Ellen’s House (4th Sunday of Lent)

by Gwen Adams, (c.) 2010

“It goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’  When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.  Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there.”
—Matthew 12:43-45

“Have I not wept your supreme anguish
and have I not sweated the sweat of your nights
Lamentable friend who seeks me where I am?”
—Paul Verlaine, “Mon Dieu m’a dit”

When Ellen was older and sick of her house, she shut it up and decided to go traveling. It was a beautiful home, brick with two wings, each with French windows opening onto a patio, and French windows in the back opening onto a porch. The back porch was lovely with indigo clematis growing on a lattice on the side. But Ellen shut the windows, covered all the chairs, locked the great front door, and went traveling all over the world. She believed herself happy for a few years.

She saw many great things, castles and tiny coffee-shops, exotic temples, the pyramids. She did all sorts of exciting and dangerous things, walked alone in big cities at night, jumped on a moving train, learned to shoot a gun, smoke a hookah, drink whiskey. But somewhere in her journeys, she began to hear the voice of a crying baby, very faint at first, but then increasingly louder. No one else ever seemed to hear it. But she did, and at the strangest of times: at a wine-tasting, a poker match, on safari. It woke her at night and she would pad over the cold tile floor of a hotel room in Spain and stand on the balcony, listening to the cars and the people wandering the streets below, with the smoke and smells and laughter rising up to her. And always behind it was the pathetic voice of a baby. This went on, and the cries grew more insistent the longer Ellen traveled, until one night, when she had a strange dream that she returned home.

She found she was walking up the long curved driveway lined with cedars and juniper and smelling their resin in the warm weather. Far away someone was cutting the grass. Everything looked just the same, and yet she felt as if she were a stranger there and visiting for the first time. Everything had a curious familiarity, yet a startling newness, like when one notices that a childhood friend has grown up into an altogether beautiful girl. Ellen went uncertainly up to the front door and found it locked just as she had left it, but there was noise coming from around the back of the house, from the back porch. So she went around and found seven people lounging in her wicker lawn furniture. There was also another in the hammock. They all looked at her without embarrassment, and Ellen had the strangest feeling she should know who they were. They were eating candy and had a great pile of chocolates on the table. “Would you like to join us?” said one of the visitors. Ellen suddenly heard the baby’s cries coming from somewhere in the house. She hesitated.

“Just for a little—” said another of the visitors. So Ellen sat with them and had some candy and found it amazingly delicious. It was all she could do to get up finally and enter the house to see if there really was a baby. When she went into one of the first rooms, the study, she felt as if she should recognize it—and she did in a way—but everything had a tangible jewel-like freshness. There was the desk and the banker’s lamp but she had never noted the sheen of the cherry wood before or the bright greenness of the glass lamp shade. There were all the books arranged in their bookcases, but as she touched them, it seemed to Ellen that she had never felt their sweet stiff covers and worn corners or seen their various colors and gilt-edged pages, never felt the rough cut pages of the older volumes. The windows were open on the east side, opposite the French doors to the back porch and the sun streamed in and the curtains blew all about, and each particle of dust caught in the slant of the sun seemed to sparkle. Then, at the same time, Ellen heard the cry of the baby and the nasty laughter of the visitors, and she suddenly remembered that she had invited the visitors a long time ago, that they had been there for ages, only she had never really been home to notice. Ellen went to the foot of the stairs, resting her hand on the base of the banister, looking at the beautiful pattern in the carpet up the stairs and the gleam of the brass rods between each step. She heard the baby and was about to go up, when one of the visitors called her.

“Ellen! Are you coming back? Come outside—we’re all here.” Ellen stood there torn for a second. Then she went back out on the porch and ate chocolate with the eight for a long, long time.

It was a great deal later that Ellen looked up rather sick and saw that all of the eight had horrible circles of chocolate around their mouths. Ellen stood up and then noticed on their faces the nastiest expressions she had ever seen. Every one of them looked sick, but also very, very cruel. She said, “I should go.”

“Go? Go where?” said one. “This is your home.”

Ellen heard the baby wail again. “Inside,” she said. “I hear someone crying.” And they all looked even nastier.

“Stay a little longer,” said another.

“Yes, just a little longer,” they all chorused. One of them had very casually risen and begun to walk toward the door behind Ellen. So quick as a snap, Ellen jumped back through the French doors and bolted them, just as the eight rushed at her with scratching nails. But they could not get past the door, and Ellen went and shut all the windows, and then followed the sound of the baby up the long flight of stairs to search through her home.

She wandered through the halls and the bedrooms touching the photographs of her family and the paperweights and toys, smelling the cedar in the closets, listening to the clock wind up and chime the hour. Finally, after she had checked every room and found no baby, she knew that the baby must be up in the nursery, in the old finished attic with the gables, that was so noisy when the rain drummed down. So Ellen crept up the last stairs, hearing both the cries of the baby and the rage of the eight outside, until she opened the nursery door and saw the blocks and dolls and stuffed animals, the stitched samplers on the wall, grandmother’s quilts folded in a pile, the cherries on the wall-paper, and lying in the old cradle a tiny infant crying his heart out. Ellen stood still for a second, and it seemed like that baby belonged there more than anything in the house, even herself. She felt quite like a stranger for a moment. But then she shook herself, and finding a bottle of milk on the table and a warm blue blanket, she picked up the infant, sat down in the rocking chair, and rocked him to sleep. She fell asleep shortly after with the child on her breast, both of them quite at home with each other.

EXAMINATION: Do I seek Christ? Do I seek Him everywhere but my own soul? Do I thrust out silence, contemplation, thought, examination, drown myself in a million distractions, never peer within the depths of my own soul, listen to the calling within my own soul?

Related reading
  • Ps 103
  • 1 Corinthians 3.16-23
  • 2 Corinthians 5.17-21
  • Hebrews 4.14-16
  • Luke 15.1-3, 11-32
  • Mark 10.35-45 or 10:42-45.
  • Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
  • Fr. Jean C. J. D’Elbee, I Believe in Love

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