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Fiction

No Breather in the World But Thee

The cook didn’t like that the eyes of the dead fish shifted to stare at him as he cut their heads off. The cook’s assistant, who was also his lover, didn’t like that he woke to find just a sack of bloody bones on the bed beside him. “It’s starting again,” he gasped, just moments before a huge, black, birdlike creature carried him off, screaming. The child playing on the grounds outside the mansion did not at first know what she was seeing, but realized it was awful. “It’s just like last year,” she said to her imaginary friend, but her imaginary friend was dead. She ran for the front door, but the ghost of her imaginary friend, now large and ravenous and wormlike, swallowed her up before she had taken ten steps across the writhing grass.

From a third floor window, the lady of the house watched the girl vanish into the ground, the struggling man become an indecipherable dot in the sky. Then nothing happened for a time, and she said to the dust, to her long-dead husband, to the disappeared daughter, to the doctor who now lived somewhere in the walls: “Perhaps it’s not happening again. Perhaps it’s not like last year.” Then she spied the disjointed red crocodile walking backwards across the lawn: a smear of wet crimson against the unbearable green of the finger-like grass. The creature’s oddly bent legs spasmed and trembled as it lurched ahead. No, not a crocodile but a bloody sack of human flesh and bones crawling toward the river at the edge of the property. Was it someone she knew? Of course it was someone she knew.

An immense shadow began to grow around the unfortunate person like a black pool of blood. This puzzled her, until she realized some vast creature was plummeting down from an immense height toward the lawn. Raw misshapen pieces of the behemoth began to rain down, outliers of the body itself. Within seconds, it would descend, whole. The crawling bag of bones redoubled its efforts, seeming aware of the danger, frantic to avoid being caught in that impact. Now the lady of the house could not contain her fear any longer. She turned and ran, intending to flee down the stairs and seek shelter in the basement. But something wide and white and cut through with teeth reared up out of the darkness and bit her in half, and then quarters, and then eighths, before she could do more than blink, blink rapidly, and then lie still, the image of the crawling man still with her. For a while.

In the basement, waiting for the lady’s return, a furiously scribbling man sat at a desk. He did not look up once; beyond the candlelight things lurked. As his mistress fell to pieces above him, the man was writing:

Time is passing oddly. I feel as if I am sharing my shadow with many other people. If I look too closely at the cracks in the wall, I fear I will discover they are actually doors or mouths. There’s something continually flitting beyond the corner of my eye. Something she tells me that I don’t want to remember. Flit. Flit . . . No. Tilt. Tilt, not flit. Tilt.

He stopped for a moment to restore his nerve because a certain mania had entered his pen . . . and he didn’t know who he was writing to. The child? The doctor? God? Something white and terrible waited in the shadows, its movements like the fevered wing-beats of a hundred panicked thrushes crushed into the semblance of a body. With an effort, he continued:

The tilt is a gap. The gap is the cracks becoming corridors when I look away, and yet there is no way out. This ends well only if I can be in two places at once. But if other people are using my shadow, isn’t that a kind of door as well? Can I use my own shadow as a window? Can I escape?

A mighty crash and thud shook the mansion, as if something enormous had landed on the lawn. Dust and debris cascaded down on the man writing. A distant rattling cry came that did not bear thinking about. He looked up from his work for a second, thought, It’s happening again, just like the doctor warned, but continued writing, as if the words might be the spell to undo it all.

. . . or is it just an inkling? Inklings are like questions that haven’t been answered yet: by the time we ask them, we’re being swallowed by the doors they open. And all that’s left at the end, after the question’s answered, is the shadow, haunting us.

The man looked up one more time, and now his own pale shadow leered up and curled monstrous across the wall, the desk, the candle, and the rictus of his face.

“It’s just an inkling, an inkling!” he screamed, but still his own pale shadow took him, teeth glittering cold in the chilly room in the bowels of the mansion where no other thing stirred, or should have stirred, and yet sometimes did. No words, soothed the shadow, as if it made a difference. No words. I’m happening again. I’ll always happen again. But the shadow was him, and he could not tell where his writing ended and the shadow began.

On the first floor, the maid had fallen to her knees at the impact of the monster from above hitting the lawn. Now it tore into the grass as it bounded forward. It hit the side of the mansion like a battering ram so that the chandeliers cascaded and crashed all around like brittle glass wedding cakes, shards splintering across the floor and beads rolling with a heavy clunk under chairs and sofas. The thing shrieked out words in a language that sounded like dead leaves being stuffed into a gurgling fresh-cut throat. But she kept her grip on the shotgun she had taken from the study cabinet. “It won’t be like last year,” she shouted, although “last year” was something horribly vague in her memory. “It’s too soon!” She shouted it to the house, to the lady of the house, to the man in the basement who had come to document everything the doctor had wanted to do, a very long time ago. I will not blame the child.

Again the monster smashed up against the mansion. Unpleasant chortles and meaty sounds smashed down through her ears, tightened around her heart, her lungs. She stood with an effort and headed back to the study. The study window was occluded by a huge, misshapen blue-green eye ridged with dark red. The monster. She brought the shotgun to her shoulder, braced for the recoil, and fired. The monster blinked and bellowed but the shots did not fall hot into its corona. Instead, the shotgun barrel curled around to sneer at her. A flash of white. From behind, something wet and unpleasant slapped her head from her neck. For longer than she would have thought, as her head rolled across the suddenly slippery floor, the maid saw the eye and the great bulk behind it withdraw from the window, and then, for a moment, the searing blue sky beyond and a black tower around which flew hideous bird-like shapes. “It’s different than before,” she wanted to say—to the butler, to the lady of the house, to the young writer in the basement who had become her lover—but that impulse soon faded, along with everything else.

Earlier that day, the maid had argued with the butler, for the butler had seen the eyes of the dead fish move while in the kitchen and knew better than to fight. He had retreated to the huge coffin abandoned near the huge back doors to the mansion when the lady of the house had decided on the mercy of cremation for her husband instead. To either side lay the twin cousins, age twelve, all three waiting for it to be over. “Surely it will be over soon,” one twin whispered into the watchful silence. “It was over last year very quickly,” the other twin said in a hopeful tone. But neither twin could tell the butler exactly what they thought had happened last year. The butler knew, and had avoided the doctor ever since, but it made no difference now.

As they lay there, the coffin expanded into a limitless night, and at the edges grew terrifying fangs until the coffin was a gigantic mouth, forever contracting until the fangs were too sharply close. The butler lost his nerve, and though he told the twins to close their tear-streaked eyes as he prepared to escape, still they saw all that happened next. As one they burst from the coffin—and through the back doors of the mansion, seeking the grass, the limitless sky, the verdant forest beyond. But the monster lay in wait, had opened its huge mouth to cover the door, and they in their headlong rush were crunched down, heads pulped, before even one of them could do more than think, “It’s much, much worse than before.”

The doctor received tell-tale glimmers of the butler’s demise from his secret compartment in the walls at the heart of the mansion. Skilled in both medicine and the arcane arts, he had spent a year of disturbing visions, secret guilt, and hysterical mania building a place of mirrors meant to repel the uncanny, breaking almost every piece of glass in the house to capture the shards and position them with glue and nail. Each mirror piece reflected some fragment of another, so that from all sides, using cunning angles, he could glimpse moments of what was happening elsewhere. The doctor saw a hint of the cook turned to quivering meat, a scintilla of the cook’s lover carried off, a suggestion of the girl betrayed on the lawn, and all of the rest. Now he stood quite silent and still in his narrow chamber of bright fragments, lit by a lantern, sweat dribbling down his face, arms, and chest.

Many quick-darting thoughts passed through the doctor’s mind, reflected in the rapid blinking of his eyes. The flow of these thoughts was interrupted only by the continued siege of the mansion by the monster outside. Each lurch changed his focus.

