I HAVE DECIDED to write an account of all this, although I know I will end up including numerous irrelevancies and leaving out essentials, for all sense of perspective has gone out of my life. I am no longer in a position to discern the vague and tenuous qualities that determine relevance and irrelevance but am wholly taken up with small and momentary things: the eloquent crimp on a discarded matchbook, or the jagged mountain range that reveals itself behind the label of the bottle on my desk, stark white against a green glass sky, bristling with fuzz like a peach. How can I be sure, I ask myself, that the arrangement of ashes and butts in my ashtray isn’t as important as the date or the time? How can I be sure that by writing, struggling to put all of this into words, I might not, in my abstraction, miss the fleeting perception that would restore to everything the order that it once had, the order that once surrounded me so comfortably, like a tidy nursery, or like the snug two-bedroom apartment where Flora and I used to live?
The house we live in now is the antithesis of those warm rooms. It stands alone, for one thing, rising from the webby night of its basement to a full and spacious third floor. There are nearly twenty rooms in all, and they cling to the memories of the people who have lived here before in a way that the anonymous rooms of apartments never can. We rented the place primarily because of this character—I was immediately taken by the study—and because it was so cheap. Besides, T.S Eliot once lived on this same street, and I thought I might be inspired by his old neighborhood, a neighborhood that passed its prime some time ago and now sits on the edge of an urban wasteland where sirens and wild dogs wail in the night, where the whores strut and cackle on the streetcorners, and the schools have chain-link fences twelve feet tall. But our street is closed off from that, a cul-de-sac of architectural stability, Victorian, slightly crumbling, but not without charm. Or, at any rate, not without the appearance of charm; for although the houses are Victorian, their inhabitants are not. On one side of us lives an unfriendly alliance of lesbian women—their house itself seems to frown, hung about the windows with dark red bricks, its portico all to one side in a sneer. I have not seen a man enter it. Across the street no women are seen, only willowy young men who call to one another in nasal, sibilant voices. Two doors down resides an old woman who curses the young with the vengeance and vulgarity of an old riverman. I had begun to think that our household was the only enclave of normalcy in the midst of a world gone wrong, but now I see that they all live lives of quiet regularity, while I….
Perhaps you have never lived in a house such as this, with heavy oak doors that slide into the walls, a house in which the rooms have names: the parlor, the den, the billiard room, the butler’s pantry, the servants’ quarters. Beneath the foyer there is a wine cellar, but since the central heating was installed it has become the warmest room in the basement and is unfit for wine. And so it seems to be, things become unfit to fulfill their purposes, and sometimes the purposes themselves flee down the corridors of progress, and structures stand empty of meaning: shells. Or they are beaten into new shapes for which they are ill-suited, like the once beautiful scallop-shaped gas fixtures in the dining room, inexpertly drilled out, wrapped with thick wires, and saddled awkwardly with porcelain light receptacles. Perhaps it is simply me. Perhaps I have been too long among the dead, not just by living in a world of books—which are my occupation—but in my daily intercourse with this house and its past inhabitants, or the images of them that have formed in my mind. It is said that on the third floor a woman was beaten senseless by a man called Crowley and that the oily black insignia on the wall of the master bedroom is a curse on the house left there by a reservation Indian who was broken by the city.
When we first moved in, there was junk everywhere, not, unfortunately, the relics of a more craftsmanlike and decorative era, but the plastic and laminate remnants of contemporary abuse, and we eventually gave up trying to throw it all away, lazily letting it amass in unused rooms. These rooms rapidly grew into dusty mazes of furniture, luggage, and old clothes, and I am periodically called upon to burrow through them in search of a forgotten utensil or a footstool, a serving platter or an extra leaf for the dining room table. Things are easily lost here. Some of the other rooms—the laundry and the butler’s pantry among them—exude a musty smell, and when we leave the house for more than a day it seeps out and begins to take over the entire first floor, just as the flat brown roaches slip out of the cabinetwork under cover of darkness to reclaim the kitchen. Oh, and there are noises. I had expected them, having lived as a child in large houses, but here (perhaps it is my too vivid imagination) the squeaks and creaks seem actually to creep about the house, their nightly meanderings occasionally interrupted by the loud metallic clanging of the pipes and the banging of window casements in the wind. It is as if the house itself is alive, and when I rest my hand on the cool cherrywood mantle in the study I get the same feeling I get when I hold an oyster in my hand and know that inside its cold stone shell a slow pulse beats. Maybe it is the life of the artisans I sense, so evident in all the carving and the leaded glass. Or maybe it is this odd feeling that the house is dying, which implicates it in at least a kind of life.
