Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The house on the river

       Sometime in the night whether through a hard wind coming off the river, a minute shift in the mole-tunneled undersoil or the implacable pull of gravity, a small handhewn sliver of limestone that had been teetering nearly untethered for years beyond count wobbled free from the lower front wall and tumbled in a series of shortening arcs to the frozen grass. It might have lain there undisturbed for a few minutes in the star-silvered frost or a few hours or even decades if not for a growl of rotted timbers and a sudden displacement of weightier stones whose momentum once engaged could never be contained but carried forward as if under their own volition. The squared corner collapsed dragging down dismembered window frames and oaken doorways, powdered grout and grooved stones of various sizes and shapes, spidered glass that exploded into jagged shards and weathered shingles and a portion of the ceiling joists black with rot. The brittle clattering echoed up and down the valley but went unremarked and unnoticed except for the owls and coyotes hunting the stubbled fields abutting the river. 

The owner discovered the house the following day. What had been the living room was now a gaping cavity latticed with splintered planks and piles of rubble shadowed by an overhanging section of roof. It wasn’t what he expected to see nor entirely a surprise but nevertheless a concern, especially that dangling roof that seemed suspended more by memory that any physical underpinning. He parked by the gate and walked the gradual incline nearly to the front step and surveyed the damage. Some of the wood could be salvaged and the rest burned. Smaller, manageable stone blocks would be perfect to line the flower beds his wife was after him to make. Larger blocks could be repurposed somehow. The house would not die in vain.

I learned of it about a week later. It wasn’t so much that people knew of my interest in old abandoned houses, especially the limestone homes of original settlers, but that by dint of its rarity and sad demise a small piece of our shared history was gone. The house had graced the drive along the river as far back as people could remember and longer still, their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles knowing it, and some not as an empty owl-haunted relic but ringing with the laughter of children, wreathed in woodsmoke, its windows of a winter’s night radiant with the flickering glow of candles and lanterns. I’d taken quite a few photographs of the house but never one I would consider defining, and was even then in the process of arranging a short excursion for yet another attempt when I heard the news.

It wasn’t the first time I missed my opportunity. Several years ago I was on the hunt for what was reputed to be the biggest and most beautiful one-room school in Washington County. Bad roads and weather hampered my search for weeks. By the time I managed to reach it all that remained were two scorched walls furrowed with the chiseled names of former pupils.

This time I was on time if not a little late, and yet not so late that I’d find only a gravelly indentation of darker soil like an oil stain spreading against the hill. If anything the scene was altogether peaceful, a momentary suspension between the relentless fatigue of time and annihilation, no more than a heartbeat in the historical sense but enough to whisper a soft goodbye. The roof still sagged unsuspended looking none too stable, and shadows stretched long and thin on its opposite side reaching deep into the oak forest as if fleeing the sunset or, perhaps, my intrusive presence, but new cracks had riven the remaining frontal wall in stairstep patterns tracing the outlines of joints. It was only a matter of time, had indeed always been a matter of time, something not restricted to houses but encompassing the enormity of all living beings of which I was but a particle myself favoring my one good knee and listening with my one good ear at the early calling of a barred owl somewhere within the trees bordering the river, the house and I both on the long end of experience and yet surprised somehow to find ourselves in the slow act of reduction. 

Taking the photograph felt wrong, an act not of remembrance but invasive, so I put the camera away and cased the tripod and stood there watching the last light radiate warmly from the remaining stones before shadows swallowed the fields and the sun dipped below the western horizon. And yet something constrained me to stay, and I did so until long after stars glittered overhead and the howling of coyotes drifted downriver, and left only when darkness was complete, grateful that I could no longer see what we had both managed to become.


shoreacres said...

Wonderful to have you back.

Tom Parker said...

Wonderful to be back.

Frank Hamilton said...

Sometimes a photograph isn't the right answer. I think this piece is the right answer in this case.

Tom Parker said...

Thanks, Frank. Sometimes a tough decision for a photographer to make, but necessary.

TodMegredy said...

We once pulled up the carpet on the stairs of a 90-year-old house we had purchased.

Beneath, the old varnish had worn in the middle of each step -- a testament to the hundreds to thousands of feet that had followed the same path to the second floor.

My wife wanted to refinish the stairs. I did not. It seemed a shame to cover up so much history just for the sake of aesthetics.

Love your work, Tom.

Tom Parker said...

I agree, Todd—to remove the visible weight and gravity of history would be unforgivable. Those worn steps are the recorded history of the house and its people. Stick to your guns!