GtPGKogPYT4p61R1biicqBXsUzo" /> Google+ A House Like an Accordion by Audrey Burges + excerpt | I Smell Sheep

Sunday, May 19, 2024

A House Like an Accordion by Audrey Burges + excerpt

A House Like an Accordion
by Audrey Burges
May 21, 2024
Genre: Magical realism, women's fiction
A woman searches for her missing father in order to reconcile the many strange and fantastical secrets of her past before she loses herself completely in this deeply profound and magical novel by Audrey Burges.

Keryth Miller is disappearing.

Between the growing distance from her husband, the demands of two teenage daughters, and an all-encompassing burnout, she sometimes feels herself fading away. Actual translucence, though—that’s new. When Keryth wakes up one morning with her hand completely gone, she is frantic. But she quickly realizes two things: If she is disappearing, it’s because her father, an artist with the otherworldly ability to literally capture life in his art, is drawing her. And if he’s drawing her, that means he’s still alive.

But where has he been for the past twenty-five years, and why is he doing the one thing he always warned her not to? Never draw from life, Keryth. Every line exacts a cost. As Keryth continues to slowly fade away, she retraces what she believes to be her father's last steps through the many homes of her past, determined to find him before it’s too late and she disappears entirely.

“Burges's A House Like an Accordion is a beautiful exploration of family and the threads that tie them together, whether magical or blood. Through Keryth's eyes, we see a poignant raw portrait of love and faith.”—Roselle Lim, author of Night for Day

“A poignant look at the ties of family, A House Like an Accordion captivated me with its magic. I felt like I’d stepped into a contemporary fairytale I did not want to leave. Audrey Burges' words absolutely sparkle.”—Erin A. Craig, #1 New York Times bestselling author of House of Roots and Ruin


Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The House on the Waves
August 2016
I was brushing my teeth when my hand disappeared.

I was thirty-nine and naked, holding myself in a one-legged star pose on the marble floor of my bathroom, looking for balance. My focal point was in the mirror-my pink toothbrush, which was, I suddenly realized, suspended in midair, as if dangling from a length of wire hung from the bathroom's vaulted ceiling. I could feel it buzzing in the hand I couldn't see.

I thought it must be a trick of the light. Our house was full of windows, glass and sun bouncing reflections of the ocean into every living space, as cold as the Pacific sprawled beneath us. But no: I put down the toothbrush, held my hand in front of me, and gazed right through it to my face in the mirror, with its high cheekbones and widow's peak like my mother's. I grasped at my translucent fingers with my right hand and felt them, still solid, but nearly invisible. There was a softness to the skin I couldn't see, as if I could pierce it with the slightest pressure.

I heard the house begin to wake around me. Ellory was rolling her mat out on her floor, ready to force herself through the yoga workout she'd declared last spring she would do every single day because her routines-senior-year AP classes, driving too fast down our winding road along the beach, sniping at her younger sister-were "stressing her out." A summer's worth of classes at the community college nearby hadn't ended her determination. Mindy, fifteen and complaining already about the pace of high school, not yet a week underway, was hitting her snooze alarm for the third time. And Max was bumping into the same corner of the platform bed with the same bruised shin on his staggering path to the kitchen, where the coffee I'd made was waiting.

Max would leave me alone in the bathroom until I was finished, but our mornings had the expected ebb and flow of the mundane, and my disappearing limb was a disruption. I planted myself on the floor, a stump in the current, and flexed my fingers. I couldn't wear my rings at night. The encircling metal felt too constricting and claustrophobic as I tried and failed to sleep. They glinted on the ring keeper on the bathroom counter, and I tiptoed over to retrieve them, closing my eyes to slide them over the knuckle of my left ring finger. The stones-antique emeralds, handed down through Max's family-were sharp and caught on everything. This time, they caught a beam of sun from the skylight, casting greenish rainbows around the room and on the memory of my freckled hand. I willed it to reappear.

I jumped at the knock on the door. "Keryth?" Max's voice was tentative, still wounded from our fight the night before. "You in there?"

"Where else would I be?" I snapped. I evened out my breathing and started again. "I'll be out in a minute."

"Can I get you anything? You want some coffee?"

A peace offering. I don't want coffee, I want you to leave me alone. All of you, for maybe five minutes, just leave me alone. I was being unfair, and I knew I was being unfair, which only made the voice inside me more vicious. The fight had been over the doctor-Max's words, glancing lightly like a stone thrown across water, wondering if it might be worth getting some blood work done. Because surely there must be some explanation for these mood swings, some levels and numbers and precise indicia that could be calibrated, the way Max calibrated everything.

I looked at the vein on my forearm, snaking from the crook of my elbow and fading into nothingness. I thought of the unfriendly nurse who always complained about my treacherous blood, the way it hid from her needle, refusing to yield itself up for tests. Your veins are practically invisible!

