This story has been drawn from the February/March issue of the American Reader, available here.
I am certain nobody in my family survived. I am certain they burned, that their faces blackened and bubbled, just as did my own. But in their case they did not recover, but perished. You are not one of them, you cannot be, for if you were you would be dead. Why you choose to pretend to be, and what you hope to gain from it: this is what interests me.
Now it is your turn to listen to me, to listen to my proofs, though I know you will not be convinced. Imagine this: walking through the countryside one day you come across a paddock. Lying there on their sides, in the dust, unnaturally still, are four horses. All four are prone, with no horses standing. They do not breathe and do not, as far as you can see, move. They are, to all appearances, dead. And yet, on the edge of the paddock, not twenty yards distant, a man fills their trough with water. Are the horses alive and appearances deceptive? Has the man simply not yet turned to see that the horses are dead? Or has he been so shaken by what he has seen that he doesn’t know what to do but proceed as if nothing has happened?
If you turn and walk hurriedly on, leaving before anything decisive happens, what do the horses become for you? They remain both alive and dead, which makes them not quite alive, nor quite dead.
And what, in turn, carrying that paradoxical knowledge in your head, does that make you?
I do not think of myself as special, as anything but ordinary. I completed a degree at a third-tier university housed in the town where I grew up. I graduated safely ensconced in the middle of my class. I found passable employment in the same town. I met a woman, married her, had children with her—three or perhaps four, there is some disagreement on that score—and then the two of us fell gradually and gently out of love.
Then came an incident at work, an accident, a so-called freak one. It left me with a broken skull and, for a short time, a certain amount of confusion. I awoke in an unfamiliar place to find myself strapped down. It seemed to me—I will admit this too—it seemed for some time, hours at least, perhaps even days, that I was not in a hospital at all, but in a mental facility.
But my wife, faithful and everpresent, slowly soothed me into a different understanding of my circumstances. My limbs, she insisted, were restrained simply because I had been delirious. Now that I no longer was, the straps could be loosened. Not quite yet, but soon. There was nothing to worry about. I just had to calm down. Soon, everything would return to normal.
In some ways, I suppose everything did. Or at least tried to. After the accident, I received some minor compensation from my employer, and was sent out to pasture. Such was the situation. Myself, my wife, my children, at the beginning of a hot and sweltering summer, crammed in the house together with nowhere to go.
I would awaken each day to find the house different from how it had been the day before. A door was in the wrong place, a window had stretched a few inches longer than it had been when I had gone to bed the night before, the light switch, I was certain, had been forced half an inch to the right. Always just a small thing, almost nothing at all, just enough for me to notice.
In the beginning, I tried to point these changes out to my wife. She seemed puzzled at first, and then she became somewhat evasive in her responses. For a time, part of me believed her responsible: perhaps she had developed some deft technique for quickly changing and modifying the house. But another part of me felt certain, or nearly so, that this was impossible. And as time went on, my wife’s evasiveness took on a certain wariness, even fear. This convinced me that not only was she not changing the house, but that daily her mind simply adjusted to the changed world and dubbed it the same. She literally could not see the differences I saw.
Just as she could not see that sometimes we had three children and sometimes four. No, she could only ever see three. Or perhaps four. To be honest, I don’t remember how many she saw. But the point was, as long as we were in the house there were sometimes three children and sometimes four. But that was due to the idiosyncrasies of the house as well. I would not know how many children there would be until I went from room to room. Sometimes the room at the end of the hall was narrow and had one bed in it, other times it had grown large in the night and had two. I would count the number of beds each morning when I woke up and sometimes there would be three, sometimes four. From there, I could extrapolate how many children I had, and I found this a more reliable method than trying to count the children themselves. I would never know how much of a father I was until I counted beds.
I could not discuss this with my wife. When I tried to lay out my proofs for her, she thought I was joking. Quickly, however, she decided it was an indication of a troubled mental state, and insisted I seek treatment—which under duress I did. To little avail. The only thing the treatment convinced me of was that there were certain things that one shouldn’t say even to one’s spouse, things that they are just not ready—and may never be ready—to hear.
