Mute by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe — who is perhaps best known for his multi-volume epic, The Book of the New Sun — is the author of more than 200 short stories and 30 novels, is a two-time winner of both the Nebula and World Fantasy Award, and was once praised as “the greatest writer in the English Language alive today” by author Michael Swanwick. His most recent novels are The Wizard-Knight, Soldier of Sidon, and Pirate Freedom.

This story is about two children who return home, find an empty house, and are forced to grow up in a hurry. It first appeared in the program book for the 2002 World Horror Convention, where Wolfe was guest of honor.

In that same program book, Neil Gaiman offered up some advice on how to read Gene Wolfe. The first two points of his essay were:

(1) Trust the text implicitly. The answers are in there.

(2) Do not trust the text farther than you can throw it, if that far. It’s tricksy and desperate stuff, and it may go off in your hand at any time.

Keep that in mind when you’re reading this story. And when you’re done, you might want to heed Gaiman’s third point as well: “Reread. It’s better the second time.”

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.

by Gene Wolfe

Jill was not certain it was a bus at all, although it was shaped like a bus and of a bus-like color. To begin with (she said to herself) Jimmy and I are the only people. If it’s a school bus, why aren’t there other kids? And if it’s a pay-when-you-get-on bus, why doesn’t anybody get on? Besides there was a sign that said bus stop, and it didn’t.

The road was narrow, cracked and broken; the bus negotiated it slowly. Trees closed above it to shut out the sun, relented for a moment or two, then closed again.

As it seemed, forever.

There were no cars on the road, no trucks or SUVs, and no other buses. They passed a rusty sign with a picture of a girl on a horse, but there were no girls and no horses. A deer with wide, innocent eyes stood beside a sign showing a leaping buck and watched their bus (if it really was a bus) rumble past. It reminded Jill of a picture in a book: a little girl with long blond hair with her arm around the neck of just such a deer. That girl was always meet­ing bad animals and horrible, ugly people; and it seemed to Jill that the artist had been nice to give her this respite. Jill looked at the other pictures with horrified fascination, then turned to this one with a sense of relief. There were bad things, but there were good things too.

“Do you remember the knight falling off his horse?” she whispered to her brother.

“You never saw a knight, Jelly. Me neither.”

“In my book. Most of the people that girl met were awful, but she liked the knight and he liked–“

The driver’s voice cut through hers. “Right over yonder’s where your ma’s buried.” He pointed, coughing. Jill tried to see it, and saw only trees.

After that she tried to remember Mother. No clear image would come, no tone of voice or remembered words. There had been a mother. Their mother. Her mother. She had loved her mother, and Mother had loved her. She would hold on to that, she promised herself. They could not bury that.

Trees gave way to a stone wall pierced by a wide gate of twisted bars, a gate flanked by stone pillars on which stone lions crouched and glared. An iron sign on the iron bars read poplar hill.

Gate, sign, pillars, and lions were gone almost before she could draw breath. The stone wall ran on and on, with trees in front of it and more trees behind it. Alders in front, she decided, and maples and birches in back. No poplars.

“Did I ever read your storybook?”

She shook her head.

“I didn’t think so. I was always going to, but I never got around to it. Was it good?”

Seeing her expression, he put his arm around her. “It’s not gone forever, Jelly. Okay? Maybe they’ll send it.”

When she had dried her eyes, the bus had left the road and was creep­ing up a narrow winding drive between trees. It slowed for a curve, slowed more. Turned again. Through the windshield she glimpsed a big house. A man in a tweed jacket stood in what seemed to be its back doorway, smok­ing a pipe.

The driver coughed and spat. “This here’s your papa’s place,” he an­nounced. “He’ll be around somewhere, and glad to see you. You be good kids so he’s not sorry he was glad, you hear?”

Jill nodded.

The bus coasted to a stop and its door opened. “This’s where you get out. Don’t you forget them bags.”

She would not have forgotten hers without the reminder. It held all the worldly goods she had been allowed to take, and she picked it up without difficulty. Her brother preceded her out of the bus carrying his own bag, and the door shut behind them.

She stared at the back door of the house. It was closed. “Dad was here,” she said. “I saw him.”

“I didn’t,” her brother said.

“He was standing in the door waiting for us.”

Her brother shrugged. “Maybe the phone rang.”

Behind them the bus backed up, pulled forward, backed a second time, and started down the drive. Jill waved. “Wait! Wait a minute!”

If its driver heard her, there was no sign of it.

“We ought to go in the house.” Her brother strode away. “He might be in there waiting for us.”

“Maybe it’s locked.” Reluctantly, Jill followed him.

It was not, and was not even closed enough to latch. There were leaves on the floor of the big kitchen, as though the door had stood open for hours while the wind blew. Jill pushed it solidly shut behind her.

“He might be” (her brother’s voice cracked) “in front.”

“If he was talking on the phone, we’d hear him.”

“Not if the other person was talking.” Her brother had already seen enough of the kitchen. “Come on.”

She did not. There was an electric stove whose burners glowed crimson then fiery scarlet, a refrigerator containing a pound of cheese and two bot­tles of beer, and a pantry full of cans. There were dishes, pots, pans, knives, spoons, and forks in plenty.

Her brother returned. “The TV’s on in the front room, but there’s no­body there.”

“Dad has to be around somewhere,” Jill said. “I saw him.”

“I didn’t.”

“Well, I did.”

She followed her brother down a wide hall with high, dark windows on one side, past the big door to a big dining room where no one sat eating, and into a living room in which half a dozen drivers might have parked half a dozen buses, full of sunshine. “A man did this,” she said, looking around.

“Did what?”

“In here. A man picked out this furniture, the rugs, and everything.”

Her brother pointed. “Have a look over there. There’s a chair made out of horns. I think that’s hot.”

She nodded. “So do I. Only I wouldn’t have bought it. A room is–it’s a frame, and the people in it are the pictures.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No, I’m not.” She shook her head in self-defense.

“You’re saying Dad got this stuff to make him look good.”

“To make him look right. You can’t make people look good. If they don’t, they don’t. That’s all there is to it. But you can make them look right and that’s more important. Everybody looks right in the right place. If you had a picture of Dad–”

“I don’t.”

“If you did. And you were going to get a frame for it. The man in the frame store says take any of these you want. Would you take a pretty black one with silver flowers?”

“Heck no!”

“There you are. But I’d like a picture of me in a frame like that.”

Her brother smiled. “I’ll do it someday, Jelly. Did you notice the TV?”

She nodded. “I saw it as soon as we came in. Only you can’t hear what that man’s saying, because it’s on mute.”

“So he could talk on the phone, maybe.”

“In another room?” The telephone was on an end table near the televi­sion; she lifted the receiver and held it to her ear.

“What’s wrong? Could you hear him?”

“No.” Gently, she returned the receiver to its cradle. “There’s no noise at all. It’s not hooked up.”

“He’s not on a phone in another room, then.”

It was not logical, but she felt too drained to argue.

“I don’t think he’s here at all,” her brother said.

“The TV is on.” She sat down in a chair, bare waxed wood and brown-and-orange cushions. “Did you turn on these lights?”

Her brother shook his head.

“Besides, I saw him. He was standing in the door.”

“Okay.” Her brother was silent for a moment. He was tall and blond, like Dad, with a face that was already beginning to discover that it had been made for seriousness. “I’d have heard the car if he went away. I’ve been lis­tening for something like that.”

“So have I.” She sensed, although she did not say, that there was a pres­ence in this empty house that made you listen. Listen, listen. All the time.

mute, said the screen, and made no sound.