Dusky woods flashed grey outside the water-streaked, passenger-side window. The rain played meditatively on the roof of the taxi. Puddles burst under the chassis like swells against the hull of a speedboat. Inside the cab, it was palpably quiet. The boy in the back seat appeared pale and somber, sitting against the dark upholstery with his skin touched by the grey light. He turned his iPod over and over in his hands but felt no inclination to listen to its music. To this boy, a rainy day made his thoughts lucid, and music would only bleach the colors of his thoughts. The melancholy network of raindrops quivering on the window seemed to have personalities of their own. The boy’s name was Max and everything reminded him of stories.
Max rested his head on his arm, pressing the crown of his brow against the cold window. The world outside was grey, even bleak. It was only three in the afternoon, according to the digital clock on the console. Every quarter mile or so, he would catch sight of a mailbox. These would appear and disappear like specters in the mist. Max mused that they came and went like his thoughts—without expression and without time to develop. Indeed, his thoughts never seemed to manifest themselves into ideas. One could say he didn’t want them to. He thought the same way one listens to music with indifference. While thought causes some to flounder in a vast, oceanic expanse of possibility, Max chose to swim and play in it.
Max perceived concrete driveways, glittering with the pallid reflections of yard lights. The windows of estate houses glowed orange in that ocean of grey. The overcast sky was a pall with no hope of sun.
However, Max didn’t want sun. He liked the rain. The misty, dark weather was inspiring. He didn’t so much desire storms or stagnant overcast skies, but rather a constant, cold sprinkling of rain. It felt romantic and adventurous to him. The sting of the cold vapor on his warm skin reminded him of the salty spray thrown over the bow of a swift ship in rough waters. Or as though he soared through a bank of cloud, miles above the mud and soil and felt the sky’s untainted, vaporous breath.
These fantastica illusions were always broken when Max opened his eyes. But even then, the whisperings of unwritten poetry remained, like a dim presence one could not see, but could wholly feel.
The cab driver had told Max to keep the window shut several times now, but he still longed to roll it down and let the freezing water sting his face. It was in times like these that his mind would do its best work. It was like sleeping, he would often tell himself. No one can sleep when one thinks about sleep; it’s the act of not thinking about it which induces the desired result. Max had decided that if he truly wanted to encounter genuine inspiration, he would have to stop trying to achieve it by brute will. Inspiration came with long, thin streaks of water droplets, dancing, and dashing on the window as they sped down that rural Ohio road.
“Have you ever been to the Groves?” the middle-aged cab driver spoke, flashing a glance at Max through the rearview mirror. Max looked up at the cab driver with a start, as if he had forgotten there was someone else in the vehicle with him. The driver was a greying, Indian man with gold earrings. His skin was dark and his accent was thick and rich, like oriental incense. At first glance, when Max had gotten into the cab at the airport, this strange, foreign man had frightened him. But after a long and quiet ride, Max had unintentionally made up a story for the man, in which this man was the protagonist. Max speculated he was a witch-doctor’s apprentice, who had escaped the bondage of his homeland and, through a series of misadventures, he had finally managed to arrive in the land of the free. It was romantic and filled with an agonizing desire for liberty, but Max had to remind himself that the driver probably hadn’t taken on any of the adventures he had painted in his subconscious.
“Yes sir,” Max answered hesitantly, wondering why the driver was questioning him.
“Are you a relative or something?” the Indian man said, quickly and comfortably, completely indifferent about the difficulty of his accent. Max found this kind of confidence admirable. Max was often frustrated at himself for how every sentence which escaped his lips always sounded weak and uncertain. He was an awkward guy, so, confidence of speech was always an unattainable yet admirable trait. But this man’s questioning kept Max on edge.
“…Yeah, I’m his…uh, he’s my uncle,” Max fumbled over his words. He had always found it hard, especially around strangers, to pick and choose his thoughts and then process them down into concise, let alone articulate, sentences. Sometimes he wouldn’t even listen. Instead he would find himself focusing on the moving lips of the person speaking, musing on how one’s mouth could communicate to another’s ears. Whatever thought revealed itself to Max, it would always take the place of his focus on someone else. This often made schooling very difficult for him, an obligation which Max held in infamy.
“Really!” the cab driver smiled pleasantly, breaking most of the characteristics Max had heaped onto the dark stranger in his daydream fictions. “He lives in a very lovely house. I’ve always admired this part of town. Very posh. People say the Groves’ was the first house built around here. They say it has a really long history.”
