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Mr. Doornail

“Mr. Doornail has eaten my heart!” the old man cried in the village one morning, noticing belatedly the horror that had been done him. Shortly thereafter, he took off his spotless white fedora, threw it into the air, and sidestepped casually into the path of an automobile.

Mind, no one had wanted the old man alive for at least ten years. He went in and out the front door, dressed in his pressed suit, his beard trimmed, but he spoke to no one in the house, and perhaps to no one in the world. Even dogs disliked him. Terriers sometimes sensed the thing he lacked and chased him through the town.

Had the old man not been defended by goats, he would’ve wandered into the dark long before he did. Goats would keep company with anything. They didn’t mind an empty tin. They’d kick it along, bring it back home when it was tired, and follow it up the stairs. The old man had been for ten years blessed by this bevy of goats, who slept in his bookshelves and on the headboard of his bed, all around the room like furry bricks, a small herd of side-eyeing sympathizers.

The car that ran the old man over was swiftly mobbed by his companions, spry hooves onto the roof, horns in the windows, bleats and contempt for the driver who gave up, got out, and went to the bar. It was too bad, but what could he do? The old man had leapt in front of him, and the car was moving at full speed. Besides which, the old man was a known scourge of goatiness, a cloud of fur and bells; a woeful, slow-going weirdness, moving through town and blocking traffic.

The old man was very dead. His hat landed atop a light post and was colonized, first by doves, and then by bats, who’d been hunting any house at all.

Who among us has not tried to bar winged things from the house? A hundred bats can hang inside a hat. A thousand sparrows can nest atop a four-poster, looking down into the bedclothes. A hundred thousand moths can hide in the wallpaper, flattening until they seem as though they’re only part of the pattern, not hungry creatures seeking wool. Winged things find a way in.

Bernardine, the newly widowed mistress of the house, wafted over the polished floors, vibrating with triumph. Oh, she was delighted. The servants knew it. Everyone knew it.

No marriage of forty-three years was without its revulsions, but particularly not a marriage in which one party had sold a piece of the other without the other’s permission. Sharing a house with a man whose heart you’ve fed to a monster was nothing nice.

It was only a small ritual, the theft of the heart, taken one night with a sharp knife and a spell made of wax and twine, the heart wrapped in cotton and bundled into a copper pot, boiled with saffron, and delivered to Mr. Doornail. Unfortunately, the old man roused partway through it and in half sleep, bespelled and bemused, he told Bernardine that he’d never forgive her, and that this was the end of their marital conversation.

Those were the last words she heard him speak, but he stayed alive out of perversity.

Whenever she looked at him, she was reminded of her crime, and whenever he looked at her, he was reminded of something he couldn’t remember. That was how it had gone for a decade and more, and a very unpleasant decade it was. He occasionally walked past, looked at her woefully, and she in turn looked at the sky until he departed. His woe was like pox.

She’d slept in a separate room with a lock on the door for years, and he’d slept surrounded by goats and bits of hay, his daily doings unmonitored, his household run by the seven women of his family, and eleven women of the servants, who wearied of him more each day.

The old man’s feelings were mute and moot, but Bernardine’s were not. She had a wringer, and through it she ran his shirts, crank by crank, managing her rage through wringing, though the servants did the rest of the laundry.

At long last, the old man was laid out in the formal dining room. He was flat and smooth as could be, as though his body itself was made of boiled wool. He’d been brought back home on a cart.

Bernardine donned her blackest dress and her darkest veil. She looked out from behind it, and smiled. The old man had lived for an appallingly long time after his heart had been eaten by Mr. Doornail.

There was a tall door behind the table that held the old man’s body. It was three stories high and made of mahogany, stretching from the grand entryway to the attic. It was never opened. There were iron locks all the way up, and bars that slid across the wood, and chains that secured those bars to their fastenings.

From behind the door, the monster groaned in anticipation of its next meal.

If one did not know Mr. Doornail was there, one might have mistaken the groan for the sound of wind whistling. Those in the house knew better. The servants were in charge of polishing the dark door with furniture polish, and shining the locks. Sometimes one of the servant girls peeped through a keyhole, to see if Mr. Doornail was visible, but there was only a blurry redness, like the sun seen through an eyelid. All that was ever visible of Mr. Doornail was the liquid that welled from beneath the door.

A servant marched importantly into the room with a mop. The ooze to be removed was dark and thick, a bloody drink of seawater, drowned desperation.

