The two of them live in a small house that overlooks a somehow smaller lake. He has family money and neither of them have to work, but he finds meaning in his work (development—of what? we’re not quite sure) and she writes poems. The house is ancient and the rooms are cold. They often lay in bed until long past midmorning, even sometimes past noon. They argue about who will make coffee, always finally decided by who has to pee first. It’s usually her.
The house, which the locals say is as old as bones, is older. It is rickety and clicks and clacks and wheezes with every movement. When they make breakfast and he cracks the eggs, he cracks them ever so carefully so as not to upset the balance of the floorboards. When they fuck, in their small bedroom, on their nearly invisible bed, it is a cautious practice—albiet lurid, albiet lecherous. Any wrong breath or wrong leaning, any bad attitudes or misremembered lovers, and the house could crumble and fold them up between rotted joists and rust. Anything and that dear dwelling could diminish, tenfold. So they take precautions. And when he scrambles eggs he does so with loving kindness and when she pours coffee she does so slowly and they both take it black.
She’s known she wanted to be a poet since long before she knew anything. When she was a baby she almost never stopped crying. Her mother said in the first two years she was sure she had cried enough to fill an ocean. The only thing that helped, and her mother tried near everything, were books. The forests her father worked were always moving and there were rarely ever libraries nearby. So her mother reread their small collection. No children’s books. In fact, the one that did the best, not only kept her from wailing but helped her and her mother sleep on nights when her father took to drinking was War and Peace.
She’s never read it herself, but did inherit her mother’s copy. Now when she has writer’s block, which is nearly always, she sleeps with it in their bed. Her husband found it endearing at first, but grew to hate it. Their bed is already so small.
She remembers very little of the story. It may not have even been Tolstoy that her mother had read to her when she was a child, rather some other’s opus. She swears she remembers endless wars and no small amount of confused young lovers, but couldn’t that be any work of art—any book ever written, whether stretched to its limit or condensed into some opaque metaphor?
She often tried to explain to her husband why she needed to sleep with the book. It was always a rambling mess—a jostling of non-philosophies and inclinations. Something about the beauty of brevity and how over time, the novel, War and Peace in this case, becomes less a literary object and more an interpretation of itself. And because of that, it’s not so much the reading of a book that’s important but the proximity one has to books—her argument always had kernels of clarity, but was mostly quite confusing. Always near the end of her tirade she would become flustered and swear off poetry and all things literary. To which her husband would say something like, “What about your poem about the frog? I really like that one.”
pale, little frog
on a lily pad
Occasionally he would peel the book out of her hands as she slept. Its corners often bumped into him as he tried to adjust. And on nights when she was under the full control of nightmares they’d both wake up with papercuts. She often woke up with a bruise the shape of the book against her chest. A blue-purple nightscape below her collar bone. A bad look, he’d say. Unhealthy. Whenever he got the chance, after she had fully succumbed to sleep, he’d pull back each finger—pinky, ring, birdie, pointer, thumb—and carefully unwrap Tolstoy’s tome and place it quietly on the bedside table.
Even if she just read the damned thing, he thought. To think of the book as just an object taking up room in their small house eventually drove him mad. There were days when it was all he could think about. During his morning coffee and his commute to work he’d picture it. The version she had, and often held, was old. The corners were all worn, nearly to the bone, and each page feathered at its ends. It was once lusterful, but now mostly gray and the words on the cover were blurred and in some places, completely erased. The thin paper was so translucent that it couldn’t even burn, he thought. Not even a spark.
One night, he decided it was time to get rid of it. Her quiet pale face was outlined and highlighted by the moon and the glow of the lake below. Her lips were held just open and revealed the whites of her teeth. Their criss-cross patterned bedsheets wrapped around her shoulders and her waist. A perfect moment captured, he thought. Beautiful, he whispered. And the book was free. He crept out of bed with it pressed against his stomach.
