Yesterday House - Cover

Yesterday House

by Fritz Leiber

Copyright© 2018 by Fritz Leiber

Science Fiction Story: Meeting someone who's been dead for twenty years is shocking enough for anyone with a belief in ghosts--worse for one with none!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The narrow cove was quiet as the face of an expectant child, yet so near the ruffled Atlantic that the last push of wind carried the Annie O. its full length. The man in gray flannels and sweatshirt let the sail come crumpling down and hurried past its white folds at a gait made comically awkward by his cramped muscles. Slowly the rocky ledge came nearer. Slowly the blue V inscribed on the cove’s surface by the sloop’s prow died. Sloop and ledge kissed so gently that he hardly had to reach out his hand.

He scrambled ashore, dipping a sneaker in the icy water, and threw the line around a boulder. Unkinking himself, he looked back through the cove’s high and rocky mouth at the gray-green scattering of islands and the faint dark line that was the coast of Maine. He almost laughed in satisfaction at having disregarded vague warnings and done the thing every man yearns to do once in his lifetime--gone to the farthest island out.

He must have looked longer than he realized, because by the time he dropped his gaze the cove was again as glassy as if the Annie O. had always been there. And the splotches made by his sneaker on the rock had faded in the hot sun. There was something very unusual about the quietness of this place. As if time, elsewhere hurrying frantically, paused here to rest. As if all changes were erased on this one bit of Earth.

The man’s lean, melancholy face crinkled into a grin at the banal fancy. He turned his back on his new friend, the little green sloop, without one thought for his nets and specimen bottles, and set out to explore. The ground rose steeply at first and the oaks were close, but after a little way things went downhill and the leaves thinned and he came out on more rocks--and realized that he hadn’t quite gone to the farthest one out.

Joined to this island by a rocky spine, which at the present low tide would have been dry but for the spray, was another green, high island that the first had masked from him all the while he had been sailing. He felt a thrill of discovery, just as he’d wondered back in the woods whether his might not be the first human feet to kick through the underbrush. After all, there were thousands of these islands.

Then he was dropping down the rocks, his lanky limbs now moving smoothly enough.

To the landward side of the spine, the water was fairly still. It even began with another deep cove, in which he glimpsed the spiny spheres of sea urchins. But from seaward the waves chopped in, sprinkling his trousers to the knees and making him wince pleasurably at the thought of what vast wings of spray and towers of solid water must crash up from here in a storm.

He crossed the rocks at a trot, ran up a short grassy slope, raced through a fringe of trees--and came straight up against an eight-foot fence of heavy mesh topped with barbed wire and backed at a short distance with high, heavy shrubbery.

Without pausing for surprise--in fact, in his holiday mood, using surprise as a goad--he jumped for the branch of an oak whose trunk touched the fence, scorning the easier lower branch on the other side of the tree. Then he drew himself up, worked his way to some higher branches that crossed the fence, and dropped down inside.

Suddenly cautious, he gently parted the shrubbery and, before the first surprise could really sink in, had another.

A closely mown lawn dotted with more shrubbery ran up to a snug white Cape Cod cottage. The single strand of a radio aerial stretched the length of the roof. Parked on a neat gravel driveway that crossed just in front of the cottage was a short, square-lined touring car that he recognized from remembered pictures as an ancient Essex. The whole scene had about it the same odd quietness as the cove.

Then, with the air of a clock-work toy coming to life, the white door opened and an elderly woman came out, dressed in a long, lace-edged dress and wide, lacy hat. She climbed into the driver’s seat of the Essex, sitting there very stiff and tall. The motor began to chug bravely, gravel skittered, and the car rolled off between the trees.

The door of the house opened again and a slim girl emerged. She wore a white silk dress that fell straight from square neck-line to hip-height waistline, making the skirt seem very short. Her dark hair was bound with a white bandeau so that it curved close to her cheeks. A dark necklace dangled against the white of the dress. A newspaper was tucked under her arm.

She crossed the driveway and tossed the paper down on a rattan table between three rattan chairs and stood watching a squirrel zigzag across the lawn.

The man stepped through the wall of shrubbery, called, “hello!” and walked toward her.