Who among us has not tried to clean something ghastly from a floor? Who among us has not tried to banish the memory of the ghastliness with bleach and lemons? The ghastliness always remains, bait to cats, intriguing to dogs, no matter what one does. The world is soaked in wrongful substances, that’s the truth, and every bit of the earth has been touched by terrible things.

The servants in the old man’s villa were grateful. The old man had been filth forever. No one could bear the way he tracked mud over carpets, and often worse than mud. It was about time Mr. Doornail took him.

The carpets might be whitened again now, and the floorboards sanded, the windows soaped, and the linens starched. There would be no more goats allowed into bedchambers, no more goats bleating evilly in the kitchens. Who could be bothered with goats who stood on the roof warbling the devil’s hymn? No one had ever liked the goats, no one but the old man, and if he was gone, the goats would be ignored or roasted in pits.

Now there were almond cakes to bake and sausages to fry. The mourning could not be minor; there were standards to uphold. The town would come to the funeral reception, and the daughters of the house were to hold court from the hardest sofa. Rituals of regret.

The servants had been running the villa for decades, through two mistresses who thought themselves queens, both Bernardine and her mother. The servants had no patience for the follies of the rich. They came from the country, where no one wore corsets they had to be tugged into, and no daughters stood at the top of the staircase lamenting the fit of their frills. In the country, goats were not allowed indoors. The rich had different ideas. Ten years of difficulty since the old man had gone bad, and now chickens came into the house to roost on the tops of the curio cabinet and curtain rods. Eggs dropped from high places and cracked on the floor. Who could be bothered to fight with chickens? At the end of each day there was an angry mop.

It was the first day of the mourning, and in the street outside the villa the funeral band commenced to play, banging pots and pans, and singing, and occasionally a man played a trill on a flute, and another took up a fiddle while the rest stamped their feet and played their horns.

The servants sighed as one. The band was dirty too, and they would no doubt trample through the villa in their mourning, dirty feet, dirty songs.

Who among us has not heard the dreadful song of the funeral band, and tried to keep it out? It cannot be kept out with cotton, and neither may it be kept out with wine. The only way to keep a funeral band out is to ban death from the house. Who among us hasn’t tried those spells? They’ve never worked.

It had always been Bernardine’s job to provide for herself and all five daughters, and she’d done what she had to do. The old man was a gambler. Without a heart, no man could play cards. That was well known. After his heart was gone, the old man stood at the corner of the table, bewildered, while all his former conspirators shuffled, bet, and ate sardines. Heartless, the old man was reduced to a diet of bland porridge. Nothing tasted good, and nothing felt good. He shuffled from square to square.

Bernardine, on the other hand, had become a productive and powerful witch with the sale of her husband’s heart. She ran a business killing people’s enemies. People came to her for awful things to put inside smoke bombs, potions that would drift out into the air, turning everyone who inhaled them pale green. They came to her for flowers that might be pinned into the bosoms of the wives of generals, suffocating them as they danced.

Her powers came from the monster to whom she’d sold the old man’s heart. Mr. Doornail had power to spare, and no cares for the future.

Oh, Mr. Doornail was terrible. The monster behind the door had tentacles, perhaps a hundred of them, perhaps a thousand, and the tentacles touched the doorframe, tenderly petting the wet warp of the wood. Each tentacle had the face of one of Bernardine’s daughters, or, when Mr. Doornail was in another mood, the face of everyone in the town. The tentacles could play like puppets, the monster moving its own arms around in the space behind the door, making a show for itself.

The funeral band played in the street, and Bernardine’s fingers moved in her gloves. The band would keep any ghosts from settling. Ghosts hated this sort of music, this clang and clamor. She’d commissioned the band to play for six weeks, day and night. They’d be fed on chickpeas and egg pancake, and every day she’d allotted them seven bottles of wine from the cellar. She wasn’t stingy in matters of mourning.

Bernardine danced for a moment, all alone, and through one of the keyholes, Mr. Doornail watched her.

Who among us has not tried to keep a monster in the house, under lock and key? Monsters do not belong in houses, but even so, as many as a hundred monsters can hang inside a closet, or wedge themselves in layers beneath a bedroom floor. A tremendous monster can dwell inside a central courtyard, accessible only by flying things. The truth of monsters, however, is that they will always find a way to freedom.

