A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill
Tom Teal and Albert Barnes are government employees tasked with visiting a hard-to-reach house and convincing its inhabitant, a member of the Zarene family that controls the whole valley, that a large dam project is a good idea. But the Zarenes have their own way of doing things, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders….
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Farrar, Straus and Giroux assistant editor Susan Dobinick.
The Zarene Valley, 1953
The visit had been Teal’s idea, one he’d come up with thanks to his progressive methods. Things hadn’t gone quite to plan, but nor had they gone completely awry. For instance, he and lawyer Barnes hadn’t aimed to stay the night but, after a fruitless and peculiar talk with the countrified recluse they’d hoped to ferret out of his property, darkness got the jump on them, and they were obliged to accept the recluse’s invitation.
Teal simply promised himself that they’d do better tomorrow. He wasn’t feeling at all discouraged.
He had chosen the room where the bed was already made, while Barnes took the other, its mattress still doubled up on bare bedsprings. As Teal lay down he did think regretfully of his overnight bag, which was in the car they’d left parked on Summit Road. “It can’t be helped,” he thought, as he snuggled under the covers. The thing was to stay positive and keep one’s eyes on the prize.
At midnight Barnes raised the house with his screams. Teal and their host went to his aid. It was only then that Teal noticed how sunburnt the lawyer was. And he was able to dismiss Barnes’s strange complaints about their host as the result of sunstroke. Sunstroke and a nightmare. Teal apologized for his friend’s behavior, sent the recluse back to bed, and settled Barnes. He stayed with him. At dawn Teal allowed Barnes to “take the next watch”—as Barnes put it. Why not indulge the old soldier’s flashback to wartime, if it made the poor sun-touched fellow feel better? Teal went back to sleep telling himself that he was doing his friend a favor, and offering him a lesson. Let Barnes watch him sleep like a baby. Let him learn from that.
Teal slept, and dreamed he was swimming. The past was the water he was pushing behind him. Silky, green water—like the Pitt River the first time he’s seen it.
When Teal woke Barnes wasn’t in the room. Teal put on his pants and wandered around the house looking for the lawyer. He found Barnes’s briefcase, which had been moved from the bedroom to the library. Legal papers, and engineering plans were scattered on the desk. But this was no great cause for alarm. Barnes had likely moved the case himself. The lawyer had simply risen early, and had been going over the documents with their host, trying to close the deal. He and the recluse had only just stepped out somewhere, hopefully to the henhouse to find eggs for their breakfast.
Teal said reassuring things to himself, but still kept up his search. His nosy wandering finally brought him to an empty room. The room’s only furniture was a long, deep window seat. The seat’s lid was open. It was ridiculous to think of looking for Barnes in there, but Teal couldn’t stop himself crossing the bare floor to take a quick peek.
The seat contained a large, thick roll of scabby, gray fabric. It looked like old carpet underlay. It had dark patches on it, as if it had been used to wrap something oily. Teal stooped to finger the stains.
It was then that his host crept up behind him and pushed. Teal fell face-first into the window seat. The lid slammed shut on him, and the lock turned.
Teal first yelped, then began to shout in rage. He churned inside the box, and managed to turn himself face up, though his hips were still twisted. He couldn’t bring his knees or fists to bear on the lid. He could only press on the obstruction with his shoulder and head. There was a bit of give on the latch, and at each big blow, light cracked the close, black space.
A moment of light. A blow. Another moment of light. Then the latch lost its give. The recluse had sat down on the window seat.
Teal willed himself to stay still. His struggles had stirred up the air inside the box. It was mildewy, meaty, and reminded Teal of the mummified rat he’d once found jammed in the angle of a roof. He gulped the bad air. Then he said, “Hello?” It sounded feeble.
“Hello,” answered the recluse. He said it as if they were meeting for the first time, which they kind of were, because Teal hadn’t thought the guy disturbed or murderous before.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Teal said. That was better—he sounded properly outraged.
“Let’s just open a discussion,” said the recluse. It was exactly the phrase Teal had used to the man yesterday afternoon when they’d all sat over tea—a medicinal, homegrown peppermint and dried lemon peel mix. The recluse had been proud of it, and had gone on about it, as if he was one of those biddies whose great joy in life is a country-fair jam-making competition. Teal had sipped the tea, and listened to the young man talk, and had thought, “This guy was raised by old women.” The recluse had said that this was his great aunties’ house. The recluse was like an old woman, Teal thought—lonely, eager, gullible. He had glanced at Barnes, who met his gaze over the gilded rim of his teacup and moved his eyebrows fractionally to say wordlessly: This’ll be easy.
