All houses must have doorways. Build them careful, and things that get in can't always get out.
The paperhouse is built all of color. Scraps and tiny bits, layer on layer. Spit as glue 'til tongue goes dry. Nightmares of choking on rinds of wallpaper and torn out pages wakes us up all covered with sweat. By us, I mean the witch and I. She cut off a piece of her soul to make my paperhouse. I have no magic to me, so I had to take some of hers. Then there is a bit of me in the paperhouse too. I put all that messy business, The Before, into its walls and windows. Sometimes, Before looks out at me, young and pretty, knowing what I don't anymore. Sometimes I hear the witch's soul piece weeping out the chimney with a windy echo or the windows cloud and drip tears.
The witch told me the door was most important, tricky like. She had to cut it out of me with her little shears, and I passed out from the hurt of it, even drunk on cheap vodka and endless shots of whiskey. My mouth tasted of sour rot for two days after. Strangely, I wasn't hung over.
The door, my skin sewn into place with neat stitches, is where my memory ends and begins—the witch's hand in my hair and her lips on my cheek. "Wake woman wake." And so I did, burning where a chunk of me was missing and an empty hole in my head where The Before skittered out to live in the paperhouse.
Paperhouses are fragile, of course. So you must keep it with you or near-close. Else what you put in will get out. We wouldn't want that, would we?
First was the witch's hand in my hair, a kiss like ice water shocking me to wake, then my eyes on her eyes. We are very much alike, witch and I. We aren't sisters or lovers. We aren't even friends, but the magic of the paperhouse set a binding on us. She tells me I paid a pretty price for it, though I can't remember. Still, I have her loyalty and she leads me on. The witch will remain with me ten days, breathing her night breath onto the paperhouse till her soul takes root and feeds the magic.
She shows me my monies, my possessions, and explains how long the room is paid for rent. She tells me the house must sit each night where the moon can get it and that I must never push open the sewn door or raise the casement, however fixed the desire. She says most of all, I must never flood it with my tears or the spell will overflow and what I put in will come out—it being saturated already with things I don't remember.
To make a paperhouse you must use scraps and bits at hand, torn at random from left and right. Lick, stick, shape, rave, rant, weep. In each window, scream a curse. The base is made from anger. The interior walls a maze of stories.
I must admit, I'm a bit afraid of it. The first night of my new life I lay awake staring at the ceiling, twisting my hands together and listening to the witch breathe. She faces the west wall of the house, and when she sleeps, her eyes remain halfway open. I finally begin to drift, losing the sensation of my body and my thoughts. I hear a tapping—my Before knocking at the paned glass. I probably cut myself putting the windows there, framing each piece with paper. My fingers are all neatly bandaged—mummy like.
The curiosity to look overcomes me. The witch said nothing of not peaking in the windows. I move from the bed, crouched. Press the whole side of my face to the east of the house, eye level with a second floor window. Like a giant I must seem to whatever is inside.
What detail! That I had not expected. My memory of making the paperhouse is blurred, a drug fugue. What art and skill the witch must have to guide a person to this detail with nothing but a stack of magazines and newspapers.
I see a four posted bed canopied in dark velvet, a divan, a table with a beaded lamp, an ivory figure of a swan, a vase of cat tails and ferns, and shadows swaying on the walls. Limbs and puppet hands cast black in yellow glow. A girl's arms. My arms? She is so small and the light of the moon is very fine, so of course I can't be sure. I hear a tinkling. A music box, of course, open on the mantle. The tune gets into my bones and spits.
"Enough" The witch has risen up in bed. She points her own bandaged fingers.
"It feels happy."
"Often the happy is there, locked up tight to the things you no longer wanted. It's tricky. Don't be fooled. Better not to look. Tomorrow we can make shutters from the leftovers." The witch fluffs her pillow, grunts, and settles back into her bed. "Sleep now."
