Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tara Kaloz

r. Horner’s Heads
Midnight in a distant relative’s house.

Not even sure how I know him. It was after the wake, the open bar at the reception (per request of the deceased), and I stumbled into a conversation that led me to an overnight respite at Mr. Joseph Horner’s house. The man claimed to know me as the son of an aunt’s niece. His could’ve been a fake name, the familial relation nothing but a lie. Regardless, I stepped into the night with this man. The night with its rain and lack of stars, no moon to cast shadows meant to inform. No umbrella, either. No coats to serve as shields.

Once inside his door, he offered me, first, a towel then some dry clothes.

I don’t recall the outside of the home or any sense of exterior grandness (as one can sense these architectural volumes, heights, and widths like a kind of molecular aura), but the maze of hallways and rooms and doorframes suggested wealth and a considerable square footage. I reevaluated my wavering mistrust of the man and found for him a naïve and sheepish respect.

With each upturned switch, various assortments of sconce-style and torch lamps came to life, casting a dim light onto lush rooms, packed with antique-looking tables, stocked bookshelves, shapeless paintings set into square frames, and so on. All variations of impressive to someone with any aesthetic taste or appreciation. Horner moved forward into each room with a confidence only known to those who live by themselves, fearing no out-of-place obstacle. He spoke of how he often walked the rooms at night, without even a candle, he knew the place so well, telling of how it had been passed down through generations and generations, reaching far back to the times of historic dust-covered names.

“The whole lot of them travelers, I’m afraid that’s in the blood as well. An inheritance of which I shall never complain.” He began to gesture at artifacts from numerous countries all over the globe, listing destinations by their even older names (Abyssinia, Ceylon, Southern Rhodesia, Siam, Edo, Constantinople, Gaul, Persia, Mesopotamia).

His language seemed to grow more archaic as we went along. I imagined him on the stages of theaters long since burned down. The little remnants of alcohol left in me surfaced a laugh. Horner didn’t turn, he just stopped. It was only a pause. He continued forward with fewer words.

“So, this is your room. You can use the intercom if you need anything.”

“I have to thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Horner.”

“Please, you can call me Joe. Heck, we’re family, right?”

Comforted by his slip back into a familiar diction, I smiled. “Okay, Joe. Although I’m not sure we’re too close in the family orchard. This place is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it, except for those audio-guided museum tours, you know, with the headphones and the booklet.”

He offered a polite laugh and turned to go.

“Bathroom.” My embarrassment for the bluntness and tactlessness of my request was superseded by my bladder’s urgency manifesting itself as an ache in my sides.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. How inconsiderate of me. The guest bath is just down this hallway here.” As he pointed with one hand, he flicked another switch with the other, sparking a sequence of evenly spaced lamps on both walls. “At the end, take a left.”

“Thank you.”

He nodded. “I’ll take you back to the funeral home in the morning.”

By now, no longer feeling the slur of alcohol on my lips and in my steps, I could’ve made it home just fine. As he walked back from the direction we had come, I heard the sound of switches (one by one by one) and saw the glow of lights turn to the quiet of darkness. I thought of calling out to him, but felt it would be impolite to insist that he take me back now what with the time of night, the weather outside, his kindness in offering me a place to stay and dry clothes, not to mention the fact that I could no longer even hear his footsteps as they made their way through the house. I stared into an enormous void, its mouth swallowing my every nerve.

There was one path left illuminated and I moved with fast steps to the bathroom at the end of the hall. On the way, I felt a rush of air, much like the inhale or exhale of breath. There was a stirring as well, a noise, small. Perhaps a mouse or large insect. I considered stopping, but the sudden pain in my side brought my bladder’s needs to the forefront of my attention. I will investigate further, I told myself, after the bathroom.

As I leaned with one hand against the wall, pissing, I noticed how well-decorated the room was, despite its size. There was a painting above the toilet, framed in gold, which was flaking due to its age, much like the frame of the mirror. I peeled off a flake and let it crumble into nothing between my fingertips. The hand-towel was a rich burgundy color with a tiny fleur-de-lis pattern. On a small table occupying the corner, was a box of cigars. I didn’t know much about these things, but, lifting the lid led me to consider learning more. They smelled delicious, much like the dried leaves and spices of autumn, and appeared to be hand-rolled. A thick black bathrobe hung from a hook on the back of the door I hadn’t bothered to lock.

After I finished with the task in hand, I took a while to wash my face, and shrugged into the robe. We are family, this strange man and I, so I didn’t think he’d mind. I also had to help myself to one of the cigars, my pack of cigarettes no doubt being left in the casket.

Walking back to my room, the robe’s ties trailing behind me, I thumbed the cigar and placed it in a pocket. There was the inhale (exhale) of breath again, a movement in the air, and I swear it was at the exact spot I had sensed the disturbance before. And to think, I almost forget about my investigative poking about.

