The Yellow House

In our family we were always sick, we were always dying from one thing or another, death’s face occupied every wall and window, no one ever went anywhere for fear of giving up the ghost in a strange place.

Which to our mind every other place was. Strange. And strangest of all, the pretty yellow house across the lane where men and women of incomprehensible gaiety, children by the score, were ever arriving: picnics on the lawn by the seashore, platter upon platter of dazzling foods, calisthenics, cartwheels, bocce games and the like. The air charged with laughter, mirthful shouts, the barking of dogs, all as vigorous women pushed prams up and downhill, gave chase to errant balls, the odd, runaway baby. Then, spent, adults and children alike all stripped down to the bare vestiges of decency, taking the sun on the green grass until the day’s last rays were no more.

By night, their songs wafting our way. A kingdom of happiness the yellow house was.

Not so, ours. Waylayed by a thousand maladies, for one of us simply to stand up and slowly cross a room was a torture, the floor groaning just as we were ourselves groaning, although of course we did from time to time make these crossings, not even in an infirmary such as ours could one remain in bed forever. Each of us muttering to ourselves, We will never get better, the end is coming.

Dear parents, should I perish before nightfall please see that all my worldly goods pass on to my sister, Precilla, as for instance my little fire-engine wagon with the red wheels, my Sakimoto red-lipped doll, these worn slippers, this tatty red nightgown which really should be washed before you even consider throwing it about your shoulders.

We were always getting worse, never better. During the rare occurrence when someone did no one had a pleasant word to say. We knew such improvement would not last long. A day or two, the odd enchanted hour, then the party would be dropping back into bed, depleted beyond all human reckoning, as we all were, beyond human reckoning. We were shut away, window and door were ever closed, our needs were few, food was scarcely an issue, since to have an appetite, to have desire of any kind, was all but inconceivable. We were awash in hopelessness as one would be in a dingy on the stormy sea, God had deserted us, the world had deserted us, it had always been this way, our condition ever the same, we were born to it, all of us were, grandmother and grandfather, parents, the Geeks, who one day just happened to arrive. We heard scuffling feet, laboriously we rolled over, opened our eyes and there the Geeks were, all seven of them, of an age roughly corresponding to our own, a family likely smitten with the syndrome that carried our name, each too weak to advance another step, certainly too weak to offer explanation, and which of us would have had strength to listen, as for that, speech generally was out of the question for our lot. Nothing but groans, cries of woe, yelps of pain, tears, these could hardly be called speech, and it was this way, it had been this way for as long as any of us could remember, certainly long before the arrival of those Geeks, who, it should be said, were worse off than we were, if such is possible, this in large part because of the smell each individually conveyed, collectively, more so, a sour brinish odour, ether and egg-rot, that putrid medicinal tinge that one always associates with death, this baked into them. But then again I suppose we all transported this sickly odour, certainly our parents and grandparents did. The odour had soaked into the walls and flooring, into the carpets and lamp shades, everywhere, which was the explanation for why at least one window had to be kept open always, even in cruellest winter. That one open window explaining, too, why those in our house were so acutely aware of the incessant activities at the yellow house across the lane, a picture of perfection perched upon green hills rolling up from the seashore.

Our interest was aroused, it could be said that not much went on over there of which we long remained in ignorance, the train of prams pushed uphill and downhill by vigorous women, generations in transition, now the pram children grown up and themselves pushing bigger and brighter prams, though still, through all of those years, the bocce games, the headstands, the picnics, the beautiful foods, such beautiful people, why them and not us. Horrific, I will have you know, as in the meantime Grandfather died, Grandmother did, the parents, God help them, six Geeks dead, puppets, you might say, disengaged from their strings or a rank of dominoes toppled over, never those three of us remaining now to know who those dead Geeks were or by what circumstance they entered our gate rather than another.

