Immediately after stepping through the front door of Acorn Hill, a visitor will be fixed in the Cyclopean glare of a grandfather clock. It is one of three on the first floor, a triumvirate attended by a court of nine wall and mantel clocks, and the stealth assassin hidden in the garden: the sundial.
Two portraits hang on the walls to the right and left of this clock. On the right is an oil painting of three of us Stewarts: my mother, my sister and me. The clock reminds me that it’s over twenty years old now, this portrait. In it, we are seated on a high backed couch. My little sister, Olivia, is a five-year-old confection of blond ringlets and white ruffles. My mother Helen, elegant and slim, is caught in the motion of adjusting some fuss on Livie’s dress. I’m on our mother’s other side, black-haired and trussed in blue, with a consumptive pallor and a vacant stare. This is how a bookish person looks before they learn to read: still and waiting for words to furnish the empty rooms in their head.
Opposing our portrait on the western wall hangs a portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Catholics have their crucifixes, Latins have the Holy Virgin, Americans have firearms. We Virginians have Jefferson. This portrait is actually a caricature, and Thomas comes off a little priggish, which is probably unfair, but then it wouldn’t do to revere a politician too plainly.
Jefferson hangs above an old music box. It’s big, about the size of a steamer trunk, and made of varnished mahogany. Inside the box is an intricate, doll-sized mechanical orchestra. When it’s cranked over, a wheezy, arthritic tune still strikes up. Kids love it, and everyone has a go at poking in their fingers to hold a bell or muffle drum and disorder the song into atonal cacophony. It’s the most magical thing. We stack our mail on it. Also on the lid rests the tusked skull of a Namibian wart hog, which is there for its own reasons. Acorn Hill is full of these exotic trophies: scrimshawed whale bone, fossils, fishing floats, campaign chairs, prayer rugs, and so on.
Always in the front hall these days are peonies, or lilies or some such. My mother keeps flowers blooming everywhere, regardless of the season. She knows so well the lifetime of an iris or a tulip that I rarely even see a hint of wilt before that vase is gone and a new arrangement in its place. Mom has no time for decay. But then, she was born in the North. She sees nothing romantic in a gradual, genteel ruination. So the house’s gentle crumble is stymied by her upright Yankee efforts. Not the first time the South benefited from a little Northern interference, but don’t tell the neighbors I said so.
Front halls are known as a means of entrance, which is a rosy way of looking at it. But, of course, many people have used the front door to make their escape from this house. Aunt Vanessa was the first of the Stewarts to leave by that door. To really leave, that is, knowing that the next time she walked through it, she would feel compelled to knock first.
One night some fifty-odd years ago, when Aunt V was fourteen, she was drawn into the hall by the sound of voices. She saw my grandfather, who was her stepfather, sitting on the bench with Rusty, a black man who worked on the farm. It was on a Christmas Eve. The clock showed that it was very late, not that far from Christmas morning. My grandfather loved Christmas, but on that night he was very grim. He was speaking sternly to Rusty, of duty, and the right way to live as a man. Rusty, a bigger man than even Grandpa, was weeping. He’d gotten his Christmas bonus that day, and had invested a significant part of it straight away in getting wretchedly drunk, a decision in keeping with a lifetime of poor judgment. Grandpa had had to go down to the jail to either bail or bribe him out. Rusty’s illiterate wife and children were waiting for him at home on Christmas Eve. Rusty was theatrically craven and abject, and Aunt Vanessa felt his disgrace settle down on all of them, like dirt from an old road. Or maybe an old track.
Aunt V didn’t see this as one bad night being sorted out between a man and his employer; she saw the nauseating boomerang of history, Virginian chickens come home to roost. Just four years later, almost before she was grown, Aunt V removed herself from Virginia and resettled in California’s golden soil, a younger place, with more modern prejudices. She comes back of course, but then goes again.
People like to talk about that, the cyclical way of things. This is a room that makes you wonder. The little girls in the portrait are gone, but the flowers opposite them are always in bloom. The music box will play the same old song if you leave it alone, but I can tell you from experience that if you put a cat in there and close the lid, the sound will change. I can’t tell if the clock marks the forward march of time, or just describes an endless circle.
As you can see, the front hall is a place of passage. Let’s move into the eastern parlor, where events get to take place.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.