The House That Jack Built
Audio Fiction • Listen / Read
When newlyweds Jack and Liz move into their new house on a small island, a nearly-forgotten arson casts a fiery shadow over their marital bliss— and the strange creature haunting them.
This story contains scenes of fantasy violence.
The House That Jack Built
by William J. Meyer
This is the gardener, sowing his corn–
The knife slipped and Jack nicked his skin just beneath a knuckle.
"Sssnnn," he winced, hissing at his finger, angry that it could know pain. He threw the knife against the wall.
The deep brown blood dripped like molasses.
There, in the choppy, wind-beat North Atlantic, just off center on an olive-sienna island, in the middle of an unassuming valley, in the center of a field of autumnal grass–
The house that Jack built.
Just a box, really, opened at the back for easy access. Three floors sized just right for the miniature grandfather clock, the minuscule hobbyhorse, and a handful of bureaus whose drawers would never open.
A woman doll sat in the upper right bedroom. Her companion, similarly dressed but for his blue ascot, was bent at his hips. The couples' legs remained straight at the knees, molded and locked in position.
Their bodies were plastic, but they had real faces.
Jack had cut out his and Liz's heads from photographs, and then glued them over the anonymous plastic grins. He also tied human-sized rings around the dolls' necks.
Jack fretted. Would Liz understand that his proposal, although jokey on the surface, was dead serious underneath?
"Not dead," Jack thought. "Happily-ever-after should not begin so morbidly." He snorted and laughed.
"What?" asked Liz.
"Oh, nothing," Jack shrugged.
She pushed him hard in the arm.
"I hate it when you do that." She bared her teeth and shook her head.
A taste of winter played in the air as Jack and Liz walked down into the valley, hand-in-hand.
Jack focused on the sensation of her skin as her hand fitted inside his. He knew nothing better than to touch her, simply to touch her.
"Hey, check it out!" Liz nodded into the field.
There, crouched in the browning nadir, partially hidden, sat a tiny house.
Liz put a lock of hair behind her ear. She squinted. The toy house looked broken and abandoned from this distance.
Jack feigned ignorance. “Hmmm?” he groaned. He fixed his eyes on a passing cloud.
Liz pulled on his arm, but Jack's feet were too assuredly rooted for him to be moved.
"C'mon!" Liz insisted. She took a few cautious steps into the field.
"I'm not going out there!" Jack teased.
"Fine!" Liz sensed a game. "I'll go myself!" she declared.
Jack grinned through thin lips, watching Liz trot eagerly into the pale, dewy grass. He waited with satisfaction as she bounded over the heather and knelt before the tiny building.
Liz’s eye, round like a harvest moon, dark and rich like thick amber, loomed large in the triangular attic window.
"Oh gosh, oh gosh, oh gosh," she thought. "This is it, this is it. And— this is it!" She nearly squealed. "I do," she muttered, much too low for anyone to hear, still looking into the toy window.
She had seen the rings.
Liz scrambled around the back of the house and yanked the dolls from their home, like some benevolent force majeure.
Jack thought he heard something in the forest. Startled, he turned away from Liz’s grin. But it was too far, and he could only see a push of leaves under the gentle direction of the wind. He cleared his throat. Had a bear grumbled nearby?
Jack laughed under his breath and walked over to the dollhouse.
Liz stood up to face him. They stared at one another from either side of the house, their posture rigid. Finally, Liz broke into a laugh, birthed of equal parts embarrassment and joy.
Jack held his breath.
Liz shook the rings that dangled from the doll's necks– their light clinking buried under a new laugh, this one purely of joy. Liz nodded. Then, she screamed.
She stretched over the house and threw her arms around Jack. He shivered, as when a warm thing touches a cold thing. Jack closed his eyes and smelled her perfume. He held her as close as the house allowed.
Something in the woods stepped on a twig, and Jack opened his eyes. "How can she not hear that labored breathing?" he wondered. He looked past her shoulder and thought he saw the glint of angry eyes floating between the trees.
"Honey, I–" Jack stammered. "I should tell you something before we get married."
He pulled away.
“Look Jack, let me say something, don’t interrupt or I’ll lose my nerve.” Liz squinted, realizing what Jack had just said.
They laughed uncomfortably.
“You first!” they said in unison. They laughed again.
"What is it?" Liz asked.
"I–I," Jack bit his lower lip.
"The forest could gobble her up in the next moment," he warned himself, "Or the ground beneath her open into a chasm. Or the sky," he panicked, "the sky could–"
"Yes?" Liz asked, her voice tender.
Jack looked down and smiled. "I'm very happy."
"I am, too," said Liz.
“Is that—“ Jack turned askance, but kept looking at her. “Is that what you were going to say?”
Liz thought a moment and then nodded. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Together forever," she whispered.
The declaration was solemn, and it caught Jack off-guard. He scowled for a moment but recovered. He pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. It was a comical face of delight.
“I’ll build our home— right here,” he said, excited. “I wish— I wish I could give you a whole island— a whole life. But that fire— it—“ The memory bent his neck.
“It’s fine, Jack. It’s fine. The forest recovered. The trees are as strong as ever.” Liz cupped her hand behind his right ear.
