The Free Sounds, excerpted:
House of the Letter L

by Owen Kaelin

The house of L is a tricky one, so tricky that at first we lose the butler, and then our shoes. Snoweyed and I pad through the house nonplussed, opening fruitless doors to baroque rooms. Eventually the butler, having multiplied himself in three, comes hollering at us from behind. The three grasp our arms and direct us irritably through more doors. We complain of our lost shoes, but the butlers have no ears for us. Finally, they leave us in a room with couches.

We sit a while. While Snoweyed goes over her notes — questions to ask of L, and abbreviations of her observations in this place — I try to puzzle down the room’s decorations. They’re so odd, so... .

Another butler appears, and right away he’s annoyed. “What are you doing here?” he demands. My friend frowns: “The three other butlers brought us here.” The butler sighs: “They made a mistake. L’s not here. She’s in another part of the palace.” “Where?” I ask him. “Where I’m taking you. Now.”

The new butler guides us through some more doors, then leaves us in an identical room with identical couches.

Somebody else is here, waiting. He’s short. His hair is tanned. He grins and tells us: “My third time here. How about you?" Snoweyed says nothing, so I answer: “This is my first.” “This is my third time,” he repeats, “and it’s not any less aggravating than the first two. Have you been here long?” “We got lost,” I tell him. “Well, of course you did. Were you lost long?” “The butlers found us.” “You were lucky, then. Next time, don’t lose your butler.” I nod. I look at Snoweyed, who’s looking away.

I ask the man: “Aren’t they supposed to know where she is when people come to call? I mean . . . what with their being her butlers, and all.” “Well,” he says, “the problem is they never really can tell, with L. I mean, she’s an unpredictable sort. Secretive. I mean: that, too. Probably paranoid. Probably deliberately made herself next to impossible to figure out. Funny: some people seem to think they can do it. I mean: figure her out. They try to apply all these kinds of scientific principles . . . mathematics and all. You’d think they didn’t have anything better to do with those analytical minds of theirs. If I had a mind for science, I’d use it for something more useful. I mean, isn’t it pointless to try to figure out something that—”

Finally I interrupt him: “You were saying about her being unpredictable?”

“Absolutely,” he says, “Unpredictable.” I nod, expecting him to continue, but instead he leans forward to look past me to Snoweyed: “You haven’t said much,” he notes. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I’m a little preoccupied.” “You know . . . you’re pretty . . . in your own way. People say—”

“Have you met her yet? L, I mean.” I interrupt, again. “L? No. I’ve been here three times. I haven’t found her yet. I keep trying. I don’t know why I do. Third time is either the charm or the spanking, they say, depending who you talk to. Me, I’d prefer to go with the charm, but I’ll know by the end of the day.”

Then he leans forward again and says to Snoweyed: “You... you come here like everyone, like I did. You’re hopeful. That’s what your dress says. You’ll be disappointed, just like I was, like everyone is.” Finally, Snoweyed says: “I’m not interested in being appointed.”

The door opens. Another butler enters and, barely glancing at the short guy, beckons us to rise. He leads us through more doors, down more hallways.

As we go, I observe Snoweyed’s dress. Yes, the short man noticed something: her dress is somewhat remarkable, but I’m not sure why. It seems to have a voice, but it won’t speak. Why haven’t I noticed this until now? Her dress’s patterns are complicated. It looks like it has a lot of little eyes, and mouths, but what the dress has to see and speak of I cannot tell. There’s something of the house in this dress, too. The two appear to echo one another.

All this time, Snoweyed and I have been trying our best to heed the short man’s advice, but ultimately we and the butler are separated. Snoweyed and I are left to roam the house, gradually losing our socks.

We try our best. This is what we note: The hallways bend; the rooms do not . . . therefore, thinking that only the bending things can end their selves anyplace in a house that is not linear, we avoid any threshold that presents a room, and enter only the doors that lead to other hallways.

It’s in this way that we find ourselves alongside a wall with marching broad windows set from ceiling to floor. The outdoors leans nonchalantly against the opposite wall. The glass is warm to touch. Metallic frames, each with its own knob, separate each window into three panes from top to bottom. We turn one of the knobs closest to the ground and tilt open the pane. We crawl through the opening, then clamber with painful difficulty down the rough, protrusive stones.

Once our feet have found the grass, we lie on our backs in it. So many of these blades of grass, and no matter their number they can never be as complicated as the house we just escaped from. How does a house become so complicated?

I wonder: Perhaps Snoweyed’s dress knows something about this? I study it, but out here, the dress appears less alert, as if it’s either resting, like us, or it’s thinking, like us, or both — like us. I lean over Snoweyed’s stomach and set my ear against the fabric. I lilt my voice: “Dress? What do you know ? Can you tell me anything about the house?”

Snoweyed slaps me on the head.

“Hey!” I complain, lifting my head and looking at her.

Her eyes are narrow: “What the hell are you doing?” she asks. “I’m wondering if your dress saw anything.” “Why would my dress see anything?” “It’s got eyes and mouths. It can see and speak. I want to know what it saw.” “Dammit, Dreamhead . . . you’re fucking weird.”

Sighing, I lay back on the grass.

Eventually, though, we find something to agree upon: Next time we’ll do better. We’ll arrive with balls of string, we decide — twine, so there’ll be no chance it’ll break — and with this string — twine, we mean — we’ll join ourselves to the first butler we find. He’ll object, but we’ll tie it to him with a knot he will not understand. Snoweyed knows knots. And instead of letting him leave us in a sitting room, we’ll follow him wherever he goes.

In this way, we cannot possibly get lost. Eventually, the butler will have to end up in a place directly connected to some other place . . . and by logic, at least one of those two places will be directly connected to L.

We’re both quite serious in our plans, but I expect we probably will never return to this house, and perhaps Snoweyed is thinking this as well. There must be less difficult letters for us to investigate, and in fact several more than twenty more of them, still, remain for us to choose . . . and if any of these letters can be accessed and reasonably interviewed, then surely it makes no sense to obsess on L.

I decide I want to know what Snoweyed has been thinking, in this regard, so I announce: “This whole project is getting just a little more than fucking difficult. I don’t think we’ll ever get anywhere with these capricious fucking letters.”

She seems shocked: “It’s just one goddamn letter! What are you doing, giving up already?” I do not respond. She doesn’t challenge me. Lying in the grass, I sink into a kind of meditative murk.

What I’m beginning to get a picture of is one of an Alphabetical complexity far beyond what either of us initially expected. It occurs to me that perhaps the Alphabet, in its intricate relationship with humanity, has been absorbing our characteristics. Once so simple, the Alphabet is maturing. Can anyone really hope to come to understand such a net of creatures? But I don’t bring these thoughts up with Snoweyed. For the moment, at least, my voice has stopped working. When she asks me: “So... which letter is next?” my voice will not oblige her a single thought.

Owen Kaelin lives alternately between the Boston area and rural Connecticut. He edits the webjournal Gone Lawn, as well as the literary catalog The Gone Lawn Excavation Project.