Down at my old house on Harts Lake, the apples are getting ripe. And the grape vine, the one that has defied certain death twice (once when it was snipped off flush to the ground by a cranky gander and once again when it was eaten by goats) has now spread from its trellis into the highest reaches of the cottonwood tree adjacent to it. When I was down there a few days ago, there was something very satisfying about looking up into a cottonwood tree that is just starting to change the colors of its leaves and seeing bunches of purple grapes hanging from the branches. The birds that were up there feasting on them seemed to agree with me. I want to go down to the old house again this weekend, if I can get enough pages done on Renegade’s Magic to justify taking a day off from writing.
We bought that house a long time ago. My entire first advance on my first book, Harpy’s Flight by Megan Lindholm, was our down payment. For a whopping $3,500 down, we purchased not quite four acres of choice swampland--now known as wetlands by the ecologically correct--with a four-bedroom ‘house’ on it. The house was actually a converted chicken barn that had been made into a house when the original farmhouse burned down years ago. According to the county papers we have on it, the structure dates back to the 1930’s. It began its existence as a long, low production chicken barn. Its most unique architectural feature is that it is six inches wider at one end than the other. This means that there is not one square corner in the entire structure. The wiring is a creative mix of series and parallel circuits. And when we first acquired it, the previous tenant had left us a brooder with fifty fledgling chickens in it. In the bathroom. Buff Orpington chickens. Good breed, for eggs and meat. Not so great as bathroom pets. The heat source for the whole house was a pot bellied stove in the living room.
The year we acquired it was 1982, and it was the first home we’d ever bought.
We no longer live in the old chicken house, but for close to fifteen years, we did. Three of our four children grew up there, along with numerous cats, dogs, rabbits, goats, chickens, ducks, pigs, geese, quail, pheasants, doves and pigeons. A lot of pigeons. And even now, when our family has a house in Tacoma with plumbing that never freezes and a heater that doesn’t require me to chop, split or haul firewood, I take a lot of pleasure in making the drive down to Roy, and past it to McKenna and eventually to that same, sagging old house. It’s a wreck, but it’s a homely wreck in the finest sense of that old word. The structure itself continues to gently biodegrade into the sunset, but the house was never what mattered to me about that place. It was the land and the water of the land. It’s what sold us on the place and what makes us shake our heads every time we think of selling it off.
It’s only four acres. That’s not big enough to merit the title ‘farm’ and I’d never live on anything with the humiliating title of ‘ranchette.’ We just call it ‘the land.’ It has a stream, born when someone many years ago punched a hole down for a well and got a lot more water than he’d planned on finding. As a result, it has a man-made pond. Man-made. That’s a joke. The water made the pond and the water keeps it there. The water for the house comes from the same ‘developed spring.’ It’s cold and clean and tastes like the mountains. It has never dried up, even in these days of frequent summer droughts. I think it comes from very far away.
You see, the spring taps down into the invisible river that runs under the land. In winter, we don’t notice the river so much. That’s odd, because winter is when it’s most visible. The entire property becomes wetter as the level of water under the land rises, and we contend with mud every day. Yet it is in summer, when the rest of the acreage dries up, that one can see the river. It’s visible as a swath of green that crosses my property. When all the surrounding areas turn brown or gold with dry standing grass, I can stand on the road above my four acres and see, by the tall green grasses, exactly where the river runs under my land. I can hear it, too. I can go out and stand in the center of a green swath of grass. And in the stillness of a rural day that is never truly quiet, I can hear the sounds of water moving gently through the earth.
It does odd things to the land to have the river under it. Not all of it is good. The ‘lawn’ stays green in summer and becomes a gentle bog in winter. Trees grow quickly, reach a certain height, and then drown in the winter. Strange mists rise from the land. Frogs and even salamanders prosper. Water makes the land rich.