The funeral band was not a dancing band. They were a death band: thin, bird faced, some of them with mustaches and some not. Their black clothing ran in the rain.

There were twenty-one men in the town, and they all knew better than to marry any of Bernardine’s dreadful daughters. Mr. Doornail, while not known by name, was known by reputation. No man among them wanted to lose his heart. It was best to be in the funeral band instead. There’d been an emergency meeting. Most of the musicians had no skill at all at instruments. There was a quick handing out of tin cans and boiling pots, metal spoons and wineglasses, and those without kitchens were left to whoop and howl in mourning for a man no one knew.

That old man. He’d traveled for years from end to end of the town, walking very slowly, and periodically he’d stop, take a piss, or drink a coffee, and then move on. He’d never cared whose stoop he pissed on. He’d never cared whose coffee he drank. He took cups right out of people’s hands, and when you looked into his eyes, you saw his lack. Look at him: an abyss.

There was only one man in town who’d not joined the funeral band, and that man was the bookseller.

The bookseller walked toward the house to pay his respects to the old man, who’d been a customer of the bookstall for years. Rather other than a customer: he’d been a person who stood at the corner of the stall and petted the books, though he could no longer read them. Heartless, the old man had been left without a story, and though he sought one, he couldn’t find the one he’d been born with.

The bookseller knew the dead man’s goats too. They liked hide glue, and often needed to be chased away, but he allowed them entrance when the old man came. All the way to the house, he was accompanied by trotting goats, insisting on vengeance.

They wanted the widow, and they wanted Mr. Doornail, and they wanted to trample the house down to the cobblestones and eat it up.

This was the nature of goats: loyal, vicious, insubordinate. The goats were a herd and they accompanied the bookseller, informing him of his need for knives and witchcraft. The bookseller didn’t understand how to speak with goats, however, and so he came bearing a bouquet of flowers instead, a present for the youngest daughter of the house.

The bookseller, it may be mentioned, was a fool to imagine that the youngest daughter could be wed. She was, of course, the property of Mr. Doornail, and any husband of hers would be Mr. Doornail’s property as well.

But the bookseller was only a man, no expert in magical mortality, and the goats were not his army. On they came, over the cobbles, fifty furious goats on their way to the villa. They missed the old man, and the sound of his daughters shouting in the upper story of the house was enough to make them want to climb the roof and remove the roof tiles, drop through the roof beams, and eat the universe.

Goats wanted things just as much as anybody else, perhaps more. Goats had no concerns about monsters. Goats were equal to the task at hand. They’d listened to the house, and they knew where the keys were.

They came for Mr. Doornail, hoof by hoof.

Who among us has not tried to keep goats out of the house? Goats cannot be kept from their desires. If a goat wants to come down the chimney, it does so. If a goat wants to roost in the eaves, it does so. If a goat wants to eat an automobile, it will eat the automobile, even if that automobile is a Model T Ford, and painted white, with tin cans trailing behind to announce a wedding. The goats will eat the cans. The goats will eat the streamers. The goats will move into a house like bridesmaids who’ve murdered a rival bride, and there will they stay.

“Come lace me, wretched sisters!” Bernardine’s eldest daughter shouted down the stairs. Anguish was thirty-nine. Who’d name a daughter Anguish? A mother who named each daughter after the pains of her labor.

The second eldest daughter, Arch, came from her own bedchamber. “She made me dye even my gloves black,” she said and flexed her illegally lacquered red nails.

The third and fourth daughters, Ache and Fever, followed, both grim. They came from the dye pots, their newly blackened hair parted in the center, twisted into coils at the napes of their necks. All the clothing had been dyed in the bathtub in the yard, the black poured into the soil. Next year, the lettuce would be blue, and the kale gray. The hair was dyed in the sinks, and even the cracks in the porcelain had gone to black.

The daughters’ dresses were still damp. Whenever they sat, they left shadows of themselves, shadows shaped like ghosts, the curve of bustle and bone, hips caged by black brocade and wet wool stockings. The dye turned their skin, and each of the daughters was now dove-colored from throat to thighs, striped with inky lines and speckled with daubs of dark. They were too hot, and too wet. The daughters each had a trousseau of pale pink silk, embroidered with tiny butterflies and birds, but none had worn any of the pieces. A bad old tomcat named Bite nested in the trunks of knickers and petticoats, chemises and soft lace brassieres, purring triumph.

