I’m sitting at the kitchen table, staring into the gaps between the planks of the wood floor. I went to great lengths to cinch those boards tight when I laid them, but the tongue-and-groove pine shrank. Now, if I got down on my hands and knees and peered into one of those gaps, I would see a veritable ecosystem. I’m usually oblivious to moderate amounts of dirt, dust, food crumbs, bark, or insects (dead or alive), but right now I’m wishing I could squeegee thick varnish over the floor, seal all that accumulated detritus in a clear lacquer tomb, decoupage the whole damn thing.
I am haunted by this house. Kapa and I built it — are still building it — and I’m plagued with fantasies of additions, harried by fix-it lists. One morning, over coffee, I’ll imagine the north wall of the kitchen opening into a breakfast nook. Another day, the bedroom window will blossom into French doors leading to a walled courtyard. Could it be, I sometimes wonder, that I have been dreamed into being by the spirit of the house in order to fashion it a body of gypsum and wood?
The fact is, I don’t want a walled courtyard off my bedroom. Nor have I any desire for a larger kitchen — although the counter tops, built in my tall and solitary bachelorhood, are too high for Kapa, making it difficult for her to knead bread or roll out pie dough, a situation that merits remedy. The problem is that remodeling ideas — practical or fantastic, homely or palatial — inhabit my psyche like a fungus in cheese: I’m shot through with house.
Knot House, we call it, as if to elevate to a style our use of low-grade, knot-riddled pine, hemlock, cedar, oak, and fir. Knot House also to conjure the image of a knotted rope that secures a load, the way this house holds us tight to the spinning earth. And now, since the birth of our son, Elliot, on the daybed in the living room two years ago, Knot House for the knotted umbilical cord, that rope of flesh I cut and the midwife tied.
It’s not a house of great size, nor of especially fine craftsmanship. It’s a dwelling begun by a writer who wanted a place to write, situated on a bare acre of land he wanted to garden. It does bear one conspicuous, iconoclastic feature: in contrast to every other house in this semirural neighborhood, it does not face the street, but is oriented to the path of the sun, which puts the house at something like a thirty-degree angle to the street. I once overheard a friend describing where I live to a stranger, who remarked, “Oh, that catty-wompus house. I didn’t know they’d let you do that.”
Why not consider a house animate? Why not relate to it as to a living being? Why not honor a house with a name and treat it with common decency and good manners?
It’s late evening, two years ago, and Kapa has been in labor all day. Weary now, she has crawled onto the daybed to try to rest. Her contractions have slowed, and she dozes between them.
Siri, the midwife, sits opposite me at the table, recording her notes. She is a slight, wiry woman with frizzy blond hair tied back with a silk scarf. Her face has a lot of weather in it, and her manner is Quaker. She is a little worried about this slowdown, but she knows Kapa needs rest, so she doesn’t urge her to get up.
Kapa’s four best friends sit in a half circle at the foot of the daybed, talking among themselves. One is knitting; another rubs Kapa’s feet. Although they are my friends, too, today they are my wife’s attendants, here as counselors and comforters, witnesses and nurses, cooks and cleaning ladies. All seem completely relaxed and at home, but pass me by as if on a different plane, possessed by their roles.
My role is attenuated. Most of the day I have shadowed Kapa, holding her when she wished to be held, steadying her while she swayed and moaned through contractions, staying away during “transition,” when she felt ferociously alone. Among these six women, I have no definite focus. The smell of labor is palpable in the house, the atmosphere thick, as if Kapa’s exertions have left a residue in the air.
Kapa calls my name. I slip in behind her on the daybed, and she leans back heavily between my legs, her hair damp against my bare chest. My lower back is fiery from the strain of this uncomfortable posture. A contraction grips her and she slowly digs her fingernails into my calf.
I want a different role: more ritual, more authority. But the only authorities here seem to be a reluctant baby and a timeless process. I have a fleeting wish that we were at the hospital right now, white uniforms coming and going, a room full of pricey gadgets you know without being told that you must not touch, the glint of stainless steel, the stiff vigil of electronic monitors, their ceaseless readouts. I want more structure, more rules or prohibitions, more clues as to how I’m supposed to behave, more evidence that I am important. But also — and here’s the rub — I want more structure to resist, to struggle against, to try to outwit with irony and subtle anger. Remembering the officious little gynecologist who performed our first prenatal exam, I bristle at the idea of him performing this delivery. My pulse quickens, and I feel better.