On my left, I saw a bust on a stand about waist-high. It could’ve been anyone really (Poe, Mozart, Shakespeare, Bach), but the part that got to me was the moving of the lips and the voice (part distinguished, part snide) that came out of the mouth.

“Thanks be to good graces,” it said. “Finally, someone to talk to.”

Just then, another head appeared – a face out of nowhere. It was fixed to the wall, above the bust and to the left. This one spoke, too, but the voice was more brittle and unsure. “Hey, what am I? Chopped liver?”

“See what I mean?” the bust said.

The second face was reminiscent of Africa with its tribal masks. It was carved, with a hole for a mouth (not quite a frown, but no smile), and speckled all over. Its ears were pronounced and large in proportion to the rest, the eyes, painted on over gouges in the wood.

“Don’t act like you’re king around here.” The mask rolled his eyes down in the direction of the bust before they turned to me. “We all have to deal with him,” he said.
Clearing his throat (if he even had one), the bust spoke again. “The conversation runs short and dry when you’ve been with the same company for as long we three.”

Another voice chimed in (though more of a gong than a chime) with drawn out, lazy tones. It was a stone, twisted face, like many of the gargoyles I had seen when reading about places I’ve never been, and was positioned on the wall, to the right of the bust.

“I don’t much mind the quiet, honestly,” it said.

I looked back at these faces, studying each one. They stared at me in return, waiting for a reaction, I would guess. I tied the robe closed and crossed my arms. At first, I questioned my mental faculties, but knew full well I was no longer inebriated. Nor was I dreaming (the old pinch test proved that much). Then, I suspected a trick, a kind of off the wall game at my expense, brought forth by Mr. Horner and his intercom. The heads, though, how they moved could be nothing less than magic or insanity. After inspecting the walls, I could find no other intercom, and the one in my room was far enough away.

“Okay,” I said. “What’s going on here?”

“Well,” the bust answered, “as you can see, we’re kind of stuck here. The old master visits us less and less.”

“And he no longer tends to our necessities anymore,” added the mask.

“Good riddance, if you ask me,” said the third.

I moved my hands to my pockets, finding the cigar.

Perhaps it was the presence of three heads, instead of just one, that made me feel more at ease. “And what do you need exactly?” I asked the mask.

“I thought you’d never ask!” he said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I could use some blood. Just a taste.”

The bust scoffed. “What need have you for blood? Only skeletons want blood.”

“What do you think is under this veneer?”

“Only splinter,” replied the bust.

“Skeletons want blood?” I asked.

“I wonder why that is. Seems it would pour right through.” The mask was looking at the ceiling.

“Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s a vain attempt to be whole again,” said the third.

“Nonsense,” said the bust.

“Alright, alright,” said the mask. “It was a shot in the dark. If I may, though, ask you to run back to the bathroom. In the cabinet, there are some cleaning supplies, namely, some wood polish. If you could, go get some for me, with a rag.”

Without words or a second thought, I went back to the bathroom and found the polish, where the mask had said. As I was walking down the hall, washcloth in hand, I saw the heads following me with their eyes until I was in front of them again.

“Okay,” said the mask, “if you could then, be so nice as to dust and polish my face.”

When I sprayed the cloth, the mask said, “Watch the eyes.”

The bust sniffed. “That smells rather pleasant,” he said. “Lemons, if I’m not mistaken.”

I looked at the bottled and said, “Yep.”

The mask sighed and said, “Much better.”

“Now, I suppose it would not be too terrible if I asked for something,” said the bust.

I shook my head. “Not at all.”

“I could desperately use a smoke,” he said.

“I believe there are some of those in the bathroom, as well,” said the third head.

“No need.” I brought the cigar out of my pocket. “Will this be okay?”

“Oh, much more than okay,” he said.

I felt my pockets and realized I wasn’t in my own clothes and did not have a lighter with me. The cigar needed to be cut, too.

The third head seemed to read my thoughts and gestures. “Well, those things would be in the bathroom. Next to the cigars, possibly.”

This time in the bathroom, I splashed my face with water, just for good measure. If I returned and there were no talking heads, no faces to be found, then I would know this was just some delusion or some strange effect of the house on my senses. Regardless, I grabbed another cigar from the box (releasing the fine-rolled perfume into the air once again), along with the cigar cutter, and a matchbook.

Upon returning to the hall, I found myself happy with the fact that the heads were still there and were, indeed, still chatting away between each other.

“Well, then,” the bust said, “were the items found?”

“Indeed they were.” After cutting the tip, I placed the cigar in the bust’s mouth. His lips held it in place as I ripped out a match. There were creases in his gray forehead as he stared down (cross-eyed) at the cigar. I held the new flame to the cigar and the bust puffed away (how he did this without lungs, only now am I beginning to wonder).

Every five puffs or so, I’d pull out the cigar from his mouth, doing the work of his non-existent hands. The others looked on – the gargoyle face, quiet in his observation, while the mask was wide-eyed.

