BY LOUIS RAKOVICH
Everyone knew Rachel Ullman was a cruel and selfish girl. But she had been faithful to Eric, and he thought that if he could get her to promise herself to one man and settle down, the comfort of family life would eventually soften the rough edges of her temperament. And in any case, there was no one else, or so it seemed to him – in the moments of quiet, when neither of them spoke and he would let his eyes run over the faces of the people around them, everyone seemed small, half-people compared to Rachel. When he asked her to marry him she said yes.
“On one condition,” she added. “You have to prove how much you love me.”
She leaned on the back of the park bench, and Eric thought of all the crude and vile things she might ask of him – to eat a live cockroach, to hack off his own finger. But when she spoke, her command was something he had wanted to do for a long time. She said, “Go spend a night in the dead rabbi's house.”
Some fifty years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Kiessling and his wife moved into the black corner townhouse by the park. He was a quiet man, and rumour had it that he kept his mouth shut because he was busy repeating old spells in his head. Sometimes he could be seen mouthing to himself as he walked down the street. They thought him a wizard.
The rabbi's wife was older than him, and a sickly woman. For ten years they lived in the black house, and the woman would walk the shops and buy toys and baby clothes, and the kind of appliances expecting couples buy, but for ten years there was no child.
Then one day she didn't come to the shops. She didn't come the next day, or the one after that. The neighbours said they'd seen her through the windows of the black house, and with her there was a small, childlike figure. They said that after ten years, the woman had given up on the hope of having children. They said that the rabbi, having seen that his wife would not become a mother the natural way of human beings, made her a child of ash and secret spells.
They saw the rabbi less and less then, and whenever he did appear, he was quieter than before. Twenty years passed, and one Saturday morning the door of the black house swung open. It remained open until a curious neighbour came inside and found the rabbi and his wife sitting dead in the foyer.
The bodies were taken away and buried by a distant relative, but no one had the courage to claim the house. And so it was still standing there, run down and undisturbed, the day Eric proposed to Rachel Ullman; for it was said that the parents had died, but the child remained.
That day Eric went around town buying supplies for the approaching night and telling anyone who would listen about Rachel's ultimatum. They smiled and nodded along, hoping for the sake of their own curiosity that he'd go through with it. A few times a year someone would go up the steps, someone would touch the door, someone would say, “To hell with it, this is a game for children,” and turn back.
As he was heading home, someone called his name. Israel Masur, the old grocer, was running after him. Eric waited for him to catch his breath. At last the man smiled and reached into his coat pocket.
“Take a picture of the child for me, will you?”
The camera was silver and small, no larger than a bar of soap.
“I'll try,” Eric said, and shook Masur's hand.
At eight o'clock the sky was growing dark. Rachel walked Eric to the front steps of the dead rabbi's house. When the door proved unlocked, he gave out a small laugh, and turned his head to look at her. They said their goodbyes, as simply as if it were an evening like any other, and when her figure disappeared around the corner he imagined her thinking in the privacy of herself that it was a very special evening. Years from now people would talk about the only man to ever spend a night in the black house. He imagined Rachel's long black coat swaying as she walked down the paved street to her house; thick cloth rustled in his head, and her black hair, and the thought that she had given him this gift, this chance at pride disguised as a test. Rachel got him.
In Eric's own coat, grey and worn out, Masur's camera was small and heavy in the left pocket. In the right pocket lay a vacuum flask. He held a flashlight in his hand.
The foyer was dark. Eric guided the light along the walls in search of a switch, but when he found one, it did not work. He sent the ring of light hovering about the room. There was a naked coat hanger, a faded Persian rug and a love seat the same bloody shade of red as the peeling, mouldy wallpaper. That's where they must have found the rabbi and his wife, he thought.
He sat down, imagining himself in the old couple's place, and the cushions coughed dust into the air. To his right was the door leading further into the house. He could spend the night sitting in that love seat, and Rachel wouldn't know any better than what he'd tell her afterwards. But there was no pride in that. He had wanted to explore the black house ever since he was a boy and his friends told him made up horrors about the place. Back then he never got past the front steps before his mother took him by the collar and muttered this or that angry thing.
