On a late August evening I stood looking at the silhouette of that house. Two northern bats drew nervous shapes in the soft warm air. The midges bothered me, but I remained still and silent. A cavern opened in my chest. Tomorrow we will have to leave. We will get into the car and roll out on gravel roads towards asphalt and measured distances. Who knows when we’ll be back. Who knows if this constellation of wood and stone will still be waiting for us. Houses, after all, are weak levees against the tides of time. Once empty of people they soon turn into fragile shells – porous exoskeletons. I will have to record these shapes and carry them with me. The main building. The woodshed. The barn. Their sloping roofs. Their mullioned windows. The veranda. The flaking yellow paint of the living quarters and the greying red of the farm buildings. The smell of nettles and crooked-grown apple trees. A house, you can leave. A home, you carry with you.
We went to the city. We tried to settle, but remained unsettled. Our house; rectangular. Our street; a binary current. We were traffic. We were passing units. In the city, everyone was migratory. And so we became nomads. The city was never ours, so we left it for whoever was greedy enough to claim it. Drove into other cities. Raised poles, rolled out carpets. We made our home in time, rather than space. We carried our home with us.
In one of the many cities we passed through I entered a little church. Its chalk white walls had all but disappeared behind layers of scaffolding and debris netting as an ambitious restoration project seemed to have been abandoned halfway through. But inside, no signs of modern life were visible. A dislodged flake of time, the church room seemed to exist in a state of suspension. I let my hands run along the wooden pews, worn down in soft undulations. Halfway up to the altar a skeletal rood screen split the space in two. Standing right underneath a crudely carved wooden crucifix I lingered in the central gateway of the screen. A three-part altar piece placed high up in the small apsis at the back drew my attention to the carefully orchestrated symmetry of the room. Suddenly I was washed over with a strong sense of belonging. Having never had a habit of going to church and having never visited this part of the country before, there were no rational grounds to the feeling. But in that moment it was clear to me that the townsfolk who had for hundreds of years sat on these benches and watched this stage, set up for the retelling of age-old legends, were, indeed, a part of me.
Is there not also a forest within the city? A beach beneath its streets? A warm wind blowing from the fields of our ancestors across its central square? We carry tradition. We appropriate folklore. In vacant lots, in boarded up archways, in rented rooms; we plant and nurture a primordial flora. The cities will not outlive us. We’ve made our home in time. We carry our home with us.
A hastily installed floodlight exploded on a quiet evening. The fire took instantly to the dry lattices of a fake wall. By the time I had gotten up from my sleeping pad at the back of the auditorium, flames had started licking one of the painted cityscape backdrops. I stood transfixed and watched a street dissolve while blackened two-dimensional buildings began curling up at the corners. When the fire reached the ceiling I started to with a short scream. Panicked I ran up to the stage and threw my blanket towards some flames. It was obviously too late. I started looking around for things to salvage. I grabbed a figurine from the neo-classical plaster balustrade, a rococo-imitation folding screen, a small fake plant. My actions were frantic and irrational. The theatre burnt, within me and without me. This was our house. This was our church. This was our city within the city.
After the fire I stood looking through the theatre entrance, which was all that remained standing of the building. Through the arched gateway I saw: long streets receding. As if one of our trompe l’oeuil streetscapes had come alive at last. In the trunk of my car lay bundles of soot-covered props.
I will carry our home with me.