I carefully knelt on the ground and leaned over the tiny red house.
“This is my Grandpa’s house,” I said slowly. I traced the edge of the roof with my fingers and wiped a streak of dust on my pant leg.
“At least, it used to be my Grandpa’s house.”
Behind me, my family waited in the car, patiently watching, saying nothing.
“Of course it was bigger back then,” I cocked my head, “Or, maybe I was smaller.” But which was it? Now it was just a time capsule unearthed from dry dusty ground, a rusty red and white metal lunch box dug up centuries later, tossed here in this empty patch of Ohio, waiting to be opened. Waiting for someone to peel back the roof and look inside at the faded cushions around the window seat where I used to sit and wait for lunch on hot summer days, the miniature designs of dancing lines on white tile in the bathroom which I had memorized as a young boy (one the cowboy, another a dragon, the horse, the rabbit- the constellations of my youth!). All I had to do was reach forward and unlock the lid and I could be transported back there. I could return to the slick wet concrete in the washroom where I used to shower after playing in the yard, dark rivers of purple streaming off my mulberry stained toes, my brother’s bony arms nudging me aside as we wrestled for our turn in the warm water. I wanted one last moment to breathe the air inside that house. One lung full of worn wood, grandpa’s paint thinner, steaming grass after the rain coming through the kitchen window.
The wind blew through the field behind the house. I listened to it move like a ghost rustling parchment paper. As if something long since dead was frantically waving an invisible book for me to read. Something important that it wanted me to know. Desperate. But in a moment the wind was gone and the rustling stopped.
I looked again at the driveway and the road. Everything was too small. Far too small. Far too close together. It was as if it were shrinking still, the longer I looked at it. As if, even now, sitting perfectly still as I was, me and the house were still moving further and further apart.
“I spent my summers here,” I told my tired children. “My Mother- Not your Grandmother. No, my Mom. A different person. And my brother- Not your uncle Jeremy. No, my brother Jeremy. A knobby kneed boy that would climb trees like a monkey and had this high pitched laugh and a squeaky voice. There were aunts and uncles and cousins, so many cousins! You wouldn’t believe the cousins! My grandparents. Friends of theirs. A whole carnival of people on summer nights, out in the yard trapping fireflies in mason jars!” Where did they go? I looked around. Unfamiliar trees stood watching. Behind me in the car, my children were already asleep. “Fireflies in mason jars.”
I pressed my finger into the ground behind the house. “Here!” I continued to myself. “Here is where the mulberry tree was. Oh what a tree that was. The sappy fingers. Ruined purple sneakers. There was one branch on the left, then the twisted trunk, then three more thick barked branches and you were there, a seat 20 feet off the ground with a roof filled with berries. I can taste them. I can feel their hard stems hidden inside the fruit. When we were tired of eating them we would throw them at the dog that was chained up below.”
I sighed, “And over here!” My finger shot across the yard. “This was an apple tree. It wasn’t very big. We could hardly fit inside of it, but you had to if you wanted to eat apples. When you are a child, you can’t eat from a tree unless you are inside of it. There is a rule. The apples were never my favorite, but I would eat them. Back then I would eat them, simply because I could.”
“There!” I pointed, “In that empty space, over there. That was a crab apple. We never ate crab apples. The branches were too high for us to climb. But its fruit would fall in a carpet of tiny green and red marbles, perfect for throwing at each other.”
“Oh, but over here!” I reverently waved my hand over to the opposite corner of the yard. “This was the cherry tree! Yes! The cherry tree. Here…” I shuddered, and then left the words unsaid, “yes… the cherry tree…” as if the memory of this tree was a love letter that you should never read aloud. I looked at my fingers and smiled. I knew somewhere deep down at the bones they were still stained red. “The cherry tree.”
I slowly placed my ear to the ground and examined the front of the house. “The porch is gone.” I said sadly to myself. “The honeysuckle vines with it. I would have loved to have introduced you to honeysuckle. Honeysuckle is proof that magic is real. I would have loved to have let you in on that secret.” But it was gone. My children would have to learn about magic on their own.
Through the windows, the inside of the house was dark. Nothing moved. Nothing existed. The time capsule was empty. You can’t bring anything with you.
I stood back up and brushed off my shoulders. “The driveway is too small.” I turned. “The road is too narrow and too close to the house.” I turned. “The garage door is not wide enough. How could grandpa have ever painted anything in such a small garage? How could we have had 4th of July picnics on such a small front yard, under the tree with the swing hanging on the outside and snakes hiding in its branches? The highway behind that field there, it’s not far enough away. That was miles away. Now I can touch it with my one hand while touching the wall of the house with my other!”
The house was now even smaller than when I had first arrived. No larger than an apple on the ground, fallen from a tree in the summer. “There was a line in back where we would dry our clothes!” The house was now a crab apple in the grass. “I remember the sound of the spring and snap of the screen door between the kitchen and my grandpa’s paint shop. I can still hear it!” The house was a mulberry. “I remember grandpa’s boots and the sound of the swing out back with the rain falling inches in front of us, my side of the swing moving twice as fast as his, as he smiled and chuckled to himself. Why was I in such a hurry?” The house was a cherry pit, spit from 25 feet up in the air and landing bulls-eye in an old coffee can. I cheered and my brother with the knobby knees slapped me on the back and laughed like a monkey. We scrambled higher. Barefoot. Careless. Innocent.
A car door slammed shut and the engine started.
“Where are we going now?” my wife asked.
I watched in my mirror as the little red house became smaller and smaller and smaller still. A young boy in a tree out back kissed a stained red hand and waved from the branches. He leaned into the leaves and laughed. I raised my hand to wave back, but it was gone. The house. The boy. All of it.
“I don’t know,” I said, as we pulled back onto the highway and drove away.