She whirled around and stared at him as still as if her heart had stopped beating. Then she darted behind the table and waited for him there. Granting the surprise of his appearance, her alarm seemed not so much excessive as eerie. As if, the man thought, he were not an ordinary stranger, but a visitor from another planet.

Approaching closer, he saw that she was trembling and that her breath was coming in rapid, irregular gasps. Yet the slim, sweet, patrician face that stared into his had an underlying expression of expectancy that reminded him of the cove. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen.

He stopped short of the table. Before he could speak, she stammered out, “Are you he?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, smiling puzzledly.

“The one who sends me the little boxes.”

“I was out sailing and I happened to land in the far cove. I didn’t dream that anyone lived on this island, or even came here.”

“No one ever does come here,” she replied. Her manner had changed, becoming at once more wary and less agitated, though still eerily curious.

“It startled me tremendously to find this place,” he blundered on. “Especially the road and the car. Why, this island can’t be more than a quarter of a mile wide.”

“The road goes down to the wharf,” she explained, “and up to the top of the island, where my aunts have a tree-house.”

He tore his mind away from the picture of a woman dressed like Queen Mary clambering up a tree. “Was that your aunt I saw driving off?”

“One of them. The other’s taken the motorboat in for supplies.” She looked at him doubtfully. “I’m not sure they’ll like it if they find someone here.”

“There are just the three of you?” he cut in quickly, looking down the empty road that vanished among the oaks.

She nodded.

“I suppose you go in to the mainland with your aunts quite often?”

She shook her head.

“It must get pretty dull for you.”

“Not very,” she said, smiling. “My aunts bring me the papers and other things. Even movies. We’ve got a projector. My favorite stars are Antonio Morino and Alice Terry. I like her better even than Clara Bow.”

He looked at her hard for a moment. “I suppose you read a lot?”

She nodded. “Fitzgerald’s my favorite author.” She started around the table, hesitated, suddenly grew shy. “Would you like some lemonade?”

He’d noticed the dewed silver pitcher, but only now realized his thirst. Yet when she handed him a glass, he held it untasted and said awkwardly, “I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Jack Barry.”

She stared at his outstretched right hand, slowly extended her own toward it, shook it up and down exactly once, then quickly dropped it.

He chuckled and gulped some lemonade. “I’m a biology student. Been working at Wood’s Hole the first part of the summer. But now I’m here to do research in marine ecology--that’s sort of sea-life patterns--of the in-shore islands. Under the direction of Professor Kesserich. You know about him, of course?”

She shook her head.

“Probably the greatest living biologist,” he was proud to inform her. “Human physiology as well. Tremendous geneticist. In a class with Carlson and Jacques Loeb. Martin Kesserich--he lives over there at town. I’m staying with him. You ought to have heard of him.” He grinned. “Matter of fact, I’d never have met you if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Kesserich.”

The girl looked puzzled.

Jack explained, “The old boy’s been off to Europe on some conferences, won’t be back for a couple days more. But I was to get started anyhow. When I went out this morning Mrs. Kesserich--she’s a drab sort of person--said to me, ‘Don’t try to sail to the farther islands.’ So, of course, I had to. By the way, you still haven’t told me your name.”

“Mary Alice Pope,” she said, speaking slowly and with an odd wonder, as if she were saying it for the first time.

“You’re pretty shy, aren’t you?”

“How would I know?”

The question stopped Jack. He couldn’t think of anything to say to this strangely attractive girl dressed almost like a “flapper.”

“Will you sit down?” she asked him gravely.

The rattan chair sighed under his weight. He made another effort to talk. “I’ll bet you’ll be glad when summer’s over.”


“So you’ll be able to go back to the mainland.”

“But I never go to the mainland.”

“You mean you stay out here all winter?” he asked incredulously, his mind filled with a vision of snow and frozen spray and great gray waves.

“Oh, yes. We get all our supplies on hand before winter. My aunts are very capable. They don’t always wear long lace dresses. And now I help them.”

“But that’s impossible!” he said with sudden sympathetic anger. “You can’t be shut off this way from people your own age!”

“You’re the first one I ever met.” She hesitated. “I never saw a boy or a man before, except in movies.”

