Preview of “The Sounds of Silence”
Aramenta Lee stood a moment looking at the house. Paint curled from gray wood, the victim of humidity, wind, and sun. The windows were wavy panes of
elongated glass, dark, stained with mildew. The shutters, some with slats missing, hung askew. A remnant of eave gutter hung in ragged and rusted
stalactites of metal, the lower portions long ago fallen. There were forty-one rooms, divided in a tripartition of east wing, west wing, and main house,
each of which loomed two stories high with a full attic above. It was one of the few houses in Mobile, Alabama with a cellar and the only one with a
subbasement. This was possible in a city where the water level was inches from the surface because Lee Manor was atop the highest elevation in the
Aramenta hated it. She despised her past association with the family home, and most particularly the fact that she had fallen heir to it all. After thirty
years of living in Paris since victory in Europe, she had been summoned home with a five-word telegram: AM DYING. COME HOME. MOTHER.
As though lingering only for Aramenta’s arrival, which no doubt Mother would have a capacity to do, the matriarch succumbed to emphysema less than
twenty-four hours after Aramenta’s arrival. Three decades without so much as a Christmas card between them, when suddenly she was thrust back into this
cesspool of the South, surrounded by all the bitter reminders of pain and torment she had known all her life. Blood demanded nothing, not love, not
respect, nothing! But it was blood alone that bound her to Mother and blood that brought her back.
“Blood tells, Aramenta.”
Put that thought away.
“Blood! Remember your station, child. Blood tells.”
Aramenta turned as a vehicle crunched in the drive, coughed, and dieseled as the ignition was turned off. A perspiring man with a shining bald head stepped
“Buddy Ellis here. Ellis Realty.” When her expression remained stoic, he added, “You called me.”
“Yes, Mr. Ellis.”
“I know the funeral was today and all, but the note said come right out. If this is not a convenient time—”
“Now is fine, Mr. Ellis.” She pawed through her large purse looking for the ring of keys.
“Largest house in the city,” Ellis said. “Rich history. When I was a boy, I used to walk right past this house every day on my way to school. I went to
school right down the street there.”
She examined the lock and tried a Yale key.
“I always wanted to go inside,” the realtor said. “Do they still have the great big chandelier?”
“I’m sure,” Aramenta said; then questioned, “If you’ve never been inside, how do you know about the chandelier, Mr. Ellis?”
“Oh, that was the topic of conversation with my grandmother for a month after your granddaddy imported it from France. Seems like it was the largest
crystal chandelier in the South back then, as I recall.”
“Won’t you come in?” Aramenta pushed against the heavy door and without a sound it opened. A musty odor assailed them.
“I apologize for the state of things,” Aramenta said, not truly apologetic. “I only arrived night before last.”
“Oh, I know that! Mrs. Lee was—well, reclusive is a good word. Her mind had slipped a bit, I suppose. You know, I tried to talk to her about putting the
place on the market a few years back. She wouldn’t even speak to me. Just shut the door in my face.”
Aramenta clutched her pocketbook in both hands, watching the realtor blot his forehead and pate with a folded white handkerchief. He carried a hat, but it
was obvious he seldom put it on his head.
“There it is,” he said, looking up at the cobwebbed and dusty chandelier. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Mr. Ellis, until night before last I hadn’t been in this house for thirty years. Since then, only in the hallway, living room, and Mother’s bedroom before
I called the hospital. I have almost forgotten my way about.”
A lie. She could remember every detail from the wide plank, peg-pinned flooring to the rococo molding curling toward corners near the ceiling.
“Well!” Ellis smiled. “Where shall we begin?”
“You may go where you will, Mr. Ellis. I will follow.”
“Fine, fine. Let’s see, this is obviously the library. Shame those books are molding like that.”
He announced each room, “Kitchen, bathroom, hallway,” and walked unhurriedly. “Every piece an authentic antique,” he declared, running his fingertips
across a silt-covered tortoise-shell inlay sideboard. It was Louis XIV, another of Granddaddy’s French imports.
“Lord, what a pantry,” Ellis wheezed. “I’ve seen modern bedrooms with less floor space. And here we are in the foyer to the next room.” He seemed at a loss
to identify it.
“In those days,” Aramenta said, “servants lived in. The house kitchen, which was brutally hot, was part of the servants’quarters. This was that kitchen.
With the advent of high-priced labor—slavery had been abolished—the Lees found it necessary to install the existing family kitchen. This became a nonroom
thereafter. She never forgave the North actually.”
For the first time, Aramenta realized his eyes had a piggish squint, two tiny blue orbs encased in folds of facial fat. He was not smiling, trying to
determine how serious she was. After all, might she not be as looney as her mother? Aramenta did nothing to ease his doubts.