“Let’s just open a discussion,” said the voice above where Teal lay, in the dark, and in fear. The voice was mild, and friendly.
Teal schooled himself into stillness. His own voice came out reasonably steady. “What do you want to discuss, Mr. Zarene?”
“Please put it all to me again.”
“All what, Mr. Zarene?”
“The government’s plans.”
“The government’s plans as you see them.”
“This won’t do any good, Mr. Zarene.”
“And what makes you suppose I care to do good, Mr. Teal?”
Teal surprised himself by letting out a small sob. He bit his lip savagely to make himself stop.
“You’re only trapped, Mr. Teal. Trapped—but at least you won’t be lonely.”
“Because I have your company?” Teal said. “Is that it? You were unhappy at the idea of us going away?”
“‘Unhappy’ would be an exaggeration. After all, you’re not that charming. Or perhaps I haven’t seen the best of you yet. You’ve been quite impersonal so far. All your talk has been about the Lazuli Dam Project and progress, and what the government can offer me.”
Teal swallowed. His mind raced, and then found somewhere comfortable to settle. He tried to sound apologetic, but reasonable. “Mr. Barnes and I were businesslike because we didn’t want to waste your time. I see now that we should have relaxed a little, especially once you gave us dinner and asked us to spend the night.” He shut his mouth firmly. He wouldn’t babble. He waited, resisting the urge to give the lid a small testing push. The man might have got up while Teal was talking. He did seem to be rather stealthy. He might not be there now. He might not be listening.
Teal couldn’t seem to shut himself up. “I’m sorry we only turned up with papers. We should have brought a bottle. Brandy or whiskey . . .”
“Or cow’s milk,” said the recluse, sounding nostalgic.
Teal heaved a sigh. The young man was still there. Again he mustered his intelligence. “There was a cow, we came upon it, lost in the bush, on our way up the hill. We should have reported it.” This was risky. It was a kind of confession, but Teal still had faith in his own judgment, and he judged that if he offered this strange character something real he might tempt him to open the window seat if only to look him in the eye. Teal was seeing it all now—the young man hadn’t been simple, only unworldly and isolated. Teal recalled the way he’d watched their faces, like someone watching a beautiful sunset. The young man seemed beyond shyness, so solitary he had forgotten that, when he was looking at someone, he was also being looked at. Oh, it was all clear now—as if the dark inside the window seat had helped Teal see things he’d failed to notice at the time. He said, “Barnes and I did think that the cow might belong to you, rather than the people down in the valley.”
“I don’t know anything about a cow,” the recluse said.
There was a long silence. Teal’s fingers fumbled at a crumbling fold in the underlay. There was something lumpy beneath it, points and edges poking painfully into his back. He wriggled and the thing collapsed a little, but was no less lumpy. The mildew-meat smell draped its stinking wings over Teal’s head and seemed to ask him to give up and stop breathing.
“Please continue,” said the recluse.
“I’m not sure how,” Teal said, because honesty was best.
“The story you told me about why you came is almost the same one you told yourself, I bet.”
“What do you mean?”
“You and your friend sat there making a big show of dealing with me honestly because there were things you’d decided I didn’t need to know.”
“Mr. Barnes and I are on salaries. We don’t stand to make any money from the deal you make with the government.”
“More claims to honesty,” the recluse said. “That isn’t what I want to hear. Tell me, why did you come? How did you get here? What was in your mind as you made your way up the hill?” He shifted a little, and the lid creaked. He made himself more comfortable while Teal lay in blackness and began to give some thought to all the things that had brought him to that blackness.
Teal was a practical man raised by a practical man. His father’s favorite saying was “In life, whatever you choose to do, you should make a good fist of it.”
(Teal might be able to make a fist now, but since the lid of the window seat was pressing down on his hips and nose and chest he couldn’t really push with his fists, only raise them maybe six inches so that his bunched thumbs could drum on the wood.)
In the war Teal had enlisted too late to get into the fight. But he had served, so, afterward, he got free entry to college. He took geology and surveying. His class was full of returned men who had a seasoned, silent way of just getting the job done, whatever the job was. Teal adopted their unquestioning ways. He only later realized that those men had a kind of mental windowless room in which they could be their true selves. All their questions were in these internal reserves—questions and doubts, the doubts keeping the questions quiet. But Teal imitated their self-possessed manner, and practical habits. It served him well. By the time he graduated he already had a reputation as a person who kept things close to his chest, a steady, clever man. He landed a good job in the Department of Public Works.