“You’re joking!”

“No, it’s true.”

“But why are they doing it to you?” he demanded, leaning forward. “Why are they inflicting this loneliness on you, Mary?”

She seemed to have gained poise from his loss of it. “I don’t know why. I’m to find out soon. But actually I’m not lonely. May I tell you a secret?” She touched his hand, this time with only the faintest trembling. “Every night the loneliness gathers in around me--you’re right about that. But then every morning new life comes to me in a little box.”

“What’s that?” he said sharply.

“Sometimes there’s a poem in the box, sometimes a book, or pictures, or flowers, or a ring, but always a note. Next to the notes I like the poems best. My favorite is the one by Matthew Arnold that ends,

‘Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude--’”

“Wait a minute,” he interrupted. “Who sends you these boxes?”

“I don’t know.”

“But how are the notes signed?”

“They’re wonderful notes,” she said. “So wise, so gay, so tender, you’d imagine them being written by John Barrymore or Lindbergh.”

“Yes, but how are they signed?”

She hesitated. “Never anything but ‘Your Lover.’”

“And so when you first saw me, you thought--” He began, then stopped because she was blushing.

“How long have you been getting them?”

“Ever since I can remember. I have two closets of the boxes. The new ones are either by my bed when I wake or at my place at breakfast.”

“But how does this--person get these boxes to you out here? Does he give them to your aunts and do they put them there?”

“I’m not sure.”

“But how can they get them in winter?”

“I don’t know.”

“Look here,” he said, pouring himself more lemonade, “how long is it since you’ve been to the mainland?”

“Almost eighteen years. My aunts tell me I was born there in the middle of the war.”

“What war?” he asked startledly, spilling some lemonade.

“The World War, of course. What’s the matter?”

Jack Barr was staring down at the spilled lemonade and feeling a kind of terror he’d never experienced in his waking life. Nothing around him had changed. He could still feel the same hot sun on his shoulders, the same icy glass in his hand, scent the same lemon-acid odor in his nostrils. He could still hear the faint chop-chop of the waves.

And yet everything had changed, gone dark and dizzy as a landscape glimpsed just before a faint. All the little false notes had come to a sudden focus. For the lemonade had spilled on the headline of the newspaper the girl had tossed down, and the headline read:


Under the big black banner of that head swam smaller ones:

Foes of Machado Riot in Havana

Big NRA Parade Planned

Balbo Speaks in New York

Suddenly he felt a surge of relief. He had noticed that the paper was yellow and brittle-edged.

“Why are you so interested in old newspapers?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t call day-before-yesterday’s paper old,” the girl objected, pointing at the dateline: July 20, 1933.

“You’re trying to joke,” Jack told her.

“No, I’m not.”

“But it’s 1953.”

“Now it’s you who are joking.”

“But the paper’s yellow.”

“The paper’s always yellow.”

He laughed uneasily. “Well, if you actually think it’s 1933, perhaps you’re to be envied,” he said, with a sardonic humor he didn’t quite feel. “Then you can’t know anything about the Second World War, or television, or the V-2s, or Bikini bathing suits, or the atomic bomb, or--”

“Stop!” She had sprung up and retreated around her chair, white-faced. “I don’t like what you’re saying.”


“No, please! Jokes that may be quite harmless on the mainland sound different here.”

“I’m really not joking,” he said after a moment.

She grew quite frantic at that. “I can show you all last week’s papers! I can show you magazines and other things. I can prove it!”

She started toward the house. He followed. He felt his heart begin to pound.

At the white door she paused, looking worriedly down the road. Jack thought he could hear the faint chug of a motorboat. She pushed open the door and he followed her inside. The small-windowed room was dark after the sunlight. Jack got an impression of solid old furniture, a fireplace with brass andirons.

“Flash!” croaked a gritty voice. “After their disastrous break day before yesterday, stocks are recovering. Leading issues...”

Jack realized that he had started and had involuntarily put his arm around the girl’s shoulders. At the same time he noticed that the voice was coming from the curved brown trumpet of an old-fashioned radio loudspeaker.

The girl didn’t pull away from him. He turned toward her. Although her gray eyes were on him, her attention had gone elsewhere.

“I can hear the car. They’re coming back. They won’t like it that you’re here.”

“All right they won’t like it.”

Her agitation grew. “No, you must go.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” he heard himself saying.

“Flash! It looks as if the World Economic Conference may soon adjourn, mouthing jeers at old Uncle Sam who is generally referred to as Uncle Shylock.”

Jack felt a numbness on his neck. The room seemed to be darkening, the girl growing stranger still.

“You must go before they see you.”

“Flash! Wiley Post has just completed his solo circuit of the Globe, after a record-breaking flight of 7 days, 18 hours and 45 minutes. Asked how he felt after the energy-draining feat, Post quipped...”

He was halfway across the lawn before he realized the terror into which the grating radio voice had thrown him.

He leaped for the branch over-hanging the fence, vaulted up with the risky help of a foot on the barbed top. A surprised squirrel, lacking time to make its escape up the trunk, sprang to the ground ahead of him. With terrible suddenness, two steel-jawed semicircles clanked together just over the squirrel’s head. Jack landed with one foot to either side of the sprung trap, while the squirrel darted off with a squeak.

Jack plunged down the slope to the rocky spine and ran across it, spray from the rising waves spattering him to the waist. Panting now, he stumbled up into the oaks and undergrowth of the first island, fought his way through it, finally reached the silent cove. He loosed the line of the Annie O., dragged it as near to the cove’s mouth as he could, plunged knee-deep in freezing water to give it a final shove, scrambled aboard, snatched up the boathook and punched at the rocks.

As soon as the Annie O. was nosing out of the cove into the cross waves, he yanked up the sail. The freshening wind filled it and sent the sloop heeling over, with inches of white water over the lee rail, and plunging ahead.

For a long while, Jack was satisfied to think of nothing but the wind and the waves and the sail and speed and danger, to have all his attention taken up balancing one against the other, so that he wouldn’t have to ask himself what year it was and whether time was an illusion, and wonder about flappers and hidden traps.

When he finally looked back at the island, he was amazed to see how tiny it had grown, as distant as the mainland.

Then he saw a gray motorboat astern. He watched it as it slowly overtook him. It was built like a lifeboat, with a sturdy low cabin in the bow and wheel amidship. Whoever was at the wheel had long gray hair that whipped in the wind. The longer he looked, the surer he was that it was a woman wearing a lace dress. Something that stuck up inches over the cabin flashed darkly beside her. Only when she lifted it to the roof of the cabin did it occur to him that it might be a rifle.

But just then the motorboat swung around in a turn that sent waves drenching over it, and headed back toward the island. He watched it for a minute in wonder, then his attention was jolted by an angry hail.

Three fishing smacks, also headed toward town, were about to cross his bow. He came around into the wind and waited with shaking sail, watching a man in a lumpy sweater shake a fist at him. Then he turned and gratefully followed the dark, wide, fanlike sterns and age-yellowed sails.

The exterior of Martin Kesserich’s home--a weathered white cube with narrow, sharp-paned windows, topped by a cupola--was nothing like its lavish interior.

In much the same way, Mrs. Kesserich clashed with the darkly gleaming furniture, persian rugs and bronze vases around her. Her shapeless black form, poised awkwardly on the edge of a huge sofa, made Jack think of a cow that had strayed into the drawing room. He wondered again how a man like Kesserich had come to marry such a creature.

Yet when she lifted up her little eyes from the shadows, he had the uneasy feeling that she knew a great deal about him. The eyes were still those of a domestic animal, but of a wise one that has been watching the house a long, long while from the barnyard.

He asked abruptly, “Do you know anything of a girl around here named Mary Alice Pope?”

The silence lasted so long that he began to think she’d gone into some bovine trance. Then, without a word, she got up and went over to a tall cabinet. Feeling on a ledge behind it for a key, she opened a panel, opened a cardboard box inside it, took something from the box and handed him a photograph. He held it up to the failing light and sucked in his breath with surprise.

It was a picture of the girl he’d met that afternoon. Same flat-bosomed dress--flowered rather than white--no bandeau, same beads. Same proud, demure expression, perhaps a bit happier.