Because I am new again, I listen. I curl up like a babe in my rented bed, knees to chin, letting the music box's haunting little tune lull me into dreams. I imagine someone is curled up beside me, breathing into my face. His breath, because I am sure it is a he, smells of peaches.
The creation of a paperhouse is precise surgery. Each room complete, familiar, so the taken bits aren't aware of their confinement.
The witch has gone out today saying I need some time alone with my thoughts and the house. She cautioned me not to bother with it. Like a scab, she explains, it needs time to heal over. Which is true enough, I learned, when the first thing I did was press my hand to the multi-colored tiles of its roof. Felt like it bit me. All my fingers stinging, even through the bandages. Little wounds reopened and speckling the cloth red. Guilty at the evidence the spotted cloth will give, I unwind each one. Little cuts like smiles, raw touching anything. Burning crazy in the bath the maids bring up so I cannot soap my hair. I regret removing the bandages. Maybe the witch will take pity on me and rewrap them.
There is not much to do in the little room, so I review what I do know. I am Lia. Lilly Anna. Lia for short. I have two parents, both still living, far to the west. I also have a sister and brother that border me on either side, younger and older. I went to school and studied history. It was tedious and engrossing by turns. I went out on my own, and whatever I did, it was not very successful, because I ended up here in this little rented room with a paperhouse: a spell binding I built with a witch to hold something I got tired of knowing. Strange how curiosity to know itches me now. The Lia of Before would probably slap me across the face for even thinking it. She'd curse me seven times seven for peeling back a shutter by the door and putting my eye up to the glass.
Candles burning in red crystal, casting wavery shadows wall to wall. Another bed chamber and another girl. No shadow puppets. No joy. Legs stuck up, lips painted red as a hothouse rose, and bruised from toe to cheek. Gold coins on her breasts, pulled to the sides—unrestrained. Rumbled cash caught in her fists. A man between her thighs, grunting, as she looks at the window, at me—herself.
I feel a deep revulsion. I push closed the shutter gently, since it is only paper. Well, now I know what I did to earn my money. I take another bath trying to wash away the feel of a thousand fingers, a thousand pricks, and self loathing. All impervious to soap and the sponge.
I won't tell the witch, and I'll never look again.
Inside a paperhouse the windows never open and the best way to pass the time is reading the bits of paper that make up the walls and furniture, playing guessing games of what it was once a larger part of.
I woke up all in pieces. In this room and that, convinced I was dead or crazy or maybe drunk and laying on the street side waiting for someone that would never come to save me. I've heard the stories. I've read about it in the paper. I knew what it was only too well. So it didn't take me long, past the panic, to realize I went and put myself into a spell. Then I even remembered going to the witch and flinging down everything I had, which was quite a bit, at her feet. It was quite dramatic and also a parody of all those men tossing their coins onto my naked breasts or stuffing wads of cash into my clammy fists, my lace fringed underwear, the scooping cups of my bra.
Yeah, I know, though most of me doesn't, why I'm in this paper prison. I didn't know it would be like this—like some bloody horror house. Bloody indeed, sometimes the walls dripping. That's the witch's part, that. No wonder the older ones are mad, cackling, and surrounded by the smell of cat piss. How many times can you cut out itty bits of your soul and not be left raving at the end? The witch carries on in the moonlight. It's really quite annoying. I wonder why she would do this to herself without some personal investment.
It's the money. I understand that bit. Debt and goals and no easy way to manage it. But if you can sell yourself, well, how hard is that? Not so hard. A commodity that anyone can get ahold of. Easy as blowing your nose after a time. If that sullen business were the only reason I was in here, I'd be too delicate a flower to have done it in the first place.
Of course she doesn't know that, the after Lia. The Lia that still gets to walk around alive. She doesn't know that when we were together, we built up the house with our curiosity in mind. We put the shameful bits and the harmless little memories all on the outsides. After all, we only turned the tricks to make the money to hire the witch. It wasn't as if we enjoyed being a whore.
