Photo by Patrick Jennings on Adobe Stock
In 1884, a Victorian farmhouse still under construction awakens to find itself rising on a hill above Seneca Creek in Montgomery County, Maryland. The T-shaped house with three fine gables, wrap-around porch, and a modicum of sentience believes its raison d’etre is to protect the wives, keep them safe within its walls. The wives, each in her own way, object, and the house must bear witness to Rebecca’s agonizing push for agency, Molly’s for autonomy, and Jeannie’s for identity. After one hundred and nine years, the house reluctantly accepts a singular truth: women seeking to achieve their fullest potential cannot be contained and will burst out.
Rebecca, the first wife, brings the house to life even as she mourns the death of two small daughters and her faith in a Presbyterian God. A lover of maps, she longs to travel to Europe with her daughters’ spirits, but is plagued by tremors, migraines, and hallucinations, one in which she re-enacts the slashing horror of a pair of fantastical scissors. At fourteen, Molly arrives to begin work as a washerwoman, cook, and nursemaid charged with helping the family care for Rebecca. She is the one to snatch the scissors from Rebecca’s maniacal hands and secure them in her sewing basket from which they will disappear.
Four years later, Rebecca is dead, Molly is pregnant and marries the widower, John, who is fifty-five. Nothing changes for the new “lady of the house,” who must continue doing laundry and caring for her elderly husband and a surprise baby, Jed, born when Molly is forty-three, and John eighty. John dies, the Depression takes hold, and the house and barn deteriorate. Molly is forced to abandon her property to take a washerwoman job in the next county. She returns ten years later to reclaim the house, and Jed, now grown, agrees to make the extensive repairs. Molly hunkers down, dies in the house twenty-six years later with it in decline once again.
Jeannie, a young art teacher, and her husband Nick buy the fixer-upper from Jed in 1975. They do the work themselves, much of it to restabilize the house, and bring out the potential they see in it. Jeannie continues teaching after their first child is born but leaves her career when the second arrives four years later. Her little girls flourish; Jeannie languishes. The house remains unfinished, and she is lost in the hollowness of the encroaching suburbs. Longing for intellectual stimulation, Jeannie returns to graduate school, taking one evening course at a time, eventually finding her path in a Ph.D. program. A newly minted doc, she accepts an assistant professor position in Waverly, Kansas, while Nick and the girls stay in the house. When Jeannie is recruited by a university in Los Angeles, the family is ready to move and packs up the house. Jeannie retrieves what has almost been forgotten, and unexpectedly, solves a mystery. The house sighs, grateful to Jeannie, the one wife to go forth. Seventeen years together, and the old Victorian comes to understand the truths in the partnership Jeannie has forged with it.
The House (March to September 1935)
By the end of the third day, the house, so quiet, too quiet, understood it had been abandoned. Four more flies, proboscises quivering, investigated the garbage pail. Molly no longer controlled the kitchen, would not be wielding the swatter, and without a care in the world, the creatures flitted among the odiferous scraps. They would settle later, raise a family or two, and replace the human family now departed.
The Gleason’s leave-taking had been abrupt, no one bothering to bid farewell. The house took such rudeness to mean the two-legged creatures would never return. How dare they leave the tall Victorian gleaming white on the hill? Who did they think they were, slinking off in that ramshackle truck, Molly cursing the house as if it were an albatross hung around her neck? Thirty-seven years, and she hurtled through the kitchen door without looking back, taking little more than eggs with her. Once, she had sworn the house was hers. Vowed to stay ‘til the end. It was her destiny to walk the path the house had given. Yet, she walked out. Hadn’t even taken care to clean up after herself or clear out the cupboards and wardrobes. Too much had been left behind, and now, the house would suffocate in the detritus of her life, strain under a load of lies about to blister the paint and crack the windowpanes.
“Good riddance,” the Victorian fumed. For decades, it had sheltered Molly, tried its best to give her a comfortable life, and in exchange, she had taken care of the house, kept it spotless. But in recent years, she let things slide. The clapboards dangled, porch floorboards warped, paint peeled. She said nothing to Charlie about fixing the sag in his sleeping porch. Molly failed to hold up her end of the bargain. The house growled. If she could no longer take care of the house, then it would no longer take care of her. That was the hard truth, and the house had tried to explain it to her, but she refused to listen.
Molly never listened. And so, the house did not care to worry about what had become of the Gleasons. How the city kids at the new school were mocking Jed’s country ways, and Molly’s overbearing supervisor assigned her another graveyard shift in the steamy laundry room, and the earnings from Charlie’s porch-painting job were just enough to buy a cup of coffee and a loaf of bread.
