One of my wives is given to repeating things our other wives and husbands have said. It wins her no admirers. But she only cares what the family thinks of itself, of its other members. She doesn’t mind what anyone thinks of her. Is this formidable? No one is sure. My wife says, “I don’t say anything that doesn’t bear repeating.” We do repeat what she has said, but that is only her repetitions of our own words. We say, “No! Did she really say that?” But what we really mean is Did I really say that? or Did you really say that?
Many wives, husbands, sons, and daughters connubiate in this apartment, too many to count, or otherwise uncountable, as many nouns are. Because we are not sure how to tell the difference between ourselves and the alternative, a dangerous conjugal instability threatens our verbs. We devise a chore wheel in order to distinguish each from another by means of the actions we perform. But no chore can be parsed down to a single task: the one who cleans a dish is one who dirties a sponge; somebody who sweeps the floor of grit is another who fills the mouth of the dustpan; the husband who blackens the inside of our windows is also a wife who makes a row of muddy mirrors on the outside. Instead of cohering, each of us fragments neatly into committees, into subcommittees and steering committees, planning and advisory committees; and since no committee can maintain any individual members within it, no chores are accomplished until I rebel and tear down the chore wheel. A chore list is put up in its stead, to the relief of all, and we accept cleanliness in place of order.
A referendum is proposed, its object the expulsion of certain of us from the family. We vote on divorce v. annulment v. emancipation v. disowning. Because the result is an even split, we opt for a public shaming. Husbands, wives, and children run for election to the shaming, yet our stump speeches are so lilting, so throaty that we cannot bear to say good-bye to a single contender. Despite this surge of support for the family, one write-in candidate prevails by a squeaky majority: a sunburned six-year-old. But after we have arranged the shaming, hung the bunting, rummed the punch, we can find no such child. There is a four-year-old, freckled; a swarthy nine-year-old. There is someone, seven, with tan lines, who claims to be the one we chose to release into the world, but we are not sure. We shame him, since he insists, but cannot let him go, as, we point out, the child we elected has already escaped us.
I am a poor husband. I have refused to have a child with any of the wives. Already there are many children in the apartment, growing up at warp speed to become new wives and husbands. Scarcely any room is left here. We seem to be multiplying in crystalline structure. My recalcitrance has made me unpopular. A wife comes up and stares coldly into my eyes. “I never married you,” she says. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.” But I do belong here. I bear the family name.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t born into this. I’m not the child of any of the wives. I met my husband on the beach. He was selling pamphlets advertising the afterlife and mimeographed fliers advertising a fire sale. The pamphlets were $5 each and the fliers were ten for $10. To buy fewer than ten was not permitted. I bought a pamphlet and sixty fliers, I was so impressed by the easy manner in which such common items had been made singular and unprecedented. Never before or since have I seen a pamphlet or flier offered for sale. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I took my purchases and lay on my towel on the sand and read them. The skin on my back grew hotter and hotter although the temperature of the air remained constant. Soon my back was hotter than the rays of the sun that were warming it. Aghast, I gathered up the pile of paper and confronted the man who was to become my husband.
“Look here,” I said, “what sort of incendiary material is this? I’m on fire!” And there was a smell of smoke, smoke and charring meat. My husband was charming. He bought me a hot dog and I burned my tongue.
“See?” he said. “You thought you were hot, but you’re not such hot stuff!” He was right. My hot dog was steaming up my glasses. I couldn’t see a thing. Blinded, I allowed my husband to lead me home.
When we got to the apartment, I didn’t understand. “I thought you were taking me home,” I protested.
“This is home,” said my husband, also confused.
“No, my home,” I said.
“This is your home,” said my new husband, “my darling.”
What part of the day had constituted our union? The point of sale? When I lay down before him? When he put out my fire with a hotter fire? When he blinded me? When he led me to safety? When I crossed the threshold?
My new wife, the one who plays the harmonium when we screen our home movies, struck an eerie, wobbling note. “Your own leitmotif!” she said. It was a wedding present. Although an exchange of gifts between brides and grooms is no longer customary, our family is old-fashioned and extremely generous. Except for me: I covet things. The leitmotif is mine and I will not allow anyone else to play or hear it. When we screen our home movies, my appearance on film is marked by sudden silence.
My family runs cold. In the fertile murk of August, skin pickled in sweat, I flop back and forth in bed, cooling my hands and heels against the frosty husband and the arctic wife who flank me. I can see the bluish icy glow of teeth in slightly gaping mouths. White licks of steam flare where their breath sparks into contact with the room’s fetid air. Some children crawl over parents and butt themselves against me, goosebumps popping and puckering while they shiver more wildly than perhaps strictly necessary, on me like a nest of snakes on a hot chunk of road.
When I become too old to be a proper husband to my many spouses, or when I am for other reasons impotent, the family may choose from among several courses.
A. They will feed me the contents of one of the unmarked glass jars in the kitchen junk drawers. Some of these jars contain poison; some of them contain substances that are not primarily meant for poisoning but are poisonous, such as rubber cement, cinnamon, or thumbtacks; some contain inert substances: dust, hair, cotton wadding. I won’t know which category of substance I will have received, of course. I wonder how long it will take before I stop wondering. Some poisons take years to work. And if I die before mine kills me?
B. They will send me to the nursery to become one of the children. Once I grow up, I can become a husband again. Should the old impotence reassert itself: back to the nursery! Pros—I will have given my wives the child they have always demanded from me. Cons—I steadfastly refuse to bring any more children into this world. Even if I would not be adding to the number of bodies that roil over one another inside this heaving apartment, still I would be adding to the number of children therein.
C. They will make me a wife. If they do that, I will be the wife who hoards. I will claim and keep everything that crosses my path, that so much as catches my eye. My leitmotif will be the least of it. I will hoard the poisons and the pamphlets; also, secrets. I will repeat nothing and no one will ever be allowed to repeat anything told to me. I will hoard husbands and wives: no one will be married to anyone but me. The rooms of the apartment will all be my room; no one may enter a room unless I am in it. In this way, the jampacked apartment will seem empty and spacious, with everyone plastered around me. We will all shrink into each other and the apartment will grow, making more room for all the things I will hoard, as a wife.
It doesn’t come to that, though. One day, dispatched on an errand, I become overwhelmed by the city. I can’t find my way home. Instead, I end up at my old apartment. Other people have moved in now, naturally. Squatters. It’s quite an ugly atmosphere. No love is lost. Or the opposite. Everyone has built their own encampment in a corner, closet, or cupboard, or under a table or bed. Everyone is swaddled in layers of clothes and plastic bags. Genders cannot be distinguished, which does in a sense unite the squatters, as do the indiscriminate insects swarming from head to head. It’s an apartment full of enemies. I lay my claim to the cubic cave of my old desk. Feet planted on one inner face of the cube, spine wedged against the opposite face. A round peg fits snugly and easily in a square hole, I discover. It’s nice to be a stranger in my own home.
When an interloper jealous of my nook ousts me with violence, I don’t even complain. I move out onto the fire escape, then up to the roof. Across town I can see the apartment of my husbands and wives, which seems to be in flames. I drift a little higher above the roof to see it better, but by then I’ve been lost in the smoke.
Micaela Morrissette's fiction has been anthologized in Best American Fantasy (Prime Books), The Pushcart Prize XXXIII (Pushcart Press), Best Horror of the Year (Night Shade), The Weird (Tor and Atlantic/Corvus), and The New Black (Dark House). Periodical publications include Conjunctions (where she is the managing editor), Tor.com, Ninth Letter, and Weird Tales.