Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
I could feel his body next to mine, hot, clinging, damp, reassuring. Almost instinctively, I pulled away into the void, slowly, quietly, so he wouldn’t notice the abrupt coolness of my absence. He continued to lay silently, facing the slanting wall on the other side of the room, perhaps dreaming of hope and shadowy sunlight and days of tomorrow, and trying to shut out life in this house.
If only I knew who he was and why I was holding him.
“The house has changed some since last you were here,” the elderly woman said. She had always been here, too, just like him. She pointed out the details in the wainscoting and the height of the impossibly large entryway. “It’s lighter and airier. The owner had work done.”
Even now, I could feel the house changing, altering, keeping ahead of me. Nothing seemed familiar from my childhood’s summer visits.
“What about the library?” I asked. I sounded shaky and tentative, even to myself. When I returned to campus, I would take a week or two off to rest, maybe catch up on correspondence, maybe sleep.
“The library?” she repeated. “Yes, that always was your favorite room. You’ll be able to find it. Dinner is at six.” The unuttered “sharp” hung in the still air, even after she left.
“All right. Thanks.” Annoyed, yet relieved, I picked up my briefcase and turned slowly around the hallway. Its wood-framed perfection of whiteness made my eyes vibrate. This must be one of the more recent changes she’d mentioned.
How long it took me to find the library I cannot say. In those days I rarely wore a watch, and the house itself was arrogant in its timelessness. Like me, it sported no timepiece. Like me, it had nowhere to go.
The house hid its jewel well; despite the many happy summer months I’d roamed the house’s halls and rooms as a child, my “favorite,” as she’d called it, eluded me for some time. I wandered randomly, with no sense of direction, looking through every window I found. On one side, trees closed in against the panes, with distilled sunlight seeking gaps among the midsummer’s broad, dark-green, wind-curled leaves. I couldn’t see anything through them, but I remembered, or thought I did, a street. I had no idea what lay across the street, or even what the street looked like. I’d arrived after midnight, when all I could see were a few clear star points through sharp leaf tips. How could I not remember something like that? Had I forgotten? Or had I never noticed what lay outside?
I could see that all the windows were closed, yet the air was cool and fresh in all the rooms I ventured into, as though they had not been shut up for months, perhaps longer. Yet no one lived here. I couldn’t hear anything from outside — no leaves rustling, no birdsong, no children, no traffic. Nothing. Just the small sounds an old house makes as it slowly settles into the ground. The silence that should have been soothing made my head ache.
This must be the east side of the building; I crossed the long hall and entered a tiny room with very narrow windows, almost like medieval arrow slits. Instantly I thought of some legendary figure, perhaps a Robin Hood, peering through them, taking aim, defending self, home, and hearth from outsiders . . . they were surprisingly clean; I couldn’t believe the old woman could keep up a huge place like this so immaculately without some help. I couldn’t. Yet I had seen nothing of anyone else, and I had neither seen nor heard her since we’d parted. It was such a large house, though . . . larger than I thought, larger than I remembered. It seemed strange to me — whenever I had returned to my old grammar school to visit one of my favorite teachers, everything that had seemed so large and imposing to my childish eyes appeared small, almost diminutive, to my adult vision, almost as though the water fountains and lockers had been built for another race of tiny beings. Of course, I knew that I had changed, grown larger and taller; the school was the same now as it had always been, with only a few minor updates. Not this house. It loomed over me as though I had not grown feet in stature and years in maturity and experience. It was different; I was not.
A large, slightly sloping field appeared, with a few worn, gray outbuildings typical of the country scattered here and there among the high grasses, shrubs, and young trees. Everything was a dark, rich green as though it had been a very wet spring here; when I looked up through the slit, I saw clouds breezing in, quickly diffusing the light and changing the shape and hue of the scene, washing out the colors. I leaned against the wall a little weakly; why had I expected a thickly wooded hillside leading up to the house and snugly embracing it? When had dreams merged with memory to obliterate reality?
