"WHAT HAPPENED AT OUR HOUSE"
...A Fable For Ourselves
Such a long time ago, it seem now, those of us who could and those who cared gathered together before our proud, fine house to welcome a great and noble guest.
Some who couldn't and some who didn't seen to care remained inside as we waited to greet our visitor, and they were missed. A few stayed in their small, dim rooms at the rear of our house--some to stand guard, they said, at the unprotected windows on either side, and some for very special reasons of their own--and we missed them, too.
The important guest whom we were waiting to greet lived not far up the street in the house we had all built together for him. Even though he had been unable to pay us a visit for a while, we knew beyond any doubt he cared about all of us. And we cared very much about him.
His was the largest and grandest of all our houses and it had been the first house built in the neighborhood. It was on the highest hill in the area, where it took the buffeting of all the ferocious storms that lashed the land. But we had intentionally built it atop that hill because only from there could the head of the house command unobstructed views in all directions. All the other houses had bow built for beauty's sake on the lower slopes, at the foot of the hill for comfort's sake and for the protection of us all. Our houses were smaller, but built along the same lines as his, with only minor variations in detail to quit our lesser individual needs and tastes.
Once, when our house was now, it had been symmetrical, compact and orderly, in keeping with the grand design of the house on the hill. As time went on, other rooms had been added to accommodate those who joined us there. Yet, in our haste, some of those room had been made too small or lightless or had cut off the light and air from other rooms. And, more recently, still other shabby little rooms had been fastened onto the rear and the sides while we were busy at the front of the house. Be all that as it may, our house looked proud and fine from where we waited near the gate, so we turned our attention back up the street in hopes of seeing our great visitor soon.
He didn't have very far to come, really, and most of us knew this. But we had also long since agreed to disagree about the exact distance from our house to his, and for more than mere polemic exercise or mental calisthenics. We understood, with so many of us living together under the same roof, we might tend too casually to make some arbitrary measure the only acceptable way to determine distances and eminences. And, as arbitrarily, we might make one room or another in our house the only fixed point from which such measurements could be determined. Ours was, after all, a house of many rooms. And, since those rooms faced so many different ways, there was no one who could say his findings were right and all the others were wrong. Our depth perception had never been perfect, anyway, and we had always felt the need to sharpen and maintain our perspective. So, we disagreed in good humor, for the most part, and with good grace, because most of us in our house know how to disagree. and when, and why.
Yet, somehow, a few of those who hadn't been outside their dim little rooms for a long time seemed now to have almost forgotten there was a house on the hill. And others evidently had begun to feel the occupants of the high and stately house were no longer capable of keeping a stormwatch. Moreover, some of them appeared now to regard the house on the hill as a greater menace to us and themselves than all the fearful storms it had enabled us to survive.
So, they stuck by their self-assumed posts at the side windows and at all the chinks and openings they could find or form. It didn't seem odd to them that nearly all their posts looked out only on the neighbors' houses or up the street or, in one or two cases, back into the spacious and airy rooms in the front of our very own house. And, since they didn't think this strange, we began to assume they know what they were doing or to regard them as harmless, and we soon left them to their own devices. And we'd never issued them uniforms of any sort, anyhow, and neither had our gatekeeper.
Still, when their whisperings and muffled mutterings suddenly rose into shouts of danger by day or occasional cries of terror in the night, we were at first a bit resentful or embarrassed. This bizarre cacaphony interrupted our work and disturbed our sloop, and made the neighbors complain. When we realized, though, they could see no danger from where they watched and were probably trying only to call attention to themselves, we did our best to ignore them. But, they weren't so easily ignored. The more we left them to their business, the more they seemed to want to burrow into ours; the more we let them live their own lives, the more they demanded we live ours their way. Yet, how could we question the logic of their argument that we had not failed to survive a single major storm since they'd been on duty? We didn't try. We only felt a kind of nebulous, trusting safety for ourselves and, consequently, for the great visitor whom we awaited.
Our guest had a few other stops to make before he arrived at our house, and we could hear the neighbors' voices welcoming him into their houses as he made his way down the street. A few of us noticed that some of our neighbors had been a little careless in making recent additions to their houses. A few shabby rooms had been allowed to creep up to the sides, near the front and, from where we stood, the effect was dreadful.
We hoped with a vague discomfort the last couple of rickety little rooms tacked onto the sides of our house couldn't be seen so easily. Then we recalled with relief that one was obscured by the gently swaying branches of the young olive tree that had sprung up not long ago, and the other was hidden by the old brick barbecue pit, which was smoking lazily now, anyway. We resolved, a bit impatiently, to speak to the neighbors about their carelessness. Their houses just didn't look orderly any longer and the resulting designs were obviously no longer in keeping with that of the grand house on the hill. At least ours certainly appeared, from where we stood in front. to be symmetrical and neat and orderly.
