The Mungeon house

2

Very few people really knew where Mr. Mungeon lived. It wasn’t like it was a secret. It was just that his house wasn’t easy to get to.

You could drive to the address, that was easy enough. 216 W. Church St. was right in the middle of town, just off the town square. The Presbyterian church, the big one, the first one, made of substantial granite stones, weathered brown with all the years they’d seen, was just across the street. The house just simply wasn’t there, not as far as anyone could see.

Mr. Mungeon had lived there all his life, as had his parents before that, and their parents before that. They had moved to this town as soon as they’d saved up enough money after arriving by ocean liner from Romania. That trip had cost them all they had, scraped together over the years and added to in the last month before they left by selling all their furniture and most of their clothes. Not like they could have taken any of it on the ship. They were lucky they could take as much as they did, as everybody was subject to a weight restriction.

Mama and Papa were sure they could make the grade, but they weren’t sure all of their five children could. Every ounce counted. Once a week they weighed themselves and their belongings, all together, on the scale down at the local hardware store that served the farmers. Every week they had to pare back more, unsure what more they would have to give up the next week. Papa started exercising to lose weight. Mama cut her meals in half to do the same – not like she could afford to, stick thin as she was. After they had sold everything they could, it still was obvious that as a group they were over by 46 pounds. It was decided that the oldest child, their eight-year-old son Bogdam would stay back with his grandparents. There were tears of course, but it was for the best. If it wasn’t him, then two of the younger children would have to stay behind. He promised to be brave, promised to make his parents proud by working hard on the grandparent’s farm, promised to obey them as if they were his own parents. That was many years ago, but the effects of that separation were still felt.

After the family had endured the poking and prodding and paperwork at Ellis Island, along with all the other hundreds of newcomers searching for a new life, they stayed in the cheapest housing they could afford, tucked away in a narrow back alley, a warren of an immigrant neighborhood in New York. Papa Mungeon, Ionut by name, worked hard at the shipyard while his wife Beata took in laundry and watched other people’s children for a few pennies a day. It took them nearly 2 years to save up enough money to relocate.

All during that time they never mentioned Bogdam. It was as if he’d never existed. It was easier that way. In many ways he was dead to them because this trip had been one-way all along. Everyone knew it. “The American wake,” the Irish called it, mourning their living at the docks because they would never see them again. Letters were possible, of course, but they took months to travel across the sea. But it wasn’t as if anyone in the family could write, or read, for that matter. No, this way was for the best. A clean cut heals faster.

The house was perfect for the family when they finally saw it. Ionut had bought it on faith, having heard about it from another immigrant he met in the shipyards. Members of his family had already moved to this town, so far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It took nearly a week of travel by rail to get to it, and after the sleeper cabin, not to mention the nearly 2 years of being packed like sardines on the fifth-floor walk-up apartment they had in New York, almost anything would have been an improvement. But this was palatial to them. Three bedrooms, a living room where they could all sit in chairs and visit at the same time, an actual kitchen, and even a bedroom with a real tub. It was a dream come true. Sure it needed some work. What would you expect for a house for $20,000? But Papa was good with his hands and had learned enough while working at the docks to do most of the work himself. You had to do a little of everything to get by.

The family history was well-known to the current Mr. Mungeon who occupied the house, all except the part about Bogdam. When there are many generations living in the same house year upon year, the history tends to stay intact along with the heirlooms. No need to pack up the fine china by putting plates, saucers and serving trays in a big pieces of brown butcher paper to prep them for a move when you stay put. No need to divide up the bedroom furniture among the grandchildren. No fights over who got the dining room table or the coveted rocking chair that Grandpa carved. It never left – any of it. They never had to buy housewarming gifts, never had to have going away parties. They never had to fool with undertakers or coffins either, because they created a cemetery in the backyard.

At every funeral they opened with a recitation of all the previously deceased members of the family, and that was when the problem started. Everything was fine until Bogdam died. Since they had omitted him for their story, they had no way of knowing their mistake. He died unnoticed, unremarked, all those many miles away in Romania. He was living alone by then, the grandparents having died years before. He kept up with the farm, same as he’d done since he moved there. Nobody in the village knew how to contact his family in America when someone finally went to check on him nearly a week later, so they buried him without any ceremony and went on with their lives.

