Content note (click for details)Content note: parental loss, wounds, face scars
When the mediums arrive, I don’t notice their scars. It’s their machine that grabs my attention, all pointed glass bulbs, copper wires, and metal rods. Like a four-foot square vacuum tube radio. I rub the belt buckle hidden in my tunic pocket as the six women in gray robes lug the machine up my gravel driveway.
They approach the house frame I’ve erected, set up where Dad’s old house once stood. They place the machine on a slate slab I’ve set up by what I hope will be the front door. I uncap my electrical source as one of the mediums puts on ceramic-weave gloves to connect to the leads. I tamp down a flare of worry, reminding myself that I’d just recharged the lead-acid battery at the solar station and redid its plant latex cover a few days ago.
After the machine is humming, the women look directly at me, and my stomach drops. All of them have scars around their eyes. One has deep pink lines through her crow’s feet into her temples; one has swirls like the silt in a riverbed along her cheekbones.
A voice breaks into my reverie. “— even if the séance works, Rory, your father might not want to save your house,” the medium in front says. “The dead are in a restful place, and some don’t want to leave.”
I’ve blanked out again. I debate asking her to repeat herself, but I know the pros and cons. Entity houses are part of my job.
The Housing Authority was a thick stone building that squatted like a pale pig rooting in the rubble of less fortunate buildings. It was once a bank, but when everything fell apart, it was pressed into more important service.
The line on the ramp outside was always long. Folks would file in politely after I unlocked the door, reveling in the cool air while I climbed into the booth at the center of the marble atrium and raised the window grate.
“Welcome to the Unica Housing Authority. I’m Rory and I’ll be helping you today.” The crowd quieted as my voice echoed over their heads. “Please remember there are no perfect living situations anymore and we might not have a spot that suits you, but we’ll try our best. When you approach the window, please only share conditions for which you have a high tolerance. Our tallied conditions are listed on the wall to your right.”
I pointed at the metal plaque with its etched and braille contents. ‘Cold’, ‘hot’, ‘dust’, ‘mold’, and many others: too long to read aloud. I couldn’t help taking a second glance at an item partway down: “ancestors”. I tapped at the screen of my glass computer with a magnetic stylus.
“Okay, who’s first?”
The person who strode up to the counter wore a sky blue dress and a long black leather-looking jacket, both spattered with crusty yellow leopard-pattern splotches. I suppressed a wince. It’d been a decade since the bug killed anyone, but it still hurt to look at. I forced a smile.
“Hi there! Tolerances?”
“Dark, cold, and noisy,” the person replied.
I entered the tags and the computer returned two options. “Great. There’s a steel warehouse on Parker and a stone mill house at the end of Chancel. Neither slot includes bedding.”
The person nodded perfunctorily. “The mill house is good.”
I tapped the screen to mark the slot as ‘taken’, then grabbed a slate marker and scratched the address on it with a metal stylus. I slid the marker under the window. “There you go. Thank you and good luck.”
I watched as the person walked away, the crowd pulling away from them like oil from a soap drop. The leopard spot on the jacket’s left shoulder had already spread. A sign of plastic clothing. I wondered where they’d come from, what kind of privilege they had, to still own any wearable vinyl.
My memory has never been great. I forget my own age sometimes. But one thing I do remember is the first time I saw those creepy yellow splotches.
I had a dinner date with Dad, but his monthly doctor’s appointment was running late. I decided to hang out outside the house, swaying in the worn swing from my childhood. The rope was frayed against my palm and had worn grooves in the branch, but it was a comfortable seat. As I pushed myself in a lazy circle, the late afternoon sun speckled the leaves and I saw the spots: phlegm-yellow and tissue-thin inside, gray ring outside.
My phone rang as I was examining one of the mottled leaves.
“It’s your father.” The nurse’s voice didn’t even shake. “He collapsed during his checkup and now he’s unresponsive.”
‘Unresponsive’. What a horrible word.
I fell into my job at the Housing Authority because Dad’s house was one of the first hit in our town. We’d figured out how to detect and treat the first wave of the fungus we now call “the bug.” But it mutated fast, and the most resistant strain fed on our buildings instead of living beings. It ate away siding and air conditioning and window casings. Alcohol sprays, systemics, antimicrobials, and antifungals all failed, so I stopped at Town Hall to get the plans filed for Dad’s house. To see how bad it was going to get.
“We need to warn people to the south,” the woman at the desk blurted while I was making copies. “I think they’ll believe it more from people with personal experience. You have a nice voice. Want a job?”