The next morning, the house echoed with loneliness; it vibrated with nothingness. The air was stale, motes settled. There was a new solemnity throughout, each room holding its breath, as if waiting to learn its fate. “Time to reflect, take stock of the situation,” the house mumbled, only half believing it could be heartened by such meditations. It preferred instead to focus on the red-eyed, winged creatures, Musca domestica, ensconced in the kitchen. They were a merry band of seven, frolicking among the eggshells and coffee grounds, lapping up the albumin, toasting their good fortune with droplets of water sucked from the dirty plate in the sink. In the afternoon, the house watched them dance in the main parlor’s long, sun-warmed windows. Still gleeful, some whizzed back to the kitchen that evening and laid their Musca eggs.
The creatures provided entertainment, and the house wanted more. At midnight, it detected a wolf spider prowling along the baseboards in the parlor, the largest of the spider’s multiple eyes sharp, glowing in the moonlight. The house could just make it out, and recognized how stealthy it was, an agile hunter, ever watchful, biding its time. Up above, the yellow sac spiders activated their spinnerets, and by the end of the fifth day, had hung intricate silken traps from the parlor’s high ceiling. The house admired the detail they added to the crown molding, especially around the plaster grape clusters in the corners. The ambushers hid themselves inside their creations and waited. Both species were opportunistic, and the house understood each was anticipating a gluttonous feast large enough to satisfy the present arachnoids, and likely, the generations yet to come.
Later on the fifth day, the house stood at attention as the ants marched in. Their army was efficient, businesslike, ten thousand tiny feet parading in lockstep. A signal must have been given, because simultaneously, the soldiers broke into three columns, one directed to overtake the sink, a second the garbage pail, and a third to patrol the room-temperature ice box dribbling water on the floor. Soldiers called upon workers to help break down the dry bread crusts hidden deeper in the garbage pail. They were to haul the morsels to the colony under construction in Miz Rebecca’s oak pie safe where there were bound to be more crumbs left from decades of cooling pies. The ants set aside time for dancing, as well. They made plans for a great coronation, celebrated the moment when their queen was installed as the lady of the house. Such splendor, the Victorian sighed.
By the time Jed flunked his first weekly spelling test, and Charlie sharpened the blades of a spinster’s lawn mower, and the thirty-six hard-boiled eggs were long gone, the milk inside the fridge soured. The ants crept in quietly to watch the show, curdling chunks rising in the bottle, gassy bubbles expanding. The ants waited patiently for the finale, and were rewarded with a spectacular eruption that, to the delight of all, sprayed spoiled milk and glass shards everywhere.
Outside, the sensitive, sniffing noses of the skunk and opossum caught the scent. They found it irresistible and raced to the stone foundation. The two shocked the house when they forced their way across the foundation sill and rushed into the kitchen. They trampled the ants, clawed and scratched at the refrigerator, its door already loosened by the explosion. The house stared in amazement. How they gorged, then made a dessert of the butter gone rancid, topped off with a helping of tasty ants. Ever diligent, the remaining ant contingents stood by, ready to move in and execute the clean-up operation. Impressive.
Still, the smell hung in the stale air, and the house gagged. “Fresh air,” it pleaded. Molly should be here, if not to keep the creatures out, at least to let the breezes in. Crack the windows, leave a door ajar. That wasn’t so much to ask. She knew how important air flow was to the house. A good flow would keep the house comfortable and was vital to its overall health. Circulating air evened out the daily highs and lows of temperatures and humidity. It stabilized the joints, cleared the cobwebs, opened passageways for fresh ideas. Rebecca was right. Enough flow, and the stench of putrefaction could be flushed out, carrying secrets and lies with it.
The house felt a darkness settling in as the passing days became a week, then two, three. Bereft of purpose, it flailed with its loss of identity. If it was no longer expected to be strong, keep human creatures comfortable, then what was its raison d’etre? Surely not to protect the clutter left behind, the things of sorrow and betrayal crowding the wardrobes. It could not, would not serve as a repository for chipped mirrors, collapsing furniture, or broken spirits. Nor would it act as a waste bin where memories folded into the shadows to dissolve in the dust. It still wanted to be a cordial house and would strive to conduct itself as if in the fullness of domestic life. Nostalgia welled up, and the house mourned the memories of hands warming over the stoves, stories animating the parlors, meals nourishing the souls.
