PodCastle 724: The Cinnamon Thread
The Cinnamon Thread
by Beth Goder
Anna is grateful to lie on the bed in the cool house where there are no expectations, no labyrinthine thoughts to swallow her in the night. Outside, the wrens muck about in shallow water. Waves rush up against the sand. Dusk seeps in through windows thick with salt lines.
She sleeps, dreamless, hearing the ocean trembling against the shore.
In the morning, searchers glide by, crowding through the hallway, meshing into each other and apart again.
One stops to examine her room, a man with a trim beard and thick glasses.
“Which room are you looking for?” he asks.
“I came here last night,” she says.
“Do you know how the house works?”
Anna shrugs. The night before, she came upon a tangle of threads in the entrance and followed the one that smelled like cinnamon, the scent like a tangible fragment of her childhood, the kitchen with the cracked red phone, her mother’s famous cinnamon cookies. The thread led her to this room, where she slept, pulled into quiet unconsciousness, pulled back by footsteps in the hall. The skein of thread is now in her satchel, wound tight, along with a pair of scraggly mittens and a kitchen device that is only good for coring apples, this detritus of her life that she isn’t even sure how she acquired.
“You’ll want to have a strategy.” He points to a beige door. “You could try by color or by size. You could try every door until you get tired.” He pulls a hair out of his short beard. “Yesterday, I hiked all day and tried the last door only.”
“What did you find?”
“Nothing different from what I usually find. Sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes, difficult things.” He steps a little closer to avoid a woman who wants to peek into Anna’s room. Next to her ear, the man says, “You’ll want to be careful.”
This statement makes her laugh, a great rolling sound she didn’t know was hidden in her body. This isn’t the sort of warning she needs — the warning that comes too late. He stares at her, shocked.
“What are you searching for?” she asks.
The man doesn’t answer.
“I am looking for my voice,” she says.
“Aren’t you speaking to me now?”
“No, my voice.”
But he doesn’t understand.
Three days before, while cleaning out her mother’s house, Anna comes across her own journal. It’s strange to see her life through child eyes. The journal has entries about her birthday and a bike ride down the block, but no mention of her parents’ divorce. The patterns of thought are clearly her own, although more ragged and unformed. Inchoate.
Am I really the same person I was at seven? she thinks. Do we become different people all throughout our lives, again and again? Like a caterpillar metamorphosing. But now, at 47, was she the caterpillar, or the butterfly, or perhaps some version of both?
Her mother’s house is filled with stuff, brimming with a surfeit of light cotton dresses, mountains of mystery novels, at least fourteen packs of cards. The kitchen alone contains all manner of spoons and pots and gadgets that have one specific task, like slicing an avocado.
She finds a pamphlet titled “Swedish Death Cleaning.” Intrigued, she moves a stack of atlases and sits to read. The title is more fun than the interior, which suggests that it’s polite for the elderly to donate their possessions as they near the end of their lifetimes, so that their kids won’t have to wade through mountains of things. Death is translated as the dark valley, the unknown void. Due to a typo, the pamphlet suggests that everyone prepare for their own inevitable sheep.
It is so like her mother to clutter up her house with pamphlets on being tidy. Anna laughs, great ocean waves of sound, then feels the guilt settle on her, even without her mother there to provide it. How long do you have to wait after your mother has died before you can laugh again?
Things with her mother had been easier when she was a child, when the weight of expectations hadn’t had time to accrue. Did all mothers know the vampiric trick of draining self-worth from their children with a look?
She keeps laughing until suddenly, she is crying. It startles her, and she is glad she is alone, glad that she did not bring her husband or daughters.
Anna collapses in the wicker garden chair, which never should have come into the house, and takes up her old journal. It has an entry on the first time she used her voice. She wonders if her mother ever read it.
That night, in the strange house by the sea with its doors and threads and searchers, Anna does not dream. When she wakes in the night, she is lying on top of the bed in her underwear, her pale skin contrasting with the navy comforter. She often sleeps like this at home, but never away.
The room has morphed to mimic her own, with her light-green curtains, the extra keys for her bike, the unread book on mollusks, which has been congealing on her nightstand for a year.
Perhaps the house thinks this metamorphosis will be comforting, but she finds it disturbing. This is not her house and not her room.
She throws on a faded green hoodie and her favorite jeans, which have materialized in a heap by the nightstand as if she had just cast them off.
Satchel over her shoulder, she enters the corridors of the house, which are lit by tiny lights. The other explorers weave around her, ghost-like.
Distantly, a melody plays. A sweet voice drifts over her, but it is not her voice.
She melds into the crowd and begins her search.