I thought about Dad’s bay window falling out of its dissolving casing. How the siding looked like Swiss cheese a year after I’d buried him. My throat tightened and I nodded.
I’d only been working there for a month when I first heard about an entity house.
“Hi, I’m calling to tell you about the bug that is destroying homes,” I read from the script.
“Oh no, dear, I’ll be fine,” the person replied, with a breathless giggle.
“My apologies!” I looked at their house plans. “We have on record that your house has wood beams and studs.”
“If your house has any wood, plastic, vinyl, or acrylic, the bug will attack it,” I said. “I can describe–”
“It’s okay, dear,” they interrupted. “Gramma took care of it.”
My heart leapt. Maybe there’s a solution. “What did your grandmother do?”
“She came back.” They giggled again. “Oh, she’s asking for her show. Gotta go.”
My phone clicked. They’d hung up.
Last I checked, the house was still standing, no leopard-spot marks in sight. They’ve also been generous. Filed four sleep slots with us. Tenants report that Gramma is noisy at 2 AM and is particular about kitchen cleanliness, to the point where she’ll wake them up with a frigid touch if they leave a mess. Otherwise, she doesn’t act like a ghost at all.
We’ve confirmed twelve entity houses so far. We’ve also heard other stories – folks who summoned a family member to help, only to have their relative’s ghost refuse and go back where they came from. It sounded like it hurt, to lose them all over again.
The head medium bows at me. “Do you have the ashes?”
I slide the silver urn from behind the new door jamb. I hold my breath as I break the seal on the urn and grab a pinch of ashes.
She points at the urn. “That should come as well.”
“Really?” I debate whether to return the ashes.
“He will be the fourth for the séance.”
“Oh.” I cradle the urn in my left arm. “Where should I put…”
I can’t bring myself to say ‘him’ or ‘it’.
The head medium gestures. “There, towards the west. The departed sit at the setting sun. You sit at the north, our guiding star.”
I place the urn where she indicated. Up close the machine purrs like a satisfied feline.
“Kasira, you sit at the east, the rising, and…” She cocks her head, as if listening. “Yes, Erius, you take the south, the brightening.”
The mediums, both young-looking and oddly aged, seat themselves. Kasira’s scars are jagged scores like broken toffee in the hollows of her eyes. Erius bears four white-silver furrows, two down each cheek.
“We do not control those we call,” the medium says. “Ancestors speak to us only if they wish to. We take these ashes to communicate that we are your approved emissary to the dead.”
I sprinkle the pinch of ashes into Kasira’s cupped hand. She presses a thumb into them and strokes her thumb across her forehead. She passes the ashes to Erius, who repeats the gesture, then shakes the remaining ashes into a metal cup at the center of the machine. They both grasp one of the metal dowels on the lachrymatorium with their left hand. The rest of the women back down the driveway.
“Where are they going?” I whisper to Kasira.
“This is no longer their place.” She winks, her broken-toffee scars bunching. “Now it’s up to us.”
“Okay, who’s next?”
The person wore an algae tunic and mycelium-leather clogs, their black hair short-cropped, small brown eyes glaring at me.
“Thank you for waiting. Tolerances?”
“Pollen,” they replied.
“Why?” They sneered. “Where do you live?”
I hid a sigh. “My tolerances are dark, stuffy, and hard, so I’m in a shipping container park. I share my crate with three others.” Their brow furrowed, so I modulated my voice towards the perky. “My bedding is a myco mat. If you’re interested, there are slots left in my park.”
They deflated, the sneer replaced by a disappointed twist of lips. “I see. I’d be okay with bugs, steps, and height.”
“Fantastic!” I tapped it in. “Two treehouses have slots available. They have woven live-branch floors, leaf beds, and mycelium tarps in case of rain. One has a sunset view and one has a living vine wall to block wind from the south. It includes morning glories.”
Their eyes widened and I caught a glimpse of a grin. “Ooh, a vine wall! I’ll take that one.”
I smiled as I passed over the slate marker. It was rare to please someone in this job. I rubbed the belt buckle in my pocket and reminded myself to mark this moment down later.
Kate usually let me stay past closing to use the glass computer in the back office. I’d jot down things we’ve lost. Sometimes simple pleasures, like books and stuffed animals. Sometimes things I’ve never used, like Kevlar and mosquito netting. Sometimes I’d even mark down people who I’d briefly forgotten.
Memory has always been a problem for me. Doctors had differing theories why. Maybe the trauma of losing my mom so early;. Possibly an attention disorder. All I knew was that I’d never been good with names or dates. But it wasn’t until Dad was gone that I realized how much I was forgetting.
