In a cold grey city to the North there lived a family made of ragtag parts. The denizens all thought them strange, and when they passed by the house they pushed babushkas across and hats over their eyes to hide their faces. They plugged their ears with little blocks of wax when they passed, because there was a whirring from the basement that crawled up their bones and shook them until they were freezing. They always wore heavy wool coats as they passed to starve the chill as best they could.
The whirring, clunking buzz always emanated from the bottom of the house, no matter the time of day. The braver of the citizens complained about the noise in loud whispers from the street, but none dared complain near the door. There were stories of those who lived inside, a mother, her older daughter and young son, and the grandfather who none had ever seen but about whom everyone delighted in telling terrible stories, but they were never entirely sure of any of them except the daughter, who bought cheese and bread and milk at the market, and who drank cold beer in the corner of the tavern. The brother and mother might be spied, sometimes, fluttering at the windows, moving too quick to really see. When they asked the daughter about her family she gave them such an awful look that they felt their pricks and tits shrivel and dry up.
The problem, everyone agreed, was there was no father there. Some whispered he dallied off with a French actress he met in the service. Other, kinder, voices said he was still there on the property, his bones ground up and used as fertilizer for the half grown flowers on the sill.
He isn’t a particularly good fertilizer, they whispered to each other, safe and snide in their own homes. See how the petals wilt?
And that grandfather, they said to their children. He’s terribly ugly. He has great big boils on his penis and eyebrows. If he touches you, you’ll be ugly, too. No one will want to marry you.
Yet there were a few to whom their wool coats had become as comfortable as their skin, and they stood in front of the house, shivering, sometimes crying, but always there. When asked why they did this, they said it was because they had grown used to the vibration, and did not know if they could live without it.
But it’s horrible, people told them.
Yes, the wool coats said. It is.
The old daughter of the whirring house kept her nose high and her skirts bunched up in her fists whenever she went out into the cold nights to make her money. She hadn’t had the sense to be born beautiful, or even pretty, but her cheekbones were sharp enough to cut and her neck took to bruising well, and that fascinated the men who paid her for her time. When she came home to the whirring house she always had rubles and coins stuffed into the folds of her clothes and skin. These she meticulously pulled out to the last cent and dropped them on the kitchen table.
Her young brother, because he could not sleep, waited up for her every night and watched her release the money, his hands wrapped around a cold cup of water, his face wet and mucousy.
Keep crying, she said each night. Cry it all out, or the water in you will leak and you’ll wet the bed again. Cry it out and go sleep.
I can’t sleep, he said. The noise is keeping me up. It’s whirly-burly.
Do you want me to go down and make it stop? she said. It was an old line between them. Once, when the old daughter was young, younger than her brother, she approached the basement door. As she drew nearer her body began to shake, her blood vibrated and grew hot to a boil. When she placed her open palm on the splintered wood she felt she would burst open. Afraid she would burn up, she drew her body away and went up onto the roof, as far away as she could be from the whir. She stayed up there all day. When she told her mother what she had felt when she touched the door, her mother slapped her across the face.
The brother sniffled. It’s getting louder, he said, as he did each night. Will you sleep with me?
The old daughter shook her head and said, no, you’re too old for that.
I’m only five, the young brother whined.
You’ve been five for six years, she reminded him. Tonight you will be six, and sleep alone.
But like every night the boy cried and cried until the old daughter crept into his bed and wrapped her arms around him and held him still. He did not sleep, but he quieted and wiped his face on her chest.
Poor brother, she said. And poor me. One day the whirring will make us all mad.
In the mornings, the mother separated the coins and rubles on the table into groups of like before bending over a pot of kasha and dropping in square slabs of margarine. None of them liked margarine, but honey and raisins were too expensive. They held their stomachs in until the grandfather plodded up the basement stairs on his three legs, one of which was sturdy and wooden and held tight in his withered hand. The old daughter held her breath when the basement door was open and the whirring was at its loudest. She kept her eyes on the table when her grandfather sat down, as he was ugly and it would have put her off breakfast.
I have a stomach-ache, said the daughter. She placed her spoon in the middle of her kasha to punctuate her point. It stood straight up.
The mother’s spoon clattered to the floor. The young son sniffled.