“It will never be the same,” offered Jack.
“That— is life,” said Liz.
They hugged again. The sun went down. The sky turned pink and indigo. Fireflies danced all around them.
Jack could feel the dolls behind his back.
They were making out.
In only a few months, the house– the tall and wide house, the life-sized house, the real house– it rose out of thin air. Three stories. Three thousand five-hundred square feet.
The ground floor held the workshop with Jack’s wide array of unused tools. The storage space crammed with snow-ready recreational equipment. A petite foyer with muddy boots and wet jackets and crumpled hats. A covered porch that encircled the whole house. And a four-car garage, though on the island there were no cars.
The first floor held a fly-tying room where Jack thought he could outwit large mouth bass through intense planning and sloppy fly-craft. A stuffy pantry and a bright breakfast nook and a sparkling kitchen. A library full of art history on one side and literature from Thoreau and Emerson and Sinclair on the other. A dining room leading to a covered balcony. A great room for receiving the local intelligentsia, which never happened. And spacious bath number one.
The second floor held two guest rooms, prim and stiff. Spacious bath number two. A laundry. A master bedroom drenched in filigree leading to a spa-like master bath. Liz’s combination study and paint studio, her paints not contained to their canvas. Another balcony, where Liz might take her tea after summoning a likeness of blue corn and over-sized pumpkins. And, unobtrusive in the leeward corner, Jack’s small sun room, practically overrun by vines and fronds and petals and roots of all conceivable size and shape and disposition. And in this room, protected from all light along the back wall, palm-sized boxes containing dirt from two-dozen states— and three foreign countries.
This house took time. This house took timber. Twenty-two thousand four hundred board feet of framing lumber. Nineteen thousand six-hundred square feet of other wood, including fiberboard, particleboard, hardboard, glulam laminated beams, plywood, and veneer lumber. Each board foot was one inch thick, one foot wide, and one foot long. It was a lot.
In contrast to the small, mirthful dollhouse, this large one seemed to brood in the valley.
That kept the rooster, that crowed in the morn—
That waked the maiden, pretty but forlorn–
One spring morning, two months after they moved in, Jack and Liz stood on the porch at ground level. Jack kissed Liz deeply. As Jack turned away, Liz playfully slapped him on the butt. Then she went back inside the house, skipping the whole way.
Jack watched for a moment, and then took long strides to find his garden and its crooked rows. To Jack's hopeful eyes, the irregular mounds of dirt suggested future carrots and possible squash.
He reasserted his tool belt and adjusted his many spades. Jack double-checked the seed packets. He tightened his slightly ridiculous cherry-red suspenders, before padding down the hill to an unworked stretch of earth.
The tomatoes were bite-sized, like green bubble-gum. The corn, uncertain and shy.
Jack sat on the ground. He set his weed bucket beside him. He jammed his spade into loose dirt.
"Not all plants are created equal," he said with a smirk. Jack pulled out a weed and dropped it into its spacious tomb, a temporary stop on its way to a mulch afterlife.
He noticed the dirt on his wedding ring.
"Jack," he admonished, shaking his head. He pulled off the ring, blew the dirt off, and set the ring down on a rock.
The crisp call of metal on stone reached into the forest. It summoned the now-familiar labored breathing. Its answer was cold and spiteful.
But Jack, already absorbed in reverie, did not hear it. His eyes remained closed, a fistful of earth cuddled in his palm. Jack ran two fingers through the dirt. A subtle sigh escaped his lips. Although the hairs on the back of his neck bristled when a deep shadow fell on them, Jack's thoughts still lingered on the past. He ignored the slight chill.
The shadow withdrew.
Jack exhaled and clapped his hands together to disperse the dirt, leaving his daydream behind. He rubbed his chin for a moment, then turned to the empty rock beside him.
His ring was gone.
Jack heard the growl and then–
A light fog trickled out from between the trees. The thing stood at the edge of the forest, not twenty paces away. In the center of several curls of gray, a cluster of eyes blinked, and beneath them– what looked like a group of oversized worms wriggled in the air.
Jack fell over backwards. He drew a deep breath.
The upper bulk of the creature leaned toward Jack, but did not leave the forest, unwilling to leave the dappled light of the thick canopy.
A wink of gold floated in the creature's undulating clutches, and it caught Jack's eye. The stolen ring.
A low gurgle drizzled from the thing. The noise painfully became a laugh. The creature gathered inward, and its tentacles licked the air like lazy flames. It bellowed once more, turned, and fled into the shadows of the oaks– those tall and silent custodians of a dim, dank, unbordered kingdom.
Jack snatched his spade. He ran after the ephemeral thief.
The forest engulfed him.
Whenever Jack slowed his chase, a chortling laughter suggested a new direction to follow. But he needed no guide. He knew exactly where the creature was headed.
Seven rivers later, Jack unwillingly approached the cave.
"Never again," he said through gritted teeth, so angry that he bit his tongue. "I said– never again."
Yet there he stood, one foot in the blue and green forest, the other just inside the violet darkness. The cave seemed to be waiting. Jack jumped when a centipede skittered across his foot.
