdity.

I have forgotten more than you have forgotten, her fierce little face acting out her own earnestness.

He knew she liked saying it, so he gave her the opportunity. Ivy could foresee the time, and maybe that time had already come, when the joke became arch, repeated for the sake of its being a family joke and in memory of a time when they had really thought it funny. She was sometimes dismayed by their lightheartedness, a feeling for which she was simply not available.

They found a place where heights had been marked on the wall. Hard to see how many children had been involved. These metamorphosing offspring that got younger or older out of order because they were not the same children. The initials had been smudged away. Another place with many dirty finger marks. How angry parents would have been made by that and how ridiculous such a fuss and bother seemed now, when, facing facts, she said, they might all be dead.

Then they found another borehole where someone had made the same experiment that had seemed such an unusual idea to them an hour ago.

Later they got to some really ugly paper that had been intended as an imitation of wood paneling and in one place this had clearly been burned, a great black streak up the wall, like a blade. The children said nothing, asked no questions, as though they understood how this had happened. It was obvious to them.

They found a game of hangman. Rather neat and not completed. They didn’t try. Perhaps children had been allowed this license in a room to be imminently redecorated. The gibbet was unavoidably sinister.

She cannot help but think of who will take down the paper they have put up in the last couple of months, and paint over their paint. Perhaps it will be themselves, the most disturbing option.

What will they be like then? All of her options feel like the wrong ones. None of them have to be right, though she has to be able to live with their consequences, the aftermath.

She reads the following and it troubles her,

We must believe in causality in persons and objects and the substantial continuity of our own being. What would it mean not to?

That combination of imperative and interrogative. That seems such a confession.

She thinks about the decorators of the lumber room. She can’t untangle their identities. The same people at different ages, as if that makes them the same people? She knows that her own family will not be the end of the house, become its meaning. The house is like a machine that processes lives, leaving nothing undevoured. They are part of a process.

Someone will throw away their furniture, smirk at their forgotten photographs.

She thinks about Jake. Perhaps he will become a brilliant man and there will be a blue plaque put up on the wall and people will come to this house and even live in it simply because he had. He loves chess right now but he only ever wants to play against himself. Other games too, games in which the winner and the loser are the same. When Tom quizzes Jake about it the boy replies that it is only a game. Even Jake is easily tempted away from his playing when it is time to peel more paper.

She likes to be alone so that she can imagine that she really is the only one. There are worse things than loneliness. The chaos and brutality of life can be put aside. The world is run by the ignorant and the stupid, all of their ambitions and motivations venal and disgusting. She ought not to be so clear-eyed. She has been through a rough patch and might now be waking up to herself, not being sure she wants to.

She has lost her nerve and is secretly embarrassed by herself. She still lacks a fulcrum. She can remember a time when she had breathed more freely. She stands in the lumber room now, alone. She said nothing about it earlier but she has noticed where the light has faded the paper in places that are difficult to account for. Worn places where pressure had been exerted and felt. It is as though the house has been impossibly different once, the windows and doors on different walls. How odd, it seems to her, that the marks of the sun should still be there maybe forty years after it has shone day after day. Like a fossilized footprint on an ancient riverside. We can only bear the world because we can turn our backs on it, the millions of years and billions of stars. The room has been arranged and rearranged like a theorem that won’t work out.

They were beginning to think of the room as large now. What they had meant by large had changed.

They found a baby’s room with space rockets like rockets on a fairground ride, ridden by teddy bears and with vapor trails of large yellow stars. Paper for a study, very plain and undistracting. There was a layer of paper so thin that it came off with the paper pasted on top of it and so its character remained a mystery. There was a paper that seemed so irretrievably unpleasant that they tore it down with joy, sure they were doing good. Paper that demanded attention but never repaid it. A jungle paper hairy green, with tiger stripes, cobra tongues, and alligator scales. Then merely functional and anonymous wallpaper, the result of a drab non-decision, covering what had been chosen by a self-willed teenager and seeming to her to disclose a shocking loss of faith. Chinoiserie, merely. Paper as brittle as glass or as soft and wrinkled as skin. And a series of speckled birds’ eggs, labeled in copperplate; jackdaw, robin, song thrush. There was a pretty paper that she liked, a pattern of two rather lovely roses, carefully drawn, one pink paired with one mauve, like a bruise. They looked at it for several minutes before realizing what was really wrong about it. It had been pasted upside down. Neatly done, but every sheet upside down. No one said that maybe the room had once been the other way up but they all thought it and thought different things about that.

Finally, they came to what they felt was the last layer, or the first one. The primal scene, he said. This paper was thick and heavy and here and there tacks had been driven in to support the paste. This had been the most beautiful room. The paper was striped but the stripes were far enough apart that you didn’t feel you were in a cage. And the colors were subtle modulations of white, everything so pale so that each new color might have been a gentle shadow cast by the mullions of the window. The color of cream. The color of snow. This had been a grand room once, the last relic of what had been a grand house. This had once been the home of decorous and cultivated people. They were a little jealous and ashamed.

