The Dark Space Around It

June 5, 2017

We lived in one half of Sarah’s 150-year-old farmhouse. When she was a child, her family had lived in the other half while another family rented this one. Later, her father gutted the other down to studs, and her family lived in this half while he did the work. Then he left.

From outside, you couldn’t tell one half was gutted. Thirty-six new windows hung below a newly shingled roof, the whole place wrapped like a present in white Tyvek, no siding. Sarah’s father had renovated the side we lived in: an upstairs, a downstairs, hardwoods, doorways set in beveled oak casings. But open the door from the living room, and you were in cold and dark and original beams, the stripped trunks of old oaks hanging in the foyer like petrified wood. The air on that side smelled of earth, as if this section of the house grew in that spot, rooted up into its floorboards and joists. The side we lived in smelled like lemon Pine-Sol and cannabis.

•••

Sarah had been born in the house, pulled into this world by an Iroquois midwife. This happened in the half we didn’t live in. The bathroom where she was born, and the bathtub she had been born in, no longer existed.

•••

Sarah was twenty that fall, and I was twenty-two. We'd known each other for a little over a year: my senior year in college and the summer afterward. The house sat five miles from a gas station or grocery store and twenty from Syracuse, where I'd grown up with neighbors and fences, passing city buses, streetlamps, the steady hum of city. At her house, we were alone.

When a car drove by in the middle of the day, which was rare, we stopped and watched like traffic cops. The dog would bark. Some motorists waved to us, a country custom, and when they did, Sarah waved back. I could never get around to it. When a car went by in the middle of the night, I woke as if we were being attacked. When she refused to lock the door, saying it had never been locked, ever, the key nonexistent, I resolved to adjust.

•••

That fall, the fall when we fell in love, she dreamt about the house and the bathroom, and often about the whole house, a dreamworld of rooms and stairs and doorways—though in her dreams, like most people’s dreams, it was both her house and not her house. Houses are common figures in dreams. Jung dreamt of wandering his house (though not his house) when he famously abandoned Freud’s mentorship. The concepts he drew from his dream informed his idea of the collective unconscious.

We drew nothing from Sarah’s dreams; she had lived in the house her entire life, so why wouldn’t it permeate her unconscious? In the mornings she narrated her dreams as if we’d been separated for a long time. She dreamt with astonishing vividness. Sometimes her account took twenty minutes, but unlike the dreams of everyone else I’d met, they were not tedious and abstracted and impossible to sit through. Her dreams were often thrilling: ripe with suspense, populated with villains and cryptic symbols and the shapes and shadows of the house I’d come to share. All her dreams ended with, “And then I woke up.” Mine ended with, “Then I don’t remember.” The difference between her dreams and mine was like the difference between sketches on a napkin and the movie The Shining on a high-definition TV. Hers were so lucid that sometimes she’d be cold to me for two days, finally divulging that I had done something awful in a dream: cheated on her, victimized someone, burned down the house. The time it took her to shake it off disturbed us both.

•••

She had moods that portended misfortune. She’d say things like, “I have a bad feeling about this,” and then suddenly you had a bad feeling about this, and then eventually you would know why, after you’d gotten stuck in the snow, or missed an appointment, or run out of gas.

But Sarah was also smart and open and charming, poised in some strange equilibrium: one part resistant to understanding, the other part bright and constant. She was kind in a way that reminded you what kindness actually was, rooted in a fundamental compassion. She was kind to the bugs I wanted to kill, and to strangers whose talking revealed their narcissism, or remarkable dullness, or psychosis. She was patient. Her kindness seemed, though she herself was not, religious. It had a calm and an easygoingness that made people surrounding her seem neurotic. All my friends became her friends in a short amount of time. She pulled my family into her orbit.

Her humor came easily—dry, full of inside jokes and belly laughs and small ironies. Around that time, the fall and winter of 2004, it was peppered with lines from Chappelle’s Show, a sketch comedy program starring the comedian Dave Chappelle, which we’d been watching nonstop. Watching Chappelle’s Show was most of what we did in the house. It’s probably most of what we did as a couple. “What’d the five fingers say to the face?” she’d ask, doing Dave Chappelle doing Rick James. “Slap!” We did that and took walks, and ate takeout that required a twenty-minute drive.

•••

I see myself at this time, at dusk with her, sitting in the backyard with gin. We’re talking, facing the stand of maples behind the house and the unsown field behind them. The deer wander, smokelike, in the distance. She watches the trees and fields and approaching darkness and smiles at something I’ll never know. She’s gone, in the world but not of it, for a stretch that is both comforting and bewildering to me. I try to ignore my bewilderment. I listen to the breeze. “What’d the five fingers say to the face?” she’ll finally ask, coming back to me.

