CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
We are in a haunted house. Our first game is played with dice. Earlier in our lives we tried to play with dice in the usual way but we could not determine the game’s object. These dice, which we found in a small drawer lined in saffron-yellow silk in the calamander jewelry box in the second upstairs bedroom, the bedroom with the lace—these dice are different. These dice are hollow. We can hear things rattling around inside. One die rolls more fives than it ought and the other more ones. We do not understand this mechanism or its purpose, but we are certain it has to do with the things inside the dice.
I take the die that rolls ones and Heather takes the die that rolls fives. The object of this game is to open your die and observe the thing inside before the other player opens hers. The game is played in the haunted house. If either player breaks the thing inside her die, she loses. Since we do not know whether this thing is fragile, there is a certain risk in simply smashing the die with a hammer. Nor does either of us know where we might find a hammer. Most surfaces in this house are derived from animals and are soft: feathers, leather, the cloud-thick wool rug in the library. There is neither bone nor horn nor ivory in this house. But there are certain vegetable- and mineral-derived surfaces that are hard, on which, if we wanted, if it were less risky, we could try to smash our dice. There is the squash court: we could smash our dice on the hard surface of the squash court. There is the billiard table. I could place my die on the billiard table and smash it with an iron gauntlet from the suit of armor in the downstairs hall.
The dice are made of some dark stone or crystal, reflective yet curiously deep, not unlike the dark stone or crystal that might be used for the eyes of an idol. The tawny spots are flat, not drilled, just colored, and they vary dramatically in shape, from pinpricks to smears to whorls, as though they were neither painted nor inlaid but actually natural flaws in the stone that happen to be six on this side, one on that.
Heather has already run off with hers. I am still sitting on the daybed in the downstairs hall, beside the suit of armor, where we came to establish the rules of the game. Suddenly I feel exposed. To something from above, or from outside. Because the animal surfaces in the house are uniformly soft, life in the house has the effect of softening the body and rendering it susceptible to the most subtle of intrusions. Through the window on the landing the sky shows black.
In the kitchen, I light the stove, grip the die firmly in iron tongs, and thrust it into the flame. When it’s black with soot and the air is filled with the scent of salt water I thrust the tongs into the icebox. I’ve repeated this procedure three times when the die cracks like a gunshot. I lay it on the table and peer close: a hairline fissure, an oblique white plane caught in the black. Before I can think how to widen it I realize that Heather is in the room.
“I beat you,” she says, holding out her open hand, on which lie the shards of her die along with another object. “Made a vise out of two horseshoes, an old ski binding, and a croquet mallet.”
That was risky. The vise might easily have crushed the thing inside the die. It was only luck that the thin stone cracked rather than crumbled, that she was able to pull the die in one piece from the vise and pry the halves apart with a throwing knife and extract the contents. I do not think of Heather as more risk-prone than myself, but perhaps she is changing. She realized, she says, that this would be a game of force. She realized that the player more likely to win would be the more forceful player. She saw that and she played the game accordingly.
“Don’t you want to know what was inside?” she says, proffering the shards again.
It is the smallest model ship I have ever seen. The size of a pencil eraser worn down to an extent consistent with its having erased between four and five complete limericks. We marvel at the workmanship and put it in the library beside the Rubik collection.
“Is there also a ship in yours?” Heather asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, not having looked, not having pried any further, not wanting to look, wanting the intricate and lovely thing in the center of my die to remain hidden forever, wishing we had never played this game.
We sit in cold pink-silk wing chairs in the drawing room. In the evenings the suit of armor moves of its own volition. This has never frightened us; its only activity is to offer us cognac repeatedly from a crystal decanter on a silver salver. We do not accept.
Today we are playing poker with the minor arcana of a leathery deck of tarot cards that Heather found bound with a crumbling rubber band in a kitchen drawer. The three of pentacles shows pigs rooting for truffles in the night, and the truffles are the pentacles. When we call wild cards before each hand we specify not suits and ranks but instead a feature of the illustrations. This enlivens the game. Currently the set of wild cards consists of all cards on which bells are depicted. I have one, the knave of wands, a very fat man with narrow eyes, holding a red feather in his left hand and wearing a belled skullcap. With a pair of sevens he makes three of a kind. I raise.
We are betting checkers, which we have in quantity and which resemble poker chips. It is not satisfying to play poker for checkers. Checkers have no meaning outside the poker game, and betting is only fun if you can take your winnings away at the end. We tried once to move from a poker game to a checkers game in which each player began with the checkers she had amassed in the poker game, but the number of checkers appropriate to a checkers game is not commensurate with the number of chips appropriate to a poker game. That is, we found ourselves trying to play checkers with too many checkers. We put sixteen boards side by side, four by four, but found it inconvenient to reach the checkers in the middle. The game lasted a very long time and our bodies began to ache. In the end we abandoned it.