At seven years old, Anna is devastated when the leaves fall off the maple tree in the backyard. She cries with vigor, still young enough to be angry at unfairness in the world. Young enough to be sad about inevitable things.
“It is colder now,” her mother explains, gathering Anna up in her arms. “The leaves will come back in the spring.”
In the backyard, with the crisp air around her, Anna uses her voice. She begs one leaf to ascend to the tree and turn green, and it does. The other leaves rot and wither underneath before being swept up by her brother and deposited at the edge of the drive. She tries to make more leaves grow, but it only makes the tree anxious. The green leaf wavers in the wind, alone. Even at seven, she understands this is a cruelty.
Anna picks the resurrected leaf from the branch, turning it over in her hand, watching as it slowly turns red, then orange, then brown. She watches until the leaf is nothing at all.
In spring, the tree sprouts voluminous leaves, different than the ones lost in autumn. A robin builds a nest, arduously pulling up twigs and straw and bits of cloth and one long red thread.
“Today the birds are back,” she writes in her diary. “Birds are like leaves. Sometimes, they stay. Sometimes, they go.”
In the hallway, impossibly, there are miles of doors.
The first door is pale blue. It reminds her of the sky above Montana where her grandparents used to live. She should pass it by, because it seems like her voice cannot be in there, and she doesn’t want to waste time. She puts a hand on the door and senses a faint breeze and skies that open and open like a sigh at the end of a long day.
When she pushes through the door, sunlight brushes her face. A pond glistens between pine trees. It looks so similar to the pond where she swam with her cousins, many summers ago, under a sky so blue she felt its ache. She hasn’t thought about this pond in years.
She calls out, but no one else is there. Frogs croak and lizards shuffle in the grass.
She dips her toe in the water, but feels no coolness or damp. She inserts her whole body in the pond and walks along the bottom. Digs her toe into muddy crevasses. It’s impossible for her to float or swim. She can’t feel the water against her at all.
Her voice isn’t there.
When she climbs out of the pond, she is dry. No droplets fall from her face.
She follows the path to her right, knowing it will lead to her grandparents’ house. She hikes, the sun pushing against her face, but every time she gets to the bend around which the house would be visible, she ends up back at the pond. Three times she tries, only to find the tranquil pond waiting for her.
She whispers goodbye to the pond, to this place she once remembered so well.
Exiting into the hallway, she leans against the wall, overcome with nostalgia. The door shuts softly.
A woman approaches her. She wears dainty, wireless glasses and an impeccably pressed blouse. “Did you just go into that room?” The woman pulls out a notebook, ready to record the answer.
Anna doesn’t want to admit that this was her first room, aside from the one she spent the night in, so she only nods.
The woman brushes her glasses farther up her nose. “I have a list of every door I’ve been through. But I keep thinking that the doors might be different for all of us. So I’m taking notes.”
“You want to know what I saw — ” Anna begins, but the woman interrupts her.
“Don’t tell me yet. Wait here.”
The woman dashes inside. Anna doesn’t want to wait, but the woman is back out in what seems like no time at all. The woman shudders and makes cryptic marks in her notebook. “Okay,” she says. “Now tell me what you saw.”
“A pond, like the one I swam in when I was a kid.” Anna feels like she could spend all day by the pond. Even now, she wants to go back through the door. It’s a dangerous kind of longing. If she stood there long enough, would she be able to swim? Would she be able to feel the water against her skin?
“I saw a pond too,” said the woman. “Like the one I almost drowned in when I was five.” Her face constricts in an echo of terror, then clears.
“What do you feel, when you put your hand on the door?” asks Anna.
“Feel?” Now the woman is confused, looking at Anna like she’s an unsolved equation chalked out on a blackboard. “What do you mean?” The woman runs her hand along the door. “It’s wood. Rough.”
“How many doors have you gone through?”
“Five thousand, four hundred and twelve.” There is a hint of pride in her voice, masking weariness.
Anna realizes that she will never be able to search all of the rooms. What architect would make such an impossible house?
“And you still haven’t found what you’re searching for?” she asks the woman.
The woman stuffs her notebook into an oversized backpack. She is already walking away. “I used to be looking for something, but now I’m only trying to find the way out.”
All her life, Anna has used her voice.
She has steadied the rain with her power, shaped the deepness of her heart, pulled salt from ocean water. She has resurrected flowers, watching petals grow firm and light. Once, she called forth her brother’s sorrow, and changed what could be changed there. Once, she stood in the center of a storm, calling lightning to crackle along her eyelids.
Perhaps it is wrong to use her voice. She is not sure. Only, it has always been a part of her, and she has never been able to let it go.
