The weathered yellow house sagged upon its foundation as if exhausted from the effort of remaining upright for so long. The yellow faux-brick paneling peeled off in pieces from whitewashed wood, and a thick mesh of dead ivy vines crawled around the face of the old home and out of sight. A dead limb had fallen from one of the towering trees, caving in part of the roof. But the house had stood far longer than anyone could really remember, its craggy face mournfully watching tractors amble by on the highway.
Darby Putman slowed her car as she passed the house, and pulled onto the graveled shoulder near a big, tin-roofed barn. She studied the house a moment in the rear-view mirror of her car. It slouched between two ancient trees whose branches reached to intermingle a few feet above the roof. After a moment’s deliberation, she reached over into the glove compartment, drawing out the old C-41 film camera she took with her everywhere and seldom used.
She got out of her car and closed the door almost reverently behind her. There was no reason to preserve the silence, as she hadn’t seen any other cars out on the road in this part of rural Missouri. After all, it was a gloomy Tuesday. The clouds above were pregnant with rain, and the breeze did little to stir the already heavy leaves that piled up in the ditches to be burned on some far-off windless day. Darby pulled the camera strap over her head and arm so it hung across her body, and started walking.
Darby climbed the barbed wire fence at the post where the wire was least likely to bend and cut her and leapt down to the other side. Her camera was an old Canon AE she’d gotten from mom’s closet when dad had gone through to give all her old things to Goodwill. It scraped against the barbs as she came down, but it was her sweater that got caught. She cringed as she pulled the fabric away from her body, studying the quarter-sized hole with dismay. Lower lip between her teeth, she debated whether this was a sign she ought to go back to the car. Mom would have kept going, she decided, she would have laughed. Darby waded through the knee-high scratchy brush. Her fingertips were cold. She scrunched her hands into fists and pushed them deep into her pockets as she surveyed the old house.
The house in all its decrepitude seemed to beckon her inside. Darby placed a hand on the porch rail. When her hand came away it was covered in flecks of crackly paint. She tested the soggy, rotting timbers of the tiny front porch as she stepped through the threshold, checking behind her only once to see if there was anyone out here to catch her trespassing. But there was no one.
The windows of the old house had long since lost the front panes that might have protected the rooms from the elements. Frayed curtains stirred uselessly in the breeze and the greenish wallpaper rustled like autumn leaves in curling, brittle strips. Bits of glass lay embedded in the mossy brown carpeting. Across from the molding couch was a large and dusty shadeless lamp with a cord leading to a furious scorch mark where an outlet ought to have been. Nearby, a baby doll clothed in nothing but a pinafore cap lay on its side, arms outstretched; painted eyes and pink rosebud mouth open wide.
It was awfully quiet. Darby wanted to hum or sing or talk to break the smothering quiet of the old place. Here, the silence had been so long unbroken, and it didn’t seem right to interrupt. She held up the viewfinder to her eye and peered through it, almost forgetting to take off the lens cap. She adjusted the focus and crouched low, squinting, trying to frame the baby doll as mom would have. The shutter blinked with the press of her index finger, and the dirty baby and matted carpet and burned wall was hers forever. Out of habit, she looked down at the back of the camera to see a miniature of the image she’d just taken. With a small smile, Darby remembered this camera was an old thing. She would have to wait and hope that the lighting was right and her exposure was good before she could see the picture. Darby wound to the next frame, and continued on.
Chilly wind blew easily through the house, sneaking through her clothes and raising the hairs on the back of her neck. She would have worn a jacket, had she known this morning that she’d be getting out of the car. She shivered, and reached into her back pocket for the tube of lip balm.
The reek of mildew and exposed linoleum backing soaked the air as the carpet of the front parlor gave way to the kitchen. Cabinets remained tacked to the walls, but the doors hung crookedly on spent hinges and there was nothing inside except a dried-up wasp nest. Antiquated appliances stood heavily in place. Rust dripped down the front panel of the refrigerator. A thick layer of dust coated the table and chairs, and a vase of long-withered, crusty flowers perched on a crocheted doily with wisps of cobwebs linking the browned leaves to the smooth tabletop.
With every step, the old house creaked and moaned its disapproval at being disturbed. Darby walked near to the wall where she figured there had to be more support. The mental image of the ground splitting under her weight and gulping her into the foundation was enough to keep her moving in search of a back door She chanced down the small hallway, past a door that was wedged shut by the tilted frame. Darby didn’t try to force it open; maybe that was the only thing keeping the roof from coming down on top of her.
The last door in the hallway hung ajar. Darby listened hard before leaning forward, pushing it open with her fingertips. Inside, broken dark wood beams served as the only flooring, disappearing into the dark below. She was thankful she hadn’t stepped forward. Her stomach lurched at the thought of falling down into the dark. She crouched down, squinting. Light reflected weakly back up at her. Darby turned and broke off a piece of the baseboard and dropped it into the hole. It made a plashing sound at the bottom.
