There is a presence in completely dark rooms — even rooms in ordinary houses — a sense of certainty that someone else is there. It fills all the space where you are not. It wraps long arms around you and whispers in your ear. It lets you know without a doubt that this house in the dark is not yours. I know this house is not mine. This story is not mine. Winter has come, and three days ago all the mirrors in the house stopped reflecting my face. The snow is falling. Frost draws illusory cracks on the windows and reflects the glow of candles. I can feel the house’s hunger growing in my belly, sharp as the corners of the sickle moon.
Winter is the hungry season. Nothing grows in the village on the far side of the forest. All the animals have already been slaughtered. I know the village, though I do not remember why. I know the mothers with their large red hands and the embroidery around the edges of their aprons. I know the fathers with dirt beneath their fingernails and teeth ground down to powder.
I can see two of their children reflected in the mirrors outside the room where I sleep. They repeat endlessly, passed back and forth between facing mirrors — two small dark lines walking across a field of snow beneath a blinding white sky. Sometimes I imagine that they are two tally marks on a perfectly white sheet of paper, and I know I have been here too long.
The children will be cold and scared. They will not have eaten in days. They will not know why their parents have taken them into the woods and left them alone. The dark presence wraps its arms around my shoulders and guides me down the long spiral of stairs. Every winter the house rearranges itself. But always the kitchen is right beside the main room. It will be warm and welcoming with a fire for the children to warm their hands over and thick stew simmering on the hearthstones.
I flinch, and the dark presence wraps me tighter. It places my hand on the door at the base of the stairs. I open the door, and there are the children, hands frozen to the bone, skin hanging off of them where they should be plump. The presence knows I cannot leave them in the cold. So, I take them into the kitchen and let them sit in front of the fire and watch the hearthstones drink greedily the ice crystals that melt out of the weave of their sweaters. I ladle stew into earthenware bowls — chunks of lamb, whole onions and carrots, and bones at the bottom.
They eat crouched together without leaving the sheltering warmth of the fireplace. When they are finished, the girl stands and her brother follows, his hand pulling on the sleeve of her sweater. He is small and pale, blond hair lifting from his scalp to float around his head as it dries. Glints of red catch in his hair from the firelight and reflect in his eyes. For a moment, I see him burning, his head wreathed in flames, his shy smile transforming into a scream. I shake my head, and the boy as he is now returns to me, hiding in the shadow of his tall, dark sister. She turns to him, pulling smooth flat rocks from inside the pockets of her apron, and hands them to him. The boy plays with the rocks in the corner of the fireplace, stacking them and laughing when they fall loudly on the hearthstones.
His sister looks once back at him before walking up to me.
I open my mouth to speak, to say, “Run while you still can. It’s better to die outside in the snow than to stay in here where it’s warm.”
But I feel the darkness coiling in my throat, and instead I hear my own voice say, “My name is Anna. What’s yours?”
“I’m Clara,” says the girl. “My brother’s name is Jack.” She pauses, considering her words. “People don’t just take children in and feed them stew. Not in the winter.” She holds up her hand as if expecting protest. “I understand. You want something. That’s okay. Whatever it is you want, ask me. I’ll do it. Just let my brother be. He’s small and not strong like me. But he’s smart, and sometimes he sees things no one else does. So, you see, I have to protect him.”
“I understand. I had a brother once, too, a long time ago.” As I say it, I realize it is true, though I remember nothing about him. “I don’t want you to do anything too hard. I’m all alone out here, and I’m not as young as I was, so I could use a bit of help around the house.”
“I can do that. I took care of everything after Mama died.”
I nod, wanting to put my hands around her and hold her, but fearing that the dark presence would put its arms around her, too.
“Anna?” she says after a moment of silence.
“Jack doesn’t know why Da and Step–Ma left us in the woods. I told him we just got lost. Please… don’t say anything.”
“Jack is lucky to have a sister like you watching out for him.”
I smile, closing my lips over teeth growing gradually sharper. My hands shake, and I clench them together behind me, fingernails digging into skin, creating crescent moons of whitened skin all along the edge of my palm.