The broken laughter taunted him from inside. Jack briefly considered giving up his wedding ring, then chastised himself just as quickly. He examined the moss around the mouth of the cave, watching with curiosity the thin and emerald cilia. It swayed under a slow passage of humid air that escaped the high, slender entrance. Jack put a tentative hand on the jade moss. It moistened his fingers. He knew in that moment that he had already made his choice.
Into the tunnel.
The soft glow of the stalactites lit Jack's way. He followed the occasional sparkle of an underground stream which ran beneath the mountain. He crawled through a dreary cavity and emerged in a misty valley.
A hazel waterfall roared. Blue, swirling fog hung low over hidden waters. A birdless sky billowed clouds, pink above and ruddy below. Every color was kissed by an eternal sunset.
Another world– and Jack was home.
He steadied his footing, crossing the land bridge that stretched into oblivion. The gentle curve of the root-embedded rock spread out to greet a plateau, something of an island, a mass of airborne stone not yet ready to slip into the patient abyss below. And yet its edges crumbled at Jack's touch, sending tiny pebbles of earth and rock tumbling in slow motion.
Jack stood behind the thief. It had been dark and colorless before, but in this world it was golden. The creature curled 'round and collected its pulpy tendrils. Finally, it spoke.
"U vertelde niet haar, Sindre."
Jack bristled at the sound of his true name, spoken now in his former tongue.
"You lie to her!" continued the faceless creature. "You lie to yourself."
The wormy tentacles stretched low along the ground and rose up again, enveloping Jack, tapering into thin hooks of purple and black. He flinched under their writhing touch.
"U bent niet, Sindre veranderd,” the voice said. “You cannot change."
Jack let his response crawl over his teeth, "I won't tell her. I can't! She would leave me!"
"Then you will live in torment," the thief proclaimed, gilding its anger with empathy.
Jack lifted his tiny spade like a weapon. "I'll fight it," he said. His temper was even.
The mist fumed. A dark red tendril uncurled to reveal its stolen prize. "Take your trinket," said the thing. "It has no meaning here."
Jack snatched the ring. He angrily thrust it back into place on his finger.
The thief backed away, and its undulating appendages retreated. The creature assured Jack, "The fixed world will forever beckon.”
Jack shook his head, making his own promise. "I'll never turn back," he said.
His tormentor was not convinced.
The sickly laugh returned as the towering form lifted another snaking tendril. The thing pointed at Jack's right hand. "The signs have already begun!" The deep bass of its voice echoed through the other world.
Jack felt a slight itch. He fought hard to ignore it. But the skin of his palm burned and he could not stop from dropping the spade. It tumbled into the low fog. He never heard the distant splash. Jack lifted his hand.
A red-black eczema spread in fits, like spilled ink crawling over and into the pores of his skin.
Jack cried out, but the misty valley smothered his plea.
That married the man, all tattered and torn–
That lived a lie, since the day he was born–
“Well Jackedee-Jack, it’s a fine house you’ve got here, a fine house!” Andy popped the cap off his beer bottle. It skidded across the porch and dove off into the pine needles.
“Thank you,” Jack answered slowly. He clinked his beer against Andy’s. “You’re not going to leave that there, are you?” Jack canted his head in the direction of the bottle cap.
“Of course not, of course not,” Andy answered. But, he didn’t move.
Jack took another sip of beer.
“What happened to your hand?” asked Andy.
“Nothing,” said Jack, holding up the bandage. “Cut myself. That’s all.”
“Hmmm-mmm. Y’know,” started Andy, “if you was to sell the—“
“I won’t,” interrupted Jack.
“Let me finish, let me finish,” Andy lifted his beer like a staff. “If you was to sell the back part of the island, that dark part crowded by boulders—“
“It’s a mountain.”
“It’s hardly a mountain,” said Andy, working his eyebrows. “If you was to sell it to me, for a good-natured price, mind you, I could develop it for two— or three— cottages.”
“You wouldn’t know anyone was there. I doubt you would even hear their kids, laughing and splashing in the water. I know you built this chunk of paradise to hide from folks, but so much of this island is just going to waste. It’s a damn shame.”
“Why does talk of land in your country always default to a position of usefulness? And— uh— promotion of what benefits you? The appeasing of your needs?”
“My country?” asked Andy.
“The value of the land— and the mountain—“
“It ain’t a mountain.”
“—and the forest is not what it can do for— us. Let’s protect it for its own sake. Isn’t that true stewardship?”
“Huh,” said Andy. He took a long swig. “Tell me, Jack. Where’d this house of yours come from? Hmmm? Not the bottom of a cereal box.”
Jack squinted at Andy.
“C’mon,” said Andy. “Was only foolin’.” Andy changed the subject to lighten the mood. “Hey, it was ahelluva speech I gave at the reception, right?”
“Yes, Andy. Helluva speech.”
“Why so droopy, man? I said I was sorry.”
“For insulting my home? Or for the speech?”
“Very funny. Seriously. What’s eatin’ you?”
“There’s— something I have to tell Liz.”
“If I’m having trouble telling her, do you think I could tell you? Uhm, no offense.”
“Oh, I dunno, I tell you and the boys plenty I can’t expose to the piercing light of my wife’s perfect halo. Haha.”
