A house of imagination

Like an archetypal dream, it keeps coming back, or I keep coming back to it: the unwritten poem and its source, the derelict house on the road through the fields. Keeps coming back until abandoned house and poem become one.

It was not an historic manor, leftover Gothic castle or picturesque cabin of logs. It was a mere sharecroppers' quarters, then tenant farmhouse which swelled as each generation grafted on rooms and porches and sheds, only to shrink as children grew and moved elsewhere and the old house sloughed them away. Finally, it stood empty.

Naughty boys soon stole up at dusk, stoned or shot out the windowpanes. An old silent man lived there for a while, even so, and later a rumored witch. Or, at least, I made her so in the stories I started to write in my head, as I too crept up to the edge of the grove and, from the shelter of brambles, watched her wander about the open space, no longer a yard, followed by twenty-five cats of various hues. Later, when she disappeared, presumably on her broom, the cats continued to sleep in the rusting stove. I wasn't allowed to bring any home. Growing bolder, however, I left daily bowls of milk and dinnertime scraps. She had spoken to them in their language, and sometimes I still heard her voice from the top of the big pie-cherry tree.

"Only the squeak of some shutter or door," my mother insisted, "and don't go there anymore."

But every June the mulberry tree overspreading the yard turned that world, and me, purple.

By July the brambles burst with red berries, and before they had finished bearing, blackberries glistened among the thorns. Each year they covered more of the clearing, more of the house, tendrils creeping and curling inside window frames, emerging from cracks in the walls. Later a pawpaw tree sprouted through what had been the parlor; April's maroon bellflowers were, by September, long green fruit.

So the old house supplied my family with fruit, and me with inspiration, which never got further than scraps of birch bark and later, small notebooks.

Every year more of the house peeled away. Tar-paper flaps from sagging roofs shuffled against ragged clapboard. Linoleum buckled and burst, and the boards exposed underneath seemed spongy underfoot when I explored the house. Portions of floor had dropped away. The straight staircase had begun to spiral. More stories formed in my head.

One summer a half-hound bore three enormous puppies under the porch. Thirty cats kept them in line. My family needed a dog. I brought home four.

The cat population dwindled, perhaps because, as cold weather came on, I systematically brought to each birthday party a large, brightly wrapped carton containing a kitten or three for the honoree. I invented pedigrees for them, or at least adventurous biographies of their ancestors who had lived on the farm in more historic times. Thinking back now, I may have created some of the history, too.

Next summer barn owls began to appear at dusk, and bats whirred softly past my ears. Squirrels nested in other parts of the roof. Then, as their entrance holes widened, black-banded raccoon faces peered from the apertures.

With each population, generation, and year, my stories altered and multiplied , but always, with autumn and school, the stories went into hibernation or migrated somewhere beyond my reach. Deciduous poems blew away in the wind.

Year after year, as I graduated from stories to Gothic novels, then to a few three- volume historical epics, the house that served as their site continued to slough more of itself away. It also continued to defy my writing.

Some of the writing, or at least the inventing, was exciting, violent, or at least melodramatic. But now, when I return, I find that in reality the violence is silent and off-stage. Decay is quiet: wallpaper melts in the rain, woodworms chew through their appointed wood, carpenter bees eat eaves. Taciturn copperheads recoil their brilliance among the sun-splattered ruins of the house. At night, silence is broken by the scratching of mice, the raccoons romp, the owl calls, and the loon laughs.

At the crack of a summer thunderstorm, or under a rare heavy snow, a lintel may split or a section of roof crash down. If no one is around to eavesdrop then the collapses must be soundless too. Or perhaps do not happen.

The dirt road that once led to the house is not even a path anymore. Still, I wade through the brambles on summer evenings, seeking. Wherever I am, the poem -- which is all I can do, having failed the epics, novels, and stories -- continues to call at me from the pie-cherry tree, the blackberry tangles, abandoned nests in the eaves.

But just as the house is more than a house, so the poem must be more than a poem. For now both wait as they are, the one coming undone, the other still building, but both watchful, alive, hanging on.

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