Eons back, in the dark ravages of time–I should have told you this at the start, pray, forgive me–our ancestors established a cemetery off there at the dome of the hill, such a pretty resting place, but over the centuries the leaning stones gradually crept downhill, fanning off to sit among the arcade of coconut palms on one side, the lagoon waters on the other. Advancing our way through a savanna of tall grasses which hid away a barn or two, sheds specific to ancient days when at least some of us must have eked out a small living, satisfied somehow freehold arrangements peculiar to the time and place, in any event these graves now shock up against the backside of our very dwelling. This sprawling cemetery a city unto itself, it might be said, though said in error, since so much of ourselves repose there.

Such a panorama this cemetery is, with green hills rising in the distance, coconut palms, banana trees, and behind them cloud-becloaked mountains in which thread numerous rivers which in the rainy season feed the long fingers of the lagoon, and not far as seen through our open window, one untidy peach tree in warfare with the tall grasses, pampas and the like, no less than with the tumble-down stakes, the lattice-work, once erected in support of that lone peach tree.

Our parents, while alive, intermittently spoke of the glories of those peaches, a glory confined to their youth, alas, since none in mine and my sister’s lifetime were endowed with the fortitude to hike down there and claim the luscious fruit.

How could we, we who could barely breathe, a people who could barely lift the dipper to the mouth when riddled by fever or draw up the covers when shamed by cold, so, yes, I say, in the interim so many of our numbers gone, there remaining in our sad family at the present moment one Geek more or less of my age, sexless, as I suppose I must be, despairing, as I know I was, the both of us sharing but the flutter of random breath, on our hot backsides here, our graves open and waiting, our end at hand. And the third survivor, my young sister Precilla, hardly any better, you would have thought, with no place to turn, you would think.

Thus, then, to imagine the surprise, the wonder the Geek child and I experienced as, this morning, coming awake to the sight of Precilla at the open window, we heard her say–“There is a young man from the yellow house down there picking our peaches. He is smiling at me. Unless I am sadly mistaken in a moment he will arrive here with his peaches. He will ask for my hand in marriage. For love’s sake I believe I shall say yes. Nowhere has it been written that you and I, dear brother, and you, dear Geek, should forever suffer, as this family has suffered. God help me, I almost feel well. I almost feel happiness. I feel faint with wonder. He is such a vision.”

How could this be?

Precilla with her face lit by sunshine, a hint of color in her cheeks, at her throat a glitter of stones, her hair tied by blue string into two high bundles above each ear like miniature stands of wheat, on her thin frame a sleeveless summer dress, bedaubed with gay colors, a party dress, it might almost be called.

Where had she got such a dress?

“Here he comes,” she said. “I can see his lips forming the words.”

I lifted myself up. A cool breeze had come up. Sunlight lit the window, casting my sister’s face into an all but unrecognizable radiance. As for that, the Geek girl, if girl she was, wore on her face a look of strange exaltation, of triumph, such as I had never seen before. This emanating from a girl whom I–bound by sorrow, by self-pity–had scarcely ever troubled myself to study before. She possessed a sultriness that I found intoxicating. Through what magic, I wondered, had these two suddenly become so beautiful?

And there the young man was, at the window, he could have been my age. In another world I could have been that young man at a window, let’s say at a window of the yellow house, my lips forming those same words this young man’s lips were forming. A hand of Precilla’s was at rest on the window ledge. The young man raised her hand to his lips. They remained there, lips pressing her fingers, their eyes closed.

Out at sea storm clouds were forming, tumbling and turning. A tumult of wind swept low over the water. Over the roof of the yellow house could be seen schools of silver fish in flight inches above the water. School upon school of these silver fish, all flying.

And there was coming to my own bed the surviving Geek, coming with scarcely a groan, the very picture of blossoming health.

The wind swept through these fish, and now came a fierce darkening, and hard rain, and falling from the sky thousands upon thousands of these shining fish, the Geek person sliding between my sheets, my sister and her young man kissing in the window, and in the next second our entire sick bay under a flood of blinding yellow light.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *