Well before Alice learned to call him “Word-Eater,” he found her dating profile and asked, Do you know what alice means in Italian? She didn’t. So he told her: anchovy!!
Much later, Alice would also learn that the Word-Eater was hunting for brainy women who spoke languages he hadn’t yet eaten.
They met at a bar a few days later. The Word-Eater drew a little tin out of his pocket, set it on the table, and slid it toward her like a black velvet box. Alice knew what the tin contained even before she read the label and she laughed until her gut twitched in complaint.
Alice said, “Di kats hot lib fish.”
The Word-Eater waited.
Alice explained, “That’s Yiddish. ‘The cat likes the fish.’ I forget how the rest goes—something like, ‘But she doesn’t want to wet her paws.’”
Meaning: The cat wants what she can’t have? The cat is lazy and will not struggle for a meal? Who is responsible if the cat starves but the cat herself?
The Word-Eater asked her to repeat the phrase in Yiddish; he mimicked her and absorbed her syllables, made them his own.
• • •
The Word-Eater’s easy confidence felt impossible and so alluring. Even his pauses were loud, persuasive; she could almost hear the semicolons. Alice wanted that command over language and its absence.
He taught her new words and where they came from. She repeated after him. Taffeta was derived from a Persian verb that meant “to twist” or “to weave.” The Word-Eater liked weaving-words, like text in English (from texere, also the root of textile). He liked food words like candy, anchovy, carrot.
The Word-Eater drew a circumflex (^). He explained: “We call it a carrot because of some conflation between the Latin word (caret: ‘it lacks,’ ‘it is missing’) and the pointy vegetable (carrot).” Alice liked that—a root in two senses. He asked her, “Caret?” a lot when she seemed sad. His way of asking what was wrong, what was missing.
They had been seeing each other for just a couple of months when the Word-Eater begged Alice to take a few days off work and come to the lake house where he stored the words of all the other women. He didn’t talk about the women or their words, though. He said he had inherited the house from his grandparents, who were a convenient combination of dead and generous. Alice was just a couple of years out of school and lived in a tiny studio; the idea of so much space belonging to one person felt unreal.
The house turned out to be an old Victorian with two floors and an attic, decrepit and elegant. Two stained glass windows framed the front entrance and glittered red and yellow, candy-bright. Thin lines arced across the white-painted walls, scars threatening to open and peel. The doors were all bloated with damp, their brass handles and locks corroded, hard to shut and harder to reopen.
The Word-Eater had mentioned someone named Vira who was eager to meet Alice; the way he talked about her, Alice assumed she was a childhood friend or a close relative. Vira turned out to be a cat. She kept prowling around Alice and whining for attention. Alice was allergic to cats, a fact she tried and failed to hide during her first evening as the Word-Eater’s houseguest.
When the Word-Eater caught on, he drove into town to buy her some Claritin and said, “No more suffering in silence, Anchovy. You have to tell me what’s going on.”
In college, she had only been on a couple of dates with boys who were sweet and dull, with weed-fogged eyes, who asked her if she would like to go out again, and she said yes, she’d like that, and then never answered their text messages. The Word-Eater was a decade-ish older than her and felt like a different, more knowing species. He kissed her, inspected and catalogued her parts. He traced the shape of her collarbone and asked, “Do you know why it’s called a clavicle?”, which none of the college boys ever would have wondered (and if they had, they’d have told her without asking).
“No,” she said.
He explained that it was kind of a misleading word. It sounded like clavis, meaning “key,” but really came from a diminutive derived from clavis: clavicula, “a tendril,” “a vine,” or (sometimes) “the bolt on a door.” Like bodies were ruined palaces crawling with ivy, their bones full of creaky old hinges and locks.
The house smelled of rising bread and garlic in oil. The Word-Eater poached eggs in red wine for their first dinner. Plums drooped from a tree in the yard; the next day, he baked a clafoutis studded with scarlet half-moons. Alice’s mother used to call any man who could cook a “keeper”—another misleading word, since it sounded like the man was the one doing the keeping, rather than the one to be kept.
While the Word-Eater went out for groceries, Alice lingered in the house. The floor overhead whined as though beneath someone’s footfalls. The attic, the Word-Eater had told her, turned chatty when the wind roamed through it.
Alice sat on an old sofa before a cold and empty fireplace and listened. Some of the house’s chatter echoed down the flue.
There was a bit of drapery, an old scarf or shawl, pinned to the wall above the hearth where most people might have put a mirror or a painting. Alice approached and pinched the cloth. Decayed lace and silk and lusterless sequins that reeked of rose water and mothballs. Whose? His grandmother’s? A little torn piece of paper fell from its folds onto the mantlepiece. Only one word on it—maybe a signature. It started with a T; farther on, two ruffled Fs plumed across the paper. Then, the line trailed off.
