They say that about twenty minutes walk from the village, deep out in the moor, there is a house where no one is supposed to go. The house is tiny, so small that every time it storms, someone brave goes up after to stand at a safe distance and see if it is still standing. It’s almost like a house made by a child for a doll; a construction of mud and straw that looks enough like a house but is, in truth, too cramped and unstable for anything to dwell there. The walls are short and the roof sags low and no one could live there.
Something sweeps the house’s creaking porch, something keeps the yard neat and tidy, something chops wood and stacks it by the door and then takes it inside to burn. Whatever is inside that house, it always has a fire going. You cannot see the house from the village- it is very likely that no one would live there if you could- but you can sometimes see the thin, gray line of smoke, slithering through the chimney like an impossibly long snake leaving its hole.
The townspeople might forget about the house if it weren't for the smoke. They’d leave it there, a ghost story in the heather, and let it be consumed by the land. The foundation would sink into the earth, and the porch with it’s stack of firewood would rot. Birds would build nests in a collapsed roof. Small animals would scurry across the floor, and it would be as if the thing that lived in the house never existed.
But people see the smoke, and people know the house is there.
And because they weren’t supposed to go there, they went.
The house looks different than Isla had expected. She had been prepared for a skeleton of a house, something small and rotting and swaying in the wind.
Instead, it’s just a house. Small and hard to make out in the dark, yes, but so unassuming that she could pass it in the village and think nothing of it. There are no howling spirits, and the air doesn’t smell of death and bloodshed. The air smells of nothing but soil and the afternoon’s rain.
Perhaps the normalcy is meant to put her at ease, but it just winds Isla tighter. She knows why she has come, the dark, looming nature of it, and she has never cared much for tricks.
With one last deep breath, Isla starts across the field and closer to the house, drawing her shawl tighter around her shoulders even though she didn’t really need to. Spring nights are either gentle or alive with storms, and the worst to fear tonight was a strong wind. The sky above her is resplendent with stars. The heather sways in gentle waves. As she moves closer to the house, she notices wild flowers growing close to the porch, beautiful even only in silhouette.
The porch doesn’t creak under her feet so much as it moans, low and wounded-sounded. The wood feels fragile beneath her feet, and she thinks one wrong step will send her crashing through the old boards, so Isla tries to step carefully. There are no candles or lanterns lit on the porch, no light or sound. There is only the ever-smoking chimney, and a low sense of dread burning in her gut. Her skin crawls and her stomach churns. She wants to turn and run, run back to the village, away from the village, anywhere that is not this strange, wounded-animal house.
Instead, she knocks on the door once. The door is hard, solid wood, just as her’s is. She strains her ears, trying to listen for movement inside the house, but she hears none.
“I seek a boon,” She tells the door, her voice so quiet it is nearly lost in the breeze. She doesn’t think that will be a problem. The thing in the house probably speaks the same language the wind does. She reaches to her neck, and fingers the necklace hanging from her neck.
The necklace is poor payment, little more than a stone wrapped in a leather thong. It isn’t even an expensive stone. It’s about as valuable as a river rock, though it looks a stunning shade of green in the right light.
It is the most precious thing Isla owns, and though she should unclasp it to present it to the keyhole or the shuttered windows, she only clutches the stone tight enough that the leather threatens to break, letting the blunt shape press an imprint of itself into her palm.
“I can pay,” She says, a little louder this time.
For a moment, the house is silent, and it is not a peaceable silence. No one appears, but Isla gets the distinct impression that she is being judged.
And then, still judging her, the thing in the house speaks.
“That is something of a given. Everyone comes thinking they can pay.”
The door does not creak when it opens, and Isla almost doesn’t notice. A sliver of a face is just suddenly peering out at her through the crack between the door and the doorframe, and she takes a step backwards so suddenly she almost trips.
The eye -the very human, very brown eye- crinkles with amusement, and Isla feels a fear so sharp she wants to cry out.
No tricks, she wants to beg, no tricks, just take it and be done with it. Let me do this in peace.
Instead, she says nothing, and the door opens the rest of the way. The thing that lives in the house is already moving away from her, further back into it’s glamoured home. Again, Isla debates turning and escaping into the heather fields.
“Come inside, and close the door behind you,” The thing calls, and with shaking hands, Isla does.
Inside, the house’s front room is even smaller than she expected. The fireplace roaring away at the back is barely even a fireplace at all, just a tiny square no bigger than a breadbox, though it warms the room so intensely that Isla wants to take off her shawl. She doesn’t, because it’s a very nice shawl and she would like to keep it.