You may think I am concentrating too much on the house. That may be so, but it was the house that gave me the first instrument of my initiation: a crumbling model of a sailing ship which had once been worthy of a maritime museum but through the years had not been cared for and had fallen, I suspect, into the hands of children. Yet when I brought it from the dusty closet shelf where it had lain on its side for countless years and placed it on my desk—eventually in a cradle I fashioned for it myself—I could see in it the handwork of a true master of patience and fine carving tools. I ran my fingers along the knots in the rigging and the sweeping basswood rails and soon set myself to its restoration. This was no easy task, and it took a good deal more time than I thought it would. I began collecting books on ships and ship-modeling, and prints and plans of sailing ships, collecting tools, and teaching my hands new skills (or really old skills that only a few of the hands alive today remember). And as I learned about this ship, an hermaphrodite brig, and not a merchant as I had first thought, but—judging from her sleek lines and shallow, close-spaced decks—a slaver, I reflected that it is only the few who ever find their true calling, and those only by chance.
I believe that that the first changes occurred as a direct result of my concentration on that ship, that it was that infamous hermaphrodite—I never learned its name—which first brought me into contact with the things which were to throw me over. Doubtless the house collaborated in this, for in addition to the model, it gave me the first books I was to read on ships with sails and the slave trade. Suddenly I was devouring every morsel of information I could find on a subject that had never interested me before. At times I almost felt that I was being led to assume a new and alien identity. Later, however, I came to feel that this was my real identity after all, that I had somehow come home. And through it all, I carved and shaped, strung and knotted. When the work became too tedious, or I became exasperated with some particularly delicate assembly, I would pace through all the rooms of the house, gazing out of its windows in silence at the living cityscape to the east and the razed and gutted ruins to the north.
The ship was fully restored in three months, but it required continual maintenance to keep it that way. Unhappy with its regained youth, it seemed to reject all I had done to it, and it collected dust with ravenous efficiency, as the legs of bees collect pollen, or a spider web collects flies. I set it, cradled in mahogany, on the mantle in the study, and only after I gave up trying to keep it clean did it seem to feel at home there, barnacled and hung with the dust the house bestowed upon it. It became difficult for me to differentiate the work that I had done from what had been done before by other hands. The little imprints we make on the world are easily lost in the confusion that surrounds us, for the world speaks always through us, and our words are not our own. The ship spoke through me its own word, and where my articulation did not please it, it bade the dust correct me. And so the dust corrects us all, putting the finishing touches on our monuments and our gravestones.
With the ship completed, and my eyes and hands at rest, I searched the house for some new diversion. I turned up a mail-order family tree and some faded zodiacal charts, but I could make no sense of them. Then, in a drawer beneath one of the great window seats, I found the architect’s drawings for the house, rolled and tied with a faded purple ribbon. I spread the curled and brittle sheets out on my desk. They were but a sterile geometric formula when held against the richness of the living house; a hundred houses could be built from them and never would one duplicate the one I knew. I was studying these drawings one night while Flora dozed in the window seat beside my bookcase. I can even recall the wisp of smoke that caught my attention as it curled elegantly through a stray lightbeam, and then the soft crunch of the cushion as Flora’s sleeping body adjusted itself. Then she spoke: “Spacious.”
Upon reflection, I am reminded of our realtor and the effort with which she uttered the same word on our first tour of the house, trying to make its great reaches sound inviting but all the while overwhelmed by its immensity herself.
Again I heard the soft crush of cushion and—I was facing her now—saw Flora turn and face the door, one eye still partially buried in the pillow. She rustled anxiously and her breathing grew heavier. Suddenly, silently, she lifted her head from the pillow, opened her eyes wide and white, irises green as laurel, and stared at a point in the dark behind me. Her features knitted themselves into a cold glare, and she tried to speak again: “Go….”
But at the sound of her own voice her gaze broke, and her eyes shut tight and hard. Then her body lurched and strained against heavy sleep and she strove to speak. Her words were barely audible: “No… leave us… away….”
By this time I was kneeling beside her, murmuring and stroking her hair. I have never quite known how to comfort people in distress, and never have I felt so helpless as at that moment, muttering, “Baby, poor baby… nightmare… just a wisp of smoke, a dream… bad dream.”
She woke with a start, clutched my arm and buried her face in my shoulder, sobbing. I held her and encouraged her as best I could, but it didn’t seem to help. Whatever she had seen was in her now, and it was not to be erased by my helplessly incanting, “Only a dream, nightmare… only smoke, bad dream.”
After coffee and long holding of hands and wakeful Bach, she let herself return to it: “It’s the house, you know,” she said, “it bears down on me. And the neighborhood.”
Again I said, “but it was just a bad dream, a silly fear, a scene from a movie you saw and forgot a dozen years ago.”
“I wouldn’t have forgotten such a movie,” she said harshly.
“Just tell me what you saw,” I pleaded. “Get it out. It will be lighter if we share it.” I could see the effort it took her to confront it.
“I was on the brink of sleep,” she began. “I knew where I was and where you were. I heard the rustle of the papers.
Then I heard voices. They were faint, but I was sure they came from inside the house, on the third floor maybe. I was going to ask you if you heard them, too, but when I turned to look at you I saw a woman behind you, combing her hair. It wasn’t a dream.”
“What then?” I asked. “A ghost? You don’t believe in ghosts. And anyway, it doesn’t sound menacing.”
