The house creaked, and with a mighty groan, heaved itself out of a funk, and stood up to meet the sun simmering directly overhead. Cicadas in the yard welcomed it back with a rousing chorus, the first of countless refrains to be heard throughout the sultry day. Revitalized, the old Victorian surveyed Winthrop Road below, sloping away to the east and west. A few of the most new-fangled vehicles hummed up its hill, none green, not the sort the house was looking for. No matter. It would be patient; it would keep the faith.

“She’ll be back. Yessir,” the house declared. “Jeannie will be the one to see reason.”

The gentle limbs of the nearby tree stroked its tin roof.

“She may have locked every window, nine on the second floor, seven on the first, picked up her suitcases and moved out for the second time. But she will return.”

The leaves of the tree flapped and twirled.

“It won’t be long,” the Victorian continued, feeling even more confident, from its stone foundation to its gabled peaks. By the time the sun crosses into the western sky, Jeannie will wonder, and in another moment, will remember. She and her family, Nick, Melissa, and Melodie will come roaring back. Their emerald vehicle will streak up the hill, and skid into the driveway, gravel flying. “She knows where she belongs,” the house trumpeted, pleased with itself.

The tree stilled, then withdrew, lower branches no longer touching the white, clapboard siding.

“It is a certainty,” the house insisted. “Jeannie will race through the kitchen door, and up both flights of stairs, driven to search the attic, and snatch up the two cardboard boxes nearly forgotten. Parcels the great diesel truck failed to carry off with the rest of their household possessions when the sun was still in the eastern sky.” The house paused, noted the sun’s current position. “Mark my words,” it said stretching to its full height. “Jeannie will relent. Things will be set right, and she will stay. We have a pact. Jeannie must honor it.”

The tree sent a rustle through its prodigious canopy, but the house failed to apprehend the meaning. The great tree had always offered its best counsel and companionship, which, heretofore, were greatly appreciated by the Victorian. The two had stood together atop the hill for nearly one hundred and nine years, seen each other through times of tempestuous swaying and straining. Ever magnanimous, the Kentucky Coffee tree had soothed the house earlier in the day, murmuring gently as the rooms were emptied, windows stripped, walls left drab and echoing.

Now, several branches scraped the upper windows, and because the house paid no attention, the tree gave a sudden, most forceful shake.

The house was caught off guard and felt betrayed. “But Jeannie is meant to be here,” it protested. “Where these wise, old walls can protect her, and she is taken care of.”

The limbs slashed again.

“Jeannie most certainly does belong here,” the house sputtered. “This is her place. She takes care of the rooms, keeps them bright, fills them with comfort and yes, she is the one who keeps loneliness out,” the house said, mounting what it believed to be a persuasive defense.

The tree swept its branches away in disgust, sending a rush of leaves to the ground.

“How selfish, you say? Churlish?” The house scoffed. It sulked; it slouched. The sun smoldered in the thick, humid air, cicadas chanting louder, cadence faster. The house longed for a breath of air, a couple of windows to be cracked. It panted, felt its joints swelling.

The tree waited.

“Consider Jeannie’s needs, you say? Independence? Agency?” the overheated house muttered. “But, but…” it stammered. “She fills… keeps…” The house hiccupped, then let out a whine. “Jeannie is the breeze, the one who brings the songs.”

The tree stood motionless, its remaining leaves limp.

The house grew more frantic, began hyperventilating. “Please, please. Have you no mercy? There must be music. A song in every room.”

Moved, the tree stroked and stroked, leaves tender, whispering, caressing.

“Let her go, you say, but keep hold of the memories,” the house sniffed.

At last, the old Victorian understood. Jeannie would not stay. She was venturing forth, and once the boxes of the family’s Christmas decorations were reclaimed, she would be on her way, head held high.

“She was always like that,” the house conceded, a note of pride seeping out. “Strong, focused, able to balance competing notions of time and space. Jeannie will wrap the past in swaddling and carry it into her future.”

The carefully packed ornaments that hung on the Christmas tree in the long, front window every December for the last seventeen years would soon hang in the new place, what Jeannie called a “California condominium.” The house grimaced but had to recognize it was her choice. The place where she belonged now, even if it lay far beyond the valley over which the old house presided.

The tree quivered, upper branches catching a flash of green, the spray of gravel.

“Jeannie,” the house sang out. “She’s here, rushing from her vehicle. Quick, get a good look at her before she dashes inside… she is already pounding up the stairs, standing under the small, incandescent bulb in the center of the attic’s “T” shape, blinking, pausing to catch her breath. This is the highest point, where the three gables intersect, and the only place a human creature can stand erect.”

The tree waved at the small window in the attic’s north-facing gable.

“Indeed, there is more,” the house assured. “Jeannie appears to stare, as if taking it in for the first time: rough wood, gable peaks, open floor joists.”

“What else, you ask?” and feeling the tap of a limb on its roof, the house continued. “The attic appears to be empty, save for the original long windows still grimy, stacked in the south-facing gable exactly as they were when she and Nick first toured the place. The old mantel pieces are just visible in the gable facing north.”