The laugh that barked out of me was involuntary.

"I'll get myself some coffee in a minute." I took the rings off my finger and slipped them back over the porcelain hand on the counter, which was cold and unyielding, but tangible. My robe, oversized and ratty, terry cloth stained with the spit-up of babies long since grown up, was hanging from the hook on the door. I put it on and tied it, sliding my hands-present and missing-into the wide pockets, hoping I looked normal as I loped, slouch shouldered, to my closet. Beneath the shelves of purses I didn't carry and shoes I didn't wear, I had a dovetailed drawer filled with gloves the California weather never called for. Kid leather, mostly, in every color, with tiny covered buttons down the sides. Elegant, finger-lengthening gloves like I used to see in ads for expensive cars and perfume, back when such things seemed wildly out of reach.

I selected a Kelly-green pair and shoved my hand and my non-hand into them, breathing a sigh of relief at symmetry restored. I let my robe fall to the floor and dressed the rest of my body, which was still corporeal, for all that Max said I would fade away if I didn't eat. My long-sleeved shirts were mostly flannel, and August blazed over my head, but I was starved for other options. I put a white tank top underneath a green plaid shirt I left unbuttoned, flapping over jeans I needed to replace with a smaller pair, but hadn't yet. Finally garbed but feeling garbled, I strode out of the closet and bedroom and walked, as casually as I could, into the kitchen.

"Are you cold, Mom?" Mindy, long legs folded underneath her on the window seat next to the kitchen table, cocked her head to one side. "The AC is on too high, Dad."

"It's set to seventy-eight." Max turned from the coffeepot and furrowed his brow at my outfit. "Harold," he called to the ceiling, "run a diagnostic on the HVAC, okay?"

"Well, sure, happy to. But I gotta say, kiddo, look who's worried about the thermostat now." The voice that rang out overhead was reedy and puckish, exactly as my father-in-law would have been, if he were alive. Or so I guessed. I'd never met him-only the artificial version of him that Max had spent his life perfecting.

"Yes, Harold, thanks." Max barely looked up from his coffee.

"Have you thought about putting on a sweater?"

"That's enough, Harold," Max and I said in unison.

Ellory ran into the room in her customary rush, heading toward the coffeepot to retrieve the only substance I could convince her to put into her body before leaving for school each morning. "Mom? Are you feeling okay? Why are you wearing gloves?"

I shrugged and delivered the lie I'd already thought of. "I sliced my hands up pretty good gardening yesterday. These'll help the ointment work."

Max shook his head. "It was the blackberries, wasn't it?"

"No." I felt a rush of defensiveness creep into my voice. Max hated the blackberry canes I'd planted in our yard-he considered them weeds and disliked their thorny encroachment on his otherwise manicured garden, not that he manicured it himself. "It was the roses."

Max nodded. "The ones with thorns smell the best, but it's hard not to like the thornless ones better."

"I was just pruning them back and giving them some fish guts, ungrateful bastards."

"Nature, red in tooth and claw." Max stepped toward me and stopped, his eyes seeking permission, and I nodded. He kissed the top of my head. "What have you got going on today?"

Trying to figure out where the hell my hand went. "Some research, maybe."

"What kind?"

Hand restoration. Hand-disappeared-what-do-I-do. Marty McFly Syndrome, you know, when his parents never got together and he started to disappear-

Oh my God.

Two thoughts of equal volume, equal urgency, careened through my head at the same time.

One: my father must be alive. The thought filled me with a peculiar mix of relief and fury, remembering the look on his face as he stepped out of my life and into oblivion as I screamed on the banks of a long-abandoned pond. How many years? I pretended not to know. Nearly a quarter century now, and as vivid as the first moment.

Two: wherever he was, however he was drawing breath, Papa must also have been drawing me. Somewhere, somehow, he was sketching the bones and tendons of my hand as he remembered it. Just the left hand-the one I used to brace the page I drew upon as Papa peered over my head, staring down at my drawings.

He was drawing from life. The way he always taught me not to. And if he didn't stop, I would be as trapped as the Steller's jay I still carried with me in the sketchbook I always kept by my side.


The Thorn House

August 1985

The first time Papa got me a sketchbook of my own, I carried it around for days, its pages blank, its cover as pristine as I could manage to keep it. It wasn't pink or sparkly. Its black matte cover showed me it was real-a real sketchbook, for a real artist. It meant Papa believed in me, and shining under the light of his faith, any lines I sketched could only possibly be a disappointment. I clutched my blank sketchbook while I flipped through Papa's, filled with cupolas and arched windows and low adobe structures, incomplete fragments of stone and wood occasionally interspersed with whole buildings. Some were recognizable, and some we had yet to find. All of them came from the real world, and anything Papa drew from reality bore real consequences. But I didn't understand that then.

