It’s never just a building that goes up in smoke
It was haunted, absolutely. Old, three-storied, and gabled with lots of windows, it leaned toward the street when I passed on my way home after school. It might as well have been a mountain for its prominence in our town’s topography and my imagination.
One day, driven by curiosity, I crossed the overgrown yard, climbed the front steps, and opened the unlocked door. A latch click—then only the sound of my breathing. The foyer was lit by afternoon light that filled the room like amber. Empty of people and things, the house brimmed with memory. This was the first time I realized a place could be haunted by the past.
Years earlier our neighbors had filled the house with life. Broken bannister spindles, pockmarked floors, and chipped paint recalled vitality that had careened through the hallways and spilled down the stairs. Spilled like juice and milkshakes in a kitchen full of laughter. Spilled like sounds from every room—cartoons and a timpani of tennis shoes, shouts from three boys that my siblings and I followed up and down the hallways. Spilled like my blood that time I slipped and hit my head playing in the living room, and, woozy from the fall, stumbled down the front steps before their dad caught me.
Once, when no one was at our house after school, I brought my younger brother and sister here. “Can we stay until our parents get back?” Their mom welcomed us inside, into bounded spaces of wellbeing. There were fairy rings in the yard, drink rings on the counter, radio flyer rings across the floor.
But on that later day all I saw were empty corridors, curtain-less windows, and bare rooms. The quiet was so loud. All I heard were my own footsteps and the creak of old timbers. And underneath, echoes of a previous life. Memories brushed past that I could feel on my skin and the back of my neck.
Months after my walk through the house our parents woke us sometime after midnight to see it burning: bad wiring in an empty building. By the time someone saw the flames it was too late. Fueled by rooms of cypress and heart pine, the fire was so big that four firetrucks couldn’t stop it. Eventually they gave up and doused surrounding trees to keep it from spreading. Embers soared hundreds of feet into the air and swirled into darkness. They said you could see the light for miles. It felt like the town was on fire. The ruined heap smoldered for days.
What I remember most from that night: people in robes and nightgowns watching from the street, their faces lit by firelight. Our neighbor who had grown up in town, had known that house her whole life, was sobbing, her cheeks wet with a sheen of naked grief. Everyone stood there in silence like a Greek chorus bearing witness to the fire and its message: Nothing stays, everything burns, and all of us will be haunted by places that cease to be.
Robert Erle Barham is Associate Professor of English at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA. He is also Associate Editor for Current.