Vignette No.28 – The House of a Hundred Doors

The House of a Hundred Doors

The House is the world. It exists in nowhere and opens to everywhere. It is prison and sanctuary, exile and homecoming. It is where legends come to die and immortals remember to breathe.

It has one key and that is in my keeping.

There were other keys, once, and other custodians to bear them, but they were already old when I was brought over the threshold as an infant and all are gone now. I am strong – I have to be – but I was not strong enough to carry the weight of all those keys. So I made them disappear. Now there is only mine, worn on a chain around my neck and never, ever taken off.

There are always strangers in the House. People find their way here and must resolve the Riddle to its satisfaction before it will allow them to leave. Some never do. My task is to make them as comfortable as possible for the duration of their stay. Every day I rise early and dress in armour and apron, buckle on my sword and collect my bucket, to begin my rounds. I am the one who changes the sheets, who lays the fires and cleans the grates, who prepares the meals that are left anonymously upon their tables. I polish their boots and wash their dishes. I repair the furniture they break. My sympathy is silent and unseen, but they feel it; they notice when it stops. Duty demands only that they remain alive – to be kind is my choice.

Some of the House’s guests are glad to be here. The dark king who has slept for a thousand years. The serpentine goddess whose hunger is now sated upon my cooking rather than the hearts of reckless adventurers. Others express their discontent in whatever ways they can. I have faced illusions and curses within these halls, steel claw and dragon’s flame, but it would take more than that to stop my work.

I keep the House, and the House keeps me.

© Faith Mudge 2014

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Vignette No.27 – All Falling Down

All Falling Down

There were places in Thena’s head where she preferred not to look. She had lived a long time; like all immortals, she had accumulated baggage that was best left undisturbed. Of late it had been so routinely rummaged that it wouldn’t fit back into her darkest corners. This had put her in the kind of mood that is toxic for a five mile radius.

In fact, no one was alive for a five mile radius. This was not entirely coincidental.

She sat in the ruins of what must have once been a very nice house, the only one in this street to still possess a functioning washing machine, and used the brief respite to scrub dried blood from the blade of her sabre. Ashes stained her hands black to the elbow, and underneath the grime an ugly pattern of venom burns were still healing. It had been a long day. She was looking forward to a bath, if the taps were working.

It was strange. The world might end tomorrow, and she was worried about the plumbing. Humanity did that to you.

She had warned the others, for all the good that had done. Now she had no choice but to fight alongside them. Where else was there to go? The mountain had fallen and Hades had closed his gates, unable to cope with the numbers being sent downriver. The rejected dead walked in burning streets while the sky tore itself apart overhead. Thena didn’t remember it being like this last time.

They had won last time. They had had millennia to forget how they had done it.

A bird fell in front of her: a sparrow, caught in mid-flight, wings forever frozen in stone on the downward stroke. It had not yet hit the ground when Thena spun, the sabre’s hilt clasped between her hands, slashing out instinctively. Serpents were pouring through the gaping ceiling. Behind the curtain of writhing green, a bloody mouth grinned.

Thena beheaded five snakes at the first blow. More venom splattered onto her wrists and forearms, scalding red weals across the scarred skin. The Gorgon shrieked with pain; Thena backed against the wall to avoid the united strike of its remaining snakes. Before she could do any more than brace herself, sabre raised, a volley of gunshots exploded into the air and the Gorgon slid through the broken roof, landing face-down in a bloody sprawl of misshapen limbs. A pair of slim denim-clad legs followed through the gap, and then a boy landed in a crouch beside the Gorgon’s body. He looked to be about sixteen or seventeen years old with an angelic face framed by windswept blonde hair. A machine gun was cradled in his arms. He looked up with a devilish grin.

“This is fun,” he said.

No wonder his mother had always insisted on arrows only. If the world survived the Titans, how was it going to handle Cupid with a machine gun?

Deep breaths, Thena reminded herself. Take the world one apocalypse at a time.

The taps were working.

© Faith Mudge 2013

Vignette No.26 – A Note of Explanation

A Note of Explanation from the Maze of Too Many Thoughts

Hello, dear whoever you are. I really am sorry about all this. You don’t deserve what I’m about to do to you – if you’re reading this, what I’ve already done – but I didn’t deserve to end up here either, so really all this part of the conversation has established is that life is not fair.

The place in which you find yourself is called the Maze of Too Many Thoughts. The Days of the Endless Dreamer. The Lanes of the Living Shadow. Pick a name, any name, it will be just the same no matter what you call it. The part you should find yourself in now, if you have ended up where I left, is the Paper Domain. It is a cross-hatching of corridors, all of them wallpapered in shades of white noise and scrawled everywhere the eye can see with writing that can’t be read. The only thing you will be able to understand are the messages left behind by the departed, like this note. Or at least, I hope you can understand what I’m writing. It would be rather tragic if you couldn’t.

You will no longer need to eat. Or sleep. Or rather, to be brutally honest, you will be unable to do these things – you’ll still want to, but you won’t die when you don’t. It may be best to think of yourself as a ghost from here on in.

