This is the fourth chapter of the Lindy novel. I know that it has been some time since the previous instalment, but it is gardening season after all. If you want to start from the beginning, you can find it at Chapter One.
In Which There Are Still More Surprises
Lindy remembered almost nothing about the walk to the house, but she did remember coming through the side door into a room that was just big enough to have a coat closet and a wooden shoe rack and an old hot water radiator. It was dim, but the door to the next room was ajar, and there was a light escaping warmly from around it, and with the light there came the sound of a ladle stirring and the smell of bread baking. It was all very familiar somehow. It was as though she had walked with Clinton and Morris through that little room a thousand times but was only just now remembering it, and she knew at once that whatever lay behind the door was something good and safe. The house itself seemed to tell her so.
This is why she was not surprised when Clinton wiped his feet very carefully on the mat, or when he opened the door without really touching it, or even when he began to look very unlike the Clinton that she had just met. She already knew somehow that the light from the open door would seem to burn away his very clean clothes and his very white skin and his very bald head. She already knew that the light would leave him full with a kind of glowing, as if every colour had come together to make him into something that was brighter than white and darker than black. The house whispered all these things to her, and it whispered also that there was no need for her to be afraid.
Clinton turned back to Lindy and motioned for her to follow him. His face still looked much as she remembered it, but it was different now too. It reminded her of pictures of her grandfather as a boy, where the face of the boy in the picture and the face of her grandfather looked the same and different at the same time. The new Clinton and the old one were just like that. They were the same person, but their faces were from different times and places.
Lindy started to follow the new Clinton through the door, but she suddenly remembered that Morris was behind her. Though she knew what she would find even as she turned, the sight of the new Morris was still frightening. His leather clothes had become a heavy and sagging skin that draped over his lean body, while his hands and his feet and his head had grown even larger than they had been before, as if they were meant for a taller and broader body. His face was wider too, like a frog’s, but it had a few strands of hair and a mouth filled with teeth that made him look much more fearsome than any frog. Even though Lindy knew that he was the same Morris who had been so friendly to her, she still felt a little scared.
Morris slowly reached out his huge hand, with its long nails and webbed fingers, and patted her shoulder. His new mouth widened into a smile. “It’s alright, Miss Lindy,” he said, “I wouldn’t blame you for having a good scream, ugly thing like me following behind you. Should’ve warned you, of course. Only we’re all so used to each other that we forget.”
“It’s okay,” said Lindy, though she was not quite sure that this was true. “I know you wouldn’t hurt me. The house told me so.”
“Well,” said Morris, “talking houses are a new one on me, but it’s true there’s nothing to be scared of, not here in the house. Plenty that’ll make you shake your head the first time you see it, of course, but nothing that’ll do you harm. Just don’t trust the look of things. That’s my advice. Nothing is ever what it seems to be here, not for long.”
Lindy nodded, and Morris smiled his smile. He shuffled toward the doorway where Clinton was still waiting, and Lindy followed them through the door and down a few steps into a room that she already knew would be the kitchen. It was bigger than any kitchen that she had ever seen, probably bigger than her whole house, and it was set low into the ground so that its doors were halfway up the walls with little stairways leading to them, and its windows were all very high, almost like skylights. There was a huge fireplace with a fire burning, and there were big stone ovens where the bread was baking, and there were gas stoves with pots boiling on them too, so the kitchen felt very warm indeed, but it was the comforting kind of warmth that kitchens have after a cold walk, and Lindy felt right away that she was welcome and at home. Besides the fireplace and the ovens and the stoves, there seemed to be cupboards and counters everywhere, and in the middle of everything there was a huge wooden table surrounded by mismatched chairs and benches.
The house was whispering even more clearly now that Lindy was in the kitchen, though its whispers were more like pictures than words. The pictures were of the kitchen, with its copper pans and its hanging vegetables and its steaming pots, but it was full of people too, so many people that they were often in the same places at the same times, as if she was seeing all the people who had ever been in the kitchen all together at the same moment. They were eating at the table and cooking at the stoves and working at the counters, and they all blended together, and they came and went, and their faces changed from one to another, but the kitchen stayed the same, and Lindy knew that she was in the heart of the house, where it was strongest and warmest and deepest.
