On alternate Thursdays the walls of one room of the house or another would begin to shudder, and with a cry of irritation Aunt Winnie would gather what she could from the dining room or the parlor or the library and usher us all out to wait for the rearranging to be finished. It never took long, five minutes perhaps, but to us that was practically an eternity. It was seldom the kitchen that changed, so most often we were put there, crowded around a table worn smooth by decades of scouring, making it sticky again with our milk, our toast and jam. Sometimes there were segments of orange, which was meant as a special treat, to distract us. It never worked. The orange only reminded us that something far more exciting was happening nearby, and so we distrusted it. We knew better than to beg to be let back out of the kitchen, but neither would we pretend that nothing was happening, as Aunt Winnie clearly wished we would. The rearranging was like a visit from an eccentric relative, or a school holiday—a regular occurrence, but still novel, a disruption within the bounds of what we knew as normal. Once the grinding noise had gone quiet, Aunt Winnie would let us go free, and no matter how she tried to steer us away we always headed straight for whichever room had been altered.
At first glance, nothing was different. But something new always came through: a globe with the borders all a little off, a painting nearly identical to the one that had hung there before, a potted plant with petals a color no one had a name for. Once a tea in progress, the tray heavy with half-eaten scones and half-drunk cups. We were emphatically forbidden from sampling any of it, but the teacups—smoggy blue and edged with gold—came to occupy a place of honor in the china cabinet.
Sometimes our own things went away, though not often. We learned quickly to be careful, guard greedily the few treasured possessions we had. We were exceptionally tidy children. But there was the time that Henry became so absorbed in building a castle of blocks that he forgot where he was, forgot what day it was, forgot all of it until Aunt Winnie dragged him out of the sitting room by one wrist, his wailing so loud it almost drowned out the familiar groaning and creaking that echoed down the corridor. The rest of us huddled in the kitchen, unusually subdued. We did not know what to say to him. Henry refused his milk, refused his cake, refused his slice of orange. He had stopped weeping, but the marks of his outrage were printed on his cheeks and under his eyes. We thought of offering our own toys, but we knew they wouldn’t salve the wound, and besides, we didn’t really want to.
“Someone will play with them,” Aunt Winnie said, and she must have meant it to be reassuring. “Someone’s probably playing with them right now. They’ve not gone to waste.”
Henry’s flushed face split and the wailing resumed. Aunt Winnie frowned and left us in the hands of the cook.
That evening we gathered in the nursery to discuss what Aunt Winnie had said. It was not at all reassuring, but it was the most we’d ever heard her say on the subject. Normally she limited herself to whisking us away and then dusting and tidying a bit once the room had settled, sometimes singing a hymn as she ignored the questions we soon gave up asking. But now she had confirmed what we would have suspected, if we had dared to suspect: there was somewhere that the other things came from, and our things went there in exchange.
From there we arrived almost at once at the idea of sending ourselves through—or sending one of us through. We all wanted and did not want to go, and it was too weighty a decision for drawing straws or rock-paper-scissors. We had two weeks to make up our minds. It was clear that we had to act the next time, before our collective nerve was lost. In the end it was Henry, of course, who was chosen. Or rather, who chose himself, mostly because he wanted his blocks back and felt the insult had been done to him personally. Once he volunteered, the rest of us did our best to conceal the relief that broke in hot waves over us.
Thursday came. The low grinding sound began in the downstairs bedroom, where Aunt Winnie slept, which was out of the ordinary. It seemed to us that it was in our favor, in Henry’s favor, since Aunt Winnie became so flustered that she hardly bothered counting as she herded us into the kitchen and commanded the cook to pour us cups of milk. It seemed to us that the house or even the world was in tune with our plans, with Henry’s plans, which must mean that we were right to have made them. We gulped our milk down, afraid or unafraid, hands steady or shaking.
Henry had concealed himself behind the open parlor door, since from there he would be able to reach any of the downstairs rooms easily enough. That was how we would remember him, for as long as we remembered him: a pair of dark eyes bright with something we couldn’t or wouldn’t name, withdrawing into the shadow of the door.
We were not so many, and still Aunt Winnie didn’t notice the absence until bedtime. She didn’t notice that we were all mildly hysterical, full of terror and glee, wild with the knowledge that we had gotten away with it—that Henry had gotten away with it. We were giddy; our bones gone soft and unreliable. Aunt Winnie got us all into bed and then looked us over with a frown, looked a second time at the cot in the corner with the covers still smooth. We all saw her look, saw the moment of her seeing. It was a small crack in a stone, a flurry in still water. We all saw, too, that for an instant what showed on her face was relief, relief even greater than our own. Then her expression collapsed into its usual anxious disappointment. The finger, the dreaded pointing finger, rose and moved trembling back and forth.
We were none of us liars. We’d never had reason to be. But in the space of a moment we learned, the sort of mastery that bordered on the divine—so sudden and so total.
“Henry,” we said. “Yes, Henry. He went away. He told us he wanted to run away. He packed a bag. He was angry. Henry’s gone.”
What could any adult do against a stone wall like us? We were united, our faces blank and winsome. Our story was just devoid enough of detail to leave Aunt Winnie floundering, grasping for a handhold. She was no aunt by blood to any of us. She moved us grudgingly from bed to kitchen to school each morning, met us tight-lipped and gray-faced upon our return. She had little interest in rooting the truth out of us, little interest in whatever inner lives we may or may not have led.
“Henry’s gone,” we said again.
And it was true.
It’s hard to say, at this distance, what we realized when. There are almost certainly things we have yet to realize. But at some point after Henry’s disappearance, his departure, it dawns on us that the rooms have stopped changing. It begins to seem absurd that we ever imagined they could change at all. Then the thought of Henry himself begins to seem not absurd, exactly, but unlikely. Like some once monumental figure left behind—Santa Claus, the tooth fairy. Not that Aunt Winnie ever encouraged such childish beliefs, but we heard things, in the schoolyard, and for a while we clutched them to our hearts. Then they faded.
We speak of Henry seldom, and then never, and the walls do not move again.
Time passes almost violently. We have the indelible certainty of all young people that we are living through changes unlike any that have come before. We are not entirely wrong. Automobiles file down the streets; the beloved cart horse of the milkman is retired. We hardly miss him, so enamored are we of the new wagon with its sputtering, its fumes. Aunt Winnie frowns at the honking, frowns at the women’s hemlines, frowns at the great blocky radio delivered to the neighboring house. But Aunt Winnie is always frowning, as far as we can tell.
We grow: grow bigger, but also grow restless, grow defiant, grow too much for Aunt Winnie to manage. We scatter. Some of us are fetched back home by our parents, others shipped off to relatives or boarding schools, forwarding addresses stamped on us like parcels. Some of us slip into the night with our things stuffed in a school satchel and are never heard from again.
We are all fully grown when our rooms begin to move.
We shepherd our children, if we have them, to a different room. We distract them with toys and treats. We make excuses to our husbands and wives. Those of us without children, without husbands or wives, we sit alone, newspapers clutched in our trembling hands. We wait for the grinding noise to die down and then pretend we heard nothing. Pretend not to see the new mustache on great-uncle’s portrait, not to notice the thicker pile of the hearth rug, not to hear the new note when the clock chimes the old hour.
Aunt Winnie is long gone now, of course, so we can hardly ask her about any of it. About how she felt when she finally understood what had to be done, or how she felt when it was done for her. None of us have thought of Henry in years. We all put that creaking old house, and a great deal else, behind us. But suddenly, as one, we remember. We begin to feel our way forward. We take stock. We calculate with cold clarity what we could do without—or rather, whom.