What you will have to do is wander. It’s that or burrow, but believe me when I say that there’s no going back after you start digging, and at least here there is light. The only thing to do as you walk the corridors  is to read what messages others have left behind, or, if you’re lucky enough to get hold of a scrap of chalk, to write your own.

I don’t know who you are. Maybe the world is better off without you in it. But I do feel bad about what I’ve done, so I’m telling you what it took me a deathtime of haunting this hellish place to learn.

You can write yourself out.

You can write someone else here instead.

I’ve left you the chalk. It’s your choice.

© Faith Mudge 2013

Vignette No.25 – Sins of the Rainbow Eaters

Sins of the Rainbow Eaters

We are sinful. We draw in wet cement and eat raw chocolate cake straight from the bowl. With tablespoons. We lie about our ages and take lucky coins from wishing fountains. (Only the lucky ones. We can tell which is which. And the gold coins, too, because if they aren’t lucky now they will be once they’ve bought a jumbo serve of rainbow popcorn each. That’s okay, though; it goes back into the economy.) We sit in the cinema lobby watching movie previews and never pay for tickets to see anything. All the good bits are in the previews anyway. We give other people’s children lemon lollipops and teach them rude words while their parents aren’t looking. We turn up at strangers’ birthday parties like bad fairies from a storybook and steal all the balloons.

I just want to be absolutely clear here. We are bad people. There’s no knowing what we might do next, so pay attention. As one bad person to another – no, actually, as two bad people against one, there are some crimes to which even we would not stoop.

Give back the books.

‘Goblin’? Don’t give me ‘I’m a goblin’. That’s no excuse. Maybe I shoplift bubblegum and pay for bus tickets with glamoured pebbles, but I’m a pixie. We’re compulsive kleptomaniacs anyway when people aren’t sensible enough to buy us off with bowls of cream or a free coffee. I don’t actually destroy anything, though. I don’t rob a library and bring the loot into a stormwater drain when it rains! I mean, how stupid are you? It’s covered with mud.

No, Vix, I am not losing my temper. I just want to make sure he understands.

I’m going to be nice about this, goblin. Give back the books and no one gets hurt. You have until the count of three.

One.

Two.

Thr –

© Faith Mudge 2013

Vignette No.23 – Revels of the Owl

Revels of the Owl

When night came, she drew on her hood and boots and went out to play.

She opened the door to a vague sense of dissolution; she was getting too old for these games. In two weeks she would be twenty and the number loomed large in her mind, like a capitalised ‘the End’ marking a final chapter, with only blank pages beyond.

But youth is temporary. Tedium is forever. So she fitted the harlequin mask to her face and kicked the door shut behind her.

Her boots clattered on the metal slat stairs that sliced a diagonal down the brick wall at the back of her block of units, until she vaulted the final three and landed in a cat’s crouch on the street-side pavement. Somewhere, a dog exploded into panicked barks. The harlequin girl smiled.

The night was thick and sultry, a dissatisfactory start to autumn. The sky grinned with stars, winking a lecherous moon. Thrusting her hands deep into her coat pockets, the girl turned her back on the highway and its merry-go-round of cars that strobed the night with their headlights. She walked until the traffic was just a distant rumble and towering trees cast the cracked path under her feet into impenetrable shade. The authorities had fenced off the park with iron arrowheads and a prison of bars, but the girl just rolled her black diamond eyes at that and grabbed the fence with both hands, swinging herself over into forbidden territory.

Carnival music beckoned her through the dark.

She found the dancers in a circle of swinging lanterns, the erratic red light flashing across the faces of cats and foxes, wolves and witches. A gathering of night owls. The harlequin girl was drawn into the circle by bright ringed fingers, was spun by hands gloved in black and gold. Arms entwined. Legs tangled. Languorous, serpentine, they danced.

Then the music changed.

Their pace quickened into a fury of clapping hands and stamping feet. Long hair whipped around masked faces in improbable shades of blue and violet. Gossamer wings trailed ribbons from one girl’s back, fluttering faster each time she twirled, until it looked like her feet might leave the ground. The harlequin girl’s veins were infected with drumming. Her blood beat a strange tattoo inside her head and she danced to its rhythm, with smiling cats and glittering gargoyles. A boy with lion’s paws tossed her into the arms of a dancer with red roses tumbling down her shoulders instead of hair. The gossamer girl took flight, arched into a bow of ecstasy as her wings whirred frenziedly to keep her aloft.

The night people had come.

When dawn came it broke on tattered grass stained by bleeding feet. They had all come through alive, somehow, if bruised and a little broken. The harlequin girl opened her eyes to the fractured lanterns swinging over her head and the dazed aftermath of a revel. This would be her last, the harlequin girl promised herself. She would find a way to live without the mask, and the dance.

Unlike the night people, she could lie.

© Faith Mudge 2013

Vignette No.21 – Give Me A Sign

Give Me A Sign

Sometimes she found the places. That always felt weird.