“Clara, let’s start doing the dishes,” I say. “You wash, and I’ll dry.”
The wash basin is full, as it has always been since I came to the house, and the water is warm against Clara’s skin, pulling some of the deep chill out of her bones. Her shoulders begin to relax, but her eyes remain hard and unreadable.
I look back to see the boy, Jack, asleep, his head resting in his hands and stones scattered at his feet. I pick him up and carry him to bed, the dark presence guiding my feet to where the children will sleep this winter. There is a candle by the boy’s bedside, spreading a small pool of golden light across the heaped covers, lumpy with down. The light catches in the eyes of the wood rabbit carved into the headboard, and for a moment it looks knowingly at me. As I tuck her brother in, the girl begins to yawn, but stands still at the door.
“Come in,” I say. “Don’t you want to go to bed?”
“You sure you don’t have something else you want me to do?” Her eyes do not waver as she begins to unbutton her dress. She lets the dress fall and walks to me naked. Her nipples look violet in the half–darkness, and her skin seems to glisten, as though touched with ice.
She reaches up to touch my cheek. The laughter of the dark presence echoes in my head as I catch her hand and shake my head.
I think of another girl on a bed of straw far away in another winter, her thighs bruised like climbing purple roses. She is crying, and her parents watch her, her mother with her large red hands, her father with the dirt beneath his fingernails. There is blood between the girl’s legs beginning to freeze in the cold. The man gives the girl’s parents a coin and leaves. He is whistling, and over the sound of the whistling, the girl can hear her brother pounding at the barn door, wondering why everyone else is awake. The mother wraps the boy in her arms so that he sees nothing. The father wraps the girl in a rough blanket and helps her to her feet.
I shake my head to clear my thoughts and feel out for the dark presence and its tricks, but it hides in the uneven corners of the room and watches. The girl is familiar, though I do not recognize her.
I look back at Clara with something stronger than sympathy. “That’s not what I want, Clara. I just want to keep you and your brother safe and out of the cold.”
I pull back the covers on her bed and let her climb in and huddle among them.
“There is only one rule here,” I say. “Only one thing I really need from you. Promise me you won’t go down into the cellar under the house. It’s full of old rusting things and isn’t safe. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to keep your brother out of there, too.”
She nods, but the animal wariness does not leave her eyes. Perhaps this one would disobey. Perhaps she would find the room. Perhaps she would take her brother and run before it is too late. If the house had not stolen the words to all my prayers, I would get down on my knees and pray, God make it so. But, even still, I can feel the hunger and the cold twisting in my belly, and my teeth growing long and sharp enough to cut the inside of my lips.
The house is different every winter. Its rooms find new arrangements, its stairs new twists and turns. But always, there is a thin door in the kitchen, almost hidden between the stove and the washbasin. Behind it there are always stairs, leading down into the basement. Every winter, when I walk this way — as I do now — the basement is different. But I do not need a candle to find my way. The house guides my feet softly across the cold stone floor, until my hands find the door to the brick room.
I open the door but do not enter. The toes of my socks just reach across the divide between stone and brick to touch the barest edge of the room beyond the open door. The floor is warm, like a child sick with fever, and the mortar feels soft as flesh. I raise my eyes to the far wall of the room, and, though it is dark, the house forces me to see them. The children are bloodless shadows against the wall, glowing faintly where their skin merges with the brick. Some are almost whole, hands and feet still free, and they flutter against wall like moths; others are nothing but eyes trapped in the mortar between two bricks.
Their pain comes to me in the air of the room, an animal scent of wet fur and piss, and for a moment I hate them. I bare my teeth. They have grown long and sharp, even behind my straining, closed lips, but now I feel them, thin and prickly as needles, meeting above and below my lips like perfect white sutures. They cut my skin but draw no blood.
