The House Behind the Oaks
“Have you lived here long?” my mother was asking politely. An unnecessary question. It was obvious the woman had lived here for hundreds and hundreds of years. I was only a child, but even I could tell from the way the cabinets sagged and creaked under their burden of plates and goblets, vases and saucers and odd-looking egg cups; from the way there was too much furniture piled in every room, with end tables in front of end tables, and chairs jammed too close around the dining room table; from the way the overgrown plant by the fireplace had begun to creep across the living room sofa, that one did not build up this kind of clutter in a matter of years. It would take centuries.
The woman herself looked only slightly more lifelike than her dusty piles of furniture. I could see her better now, in the light from the kitchen window. Her hair was grey, and her sagging sweat pants were grey, and I felt that if I could peer closely into the cracks and wrinkles that lined her face, they too would be coated in a fine layer of dust, like the soap bubbles. I imagined the time it must take for her to dig her way out of the mounds of ancient furniture moldering in every pathway, and I could understand, now, why she so rarely answered the phone.
“I’ve lived here forty-two years,” said the woman, with a faraway look in her eyes. “I came here as a bride.”
This I could not imagine. My sister and I had been flower girls in a cousin’s wedding a few years ago, and I knew what brides looked like. Easier to dress up that crusty, crabbed oak sideboard, laden with ponderous crystal and tarnished silver, in filmy lace and satin than to transform this old woman into a bride!
She had opened the refrigerator now, and she removed a pitcher of juice. It was a deep, ruby red color, cranberry or cherry. She poured it into three cups made of swirling, bright blue glass, and set one each in front of my sister, my brother, and me. I held the glass up to the light. There was something deeply disturbing to me about the way those two colors came together. Through the swirls in the glass, I could see my own fingers, and beyond them I could see the rest of the kitchen, reflected in lurid, crimson shades. I wanted to warn my brother and sister not to drink it, but when I turned, they were already sipping at their cups. I waited until the woman’s back was turned, then emptied my own cup into the sink. It made a red mark on the soap bubbles, like blood on snow.
“And do you have children?” my mother was saying.
“No,” said the woman, glancing at me. “I live here alone.”
My head snapped back, and I peered at her suspiciously. Now I knew she was lying. I had seen the boy with my own eyes, peering down at me from the upstairs window, the first day we saw the house. I frowned at her. The woman looked away.
Now my mother was admiring the rhododendron bushes, and my father was running his hand over the wood around the window, with a deep sigh of satisfaction. I could not believe them. I watched as they moved from room to room, ignoring the water stains on the ceilings, and the thick scent of mildew coming from the curtains. They seemed to sense something about this house that escaped me, something that left broad, contented smiles on their faces, and expressions of sleepy satisfaction in their eyes, as if the house itself were casting some kind spell over them. They stepped over broken floorboards and around mounds of yellowing linen. And I followed them feeling puzzled, because even if we could somehow insinuate ourselves into this house, with its cracked chandeliers and creaking staircases, and its fancy, crumbling banisters, it seemed clear to me that we could never get this old woman out of it.