This peaked Max’s interest above the present situation. “Like, what kind of history?” Max’s tone had changed entirely as he had begun to offer his attention, his last question articulate with child-like energy. The cab driver noticed he had caught the boy’s attention and grinned. The grin flashed into a smile, his white teeth and the whites of his eyes baring stark contrast against his dark face. He continued, looking ahead again as they turned down another woodland street, sparsely populated by mailboxes and driveways.
“Uhm,” the driver began again. “—I know the estate’s been owned by the Groves’ since the house was built, way back in the twenties. The family has all moved out now except for one of the sons…uh, I forgot his name.”
“Buford.” Max chimed in abruptly.
“Yeah, that’s him. He is a…recluse, I think is the word for him. He keeps to himself. Any other stories I know about what goes on in the Groves’ is all gossip from supermarket women.” The cab driver laughed. Max’s mind had been running like a mass assembly line, scouring the words and tones of the man’s voice for evidence of stories and legends about the old estate. But the dry rundown this taxi driver had given him was disappointing. Max slumped back in his seat. All his fantasies fluttered around his head and dispersed like papers caught in a fan.
“So there’s no legends and stuff?” Max murmured.
“People say it’s…what do you call it…haunted, I think.” Max gave the driver an owl-eyed stare, full of revitalized curiosity.
“But that’s just what they say. You know how people are when they know nothing. They make up stories.” This was the driver’s concluding remark, and Max resented the statement. He loved stories, especially making them up. Even at his young age of thirteen, he liked to adopt complicated philosophies, write epics, stories and any kind of fiction he could think of. So many things fascinated him, and every day the world seemed newer and fuller. People said he was, “deep” and “a bright spark”.” How these trite and simplified labels could serve as a summary of his personality, he did not understand, but nevertheless, he wore the labels proudly.
“This is the place,” the cab driver said, sloshing the cab tires up against the curb. They had come up beside a brick driveway, set between two long, hedge rows, which ran the length of the street.
Max looked out his window and saw, standing in the driveway, was a man wearing a tweed, sports jacket and a pair of loose-fitting jeans. He was wearing sandals, which allowed his feet to be sprinkled with the chilling rain water which rolled off the dome of his umbrella. His face was stout and full, but with Hebrew elongation and a relaxed and stately composure. In violation of these dominating features, his eyes were paradoxically lively. He had a literary air and a complexion which caused one to smell pipe tobacco.
After his first look, and from there onward, Max was never certain what to make of the man. From his outer appearance Max could only discern so much. Everything in his stiff, pale face indicated his eyes would be stagnant, or maybe like a frozen layer under troubled seas. But they were alive, almost frighteningly alive. Ferociously alive. His eyes were as bright and enigmatic as a panther’s, but with the prudent, contemplation of a hawk.
The moment Max opened the door, and found himself subject to the rain, this stranger rushed over the pavement to shield his nephew from the downpour. Without any initial formality, such as a word of greeting, he reached into the cab to pay the driver, and the two engaged in murmuring trade. A moment later the cab driver was paid and the man was re-stuffing his wallet. In that time, Max fetched his bag; and before he shut the door, he ducked his head back into the cab and said to the driver, anxiously, “Thank you for talking with me, sir.” Max spoke with sincere, boyish courtesy, the kind which inspires good men to smile.
“My pleasure,” The Indian man formalized, with that same toothy smile. Then he added in a lower tone, leaning over the passenger side, “And remember, watch out for those ghosts.” He laughed, and Max grinned, pretending not to shudder. With that, Max shut the door with a thud and the taxi slowly motored away over the wet asphalt, leaving them in the red glow of the tail lights. For a moment, there was silence only interrupted by the gentle patter of raindrops falling from the canopy of the sycamore trees.
Max looked up at the man shading him from the rain. He was looking down at him with a half-baked smile. This man’s eyes were like stained glass windows, Max thought to himself. His sparse grey hair was dry and unruly under the shade of his umbrella. He had strong cheekbones which complimented his lean cheeks. A pronounced chin served to crystallize an intangible impression of a never-ending smile on his old face. His posture was a little hunched, but he carried himself with dignity, from what Max could tell. But it was his old eyes which captured Max’s imagination. If they were telling a story, it was a very old story. Perhaps a story he could no longer see through Max thought. Perhaps his eyes now were an obstruction, rather than a window to, the soul. But no, they were full of life. Their translucent glow was vibrant and dazzling, but it was impossible to discern what was happening within.
