The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The House of Many People

“Victorian photograph, circa 1880”

A woman was folded into the chest by the front stairs. She was dressed very well, taffeta and black bombazine, with little green birds stitched around the collar. Her hands were crossed over her heart. Her shoes were well-polished. She was curled up a little so that when Detective Greenville opened the lid and found her there, he thought at first she was sleeping. But her skin was too pale, almost gray, and she was too still. Perfectly, utterly still.

He blinked at the woman. Shuffled his feet. Then closed the lid and turned away. “Dom?” he called. “Dom, there’s another one down here. In the chest. Get it tagged, please.”

He walked back into the center of the hall, glancing about. There was nothing to suggest anything but perfect Victorian sobriety in the dark paneling, the dour oil-paintings in muted browns and greens, the quiet flicker of the kerosene lamps. Nothing but the bodies everywhere, stowed in closets, in the kitchen holding bowls, in the dining room, propped against the high backed chairs.

Detective Greenville went up the stairs, past another woman (woman #3, a bit of paper pinned to her collar said) and across the upper hallway, where a third body, a man this time, stood in an alcove, his head against his chest. They were all dead, and recently, too, but they were not like any corpses he had seen before. None of them had started to decay, suggesting they had all been done in recently, and in short succession, and yet not one of them had a mark or cut, not so much as a bruise to suggest what had coaxed them from their mortal coil.

Mr Greenville walked into a bedroom, stiffening as the rattle and pop of an automobile approached up the street outside. He went to the window. It looked out over a cul-de-sac, maple trees and ruddy leaves, skittering over the weary grass of September. The reporters would be swarming soon, demanding statements, flashing photographs, offering bribes for lurid details. . .

But the automobile kept going, around the circle, stopping two houses further on. Mr. Greenville turned away from the window. The longer the silence lasted, the better. He had not yet thought of anything sensible to tell the chief of police yet alone rag reporters.

He looked across the room, at Moon Boy. Moon Boy was one of the more grotesque finds. A lad with a round, pale face, his mouth pulled into a wide smile. He was arranged carefully over a game of chess. His eyes were open, glassy.

Mr. Greenville approached the chess game. There was only the slightest hint of death in the room, a vaguely sour, milky smell, and slipping under the usual odors of dust and lamp-oil. Mr. Greenville leaned down next to Moon Boy. He noticed the body was not looking at the game. Its head was up. He eyed Moon Boy, then brought his own head up, tracing the direction of the body’s empty stare. The opponent’s chair was not occupied – Mr. Greenville wondered if it was reserved for the house’s infamous proprietor – but the body was not looking at the chair either. Not the minutely-carved ivory of his queen. Not the window. Something. . .

Mr. Greenville leaned closer and squinted, imagining the boy was some sort of mannequin instead of a corpse. His gaze traveled from the boy’s hands, slumped heavily on the table, to the pale queen, to. . . His attention jerked back to the hands. One wrist was punctured with many small red dots, as if narrow instruments had been poked into the flesh.

Mr. Greenville blinked. He straightened, and looked about, his eyes half-lidded, expressionless. He was always very distanced about these sorts of things. Horrible things. He saw many horrible things, and if let them affect him they would worm into his skull and break him like a china doll, and so instead he did not care at all. There was no in-between.

He looked again at the boy’s hands. One was lying wrist-up. The other resting, the fingers tucked beneath the palm. All except one. One finger pointed, straight ahead. To the other side of the room. Mr. Greenville flinched.

There was another body in the room. He had not even seen it. And neither had Dom apparently, as it wore no tag. It was the body of a man, and it stood partly in shadow, staring straight ahead. The body had been propped up straight, and though the man was clearly dead, his eyes were open wide, curiously sharp and dark. The irises were blue, rimmed in black.

Mr. Greenville swallowed quickly. The whole house was like this. A nightmarish tableau, some bodies propped up in a semblance of work or amusement, others simply dumped places, as if they were not needed and would be taken out later. But Mr. Greenville had not seen any like this  fellow yet. Not with such eyes.

He took a step toward the body. The man had been exquisitely handsome. His face was sharp, the lines of his cheekbones like razors, his hair combed back over his scalp. But his eyes. Those dead, sharp eyes – they were filled with something, as if behind the deadness and the gone-ness, there was something else, something looking in, like through a window.

Mr. Greenville took another step toward the body. The limpid, cutting eyes. He could feel Moon Boy behind him, the presence of him, picture his smile and his limp, pointing finger.

“Dom!” he called out, and his voice slipped just a tiny bit. “Dom, there’s another one up here. You missed him.”

