The Sorcerer's House
By Gene Wolfe
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Gene Wolfe
All rights reserved.
Your Old Cellmate
I promised I would write you after I got out, and I like to keep my word. I am in Medicine Man, at a motel too cheap to supply stationery. Envelopes and this notebook filler from Wal-Mart will have to do. God knows I do not miss the screws or Building 19, but I do miss my friends. You most of all. You and Lou.
No job yet and none in sight. I would try somewhere else, but I cannot afford a bus ticket until my allowance comes. Not that I am flat. Not yet. I am going to try to get my brother to front me some money if I can. He owes me not one damned thing, but he has plenty, and three or four hundred right now would mean the world to me.
Still, I may be able to score some cigarettes if you need them. Anything like that. Let me know. Riverman Inn, 15 Riverpath Road — Room 12. I do not know the zip.
This letter will surprise you, I know. You and I have been e-mailing since my conviction. Twice a year, perhaps, if not less. And sending Christmas cards; or rather, I have sent them. I hear from Millie by phone when somebody dies. Why a letter now?
I know, but I doubt that I can explain in a way you will accept as sense; you have always been the hardheaded practical one, and I have admired you for it much, much more than you can ever have realized.
Yet I, too, can be practical at times. As you shall see. Practical and, in a perverse way, fortunate.
I am living now in my new house, which is in fact a rather old one. It is not large as such houses go, I suppose. Five rooms downstairs, plus bath. Four bedrooms upstairs, plus bath. I got it by being practical, George, and it is quite a story.
I had been staying in an exceedingly run-down motel, the River-man. There I had only one room, although it had a hotplate and a tiny refrigerator. (A room that was always more or less dirty, I might add.) The manager's name was Mutazz something, and he cannot possibly have disliked me half as much as I disliked him. I know he cannot have, because he would infallibly have poisoned or strangled me if he had. He was quite definitely (indeed, definitively) of the poisoning or strangling type. "A thief by instinct, a murderer by heredity and training, and frankly and bestially immoral by all three."
Now you see, I hope, why I chose to write a letter. If I had e-mailed you, you would never have read this far. As it is, you will have already thrown down my poor little missive in disgust at least once. I am not asking, George, because I know it. I understand your character, which is choleric to say the least. If I have been fortunate just this once, you have picked it up again.
Or perhaps your sainted Millie will have fished it out of your waste-basket and read it. Perhaps she is telling you about it now as the two of you lie abed. Like that poor girl in the Arabian Nights, she hopes to keep talking until you fall asleep.
Do you think any of that matters to me? I am tempted to post this to myself.
Now about the house. Please pay attention. It is important to me at least.
It stands half a mile, perhaps, from the Riverman. I had noticed it more than once, a white house in good repair but a house that had clearly been vacant for some time. A few windows were boarded up, and the lawn was full of weeds; a few days ago, I investigated further.
The front door was locked, as I expected. The back door was locked also; but a small side door had been broken open. I went in. A vagrant had certainly camped in the house at one time. He had built a fire in one of the fireplaces, had cooked on it, and had slept, apparently, on a thin pad of newspapers laid before it. The papers were more than a year old.
It occurred to me, George, that I might do the same. There were disadvantages, true. There was no running water, and no electricity.
Ah, but consider the advantages! No rent to pay. None at all. Several rooms at my disposal instead of one small bedchamber. No sinister landlord lurking over my shoulder. I moved in the next day.
Long before I had gotten settled, it had occurred to me that I should make the place as respectable as possible. Thus I would be seen by my few neighbors as the legitimate occupant of the house. No one calls the police because a householder is living in a house.
It had been the lawn — or rather, the lack of one — that had called my attention to the house. The same would be true of others, beyond all doubt.
I called upon my nearest neighbor, an elderly widow whose own lawn was considerably overgrown. "Do you have a lawn mower, madam?"
Well, yes, she did. But she was too old and ill to mow. A man was supposed to have come to mow it, but ... She hoped the town was not too offended. Would there be a fine? She didn't know....
And so on.
I explained that I had moved into the house down the road. Most of my household goods, I said, were still in storage. If she would lend me her lawn mower, I would be happy to mow both lawns.
She was delighted, and invited me to dinner.
Knowing you as I do, George, I anticipate that you will accuse me of welshing on my promise. With a dinner and the old lady's friendship in sight, I did no such thing. I mowed both lawns, and trimmed them the next day.
The windows were next, obviously, and presented several difficulties. I would have to knock the boards off, cut glass to fit, and putty it.
Think of me as you will, George, I am nothing if not resourceful. Old Mrs. Naber's garage, where her lawn mower was kept, supplied a rusty hammer. New houses were being built at a location I sometimes passed on the bus. Though I usually keep very regular hours, I boarded the bus late one evening and got off at a stop near the construction site. It supplied glass, and — ah, miracle of miracles! — a half-filled can of putty. I put the latter in my coat pocket, tucked some glass under my arm (it was still paper-wrapped, and might have been anything), and walked home.