“Hello Maxwell,” the grey-haired man said in a stately fashion, his implicit grin igniting into a cordial smile. “I’m Buford Groves.” He extended a hand to Max, who looked down at the hand and shook it out of blind obedience. All the same, Max could not help but offer Buford a puzzled gaze. He wasn’t sure if his discomfort was mutual, or if it was only magnified through his eyes. He had never really known Buford, and he had seldom heard his mom or dad mention him. In fact, they had been reluctant to mention the Groves’ estate until recently. Max was disturbed from his reflections when he became aware of how long their handshake was lasting. He was used to handshakes being brief, but Buford clearly had no intent of letting go soon. Perhaps he had no intent at all. Like Max, he appeared lost in his thoughts. The man was looking dreamily at Max with far off eyes. His face softened and grew distant, as he spoke in a wistful tone.
“Look at you, so young. The air of the garden must still be in your lungs.” Max’s puzzled gaze intensified as he tried to subtly pull his hand back. Buford’s thoughts wandered behind his eyes as he continued to grip the boy’s hand, as if he had forgotten he was not alone. Max got the feeling this man was often alone.
Finally, he released and turned to walk up the driveway, taking with him the shelter of the umbrella, exposing Max to the sour weather.
“Come with me. If you’re anything like your father, you’ll love the house!” Max raced to gather his things and put on his jacket, but Buford did not wait. He continued to walk and talk, seeming more absent minded than uncourteous, so it wasn’t too hard for Max to excuse his behavior. The rain had died down anyway.
“I’m sorry we’ve never gotten a chance to meet before. Your father has always been very protective of you.” The mention of his father called to mind a whirlwind of unhappy memories and nauseating sensations. With those unwanted thoughts awakened, he could smell his father’s demons. Their presence came in sound and odor, which did not cease to make the hair on his scrawny neck stand on end. The sound of smashing bottles, and the smell of alcohol.
Max swallowed hard and breathed a long, shaky breath, following behind his uncle. Buford continued speaking, completely unaware of the reaction he had evoked from his nephew.
“I wish I could say there were other children around for you to play with, but the residents of this old neighborhood have turned horribly dormant. But right now I’m just thrilled to meet you!” By this time Max had finally caught up with his rambling uncle and did his best to remain in the shelter of the umbrella. Abruptly, Buford stopped and looked down at Max, with that same ponderous smile, which covered his whole face so that his cheeks caressed his eyelids, which caused him to squint. “People tell me you like to write stories?” Max felt his labels gleam and sparkle in the proud light of possible recognition. There must be a pride unique to writers, and Max was pleased to feel its first fruits.
He took a breath and prepared himself to deliver a concise definition of what he wrote about in his spare time.
“Yes, sir. I like to…uh, write about…th-things about…I mean, actually it takes place on a different planet and there’s…I mean…” Max paused to catch his breath, feeling rather embarrassed about his apparent fear of the man. He knew he was being awkward and to make things worse, the man was actually being patient with Max’s festering silence. He was accustomed to people cutting him off, so when Buford chose to keep listening without interjection, Max found it impossible to think. Max silently cursed himself for making such a poor first impression. He quickly capped the conversation. “Never mind, it’s too…it’s complicated.” Max winced and anticipated another silence, which traditionally would follow such an awkward procession of meaningless ramblings. But, instead, Buford spoke up with another cheerful exclamation.
“I can already tell you are a writer!” He laughed. Max looked up at him, that same perplexity painting his face again. “It’s in the way you talk. I spoke the same way at your age. You have to write a script of what you’re going to say in your head before you say it. Let me tell you now, it’s almost impossible to have the mental capacity to finish a script and say it, as though it were spoken naturally. You know what you would be if you could do that?” Max was currently amazed that this man could know so much of the uncharted regions of his own mind, the unwritten thoughts of a writer. For a moment, he almost forgot to reply, assuming the question was rhetorical.
“What would I be?” Max asked, following along.
Buford glanced down at the boy and said, in a misty voice, “A poet.”
By this time Max was able to get a good look at the house, which had been obscured by the laden boughs of sycamore trees. It was a splendidly earth-toned structure, with black and white Tudor walls. The face of the house seemed to lean outward, as if trying to listen in on a council of murmuring trees. Narrow, diamond-paned windows arrayed the face of the Groves’ house with modest Dutch charm. A colonnade of slender cypress trees ascended the sides of the house, though they could not reach higher than the lofty gables. One window in particular, a large round window in the center, dominated the estate with its strong gaze.
At first sight of the house, Max likened it to a Renaissance castle. He had a novice’s interest in the Renaissance, similar to other boys taking an interest in science fiction or super heroes. His lucid imagination played archaic scenes, where dainty ladies wearing white dresses and big, silk hats picnicked on the lawn. He imagined noble scenes of gentlemen on horseback, hunting red foxes, while the children played and laughed in the trees. All of this unfolding under the wizened and benevolent eye of that timeless, round window.
