3800 words, short story
Shenroos is a lucky man. He can relax at a fireplace in green velvet on the moon. He is lucky because he has solitude. Eight days, he has been the sole inhabitant of Draftyhouse. Just him, the Bridgeway, a well-stocked cabinet of floral liquors in every shade between green and purple and all the matching flavors of intoxication and a hundred million places where the air is leaking from the great stone mansion into the void. The man in the moon is having a private party, celebrating his eviction, six days overdue but not yet enforced by the Colonial Army. There is a three-hundred-year-old ghostwood coffee table in front of him, his marching orders open on it, a coaster for his collection of glasses and empty bottles.
Draftyhouse gets like this. Lonesome but never alone. No one has come to take his place, so Shenroos feels justified in squatting. There must be someone here to mind the spiders and husband the flies.
The spiders work by instinct trained into their line over many generations. They are sensitive to the places where the air seeps out and driven to spin webs there. Feeding the spiders falls to the flies, and feeding the flies falls to the carcass of an elk brought over the Bridgeway in Shenroos’ wheel-barrow, upended into the crackling room with its slats like the exposed ribs of the carcass, named for the obvious.
Hauling the carcass of an elk must fall to an astronaut, therefore a gentleman. Common folk aren’t fit for outer space and so, in leathers and a helmet and bearing a cart full of ripe elk, comes Shenroos: twenty-eight years of life and twenty-one spent in the walls of this house with the Bridgeway supplying food and water and air. He owns seven rooms of Draftyhouse. Lord of the manor by three rooms and by noble obligation, the only one who sticks around.
Draftyhouse is larger than some sublunary villages, encased in tall blocks of angled stone. There are a scattering of luxurious, dangerous windows, like arrow-slits from the ancient castles, poured thick with distorting glass. The house breathes a long sigh, exhaling the air that flows across the Bridgeway into space. Every change in that stirring of air registers in the hairs on Shenroos’ neck. A breach would slam the great door shut, sever the Bridgeway and abandon Draftyhouse to Mother Moon. Drink does nothing to dull that sense of doom, nor sleep, nor any task.
Shenroos is a lucky man because he is aware of death in every twitch of his every nerve, every division of every cell. The surface of the moon is littered with many other places so abandoned and walkers who go outside sometimes come back from those places with the remains of foreign outposts and foreign dead to decorate the house. Shenroos’ ancient wheelbarrow has brought more bones than just elk into Draftyhouse.
Shenroos, when he stirs, presses his hand or his ear to the walls, places carved with mottos and poems, bas-relief and pattern. There are no walls in Draftyhouse not in the work of astronaut hands or old hunting tapestries for the privacy of the spiders beneath, weaving, listening. They all listen to the slow language of the walls, the drone of earthy consciousness, telluric current pulsing in the stone like sap through a slow, ancient tree. It is that current which keeps Shenroos close to the floor and his limbs the proper weight. The attraction weighing him and anything it touches down, the shared circulatory system of a composite entity.
Shenroos studied the principles and equations behind it, not for scholarship but self-discovery. You do not jump in Draftyhouse, unless you like a close view of the vaulted ceilings. When you sleep, you sleep on the floor, like a monk.
Shenroos reels through the chambers of Draftyhouse when he is not reading ghost stories. He’s drunk and uninspired. Shenroos has composed stillborn, premature poems, bitten off at their cords and his mouth is rusty at the corners from the birthing. Epics in old traditional styles about hunters tracked by ghosts across snowy hills, priests giving prophecy, their sleeves and pockets stiff with gore. Then he finds the ghost. He has been looking for words worth carving into these walls and a place to carve them. There are places, spaces, nooks and crannies accreted over the place like luster on a pearl, some well hidden. None untouched. Shenroos is looking over those overlooked corners when the ghost rides through, slouched on the spectral body of an elk in the leathers and helmet of an astronaut.
Shenroos mistakes its scratching for the sound of a rat. Wise rats do not come to the moon; foolish ones get hunted by all present in grand affairs that go on from the first sighting of the little animal until its death. The thought of a rat of his own to hunt and stalk is enough to perk his sodden sensibilities. His eyes seek out movement in the dim of the house, the pale glow of the cold-lighting, but what they see isn’t movement, just an image that Shenroos’ brain wants to make into a shadow of a curtain and the silhouette of a hunting trophy. This is not what his brain wants there to be. The ghost becomes clear.
The ghost does not look at him; the elk does. Not one of the slate-furred animals of Shenroos’ native forests. This one is the color of an old scab, the color of a priest’s trailing sleeves. Shenroos knows better than to trust his eyes, the hour, or anything else but his feet. They are bare against the cold stone of the floor, and through them, he feels a thing, light, but present in the telluric current, in front of him, a thing moving, a thing with mass.
