Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it. Spring had come on grudgingly; pale blue mornings failed to deepen, turning instead to moist, sullen afternoons, and stubborn frost lined the road in high, dirty meringues. But sometime around midMarch, the slices of lawn between the stone paths of Old Campus began to sweat themselves free of snow, emerging wet, black, and tufty with matted grass, and Alex found herself notched into the window seat in the rooms hidden on the top floor of 268 York, reading Suggested Requirements for Lethe Candidates. She heard the clock on the mantel tick, the chiming of the bell as customers came and went in the clothing store below. The secret rooms above the shop were affectionately known as the Hutch by Lethe members, and the commercial space beneath them had been, at varying times, a shoe store, a wilderness outfitter, and a twenty-four-hour Wawa mini-mart with its own Taco Bell counter. The Lethe diaries from those years were filled with complaints about the stink of refried beans and grilled onions seeping up through the floor—until 1995, when someone had enchanted the Hutch and the back staircase that led to the alley so that they smelled always of fabric softener and clove. Alex had discovered the pamphlet of Lethe House guidelines sometime in the blurred weeks after the incident at the mansion on Orange. She had checked her email only once since then on the Hutch’s old desktop, seen the long string of messages from Dean Sandow, and logged off. She’d let the battery run down on her phone, ignored her classes, watched the branches sprout leaves at the knuckles like a woman trying on rings. She ate all the food in the pantries and freezer—the fancy cheeses and packs of smoked salmon first, then the cans of beans and syrup-soaked peaches in boxes marked emergency rations. When they were gone, she ordered takeout aggressively, charging it all to Darlington’s stillactive account. The trip down and up the stairs was tiring enough that she had to rest before she tore into her lunch or dinner, and sometimes she didn’t bother to eat at all, just fell asleep in the window seat or on the floor beside the plastic bags and foil-wrapped containers. No one came to check on her. There was no one left. The pamphlet was cheaply printed, bound with staples, a black-and-white picture of Harkness Tower on the cover, We Are the Shepherds printed beneath it.

She doubted the Lethe House founders had Johnny Cash in mind when they’d chosen their motto, but every time she saw those words she thought of Christmastime, of lying on the old mattress in Len’s squat in Van Nuys, room spinning, a half-eaten can of cranberry sauce on the floor beside her, and Johnny Cash singing, “We are the shepherds, we walked ’cross the mountains. We left our flocks when the new star appeared.” She thought of Len rolling over, sliding his hand under her shirt, murmuring into her ear, “Those are some shitty shepherds.” The guidelines for Lethe House candidates were located near the back of the pamphlet and had last been updated in 1962. High academic achievement with an emphasis on history and chemistry. Facility with languages and a working knowledge of Latin and Greek. Good physical health and hygiene. Evidence of a regular fitness regimen encouraged. Exhibits signs of a steady character with a mind toward discretion. An interest in the arcane is discouraged, as this is a frequent indicator of an “outsider” disposition.

Should demonstrate no squeamishness toward the realities of the human body. MORS VINCIT OMNIA. Alex—whose knowledge of Latin was less than working—looked it up: Death conquers all. But in the margin, someone had scrawled irrumat over vincit, nearly obliterating the original with blue ballpoint pen. Beneath the Lethe requirements, an addendum read: Standards for candidates have been relaxed in two circumstances: Lowell Scott (B.A., English, 1909) and Sinclair Bell Braverman (no degree, 1950), with mixed results. Another note had been scratched into the margin here, this one clearly in Darlington’s jagged, EKG-like scrawl: Alex Stern. She thought of the blood soaking the carpet of the old Anderson mansion black. She thought of the dean—the startled white of his femur jutting from his thigh, the stink of wild dogs filling the air.

