Georg E. Mateos
A BROKEN HEART IN A BROKEN HOUSE
The house was for me, a summer-vacation fantasy since the legs of my pants reached just above my knees and the sleeves of my shirt kept my nose dry despite the admonitions of my mother of always to carry a clean handkerchief, as well as a clean underwear “in case something happen”; she will let it at that, without explaining why, and it has been that way since. Mothers and why kites wouldn’t fly without a tail is to every child a mystery. The house was placed in a paradise for a tree-climbing boy: surrounded by more trees than anybody could climb, the sweetest berries and peaches a tongue ever tasted, and near a river for some fishing or a dive into the warm waters. If you lay on the grass looking up at the sky, it will have offered a show of thousand faces and fantastic forms by never stopping clouds. And the sounds! Gentle winds whispering in your ears with an occasionally murmur from a bee or the nearly inaudible clap-clap of butterfly’s wings flying by or the soft rustling of tree leaves flirting with the sun. No claxons blares from angry cabbies, no roaring busses black fuming along, no trash cans been overturned by dogs or the old steel rumbling every time the elevated train jolted the peace out of every tenement. The sound of silence, the same silence your ear had, when resting in the lap of your mother, slowly and peacefully you went to sleep. The same torpor will overcome you once more, when the long strands of grass warm the back of your head and the eyelids become heavy. Then, life in thousand forms, colors and sounds will assault the senses. A wild atmosphere, capable to prod into high gear, the imagination and fantasies of any kid, even those long intoxicated by city noises, gangs, and fumes. The house became a safe haven. Perhaps it was the first place of intoxication rehab from civilization. Forgotten were walls graffiti against the clean faces of trees, the broken glass of windows (hooligans’ souvenirs) or the odd bicycle missing a wheel… or two, chained to a lamppost with a chain that could hold King-Kong, but not a thieve. Not a cop walking his beat and barking that it is forbidden to go on the grass or lying on it impeding the free fall of pollution. Going “there”, to the house, was like to go in remission from the city sickness.
From the railroad station, a dirty road that pretended to be a roller-coast, intruded into a forest of pine and birch trees to reach the house. With maple, elms and oak trees scattered here and there. Figs and berries trees were dense at the riverbanks. The little road had so many bends around the hills that it could make you dizzy. Its potholes vigorously shaking any doubts one could entertain at not been traveling by the countryside. Always, kind of suddenly, when turning left around an enormous boulder, (we liked to call “Goliaths head”, don’t ask me why?), covered with moss and wild flowers, the place exploded into view below the bend and fifty yards down as if a rainbow had broken in million pieces and stained the forest, then, you were descending fast in a long curve following the hill’s side.
There would be birds chirping at a squirrel, busy trying to make a burrow from a vacated woodpecker dueling. Delicate ballet of butterflies, giving a physical structure to the summer breeze, and in the house’s front yard, a couple of young dogs, wildly chasing their tails in a show of happy welcome, will get forever printed in your memory. The time was always when summer pushed spring away, like a spoiled child will do, pushing away intruders from his toys. Through the trees branches, from afar, will come the sound of church bells calling the faithful on Sunday’s morning; disturbing the sleep of some of the no so faithful, trying to hide under the pillow a head paying for a wet and late Saturday.
Children didn’t care very much for the Sunday Service, but it paid to be a devotee for Grandma if one wished to deep his toes in the river later on. In summertime, noon was marked by the sun pricking our faces with golden needles and spotlighting the front of the house, with a cat dozing somewhere out of the reach from the playful puppy dogs. Summer was like a woolly blanket protecting the house from the cool shadows of the surrounding forest.
The House was built in a sunny nook. An elongated pavilion forked at both ends, two parallel wings formed a wide U, which embraced a well-kept “Granny’s garden”, with flowers beds and vegetables patches blushing with ripe tomatoes and crimson roses. The perfume was rich and overwhelming. The garden was crisscrossed with red gravel paths ending in the center of the yard by a round stonewalled well, fitted with a black wrought-iron arch and a white enameled bucket on a rope. The water was always deliciously cold. We, the children, believed that it was a wishing well, and throwing pennies we waited until a “plop!” reassured us that our wish was received and paid for. At the well’s bottom, if we looked hard, we could see the center of the earth.
Then, a war came and I couldn’t return, until now.