When I arrived at the hospital, he was already dead. They gave me a bag of his things. Plaid shirt, canvas pants, steel watch, leather belt. A few weeks after he died, the leather belt grew a tiny leopard spot. I’d given the belt to Dad for Father’s Day. I realized I didn’t remember buying it, I didn’t remember him opening it, but I remembered him putting it on. I couldn’t remember the sound of his voice, but I remembered what he said: “It fits! How did you know my belt size, Roribell?”
“I didn’t, Dad.” I held out my arms in an ellipse. “This is how big you are when I hug you. So that’s how big the belt needed to be.”
I remembered his eyes filling with tears. He’d kissed the top of my head as I hugged him again, feeling his stomach hitching in quiet sobs.
“I keep forgetting how short you are,” he’d whispered, making me laugh.
“And how long your legs are,” I’d teased.
We stayed in the hug for ten minutes.
I thought. I didn’t know for sure.
I did remember screaming over the leather as the bug ate it, that memory turning to shreds, then dust. I also remembered crying with relief when the gold-toned brass buckle remained intact, and how well it fit in my pocket.
Kasira leans towards me. “Remind us how to say your father’s name?”
“Niven, like given, and Seinn like sine wave.”
The ash-prints on the mediums’ foreheads glow with a blue-gray iridescence as the machine sparks and Erius speaks.
“I call upon the spirit of Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”
A breeze kicks up.
Kasira repeats it. “I call upon Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”
Nothing happens. Kasira glances at Erius.
“You feel anything?”
“Not enough juice,” Erius replies.
I shrink under their gaze.
“Thank you for waiting. Tolerances?”
“Ancestors,” the frail person at the window replied. Their watery eyes were swollen and the ridges of their nostrils were chapped. The bones of old leaves peeked out from under their lank brown hair.
I raised my eyebrows. “Ancestors? Nothing else?”
Their gaze didn’t waver.
“Look.” I lowered my voice. “There aren’t many real entity houses right now. It takes a family loss and a very generous ancestor to make one. People claim they have a haunting, but the bug always gets them. You should choose something else.”
The person shook their head. “I’m allergic to a thousand things. It’s too cold for me in here and too hot out there. Anything hard, bright, or noisy hurts. Right now I’m in a sleep ditch off the freeway because it’s better than anything else.” They shrugged. “So unless you have a tolerance I haven’t heard of yet, ‘ancestors’ is it.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. I can add you to the waiting list but it’s fairly long.”
They pulled a square aluminum pager from their pocket. I scanned it and added the ID to the list, and they turned away from the booth, shoulders slumped.
I thought about the thing I was building, and I crossed my fingers and bumped their ID to the top before calling the next person up.
After Mom died, Dad took me along to his construction sites, first showing me how to sort tools, then how to lay bricks, then on to more complicated things. Everything he’d taught me was clear in my mind, even after everything else I’d forgotten.
When I started the house frame, I decided to take as many shortcuts as I could. No walls, no planing. The bug took months to hit new-cut wood, so I had some time, but not much. If the séance worked, the house would stand. If the séance didn’t work, it would fall anyway.
The doorway was last. Dad was always good with doors. I sawed the branch off the maple where my swing had once hung. The living branch still had grooves in it from the rope so I was extra cautious cutting it, preserving those grooves.
I sobbed while taking the bark off the branch. Wept like I was sacrificing one of the few memories I still had.
I was still working on it, sanding the jamb and hammering in the nail where the bell would go, when the mediums arrived.
Kasira reaches out to me. I hesitate, glancing at the machine.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she promises.
I slide my fingers into her hand, surprised at its warmth. Kasira squeezes my palm.
“Why have you asked us here today?”
“I want a better place to live,” I murmur. “I’m tired of my container.”
Erius shakes her head. “You could have built a steel structure.”
Kasira clasps my hand more tightly. “Why wood? Why here?”
A muscle in the side of my throat tightens, sending a sharp ache down into my collarbone. “I miss my dad. He was a woodworker. He built the house that used to be here, but the bug ate it.”
Erius scoots towards me. “But why did you choose something so fragile?”
“For… for memory.”
“Memory?” Kasira tilts her head. “Can you tell us more about that?”
I try not to sniffle. “The bug took all the furniture he built. It took everything he built. Those were supposed to be heirlooms. Now it’s all gone, so it’s like he’s all gone.”
“Why would he be gone? Doesn’t he live in your memories?” Kasira rubs her thumb over my knuckle. “Doesn’t everyone you’ve loved?”
I struggle to breathe. They’re watching me expectantly. Waiting for me to agree. I glance back at the doorway. Something clenches painfully inside my chest, and I can’t hold it anymore.