Alex set aside the aluminum container of cold falafel from Mamoun’s, wiped her hands on her Lethe House sweats. She limped to the bathroom, popped open the bottle of zolpidem, and tucked one beneath her tongue. She cupped her hand beneath the faucet, watched the water pour over her fingers, listened to the grim sucking sound from the mouth of the drain. Standards for candidates have been relaxed in two circumstances. For the first time in weeks, she looked at the girl in the water-speckled mirror, watched as that bruised girl lifted her tank top, the cotton stained yellow with pus. The wound in Alex’s side was a deep divot, crusted black. The bite had left a visible curve that she knew would heal badly, if it healed at all. Her map had been changed. Her coastline altered. Mors irrumat omnia.

Death fucks us all. Alex touched her fingers gently to the hot red skin surrounding the teeth marks. The wound was getting infected. She felt some kind of concern, her mind nudging her toward self-preservation, but the idea of picking up the phone, getting a ride to the undergrad health center—the sequence of actions each new action would incite—was overwhelming, and the warm, dull throb of her body setting fire to itself had become almost companionable. Maybe she’d get a fever, start hallucinating. She eyed the thrust of her ribs, the blue veins like downed power lines beneath her fading bruises. Her lips were feathered with chapped skin. She thought of her name inked into the margins of the pamphlet—the third circumstance. “Results were decidedly mixed,” she said, startled by the husky rattle of her voice. She laughed and the drain seemed to chuckle with her.

Maybe she already had a fever. In the fluorescent glare of the bathroom lights, she gripped the edges of the bite in her side and dug her fingers into it, pinching the flesh around her stitches until the pain dropped over her like a mantle, the blackout coming on in a welcome rush. That was in the spring. But the trouble had begun on a night in the full dark of winter, when Tara Hutchins died and Alex still thought she might get away with everything. Skull and Bones, oldest of the landed societies, first of the eight Houses of the Veil, founded in 1832. The Bonesmen can boast more presidents, publishers, captains of industry, and cabinet members than any other society (for a full list of its alumni, please see Appendix C), and perhaps “boast” is the right word. The Bonesmen are aware of their influence and expect the deference of Lethe delegates. They would do well to remember their own motto: Rich or poor, all are equal in death. Conduct yourself with the discretion and diplomacy warranted by your office and association with Lethe, but remember always that our duty is not to prop up the vanity of Yale’s best and brightest but to stand between the living and the dead. —from The Life of Lethe: Procedures and Protocols of the Ninth House The Bonesmen fancy themselves titans among pissants, and ain’t that a bite.

But who am I to quibble when the drinks are stiff and the girls are pretty? —Lethe Days Diary of George Petit (Saybrook College ’56) 1 Winter Alex hurried across the wide, alien plane of Beinecke Plaza, boots thudding over flat squares of clean concrete. The giant cube of the rare-books collection seemed to float above its lower story. During the day its panels glowed amber, a burnished golden hive, less a library than a temple. At night it just looked like a tomb. This part of campus didn’t quite fit with the rest of Yale—no gray stone or Gothic arches, no rebellious little outcroppings of red-brick buildings, which Darlington had explained were not actually Colonial but only meant to look that way. He’d explained the reasons for the way Beinecke had been built, the way it was supposed to mirror and slot into this corner of the campus architecture, but it still felt like a seventies sci-fi movie to her, like the students should all be wearing unitards or too-short tunics, drinking something called the Extract, eating food in pellets. Even the big metal sculpture that she now knew was by Alexander Calder reminded her of a giant lava lamp in negative. “It’s Calder,” she murmured beneath her breath. That was the way people here talked about art. Nothing was by anyone.

The sculpture is Calder. The painting is Rothko. The house is Neutra. And Alex was late. She had begun the night with good intentions, determined to get ahead of her Modern British Novel essay and leave with plenty of time to make it to the prognostication. But she’d fallen asleep in one of the Sterling Library reading rooms, a copy of Nostromo gripped loosely in her hand, feet propped on a heating duct. At half past ten, she’d woken with a start, drool trickling across her cheek. Her startled “Shit!” had gone off like a shotgun blast in the quiet of the library, and she’d buried her face in her scarf as she slung her bag over her shoulder and made her escape. Now she cut through Commons, beneath the rotunda where the names of the war dead were carved deep into the marble, and stone figures stood vigil—Peace, Devotion, Memory, and finally Courage, who wore a helmet and shield and little else and had always looked to Alex more like a stripper than a mourner. She charged down the steps and across the intersection of College and Grove.

