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Great House

Where are you, Dov? It’s past dawn already. God knows what you do out there among the grasses and the nettles. Any moment now you’ll appear at the gate covered in burrs. For ten days we’ve lived together under the same roof as we have not for twenty-five years, and you’ve hardly said a thing. No, that isn’t true. There was the one long monologue about the construction down the road, something about drainpipes and sinkholes. I began to suspect it was a code for something else you were trying to tell me. About your health, perhaps? Or our collective health, father and son’s? I tried to follow but you lost me. I was thrown from the horse, my boy. Left behind in the sewage. I made the mistake of telling you as much, and a pained look gripped your face before you reverted back to silence. Afterward I began to suspect that it had been a test you’d concocted for me, one for which the only possible outcome was my failure, leaving you free to curl back into yourself like a snail, to go on blaming and despising me.

Ten days together in this house, and the most we’ve done is stake out our territories and inaugurate a set of rituals. To give us a foothold. To give us direction, like the illuminated strips in the aisles of emergency-stricken planes. Every night I turn in before you, and every morning, no matter how early I rise, you are awake before me. I see your long gray form bent over the newspaper. I cough before entering the kitchen, so as not to surprise you. You boil the water, setting out two cups. We read, grunt, belch. I ask if you want toast. You refuse me. You are above even food now. Or is it the blackened crusts you object to? Toasting was always your mother’s job. With my mouth full, I talk about the news. Silently, you wipe the sputtered crumbs and continue to read. My words, to you, are atmospheric at most: they come through vaguely, like the twitter of birds and the creak of the old trees, and, as far as I can tell, like these things they require no response from you. After breakfast, you retire to your room to sleep, exhausted from your nighttime rambling. Close to noon you appear in the garden with your book to stake out the only lawn chair whose seat has not broken. I claim the easy chair in front of the TV. Yesterday I followed the news report of an obese woman who died in Sfat. She hadn’t moved from her sofa for over a decade, and when they discovered her dead they found that her skin had grafted to it. How it was possible for things to have gotten so far—this they didn’t get into. The report was limited to the fact that she had to be cut loose from the sofa, and hoisted through the window with a crane. The reporter narrated the slow descent of the enormous body wrapped in black plastic because, as a final humiliation, there was no body bag in all of Israel big enough to fit her. At two sharp you reenter the house for your solitary monk’s meal: a banana, a cup of yogurt, and a meek salad. Tomorrow, perhaps, you will appear in a hair shirt. At two-fifteen, I fall asleep in my chair. At four I wake to the sound of whatever odd job you have chosen for yourself that day—clearing out the shed, raking, mending the roof gutter—as if to earn your lodging. To keep things fair and square, so that you won’t owe me. At five I summarize the late-breaking news to you over tea. I wait for an opening, a crack in the hard glaze of your silence. You wait for me to finish, wash out the cups, dry them, and return them to the cupboard. You fold the dish towel. You remind me of someone who walks backwards, sweeping away his footsteps. You go up to your room and close the door. Yesterday I stood and listened. What did I think I would hear? The scratching of a pen? But there was nothing. At seven you emerge to watch the news. At eight I eat dinner. At nine-thirty I go to sleep. Much later, perhaps close to two or three in the morning, you leave the house to walk. In the dark, in the hills, in the woods. I no longer wake with a hunger that drives me out of bed to gorge myself before the open refrigerator. That appetite, which your mother called biblical, abandoned me long ago. Now I wake for other reasons. Weak bladder. Mysterious pains. Potential heart attacks. Clots. And always I find your bed empty and neatly made. I return to bed and when I get up in the morning, no matter how early, I find your shoes lined up by the door and your long gray form bent over the table. And I cough so that we can begin again.

Listen, Dov. Because I’m only going to say this once: We’re running out of time, you and I. No matter how miserable your life may be, there is still more time left for you. You can do what you wish with it. You can waste it wandering the forest, following a trail of turds left by a burrowing animal. But not I. I’m rapidly approaching my end. I will not come back in the form of migrating birds, or pollen dust, or some ugly, debased creature befitting my sins. All that I am, all that I was, will harden over into ancient geology. And you will be left alone with it. Alone with what I was, with what we were, and alone with your pain that will no longer stand any chance of being allayed. So think carefully. Think long and hard. Because if you came here to be confirmed in what you have always believed about me, you’re bound to succeed. I’ll even help you, my boy. I’ll be the prick you always took me to be. It’s true that it comes easily to me. Who knows, perhaps it will even excuse you from regret. But make no mistake: While I’m buried in a hole void of all feeling, you will live on in an afterlife of pain.

But you know all of this, don’t you? I sense that it’s why you came. Before I die there are things you want to say to me. Let’s have it out. Don’t hold back. What’s stopping you? Pity? I see it in your eyes: While I fly up in my mechanical chair I can see your shock at my diminishment. The monster of your childhood defeated by something as mundane as a flight of stairs. And yet, I only need to open my mouth in order to send your pity scurrying back under the rock it came out from. Just a few well-chosen words to remind you that despite appearances I am still the same arrogant, obtuse asshole I’ve always been.

Listen. I have a proposal for you. Hear me out and then you can accept or reject it as you choose. What would you say to a temporary truce, for as long as it takes for you to say your piece and me to say mine? For us to listen to each other as we have never listened, to hear one another out without becoming defensive and lashing out, to put, for a moment, a moratorium on bitterness and bile? To see what it’s like to occupy the other’s position? Perhaps you will say it is too late for us, that the moment for compassion is long past. And you might be right, but we have nothing more to lose. Death is waiting just around the corner for me. If we leave things like this it’s not I who will pay the price. I will be nothing. I won’t hear or see or think or feel. Maybe you think I’m belaboring the obvious, but I’d venture a bet that the state of nonbeing is not something you spend much time thinking about. Once you did perhaps, but that was long ago, and if there’s one idea the mind can’t sustain it is its own nullification. Perhaps the Buddhists can, the Tantric monks, but not the Jews. The Jews, who have made so much of life, have never known what to make of death. Ask a Catholic what happens when he dies and he will describe the circles of hell, purgatory, limbo, the heavenly gates. The Christian has populated death so fully that he has excused himself altogether from the need to wrap his mind around the end of his existence. But ask a Jew what happens when he dies and you’ll see the miserable condition of a man left alone to grapple. A man lost and confused. Wandering blindly. Because though the Jew may have talked about everything, investigated, held forth, aired his opinion, argued, gone on and on to numbing lengths, sucked every last scrap of meat off the bone of every question, he has remained largely silent about what happens when he dies. He has agreed, simply, not to discuss it. He who otherwise tolerates no vagueness has agreed to leave the most important question mired in a nebulous, fuzzy grayness. Do you see the irony of it? The absurdity? What is the point of a religion that turns its back on the subject of what happens when life ends? Having been denied an answer—having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate—the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day. To live with it, to set up his house in its shadow, and never to discuss its terms.

Where was I? I’m excited, I’ve lost the thread, you see how I’m frothing at the mouth? Wait, yes. A proposal. What do you say, Dov? Or don’t say anything at all. I’ll take your silence as a yes.

Excerpted from GREAT HOUSE © Copyright 2011 by Nicole Krauss. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton and Company. All rights reserved.

Great House
by by Nicole Krauss

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 289 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393340643
  • ISBN-13: 9780393340648