At that time the government was buying up farms around Southland’s cities for big tracts of public housing. The government was also attempting to buy land along the banks of several rivers, for hydroelectricity schemes, so that there would be enough power for all those new houses.
Teal’s big break came when he was sent to the Alexander Peninsular to talk to people living downstream of the diversion on Pitt River. He was given the task of bringing Faesu villagers in on the project, and the idea of progress.
Teal’s most important meeting had taken place in a Faesu roundhouse in the largest village. During the meeting Teal and his colleagues were expected to sit on the floor with everyone else, and talk in turn, and bow their heads in prayer. Teal had mouthed prayers while looking through his eyelashes at the younger men, who were sitting straight-backed and waiting for their elders to finish. Teal took note of their missing fingers and shrapnel scars, and the Returned Servicemen’s League badges winking on the lapels of the few of them who owned Sunday suits. And when he did get up to speak, he spoke to those men. He called for a show of hands. Who had been in the Engineering Corps? A lot of them had. They had been farm laborers and sheep shearers when they signed up, so of course the army had put shovels in their hands. But now they had skills in demolition, handling explosives, constructing bridges, and driving heavy machinery. “Southland still has a use for those skills,” Teal said. “The whole world is being built, if it isn’t—like Europe—being rebuilt.”
Teal talked, and when he got back to Founderston, he pulled strings. He found a job for a chief’s son driving a big earthmover. And for the chief’s nephews he found jobs setting charges in the quarry. In this way the Faesu were gradually purchased by pay packets.
Five years later there was a tunnel through the rock spur that separated Pitt River from Queen Carolyn River. Half the Pitt’s water flowed west to the hydroelectric dam—and the eel traps in the river were empty, the navigable channels had silted up, and the steamer that had plied the Pitt for ninety years was permanently moored at a crumbling dock.
Teal lay in the dark and thought about the old man who,at the end of that first meeting, stood and said, “The river is our mother.” And Teal had thought, “Fat mother, lazy mother, always serving up eel and boiled squash.”
The meeting closed with another prayer. Then they were invited to enjoy a feast the village had put on for them.
The earth oven in the pumpkin patch had quietly steamed all day, attended by boys with shovels. The boys had lit another fire aboveground to keep themselves warm. When everyone filed out of the roundhouse the earth oven was opened, and the flax mats wrapping the parcels of pork and eel and pumpkin and sweet potato were lifted out. The boys’ fire made the billows of steam an allover orange glow. The pumpkins were orange. The dogs were ginger. The chickens were red. The village was all sunset colors. And it was the end of something.
Teal never set foot in a church these days unless he was at a friend’s wedding. His friends were all marrying now. He wasn’t even stepping out with anyone. Teal thought of his boyhood, when he’d proudly swung a censer in St. Lazarus Temple. He thought of his bachelor flat in Founderston, with its foldaway bed. He thought of his meals of sardines on toast—because why should he care about fish breath when he had no one to kiss? He thought about the big nothing of his spiritual and bodily life. He thought of all this and he shouted out in the dark that he was a sinner. He put his heart into it. He had seen the light, and that his own light was fading. Fading like that cold autumn evening five years ago in the Faesu village.
Teal sobbed for a time. Tears crawled into his ears.
The recluse said, “Do you think that’s what I want to hear?”
“What do you want?” Teal moaned.
“I want to know how you got up here,” the recluse said. “I want to know what route you took, and what you were thinking that made it possible for you to find your way through.”
Teal tried to remember the recluse’s first name. “Mr. Zarene,” he said—and hoped the rest of it would follow on. The man did have a name. Teal had read it somewhere. But the name wouldn’t come to him. It wouldn’t be thought. Teal said, “I did what you asked, I looked back at the steps that brought me here. I imagined you were asking me to reflect on the wrongs I’d done you. And others like you.”
“There are no others like me. And you haven’t done me any wrong.”
“Then let me out!” Teal yelled. He sobbed and thrashed. The lumpy, odoriferous thing buried under the folded underlay shifted and slumped. Teal found he had more room to move. His blows had more force. The lid quivered and jumped.
But it didn’t open.