Next day, the hardware store supplied a glass cutter at a very reasonable price. I used a plastic knife from Wendy's for a putty knife and, after wasting one sheet of glass, did a very creditable job on the most visible of the broken windows.
Now occurred events so strange that you are quite certain to dismiss my recitation of them as lies. You will say, "a pack of lies," if I know you. And I do.
As I was repairing the window, it had struck me that it might be possible to negotiate an agreement with the owner of the house — assuming that someone owned it. I would maintain the house, as I had been doing already. The owner or owners would pay for more glass, paint, and so on. They would also pay the utilities; and I, in recompense for my work, would live in the house rent-free.
It seemed to me a reasonable arrangement, and one to which they might very well agree. I called upon a real-estate agency. They made inquiries for me, and were able to direct me to the correct one. In fact, the nice young woman there who assisted me even set up an appointment for me.
"His name" — I recall her exact words, I believe — "is Baxter Dunn. Oh? Yes, I see." She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. "Tomorrow, Mr. Dunn?"
"Certainly," I said.
She smiled as she hung up her telephone. "She was expecting you." It seemed oddly phrased, but I did not question her about it. She gave me her card — Doris Rose Griffin, R.E.C. — and expressed her entire willingness to assist me in any matter concerned with houses, properties, or undeveloped land, and shook my hand heartily.
Her smile, if you will pardon a bachelor's weakness, made me wish that I had some such matter to lay before her.
That night I slept well, foreseeing a comfortable future. With no rent to pay, I might buy small comforts with which to furnish the house: a gas ring, a cot, and an inexpensive but comfortable chair. Even a table, I felt, was not beyond the realm of possibility. Soon I would be vastly more comfortable than I had been at the Riverman.
I was in for a rude shock, George. I will not conceal it. I had, all unknowing, underreached myself.
But first ...
Not long before dawn I was awakened by stealthy footsteps. Throwing aside the blankets I had taken from the Riverman, I rose and found my flashlight. The tread was light, but very real. Several persons were walking about upstairs.
There is only one stair in the house, or so I believed at the time. I mounted it step by slow step, making no more noise than absolutely necessary. With every step a new question occurred to me.
Who were the intruders?
What did they want?
Were they armed?
How might I expel them without making enemies?
None of which were in the least relevant. I saw the glow of a candle and directed the beam of my flashlight toward it. The intruder who held it dropped the candleholder with a bang (at which the candle went out), and fled toward a window, dashing through it as though it had been an open door.
I ran after him, having seen enough to know that he was a boy of thirteen or fourteen. I cannot tell you, George, how vividly I pictured him lying on the ground fifteen feet below that window with a broken leg.
Or a broken neck.
Raising the window, I looked out. He was not there. My light probed every shadow, but he was not to be seen. At last I went back downstairs and circled the house. No boy. No loose white shirt. No dark breeches. No shoes. No anything.
At which point I concluded, as anyone would, that the fall had not injured him seriously and he had made off. In the morning — but it was almost morning already, and I had an appointment at eight at Murrey & Associates. It is late in the month, and the state of my finances dictated foot transport.
For some reason I had anticipated that the office would be small and old, I suppose because the agency in which Doris Griffin worked had been of medium size and fairly modern.
I had been wrong on all counts. It was not an office at all (in the sense I had intended) but a private house, large and well kept. Martha Murrey greeted me at the door. Since I shall be saying a good deal about her, I had better describe her. At a guess she is in her late forties. She is tall rather than short (by which I mean a few inches above average height), and has a good, slender figure. I found her sparkling blue eyes and rich brown hair quite attractive.
"Good morning, Mr. Dunn! Good morning!" She shook my hand. Women in real estate have developed their own style of handshaking, I find: firm, brief, and vigorous.
I apologized for my appearance.
"Travel! Believe me, I understand. I've done a great deal of it. Once, believe it or not, I caught the shuttle from here to Chicago, waited a couple of hours in O'Hare, had a one-hour layover in Denver, laid over at LAX, and arrived in Honolulu a complete scarecrow. I was stopped by a policeman who thought I might be deranged, and to tell the truth by that time I was. Have you had breakfast?"
"To confess the guilty truth, Mrs. Murrey, I rarely eat it. It's a bad habit, I know. But I like to rise at dawn like the Greeks of the classical period, spit on my hands, and get right to work."
"You'll work much better after scrambled eggs, toast, and — do you eat pork?"
"I'm a stray dog, I fear." I sought to soften it with a smile. "I eat whatever I can find."
"Then you'll find bacon in my breakfast nook. Do you have any objection to cheese?"
"None, I assure you."
"Scrambled eggs with a little sharp Cheddar. Perhaps some chopped onions and bell peppers?"
She waited for me to object, so I said it sounded delicious.
"It will be, Mr. Dunn. I'm no great cook. I've been much too busy making money all my life to learn it. But I can do a few simple things well. Follow me. Have you seen your house?" She was already hurrying down a bright and gracious hall toward her kitchen.
