11:4: “Alterations for Beginners”, by Rachel Derksen

11:4: “Alterations for Beginners”, by Rachel Derksen

On certain afternoons, Brogken ushers Venice into the office and tries to teach him how to take things.

“Let’s do the teacup again,” Brogken says. Today the cup in question is made of clay and painted green. There’s tea inside, stone cold. Brogken places it on the desk, one object in a clutter, while Venice positions himself within arm’s reach. “Go on, go ahead. Make it yours.”

So Venice tries. He closes his eyes and concentrates. He squints until his eyes hurt, he hums a little teacup song. He makes Please Be Mine motions with his hands. He silently pleads with the teacup.

Brogken sighs. “You’re not coming along at all, Venice,” he says. “It’s like this.”

Under Brogken’s attention, the cup spins lazily in place. He coaxes the water to a boil, politely asks the steam to fold into a little wispy staircase. It eagerly obliges. Venice watches the bubbles lap against the sides of the cup. He buries his hands deep into his sweater pockets and fiddles with the collection of spare buttons he keeps there.

“Try again,” says Brogken. He pulls a book down from the shelf behind them, and lays it open on the desk, page 347. “Turn the page.”

Brogken doesn’t stay to watch Venice try, instead stalks off to do some tinkering in the basement. He leaves the cup on the desk, still steaming, but Brogken could have taken it with him for all the good it’ll be to anyone else now.

“Thanks ever so,” Venice mutters at the cup.

*

Here is a story:

There was a girl, and a doll that wasn’t hers. It was a beautiful doll, and lonely, so one night the girl stole it away. They hid down in the cellar together, and the girl plucked out a little row of seams along the doll’s back. She tugged out the stuffing, rough and grey.

The candles cast shadows on the wall, and the girl scooped out two big handfuls. She packed the doll all up with them, gently filled out feet and hands and head. She carefully replaced the line of stitches when it was done. Mine, she said, fondly. Firmly. Yours, the doll agreed.

Not a bit of fabric was torn.

*

There are no lessons today, so Venice sits by the window in Martin’s library and watches the cold outside. The view from here features the grey lake, framed with trees framed with snow, a mess of crooked elbow here and spindly branch fingertips there. Those woods could go on for miles or days or minutes. Venice has never had the opportunity to wander through and see. He does not feel particularly curious.

Things that are much more useful to think about include: where do housemates Martin and Ellen and Brogken leave their coats and trousers and boots unattended, for borrowing and adding-on of buttons. He still has a baggy brown coat of Brogken’s hidden away in his room, which he’d found a few days before, lost and alone on the coat rack. He is going to do something fabulous with those cuffs, but he doesn’t have all the right pieces for it yet. Something in silver. Maybe next time Brogken goes out, Venice will make a request.

Eventually he grows tired of the window. He turns his attention to Martin, who is sitting across the room. Martin’s lower half is being slow-motion swallowed by a squishy and ravenous armchair, and his face is obscured by an enormous volume on weather patterns. Fluffy copper hair pokes up from behind the cover.

“It’s going to storm, I bet,” says Venice.

Nothing.

“Snow everywhere, one last big one before spring,” says Venice.

Martin turns a page.

“You are a terrific bore,” says Venice conversationally. “And this from a man somewhat preoccupied with buttons. It’s not like the bar is very high. You read so many books! How are you not more interesting?”

Sufficiently provoked, Martin’s voice finally drifts out from behind his book: “Shouldn’t you be practicing? Ellen says you still can’t flip a page.”

Martin’s been here the longest out of anyone, save of course for Brogken. Venice hasn’t seen him do much of anything other than read. He is even exempt from the lessons. Brogken presumably finds Martin’s taking-of-things satisfactory, and has since before Venice came along.

Venice mentally selects two horrific red buttons to triple-stitch onto the ass of the very next pair of unattended Martin pants he finds.

*

He doesn’t get the chance, of course – this is the night someone steals into Brogken’s house from those woods outside. The next time Venice enters the library, he finds Martin on the floor (and on the chair, and on Meteorology and You, Volume VI).

And he finds the intruder.

*

Brogken is busy, extremely busy, do not bother him. Stay out of the basement (always stay out of the basement). Don’t bother with the unpleasantness in the library, he’ll see to it later. Ellen is in charge.