“That is Mary Alice Pope,” Mrs. Kesserich said in a strangely flat voice. “She was Martin’s fiancee. She was killed in a railway accident in 1933.”

The small sound of the cabinet door closing brought Jack back to reality. He realized that he no longer had the photograph. Against the gloom by the cabinet, Mrs. Kesserich’s white face looked at him with what seemed a malicious eagerness.

“Sit down,” she said, “and I’ll tell you about it.”

Without a thought as to why she hadn’t asked him a single question--he was much too dazed for that--he obeyed. Mrs. Kesserich resumed her position on the edge of the sofa.

“You must understand, Mr. Barr, that Mary Alice Pope was the one love of Martin’s life. He is a man of very deep and strong feelings, yet as you probably know, anything but kindly or demonstrative. Even when he first came here from Hungary with his older sisters Hani and Hilda, there was a cloak of loneliness about him--or rather about the three of them.

“Hani and Hilda were athletic outdoor women, yet fiercely proud--I don’t imagine they ever spoke to anyone in America except as to a servant--and with a seething distaste for all men except Martin. They showered all their devotion on him. So of course, though Martin didn’t realize it, they were consumed with jealousy when he fell in love with Mary Alice Pope. They’d thought that since he’d reached forty without marrying, he was safe.

“Mary Alice came from a pure-bred, or as a biologist would say, inbred British stock. She was very young, but very sweet, and up to a point very wise. She sensed Hani and Hilda’s feelings right away and did everything she could to win them over. For instance, though she was afraid of horses, she took up horseback riding, because that was Hani and Hilda’s favorite pastime. Naturally, Martin knew nothing of her fear, and naturally his sisters knew about it from the first. But--and here is where Mary’s wisdom fell short--her brave gesture did not pacify them: it only increased their hatred.

“Except for his research, Martin was blind to everything but his love. It was a beautiful and yet frightening passion, an insane cherishing as narrow and intense as his sisters hatred.”

With a start, Jack remembered that it was Mrs. Kesserich telling him all this.

She went on, “Martin’s love directed his every move. He was building a home for himself and Mary, and in his mind he was building a wonderful future for them as well--not vaguely, if you know Martin, but year by year, month by month. This winter, he’d plan, they would visit Buenos Aires, next summer they would sail down the inland passage and he would teach Mary Hungarian for their trip to Buda-Pesth the year after, where he would occupy a chair at the university for a few months ... and so on. Finally the time for their marriage drew near. Martin had been away. His research was keeping him very busy--”

Jack broke in with, “Wasn’t that about the time he did his definitive work on growth and fertilization?”

Mrs. Kesserich nodded with solemn appreciation in the gathering darkness. “But now he was coming home, his work done. It was early evening, very chilly, but Hani and Hilda felt they had to ride down to the station to meet their brother. And although she dreaded it, Mary rode with them, for she knew how delighted he would be at her cantering to the puffing train and his running up to lift her down from the saddle to welcome him home.

“Of course there was Martin’s luggage to be considered, so the station wagon had to be sent down for that.” She looked defiantly at Jack. “I drove the station wagon. I was Martin’s laboratory assistant.”

She paused. “It was almost dark, but there was still a white cold line of sky to the west. Hani and Hilda, with Mary between them, were waiting on their horses at the top of the hill that led down to the station. The train had whistled and its headlight was graying the gravel of the crossing.

“Suddenly Mary’s horse squealed and plunged down the hill. Hani and Hilda followed--to try to catch her, they said, but they didn’t manage that, only kept her horse from veering off. Mary never screamed, but as her horse reared on the tracks, I saw her face in the headlight’s glare.

“Martin must have guessed, or at least feared what had happened, for he was out of the train and running along the track before it stopped. In fact, he was the first to kneel down beside Mary--I mean, what had been Mary--and was holding her all bloody and shattered in his arms.”

A door slammed. There were steps in the hall. Mrs. Kesserich stiffened and was silent. Jack turned.