The front door squealed open, slammed shut. Alice caught a glimpse of the Word-Eater overladen with groceries. He yelled, “Hello, Anchovy!” as he slipped into the kitchen, and her hand clenched around the note—he was being nice and making dinner for her and why had she been mucking around with the decorations on his walls? She could hear him whistling as he unpacked ingredients. Alice turned back to the shawl, wasted a silly minute trying to restore the note to whatever fold it had fallen from, but it kept drifting out again, like it wanted her to read it. She left it on the mantlepiece.
The roof groaned.
“Alice!” came a cry from the kitchen. Oil spat in the distance and radiated something warm and pungent.
Alice joined the Word-Eater.
“What’re you making?”
Tomatoes and olives simmered and popped in a skillet. An empty anchovy jar sat on the countertop by the Word-Eater’s elbow. The musk of the sauce curled Alice’s hair as she leaned over to taste.
“Puttanesca,” said the Word-Eater. “You know what that means?”
Alice had a guess, thanks to a college Spanish teacher who had liked to teach them curses sometimes. Italian couldn’t be too different. “Wait. Puttana…? Is that ‘whore’?” she said.
“Bingo!” said the Word-Eater. “Good girl. Do you know the story behind it? Stories, I should say. There’s one legend that the whores of Naples would cook this—because of the smell. To lure the sailors to their beds as they came back ashore…”
“And you’re cooking my name in it?” She pointed at the empty anchovy jar.
The Word-Eater chuckled and took his time answering as he stirred the sauce.
“Just a joke,” he said.
Later, they ate and laughed and drank red-black glasses of Barbaresco. The Word-Eater’s hand reached for Alice’s, kneaded her knuckles.
It could be nice for this to become a pattern. Weekends away together, more of his cooking, his words.
Then, he leaned over, dabbed at her collarbone with his napkin, though Alice hadn’t been conscious of soiling herself. A low growl rumbled in the house’s depths and something cool chilled the skin near Alice’s throat. She touched her neck, her chest. A lock clicked and turned in her bones while the Word-Eater collected their plates and took them to the sink.
And then her ears popped, static muffled her gaze, and Alice drooped off her chair and onto the floor. Her cheek settled against the wood grain, her breath filled the cracks in its surface.
“Anchovy! You okay?” said the Word-Eater. He crouched beside her, pressed a hand to her forehead, like he meant to take her temperature.
Instead, he pushed.
She sank through the floor, down, down.
It was hard to say how long she spent sinking and fading; her body and its weight in time stopped mattering. Her voice, however. Her thoughts and words spread and settled. The house took her in. It chattered a greeting.
• • •
Alice was sent to stay with her grandmother whenever her mother couldn’t handle her (so, more often than not). Her grandmother would say weird things that Alice later learned were sloppy translations of Yiddishisms. “You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground and your feet in the air,” was an elaborate way of telling someone to go to hell.
She said, “Der mensch tracht un Gott lacht.” Man plans and God laughs.
Klop dir kop in vant. Beat your head against the wall.
Gay kocken offen yom. Go take a shit in the ocean.
Alice stopped speaking after her grandmother died. When she did take up talking again, it turned out to be harder than she remembered. She spent so much time in her head choosing the right syllables and marveled at people whose words fell out easily.
The Word-Eater murmured, “No, not that. Let’s get back to that grandmother of yours. Tell me all the things she said.”
Too bad Alice had never learned her language properly; that annoyed the Word-Eater. He stamped on the part of the floor where she had disappeared, as though to rattle new and delicious words out of her, the words she owed him.
Alice slipped through wood and paint and concrete.
The house chattered, the wind speaking through its rafters, its gables. And how terrible, not to be alone in it. There were other women everywhere, encoded into the house’s every wrinkle and corner, their skin brittle, their hair lank. They muttered in their sleep, in faded dialects of Italian and German, Persian and Sanskrit, Vulgar Latin—a mock Babel. After so much time, their dream-talk had gotten stuck in moldering wood and rusted pipes.
The other women savored their curses like candies but spoke kindly to Alice, audibly saddened that she had joined their ranks.
One of them stayed caught in the glittering shawl she had once worn. Another paced back and forth through the attic. Still others muttered like mice behind the walls.
They told her to keep some words for herself. Not to give them to him, no matter how much he needled. Hide them somewhere safe.
