The House Behind the Oaks
The house behind the oaks was different from the others. First, it was in a neighborhood unknown to us: a foreign sort of place, where the houses did not press up close to one another as they did in our neighborhood, separated by low, jangling fences of rusting metal, around which clumps of fragrant sour grass had sprouted, but were spread out in a leisurely manner, each surrounded by a smooth expanse of lawn, like a row of large white ships undulating gently on a calm, green ocean.
Second, there was no concrete evidence that a house actually existed behind the sign. The other houses in the neighborhood were perfectly manicured, each bordered by delicately arching sprays of greenery, as if a master artist had painted a perfect rectangle of verdure around them, like a frame. But in the space behind the signpost, the frame had burgeoned and flourished, and overgrown the painting, so that all we could see was a massive snarl of oaks, and behind them, a few, faint glimpses of white, glimmering from behind the trees.
These glimpses seemed to mesmerize my parents, for they said nothing, only pulled the van to the side of the road, staring up into the tangled branches. My sister and I groaned, and unbuckled my brother’s car seat.
Oak leaves crunched beneath our feet as we climbed out of the car. The sidewalks in front of the other houses were swept clean and bare, but the space around the signpost could just as easily have been part of a forest; we could detect no glimpse of pavement beneath the masses of tiny oak leaves, which crackled and slid beneath our best Sunday shoes. We glanced around, startled by the dense shade that a cluster of oak trees is capable of casting over a glittering Sunday morning. Then we spotted the bottom of the stone staircase, leading up into the darkness behind the trees.
There is a mystery about staircases. You never know, setting your foot on the first step for the first time, if it will lead up to a place that will remain a stranger to you, or if the steps will become as familiar as your own hand, until you know every crack and rough place, which steps to lean on and which to leap over; until you can climb them in the dark without a flashlight because you instinctively recognize every crooked angle, and every curve. We walked up these steps for the first time gasping for breath. They seemed to shoot up into the darkness beside the winding driveway, never ending, too far apart for our short legs. My sister’s small, sturdy calves flashed in front of me, clad in stockings, like white stripes in the gloom. My father picked up my brother and carried him.
Perhaps it was because the steps absorbed all my energy that I never looked up until we reached the top. I had to concentrate on mounting that never-ending succession of crumbling stone, navigating the broken spots. But I did notice that, as we climbed higher, sunshine began to penetrate through the branches, casting puddles of green and gold light that rippled over the stonework, dancing across our skin. Then my mother’s brown slacks stopped suddenly, and my sister nearly crashed into her. My father put a hand on my mother’s shoulder, and we looked up at the white behemoth of brick, rising above us.
Of course, buying such a house was out of the question. First of all it was enormous, rising two stories above the towering driveway, with five gable windows and a tiny cupola perched on one end, like a comical top hat. And then, there was everything else.
The parking area in front of the house was a sea of mud. Sharp stones jutted out of it. We had to leap from one to the other to make it to the front porch. On the porch were the dingy, diamond pattern remains of what must have once been a trellis, but no roses climbed across it now. Pieces of the wood had splintered and rotted away, some of the slats lying in dusty fragments on the crumbling brick patio. The front door was boarded over.
“Maybe we should leave,” said my mother, looking at the dark windows, but my father shook his head, frustrated.
“Why would they hang a ‘for sale’ sign if the place isn’t for sale?” he asked, and he marched boldly across what must once have been the lawn, now a tangled mat of weeds and broken fence pilings, toward the backyard. My mother followed, and my brother and sister trotted obediently along in their wake. But I stayed where I was, staring up at a second floor window in the far, left corner of the house, for unlike the others, I could see that the house was not unoccupied.
The face that peered down at me was only a few years older than my own, but to me it seemed much older, almost a grown up, as a child of twelve or thirteen does to a child of eight. The boy had dark, sooty hair that made a cloud around his pale face. There was a ripple in one of the windowpanes, and it twisted his nose into an expression I will always remember, a kind of malevolent sneer, as if, stranger though he was, he could see into my soul, and despised everything he saw. I gasped, but even as I heard the crunch of returning footsteps on the lawn, the face disappeared.
“No one’s home,” said my father, disappointed. “But we can call the realtor in the morning.” He took a pen from his pocket, to jot down the number on the sign, and we retreated back down the steps, into the sunlight and the breeze, and the hum of lawnmowers making dark green stripes across light green lawns, and the safe, calm normalcy of an ordinary Sunday morning.
I did not mention the boy, but he haunted my dreams that night. I pictured the unseen room behind him as a kind of moldering cave, where he pace like a caged animal, glowering at the dirty, smudged window that divided him from the world of the sane, just beyond his reach. I did not know, then, how often I was to gaze down from that same window, myself.