THE GREAT MAN’S HOME lay within thick woods, beyond a churning
river crossed only by a bridge that looked like it had been falling
apart for many years. The woods were dark and loamy and took the
sound of our transport like a wolf taking a rabbit. The leaves passed
above us in patterns of deep green shot through with glints of old
light. There was the smell of something rich yet suspect in the
The house rose out of the forest like a cathedral out of a city: unmistakable. It had an antique feel. Two levels, although the second
story was gutted and unusable to us, with an off-white color stained
with the amber and green dustings of pollen and pine needles. A
steeple of a roof that contained nothing but rotted timbers, descending to a screened-in porch, beyond which (we knew from our maps)
lay the horseshoe construction of the interior passageways. The
house might have been a hundred years old. It might have been two
hundred years old. It might have always been there.
Our tread on the gravel driveway startled me; it was the first true
sound I’d heard for many miles.
The screen door was broken—someone had slashed through it,
and the two pieces had curled back. We walked onto the porch and
found there beside two large wicker chairs like decaying thrones the
mummified remains of two animals the size of dogs but with skulls
more like apes. They looked as if they’d fallen asleep attempting
to embrace. They looked, in the way their paws had crossed, as if
they had been attempting to cross the divide between animal and
My partner looked at them with revulsion.
“Corruption,” she said.
“Peace,” I said.
In answer she took out her keys and moved toward the door that
led into the house.
The door had been hacked at with some kind of axe or other crude
weapon. The gouges and cuts had turned black against the weathered
white. The knob dangled from the door as if it belonged somewhere
“Nothing did that,” I said. “Nothing that lives here now.
“I’ll remember,” she said, and turned the key in the lock. It made
a sound like metal scraping, but also of something released.
She glanced at me before she opened the door. “We don’t know
what he left.”
The iron gray of her eyes wanted something from me, but all I had
was: “The power’s gone from it. He hasn’t slept for a long time.”
I had no weapon. She had no weapon.
Beyond the door, a long, straight corridor waited for us, badly lit by
glimmering lamps set into walls that seemed to both jut outward and
recede into shadow. It was like the throat of a beast, except at the far
end we could see where it curved to enter into the second half of the
U. Where it came out, we didn’t know. There had been no other door
on the porch.
From where we stood, the corridor clearly changed as it progressed.
What was near to us had a weathered opulence—rosewood panels
and graying chandeliers long since gone dark. The burgundy carpet
lay flat under our feet, and something had been dragged so violently
down its length that the fibers had flattened in a swerving pattern.
But farther down we could see plants or little trees, and there came
from the far end a suggestion of an underlying funk, the smell of
unnatural decay. There came also a throaty murmur, as of a fading
“Vestiges,” I said.
“Of the man himself.”
I walked forward. Her boots scuffed the carpet behind me as if she
was compelled to follow against her will.
Nothing happened for several minutes. We did not investigate the
rooms we passed, which lay behind closed doors. We did not stop to
look at the paintings. Side tables, lamps, and the like did not interest us. Instead, it was as if we followed the swerving pattern in the
carpet to see where it led. I began to think of it now less as the
imprint of a body being pulled and more as the trail of something
that had no legs, like a giant slug. There was a suggestion at the edges
of the swerve of a curious mixture of a deeper red and an amber resin.
We had no specific brief. She knew this, and still she asked, “What
are we looking for?”
“Everything,” I said, and it was true. Nothing angered him more
than the wrong focus. But she was nervous. I could tell.
The corridor seemed to collapse into forest, even though I knew
this could not be true. It was simply the overgrowth of potted plants
and trees run amok, aided by the bulge of a domed skylight mottled
dark green with debris. The trees were almost bony, but tall, and
their leaves spread out like emerald daggers. What once were regimented bushes had become feral explosions of branches. Between
them lichen and vine had taken hold in cracks in the floor where the
carpet had been cut away. The trail of the thing without legs led over
the underbrush. Recent.