The lake, he thought, the one below their house that is somehow smaller than the house, somehow smaller even than their small bed, that’s where I’ll get rid of this damned thing. Tie it to a rock and throw it into the sea. He marched in the moonlight, briskly, but not so quickly as to alert the wolves. Just one foot in front of the other until he stood above the moonfull waters.
He had never opened the book before. In all the time they had been married and all the times he had pulled it from her hands, he never once felt compelled. Before he threw it into the water he sat on a black rock that half circled the lake and opened to the middle:
He slammed it shut. “I’d rather not,” he said and pushed the book as deep into the lake as he could. Once the whole thing was submerged he apologized to the quiet night and laid on the rock and watched the new ripples ripple in the water until none were left. Over his shoulder their house looked so fragile. Its old timbers and forgotten windows shook with every wayward draft.
The next morning she woke up alone and overturned their room looking for the novel. First she took apart her drawers. Every article of clothing was cast across the room. Every small keepsake from her life that she had kept was pushed and rolled aside. Her father’s charms and her mother’s too, chucked. All the while, she called out for her husband. She checked her body for the memories of the book—no papercuts, no imprint on her abdomen. She checked the fridge and on top of every hanging picture and under every hanging plant, even in the percolator.
Have I been betrayed? she wondered. The man who I share with every ounce of blood I can muster? Could he, in his helpful, nasty way, his hopeful, nosey attempts at fixing, have betrayed my trust? Stolen my last connection, last bastion, last pillar? She shook with sorrow. The house was as unsteady now as it had ever been. She barely made it across the kitchen to her writing desk without tripping.
“That bastard threw my book in the lake, I know it,” she said aloud.
It took all her concentration to scribble him a note as the stilts and slats and timbers of the home wavered with her anger.
Just as I was starting to understand it. Just as soon as I was prepared to get rid of it myself.
I’m headed down to the lake to fish it out. If, by god, I retrieve it then all is forgiven. If not——
I will feel awful for an awfully long time.
As she added the finishing touch to the note, a heart around her name, the house began its descent. At first their bedroom collapsed. Then the kitchen. Fire burst out of the oven and all the windows shattered. She folded the note. The ceramics in the bathroom ruptured and water jettisoned into the light fixtures and there were more flames. She placed the note on her writing desk and put her pen away. As she left and slammed the door the house let out a final, tired groan and ceased to be.
From the road, and perhaps from space, it was a spectacular scene. The house was quite old. Filled with lifetimes of sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes nothing. Once it twisted up completely and its guts were discharged, a plume of blackness and redness erupted in all directions. Flames became a mountainscape and split the sky into stained glass portions. The intensities of the sun melted and reflected and chased each other through the hills. The lake evaporated and the trees wilted and turned to ash. Songbirds circled and mountain goats hid. There was a howling-crying sound that bore up from the earth as it swallowed what was left.
When the earth did finally settle, in place of the house was a greenness with the odd little flower here and there. And the lake, a crater now, had nothing but the book at its center. The smoke gathered into clouds and headed west. On the rock that half-circled the once-lake the husband and wife sat quietly.
An old man, a local, first on the scene after the dust had settled, said he had never seen anything like it. The two of them were shivering and telling jokes—covered from head to toe in dirt and falling pollen. He offered them a blanket and explained to them that they had survived something strange. He told them, and in later years, his grandchildren, that it shouldn’t have happened as it did. That the whole town knew the house would eventually fall, but not like this. He told the two that they shouldn’t have survived, that even the termites and the ants had been cremated. He handed them his canteen and they drank greedily. They thanked him and pointed toward the lake.
He made his way to its center and picked up the book. The cover and spine were nearly gone and most of the bulk of its contents had been melted and reformed into a rock.
“This yours?” he yelled back.
They shrugged and held each other close.
He sat with the object for a while and pondered it. Where it had once been something, it was now no more than a stone. He looked back at the couple, who were, to his mind, in some degree of shock, and waved.