“Why black?” lamented Ache. “We’ll be worse off than we were.”

“She wants us to be proper,” said Fever. “We have a reputation to protect.”

“We have her reputation to protect,” Arch corrected.

The fifth daughter came into the room. She was still young and beautiful, and she was sure that was all that mattered. She was only twenty, and of the names, she’d gotten the best one, Tear. She was convinced that her trousseau, at least, would be used.

Tear wore her green dress beneath her black dress, tissue silk embroidered with blades of grass and beaded with golden crickets, but this was a Hadeian household now. The black dress had previously been lavender muslin and embroidered with orange blossoms. Now it had gray flowers, and all that work was in vain. She was melting beneath the layers, but she would not surrender. Tear fingered the lacy edge of her greenest petticoat and thought about a spring wedding. She thought about the man she’d met, the one with the pompadour and the floral cologne, the one with the mouth that spoke secrets into her ear.

He was a secret himself, he with his volumes, he with his vest.

The five sisters stood in a line, and each sister pressed her foot into the spine of the next sister, and pulled her corset strings.

What could create a woman like their mother? It was hard to say. Perhaps she’d been made with a chisel, her body wrested from the shale that surrounded the estate. Their mother was lava encased in lace. There was nothing to be done about her. The daughters were prisoners of spite and spiders. It was the mother’s house, and she was the law.

“It is no reputation we are protecting,” muttered Ache. “It is only Mr. Doornail.”

“Only? Mr. Doornail is more than an only. In eight years of mourning, I’ll be forty-seven,” said Anguish.

“And instead of taking care of your own children, you’ll be taking care of Mr. Doornail,” said Fever. “That will be your task when Mother dies. You know it will.”

“She’ll never die,” said Anguish. “Just look at her. And look at Grandmother.”

Indeed. The grandmother, who lived in the attic, and whose name was Maria Josepha, had little business still being alive, but she persisted, her hair twelve feet of silver white glory. She was tiny and fragile, but she carried knives in her belt. Sometimes she braided her hair and hung by it to prove her mettle, and when she did, she smiled an evil smile.

She had six gold wedding rings, amethyst bobs for her ears, giant necklaces of emeralds. Her jewels weighed her down and she refused to make a will. The old woman danced in a witchy circle in the top story, and her hair trailed behind her, picking up dust. Floors below her, the servants looked up and sighed at the sound of her clicking heels.

She was strong enough to kill anyone with her braids alone, and, in fact, she’d killed six men that way in her life. A hundred and twenty-two years, and she’d gotten weary several times. No man imagined he’d be strangled in his sleep by the braids of his wife.

Though he should have.

No man ever imagined his heart might get fed to a monster.

Though he should have.

Now she left her hair loose. One of her husbands had called the hair her glory. It wasn’t. It was the mane of a wild white horse. Her jewels came from all the men, and from broken bottles too. She wore glass as well as she wore emeralds. She still had all her teeth.

Mr. Doornail was the only one who’d ever been strong enough to love her. In the attic the great grandmother put on her amethyst bobs. Her hair unfurled behind her like a train.

Who among us has not tried to keep an elderly relative in the house? They cannot be kept in. They make their way into the streets, buy luxurious provisions without their purses, throw oranges at newsboys, swear at police. They find new loves in the form of other elderly lost souls, and then they marry strangers in the courthouses, and all the while, their children hunt, unable to capture them. The elderly, like monsters, like bats, will not be caged.

Some people thought that Bernardine was a monster. Perhaps she was. Though she’d fed her own husband’s heart to Mr. Doornail, she had a perverse desire to deny the monster now. There were all these daughters, and none of them were wed. She would certainly not marry again. She wanted more power, more of something, a reward for the difficulty of finding men for her horrible daughters. The daughters were nothing nice. The men in the town were nothing nice either. They ought to offer gifts, money, land. Instead, they averted their eyes when she passed, unless they required a spell.

Mr. Doornail was beginning to wonder about its next meal. It was beginning to call to men, to send out the scent of perfume, to bypass Bernardine, who disliked the bypassing. The locks were sound and the chains were strong, and Bernardine imagined she controlled everything. She imagined her spells were solid.

They were not. No spell ever is.