•••

There were rumors of a secret room, long forgotten, apparently used for the Underground Railroad, which is not uncommon in old houses in central New York, a bastion of the emancipation movement. The room had been built on the other side of the house, but no one knew where. She told me the families that built the place had farmed a 500-acre farm, and now the land, like the house itself, had been gutted and separated. She told me one of the children from the old families had been buried in the backyard, in a place no one could find because the 400-pound obelisk marking the grave had been stolen a few years before. In my first few weeks out there, I thought about the girl and the reasons we leave grave markers and decided to not let it bother me. I thought I had enough problems in the living world. But the girl bothered me, forcing me to wonder where she lay underfoot. On those long pleasant evenings when Sarah and I sat and watched nighttime come on, I would picture the girl, unmarked, underneath us. When the dog ran out and peed, I worried he was peeing on the grave. When I lay up at night, I looked out the bedroom window and waited for her to appear.

•••

One night she did. We’d just turned out the lights and gotten into bed. Then, poof: she stood vividly in the middle of the bedroom floor. She wore a pale nightgown that had dulled with age. She was seven or eight years old, best I could tell. She stood there immobile, staring. I felt Sarah’s body reacting to my reaction to the girl—goose bumps and raised hair, a chill, a shuddered breath. The dog, lying at the foot of the bed, growled. It was if we’d passed some fever between us.

“Who is that?” I yelled, my voice cracking. But I knew who it was.

The girl stood in the darkness, silent, staring.

Sarah held her breath. I lay there, stuck between curling inward, coaxing a logical explanation, or panicking, throwing everything out on the table. Between forcing reason or facing irrationality.

Before I could decide anything, I jumped from the bed, arms flailing. It was a ten-foot sprint, and I released a sound that was half battle cry, half shriek, before I found the door and slapped around for the light. In that brief second, I wanted simultaneously to turn the light on and leave it off. I wanted to know the altered reality that would be there when I did, but I also didn’t want to know.

When I hit it and the light flooded on, I didn’t have to wait for my eyes to adjust to know that the girl who stared at me, at us, who had promised so much of some other world, was an upright Hoover vacuum cleaner draped in Sarah’s pink bath towel.

The relief was physical. The tension drained like water. We laughed, our hearts pounding, relieved we were stuck in the same boring world. I was disappointed too, a subtle stitch, in a way I never understood. Awake, we sat up in bed and smoked in silence, enjoying the moment. Eventually Sarah stood up. “If you let it,” she said, leaning over and flicking her cigarette butt out the window, “this place creeps on you.”

•••

The house spooked me in more than one way. Life there with Sarah, this casual cohabitation that we had never discussed, became comfortable. I knew then that what I didn’t want was comfort, a settling down, with anything or anyone, though paradoxically I desired it, sinking into permanence and security and predictability. We had a routine of walking my dog out in the fields or along the country roads and eating dinner in the dining room with candles. We mowed the three-acre lawn and cleaned out all the stuff that Sarah’s mother had left behind when she'd moved out a few years prior. My commutes to and from work included daily stops at my parents’ house for laundry or a meal or to drop off the dog. They lived on the west side of the city, twenty minutes from Shamrock Road and another twenty from the warehouse where I worked, and I realize now that these visits kept up the illusion that I lived there, and not on Shamrock Road. The illusion was for me; my folks would have been happy for me out there. My father asked once where I was staying for the night, and I remember telling him that I slept better at Sarah’s, that that’s why I was headed there, even though we split a twin bed. He nodded and said, “Okay,” though with the characteristic impression, difficult to explain, that he knew you were bullshitting him and probably yourself.

•••

Sarah and I had a routine that fall, before we decided to leave that place and make a life somewhere else. We walked in the evenings on the country roads, five or so miles over and around the sleepy farms on Rose Hill. Sometimes we had solemn talks on these walks, and sometimes we were giddy and breathless and the walk disappeared in a conversation, the way the best conversations are. Sometimes we didn’t talk at all.

This was a place of corn and soybean and wheat, sown to the edges of deer-thick woods, of cows spread across spinach-colored pasture, of the shadows hanging long in the short, still evenings of fall. But all of that disappeared at night. The darkness of the fields made the roads drop off into nothing.

We often changed our route, but it always included Church Road, a mile-and-a-half gravel branch that linked Shamrock with Rose Hill, the two country roads that crisscrossed the hill. At the end sat a 200-year-old Baptist church with a country cemetery and a bell tower, where Sarah used to ride her bike in the middle of the night to play basketball in the unlocked gym on the church grounds. They eventually started locking it.