"He's coming!" someone called happily, so we all strained for a first look at our great and noble guest. And, sure enough, here he came, striding almost jauntily down the street towards our house. He was tall and his step was lively, and he smiled and waved gaily to us as he came near. At the last minute. a neighborhood crier belatedly changed his tune; the noises were intended to sound inviting, but we scarcely recognized his voice. And the faithful gatekeeper reminded us just before our visitor arrived that a few of us had been rude to other guests, and asked us to be more polite. 'But each of us knew he must have meant someone else and, besides, his hands were tied for some peculiar reason at a time like this. So. we pushed past him and rushed to greet our great friend.
Then, through the gate he came--truly alive and vital--smiling, waving and greeting many of us who had come to welcome him. There was a serene dignity about him, vibrant and blithe though he was, and a sense of deep purpose. And he fairly radiated the shining confidence of high mission far beyond the moment and significance of this visit to our house. Nonetheless, we all know he was as genuinely glad to see us as we to see him. Up the front walk he made his way, and it was apparent he was deeply pleased and warmed by our reception. Some of us called and waved to him from the front door, now wide open and beckoning to him.
As our great and noble visitor mounted the stairs, a madman burst out of the area of the dingy little rooms at the back of our house and plunged through those of us standing in the open doorway. Wildly flourishing an instrument of death above his head, the madman cast aimlessly about for a moving target. Seeing our great friend springing incautiously up the top steps, the madman rushed to fall upon him as we fell back in horrified disbelief.
With lethally swift strokes our guest was bludgeoned down before our eyes and, in another brittle fraction of a second, the madman had darted back through our house and into the area of the dingy, shabby little rooms at the rear. We stood transfixed and appalled, then we turned to help our fallen visitor ... but, it was too late. Our great and noble guest was downed, and was dead. He lay still and dead on the top steps--at the open door of our house.
Dead? How could he be dead? He was so alive, and so vital. And, only a moment ago, he had smiled. But he was dead, and we were powerless to bring him back. We fell on our knees and wept with grief and sorrow and shame. We had cared so much about him, and we know he cared about us. But, somehow, we had not been concerned enough about him, so we had not cared for him. How could it happen here? We wept on. How could it happen at our house? And what could we have done to prevent it? Who was the madman? Who had sheltered him in our house? Who tied the gatekeeper's hands? What had happened? And why?
By now our neighbors had heard, and were also weeping with anguish. They had cared about him, too. And they, as we, know in this terrible, acute instant of searing realization how very much a part of our lives he was ... how surpassingly important to each one of us he had been. But, soon, to add to our misery, cries of rage at us and our house began to rise from our neighbors, and wails of protest arose from us and from our house. We don't know which started first. But the wails and cries filled the saddened air with now sounds of discordance. Our own grief became all too quickly tinged with a kind of defensive shame, while our neighbors' sorrow was diffused by a blind bitterness towards us. All our feelings of deep and personal loss were, thereby, perhaps diminished. Certainly, in the din, the whole neighborhood's sense of mutual loss was lessened. And most of us scarcely paused when, at the peak of the clamor, a new neighbor --- another great man--- moved into the stately house on the hill.
Still near the height of our horror, yet while plummeting into the depths of our grief, we dimly saw our muft-clad home guard come stumbling out into the unaccustomed brightness at the front of our house. They heard what had happened and, for reasons we may never know or understand, immediately lurched into some form of strange and pagan dervish. Flourishing their weapons wildly over their heads, they staggered from one side to another, bumping against us and each other. Then, they took up a shrill and senseless refrain: "I told you so!..."The assassin came from your side."... "You were warned, all of you!"..."I told you so."'... "He came from your side!"..."We warned you!"..."He came from over there!" ... "From there!"... "I told you so!"..."I told you so!"
We stared at them as they whirled their irreverent dervish, and at each other, and back at them again. Why, those were the same shouts and screams we had heard before, by day and in the night, and had thought to turn off by turning our backs. Now they were assaulting us again with their maddening noises, thinking in our time of sadness and our house's moment of disorder to speak for all of us, and thrusting their own turmoil into moments more properly needing our shocked and sorrowful silence.
Yet, in those brief moments, our self-appointed watchmen...our selfstyled guard against ours and our neighbors' houses...stood revealed for what they truly were. They were a horde, perhaps encouraged by more restrained influencers in the name of goodness and loyalty, but a horde just the same. They were incompetent, undisciplined, ill-armed, and the only real allegiance they could claim was to themselves and their own abject insufficiency, and to havoc. Yet, we had allowed them to create great confusion among us, at will and at mad whim. But, how they stood condemned! For. they had indeed proven beyond any future claim to the contrary, their own pathetic inability to protect us and our house against anything ... even a lone madman.