The days were lengthening, and one morning, the sun popped up lemony-bright, and reminded the house spring had come. There would be a few more chilly nights and windy days, but it was time to leave the angst behind and start fresh. Light poured into the house, and it could see the creatures with four, six, and eight legs were making themselves at home, quite comfortable in every room now. The house blinked, felt a glimmer of relief. It was protecting the creatures who had taken shelter, which meant the house was fulfilling its mission. In exchange, they had entertained the house, kept it company. The house learned their daily routines, watched their families grow. Sometimes, it even hummed along in harmony with their buzzing and scratching and scurrying.
In its more lucid moments, though, the house could already see the creatures did not clean up after themselves. They were not mopping the kitchen floor or hoovering their debris or brushing the droppings away. They couldn’t even keep the sink drain clear, let alone repaper the smudged and splatted walls. To say nothing of their failure to open and close windows.
Then again, there was no duplicity in the creatures. They were unassuming, unambitious, and lived their uncomplicated lives centered in a universe free of grief, jealousy, and retribution. Their dirt was untainted, instincts true, motives pure. Success was measured by their mere presence. Creatures would neither praise nor cast aspersions. They were not concerned with the passage of time. Best of all, they kept no secrets, told no lies. Their one duty was to grant the house a respite from that other universe, the one governed by clocks and categories and an unrelenting knowledge of human failing and mortality.
Outdoors, the maturing tree rustled, waved its branches at the front window on the second story, tickled the window in the attic. Its highest limbs stroked the tin roof, and the house appreciated their touch, how much the young leaves did to soothe the doubts away, brush the confusion from its clapboard coat.
The front yard erupted in dandelions. Canary heads nodded to the house and tree, then at the sun, but it was the wind they waited for, and the day when it would carry off the fuzzy white seeds, fling the parachutes across the lawn. More of us next spring, they chortled, but they would be wrong. The heavily thicketed grass riddled with weeds never mowed and leaf litter never raked would choke out the yellow lowliers. The house would not see their spectacle again.
Spring proved to be capricious, some days warm, balmy, burgeoning with growth, others clammy, windy, temperatures freezing at night. These were the weeks when the house’s joints creaked and grated in the cold, loosened and heaved in the sun. The Victorian understood how trying the temperature swings must be for the creatures still outside. On a particularly chilly night, it welcomed the desperate field mouse who dragged her swelling body across the foundation sill. She found protection and comfort in the house and busied herself building a nest for the nine squirming pups about to be born. In no time, she shredded the paper in the garbage pail and carried the strands into the corner of a kitchen cupboard. The mouse was pleased to line the nest with the soft, cottony stuffing plucked from the seat of an old easy chair. Later, she would have plenty of company, as her daughters grew up and birthed their own wriggling pups. Other mothers came in, especially after the first frost in October, and over time, the colony grew. The mice were healthy, kept their teeth sharp, took turns gnawing on the corners of the sleeping room doors. When the droppings piled up and urine soaked through, they built new nests in other cupboards. The house could see they were content, had all they needed. It was proud, then aghast. The rats had slithered in, accompanied by one long, black snake.
The house rejoiced when the swallows returned. It watched them cement their stick-and-mud nests to the beams under the porch roof. The birds seemed nervous, though, and the house understood they remembered the broom that knocked the nests down every breeding season. But no broom appeared. The house was delighted the birds could sit on the eggs in peace, marveled at the energy conserved because they did not have to screech and dive-bomb the heads of two-legged creatures coming too close with or without their brooms. When the hatchlings were crazed with hunger, how much simpler it was for the parents to fly like missiles, swift and sure, dropping insects directly into throats wide open.
Later, after the swallows had built more nests and raised their July broods, the orb weaver spiders came out, looked around, and wondered about the brooms as well. They shrugged their hairy shoulders and spun their giant spiral webs freely, one between every porch post on the three sides of the house. They were careful, checked again for the menacing brooms, and seeing none, put on the finishing touches. Once their sticky droplets coated the most strategic of the silken strands, the orb weavers sat back, satisfied the net would capture the unfortunates that flew into the nearly imperceptible trap. Still, the spiders were wary, watched for the broom, and tore down their creations themselves, rather than suffer the humiliation of a good whack. They would put up another spiral the next day. And the day after, and the one after that. Another kind of gingerbread, the Victorian mused.