This, at least, doesn’t look like a normal room. It’s a good enough imitation- the floorboards seem to be swept, and the things burning in the fireplace look more like spits of wood than human bones. But even so, it is not quite right.
The floor is almost too well swept, Isla thinks. It takes nearly an hour to sweep every floor in her house, and as much time as she devotes to the dull work, she still misses spots and corners.
On this floor, there is no dust in the corners, no missed patches. The floorboards are all pristine. But the front room is easily half the size it should be, so perhaps it shouldn’t be all that strange. It wouldn’t be, if not for the state of the walls.
Every wall in the room is lined with over-full shelves, cluttered with bits and pieces of other people’s lives. Children’s toys and rosaries, figurines carved from stone and wood, bracelets and necklaces, hair ties and cloaks, strands of beads and yellowing sheaths of paper and jars full of indiscriminate sludge, swords and knives and a rag caked with something that had dried a reddish-brown. Isla knows what they are the minute she sees them.
They are the offerings of other people come to see the thing in the house, thrown up on these shelves and left to molder. None of them seem valuable, but they are all deeply precious. There is no rhyme or reason to their organization. A thick slice of abalone shell leans against a handful of dried-up dandelions. They’re all thick with dust, some of them spotted with mold. The shelves themselves look dirty too- the thing in the house has collected all these momentos, all these precious keepsakes, and it never touches them.
The floor beneath the forsaken shelves, though, is gleaming and immaculate.
Something that burns and spits with anger comes to life in Isla's gut, but she smothers it as quickly as it came. She doesn’t want the thing’s anger. She is only here to make a trade. What does it matter what the thing does with it’s payment, so long as it accepts it?
But when the thing in the house finishes tending to the fire and returns to her side, Isla struggles to look at it. Instead, she stares past it, into the shelves.
“There aren’t this many people in the village,” She says at last. Her village is tiny, little more than a handful of houses clustered together behind a hill. If every person in the village came up and made a trade here, she doesn’t think they could fill one shelf, let alone over a dozen.
The thing in the house shrugs. It looks surprisingly normal, for what it is. It wears the face of a woman, weak-chinned and about as tall as Isla herself. But it doesn’t quite fit right. Something about the woman- the look in her eye, or the shape of her smile, or something else- itched at Isla, like the gnawing of a rat.
“You would be surprised, how much people are willing to give. Besides, it’s only natural for stories about a house with a wish-granting demon in it to spread.”
“We don’t have a house with a demon in it,” Isla says, trying to cut through the thing’s strange net of lies and false pleasantries, “You were here before the churches. You’re one of the Old Folk.”
“True,” The thing says, “But a demon sounds so much more exciting. Tea?”
Isla still refuses to look the thing in the face, but she feels it’s gaze the way she might feel a cut, or a bite from a stinging insect. Her skin prickles with gooseflesh. Some long-buried, prey instinct kicks to life in her gut and screams at her to run.
Very deliberately, Isla sticks her chin out and stares into the depths of the shelves. Her gaze keeps wandering back to a small horse carved from wood, no taller than three fingers’ breadth and painted what might once have been a cheery shade of red, beneath all the dust.
She thinks of her river-rock necklace, what it will look like on the shelf with the leather rotting, and the offering suddenly feels very heavy around her neck.
“No thank you,” Isla says, forcing herself to sound polite, “I would discuss the bargain with you.”
“The bargain, the bargain.” Isla has the rather distinct impression that the thing is rolling its eyes. “It’s always about the bargain, no one ever wants to chat. I have heard your plea a dozen times but no one will make conversation. Go on, though, go on.”
Something draws Isla’s gaze to the thing’s face, even though she would rather never look at it the whole time she’s here. The thing has changed it’s face. Gone is the pleasant-faced woman of the dull brown eyes and hair, and in her place is a man barely old enough to be called that, with a sharply hooked nose and a spatter of youthful freckles. Strangest, though, is it’s expression.
She expects the thing in the house to look pleased, or hungry, or maybe just some unnamed, vaguely sinister emotion.
She does not expect it to look bored.
Her hands shake as she reaches up to draw the necklace off her neck. She holds it out, the stone swaying gently as it dangles. The motion is calming, and she focuses on that instead of the thing in the house. Something ice-cold washes through her, steeling her nerves and freezing her anger. She makes her proposal with a strange sort of detachment. The thing in the house will accept the necklace, and leave it on it’s shelves, and she will have her life back.