He stood up. His hand and the door handle were the only things in the ring of light as he opened the door. Then the light fell on a brown piece of paper lying folded on the carpet. He picked it up. There was an ink drawing of two rectangles, a circle, a crooked line and a small X.
He put the note in his pocket and waved the light around the room. The blood red wallpaper was nearly identical to that in the foyer, only brighter, and without signs of mould. Wooden shelves lined the walls, and in them, books and small items – statues, boxes, decorative vases and dried pomegranates. In the right wall of the room there was a door, and on the other side, a round table. Behind the table sat a man. Eric jumped. “Hello,” he said, so quietly he barely heard himself. The man didn't move. Eric spoke louder. “Hello, I...” But the man was still. He approached, pointing the flashlight at the figure.
The clay man was a little smaller than him. He wore a dark suit, and sat slightly tilted forward with his right hand on the table, like an impatient guest. He had one blue glass eye, a coarsely sculpted nose, and a small cut in the place of a mouth. “There you are,” Eric said aloud, and to himself – so this is the golem the neighbours must have seen, silly people.
He turned to look at the rest of the room. A large china cabinet stood against the back wall. A black carpet, embroidered with an ornament of golden leaves, covered most of the floor. A chandelier hung at the centre of the room like falling icicles suspended in midair.
There was a lantern on the table, and next to it a box of matches and a pack of cards. He lit the lantern and the entire room came to view, dim and full of throbbing shadows. He walked to the other door and turned the handle. It was locked. He returned to the table and, after taking his picture for Masur, pulled out one of the five chairs unoccupied by the clay guest.
He unscrewed the cap of the flask and eyed the room as he drank his coffee, savouring the success that had been denied him on the front steps fifteen years ago by another woman – tenderly strict, kind; less understanding of him than Rachel was in her own way.
Then a quiet thought crept into his mind. He reached into his pocket and produced the brown paper note.
There were two rectangles – a big one, and a small one, its length the same as the width of the other. Eric looked at the china cabinet and the black carpet. Inside the large rectangle was the circle. If the large rectangle was the carpet; the small, the cabinet; and the circle, the round table; then the crooked line was the route a person would take from the unlocked door to the left corner of the room, if he bypassed the table from the left.
Eric drank the remaining coffee from the cap and closed the flask. He went and stood by the unlocked door, holding the little map in his hand. He followed the route until he was standing between the table and the wall. He stopped. Why couldn't he walk straight to the corner, crossing the room in a diagonal line? The table was no different from that angle. On the wall, there was a clearing – a strip of wallpaper, about a foot in width, not hidden behind shelves. He studied it more closely. At the level of his throat was a small hole. He bent his knees and peered into it. There was darkness.
He continued, following the ink path as closely as he could. A small side table – a wooden hive of nine drawers – stood in the corner. He opened the drawers one by one. Six drawers of nothing, the glass eye of a doll, a dry leaf, and a new piece of folded brown paper.
He went back to the clay guest. Steadily, he pushed the glass eyeball into the empty socket. In an effort to rid himself of the gnawing feeling of worry in his chest, he chuckled at his own deed. He sat down by the clay guest and unfolded the paper. Here, the same crooked hand had drawn an L shape with a circle inside its head. A small arrow pointed to the circle.
He eyed the room once more, but found nothing resembling the shapes on the new map. He looked at the back of the note. Here was a line composed of messy letters, slanted in different directions. Undoubtedly, the product of the crooked hand. Eric felt himself growing worried again. He was in a dead man's house, playing a game against an invisible hand.
He shook the feeling off and thought of Rachel. He read the text.
Where you found me, you found one. Look behind the other.
The clay man was sitting by his side, silent and unmoving. Eric stood up and placed one hand on the man's head. With the other, he pulled out the first eye, the one that had been there all along. Behind it was a deep hole, almost an inch wide. Eric pushed his finger inside and felt the touch of something cold and metallic. He pulled the key out.
The locked door led to a narrow passage attached to a long empty room. There were two paintings – landscapes in elaborate golden frames – on each wall, but no other decoration and no furniture; only a spiral staircase at the head of the L that the room and the passage formed together.
Eric went up the stairs and found himself in a long corridor. The wallpaper was green now, but he could barely see any of it, hidden as it was behind scores of framed children's drawings and photographs of everyday objects. He realised he no longer needed his flashlight. Bright lanterns stood by each door, and there were many doors on each side. Perhaps too many for a house this small.