By the time Charlie found a couple of lawns to mow in the late spring, the grass around the house on the hill was a foot high, on its way to eighteen inches by midsummer, twenty-four by summer’s end. It was already shaggy, clumped, gone to seed, a yard tangled and overrun. The house squirmed, remembered the days when the lawn was a lawn. It was emerald and lush and set off the glowing white of the tall Victorian. Now, the house clung to its dignity, trying to stand taller, rise above the unruly mass, pokeberry weeds poking up five and six feet, spreading jungle-green leaves and promising berries to all manner of bird species. Mockingbirds and crows were the greediest, the most dominant, and raided the deep purple berries, gulped down the sweet juices. Robins and wrens went for the protein, skimmed the grasses, flushing out a multitude of insects. Bluebirds preferred caterpillars and grubs, cardinals seeds. Quails tiptoed among the Queen Anne’s lace and prickly blackberry bushes growing along the scruffy roadside. The house appreciated the streaks of bright feathers, the gorgeous trills but still yearned for its lovely lawn.
In late June, the lightning bugs performed in their annual light show, flashing and prancing each night of its limited run. They waited for the boy to appear on the saggy, sleeping porch, hoped to see the sparkle in his eyes. They blinked on and off to the music of the tree frogs, swirled closer and closer to the porch railing, but he did not appear. He would cup no lightning bugs in his hands, put none in jars that summer or ever again.
All summer, the humidity billowed. Thunderheads took over the afternoon skies, lightning cracked, and rain pelted the growing jungle. Between showers, cicadas sang in their pulsing monotone while paper wasps added to their nests under the eaves, and praying mantises scouted the best spots for gluing their egg cases to the clapboard siding.
The house, hot, dank joints and window frames swollen, attic broiling, suffered mightily. The windows had been closed too long. The walls felt damp to the touch, though no human hand would confirm this. Wallpaper in the second parlor loosened, the edges beginning to curl. The books grew musty, tomes the first lady of the house had carefully inscribed “Rebecca A. Henderson,” and whose pages were now ridged. Her atlases and maps warped and wrinkled. The family Bible swelled, strained, then cracked the spine.
The grape clusters grew soft, the plaster warning it might crumble, and the yellow sac spiders found new locations. Mosquitoes reveled in the humid air and could overtake the flies in the window dance. The spiders licked their lips.
In late August, the winds picked up. The tree twisted, struggled to resist, but its branches were already writhing. The house remembered the gyrations. It understood the warning the tree was sending. “These winds are angry,” the tree quavered. “As foul-tempered as the winds that punched their way up the coast from Cedar Key thirty-nine years ago. And they are back to hit us again.” The house shuddered. It stood alone on the hill, with no one to board up the long windows or keep it company while riding out a terrible battering in the root cellar. The house could only hunker down now, make itself squat. The winds took no notice. A couple of blasts, and the tree was stripped, its leaves plastered on the windows and walls.
By Labor Day, the howl was sharper. It was frenzied, a force mean enough to hurl daggers, paralyze every living creature inside and out. None knew the word hurricane, yet all knew to bury their heads, anything to blunt the piercing whine. They huddled as the winds swooped and dipped. The house strained. It swayed. Creatures whimpered. Cried. This was a thrashing, and the house took it hard. Day after day it recomposed itself. Stood up straight, determined to make good on its mission to protect.
The creatures held their breath, kept their eyes shut. Still, they heard the rage. Winced at the groans. The terrible symphony would not stop, and they were forced to hear the discord: Rain hammering. Nails wrenching. Clapboards ripping just before they flew from the south gable. Tin roof scrunching, peeling back from the corner, rain spraying into the attic.
Branches and bean pods from the tree’s upper canopy peppered the tin, their percussion out of control. A heavy bough speared the window in the south-facing sleeping room. Bubbled glass rattled to the floor. Open to the rivers in the sky, the room was instantly saturated, puddles of doom already formed.
A strange silence fell, and the creatures dared to look up. But the lull offered no reprieve. A gust whistled a warning, then, winding up, unleashed the mightiest shriek. It was violent, and the house struggled. It shrugged, fought harder. The wind roared, and the house shrank back from the force. Its best course was to offer less resistance. Hold on. But the monstrous wind was too much.
Another shriek and the house ripped. Let go. The sleeping porch groaned, pulled away. Gravity did the rest, sent it smashing into the wraparound porch below. Planks shattered. Nails and shards strafed. Terror exploded in the night. The house, gashed and jagged, went numb.
Two days later, Seneca Creek was rushing, then boiling over, surging silty brown across the countryside. It was ferocious and pummeled the bridge until the planks, battered and broken, were tossed away. Access to the house from the west side was cut off, leaving the Victorian slumped and isolated on the hill above.