“But it’s not even my language,” thought Alice. “It’s my grandmother’s. It’s not mine to hide.”
They told her, No, it’s yours too. Hold on to it.
Alice asked, “How long have you all been here? Are we stuck forever? Why has he done this?”
The house went quiet.
• • •
Outside, summer faded. The house grew cold.
Alice dreamed of her grandmother, whose cooking she hated but ate out of stubborn loyalty. No grandmotherly cookies, but blintzes plump with acrid cheese, pale chunks of fish in jars. Mildness and subtlety never figured into her grandmother’s palate or vocabulary, and she was so very loud where Alice had always been sweet and docile. What would she have done if he’d made the mistake of trapping her in the house instead of Alice? She would scream and shout. She would curse him. She would break the house and spill out of it.
The other voices stirred. They said that, yes, curses could eat holes into the house. They could burrow through it like termites, pick at it like woodpeckers. They said, We can get out—sometimes, briefly. But the house always takes us back in.
They sounded reluctant to tell her this. Didn’t want Alice to wound herself with hope.
Still—to be herself again, if only for a little while. To be something more than a voice and half-remembered language.
“Grow like an onion,” thought Alice. She could not remember the words in Yiddish, except that onion was tsibele.
Alice sank and dreamed of the Word-Eater bent over like an old cartoon ostrich with his head buried—not in sand, but in the cold cement of the cellar—and green ribbons of leaf sprouted out of the nape of his neck. She tried to remember. Vaksa, vaksen? She gripped her dream of an onion’s leaves and pulled and pulled until a moldering skull popped free. Browned teeth like decayed corn kernels leered at her.
Beat your head against the wall. Grow like an onion. Her curses could make a hole, an avenue out, if only for a little while. If only she could remember it right.
“Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele—!”
Alice threw her curse, the skull, and it cracked against something—
An old iron wood stove in the corner.
Alice was Alice again and ached all over. She had stopped sinking and spreading through the house’s innards. She tested her arms and legs, but it had been so long, they didn’t feel like hers anymore. Alice leaned upright on her elbows. An angry hurt thundered through her bones and at first, all she wanted was to disappear again and will everything away. But no. Time to move. To get out of here.
She sat still and listened for a minute—maybe two. Heard nothing save for Vira mewling for food in the distance. And so, Alice got up and hobbled to the stairs that would lead out of the cellar. He must have left for a bit. She could slip out, feel the autumn air. If only her legs would quit shaking and carry her.
She stopped in the kitchen first, bent to the faucet and drank what felt like a river’s worth of water.
Then, the click of a lock. Not in her bones, but the front door.
It had been raining recently, and the wood was swollen and resisted him.
Alice grabbed the first blunt object on hand: a very heavy cast-iron skillet. She slipped into the hall, considered avenues of escape. The window? No—the frame was stuck, wouldn’t budge. Alice stumbled upstairs instead, just as the door finally yielded behind her—she heard him scraping his boots against the doormat. On the second floor, adrenaline fueled her up the rickety stepladder to the attic.
He called out, “Alice? You there?”
Alice stood on top of the attic’s trapdoor and clutched the skillet.
A knock on the wood beneath her feet.
“Alice,” said the Word-Eater’s muffled voice, “what are you doing? Carrot?” He meant, Caret? What’s wrong, what’s missing?
The Word-Eater talked through the door. Alice had been sick, and he was taking care of her, keeping her safe. What had gotten into her? What did she think was going on here?
“Come on, Alice,” said the Word-Eater. “Enough of this. You should be resting.”
Time to come out.
Alice stepped off the door and let the Word-Eater push it open.
His head surfaced through a square of brightness, and for a moment, Alice hesitated. But then Vira, beautiful Vira with her noxious fur, mewled somewhere out of sight. Alice could picture her winding up the attic stairs, nudging the Word-Eater’s leg, eager to be fed.
And as soon as the Word-Eater turned, Alice hefted the skillet—whirled it down on his skull as hard as she could during that whisper of a second while he shooed away the dumb cat.
• • •
She dropped his body in the lake. (Who was the fish now?) Later, she wished she had kept his head. She could have filled his skull with onion seeds and buried it and so made the curse come true.
Alice spent that night in the house. The Word-Eater’s sounds and smells—bread and brandy—went on clinging to the walls, the curtains, the pages of his books. But so did the voices—the voices Alice had come to know while she spent months sinking through the house.
And so she could not go—not yet. Not while they went on muttering so very audibly behind the house’s walls. But were they right? Would she sink back into the house, just like them, if she lingered here? Surely killing the Word-Eater changed things; maybe she could help them break out, too, now. Or had they been stuck too long, become irrevocably embedded?