The ghost’s arms are tangled in the beast’s antlers, the head, a half-grinning, jawless skull nods in the helmet, the lines and ink of the astronaut’s facial marks transferred from the flesh to the bone. The flesh resolves between those markings, an astronaut family that Shenroos does not know, and the skull beneath.
When he was the only little boy on the moon, Shenroos learned to read lips. This puffy mouth, chapped with frost crystals, the swollen tongue, they ask a question before elk and rider vanish like a shape in fast-moving clouds.
Shenroos kneels, putting both hands to the slate of the floor to feel the current of the house. His hands come up black with a thing that bothers him more in its inexplicable presence than a ghost astronaut mounted on a spectral elk.
Shenroos puts his tongue to the pad of his hand and does not like the taste or the cloy of the stuff. This is not a residue of the house, this is novel, and novel is another word for lethal when one lives a few inches of always-more-porous-than-you-think stone away from the void. Shenroos tries very hard to explain this as a thing that one might see on the sixth day of hard drinking, an argument that he would find persuasive, but for the movement in the current.
Shenroos can tell his eyes they do not see a shook from the snowy forests of the afterworld bearing some poor bastard astronaut off to the cold hells on the moon. Shenroos cannot tell his current-sense, his house-sense anything. It tells him.
Shenroos is in no position to listen. He drags toward his room and checks again that the current did register something besides him, somewhere in Draftyhouse did, in fact move. It did. Shenroos vomits and the moon spins. He checks again.
The astronaut has not been sleeping these last few days so much as losing consciousness. Shenroos is not surprised to find himself in a snowy forest. Shenroos is covered in blood and his feet are numb, but the blood isn’t his, so he goes forward, the pull of dream-necessity is too strong to recognize or fight.
The blue spruces and black pines give way to the mountains and mares of the moon, but the snow continues to fall and those red elk, the shook, are following, bellowing soundless cries in the vacuum, smelling the blood all the same.
In the ghost stories, shook have a bite like a tropical lizard; their stink gets in your blood and they can follow you anywhere. Shenroos is wearing his astronaut leathers, all treated and sealed against the void, but there is snow melting in his hair. His helmet is off. Shenroos can’t tell if he is breathing, if his blood is boiling, if his heart is beating out a futile rhythm against nothing. He is in the house and the snow is falling. The dead astronaut comes to him.
“What is the purpose of the Draftyhouse?” That was the question on the ghost’s lips. The snow falling in the house is ash and soot. Shenroos loses the dream to sleep and then sleep to dull pain and cold. He wakes, soot on his bedding.
Shenroos celebrates his return to sobriety with the last and best of his non-alcoholic rations. Tomorrow would normally bring food to the Bridgeway for the next week or so. The day after, they would check to see if it has been taken, and, if not, the third day would bring a party. Untouched supplies usually meant a suicide, something that happens when a lone astronaut stays to mind the house. Hanging has always been popular in Draftyhouse; the trick is to understand the length of your rope and make sure your toes are touching at all times.
No one in the history of Draftyhouse has ever just gone outside.
Shenroos repeats the ghost’s question; a popular question in the sublunary. Shenroos pulls out his family’s sounders, feels a stab of guilt at the dust on them and begins to set up an experiment. There is almost nothing left for him to discover with the antiques he fits together, nothing that he cannot learn just by walking barefoot in the chilly place, putting his hands to the stone. Shenroos has lived so long dependent on the Bridgeway and the telluric current-augmented gravity for light and air, water and the weight of the Earth keeping his limbs and lungs strong, he is sensitive to it. Most marriages do not last so long.
Since the astronaut families first arrived, the moon has been tried out for many purposes but everything man puts here eventually fails. Draftyhouse will be no different; each creak of the wood fixtures, each shift of the stone tells Shenroos of the doom of this house, the mottos and poems in the stone will one day sit in airless cold darkness.
Covered in soot. Shenroos is finding it on all surfaces he checks; fine, greasy, streaks in odd places in the rooms that fall under his titles. Other places are almost coated and his sensibilities tell him that there is more weight inside the house. Something new has arrived, bringing ghosts.
There are only four uses that mankind has found for the moon. The first is for storage of things that benefit from no light, no heat and no air. Draftyhouse’s operation is based on the proceeds from the archives, vaults and tombs kept behind air doors and umbilicus hook-ups.
The second is for storage of things that cannot safely be kept on Earth; residue of mankind’s unhealthy flirtations with fissiles, wastes of societies enlightened enough not to pretend that they are forever buried or drowned. The third is for astronomy and telescopy, particularly here on the dark side, but resources are elsewhere these days.