I said I had.
"It's in poor repair, I'm afraid."
"It is," I said, "but there's nothing I can't take care of. That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"I quite understand. We've two good plumbers in town, Mr. Dunn. I recommend them both, and I'll give you names and address." Mrs. Murrey was breaking eggs. "The only electrician you should even consider is KJ&A. They charge — is that a joke?" Her cheese grater spun.
"It is, and a good one."
"They charge, but you get quality work. The others are cheaper and give you a free fire. Now for plastering —"
I fear I interrupted. You, dear brother, are forever interrupting me. Or at least you were, in the old unhappy days when we still met face to face. You accused me of being long-winded, an accusation that often droned on for five or ten minutes at a stretch. You, therefore, are not to fault me for interrupting Mrs. Murrey; this although I fault myself.
My interruption: "Might I speak about the electricity before we go further? It's shut off."
She stopped her pepper chopping long enough to admit that it was.
"I would like to use power tools." I forbore saying that I hoped to persuade her to pay for them. "A quarter-inch drill and a little sander at the very least. Without electricity that will be impossible."
"Don't worry about a thing, Mr. Dunn. Are you of Irish descent, by the way?"
"Scottish by adoption, and believe me I am as close-fisted as any Highlander."
"Scots together then!" This was accompanied by a bright smile and a second handshake. "I'll phone today, but the power company may take a week to turn it on. Will that bother you?"
"Yes," I said, and made it fairly forceful. "I don't mean to give you trouble, Mrs. Murrey, but it seems certain to make things more difficult."
"Then I'll keep after them. You keep after them, too. Will you want a phone? Landline?"
"You spoke of plastering. Quite frankly, I wouldn't do it without heat. Getting the gas turned on would be more advantageous than a telephone."
"I'll do it. That won't be any trouble." She looked down at the eggs she had been whisking. "Time to start the bacon."
It lay sizzling in the pan in less time than it has taken me to write about it.
"See this? It's clean, I promise you. I'm going to put it on top. That's the secret to cooking bacon right, Mr. Dunn."
I admitted I had not known it.
"You're married, I take it?" She was looking at my hands.
"Why no," I said.
"Now the eggs in this pan, and only a little cooking is plenty. Scrambled eggs cook after they leave the pan." The whisk kept busy. "The main thing now is not to leave them in too long and to make certain that everything cooks equally."
"I got so busy talking I forgot about the toast." She smiled, begging pardon. "There's the bread. Would you pop four slices into that toaster for us?"
"Are you divorced, Mr. Dunn? I am."
I shook my head.
"A widower, then. I'm terribly sorry!" Out came the eggs and into a willow-pattern bowl.
"No," I said. "I'm afraid I'm just an old bachelor, Mrs. Murrey."
"You're not old!" Plates, silverware and glasses, all very swiftly indeed. "Orange juice? Milk? I never drink coffee until I've eaten. Making good coffee requires too much attention."
"Might I have both?"
"Oh, absolutely. You must be thirsty."
"I am. I've been working in your house, you see, and there's no water."
(A man came to turn on the water, while I was writing about Doris Griffin. It would have been pointless to write it then, George, as I'm sure you'll agree.)
The eggs were delicious, and I told Mrs. Murrey so. I could easily have eaten all the bacon; but my self-control, which invariably fails to keep me at a desk for more than an hour or two, was steely now. I ate two luscious strips and left her four.
"I'm sure you're anxious to get the deed, Mr. Dunn, but I wanted to explain about the money first."
It seemed possible, even if it was not probable, that I might be paid. I told her, "Very little has always been enough for me."
"There isn't any. It's all gone. The original fund was twenty thousand. Perhaps you know?"
Busily chewing toast, I shook my head.
"Presumably Mr. Black was thinking only of the taxes, which at that time were less than two thousand a year. They've gone up, however."
"There have been maintenance costs, too. Maintenance can be quite costly."
"It need not be," I told her. "Not if I do it."
"Are you a do-it-yourselfer, Mr. Dunn?"
"A jack-of-all-trades, and good at some." I am not skillful in modesty, George. You are surely aware of it. Even so, I made the attempt.
She smiled. "Just the sort of owner the old Black place needs. It was originally painted black. Did you know?"
"Why, no. I had no idea."
"A&I Properties had it painted white the first time it needed paint, and I don't blame Mr. Isaacs a bit. I'd have done the same thing."
"So would I!"
"Thank you. Five years ago, it needed repainting again. Needed it very badly. So I had it done."
She waited, seeming to feel that I would berate her for it.
"Yes, white. I could've had it dun, of course." She laughed nervously. "I thought of it, but it wouldn't have been very attractive."
I nodded. "A yellowish gray, isn't it? With darker mane and tail. Horses are that color sometimes. Do you play the races, Mrs. Murrey?"
The question surprised her. "Why, no." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 2010 Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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