Together, witch and I built the paperhouse with a middle room. A room without windows for the part we had to put away. Now Lia can live on happy. Even locked up in here experiencing it again and again, I'm so glad that one of us, the better one, is free.
The rooms must be a maze with several doorways like needle-thin punctures. Little peep holes. Have to keep The Before locked up, she told us. Really, it was just to give it all some freedom.
I like the east room upstairs best. It isn't a bad memory, it's a good one. I remember I didn't want to give it up because of that, but I had to because he's in it. We're just kids, young enough that my mother didn't worry about me sharing a bed with a boy. We're playing shadow puppets on the wall. We're laughing quiet as we can so the adults downstairs don't hear us. There is a music box playing, but that's from another time, another place. I put it here though, with all things good—with all memories of us that made me smile. But this one is my favorite so I play it over and over.
I am there in that moment when Lia After, not me (the other one, the real one, the almost whole one), touched the paperhouse and burned my hands. Cut through with a needle. Poison hot and snaky. Blurring in and out of me, to him, to me, to him. Cut. Snip. Gone and gone. How could you? How could you?
Stupid Lia. She should listen to the witch. I know I would.
On the eleventh day after finishing the paperhouse, the wound must be exposed to air and sprinkled with sage leaf to aid the healing and keep evil spirits from being drawn like flies.
This is it. I'm on my own. Just the paperhouse and I. The witch left, distant and sad. She patted my hand and wished me the best. I'm not sure what to do. I have a ticket for the train. Leaves tomorrow morning for an address I easily recognize, the sprawling brick of my parent's home. The ticket is creased and smudged, prepaid by the Lia from Before. I remember buying it. I remember my hands shaking, my bile filled gut, the damp stink of fear in my armpits. What I had been afraid of, I no longer know.
I've packed my possessions, eaten the meal the servant brought up, made the witch's bed, brushed out my hair twice, taken another bath, stripped and examined my body in the mirror, but found no evidence of my sullied past. I sit two hours before the scrap walls of the house with its closed shutters. I'm light and free, but I'm also lonely.
Eventually I have to pack up the paperhouse. I do this with gloves. I store it in a hat box and pack it round with cotton wads the witch left for just such a purpose. All my possessions fit into one satchel plus the large hatbox, which is rather cumbersome, especially when going down the stairs. Out on the streets the wind slaps my face. It's cold as hell, but refreshing. I feel clean. I feel new. I'm both now. It's liberating.
At the train station a young man helps me with the hatbox. I am nervous to give it up, but he is very careful. My legs are a bit wobbly after all those idle days in the rented room. I am grateful for his help.
The train is rolling, moving smooth down the tracks now. Winding around the hills and cutting a path by the river. Twice the young man has returned—first to offer me a drink, then to ask if I am comfortable. I am so distracted that it isn't 'til this second visit that I begin to wonder about his friendliness and when he returns a third time, I invite him to share the table with me—me and the hatbox with the paperhouse locked in night inside and stuffed round with cotton wads.
I mean to talk to him, to fill the silence with idle chatter, but much to my embarrassment I sleep using his arm as my pillow. I dream of climbing the trees in my parents' orchard and someone, laughing, climbing after, kissing at my naked heels.
People have a horrible stigma about witches, but when you build a paperhouse, a part of you learns how lovely they can be. It wasn't what I expected. The witch walks you through the hardest journey you will ever know. She is witness to the unveiling. Her judgment, if she judges at all, is reserved. At least this is so if you have a good witch at your side!
No matter how hard I avoid it, I have to go to the middle room. It's a part of me still. There is always his voice like a doorbell chiming, "Lilly Anna sweet as pie." If I had true hands, I'd plug up my true ears and use my voice to go, "Shut up! Shut up all to hell!" But I have none of that since all we are now are empty thoughts thrown away into a paperhouse. Him and me. "Lilly Anna sweet as pie."