“Well, I should be able to tell her, but—“
“The words. They won’t take shape. And the thought, the thought itself is choked, like a sapling in a thick fog.”
“Yeah, I don’t really know what you’re talking about. That botany stuff. But,” Andy lifted the bottle to his lips. “It almost sounds like you have a secret. But what the heck kindof secret could you have? I once saw you catch a spider and put it outside.”
“Surely it’s not just me?” mused Jack, coddling his beer.
“Secrets,” said Jack. “Inside every man is a secret. And, what’s worse— inside every secret— is a lie.”
Andy sighed. “Look, just take it back to basics,” suggested Andy. “Do you love her?”
“As chlorophyll loves sunlight.”
“I— wouldn’t put it that way, but good. And she loves you?”
“Yes. As long as she doesn’t know my secret.”
“You said you keep things from your wife.”
“Yeah, cigars!” Andy pulled two from his shirt pocket. “Want one?”
“I do not.”
Andy lit his cigar. Jack straightened his shoulders.
“Well,” said Andy, “I best be off. Deliveries past due and whatnot. I’ll be back for Liz’s party. Unveiling, excuse me. Not sure Samantha can make it. They’re driving her pretty hard at the hospital these days. When’s the party again? Couple weeks?”
“The thirteenth!” called Liz from the balcony above. “In September!”
Andy craned his neck. “Hey Liz! I didn’t realize it was that far away.”
“It’s a big painting,” said Liz. She folded her arms. “Jack, get in here and help me.”
“With what. You know darn well.”
When Andy turned away, Liz winked at Jack.
“And Andy, if you don’t get your goose off my dock, and outta my water, that plane might just go up in an unexplained fireball.”
Andy zipped up his jacket. “Wouldn’t be unexplained. Jack won’t even share a cigar with me. You’re the pyro! But don’t you worry, I’m leaving. See ya.” He waved and trotted off. Then Andy shouted over his shoulder, “To be continued, Jack!”
“Still after the north shore?” Liz called down.
“It’ll never happen,” said Jack. He relaxed a bit, asking, “What did he mean?”
“Hmmm?” called Liz
Jack lifted his gaze to her. “Calling you a pyro?”
“A joke, I guess. In contrast— to your famous aversion— to fire.”
Jack nodded. He knelt on the ground and found Andy’s bottlecap. He held it with disdain. He stood up again, and both Liz and Jack waited for Andy’s plane to sputter away.
That kissed his wife, he could not forewarn–
Liz stumbled down the stairs. Her art portfolio slipped out from between her fingers. She hurried to gather the giant folder again while pretending to pause at the foot of the stair to admire her own painting that hung there. With a quick hand she falsely straightened a watercolor of lilacs and summer grasses. Then, with a swift tug on her smart black jacket, Liz hauled her portfolio into the kitchen.
Jack sat at the breakfast nook. He seemed to be preoccupied with his dirty nails.
"Forgot to wash your hands?" Liz asked, but before Jack could answer, she was already opening an English muffin bag and thinking of her final exam later that day. Tzara and Duchamp.
Jack hid his right hand behind his back just as Liz fetched butter and jam from the fridge. When she closed the refrigerator door, Jack was left looking at a group of photos posted there. Two magnets held young Liz against the brushed metal door. It was a place of honor, high above the other photos, dominating memories of birthday parties and trips to the zoo.
The thirteen-year-old Liz pranced in a white dress, in the woods, some woods, near a ravine, some ravine. Clearly by her frilly garment she should have been at someone's First Communion. Perhaps her own. This young Liz held a worn, wooden paint box under one arm, and in the other– a crude watercolor of a tree.
Behind her, nearly cropped out of the photo, the unmoving object of her naïve affections.
The tree itself.
Jack heard a twig snap.
Someone had tied a swing– just a rope and a plank– to the tree's lowest branch. Young Liz giggled– she sat beaming on her swing– her hands folded graciously in her lap, her hair up and fastened with a bow.
Birds alighted in the rich leaves of the tree, the swing rocked slowly under the girl’s buoyant weight, and the daggers of the sun flashed and ebbed.
Summer had arrived.
In the next moment Jack stood beside Liz in the photo. All around them bloomed the bounty of their love: a verdant expanse of budding flowers and distant blue mountains. Jack wished he really was beside her in the photo— the Jack today, the Liz today— man and wife in that imagined time and immaterial place, where words need not be spoken– and the pain of his skin could be forgotten.
He felt the burn of his wound and yelled inside, "How can I ever touch her again?"
The world contracted, and there came a great rushing sound, as though someone had reached inside Jack and found nothing but a vacuum.
"You sure loved that old tree," he mused aloud.
Liz opened a jar and set a butter knife lengthwise across its top. "Yeah, he was great."
Jack laughed. "He?"
"All sorts of beautiful trees up here on your dad's property," said Liz. She leaned on the counter and stared out the kitchen window.
The immaculate view gave her heart a flutter. She marveled at the gold and green light that stretched from forest to sky.
“There would be more— if not for that fire.”
Liz lowered her head. “Jack.”
“It wasn’t so long ago. The authorities might still catch him. Or her.”
“Jack, it’s been almost ten years. We can’t let the past haunt us. There’s no catching them now.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But what justice is there in simply moving on?”