When we have finished tonight we will put all our checkers together in the checkers coffer. I will feel a certain relief at this, understanding it to mean that Heather and I, like our checkers, are together, that we are in this together, that we are not conniving alone to obtain and hoard each other’s checkers for who knows what reason; but, because there is nothing else to take away from our game, this pooling of checkers will also eradicate all evidence that it ever occurred.
Heather, it transpires, has two wild cards: a belfry seen in the distance behind seven cups, the queen of swords reaching for the bell-pull to summon a servant. We argue about the second, whether there is a bell on the card or only a rope; Heather wins the argument, and, with a straight, the hand. I push a tower of checkers across the table.
The clock strikes. We pause to listen. Twelve times it strikes. The black numerals on the clock’s mother-of-pearl face are twisted and stretched, like bare branches against the moon. In the long intervals between strokes there is a silence as though all the haunts of the house have paused to listen along with us, so that certain things that they do not wish us to see, and that we do not wish to see, are for the moment susceptible of being seen. It is a fearful time. When at last it is finished, when the clock has reverted to a comfortable ticking, our thoughts return to the room and the game and each other, but they return bearing a mark.
This happens every time the clock strikes.
“When you don’t try to think of anything,” says Heather, “what do you think of?”
“Home I guess,” I say. “You?”
She shuffles the cards more times than are necessary, then says, “Rivers of blood. What’s wild?”
“Rivers of blood?”
“Fine,” she says.
She deals me two wild cards, two rivers of blood. One, the sacrifice of a small falcon; the second, a group of worlds floating among the stars, connected with sanguinary umbilical cords. I win with four queens. It is the only hand I win all evening, this hand won through rivers of blood.
“I like it after the clock strikes,” says Heather. “It feels like we’re getting deeper into the night.”
I’m not sure whether I like it or not, but it occurs to me that it is right that she should have this feeling, that this is the way it should be: when we return from the unstable and transitory world of the clock’s chiming it is right to bring something back. Maybe the indescribable amalgam of fears and visions summoned by the chiming has become nothing more than an uncertain impression of the feeling of night; but it is right that we have it nonetheless, a thing from the other world.
We have seen and memorized all the cards. We return them to the kitchen drawer and pack up the checkers. Our journey into the world of poker has left us nothing.
“Shall we burn some of the checkers?” Heather asks.
“No,” I say, frightened suddenly—frightened of what happens to those who enter a haunted house and burn its appurtenances.
When I told Heather that the thing I thought of when I didn’t try to think of anything was “home,” I was not being entirely truthful. At one time I might indeed have thought of my own home, but now more and more I think of this house, which is haunted, and which is properly nobody’s home.
I have told you the house is haunted but I have offered little evidence. Listen: there is an attic in this house, a long narrow attic with a window at one end but not the other, and mouldering sets of Parcheesi and Scrabble and Sorry and Monopoly stacked twenty high and so thick with decay that they are just this side of becoming a kind of paste, so that if you try to pull out the Operation at the bottom the whole stack may suddenly sag, and the wall behind it creak, and the roof and floor beams also creak, until you forget about Operation and push the whole mound back, not as you would push distinct boxes in a stack but as you would push on a body of undifferentiated matter. Also in this attic there is a tailor’s dummy. The first time I went there I changed coats with the dummy, whose dark cashmere fitted me well. Then I went to the window and looked out for a moment at the meadow, and in the distance the line of trees; and when I turned back my own coat had gone from the dummy, which was bare. I called to Heather, thinking it was a joke of hers, and when she didn’t answer I opened the trapdoor and climbed down the ladder, but found myself in a hallway that I didn’t recognize. Then I thought there must be two different trapdoors and two different ladders and I had descended the wrong one. I climbed back up, but when I came through the trapdoor and again into the attic I saw no tailor’s dummy and no stacks of Monopoly but only a dry space floored in warped pine and occupied by a table on which lay a cheap chess set, the paper peeling from the cardboard, the plastic pieces arranged in a position from Paul Morphy’s famous Opera Game against Count Isouard and the Duke of Brunswick.
It is because of this kind of thing that I refer to the house as haunted.
Today Heather and I are playing the door game, a game of our own invention. Rules: each player begins in her own bedroom suite with six tokens. Our tokens are boxed board games. I take word games and Heather takes military games. These tokens are initially placed one on each side of the closet door, one on each side of the bathroom door, one on each side of the suite door. The object of the game is to move one of your tokens through the house and into the opponent’s closet.