Who among us has not tried to keep a daughter in the house? They slip out of the cracks in the windows, slither out through the bottoms of the doors, and everywhere, everywhere, there are futures waiting to meet them in dark corners, present them with flowers, kiss their throats. As for virginity, well. If you live in a village such as this one, you know it’s all a game of pretend in the end, the insistence that only a virgin can be a proper bride in white. We all know those spells too, the ones for making something look like something else.

Anguish had her own lover in the house, and whose business was it that her lover was the assistant cook who stole meat and salt and fat, who made feasts in the village for all the orphans and all the cats? It was no one’s business but Anguish’s own that she often knelt in the kitchen with her knees in flour and sugar, spending afternoons with her tongue under a girl’s apron, her fingers pressed into hips like she was kneading dough. Anguish could fit each of her kneecaps into a serving spoon, and her skin had been pressed with rolling stamps, embossed with the flowers that normally would decorate tea cookies.

Anguish was not the least bit lonely, witch’s daughter though she was. Her mother’s spell had applied only to men. To anyone who was not a man, Anguish was permeable. There was no shortage, not for this house’s daughters. This was a house of eighteen women in total, and none of them were meant to be the wives of men, with the lone exception, perhaps, of Bernardine, who had neatly rid herself of her husband. Fever, Ache, and Arch felt just as Anguish did. There were women all over the village, visiting scholars, a traveling salesman in a suit who was, beneath the serge, not as he appeared. There were persons in the village who had no gender at all, persons whose actuality fell outside the edges of the spell. Fever cared not for love at all, but for the heavens, and at night she looked out her bedroom window and numbered the stars, plotting the course of eclipses. And then there was Tear, the only one who wanted anything to do with husbands. Her sisters looked at her and grimaced. That green dress. That hair falling out of its braid. The rest were peaceably living in this house, their affairs their own, the spells of their mother nothing to do with them.

The spell was old fashioned and foolish, as spells often were, deceived by tongues and whispers outside window frames, deceived by love letters wrapped around the scaly ankles of doves. Who among us hasn’t tried to use a spell such as this one?

Mr. Doornail sent a scent of sea, of fried dough and pickled peppers, a waft of salted chocolate, and the grandmother danced.

Mr. Doornail liked hearts and it liked tears, and it liked Maria Josepha, because long ago, she’d met it on a beach and drawn it up out of the surf, a terrible thing contained inside a copper vessel covered in barnacles. Someone had thrown the monster into the deep, but monsters float.

The grandmother was a young girl then, in a white dress embroidered with eyeballs. She had never been at all nice. She did her own needlework, and she was training in secret with the witch of her own village, training to be trouble.

Maria Josepha had unusually large eyes, a pointed face like the face of a fox, and hair the color of midnight. She kept her hair in a corona to cover the fact that she’d stolen some stars from a neighboring witch’s workshop to decorate it.

When she found the copper vessel she rapped her little fist smartly on the exterior.

“What are you in there, then?” she asked it, and smiled when it whispered back at her.

“A wonder,” said the thing inside the vessel, and that was all Maria Josepha needed to know to go to her father, borrow his hatchet, and slice open the soldering that had kept the monster dry in its voyage.

Mr. Doornail emerged hungry, ate Maria Josepha’s father’s heart, and then she was quite at liberty, a daughter on the loose.

“We’ll live here together, you and I,” she said, taking down her braids. Mr. Doornail had been quite comfortable enclosed in the central courtyard of the house, for a hundred years and more, periodically hungry, periodically fed on husbands’ hearts. There were plenty of husbands and there were plenty of hearts. Mr. Doornail had grown fat and lazy there behind the door, comforted by bones, and the house grew to accommodate it.

Now it was hungry again.

Mr. Doornail used one tentacle to peer through a keyhole, at the daughters. The monster pressed itself to the wood, experimentally. It called out into the house, swelling, but the locks held.

“I hear it,” said Ache.

“It’s calling again,” said Arch. “Horrid.”

A tentacle quested beneath the door like a worm after a storm. The daughters shuddered, and Anguish rang the servant bell.

Outside, the goats marched in formation, making their way, bringing the bookseller with them. Or perhaps the bookseller brought them. In any case, there was a rattling in the earth, and a trampling, the running of the bulls or a religious pilgrimage, but seen through the eyes of the goats, sideways light, glittering warfare. The goats trotted toward the villa, each one with its own plans.

The sisters trooped down the stairs. The house smelled of garlic, which one of the servants had festooned over everything, perhaps to mask the smell of the corpse, perhaps as an insult to their mother.