I’m lying inside a cardboard box. It is Elliot’s house, made from the carton in which our freezer was packaged. I’ve been holed up here for twenty minutes or more, snoozing and daydreaming, while, just outside, eighteen-month-old Elliot pours his Matchbox cars from one saucepan to another and stirs them with a wooden spoon. It’s pleasantly dim in here. The windows I cut with an X-acto knife are closed and the door only slightly ajar. We move the house to a different room every few weeks, to restore its novelty. Right now it is crowded into a corner of the living room, where its flat roof serves as a sorting platform for clean laundry. I think of adobe houses in the Himalayas, their roofs piled high with dried yak dung.
I can’t stretch my legs, but there is a pillow, and for the time being I’m comfortable. None of us slept well last night. This is the first time all morning that Elliot has settled into solitary play. I know that if I crawl out and try to wash the breakfast dishes, he will immediately weasel in between the kitchen cabinets and my knees and beg, “Up, Papa, up!”
So I remain captive in his house, angry at him for being so clingy, for screaming all night when his new tooth pushed at his gums, but also proud of how perkily he stirs his car soup. Imprisoned or not, I’m grateful for the rest. Later, I’ll bundle him out to the workshop and try to interest him in sorting nails while I repair the leaky-roofed bird feeder. For now, though, I’m content to lie here, in this house within a house, imagining igloos and wickiups, soddies and cliff dwellings, yurts, minarets, catacombs.
Working alone late one afternoon, that first September of building the house, trying to get the roof sheathed before an impending autumn storm hits, I step between two rafters and fall sideways. The wooden, snapping sounds I hear are three ribs cracking. It feels odd the next day to be sitting in a lawn chair, watching, as five of my friends finish sheathing the roof. The storm is still gathering over the Coast Range, and batches of crows keep blowing up from the south, cawing ominously overhead.
I have been told I have a very goofy grin on my face from the Darvon. My eyeballs feel wet and chilly. I blame their moistness on the painkiller, but, in truth, it is from the kindness of my friends, who have set aside their plans and assembled here on short notice to finish my roof before the rain arrives. To watch the house progress while I do nothing has made me feel grateful on the one hand, stupid and undeserving on the other.
One year later, in the process of installing my toilet, I will pinch a nerve in my lower back. My neighbor will drive me to her chiropractor, who will fail in his wrenching to unfold me from my ninety-degree bend. Embarrassed, he will lay a kindly hand on my shoulder and say, “Would you mind leaving by the back door?”
And the following autumn, the year before I will meet Kapa, living alone in the house now, still hanging interior doors and building kitchen cabinets, I will lose September to the flu, then pneumonia.
Now Kapa, Elliot, and I always go camping in autumn. We leave summer’s long list of unfinished chores to mutter to itself on the refrigerator while we play in the mountains for a couple of weeks. Upon returning, when I first walk in the back door and smell the unstirred air and hear how deeply quiet the rooms have been in our absence, I sense that the house has made good use of its solitude. The wiring and plumbing feel rested, the paint and varnish refreshed. As we come in noisily with the first load of gear, I feel the house sigh, take a long, deep breath, and welcome us home.
It’s 4 A.M. A winter storm is flapping its wet fur against the windows. The candle flickers.
This is my favorite hour to be with the house — not just in it, but with it, partaking together in the exhilaration of wind and rain. Out there, the house endures the slap and chill of the storm’s flung buckets. Its clapboards swell and close ranks shoulder to shoulder. On the roof, its shingles dig into each other with tarred fingers and hold on.
All the while, the inward face of the house remains unperturbed. Each tentative idea this room entertains is a tremulous candlelight shadow on the ceiling. The carpet lies deep in thought, obsessed with small details. The walls stand quietly, practicing their old martial art, swaying ever so slightly on the balls of their feet when the wind gusts.