It’s the baby, said the daughter. I can feel him swimming in me. I’ll have to get married, you know. I’ll have a nice house with red table cloths and a bird that sings commercials every morning and tells me what I deserve to own. I’ll have a bright blue automobile with tinted windows so no one can look at me when I go out. My husband will cultivate earwax and he’ll stuff it in my ears, but not before he tells me he loves he, and seals that promise in my head.
When no one said a word, she added, And I’ll be happy, and there’s nothing you can say against that.
The grandfather spooned up his kasha and put it in his slack and wet mouth. When he ate, no matter what it was, he always slurped.
The mother picked the spoon off from the floor held it to her son’s face under his eyes. When he had cried enough on it she wiped it on her shirt and resumed eating.
But if you’re happy, the mother asked calmly, how will we eat? Do you think your brother can work, with his condition? Don’t be selfish. You’re spectacular, little love. But you’re only spectacular to us.
The grandfather stood and whacked his cane against the thin table legs. The old daughter watched the coins tremble and held her breath. The grandfather stood on his three legs and hobbled off to the basement. When the door was open she could hear the deep, hollow whir in her half empty stomach. She held her breath again. When it was closed it echoed miserably.
The children were naturally curious about their grandfather, but the mother had not offered to say much about him except that once he had been highly respected. He wore furs to the marketplace. Mink and red fox. And then, like all respected men, one day he was not, and went down into the basement. That was when the whirring started.
What does the whirring do? They asked.
It keeps away bad things, said the mother, touching her hair to make sure not a single strand had fallen out of place. It keeps us safe. If anyone goes down there but your grandfather, they’ll change.
Change, their mother said, cruel and final. And if I catch you, I’ll beat you until you’re numb.
Most days the old daughter did not care much for safety. She climbed up to the roof and she stretched out on the incline. There she recited all the things she knew for sure on her fingers: Change makes the sky burn all blue away to red. Permanent change occurs when the little bits inside of us go nutty with movement, heating up and deforming their shape until they cannot return to form. If you change too much you will fade away until only a shadow remains. Be careful of changing too much. She wanted to change very badly, she supposed.
When the sun was out she slept on the shaking shingles under her. Years of practice had cultivated a certain stillness in her slumber, so that she would not roll off the roof and break her neck. She would never voice it, but she was comforted, perhaps from custom if nothing else, by the way the house vibrated her bones, a mimicry of a rocking chair. When the stars were out she climbed back in and stood in front of her mirror for an hour, painting her lips and eyes and fitting a short dress around her breasts and hips. She kissed her sniveling brother on the head when he wrapped his limbs around her legs like a baby monkey and begged her to stay.
Can’t you hear it getting louder? he said. It’s going to eat me. I’m afraid it will stop.
You’re not making any sense, she said. She shook her body to shove him off. She patted his head and said, I thought you wanted it to stop?
I don’t know. I don’t know. What if it’s worse if it goes away?
Don’t worry, she said. One day we will go far, far away from here.
Her brother sobbed and sobbed so loudly the old daughter had no choice but to abandon him and went outside. She ignored the men in wool coats who tipped their hats to her and called her ma’am, and went into the heart of the dank city, where she could breathe.
She went to the fanciest of the local bars—the one with eight barstools—and wrapped her arms around the current olive of her eye, a tall, lanky youth named Hiccup. He had dark eyes and worked in the bottle cap factory. He was the best man she’d ever been with; sometimes he brought her flowers with dirt clinging to their stems, and sometimes he would hold her afterwards, longer than anyone else had.
Baby, he said. Apple-baby-pie. You’re my scrumptious button hole. You’re dee-vine. Your nipples are like the biggest bottle caps I have ever seen and I’ve seen them all.
You’re drunk, she said. Again. Then she laughed into his shoulder.
He fumbled for his wallet and pushed several crinkled bills between her breasts. His hand lingered and she let it linger. She pulled him to the back room where it was dark and none of the other drunk patrons could see her fall on him.
Try, she said. Really try this time. It has to take.
I am trying, he said, and rolled over onto his back.
Sure, she said. Yes. Then we’ll have a country house, yes, won’t we? A quiet home.
He grunted. She shifted her hips.
When they were done they sat at the bar and drank vodka on his dime. She liked to watch the way Hiccup threw his head back with each shot, the way his throat moved up and down when he swallowed, the little bit that would fall out of his thick lips and dribble down his chin. This was what she liked best about him.