The last is for the Bridgeways themselves, telluric tunnels that would ignite the atmosphere around them if left unattended, and may one day bring more distant spheres under man’s dominion. Assuming man manages to get past the hurdle of distance that keeps the moon their only destination. Some idiots look for ways to make the Bridgeways into weapons, too, because what’s a sphere in the dark worth if you are not its sole owner? The man on the moon laughs at the notion. Shenroos’ people did attempt to fight on her surface, twice. History cannot record what kind of disasters they were; it would have required someone survive.
Shenroos hooks all the equipment to the vacuum generator, a long, thin tube lined with turbines and occultations that lead, eventually, outside. Shenroos sits next to the intake for a moment, listening to the artificial quietus of his home while the equipment begins to power up. Then he begins to hunt for ghosts.
Flies land on his ledger. A few of them go into the intake only to be swallowed up. Flies are always attracted to the outside. The air doors are always full of their carcasses.
Shenroos has had enough sleep and enough sobriety to doubt his eyes, but never does he the kinesthetic connection between his body and his big, inefficient monument to faded vainglory. The telluric current speaks to the base of the survival instinct, the egg at the root of the tree of his life. Shenroos is a lucky man; Shenroos knows to listen and knows how to listen. The instruments are out today only so that he can have his senses recalled and validated.
The moon is silent and dead inside, but large structures do settle, and this is one of the reasons why so many places end up derelict and shut off from sublunary. A shift can bring the joining of a place off true; there are some cracks that chemical sealants and spiders cannot patch. There are meteor strikes; man has learned that even the tiniest speck can strike with a force that no bullet can match. Some stations have been blown wide open. The readings do not bear a strike, and they don’t bear settling, either. The readings don’t bear anything in records at all. Only that several tons of matter have silently invaded the house and Shenroos is not nearly as drunk as he needs to be.
What is the purpose of the Draftyhouse? Others, over brandy, shadows thrown by the great fireplace, passed the question over and over like a mid-point pennant in some ancient joust.
“Pride. We could make Draftyhouse when no one else could. We can keep it operating for two hundred and forty-three years when no one else can keep a structure half the size open for half the time.”
Shenroos is the man on the moon, so he finishes his thought.
“We might have to look up at their flag and salute it, but everyone looks at the moon.”
Down in the sublunary, the barometers will register that Shenroos has used the generator. That’s bound to get someone’s attention. At this point only a blindfold and a bullet are going to save face down there. So be it.
So be it. Shenroos is exhausted from the calculations and the readings, but he is vindicated. There is something in the Draftyhouse besides him, something moving. Whether it is an astronaut ghost on a shook, Shenroos can’t bring himself to care. His eyes are heavy. His body is still thirsty, and the cabinet is close to hand and close to full.
The ghost comes to visit Shenroos by the fireplace when the fire is out. Shenroos last remembers putting a log on it and sitting back down on his father’s favorite chair, and here he is, right where he left himself. It’s cold. There is more soot in the house when he wakes. The webs in the corners of the rooms are black. The Bridgeway helps the house retain some heat, but anyone who has ever come here from the sublunary, all they do is huddle by the fire and complain about the cold. Even his people, their northern latitudes and high altitudes, grey-elk and heavy furs, they shiver.
Shenroos has fallen asleep still slightly drunk and dressed as an astronaut. He doesn’t remember putting the suit on, but it was possibly his last chance to disgrace the uniform, and he’s jumped.
Shrunk inside of his leathers, the ghost is not wearing his gloves or his helmet. His face is transparent to the bone below, his hair sun-faded, dry. He sighs at Shenroos and turns away. The house smells of sweet soot, now. Shenroos’ leathers are stained with it.
Shenroos feels it, the palpitation, dearer than his heart, in the current. Ghost forgotten, Shenroos drops from the chair to his knees. His hands tear the rug aside and splay out flat to the stone of the floor.
The house has not breached. The spiders still spin in their crevices, the gods are in their heavens, Draftyhouse is not moments away from shutting itself to the sublunary forever. There is movement in every corner of the house. Invisible weight; Shenroos feels the deliberate tread in numbers he only imagined in the days when the Draftyhouse’s ballroom still held functions.
Shenroos can see the soot in the air, settling.
Shenroos begins to stagger, stopping every few steps to press his cheek to the stone of Draftyhouse’s walls. Twenty-one years of living in constant contact with the current has made his body the almanac, all the instruments he needs.
Shenroos’ lips are black from the soot, cheeks smeared over his astronaut marks. The ghosts start arriving.