Teal eventually exhausted himself. As he subsided he began to hear the recluse again. The man was going, “Ssshh, sshh,” in a gentle, chiding way.
“I did do something to you,” Teal said, weeping again. “I tried to make you betray your family. I promised that you’d be all right. I sketched out a picture of you on a private island, safe, and above everything.”
The recluse laughed. “Oh—so you did.” He sounded happy, and surprised. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”
Teal gritted his teeth. “Think,” he thought. “Think, Teal, think.”
The landscape of the Palisade Range was vast and thirsty, pasture riddled with rabbit holes. The car’s exhaust pipe came loose on the gravel ridge in the center of the road. They carried on, the car farting loudly.
They were Tom Teal and Albert Barnes. Teal was a surveyor, and fixer, twenty-seven; Barnes was forty, and a lawyer. They came from the Department of Public Works, tasked with the mythically difficult job of prizing the Zarene family out of Zarene Valley, a valley that would vanish under a lake when a dam was built at the top of the Lazuli Gorge. Barnes hadn’t had any luck making appointments to meet with the Zarenes. There was a Zarene Valley Trust. The trust owned the valley, and the three trustees lived there. They didn’t have telephones—and they wouldn’t respond to letters. Zarene family members living elsewhere in Southland were easier to approach because they had phones and addresses—like regular twentieth-century people. But when any of them were contacted they would only say, “I have no influence on what happens in the valley.”
Barnes was going around in circles; then, a few weeks back, Teal’s boss sent him a bunch of photos taken by the Southland Air Force, who were busy with the peacetime project of aerial mapping. Teal studied the photographs and discovered something he hadn’t known before: there was a house on the hill at the head of the valley. The valley was glacial, and the hill was a glacial moraine, one of those great heaps of stones left behind when a glacier retreats. The glacier had vanished with the ice age, and the moraine had long ago been covered by forest. The house in the forest was large and set on a well-groomed lawn. It was clear from the photograph that its roof was in excellent condition. It was bigger than any other dwelling in the valley. Teal had taken the photo to Barnes, and put it under the lawyer’s nose. “Any money these hillbillies have—most of it seems to flow up here. Whoever lives in this house is the one we need to speak to.”
“And they’ll listen,” Barnes said. “Look at the elevation. That house isn’t going to be underwater.”
The aerial photo also showed the remnants of an old road running down from the summit of the Palisade Range. A road that wouldn’t take travelers past the other Zarene houses. The road didn’t look easily usable—but that didn’t really matter since there were no other roads into the valley anyway, from its head or its foot. The Zarene Valley only had walking tracks. Barnes had walked them all in 1940, before Southland’s entry into the war meant the Lazuli Dam Project was shelved. Barnes told Teal how he had gone house-to-house—in exactly the same way the government lawyers did in 1927, before the stock market crash and Great Depression first put the dam project on hold. “There were fewer houses in 1940 than 1927, and the valley seemed a pretty poor place. But the Zarenes were even more unhelpful. They just closed their doors in my face.”
“Sounds to me as if these people are plumb out of reprieves,” Teal said. “All we have to do is find the one who’ll wise up first.”
Barnes checked the photograph again. “I don’t remember seeing this house in 1940. It must be new.”
Lying in the dark, Teal tried to bring to mind the moment he had first seen the house. The house itself—not an aerial photograph. He followed the thread of his memory only to find it frayed and broken. It was only yesterday. Why couldn’t he remember?
He did remember hiking down from the summit. They’d stopped when Barnes got a stone in his shoe. There was nowhere for the lawyer to sit down and get it out because the hillside was overgrazed and covered in sheep droppings, some of it powdery balls of fiber, some still wet and black.
Barnes leaned on Teal’s shoulder, unlaced his brogue, removed it, and shook the stone out. It was at that moment that Teal realized he hadn’t spotted the house from the summit. The forested hill was in front of them now. It filled the head of the valley, hiding the river and orchards beyond. “I can’t see the house from here,” he said. “That’s Terminal Hill. The one we have to climb.”
“The house is behind the trees. The top of the hill is flat, I think. There’s a clearing.”
“Did you look for it before we started down?” Teal asked.
“I wasn’t looking. That rock formation was an eyeful, wasn’t it?”
There was a huge rock formation a few hundred yards from the road that crossed the summit of Palisade Range. It had become quite famous in recent times. Come to think of it, it did seem rather odd to Teal that the rock formation was never mentioned in documents from back at the turn of the century, when there was a stagecoach stop on the summit. Teal had seen historical photos of the four-door coach, its passengers ranged in front of it wearing drab black clothing, and looking hot. There’d be a six-horse team in the photos, lather gleaming on the horses’ hides. There’d be the coach-stop proprietor in his long white apron, standing in the doorway of his premises and—in the background—the rock formation, interesting, but nothing special.
Now it was famous. Tourists came to that part of the country especially to visit it, even though its beauty was also famously impossible to photograph.
Teal had found the formation bewitching, the rock turrets surrounded by a natural garden of flowering heath plants. He’d stood with Barnes for a long time, staring, slack-jawed. And he’d forgotten to take a look down into the Zarene Valley.
Barnes was limping by the time they reached the foot of Terminal Hill. He frowned up at it. “You expect me to climb that?”
“It’ll take us forty minutes, tops.”
It didn’t. They struck out along the vestiges of the old road, a level place where the trees were a little younger, though thickly clustered, as if they’d been planted, not sprung up from dropped seed. Still, the going was very difficult and some hours later, after a climb with more perils, and byways, and obstacles than anyone could have imagined—and where Barnes griped the whole time and kept saying, “How does anyone get up this hill?”—they finally stepped out into a clearing.
But it wasn’t the top of the hill. And something horrible was waiting for them.
It appeared that a cow had got lost in the black tangles of the bush and, spotting a clearing, had blundered eagerly out, and gashed herself on a splintered remnant of a snapped sapling. Her belly was torn open, and pinkish-gray intestines were pushing their way out of the gash. She was tramping in a circle, lowing with pain.
“Oh Jesus Christ!” Barnes said.
The cow looked at them, frightened and beseeching.
“I’m sure we are much closer to the house on the top of the hill than we are to any of the houses in the valley,” Teal said. “We should just keep going. Reporting this might help us form a bond with the householder.”
“Sure, sure. Lead on, Macduff,” Barnes said.
They left the cow to its misery and forged on. Gradually her pained lowing faded. The climb seemed easier now, though the trees were just as thick. In another half hour they had reached a man-made terrace. Teal clambered up the stone wall and then lay on his stomach and extended his hand to Barnes. Barnes struggled up—smearing his suit with fronds of moss.
Teal pushed his way through some rhododendrons and found another terrace wall. He repeated the process, this time promising his colleague that the garden was less overgrown here, and he was sure he could see the tops of bean frames on the terrace above that.
“There’s another terrace above this?” Barnes moaned.
“We’re just about at the top.”
They walked along a path through currant bushes and lemon trees till they came upon some steps. After that the way was easy, and before long they were standing on a groomed lawn looking at the house from the aerial survey.
The gorgeous rock formation was one thing—this was another. The rock formation was beautiful, it sucked you in, so that you helplessly stared at it. The house and garden were beautiful too but, confronted by it, Teal found himself whispering, as if he were standing before the great altar of St. Lazarus Temple. “The front door is open,” he whispered.
“Well, it’s not as if someone might just wander in off the street,” Barnes whispered back. Then, “It’s very late in the day, Tom. It’s close to dinnertime and it will be dark soon. How are we supposed to find our way back down again?”
“Obviously there is an easier route. A zigzag, probably with a wheelbarrow for moving supplies.”
“Obviously,” Barnes repeated. He sounded unconvinced. Then, “Perhaps we’d better not mention that cow, Tom. We haven’t any time for fiddle-faddle.”
Teal went onto the veranda and knocked at the open door. The brass doorsill was so highly polished it dazzled him. He peered through the glare and saw a shape appear at the top of the stairs. The person hesitated there, as if fearful.
“Good afternoon!” Teal called. “We’re sorry to bother you, but we were wondering if we might have a word?”
The shape moved, started down, emerged from the indoor darkness, and turned out to be a young man. He was wearing a clean shirt and pressed pants, but his hair was a little too long. He had black hair and eyes, like all the Zarenes, who were of Mediterranean ancestry.
“Mr. Zarene?” Teal said, and left a space for the young man to offer his first name.
“Here’s four words,” the young man said. “Are you an apparition?”
“I’m a surveyor,” Teal said, in a soothing way. “My name is Tom Teal. This is Albert Barnes. Mr. Barnes is a lawyer. We work for the Lazuli Dam Project. Might we come in and talk?”
The young man moved aside. “By all means. Come in.” His voice trembled.
“He’s a bit of a recluse,” Teal thought. “Countrified. Old-fashioned. Shy.” He smiled, then he and Barnes wiped their feet on the welcome mat and stepped into the cool house.
Teal had gone into the shadow, and was in the dark about everything. He said, to the weighty, silent presence above him, “It was hard to get up the hill. That’s why we ended up imposing on your hospitality.”
“‘Hard,’ you say. Not ‘forbiddingly difficult’?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m trying to explain why we seemed so rushed when we talked to you. We had only a few hours till the sun set, and we weren’t carrying flashlights.”
“I asked you to stay the night.”
“We were grateful for that. I know we pushed you too much. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry that Barnes had a nightmare and woke up screaming.”
The recluse laughed.
“We only wanted you to understand that you weren’t in the same boat as everyone else in the valley.”
The recluse stopped laughing as if someone had flipped his off switch.
“Where is Barnes?” Teal’s voice trembled.
“He left early. When I got up I could see the marks his shoes had made on the dewy grass.”
“He wouldn’t go without me.”
“And yet he did. And I thought you’d be in a hurry to go too. That made me sad. I never have visitors. People are a real treat for me.”
Teal wondered whether, if he promised to visit regularly and bring—say—girls, the recluse would let him go.
“I do like listening to you think,” said the recluse. “It’s silence with a presence in it. Not the usual silence.”
“You must know that Barnes will bring people back with him. He’s only gone to get help.”
“I know. They’ll stand at the edge of the garden and threaten me.”
“Why would they do that?”
“You don’t even have to pluck a rose to owe me your youngest daughter,” the recluse said, sly and apparently nonsensical—till Teal remembered the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast.”
“You were my guests,” the recluse said. “And you acted like door-to-door salesmen.”
Teal and Barnes had sat sipping peppermint tea in the parlor of the house on Terminal Hill. They put the government’s case—the usual stuff about money and “the public good.” Then Teal told the young man that, even with the valley flooded and Lazuli Lake level with the top of the dam, the summit of Terminal Hill wouldn’t be underwater. “Your house and garden will be high and dry. And the government could undertake to build a jetty on the island, and another on the lakeshore. That’s something you could negotiate.”
The recluse had listened to them talk and talk—a tag team of professional persuaders. He remained quiet once they finished. There was a whirr and clunk from the strange clock on the parlor wall and the number seven appeared in the little window at the top of its otherwise blank face. The face itself was moving and only the hour ever showed in that window. The young man looked at the clock and got up. “We should eat,” he said, and left the room.
Teal whispered to Barnes, “Why do I feel as if I’m in the underworld and shouldn’t let any food pass my lips?”
Barnes looked confused. He obviously didn’t know the story of Hades and Persephone. He said, “We are going to have to spend the night. Invite ourselves. It’s too late to go anywhere else.”
“There’s a guesthouse in the valley.”
Barnes raised one finger. “We’d need to leave right now to make it through the forest before dark.” He raised a second finger. “The guy is thinking. He’ll have questions. That’s why he’s asked us to stay for dinner.” He put up a third finger. “If we turn up at the guesthouse other Zarenes might figure out who we are and what we’ve been doing. We came into the valley by its back door—so to speak. We did that for a reason.”
Teal nodded, but “Hades,” said a voice in his head, and “fairyland.” He closed the voice down; told himself to stop being a nervous Nellie.
Dinner was ratatouille with fresh-baked cornbread to dip in it. Then a cup of chicory—fake coffee—which Teal hadn’t tasted since the war and its shortages. The recluse appeared happy to put them up. He didn’t seem to want to talk any more about the Lazuli Dam. He was an early-to-bed-early-to-rise type and they were shown upstairs around nine thirty. Teal chose a room with a bed already made—for the guests who no doubt came up the hill from time to time. Barnes chose the bed that had a mattress doubled up on its bare springs. Teal helped Barnes haul the mattress open and lay it flat while their host fetched sheets and blankets from a linen cupboard at the end of the upstairs hall. He lit the gas lamps in their rooms and showed them how they were shut off. He gave them candles and matches. “If you need a light in the middle of the night.” He pointed the way to an upstairs bathroom, then left them to make ready for bed himself.
Teal retired with the newspaper he’d been carrying in his briefcase. The soft, hazy gaslight couldn’t keep him awake, and he shut the lamp off and fell asleep well before midnight under the covers but still in his clothes.
Someone was screaming. Teal came bolt upright and fumbled for the candle on his nightstand. He struck a match. The pitch-black rural night drew back perhaps a yard from his face. He put the flame to the wick, took up the candleholder, and swung his legs out of bed. The screaming had tapered off, and Teal could hear doors opening and closing—very discreetly, as if a parent were busying themselves about the house while being careful not to wake any of the children.
Teal went to check on Barnes. He poked his head out into the corridor. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed the doors of the linen cupboard closing softly, as if someone had concealed himself there.
The recluse emerged from his own room. He seemed surprised, but not alarmed. Teal raced him to Barnes’s door, and they carried their lights into the room.
They found Barnes on the floor by his bed. The crotch of his shorts was soaked with piss, and it was puddled on the floor beneath him. There was no sign of his bedding, and his mattress was once again doubled up on the naked bedsprings.
The recluse burst out laughing—then quickly throttled it. “Sorry,” he said. He put his candle down and helped Barnes to his feet. Barnes batted his hands away and shrank from him. “Why did you do that?”
“Why did I do what?”
“Turn me out of my bed?”
“I saw you.”
The recluse shook his head. “The bed just behaved like an unbroken horse,” he said.
“So it’s the bed that is at fault?”
“It’s forgotten it’s a bed, to be made up and slept in.”
Teal was listening to this strange exchange when he remembered the linen cupboard. He decided to get to the bottom of all this. “Just amoment,” he said, and made for the door.
“Don’t go, Tom!” Barnes cried.
The recluse said, “Shall I go with him? Would that make you feel more secure? You’ll need a towel and basin, anyway.”
Teal let their host walk ahead of him out the door. Then he jostled past the young man and hurried to the linen cupboard. He flung its doors wide.
The cupboard was filled with shelves, and the shelves were filled with towels and washcloths, sheets and blankets, and beautiful patchwork quilts.
The recluse reached past Teal and grabbed two towels. He pressed them into Teal’s chest until Teal took hold. “I’ll go boil the jug and fill a basin.” He pointed at the shelves with his chin. “There are more sheets and blankets. You’ll have to make his bed again.” He went away.
Teal took the towels to Barnes, then went back for bedding. It was only when Barnes was washing, and he was finishing the bed, smoothing its quilt, that he saw that the quilt was identical to the one Barnes had had before. He looked at his colleague. Barnes was pulling his trousers on over his bare arse.
“He came in and yanked off my covers, then folded the mattress over with me inside it.” Barnes’s jaw was trembling. “He’s insane.”
“Did you actually see him come in?”
“I saw him once he attacked me.”
“Did he have a light?”
Barnes frowned furiously, then looked confused. “I suppose I must have left my candle burning. I saw him. He was folding the sheets and blankets.”
“While attacking you?”
Barnes shook his head, dazed and baffled.
Teal gestured around the room. “Where’s your old bedding?”
“He must have put it back where he got it from.”
“But I met him in the hallway,” Teal said. “He came out of his room.”
Barnes kept shaking his head.
Teal had a thought. “Do you think there might be someone else in the house?”
“I don’t know, Tom. But if there is, it’s not without his knowledge.”
“Okay,” Teal said. There was no point pressing it. “If you want to try to sleep, I’ll sit up and keep watch.” He settled in an armchair. “Throw me a blanket. And blow out your candle. I’ll let mine burn down, then I’ll light yours.”
Barnes lay down. He said, “I won’t sleep.” But half an hour later, he was snoring.
Barnes relieved Teal in the blue twilight—then, when Teal woke, because sunlight was coming through gaps in the curtains, Barnes had vanished.
“I did most of the talking. So why did you find Barnes more offensive?” Teal said.
The lid of the window seat creaked again as the recluse changed position. “Do you suppose I chose between you? I didn’t. He just crept away before I was up.”
“So you say. But I don’t believe you. What have you done with him?”
There was a smile in the recluse’s voice when he countered, “And what am I going to do with you?”
“Is it fair that you’re taking things out on me? I’m not the person who came up with the plans for the dam. Your family has been living under the threat of this for decades.” This was a very feeble line of argument to try with a madman. Teal suspected that a person wasn’t a person to a madman. A person was only representative of something inside the madman. If only he could work out what he represented to Zarene. He decided to take risks—he had to: if Barnes hadn’t actually run off then his situation was desperate. He said, “If you didn’t want to sell out your family you only had to say so. Mr. Barnes and I just wanted you to consider all your options.”