My children were not ready for it either. The few times I tried to fulfill my duties as a father and sit them down to tell them the sobering truth, that sometimes one of them didn’t exist, unless it was that sometimes one of them existed twice, I got nowhere. Or less than nowhere: confusion, tears, panic. And, after they reported back to my wife, more threats of treatment.
What, then, was the truth of the situation? Why was I the only one who could see the house changing? What were my obligations to my family in terms of helping them see and understand? How was I to help them if they did not desire to be helped?
Being a sensible man, a part of me couldn’t help but wonder if what I was experiencing had any relation to reality at all. Perhaps there was something wrong with me. Perhaps, I tried to believe, the accident had changed me. I did try my level best, or nearly so, to see things their way. I tried to ignore the lurch reality took each morning, the way the house was not exactly the house it had been the night before, as if someone had moved us to a similar but not quite identical house as we slept. Perhaps they had. I tried to believe that I had three, not four, children. And when that did not work, that I had four, not three, children. And when that didn’t work, that there was no correlation between children and beds, to turn a blind eye to that room at the end of the hall and the way it kept expanding out or collapsing in like a lung. But nothing seemed to work. I could not believe.
Perhaps if we moved, things would be different. Perhaps the house was, in some manner or other, alive. Or haunted maybe. Or just wrong. But when I raised the idea of moving with my wife, she coughed out a strange barking laugh before enumerating all the reasons this was a bad idea. There was no money and little prospect of any coming in now that I’d had my accident and lost my job. We’d bought the house recently enough that we would take a substantial loss if we sold it. We simply could not afford to move. And besides, what was wrong with the house? It was a perfectly good house.
How could I argue with this? From her perspective of course she was right, there was no reason to leave. For her there was nothing wrong with the house—how could there be? Houses don’t change on their own, she told me indignantly: this was not something that reason could allow.
But for me that was exactly the problem. The house, for reasons I didn’t understand, wasn’t acting like a house.
I spent days thinking, mulling over what to do. To get away from the house, I wandered alone in the countryside. If I walked long enough, I could return home sufficiently exhausted to sleep rather than spending much of the night on watch, trying to capture the moment when parts of the house changed. For a long time I thought that might be enough. That if I spent as little time in the house as possible and returned only when exhausted, I could bring myself not to think about how unsound the house was. That I would wake up sufficiently hazy to no longer care what was where and how it differed from before.
That might have gone on for a long time—even forever or the equivalent. But then in my walks I stumbled upon, or perhaps was led to, something. It was a paddock. I saw horses lying in the dirt, seemingly dead. They couldn’t be dead, could they? I looked to see if I could tell if they were breathing and found I could not. I could not say honestly if they were dead or alive, and I still cannot say. I noticed a man on the far side of the paddock filling their trough with water, facing away from them, and wondered if he had seen the horses behind him, and if not, when he turned, whether he would be as unsettled as I. Would he approach them and determine they were dead, or would his approach startle them to life? Or had he seen them dead already and had his mind been unable to take it in?
For a moment I waited. But at the time, in the moment, there seemed something more terrible to me about the idea of knowing for certain that the horses were dead than there was about not knowing whether they were dead or alive. And so I hastily left, not realizing that to escape a moment of potential discomfort I was leaving them forever in my head as not quite dead but, in another sense, nearly alive. That to leave as I had was to assume the place of the man beside the trough, but without ever being able to turn and learn the truth.
In the days that followed, that image haunted me. I turned it over, scrutinized it, peered at every facet of it, trying to see if there was something I had missed, if there was a clue that would sway me toward believing the horses were alive or believing they were dead. If there was a clue to reveal to me that the man beside the trough knew more than I had believed. To no avail. The problem remained insolubly balanced. If I went back, I couldn’t help asking myself, would anything have changed? Would the horses still, even now, be lying there? If they were, would they have begun to decay in a way that would prove them dead? Or would they be exactly as I had last seen them, including the man still filling the trough? What a terrifying thought.