The first funeral in the family in America after his death, there was a pause in the air, heavy and expectant, after they read the customary list of names. It was the same kind of pause a parent imposes while waiting for their child to say “thank you” after someone has bestowed a kindness upon them. Everyone felt it, but no one thought twice about it.

Until it happened again, eight years later.

Then, when Papa Ionut died, it was more present, more dense, as if silence can have presence, as if silence can take up space. It was as if there was someone else in the backyard with them, someone they had forgotten to invite.

Every year after that the presence grew heavier, denser, taking up space in an invisible yet present way. Every year it sought to make itself noticed and known to them. It focused on the bricks of the house itself. One by one it made them disappear to the eye. They were still present, still a part of the building. One by one they just weren’t there, but yet they were.

The spirit of Bogdam hoped that they would come to question it, wonder about this happening, wonder how something could be there and yet not be there at the same time. It hoped they would see it as a sign, or maybe an omen. What else was missing? What had they forgotten? Who was absent in their hearts? Secrets cannot stay that way for long. The burden is too great. They spring forth like jonquils, pushed up out of the ground all of a sudden one spring morning.

Yet they never noticed. The secret had been unspoken for so long it had stopped being a secret, had stopped being real to them. The memory of Bogdam had not been suppressed, so much as erased. It wasn’t even like a palimpsest – there was no trace of the former message. It wasn’t as if the page had been pulled out of the family records book. It was as if they had created a whole new book from scratch.

Over the years, the house had simply faded from sight. It wasn’t as if the walls were see-through, though. Anyone who went inside vanished from view as well. There was no trace of furniture at all. It was all there. It was simply that the house and anything inside it was not visible from the outside.

Because it happened so slowly, the family did not realize it had occurred. They rarely invited people over, so friends never mentioned anything was off about the family homestead. Because the furniture was still visible once the family members got inside, they never even suspected anything was wrong. It was as if their minds simply expected to see a house, so they did.

The mailbox and front steps near the street were still quite visible, so they still got mail. The postman had gotten used to it the same as they had, and since there was little turnover and nobody else ever bid on that route, the same postman served that street for nearly 25 years, the time it took for the house to fade from sight. By the time he retired, his son had taken over the route and he knew better than to question. Nobody bothered him at the house. Not children, not dogs. The mail was collected daily – it was never left to the vagaries of the weather. Who was he to question? They never seemed to order any parcels that needed to be signed for, so he never had to negotiate that potentially awkward situation. If he had, he would have discovered the house was just as real as it had always been. It was just as solid, just as present as ever. Just like Bogdam, who was still part of the family even though he was out of sight (and out of mind).

The little white house

little white house

The little white house had been there longer than anyone could remember. The cornerstone said 1781, but nobody thought that was possible. Sudbury wasn’t a town that far back. The archives in the local library said the first deed had been issued in 1824 to Saul Abrams, a fur trader, but it was the only house for miles then. It was four years later before the town had its first boom and then there were a dozen homes scattered about like corn thrown to chickens. Close enough to help if there’s a need, but far enough away that you didn’t have to worry about your neighbor seeing your business. Not like anybody was up to anything, mind you, but it was still nice to have the breathing room.

Nell was currently the youngest resident of the little white house, but she certainly wasn’t going to be the last. Her mom was due to give birth within a week to her latest sibling. Meanwhile, grandma Rose and uncle Pat lived upstairs in the north-east facing room. They preferred the early morning light to paint by. They said it meant they got a head start on the day before the rest of the family got up.

The little white house had resisted all sorts of change over the years. It had plumbing but no electricity. The family had never seen a need for it, preferring natural light over artificial. Plus the money they saved was nothing to sneeze at. Of course, money wasn’t a problem for Nell’s family. Up to four generations at a time lived there, sharing their skills and resources along with their joys and sorrows. It was so much cheaper to pay one mortgage than four (or more). The money saved was worth the minor annoyance of the cramped quarters. For starters, it meant that they didn’t all have to work full-time, and especially not at jobs that took more than they gave.

The Abrams family realized early on that they would have to be careful about how many children they had if they were going to share a house. It wouldn’t do to be too crowded. Plus, more mouths meant more food, and food wasn’t cheap. They’ve had a lot of land to work with years back, but now that the city had grown up around the house they had to buy food just like everyone else.

Of course, there was always the apple tree out front. It had been the reason Saul had bought the property in the first place. The apples had just ripened on it once Saul came over the hill, looking for a campsite for the evening after a long day of marmot trapping. That tree’s beauty stopped him in his tracks and he set up his canvas tent smack dab under it to spend the evening with it as his company. The next morning he knew he’d finally found a place he could call home. He dreamed about that tree the whole night long.

Saul’s family put great stock in dreams, being descended from Jacob, who God renamed Israel. Jacob knew that where he slept was a holy place and so set up an altar to God once he awoke. Saul knew the same was true here, but he knew he was to establish a house rather than a temple.

There wasn’t much difference, really, to his mind.

The city had grown up around the house, getting closer and closer. The yard had shrunk down to a little patio in front with the tree. Tall buildings bracketed the little white house on the sides but not at the front or back. Somehow, there was still an alleyway to one side, and Nell would often play there when she wanted to be alone.

The alley was gated, and only her family had a key, but it didn’t matter. Nobody would even think of walking through that gate. Most didn’t even notice it. It was kind of like one of those Japanese gates that weren’t really gates, marking out a difference between “there” and “here”. “Here” was the difference between storm and calm, between noise and harmony. Most people walked on by because this little island wasn’t what they were looking for, even though it was what most of them needed. Most people were looking for peace in the wrong places – more activity, more possessions, a different job / spouse / church / hobby. They figured if they weren’t happy it was because of something outside of them. Change that and they’d change how they felt, they thought. Yet they made the changes outside and they still felt empty inside.

The little white house had no ornamentation to speak of but it was always clean and tidy. It stuck out only in that it didn’t stick out at all, taking up just enough space but no more.

The residents kept a low profile, always doing things the same way. They always put the trash out on Wednesday mornings, always went to get the groceries on Thursday. On Friday they prepared for a day of rest by cooking double portions of food to make Saturday easy. On Sunday they might travel or work on school projects. They were always learning, whether they were enrolled in an institution or not. All of the Abrams kids went to public school and then to college, yet they also were expected to follow their own inspirations and learn as much as they could about whatever they wanted. The Sahara desert, bowling, tea, it made no difference. Anything was fair game to do a research project on, but each person had to do something.

Right now, for Nell, that something was sitting on the front steps, sketching the apple tree. Year after year it produced crisp red apples that the family lovingly harvested and ate fresh, baked into pies, made into sauce and preserves. Every single fruit was carefully harvested and used or processed immediately. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” should have been engraved as the Abrams family motto because they sure took it seriously. Even if they were traveling they were sure to take enough applesauce or apple butter along with them so each person could have their daily allotment. Every day they ate from the fruit of that tree just like it was medicine, just like it was prescribed by the family doctor.

In a way, it was. All those many years ago, God told Saul in that dream to eat the fruit of that tree every day – him and his descendants, and they would never get sick. He took God at his word and had an apple for breakfast first thing when he woke up. Within moments the usual aches and pains he’d had for the past three years of making his living out of the wilderness were gone, like he never had them.

The family never told a soul their secret, out of concern that someone would try to steal the tree or chop it down out of spite. Some folks would rather destroy something beautiful than share.

Of course, they had to tell anyone who married into the family, but marrying into that family was harder than getting a job at the real White House.

Background checks were just the beginning. Then there was a complete physical. Financial records were obtained. Even visits to a psychiatrist were required. It was like applying for full term life insurance, a second mortgage, and a Secret Service job all at once.

In the end, if you were in, you were made truly part of the family by a dip in the local river. And, no matter what, you had to change your last name to Abrams. After that you were the same as anyone else who lived in the little white house, and you too got your daily serving of apple.

Getting a serving a day meant you didn’t get sick, but it didn’t mean you wouldn’t die. Accidents and old age could kill an Abrams the same as anyone else. They tended to heal faster from accidents, and age slower, but death still visited that house on occasion. Even then it wasn’t a sadness, because they’d always lived long and well there.

(The image is from the book “Trainstop” by Barbara Lehman. It is a wordless picture-book for children. My story was inspired by this image and not by her story that she told through her other pictures.)