“Yes, those were the good old days, according to the Lee women—plenty of demand for Granddaddy Lee’s imported French wines and the Lee schooners that
sailed the seas. A standard of living impossible to maintain, of course, without that—ah—amenable labor.” She meant if they didn’t polish silver or press
crinolines just so, one of the hired men could beat them until they were amenable.
“I suspect most slaves were treated fairly enough,” Ellis said, a typical Southern response suggesting the blacks were still pretty much cared for and
“Your family had slaves, Mr. Ellis?”
“No, no. We were the common folks, Miss Lee.”
“Umm.” Common folk. Blood tells.
“Shall we go on?” Mr. Ellis inquired, a hint of a bow now, hat in hand extended to indicate the way. He expressed surprise when he discovered they had made
a full circle and were once again in the hallway. He opened a door.
“This goes to the basement?”
“Cellar. Yes. And subbasement. Do you wish to go down?”
“That won’t be necessary. It’s already getting too dark to see. Are the lights functional?”
“I’m not sure.”
He flipped a switch and nothing happened.
“It doesn’t matter,” he sounded suddenly hurried. “I can see the rest of the house another time. I’ll have to make several trips to familiarize myself with
the layout and the best selling points. I would like to see upstairs before I leave.”
Oak stairs dominated the rear of the hallway, rising half a flight, then splitting into two separate and opposite stairways connecting the wings with the
central section of the house.
“It must’ve been wonderful growing up in a place like this,” Ellis panted, his prominent bulk taking its toll.
“Do you wish to see the east or west wing?”
“Whichever. Go right, I suppose.”
“Oh, dear.” Ellis halted and Aramenta followed his eyes. A hole had been knocked in the bottom panel of a door. “Vandals, probably,” Ellis suggested. He
pushed against the door and it wouldn’t move. He bent low, peeking into a dark hole.
“Can’t see anything,” he said. “I should’ve brought a flashlight. Looks like a tunnel of some kind.”
“Like through straw or something.” Ellis reached through the hole and felt. “Paper. Somebody blocked the door with bundles of paper.”
Then, as though Aramenta were delaying them, Ellis said, “Let’s hurry along, Miss Lee. It’s getting too dark to do this tour justice.”
The next door was similarly blocked. And the next. Out of nine suites, only one was accessible. Furniture stood like ghostly apparitions in dustcloth
covers, as though awaiting a witching hour when they could all spring to life and dart about the room between gossamer webs of spider’s silk.
“I be damned!” Ellis turned abruptly. “Excuse me, Miss Lee. Slip of the tongue.”
“What is it, Mr. Ellis?”
He was standing at the connecting portal to the next suite. “There’s a panel knocked out of this door too.” Reaching inside, feeling, bent over, one pudgy
hand propped against his own knee. “More paper, Miss Lee.”
“The place is probably crawling with rats,” Aramenta observed acidly.
“Listen, Miss Lee, it’s really too dark to continue this. Perhaps I could return tomorrow morning, early?”
“If you wish.”
They were walking faster now, the realtor setting the pace. “If you’d like, I’ll call an exterminator.”
“Understand, Mr. Ellis, I have not seen rats. It was a theoretical observation.”
“I couldn’t stand rats. Where are you spending the night, Miss Lee?”
“Here, Mr. Ellis.”
“Here?” They halted at the front door. Pig eyes wide, Ellis cleared his throat. “You be all right here alone?”
“I think so.”
“I’d be happy to drive you to town.”
“I have transportation, Mr. Ellis. I rented an automobile.”
“I don’t want to be nosy, Miss Lee, but maybe you’d be more comfortable at the Admiral Semmes Hotel.”
“Thank you for your concern, Mr. Ellis. I’ll stay.”
She closed the door, heard the latch click, and released the huge brass knob. She took a measured breath, exhaled slowly, and turned to stare unseeing down
the dark hall. She recalled a childhood memory of a gaslight, converted when electricity became available, and the switch oddly placed too high and
mid-wall. She felt along the wall, the texture of paper made gritty by a residue of dust. There! She touched the switch plate, found the toggle, and threw
it up. A meager yellow glow, fifteen watts perhaps, pushed vainly against the dark. By this light she located another switch, but nothing responded.
In the living room she found a Tiffany lamp, which she turned on. Cobwebs and dust mice took cover in shadows. The blemishes thus rouged by the healing
shade of night and the varicolored lamp cover, the place regained some of its lost aura, a bit of the class of the aristocracy that built it.
She walked across an Oriental rug, feet in steps recalled from infancy, to Papa’s high-back Queen Anne chair with its majestic carved arms and legs. She
could almost smell the scent of apple shavings in pipe tobacco, the lip-lifting aroma of masculinity. If she closed her eyes and mentally discarded fifty
years of her life, she could once again hear the suckle sound of short puffs as he lit his favorite pipe. Oh, God, how time evaporated. Fifty years! Two
lifetimes, two vibrant lifetimes gone. For what? What in heaven’s name for?