The door closest to Eric was marked with three lanterns. Truly, a wizard's home, he thought. Notes from beyond the grave, twenty year old lights. He opened the door.
It was a child's room, blue and full of toys. In the centre, five figures, similar to the clay guest, were sitting around a miniature dining table. Three were made of clay, one of sack, one of thatch. Two of the clay ones were women, dressed in bright matronly clothes. The others were men. Eric hadn't expected to see any more dolls. If the clay guest was Kiessling's fake son, then who were the others? On the table, fastened under the heavy fingers of one of the matrons, lay a map. This map was no small note, but large and detailed, a labyrinth of circles and squares sprouting from a thin hallway in its middle like a mass of branches from a little trunk – the second floor of the house.
Deep within the labyrinth a red X had been drawn, carefully, crookedly. Eric sat down by the dolls and, taking the flask out of his pocket, studied the map. He pulled it from beneath the clay matron's hand and held it close to his eyes. The path to the red destination was not hard to make out, and he thought he could navigate his way through the house without much trouble. He would understand the circles and the squares once he saw the objects they signified.
The rooms passed one into the other, almost seamlessly. He kept his mind on the red X and the map guided him past the shapes and through the lines. The dolls were there, in every room – faces of clay and sack and thatch peering at him with glass eyes. He felt himself the long awaited guest in their unmoving gathering.
The worry was gone, replaced with childlike curiosity and the desire to solve the puzzle, to beat the crooked hand in its game.
A while had passed and he had drunk all the coffee, when at last he stood in front of the room that contained the red X. He knocked on the door, more out of habit than of hope to receive an answer. But there was an answer.
“Come in,” said a wet and screeching voice.
Eric opened the door. “Mr. Kiessling,” he said, but he had seen pictures of the dead rabbi, and he knew the thing that greeted him was not Jonathan Kiessling's ghost.
“Yes,” the thing said. “Hello. I'm glad you came.”
His skin was grey, the colour of ash. He was dressed in a black suit and a plain white shirt. Thin black hair covered his round head. His eyes were two massive, vibrating drops of water.
“I was afraid you'd get tired of my game. But in the end, what's a guest without a taste for adventure? Those with a taste for adventure wouldn't be scared away. I don't like scaring people, Mr. –”
“Eric. Thank you for coming, I'm Jonathan Kiessling. Named after my father.”
Eric stepped forward to shake his hand. Jonathan Kiessling the younger smiled a wide, almost kind smile of blood and broken glass. Then his face turned stern and he looked down at his shoes.
“My teeth. They're not a pretty sight, I know. I used to have good teeth, like you, but then Dad died and they began hurting and growing in different directions. Like my mouth was filled with gravel, I couldn't close it. I had to pull them out. I put these ones in instead, so that I could eat the rats, and the pigeons that fly into the attic.”
“It's unusual is all,” Eric said, “but you look fine.”
The smile reappeared on Jonathan's face. “Care for a drink?”
The room they were in was a study of some sort – a heavy wooden desk, a tufted couch, a globe, old tomes covering every inch of the walls. Jonathan poured Eric a glass of gin and sat down.
“It's so nice to have a visitor after all this time. I've been alone in this house for twenty years, would you believe it? You've seen the dolls, the only things that resemble people in this place. I'm not my father, I can't do what he did, create life with words. He tried to teach me, but I couldn't – not real life. I can make a bird out of thin air, but it doesn't taste like a bird or move like one. I'll show you later if you want. In any case, what's the use of a bird when I have dozens flying into my attic every week? Now, a person... a person is something I haven't seen in a long time.” He stopped and smiled again. “I'm sorry, I'm rambling. What would you like to do?”
“Oh, I...” Eric looked around the room. “It must be morning by now, I should probably be getting home. Say, can I take a picture of you before I go? For a friend.”
Jonathan looked at him, watery eyes trembling with something between surprise and amusement. “Go?” he smiled. “No. Cards or chess?”
Louis Rakovich writes fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Phobos Magazine, Goldfish Grimm, Firewords Quarterly and Bad Dream Entertainment, among others. He grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and currently lives in New York, NY, where he is working on his first novel. You can find more work by him at louisrakovich.com
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