Darby straightened up, looking around. The room had probably been a bedroom: a wedding portrait hung on the wall, the bride seated, pale eyes staring balefully at the photographer with her husband behind her, smiling. The jacquard-patterned wallpaper had faded to a dusty pink. Above, a vast yellow water stain covered the ceiling. The broken light fixture dangled by a single electrical wire, swaying gently in the stagnant air. There was another door on the other side of the room, but it was closed and there was no other way to get to it without negotiating across the busted floor. Darby turned to leave.
It was nice to be outside again. The oak trees, though shedding the last of the most obstinate leaves, seemed far more welcoming than the shell of a home at her back. The wet leaves made a sticky sound underfoot as she walked around the side yard. The barbed wire around the yard drooped between posts like Christmas garlands. An old trellis leaned wearily against the wall, the brown cord of some long-forgotten creeper vine curled around the slats.
A musty odor drifted up from the side of the house, where Darby found the cellar, wooden doors splintered and strewn down the steps, yawning widely. She hesitated, looking into the dark maw. She raised her camera and clicked another exposure as the diagonal lines of the deep staircase disappeared. She took a deep breath, telling herself with every inhale that there was nothing down there but some standing water and cement walls.
That’s what mom had said when she was little and they had walked through the woods and found a cave. Mom had smiled and tugged Darby’s hand, but Darby was afraid.
“Of what?” her mother had asked, “all that’s down there is rock and moss and maybe some mystery! Come with me, Dee. You’ll love it. Be my little explorer.”
This was no cave. Cellars were far spookier than caves. Darby made her way down the steps, ready to bolt up and out if anything jumped out at her. She hated being startled more than anything. She wrinkled her nose as she stepped forward into the basement, which proved to hold standing water that swallowed her sneakers and flooded her socks with icy, murky water. She eased her other foot in to make sure she would be able to stand without slipping. With her arms outstretched for balance, she sloshed inside. The weak glow of her cell phone revealed something like rotting blankets in the dark water. Leaves floated in clusters. Her foot nudged something soft that gave under pressure, and she recoiled, stumbling back and splashing cold water up her inner calves. The legs of her jeans got heavy.
The water made an echoing sound in the dank enclosed space. It was the same as the civic center pool had back at their house in Arkansas. The smell of chlorine, the slapping sounds of bare feet on the cement as kids clambered out to jump again, again, and just one more time into parents’ waiting arms. But this sound was dark, like the cave at Blanchard Springs where mom and dad had taken her the day they told her that mom was sick. A good day in theory, a treat to balance out the bad news, but while other visitors oohed and aahed over the delicate stalactites and stalagmites, Darby had walked with the guide at the back of the group, her small hand in his. Her parents had asked her if she’d rather not go down into the cave, if maybe she would rather they come back another time. She’d refused, but remembered nothing from the cave but the scratchy callused hands of the cave ranger and the echoing splash of running water in the dark. No, the water in the cellar sounded more like their day in the caverns than the civic center.
Her feet were cold, and the light was bad. Mom probably could have made something of it and found a good picture to be had, but it wasn’t in Darby’s eyes to see. There was nothing in the cellar to be found other than some old furniture and leaves and mulch. Her shoes made squelching sounds as she tramped back up the stairs, and it occurred to Darby that she wouldn’t have time to go all the way back home to put on dry clothes before she was supposed to meet dad at church.
There just wasn’t enough left of the old house. Darby knew she should have come sooner to see the old place. Mom had always wanted to show it to her, but there never seemed to be enough time, especially after she got sick. Darby looked around for the well mom had talked about- the one that she’d fallen into when she was a little girl- but mom had probably made it up. She loved to tell stories, and for a long time, Darby had listened and believed. But the house wasn’t all that she expected. Where was the tire swing, the big back porch where grandpa would whittle, the secret cubby in the cellar? She swiped her eyes with woolly sleeves.
Darby stood in the backyard for a long time, looking up at the little old house. She tried to imagine mom like in the pictures: a little towheaded girl in a cherry-printed sundress and a wide, gap-toothed grin. Darby closed her eyes and tilted her face upward toward the bleak and cloudy sky, smelling the musty leaves and smoky air and damp grass. She had wanted to feel something while she was in the house, in the rooms where mom used to sleep and eat and play and sing. A closeness, perhaps. A presence. Mom believed in memories just as much as she believed in mysteries. But her old house turned out to be a house and nothing more. She raised the camera a last time and took a picture before pressing the lens cap back on. She walked toward her car, pushing her cold hands into her pockets to warm them.