She pulled away from me and stared directly into my eyes. “You just can’t understand it, can you?” she said. “There was a woman in the room. I don’t know where she came from or where she went, but she was there.”
I could not comfort her. To say I didn’t believe that she had seen something would be a lie, yet how could I tell her that I was not surprised by such visions in this house, that I was only surprised I did not see it, too. Perhaps I was even a little envious that it had been given to her and not to me. Still, I tried hypocritically to convince her that it was some kind of illusion, a trick of the light, but even as I spoke I seemed to see my words fall through the air in the vast space that suddenly yawned between us. I could feel the house breathing around us, throbbing. Almost dizzy, I tried to picture her vision in my mind: a flowing gown of lighted smoke, the long hair beneath the gentle hand that combed is, combed the dust of infinity from its darkness, blacker than a moonless night.
How much time has passed since then? A day? A week? A month? I cannot say. Although this too may be an effect of the process of change that at just that point became irrevocable. Later that night, as I lay in bed, I learned the secret of the dark: it is the same as the secret of the corner, and worthy, perhaps, of its own Pythagoras. Have you ever drawn a corner? Just three lines, , every child has. There are always two ways of looking at these drawings, so long as they are not muddled by shadows. They protrude or retreat at the wink of an eye. They darkness is the same. As a child I always felt that the darkness of closed rooms was like the darkness of blankets, that it naturally unfolded itself into the room from the edges, drawing more and more near. On this night I saw the darkness of the ceiling unfold away from me, through the empty rooms above, out into the broad, star-filled night. When I sat up, it did not close again. I stared into the fireplace and saw the pyramid of clarity that a history of fires and cut into the fibrous dark, and I saw every brick in the chimney, from the foundation to the rooftop, while seeing through them at the same time. I did not sleep until daybreak, for my eyelids could not shut this seeing out; they had become as transparent as insect wings, or the flesh of tiny fish.
As I see it now, the problem is really one of language. A great book has been given to me, but it is written in a foreign tongue. I cannot tell whether the words are meant to be read from left to right or right to left, or up and down. I cannot identify the parts of speech. Still, I know it is within the power of reason to apprehend; it is simply beyond my present grasp, as the mythologies of Blake once were, or the Latin litanies I heard as a child in church, or the indecipherable voices of my parents when I was an infant. Some passages reveal themselves to me already—clouds, for instance, swirling always into faces; and shadows, hiding from the sun. Stones are subtle, austere; snow is sudden and light, like honeysuckle; the diffusion of cream into coffee is selfless and loving. And how I love to ponder each revealing imperfection in my carved and knotted ship.
I am not mad. It is true that Flora thinks something has gone wrong with me, though she will not admit it, but I am sure I see things no differently from the way they truly are. Granted, the burden of this seeing is a heavy one. It has cost more than one man his sanity, but it is not itself insane. And I see evidence of my correctness every day. When I am in doubt, I go to the museum. There is a Van Gogh there, a painting of a stairway. That painting is a living testament that the kind of life I see in things exists; the landscape bristles before the eyes of the master who sees its inner life, and an eloquent, sun-drenched corner of the world speaks though him onto the canvas. The figures too are alive, like drops of dew on a freshly picked peach. And you can feel the breathing of the purple night which already peers over the shoulders of the tender houses that buoy up from the earth like flowers. Do not say these are the visions of a madman. Van Gogh did not see that way because he was mad; he went mad because he saw that way. It is all as clear as the look on Flora’s face when she sees me sitting at my empty desk, unmoving. The trees sigh with her.
The plants, of course, already know—do they not breathe oxygen at night?—that everything is slowly spreading out, that the aim of everything that lives is to grow beyond its seed until its heart goes cold and still and its life passing through its outermost branches into thin air. Even now the termites rearrange the structure of the house, and over the world countless chunks of wood are being burned: the hot life passes into space leaving only the coal-black shells behind. My own weight has been dropping, and if Flora loses patience my body will surely dry into a dusty stack of bones. The freedom I will have then is the freedom of space, the ever growing space between the atoms and the stars, entropic and anonymous.
The smoke from my cigarette forms a triple threaded twist and then a Catherine wheel around an empty vortex, curling like the pencil shavings in my drawer. I have become a slave to my impressions and like a sailing ship am at the mercy of the wind and sea.
They were kept in chains between decks, sometimes with less than three feet of headroom. Many died. They die still in the gutted houses to the north.
When I was a child I wrought my name into a living vine, and for a time it was beautiful and clear. But as the seasons passed, the life of the vine could no longer be contained in the frail shell of my name and new shoots burst out everywhere and the tendrils interwove until at last the vine obliterated my name with its own, just as the living earth obliterates the bodies of the dead.
John Van Kirk is the author of the novel "Song for Chance" (Red Hen Press). His short fiction has earned the O. Henry Prize and The Iowa Review Fiction Prize. Van Kirk's work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, and several anthologies. He lives and writes in Kentucky.