Bernardine wasn’t a vampire. Witches paid garlic no mind, nor lilies, nor stakes. It wasn’t as though the house had ever smelled nice. The monster exuded a particular odor.

Anguish held her handkerchief to her nose, and tried not to look at the body of the old man. This old man had left nothing to anyone. He’d eaten his holdings at some point in the last years, coin by coin, paper bill by paper bill, and then shat it all into the yard. It was still buried out there, and no one wanted to retrieve it.

The five daughters sat down across from the flat old man, on their designated formal sofa, the one upholstered to itch, the one with no swan’s-down. They felt humid and dark as storm weather, waiting for the town to come and pay them respect.

Mr. Doornail waited too.

Tear had climbed out of her bedroom window one night and run across the rooftops until she saw her future husband below her in the street, selling books at a stall, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a pair of thick wire-framed glasses, a vest made of paisley silk. There, she thought. There is my husband.

“Look up here,” she called, and he looked. She lifted her skirt to show first her ankles, then her knees, then her thighs, and then she tucked the skirt between them to show him the plump shape of her ______. The man’s eyes widened.

“Who are you, then?” he asked.

“The witch’s littlest daughter,” Tear said, and toyed with her schoolgirl braids. She pretended to be rather nicer than she was. She was not so nice. She’d been in her mother’s workshop and eaten a great deal of a marzipan that could turn her into an owl. If she merely spread her skirts, she’d be able to fly down to him, but she did not. It was no good to reveal all of one’s skills on a first meeting. She didn’t want to frighten him. She could see that he was a man of good breeding, and his stall was full of books with fine leather bindings. He had a horse of his own, and his family owned a large house with marble floors. He was not only a bookseller. He was a man worthy of her time.

She lifted her skirt an inch higher and showed him a set of bloomers decorated with slender green serpents, each one embroidered with silk floss and lifelike enough that they seemed to slither.

Months had passed since then, and Tear had been waiting patiently for a proposal. Not for mourning. She did not have time for this.

The grandmother burst from her bedchamber and ran down the stairs, a tiny thing made of fury. She stamped, and the sisters sighed.

“Grandmother is dancing again,” said Fever.

“Grandmother enjoys the funeral band. It kept me awake last night until my eyeballs were parched,” said Ache.

“I haven’t slept in ten years,” said Anguish, with superiority. “Put on a cloak, Tear. I can see the edge of your green. You think it’s a secret, but it’s not.”

“I have to have something for myself,” said Tear.

“I’m wearing a red ribbon,” said Ache.


Ache smiled and refused to answer. The rest of the sisters snorted. Ache had always been Ache, and they had always been themselves.

“Grandmother cannot be loose again,” Tear announced. “She’ll damage our reputation. None of us will ever find husbands.”

Her sisters looked at her. She was the only one with a reputation. She was the only one who wanted a husband. The rest had decided this was not a viable plan. They had no interest in the care and feeding of Mr. Doornail, and they thought their sister was a fool to imagine her husband’s heart would not be used for dinner. Tear was a romantic, and the rest of the sisters were pragmatists. They were well accustomed to working around the difficulties of spells.

Tear looked at her grandmother’s lovely long hair and thought she might have it spun into silk and made into a wedding dress. She would be the one in charge of that bookstall, and she’d read every book in it before she sold them. She’d tend them gently, making sure no bookworms made their way into the pages. She’d polish the bindings like fine boot leather, and touch the gilded edges with a soft cloth. Her husband would drink sherry every night while she read by candlelight. Tear was very young. She thought that these things were all that mattered.

There was a ringing at the door, and a galloping on the roof. Throughout the house, the servants stiffened. The funeral band had stopped playing.

Bernardine came down the front staircase, her ring of keys jangling, her black-slippered feet stepping carefully, like hooves, her little selection of knives, twine, pots, and saffron at the ready.

The bookseller put his head around the doorframe, startled at the lack of greeting.

“You’ve come!” Tear cried out.

From the white fedora, bats took flight. On the roof, two goats did a tarantella. The rest of the goats waited. They were everywhere.

Mr. Doornail stretched, anticipating its next fifty years.

