Building Bookshelves in the Air | J.R. Rogers

22

The darkness springs from the room as I push open the door and step over the threshold. The sun at our backs precedes us, barges in ahead, and invades the space. The weak, disembodied voice that responds to our repeated knocking is a woman’s. I can see her now shrunken frail and very old, swaddled in black, lying ceremoniously on a high four-poster bed in a large empty tomb-like room. A cooking fire burns low in the hearth the overhead tobacco-colored beams stained by the smoke. She is immobile, silent, judging our approach. As we draw nearer, she struggles to her elbows to get a better look. We step beyond the shaft of light and now I can see she is wearing a lace headdress and an old traditional costume: a plain black dress beneath a brilliant satin apron richly brocaded.

We are not from the village; the old woman sees that at once. A frightened look darts across her wizened face when she calls out plaintively a man’s name. “Henri?”

We pause expectantly, but there is no answer; only the front door creaks lazily on its’ hinges, the house undisturbed. As we approach, my father clears his throat uncertain how to proceed. My younger brother, Marc, moves to investigate dense bundles of sticks and branches bound together and propped against the nearest walls. I can smell their decay, a smell not unlike that of the house itself. He signals to me. He points to a dark winding staircase, the landing barricaded against whom or what I cannot imagine. I report this fact to my father in a whispered voice and he nods.

“I see it,” he says, quietly.

Now, after he has introduced himself and his family my father inquires about the house. “Is it still for sale?”

I stand awkwardly alongside him listening to the woman’s country French. As my father’s voice drones, detailing his interest, I circle the room, anxious to move things along, wondering whether he is prepared to buy or just honing his conversational skills at this old woman’s expense. French is not his native language but he speaks it well. I sigh when I watch my father find a rickety chair from somewhere in the gloom and pull it close to her bedside. He sits there now, nodding intently like a visiting physician. She is going on about the house in which she was born at the turn of the century though it is now no longer hers. The owners live far away. Facing some financial difficulty they have put the property up for sale. I gather, overhearing her, that in some complicated way the old woman comes with the house.

There is lull for a moment while the two exchange silent thoughts. In the distance, I hear farm equipment laboring back and forth across a neighboring field, the rumble rising and falling as each circuit is completed. Then I hear my father begin to describe how he came to be sitting alongside her. He describes our aimless morning drive over winding coastal roads, through one small village after another, past muddy inlets where the tide has withdrawn and left the sailboats collapsed on their sides their keels dug into the mud. He mentions the small seaside hotel further up the coast where we have dropped our suitcases – one for each of us that is all my father allows – about this awkward Brittany vacation, his first without his wife and Marc and I without our mother.

The simple For Sale sign, with its’ black amateurish script, is painted white and undersize. There is neither a telephone number nor the name of a realtor. It is nailed high on the side of the house. It is my father who spots it first, for he is driving. He points to it all of a sudden and we pull over quickly and roll to a stop along the grassy shoulder. We sit for a moment, the engine idling, the three of us looking over at the house from across a country road. It looks massive and worn and unappealing. I watch my father poke his head through the window. With his engineer’s eye, he surveys for a moment the uneven gray stones, the towering chimneys, and the enormous fig tree growing in the yard. The house blends perfectly into the silent, melancholy landscape: the colorful uneven fields, the low stone fences meandering over the land and the farm animals grazing contentedly. In the distance, if I sit up straight, I can see a narrow, shimmering ribbon of slate colored ocean dotted with white caps, the near horizon broken only by the gray mass of a small village, the arrow-like steeple of an old church centrally located drawing my attention. I imagine my father wondering about this house and how it came to be placed on the market. Now, he draws deeply on the handbrake, having made some unspoken decision, and shuts off the engine.

“Well, boys,” he says, turning to us. “Let’s see if there’s anyone home.”

I notice at once the expression brightening my father’s face. It is the one I have seen before when we accompany him on his weekend prowl of the Paris flea market. Often, his persistence is rewarded: a pretty piece of China orphaned from a set, sometimes a watercolor by an obscure artist. But it is the books he favors most of all. Good first editions, the subject matter often unimportant. My father is partial to sets, too, and supple Moroccan bindings. After a find, he draws his handkerchief across the cover to rub away the dust and grime, the first steps of his purposeful, and often necessary, restoration. My father rifles through the pages. He looks for mildew and clues to the identity of former owners. Once, an old, faded banknote, fragile like a pressed flower, fluttered to the ground. My father reached for it at once and dangled it triumphantly before us, an Italian Lira. Fascinated, we watched unbelieving as he replaced it solemnly between the parchment pages.

