The first time you visit the House of All Hours, you’re smaller and younger and can’t see over the chair rail. But that doesn’t bother you because there’s no need to see higher. Even down here, it’s all candy and marzipan: and your eyes big as cookies are full of desire.
But as soon as you reach for the first tempting gumdrop, there’s a tread in the hallway and a sharp voice behind you.
“This may be a gingerbread house,” (too loudly) it says, “but it’s not made for eating, not by raw mouths like yours.”
You came here alone (you never before went anywhere alone!), so who could have spoken? By the time you turn, there’s nobody there. Whoever they were, they’ve already gone: and they leave you with nothing but sand on your tongue.
The second time you visit the House of All Hours, you’re much taller and older and can see so many things that were hidden before. There are trays and bowls crowding each of the tables, and you don’t even think to look for gumdrops down by the floor.
You admire the chocolate and fruit, but you don’t try to take it. The last time you were here, you were told it wasn’t for you.
This may be a gingerbread house, (too clearly) you think, but I’ll only eat later once I’ve come back to stay.
There’s nobody else (here you’re only ever alone!), but you don’t need a voice to warn you this time. You want nothing more than that the house stays intact. Just a few years more, and you’ll learn that great magic spell: those words you can say so you won’t have to leave.
The third time you visit the House of All Hours, you’re older again but you still feel the same. You’re still the same height, but now you don’t see the tables. Now all you can see are the clocks on the walls. Each one is ticking,
and it makes you feel itchy when you stand in the hall.
They are beautiful clocks, but there’s no time for them. If their faces were gumdrops, at least you might eat.
This was never a gingerbread house, (too late) you perceive, but everything inside it still rots like it was.
There was no great magic spell (no words were needed to leave you alone!), and you should have just stayed if you had wanted to stay. The last time you were here, the place had been empty. All those good things, you could have just taken them. All that chocolate and fruit had been laid out for you.
The last time you visit the House of All Hours, your old eyes see only the gloom of the corners. The candy, the chocolate, the clocks: they’re all gone. Nothing remains now but dead flies and dust bunnies. It’s a dirty old house and it needs to be cleaned.
But it’s been sixty years now, and you’ve swept so many floors. You’ve washed too many walls, and they never stay clean.
“This may be a gingerbread house,” (too quiet) you say, “but it’s not made for anything: not eating, not living.”
Four times you’ve come here alone (you never before went anywhere alone!), and through sixty long years you’ve never forgotten this place. But nobody lives here and neither could you: it’s just icing and crackers, brittle and stale. If once you’d eaten your fill, you’d have never come back. The sand on your tongue was all that there was.
What else can I tell you? A gingerbread house is a gingerbread house. And though you won’t live there, you’ll keep coming back.
In the House of All Hours you’re almost always alone, and in the House of All Hours you’re always almost at home.
And each time that you visit, each time you will say: “This may be a gingerbread house, but I swear I’ll eat it one day.”
M. Bennardo’s stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. He lives in Kent, Ohio, but not in a gingerbread house.