Pandemonium ruled for a long time, and the entire neighborhood suffered because of it. The screams, the cries, the wails, the shouts hurt us all, and every one directed at another added up to exactly nothing. Sometime later, though, something crying inside each of us for reasons and answers and solutions made us atop short, and begin to search ourselves as we had never dared to do before. And, it was with piercing and painful abruptness we saw that all our protests that this could have happened as easily in one of our neighbors' houses could, in no way, alter the fact that the dreadful deed had been committed in ours.
Perhaps the madman was not, truly, one of us, but we could not deny that he burst from among us to slay our great visitor. And, which of us was to say he might have been less mad if he had been one of us all his life, if that is what our standards demanded? In this profound scrutiny of our very selves, still our most terrible admission had to be about ourselves. For, we saw now. if the madman had spent a year or even a single day less covering against the dark and whispering walls at the rear of our house he might, consequently, have been a year or a day less mad and, so, less lethal. And he might not have killed our friend ... who knows. No one knows, of course, just as we may never know how many turns he took in those labyrinthian passageways or against how many walls he listened or precisely whose walls they were. Except that, when all was said and done, all the walls in our house were our walls.
Our neighbors, too, soon realized their bitter cries about the condition of our house did nothing to clean out and tear down the shabby back rooms attached to their houses. Even our more charitable neighbors... Those who had hurriedly risen to absolve us and our house...soon saw their forgiveness had not been offered for pertinent reasons, nor extended to relevant needs, nor even motivated by purely charitable impulses. Every house in the neighborhood had suddenly been found to be in greater immediate need of its own generous impulses. And, so it was, we found the only pertinent and relevant way to meet those needs. Quite simply, we all turned to our own houses--the neighbors to theirs, and we to ours.
We would like to think, in retrospect, that we, out of what we felt was our own greater personal need, demonstrated at our house how all the houses in the neighborhood could be re-shaped and made strong again. But, we deserve no particular credit; we had only to use as our guide the grand design we had helped build into the house on the hill. Yet, our own house was also our own most immediate concern, so there is where we began.
To our surprise, each of us found cobwebs beginning to cluster the windows and dust to gather in the corners of our rooms. So, we had to clean our rooms first, before we could move on to other things. At the sides of our house and littering the rear were the several shabby little rooms--the ones added by use in haste, as well as those added while we were busy elsewhere. Those rooms found to befit the original design were given new and substantial foundations and were shored up, brightened and made full habitable. Some, whose doors had opened only to the outside, were made a part of the larger house. We knocked out flimsy partitions where older rooms had been divided and sub-divided, and we sealed off those openings obviously gnawed into the main house from the outside.
At one point we encountered a brief delay, but the problem suggested its own solution and soon solved itself. Two or three of the rooms at the sides and the rear almost passed the first, cursory inspection. At a casual glance, they appeared to be part of the main house; the exterior paint looked respectable, at any rate. But a closer look and a slight shove against the rickety walls proved otherwise. So, they were detached (with unexpected ease, by the way) and moved away from the house. In almost no time, each one sloughed off its thin veneer of cheap paint to reveal the rotten boards underneath, and promptly began to collapse of its own utter inability to stand alone. Everything needing our attention received our attention. We even untied our gatekeeper's hands from behind his back. And, so it went, until we were done.
Our house is still a house of many rooms, although not quite so many as we once found it to contain. Now, each room has a door that opens to the outside, and every room is a room with a view. Each of the two main wings in our house now balances and counterbalances the other, almost to perfection, and it is in these two wings that most of us live. Each of our rooms relates--in keeping with the grand design--to all the other rooms and, so, to the larger house, just as the house itself relates once again to the neighborhood and, so, to the stately house on the hill. We have, of course, made provision for the future addition of other rooms, but always carefully, and as to the needs and wishes of the majority of the occupants.
And, once again, our house is a proud and fine house, as orderly and beautiful on the inside as we had once believed and as it had always appeared from the outside. And, only now does it stand as a truly worthy monument to the memory of our great and noble guest, who had to die here before we could see just what else it was our house had also come to represent. But we put our house in order because the need had been ours. It was, indisputably, the only way we could insure ourselves against one day having some other madman burst from among us to turn against some other guest--perhaps another great resident of the house on the hill.
Yet, we had become acutely aware that if we had not looked to our house for that or other reasons, we had still another, more pressing and entirely mercenary motive. We now knew that we might otherwise have found ourselves turning, finally and without hope of appeasement or reconciliation, on ourselves. For, you see, we had already begun to do just that.
Courtesy of DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas