Haunted House

I pulled the car over and parked at the end of the driveway.

“This is it,” I said, doubting it even as I spoke. This was the place, the street, the town. But where was the row of maples out front? And the flagstone walk, and the lilac bush, and the stone wall that had become the rooftops of London after my best friend and I saw “Mary Poppins”? This house looked so much smaller. It gazed at me with indifference, an old and intimate friend that didn’t recognize me after thirty years’ absence. We both had changed.

A young man looked up from burrowing in the front end of a sports car. He straightened, and walked towards us curiously, wiping his fingers with an old hand towel.

“Can I help you?”

I nodded towards the girl in the front seat next to me. “I just wanted to show my daughter the house I grew up in.”

He smiled indulgently. “Would you like to come in?”

I hesitated. It had seemed a marvelous impulse when I took the exit off the highway. A drive through my home town, sharing with her my old haunts. Now everything felt wrong.

My daughter looked at me eagerly. “Can we?” It had been such a long drive and we had a long way to go yet. To get out and stretch would be nice.

“That’s kind of you,” I said to the young man. I opened the car door. My daughter was out ahead of me.

The little kitchen garden had been covered by a deck with a sliding glass door. I walked up steps where there should have been hollyhocks, bachelor buttons, red tulips. Inside, I barely recognized the kitchen under the accretion of modern conveniences.

“We took out a wall to make the dining room,” the young man said proudly.

“Very nice,” I murmured.

I closed my eyes to see the old couch in the living room where I had curled up with an afghan wrapped around me, home sick from school, watching cartoons on the black and white television. In the bay window there had been luxurious hanging pots of philodendrons. I opened my eyes, and there were the hooks that had held the pots, painted over but still protruding from the wall. I touched them.

The house had forgotten what they were for.

My mother loved plants and she loved this house. She had papered every room and painted all the woodwork.

“My mother,” I said, “built these bookcases.” They held sports trophies and contemporary knick-knacks instead of the Mary Roberts Rinehart and Erle Stanley Gardner that she had collected. She loved murder mysteries. I closed my eyes to see her in the Boston rocker, holding a book, looking over her glasses to smile at me. I could see the title of the book: Easy to Kill.

The house stirred, remembering. My mother’s strong, capable hands had touched its every part like a lover.

Outside was the barn, with its dove-cotes in the attic and its beam for hoisting hay, and the path–

I walked around the corner and became lost again. Trees had closed in on the hay fields.

“How many acres do you have?” I asked.

“Three,” he said, as if three acres were a wealth of land.

Three out of a hundred. The house had been robbed.

Awakened to the loss, the house shuddered with outrage.

I used to run though the fields, past milkweed and goldenrod, racing like a spaniel to the woods beyond, to other paths, secret places, where I could always escape. Within my mind I was running again, down the path, away from the horror of loss.

The field opened up, hay-scented and warm, and I was there again by the vernal pools where spring frogs peeped, climbing the boulders that were forts and castles, hiding in the grape vines overgrown with clustered purple sweetness in the fall.

But then the summer-blue sky darkened and the deep green grass became white with November frost. Cold stars glittered in the huge blackness above and I knew where I was. Eleven years old, running through the field. They had told me that my mother was dying.

The house remembered now, its windows black wide-open eyes; it pulled me back, into my mother’s bedroom with its pattern of delicate violets on the walls, the scent of lily-of-the-valley overwhelmed by sickness and pain. My mother lay on the bed, her face drawn and grey.

I came home from school and left my books on the table in the hallway. The walls were papered with a “Tree of Life” pattern she had chosen; I traced the curving branches with my finger as I went up the stairs. I gave her pills, bathed her where she lay. I shivered in my bed at night, listening to her cry. I held the hypodermic in my hand, but I couldn’t push that sharp steel needle into her skin, even though it would relieve the terrible, grinding pain that made her whimper. My father took it from me and did what had to be done.

The house awakened, and remembered it all.

When my mother was gone, the attic, the closets, generations of memory, were vomited out onto the lawn as a yard sale. My father, broken with grief, moved away and took me with him, leaving the house behind.

“Mama, are you crying?”

The young man smiled. “I’m sure this place holds a lot of memories for her.”

Fully roused from its amnesia, the house glared balefully down at me.

I turned to the young man, a smile pasted on my face. “You have done a wonderful job with it.” And I thought, Keep going, put on an addition, convert the barn to apartments, put in a swimming pool out back. Bury it! Bury it!

I said, “Thank you, we’d better go.” I pulled my daughter to the car and drove away without looking back. But it was too late.

The house remembered.


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