Afterwards, and ever the gentleman, Hiccup took her to the Ferris Wheel at the edge of town, the one in the amusement park that had not opened yet but, as Hiccup said, they could go now for free. Once it sparkled with lights and smiling children, that was the end of it. You’d have to pay to get in, and all the fun would disappear.
They climbed up the side of the wheel and sat in one of the carts halfway up. Hiccup threw his head back and exposed his throat, while the daughter rested her legs in his lap.
Look at the stars, he said. Pretty pretty lights.
She looked at the shapely ball in his throat and felt warmth spreading in her, like when Hiccup’s paycheck came in and he could afford to buy an entire bottle of vodka, and he told her to take great big mouthfuls. But she had not drank much this night, only the smallest bit, less than a cup, and only because Hiccup said he liked the way she moved when she did.
The warmth began in her belly, where their baby surely nestled this time, and rolled into her fingertips and into her knees which, because they had never been so warm before, started to knock together. She could not sit still. She felt hot and happy and strange, and she so wanted Hiccup to feel as she did in this moment, though she had no words for him. Steadying herself against the cart, she leaned over to kiss him. As she did, she pictured him in the cozy home she dreamed of on the roof during the day with the sun basting her. He wore a top hat and a long coat, and he always, always smiled at her.
Oh bog, oh bog, said Hiccup. It’s an earthquake.
The Ferris Wheel was shaking—she could see the metal buzz back and forth, and the ground looked blurry, but the daughter could not feel the movements of the wheel. To her, there was only movement, excitement, a life, contained in her body.
Don’t you feel it? cried Hiccup. We’re falling apart!
And they were: the wheel was vibrating, or maybe it was the earth beneath them knocking back and forth, but the wheel shook so hard the metal whined and bent. The daughter saw a screw near their car unwind and plink its way down to the ground.
It’s going to crash down all around us! cried Hiccup.
She dug her hands into his arm. But we will be together, she said, desperate.
Hiccup grasped onto the side of the car, far away from her. We’re going to die, he said. Oh, bog! I haven’t drank enough to die today!
She watched the fat tears trail down his face and felt the warmth in her core spread to her fingers, tingling there like it might shoot out of her in a burst of light and energy, and when she thought it could no longer remain within her, the warmth was gone.
It stopped, said Hiccup. Goodness.
The daughter wondered if it had happened at all. Hiccup’s face was deluged with sweat, and though she cuddled into his chest, she could not help but think she was lying with her wet brother.
That night she came home happy, but her grandfather was waiting for her in the kitchen instead of her weepy brother. She looked at a point over her grandfather’s head and crossed her arms. He did not speak.
I did it, she told him, delightfully vicious. I got pregnant tonight. It took. I know it. He loves me, too. She put her hands on the cage that cradled the new life and inched her fingers inside herself to grasp at the new, throbbing heart that must be there.
With effort the grandfather stood up, leaning on his cane. She shocked to a still statue when he put his withered arms around her. Her grandfather took a deep breath in and let it out in a low, high-pitched whine. His head shook against her breasts. She stared at his hairless, spotted crown. He was bumpy, like his bones were edging up out of his skin. He slipped down lower and wrapped his arms around her stomach. She pulled away but he held tight. She could feel his lumpy lips kissing her belly through her clothes. No matter how hard or what way she twisted he held on.
If there was anything alive inside the daughter it would have scurried away to avoid those lips, she knew that. Nothing moved, not even her blood. She wondered if there had been anything there, or if she was always as empty as she had ever been.
Her grandfather let go when she started to cry.
The daughter ran out into the night. It was cold, and she forgot her coat in her hurry, but she was happy to chill away the feeling of her grandfather’s hot arms. She ran past the wool coats and she ran past the butcher’s shop and the flower store with six pale, wilting roses in the window and all the way to Hiccup’s house. She had never been inside, but once she had half-carried his heavy, drunk body to the stoop.
Hiccup, she cried, rapping her cold palms on the door. Please, please.
She could hear voices inside, twittering like bird calls. Hiccup opened the door, his shirt unbuttoned.
Would you run away with me? she asked. Really, truly get out of here? Away from all these familiar things? I need to know.
His eyes rolled to the side, then back at her. Yeah, baby-girl, he said. But not tonight. I’m out of money. Aren’t you cold? Let me get you a blanket.
