enniman's is on fire! Penniman's is on fire!" Molly Morrison shrieked as she peddled furiously past our house, pigtails flying into the sunset. We all heard her, having just settled down at our makeshift outdoor tables for a Saturday cookout. No one had to ask for permission to be excused. This was a neighborhood tragedy. We had never seen a house afire on Lawyers Hill.
I was the first up and out, leaving a plate of magnificent sliced summer tomatoes and my small portion of sizzling steak to cool in the evening air. Caesar could have it, as far as I was concerned. Within seconds I was on my familiar path across the pasture, over the fence and through the woods to...to what?
I held my breath and ran.
Just the week before, I had been inside that mammoth old closed up summer mansion, poking around with a flashlight, hoping to find the truth about life.
Our neighborhood was built on Truth. From the enormous granite railroad viaduct that leapt in eight great arches over the shallow old Patapsco, to the fascinating people who led quiet lives behind shaded, shuttered porticos, every square inch of my childhood world was steeped in rock solid Truth. But I didn't know what it was! And my hunger for it set me on a search that began when I was old enough to wander off, and hasn't quit since. Which explains the flashlight, and a lot of other stuff that will probably end up in later stories, although I doubt now that I have the courage to see it through.
From the outside the Penniman House was amazing. Three stories tall, and I mean tall stories, with a roof so steeply pitched that you could get vertigo just gazing at the zigzag designs cut into the silvery shingles. Truly Gothic in form, though not heavily ornamented, the house stood alone on a wildflower knoll surrounded by deep forest. One might characterize it as a masculine Victorian design, wearing its restrained dignity as would a top-hatted gentleman of the 1870's.
Always shuttered and locked, Penniman's was the world's biggest mystery, ancient unpainted cedar siding, porches and railings gleaming in the twilight of its existence. I had often visited the property by myself on golden days of childhood leisure, paying homage to its silent vigil among the oaks and beeches. At the edge of the cavernous front porch, an overgrown extra-wide flagstone walkway led to a rose-enshrouded twig gazebo that was a wonder to behold, and I spent many happy hours there hidden from the summer sky, thinking about the lives that had created and loved this place.
Where were they now? Why did no one come to open the house and welcome me in for a plate of cookies? There was so much I wanted to know. Were I to actually meet the owners, I would ask questions politely and memorize the answers and hold everything inside until some future time when the world would make sense.
A stone's throw away from the big house were several small wooden structures, (slave quarters, we used to call them) that were unlocked and wide open for anyone to explore. In one of these little cottages were three wobbly wooden chairs clustered around a table crazed with peeling paint. There was a hand-crank butter churn too, and a four quart creamer marked "KOLBSDAIRY BALTO MD" in copper, although the bottom was rusted out. I used to study the slave quarters carefully to discover how people could lead simple clean lives far away from the frightening gas stations and liquor stores down on Route 1. Safe and sound in the farthest reaches of our near magical neighborhood, I even considered setting up a permanent hideaway here, arranging everything for myself, transporting my small treasury of little blue-green glass vials, smooth creek pebbles, and glossy horse chestnuts from the spring house down by the viaduct.
But there was something not quite right about setting up a fort this close to the pea gravel driveway, on the other side of which loomed the Penniman House. So I kept the springhouse as my retreat, and remained a visitor on the wildflower knoll.
About the flashlight mentioned earlier, I didn't actually have one, but found the back door to the big house open one late afternoon in early September, and spent the next 45 minutes wishing I'd taken the time to run back home through the woods to try and find a working Eveready in our own chaotic household.
Fat chance, I knew, so I just walked right into that pitch dark closed up summer mansion and waited for my eyes to adjust, trusting that there would probably be some light coming through some hole in some shuttered window somewhere.
Never one to be afraid of encountering the woodland unknown, falling into some abyss, checking out early, I suppose my childhood explorations contributed to making me feel secure. I was guided by a sixth sense and a joie de vivre that could not be contained. The excitement I felt actually being inside the most intriguing house ever gave me the sensation of floating through a guided tour, and I could not take in all the details quickly enough.
The first room, the kitchen, was spacious and empty, as if regretting the loss of its cook's table. And though the light was at its best here, there was little to see except a cast iron sink in the corner and open shelving all around. The high ceilings created an unusual sense of space, but painted clapboard on one wall indicated that this room was not an original part of the house. The floor sloped gently up towards a big black hole of a doorway, which beckoned me further.
In the dimming light, I understood that the house was fully furnished, all covered with dustsheets. My heart raced as I became more aware of my surroundings. Pinholes and crevices at the tightly shuttered windows cast pools of dreamy white light across the floor, and I slid easily from one "spotlight" into the next, marveling at the theatrical way the rooms revealed themselves.