Did I make the pieces small enough? Did I make it impossible for them to see me, or do they see all of me now? Why would this happen to me who did nothing out of sequence or step? No one should endure this, and yet almost all of them are dead and they did nothing except the writer who carried on with both the maid and the lady of the house, but how would this concern it? How I wish I had never used a bone saw or performed surgery. It makes this all so much worse because [lurch]

She was kinder than anyone I knew to tell me what to expect, that poor child, and perhaps I should have indulged her about her friend but I am a man of science too and how could I and now I wonder if her friend was indeed a manifestation or simply a terror in her mind and that I should have ergo ego ego . . . should have conducted an exorcism while I could rather than recommend a psychiatrist a séance to her mother but her mother was so nice to me and so concerned and there was no way to tell that creating a circle might [lurch]

Was that a sound? Was that a noise other than whatever is outside? How can I tell? I cannot tell a sound beyond that sound. How hellish it is to be trapped within one’s mind for even an instant without recourse to another person. How like a hell and all the thoughts that come pouring out and [lurch]

Be composed. Be composed. You have planned well. The glass will hold. The glass is good. Oh how now I would give for just a glimpse or touch of my beloved, thigh, face, feet. To be in her embrace, and yet this is selfish selfish selfish. [lurch]

Is the beast closer? A surgical cut, across the throat, from any of these shards, would be quick, painless, without guilt. No one would blame me for that. No one would blame me for that. No one left to. Oh that day we all spent on the lawn, that day glorious and sun-soaked before it began, and how could I ever give up hope of that again. Let that be what makes me strong. Do I deserve to? Do I deserve? Did I feed it? Did encourage it? [lurch]

Fear that brings sickness
Fear that brings sorrow.
Fear that inhabits the smallest places.
Fear that undoes me.
Fear that makes me ill. Oh my chest. Oh my stomach.

No lurch disrupted the doctor’s thoughts next. Instead, the white worm of a creature embedded inside of him so many months ago while he slept had awakened, drawn by the cries of the monster outside. As it crunched through tissue and organs, soon there was nothing larger than a fragment of the doctor left, and every single fragment of mirror covered in its entirety with blood, so that his once blazing light chamber was now the darkest place in the mansion. Early in the process, the doctor felt a fierce and annihilating joy that made him shout his ecstasy to the heavens. Is that you, my imaginary friend? Late in the process, he managed to whisper, “Where am I?” But he knew where he was, and then he knew no more.

The doctor’s screams—amplified from his hiding place by the vents, the dumbwaiter, the floorboards, the very pores of the walls—seemed to the lady’s older daughter, kneeling beside a chimney on the roof, to emanate from a mansion in agony. She had chosen this vantage to observe the monster and the growth of the tower. Long ago she had been an amateur biologist familiar with certain types of animal mimicry. Now she crouched with a small telescope aimed at the tower. She could no longer force herself to observe the monster. The stench of it wafted up and made her feel as if she were being smothered in maggot-covered meat no matter how she tried to unsee the atrocity of its form.

Using the telescope was akin to using the microscope in her make-shift laboratory to examine cells from the strange grass of the lawn: a way to know the truth of things, no matter how uncomfortable. The telescope confirmed that it was all happening again, although only the accounts of others from that time told her anything, really. She had avoided thinking about the implications of her own notes from last year, which were incomprehensible and toward the end written in blood:

center of the shadow near the marrow might be a door a door a door that in the white shadow there comes a presence that is made of the center of the door that in the window reflects mimics a wall a room but if we were to touch would recoil would we recoil from that the tiny white worm inches and inches cross the floor watch it carefully resurrecting, this extraction is extracted.

At the far edge of the lawn, the tower had grown pendulous and resembled less a tower now than the upper half of some thick serpent or centipede. It had been birthed by the monster, which had planted a huge, glistening white egg in the crater created by its impact. The tower curved and shook from side to side now while the ragged bird-things circled it, cawing.

The scientist also followed the cook’s efforts to reach the stream; with the telescope his blunt visage was still recognizable despite the awful softness of his skull. Coming from the tower on his left, the bird-things swooped down at times to tear flesh and gristle from him, returning to toss it onto the top of the tower. Somehow, his excruciating journey seemed important, but the scientist did not know why. She knew only what the writer and doctor had speculated, for she had not been part of the circle. “You did this while I slept?” she had said, enraged that they had taken such a risk. Then retreated to her experiments to keep at bay the feelings of depression and helplessness that ever since threatened to engulf her.