The silence in the room, in the whole house, was suffocating. Dom did not answer.

Mr. Greenville shook himself and left the room, suddenly cold, and went to fetch his coat and some brandy from the front hall. A bit of brandy would do wonders. It would wake him up, and it would dull the smell, which was perhaps slightly stronger than he had thought.

He went back across the landing and down the stairs, hopping gingerly over the prone shape of woman #3. He took his coat and put it on. Threw back his head for a draft of brandy. Then he crossed the hall and looked into the kitchen, where he had expected Dom to be. No one was there. Only a white-aproned cook, staring at him, wires suspending her arms, holding up a ceramic bowl, a metal whisk, her eyes like cold milk.

“Dom?”

Mr. Greenville closed the kitchen door and whistled a little to calm himself.

“Dom?” he called again, not very loudly. He never spoke loudly. He was a large man, but his voice was always soft and breathy, and even when he thought he was shouting he was not. He passed the chest with the woman in it, went into the dining room, the study.

“Dom, hurry yourself up!”

There had been people missing all over the City for years, but people went missing in big cities all the time. Sometimes they were found. Sometimes they lived, and went home to their families. Sometimes they didn’t. But who would have thought they would end up here, in respectable house on the bay?

Mr. Greenville took another swig of brandy and climbed back up the stairs to the bedrooms. “Dom!” he called out, walking into Moon Boy’s room. “Get out of whatever you’re in and come tag this- ”

The man was gone. Mr. Greenville coughed slightly. Moon Boy still pointed, but there was no one there in the shadows at the end of the room.

Mr. Greenville stood very, very still, staring at the place where it had been. His solid, dependable heart wobble a little. He blinked, confused. He had seen it. He had walked right up to it and stared into its eyes.

He swung about, peering at Moon Boy suspiciously. Moon Boy stared back, and he looked strangely sad, despite his grin. Or perhaps Mr. Greenville imagined it.

He turned back to the place the corpse had stood. He went out into the upstairs hallway.

He heard a sound then, a soft step along the carpet, and wheeled toward it.

“Dom!” he bellowed (or breathed), but there was no answer. A door stood open at the end of the hallway, a bedroom. He walked briskly toward it. It had been closed before. He hurried past man #4, head-to-chist, still as stone. He entered the room.

It was a nursery, snowy white. A small cot stood in one corner, covered by a lace baldachin. There was a toy carousel, a rocking horse, a doll, all sugar-white porcelains and shades of pastel.

He looked about. The owner of the house, according the the records Mr. Greenville had been given by the police, was one William Pynchon. He had been 87 at the last census, some six years ago. He had not had any children. Strange to have a nursery. Of course, Mr. Greenville did not know if William Pynchon still lived here, or if he had not long since joined the ranks of the house’s other inhabitants. But why a nursery?

He went to the cot, lifted the veil. It was empty, thank goodness. The coverlet was neatly made up.

A snap sounded behind him. He spun. “Dom?” he cried, and it was Dom, but he was coming at Mr. Greenville like a bull, and there was something off about him, about his face, and now he was grabbing Mr. Greenville, shoving him backwards.

Dom!” Mr. Greenville crashed into a closet, breaking straight through the thin white wood. He was falling. Falling down into darkness, a shaft inside the closet, the rungs of a ladder rushing past him, and ropes, too, and high above was Dom, looking down.

Mr. Greenville’s hands caught one of the ropes and burned as he slid down it. Air whistled past his ears. And then his feet hit solid ground and the force of it rattled his teeth. He spun, breathing hard.

He was far underground, in the cellar no doubt. There was a new smell here, thick and ripe and horrid, but also sweet.

It was dark as pitch, darker than night, and his heart was hammering wildly. Dom? What is this madness?

His hands rummaged in his pockets and he found a box of matches, struck one. He was in a room, the ceiling low and vaulted, the walls glistening with damp. There was a table. A chair. Papers. Many papers.

His match fizzled out. He lit another.

He hurried to the papers. High above, he heard the creak of the ladder. Dom. Or something else? Something was coming down to him. He leaned over the papers and shuffled through them, trying to find an early date, a useful sentence.

I am increasingly interested in whether or not man has a soul, he read. And if they do what is a soul? Surely if it exists it is the most fascinating part of the human anatomy. It does not control one’s actions, as the heart does, and yet it must be located very close by. How does the soul of a good man look, and how the soul of a wicked one? Or are all souls the same, and only the mind is different? And how much does a soul weigh.