I do not hate the children that have come to me winter after winter. I do not hate them when the dark presence wraps its arms around me, and I take them by the hand and lead them down the stairs and into the basement. I do not hate them when I take them to this room and hold them against the wall, feeling the brick slide under their skin, pulling them into the house. But I feel hunger sharp as the teeth of the winter wind. My belly is empty, and soon it will be full. And I do hate. I hate myself for my weakness, for bringing the children here. I sing to my trapped, dying children. I sing them a lullaby that I do not remember learning. I tell them of a mother who so loved her son that she pulled the moon down from the sky for her baby boy to play with. I sing of love and feel the hooks of the house burn cold under my skin.
My mouth is dry, and I walk up the stairs and close the door. I find my bed and lie, eyes open. I dream of wolves, fur white against white snow, almost invisible except for the jeweled red of their bloody mouths. I dream of bats, wheeling cold and sharp against the night sky — so black against the darkness that they cannot be seen except for when a flapping wing hides, for a moment, the stars. I dream of a field in winter, the snow half–hiding broken granite teeth. There were names here in the stones, but time and winter’s ice have washed them clean.
I wake to sunlight glittering in the snow that covers the windows. It is morning, but my room is full of twilight. I close my eyes and let my mind slip out through the cracks of my skull. I see the boy, Jack, still wrapped in covers in his bed. He sucks his thumb, eyelashes casting long shadows across his face. Clara’s bed is made. She is in the kitchen, stirring a pot of oatmeal over the stove. The candles in their wall sconces have dripped wax on the floor, and dust gathers in the corners of the room, new–grown cobwebs span the corners of dark hallways. The house has changed again while I slept. Clara will work, and she will feel that she earns her keep. She will stay. I know that now. I cannot hope for her to take her brother and run out into the snow, away from a house where no dust gathers, where plates clean themselves while your eyes are turned, and fresh candles grow from the stumps of those that burn themselves to ash.
Clara curtsies when she sees me in the doorway to the kitchen. I smile, my teeth no longer quite so sharp, and wish her good morning. I move to take a turn stirring the pot of oatmeal, but Clara is reluctant to let go of the wooden spoon. Her hands are dry and chapped from her time out in the snow.
The smell of oatmeal wakes her brother, and we both hear the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. He comes into the room, and Clara abandons the oatmeal to my stirring. Jack attaches a hand to the ties of her apron and says nothing. I serve them oatmeal and pretend to eat my own. Clara waits until she has finished her bowl before she speaks.
I nod. The dark presence hangs in the room, but I do not feel its tightness in my throat.
“I’ve done some cleaning up around the house already, but there is a lot more I can do. I can sweep and wash the floors and polish the silverware and heat up some water to wash clothes and —”
“You’re a smart girl,” I say. “I know you’ll take care of my poor old house. It’s just nice to have children in the house again. I get lonely out here in the forest.”
Almost without my noticing, the darkness has crept into my mouth and speaks through me to the children. Clara nods, pleased, but Jack just piles his stones on the table in front of him and does not look at me. His knuckles are white where they clutch at his sister’s dress.
“Thank you,” Clara says. Then, in a softer voice, “It must be nice to have a home. I don’t know if I ever really had one.”
Clara and I clean the dishes as we did the night before, and I do not tell her that the house will clean them whatever we do. Afterward, she trails close behind me as I find this winter’s location for the broom closet and hand her one of the brooms. She is eager to be useful, her eyes finding every dirty footprint and dusty corner the house has made for her. Jack walks behind her with his pocketful of stones, thumb back in his mouth. His eyes glow yellow with the reflected flame of a candle, but there are none lit. I think again of my visions, the brother burning and the sister under ice.
I call after them as they walk to the kitchen — Clara to sweep and Jack to watch — “Remember. Clean any part of the house on this level and upstairs, but don’t go down into the basement. It’s not safe down there — and Clara?”
She turns to look at me.
“The door to the basement is through the kitchen. Try to keep Jack out of there.”
She nods and takes Jack’s hand. “I’ll keep him close to me.” I do not see a flicker of curiosity in her dark eyes, only relief at having found a safe place for her brother. The dark presence laughs at me out of the door frames and the corners of rooms. It does not matter what I say. Clara will not go into the basement and find my secret until I take her there myself.