He said, “I think I would like one of those, too.”

“You’d catch fire,” said the gargoyle head, “what with all that polish.”

“All the more reason for it,” said the bust when the cigar was away from his lips. “Put us out of our misery.”

“It probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” I agreed with the gargoyle face.

When the cigar was finished, I returned to the bathroom to dispose of it, first running it under water to snuff out its smolder. All of this walking to and from the bathroom, I thought, was enough exercise for the night. I was thinking about trying a different way back to the room, to bypass the heads, so I could enjoy my pilfered cigar. Of course, there was no such alternate route.

“Anything you’d like?” I asked the gargoyle face (more out of courtesy than care).

“Why ask? I never get what I want,” he replied.

“I’m serious. Ask away. The others did and they are better for it.” The other two heads agreed and nodded as much as they could.

He waited, thinking.

I grew impatient, turning over the second cigar in my pocket.

“I know what I’d like,” he said.

“Go ahead.”

“You know the man who owns this house?”

“Yes, of course. He is a relative of mine, though distant, who offered me a warm place to stay and dry clothes.”

“Master Horner, yes. You see, the fact of the matter is, I’d like you to bring me his head.”

I nearly choked on my surprise. I said, “But he has been such a gracious host. Why would I think of doing such a thing?”

“Gracious? Him? Why, if not his head, it’s yours,” said the gargoyle face.

The bust spoke, too. “We know his intent. There used to be four of us. Now only three remain. He’s begun his search for another fourth as of late and I am not leaning in the favor of coincidence on your part.”

“He is a cruel man,” the mask said. “All we know from him is neglect.”

I had no reason to doubt the heads, that I could tell, and if what they said was true, I was certainly now suspecting foul play from my supposed distant relation and host. Joseph Horner’s quick kindness and accommodations were perhaps too eagerly supplied.

The heads spoke to each other as I turned the options over in my head.

“Do you think he’ll agree?” said the bust.

“You shouldn’t have asked him. Now we’ll all be in trouble. Destroyed even!” said the wooden mask.

“Shh. Here’s his answer.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

All the faces, their mouths turned up into smiles.

“Splendid decision,” said the gargoyle face.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said the mask.

“If you’re ready,” said the bust, “there is a long knife in this cabinet I rest upon.”

I tried the door. “It is locked.”

The bust mumbled and started prodding his cheeks from the inside with his tongue. He stuck out his tongue, providing a key. “This should be the one,” he said. “Go ahead.”

I held the blade in my hands. A foreign shape to me, it reminded me of the jungle and those adventure movies, getting through all that growth.

The gargoyle head watched as I turned the blade over in my hands, bumping over the pearl-studded grip. “It’s a kukri,” he said.

“Another of the master’s trappings,” said the bust.

“Tell him how to get there, already,” said the mask.

“Yes, of course,” said the gargoyle head. “You just go back the way you came. The way he brought you to your room. When you find the front entrance, his is the first door down the opposite hall. You more than likely passed it on the way up.”

As I started down the maze of hallways, I heard the heads conversing.

The last thing I could hear was the bust talking to the mask. “I guess you can have your blood after all.”

There was laughter. I joined in, too, though much quieter so no one would hear.

When I found the room, there was the flicker of light under the door. My nerves made me freeze. Every breath became loud in my mind. Heartbeats. Blood pumping, surging into my brain. I had to think.

I remembered, though, what the heads had said. If not him, then me. It was his life, or mine. Only one head would be returned to the others, and all I wanted was the cigar in my pocket, to enjoy the inhale, exhale of its perfume. My body relaxed and pushed me into the room, the door, unlocked.

Mr. Horner was awake, his fingers pressing against the intercom, mouth open, head tilted with one ear, listening. He was white, sheet-like, expectant.

The next morning, I was no longer surrounded by the strange and lush atmosphere of the house. Instead, I was in my car, drool slipping out of the side of my mouth and onto the car seat (reclined). A man I recognized as the funeral home director tapped on my window. His suit was different than yesterday’s and there was the perspiration of dew on my windows.

I was in the parking lot. I was in my car. I was in my own clothes, slightly damp.
I rolled down my window and apologized. The man gave a humble nod of his head and walked back to the double-doors of the entrance.

On the drive home, I was laughing. I thought of dreams and all of the bizarre sorts I’ve had, finally able to claim a winner.

The sharp turn onto my street jerked something loose on the passenger seat. I looked over, seeing a cigar, pre-cut. A small shiver coursed through me, mixed with the excitement aroused by the cigar’s rich scents. The turn into the driveway, the bump, shook something else loose, this time in the trunk.

Of course, I knew what I’d find there.

My hands shook when I put the key to the lock at the back of the car.

I was right. I was still alive. And, somewhere, three heads were happy. In his robe, there was the body (headless) of the former Mr. Joseph Horner.

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About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over one hundred stories, essays, and flash fictions or nonfictions in magazines or anthologies, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.