Since I’d stumbled upon the paddock, I didn’t know exactly where it was. Every walk I went on, even every step I took away from the house, I risked stumbling onto it again. I began walking slower, stopping frequently, scrutinizing my surroundings and shying away from any area that might remotely harbor a paddock. But after a while I deemed even that insufficiently safe, and I found myself hardly able to leave the house.
And yet with the house always changing, I couldn’t remain there either. There was, I gradually realized, a simple choice: either I would have to steel myself and return and confront the horses or I would have to confront the house.
Either horse or house, either house or horse—but what sort of choice was that really? The words were hardly different, pronounced more or less the same, with one letter only having accidentally been dialed up too high or too low in the alphabet. No, I came to feel, by going out to avoid the house and finding the horses I had, in a manner of speaking, simply found again the house. It was, it must be, that the prone horses were there for me, to teach a lesson to me, that they were meant to tell me something about their near namesake, the house.
The devastation of that scene, the collapse of the horses, gnawed on me. It was telling me something. Something I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear.
At first, part of me resisted the idea. No, I told myself, it was too extreme a step. Lives were at stake. The lives of my wife and of at least three children. The risks were too great.
But what was I to do? In my mind I kept seeing the collapsed horses and I felt my thoughts again churn over their state. Were they alive or were they dead? I kept imagining myself there at the trough, paralyzed, unable to turn and look, and it came to seem to me my perpetual condition. In my worst moments, it seemed the state not only of me but of the whole world, with all of us on the verge of turning around and finding the dead behind us. And from there, I slipped back to the house—which, like the horses, seemed in a sort of suspended state: I knew it was changing, that something strange was happening, I was sure of that at least, but I didn’t know how or what the changes meant, and I couldn’t make anyone else see them. When it came to the house, I tried to convince myself, I could see what others could not, but the rest of the world was like the man filling the horse trough, unable to see the fallen horses.
Thinking this naturally led me away from the idea of the house and back instead to the horses. What I should have done, I told myself, was to have thrown a rock. I should have stooped and scraped the dirt until my fingers closed around a stone, and then shied it at one of the horses, waiting either for the meaty thud of dead flesh or the shudder and annoyed whicker of a struck living horse. Not knowing is something you can only suspend yourself in for the briefest moment. No, even if what you have to face is horrible, is an inexplicably dead herd of horses, even an explicably dead family, it must be faced.
And so I turned away from the house and went back to look for the paddock, steeling myself for whatever I would find. I was ready, rock in hand. I would find out the truth about the horses, and I would accept it, no matter what it was.
Or at least I would have. But no matter how hard I looked, no matter how long I walked, I could not find the paddock. I walked for miles, days even. I took every road, known and unknown, but it simply wasn’t there.
Was something wrong with me? Had the paddock existed at all? I wondered.
Was it simply something my mind had invented to cope with the problem of the house?
House, horse—horse, house: almost the same word. For all intents and purposes, in this case, it was the same word. I would still throw a rock, so to speak, I told myself, but I would throw that so-called rock not at a horse, but at a house.
But still I hesitated, thinking, planning. Night after night I sat imagining coils of smoke writhing around me and then the rising of flames. In my head, I watched myself waiting patiently, calmly, until the flames were at just the right height, and then I began to call out to my family, awakening them, urging them to leave the house. In my head we unfurled sheets through windows and shimmied nimbly to safety. We reached safety every time. I saw our escape so many times in my head, rendered in just the same way, that I realized it would take the smallest effort on my part to jostle it out of the realm of imagination and into the real world. Then the house would be gone and could do me no more damage, and both myself and my family would be safe.
I had had enough unpleasant interaction with those who desired to give me treatment since my accident, however, that I knew to take steps to protect myself. I would have to make the fire look like an accident. For this purpose, I took up smoking.