As an extension of that last point, Ellen has also taken over Venice’s lessons. She likes the teacups, so that’s what they use. Today’s is blue. It used to be one of Martin’s, Venice thinks, but– well. Now it could be anyone’s.

Venice opens an eye, and reshapes his mouth into an expression less reminiscent of death throes. “Ah– there.”

“You got it?” Ellen says, sceptical.

“Sure. Maybe. What should I try?”

“Get it to smack you in the face,” Ellen suggests.

“Oh blue teacup,” says Venice, in his best I-am-your-master-listen-to-me-always voice. It’s deep and growly, like Brogken’s. “Go be spilled upon Ellen’s person.”

The teacup regards him impassively.

“I think I saw it wobble a little bit, there,” says Venice.

Down in the basement, something moans. The wood creaks under their feet, and a warmth seeps up through the floor. They pretend not to notice.

A few days later Venice is no closer to making anything his very own, but Brogken finally joins them for dinner again. Face flushed and eyes bright, he announces that in a little while they’ll have a new guest.

After dinner, instead of returning to the basement, Brogken heads for the library. They hear the groans and scrapes of a room stitching itself back together, and the swing of the front door. The sky is black when he returns, and his sleeves are wet.

“Just give it a few days to air out in there,” he says.

*

Sometimes on quiet nights they sit around to tell ghost stories about themselves. Brogken almost never comes to these – just Venice, Ellen and Martin, and Jane, back when Jane was here, and Seven, when Seven was here. The location is usually one of the larger bedrooms, or the library, or the parlour.

Ellen suggested they go to the dock outside the house, once, because she was new and apparently fearless. She was quickly voted down. A few months later Seven left, and Brogken tracked muddy water all through the house, front door to basement steps. Ellen didn’t suggest the dock again.

The stories are good – which is to say they feature any number of things tailored to frighten. The theme stays the same. They swap tales of creatures hiding outside towns, that wait until the sun dips low. In the dark they drift through the streets, and ruin whatever they find. Sometimes the water turns black, to choke people during dinner. Knives fly back at their owners. Walls fall in. Doorways squeeze out screams. People are stolen away, never to return.

Whenever Venice takes a turn, he always ends his story the same: and the shadow people from the woods had not laid a single finger on anything, and no one else dared to enter the dead town again. The end.

They don’t say so, but they all know the wood-waiting ruiners are themselves.

And afterward if anyone is up all night, awake in bed, waiting for his or her likeness to slink through the window and claim the contents of the room for nefarious purpose, it’s not something they talk about. That’s probably just Venice.

*

The girl put back the doll, see, but she never returned it.

*

Their new guest is named Daisy. She climbs out of the basement with her knuckles white on the railing. Her hair is limp and brown. Her eyes are grey and empty, set deep in a hollow face.

Dinner is hushed that evening, and the next. Brogken’s mood sours with Daisy’s lack of progress. Venice’s lessons with him resume and each one ends in shouting. When Ellen rearranges the cupboards without touching a single dish, Brogken doesn’t so much as smile.

Daisy never smiles, or speaks at all. Venice isn’t sure he wants to see her try, with that ghastly face. She takes to sitting in Venice’s formerly favourite spot in the library and stares out at the lake.

Venice is glad Brogken didn’t let him pick her name. He’d wanted to. Venice never gets to name anything. His own name was picked by Martin, from some fairytales book. At least, Venice thinks it was Martin. He’d shown Venice the book once, and there weren’t any pictures. Who else would have bothered with choosing a name from a book like that?

Daisy is Brogken’s name, like Daisy is Brogken’s. Venice is already avoiding the library – Brogken put everything back just the way it was, except there’s a stubborn stretch of stain that just won’t get up off the floor, and it turns Venice’s stomach to look at – so it’s not difficult to avoid her also. During dinners he stares at her hands, and looks for the blood that’s long since washed away. Sometimes Daisy stares at her hands too.

He wonders if the claw marks Martin left on her arm still sting. Probably not.

Tree branches tap at the window behind her. As a backdrop for Daisy, they are suddenly more worthy of attention, a blank page that’s just spat out a bluebird.