The library continued to lure me like the first lover of youth, the lover one always thinks of fondly once years and experience have wiped away the tarnish of pain and polished the shine of joy. When I’d stayed here in the past, I had felt the pull of the lovely countryside and the need to explore it and to find out if it was as boundless as it appeared to my young eyes and imagination fired by myth. Always, though — always the library called me back to it, over and over again, every day for hours, calling me with the impatience and insistence and hunger of a selfish young lover. I remembered rarely leaving it, only to eat and sleep and to play nightly games of backgammon with my father. Even now I felt torn between what lay out there and in here. I slid down to the floor and tried to make myself experience — just once — the sights and smells of earth. But I couldn’t. In the coolness, in the silence, I began to dream of what could be out there, if I had the will to seek it, to find it. I stood abruptly and continued down the hallway, determined to find that room. As a child, I had had a similar discussion with myself every day, and every day had concluded — tomorrow I will explore, but today I must learn! As I peered in each room, however, a familiar sense of regret, of horrible, unalterable sadness, followed me, as though I had lost something that I had never had and never would. The past, the present, the future — in here, out there, with me, without me — was as it would be. It was only a little past noon, I guessed, and already I was starting to tire. How many hallways did this place have? How many rooms hidden behind other rooms? How many little steps up and down? Finally, when I thought there could be no more, I spotted a familiar door that opened from a small sitting room into another room — the door to the library.
I opened the door carefully; for some reason, I was afraid of what might rush at me. Another leftover fantasy. Like the other rooms, the library was clean and fresh, but very dark — there were no windows here; it must be an inner room. I didn’t know where I was; I had not noted how I’d gotten here or even thought to leave a trail of paper, if nothing else. I smiled at this wistful notion. I felt by the door — there was a light switch. Suddenly, the room burst into brilliant rainbow lights of an improbably large chandelier. The smooth leather and glossy paper jackets of thousands of books, old and new, shone under its harsh white glow. They stood neatly lined up; none appeared to be out of place, and only the oversized books lay on their sides, carefully stacked face up. For the first time since I had arrived, I felt the thrill of rediscovering long-lost, warmly familiar surroundings, and gently laid my briefcase on the worn wooden table. I jumped at the slight sound, and once again noticed the stifling quiet.
I had not rented the house on a whim; my visit had a purpose — a sound, useful purpose. With the owner’s written permission, sent to me by a local realtor, Mr. Quillen, I was here to check out the old library’s many primary historical sources for the first draft of my dissertation. In this priceless collection were hundreds of original documents about the region’s people, communities, activities, and events for at least two hundred years. Most were mundane but important — documents covering deeds, property settlements, estates, taxes, and other day-to-day legalities; others were of little historical interest — girlish diaries describing first dances, first loves, weddings, and the ensuing joys and disappointments of married life. I did want to glance through these for any insights into family and personal relationships. The rest were what I considered the heart of my research — journals of landowners and their wives, first-hand accounts of local politics, letters from home to soldier boys and the brave-but-frightened answers — the ways we learn about people and their history from their own voices. Over the years, the former occupants of this house, in their unofficial capacity as the valley’s “royalty,” had created history — and acquired, fairly or not, an incredible cache of documents and books about themselves and their neighbors. I felt that I was onto something few knew about — or ever would, without my efforts.By now, however, after the long drive and the short night, I was exhausted — too tired to approach the work properly. Blushing only to myself, I put aside a bundle of maps and deeds to read what appeared to be a simple personal journal. It began with a young landowner’s marriage to a woman he loved — at least for a time, segued into explicit details of his first illicit love (followed by many others), and continued with his life of wealth, boredom, bitterness, and eventual self-loathing and self-destruction. Maybe it was yesterday’s journey, or the strangeness of the place, or the memory of the night before, but gradually the determined scholar succumbed to the gossip-starved teenager still left in me. I collected my notes and thoughts and settled into a deep leather chair that fit my contours perfectly, although it had not embraced my form for more than twenty years.
I could feel a pillow under my head and, as before, his body, even closer to mine, but not as warm now. A tear trickled from my right eye. This time, I didn’t want to let go.
“You weren’t at dinner last night,” she said flatly as she delicately poured rich, black coffee from a polished silver server.
“I . . . I think I fell asleep.” I poured fresh cream into the coffee, making it the color of sandy mud. I wasn’t hungry. For the first time, I realized that I hadn’t eaten or drunk since yesterday morning. I’d woken hours earlier as dawn poured through my window and I’d felt the light beyond my eyelids brightening. Finally, I’d risen from a dreamy, warm stupor and wandered down to the dining room. I glanced down; I didn’t recall getting dressed, yet I was — neatly, with great care — for another day in the library. She was staring at me. She must have had the same thought.
“It’d probably be easier if I had meals in the kitchen,” I said, idly making a circle with my finger around the top of the water glass. “I mean, easier for both of us.”
“The dining room is fine.” She strode purposefully toward the kitchen. It was a statement, not a discussion point. I felt lonely, surrounded on all sides by the silence of 11 empty chairs and one enigmatic woman. Perhaps this had not been a good idea — a week here alone, with just the housekeeper for occasional company, if that. The room closed in on me. She returned with a steaming plate.
“Will you be wanting dinner today?” she asked, with a slight emphasis on “today.” I blushed guiltily; she must have gone to some trouble yesterday.
“No . . . no, thanks. I’ll make a sandwich or something. Why don’t you go on home? I’ll be all right here.” I tried to be casual. The mundane discussion of simple logistics was upsetting me, and my gut fluttered. It wasn’t the pancakes — they were piled on the snow-white plate, steaming less and less. I tried to hide my confusion by spreading butter — too much butter — all over the stack. A spotless pitcher of maple syrup appeared before me. “I’ve enough to do here.” With that, she again walked off as quickly as she could. I thought about how clean even the most remote rooms of the house were, including the library, and didn’t doubt it. Feeling foolish and chastised, I knew I wouldn’t see her again this day. It was odd that I hadn’t heard her doing her work about the house yesterday, and I’m certain she hadn’t been near the library. I again wondered if she had help.
“This is ridiculous,” I said to a generic portrait of a bored, young, late seventeenth-century gentleman — perhaps the author of the journal I’d read. “I’m here to finish my work and get on with life, not to worry about some old woman.” She was probably no more than 15 or 20 years older but I knew I seemed young and a little childish around her.
I cleaned the plate, while thinking how I wasn’t hungry, and finished the pot of coffee. I doubted I would be welcome in the kitchen even if I had wanted sandwiches, so after collecting my materials from my room, I again headed toward the library. Even as I set out, I was sorry that I wasn’t going out to enjoy what looked to be a fine day — and I couldn’t bring myself to try.
The house still felt strange to me. At times it radiated light and air; at others, it shrank in upon me. When I looked around objectively — as objectively as I could — it appeared to be just a large, old house typical of its era, with some oddities and eccentricities — also typical of its era. If I was going to finish my work, I’d better hold onto that objectivity, I told myself. I tried to follow the same route as yesterday, but somehow got turned around and found myself approaching the library’s anteroom from the opposite direction. On the way, I had discovered a little room decorated with a very old, very odd hunting-theme wallpaper. I couldn’t resist my curiosity and examined it more closely. The hunters, on tall, thin, distorted horses, watched the hounds, while Artemis watched the hunters. The background was a stained antique white, dotted with dark, flat, almost cartoonish trees. This seemed familiar, although I couldn’t say I’d seen the wallpaper before; it was simply a feeling of vague recognition. Yet I was drawn to the hunt master who, along with his followers, was repeated every four feet. Yes, his lips and long thin eyebrows made his face the mask of a sneer I had expected. I couldn’t decide if his contempt was directed toward the horses, the hounds, his fellow hunters, or the fox, or perhaps even toward the goddess, unseen to him. Eventually the familiarity became an uncomfortable certainty, and I left him to savor his frozen, decaying emotion.