“Guilt can be its own punishment.”
Jack nodded. “I won’t argue with that. Tell me more about your tree.”
A smile perked Liz up. She turned back to Jack.
"My dad always warned me, 'Stay out of those woods!' Lots of strange things up here," she grinned. "Pop claimed some people went in, and never came out!"
“So naturally you went in.”
"I'm glad you didn't vanish," Jack glanced at the photo. "Did your mother take the picture?"
"Yeah, when pop was away we snuck onto the island. Just a bit north of here actually, with sandwiches and stuff."
"Did you keep the painting?" Jack nodded at the smear of the watercolor tree in the photo.
"No," Liz shrugged, pouring herself some coffee. "I gave it to the tree. In thanks."
"Thanks for what?" wondered Jack.
"Y'know, for being beautiful," she shrugged again and poured cream into her mug.
Jack absently scratched the side of his nose as he smiled.
Liz continued, "But y'know, something did disappear. Mmm hmm. My tree. Last time I went up there. He was gone. Just vanished. Not even a stump to remember him by."
Liz sipped her coffee before walking over to him. "I kept thinking, maybe he just up and walked away." Liz watched the steam rise over her mug.
"C'mon!" cried Jack.
Liz crossed her arms. "Coulda been magic. You don't know."
"Aahhh," Jack lifted his chin and looked down his nose. "Magic!"
Liz set the coffee down and looked him square in the eyes. "Don't you want to believe?"
The English muffins popped up, black and brittle.
Liz turned to see a dark gray fume swirl over the toaster and soil the air.
That hoped and prayed, night, day, and morn–
A week later Liz returned from the grocery store with a paper bag in each arm. She clenched her key chain between her teeth. A dangling toy kitten hung against her chin.
"Jaaaaack?" she mumbled, without dropping her keys. Joy sparkled in her eyes. Liz spat the keys out and they clinked on the floor. “Rowing from the mainland is going to give me Olympian arms, let me tell you. So guess who I saw at the store?” She listened for a response. “Jack?"
She turned the corner from the front hall and entered the kitchen. Liz dropped the groceries.
The milk splashed and spread across the hardwood floor toward the pool of blood. Jack sat by the dishwasher. The blood ran burgundy, graced with a dollop of amber. The morning light caught it just so.
Jack quickly sat up against the kitchen cabinets when Liz burst into the room. His back dug into the hard wooden knob that was mounted on the drawer behind him.
A string of spittle hung from his neck, and his claret eyes squinted under the influence of tears. His right arm, attached at the shoulder like a prop, had recently suffered a wide gash from elbow to wrist. The skin peeled back, and it exposed a pink and flaky undergrowth.
Liz ran to Jack and kneeled at his side. She wiped the corner of his eyes.
"I'm– I'm sorry," Jack mumbled. "I didn't want you to see." He glanced at his arm.
The lesion that ripped his arm revealed a different Jack– no, a different thing– a thing growing just under the surface– no, not growing. Festering. Waiting.
Liz looked at Jack's arm. "See what," she said.
Jack furrowed his brow in confusion. He mumbled, "I didn't want you to know."
"But honey," said Liz, shaking her head. "You can tell me anything."
Jack reached up but didn't touch her. He kept his trembling hand hovering beside her cheek.
"No," he said. "No, I can't."
This is the dog–
That worried the cat–
“Here, let me help you with that,” said Andy, appearing beside Liz.
She jumped, nearly knocking the giant canvas over a second time.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Don’t look!” admonished Liz, tilting the large panel toward her body.
Andy remained on the other side. “I won’t, I won’t,” he said.
Liz eyed the cigar in his mouth. “Please don’t smoke in here.”
“I was just going to hold this,” said Andy. He took the cigar out of his mouth. “Oh look, your painting is between us. Again.”
“It was never my work, Andy.”
“No? Then what?”
“That’s the beauty of moving on. It doesn’t really matter.”
Andy thought for a moment. “You’re right,” he decided.
“I didn’t hear your plane.”
“That’s funny, because I think she caught a seagull in her bilge pump.”
“Uh huh,” said Liz.
“Not really,” Andy promised.
“I know,” Liz nodded. “Turn around, I’m going to lean this against the wall.”
“All right,” said Andy.
“What’s that box in the doorway?” Liz asked as she carefully angled the canvas.
“Oh, I brought you two a cake,” Andy leaned over and picked up the box. He kept his back to Liz and the painting. “It’s a little dry, though. And— I had some. And— the last house I visited didn’t want it. But, I was near you guys, and so—“
“You’re— thoughtful,” said Liz. She threw a cream-colored cloth over the unfinished painting. “You can turn around now.” She went to her paints and took a towel off the gold leaf.
Andy faced her while shifting the cake box in his uneasy arms. “So where’s Jack?”
“Probably in his garden. You didn’t see him?”
“Listen, Liz, I wonder if you’d talk to him for me.”
“I was just about to ask you the same,” Liz smiled, wiping red and orange paint from her hands.
“I’m worried. Something— consumes him. From the inside. Like tree rot. But he won’t talk to me. I’ve tried. Maybe he’ll tell you.”
