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A Sudden Light

We do not see things the way they are,

we see them as we are.





Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had been told the name Riddell meant something to people in the Northwest. My paternal great-great-grandfather was someone of significance, my mother explained to me. Elijah Riddell had accumulated a tremendous fortune in the timber industry, a fortune that was later lost by those who succeeded him. My forefathers had literally changed the face of America—with axes and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulpthe corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed.

My mother, who was born of English peasant stock on the peninsula of Cornwall, made something of herself by following her passion for the written word, eventually writing the dissertation that would earn her a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University and becoming the first in her family to receive an advanced degree. Though she never did anything of note with her brilliance, she did carry it around with her like a seed bag, sprinkling handfuls of it on what she deemed fertile soil. She spent much time quoting literature to me when I was young, thus sparking my own avid reading habits. So the theme of the Ancient Mariner and his story, as told by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and how the Mariner’s story was emblematic of my family’s history—was something I had heard often before my fourteenth birthday.

The curse. When one destroys something of beauty and nature—as did the Mariner, who shot the kindly albatross that led his ship out of the perilous Antarctic seas—one will be punished. Cursed. My mother told me this; my father nodded when she did. Punishment will rain down upon the offender and the family of the offender, I was told, until the debt is settled.

The debt owed by my family has been paid, and then some. My mother believes our family’s story was settled with that debt—she has always maintained an unyielding faith in the cathartic power of denouement— which is why she has chosen to go for a walk this morning, rather than stay with us to hear me tell our story again. But I disagree with my mother: there is no tidy end to any story, as much as wemight hope. Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation, and interpretation is informed by time. And so I tell my story to you, as the Mariner told his: he, standing outside the wedding party, snatching at a passing wrist, paralyzing his victim with his gaze; I, standing with my family at the edge of this immortal forest.

I tell this story because telling this story is what I must do.

Twenty-some years ago, before technology changed the world and terrorism struck fear into the hearts of all citizens. Before boys in trench coats stalked and murdered classrooms full of innocent children in schools across this fair land. Before the oceans were thick with oil slicks and the government ceased to govern and Bill Gates set out to love the world to death and hurricanes became powerful enough to stagger entire cities and toxic children were drugged into oblivion to drive up the profits of Big Pharma, and genetically modified foodstuffs were forced upon us without us knowing we needed to care. Before smoking marijuana at gay marriages became passé—before gay people became, eh, just like anyone else, and weed became, eh, just another source of tax revenue. This was even before another famous Bill, the one surnamed Clinton, became famous for his choice of cigars. It seems like ages ago, looking back on it. No smartphones. No On Demand. Nary an iPad in sight.

So long ago. Yes. This story begins in 1990.

On a hot July day in Seattle, a sickly pea green rental car drives from Sea-Tac airport northward on Interstate 5, through the sprawl of neighborhoods hidden by hills, tucked away behind bridges and bodies of water. Its passengers, a father and a son, don’t speak to each other. The boy is nearly fourteen, and he is unhappy. Unhappy with being displaced from his childhood home and forced on an unwanted road trip.Unhappy with his mother for not being with him.Unhappy with his father for simply being. So he doesn’t speak; he concentrates on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which he listens to intently through the headphones of his Walkman.

His father looks over at him frequently, nervously. He seems to crave the boy’s approval, which the boy will not give. As they approach the city from the south, the boy glances up and notices the Space Needle, that ubiquitous and baffling Seattle icon. He winces at the irrelevance of the monument—who on earth would build such a thing, and what kind of citizenry would keep it?—and lowers his eyes again to his shoes, which are far more interesting to him.

He doesn’t notice as they drive through the city, but drive through the city they do. They emerge on a high bridge.

“Don’t you want to see this?” the father says, finally, desperately, tapping the boy’s shoulder and indicating the glory of Seattle all around them.