I was afraid to draw in my own book, but the images inside Papa's looked stark and lonely, and I longed to give them company. He found me crouched over a page with a red pen, my imagined cardinal already half-sketched atop the graphite needles of a spruce tree he'd drawn, and he bellowed at me with a thundering voice I'd never heard him use before. I dropped the red pen as if it were made of lava. I've never used a red pen since.

He knew I was frightened, and he dropped to his knees beside me, gathering me into his arms. "Keryth. I'm so sorry I scared you. But you didn't know what you were doing."

I sniffed-louder than I meant to-and ordered my tears to stay where they were, burning behind my lashes. "I know I don't know what I'm doing. I can't draw. Not like you. I'm sorry I ruined your picture, Papa."

"Is that what you think?" He smoothed my mousy-brown curls back from my face and looked into my eyes. "Keryth, is that why you haven't used your book?"

"I'm going to ruin it. I'll only draw something stupid."

"You're not going to ruin it. And nothing is stupid when you're creating something new. That's how we learn. I got the book for you because you said you wanted to draw together. I was going to show you some things."

"But I drew in your book, and now you're angry."

"I'm not angry." Papa sat cross-legged on the floor and pulled me into his lap. "It's just that the lines in that book have a price, or at least they do when I draw them. I don't know yet if it'll be the same for you. That's why I wanted to try it together first."

I looked at my scribbled cardinal, interrupted mid-beak. "Your tree was empty. Everything in your book is empty."

"As empty as I can make it, yes. And I still mess up sometimes. Have you ever seen a cardinal in person?"

I shook my head. "Only in Gran's Audubon book."

"Good. That's good."

"Why is that good?"

Papa stood up and reached for my hands, pulling me to my feet. "Follow me, and I'll show you."

We walked through the creaking screen door of our small cabin, and the hiss of the hinge slammed it shut behind us. I followed Papa to the blackberry bushes that ringed the house. The fruit was so ripe that the canes drooped under the weight, surrounded by frustrated bumblebees. No animals foraged the berries, and birds would only swoop down close to investigate and then soar upward again, as if encountering invisible netting that blocked their beaks.

The berries were only for us.

Papa pointed out a determined Steller's jay, the tufted crest on his head cocked to one side as he puffed out his chest on a ponderosa branch high above the blackberry canes. "He's planning his next route of attack," Papa said.

"Why can't he get the berries?" I watched the jay make another V-shaped dive, another perplexed perch on the branch. "Why can't any of the animals?"

"Because we're the only animals I made them for. Now watch." Papa flipped open my blank sketchbook and grasped the pencil he always kept at the ready behind his ear. I watched the line grow behind his hand, curving into a sketched approximation of the jay more rapidly than I could follow, right down to the tilt of his head. I looked up to the ponderosa branch to compare the likeness, but the jay was gone.

I took back my sketchbook and peered at the shaded feathers, the intricate detail capturing even the minute fronds around the jay's eye. And then I looked at the eye, and my heart stopped.

"Papa." I felt my breath quicken, and I couldn't pull my eyes away from the jay's. "Papa. He's trapped."

"Yes, he is." Papa's voice carried a wistful finality as he tucked the pencil back behind his ear.

I kept gazing at the bird on the page. His wings, his tufted head, his curled feet around the branch were all silent and still, but the curve of the page looked like a caught breath, and I could feel his silenced heart trapped in his hollow bones beneath his feathers, all captured in a two-dimensional cage.

"Let him go, Papa! Please let him go!" The tears I'd held back earlier spilled over my eyelashes and burned my cheeks. "He's scared! Let him go!"

Papa knelt again and grasped my shoulders. "I don't know how. I never have."

I was eight, and I was confounded by any reality where my father was unable to do something. Anything. I was named for a princess-an imaginary one, an old family story about a royal girl's adventures in a kingdom full of saints and angels. But a princess nonetheless. And to my mind, that made my father a king. He was Papa, and his powers had no limits.

About the Author
Audrey writes novels, humor, short fiction, and essays in Richmond, Virginia. Her presence is tolerated by her two rambunctious children and very patient husband, all of whom have become practiced at making supportive faces when she shouts “listen to this sentence!” She is a frequent contributor to numerous humor outlets, including McSweeney’s, and her stories and essays have appeared in Pithead Chapel, Cease, Cows, and lengthy diatribes in the Notes app on her phone. Audrey was born and raised in Arizona by her linguist parents, which is a lot like being raised by wolves, but with better grammar. She moved to Virginia as an adult but still carries mountains and canyons in her heart, and sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she can still smell ponderosa pines in the sun. You can read more of her writing at and by following her on Twitter at @audrey_burges, on Instagram at @audreyburges, or on Facebook at @aburgeswrites.

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