Below, the monster attacked the mansion again and the mansion screamed and she made observations of a scientific nature to calm her nerves. She dispassionately noted, too, the way the forest to all sides seemed thicker, more impenetrable, and the sky brighter than ever before, and took grim delight in her detachment in recording that “long, fleshy arms have begun to sprout from the sides of the tower.” As she watched, these arms began to snatch the bird-things from the sky and toss them into a gaping pink opening near the top of the tower. “It is feeding itself to grow even larger,” she observed. “And it is now obvious that it is not a tower. I do not believe it is a tower. I do not believe it is a tower.” She had to say it three times to truly believe it. She had no notepad to record these thoughts, and even when she braced her arm against her knee, the telescope shook a little.

Now the tower sang to the monster battering the mansion, and the monster seemed unable to resist the melody. The singing intensified and the scientist wished she had cotton to stuff in her ears, for the song was so sweet and light and uplifting that it was like an atrocity in that place, at that time. And especially now against the extreme quiet of the mansion, for the screams had stopped. Finally. “It’s nothing like last year.”

The monster, swaying in a drunken fashion, came closer and closer to the tower, trying to break away, unable to break away from its song. Until, finally, within the unbroken circle of fact that was the telescope’s lens, the indescribable beast curled up at the base of the tower. The tower was cooing now, almost as if in reassurance, and the scientist’s fascination at this muffled her terror . . . even though she could hear wet, thick sounds on the stairwell that led to the roof . . . and a snuffling at the locked door directly behind her.

The tower, still cooing, stretched impossibly tall, lunging up into a sky beginning to bruise in anticipation of dusk. It leaned over to contemplate the monster below with something the scientist thought might be affection. With incredible speed and velocity, it dove down to pierce the monster’s brain. The monster flailed and brought its legs up to struggle, to push out the dagger of the tower, but soon this effort became half-hearted, then ceased altogether. A flow of gold-and-emerald globules rose up through the tower’s darkness from the monster. The farther these globules rose, the more transparent they became, until the tower had assimilated them entirely and was as dark as before.

The monster lay husked. The tower grew taller and wider. The mansion beneath the scientist grew spongy and porous, and a kind of heartbeat began to pulse through its many chambers. But the scientist observed none of the things. The tower’s song and the piercing of the monster’s brain had pierced the telescope, too. The telescope, grown strange and feral and querulous, had punctured her eye on its way to her brain, and as she lay there and the tower ate the monster, so too the telescope made a meal of her. Satisfied, the white worm behind the door retreated.

Dusk came over the land. An impossibly large, impossibly purple-tinged moon sent out a blinding half-light across the wandering grass, the mansion, and the tower. The cook had finally reached the lip of the river bank, and in some instinctual way recognized this small victory, even though the remains of his head were twisted above by happenstance to look back across the lawn.

The mansion had become watchful and its upper windows gleamed like eyes. The corners of the mansion had become rounded so that it squatted on powerful haunches, poised to spring forward on four thick legs. The cook was unsurprised: he had argued for months that the mansion had been colonized by something below it, rising up, and the walls had begun to even seem to breathe a little. But they had laughed at him. “It’s like last year,” he said, although he could not really remember last year . . . or why the fish had looked so strange.

At a certain hour, the tower began to stride toward the mansion, and the two joined in a titanic battle that split the air with unearthly shrieks: solid bulk against twisty strength. Around the two combatants, their tread shaking the ground, the grass rippled with phosphorescence and from the forests beyond came the distant calls of other mighty beasts.

The remains of the cook found no horror in the scene. The cook was beyond horror, all fast-evaporating thought focused on the river that had been the site of his happiest memory—a nighttime rendezvous with his lover. As they lay beside each other afterwards, the contented murmur in his ear of a line of a poem. “No other breather. . . .” This memory tainted only by the pain of remembering his lover’s reaction when he had slid into bed that last time, after having been so reduced by the white worm that had sprung at him from the walls of the kitchen.