Now, we walk around the house, over the barren earthen floors that anchor the rough whitewashed walls, through a rabbit warren of dank empty rooms and passageways.

“Let’s see about that staircase, now,” he says.

As we climb, his growing interest is evident; compulsively, he is removing and then replacing his glasses in exaggerated articulation. My father ignores the makeshift barricade at the top of the stairs by stepping over it. I have not seen him this provoked in quite some time. Marc and I hurry to stay close at hand uncertain where, in his current state of mind, his exploration will lead us and as I do I begin to recall his wistful, repeated comments in the car about a country house. Our Paris apartment is cramped, the shelf space limited. Already, I think, he is building bookshelves in the air.

We explore. The second floor is unique in one respect and I point this out at once. There are no windows on the sea. Instead, the bulwark rear of the house offers up only its’ massive stone countenance. During the dark months, explains my father dismissing my concern, the wind rages driven onshore from the sea. It flattens the fields and surges furiously over the countryside. How he knows this, I do not know; he seems to have a little knowledge of many things. His explanation weighing heavily on my mind, I set off on my own, down a dim passageway papered in faded decorative patterns, my father’s voice fading as I listen to him speaking to Marc. I turn smooth brass doorknobs opening one bedroom door after another. They are unremarkable, box-like in their simplicity, with worn plank floors bathed in the leeward sunshine streaming through their solitary windows.

Something is missing, I think, as I retrace my steps and I mention it to my father when I rejoin him.

“Yes,” he says, grinning as he agrees. “Bathrooms.”

We all laugh at this unthinkable oversight.

Now, he wants to inspect the attic. We listen to the groan of the narrow staircase steps as we climb in the dark. Marc, who is in the lead, says the door at the top is locked. Undaunted, my father brushes past me, tries to open it then pulls out his pocketknife and springs the latch. The swinging door prompts dull, stale air to sweep over us as we cross into the large, empty space. In the attic, warmed by the sun draped over the roof, I listen to the rafters creaking for no apparent reason. Shafts of quiet sunlight float through the panes of the window as Marc and I take turns pressing our noses against the dirty glass to peer out over the countryside. The landscape is subtle and serene, the muted tones of green and yellow fields, the dark meandering road cutting through the countryside, the grey stone frame of the nearby farm all remind me of the many pastoral scenes I have seen for sale at the flea market. Whispering now, for no apparent reason, I point this out to my father and help him remember.

“Yes, I suppose so,” he says, glancing quickly outside. “I see what you mean.”

We look around aimlessly as if lost, listening to the rise and fall of the wind whistling through holes in the roof, the brilliant pinpoints of light like stars in the rafters.

“Look,” Marc cries, suddenly.

I turn to find him. My brother’s face is drawn in amazement, his arm extended, pointing. There, pinned to the exposed rafters that support the sloping roof, is a crooked column of old photographs. My father and I move to this mausoleum at once. The sepia-tinted, curling photographs reach high above our heads. I watch my father exchange his glasses as he bends to accommodate the steep angle of the roof.

“Well, well,” I hear him explain as he focuses. “What have we here?”

We have uncovered a haunting family album erected perhaps by the original owners. I point out men uniformed for old wars, standing at attention while holding tall rifles, couples posing outside wearing antique clothes and children playing with wooden toys. I am struck more by the unusual location of this retrospective, preserved under the roof like mounted butterflies, than I am by the photographer’s choice of his subjects.

“Will you look at that, boys?”

We follow the trajectory of his finger. He taps several times at a certain photograph sending dust motes spiraling; something has caught his eye. He detaches it carefully and holds it up to the light.  Marc and I look up in unison. Now we can see this must be an early snapshot of the house. It’s character is youthful, the shades and shadows different, the structure more cocksure. He urges us closer and we shuffle forward, following his bidding like pupils to the blackboard. He lowers the snapshot so we can examine it more carefully.

“Look for the tree,” he instructs us, holding out the photograph. “The one out front, the fig tree, see it anywhere?”