The boy lifts his eyes and looks around. Bridges, lakes, bland buildings, radio towers, floatplanes, mountains, trees. He’s seen it.

“No,” he says and returns his focus to his music. The voices chant at him: Tear down the wall. Tear down the wall.

And so my story for you begins.




When we exited the freeway at the northern city limit, I remember being disappointed at plunging into typical American suburbia. A House of Fabrics and a Las Margaritas Mexican Restaurant.Cliff ’s Card Room, Gene’s IGA, an ARCO station, a plumbing supplier. It was worse than I could have imagined. We crossed a bleak avenue at an intersection with far too many cars waiting to turn left on a green arrow. But then the street narrowed to two lanes instead of four, and the trees began to lean over the road, blocking the sky. I took note of the transformation. I clicked off my Walkman as my father turned our car onto a still smaller road and guided us down a drive; soon we reached a guard booth with a gate. My father rolled down his window; the door of the wooden booth slid open and a uniformed guard stepped out. He was an old guy and soft, and didn’t look like he could stop a full-out assault if someone wanted to lay siege to The North Estate, which he was evidently paid to defend.

“Who are you visiting?” the guard asked cheerfully.

“Not visiting,” my father said. “Coming home.”

The old guy cocked his head, and then realization swept over his face. “I’ll be good goddamned,” he said. “Jones Riddell.”

“Val,” my father said. “I can’t believe they still have you working the gate.”

“They tried to retire me a few years ago, but I couldn’t stand being alone all day so they took me back.”

Both men fell silent, and I remember feeling a nearly overwhelming urge to blurt out the blatantly obvious question: How is sitting in a guard booth by yourself all day not the same as being alone?

“How long has it been, Jones? A long time.”

“Twenty-three years.”

“Twenty-three years. Your mother was a fine woman.”

“Indeed she was.”

“A real tragedy.”

Val nodded to himself and then smacked the roof of the car and straightened with a hitch of his pants. He walked to the old wooden gate and pulled a counterweight; the arm arced upward, clearing the path. As we eased by, Val waved. “Welcome home,” he called out.

What tragedy? The death of my grandmother was a taboo subject. I’dtried asking about her before and it didn’t work; my father wouldn’t talk about it. I’d become convinced that my father would never talk about it.

As we drove away from the guard booth, the world changed as if we had been teleported into a medieval forest. We snaked through ravines and past driveways leading to houses I could barely see because they were set so far back and a million trees stood between the houses and the road. Evergreen trees: cedars and spruce, firs and pines. Deciduous trees: oaks and birches, maples and madrona, that peculiar Northwest species with its red peeling bark. Deeper and deeper we drove into the forest; the house markers grew less frequent, the drives became more grand, gates began to block access, jagged stone walls ran alongside the road. As we continued, it felt like we were going further back in time. The winding lane withered into a pockmarked and pothole-riddled gravel path that crunched under our tires like the brittle bones of the dead, and then we got to the end of the main road. To the side of the road was a broken iron gate, laid off its hinges long ago by grounds workers long gone, and I knew we had arrived at our destination because there was nowhere else to go.

We crossed the threshold of the property and continued along the winding driveway, which dipped down into a cool ravine before rising quickly to a crest that revealed a broad clearing on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. My father pulled the car to a stop on the drive, and I found myself speechless. Not out of protest; no. But because I was stunned into silence by the sight of Riddell House.

My father had told me about it, the place of his father’s birth and home to two generations before that. He’d described in vague, sketchy terms the house built by his great-grandfather nearly a century ago. But he’d only outlined the deficits of the house. It was falling down, he told me. It’s practically condemned, he said. We’re only going there to put it out of its misery, knock it down, sell off the land, and be done with it. But he didn’t tell me the whole story, apparently, because Riddell House was not what he’d described. I was expecting a rickety old shack, hardly worth the time to glance at. What I saw was not a shack.