“This is a necklace my husband made me when we were children. He froze to death last Winter, and we didn’t find his body until the Spring. It is my most prized possession. Give him back to me.”
The thing in the house remains unchanged, unmoved by her plea. Something about the set of it’s expression makes her wish she’d brought a knife to offer it, instead. She could sink it into the thing’s ribs when they make the trade.
“It is fascinating how many prized possessions you people seem to have. You understand, of course, that I take the memory with the trade as well?”
Isla nods, resolute. She knows no one who traded with the thing that lived in the house, and so she has no personal details, but she had examined the stories close enough to glean a few things.
The thing tilts it’s boyish head to the side, considering. “A well enough trade, a memory for a man. It is acceptable.” Something strange and unidentifiable flits across the thing’s face. It is not a feeling, exactly, but something like it. A cousin, maybe. A distant one.
“But I will not take it.”
Isla’s hold on the necklace goes slack. The stone makes an unimpressive clunking sound when it hits the floor.
“I will not take it.” It flicks one hand at her dismissively. “You may go now.”
“It is no different than your other prizes. You said yourself that the trade was acceptable.”
“You must take it.” Isla had been determined not to show any weaknesses that the thing might prey upon, but she can’t stop her voice from cracking.
The thing in the house stares through her dispassionately.
“No. I have heard this story too many times, and I tire of it. Go home to your house. Think no more of me.”
Isla can hardly hear over the roar of blood in her ears. She sees, in her mind’s eye, the way her husband had looked when the snow had finally melted and a hunter had brought his body in; the gray skin and the glassy eyes and the stiff claws his fingers had frozen into.
She cannot fail. She cannot go back to her own little house, cold and empty as it is, and bake bread for one person and do the washing for one person and sweep up the dust tracked in by one person.
“I’ll give you something else,” She hears herself say.
“A different memory.”
“I don’t want anymore of your memories.”
“Take my right hand. That is precious.”
“No, that is grotesque.” Between one blink and the next, the thing changes its face again. There is the boy with the hooked nose and then there is the weak-chinned woman again.
“Please, take my face,” Isla wheedles, only distantly aware of the way her voice shakes. “You like having faces, don’t you?”
“I already have it.”
“Take my life!” Isla isn’t sure when she came so close to the thing in the house, but she is near enough to lunge at it. She clutches at it’s shoulders, screaming loud enough that she feels it grating against her throat.
The thing in the house looks very tired, suddenly.
“I could not take that, even if I wanted to.”
Isla’s mind races, searching for something else to offer up, something enticing enough to make the thing in the house rescind all it’s strange games and give her her heart back, but she finds nothing. It’s all nonsense. The thing in the house, and the strange refusals to every offer, and the way she can stare into the woman’s face long enough and almost recognize it from reflections.
Nonsense, all of it.
“Why,” Isla chokes out instead. Her voice sounds a wreck even to her own ears. Her throat feels like raw meat. Something cold and wet drips off her chin, and she wonders how long she’s been crying.
The thing in the house sighs, as if this is all a very tedious obstacle between it and it’s nightly rest.
“Your husband did not die in the snowdrifts, not at first. I think you went out for a walk with your brother. The blizzard was unexpected. Your husband came to me, a little while after, and he offered me a toy he had made for your son, before you knew he would be a stillborn. And I gave you back.
“But death needs a trade as well. That’s why it likes you people so much. All the senseless bargaining. So you died again, in the Spring, when a sickness swept your village. And he came again. And then he died, instead, and you came. And he came, and you came, and he gave me his name and you gave me your face. You two have been giving me names and lives and souls and memories for nearly a year, now. I am exhausted.”
Something pulls in Isla’s chest, like a very large knot slowly unraveling.
“I don’t have a brother,” She says, eventually. It is small and insignificant, but it is also the only thing she can bring herself to say.
“No,” The thing wearing her face said, “You gave his memory to me a few visits ago.”
“Why don’t I remember?”
“I am a creature that feeds on memories. No one remembers me.”
“And the dying?” Isla says.
Isla looks away from the thing, crumpling in on itself with misery and exhaustion, and looks again at the cluttered, dusty shelves.
“...Does everyone come back to you?”
“Without fail. Tampering with fate only makes it that much more interested in you. Please, go away. I am so very tired of this game. Let us both rest.”
Isla looks at her offering, discarded on the floor.
“How many times have you begged me like this?”
“...Do I ever heed you?”
“No,” It says, hollowly, “No, no one ever does.”