The House in the Woods

Anne Sanow



First from the ship her unsteadiness seems natural—her feet now on land, which does not shift or rock, she sways, skirts belling with and against her, seeking her righted self. She inhales salt cod, leathery wetness from sand and soil. Gulls arc and shrill overhead. This cousin she has never met is indeed a dark one, a Portuguese, her mother said: he relieves her of her trunk on the dock and when his face cracks into a smile Mary T_____ shivers, looking into where her life will go. This lowland spit-sand holds for her fish and ice and roof and he. When the wind blows northerly she imagines she will be afraid for what animals they might keep: ducks will swim in a flooded paddock, horses drink snow, and she will never see the harbor in the city again.

No: It will go another way. Next sunrise her steps are worse rubbery, not from what transpired the night before; her skin aflames. From town he pulls her through birch and maple, past the pond with two names. At a clearing down a hidden slope he releases his brief hold on her for good, like that. One day only, she thinks. A marriage made for life?

In the clearing a little house awaits, twelve paces by twenty long. Smoke stirs the air from the chimney. The trees sigh and rustle: Welcome, Mary T_____. Two fresh mounds flank the house and a sweet damp scent—she could swear it to be cinnamon—blooms from the earth. From within, faces turn silently to the door. In this forest, hidden from sea, a new community has begun.


1, 2.

Before. The first was an old man quick succumbed, the next a Spence, some say his Christian name was John. None of you in our town, none to be buried on our hill—this is said—and so the woods welcome more. A quiet society, transient souls. Patiently the house breathes; the clearing becomes a woody bower. After 1 and 2 the next marker is for Mary T_____, who resides under number 3.


4, et al.

Water, sand-spit, hill-rise, dune. Someone here has cursed the moon. Pasture, harbor, beach, and bog. Into the woods and through the fog. Sailor, mother, salter, girl. He is next who finds the pearl. Churchyard, market, ice house, town. Ashes ashes all fall down.


8, 9.

By now the ones who are led to the clearing meet a stony retinue of former occupiers. Your first look: markers up to 7, the house with waiting souls within. Leaves spiral down gently, quilting each mound in gold and green and bronze and crimson. The house breathes, the bower pulses. A calculation: Will these woods release none? It is not known, though rumors flare of the far shore's increased wildings, survivors joining the ranks in that helltown.

The mooncussers say: Let the ships come to shoal, we will claim barrels and casks, strip beams and hulls, fling flasks to the sand in our fine lunar madness, keep well while you shake in your beds. Their beachhead is a society all its own.

The two the forest takes next have not been many years in the town. Or not enough. Husband and wife go willingly it is said; the alderman and his wife ensure they set off hand in hand through the trees (and burn everything, all, left behind). The boy is sent after them—for like begets like as you know—a poxy promenade. The woods yawn open, pleased with the offering. What the boy sees: two deer leaping through the rushes, a box turtle gaining a rock. What he hears at night: the airy swoop of coyote song, organ-piped wind; distant ringing voices leaping dune-top to ridge to spire, a trickster's chorus, a tease.



Though her name lingers on no one's tongue, the spirit of Mary T_____ threatens a roost for itself in the sleepless nights of a man in the West End, who goes to the woods and the pond no more, committing himself to the ocean for as long as it will have him. But it spits him back each day, relentless; the sea has not the taste for him. Then, finally, he walks to the woods once more.


Markers broken.



13 & up.

Battened down, battened within: it is how the madness goes. From that other society, strewn along the two harbor-front streets, they keep themselves fast in clapboard and shack. Salter, sailor, mother, girl. The path to the house in the woods is a magnet, a beacon—any fine day one might wake to be pulled there, internal compass reset.

Town meetings cease. No fish hang to dry on the salt lines; rowboats toggle listless at pier. God abandons the pulpit—each to their own now—and this private reckoning dissolves kindness, feeling, memory. Cats shriek their dominion when dusk falls. Meanwhile the woods breathe contentedly. The cussers' chorus hurls its moonlight symphony on the shrinking town.


19 (removed to W_____ Cemetery, 1873).

Dorothea Breedlowe, dutiful wife of Josiah Breedlowe. (Yes, dutiful.) Aged 47 years. Yes, died of the pox. Victorian death's-head, angel's wings. Lock of hair secretly clipped and woven into an eternal crown.



It waits to rain, the boy says one late afternoon.

On the top pallet he rests beneath a chink where a shingle has blown loose, bringing in the scent of metal from the sky. A slice of air, chuff of cloud, life.

The physician circles the pond in an exhausted walk. He believes they all suffer ill, those in the streets yonder as much as those in the pest house he tends. His mind broods a deep groove from a past wave of sickness when they went down like this too: some shunned, others honored, depending on what they had. Today the balance tilts. The boy, from his berth, will not cease his careful recitation of the world outside to the woman Dorothea bunked below him, wife of the alderman, who has never had a kind word. Tang of berries. Greening pond. The trees rustle and pulse excitedly. Salted fog and grass and dune, he says, the cadence of nighttime singers invading his lilt.

She has, Dorothea, a last chance at salvation—but grabs hold of the physician's wrist, spluttering demands, while the others stir and she wrinkles her nose as if the stench hovering in this place were not also of her own making.

The physician drops the woman's hand: It is finished. Cran-bog, moonbeam, marsh field, loon. The boy chants Dorothea to whatever reward may yet await her. The others stir and turn; one—a fishing man—leaks an achy smile. The boy's song is lifted through the roof, bounced and wisped into the air, and outside, where the physician now stands, wondering what will be left for them all here, the woods release him from their cradle as he listens to the tune. He watches the cumulous swell beyond the dune's rise, imagines the next unlucky ship to be lured to shore, and wills the changeling sky to perform something beautiful: something for the boy to tell.