Against one wall, in the middle of it, was the outline of a massive piece of furniture. A wardrobe had stood in that place for years. It had broad shoulders and a little head, a microcephalic monster. Troll furniture that would frighten and fascinate a susceptible child.

Hard to see how it had been maneuvered through the door.  Much too large for this room and those ramshackle tumbledown stairs. Its outline was so clear that it might have been a stencil drawing.

The thing that stopped their chatter though, was that in the middle of the wall, behind where this furniture had once stood sentinel, was a door, a door which had been covered over with the beautiful wallpaper. You could see the little bump that was the latch.

It must be a cupboard.

It clearly wasn’t. In the middle of a wall and built into it? Not a clever suggestion. But if it was the door of a room, they couldn’t think where that room actually was in the house. From outside, from adjacent rooms, they could not imagine a place for another room, no matter how small it was nor how unusual its dimensions were. And what could be in there? Not more lumber, he hoped. She thought it might simply open into the air, that complex space.

An oubliette, she said. That had to be explained to the children, and perhaps to Tom, an explanation that was received without comment, although Elsa pulled a face.

He knocked at the door to test for hollowness but as though he were about to walk in there.

Don’t, she said. Don’t touch it.

They were taken aback by her certainty.

She is very tired in truth, but she still chooses to sit up late and read. She is reading The Radetzky March for no particular reason at all and she has got to the part where Trotta turns to the doctor and without preamble or taking much thought, tells him that he had once been in love with a woman, Kathi, who had died. His first love. He has never spoken of this to anyone. After some silence, the doctor tells him that there will be other women in his life.

Trotta does not find that reassuring. Perhaps it was not meant to be. The two men are walking to the brothel as they have this conversation.

She wonders if she had once known the answer to it all, when she had been happy, and that now she has forgotten. The lately-threadbare marriage, the children, even. These things should have been the answer but, in the end, are only themselves.

She thinks about her little girl who lives in their home like an intrusive but charming animal. Elsa does not appear to distinguish herself from the mice, frogs, worms, and birds she plays among in the garden. The child is almost always outside surrounded by a soft round cloud of midges which never bite her, as though she is not detectable by them. She appears in the house now and then bearing an empty snail’s shell or a broken egg.

Ivy regards her children and thinks she knows them but knows they will turn into people she cannot predict and may not love. She knows that she is wrong to see that as cruel of them.

She wonders what is beyond the door. There always seems to be another door, another layer, the answer always deferred, but this is surely the last place.

She is very tired. She props her elbow on the arm of the chair with a heavy book in her hand so that she cannot fall asleep without knowing it. She does fall asleep and, as the book crumples disastrously onto the floor, before she wakes, for a moment, she sees the darkness.

Is that what it will be like? Dying? Not being able to hold onto consciousness a second longer. This disintegration, the emptying out. Clinging on for one more second but then the darkness overwhelms.

She tears off a strip of the beautiful paper as she knows she has always intended, although she only knows this now. It is a door with a single latch. There is no lock, of course. The last thing such a door needs is a lock. It is all locked, like a cork in a bottle. She knocks, as he had, but then feels foolish. She confirms there is a room beyond the door.

She steps into this silent windowless room and is disappointed by its emptiness. She has not been afraid, unless she has been afraid of this. Dark and clean and completely empty. Painted white walls. The air is dry, almost granular, but not quite choking. When was it last breathed?

She has a torch and she shines this into the corners of the room and smiles to herself. The corners. So typical. The center of the room is the place.

Disappointment, then. What is the kind of thing that would have satisfied her? Bluebeard’s Dungeon, or Pandora’s Box? A walled-up corpse, a fingernail. A terrible machine with an undoubtedly macabre but unfathomable purpose. Nothing so obvious as treasure.

She might have hoped for a diary, a bundle of letters, a photograph. A shelf full of marvelous books, one written quite recently, a clock still ticking, a candle still burning she would insist later, but no one would believe her. A tarnished mirror with a glimpse of an uncanny reflection in it. The merest stirring of the air with a whiff of rot about it. A creature languid, succulent, and tentacular dazed with a hood of flies. A resinous stain that will never quite dry. A portrait of a beautiful but depraved person disfigured by a flaccid grey ruff of sweating fungus, or a picture of the house by which its weird secret is finally betrayed, two figures in tarry, over-varnished undergrowth that might be Jake and Elsa and which you can only ever see out of the corner of your eye.

But no, nothing. Not a huddle of mouse droppings, not a cobweb. No life has been trapped in this place. Immured here. Life has been banished from it.

There’s nothing here. Let’s seal it up.

Has anyone ever spoken those words in this room? Beams of light fall so solidly here now that she fears she may stumble over one.

How odd of me, she thinks, to call this room an empty room when I am standing in it myself.


by Rachel Coyne

Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton. Stories have appeared in 3:AM, Stand, Panurge, Eclectica, Confingo, Punt Volat, HCE, Wraparound South, Lunate, Decadent Review, the Nightjar chapbook series and elsewhere. Micro-stories have appeared in 5×5, Third Wednesday, Star 82, Ocotillo Review, deathcap. A story is included in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020.

Rachel Coyne is a writer and painter from Lindstrom, MN.

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