But it makes the house strange. Even inside the house, sound carries oddly, as if borne there by the invisible river. It’s especially noticeable at night. When I try to go to sleep, my head resting on a pillow, it’s as if I’d pressed my ear to a sounding board. Distant traffic, trains, even the singing of the kids at the gospel camp way up the river, reached me as ghost sounds. The river runs under the house, bringing sounds. And dreams.
The dreams were the most unusual part about that house. It wasn’t just me-it’s not something I imagine. All of my kids started to have dreams when we moved there to live, incredible, vivid dreams. The kids weren’t very old. I thought the kids finding their dreams and my own dreams coming back to me were just a part of their growing up and a part of me relaxing into a quieter lifestyle. We only became aware that it was a feature of the house when the kids were old enough to have friends come over to spend the night.
“I always have the weirdest dreams when I sleep here,” they’d say. And some didn’t like the experience, and didn’t want to stay the night in a house where an invisible river brought them dreams.
But my family liked it. I forget when he deduced that the river brought the dreams. Possibly in the longest, hottest nights of the summer, when the invisible river became more distant, and both sleep and dreams were harder to find. But as soon as it rained and the invisible river rose, it brought sleep and dreams back to us.
A lot of the scenes in my books began as dreams from the invisible river. I dreamed of a treasure beach. And a shaman in a tree. All the children dreamed. It was a common topic at breakfast. “Let me tell you what I dreamed last night.” My older daughter would sometimes complain that her younger brother was coming into her dreams at night and interrupting them. “He just walks into my dreams and says, ‘I know a better one’ and then he takes my hand and makes me leave my dream and come to his.” And her brother would just laugh, in the way he always laughed when he had been into mischief but knew no one could prove it. Did they really share dreams and walk in and out of each other’s dreams? I don’t think even they really know.
Our family has a much better house now, in a very nice area of Tacoma. We have city water and natural gas for heat and the lights don’t dim when the washing machine starts its spin cycle. The corners of the room are square, and the tile in the houses matches. It’s a Ray Bradbury neighborhood, where kids play baseball in the intersection, with my honeysuckle vine as first base. We know our neighbors, kids walk or skate board to school, and at night we sit on each others front lawns and talk about the world. It’s a great place to live.
But when the grown kids come home to visit, from Texas or California or Alaska, they always want to spend at least one night down at the old house. We go in and chase out the spiders and get the water running through the pipes again. The stove always smells funny when you turn it on again after a long stretch of idleness, and we never know what critters have decided to move into the attic or under the house. We don’t worry too much about that. Neighbors are neighbors.
If the night is fine, we light a campfire out in the field, and cook hot dogs on willow sticks and follow that up with toasted marshmallows and cheap pop and lots of talk. Part of it is remembering when this was as good as it got. And part of it is knowing that even when this was as good as it got, it was still pretty darn good. Night shuts down, frogs take up their chorus and the mosquitoes keen harmony. The big trucks from the chicken farm way down the road rumble past occasionally. Dogs bark and sometimes coyotes. There are many more stars down there than there are in Tacoma. The city is a haze of light on the far horizon.
But the biggest part is the dreams that the invisible river brings when you sleep in that house.
I went down there a few nights ago, just to spend the night. My husband and I put out some dry cat food for the skunk that lives in the woodpile. It’s easier to feed him outdoors than have him trying to get in the house all night. We ate a few of the last golden plums off the trees, inventoried this year’s crop of bull frogs and decided that in another ten days or so, we’d pick a lot of the apples, and a few of the grapes, or as many as the birds had left us. The apples are bird pecked as well, but that doesn’t matter to apple jelly and apple pie. A few bird pecks never hurt anyone.
And we spent the night there, and slept well and I came back up to Tacoma with a head full of dreams brought to me by the invisible river that flows under the land. A highwayman came riding. I don’t know his name yet. But I already know he isn’t quite what he seems. I’ll probably have to go back down there and spend a few more nights to discover that.
So. Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
-- Robin Hobb