I thought I loved him. No, let's be honest here—I loved him. I loved him good and strong until he went rotten on me. Ever held an apple in your hand, saw the brown stain bruise and knew it was wormy? Instant revulsion, right? You tossed it away. You scrubbed your hands against your thighs to lose the feel of it. Well, he was just like that. Only he was just about the best damn apple I ever tasted, even the wormy bits. I ate him up, smiling.
So here's the middle room. Smells like peach cobbler that my mom always cooked up each spring. The memory of that smell is so strong, it's almost too strong. Do you know what I mean? The smell would fill the entire house right up to the rafters.
Now here it is—slap dash memory. Naked in the summer heat, like swimming against each other, under the rafters. Gasping for breath towards the single window. Running out, shrieking into the yard to the duck pond. In and relief. Summers going by. Kisses 'til lips felt raw.
Telling him, "Yeah this is how it is. You don't mess around that way and expect nothing comes of it. You and I've been young and stupid. We're babies, and we made ourselves one right here in the hay." Slap across my face, stinging. Hands around my throat 'til the edges of the world go black. How could he hurt me? The fucking bastard! Wore three jagged lines down his cheek for two weeks. Told everyone it was the cat in the barn loft. Ha, ha, ha—what were you two doing up in the barn loft? As if the two of us weren't up in the barn loft every summer with hay in our hair!
Ignore it growing there till the mound between my hipbones filled his palm up and bumped—a foot, an elbow, a hello. Our baby.
One more time—Get rid of it. No. You'd better, or else! Or else what? What will you do? Struggle. Fall. His broken head. My broken belly. Bloody floor. Raw stink of cow shit and pig shit and blood. He was never the same. Neither was I. I wanted that baby. He didn't. Oh, well.
Goodbye, Royal. I hate you. I love you. I hate what you took from me. It was a girl. I saw her. I held her. She fit in one hand. Goodbye, Royal. I was done with him, the son of a bitch.
Things were good for awhile. That isn't here. That's walking around free now. In Lia After with her hand pressed hot as the sun baking down on the top of the hatbox, her touch trickling towards the roof making the witch's soul piece squirm in the wall and go, "Me Me Me. Mine mine mine."
That isn't everything in the middle room, but it's enough for now. I go through the pinpoint, out into another room. A bit of pleasure taken with a bit of coin. "You're a beautiful woman, Margret."
My whore name.
And it felt good, because he reminded me of Royal.
It isn't easy to explain a paperhouse to your relations. Just mention a witch helped you make it. People are, in general, superstitious. They won't dare touch one itty bitty piece of it.
I'm in my old room, and it no longer fits me right—too small, too cramped, too musty. The paperhouse sits on a bedside table right by the window so the moonlight can fall over it part of the night and give the witch's soul piece a bit of comfort.
My parents were surprised to see me. They wept. They said, Oh, you are too thin, and what have you done to your hair? I ate my mother's peach cobbler until I thought I would burst. Tomorrow my siblings are coming to see me. Next week my last living grandparent.
I'm not sure what I will do or where I will go next. At night I toss from one end of the bed to the other. My skin tingles and feels hot. I find no peace until I touch the paperhouse. It doesn't hurt. The tingle is startling at first, then warm. I wonder if I made the right choice. What could be so horrible? I imagine peeling back the roof, looking down into the rat maze of rooms, and seeing a little Lia-doll inside. Hello, Lia. Hello, Me. I changed my mind. I need to know what I'm hiding in here.
But I'm scared to know. So I'll leave it be, for now. It's just so tedious here. I keep thinking of the man on the train. He touched my hand before he disembarked, one stop before my own. A lonely station in the middle of a field, with nothing at all for the eye to see but a dirt path weaving off into the hills. He seemed disappointed in something. Maybe he wanted me to say where I was going but was too polite to just come out and ask? It makes no difference.
I just need to find a niche for myself again. Maybe in another city, once I get back on my feet. A place where no one calls me Lilly Anna, or Lia, or (with a shiver up my back at the thought) some other contrived name. Maybe I'll just be Anna. Anna After.