*

Venice’s current project is a favourite coat of Ellen’s, which she foolishly left unattended in the hallway closet. It needs to be let out a little in the shoulders, and he is doing amazing things with the lapels. It’s taken ages to choose the right buttons for it, and he stays up late into the night, toying with what order to put the colours in. He has them spread out on his bed and is thinking about removing red all together when there is a deep thud from down the hall.

He turns out the light, and sneaks over to the door. With his ear pressed up against the wood, he hears the door to Daisy’s room creak open. A pair of feet pad across the length of the hall, with something heavy tugged along behind.

He listens to the thud, thud, thud, of dead weight dragged down stairs.

Venice returns to his bed and sits in the dark. A few minutes later there is a distant, heavy splash from the lake outside.

Nobody comes back upstairs to shut Daisy’s door, but nobody needs to; this house is Brogken’s, and it knows what he wants. Before Venice falls asleep he hears the door close. The lock clicks half a breath later, like an afterthought.

*

“Daisy had to leave,” says Brogken, in a tone that does not invite argument. “Now try sorting cutlery again.”

All afternoon, Venice doesn’t move a single stubborn spoon.

*

Venice is about to thread a needle when Ellen stomps into the dining room where he’s working. She points a finger at him. He freezes, black spool in one hand and the thread’s end in the other.

“Is that my coat,” she says.

“No,” Venice says, unconvincingly.

Ellen leans across the table and snatches the coat back. She holds the shoulders and shakes it out, regarding it skeptically. She gives him a supremely unimpressed face.

“Well it’s not finished,” he says. “The lapels–

“Don’t worry, darling,” Ellen tells the coat, “I’m here to rescue you. This is coming with me, Venice. Will I be stabbed with pins if I wear it?”

“I believe it is currently pin-free.”

Ellen is shrugging it over a shoulder when one of the pockets Venice has installed catches her eye. The flap features a beautiful brass hook. Ellen holds it between two fingers, and Venice is sure she knows where he got it.

Most of the intruder’s coat was unsalvageable, and most of what could still be used he didn’t bother to save. The brass hooks were just too lovely to throw out with the rest, though. There are still three more he hasn’t found places for yet, that he keeps under his bed.

“I can take that off,” Venice says. “If it bothers you, I mean.”

Ellen doesn’t answer immediately. Eventually she says, “She spoke to me, you know.”

“Who, Daisy?”

“Before Daisy. When I found her and you and Martin in the library. Did you hear her?”

All Venice remembers hearing was Martin blowing little red bubbles and his own desperate shouts for Brogken. He remembers the thick fabric of the curtains twisting into rope, and the steady fall of Brogken’s boots as he led the way into the basement, and the excited smile that had tugged at his lips.

Venice shakes his head.

“She almost dropped her knife when she saw me,” says Ellen. “Just before Brogken came in. She called me Amara. She told me to run.”

Venice isn’t sure what to say. “Did you… know her?”

“No. But maybe before, I–” She seems to remember that she’s speaking out loud, and stops. Daisy was sallow and thin, but the intruder had skin dark like Ellen’s and the same tight curls. She had red on her hands and eyes that hated. Venice tries to picture the intruder looking at Ellen, eyes wide and surprised, but the image only slips into Daisy’s empty face.

“Do you think Daisy would have gotten any better?” he wonders.

“I don’t think so.”

Ellen made an apple all her own once, and accidentally turned it to rot. It still spun for her, even when it was black and oozing. She buried it behind the house.

Venice isn’t good at taking things, not like Brogken or Ellen, but he understands. He remembers about the girl, and the doll stitched up with shadows. First you take out the insides.

Sometimes you take out too much.

When Venice goes up to his room for the night, he spares the woods just one quick glance, and then shuts the curtains. He still sees trees under his eyelids, though, and he wonders if there’s someone threading a path through them, looking for him. Or maybe for a before-Venice. Then he wonders about the usefulness of looking for someone that might not exist anymore, and before he sinks into sleep he decides the on an answer the same way dreams leave your head when you wake, but in reverse: a feeling about something you only used to know, to an image you could live in, sharp and real and obvious.