“An island in a lake.”
“We wanted you to understand that your lovely house would be spared. You needed to know that.”
“But why should I stay above the water? Why should I be all that is left?”
There was no answer to this.
But the recluse changed tack. He said, “The last people who came here brought whiskey.”
“Sorry,” Teal said. “And I’m sorry that we forgot to mention the cow straight off.”
There was no response. Long minutes went by, then Teal cautiously flexed his knees. A crack of light opened between the lid and sides of the box. The recluse had got up and wandered away.
Teal strained against the lid. He didn’t beat on it. That would be too noisy. He pushed and pushed. Then he subsided and rested for a short while.
While he was resting the lock crackled and came open, and the lid was raised.
Teal flung his arm up over his eyes. Then he surged forth into the light, dazed and stumbling.
The recluse backed away from him. Teal straightened and looked into the madman’s face. It was stiff and sober. The man’s eyes were flat and lifeless, a too-shiny gray, like pencil lead, or hematite.
The recluse put a finger to his lips and pointed to the door of the room. Teal hurried out of the room, and then out of the house.
It was sunny outdoors, and bees were weaving through the lavender and roses. Teal turned back to find the recluse standing right behind him. Teal shied away, then muttered, “Sorry,” again.
The recluse opened his mouth, but all that came out was birdsong, and for a moment Teal thought he glimpsed a cool dawn light in the back of that wet cave of a mouth.
He turned and fled.
He was on the first terrace down when he heard fleet footsteps coming after him. He looked back and saw Zarene giving chase, running barefoot through the tomato vines.
Teal sobbed, and ran faster. He was on the steps down to the next terrace when he blundered into a man who was on his way up.
“Whoa!” the man said, and caught him.
Zarene came up behind Teal, but didn’t take hold of him.
“Are you chasing this fellow, Ghislain?” said the newcomer.
“He’s not supposed to leave. I didn’t let him out.”
“Out of where, Ghislain?”
“Never you mind. The house is conspiring against me now.”
“Hmmmm,” said the newcomer. He glanced at Teal and patted him gently on the shoulder. “Your friend is down in the guesthouse. He wanted to come up with me, but we thought he should stay out of the sun. He’s had a bit too much sun.” Then, “I’m Cyrus Zarene.”
Cyrus Zarene was a middle-aged man in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a straw hat. A Zarene farmer.
“He did let me go,” Teal said—it seemed necessary to make this clear. He added, “I don’t want to cause any trouble between you.”
“I didn’t let him go!” Ghislain insisted. He looked exasperated.
Teal peered into Cyrus’s face and assured him, “He opened the window seat, put his finger to his lips, and pointed my way off the property.”
“Window seat?” said Cyrus Zarene.
Ghislain said, “These men like to tell stories where they’re special and singled out.”
“Spared, you mean,” said Cyrus Zarene.
Ghislain looked interested. “Is that it? I was beginning to worry that all those years spent watching movies had them thinking they were playing the main part in a movie.”
Cyrus Zarene stiffened with anger. “You tell a lie, then you think you can make me believe that other people are lying because everyone around you has altered, and has a bad attitude et cetera . . .”
“No one is around me,” Ghislain said. “You have your et cetera, Cyrus, but I only have my past.”
Nothing happened for a time. Two white butterflies passed between the Zarenes, their flight inscribing some invisible musical score. Then Ghislain said, “All the books in my library are out of date. How am I supposed to know what people are like now?”
“I’d give you a radio if you had electricity,” Cyrus said.
“I can arrange electricity.”
“And how would you do that?”
Ghislain shrugged one shoulder and smiled sweetly. “Okay—so—I’ll swap you Mr. Teal for a radio.”
“And what would you do with Mr. Teal anyway?”
Ghislain’s face softened. “Get him to show me what’s inside him.”
Teal imagined the recluse pulling out his entrails and reading them for signs, like the old Romans. Perhaps that’s what he’d been doing with the poor cow.
Cyrus took Teal by the arm and led him away down the steps. Teal looked back, but the recluse was still standing where they’d left him.
Before they entered the forest Cyrus Zarene said to Teal, “The only thing I need to know is inside you is an understanding: that the Zarene family are best left alone.”
“I hear you,” said Teal.
“A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Knox
Art copyright © 2013 by Pascal Campion