“All right. I’ll try.”
“Thank you. And what do you—“
Andy cut her off. “This island. The north shore.”
“Not that again, Andy.”
“Think of it, Liz. Just four or five cottages. It would stimulate economic growth, the small mainland villages could provide regular boats. Maybe get a ferry in here, you wouldn’t have to row all the time. Would be a pretty penny in your bank account, too. Bring some value to—“
“That’s not where I keep my value, Andy.”
“No? Please don’t tell me you keep it in your heart.”
“I don’t,” Liz chuckled. “I keep it in Jack’s heart.”
“I thought you were more— modern than that.”
“It’s not what you think it is, Andy.”
“We live as one. Grow as one. That means if he’s sick, then I am sick. Likewise, if I’m sick, he’s sick. And Andy, I’m afraid I might be awfully sick.”
“Is this what they call romance?”
“Maybe.” Liz smiled.
“And what if something happens to Jack? No man lives forever. Would I lose two friends instead of one?”
“You weren’t this thoughtful when—“
“When we were— Anyway, you might be right,” she threw the towel onto a nearby ottoman. “But that’s one reason I need you to talk to him. The leaves have started to turn and— lately— it feels— like I’m just watching him die.” She was quick to add. “A— strange melancholy. And it’s killing me, too.”
“He hasn’t tried to hurt himself, has he?” asked Andy.
“No, not that I know of.”
“I’ll talk to him.” Andy nodded.
Liz stood stock still. “Thank you, Andy.”
“And you’ll talk to Jack? You did promise.”
“I— Maybe— One cottage to start? Hmmm?”
“All right! All right. All— right.”
Andy found Jack in his garden, sitting on his haunches. Liz watched the conversation from the balcony outside her studio. She noticed right away Andy had lit his cigar. She frowned. Andy paced around Jack, more and more agitated, but Jack never moved. Finally, Andy tossed his arms up in frustration and yelled something Liz couldn’t quite make out. To Liz’s shock, Jack sprang upright and was upon Andy like an animal. Andy’s cigar fell to the ground and Jack stomped on it. Liz straightened, startled as Jack knocked Andy off his feet and onto a patch of radishes.
“What is wrong with you?” said Andy.
“Those trees. They were special, Andy. You had no right.”
“Jack, I was a kid. A stupid kid, but still a kid. I didn’t mean to wreck your dad’s property.”
“You don’t even hear your own words.”
“Jack, no one was hurt. The fire, contained.”
“Right,” said Jack, looking into the forest. “No one was hurt.”
“The damage was— regrettable but please—”
“Damage. Regrettable.” Jack struggled.
“If it helps, that was another me. Someone else. And I apologize for both of us. Friends?” Andy lifted his hand to Jack.
“I— am sorry. Forgive my anger,” Jack managed, looking down on Andy. He knew he could crush him, but that wouldn’t change things. “You— did not mean to.” He helped Andy stand and then turned away. “You were someone else? Well, I don’t know who— I am— anymore. The man I am, the man I was— or the man I always wanted to be.”
“Well, now you’re Jack, whoever that is,” Andy answered, dusting himself off.
Jack looked over at him. “Am I?”
Later that night a thunder storm rolled in. The weight of the churning black and blue clouds hung over the island like a warning.
In a slow voice Jack revealed Andy’s confession to Liz. She listened with a vacant stare and said nothing. When she walked outside and leaned on the balcony, it started to rain. Jack watched her ponder.
With the rush of autumn, the color drained from Jack's face, and his shoulders sloped, and his irritability came into full flower.
Liz often spied Jack crumpled in his dying garden, now overwrought with brown and red weeds, her husband’s spindly fingers burrowed inside the cold earth. She thought him mad. But it was a madness she was desperate to share.
Once, she watched him emerge from the forest with a small rust-colored pot, apparently empty, for no plant peeked over its rim. Jack set the pot inside the doll house now in residence in their garage. Liz waited for Jack to lumber off before creeping up on the curiosity. She looked inside. It was empty, except for some crumbly earth. Unable to resist, she sifted her fingers through the soil. There must have been something sharp in the dirt, a shard of metal or an edge of rock— Liz’s fingers stung and she jerked them out. A tiny bit of blood dripped from her hand.
That ate the rat–
That hid inside–
As deep as the lie–
On that final morning, Liz tramped merrily into the bedroom, still brushing her teeth and setting a can of hairspray on the dresser.
"Up and at 'em!" she called.
The lump under the sheets did not stir.
"Get up, lazy bones!" She frowned and edged toward the head of the bed. “I gotta clean this whole dang place for the unveiling tonight. Thirty people gonna leave a nasty mess and I need your help making this place presentable. So get up! I don’t want a mess of a mess. I want a whole new mess!” She laughed. "Are you hibernating?" Liz giggled. "Are you dead?" She snorted.
Liz threw back the sheets.
There was disarray. Particles of— something. But what? Breadcrumbs? Scales? Skin like a popped balloon?
Something rustled behind her. Liz spun around and faced a pair of glinting eyes. They blinked from inside the shadowed closet. She peered at the twin spots of light. She leaned toward the darkness.