I have never reached Heather’s closet. My own closet is full of ball gowns, which I have collected from other closets in the house and sometimes from cedar chests. Every time Heather reaches my closet at the inevitable conclusions of the door game it is her custom to try on a ball gown of her choosing, to wear it all evening, and not to give it back; and when I remind her that there are many ball gowns, that she is welcome to any of mine and also that there are others, not only in closets and cedar chests but also in attics and in sealed glass cases in the second-floor east hallway and sometimes in certain kitchen cabinets, covered in blood—when I remind her of these things she only says, “But I won it,” and puts the gown in her own closet, out of my reach.
Further rules: on each player’s turn she moves a single token along a wall in either direction until she encounters a door jamb, where she deposits the token; each doorway can thus harbor up to two tokens, one on the right jamb and one on the left. A token may not cross the open space of a doorway, but must follow the wall around the room in order to reach the opposite jamb. There is no immediate way for tokens to pass each other, so it is possible to blockade strategic positions.
“Your turn,” Heather says, and I see that she has hemmed in four of my six tokens in the neighborhood of the buttery, the butchery, and the deep freeze.
We tend, in playing the door game, to remain in proximity to each other in order to conduct maneuvers, and each to stick with a single token for a series of moves. The result is that, following our respective tokens, we find ourselves creeping along the walls and not daring to enter the open spaces of doorways, and I sometimes have the impression that we are not only the players of this game but also each other’s tokens in a different game, which is related to and played simultaneously with the door game but whose rules are more complicated and less knowable and without any clear origin—that is, I have the impression that I am causing Heather to creep along the walls in this way, and she me, but our operation of each other is governed by an obscure and perhaps unsuitable interface, as might be the case were I flying a remote-control helicopter using a remote control intended for a different remote-control helicopter. By operating the control that ought to send her banking right I instead launch a rocket.
Still more rules: a token encountering a window may continue its move from the window most directly above or below that window on any floor of the player’s choosing. A token encountering the dumbwaiter may on its next turn enter the dumbwaiter and move to a different floor. Staircases are treated as doorways. Sidelights are treated as windows. French doors are treated as doorways, but French doors with sidelights are treated as doorways flanked by windows. Known secret doors are treated as doorways. Trapdoors are not treated as doorways.
There are, finally, certain other rules, rules governed by the house and its haunts, that we are discovering only slowly. As we play we learn under what conditions a token left under the portrait of the alligator-faced man in the straw boater will go mysteriously missing only to turn up later in a more advantageous position. Under what circumstances and at what times of day certain doors might be expected to disappear and reappear. When to look away.
“Damage the game box,” Heather advises me, opening the door of the linen cupboard adjacent to my room to discover the mutilated copy of Risk she left in the nursery this morning. “The haunts can’t resist damaged things.”
Heather knows more about the habits of haunts than I do. I try to piece together my observations but I get distracted by details. Why the Opera Game, that day in the attic? Paul Morphy was a great chess prodigy who was invited to the opera one day by Count Isouard and the Duke of Brunswick. When they arrived at the opera house, Morphy wanted to watch the opera, but the Count and the Duke wanted to play chess. Morphy beat them easily, but struggled to take in the opera at the same time. Who really won this situation? Morphy won the chess game, but he did not get what he wanted, which was to watch the opera in peace. The Count and the Duke lost the chess game, but got what they wanted, which was to play chess with the prodigy. It is easy to feel disgusted with the aristocrats and sympathetic towards Morphy, and at times I think of myself as the Morphy of this house, here to witness something rare and beautiful but distracted by a game. But then do I have to think of Heather as Count Isouard and the Duke of Brunswick? And what is the rare and beautiful thing that I am here to witness? The metaphor breaks down: for one thing Heather is winning where the Count and the Duke lost, winning easily, two of her tokens already in my suite and making their way towards the closet. So maybe after all I’m the one who corresponds to the Count and the Duke; maybe I’m actually just a distraction to Heather, who is the one who’s here to see something rare and beautiful; maybe in the bigger game, the game whose parameters we can’t understand until it’s finished—
This is the kind of thinking that occupies me. Another reason I call the house haunted: I’m surrounded by brass and silk and jade, top hats and tapestries and feather hand fans, and I spend my time wondering what there is that’s invisible.
Meanwhile Heather is in my closet, picking out a ball gown. If we play much more of this game I won’t have any left.
“You are in the tower of the haunted castle,” Heather says. “You’ve found a pair of dice.”
“Do you want to roll them?”
It is dangerous to roll unidentified dice.
“There’s a smell coming from beyond the door,” Heather says, “like molten iron.”