So he slid and pushed, still hopeful, losing more flesh and tissue and bone fragments, down the bank of the river, and by an effort of will he managed to whip his head around to face the water. There, through his one good eye, the cook saw his lover and the little girl and the lady of the house and the doctor and the maid and the butler, the lady’s two young cousins, and the scientist . . . they lay at rest at the bottom of the river. Waiting with open, sightless eyes. He had a sudden recollection of them all sitting around a table, holding hands, and what came after, but then it was gone gone gone gone, and he was sliding down into his lover’s embrace. The feel of the water was such a balm, such a release that it felt like the most blissful moment of his entire life, and any thought of returning home, of reaching home, vanished into the water with him.

Behind him, under stars forever strange, the tower and the mansion fought on.

© 2013 by Jeff VanderMeer.

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Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VandermeerJeff VanderMeer recently signed a three-book, six-figure deal with Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Paramount Pictures and Scott Rudin recently bought the movie rights for all three novels. His novels have made the year’s best lists of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he is the recipient of both an NEA-funded Florida Individual Writers’ Fellowship and Travel Grant. VanderMeer is a three-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, twelve-time finalist, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and Shirley Jackson Awards, among others. His latest short story collection is The Third Bear (2010). He also regularly reviews books for the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and the Washington Post. He has lectured at MIT, the Library of Congress, and many other institutions. He serves as the co-director of Shared Worlds, a unique teen SF/F writing camp located at Wofford College in South Carolina.

Stories by Jeff VanderMeer

8 Responses »

  1. “No Breather in the World But Thee” reads like something a non-writer like me would write. Or reads like something a professional writer would write as a seat-of-the-pants exercise in piling victim after victim and horror upon horror at breakneck speed, and the general plan is to reach a point where all these victims and their horrific deaths can be turned into a plausible storyline. It’s just my opinion, mind. No reflection on the writer who is multi-awarded and wildly successful at his craft.

  2. Fwooosh! (sound of that one going over my head). Congrats on getting the Southern Reach novels optioned.

    Loving these podcasts. Stephen Rudnicki did a fantastic job, as always.

  3. Li: Actually, that’s not how it was written. It all makes sense if you just take some time with it.

  4. I really liked this. I will admit I wasn’t sure of my opinion while in the process of listening, though I did appreciate what (I think) the author was striving for – a surreal atmosphere, a Leonora Carrington or Kelly Link vibe. It’s only now, after a period of digestion and reflection, that I’m able to gauge how much I enjoyed the story. I think that slowly going over the text line by line to ponder the causalities will be a worthwhile endeavour.

  5. Not since Nabokov’s “Signs & Symbols” has there been a story that I went back and immediately read again. Four times in the past three days, collecting details, making connections, asking questions. Enjoying the ride. This is the kind of story that makes me write things down and draw lines between them, usually annotated with a lot of (?’s) and (??’s) and even (?!’s) which is faster than writing ‘WTF.’ I Googled some things, read some excerpts from an unlikely essay or two, looked at some screenshots of an old Stoker adaptation. I love stories that let me play sleuth, and I love this one a lot. In the end though, it humbled me. I can tell you the order in which the family, their staff, and the others died, what floor they were on when it happened, and all the grisly details. I know who the cook (with his one good eye (?!)) saw resting at peace on the bottom of the river, and who was missing. I know something terrible happened, and it had to do with that little girl and her imaginary friend, but I believe there’s more to it than that. And I also believe the truth would come bursting out if only I could pick open the right seams. Anyway, I’m glad it beat me for now. It means I get to read it again in a couple or three months–maybe see something I didn’t see before. Stories like this are why I read fiction. Thank you, Jeff.

  6. In many ways, this reminded me of “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby; only on a far more visceral level. Brilliant imagery.

  7. I loved this hideous little puzzle. I think the confusion of the piece replicates what living through such an experience would be like–a violent and unintelligible encounter with the unnatural and predatory.

  8. Thanks for the comments–I appreciate the willingness to engage with a story that’s not a conventionally told story.

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