Clara is down on her knees in the kitchen with a wet rag, scrubbing the stone floor. Jack sits next to her, building a tower out of his stones, carefully placing the biggest stone on a level part of the floor, then putting the next largest on top of it until he has the smallest stone balanced precariously on the top. Laughing, he knocks the tower over, scattering stones across the floor. Clara looks at him sharply, and he gathers them up and brings them to her.
“Tell me a story,” says Jack.
Clara smiles and dips the rag into the bucket by her side. “Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy —”
“Is that us?” asks Jack.
“Who’s telling the story here?”
“The boy and the girl got lost in a dark forest in wintertime, and they were very scared —”
“You are talking about us. I bet they find a house next, with a nice old lady and oatmeal.”
“All right. They find a house. If you’re so smart, tell me what the house was made out of?”
Jack looks around the kitchen for a moment, eyes dreamy. “People,” he says. “The house was made of people.”
“Don’t be silly, Jack. You can’t make a house out of people.” She wipes her dirty hands off on her apron before ruffling his hair to take the sting out of her words.
“You told me I could say.”
She smiles. “I didn’t say you could make up anything you wanted. The story has to make sense.” Clara pauses dramatically, waiting for Jack to give in and hear the rest of the story. “The boy and the girl, after wandering for a long time in the dark forest, come across a house made out of stone, because that’s what people make houses out of.”
Jack nodded slowly. “All right, it can be a stone house, but there has to be something special about it. Otherwise, it’s not a real story; it’s just things that happen.”
Clara sighs and gives in. “Fine. The house hid a secret.”
“What kind of secret?” Jack’s eyes light up at the word.
“The kind I’m not going to tell you, silly,” Clara says, seeming almost like a child, but her eyes dart for a moment to the thin door leading down to the basement.
Jack whines, “That’s not fair. You have to tell.”
Clara smiles and shakes her head.
“All right, don’t tell me. I’ll figure it out for myself. I bet you don’t even know the secret, and when I find out I won’t tell you.”
He starts to leave, then turns back to look at Clara plaintively. “The secret. Is it about their parents?”
Clara’s eyes look dark and far too old. Tears sparkle in them, but do not fall, as if she is so cold inside that she has frozen them there in her eyes. I could see her for a moment, near, but somehow impossible to touch — suspended beneath ice that slowly clouds with frost and obscures her from view. I shake my head to clear it, my own eyes stinging, but unable to cry. I turn away and begin to walk up the stairs before I can hear her answer.
That night I dream again of the white wolves and their red, red mouths, and I feel my teeth — even through my sleep — grow sharp and cut the inside of my lips. There are two children in this dream, and they are lost in a forest of white, snow–covered trees. The wolves are so white against the snow and the trees that the watchful girl does not see them. The boy is not looking; every few steps he drops behind him a stone that sinks into the snow and is gone. They vanish, and I dream of the field of broken granite teeth and the dark, blue heart of the flame.
When I wake, the snow has fallen so thickly against the windows that it is night–dark inside the house. I light a candle and stare for a moment into its blue center before walking down the stairs to bring light to the children I hear beginning to stir below. Along the way, I light the candles in the wall sconces and watch the little flames dance in the snowy whiteness of the mirrors that do not reflect my face.
I open the door of the children’s room, and the glow of my candle catches Clara awake and standing over the shadow of her brother’s bed. Her face is a pale circle, her eyes wide and dark with fear.
“What is it?”
She gestures to the bed, and I look again. The bulge beneath the covers is too still. I lift the blankets and see, in place of Jack, a pair of goose down pillows.
“I don’t know where he is,” she says, but her eyes are wide, and I know that she does. I can see in her eyes that she remembers the brief glance toward the basement when she told her brother about a house with secrets. She is afraid I will think that she was planning to steal from me. She is afraid I will cast them out into the cold and the dark.
I close my eyes and let my mind float away from my body, where the dark presence twines around it and purrs like a cat. My mind dives down through the stone floor and into the basement. It flies to the brick room where Jack is standing with the stub of a lit candle dripping white wax in streaks across his hand.
