My dog doesn’t see the tennis ball lying on the trail because it’s in the sand. It’s the color of sand and she doesn’t always pay attention to details. While she runs ahead on the path looking for things to sniff and mouth I walk across an irregular mosaic of Precambrian rocks in pink, blue, grey, red and green, colors coveted by gardeners and landscape artists and children who love the feel of a hot one in the palm of a hand. I always look for the prettiest. I think I can’t live without them and have tried to walk the mile or so home holding a dog leash and about 25 pounds of precariously balanced stones. Sometimes I try to carry them as I carried apples to the press in my upturned shirt, but the rocks are so heavy that my shirt stretches below the top of my breasts and then it becomes a legal issue.
My dog is the kind who understands sentences so when she veers off to the river I tell her I want to go home. She falls in beside me and trots a little ahead to lead the way. Home to her is static. It will always be on Poplar Street and there’s no way to prepare her for our imminent move. We don’t even know where we’re going and she’s not known for her flexibility toward change so she’ll bump into walls for a while before the new place becomes her place and the old is forgotten. My husband and I have lately wished for a dog’s ability to forget. We’re selling our home to avoid foreclosure. It’s our dream home and the first time I saw it with the keys in my hand, I gasped. It was mine.
My husband sleeps deeply and sometimes he keeps me awake with snoring. I nudge him to get him to stop but it’s a rare night that it works. So I lay awake and consider how much the curved ceiling in our bedroom reminds me of the ceiling in my parents’ room. When my eyes are closed I forget whether or not there’s a hallway to the bathroom and what the stairs look like. When I sit up and look around, it takes a moment to reorient, to realize I’m not in my parents’ house but my own.
My own. Sometimes people ask whether or not I own my home and the answer is always that the bank owns it. The bank owns our home and the bank is going to take it away if it doesn’t sell. I haven’t totally accepted this. I walk from room to room and think about the changes I want to make and then I remember that planning a future with a French blue living room or a refinished floor will be the new owners’ dream and not mine. I remind myself that it’s time to figure out where we’ll go and how many of our belongings we’ll be able to take. Our dog thinks we bought the Flexsteel for her but it’s a large piece and will probably end up in storage.
My husband and I break down in tears more than usual. It isn’t so much about losing the house as it is about our failure to keep it. It’s fire season right now and only last week a husband and wife outran a grass fire. The man made it to a pond and the woman to a Jeep and I wonder if it’s callous to use their experience as a metaphor before their burns have healed. Are we running from fires to save ourselves or are we giving up and just running? Firefighters know that life is the only thing of value in a house and trying to save anything else is folly. I said that to my husband when we realized our fight to keep our home was over. I didn’t want to lose him, and for a long time we were willing to give each other up in order to keep the bricks and mortar. Now we’re leaving, and when we leave we’ll pack the bird and the dog and take ourselves out to the yard, to the car, down the street and someplace else so the new owners can move in and make what they can of it. I guess, in this case, letting go is the same as both the fire and the pond, synonyms and not metaphor at all.
I’ve never really been a renter except for one year after my second divorce. Before that, I lived in the house I grew up in. I had a continuity of place, a deep connection to the ghosts and spiders of the splintered home in which I spent my childhood. Fear rooted me there but the fear was so consistent we became accustomed to one another and it was difficult to let go and move on.
In grade school my biggest fears were the ghosts, the devil who hid behind the linden tree and the bugs. And because bugs were the only things I ever actually saw I was highly attuned to peripheral movement in any corner at all times. I learned that house board to board until it learned me. For a long time I believed we couldn’t live without each other, without the creaking cottonwoods that threatened to fall in the wind, without the view of the late moonrise over the nearby hill. But when my marriage ended I had to end my thirty years in that cradle. A friend with a trust fund asked why I didn’t just stay and was shocked when I told her the mortgage payment was more than I made in a month. And what would I have bought even if I could stay? The wood would fray, the ceilings would fall and I would swallow it until the house and the bugs and two marriages turned bitter replaced me completely. I say I moved into a two bedroom beige hell but it was better than living in a place with a continuum reach thirty years long. It was better to run. Away or toward didn’t matter.