“What’s that? In there—beneath?” she asked. I felt rather than
heard a tremor in her voice.
“Something dead,” I said. It did not seem important to say more.
“Spectacularly dead,” she said, and I thought perhaps I had not felt
a tremor after all.
We moved on, farther into the great man’s house. Now there were
glass cages set into the inner wall and no doors at all, but the cages
held only mold and things that had died a long time ago. Some of
them lay close to the glass as if trying to burrow through it. Others
had died with their forearms banging against it. We did not examine
Then we began to encounter the living. The inner wall pulled into
itself and left room for more than just glass cages. A muttering rose
from the displays that had been left there, behind a torn, bloodied,
sometimes shredded, cross-hatching wire. What lay behind was
squirming flesh mottled with fur, an eye or two glancing out from
the mess with an odd acknowledgment of fate. A spasming claw.
A quivering snout. There was no great seriousness or order to this
exhibit. These creatures, neglected and left without food or water,
had half devoured each other, and by their nervous natures had consigned themselves to an ever-contracting existence. They would not
leave the ledge on which they’d lived their lives to that point. Now
they were deranged, and lay on the border between life and death
without knowing the difference.
“Survivors,” she said.
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
We walked farther. By now, we were almost two-thirds of the way
to the curve of the U. The stain trail on the carpet had resumed,
seemed again to lead us.
Now came the parrotlike birds that had the mange and stumbled
across the floor, too weak to fly. Now came cats and dogs that had
been combined in peculiar ways and left to stagger, something wrong
with their brains that made them lose their balance. Now came the
fish tanks full of slop and mewling and naked, shivering tissue. Now
came things living inside of other things, gone so completely wild
that they were innocent of us.
The vines had crawled up the sides of the walls.
The vines were hiding tiny creatures that peered out at us. Or had
they become part of the vines?
She was looking around as if for a weapon, but we had decided
“It will be over soon,” I said. “For some, it is already over.”
She nodded. I knew she trusted me. We were not without weapons
now that we had abandoned them.
What had looked like ornamentation ahead, at the join of the U,
was actually a row of faces jutting out of the wall, set slightly above
what appeared to be a long love seat with thin crimson cushions.
These faces—twenty or thirty of them—ranged from that of a boar to
that of a kind of thick lizard to a thing very much like a woman.
They were all undergoing a slow transmutation of expressions, as if
sedated. None looked peaceful. None could speak, and where you
could see their throats it was clear some surgery had been required
of them. This was to be expected. But what were they supposed to be
My partner knelt and stared into the face of the woman-thing.
There was not so much distance between them. Not really.
“These cushions were once white,” she said, staring into the open,
gray eyes of the woman-thing. Its lank hair fell straight. It gave off a
smell of corruption.
“There has been spillage,” I said.
“Can we free them?”
She, like me, had understood that these were not just faces. The
bodies behind them must descend in living coffins behind the love
seat. Did their feet touch the edge of some surface? Or did they hang,
torsos held in harnesses? And if so, what lay beneath them?
I dared not put my hand on her shoulder. When you let some
things in, you never get them out.
“Don’t you see that they are already free?” I said.
It was in the eyes. While the muscles in their cheeks, their jowls,
their snouts, their muzzles, winced and pulled back in soundless
rage or sadness, those eyes stared straight ahead, as dead as anything
dead we’d yet seen.
“This is the work of a great man,” she said, but I could hear the
“We should continue,” I said.
For the row of faces led to a doorway, and the doorway led to the
second corridor—the one that should lead back even though there
had only been one entrance on the porch.
She rose, and on a whim peered back down the corridor we had
just traveled through. “The lights are out,” she said. “The lights are
And they were. One by one, each lamp, each dim-glowing chandelier, was blinking out, leaving more and more shadow. More and
more darkness. Into that space shapes moved where no shapes had
Was the shiver I felt one of anticipation? I don’t know. Soon there
would be an ending.
