Against proper judgment but tacitly supported by their spouses, two of the sons and the oldest, a daughter, drove into the heart of Amish country. On the surface they were checking on the condition of their parents’ vacant house, euphemistically referred to as “The Farm.” In reality, it was voyeuristic reconnaissance, and this year the daughter had upped the stakes. She aimed to remove a photograph from the third floor bedroom wall.
It was a picture of her mother holding her as a baby, something her mother might give her if she asked. But she hadn’t asked and hoped not to get caught. All but the oldest son moved away decades ago and once a year the daughter came to visit. In previous years, they had left everything exactly as they found it, out of respect tinged with childhood fear.
At eighty-five and ninety-one, their parents were beyond navigating the narrow pathways and stairs. Ten years ago, a bone-crushing car accident put the woman in a nursing home. When she regained the use of her legs, the kids helped her move to an apartment in town without stairs, near the bus line and the church. The man remained alone at the farm for another seven years. Without his wife to temper his hoarding habit, the trails inside the house had filled in so he moved to town, too.
With the sun low in the sky and their blood pumping, the three grown children parked on the rocky lane some distance from the house. “I don’t want to scratch the paint on my van,” explained the oldest son. The younger son grabbed a bag of work gloves and they climbed up the rocky driveway through a tunnel of encroaching undergrowth.
At the top, the youngest pointed out two tall trees and told their stories, how they came into possession of the seedlings and planted them forty years ago. Back then they had repainted the house, turning the faded green shutters to red. The mother had always wanted a white house with red shutters.
Not long ago, the man had siding put on the house and it still looked pretty good. But the barn has since gone to ground, the garden buried in weeds, and a legacy of cars rust into the landscape. There is the first car the daughter ever drove, forty-seven years earlier, sinking under half a ton of books. Their father was an English professor.
Twenty feet from the front door, they noticed a light on in the living room. They imagined a squatter with a shotgun. But they could see that the front door was still blocked by its wall of clutter. They stalked the perimeter, high stepping through brambles and poison ivy. The daughter tied back her long grey hair, her spinal cord tightening with each step. All they found were broken windows and animal trails. No fresh trash, no path worn by human weight.
They returned to the front porch and pawed through the rubble like badgers, handing stuff back bucket-brigade style. Hedge shears, a scoop shovel, weed trimmer, an axe. “That might come in handy,” the daughter remarked. The youngest chuckled, breaking the tension. “This is insane,” they thought.
Eventually they were able to pull the storm door open several inches. The daughter knocked and called, “Hello! Anyone home?” Hearing nothing, they pushed at the inside door until they could get an arm through. Things must have shifted. “We used to call it ‘the shifting sands'” said the younger son, “Put something down and it disappears.”
Despite the trouble with his back, the older son knelt and snatched at the avalanche of debris, getting ahold of one piece at a time and tossing it further inside the kitchen. They tested the door every couple of minutes until it gave, wide enough to squeeze through, breath held. It was growing dark and they’d left the flashlight in the car. The youngest used his phone to light the way. Dread closed upon their hearts but they forged ahead.
They slid across a morass of plastic bags and magazines, through the kitchen to the narrow stairs, willing them to hold their weight. Without incident, they made it to the second floor, pausing to behold the ruins of three bedrooms. Outside, the sun had set. The photograph in the attic beckoned.
Another steep flight of stairs, and they were standing in a room barely big enough for the queen-sized bed, the same bed the parents used to conceive all six children.
Beyond the bed, on the wall next to a broken window was the picture. The daughter stepped towards it and something squished beneath her feet. Her brother raised his cell phone flashlight to find the floor was covered in animal scat. “Animals,” said the older son, “You know they’re in here hiding,” and stepping around his sister, he removed the picture from the wall.
She returned to the hotel exhausted, clutching her prize. Her husband’s balmy voice brought her into the present, a place from which to shake the past. She felt dirty, buried, bruised. She went through half a bar of soap in the shower, felt as if she were swimming towards the surface, towards the light. She joined him in bed and slept like the dead.