Now, I have not really been describing the kitchen in the same way as Lindy saw it, because I have so far left out the one thing that she could not help but see first, even as the house was whispering to her so strongly. In the midst of that warm and fragrant kitchen, taking bread from the stone oven with a long wooden paddle, was a most singular cook. Stripped to the waist except for an apron, with thick hair curling over his back and arms, he was both very wide and very short, and Lindy would have called him a dwarf, except the house told her that he was not.
“Hello Penates,” said Morris. “Here’s our visitor. Her name is Lindy.”
“Hello Lindy,” said the cook, though he did not stop even long enough to glance at her. He kept moving from one thing to the next, dusting the fresh bread with flour, stirring something in the big pot on the hearth, cutting vegetables on the long wooden counter, and he talked as quickly as he worked. “Are you hungry? Supper’s not for a bit. Soup’s ready, though. May as well try the bread too. Never taste better than it will right now.”
Now that Penates had mentioned it, Lindy did feel a little hungry, so she said that she would love some soup and bread if that was okay, and Penates said that it would be no trouble at all. He did not seem to interrupt the flow of his work, but he quickly brought a bowl of soup and a slab of bread that were far too large for her eat by herself, and Lindy was soon relishing the tastes of thick homemade butter and warm brown bread and dark onion broth.
“Has Alaisdair returned?” asked Clinton. “It would be best if he were to take charge of our visitor himself.”
“No,” replied Penates, dicing some carrots very small. “I can’t feel him in the house. But these things can take some time. Depending what the problem is.” He turned to stir something simmering on the stove. “Morris,” he called, “get another goose from the cooler, will you? Can’t underfeed the company.”
Morris grinned and looked at Lindy. “Only come to the kitchen if you want work,” he told her. “Penates won’t let you sit around for long.”
“If you’re not eating, you should be cooking,” said Penates as he diced, and he looked up long enough to wink at Lindy, who was working her way through the soup much faster than she had expected.
“Yes, well,” said Clinton, “in any case, I will go prepare your room, Miss Lindy. Morris can escort you there when you are finished your meal. And I do apologize for bringing you in through the kitchen entrance. Things are not quite as usual around the house, and we thought it best to bring you in by the shortest way. We certainly intended no offense.”
Lindy was not actually sure why she should be offended, but she assured Clinton that she accepted his apology, and he had already left the kitchen before she realized what he meant about preparing her room. She was about to tell Morris that she did not really need to stay the night, but just then the sunlight from the high windows was shadowed, and Lindy looked up to see a flock of birds flying into the kitchen. They looked like little brown songbirds, like wrens or sparrows, but Lindy knew as soon as she saw them that there were people in the heart of them. She could already see how they would become taller and more human as they landed, with feathers for hair and with the delicate movements of birds, but with human faces and voices.
Even before they had landed, however, Lindy knew that things were not as they should be. Their flight was frantic, and their agitation became still clearer when they fluttered to the ground in a cluster around the table.
“Penates!” cried one of them, as she rushed toward the cook, “shut the house as soon as may be. Danger comes!”
“Cleanna?” the cook asked, dropping his knife in alarm, “has Alasdair sent you?”
“Yes!” the bird woman replied, still urgent. “He comes as quickly as he can, but the danger comes before. Waste not a moment.”
Penates turned, and he looked much less like a cook now and much more like a hero from one of Lindy’s storybooks, sterner and firmer. “Morris,” he said, “take Miss Lindy to her room right away. And send Clinton to me if you see him. Quickly now.” His voice was very calm, but for the first time since she had entered the house, Lindy was afraid. She did not know what there was to fear exactly, but it was enough for her that Penates and Morris and the house itself seemed suddenly alarmed. Everything was watchful now and careful, and Lindy was frightened to think that something had been able to disquiet the house so quickly. Then she found herself being picked up in Morris’ massive hands and rushed along corridors and through doorways, up staircases and across landings, but she could not see any of these things clearly. The house whispered nothing to her now, but she could sense its concern, and her own fear deepened.
At last they arrived in a small room, somewhere deep in the house, and Morris laid her on the bed. He turned to go, assuring her that he would return as soon as he could. A sudden terror went through Lindy at the thought of being left alone in the strange vastness of the house, and she started to cry out for Morris to stay with her, but she suddenly found that she could not remember what it was that she wanted to say. Her eyes closed, quite against her will, and she slept.
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