by Gabriel Rogers
Imay as well begin with the day, five years ago, when I realized the old house wasn’t a house anymore. I stood listening to the fire chief’s big pickup crunching driveway gravel in the bottomland, growing louder as it lumbered up the hill through the woods and emerged at the edge of the field. Hard to imagine it was true that the house itself had been hauled up that same track ninety years ago. A two-story farmhouse yawing through the sheep fields, green poplar beams straining, making slow headway up the hill with a clamor of diesel. Coerced by levers and chains to come to rest on cinderblocks between two young maples. Settled in for a lifetime. Old maples now, twice as tall as the house, tickling the eaves with their middle branches.
I’d asked the chief to come out and see if he’d be willing to burn the old house as a training exercise for the volunteer fire department. Now, hands in the pockets of his duck jacket, he considered it. Following his gaze, I could see it was nothing but a hulk. I’d spent months with a crowbar and a Sawzall cannibalizing it for lumber to build a new cabin: rough-sawn studs, German siding, wide trim boards, splintery yellow cypress floorboards. Contorted nails accumulating in a drywall bucket. Working alone, I hadn’t realized just how much of the house I’d taken apart. It had become nothing but a ragged assemblage that traced house-like outlines, cutting blue sky and leafless trees into rectangles, just as easy to look through as look at. A kind of shabby Mondrian, repainted hour by hour as the mood of light shifted across the landscape beyond.
It wasn’t worth the trouble, was the chief’s assessment. With so much wood gone, it wouldn’t burn the way a house burned, if they could even convince it to burn at all. So I called a man with an excavator and watched from the roofed-in frame of my new cabin up the hill as he prodded and smashed with the machine’s toothed bucket. Sodden heaps of drywall, twisted snakes of Romex, and splintered pick-up-stick jumbles went into a dump truck and left for the landfill. For the last remnants he dug a pit, shoved them in, and covered them over with muddy soil like putty in a nail hole.
Or I could begin with a tab that stayed open in my web browser for months. Something about it haunted me. It was an article about a 6,000-year-old “megasite” in Ukraine full of the remnants of deliberately burned houses. In idle moments I would click on the tab, scroll to the diagram of the sprawling site’s layout: thousands of dwellings, widely spaced, divided into 14 neighborhoods by avenues radiating out of a huge open central space. Scroll to the artist’s rendering of an assembly hall, where residents of each neighborhood likely gathered for ceremonies or collective decision-making. Scroll further to the photo of a replica house on fire.
This place was a city before Sumer, before Ur—before cities were supposed to have existed. And it was a city whose inhabitants were continually burning it down. I began to hunt for articles from archaeological journals tracing recent discoveries from across the “Burned House Horizon,” the swath of soil north and west of the Black Sea where similar 6,000-year-old cities are found. Researchers refer to the culture that built them as Cucuteni-Trypillia, after a Romanian town and another in Ukraine. The Trypillians farmed, herded, made elaborate painted ceramics, traded copper goods, and built sturdy timber houses with wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs. Each house had a lifetime of about 60 or 70 years before it was burned.
The houses burned hot enough to fire the clay daub of their walls into glassy ceramic lumps. Archaeologists discovered, when they built and burned full-size replicas, that the only way to achieve such kiln-like temperatures was to pack them with extra dry wood—up to ten times as much wood as it took to build the house itself. The fires must have been spectacular, flames whipping and twirling high into the air, visible for miles, burning so completely they left behind nothing but a small mound of vitrified daub.
It was strange for the old house to be gone. Grass growing up where it had sat for a century. Although, for me, it had always existed more in my nostalgic imagination than in the physical space it occupied. My parents and two other couples had lived there together, with six kids in all. I was only born after the three families dispersed and my parents built their new house across the creek. When I was a kid I was captivated by the photo albums from those years that I’d missed. My older brothers grinned up from late-70s birthday party snapshots in light that seemed always green and gold under the maples.
When the three families first moved into the old house, the former residents told them there was a ghost. Their little girl had seen it in the upstairs bedrooms. They’d also been notified when they’d first moved in. Mrs. Graham had said that she just couldn’t deal with Mr. Graham’s presence anymore, the way he would come to her rocking chair late at night and brush her hair away from her face so he could kiss her. My dad saw Mr. Graham’s ghost one time, on a night when the other adults were out and the kids were all in bed. It was outside near the root cellar, a luminous figure fading away down the legs, not meeting the ground. There’s nothing left for you here, he thought toward him, you should go ahead and move on.