At night, Alice squeezed a pillow and stared at a long crack in the paint that cut the bedroom ceiling in two.
The Word-Eater had a degree or two in Historical Linguistics and some other related field. Or so he’d said (it could get hard to keep track of all the things he’d said and done and said he’d done). He had grown up speaking Italian and spent his youth orbiting the Mediterranean, “picking up” Latin’s neighbors and descendants, then rattled other branches of the Indo-European language tree until they yielded him some fruit too.
“I’m a word-eater,” he had said—with such a proud, dimply smirk that she didn’t feel the warning in his declaration.
And this was the storehouse where he put all the words for safekeeping.
A low and lurking noise hunted through the dark.
Alice rose, traced the sound through the walls until she had to crouch, and found a hole where the molding met the floor. Her fingertips brushed against something pointy—long and thin and cold—and she flinched backward. A mouse? No—Alice yanked the thing out of the hole.
A word, a root, poking out of the house’s crevices.
Maybe that was when it occurred to her: she had never heard the Word-Eater speak his other languages at length; he had only spoken them in bits and pieces and used English to define and contain all the other words and roots that he knew. His English was nothing more than a creaky old house, an overloud container of other languages.
• • •
Alice waited for daylight, then found a terra-cotta pot for the carrot. She patted soil around it and remembered the Word-Eater, an imminent corpse twitching at the bottom of the attic stairs, Vira licking the blood as it pooled out of his head. Alice sat cross-legged by the hole in the wall and studied it. She ate her lunch there and scattered bread crumbs by the hole, as though to tempt more words out like hungry mice.
Alice smelled anchovies.
Alice smelled like anchovies?
There was an important difference between those two sentences, but Alice couldn’t figure out which one wanted to be more to the point. Noses are not very discriminating about the niceties of literal versus metaphorical expression, direct objects and subject complements.
Oh no—was it taking her back, making her into language again? Did she really have to be Alice the anchovy? Couldn’t she just be Alice?
“Not yet,” muttered Alice to herself, to the house, to who knows what. “Please not yet… Oh God, oh yuck.” She rushed to the shower.
A banging and muttering in the pipes echoed and bounced off the bathroom tiles. A faraway chant, resonant even when obscured by hissing water and steam. Alice turned the tap off, shivered, and listened.
“Anchovy,” said the voices. And something else after that.
Alice exited the shower with shampoo still in her hair, ran to the kitchen and wrote on the dry-erase board on the fridge. She copied down the chant while her marker squeaked in protest. Her writing wept as she dripped on it.
And then Alice stared at what she had written atop the palimpsest of the Word-Eater’s neatly composed shopping lists. She bit her lips to keep her teeth from chattering.
anchovy werewolf virago puttanesca banhus candy clavicle taffeta carrot
The note that had fallen out of the shawl—the signature. Taffeta. A twisting, a woven word. And the threads of the house’s language warped all around her. A soft and tangled nest. It wanted to take her back into its weave.
A more benign noise whined at her feet. Vira.
While the cat bared her belly and a purr rumbled beneath Alice’s hand, Alice wondered how to let the words out—let them scream.
She ached, tormented by their weird drip feed of syllables overburdened with meaning. It was like she had turned into an erudite hamster stuck in a cage, hungry for morsels of language.
“I am not a hamster,” she told Vira. The cat purred. Alice sneezed.
Hamster comes from a word meaning “corn weevil.” Hamsters are not corn weevils. But both like burrowing, eating. (Rodent has a similar heritage; it comes from rodere: “to gnaw. Erode.”)
Then: a strident little whimper.
Alice ran to the hole in the wall where she had found the carrot. She got there just in time to watch a shadowy slip of something—a mouse?—wriggle its way through the hole. Alice pressed her ear against the wall. Heard more voices, trapped and muttering and scratching. Rodent-like words, an infestation gnawing through the house.
Vira followed her, mewled at the wall and its noises. She rubbed her head against Alice’s leg. “Hush,” said Alice. Vira hissed instead.
• • •
The Word-Eater had once said they needed a word for etymology’s opposite, for words that have died but shouldn’t have. A study of dead words’ ghosts, rather than living words’ roots. Some words (and languages) are like haunted houses: abandoned but rich with old echoes. Banhus, for instance. An Old English word for “body”—literally translating to just what it sounds like: a “bone house.”
Alice spent days pressing her ear against wood and plaster, but the voices would not come out.
They were waiting, too. Waiting for her to sink through the floor again and rejoin them. But didn’t they understand that the Word-Eater was dead now? That had to mean something. Were they still doomed to haunt this place without him keeping them there?