Such classical romantic scenes could never have really occurred, as the house was only built eighty years ago. But to Max, that seemed an eternity in which any event could have taken place. On top of that, eighty years is plenty of time for a house to become haunted. Max was not sure from where this dark thought had crept into his mind, but there it had raised its ghoulish head. It only made sense that a house like this, built in such an old-fashioned style, could possibly be haunted. After all, it served as a matter of fact that no house under fifty years old could be haunted.
“Welcome to my castle, Maxwell.” Buford smiled in mock pride. “It’s old and creaky and full of old things, so I’m sure you’ll love it here.” Max could tell this was Buford’s version of a joke. Judging from what he had already observed of this stranger, it would take Max a while before he knew exactly how to behave around him.
They diverted from the driveway, which continued along the left side of the house to a separate carport, and followed a concrete walkway along the front of the house. Passing the cypress trees and many dark windows, they arrived at the entryway. As they came to the arched threshold, Max asked, “Do you have any, like, servants or butlers or…anything like that?”
Buford laughed in reply and his hand hesitated as it gripped the knob. “Well, there’s Zephaniah, but he’s more like personal security, but really the opposite of a housekeeper.” With that ambiguous comment, Buford turned the brass knob and pushed the door open, while remaining outside on the threshold, as if waiting for something. Suddenly, from within came a great skittering and blustering as a furry, white dog came scrambling across the slick, tiled floor. It came to a slippery halt near the door frame and looked up at the two, its tongue hanging out of its wide mouth with excitement. Its tail was in a fury of wags.
It was a shaggy, little, west highland terrier, with cloudy, brown eyes and a bearded face. A cacophony of sounds came grumbling from the dwarf-like dog with anxious exasperation. Then, with a puff of irritation, it gave up interest in the two and ambled off again.
“I often call him, ‘Zep.’ I only call him by his full name when he’s done something bad.” Buford smiled again, stepping into the entry hall to put away his umbrella. Max smiled with amusement. He hastily hauled his bag over the step, and stood dripping on the tiled floor. As he removed his jacket, Max took note that the house was rather warm inside.
The place smelled like a museum. It had musty and inky aromas, magnified by the warmth of the house, which fed Max’s senses. There was the familiar, contented fragrance of coffee which Max associated with books, emanating from somewhere in the house, but even this Max associated with books. The whole house seemed to be a monument to literature.
Looking around the entry hall, Max was struck by how dim it was even with plenty of lights overhead. The ceiling was steeply pitched, with heavy beams crisscrossing the ceiling, while the floor was layered with black and white, chessboard tiles.
Anything in the hall which could have reflected a colorful spectrum was dulled and dark with age. Rich oil paintings hung on burgundy varnished walls, which were splendidly molded on floor and ceiling with classical reminiscence. The hall was oval-shaped, with two double-doors at Max’s left and right. In front of him were two stairways, with intricate mahogany railing and deep green carpeting. These two stairways followed the rounded nature of the walls until they met in the middle, then continued somewhere above Max’s head where the second level began. In between the two stairways, on the ground floor, stood an elderly grandfather clock, providing the symmetrical hall with a defined personality, like the aquiline nose of an old face.
Max looked up at the hour hands while he took off his wet tennis shoes. It was almost five o’clock in the afternoon.
“I’m expecting company at six sharp.” Buford remarked. “I’d like for you to be settled into your room by then. Follow me.” Buford continued, taking Max’s bag. They made their way to the west stairway. Max, who had already inferred that Buford was a solitary man, was intrigued to learn Buford was expecting guests. Max was infinitely curious as to who these guests might be, but he found it hard to work up the courage to ask.
As they ascended the steps, Max gradually found his voice, and he addressed the topic. “So, who are your gu-guests?”
Rather than hesitating, as Max would expect, Buford replied immediately. “Oh, just a rabble of old storytellers like me. We’d bore you to death, I think. I recommend you watch television or read something. I have a brilliant collection of mystery novels.” Buford kindly offered, if not coming off a little patronizing to Max’s age. Max had always enjoyed “grown-up” conversation, especially intellectual conversation. Not because he could engage in it, but because he felt defined in the midst of it.
“No, I mean, would it be okay if I just stayed and listened?”
Buford laughed a stout, good-humored laugh and replied, “A boy who has just begun his Greek grammar cannot be expected to enjoy Sophocles. I believe what we have to say is what you could not truly appreciate yet.”
