Bewildering Stories

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The House on the Hill

by Roberto Sanhueza

Mom called today telling me Dad had finally passed away, two days after his stroke. She said he’d died quietly, with no pain, and that he never woke up in those two days. I said I’d be right over for the funeral.

As I hung up, the house on the hill came to my mind for the first time in years. It was The House That Wasn’t There in my home town, and I hadn’t thought of it since my teens. I guess that needs some explaining. When Mom took me to school I remember that corner from which, when passing by, I could see a house on a hill, with a red roof and a chimney, very briefly as Mom drove by.

The point is, in my home town there are no hills and, of course, no houses upon hills. It was a sort of a game I had every morning on my way to school, to try and see more of that house I knew couldn’t be there. I was old enough to realize it must have been an optical illusion and what I was actually seeing in that couple of seconds it took Mom to go by must have been the roof of some building. But for me, the house on the hill was my very own secret game. I didn’t want to spoil it by asking Mom to stop at the corner some morning and really look at it. So I made a point to see more of it passing by and imagining what it might look like inside.

I was a lonely child. I had been born when my parents were already married for twelve years, and I had no brothers or sisters, Mom told me how difficult it had been for them to have a baby. She had suffered from miscarriage after miscarriage till I had managed to survive. Dad was an M.D., and he worked part time at the local hospital, but his main interest was in research at the local Medical School.

And now he was dead, I regretted not having seen more of him in the last years, and now it was too late.

I called my boss and told him my old man was dead and I had to go home to the funeral. He said the usual about his deepest sympathy and that I could take a couple of days off.

In the cab on my way to the airport I tried to visualize my father’s face. It wasn’t hard to do; it was so much like my own nobody ever had any trouble deciding which side of the family I took after. My resemblance to my dad was a common topic among my parents’ friends, and I soon got tired of “the spitting image” and other similar old clichés.

It must have been precisely that resemblance what drove me away from him. I didn’t want to become a doctor, didn’t want to be even near the biological sciences. I tried to make a point in being myself and not to walk my father’s path.

As usual I was deeply disturbed in the plane and tried not to let it show. And in that I was also like my father: he hated flying. Nature, nurture? I don’t know, but I tried to sink in my seat, seat belt tightly fastened, ignoring the setting sun over woolly crimson clouds.

We hadn’t parted in a friendly manner when I left home to study graphic arts. It was one the biggest disappointments in my father’s life to have an artist son and not a doctor, even though I did well in the advertising field and made a decent living with my art.

He never understood I didn’t want to be him, that even though I was talented in science — as he was — I preferred to take my second choice in art and look for a life I could call my own.

We had a quarrel that day, he told me I was wasting a God-given gift, that so many mysteries in human biology remained to be uncovered, that his work had done only so much in that way and I was so able to take it on... and so on...

Poor Dad, he loved me, I never doubted that, but he couldn’t see me for myself, as an independent and different person, I guess it was because we were so much alike.

God, was that plane shaking! But everybody else seemed quite at ease, so I guess it wasn’t shaking so much after all. I asked for a drink, a strong one, closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

I guess sometimes the best does happen. The plane made it to the airport with no further shaking and I could relax as I put my feet safely on the ground. I hate flying, but I think I’ve already said that.

I took a cab at the airport and made it to the cemetery in time. I met Mom there, and then all the words I had thought to tell her just disappeared. All I could do was hold her tight, and we helped each other through the painful ceremony and the many farewell speeches. Dad had had a long and fruitful life after all. I took Mom home afterwards, and at last we had the chance to talk alone. She seemed somehow more at ease now the funeral was over, sad but not broken, and able to look ahead.

At some point that night the emotions of the day took their toll and she fell asleep by my side. I took her to their room — correction, her room now — and left her to sleep through her first night on her own after so many years.

Grief was still heavy on my mind; and although I was very tired I felt it would be useless for me to go to bed just yet, though Mom had made sure earlier on to leave my old room ready for me.

I went to Dad’s studio instead. It was just as he had left it that last time he was there: neat and tidy. The man left his imprint where he passed and that’s when his absence really hit me. I had been there so many times as a kid, and he would talk to me about life. He could make the very dry and boring biological facts a tale of wonder and marvel as he spoke to me about evolution and genetics. Most of it went over my head, of course, but still those moments were ones I cherished.

It felt weird being free to roam the old man’s notes, I had been there very often as a kid but never uninvited. I wasn’t allowed to go there without asking first, and it was still for me that feeling of the forbidden room. I looked at his bookshelves, but his books were mostly old, more décor than actual research material. His work was in his computer, and his disks were (of course) neatly stashed in boxes labeled by date.

Dad had gone into computers very early on as I remember, and he was one of the first persons I ever heard mentioning the Internet. Now I sat and looked at his lifework. Much of it had been published, and I guess much of it also was backed up at the University. Then one disk attracted my attention: it had my name on it.

My hesitation (if any) was a very short one. I turned Dad’s computer on, put the disk in, and started reading. I read on the following two disks and only took my eyes off the screen when I heard a faint noise behind me and looked to find Mom standing there. She had a sad smile on her face which only went sadder when I asked her, “Did you know about this?”

“Of course I knew, it couldn’t have been done without my consent.”

She sat beside me and held my hands, “You know how hard we tried to have a baby, but they just wouldn’t hold. Genetic tests showed your father and I had a basic incompatibility, and we would never be able to bring our baby into the world.”

Her eyes were soft and sad. She stopped for a minute and seemed to be lost in her memories, but she went on: “It was my chromosomes that were the faulty ones. We could never have our baby, but we could have his baby. You are the third try, the first and only one of the cloned embryos who caught and developed in my womb.”

Then she broke down and fell in my arms softly sobbing. She tried to keep on talking, keep on explaining, but I just hushed her and held her tight. It didn’t actually matter any more how they got away with it, how father could do it in total secrecy... It didn’t matter.

All that mattered was that my poor mother was free of her burden for the first time in years. It mattered that many things now made sense to me.

I took her back to her room and stayed by her until her soft and steady breathing told me she was asleep and, perhaps, feeling freer than she had felt in a long time.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to call my boss and tell him I’m staying with Mom for a couple of days. I don’t think he’ll give me any trouble, but if he does, I know where he can shove the job.

I have some thinking and rearranging to do, loose ends to bring together... I might even consider going back to college and taking some biology.

I’ll ask mother to drive me to the old school. But this time I’ll ask her to stop on that corner. I’ll have a good look at the house on the hill; it shouldn’t be too hard to do.

Copyright © 2003 by Roberto Sanhueza

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