Mr. Greenville read quickly, striking match after match, the walls seeming to press down around him, as if the house above, with its gruesome weight of countless bodies, knew of the intrusion and was intent on burying it. There were so many papers. The ladder was still creaking.

I have my first specimen, Mr. Greenville read, his breath coming in gasps. He is a low creature of the streets, not worth a tot, and in the name of the advancement and betterment of mankind I do not feel bad for taking him. He died too quick, alas, and I could not even glimpse his soul, let alone catch it-

The match’s flame bit into Mr. Greenville’s thumb and he hissed, shaking it out and lighting another. He was running low on matches. He had to get out.

I have it! I measured the weight of the human body the instant before death and the instant after, in a bed set upon a scale, and have come to this conclusion: the body is twenty-one grams lighter after death, after the soul has left it. Twenty-one grams, can you imagine? The weight of two slices of toast. Now, the question is, where have those twenty-one grams gone? And why can I not catch them, see them, touch them? Or perhaps follow them. The moment of death is the moment of realization, the realization of all the knowledge of the world. Suppose I could speak to it? And what of the body it has left behind? It is completely healthy beyond the extraction of the soul, not technically dead at all. But what, exactly, is it?

Mr. Greenville spun toward the ladder, seeing the boots of his assistant clambering, slowly and cumbersomely, down into sight. He turned back to the papers, reading as he stuffed them into his coat.

The human soul is a capricious thing. It will not speak with me and it decays quickly once freed, and departs, to where I do not know. It seems to strain against the bonds of this world, to weep with the pain of it, as if the body was its shield and anchor, and without it it is alone, wishing to be elsewhere. I always let them go. There are other things that interest me now. The bodies left behind. They are not dead. They still have their minds, though they are of little use now. They simply need those twenty-one grams, that invisible weight, and what if it were mine? What if I could pass from shell to shell, like an actor donning different costumes? What if I could be anyone, and everyone? I asked the souls this as they thrashed against my tweezers.  I asked them whether it was logical, a scientific phenomena, or something else. One told me it did not understand, that logic was an idea of man, made to serve man’s ideas, and then it fled. I think it is logical, what I strive to do. I think it is good. Someone is screaming upstairs-

The match went out. Dom was in the cellar. Mr. Greenville struck another, frantically, and as the flame bloomed he saw the devilish man, inches away from him, blue eyes searing a hole into his skin.

“What are you?” Mr. Greenville breathed, and suddenly the man leaned forward, and it was as if Mr. Greenville was being engulfed, eaten up by the those rings of darkness and the ice blue at their epicenter. The mouth opened. A dead breath drifted out of it, a dead voice:

“Another one. How perfect. Little Bobby tried to warn you, but you didn’t listen. You can play chess with him later. He would appreciate that. But come now. Let us see how much your soul weighs. And rest easy in the knowledge that it will be gone from this place soon, even if your body will. . . stay.”

“You are a monster,” Mr. Greenville gasped, fighting against the cold hands, but they were digging in, inhumanly strong, and there was Dom, his eyes blank now, his face sagging, an empty flask of skin and bones. “Monster!” Mr. Greenville cried again, a desperate shriek that echoed in the cellar and melded with the sound of a siren high above, the sound of automobiles, and the flash of a photographer’s bulb.

“I?” said the man, and grinned, his teeth yellow behind the perfect lips. “Oh no. I am a man.”

6 Responses to “The House of Many People”

  1. Lucia says:

    Very interesting and… dark. 😀 It really made me think. Thank you for another excellent story!!

  2. Basilisk says:

    Wow, Stef. This is the genuinely darkest story I’ve read yet from you. You’ve got one typo in it, and I’m wondering whether Mr. Greenville shouldn’t be Coroner Greenville, or Inspector Greenville, but the story is very good. You’re going to have to explain the Dom/Pynchon connection to me, though.
    Oh, and wonderful last sentence.

    • Stefan Bachmann Stefan Bachmann says:

      Ahhhhh, where’s the typo?

      Also, thank you! 😀 I got very creeped out writing it.

      Dom/Pynchon: I see it that Dom got killt and possessed by Pynchon, and then pushed Greenville down the chute, and then Pynchon was hopping between the two of them, controlling both. Or something.

      Greenville: I wasn’t sure about this either. He’s Detective Greenwille, like, one time and then Mr. Greenville. *ponders*

  3. claudiacv says:

    Creepy! Great job with the description and choice of words as always! Keep it up and you ´ll be this generation´s Poe! To bad you killed the detective. He was an interesting character, maybe useable in another story. And the monster/man could certainly fill a whole novel.

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