As I took apart the old house, newspapers stuffed in the walls whispered from across the decades like incantations. Empty notches in the poplar beams spoke of previous purposes they had served. . . Intangible shreds of the past seemed to cling to every nail head.
Perhaps Mr. Graham’s ghost did move on. I never saw it, but I’m convinced that there’s a subtler way the old house haunted itself, as perhaps all houses do. From the moment of construction, the function of sheltering and accommodating daily life is accompanied into the world by new mysteries, which only multiply as a house ages and accumulates residues from the lives carried on within it. A house’s shadows and hollow walls and creaking bones call forth something ineffable. The drafts that seep through its window frames and the rain thrumming on the roof whisper into the warm vacancy that nothing lasts forever. As I took apart the old house, newspapers stuffed in the walls whispered from across the decades like incantations. Empty notches in the poplar beams spoke of previous purposes they had served. Between the living room and the kitchen there was a wall made entirely of repurposed, unopenable doors. One small bedroom was only accessible via a circular hole cut in the poplar paneling like a portal. Intangible shreds of the past seemed to cling to every nail head. The low ceilings and small rooms were silent as I moved through the place, prying it apart, yet every surface gave off the feel of an echo.
It’s likely that the house burnings of the Trypillians corresponded to a recent death. Clay figurines and miniature model houses were placed in the structure as a “dead-house assemblage” before it was ignited in a public ceremony. It’s a dicey thing to guess at the motivations of people who lived 6,000 years ago, but one way to portray this custom is to say that the flames billowing before the gathered throng materialized the person’s death in the house-death and linked both to the broader community. The pile of glassy relics left after the fire cooled became a “memory mound” and new houses associated with the same kin-group were built nearby.
By the time I was eight my brothers were off at college and an old lady named Edith lived in the old house. She was a refugee from the Stonewall Jackson Dam project two counties over. Her family farm had been inundated along with the rest of the valley. She’d stayed as long as she possibly could, spending her last nights there sitting awake with a 12-gauge shotgun and a .45 to fend off looters. When she finally left at dawn the last morning, she watched in the rear-view mirror as men descended to strip what they could from the condemned house and barn.
I visited Edith sometimes, climbing the slippery steps of the old house’s porch and tapping on the cloudy glass of the sliding doors. Flying squirrels occupied the attic and a family of raccoons had taken over the second floor. It was always cold inside. Edith’s life was pretty much restricted to the living room, where she had an armchair piled with blankets and a little space heater on the floor with glowing red elements. We listened to the CB scanner together, monitoring the laconic voices of policemen and firefighters through the static to catch news of the latest vehicular catastrophes and house fires happening nearby.
Not long after I enclosed the salvaged bones of the old house behind plaster in my new cabin, I got a call from Mike. He was the other latecomer, born after our families had moved out of the old house. He grew up in another part of the state but with the same feeling of having missed something vital that took place between those two maples, a part of our childhoods that had always already passed by.
Mike told me about an art project he’d been designing for Burning Man in the Nevada desert. It was a memorial for his older sister Margaret, who’d died at 27 from an illness. The room with the circular portal had been hers. Soon enough I was driving across the country to help him build his ambitious idea: a 29-foot-tall Korean woman throwing a peace sign with an outstretched arm, dressed in traditional hanbok, her skirts melting into the gentle overlapping shapes of Appalachian hills, her plywood hair blackened with glittering flecks of anthracite. Inside the sculpture was a sinuous mine tunnel leading to a domed chamber adorned with ghostly silhouettes of the Carboniferous-period tree species whose ancient decayed matter formed the coal seams of Appalachia. It was an entirely sui generis tribute to a Korean-born Appalachian woman and to the body of the land where she grew up. It would stand on the white alkaline dust of the Black Rock Desert for a week before going up in a massive conflagration which revealed a steel-winged angel standing within.