The campus had a way of changing faces from hour to hour and block to block so that Alex always felt as if she were meeting it for the first time. Tonight it was a sleepwalker, breathing deep and even. The people she passed on her way to SSS seemed locked in a dream, soft-eyed, faces turned to one another, steam rising off the cups of coffee in their gloved hands. She had the eerie sense that they were dreaming her, a girl in a dark coat who would disappear when they woke. Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall was drowsing too, the classrooms closed up tight, hallways cast in energy-saving half-light. Alex took the stairs to the second floor and heard noise echoing from one of the lecture halls. The Yale Social screened movies there every Thursday night. Mercy had tacked the schedule to the door of their dorm room, but Alex hadn’t bothered to study it. Her Thursdays were full. Tripp Helmuth slouched against the wall beside the doors to the lecture hall.

He acknowledged Alex with a heavy-lidded nod. Even in the dim light, she could see his eyes were bloodshot. No doubt he’d smoked before he showed up tonight. Maybe that was why the elder Bonesmen had stuck him on guard duty. Or maybe he’d volunteered. “You’re late,” he said. “They started.” Alex ignored him, glanced once over her shoulder to make sure the hallway was clear. She didn’t owe Tripp Helmuth an excuse, and it would look weak to offer one. She pressed her thumb into a barely visible notch in the paneling.

The wall was supposed to swing open smoothly, but it always stuck. She gave it a hard nudge with her shoulder and stumbled as it jolted open. “Easy, killer,” said Tripp. Alex shut the door behind her and edged down the narrow passage in the dark. Unfortunately, Tripp was right. The prognostication had already begun. Alex entered the old operating theater as quietly as she could. The room was a windowless chamber, sandwiched between the lecture hall and a classroom that grad students used for discussion sections. It was a forgotten remnant of the old medical school, which had held its classes here in SSS before it moved to its own buildings. The managers of the trust that funded Skull and Bones had sealed up the room’s entrance and disguised it with new paneling sometime around 1932.

All facts Alex had gleaned from Lethe: A Legacy when she probably should have been reading Nostromo. No one spared Alex a glance. All eyes were on the Haruspex, his lean face hidden behind a surgical mask, pale blue robes spattered with blood. His latex-gloved hands moved methodically through the bowels of the—patient? Subject? Sacrifice? Alex wasn’t sure which term applied to the man on the table. Not “sacrifice.” He’s supposed to live. Ensuring that was part of her job. She’d see him safely through this ordeal and back to the hospital ward he’d been taken from. But what about a year from now? she wondered. Five years from now? Alex glanced at the man on the table: Michael Reyes.

She’d read his file two weeks ago, when he was selected for the ritual. The flaps of his stomach were pinned back with steel clips and his abdomen looked like it was blooming, a plump pink orchid, plush and red at its center. Tell me that doesn’t leave a mark. But she had her own future to worry about. Reyes would manage. Alex averted her eyes, tried to breathe through her nose as her stomach roiled and coppery saliva flooded her mouth. She’d seen plenty of bad injuries but always on the dead. There was something much worse about a living wound, a human body tethered to life by nothing but the steady metallic beep of a monitor. She had candied ginger in her pocket for nausea—one of Darlington’s tips—but she couldn’t quite bring herself to take it out and unwrap it. Instead, she focused her gaze on some middle distance as the Haruspex called out a series of numbers and letters—stock symbols and share prices for companies traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange.

