As I opened the door I was assaulted by the aromas of fried sausages and over-boiled coffee. I immediately remembered this funny thing about the accumulation of odors in the most random spots around the house. It didn’t matter that the kitchen were tucked way on the ground floor. Some particular smells created in the kitchen wafted into the porous walls and found their ways to these and those corners of the house, where they stagnated for hours.
I only had to walk a few steps toward the stairs and I completely lost my connection with the odoriferous remnants from the kitchen. Gone were the sausages and coffee, once again I was left with the more ordinary mix of dust, mildew and decaying paper. A mix that if I had been asked to describe as a color would have forced me to choose a yellowish green. The color of early autumnal leaves, fallen, wet, oozing into the ground. The same color as the thick carpet which covered most of the corridors in the house, including the one that was supporting me now.
I walked down the corridor without any sense of urgency. At the end of the corridor there would be the stairs, and the stairs would take me to the dining room next to the kitchen where the breakfast should be waiting, but then there was nothing else on my agenda. No reason whatsoever for me to rush.
Along the walls of the corridor there were several paintings. In fact, most of the walls in the house were populated with hanging paintings, never two similar frames in sight, as if frame variety had been a more crucial factor on how to display the paintings than the contents within the frames. I recognized some of the paintings as I walked by them. Others I was sure I had never seen, like this expressionistic representation of two cats facing each other. These new pieces must have been acquired after I left the house, or reclaimed from some secret vault I didn’t know anything about. As for the paintings that I did recognize I remembered them collecting dust in different parts of the house. It was like someone’s job had entailed going around the house and swapping paintings, maybe in a perpetual search for the perfect arrangement. Frames being, one could assume, a main consideration in such an ever going rearranging scheme.
The corridor ended in a landing well illuminated by two windows. There was only one flight of stairs, going down.
I had not spent much time on this top floor as a child, but now I appreciated the sense of tranquility and safety offered by being relatively far away from the bulk of activity that took place on the ground floor. I reconsidered whether I wanted to go down to the ground floor or back to my room.
Pushed against the corner of the landing stood an stylized elephant. I had always thought that it was carved on wood and painted, but now I realized it was made out of ivory and coated with a layer of dirt. It didn’t matter one way or another, it was still the same ugly piece. But how many more times would this situation repeat itself, me recalling a feature from the past but only partly or incorrectly, having to accept that I had never really known an important aspect about that feature in question. And feeling this disconnect with the house. I would have thought that all my childhood years being imbued in this house would have granted me some right to feel bound to the place. For ever vaccinated against feeling like a stranger in this house that saw me growing. But the house, after all the interceding years in which I had been away, didn’t seem to want to accept me back. Was the house mad at me, at my infidelity, unwilling to forgive all those years in which I had not only been away, but even worst I hadn’t carried it in my thoughts?
Houses don’t have feelings, I know. Silly thoughts. But I would have understood anyway. After all, I had totally ignored the house during years. It hadn’t existed even in my dreams. I would have held a grudge if I were the house.
Before I started to descend the stairs I heard the wooden cracks made by someone coming up. I first thought that maybe the person in question wouldn’t go all the way to my floor. I remained still, waiting and hoping that the advancing noises would gradually dissipate on a lower floor, and then disappear. I didn’t feel like interacting with anyone yet.
I waited while the noises kept ascending and getting closer. They were very near now. I knew that soon I would face someone. There was nothing else to do but to look down at the landing at the end of my flight of stairs, where soon the incoming person would step into the scene. I had time to count the number of stairs from that landing to the landing in which I was standing on. Fifteen. And then again, one to fifteen. I have always liked to transform numbers into images. A group of fourteen sheep contemplating the one sheep that had abandoned the flock and was running toward the mountains that made the background.
A maid appeared on the landing. She came up three steps before she noticed me and she immediately stopped. She rummaged in her apron pockets and didn’t seem to find what she was looking for; she then pulled out a piece of cloth that had been hanging from her belt and started to rub the wooden rail halfheartedly.
I didn’t recognize her. I could say that I had never seen her, but I couldn’t be sure. She was approximately my age.
“Good morning,” I said.
“My lord,” she greeted me. That took me by surprise. I didn’t recall anyone treating my father or myself like that during the whole time I had lived in the house.
“People say that you have come back just for the money,” she said before I had time to tell her that she didn’t need to call me ‘my lord’. “You know, there isn’t a recently dead cow that won’t attract the vultures, that type of thing. That’s what people are saying.”
“You know, people in town.”
“Well, I’m not here for the money.” What money, anyway? Was she talking about cash or property value? Come to think of it, the house and its contents alone should be worth a substantial amount. For the first time I became aware of the fact that if my parents were dead I would be the likely owner of the house, absurd extensions of land and more than half of the town itself. Until now I had seen myself outside from the scene, when in reality I was one of the main characters, if not the centerpiece of whatever drama was unfolding around me.
“That’s what I thought, personally,” she said.
“I’m glad to hear,” I said, stopping myself from asking her if she knew anything about this money that people seemed to think I was so interested in. What was she supposed to know? As if able to read my thoughts, she said “I’d be surprised if there’s any, really. Like real money, I mean.”
“What else are people saying?” I asked.
“People are saying that you will sell the house, all the land, and then go away.”
“I never thought about doing such a thing.”
“I didn’t think you would. It would be like you selling the town. How does that even work? What about the people living in the town?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“I don’t have any intention of selling the town, even if that were possible.”
“It makes me feel better that you say that. Because I wouldn’t know what to do if I was forced to leave. What could I do?”
“I don’t know,” I answered after seriously considering her question for a few seconds. “I don’t know.”
“Me neither, that’s the problem.”
She stopped pretending to clean the rail and hang her rag back on her belt.
“Do you like geese!” she asked.
“Geese? I cannot say I care much about geese,” I said. She seemed disappointed with my answer. “Why?”
“There are two soldiers waiting for you in the conservatory, my lord,” she said, and then she ran away down the stairs.