We shake our heads slowly in unison as we peer at the snapshot.

He smiles triumphantly then snatches it away. “Fascinating,” he says, in that tone I have come to recognize.

We back away confused and watch as he pulls off his glasses.

“Wonderful place, just wonderful,” he sighs, as he pockets the photograph.

Stepping outside into the courtyard, we notice the old gray well sitting in a corner surrounded by an unkempt bed of red geraniums then move on to visit the outbuildings. Each is cool and dark, miniatures with pitched roofs squatting next to the looming house. I tug on rusted iron handles, scrape the heavy swollen doors over the dirt, and draw a perfect arc on the ground every time.

“Damp,” declares my father, as he peers over my shoulder before moving on.

Behind us, a neglected expanse of lawn, pot-holed from heavy, bovine hooves, an overgrown vegetable garden and an outhouse painted fire engine red, define the property lines. In the distance all-around cows graze contentedly their tails swishing in the hush of a country afternoon. Wings flutter above our heads; cormorants dart in and out from under the eaves. The silence seems eternal.

Now, he stands on top of the well, his hand visored over his eyes, and squints at the roof. I’m reminded immediately of a familiar statue in Africa, Stanley in a pith helmet, one hand holding a walking stick, the other shielding his eyes as he gazes out over the expansive Congo River. We used to take a picnic there on Sunday afternoons. Mark and I would throw rocks at the crocodiles while my mother and father would lean over the railing and watch as the hyacinth coated waters rushed by only to destroy themselves on the shoals that marked the end of its’ navigable length; Leopoldville was my father’s previous posting and where my mother divorced him and flew back to America.

He’s found a ladder to gain a better view. Marc and I climb onto the covered well to watch him. On the roof, the inclined plane of crooked slate tiles is covered with isolated patches of mosses turned yellow bathed by the sun.

“There’s work up here,” we hear him call out to us. Then he turns. “Somebody give me a hand.”

We rush over to steady his ladder so he can clamber down, his dark trousers flapping indelicately in the wind. In the distance, church bells suddenly begin to peal, the prolonged ringing drifting unevenly toward us as my father brushes past us and off of the ladder. As we leave, and I take a quick last look around, I notice the smell of the sea for the first time. In Brittany, I learn, it is always close and never far away. It inhabits the land and, like the wind that shapes the rocky coastline, is as constant as the tide.

Dinner service at the hotel begins promptly at seven when the double doors to the dining room are thrown open theatrically. Until then, we gather silently outside in the cramped lobby along with the others. We wait expectantly on hard wooden benches facing dark, richly decorated cupboards, the appetizing smells of dinner escaping from the kitchen and settling all around us. I hear the muffled voices of the staff and the heavy clang of silverware being set out on the tables. Marc, next to me, motors his stubby, dangling legs impatiently back and forth as if running a race. I don’t speak to my father while he reads his paperback novel for to do so would invite only a grim response. I want to ask him about the house, but I sense he is letting his enthusiasm settle for a while. He was silent in the car all the way back to the hotel. Instead, I turn and gaze out at the comfortable-looking smiling couples on the terrace grouped under colorful fringe advertising umbrellas. In their midst, the new arrivals can be distinguished easily enough; they still wear their city clothes and seem tense and uncomfortably seated with nothing to do. I suppose, they have not yet learned how to merge completely into the laziness of their summer vacation. Shifting my gaze, I watch amused as the last of the day’s sunbaked bathers, their bodies wrapped in towels, slowly climb the narrow sand blown street up from the beach.

The ocean breeze has gradually turned cool, the afternoon light is dimming, and the potted red geraniums that are everywhere in this little resort are shimmering, and swaying. Now, the dining room doors are flung open. The terrace comes alive: guests are stretching and standing, parents are collecting their children and my father slowly closes his book and stands.

J.R. Rogers was raised abroad in Antwerp, Paris and Kinshasa. He holds a bachelor’s degree in French Literature but has worked most of his professional life as a management consultant in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. His work has appeared in Steam Ticket: A Third Coast Review, TrainWrite, VelvetBlory, The Legendary, The Rusty Nail, and The Copperfield Review. He has also published three e-Book novels, The Counterfeit Consul, Leopold’s Assassin, and Doomed Spy. Excerpts can be found at www.authorjrrogers.com

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