It's hard to believe it's as easy as packing away what you don't want to know and starting over. I keep waking up from my sleep in the attic, splinters in my heels and hands, my lips rubbed raw from kissing, for god knows how long, a smooth part in the wood of a rafter, right up in the corner. A spot where someone rubbed out some scar in the wood and left reams of sandpaper piled underneath like autumn leaves. Maybe not knowing is as horrible as knowing?
Paperhouses are lies and a prison. It's a tiny bit of created hell. A punishment. A fucking trap.
I need to get out. I need out. I've screamed up the chimney. I've pounded my hands against the glass. If you can believe it, I spent days running up and down the stairs trying to make messages out of torn letters and paste them up to the windows.
I heard Lia After at her vanity, talking to herself as she brushed out her hair one hundred strokes to each side. I heard. Since then I've been wild to get back to her, to be a part of her, and let her know what I know before, as they say, the shit hits the fan. It was wrong to come back here. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Better to have lived on the streets begging change with a stained coffee cup than let her stumble over what is better left forgotten.
He's still here. He's still out there in bits and pieces. He's sniffing around at Lia like some dog finding his way home.
It's made her restless. Walking around zombie-like through the room and avoiding the flash and glow of the lights I shine through the shutter slates to get her attention. She put the paperhouse back into the hatbox and shoved the hatbox into the far reaches of the closet behind the plastic clad skirts of high school ball gowns.
I've yelled, pounded the walls, cursed and torn at the paper 'till the witch's soul bit flooded the floor with salty tears that pickled my feet and dripped blood from the ceiling in punishment for disturbing her peace.
Desperate, I pound into the middle room, flooding it with every iota of my split consciousness looking for an answer somewhere. I should know. Me, Lia Before. I should know the secrets of this magic better than anyone. I should be able to warn the other Lia. This isn't the first paperhouse after all. This is the second. It's just the first for me.
Obviously, paperhouses are better forgotten and packed away like an old pair of shoes. Otherwise you'll get no sleep.
I can smell my mother's peach cobbler, even from here. Sweet syrup fumes. She says it's one of my favorites, but I don't recall. That isn't something I put into the paperhouse, I'm sure. I think this is just proof of time's regard filing down my memory. It's been so long since I lived here.
I found an old dress that somehow still fits—flowers over black cloth with ruffles at the shoulders. I'm torn between being proud that I still have my shape and embarrassed by the style. Out of date. Out of time. If only it was a skin I could slip back into.
Down into the parlor to mingle: tea and dessert, ankles crossed, chit chat of neighbors all more worn than I remember and so much still the same. Sip, cut, melting on tongue, fiddle with bracelets, twist around rings, contribute to this and that with brief inserts of words.
"Lilly Anna, why you hardly look more than a girl."
"Lilly Anna, we missed you so when you went to the city."
"Lilly Anna, I remember you as if it were yesterday. You and Royal."
"Well, Lilly Anna, how was your time in the city? You should have come down for a visit!"
I am surprised, pleasantly so, to see a familiar face. Not to Lia, but to me, Lia After. It's the young man from the train. He says he has something to show me. Getting out of that room, that false cheer, makes me feel refreshed.
We walk quick down the street in the twilight and the air feels thick. The birdsong calling in the night. The night bugs coming out to feed. Slap and splat. I've got the bastard in a speck of blood. He doesn't seem bothered by the bugs.
Old barn. Wobble in my too small heels up the steps while laughing at some joke. I wonder if I'm about to get laid. A summer romance might be just the distraction I need. But then we're at the top, ankle deep in scattered hay. The thought of sex is far from my mind.
Instead, my first thought is how did it get here? But it isn't the same at all. It's rambling. It's an estate to my cottage. It's so old, it's gone yellow and dusty. One chimney leans. The windows are coated in muck. A water stain sags the roof. It smells like mold. A paperhouse, but not mine.