He left. She heard soft voices from inside say, is that the girl from the whirring house? I heard her whole family is mad.
And another: I live near them. I like the noise. It lulls me to sleep. What would our little city be without it?
And another: Have you seen their grandfather? He’s an ugly old man. Crazy as a drowning cat, too. That madness passed down into the rest of them.
And another: they all vibrate like their house. She’s the worst. No matter where she goes you can feel her coming.
A cold voice said: I hope she vibrates so hard she explodes.
Then they laughed.
Hiccup brought her a thick wool blanket and wrapped it around her. He rubbed her arms until her face was pink and asked her to go home.
When she came home her entire body was still. She had tied Hiccup’s blanket around her neck like a cape to keep the chill out.
One of the wool coats outside her house grabbed her arm and held her.
Let go, she said.
The wool coat raised his head and sniffed. Something is different, he said. The other wool coats slowly moved around her, leaning into her, blocking her view of the house.
You feel different, another one said. Why?
Nothing has changed, she said, thinking they meant the non-baby in her belly. Now let me go.
They did not let go. They closed in on her, the wool of their coats scratched her cheeks and arms, and they kept asking, why are you so still? Is it going to stop? Should we go home, now? What will we do?
The wool coats began to shake around her, and the more she pushed against them the harder they shook. They vibrated into blurs, and she heard their voices quiver in her ears: It’s back, it’s back! You’ve brought it back!
One, a smaller wool coat, shrilled, What will we do now that it is back?
She grunted and pushed at them. Leave me alone!
They fell around her like pins and laid on the ground. Big wool coats, with twitching feet sticking out the end.
She slammed the door to wake up her mother, who came to the top of the stairs in her thin white nightgown and shook the wooden curlers in her hair. Her brother came out of the kitchen, his eyelids fluttering, a cold cup of water sloshing with his dizzy steps.
The daughter held her empty belly in one hand and made a fist with the other. She strode toward the basement door with her teeth bared.
What are you doing? the mother asked, then she clenched her bony fists and said, Don’t you dare, when the daughter reached for the door handle. You come back here, you horrible thing!
No, said the old daughter. I’m going to see what’s down there.
The mother screeched and grabbed onto the ends of the blanket and pulled back while the daughter leaned forward and choked. Her brother dropped his water and sobbed.
No, don’t, he cried. What if it is worse if it is gone? He wrapped himself around his sister’s legs. When she tried to disentangle his weak body she fell and her family came toppling down.
Her mother jumped on top of her and wrapped her fingers around her daughter’s neck. The wooden rollers in her hair began to fall out, leaving soft curls behind.
It’s just until you calm down, the mother said, squeezing. Then I’ll stop and we’ll have some kasha like a family should.
But her mother was feeble. The daughter brought up her fist and socked her mother in the jaw. The mother fell to the floor. All her wooden rollers fell away, but when the daughter put her hand on her mother’s face to hold her down, her curls shuddered and straightened out.
The daughter looked at her brother’s wet face and said, Little darling, didn’t you want it to change?
Please, he said. I’m used to this. No, I don’t know. No. I’ll be six if you want, if you really want.
But he was so tired and woozy that when she gently pushed him over he landed on his back with a sigh.
The daughter clambered to her feet and stood in front of the basement door. The doorknob was hot under her hand and she cringed. Once she turned it, she knew, as she knew the things she could count on her hand, whatever was behind the door would change everything.
The knob creaked.
I’ll never forgive you! her mother said, holding her sobbing son in her arms. You’re dead to us, do you hear me? Dead if you go down there!
Beyond the basement door the whirring was so loud the daughter could feel it bombinate in her blood and marrow, and she could almost convince herself that the movement was something alive inside her. Something electrified. With each step she descended the thrum in her grew until it was so frenzied it was hard to remember herself as whole; she felt like she was everywhere. It hurt and it was so good. The plaster and wood of the house trembled beneath her, but nothing quaked as greatly as her body. Her skin pulled away, stretched thin and taut. She was beaten upon by the whir and her skin beat back. There was so much wonderful whizzing and whirring inside of her, how had she never noticed?
When she finally arrived, would her body detonate in a flash and spread across the whole city in a brief but enduring stain on their storefronts, their wombs, their memory, or would she be a dud and fade away?