The sunrise crested behind her. The light of dawn cut through the window and spilled over her shoulders. The skittish and lithe figure before Liz backed away, deeper into the black.
"Jack?" asked Liz.
Jack snarled. "Don't look at me!"
"What's wrong, honey?"
His eyes positively glowed. His sharp teeth caught the nervous morning light. Jack cleared his throat. The sound rose up like a gurgling brook.
"Beneath my gentle leaves you grew into a woman with such a loving heart I had to be with you always."
The words swirled with urgency– gathering speed, they tumbled out of him.
"I walk'd west of the sun for your touch. I walk'd east of the moon for your kiss!"
Jack's fervor urged him forward. He nearly stepped out of the darkness, but Liz's admonishment stayed his approach.
"What are you talking about?" she demanded.
Slowly– rigidly– Jack lifted a crinkled and filthy wedge of paper.
Just along the bottom, a little girl had written ‘Liz,’ in purple– and then, around her name, she had painted a heart, in red– and then, inside the heart, another name. ‘Mr. Tree,’ and the name was in blue.
Jack held the coarse rendering between a tight cluster of twigs.
Liz pointed with the toothbrush. "Where did you get that?" Her voice was a whisper.
"You– gave it to me," Jack answered.
Liz turned away, dazed.
"But it was all for nothing," Jack mumbled. "I can't stay."
"Why not?" Liz wondered.
Jack growled. He thrust his face out of the darkness. "Look at me!" he shouted.
His teeth: gnarled and yellow. His brow: ridged with the texture of crumbling bark. His neck: a trunk in the making. Jack's arms and fingers hung low at his side, dour branches drooping under the profound weight of grief.
"Don't you see?" Jack insisted.
Liz saw her husband, standing bare-naked in the closet. He seemed to be faintly glowing with the salmon light of dawn.
"I see," she answered.
Jack furrowed his brow.
"I see what I've always seen," she said.
He lifted his head, curious.
"A tender soul of great beauty."
The words bit deeply into Jack, sharper than any perjury.
"No! You don't understand! I've lost you! I've lost you because of this!" He thrust the twigs of his right hand up into the air. He swiftly curled the thin brown sticks into a fist. The effort summoned a great pain, for his hand creaked like a stiff oak bent by a virulent storm. Jack growled again.
"I've lost you– because of what I am!" he cried.
Jack's body heaved out of the closet, it lifted him up, up to the ceiling. His chest was covered in brown and green bark. His arms twisted in crooked and unnatural ways. His face was rough, corrugated, and inscrutable.
“You didn’t lose me, Jack. You didn’t lose me!” Liz cried. “You found me! Jack, I understand.”
“How could you? You have nothing hidden. Nothing tears at you from within!”
“Jack. It isn’t true. Andy lied to you.”
“I am sorry, Jack. I was a teenager— I brought a group of friends— Andy was with us, but it wasn’t him. We snuck onto this island. It was twilight. We were cooking hotdogs, corn, beans, whatever. I told everyone about Mr. Tree. I took a thick stick from the fire pit to light our way. It burned before us. A red and orange smear in the night. I led everyone to the spot. Mr. Tree wasn’t there. You— weren’t there.”
“I was in the walking world, looking for you!”
“If only I had known, Jack. If only I had known! They laughed at me. I got angry, so angry. At the time, I certainly didn’t think— I gathered dead leaves, right there, right where you should have been. I put the burning stick on the pile. It felt like— a ritual. Burning my childhood folly. The fire— it got out of control. Andy tried to put it out, but. It was too much. We ran. We all ran. We got in the rowboats. We went home. Like nothing had happened.”
“Like nothing— had happened! I saw the flames. I felt them! I returned to this place. By then father had stopped the fire, he saved some, but—“ Jack shook with rage. His tall body scraped at the confines of the room. “You made a gaping hole in the fixed world. A black, charred cavity. I lost many friends that day.” He lowered his face to meet Liz’s concerned look. “I lost— Family. Sisters.”
“Jack. Nothing I say can put it right.”
“Then say nothing.”
“My sweet Jack.” Tears streamed down Liz’s cheeks.
“The sycamore. The sugar maple. Elm, hemlock, chestnut, oak!”
“Jack,” Liz repeated, her mind aghast.
“I spent five hundred years protecting this forest from humans! From your kind! I kept this island human free!”
“And I invited you in. I— invited you.” The part of Jack still human— he cried, too.
“Liz, get back!” shouted Andy.
Liz turned to see him standing in the doorway, cigar in his mouth, knife in his hand.
“Andy, no!” ordered Liz, but it was too late.
Andy lunged forward and took a sliver out of the creature’s torso.
But it merely snarled.
“Liz! That can!” Andy demanded. He pointed at the hairspray on the nearby shelf.
“What are you—“ Liz started.
Andy stepped past her and snatched the can. He spun back around and sprayed it at the creature. Andy put his cigar in the path of the thick mist. It caught fire.
“Raarrrgghhh!” cried the thing. Its arm sparked red and orange. The creature swatted Andy and sent him flying into the wall by the door. The thing waved its flaming arm in the air— and its anger boomed.
The creature’s long pinkish legs struck forward like lightning strikes. It shattered the bedroom wall. With giant strides the creature fled across the garden and toward the forest.