“Then how would I ever learn how to appreciate it if I never begin?” Max rebutted, surprised again by his own confidence and articulation. By now they had reached the top of the stairs and were walking down a narrow, white painted hallway on cool, carpeted floors whose underlying wood foundations creaked with age. Buford paused and looked down at Max, with that same grin Max was becoming accustomed to.
“Very well, you’ve persuaded me. Be downstairs at six. They should be arriving shortly after our scheduled time. They’re nothing if not consistently late,” Buford grumbled playfully. He came to a stop, turning his attention to a door on his right. Opening the door, he flicked on the light and revealed the room. It was a small, fairly plain chamber, with one diamond paned window on the far wall. The walls were painted white, and on the old hardwood floor was sprawled a faded Turkish rug, worn by smoke, foot-traffic and a history of abuse. Besides the newer paint on the walls and the new ceiling fan, the room appeared entirely ancient.
What caught Max’s eye immediately was that there was a brick fireplace built into the wall on the left side of the room, and above the mantle there was hung a wild boar’s head, in huntsman fashion. The trophy was equipped with a brass plaque that gave it a stately glare. At first, the sight of this grotesque, animal face on the wall frightened Max, with its sparse, grey hairs and its yellowed, dull tusks. Its marble eyes looked dumbly at two separate walls of the room, like fish eyes gazing blankly in a supermarket. Max looked down at the bed, which was close to the door and pressed up against the wall. It was an archaic, metal frame bed with, most likely, the original spring mattress. It was furnished with a pillow, encased in a lace cover and a quilt folded at the foot of the bed, along with coarse, white sheets. The paint which had coated the metal bedframe was almost all peeled away, and the smell of the room told Max it had not been used in years. The dusty, antique smell of the room was coolly interrupted by the woody aroma of the fireplace, the bricks of which were mostly black with soot.
Buford walked inside and set Max’s bag next to the bed.
“Here you are! Don’t worry, I changed the sheets before you got here, and did a bit of dusting. It might still be a bit of a mess. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No…yeah, I mean, it’s fine,” Max said in a soft tone, his eyes still wandering around the room.
The walls were hung with posters of paintings, mostly of England, which caught Max’s interest. There was a poster of a painting of some gothic building in Oxford, and a more impressionistic painting of the tower bridge. There also was a Beatles’ poster hanging just above the bed in a plastic frame. Max noted that it didn’t match the room at all.
While most of the room appeared tidy, the far, right-hand corner, nearest the window, was the haunt of a large stack of warped, cardboard boxes, haphazardly piled. Some of these had been left open to reveal the worn-out covers of glossy, laminated book covers, none appearing to be older than the 1970s. Probably mystery novels, Max assumed.
Buford sighed satisfactorily and thrust his hands into his jean pockets.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.” Buford then turned and began to close the door behind him. “Oh and by the way,” Buford continued as he leaned in from the door frame, “Don’t go in the other rooms in the hallway. They’re all…strictly for storage. I store a lot and they’re a bit of a mess, so it’d be better if you just stuck to your room.” Buford grinned and added for confirmation. “Okay?”
“Okay.” Max affirmed politely.
Buford slowly began to close the door again, then suddenly leaned in the doorframe again, saying, “It’s not that I’m trying to scare you or anything, it’s just…I’d rather you not go in the other rooms.” He then closed the door without time for any further response. Max stood still and listened to his uncle thump loudly down the stairs again, whistling an old hymn as he did.
Max still was not sure why his father had never allowed him to visit uncle Buford, but he had always been too frightened of his father to ask. He had always confided in his mother, whom he now found to be cold and inaccessible since the divorce. Max liked Uncle Buford, in ways even he was not sure why. Buford’s unpredictable and eccentric nature left little room for critical thoughts, and what critical thoughts Max found himself thinking were simply that Buford had never offered a helping hand to his brother until his nephew needed asylum. Now that uncle and nephew were together, Max was not sure what to think of the man. He seemed nice enough.
However, Max’s current temperament of mind left very little room for trust, so he decided he would wait to trust this man until he was aware of his vices. However, Max did find it easier to talk around him, which was unusual. On top of that, being lodged with a fellow writer would provide him with an abundance of inspiration, and here he could write to his heart’s content.
As Max laid his clothes out on the bed, he realized he was actually looking forward to meeting Buford’s guests. But mingled with this mild excitement was the question which would begin to plague him. Alone in that room, Max began to fantasize stories about the mysterious Buford, and his secret rooms.
If you enjoyed this first chapter of “The Storyteller’s Atlas” and would like to read more, the rest of the story is included in my new short story compilation, “a Case for Color”.
Thanks for reading!