She stared at the wide bottom cane back rocking chair that had been Mother’s. Nobody was ever allowed to sit in that chair. Like all things Mother’s, it
was not to be shared but was expressly, explicitly Mother’s! Deliberately she sat down.
Her feet lifted with each backward push. Aramenta fought memories, gut-wrenching pictures indelible in her brain. It had taken most of her adult life to
consign such thoughts to niches where they could be locked away and slowly forgotten.
“Blood tells …”
“You can’t play with that child, Aramenta. No sass, now. I shan’t tolerate it. Don’t you dare dispute my word, girl! I said no and I mean no. The Lees are
aristocracy. The well-to-do don’t palaver with the poor. They want what you have, Aramenta. You can never trust them. All they think about is money. Sooner
or later, every one of them will ask you to loan, or give, money. Like wild animals seeking food, the indigent man seeks money! It obsesses him, Aramenta.
If one dares ask for money, or even dwells on it, you will know his caste, child. Bitter lesson, but better learned than burned. Now, now, stop your tears
and be a young lady. There! Mother hates to tell you this. But it is life. Life is not easy, even for the Lees. There’s a price one must pay for being of
the blood, child. Blood has its rewards—see your fine nose? Like your grandfather and his father before him. That’s a Lee nose, a mark of the aristocracy.
Blood. Remember that, Aramenta. Blood. Blood tells.”
Aramenta ceased rocking, head up, frozen. Ever so slowly, she turned, more to direct hearing than sight. There. There it was again. A thumping sound.
Somebody at the door? She was in no mood for the hypocrisy of condolences. Aramenta stood abruptly, walking toward the front door. “Who is it, please?”
Putting her ear near the thick portal, she called again, louder, “Who is it?”
The knocking had stopped. She searched the wall for an outside light switch. Finding none, she pulled back the tatted lace curtains and held her breath
against the dry odor of dust. She leaned into the window, peering out. The porch, which wrapped the main house on three sides, was empty for as far as she
could see. The columns and balusters were dimly silhouetted against darker shrubbery.
Again. Thump-thump-thump. Aramenta quelled irritation, threw the lock, and opened the door.
“Yes!” she demanded of the dark. Nothing. She stepped out. “Yes?” she called.
Children maybe. Or perhaps the place truly had rats.
Thump-thump-thump. Behind her.
Enough of this nonsense! Aramenta turned toward the apparent source of sound, the kitchen now, and resolutely marched in that direction.
The refrigerator door was open and illuminated a rectangle of linoleum floor. She groped for one of the elusive and oddly placed switches she knew existed.
Then with a muttered oath at her own ineptitude, she crossed the kitchen in the dark, bumped into a heavy butcher-block table, and slammed the refrigerator
door. Feeling her way back to the hall, something touched her!
No not truly. Not touched her. More like a current of air stirred by something as it went past, that was it. Struck still, heart slamming, she shuddered
and goose bumps erupted, racing around her body.
“Who’s there?” Her own voice sounded hoarse in her ears. “I know you’re there, now who are you?”
The pounding she heard now was the sound of her own heartbeat. “I demand you identify yourself.” Whump-whump-whump.
With long strides she made the final few yards to the living room and then wheeled to face the dark. She was breathing too fast, a primordial reaction to
unreasoning fear. She wiped her hands down her skirt and suddenly realized she still wore the mourner’s black hat, a veil covering her face. She snatched
out the long pin, cast the hat aside, and shook her head. Better. Cooler. It was warm in here. She would open a window. Forget it. Go to bed! She had tons
of stuff to sift through before calling a dealer. She had to get the house cleared somehow, sell it, and return to Paris where she belonged.
Ears drumming, a patina of perspiration now returning to her palms.
Initial apprehension dissolved in anger and she stormed into the hall. “In case you haven’t looked at me, I have horns, fangs, and I sleep hanging upside
down. Come too near and I’ll rip your heart out!”
Beast or man, that would give it something to think about. She held the hatpin like an épée, adrenaline surging, and stomped defiantly toward the kitchen.
The refrigerator door was again open. Maybe the catch is broken, Aramenta, be reasonable, for heaven’s sake. She pushed the door shut, positioned a chair
to hold it, and with continued bravado marched out into the hall again, treading hard.
“I’m going to have you exterminated,” she yelled. “Better start packing, you hear me? I may burn this dump to the ground.”
Mother’s bedroom had a musky scent of illness, rice powder, and long-dried perfumed decanters. The bed was exactly as the ambulance attendants had left it
when they rushed Mother to the hospital.
Aramenta undressed and got between the covers.
Hatpin in hand, she closed her eyes and willed sleep to come.