He is looking at the children in the wall. Their eyes glow yellow in the light of his candle. Their mouths form silent warnings as they struggle and writhe against the bricks. The places where flesh becomes stone stretch and distend, pulling their skin across their faces, closing their eyes and working their jaws. Pain rolls off of them in waves, smelling sickly sweet, like too much sugar.
Jack screams and drops the candle. The only light comes from the faint glow of the dying children’s bodies as they sink deeper and deeper into the brick and mortar of the wall. Jack turns and runs, stumbling against walls and the edges of doorframes, tripping over tree roots and the stones spilling from his ripped pocket. His mouth is a perfect O of fear and rage.
Clara follows me down the stairs, and I feel the dark presence hovering between us. I gesture to reassure her, but do not trust myself to speak with the darkness floating so close to my mouth. My teeth are long and sharp, and they struggle to free themselves from behind my lips. I keep my mouth closed and walk to the hearth. I remove the worked iron grille that stands between me and the fire and kneel down on the stones that soaked the run–off snow from the children’s clothes. I stir the embers with an iron poker, making them spring up like a handful of bitter white candles. The hearth bed is deep, and the fire travels a long way back to reach the escape of the chimney. I try to slow my breathing, but I see it clouding before me even so close to the hearth.
I reach in to add another log, one seasoned by other long winters. I have forgotten the tongs and reach in bare–handed, but my hands are like ice, and the fire cannot touch them. I lean in as far as I can go. The heat is not unbearable. My tears thaw inside of my eyes and begin to flow down my cheeks.
I hear Jack ascending the stairs, his footfalls heavy. He pushes past Clara and comes straight for me. I lean further in. I search for the blue part of the flame, only it will be hot enough to melt away the ice. The dark presence does not wrap its arms around me and drag me from the hearth. It does not coil in my throat and force me to explain, to make the children love and trust me again. I wait for the darkness, and I pray with whatever small part of me it has not conquered that it will be fooled.
I hear the door burst open. Jack stands in the kitchen behind me. I can hear his heart pounding. I can feel the tickle of the flames against my frozen face.
“You were going to hurt my sister,” I hear Jack say, his breath too labored to let him scream. “You were going to hurt me.”
I hold my breath, waiting for what, I pray, must come next. Clara gasps, and I hear her footsteps coming closer.
“Da said I was the man of the house when he wasn’t around, and I had to look out for my sister, even if she is bigger than me. So, I can’t let you hurt her.”
I feel his hands on my back, pushing. He is a small boy and still weak from hunger and cold, but still I fall into the fire. I tumble back into the fireplace, into the open gullet the house stretches out around me. I grope at the back wall for a silent moment, feeling the fireplace twice its usual size, burrowed now deep into the house.
The fire is yellow and bright, hiding its cold blue heart. I hear the metal–on–stone scrape of the grille being replaced and look up, finally allowing my mouth to open in a smile of triumph. Jack is screaming. His hair is wreathed in flames. His eyes glow with yellow reflected light. He flails against me, pushing at the grille, but it stands fast. The fire has swallowed us, and we cannot return.
Past Jack, I see Clara standing perfectly still. She does not move to move the grille and free her brother. The fireplace fills with blue smoke, and for a second, it is ice frosting over, and Clara hangs suspended at the bottom of a frozen lake. Then, I see the dark presence coil itself around her. Its arms enfold her, its darkness fills her mouth and her eyes. Her lips are violet, and her skin glistens as though touched with ice.
I look at my hands and see blackened claws. I feel no pain, but I am burning, burning to death. My prayers have been answered, I think, and then I understand. This is my reward, this painless death in the blue heart of the fire. This is my reward for giving the house a new guardian. The darkness whispers to Clara, and though I cannot hear it, I know what it says, for it said the same thing to me once long ago: “This is your home. You will never again have to wander hungry and cold through the woods. I will never turn you away.”
I remember my brother now, burning in the arms of a gray–haired woman. I pushed them both into the fire, and they burned, a sacrifice to the dark presence in the house. It kept its promise. It was my home, and now it is Clara’s. She looks away from her brother’s screaming face and walks deeper into her house. I hold her brother to my breast as we burn.