My father climbed out of the car; I followed and stood next to him at the edge of the drive. Across a vast field of dry grass loomed a massive structure made of logs and bricks and stones, crowned with a roof of heavy cedar shakes accented by green copper downspouts and flashing. The house was circumscribed by a veranda on both the first and the second of the three floors. The drive swept past a grand front stairway and looped around to meet up with itself again, while a spur split off and disappeared behind the house. I quickly counted a dozen chimneys, though I was sure there were more; I estimated at least a hundred windows, though I didn’t take the time to count. The house appeared squatfrom our perspective, as if it were hunkering down to the earth. Thepillars that encircled it and made up much of its exterior walls were tree trunks. Fully grown, giant trees. Stripped of their limbs and clad in the bark they were born with. Each one, a perfect specimen. The tree pillars stood vertically, side by side—the tallest of them fifty feet, by my estimation, at the roof ’s peak—a regiment of silent, glaring giants.

Riddell House.

I took a deep breath and inhaled the breeze: shellfish and seaweed and mud. It smelled like low tide when I was a kid and my parents would take me out to Mystic, Connecticut, for the day. Littleneck clams and rock crab and seaweed.The wind blowing, and me, fighting against the flapping paper nest that held my fries in the plastic basket.My father smiling at my mother with soft eyes, and then leaning in to kiss her.Her kissing back. And me, finally retrieving a fry, and thinking it was the best fry in the world.

The things we remember.

To the west, Puget Sound sprawled out between us and the trees and wilderness of the Kitsap Peninsula and the curtain of mountains beyond that, rising blue into their jagged peaks.

“First objective completed,” my father said. “Locate and identify Riddell House.”

My relationship with my father at that point in my life wasn’t horrible, but it was pretty superficial. It was based on things that weren’t, rather than things that were. We didn’t simply go to the store or clean the gutters; we executed “missions.” We used code words. We went into “stealth mode,” or did something “commando-style.” His big line was “we’re in the acquisition and development phase.” Like we had to create an artifice around everything.An ironic layer. We wrapped a protective coating of self-consciousness around the things we did, and, as a result, sincerity was almost entirely lacking. We were going to buy eggs at the store. But not really. We were embarking on Project Ovum, which entailed executing a series of missions that concerned national security. When I was little, I thought it was cool; I didn’t think it was cool when I was verging on fourteen. Because I began to realize it wasn’t a kid’s game for my father; it was how he lived his life.

I stretched and rolled my head around on my shoulders. It felt good to be out of the car and in the hot sun. I watched the breeze sweep across the meadow and bend the long grasses toward me with an invisible hand. The breeze reached me, swirled around, and cooled my neck.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “It looks fine to me. Why are we tearing it down?”

My father looked at me for a moment.

“It’s rotten,” was all he said, and he motioned for me to return to the car.

We drove the final stretch of gravel drive that sliced across the fieldlike a gray scar; when the car stopped, a cloud of dust swallowed us whole for a moment. When it cleared, we got out to examine the monolithic house, which, from up close, soared into the sky and blotted out all else. The heft of it was powerful; the trees that made up its walls were immense. Maybe it was the long flight and the long drive; maybe it was feeling like I was on solid ground for the first time after our journey— but I felt almost overcome with emotion. I didn’t cry, but I had that precryingfeeling, and I wondered at it. I wondered why I felt something so visceral. I felt somehow inspired.

“It’s rotten,” my father repeated.

Why should my father insist on such a thing? I looked over at him; he shook his head pitifully. I looked back at the house and tried to see it through his eyes: the brick foundation was brittle; mortar between the bricks had flaked away in places and holes penetrated into the darkness. The flower beds were unkempt; ivy snaked up the log pillars, heavy and tenacious, glued to the wood with pale tentacles. We mounted the steps, and I noticed the warped planks of the porch. The windows were composed of small panes of rippled glass, distorted, full of imperfections. Many of the panes were cracked, and some of them had been broken out and replaced by plywood. My father rapped his knuckles on one of the pillars and frowned at the hollowness of the sound. I heard it, too. It sounded dead.

My father picked at the chinking with his fingernail; the dry mortar scraped off, turned to dust, and was gone. We both saw the paint on the window frames, which peeled off in long, jagged strips, and we saw the cracks between the window frames and the cedar shakes. Riddell House was, indeed, rotten.

“Would it pass inspection?” I asked.

“You mean by a person who wasn’t in a coma?” my father responded.

He knocked at the door. He tried the latch. He knocked again: nothing.

“I told Serena what time we were getting in.”

He reached up and felt along the top of the doorframe; he produced a key.

“Some things never change,” he said, and he slipped the key into the lock. The front door opened.

I remember feeling pulled in by the magnetism of the place as I stepped into the entry hall. It was like a time capsule, recently defrosted from the center of a giant glacier. A fully intact world from turn-of-thecenturySeattle; a museum.A dusty, faded, moth-eaten museum.

It was a world that smelled of decay, heavy with moist, thick air, which floated in the rooms like an invisible fog. The interior was constructed of fine wood, in contrast to the unmilled trees of the facade. Dark wood with inlays and tight grain and chocolate stain. Oriental rugsin all the rooms and a grandfather clock that was not tick-tocking, itshands poised at six-fifteen. The foyer soared upward into an atrium. A hallway opposite the front door disappeared into the darkness, and a wide staircase climbed up to a second-floor balcony. I stepped into the room to my right and looked around. The furniture was plush and overstuffed; the rugs and walls and ceiling were dark and somber. Iron lions, sitting up on their haunches with their claws bared, guarded a central fireplace. On the wall next to the fireplace hung a painting nearly eight feet tall, depicting a well-dressed man with wild silver hair and a cane. He was looking directly at me, and he held out his hand in such an aggressively welcoming gesture that I was startled.

“Your great-great-grandfather,” my father said, standing behind me.

“Elijah Riddell.”

“Why’d he put a painting of himself in his own house?” I asked.

“That’s what rich people do.”

“Rich people are weird.”

“Maybe she’s in the kitchen,” my father said, starting off toward the back of the house.

I wanted to stay and explore the rooms, but I was intimidated by it all. The house began to feel alive, almost, and breathing—a thought disturbing enough to make me follow my father toward the kitchen rather than linger by myself.

We walked past a dining room with a table nearly twenty-five feet long, surrounded by dozens of chairs, then a dark room with floor-toceilingbooks and stained-glass windows. Eventually we arrived in the kitchen, which I initially judged to be larger than our entire house in Connecticut. To one side of the kitchen was a cooking area with a large butcher block table worn smooth by decades of chopping, a bread oven, and a giant cast-iron stove beneath an expansive copper exhaust hood. Opposite the stove was a long wooden table with a quirky assortment of wooden chairs, an entertainment area of a sort, with a couple of easy chairs and a small sofa and a new TV on an old TV cart. On another wall was a stone walk-in fireplace outfitted with long hooks, which, my father explained, were used for cooking cauldrons of stew in the old days. He pointed out the rotisserie brackets, too, which were used for sides of lamb and slabs of beef.

“To feed the armies?” I asked, but he ignored my comment.

“This place was built before electricity,” my father said. “There was no gas supply. The whole area was wilderness when Elijah built his estate. Everything in this house was coal fired; I’ll show you the basement; it’s a pretty fascinating place. At some point someone put in a cutting-edge system where they used calcium carbide and water to produce acetylene to power an electrical generator—”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“I thought it was cool when I was a kid. I can show you the system. Anyway, they had electricity up here before anyone else did. Long before The North Estate was annexed into the city and they brought up municipal electricity and gas.”

“Is that where our inheritance went? Developing a cutting-edge electrical system?”

“You know,” he said, “at some point you’re going to realize that being a smart-ass isn’t as much about being smart as it is about being an ass.”

“That’s good,” I said. “Did you read that in a fortune cookie?”


I smiled for the first time on our ridiculous journey. Part of it was my father’s joke. Part of it was my father, himself.

I mean, he looked ridiculous. He looked like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo! He was wearing the same old khakis he always wore and a white T-shirt and boating shoes—and he traveled like that! He’d gotten on an airplane and flown across the country looking like that! When my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side would visit from England, they would wear formal clothes to fly. My grandmother would wear pearls and a fancy dress and the whole thing, and I once asked my grandfather why they did that and he said, “If we crash and die, we want to die in our best clothes.” Now that’s respect for the system.

Jones Riddell—my father—was sporting a wiry beard that was too long and gray, and the mustache covered his upper lip, which drove my mother crazy—but she never said anything. She never made him change. I knew she let him be all the things she disliked so much so she could continue disliking him. The hair on his head was too long and his face was too tan and was getting wrinkled because he spent so much time outside in the sun working on his boats. My mother didn’t make him wear sunscreen because she had given up. If I walked out to the road to get the newspaper from the box, my mother made me put on sunscreen, but not my dad. She had given up on him altogether.

We stood awkwardly in the kitchen of the empty house. I glanced out the bay window that faced north to the meadow and saw a woman riding a bicycle, looking like she had been plucked from an old-fashioned movie. She rode an antique-style bicycle, with baskets attached to a platform extending over the rear wheel. The baskets were full of groceries overflowing from paper bags. The woman, who was youthful and lithe, wore a long dress that fluttered coquettishly over her tall boots, and somehow—miraculously—never got caught up in the chain. Her long auburn hair was held by a ribbon tied low near the nape of her neck, and she held her face slightly raised toward the sky, as if to greet the sun. I pointed to her and my father noticed.

“There she is,” he said as the woman cruised up the drive.

She spotted our car parked in front of the house and looked to the bay window and must have seen us inside because she smiled and waved. She rode up to the back of the house and disappeared from view; a few seconds later, she entered the kitchen. Her cheeks were flushed and she was out of breath. Her eyes were bright and smiling and, I noticed, locked on my father. She rested one hand below her neck and the other on her hip. Her dress was sleeveless, revealing her toned arms and it fit tight around her waist, showing off her womanly aspect in a way I had only seen in movies and on TV.

I was quite taken with her. When my father said I was going to meet my aunt, who lived with my grandfather, I assumed she’d be wearing mom-jeans and have jowly arms and sagging elbow skin and a couple of chins. I figured she’d be nice and all, but old-lady nice, with a hairdo that ladies get at the salon, fixed in one place and glued to stay that way for a week without moving. I didn’t think my aunt would actually be hot.

“Brother Jones,” she said, luxuriating in the words. She didn’t take notice of me at all. “You’ve come to save us.”

My father was flustered.

“Serena,” he said, trying to snap himself out of it. “You look#.#.#.”

“I look?” Serena prompted playfully.

“You look grown-up.”

“Oh, please. You can do better than that!”

“You look beautiful.”

“That’s better,” she said with a smile.

She stepped to my father and embraced him in a way that made me uncomfortable. I had always thought of hugs in boxing terms. There’s the clinch and then the break. Usually theboxers break on their own, but if they hang on too long, the referee hasto separate them. In this case, I realized I would have to be the referee because the clinch was lasting way longer than it should have, so I cleared my throat deliberately. Serena released my father, but as she pulled away, she said, “You really have to shave that awful beard,” which I found amusing, not only because it was true but because it was like when one boxer takes a swipe at the other after the referee separates them. You’re not allowed to sucker punch your opponent on the break; you have to wait for the ref to signal fight-on.

“You must be Trevor,” she said, whirling toward me and swallowing me entirely. There was no other way to describe it. I was paralyzed.

“Give Aunt Serena a kiss,” my father said.