There was a time I used to convince myself I had no home, no city, not even ruins. These dreams came out of walks through mountain roads in the winter. On the way back, before I could see smog and buildings, I thought, what if it’s all gone. What if I come around the bend and I’m alone. I convinced myself of it and slowed to hold the moment. What would it mean? I’d have to find shelter in the woods I’d just left. I’d have to find berries, break the ice on the river and reach for fish sleeping under rocks. Perhaps I’d find a bear and hide in her arms, a different kind of cub in search of a different kind of life. I smell the earth that hadn’t frozen, her heat and fur, her cold claws flexing gently as she dreams. I take her paw in my hand and rub the pads along my face and my cheek would flush, my new mother, my new home. Her tongue lolls from her mouth, her breath rustles my hair under her deep warm sighs. I look through the twigs above us, snow gathers, then darkness and sleep. But no matter how long I waited on a January afternoon for the stillness and the bear, the city always came back and I always went home to my own mother whose hands were as white and cold as mine.
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the speculative thrill of losing everything. As a child I prayed that a fire wouldn’t burn down our house. As an adult I’ve imagined flames consuming me with cool blue fingers but absent loss. The end never comes in the blaze and the fire keeps burning, endless as the eyes that watch it. Fire seeps into the joists and studs and the house changes to accommodate it. Two years ago I took an axe and tore through doors and plaster. I shattered mirrors and windows all so that I could be free. Losing this house may not be the loss we anticipated. Maybe we’re crying over something else.
In the West, wildfires destroy millions of acres of timber each year and when the ground goes cold the dead trees are harvested and cut into boards, as good as those from live trees but, I think, intrinsically different. They bring the fire with them. Houses are destroyed before they are built.
When our house was built, the builder’s daughter came to watch her father raise it. She played marbles at the edge of the lot and we found them when we dug the garden. There were seven or eight—two shooters, the rest peewees—opaque and cracked and pitted. We imagined her holding them, perhaps playing with a friend, and then we found a bead she’d made with her own hands. When the house was finished she and her family took up residence. I found a small playing card between the trim and the cupboard with a suited pig on it. I see her hands everywhere.
For the dog, the house is static but for me the fibers are loose and the structure transient. In the morning I walk down the stairs and wonder if I’ll see my parents’ kitchen, the little girl, the axe and the holes and the shattered glass. But it’s always the same after I blink to clear my mind. The dog is on the couch and sun is on the floor, the walls glow in the autumnal colors we chose. When my dad first saw this house he said he wanted us to plant him in the backyard when he dies. That isn’t our responsibility anymore. He’ll have to find another place for his final rest; the next family has dibs on the informal plots and illegal burials.
As a child, I dug many graves in my parents’ yard, so many I warned the new owners that holes revealing blankets, collars and dog bowls were the grave goods I sent with Justin and Cassie and the others to wherever dogs go when they die. The people who live in the house now found a few final resting places but the bones are long gone. I sprinkled the bodies with composting enzyme to hasten their return to the earth and guard against greedy raccoons, stray coyotes. The new owners have now buried some of their own animals. This whole valley, if excavated, would convince archaeologists that we believed in the afterlife of animals, sending them with the things they’d need in the next world. Burials in cemeteries wouldn’t telegraph eternity other than the sentiments on the stones; no provisions are made, no luggage to help the loved ones move on without distress.
Sometimes I think about earthen graves and the sow’s den; I smell the living soil and the sea change that comes over me as I absorb my new place and it absorbs me. It will be difficult to see between the bits of dirt and sand that have been shoveled over my body but I’d remember the sky and feel the snow in winter. The things that matter are different than the things we have.
Naomi Kimbell writes literary nonfiction and fiction. Her work has appeared in fine journals such as the Black Warrior Review, The Indiana Review, Calyx, The Iowa Review and many others. Her essay, Bounty, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for nonfiction and, Whistling in the Dark, an experimental essay, will appear in an anthology for experimental nonfiction in spring 2013.