Story no. 12.
The house always had fourteen rooms, but they were not always the same fourteen rooms. Sometimes Siri opened a door into the basement and spent the quiet hours looking through kitchen after kitchen, opening ovens and rummaging through cabinets. Usually there was no silverware, but occasionally she poked herself on a fork. Other times the door ushered her up an enormous spiral staircase, and the fourteen rooms were all rumpus rooms, all made of glass, ascending alongside the stately climb of the central corridor. A few times the front door had left her in a long string of bedrooms, mostly painted purple, all with mysterious wardrobes and bookcases tucked in the corners and the closets. Once or twice the house hadn’t even been in only one building, but dispersed throughout the attics of five or six different townhouses. She had had to guess from the shape and color of the shutters which ones she ought to enter and search.
Siri had returned to the house with fourteen rooms every night for fourteen years. Her father, bless his stupid heart, had left her a cedar box upon his death with a dozen different odd trinkets in it, but the most curious was a key – not a skeleton key, but a brass-plated nickel key with jagged teeth. A tag was attached to the ring. It bore the following legend, written in her father’s spiky handwriting: The Piano Room.
Her hand had closed on the knob of the house with fourteen rooms for the first time that night, as she slept with the cedar box beside her head on the bedstand. She knew without a doubt that she had inherited this house from her father, and as she walked from parlor to dining room to bathroom to corridor with the key in her hand, she wondered: where was the piano room? Why did her father even have a piano room, as he had never played that or any other instrument?
When she had risen the next morning the key was clutched in her hand, leaving hard red triangles imprinted on her skin.
Siri’s father had died when she was twenty-four. Her life had continued moving along since he had left the brass-plated key in her care. At age twenty-five she had decided to move away from New Jersey for a master’s degree, after aimlessly bouncing about minimum-wage jobs – first as a waitress, then as a bookstore clerk, then as a receptionist in an advertising agency – after graduation. This sort of thing was to be expected with a degree in literature, she supposed. The program was in England, and she paid for it with the small inheritance her father had left her. The house with fourteen rooms became taller and narrower and was more often built of soot-stained bricks after she moved to Manchester.
On a Friday morning in November of her second year, she tripped on a rug in a tea room and poured the entire boiling-hot contents in the lap of a PhD student named David. He was understandably peeved and shouted quite a lot of foul things at her. Though Siri did not notice at the time, after that encounter a shadow entered the house, a warm, laughing shadow, which either always stood just behind her or was just stepping out of her view into another room when she looked up.
After her program finished, Siri took a job at a small publishing house in Minnesota. Having never been west of Pittsburgh before, she vaguely expected bears and toothless rednecks. It was to her enormous surprise that she found herself becoming happy in the embrace of the hot Midwestern sun and the frigid Midwestern winter, as she read manuscripts with a yellow marker and a red pen during the day and sat with a book and the cat she had found prowling around the grocery store dumpster during the night. It was the first unequivocal happiness she could remember since – well. Her father’s death had cast a long shadow, but in life he had been difficult and demanding, even before the cancer gave him an excuse. His wife had departed long before Siri had coherent memories, so there had never been anyone to cushion the force of his personality.
Sometimes she hated him for giving her the house with fourteen rooms. It was so like him to leave her with an inheritance she could neither decipher nor discard. In Minnesota the house most often took on the guise of an old farmstead with a wraparound porch, a few spare bits of gingerbread molding in the upstairs windows. It was barer than it had been when she searched it frantically after he first died for the lock the piano room key might fit. She noticed the way the light ran across the wooden floors – the sun was always setting in the house with fourteen rooms – and took the time to open every drawer she found. Most were empty, though she found a potholder in the kitchen and a mouse in the bedroom closet.
When she had been in Minnesota for six years, the publishing house finally succumbed to years of dropping sales and closed. This turn of events coincided with Siri having a book of her own stories accepted at a different firm. The book made the rounds of various literary circles and was generally understood to be very good. Siri found herself in a painful state of bewilderment; the quiet happiness she had built up was entirely upended, but suddenly she and Hank the tuxedo cat had any number of offers to choose among. More out of panic than any real desire, she took up a writer-in-residence position at a college of the arts in New York, and abruptly she was packing her sparse belongings into a U-Haul and driving a thousand miles on Interstate 80.
What transformations the house with fourteen rooms underwent during this time hardly bear describing. Things accumulated in the corners: books, papers, pencils, bags of flour, bottles, forks. The feeling of a shadow following her through each of the doors intensified and became almost unbearable. A terrible change seemed imminent, and Siri started sleeping with the piano room key in her hand in case she needed it; but nothing happened.
New York seemed a far-off place, lensed over by memories of how her father had disliked it. He had grown up in Brooklyn, his parents recent immigrants from Bulgaria, and he had never been able to peel back this layer of memories to see what lay beneath it. His Brooklyn was nearly gone. Siri took to ambling up and down the streets in the late afternoon, her key in her pocket, inspecting the front doors of the townhouses, hoping she would recognize, as she always did while dreaming, which one she ought to enter.
This is how she met the PhD student named David again, though now he was an associate professor and not a student. He was having a coffee at a bookshop she went in to warm up. He compulsively gathered up his newspapers and stood up when he saw her. She laughed, though she couldn’t say why, and it took a bit of talking before either them quite understood why they knew the other’s face. David was from Oxford, and Siri was suddenly awash in how the house with fourteen rooms had grown up ramshackle and aged under the influence of his country. Her cold fingers in her pocket brushed against the key. Staring at David’s dark eyes and crooked nose, recognition settled upon her: here was a door she was supposed to unlock.
She and David danced around each other for nearly two years. He had a girlfriend of sorts, an artist with half her head shaved named Jameson. Siri, never particularly gifted with men, had gone to dinner several times with the veterinarian who saw Hank the tuxedo cat after he had wriggled his eyebrows at her during a routine checkup.
But Jameson dumped David, and Siri stopped seeing the veterinarian (he mainly liked to talk about football.) They returned to the same bookshop often under the pretense that they were not going to see each other, until that bookshop closed and they had to serendipitously both find another one. They went to the same quiet literary parties, and had each other over for guarded dinners. Hank allowed David to pet him for nearly three minutes before attempting to disembowel his hand.
One night as Siri walked through the house with fourteen rooms, she felt the shadow walking behind her, as she often did. She turned around and for once it had not just stepped to another room or behind a cupboard; it met her gaze with David’s face.
They got married in the Cloisters, which sounded a great deal more grand than it was. Five people attended the wedding: Siri, David, the justice of the peace officiating the ceremony, David’s friend Robert who was visiting New York on business, and Siri’s cousin Tanya, who drove up from New Jersey. Tourists kept passing behind them as they said their vows. Siri wore a dress she had bought for fifty dollars in Boston and the piano room key on a chain around her neck. Robert took a few photos, but Siri didn’t think the two grave, anxious people in the pictures looked anything like her or David.
Shortly after the wedding David asked her if she would be willing to come back to England with him. He had been offered a really excellent position, and as her writing career was starting to take off –
Siri missed sitting by herself at the window of her house in Minnesota and riding bicycles with her father in New Jersey. Minnesota was far gone and her father was dead, so she said yes, she would go to England.
England brought with it painfully short winter days with neither sun nor snow. Hank, of whose age Siri had never been certain, died abruptly after a seizure. Grief seized her the force of a terrier shaking a rat. Hank did not leave a house with fourteen rooms or the key to a piano she could not find, but only a small heap of dirt in the back garden and a life by herself that she now had no witnesses to. She searched frantically for him at night, sometimes leaving the house her father had given her and running through the street calling. When she woke she was still exhausted.
David made an appointment for her with a psychologist. The psychologist recommended she see a generalist as well, and this was how she found out that, at the age of thirty-five, she was pregnant.
Siri waited for the child to show up in the house with fourteen rooms as a shadow or a photograph or a premonition, but there was nothing: nothing to warn her as to what sort of person this creature might be. She resented that its presence did not distract her from mourning for Hank, for Minnesota, for her father, for her grandparents’ lost home in Bulgaria. All the child would inherit from her, she thought, was grief and a house it could not inhabit.
David loved the baby first. When no one was looking, Siri tried to give the child the key to the piano room, to see if perhaps she would know what to do with it, but the infant threw it away into the corner of her crib and wouldn’t touch it again.
David’s brother Kenneth gave them a puppy – for Anna – a spaniel with great floppy ears and curly hair covering his paws. Anna called him Gooch, which name somehow stuck in their otherwise quite literary household.
It was Gooch that pushed David’s hand. They needed a bigger house, he said. He wanted Anna to have more room to play as she grew up, and their rented apartment, though it had a garden, was quickly being destroyed by the combined efforts of child and puppy.
Siri did not care. She felt as she had once felt in Minnesota, like her life had been completely flattened, and she was constructing it from the earth upwards again. She took classes to learn Bulgarian, and wrote a series of children’s books featuring Anna and the pup. She often woke while she standing in a particular place in the house with fourteen rooms, just over the threshold into a sort of sitting room with a brown sofa and a chest of drawers. When she woke from this room she padded into the kitchen and wrote a letter to her father on the back of a shopping list. After thirty letters had amassed on top of the refrigerator, she burnt them all. She wrote a novel and had it published. David found a house a year after he had started looking.
Siri supposed as they pulled up to the pavement in front of the house that she was lucky to recognize things so clearly. How many people passed through life without any sort of certainty? Because here, here in a quiet neighborhood of Oxford: here was the house with fourteen rooms. It was partially furnished, and as she passed through each of the rooms (counting them as she went,) she recognized: the brown sofa, the chest of drawers, that cupboard, this ladle.
There was one extra room at the back of the house – a fifteenth room. The former owner had had it added on, the realtor told him. He had been an amateur musician, and he wanted a sort of studio for himself. After he had died, though, none of his descendants had particularly wanted to move his piano, so there it stayed in the sun room.
The lock on the door had been broken off – an accident, the realtor explained, that had happened some years ago – so Siri could not check to see if her key fit. The piano was out of tune, as Anna soon amply demonstrated, banging ferociously on the keys. Gooch barked furiously as a squirrel leaped from one branch to another outside the window.
That night Siri did not remember her dreams. The next morning, as she drew a smiley face on Anna’s toast with jam, the three-year-old explained in great detail the house she had found on a hill while she was asleep.