The tree rustled again.

“Jeannie peers into the gloom, eyes searching for the boxes. She cannot locate them, and sucks in her breath, a look of bewilderment crossing her face. Her eyes, still adjusting, were never very good in dim light,” the house confided. “Not sure if you understood that. How she struggled with less-than-perfect vision over the years.”

“She stoops now and looks directly into the shadows cloaking the eaves where the sharply angled peaks meet the open joists of the attic floor. Still, she discovers nothing.”

Rueful, the house stiffened. It saw what she could not. Stories quivering among the motes. They nudged each other, Rebecca’s, Molly’s, and now, Jeannie’s. The house sighed. They were all that remained of the women the Victorian sought to keep safe and free from concerns about worldly affairs outside its walls. The attic brimmed with them, stories about life in the house meant to be memorable and warm but shaped by too many chapters telling of restlessness and broken souls. Stories of resistance whose colors will not fade with time.

“Bittersweet,” the house murmured, chagrined. “A century’s worth of women, still shuddering. They must lie down to rest.”

The tree drooped, let a leaf fall, then another and another.

The house glanced at Jeannie, still crouching in the dark. She will not know the early stories, cannot see Rebecca, the first wife and most gracious lady of the house. Rebecca left in 1900, yet her stories are here, tarnished, but still silvery, and quavering in cornflower blue. Molly’s story is also invisible. She was the second wife and most practical lady of the house. Her stories ended in 1971, but like cinders poked in a smoldering fire, still spark red.

The house looked away, blinked back a tear. “Jeannie’s story,” it breathed. She is the most creative of the wives, and the one declining to be called “lady of the house.” Violet is her color, complex like her stories. At forty-two years of age, she will be the youngest to leave.

“What now, you ask?” The house told the tree to be patient, Jeannie was still scanning the murk. “Ah, her eyes widen. She steps off the plywood floor under the faded yellow bulb, balances herself on an open joist two inches wide, and shimmies toward the north-facing gable. Her head brushes the angled tin roof, and she hunches, then squats, and like a frenetic crab, scuttles sideways to the spot. She is hovering over the boxes and turns her head to the side in the cramped space, works to free the smaller one.”

The house held its breath, felt the temperature rise, a tension build.

“Shade,” it pleaded.

The tree sagged. Small and feathery, Kentucky Coffee leaves were not dense enough to shield the roof.

Bathed in sweat, the house was reduced to silence. It could only stare at Jeannie who paused to fan herself, wipe her forehead with the back of her hand. She tried the box again.

“Handkerchief,” the house whispered, wishing it had one to give. “Cottony white to soak up…” It could not finish.

Jeannie tugged. She groaned. Yanked. Pulled. The house could not look. She was the innocent, too close to the thorn that ripped through Rebecca and Molly’s stories.

Another yank, and the box lurched free, throwing Jeannie off balance, arms and legs flailing. Her hand flew to the rough joist, and at the last second, she caught herself. She shook her hand, stopped to examine the left index finger. “Nothing,” she mumbled. Sweat staining her shirt, she turned back to the box.

The attic grew hotter. It felt airless, tight, full of dread. The house trembled. Broiled.

“Warn her,” the house choked. “Now.”

Too late. Jeannie was already shoving her hands under the box. She flinched, cried out. The house despaired. It had failed to protect yet again.

Blood welled. Dripped. Jeannie sucked her pointer finger.

“She is forever pierced,” the house mourned. “Tied to the sorrow in these walls.”

It was too hot, too terrible. The house saw the look of confusion on Jeannie’s face. The wood was rough, but not splintery. It watched as Jeannie set aside the box, stared hard into the darkness clustered around the joist. She searched for the sharp thing. The culprit.

She was panting. Her finger was still oozing, the box was smeared, Nick was calling, and her family was surely waiting to get underway. She inhaled slowly, got control of her breath, reached into the eave, and pulled it out.

“Up here,” she called down to her husband. The air felt cooler, fresher. She breathed, returned to the center, and stretching her back, stood straight. Nick bounded into the attic, blinked.

“Found them,” she said, and pointed to the larger box, asked if he could take it, she’d get the smaller one. “We’ll have to make room for them.”

“Means repacking the car,” he said. “But yeh, we’ll manage.”

“Look what else I found,” she said, and Nick stared, eyebrows jumping.

The house whispered in her ear. “Please,” it begged.

Jeannie nodded, and the old Victorian exhaled. The tension uncoiled. Finally, a ragged story would be bound up and put away. She understood what must be done if the house was to rebalance itself and live in peace with the truths of women.

About the Author

Carol Jeffers

Carol Jeffers is a professor emerita living in Pasadena, California who has published The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity (August 2018). Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Wordgathering, Ponder, Connotation Press, Entropy and Wild Roof, and she received an honorable mention in Streetlights 2020 writing contest. Blueprint is her debut novel.

Read more work by Carol Jeffers.