Draped sheeting suggested that here was an overstuffed sofa, there a very tall upright grand piano, accompanied by a wing chair in front of a gaping fireplace. I was very proud of my good fortune, and knew that my friends would be amazed when I told them of my adventure...if I told them!
I was thinking of Molly's face expressing wonder at my tales, when I saw what I thought was a body lying on a davenport, partly covered with a sheet. I gave a quick start and then stood perfectly still for an eternity, studying the shadows and formulating a matching plan to flee. As my eyes grew wider, the gloom receded. The ringing in my ears and the alarm of the moment seemed too much to bear. And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over: My heightened state of awareness signaled that there were only wads of old newspaper bunched up on the cushions, as if left there by someone's careless packing or unpacking.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and chuckled at my foolishness in thinking that danger could actually be close enough to run from.
As I relaxed and turned toward the massive staircase, I encountered a huge portrait in a gold frame, resting on the floor and tilted against the wall. Darkly lit yet clearly defined, the image was of a boy who seemed much loved but a little lonesome in his waistcoat and high button shoes. With the bandana I carried for collecting creek pebbles, I polished away dust to see the designs that surrounded him. Deep shadows in the background hinted at a forest, and the grass at his feet was soft and windswept as a garden path.
Face to face except for the wavy picture glass and the years that separated us, we shared a quiet moment. And I wondered if, once upon a time, he had played in the twig gazebo too.
It was then that I realized the light truly was fading. Since the real danger lay in being inside the house without a shred of light to help me retrace my steps, I reluctantly decided to leave. Hallways, parlor, kitchen bid me goodbye, and I emerged at the unlocked door into a blinding twilight, frustrated that it wasn't as dark as it had seemed inside the house, frustrated by the lack of a flashlight to enhance my adventure. But it was just as well anyway. It was suppertime.
Back home, I entered the dining room late for the meal, and I said nothing of my secret. Nor did anyone ask. My family was always in turmoil, with nine children, a couple of cats, a pair of dogs, a parakeet, and two exhausted parents. The preparation and service of food was a lesson in deconstruction better left unstudied. But I enjoyed thinking (as I skillfully avoided the overcooked lima beans) that I'd get a flashlight somewhere. Maybe the rusty one down in the basement still worked if I could find some batteries in the kitchen drawer. I knew I would go back tomorrow and really see the old Penniman House, with its immense rooms, paneled doors and who-knows-what upstairs.
Upstairs...upstairs was the attic! By exploring the attic whose secrets were protected by that incredible pitched roof, I'd learn what the architects of the house knew, as they dreamed up the plans for that vaulted third floor.
I'd study the work of the carpenters who proudly measured, cut and joined the thick wooden trusses to stand through a hundred years of seasonal storms.
I'd marvel at the masons who could coax a brick chimney to veer dizzily off course in search of the perfect opening between gables, a matter-of-fact feat of wonder in old house construction.
And I'd think about the first owners, (the Pennimans?) who must have taken such delight in peering out their stylishly pointed attic windows; who from their cozy spot could survey the fresh flagstone pathway leading to the twig gazebo planted with young roses; whose hearts soared over the lawns and through the forests, hearts light enough to see beyond the creek, above the river and past the sparkling new granite viaduct below, so grateful that they had realized their dream of a summer home, an hour's ride by railcar from the heat of the burgeoning city...
These dreamlike thoughts were interrupted by Molly Morrison's cry of "Fire!", and I could not arrive at the wild flower knoll fast enough. My initial glimpse of the front of the house included Walter, the big hired colored man who acted as caretaker for several of the fine homes on Lawyers Hill. He was wandering to and fro, saying worrisome things to himself, his strong, deep voice muffled and incoherent. As I ran toward him, I saw the kitchen entrance engulfed in flames. I remember Walter and myself being the only two there at first, joined in the ensuing moments by the rest of the known world and several fire companies too.
As the flames lit up the night sky, I think I entered into a state of shock. I don't recall being with anyone for the rest of the event, although all of my family and friends were surely present. I think I must have been with the Penniman House as it gave up its ghost.
One clear image, however, is burned into my memory. It is of our neighborhood's fine artist, Leonard Bahr, who lived and worked down the road from us in a studio with a big skylight. The old master was sitting under a spreading fir tree, among the fire hoses and ladder trucks, oblivious to the danger, sketching the terrifying event with his oil paints. Bathed in the orange light, I knew he was doing something important. I knew what he was doing was True.
Shortly after the fire, while I was newly away at seminary doing my adolescent part to discover a special life for myself, men in bulldozers and earthmovers leveled Penniman's forest and wildflower knoll. Interstate 95 was about to be built, connecting Baltimore to Washington DC, ripping through the past, severing access to our beloved creek, and burying the quieter parts of my childhood forever. Sequestered at school, I wasn't able to attend the funeral. Never visited the creek again until I was well into middle age, but this time, it was from the other side.