As before, the trip up to the house filled me with a kind of expectancy that cut short your breath and give a funny feeling in the pitch of the stomach. The approach was by the usual twisted and jumping way until the big rock, “Goliath’s head”, came into view. The boulder was naked of moss. In a way it looked extremely old, wasted away, blackened by fire, with a fresh deep furrow, like the one left by pulling out the Excalibur sword from its granite scabbard, but this one made by anger. Turning left, we kind of stopped. I saw the house, down, nestled among the old trees bearing the scars of man’s senseless atrocity. The house was badly damaged by war and weather ravages. It was like an abandoned vessel, half destroyed by many battles, the other half destroyed by storms, now in the middle of a quiet ocean, without sounds, movements, or life. It was just a “something” which once contained happiness, sorrows, triumphs, defeat, and hope. This morning, only its pathetic cracked shell was left standing. Descending, my eyes couldn’t keep away from the many windows with missing frames, like open mouths singing the last deep note of some pathetic chorus. No puppy dogs chasing its tails in exited welcome. We parked besides a bomb crater filled with murky and smelly water. Going through the shrubbery and into the house I missed the alarmed barking of the dogs and the figure of Grandma, with a flapping apron, hurrying from the kitchen to welcome me.
The hall facing the garden had no windows. Only gaping holes of raged glass, like frozen fingers, was left of the multicolored stained-glass-roses, delicately crafted by a now long forgotten ancestor. The walls were more than naked by the absence of family pictures. Nothing was left untouched. What the looters weren’t able to carry they had smashed. But they couldn’t delete all, because the scattered broken pieces of Grandma’s old rocking chair were part of memories, which no bullet could kill or erase. Moving from room to room I saw that part of the masonry was knocked inside, strewing gray dust over everything, like a shroud, mercifully covering all, with its gray color of sadness. On what was left of the doorframe of what used to be my room, among new scars was the first notch Grandpa carved when I was 31 inches tall. In another room, under a broken chair was a little yellow Teddy bear, which had bleed sawdust from a gash along its side. It was like a tiny small child with its raised arms begging for help.
The silence around was so total that I believed I could have heard the whispers of butterflies wings, but there was none. In the grand hall, someone afraid of words had burned all the books, or tried to, in the fireplace. The books were so many, that they had spilled into the room from a literary volcano spewing lava made of burning letters. Against the wall near of what once was a grand window were the rest of “the” piano, the one that gave us happy-birthdays-to-you, Christmas carols and the ever-present “For Elise” again and again. From generations it had shed flakes of varnish and black paint, showing wear and tear after so many hands loved Beethoven and maltreated Rachmaninoff. I remember its ivory keys being yellow, some with small holes, like teeth ravaged with caries. But it sounded well, at least to us, because it was a happy instrument. Then, some “soldier” was mad at Mozart or had a bad memory from his dentist, because he tried to smash every key with the fury of a patient after receiving the doctor’s bill. The piano was totally smashed, in its place, remained the echoes of its voice. Not even burglars leave behind a broken room. I saw steel splinters in the ceiling, the floor, and the battered furniture; a chair by a corner was left halting on one leg. I could feel the pain inside the rooms, and reverberating from the walls long gone distraught voices asking “why?” Outside, in what was left of the garden, an indefinable assortment of brown stems was trying not to bend to the indignity. A brown blotch of dead plants, colored by a tired and sad God, have no chance to show what they were like, with competing hues to make each morning more welcomed to a house smelling of freshly baked bread. Intruder’s boots had walked there, ignoring the red gravel pathways, trampling down Grandmas tomatoes plants and perhaps getting a gash from a rose’s torn revenge.
I left by the double heavy doors that opened to the marbled floor of what were the Grand-hall, where boys learned how to bow and girls how to curtsy in well mannered greeting to visiting strangers. It wasn’t a building, it never was. It was the home of forgotten generations, which planted trees and had their portraits painted and hanging in the walls, it was the home of my grandparent’s childhood. It was my home away from home. From far away I could hear a chapel’s little bell calling telling of mourners. Now, the ruin of a house with much less roof despite the trees that offered their wood protecting this broken box, which once contained all my childhood treasures. Suddenly, I looked around and noticed that I was part of a landscape devoid of life, and understood why my father had so much respect for silence. Because it mean so many things to so many people; a moment of meditation, a short pause between the words I love you and a kiss; the end of the world when you cried for help and nobody came. Silence is the absence of birds, squirrels, butterflies, the yappy of puppy dogs. Silence is the muteness of pianos in New Year’s Eve. Silence is the void of an empty crib. Silence is what comes after war.
In the middle of the yard, in front of the main entrance, the water well was still there, but with half of the circular stonewall blown away. The wrought-iron arch was twisted beyond recognition with a shredded stump of rope waving now and then to a gust of wind. The well was in a pitiful state to offer water or to grant the smallest of the wishes. I didn’t toss a penny and make a wish as I went by, resisting the impulse to look down the well and see if the center of the earth was still there.
©Copyright 2005 by Georg E. Mateos