“No, that’s the problem!” Tears scald my cheeks like steam. “I should remember more, but I don’t. I don’t remember him on my sixteenth birthday. I don’t remember him at my college graduation. I don’t remember our last Christmas.” My throat spasms. “Oh god, and it’s too late! It’s too late to make any more memories with him! If I was smart, I would have written everything down. I would have made sure I’d never forget. But I’m not smart, I’m a selfish jerk, I’m a terrible daughter. I thought I had more time. I thought I had more time.”
I try to pull free from Kasira to cover my face as I cry, but she holds fast, a deathly stillness in her fingers. “There it is,” she whispers. “There’s the juice. That’s the grief he needs.”
The machine’s hum intensifies, vibrating in my skin. Electricity spits as the bulbs turn on. I squint, my tears cracking the world into rainbows, as Kasira and Erius chant together.
“We call upon the spirit of Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”
A white mist coagulates above the machine. The mediums continue. “Your daughter Rorius awaits you, Niven. If you consent, make yourself known!”
Something sizzles. I smell peanut butter and pepper – right, Dad’s lunches, on that wheat bread he loved. I’d forgotten them.
Then I hear a voice.
My stomach jumps. It’s been years, but I recognize it. Even though I couldn’t recall the sound of his voice, I recognize the sound.
I recognize it.
The smell. The sound. The memories were always there, deep in my gut. Exactly like the belt. Knowing his size not because it was in my brain, but because I’d hugged him so often my body knew it by heart.
Whatever my brain did or didn’t keep, the rest of my body recorded it all.
My shoulders wrench with sobs of relief as Kasira squeezes my hand. “Niven Seinn, will you share your afterlife on this plane, within the house your child has built, until such time as she departs?”
Do you need me, Roribell?
“I…” I stop. Am I being a terrible daughter again? Is it cruel to want him to stay with me? To leave the peaceful rest he deserves?
I flash on the person with the watery eyes. Their desperation. And how many other people might be in the same place.
I might not need him, but other people do.
“We all do. Please,” I manage, vocal cords tight with choked-back grief.
Then I’ll stay…
Kasira and Erius shriek as lightning crackles around the machine, then leaps into the lintel of the door with a sound like fireworks. Kasira clenches my hand hard enough to crack my knuckles before she lets go.
“Bless you, Niven, for your sacrifice. When Rory departs, one of us shall return to release you,” Erius gasps.
The machine’s hum fades. A wisp of smoke rises from Kasira’s face, a trickle of bloody pus seeping from a broken spot under her left eye.
“Shit!” I reach towards her. “Are you okay?”
She pats my hand, then blots the pus on her cheek with a graceful lift of her shoulder. “It hurts, but scars are remembrance.” She smiles. “Most people hide their scars, but for us, it’s an honor to bear this memory.”
As she and Erius undo the leads, Kasira winks at me and pantomimes crying. I rub my eyes by instinct, then jump at a sting under my right eye. A smear of blood pinkens the side of my index finger.
A wound, to turn into a scar. For remembrance.
I grin despite myself. Of course. Scars are the ghosts of past injuries, haunting our skin. It would keep my memory close to the surface, so that I’ll never forget.
I don’t know what my scar will look like, but I don’t care. It’ll remind me, every day, whether from other people’s reactions or from seeing my face in a reflection, that my memories live within me.
That my dad was never gone.
I lean on the maple door jamb and watch them gather up the machine and leave, their robes fading into the air as twilight deepens.
I like your house, Roribell.
I sigh. “Thank you, Daddy.”
I hug the jamb for at least ten minutes, then pluck the belt buckle from my pocket. I hang it on the nail that marks where the bell will go, and step under the lightning-struck lintel to start the walls.
© 2023 by Risa Wolf
Author’s Note: This story came to me when I was processing several different kinds of loss at once. I’d gone to a memorial during the second year of the pandemic and as people recounted stories about the deceased, I realized that not only had I lost the person’s presence, I’d lost memories of them too. That memorial, plus the loss of access to the world around me, led me to an internal quest that I externalized to create Rory’s. (Many thanks to Cat Rambo for the title.)
Risa Wolf is a multi-gendered water elemental disguised as an ink-stained lycanthrope. (Don’t tell their spouse or their dogs; the disguise is working.) They come from the Burned-Over District in New York State, and they imagine houses for book-ghosts for a living. Their writing can be found in places like Apex, Clarkesworld, and Cast of Wonders. Visit them at killerpuppytails.com, on Mastodon at @killerpuppytails, or BlueSky at @risawolf.bsky.social.