“What— was— that—?” Andy asked, still on his hands and knees.
“Hmmm?” Liz wondered, absent of thought. Then she awoke, as if from a fantasy.
“Where’s Jack?” asked Andy, catching his breath. “We have to get out of here, warn your other guests for the party. My plane, at the dock—“ He trailed off, noticing Liz was not concerned.
She gaped at the hole and the sight of her retreating husband. She blinked rapidly, her eyes were catching up to the light of the new day.
As Andy watched, perplexed, Liz lifted her hand toward the hole in her home.
Liz wished she could conjure another life, one where Jack would return, completely human, smiling, bursting with love– and the house, that too would reform, heal, and be whole.
But when nothing happened, Liz lowered her hand.
“No,” she said, her voice flat.
“No?” countered Andy. “What do you— you did see that, right?” Andy moved in front of her. “I lied for you, Liz.”
“I know that, Andy.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Liz watched where Jack had vanished into the forest. She did not look at Andy when she said, “Leave this island. Leave and never come back.”
The trail of crushed foliage led Liz through both glen and dell. She crossed seven rivers, glimpsing the violent stride of her husband as he forced his way into the narrow mossy maw. Liz pursued, carefully picking her way into the cave and through its smothering void.
Jack stood before the towering, golden thing, its smoky shape now resolved in the form of a regal tree. Its hungry, wormy fingers quivered. Around Jack, a diffused sun bathed the sequestered valley in a violet haze.
"You were right, father," Jack hung his head. New, leafy branches grew at the back of his neck. "I don't belong in the walking world."
"Anderen hebben, Sindre geprobeerd," said the tree. "Zij allen hebben ontbroken."
Jack took a deep breath. He realized it might be his last. "But I thought for us, for me, it would be different. When I found her, it was like–" He lifted his crusted chin. The effort jabbed him with invisible needles. Jack looked mournfully at his father. "It was like finding myself."
"Their kind is rootless," said the golden tree. "She is unworthy of your love."
"No, father!" Jack protested.
There was a moment of utter silence, and then a terrible bellow filled the valley.
"You built that house from our flesh!" A sallow light streamed from the fluttering leaves.
Jack turned away. He shielded his eyes with a veiny branch. When he looked again, splotches of emerald and gold blotted the rising sun.
His father, the king.
Jack stepped back. He humbly bowed. New pain danced up along his former spine. "Forgive me," he pleaded.
His father answered. “I do. You were right to return."
"I had– no choice.”
"You had a choice. Just as I did." Liz called.
Jack turned to face her. Liz, livid and tear-stained, trembled, for she was ripe with fear.
"Leave!" Jack cried, bending low to meet her. "Forget me!"
Liz shook her head. And she stepped forward, now dappled by her husband’s shadows.
“Come back with me, Jack. I forgive you, you forgive me, we can put it all behind us and—“ She trailed off, sensing the futility of her desperation.
Jack lifted a branch. He tried to dissuade her. "But, I cannot stay in the walking world. Any more than you can stay here. The magic is fleeting. Goodbye. I will never forg–"
Liz dashed forward, she put a hand to Jack's cracked, dry lips. Then she kissed him.
It wasn't like it used to be. The soft touch was no longer his. But the love that drew their lips together, that was the same.
"No," Jack whispered. He shouted. "You'll become like me. Trapped! Ugly! Gnarled! Unmoving!"
Liz threw her arms around the rankled bark of her husband. Jack felt her limbs curling around him, but it was a distant sensation.
“I will not leave you,” said Liz.
“I couldn’t carve it out— this other me— no matter what I tried. All I ever wanted was for you to know what I really am and yet— and yet it was the one thing I could never tell you. And now that you know—”
Liz interrupted. “And now that I know,” she murmured, “we will be together forever.” Then she spoke no more.
Jack felt his body slowly covering his wife in reply.
The bark crawled with renewed vigor across Jack. His legs could no longer move. He spread over Liz like a coat of one thousand splinters.
Liz flinched. She gritted her teeth. Again and again.
Sindre returned. The tree she had once known. He grew swiftly, he was tall and princely. His trunk encompassed Liz until only the fingers of her left hand remained in the open air, finding their way through a slivered crack in her husband's wooden tissue. The color of her faded wedding band was nearly lost against her husband's tawny hide. Her fingers wriggled once, then twice– then stopped moving.
It seemed a band of dim gold had been hammered into a tree– and then forgotten.
Elsewhere, in another world, in the center of a field of autumnal grass, the first flake of winter intruded. From the heavens it fell: wafting down on a chilled breeze. It floated over the center of an unassuming valley. There it fluttered, just off center on that olive-sienna island, nestled in the choppy, wind-beat North Atlantic.
The snowflake curled 'round. It came to rest on the roof of an empty house.
Empty, except for a finished painting hidden beneath a large cream-colored cloth, bleeding red, orange, and gold.
Empty, except for a doll house home to a plastic bride and groom.
Empty, except for a small rust-colored pot, home to an even smaller sapling.
This is the house that Jack built.
Note: This story contains lines adapted from the traditional nursery rhyme, “This Is the House That Jack Built.”
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