Later in the night he’d move on to the NASDAQ, Euronext, and the Asian markets. Alex didn’t bother trying to decipher them. The orders to buy, sell, or hold were given in impenetrable Dutch, the language of commerce, the first stock exchange, old New York, and the official language of the Bonesmen. When Skull and Bones was founded, too many students knew Greek and Latin. Their dealings had required something more obscure. “Dutch is harder to pronounce,” Darlington had told her. “Besides, it gives the Bonesmen an excuse to visit Amsterdam.” Of course, Darlington knew Latin, Greek, and Dutch. He also spoke French, Mandarin, and passable Portuguese. Alex had just started Spanish II.

Between the classes she’d taken in grade school and her grandmother’s mishmash of Ladino sayings, she’d thought it would be an easy grade. She hadn’t counted on things like the subjunctive. But she could just about ask if Gloria might like to go to the discotheque tomorrow night. A burst of muffled gunfire rattled through the wall from the screening next door. The Haruspex looked up from the slick pink mess of Michael Reyes’s small intestine, his irritation apparent. Scarface, Alex realized as the music swelled and a chorus of rowdy voices thundered in unison, “You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You wanna play rough?” The audience chanting along like it was Rocky Horror. She must have seen Scarface a hundred times. It was one of Len’s favorites. He was predictable that way, loved everything hard—as if he’d mailed away for a How to Be Gangster kit.

When they’d met Hellie near the Venice boardwalk, her golden hair like a parted curtain for the theater of her big blue eyes, Alex had thought instantly of Michelle Pfeiffer in her satin shift. All she’d been missing was the smooth sheaf of bangs. But Alex didn’t want to think about Hellie tonight, not with the stink of blood in the air. Len and Hellie were her old life. They didn’t belong at Yale. Then again, neither did Alex. Despite the memories, Alex was grateful for any noise that would cover the wet sounds of the Haruspex pawing through Michael Reyes’s gut. What did he see there? Darlington had said the prognostications were no different than someone reading the future in the cards of a tarot deck or a handful of animal bones. But it sure looked different. And sounded more specific.

You’re missing someone. You will find happiness in the new year. Those were the kinds of things fortune-tellers said —vague, comforting. Alex eyed the Bonesmen, robed and hooded, crowded around the body on the table, the undergrad Scribe taking down the predictions that would be passed on to hedge-fund managers and private investors all over the world to keep the Bonesmen and their alumni financially secure. Former presidents, diplomats, at least one director of the CIA—all of them Bonesmen. Alex thought of Tony Montana, soaking in his hot tub, speechifying: You know what capitalism is? Alex glanced at Michael Reyes’s prone body. Tony, you have no idea. She caught a flicker of movement from the benches that overlooked the operating arena. The theater had two local Grays who always sat in the same places, just a few rows apart: a female mental patient who’d had her ovaries and uterus removed in a hysterectomy in 1926, for which she would have been paid six dollars if she’d survived the procedure; and a male, a medical student. He’d frozen to death in an opium den thousands of miles away, sometime around 1880, but kept returning here to sit in his old seat and look down on whatever passed for life below.

Prognostications only happened in the theater four times a year, at the start of each fiscal quarter, but that seemed to be enough to suit him. Darlington liked to say that dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home. Easier said than done when the only other thing to look at in the room was a man playing with another man’s innards like they were mah-jongg tiles. She remembered Darlington’s shock when he’d realized she could not only see ghosts without the help of any potion or spell but see them in color. He’d been weirdly furious. She’d enjoyed that. “What kinds of color?” he’d asked, sliding his feet off the coffee table, his heavy black boots thunking on the slatted floor of the parlor at Il Bastone.

“Just color. Like an old Polaroid. Why? What do you see?” “They look gray,” he’d snapped. “That’s why they’re called Grays.” She’d shrugged, knowing her nonchalance would make Darlington even angrier. “It isn’t a big deal.” “Not to you,” he’d muttered, and stomped away. He’d spent the rest of the day in the training room, working up a cranky sweat.

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