The House Behind the Oaks
The woman’s hands were blue. They shook when she held one out to me. I stared at the transparent skin, draped loosely over the sharp, brittle finger bones like an old, worn out handkerchief tossed over a set of knives. I did not want to touch it, but my father nudged me, so I raised my arm and took the hand in my own. Her skin felt as soft and fragile as the translucent origami paper someone had given me for a Christmas present last December. I felt that if I squeezed too hard, I could have closed my hand all the way, crushing hers into a pile of fine, blue dust that would trickle out between my fingers, onto the threadbare carpet.
We were finally inside the house. It had taken weeks of phone calls, my parents calling realtors, the realtors calling the mysterious owners of the house, who for reasons best known to themselves, rarely answered. A few times, the realtors reported, someone did pick up, but said nothing. The realtors reported the sound of muffled breathing, followed by a click, and a grainy dial tone. For someone who wanted to sell her house, the owner seemed to be doing the best she could to hide the for sale sign in a tangle of leaves, elude the realtors, viewers and potential buyers, and bury the house forever in obscurity.
Finally a very determined realtor, with hair the color of a shiny penny, in red lipstick and a white suit, marched up those cracked stone steps and stood on the porch, ringing the bell for half an hour until, finally, this woman opened the door.
And now here we were in the dark, narrow hallway, where cobwebs hung in hammocks from the ceiling, cradling little bundles of plaster dust and chipped paint, and right away I could see that it was all a waste of time; no one could ever live in this crumbling, decrepit pile of bricks. The only question left unanswered was how its current inhabitants managed to survive here, but it was not a question I cared sufficiently about to hang around and hear answered. I waited for my parents to make their excuses and leave. For reasons I could not understand, they did not do so immediately, but shuffled along politely behind this woman, making soft, murmuring noises about carved wooden moldings so thick with dust that their contours were impossible to make out, and a living room in which wallpaper hung in faded strips from the walls, as soft and blue and fragile as the woman’s hands.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
No one answered. I looked up and realized the woman was talking to me. I hesitated. On one hand, she looked like a witch. In fairy tale books, it is never wise to accept beverages offered by witches. But a trickle of light had made its way through the living room drapes, and it slanted across the woman’s face so that I could see her eyes. In all my life, I have never seen eyes so tired and so sad. I shifted uncomfortably onto the side of my foot, and nodded, staring at the floorboards. They creaked under our weight as we followed her into the kitchen.
The kitchen was blue, too. I began to think it must be the woman’s favorite color. Sunlight poured through the leafy tangle of flowerless rhododendron bushes outside the window, and then through the thick, old-fashioned panes of the window itself, which rippled, distorting the images outside into a foggy, green smear. The dishes in the sink were piled high with soap bubbles, but they must have sat there for a long time, for a fine film of dust had collected on top of the bubbles, mimicking their swirls and eddies: a peculiar combination of cleanliness and filth that fascinated, even while it repelled.
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