*

Today’s lesson is to be conducted in the fresh air, Brogken decides. They walk down to the little dock in front of the house. Mist rises off the lake, and the wind is soft. They stare out at the water, not talking, until the silence is too heavy for Venice to take.

“Is that where we came from too?” Venice says. His voice is admirably even, he thinks. “The same place as Daisy. Did Ellen just wander in one winter? Or me, did I stumble onto this house, not knowing what it was? Or did you go out looking for us.”

Brogken continues to study the water. The dock rocks gently under their feet.

“You couldn’t make her work like me and Ellen and Martin. But someone else will show up sooner or later, right? That’s how this goes.”

Brogken finally turns to give him a long, dark look. His eyes are grey, the same colour as the lake. But this isn’tBrogken’s lake, surely, not like the house is Brogken’s house. Something churns in the pit of Venice’s stomach.

“Oh, Venice,” says Brogken. He has a hand on Venice’s shoulder. “You didn’t work either.”

“I guess not,” says Venice. But when Brogken shoves him forward, Venice has already pulled him close, and they both go tumbling in.

The water is like ice on Venice’s skin. Air presses at his chest from the inside while the water does the same from the out. It’s deep and dark and it’s going to swallow him up.

His arms still have Brogken wrapped in a firm embrace. Brogken’s face swims into focus, inky and yellowed by the water between them, and so very, very angry. Brogken claws at him, kicking for the surface, but what’s that to him, down here? The surface is already a vague thing, just a distant, eerie green.

One of Brogken’s slow-motion blows finally hits home. Venice loosens the grip of his right hand, just for a moment, but it’s enough. Brogken is slithering out of Venice’s arms, driving himself upward with strong strokes and shoving Venice further down with his legs.

From below, Venice can see Brogken’s face is angled up toward murky, filtered sun. Brogken must be getting close, almost to air. He’ll make it out, Venice realizes, distantly. He’s going to make it out.

A little hand snakes through the water.

For one terrible moment Venice is certain it is coming for him. But when he flaps at it, it only slides past him. The hand belongs to a shadowy figure, which slices easily through the water, a cloud of dark hair floating weightless around its head.

The hand closes around Brogken’s ankle. Brogken kicks, but he’s already sinking. The figure tugs Brogken down in handfuls: an unyielding grip hand over hand, pulling on an ankle, then a knee, then a wrist.

Brogken stares down at it while he struggles, eyes wide. A knot of the figure’s dark hair drifts back, away from its face. It’s grinning.

The figure grabs a fistful of his coat, and turns to face the unseen bottom of the lake. There is time to glimpse the scratches along one grey, bloated arm, and then it and Brogken disappear into the darkness below.

When Venice finds the surface again, a pair of hands grab his shoulders and haul him bodily upward. Flailing, he finds traction against the damp wood of the dock and drags himself out of the water. Venice sputters, cheek flat against the deck. He rolls over and Ellen is beside him, sopping wet.

Nothing else breaks the water’s surface. The lake is still.

Venice wonders if this means Ellen’s rotten apple is still behind the house, long since buried but too empty to fade away under the ground like dead things are supposed to.

“I suppose it could be your house now,” Venice says, eventually. His voice scrapes raw against his throat.

Ellen frowns. “I suppose,” she says, but she’s rubbing that brass pocket hook between her thumb and forefinger.

Around them, the woods could go on for miles or days or minutes.


Rachel Derksen lives in Saskatchewan, where she drinks tea regardless of the weather, and reads plot summaries for movies she does not intend to watch. She strongly suspects any idea can be made immediately more exciting by adding IN SPACE!!! to the end. She says:

This story started with an alternate version of Venice, who played a reluctant villain in a different project. I liked the idea of accidental bad guys. I also wanted to write about the kind of monster that infects things — like werewolves or vampires – except one that would have begun with objects, and only recently worked its way up to the master class: other people.


Illustration by Doctortc is provided by Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.



2 Responses to “11:4: “Alterations for Beginners”, by Rachel Derksen”

  1. Diatryma says:

    This was a lovely creepy dark story. I kept pausing to marvel at what I thought was going on.

  2. Ben Godby says:

    Wow. This was fantastic. That slow creeping alteration… that sweet but wise Venice… that finale.

    Awesome.

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