Before the house at the edge of the sea, there was the sea.
Waves crash down, pummeling Anna.
“Stop,” she says, using her voice, all the power she can gather. She whispers first, then shouts, commanding the ocean to do what she asks. The ocean does not slacken. It does not wither or shake. Not even one drop is displaced.
She knows, in that uncertain newness that comes after a death, that she will never be able to speak to her mother again, but this realization is not what causes the hardness in the middle of her chest. What more could she say? What words could have mended anything between them? In the labyrinth of their conversations, they had never been able to find each other.
Little by little, she feels her voice running out of her, pulled by the waves, until she has no voice at all, until it is only her begging the ocean to stop, because why should it keep going? Why is it fair that the world keeps going? She is a child again, drowning in the sadness of inevitable things.
It is as if a thread is being wrapped tight around her chest, pressing, taking her breath.
The thread is in her body now, and it pulls her. She follows where it leads, to a strange house at the edge of the ocean, a house she has never seen before.
A Catalog of Rooms Anna Discovers
*A room of knives that will not cut and glass which will not break
*A room full of cold water held back by a transparent eye
*The inside of a nebula
*Cereal aisles. So many cereal aisles
*A room with only five blue marbles
*A field of wildflowers
* Rooms she doesn’t enter, only pressing her forehead against their doors
*Her fifth-grade classroom, with the marching band zebras stapled to the bulletin board
*Nuts without shells, letters without envelopes, flowers without petals, sky without sun
*The smell of her mother’s cinnamon cookies, which quietly fades
Anna pulls the thread from her satchel. She is exhausted. She has lost track of the days and nights, the number of doors, the rooms. She feels simultaneously like she could sink into the floor, rubbery and spent, and also like her spine has taken on a painful rigidity. She can’t remember the last time she slept.
She weaves the cinnamon thread between her hands, making an impromptu cat’s cradle. As a child, she used to do this when she got nervous — like before the school play, in her frog costume with the red buttons sewn on, or after spelling tests, all of which she had certainly failed. She hasn’t made a cat’s cradle in years. The thread brushes against her fingers, light and smooth. The cinnamon smell is overpowering.
Anna tosses the thread. It moves with purpose, forward down the hall. Instead of following the thread, she takes the end in her hand and goes backward, toward the rooms where she has been. The thread feels hot in her palm.
She follows the thread, or unfollows it, until it stops.
Before her is a plain white door. It looks like the door of the first room she entered to sleep, the room that pretended to be hers. She presses her hand against the door. It feels like fragile silences, like the space between her words.
When she pushes through, she finds her voice.
Her voice floats above her, full of light and sound, crackling in the air. When she touches it, it feels like water running over her hands, cold and clear.
Up until this moment, she thought that when she found her voice, she would command it to return to her. She tries to summon up the will to call her voice back to her, but no words come.
Some things, she realizes, can never be returned to you, no matter how you wish for them.
She lets her voice run over her hands, over her throat, feeling the power there, power that once was hers. The threads of her voice are labyrinthine; she cannot find their ends.
She wraps the cinnamon thread around her voice, twisting it in a tender circle, feeling the weight there. Her voice sits, cocooned in thread, shining along the edges.
Gently, she unspools her voice. It hums, electric, in the air between her and the door.
“Help us find the way out,” she says. It is the last thing she will ask of her voice.
She steps into the hallway. All around her, people are following the invisible words of her voice, which twist through the house like a thread stretched out to forever. Others stay still in this ocean of movement, not ready to leave the house and its rooms, the promise of whatever they are searching for. She hopes, when they are ready, they will find their way out to the world.
The cinnamon thread rests heavy in her hands. Lifting her satchel, she tucks it in.
She finds the way out to the ocean, to the sand that will one day turn to glass, long after the imprint of her footsteps have vanished. Behind her, her voice flows out to the shore and the wide waters beyond.
Her daughters will wonder where she has been, and her husband, but she is not sure what to tell them.
The skein of thread sits in her satchel. Maybe she will leave the thread in her dresser, under a mountain of soft shirts, or in a kitchen drawer next to the wooden spoons, buried among the things of her life. She will leave the thread in a place where her daughters can find it. When the time comes for them to visit the strange house by the sea, she hopes it will help them find the way back out again. She hopes that they will understand, in a way that she has never mastered, how to accept the sadness of inevitable things.
The ocean roars behind her; the sand sinks under her toes. Without the use of thread, or her voice, or anything but the certainty of her footsteps, she starts to make her way home.
About the Author
Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod, Analog, Clarkesworld, Nature, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at bethgoder.com.