We’re playing Dungeons & Dragons in the library, one of the old editions, just a bunch of stapled pamphlets in a box. We found it a long time ago crammed in with the Chinese ring puzzles on a narrow shelf above the hi-fi, but we never played because we didn’t have any adventure modules. Now Heather says she’s written an adventure. She hasn’t been consulting any notes as we play, but everything seems very certain in her mind: the basalt tower, the inscription on the lintel, the black lamb, the heavy oak door carved with the faces of saints whose teeth are pink marble.
“Are there traps on the door?”
“One of the saints opens her mouth as you’re searching for traps. You can see all the way through to the other side, where there’s a torch flickering. Sometimes a shadow passes in front of the torchlight.”
“What kind of shadow?” I say. “A big shadow?”
This is the kind of seemingly stupid question it can sometimes be useful to ask when playing Dungeons & Dragons. The object of Dungeons & Dragons is to keep revealing new things that the players have imagined, and aggressive questioning just gives everyone an excuse to imagine more. Sometimes your character dies, and then it might be thought that you lose the game, but really you just invent a new character, and the new character does things that the old, dead character did not do, and so in fact you are now imagining and revealing an even greater range of unexpected things and so perhaps actually winning.
Heather is a good Dungeon Master. There is something in the acoustic quality of her voice that has the power to convince me quickly of fantastical places.
“You can’t see the shadow very well,” she says. “There’s just a tiny circle of torchlight through the saint’s mouth, and sometimes something seems to block it out. Maybe it’s a shadow or maybe it’s just your vision.”
“How does it move? Jerky? Jumpy?”
“It moves,” she says, “like it knows where it’s going.”
It occurs to me that Heather may be possessed. The typical possession is effected by demons, with well-known signs: speaking in tongues, superhuman strength, knowledge of what is hidden. In this house it’s a matter of haunts instead of demons, so perhaps the signs are different; nevertheless it is the case that Heather’s voice is washing over me with an unaccustomed and altogether inhuman strength; and as she describes for me the faces in the door, aged faces, faces filled with wisdom and malice, and describes too the flickering shadow and faltering light visible beyond them, the force of her voice suggests not an offering of imagination but a revelation of the hidden.
“I’m taking another look at those dice,” I say.
“They are the astragali, or talus bones, of a small bovid, perhaps some sort of antelope. They are worn smooth, as though they have been tossed countless times. Each of the four sides is marked with a rune that you almost understand.”
It is clear that Heather understands the runes. She is speaking in tongues.
I look around to clear my head. The library is carpeted in crimson wool and walled with leather bindings stamped in gold, all of it surmounted by twin wolf pelts and a bronze spear head above the mantle. Between Heather and me is what appears to be a coffee table, but if we could see the top of this coffee table we would see squares of whitewood over a ground of rosewood, three rows of ten, and if we were to pull out the drawers at either end we would find sets of alabaster crocodiles: this coffee table is actually an oversized board for the Egyptian game Senet, the ancient existence of which is known through the archaeological record but the ancient rules of which have never been ascertained. In fact we cannot see the surface of the coffee table because it is thickly strewn with pencil-scrawled papers, pewter miniatures, hex maps, laminated tables of numbers, and variegated pamphlets decorated with implausible drawings of heroes.
It is getting warm. For the first time I notice the fire blazing in the fireplace. I wonder why I didn’t notice it before. One side of Heather’s face shines bright and unearthly with a sheen of sweat. The scent of mineral oil and cherry tobacco tells me that the suit of armor is nearby, and I feel a sudden impulse to drink its cognac. I become certain that Heather has already drunk its cognac. Maybe I drink the cognac and maybe not; I’m focused not on what’s happening in the haunted house, but on what’s happening in the haunted tower, and in particular on the dice and the runes on the dice, which Heather is describing to me in timeless yet final terms, and whose peculiar geometry I begin to see projected by the fire onto the tabletop, mingling there with the shadows of our own dice, the faces of the miniatures, the Senet squares underneath. “I’m opening the door,” I say.
“Something happens to your body.”
I remember too late that I never finished checking for traps. I can’t tell whether the thing that is happening to my body is a consequence of a trap on the door or of something in the room itself. I can’t tell whether my fear signifies that I am winning because I am imagining fearsome new things in concert with Heather, or whether I have made some sort of mistake. I can’t tell what the nature of this game is: whether I have a place in this world or whether the bewildered and benighted character lost in the dark of Heather’s haunted castle will efface everything I know as myself. I can’t tell whether what I am experiencing is a possession or an invitation.
Heather tells me my body is turning into soap. She is watching me closely now. She stands up from her chair and moves into position behind me.
Brian Conn is the author of The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblems for the Perilous Season (FC2) and co-editor of Birkensnake magazine.