Serena smiled at my awkwardness. I couldn’t stop staring at the hollow where her throat met her collarbone.

“A handshake will suffice for now,” Serena said, holding out her hand.

“We’ll save our kisses for later, okay?”

“I’ll take a kiss,” I managed to squeak, and she laughed. She leaned in and gave me a peck on the cheek, and I could smell something good, a whiff of something citrusy and fresh.

“Aren’t you sweet?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“I am not a ma’am, and I hope to never be one. I’m Aunt Serena, if you insist on formality, though I wish you wouldn’t. Simply Serena will do.”

“Yes, Simply Serena,” I said, eliciting a grin from her.

“Cheeky monkey,” she said, and she looked me over carefully like I was on the sale rack at Macy’s. “He has your eyes, Jones. Not in color: the coloring must be from Rachel. But in shape. He’s definitely a Riddell.”

“He’s definitely a Riddell,” my father agreed.

“But I’m being selfish! You must be starving. I’ve never been on an airplane myself, but the movies say how awful the food is. You must let me make you something to eat. Have you had lunch? Even a snack to hold you over until dinner.”

Without waiting for an answer, she rushed outside.

“Help her,” my father prompted, so I followed her and helped with her shopping bags.

Serena made sandwiches because we hadn’t had any lunch: a freshly roasted turkey waited for us in the refrigerator. When we had finished, Serena took us upstairs and showed us our rooms, which were at opposite ends of a long hallway.

“I thought you’d like some privacy,” she said to me as she led me down the hallway after we’d left my father in his room at the front of the house.

“Plus, it’s cooler near the back of the house. I put your father in his old bedroom so it would feel familiar. But it’s very hot in the afternoon sun and we don’t have air-conditioning. I think you’ll be happier here.”

She showed me to a room that was empty except for a bed, a dresser, an oscillating fan, a small desk, and a rocking chair; the walls and the floor were bare.

“Your father told me you want to be a writer when you grow up,” she said. “That’s an admirable profession. I’ve always admired writers. I moved this desk in for you. Do you need pens or paper?”

“I have my notebooks,” I said.

“Oh, nice,” she said with a satisfied smile. “It’s a little rustic here, but it’s very peaceful. Please make yourself at home. I know you’re tired after your trip, so I’ll leave you alone to take a nap. Dinner will be at seven downstairs. You’ll get to meet Grandpa Samuel. Won’t that be a treat?”

“Do you have a job?” I asked her.

She seemed startled by the question, and I felt embarrassed for wanting to know more about her.

“Of course I have a job. Someone’s got to put food on the table, and Daddy certainly isn’t going to do it.”

“What do you do?”

“I work for a real estate developer. I’m sure it would seem quite boring to a young man like you: a writer! Steeped in the world of letters! Well, it’s important that we all have our goals, though some may be more modest than others.”

She left me alone, then, as promised. But I didn’t take a nap; naps made me nauseous. And, besides, I wanted to figure out Serena. What adult has never been on an airplane? My family was practically poor— well, we were actually poor at the time, but before that we were only practically poor—and I had been on an airplane a bunch of times.

I unpacked my bag into the dresser. I paced around in circles for a while because it was hot and I was tired. Finally, I lay back on the bed, laced my fingers behind my head, stared at the ceiling, and listened to the fan making its whirring noise, tipping back and forth on the floor.

I must have fallen asleep for a moment, because I was startled awake by the sound of someone’s voice, or so I thought. Was it my father? There was no one in my room, and the rest of the house was quiet. I got up and looked down the hallway. Nothing. I felt a slight chill; the breeze from the fan brushed my neck and I shivered. I could have sworn I’d heard someone say my name.

And as I closed the door and returned to my bed, I heard a low creaking sound, somewhere deep in the joists of the house, as if the house itself were calling to me.

A Sudden Light
by by Garth Stein

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Supernatural
  • paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1439187045
  • ISBN-13: 9781439187043