She rented the old house on an impulse. It was too big and too far away but she rented it anyway. The owners wanted to meet her. They wanted to make sure she was neat, the kind of person who would keep the house the way they had, but she told the broker that she would not do that, that her bank references were enough. She wanted a place where she could feel no attachment to anyone, she wanted no associations.
She liked the idea that the house sat alone on top of the hill. Not a single tree stood beside it; the one old maple was sick and had to be cut down the very day she moved in. It seemed to her the house was made stronger without the company of its tree. With nothing around it, defying the landscape, the house appeared solemn in its loneliness.
Before she moved in she cleared the house of every object of decoration. She did not want the bowls filled with dried rose petals, the scented candles or the pillows covered with bright needlepoint. She had slipcovers made, all white, as white as the walls and the gauzy curtains, the sheets and the towels and everything else that she would need for the bare existence she was planning to have inside this remote house where she wanted to inhabit silence.
She was happy to drive up the hill and watch the house define itself from the distance. She did not know a great deal about architecture but she knew it must have been built about 200 years ago. The house was so perfectly proportioned, so spare in its details, with its windows balancing each other and its severe front door painted a dignified blackish green. She had seen hundreds of houses like this one. They dotted the New England countryside, most of them surrounded by large, shady trees that turned into fire in the fall. Her house was just one more. She knew nothing about its past or recent history, only the name of its previous owners: Roger and Mary Smith. Generic names that failed to invite speculation.
She parked her car close to the back door and unloaded the few belongings she had brought with her. She took them upstairs to her bedroom and carefully hung in the closet several pairs of jeans, white T-shirts and two black sweaters. She’d bought everything at the Gap. She had left all her fancy clothes, as well as her jewelry, her small collection of watercolors and other possessions in storage. She’d brought only one book, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her mother had died recently and it had been her favorite book. She placed it next to a large comfortable chair in the living room, near the fireplace and beside the window overlooking the vast expanse of green pastures.
The light was silvery that afternoon, making everything calm and soft. She walked around the house studying it carefully. She liked that the windows offered views that were remarkably similar, echoing each other in a reassuring way. What was different was the light—it gave each room a special mood. As the sun began to set and the sky turned an ocherous red, the living room acquired a quiet warmth that resonated within her, making her feel still and calm and free. She stood by the window until it was dark and the moonless night told her it was time for bed. She was tired and her sleep was dreamless.
A vast combination of bird songs woke her up. She had never lived in the country before and was surprised by the infinite range of its sounds. They filled the quiet with virginal music that soothed her with unexpected harmonies. The sunlight began to fill her room. She lay in bed for a long time. She observed the movements of birds, flies, spiders, all performing the rituals of their lives, unaware of her presence. She noticed that the doorknobs and the window fixtures were made of brightly polished brass, large and elaborate. They disturbed the calmness of the house. She decided to have them removed. She was alone and did not need to close doors.
On tiptoe she went down the stairs, afraid that by interrupting the silence she might disturb nature’s activities. She liked the feeling of having created for herself this kind of responsibility. In the city where she lived all activities were manmade. It would never have occurred to her that she could interrupt them.
Seven days went by and she was still learning to live in the house. She waited with anticipation for the events that took place every day. The beginning of light and the beginning of dark—events that repeated themselves in a relentless sheltering way. There were other instances for which she had never made room. The fearful, repetitious sounds made by the intruders of the firmament, the glittering black crows, or the color of pewter that permeates the landscape when nature does not engender rain; the shifting shapes made by the clouds as they reflect on the tiny ponds that appear after a torrential storm or the yellowish tint of blue night creates when the day animals have gone to sleep and night animals have yet to awake. There were also the tiny gifts the wind brought her—a faded ribbon, a remnant of a feather, a flower petal. She was happy to be part of them, slowly becoming aware that what was happening was what she had in mind when she rented the house.
She developed new routines and they soothed her. She did not want to open her mail or check her messages in the city, enjoying the surprises this old house was creating for her, knowing all along that they would lead her to accomplish what she had come to do. One day rolled into the next, the days got a bit shorter and the birds began to go south, until one day, when she woke up, she found herself surrounded by sparkling whiteness. Winter had arrived and with it a mysterious and sudden force that took away many of her new companions. Only a few remained, those who lived with her inside the old house: they became less visible, and like her worked shorter, more productive days.
The winter house became different, the artificial noise of the furnace welcome only because it kept her warm. The house squeaked as if tired with age and the light turned tender and wise. The fireplace glowed and the senseless movement of the flames irritated her. Rabbits and deer left their marks in the powdery snow, not letting her see them, shy and mysterious, so unlike the showy creatures of summer. The Federal Express truck made its way up the hill. Her friend from Los Angeles had sent her a loaf of Pouline bread from Paris. She forgot for a moment that last year for Christmas she was in Paris, unaware of birds and light, of a life composed of slow rhythms and tiny observations. A door closed itself upstairs but she knew she had no company and it reassured her to be alone.
Her work was going well, the poems she wanted to write were becoming very different from the kind of poems she had written before. She liked them as they gently evolved and filled the pages of her yellow pad. The blank page did not scare her anymore; there was always a tiny event that freed her to write, such as imagining the joy in the pain of the young mother as she births her calf, and her hurt as she watches her newborn slip on the wet earth when he takes a first step.
It is now March and the shredded clouds are a light tint of pink. The fog that enveloped her during her early morning walks has disappeared. The house looks lonely as it waits for the performances of spring. She likes to return to it after her walks as she too waits. The players show up suddenly, like the parade that announces the circus in a small town. The events of the past spring don’t quite repeat themselves, everything appears new, and she wonders if the hummingbird is the offspring of last year’s hummingbird.
The house has entered her skin, no longer impersonal, it is now a playhouse for the little and important plays that are born with no scripts.
—Gabriella De Ferrari is a writer and art historian. She lives in New York City.