“We should continue,” I repeated. Perhaps there was a tremor in
my voice this time. I do not know.
Beyond the doorway lay the second corridor. Gone the rosewood.
Gone the carpet. Gone the paintings on the wall. The walls were as
off-white as the outside of the house. The stench of blood came from
everywhere, and the lights here were bare bulbs and flickering fluorescent strips. The floor was linoleum and the stain of whatever had
come through formed a long snarl of red disappearing into the distance. Now, though, it trailed up the walls, onto the ceiling, not just
the floor. Spun crazily. Did not take a straight line.
We could not see the end of the corridor. We could see no trees or
bushes. Now the lights went out one by one as we passed, and when
I looked back there appeared to be a long shadow with one arm
against the doorway staring at us. Then it was gone.
“Is he here?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She took a step, then another, and I followed for a time and let her
We came to a place where the wall gave way to a huge glass cage
that held a wet, flickering, shifting mass of blackish brown broken
only by shimmers of blood.
“What is it?” This time I asked.
She was quiet for a moment. “Starlings. So many starlings, so close
together that they cannot move, held up by each other’s bodies.”
Now I could see the wings and beaks and feathered heads. The
eyes bright, feverish, anguished.
“What purpose could this serve to him?” I asked.
She only laughed harshly, took my arm, tried to pull me away. I
would not go.
“What purpose could this serve to him?” I asked again, and still
she had no answer.
There was a way into the cage. A small chamber at the bottom
that would allow a man to crawl in, shut the door, and then open
another translucent door into the space with the birds. The red trail
led inside and then back out again.
She saw me looking at it. “What purpose would it serve to go in?”
“Then I would know why,” I said.
“You might know why, or you might not. But you would come out
“Am I not already mad?”
There was no way in which I could look at an individual starling
within that glass cage. They had become something else.
“Trap,” I said, wrenching my gaze away.
She led me forward. We had no weapons.
I had said no weapons.
Was I right?
The lights, they went out behind us. Now the few windows showed
us not forest but darkness. Night had come, and had kept coming
while we walked down the corridor. I kept thinking about the starlings. I kept thinking about the soundless scream that must be rising
We came to a massive enclave hollowed out from the inner wall. I
did not think that there could be such a space within the house, until
I remembered the second floor and the way the steepled roof had
looked like a chapel.
Within this enclave lay a giant human body composed of many
other bodies. And within its belly, which had been ripped open, there
lay the bodies of animals too various to describe. And these bodies
too had been torn apart and remade to create still stranger creatures.
And those creatures had their own as well. The scene seemed to
recede from us as we watched it, as if my mind wanted to put as
much distance there as possible. The face of the giant human body
was various—a patchwork of so many different possibilities. Flesh is
only flesh, skin only skin, muscle only muscle. It can all change
and be changed. There was a desperation to it, as of someone frustrated, thwarted, looking for a solution that never came.
The stain across the walls, across the ceiling, across the floor, had
smashed through the glass divide between us and that tableau. The
stain ended here even if the corridor did not. Somehow this change
in logic unnerved me more than the box of starlings—more even
than the body within bodies laid out before us.
“What is the meaning of us?” she whispered.
I know she meant “What is the meaning of this?” but that is not
what she said.
“Keep moving,” I said. “We are almost at the end now.”
“What kind of end can that be?”
“The great man is nearby, I can tell.”
“But we have no weapons.”
“That is our weapon.”
“I expected …”
At first, the corridor seemed to end in a blank wall—as disconcerting
as following an arm with one’s gaze only to have it end in a nub. But
no: It curved once again, and beyond the curve was the office of the
great man. A sparse desk. A windowless existence. Parts of things all
over the floor, red and various. No chair. It was not needed.
In the light from the lamp on the desk, we could see that a giant
raven stood there. It had a beak huge and ominous, which had the
look of steel but the riddled-through consistency of driftwood, riven
with wormholes and fissures. A clacking black tongue within the
beak. A head like a battering ram. A body the size of a mastiff.