Who among us hasn’t tried to keep love in the house? It always resists, burning itself in the oil lamps, folding itself into dirty laundry to be sent out for cleaning. It fights confinement, looping itself through pocket-watch chains and inserting itself into the beaks of chickens, only to fly out when they peck in the feed. It takes flight, clinging to the fur and feathers of animals, to the wings of bats, to the scales of fish, and, particularly, it enjoys wrapping itself about a finger, twining on someone else’s wedding ring, and leaving for the train. What is love but hunger?

The bookseller came hatless into the house and Mr. Doornail observed him through the keyhole. There was a heart in that breast, yes, a fat and throbbing heart, a heart the monster might enjoy stewed.

The bookseller sat on the couch opposite the daughters.

“I’ve brought flowers,” the bookseller said, and brought them out from his jacket. They were made of paper and perfumed with lemon. It was a flattened bouquet of posies, and when he shook it in the air, it unfolded, a giant mass of pink and white and red, all of it written on with the words of some old poet.

They were pages painted and folded carefully, perhaps a hundred roses made of paper, and Tear leaned forward to take them from him, but Bernardine took them and presented them to Anguish instead, who was bewildered.

“What are these?” Anguish said. “This is a funeral. We are in mourning.”

She had no interest in this bookseller. His vest was the color of a persimmon, and he had a beard. She hated it. She hated men altogether. The notion of a husband was as foreign as lemon-scented prose roses, as foreign as thorns she could tear with her fingertips.

The assistant cook marched through the parlor just then, hands full of almond pastry, her ass round and firm as bread fresh from the oven. Anguish watched her, speechless. She’d imagined that there would be no betrothal for her, not at thirty-nine years old.

Bernardine looked at the young man’s perfect heart, and nodded. The tomcat named Bite came charging through the house, claws full of shredded pink silk.

“This man will marry my eldest daughter,” Bernardine announced, and Tear and Anguish both gasped.

A servant dashed in with a mop to make sure no one slipped in the ooze, and the grandmother danced past the door, her jewels gleaming. The funeral band had returned to playing outside, though they were four bottles into the afternoon. One of them had already vomited into his hat, and another had first bothered and then been butted by a goat.

Bernardine rattled her keys.

“Daughters,” she said.

“Mother,” said Anguish. “I will not marry that man.”

“You will,” said Bernardine. “Mr. Doornail insists, and Mr. Doornail is the law of this house.”

The grandmother moved one of her seven wedding rings from finger to finger, and back again. It was heavy and made of dark gold embossed with tentacles. Oh! She loved it. It had been given to her by a sailor. Or perhaps she’d found it on the finger of a drowned man and tugged it, bit by bit, over the knuckles of his pale blue finger. Or perhaps—

Who among us has not known a Mr. Doornail?

Bernardine held her own wedding ring in her hand, and then she put it around the finger of the bookseller. She unspelled Anguish, and the eldest daughter felt an unknotting, the spell dismantling itself.

Behind the door, Mr. Doornail moved in a way that could not truly be described. It climbed the wood with all its suckers at once; a soft, clinging climbing, like that of a fly moving along the surface of milk, or a maggot making its way out from the nostril of a dear, dead man and into the air.

Mr. Doornail was darkness, but Mr. Doornail was loved.

The grandmother danced, clapping her hands, her brightest jewels and most flamboyant petticoats, a flamenco in slow motion.

Bernardine put a key to a lock.

“Father,” she said. Perhaps she was a monster after all. She had never denied it. She was a monster’s daughter.

There was no answer.

“What will you give me if I give you a new heart?”

The door shook, and Mr. Doornail sent seven tentacles out from above and below, clutching the door frame, twisting through the locks. The door shuddered, and Mr. Doornail pulled back the bars and dismantled the chains.

The five daughters shuddered, and Mr. Doornail sent out tentacles with their faces, each one dressed in a black gown, each one a futureless daughter with no notions of her own.

The bookseller walked toward the door, not Mr. Doornail’s door, but the door to the street.

The bookseller had not been bewitched into this by Bernardine or by Mr. Doornail. He had been bewitched by goats.

Who among us has not tried to live forever? It takes work, immortality, just as does immorality. Meanness is laborious. One has to pay for it. It is expensive. Some of us have tried to achieve immortality with olive oil and oranges, and others have tried it with bribes to witches, and still others have tried to get it by hanging by our heels over the heads of monsters, waiting for our chance to strike.

