many years ago, we lived next to a strange building. it was a grand victorian, a queen among the painted ladies, and had once been a prodigious home. in the years i knew her, she was an empty, echoing shell, an abandoned nursing home, her walls saturated with age and sadness. the locks weren’t very locky and i spent a fair amount of time exploring there, running my hands down the dry, dusty banisters as i slowly spiraled up and down the stairs. it smelled like any old building, maybe a bit more medical than most, but dust and mildew and the sighs of spiders were the main smells. it had been added on to and converted and generally abused in the way that many old buildings that need to have modern missions are abused. it was an unhappy place. there were shoeboxes of old photographs, sepia-tinted and dry as bone, the relics of long-dead old ladies and gents who had spent their final weeks and months there. no one took them out when the patients were moved to a new building. no one cared enough to rescue them. they were other peoples’ memories, other peoples’ stories. a portrait, a vase, a pair of purple shoes: that’s all that remained of someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, someone’s loved one.
i’ve always found abandoned buildings sad. it doesn’t matter if it’s an old shed with a dirt-colored tractor still parked in it or the remnants of a great family’s once-fine home. the walls hold in the hopes and dreams of anyone who lived or worked inside them. a silent room, bare and grey with nothing but dust to inhabit it can still emit a silent sob for all those who went away.
i have stood silent inside an old barn with nothing left in except trash and cobwebs and could hear the clank of cows’ neck chains against stanchions, could sense a shovel sliding through sawdust, could feel the tails of ancient barn cats against my leg. the smell of manure and sweat and sour milk lingers under the thick furring of dark dust. you can see a pitchfork propped carefully against a wall and picture the last hand that did the careful propping of a valued tool for the last time. but it’s not the smell or the sight of things, it’s the absolute quiet that seems to be hissing with the absence of sound.
is it imagination? probably. we think of our own spaces and imagine them empty, shallow, lonely. we are reminded of our mortality and probably seek to grasp the echo of life in a dead building. but perhaps not. perhaps the dreaming and building and living and dying that happens in buildings is something that does abide.
i went out to do chores tonight and, walking back to the house, i stopped at the henhouse to check on its last denizens: a lone welsummer hen and a black silkie rooster. my flock of 30 or so has shrunk to these last two. the henhouse is starting to sigh, starting to gather its ghosts. the near-silence in there is almost deafening. soon, it will be another empty space.