She would have to listen harder, remember how to communicate with them. Maybe that way, she could lead them out.
But the longer she lingered, the more her skin crinkled and scaled like a fish’s, and when she ran a finger across her arm it came away slick with oil. A salty stink followed her everywhere. She couldn’t tell if it came from her or the house. Or both.
Alice followed the house’s noises upstairs, where they whispered off in too many directions to follow at once. Like a root system of voices that spread softly beneath the floorboards, behind the walls.
“What did you say,” whispered Alice, and the house offered her nothing coherent in response. Just overlapping threads of chatter.
She went up, knocking on the wall all the way. “Hello?” she said again. “I know you’re there. Please talk to me. I won’t hurt you. I just want to talk—to help.”
Alice banged a fist against one of wall’s many long seams, like an answer would fall out of it.
“What did you say!”
Caret, said the wall. (Which is to say, it said nothing, it lacked.)
Alice found a pencil and wrote the chant atop the seam in the wall, treated it like an underline, because she didn’t want that word to be its final word; she needed to fill the gap with something. The wall felt strangely delicate beneath her hand, like she could reach right through it if she wanted and tear the house’s guts out.
“Anchovy?” said the voices.
“I,” said Alice, which was the right answer to that, after all. But she didn’t know what else to add. Why didn’t she ever have the right words when she needed them? Nothing makes sense when you’re haunted by words and the words are already haunted, when bodies are houses and houses are bodies, when the borders between things crack.
“Virago?” said the voices, and Vira whined in response.
• • •
Alice had misheard the Word-Eater the first time he called the cat by her full name. Like most good students of classical Latin, he pronounced the Vs like Ws, and so Alice heard Virago as werago, like Vira was some kind of werewolf or other were-creature Alice hadn’t heard of before.
The Germanic were in werewolf means “man” and is related to Latin vir, which is also the root of virtue (understood as a manly quality). A virago is a warrior, a mannish and brave woman. Or an angry and troublesome woman.
Old conversations dripped through the house; fell on sheets of notepaper, on the dry-erase board; filled up the walls with shaky graphite.
“Got something to say, Vira?” asked Alice, crouching before the cat. A low feline growl reminded Alice that Vira could not say anything. “Or something to show me? Will you help me—help us?” Alice held out her hand, and a wet little tongue tested her fingertips. Vira’s whiskers tickled, like ants crawling across her skin.
The cat’s volume increased. Grew insistent. Like she wanted to be fed. She wound herself in a circle around Alice’s legs and then looked toward the attic.
“Okay,” said Alice, and she followed Vira as she bounded up the stepladder.
Night had started to fall, and it was dark in there, and Alice couldn’t see right. The floorboards were dusty, not rippled and cool as water beneath her feet. A gabled ceiling peaked overhead, and a narrow skylight let in a bone-white sliver of moon.
Vira continued to mewl and whine, and Alice followed her to a corner of the attic and felt through the dark until her fingers came across tin cans, little towers of cat food. And then, as she explored, something else. Glass. A jar.
Alice wrenched its lid off and let out someone’s pickled scream. She felt like an anchovy dissolving in oil—her body losing its old weight and meaning. She was becoming like them again. But at least she would not be stuck in this place anymore—none of them would.
Where were the others? The rest of the voices the greedy Word-Eater had trapped in the house?
Alice followed Vira and tore things open, broke them, and their collective shouts howled at the moon.
• • •
The house became a thing of broken eggshell, all its rich words a mess that spilled and spread.
Whenever anyone (mostly drunk teenagers on Halloween) went inside, the house muttered and snickered in response. Cracks riddled its walls and its white paint glittered, sweated a faint oily sheen. A faraway stench of salty sea, fat bubbling over a fire. The stained glass windows broke, the toothy red glitter that lingered in the frames still candy-bright—candy comes from a word meaning a “fragment” of something in Sanskrit—and the fragmented house had a new kind of loudness now, riddled with holes and narrow yet strident wind tunnels. It had become a kind of musical instrument, a giant woodwind.
Dodder and ivy crawled out of the house’s shattered windows and open doors, twined out of seeds nestled within every broken lock and hinge. Outside, shreds of cloth dangled from the trees like colorful catkins. A little white bulge and ribbonlike shoots of green sprouted in the plum tree’s shadow (an onion surrounded by rotting brown-and-purple fruit).
Noises roamed across the lake at night, like a pack of wolves out hunting, their howling and hungry sounds eager to devour the moonlight. Old meaning stretched out at last and echoed.