I feel a swell of compassion, of joy. He's like me. He's incomplete. He's hiding. He's trying to move on. We're alike. I knew when I met him on the train that he was special. I turn to him with a smile, but he doesn't return it. His face is still, like a mask with two glimmering eyes. He's waiting for something I can't give. Something I no longer remember. My ignorance is like a weapon, I realize. Maybe this is how Lia Before wanted it. My hands itch and tingle. My mouth is dry.
He walks past me, his hands hovering over the rambling rooms, the additions, the mismatched wings of the paperhouse. His fingers curl into fists. "You took everything Lilly Anna. I'm only a shadow now."
I don't understand, which I suppose was what I once wanted. His grief and helplessness is palpable. I want to comfort him. I'm afraid. I feel remorse for something I must have done and no longer know. But these brief emotions are as shallow as I am. They pass quickly. Still, I owe him something, some show of compassion. I reach out to touch him. A pat on the arm? An embrace? I'm not sure what is wanted or what I want to give. He's solid for only a moment before my hand cuts through him and he swirls about like fog and vanishes. How, I wonder slapping at my skirt, will I explain my dusty dress to the dinner guests? I walk out, careful in the encroaching darkness, with hay chaff in my hair.
I wouldn't let myself have a second chance. Not for him. Not for me. Never. Paperhouses are boxes for poison. Boxes for love to be put away. Forgotten.
First I did it to try to make him better. Take away his violence that lashed out at me and then stung with his tears of remorse. Cut a piece away from my soul. Take away his regret. Another cut, deeper yet. Take away his injury that took his speech and wits when we fell, like Jack and Jill, from the barn loft. But he still wasn't Royal, not as I remembered as a girl: love sick and full of endless need.
Tear, lick, shape, paste. Alone building in the sweet hay. Sneezing in the dust. Walls, floors, shapes in rooms from our shared memory. Get him drunk. Get him wasted on the floor. Dig through his head. Pull out what I no longer found pleasant.
Angry and bitter, let me take all his love. Put that in there too. Let him forget me. Forget us. Cut out another chunk of my soul. Burn out my magic into the paperwalls, the panes of glass. Seal him up into the maze of rooms behind his flesh sewn door that I cut from his back. Snip snip, while tasting my tears pouring down over my lip and into my mouth that was pursed around the needle.
Still, memories gone into paper walls, his smile said, I know you. You're mine.
I couldn't stand to look at him. Took his stubble cheeks, his dark hair, his long limbs, his easy smile. Took him whole and put him up in the paperhouse. Left nothing but mist and madness.
Royal floating through the window. "Lilly Anna sweet as pie. Why? Why? Why?" Phantom kisses on my face. But no, can't be. That's nothing but my own madness from cutting myself to pieces. His voice in my memory, Lilly Anna, 'til I'm screaming in the attic, rubbing away the carvings of our initials that we sliced, laughing into the wood and leaving piles of sandpaper like autumn leaves blow into the corner.
Too late to go back now. Royal, my love, oh, so much so, my love. Too late for you. For me. Oh, Royal.
I crawl into bed with a memory of you back when everything still held promise. Share our first kiss under tented covers when your cheeks were smooth as a girl's and you were all arms and legs and a cracking voice. A music box wound tight, playing out a tune. I remember you tasted like peaches.
Autumn Canter lives in Baltimore with her comic guru husband, baby son, four belligerent felines and hundreds upon hundreds of books. Were there an apocalypse, she is confident she will be entertained as long as there is a source of light by which to read. She writes when her toddler sleeps and plays with blocks and stuffed elephants the rest of the time. Her work has been published and is forthcoming in Sybil's Garage No. 6, Strange, Weird and Wonderful Magazine, A Fly in Amber, and The Absent Willow Review. You can learn more about her than you ever wanted to know at her blog, www.felinefixation.com. She is always looking for recommendations of what to read next. Do share.