The soldier drove very slowly, as if wanting to minimize the rattling of the wheels against the grabble. Not wanting to disturb the sleep of the people inside the house. Or as if all of a sudden he were enjoying the driving and wanted to postpone it for as long as possible. For me, that singing of the grabble was not only a familiar sound. It reverberated in my memory, raising the image of my father at the wheel. A man with a purpose, whatever that purpose was. His imposing shaven jaw, a fragrance that I only remember emanating from him, never anyone else. How any occasion seemed to be the right backdrop for one of his assertive sayings. He would stop for the longest time at an intersection to say ‘it is better to waste a second in life than to lose your life in a second’. My favorite of his sayings. I think it was his favorite too, as he resorted to it with a ridiculous ease.
“Here we are,” the soldier said, stopping the car and turning the engine off. The headlights, before dying, had photographed in my retina the midpoint of the house. The four curved steps, leading from the sea of gravel to the semicircular landing, with the two squared pots on both sides of the double door. The same door that I painted so many times over the years. Especially one summer, with that long-lasting obsession of a ten-year old, able to forget all other facets of life and focus all his attention on the subject at hand, that door. I painted it from different angles. With pencil, with charcoal, with watercolors. From afar, framed and diminished by the whole house. Or the door as the centerpiece, shrouded by two simple pilasters and an unassuming lintel adorned with a laurel wreath. Each leaf carved with little detail, as if the mason had intended for them to look weathered, although each leaf was still distinctive from the others. Sixteen leaves on the right side. Fifteen on the left side. I always loved that asymmetry that everyone else ignored so utterly. The cornice hugging all the attention, with a busy succession of leafy and fruity motives, the pediment restrained in comparison, a boring hat to put any imagination to sleep. Or I would get very close to the door, concentrate on one of the gothic hinges, with a light dusting of yellow lichen over the rusty iron; or a small section within one of the panels, detailing with an absurd amount of detail every scratch over the concentric flows of the wood.
“Here we are,” I repeated once I processed the soldier’s words.
Now that the roar of the engine had died I could hear the tapping of the rain on the car. A soothing murmur that calmed me down. Being in the car was all of a sudden a pleasant, comfortable experience. I didn’t desire to get out any longer. Inside the car I was in the present. Out there the past was waiting. I knew that when I would step out of the car, the ends of the east and west wings would be hidden in darkness, but I would sense them curving like arms wanting to hug me and squeeze me. And the three floors of the house, perfectly manageable by anyone else, would soar up into the sky and judge me.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
“To be honest, I’m not completely sure,” the soldier said. “My name is Marcus, by the way.” A sudden and honest voice now. A voice that sounded much different to the dry one that had snapped at me during our drive to this moment. More relaxed, human, and approachable.
“You don’t know? What’s the point of bringing me here, then?”
“The ultimate reason, I mean, is what I don’t know… Not sure if anyone knows, but that’s just a feeling I have.”
“You must have instructions, though. You must have been told to do something about me, right?”
“Yes, of course we have instructions. That’s what we do, isn’t it? We follow instructions.” There was a tired surrender in his voice.
“I guess so,” I said. “What would those instructions be, then?”
“You need to expend a few days in the house, and be interrogated by us every day. That’s basically it. Simple enough, especially for you.”
“I wouldn’t call it interrogation,” the soldier sitting behind me said. I had completely forgotten about his existence. He hadn’t said a word since we got into the car, back in Stuttgart. Until now. “Just a daily conversation. We’re not supposed to alter your state of mind,” he added.
I turned on my seat. It was too dark inside the car for me to see his face with any detail. However, I could tell that he wasn’t scared anymore.
“Isn’t a little too late for that?” I said. “And what do you mean my ‘state of mind’, exactly?”
“Maybe those are not the right words.” He smiled. “I just meant that we’ll try not to interfere with you. Only when we have our little daily conversation,” the soldier said. I could see his teeth and eyes catching some light and reflecting it, the rest of his face some broad smudges.
“You should even pretend that we aren’t in town, if you can,” Marcus said. “Do as you would do if you had come here out of your own volition.”
“I wouldn’t have come, though.”
“Well, you can see it as a forced vacation, if you prefer,” Marcus said. “Now you’re here and you need to spend a few days, so try to relax. Live in the house, walk around, investigate as you please. Maybe you will discover something unusual.”
“What do you expect me to discover?”
“That’s all up to you.”
“Nothing specific you want me to find?”
“Nothing I know of, no,” Marcus said.
“So you just release me and then observe me?”
“Basically, yes,” the soldier on the backseat said.
“I see. And not to be a bother, but where are my parents?”
“Ah, that,” Marcus said. “Well, I can tell you that they aren’t inside the house.”