I’d apparently already left my objectivity behind. Like most people, I can rationalize almost anything, and told myself an afternoon of concentrated research would restore my academic discipline — selectively forgetting the results of the previous day’s experience.
I was rested, a little calmer, and more focused now, I told myself. It was time to start working seriously — how much time had I wasted? — and I delved into it. Within only a few hours, I had completed more than 35 pages of meticulous notes — on only one family’s doings. This was more how I’d pictured my stay — focused, productive, despite the obvious scorn of the hunt master. I stopped only when my eyes began to water and I realized how tired I was becoming. My time here was limited, as was my access to this rare collection of primary sources, but none of it would be of any use to me if I fainted from exhaustion. I somehow found my room and lay down for a nap, falling quickly into a deep, dreamless sleep, the sleep I’d longed for. It was still sunny outside, and the mid-afternoon brightness made me drowsy. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but the travel alarm clock read 5:45 when I reluctantly woke up. The sunlight was losing to the shadows of its own creation. I sat on the edge of the bed for a long time, holding my head and trying to shake off the heaviness of sleep. With some effort, I finally got up and wandered down to the kitchen to see if I could find something to snack on and to drink.
I never made it past the dining room. The chandelier sparkled with a million points of reflected sunlight, making the tall beeswax candles an unnecessary nicety. The white linen and plates glowed, as did the silver serving dishes. I lifted the cover to the largest. Fresh, steaming roast beef, rare exactly the way I always had liked it. Accompanied by my favorite wine, I noticed. I didn’t know what to think. Why had she gone to all this trouble when I’d told her that it was unnecessary? How had she known that I would want dinner? Or was it simply a misunderstanding on my part or hers? I didn’t care. I was hungry, and I enjoyed all of it. By the time I was done, I was both sated and numb. I’d been considering an evening stroll, just to get some air and to get away from the atmosphere of the house, but that was out for tonight. All I could think about was a bath and sleep. It never occurred to me that she was already gone.
I couldn’t feel anything when I woke up, but I sensed him. He was still there, in a slightly different position. In the darkness illuminated only by the alarm clock behind me, I reached for his hand and took it in both of mine. It was large, smooth, and firm. And almost chilly to the touch. I soon fell asleep, giving his hand all the warmth and strength of mine.
The next morning I felt groggy, strangely like being drugged. I had no fear or suspicion of that, however. It was intensity of the work and getting too much sleep the day before. Coffee would probably clear my head. Besides, I was hoping to run into her so I could thank her for the unexpected but welcome dinner last night.
She looked disapproving, as always. I wondered if she knew any other expression and if anything I could do might reveal it. For whatever reason, she didn’t want me here and probably couldn’t wait until the week was up. Despite my renewed enthusiasm for the work and the wonderful library, I was beginning to feel that way, too, although I didn’t understand why. Perhaps in the back of my mind I’d thought I could recapture the peace I’d felt here as a child. But here there was no peace — only a familiar alienation.
I said nothing for awhile. Then:
“I may be leaving a little earlier than I expected.”
“Here?” She couldn’t hide her surprise. Nor could I. She regained herself and said, “That’s up to you. You’ll have to speak to Mr. Quillen. But he’s not in until tomorrow. Or leave him a message.” She abruptly closed her lips as though to cut off an already unseemly outburst.
“I’ll do that. I don’t know. I’m making good progress and I’m anxious to get back and verify some things I’ve picked up here. I could always come back here if necessary.”
“Yes.” She left. It hadn’t sounded affirmative.
It looked dark and forbidding outside, and the broad green leaves of summer brushed against my window in the wind. I would not long to be in the air today. It was filled with the scent of damp earth and fresh decay.
