national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

House of Boone

Benjamin Vadnal  • 
Boston College

Boone’s house is square and plumb. Spruce but not immaculate, kind but not religious, tucked into the depths of Picket Ridge, Tennessee. Boone harvested the trees, breaking the canopy to let in light; milled the trunks and dovetailed the logs, painted the door and cut holes for windows. At the end of his laboring, he opened the door and came home.

 Inside is the room where his wife Enna gave birth. Five sons, three of whom had their first cry on this floor. The other two are buried tenderly in foot-wide plots twenty-five feet behind the house. A tangling of purple wildflowers grows there and only there.

 The cedar floor in the room bears a wandering mahogany stain. It is the spot where the flood of birthing fluid first let go onto the blankets and newspaper Boone had laid down, where it crept through and rooted itself deep into the floor. Boone sanded the planks raw, varnished then waxed, but in a matter of days, like an apparition seeping up from the earth, the stain rematerialized. Enna was later careful to birth in the same spot, so as not to give the stain a brother. In subsequent births, its outline would flex and stray, each baby boy growing new petals that paled at the edges. When Enna could bear no more children, what was left in the floor was a delicate paper flower that to the unknowing eye appeared inlaid, the fruit of careful geometry and practiced craftsmanship.

 There are foul little engravings hidden on the baseboards of one of the bedrooms, lived in by boys and sons of boys. To paint over one is to see its return with three more the next year. The secret laughter of the culprits, who are never caught, lingers in the corners of the room, under the bed and behind the curtains where the carvings live.

  

In the kitchen where Enna cooks their meals, the walls are coated in evaporated lard and cannot be made clean, but the stove is well kept and the dishes are done. An iron pot rack is suspended over a table where Enna chops and stirs. Charred copper vessels dangle from it. Once, while she was peeling, a heavy greased skillet meant for cornbread came unhitched onto her head as red potato mounds scattered across the floor. Five minutes passed before Boone found her, brought her to bed, soothed her with ice, and threw the skillet into the lake.

 The family eats every meal at their kitchen table. It holds them up when they are tired and keeps their food warm. A product of the forest, formed from a fallen trunk, beaten smooth and glazed in heavy beeswax, it looks as if it had grown through the floorboards, planted from a single cracked acorn a lifetime ago.

 Up the stairs that creak only sometimes (now that Boone has refastened them) is just one room, Boone and Enna’s. Inside is but one window, elfin and dim above the bed. Boone glazed it himself; it does not open. The stray heat that collects in the room, having risen through voids between floorboards and up the stairs (from the stove, the summer, or the pure kinetic steam the boys give off during play), has no place to go. Come winter, the room is salvation in the unheated house. Summertime, when their boys are bad, Boone and Enna will send them there to sweat. Boone and Enna are unaware of the string of furious words knifed into the underside of their bedframe.

 In front of the house, where the sun is brightest, Enna keeps her garden. She plants vegetables for cooking and flowers for her kitchen table. Tomatoes and beans, violets and azaleas. Boone wrapped the plot in wire fencing to keep away deer and raccoons. Enna thinks the garden adds sweetness to the look of the house but will not say this out loud.

  

Behind the house and beyond the footprint of light, Boone cooks his moonshine. The canopy conceals a mammoth copper furnace, distiller, tin kegs and a web of arms, hoses and valves. In the mornings, he empties five gallons of horse feed into the furnace with two apples and water. He watches it all day. At night, he collects the product into mason jars and stores it in a shed he also built, beside his house. Enna will not watch Boone as he works, and does not permit him to bring any trace of what he does into her home. Their sons do not know what Boone does behind the house in the dark of the trees. Boone does not drink what he makes, but sells it to men who are less honest, who live in houses built by other men and do not have the expertise to cook it themselves.

 If Boone’s house were dismembered, log for log, milled to dust, its remains scattered across the forest, there is no doubt the sweat, wax, stains, copper, love, hate, foul words, moonshine, death and life would persist. If it burned, the smoke from its blaze would enter the atmosphere and cling to the trees and saplings and Boone’s house would grow again, back from the earth where he once mined it. Skinny trees would sprout high and fast with rage of new life, eclipsing daylight until another Boone, with another Enna, clears them away.