Sentimental Journey: An Abandoned House

Chuck Evans/Creative Commons



The house had been bulldozed. Elms, dead of drought, ringed the dusty flat where it should have stood. Boughs had been piled into a wild desiccated pyre. My father stood tracing the floor plan of the farm by the few unburied signs: A round slab of cement lay where the granary had stood. The front walk remained, in rubble. The cattle pens and corral were mostly gone, but the chute remained, as if to convey a steer from the ground into airy nothing. (Or a child, for my sister and I had run up that chute many times.) I wandered the place, amazed. It was a mere toy to the landscape in my memory. That road from farmhouse to granary, the one where I’d seen my first rattlesnake flattened and grinning its crooked dead grin, the one where my grandfather had decapitated a much greater rattlesnake and it had with the weeks dried to rib and spine and become tangled in the grasses of the ditch and somehow become nothing at all—that epic road was now only a few paces.

I wandered. Those peculiar weeds with the yellow berries jutted from the soil; I broke off a berry and punctured its eggshell rind. There was no moisture inside, only a bitter smell. And then I saw the hole, just big enough for a man. In my childhood dreams the prairie had held, just beyond my wanderings, exactly such apertures into subterranean depths—the hiding places of ghouls and glistening snakes, the homes of women who shone like angels in white gowns. But those were only dreams and the games I elaborated from them. This one was real. I lay on my belly and looked down six or seven feet. Down there clods of mud had dried into monstrous shapes. A pipe protruded like a fractured leg bone. A tunnel stretched away to the west, further than I could see.

“I think I found the cellar,” I said. Memories of it crowded in—my parents’ wedding album floating in a flood; a nest of mice blind in one corner; a bull snake, woken from winter sleep, clunking up the stairs, using the frozen loop of himself as a sort of foot.

“No,” my father said, for he had already deduced that the house itself now occupied the cellar. He pointed out the clues he’d noted on the terrain. The cellar had been over there. Nor was this hole and its tunnel part of the septic tank, which had lain on the far side of the house. I wanted it to be the cellar, that humid haven of memory, but I knew he was right. “It must be an older septic tank,” he said. One used and then capped before we’d ever known the place, more ancient even than the memories that had been writhing within me, trying to fit themselves into these tiny marks on the landscape. Only the bulldozing of the house had finally revealed this older tank. I drew back at the thought of this tunnel contaminated with sewage, but that was absurd; the earth had had decades to digest it.

Something an arm’s length down caught my eye. It was a web. The pattern was more familiar to me than the floor plan of this little farm. I reached cautiously; in Oklahoma, the black widows may still be alive in November, depending on the weather’s whims. My finger plucked a strand, broke it. The sound I wanted to hear didn’t come. It would have been a confirmation of the spider’s identity, though I should hardly need that. It would have been more than information, however; it would have given me some comfort, for I spent my childhood in pursuit of widows. The child within me would have taken the tearing sound with joy, and the man, long removed from his natural habitat, felt the same.

The absence of the characteristic sound might mean the widow’s web was old, had lost its elasticity. Or it might mean this was not the work of a widow, but of some similar species, like the American house spider. The answer mattered to me more than I can perhaps make clear. I was an absurd middle-aged man crawling on his belly, poking into an old septic tank. But I was also looking into memories, into childhood dreams, into the very earth I’d come from. I don’t believe in signs, but I wanted to see one. I writhed forward, pushing my shoulders into the hole. Under the thick lip of earth, the web hung in ragged elegance like dirty lace. The strands were too old and loose; I would not hear them tear like paper; this was the work of an earlier year, and the spider was gone, probably dead. But I knew she was a widow. She had left the blunt husk of a scarab hanging there, a beetle too big for any other spider’s web.

2 comments:

  1. O-klahoma, where the widows weave in every shed,
    Where the rains unleash
    The cricket-beasts
    And Shetland ponies pitch you on your head!

    (Sorry, that's all I got at the moment.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ha! Not bad. They used to make us sing that in school. A lot.

    ReplyDelete

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