The blur of a face hung in the doorway to the hall--a seemingly young, sensitive, suavely handsome face with aristocratic jaw. Then there was a click and the lights flared up and Jack saw the close-cropped gray hair and the lines around the eyes and nostrils, while the sensitive mouth grew sardonic. Yet the handsomeness stayed, and somehow the youth, too, or at least a tremendous inner vibrancy.

“Hello, Barr,” Martin Kesserich said, ignoring his wife.

The great biologist had come home.

“Oh, yes, and Jamieson had a feeble paper on what he called individualization in marine worms. Barr, have you ever thought much about the larger aspects of the problem of individuality?”

Jack jumped slightly. He had let his thoughts wander very far.

“Not especially, sir,” he mumbled.

The house was still. A few minutes after the professor’s arrival, Mrs. Kesserich had gone off with an anxious glance at Jack. He knew why and wished he could reassure her that he would not mention their conversation to the professor.

Kesserich had spent perhaps a half hour briefing him on the more important papers delivered at the conferences. Then, almost as if it were a teacher’s trick to show up a pupil’s inattention, he had suddenly posed this question about individuality.

“You know what I mean, of course,” Kesserich pressed. “The factors that make you you, and me me.”

“Heredity and environment,” Jack parroted like a freshman.

Kesserich nodded. “Suppose--this is just speculation--that we could control heredity and environment. Then we could re-create the same individual at will.”

Jack felt a shiver go through him. “To get exactly the same pattern of hereditary traits. That’d be far beyond us.”

“What about identical twins?” Kesserich pointed out. “And then there’s parthenogenesis to be considered. One might produce a duplicate of the mother without the intervention of the male.” Although his voice had grown more idly speculative, Kesserich seemed to Jack to be smiling secretly. “There are many examples in the lower animal forms, to say nothing of the technique by which Loeb caused a sea urchin to reproduce with no more stimulus than a salt solution.”

Jack felt the hair rising on his neck. “Even then you wouldn’t get exactly the same pattern of hereditary traits.”

“Not if the parent were of very pure stock? Not if there were some special technique for selecting ova that would reproduce all the mother’s traits?”

“But environment would change things,” Jack objected. “The duplicate would be bound to develop differently.”

“Is environment so important? Newman tells about a pair of identical twins separated from birth, unaware of each other’s existence. They met by accident when they were twenty-one. Each was a telephone repairman. Each had a wife the same age. Each had a baby son. And each had a fox terrier called ‘Trixie.’ That’s without trying to make environments similar. But suppose you did try. Suppose you saw to it that each of them had exactly the same experiences at the same times...”

For a moment it seemed to Jack that the room was dimming and wavering, becoming a dark pool in which the only motionless thing was Kesserich’s sphinx-like face.

“Well, we’ve escaped quite far enough from Jamieson’s marine worms,” the biologist said, all brisk again. He said it as if Jack were the one who had led the conversation down wild and unprofitable channels. “Let’s get on to your project. I want to talk it over now, because I won’t have any time for it tomorrow.”

Jack looked at him blankly.

“Tomorrow I must attend to a very important matter,” the biologist explained.

Morning sunlight brightened the colors of the wax flowers under glass on the high bureau that always seemed to emit the faint odor of old hair combings. Jack pulled back the diamond-patterned quilt and blinked the sleep from his eyes. He expected his mind to be busy wondering about Kesserich and his wife--things said and half said last night--but found instead that his thoughts swung instantly to Mary Alice Pope, as if to a farthest island in a world of people.

Downstairs, the house was empty. After a long look at the cabinet--he felt behind it, but the key was gone--he hurried down to the waterfront. He stopped only for a bowl of chowder and, as an afterthought, to buy half a dozen newspapers.

The sea was bright, the brisk wind just right for the Annie O. There was eagerness in the way it smacked the sail and in the creak of the mast. And when he reached the cove, it was no longer still, but nervous with faint ripples, as if time had finally begun to stir.

After the same struggle with the underbrush, he came out on the rocky spine and passed the cove of the sea urchins. The spiny creatures struck an uncomfortable chord in his memory.

This time he climbed the second island cautiously, scraping the innocent-seeming ground ahead of him intently with a boathook he’d brought along for the purpose. He was only a few yards from the fence when he saw Mary Alice Pope standing behind it.

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