The Houses They Became

By Tamoha Sengupta

The house, which had once been Tina’s mother, did not stir even once as she passed. Earlier, a window used to open, or the door creaked, whenever Tina would be in sight—a confirmation that her mother recognized who she was.

Ma was wholly a house now—a house filled with the personality of those who lived there.

Tina never knew what triggered the change. Maybe it was age, or maybe it was being thwarted in love a second time, or maybe it was something else.

Maybe it was the talks of the war and the fear that her son would be called to fight.

Within a week, she became a stone house that had found a safe place on an empty patch of ground in the marketplace. The owner of the land had allowed the house there, in return for his condition.

“We get the house for free.”

Tina knew that she, and her twin brother, Thomas, would become houses too one day, that one day she would wake up and feel the heaviness in her body, the desire to remain still, rooted to the ground. At least, that was what Ma had told them.

“Long ago, it was your Grandma who had first turned into a house. But the house she turned into grew wings, or so they say.”

“Where did she fly?”

“It’s just a saying, Tina. Houses don’t fly. There are many types of houses you can become, depending on who you are. But have you heard of flying houses?”

Tina shook her head. “Maybe it was only Grandma.”

Ma shook her head. “Houses don’t move, dear.”

“Will you take me to the house Papa has become?” she had asked her mother then.

Ma’s hands had tightened a little more around her. “Papa didn’t become a house. He—left.”

“Why?”

“Because when I got pregnant with you and your brother, I told your Papa that I could transform, because the transformation’s always brought about by some major changes in life. He couldn’t face it. Coward.”

“Do you think he would have stayed if we were normal, Thomas?” Tina asked her brother later, the day after Ma had changed.

Thomas smiled and put an arm around her. “We are normal, Tina.”

“Normal people don’t change into houses.”

“They all change into something. It’s not always visible.” Thomas said.

Tina smiled and hugged her brother. Thomas always knew the right thing to say. Ma hadn’t been able to afford school for the two of them, but Thomas had taught himself to read and write from the newspapers he found in dustbins. He’d taught Tina too, and nowadays, whenever they were free, they would read to each other the various events of the day.

“One day I’ll open a library, or a school. Or maybe I’ll become one.” Thomas said, laughter in his eyes. Tina smiled along with him, but in her heart she felt something heavy.

Tina still ran the flower shop her mother used to run. But really, with war approaching, she didn’t see how people would still buy flowers. They’d have to find other ways. Schools were being shut down, turned into shelters for soldiers, and Tina wondered whether she and Thomas could go to people’s houses and teach their children in exchange for a little food. Surely there would still be people who wanted their children to learn things other than gunshots and bombs and yells.

One evening, she returned home and saw Thomas waiting for her with a letter in his hands.

He met her eyes as he spoke.

“They’ve called me to the front. I have to go. Tomorrow.”

Silence followed his words as Tina stared back at him, unable to speak, unable to move.

Thomas was still speaking. “I have to report at the station in the next town, because our town doesn’t have one. And then—”

The next morning, before night had fully vanished, he was gone, a backpack on his shoulder, the imprint of his body still on the bed.

Tina didn’t even say goodbye before he left. She wasn’t able to.

Her brother was gone, along with countless others, to save the country. Who had gone to save them?

That afternoon, when she finally had the courage to get up from bed and face the day, she felt her hands being weighed down by something. She looked down. Her hands were larger than she remembered them being, and their color was not that of skin anymore, but wood.

Her heart sank. Her transformation had begun.

She didn’t have a plot of land she could belong to. Neither did she have any intention of sitting in one place, waiting to fade out in the shadows of the people who would come to live there.

She needed to be there. For Thomas. What if the transformation had started for him too? What if his hands felt heavy and his feet dragged? What if they thought he was useless and killed him? What if he never got a chance to fight, to defend himself, to defend someone he had become close to?

Thomas had always protected her. He was six minutes younger than her, but he had been her savior, the one who got bloody knuckles by fighting off bullies, the one who sat with her and played with dolls when she had no friends, just to see her smile. The one who had gently stood by her when Ma had gone.

It took an eternity for Tina to rub away the tears from her eyes. Her wooden hands left scratches on her cheeks. But it didn’t take long for her to decide.

She was going to meet her brother. She was going to save him.

But her feet dragged. She had become taller now, and she could see past the tops of some trees. In the distance she could see the world, blackened with smoke, meeting the gray sky.

Going through the forest beside her town would be the fastest way to reach the railway tracks. Passing the forests was agony. So much soil for her to sink into, to just remain rooted.

I’m going to be my own sort of house, she told herself as she walked, the soil cool beneath her feet. Her body creaked as she walked, never stopping, though her body became heavier by the second.

Night fell, but still she trudged on. She spoke to herself, in her mind, to remind herself who she was. My own sort of house. My own sort of house.

The wood in her body groaned with fatigue. By the time she reached the end of the forest, another day was dawning, and her eyes had disappeared. But she could still feel the surroundings.

She could follow the railway tracks to wherever her brother had gone. She was changing fast, but she could still feel herself. She was still Tina, her heart nestled in the foundations of the house. Her mind remembered Grandma and her wings. How Grandma had traveled the world in those stories, how she’d housed those who had needed it.

Tina didn’t have wings. But she hoped she would. She was a moving house, and maybe she could house those who needed her, like Grandma had, if only in stories. She’d hold the sick and the wounded close to her, and protect her brother.

The house moved forward, one step at a time, a smile opening the door wide.

Tamoha Sengupta lives in India. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Zetetic: A Record Of Unusual Inquiry and elsewhere. She tweets @sengupta_tamoha.

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