I planned carefully. I smoked for a few weeks, just long enough to accustom my wife and children to the idea. They didn’t care for it, but did not try to stop me. Since my accident, they had been shy of me, and rarely tried to stop me from doing anything.
Seemingly as a concession to my wife, I agreed not to smoke in the bedroom. I promised to smoke only outside the house. With the proviso that, if it was too cold to smoke outside I might do so downstairs, near an open window.
During the third, or perhaps fourth, week after I took up smoking, with my wife and children asleep, it was indeed too cold—or at least I judged that I could argue it to have been such if confronted after the fact. So I cracked open the window near the couch and prepared the images in my mind. I would, I told myself, allow my arm to droop, the tip of my cigarette to nudge against the fabric of the couch. And then I would allow first the couch and then the drapes to begin to smoke and catch fire. I would wait until the moment when, in my fantasies, I was myself standing and calling for my wife and children, and then I would do just that and all would be as I had envisioned. Soon my family and I would be safe, and the house would be destroyed.
Once that was done, I thought, perhaps I would find the paddock again as well, with the horses standing this time and clearly alive.
And yet, the fabric of the couch did not catch fire, instead only smoldering and stinking, and soon I pressed the cigarette in too deeply and it died. I found and lit another, and when the result was the same I gave up on both the couch and the cigarette.
I turned instead to matches and used them to ignite the drapes. As it turned out, these burned much better, going up all at once and lighting my hair and clothing along with them.
By the time I’d flailed about enough to extinguish my body, the whole room was aflame. Still, I continued with my plan. I tried to call to my wife and children but when I took a breath to do so, my lungs filled with smoke and, choking, I collapsed.
I do not know how I lived through the fire. Perhaps my wife dragged me out and then went back for the children and perished only then. When I awoke, I was here, unsure of how I had arrived. My face and body were badly burned, and the pain was excruciating. I asked about my family but the nurse dodged the question, shushed me and only told me I should sleep. This was how I knew my family was dead, that they had been lost in the fire, and that the nurse didn’t know how to tell me. My only consolation was that the house, too, the source of all our problems, had burnt to the ground.
For a time I was kept alone, drugged. How long, I cannot say. Perhaps days, perhaps weeks. Long enough in any case for my burns to slough and heal, for the skin grafts that I must surely have needed to take effect, for my hair to grow fully back. The doctors must have worked very hard on me, for I must admit that except to the most meticulous eye I look exactly as I had before the fire.
So, you see, I have the truth straight in my mind and it will not be easy to change. There is little point in you coming to me with these stories, little point in pretending once again that my house remains standing and was never touched by flame. Little point coming here pretending to be my wife, claiming that there was no fire, that you found me lying on the floor in the middle of our living room with my eyes staring fixedly into the air, seemingly unharmed.
No, I have accepted that I am the victim of a tragedy, one of my own design. I know that my family is gone, and though I do not yet understand why you would want to convince me that you are my wife, what you hope to gain, eventually I will. You will let something slip and the game will be over. At worst, you are deliberately trying to deceive me so as to gain something from me. But what? At best, someone has decided this might lessen the blow, that if I can be made to believe my family is not dead, or even just mostly dead and not quite alive, I might be convinced not to surrender to despair.
Trust me, whether you wish me good or ill, I do hope you succeed. I would like to be convinced, I truly would. I would love to open my eyes and suddenly see my family surrounding me, safe and sound. I would even tolerate the fact that the house is still standing, that unfinished business remains between it and myself, that somewhere horses still lie collapsed and waiting to be either alive or dead, that we will all in some senses remain like the man at the trough with our backs turned. I understand what I might have to gain from it, but you, I still do not understand.
But do your worst: disrupt my certainty, try to fool me, make me believe. Get me to believe there is nothing dead behind me. If you can make that happen, I think we both agree, then anything is possible.