They don’t appear to his eyes at first, but then a young girl is before him in her backcountry garb, her hair plaited in seven pigtails. Shenroos presses his lips to the wall and feels the weight of her little feet. He passes the crackling room. Flies land at the corners of his eyes, iridescent blue, frustrated; all this death and none of it to eat. The spiders have come out. He sees them on every wall, scuttling, confused. Shenroos wants to tell them something, but Shenroos cannot talk, not to the ghosts or the flies or the spiders or the flickering current of his home; he can only listen.
Shenroos’ leathers are stained almost black. His hair is sticky. Ghosts pass him, holding their transparent arms to hug their insubstantial ribs. Shook, some skeletal and some still in ghostflesh, prance in the halls. The moon was supposed to be a hell in the old days; priests sermonized on the terrors mankind would bring to the Earth by opening Bridgeways.
There is something in the soot on the wall where Pigtails’ gaze fell. Shenroos wipes it off with a finger and looks closer. Hair, half burnt, too long to be his.
What is the purpose of the Draftyhouse?
Shenroos feels another flicker in the current, a jerk from the far end, in the sublunary. The air pressure increases, the spiders scuttle away from their webs. Shenroos feels the arrival of more cold, frightened souls through walls of his house. Draftyhouse is an exhaust vent. It is a chimney for a crematorium, opened instantaneously, anywhere. A stable Bridgeway whose other end opens and burns all it touches. The ultimate weapon, the reason no one has come to get him. No one assumed that Shenroos would survive the first test. No one assumed that the air drawn each time the weapon deployed would sustain the one man stupid, stubborn and drunk enough to stay behind. What is the purpose of Draftyhouse? The blindfold and the bullet; so be it.
Shenroos shouts at the atrium to the Bridgeway, screams, though the effort breaks his head like a quail egg. A haze of soot answers, floating through the halls. Flies land and taste everything; some get stuck to the walls and some get borne down with the sticky soot. The spiders abandon their webs. Shook trot through Shenroos’ solid body. Shenroos feels the added weight of hundreds, but the air does not move with the breath of lungs, the rooms do not heat with the warmth of blood. Pigtails can almost see him when Shenroos concentrates on her and calculates, in his head, the weight of a lost soul.
Ghosts are crying out in growing numbers. These people don’t belong to the cold hell of the moon. The moon belongs to Shenroos. Soot is caked in Shenroos’ hands. It coats the inside of his mouth and nostrils.
Another flicker, gout of soot; the dead astronaut rides by, empty sockets expectant. The living astronaut pulls himself away from the walls.
Shook track their quarry by their blood.
Warmth comes in the waves of soot. Tiny flakes of ash fall from the ceiling like snow, ghosts cluster like fog where the shook gather them. What is the purpose of Draftyhouse?
Pigtails is here, standing next to him, near the lunar terminal, where the crackling room is. Shenroos kicks open the cabinet doors, drags the carcass out with a cloud of flies and a scattering of shed maggots. The shook notice, but don’t seem to care.
It would be too easy. Shenroos holds out his hand in front of the spectral muzzle of the dead astronaut’s mount. The shook draws back.
“Bite me. Poison and follow me. Lead these people home. They don’t belong here.”
The dead astronaut shakes his head.
“This is my house, and I want you all out.”
Shenroos reads lips. It’s harder when they aren’t much more substantial than the translucent teeth beneath them.
“Shut the door.”
Shenroos opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again. “They’ll just open it somewhere else,” he says, but those are the words that convince him. Somewhere else. Not here.
“So be it,” Shenroos says. “You know the way home, across the Bridgeway?”
“This is why Draftyhouse isn’t open to the public.” Shenroos grabs a broken slat, ancient wood splintered and sharp.
It takes him a few tries. Even with the ghosts and the shook and new arrivals coming, a few tries. But Shenroos is an astronaut; he splashes his blood across the threshold, the place where the moon and the Earth meet. He stares at the wound in his wrist, throws the slat across the threshold to Earth, to the long hallway lined with gaunt men, likenesses of the astronauts who first took rockets in the long ago to place the beacons for the Bridgeways on the moon.
Shenroos puts on his gloves. The left fills with blood, but it stays inside the suit, where it won’t mislead the shook herding the ghosts off the moon. The dead astronaut remains.
“You can stay. I’ll see you here when the big door closes, if you do.”
Shenroos is a lucky man; the Draftyhouse belongs to him and always will. He is the man on the moon. Shenroos puts on his helmet and heads for the airlock doors.
Erik Amundsen has been removed from display for being zoologically improbable and/or terrifying to small children. He has been sighted in Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, Not One of Us and Jabberwocky but his natural habitat is central Connecticut.