The houses that the Trypillians burned as memorials were unlikely to have been year-round residences. If the full capacity of the megasites—tens of thousands of people—had lived there permanently, it would have left indelible marks on the surrounding landscape and the local pollen record, but such traces of intensive settlement are absent. Archaeologists have begun to lean toward a model which posits that the cities were annual pilgrimage centers for villagers who lived in the surrounding region. They made the journey to gather with acquaintances and kin, re-thatch roofs, attend assemblies and house-burnings, trade goods, and build new houses, going back home to their small settlements after something like a month or two. It’s a model that’s so different from our traditional conception of early urban concentrations that it’s hard to know what to do with it besides wonder that there are more ways of living with each other than we’ve imagined.
Black Rock City, Burning Man’s home, doesn’t exist in the winter. The occasional rainstorm floods the pancake-flat playa with an inch or two of water and fairy shrimp rise from dormancy for a brief cycle of life. By the end of August, a city of seventy thousand has materialized in concentric rings surrounding a central open space, divided by spoke-like radial avenues. At the hub is the Man. The year I joined Mike in Black Rock City, the Man was under a roof. The structure looked like a Victorian garden pavilion redesigned by extraterrestrials. The night after Mike’s project burned, I joined tens of thousands of others to watch the Man raise his arms and be incinerated in a maelstrom that roared toward the starry sky. I heard later that somebody, somewhere on the other side of the fire, ran into it and ended his life. The following night was the final burn of the year: the Temple—a space of contemplation, its nooks and crannies stuffed with tributes to loved ones, mementos of former selves, objects expressing the inexpressible—went up in flames before a somber crowd.
Edith was paranoid about the destructive power of fire. Her husband, a gunsmith, had suffered severe burns when his shop burned down. He hadn’t lived much longer. When she moved to the old house she allayed her fears of fire by running an electric line down to the pond to power a pump for hoses and cutting a logging road into the woods for access in case of a forest fire. This she dubbed “the Burma Road” after the strategic World War II-era supply road in Southeast Asia. I now use the Burma Road to cut firewood for the cabin.
When Edith was born, as my mom recalls her telling it, she failed to start breathing. It was late October in a house by the river in Buckhannon. Someone carried the blue baby down from the upstairs bedroom and set her on the floor by the front door, presumably to be disposed of. The cold draft shocked breath into her and she cried out. She breathed for 90 years.
The place where Edith lives in my memory is in her armchair by the glowing space heater, ensconced in a claustrophobic sphere of heat while damp cold pervades the rest of the old house. Cold, having given her life, now being held off by fire at her feet, even with the threat of fire constantly flickering in her mind.
After the fire chief declined to burn the old house and I watched its last rubble disappear beneath the ground, I started thinking about the abandoned houses moldering away at the edges of fields everywhere. How long should a house last? How should it meet its end? People were vulnerable to having their lives cut short in tragedy. Houses seemed just as prone to hanging on too long, sagging crookedly into the brambles or getting knocked over as if they were never anything but in the way.
The old house’s excavator-powered interment echoed its arrival at that spot: wrenched around by thunderous blasts of diesel, heaved into place and left. Unceremonious. When I was in Nevada, gathered with hundreds of others to watch the memorial for Margaret burn, and, later, when I was reading articles from archaeological journals and picturing the Trypillians doing much the same thing, my mind flew back to the old house’s remains, to whatever spirits lingered there, now locked in anaerobic stasis rather than exhaling themselves upward in a dazzling gesture of flames. I’d been stubbornly solitary in my undertaking to salvage its lumber and build my cabin, but I began to imagine a great assembly of friends and relations: Edith’s kin, Mike and Margaret and all the rest of the three families, the former residents, the ghosts of Mr. Graham and Mrs. Graham too, the ghosts of the people who ran sheep on the land so many decades ago, arrayed along with the fire chief and his volunteers around the old house, leaping flames lighting up fleshly and diaphanous faces alike as we offered up our losses to the sky.
For four years the grass has grown up and the maples have rained their orange leaves down once again. The old house’s parts continue to settle into the body of the earth, an underground memory mound. From time to time my strange vision of a ceremonial assembly returns to me.
There was one small part of the old house that burned in real life: a piece of wide tongue-in-groove poplar paneling with bits of orange and blue wallpaper and an arc of a circle cut into one end. A segment of the round portal into Margaret’s room. I stuck it in the car when I left for Nevada and nestled it in a corner of the coal-mine tunnel just before the whole thing was set alight.
Gabriel Rogers grew up in the Leading Creek valley of Randolph County, West Virginia. He is working on his MFA in creative nonfiction at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He lives in Athens, Greece. This is his first publication.