Why not consider a house animate? Why not relate to it as to a living being? Why not honor a house with a name and treat it with common decency and good manners? And how about the wheelbarrow, the bicycle, the car? Are they not beings, then, too? The comb and the brush and the bowl full of mush? The toaster and the blow-dryer, the phone and the sofa? How many musty beings are boxed alive in the attic, what souls moldering in the corners of the basement? This is the heart of the problem: once we admit houses into the family of animate beings, there’s just no end to it. Every doormat, every fork in the drawer will require a social-security number. Look what’s happened with animals: we acknowledged that the great whales had a right to live without our predation, and now all of a sudden we’ve got minnows and snails staking claims against hydroelectric projects. Open the door to the living pulse of every object around you, and you can end up terrified to draw a breath lest you siphon some microbe into oblivion. Imagine naming the germs in the air, saying a respectful “Good morning, Brother” to each and every one.
These days the vacuum cleaner looms particularly large in Elliot’s mind. At any moment of the day, he will point to its cubbyhole under the stairway and pronounce its name: “Wakuum Keena.” This noisy beast, who comes out once a week to graze on the rugs and prod its long snout under the sofa, has far more reality for him than his teddy bears. Likewise, he may regard the kitchen table as a living being, may think of his highchair, our bed, the bathtub, the toilet as strange and powerful cousins who don’t necessarily speak our language or eat what we eat, but nevertheless have some peculiar status in the household. Should I cultivate that sensibility? Should I address Wakuum Keena by name in Elliot’s presence and drag it about with gentleness? Should I open the cabinet that houses the stereo and television with some ceremony, a slight flourish of the hand or a tiny bow? I do bow at the back door now whenever I come home. In fact, I’ve taken to making microscopic bows at every threshold: a friend’s house, the grocery store, the bank. Some days I find myself paying obeisance to the bathroom sink for its equanimity, the refrigerator for its persistence, the bicycle for its swiftness and balance. It takes no energy. It isn’t a political act or a gesture of reverence. It just happens some days.
Siri looked the baby over, suctioned his throat, wiped the mucus from his mouth, and handed him to Kapa. With the baby on her belly, a change came over Kapa, as if her spirit had returned to the surface after having dived down deep to help things along inside. Her radiance was not just perspiration and candlelight.
Siri clamped two hemostats on the umbilical cord and asked if I wanted to cut it. This had been discussed in advance, and I had expressed a keen desire to do so, but now I hesitated, terrified. (Afterward, no one present recalled my pausing. It was brief, practically instantaneous, but it was one of those moments that open vertically, perpendicular to time, and encompass worlds.) If it is true that one’s life can be replayed in the moments preceding death, then this terror was death parading its glory in the moments before life. All my childhood nightmares scrolled past in that instant, every psychic horror, open wound, sore, or disease, every scene of violence replayed in the colors of feces and dried blood. The only brightness was the flickering glint of knives, scissors, swords: snick, snick, snick.
It was, as I say, practically instantaneous. I was not shaken by the vision and did not even recall it until several days later. But in that moment, I believe, I gave birth to my son’s past: those horrific images were a kind of labor. The experience left me calm and utterly clearheaded. I cut the cord surgically, with a steadiness of hand I do not possess. A little bright blood — part mother, part son — shone on the blades.
I want to die in this house. After my pulse is gone, let the mortician ferry me downtown and pump his infernal fluids into my veins (I won’t even quarrel if he uses a little rouge on my cheeks), but then dress me up in my fancy vest of cerulean blue silk that Kapa made for our wedding, and bring me back home.
I want to lie in the cheapest knotty-pine box (butt joints are fine) on sawhorses in the living room while my old friends lift their cups and tell lies about me. Then let the able-bodied take turns at the spade and bury me in the corner of the back yard, where the root weevils defeated our every attempt to garden, where we finally scattered wildflower seeds, of which only daisies and poppies survived. Put a conservation easement on the property in my memory.
Kapa, I’ll say, the place is all yours now. I hope the gutters are holding up, the roof is intact, the doors still swing freely. Watch those front-porch steps when they’re wet! Remember to turn on the heat lamp in the pump house if the temperature drops below twenty. Tell Elliot he may have my old leather tool belt.