In the dark, his back felt soft and defenseless, and with one fingertip I slowly, gently traced the outline of his shoulder blades against the smooth landscape of his skin. He sighed lightly, with a resigned finality, but didn’t change position.
It was my last day at the old house; I would leave the next morning, two days earlier than I had planned. The longer I stayed, the more familiar the house became — I no longer got lost finding my way about, and even the view from the narrow windows in the one room was becoming familiar, although its nuances changed everyday in a way I couldn’t define.
The more familiar the house seemed, the edgier I felt. I could not have explained why, even if there had been someone to talk to about it. When Mr. Quillen asked why I was leaving before the week was out, all I could say was that I had pressing obligations elsewhere. This was, of course, a lie — my only obligations were to myself. He didn’t seem surprised; after all, it didn’t affect him at all since he — and the owner he represented — had already received payment in full. I was glad he couldn’t see my face over the phone. For some reason, I pictured his wearing the same expression as the woman’s — cold, disapproving, indifferent, yet interested at the same time.
When I returned to my room that day, it was still very bright out — so bright, it was hard to see beyond the glare of an unearthly sun. I had been spending less and less time in the library and in other parts of the house and more time in my room sleeping. Each day, I returned to my bed earlier and earlier. I was so tired . . . as though many years of study and work had suddenly caught up with me. I felt safe and comforted in that room.
Today, I picked up everything lying about and neatly packed it away, taking my scattered life and concentrating it in my luggage. When I woke up early the next morning, I would be ready to go. I would not have to see her again — a relief as much to her as to me, I was sure. I could just leave the keys on the hall table for her. I even left my clothes on. I needed only a little sleep before starting the long drive back . . .
I reached out to touch him, to tell him how I felt, to tell him goodbye . . .
As always, he was there for me. But now his lovely strong hand was ice cold.
I never wrote a dissertation — on that region’s history or on anything else. I don’t remember much of the rest of that year — only going through the process of leaving the university, under the mild protest of a handful of favorite mentors. But even they could see I had nothing left.
I’m middle aged. I’ll never be any more than I am now — a university press senior editor. I couldn’t bring myself to leave academia after all. I couldn’t write the words, but I could check and correct them. I could even do some research when necessary. I’m good at it, and it keeps me going. Why, toward what, or for how long — I am careful not to think about these things.
A week ago, I did it. I returned to the house. I had to. I had to know.
This time I drove in daylight, so I could see. And when I arrived, I saw — nothing. Nothing but an unplowed field surrounded by corn. No signs of a house. No signs of rubble. Nothing.
Across the road — not a street, but a road — a farmer’s wife was hanging out laundry in the light breeze, while a small child played nearby in the grass. I sat in my car, lost, desolate. Frightened. Yet I was in the right place.
“Can I help you with something?” A female voice jolted me.
It was the farmer’s wife, peering through my open window into the darkness of my car. The child held her shirt, his fist in his mouth.
“Yes. Yes, I was looking for the house that used to be here.”
“House?” she asked, her face puzzled. Or was it concerned?
“Yes, it was very large, very old. It was still here thirty years ago. I was here.”
“Maybe you’re lost.” I didn’t say anything. “It’s just that there’s never been a house there that we know of. That was my husband’s dad’s land before he died 12 years ago, and his granddad’s land before then.” I stared at the road. “It’s always been a problem piece — nothing but weeds’ll grow on it, and no one’ll buy it.” I still said nothing. “Of course, no one around here’ll buy land that won’t grow anything.”
“Thanks for your trouble. As you say, I must be lost.”
“Hope you find what you’re looking for.” She took the child’s fist from his mouth and walked in front of my car to cross the road.
“Who is that lady?” the boy asked impatiently.
She lowered her voice, but I could hear her words as they trailed off.
“Another dreamer looking for a place to sleep.”