There was a thundering, a raging, a rattling of goats. There was a drift of white fur, and the ringing of bells, loud and certain, bells like a church gone chaos. All the ringing of a thousand goats, and all the singing of a thousand goats, goats for miles around come to pay their respects to the old man. The goats were stampeding into the villa, knocking down the door.

Outside, the fedora quivered, emptied of bats, and in the chimney, bats hung upside down, each one a beating heart with wings.

In the villa, there was a green edge to a petticoat, and then an entire green dress, as Tear tore the front of her black gown and revealed the springtime beneath it, as the bookseller opened his eyes to see what was coming for him.

Mr. Doornail stretched its thousand tentacles, each with the face of a townsperson, and in the band, men’s hearts beat frantically, wanting to offer themselves to the monster, ensorcelled by Bernardine and by the magic of Mr. Doornail.

On the table, the old man’s body rose up, his clothing filled with bats. He was lifted into the air. The old man flew across the room and out the door, and with him went the music of the funeral band, a song of failing trumpets. The goats and the old man were stealing their hearts away.

The chimney shook, and the rafters, and the door frame.

Mr. Doornail emerged.

Mr. Doornail wanted the world. It was abruptly starving, and all through the village, its tentacles rippled, its oozing monster limbs and fluid, its body an ocean full of lava, bits of it like rocks and other bits like quince jelly.

The servants of the house were finished tolerating any of this. A mop rose up like a sword, as a thousand goats stampeded over Mr. Doornail, into the central courtyard, up the walls and down again.

The goats were hungry. The goats were in love.

Who among us can ever forget the sight of Mr. Doornail? A wave of monster, a tsunami of monster, a broken dam of monster, and all of it filled with the love of the lost, hearts eaten and memories melded into the overall flood? Who can forget the way the goats stood atop Mr. Doornail, every goat in a hundred miles singing their devil song, sharpening their hooves, and then beginning to eat the monster away from its foundations, just as they might eat a Model T?

Who can forget the way the ghosts surged up from the foundations the moment the band ceased playing, a white mist of husbands, a hasty cloud of the heartless?

Who can forget the bookseller, the way he’d made a raft of books, the way he took the witch’s youngest daughter in his arms and brought her aboard, even as Mr. Doornail poured toward the sea? The bookseller didn’t care that the witch’s youngest daughter was nothing nice. He was nothing nice either. He’d read every book in his stall, and from them he’d gleaned the edges of the world.

Bernardine in her black dress, and Maria Josepha in her bridal gown, the remaining four granddaughters of Mr. Doornail, all of them stood in the courtyard of the villa, the bats dancing above them, as one by one the daughters tore off their dark gowns and bared their ruby talons.

All of them were monsters, and all of them were lovers, and all of them were fleet footed and free of the house. They were gone in moments, to futures, to pasts, to stars and possibilities. Pastries and pasties. Chickens flew from the roof.

Maria Josepha was lifted to the top of a foaming, roaring wave of monster, all her wedding rings shining, until she and the horrible thing, the wonder, the husband of this history, were flung out into the ocean, unencumbered by the rules of courtship.

Off they went, and we all watched them, the men of the band, and the goats nipping away the chains that had bound Mr. Doornail to our town, the bats carrying away the grandmother’s jewels, the chickens on the curtains, and the servants with their spears disguised as mops.

In the end, all that was left was Bernardine in a small rowboat, where once had been a house. Who among us hasn’t gone out from the storm, and into the flood? Who among us hasn’t made enemies with wing and tentacle? Who among us hasn’t seen a woman in black unspell herself, and sit, for a time, in the middle of a little boat in a tossing ocean, accompanied by ghosts, the peaks of buildings catching her as she drifts among the drowned?

There are other kinds of endings to stories about monsters, but in this one, there is a white fedora floating on a newborn sea, and an old man just beneath the waves, wearing it, as he opens his eyes again.

Originally published in Children of Lovecraft, edited by Ellen Datlow.

About the Author

Maria Dahvana Headley is the New York Times best-selling author of Magonia, Queen of Kings, The Year of Yes, and, with Kat Howard, The End of the Sentence. With Neil Gaiman, she is the editor of Unnatural Creatures. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards and anthologized in many “Year’s Best” collections. Forthcoming are the novels Aerie: A Magonia Novel and The Mere Wife, as well as a musical collaboration with Emmy Award-winning composer Lance Horne, involving good, evil, and centuries of song. You can find more information at and on Twitter @MARIADAHVANA.