Like the time she was driving to a friend’s place far out west, a small town with a name she had already forgotten how to spell. She was on a road that ran between high sandy banks, painted in the grey and white lines of eucalypt forest, the drone of cicadas playing accompaniment to the melodic warble of a magpie. So soothing, she thought, and a little unreal, like the naturalistic relaxation tapes they played to trauma patients.

She was not accustomed to trees like this, a city girl like her, but she had dreamed of them. And just like that, with that thought vaguely outlined in her head, she glanced into the side mirror and saw the signpost.

It took her a moment or two to process what she’d seen, which was good because otherwise she would have crashed the car. As it was, she braked so hard that her seatbelt cut a painful streak across her chest. Kicking open the driver’s door, she ran back down the road, almost certain she had made a mistake. But the signpost was no mirage. A bright yellow square of bureaucracy planted on wild ground, its two poles severely rusted and entangled in spiky undergrowth, the black block letters blared their pointless message out to a world that really wasn’t listening.

WRONG WAY, it said. GO BACK.

It was kind of incomprehensible, jammed as it was among the trees beside a road that ran straight as a tape measure with no turnings for at least ten kilometres either way. She was guessing it had been dragged there by skylarkers with no social conscience and there was some other road, some other way, that was wrong only no one knew it. There were easy explanations. It freaked her out a little anyway. She had never driven on this road before, so how could she have dreamed this scene in such photographic detail? She knew these trees, this sign. She even recognised the little patch of rust flaking the yellow paint away in a lopsided Valentine heart. This was the place.

Jogging back to her car, she fumbled in the glove compartment for her mobile and came back to take a picture of the signpost, then sent it to her best friend Tate. WTF? she texted and sat down on the edge of the road to wait for his verdict. Tate was the only person she had told about the dreams. He was an amateur astrologist and interested in that kind of thing. His current theory was that she was getting flashbacks from previous lives, which had seemed pretty stupid right up until she found the signpost.

Her mobile vibrated. Try digging.

It was easy for him to say, she thought, exasperated. Outside of her air-conditioned car it was 35ºC in the shade, and at this time of the day there wasn’t much of that. Nor did she have a shovel conveniently packed in with her underwear and shampoo. But she was still freaking out a bit and she didn’t have any better ideas, so she dug out her pitiful tool kit from the boot and went at the hard-packed dirt under the sign post with a screwdriver.

She had been digging for almost ten minutes when she found the compass. Its glass face was filthy after who knew how long under the ground. She cleaned it off with her sleeve and frowned, trying to work out what was wrong with it. Then she realised. It was pointing, not north, but east.

Wrong way, she thought. Go back.

© Faith Mudge 2013

Vignette No.20 – Lock and Lacquer

Lock and Lacquer

We do not open our doors to just anyone. Even the letterbox is kept locked at all times.

Mother has never been quite clear on exactly why all these layers of defence are necessary, but she has been nothing if not thorough. Thorns enmesh the gates. Spikes top the high brick wall. At the front of the house is a thick stand of trees and there is no path; I have never been lost, but guests at dinner parties have been known to disappear on their way back to the gate and now Mother always sends us to check whether their cars are still outside come morning, just in case. There is no front door. At the side of the house is a second gate, padlocked of course, then you go down a dim alley roofed with tight iron lattice and a thick growth of Mother’s favourite spiny roses, which are in my opinion close relations to barbed wire. The alley is walled on both sides and lined by tiered plant stands Mother uses for herb beds. It has always smelt of rosemary and peppermint.

You turn a corner and there is the door. It is solid wood and has two identical knobs; only we know which is the right one, and it is never the one that people choose. I had to rescue a friend once after she turned the wrong side. Doors like ours are paranoid. They see burglars everywhere.

Inside it’s pretty normal. Mother is mad for interior decoration and the colour scheme never stays the same for two years running, but most of our furniture is oak and antique and a different problem altogether. The carpets are currently dark green, the walls freshly papered in panels of wild rose and cream. I definitely prefer it to last year’s black and white, which made me feel like I was living inside a chess game.

Mother looked at me very oddly when I told her that.

Once you are at the threshold of the house itself there is one last precaution in the form of Quibble, our family pet. She likes to sleep on the doormat. People unfamiliar with the house often mistake her for part of the doormat, and tread on her. Quibble doesn’t like that at all. She will only unfasten her teeth from her prey when Mother tells her to, and Mother is very unsympathetic when people tread on her pets, so family friends make a point of stepping very carefully over the mat whether they think Quibble is there or not.

Tonight we are celebrating my oldest sister’s birthday. Gold and silver streamers are trailing from the trees in the front grove and the thorns are bright with glitter. It is cold here in the night shadows, but I wait beside the gate while cars draw up in the street outside because my sister is having a sartorial crisis in her bedroom and Mother is dusting off champagne in the cellar. Someone must be here to remind the gates who is guest and who is intruder, who can be devoured and who cannot. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.

I think.

© Faith Mudge 2013