Home is a spell I cast whenever I feel I have none.
I live, for now, in a cabin in the woods, behind the house my octogenarian landlady grew up in, rented month-to-month, paid for in part with cheese danishes and sweet tea. The cottage is cupboard small. I share it with a cat, a mouse, many cockroaches. The yard is sand, too shadowed beneath the dense canopy to grow anything but moss, sparse weeds, a few poison red berries. The woods are littered with broken medicine bottles, rusted beer cans. I moved here, sight unseen, one week before the pandemic. The previous tenant turned out to be an alcoholic who’d left the inside indistinguishable from the outside. The foundation was termite-ridden, rotten. Days later, the state issued a stay at home order, and I had no choice but to stay home. I had no home. I made one. I cast a spell.
I moved across states to a place I’d never seen because I wanted space. For twenty some years, I’d sacrificed space to live in homes I’d always known, for free. Now, I wanted, no, needed space, from the parents, the past, the places I’d made so many memories they felt like tar pits to my feet, slowly but surely fossilizing me. More so, I needed space to control. Or, at least, summon the illusion of control, a magic trick pulled on a life spiraling out of it. So I packed all my things––so many things––into my little coupé and drove for twelve hours in the opposite direction of home. The one I’d always known and thought I’d always know.
On the way I thought about things. We spend so much of life clinging to its opposite: things without cells, organs, bones, death, life, only atoms, held at electron’s reach, immobile, unwavering. We cling to solid, permanent things. Or so we think. But we’re not so different, us and things. They gather dust, dents, decay, traipse from order to chaos. Like our control over them, things are insoluble. Their permanence, too, is illusory.
I thought about things, for a moment, until I thought about other things, like the baggage piled up to my car ceiling, suffocating me, so, mostly, I just wished I were there already.
Then I was. I drove down an unfamiliar road I was sure I’d been down many times before. I pulled into a hidden drive pocked with potholes and parked in front of a worn wood fence. Behind it, the unfinished cottage walls and tin roof soon to be the only one over my head leered at me. The cabin seemed to size me up, too. It’s just a thing, I thought. A thing to be mine for as long as I like. It frowned, as if I thought wrong.
My landlady hobbled out to meet me. The March-barren branches clawed against the twilight. The keys jingled in her scarred hand. We neared the gate. I did not feel at once at home as I’d hoped I would. I felt leafless, like the trees. Uprooted, too. Out of place. I straightened my collar, buttoned my jacket. But behind my armor, I felt all the more unsteady, like even the soft spring wind might blow me down.
My landlady fell. Not tripped. Over what? Rootless dirt? An open gate? Just fell. Out of the blue, the black. My thankless, wrong thoughts reached from the void, shoving her to the ground. By inches, she missed a hard, tall, saber-shaped stick jutting out of the ground. It surely would have stuck her through. I gave her my hands but her bones were too heavy for either of us to lift. So I sat with her on the dead earth and we talked while waiting for her son to assist.
My landlady told me her story. She was rooted, unlike me, to her house, in which her father took his life, her children were born, her mother died, a house, never home. But how could she leave? It was all she’d known. Woven in, like a quilt’s motif, she kept repeating, I just can’t believe that this is happening. My hands brushed a patch of clovers peeking through the graveyard of leaves. Up close I noticed lichen crawling up old rocks. What seemed weeds at a distance were flowering. I could believe.
Whether by freak coincidence or black magic or cosmic design, my imagination, for a moment, became reality. I was experiencing exactly what I needed to experience to see I needed more than just roots, a roof, more things. And what I’d wanted before now seemed silly in the eyes of an old woman who wanted––a fairy godmom who offered––nothing but home.
But how could it be random, really, when cause and effect is clear to see, here beneath the sun where it rains on breeze-carried seeds? The cold comes every year to strip the trees. And their leaves litter the yard only we can step foot on. And they stay there until we move them. And we must move the old things so new ones spring. But not by pushing them over. By helping them to their feet. Her son came. We did.
I knew then the cabin was no thing. It was home, waiting to be helped to its feet. I woke the next morning and cleaned. Scraped out the stale. Opened the walls. Let the fresh in. Magic bubbled with my intentions. Some things fit into every nook and cranny. Others didn’t. There’s a trick to knowing the difference. Some things take up space. Others create it. The shelf filled with beloved books I can disappear through the covers back into. The stack of sweaters like shed skin I can remember every memory I made in. The wall art, each brush stroked by hands I’ve held. Candles with hermetic flames. Love letters on the fridge door. Plants with their ecosystems. Our space is the place to make our imagination reality.
Within four walls, we influence every sense felt by anyone who enters. No, not forever. Yes, for now. Once you do––and make each one utterly, unmistakably you––you expand to fill the space, too. A wrong thought will creep in here or there, like a rodent roommate. Welcome it in. It won’t stay long. The cat slinking along the floating shelves will string it out of sight and devour it. And the gasping of the ancient refrigerator and rattling of the heater, which once seemed the heaving of your own dust-filled lungs, now seem rumbling, deep breaths, inhaling the incensed air.
Out back, I cleared the leaves and gathered discarded jars. I set them around the porch railing, cultivating moss. Against the fence rested an oxidized iron shovel, and, beneath a condemned telephone pole, a quarry of stones and cracked bricks and cinderblocks. I dug a pit. Masoned it. Made a hearth, fire. The earth provides, I realized. Although it wasn’t Mother Earth providing. Just my landlady. Or a tenant from before I was alive. The home, then. Home provides. The string of cause and effect and things left behind, conspiring to give you everything you need in the moment, any moment. The spell, waiting to be cast. Beneath the leaves, a fragmented stone wall embraced the yard like a summoning circle. I had just enough stones to finish it.
Those were the fairy tale days. I would rake the yard every afternoon, rain or shine, because raking the yard now seemed no different from scratching the cerebrum’s surface, dragging a fine-toothed comb through each pink wrinkle, tearing apart the dead leaves and clearing out the muck, the closest feeling in the world to unzipping my own skin, two-stepping on out of it, and clattering off into the sunset, which was all, I now knew, I ever wanted.
After I finished, I would slide the rake back into the same worn spot against the smoked wooden fence where it rested neatly against a soft pale depress made by friction and time and I would stomp the mud off on the mat, flick lights on, slip shoes off, breathe deep, dance in the clean dirt beneath the twinkling string lights and trees and planets and stars. And I would press each toe into the sinking earth to howl at the moon in silence and dance in the smoke and moonlight.
Everything seemed to be in orbit then. My control extended to only the smallest corner of the world. But I had made it a better place. It had a surreal effect on the surroundings. Squirrels leaping across towering treetops. Songbirds serenading from fairy-light-wrapped branches. Albino deer sightings throughout the neighborhood. Luna moths drying out on the porch. The property became a home and home became a feeling and when I stepped out of my hand-laid ring of stones to take it all in it was like stepping back and seeing the truth. Softer. Pinker. Better. And I saw it was good.
Nowadays my things gather dust again and my only animal visitor is a possum digging through my porch trash at night. It is time to spring clean. It is time to cast the spell. But now I know I can. By chance? Magic? Make believe? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, I don’t think. All I believe is that, in this moment, I’m where I need to be, or, if not, I’m here anyway, so why wish not to be? May as well just be. And everything it took to make the moment is here with me. And it is home. The decaying foundation. The ground in which roots won’t take. The bones hugging our organs. The celestial body we’re tethered to by gravity. Nothing about it is permanent. Why should it be? Home is magic, words murmured, dust sprinkled, spirits summoned. It will never be forever. It begs to be for now. And, like a lamp-chained genie, only we can let it out.