On this night, we walked toward the church as the darkness shaded over, cloud-like, and folded in upon itself. No streetlamps. The only sounds were the scrapes of gravel underfoot, and the snort of the dog sniffing out the distances, and crickets. Church Road descended 100 feet into the middle of a slight dip where a stream flowed beneath a culvert. Then the land rose in a subtle bend and climbed another half mile to the McGrath farm and Rose Hill Road and the church.

Having lived my whole life in cities, I found living in this place a curious and difficult thing. There was an unsurprising and lonesome peace, a satisfaction of something I suppose I’d always wanted and would continue to want, but there was also an awareness that we were isolated and vulnerable and at the mercy of both the natural and unnatural worlds. These walks seemed to solidify the latter sense.

That night, as we usually did, we crossed the culvert and climbed the sharp pitch up to the McGrath farm. The decayed pavement and gravel, lighter than the empty fields, was the only thing visible. It was so dark that I remember seeing only the faintest silhouette of Sarah upon the road, a wisp of shadow against other shadows, an idea I can’t seem to find language for.

Near the top of the rise at the McGrath farm, I turned and noticed a small light in the field below, out in the middle of the empty field, a quarter mile down from us. Orange or yellow, unattached, unmoving. A candle at the end of a long hallway.

We stood together, discussing what it might be—freak lightning, an odd reflection from some farming implement. I mentioned lightning balls, though there was no storm and I wasn’t really sure what those were anyway. Sarah was country sensible, and I was only curious at that point, so we weren’t spooked. The light appeared to shift or dance, but it was hard to tell what it was doing. We watched for five, ten minutes. Finally it grew, expanded, blossomed. It moved, lapping in the slight breeze. “That’s fire,” she said.

It grew big, burning fast, big enough so that, from almost a quarter mile away, as we stood in the middle of the road, suddenly nervous, I could make out the field mud glowing beneath it. Then, just as quickly, it burned down into a vague phosphorescence, collapsing the halo that had grown to light the dark space around it.

A car door closed and echoed across the fields. An engine turned over.

I led the dog and Sarah in a panic, turning around and back up the road. A rush pushed me; I don't know now, and surely didn’t know then, whence it came. The truck rolled slowly across the gravel where the road dipped near the water tank we’d just passed. We heard it coming, the hum of tire music.

“Why aren’t its lights on?” Sarah asked.

The roll came closer and the dog stiffened, pulling at the leash. I jumped the roadside ditch, and Sarah followed. The tires crested the hill, crept toward us. I could make out the cab of a pickup truck, the dim gleam of a windshield. We walked as it came upon us, then froze. All was light. The high beams shone so brightly in that quick second that I lost all sense of my position in space. The moment felt as if it belonged to someone else. Even when I turned my head away and looked into the fields, all I saw was the flash of brightness.

The dog stopped and lunged, squeaked out a nervous bark. I didn’t look, but I felt a dark figure in the cab turn its head. Then, just as quickly, it was gone, and my senses returned. Sarah and I climbed back onto the road and watched brake lights ignite at the stop sign on the corner. The truck turned left and faded behind the shadows of trees. It whined until it was out of earshot.

“Who was that?” I asked.

Sarah was unsure. A farmer probably. One of the far-off neighbors, burning trash. But why not burn it in your own burn barrel, and what is that flammable? And why walk 200 feet into the middle of an empty field? We turned around, descending the hill, wary of rustling leaves in the darkness and the drone of cars in the distance.

I felt disturbed because we couldn’t connect what we saw with any reason that stuck, even a simple one. Disturbed by not having an answer, but alert to it; sharp in looking for one, even though speculation failed, and part of me knew we would never know. But still we went on. We made it to where the fire took place, illuminating the way with our flip phones, but there was a surprising lack of evidence: ash at my boot and dying sparks in the mud. We poked around at nothing, a muddy field.

•••

Jung writes that the hands will solve mysteries that the mind has failed to comprehend, but for us, our legs did the work. The walk back to her place was quick, past the floodlight on the corner and down the half-lit asphalt on Shamrock, looking over our shoulders. When we came to her dark house, I bolted the lock behind us. Quiet but for the sharp tap of the dog’s nails on the hardwood, like stiletto heels. Inside, I watched through the windows. The glow from the porch light ended before the road, then all was darkness. No one drove by and nothing stirred, but still I watched. The house felt like a citadel. The blanket of darkness settled in the breeze. When she turned on the living room light, I almost jumped. And when my eyes adjusted, I saw my own face in the window—stern and twisted. Behind that face, behind me, framed in the doorway like a portrait, was Sarah, arms across her chest, leaning and looking at me as if to say: who else would you expect? And though I don’t know why memory has kept this image so vivid, why that lovely twenty-year-old girl lives on, amused, watching me, I know that this is where we truly began.