House, in Order by J. Anne DeStaic
In this bizarre pandemic era swirling around us, our relationship with home, or even the dwelling we occupy, has changed substantially. What once might have simply been a convenient place to raise kids or commute to and from work has now morphed into command central or a circus, depending on the day. One might say a house and its inhabitants evolve in direct proportion to the circumstances projected upon them. At least this sentiment appears to hold true in J. Anne DeStaic’s “House, in Order,” a finalist in CRAFT’s 2019 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Benjamin Percy. The piece opens with a couple searching for the perfect home in which to start a family, only to have those hopes challenged beyond the imaginable. Themes surrounding infertility, suicide, and the grief accompanying each are explored in such a way that not only evokes empathy, but also illuminates. In addition, the story’s sensory imagery and lyricism create an ethereal experience for the reader. Rooted in DeStaic’s Sydney, Australia, we can almost feel the jacaranda’s rough bark scratch against our skin, smell the pungent eucalypt assault the nostrils. The reader will also notice abrupt shifts in point of view throughout the piece—from “we” to “you and I” and finally to the singular “I” (see DeStaic’s author’s note for more on her decision to do so). Each shift mirrors “the sudden and shocking change brought about by the realisation of childlessness and then by suicide,” she says, just as the final shift signals a fissure or break as the house leaves behind one set of occupants and welcomes another young mother and her baby. The juxtaposition haunts, staying with the reader long after the story concludes. —CRAFT
Content Warning: suicide
“Good bones”, the agent says. “These old houses. See?”
We see how the jacaranda haloes purple all around, how tulips cry like tears from out the soil but upside down. We see how the river at the garden’s edge runs silver between the eucalypt trunks, breathing in and out, one long, slow, tidal respiration. We see, this is what we want.
Including this crow sitting on the jacaranda’s rough dark bark, crouching like a cat, crying like a baby, driving the dog crazy. Just a puppy. Needs time to house train. Time needed, too, for the house, for our plans to polish floors, screw tight the finials and paint, to get the house in order.
Soon he is a lithe black dog always with a purpose, biting insects from the air, barking at the neighbours, crushing lizards in the liriopes we planted by the jacaranda that is too big now, too full of treachery, its roots crushing pipes as it seeks out water in the heat of summer when the wind is hot enough to crisp the roses. We cut down the jacaranda. The crow cries.
Then fire comes almost to the door making the air sharp and dangerous. It burns down to the waterline on the other side of the river. Tangerine embers dart over water. We are on the roof blocking the down pipes and filling gutters till they are a waterfall, till the sun rims red and the ash of dead things settles in lungs, on window ledges, on trees. And when it is over, we are left grey as dust, sitting on the steps watching lazy coils of smoke slow now in the still air, listening to the house cough, seeing how the garden suffers. We will wait till the river has washed away ash and filled again with clean rain and the sun again sweats liquid heat on the garden, and everything thrives. We will wait in the order of things: river, garden, dog, house.
The house leans close, hears us say: time yet for the baby. The house creaks, loosens its finials, brings the bats in to shit over its fences and screech through sleepless hours, then sleepless cycles, while we inject hormones like fertilizer. But we are better with crocuses. You say we should not have cut down the jacaranda. I say how could that matter, but the floor boards ridge in the sun, doors stick closed in the rain. We wait in this house till the bleeding stops and the last embryo flushes down the pipes, out to the ocean, missing our river entirely.
You shrink. I watch the river running wide out the window, watch sharks in the flow, watch little boys skipping stones across the water’s surface. Watch them catching fish.
I walk the old dog, his joints slow this winter. I carry him out the back to pee in the cold weather.
I talk to the fishermen, one of them telling me how a man drowned in the river, last month or the one before, he can’t remember. Out there, he points, where you can swim, side to side if you don’t mind brown dirt, plastic bags, and condoms. A lovely body buoyant in the water and middle-aged. A local. He drowned himself out there while no one watched, for some sorrow or other, they say.
I tell the fisherman: I know.
Now I make of this house a storm. I paint the walls the colour of mushrooms and the roof purple. I drag clouds and rain down and in my anger the house rises, the angles and edges of its roof chipping the sky, crushing tiny white planes, spreading thunder in purple flashes through all the neighbourhood. Lightning splinters the magnolia opening its veins. I watch it bleed. I let the house push me out. I tell the agent. Sell.
“Good bones”, the agent says. “Looks disheveled, don’t be deceived. A lovely old house. Lady on her own moved out, her dog died or some such sadness. He’s buried out the back probably, mulching lilies. Probably”.
The young woman doesn’t listen. She stands by the house, belly swollen like a crocus, skin veined like magnolia petals. She watches lizards dancing in liriopes, watches fat round birds arcing through the eucalypts while a picture-story moon settles down the morning sky. She moves in just in time for her waters to break, just in time to wash into this house a baby, sticky and sweet and salty as the river.
Now in the house this baby hears the gum trees whisper. In the garden, this baby dreams of an old black dog, lilies growing out of his tail and ears like liriopes. The house settles on its piles, straightens its walls, calls down the rain to clean bat shit from the deck.
Then, in the night, house and baby awake to the silver river singing in the jasmine’s scent, see the river’s dead rise up on wings wide as batwings, membrane thin, laced in scales and in brown earth and plastic bags, laced in salt and dripping fish eyes, house and baby know the river’s drowned have come to see—river, garden, dog, house. Baby.
And the dead whisper to the agent: house, in order.
J. ANNE DESTAIC is a writer of short stories and poetry. Her stories have been published in journals and anthologies, including “Lover Like a Tree” in Australian Love Stories (2014), “Little Blue Penguins” in Journey (2012), and “The 14.20 from Belfast” and “Fire Jump” in Wet Ink ( 2009 and 2011).
Her poetry has been published in Zinewest and in Australian/Romanian anthologies.
DeStaic is a Peadiatrician working in Neonatal Intensive Care. She lives near the Georges River in the south west of Sydney.