Abandoned Houses (Fragment of Untitled Novel)
There is a certain stretch of the South where a single highway threads through fields so endless that it feels like a cyclic dream- a maze with no entrance or exit, an unknown motive that incites a sense of panic and time running out, wandering endlessly in circles. Constant motion without progress. When Kate had these dreams, they always took place in labyrinthine settings, but the flat expanse of fields gave her the same lonely feeling of abandonment and futility. It wasn't the stretching monotony of the fields, the lone road, or the oppressive, never-ending sky, although these all had an air of melancholy about them. It was the abandoned houses.
These houses dotted the landscape every few miles, all essentially the same: made of faded wood warped by weather and time, with glassless windows, roofs caving in, and plants growing up the walls and strangling the house by growing through all the places where inside, one might see the sky. These houses usually stand near identically abandoned barns which evoke a sense of loss for the old way of life, which valued hard work and simplicity. But the houses had always made Kate's heart ache in unexplainable ways.
As they passed one such house with no front door, that appeared to have its mouth open to let out some kind of mournful wail, Kate resolved to break the tired afternoon silence that comes with an exhausting car trip.
"I've always felt sad when I see these fields and houses. It's so tragic. It's like they've been abandoned." She said lightly. Being a devoted reader of classic literature, she wholeheartedly practiced the custom of oversimplifying her thoughts and feelings and presenting them in slightly amusing and self-deprecating tones, as if she were at a dinner party or ball.
"They are abandoned, sweetie. You don't think people actually live in those houses, do you?" said Kate's father Andrew, completely missing the deep emotional current that lies underneath nearly everything an adolescent girl has to say.
For all his praise of her intellect, Andrew seemed to believe Kate incapable of comprehending the simplest of things. Kate supposed he could be in denial about the fact that she was almost in high school, and that he felt the subconscious need to explain the ways of the world to her as if she were five years old and still needed him to answer all of her questions. "What's this, Daddy?" "Why does it work like that, Daddy?" "Tell me, Daddy, tell me." No matter what they said, Kate knew that most parents, like her father, thrived on their children's neediness.
Despite her excellent grasp of Freudian psychology, Kate was a thirteen year old girl and therefore prone to frequent angst. Before she could do more than roll her eyes, however, her mother, Caroline, spoke.
"No, I know exactly what you mean. They used to break my heart. For some reason I always imagined a young man in breeches building a house by hand for his new wife, and carrying her over the threshold, and it being their home. And imagine if they knew the state of it now."
"Yes, exactly, Mama!" Kate exclaimed, glad to be understood and treated like an adult, but more relieved that her mother was in one of her good moods.
"It's like a whole century has passed and everyone has forgotten that these places exist at all. It makes me wonder what happened to the newlyweds- or whoever built the houses." In her earnestness Kate forgot to adopt the flippant manner that to her, represented maturity.
"Now that's a perceptive question, honey." Andrew raised his eyebrows in the rearview mirror. He was perpetually struck by the brilliance of his daughter, but somehow his appreciation and astonishment expressed themselves in an irritating manner that made Kate feel like a toddler presenting him with an indistinguishable work of art and receiving copious praise before being asked whether it was a house or a person or some kind of fruit.
"Maybe they were unhappy there. Maybe their life wasn't what they thought it would be." Caroline's comment was so unmaskedly about her own life that Kate and Andrew did not know what to say.
"Maybe it was during a depression or draught or bad harvest, and they went bankrupt and had to leave to go somewhere else to survive." Conjectured Andrew.
"Maybe when they died and passed on the house to their children, the kids didn't want it, or argued over the estate, and it was abandoned." Kate was fascinated with primogeniture and the squabbles it causes. She was even tempted to cite several such examples from literature and history, but resisted the temptation at the thought of the false praise her father would give her.
"Maybe all of their children died in childhood." A quiet voice full of timeless pain, ages old. Eons old. Andrew reached a hand out to take hers, but she pulled away and faced the window.
"Well, let's see. I think these newlyweds you guys were talking about would be named...Agnes and John Elliott." For once Kate was grateful for her father's childishness, and readily joined in.
"Alright. Ugly names, but I suppose people back then didn't have very pretty names. I think they were people who had once lived in the city, but hated industrialization and wanted to move to the country to make a living off the land."
"Ugly names? You used to name all of your dolls Agnes! Okay, so Agnes and John got married in a pretty little chapel and built this house themselves and moved in and lived off of the land. And they had...four children. You can pick the names for the kids, if you don't like Agnes and John."
So Kate and Andrew wove intricate tales involving the Elliotts and several other families who lived in the neighboring houses. They didn't know if Caroline was listening or not, but the stories all had happiness and fortune, and the houses were always abandoned at a far later date, for reasons not remotely tragic or depressing.
When they finally arrived at their destination, a family reunion at Caroline's parents' house, the stories were abruptly abandoned so they could meet her sister's new baby. Several comforting arms reached out to Caroline; several voices asked if she was alright, but she turned away from them all and went into the bathroom for a very long time.
Kate sat quietly in a corner pretending to read a book, but always holding her mother in the corner of her eye. She thought of all the possible methods she could employ to prevent a disaster, wondered if Mama had taken her pills today, and chastised herself for not knocking on the bathroom door to comfort her. But under all of these forced surface-thoughts, she was still thinking about the abandoned houses. They had discussed them for well over an hour, and still their conversation had not touched on what truly frightened her: how quickly insignificant a life becomes after it is gone, how quickly a home, the center of a universe, becomes an abandoned and overgrown house. But worst of all, the simplification of life by others. It was a dishonor to the people who truly had toiled in these places to pretend that they had no struggles or pains like her mother's. There were financial hardships, lost children, bad marriages, tears, and blood. How quickly one family, which experienced so much hurt, could become insignificant. Lost in time. As if nothing they had done in their entire lives had mattered at all.
Last edited by stephanienoel; 04-12-2011 at 11:47 AM..