Instead of legs and claws it had thick human forearms and hands.
The fingernails were long, curved, and yellowing.
The raven inclined its head and turned one giant, bottomless eye
toward us—an almond of pure black with just a hint of light reflecting from it.
“It didn’t take them long,” the raven said, in a deep, refined voice.
“It didn’t take them long at all.”
At the sound of that voice, my partner began to cry: a soft weeping that I echoed from somewhere deep inside.
But I had a mission. We had a mission. Now, when it didn’t matter, I took her limp, cold hand in mine and held it tight.
“We have a message to deliver,” I said.
“Oh?” the raven said, considering me coldly. I saw now that all
across his razor beak there were the signs of dried blood. “And what
message is that? I’m busy here.”
“You are to stop. You are to stop,” I said.
“Stop what?” Bemusement beneath the dark feathers.
“Out there, they want you dead.”
A soft, chuffing laugh that a bird should not be able to make.
“There is no out there. Anymore.”
“No,” I admitted. “We didn’t find much. But every time you
change something, it changes there.”
“Someday it may be enough,” he said.
My partner made a sound, as if to speak.
“Don’t you recognize her?” I asked.
“Her?” he said. “Her?” Peering.
“Don’t you recognize me?” she said. “I recognize you.”
The raven with the human hands turned back to his desk. Beyond
that desk was a formless darkness. “That was a long time ago. That
wasn’t here. That wasn’t this.”
“It could be,” she said, and took a hesitant step forward. And then
another. I saw the courage that took, although I don’t believe in
The raven’s head whipped around, and it said, almost with a snarl,
I heard a lurching sound now, coming from down the corridor.
Every light behind us was dark. We existed only in the round glow of
the lights in the office.
“We are here to make you stop,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
“Don’t you remember?” she said, as the dead talk to the dead. But
she was staring into the darkness beyond.
I was close enough now. I lunged across at him, in the motion I had
practiced a thousand times at his behest. My arm around the surprisingly delicate neck. A quick, wrenching twist. The raven’s eyes
rolled up. It dropped to the floor. Dead.
I stood there, staring. Was it to be that easy? It was not.
The darkness moved, came out into the light. It was him. Again.
Much larger, but the same. The eye regarding me from above was not
“I couldn’t let you after all,” he said. “The work is too important.”
“Don’t you remember?” she said again. My partner now seemed
caught in a loop. I could not help her.
The lurching came nearer.
“Your predecessor is almost here,” the raven said. “I cannot stop,
and you cannot stop me.”
“Someday you will be convinced,” I said. “And you will let me.”
“Someday I will finally sleep,” came the rumbling voice.
There was a wetness behind me, and a soft guttural sound as of a
throat that has been cut and yet the flesh lives.
“Don’t you remember.”
A sadness entered the eyes of the great man. “I remember enough
to let you decide.”
It was useless, but I tried. I lunged up at him, but my predecessor
had caught up to me. A hand that was not a hand on my arm. A kind
of intensity of motion that sucked its way into my skin, all of my
skin. Tore it off. Tore it all off. All of it.
Brought me struggling to the box of starlings. Shoved me in. Left
me there. Waiting for the moments when the great man and his new-old queen walk by. Waiting to sense them from the way the wings
ripple differently across my face, the way the beaks and heads and
claws suppurate and wriggle and try to escape, and keep trying to
escape. Breathing in the spaces between.
One day, he will let me go, with or without her. He will release the
starlings up through the ruined second story, through the chimney,
to explode out into the sky, over the old woods. They will no longer
know they are birds, as I no longer remember what I was before. But
we will be flying and falling, falling and flying, and against that beating of atrophied wings, against that sharp blue, I will see the gravel
path and the bridge beneath us. Returning. Remembering.
While my predecessor feeds upon me.