Where Are You From Eminent Domain
“None of the things we thought were ours actually belonged to us.”
The geese migrated more than a thousand miles every year to nest in the floodplains of the creek that had been named after them. Goose Creek was about thirty minutes by car from the nearest Virginia town. It ran alongside Lime Kiln Road. The place where I was raised with my older sister, Johanna, began where the pavement ended and turned to dirt—the point where travelers either turned back, believing they were lost, or passed by without stopping.
Some ornithologists believe geese possess a complex memory of topography, knowing the bend of a river, the contour of a lake, the shape of a mountaintop. Others think they have an inner compass finely attuned to the Earth’s magnetic field.
With their coming and going, the geese set the rhythm of the landscape around our family home. They lived at the verge of departure. Sometimes they flew together, making a knife across the sky—a shape called a skein. When they landed, this single body broke into pieces on the ground—a gaggle. Their cyclical absence, their perpetual change, seemed to say something about loss.
As a child I knew more about the geese than I did our neighbors. A line between the trees marked where my parents’ property ended and the neighbors’ property began, a path my father mowed twice a year. I was not supposed to cross the border, but the summer after I turned ten I did, drawn to a little glimmering brook on the other side of the property line. I would slide down its embankment and sit and watch the water, waiting for something to happen. I was obsessed with books where characters disappeared in enchanted landscapes. Stepping through a wardrobe into somewhere unreachable, or washing ashore on a beach at the end of the earth.
I collected things that I found in the woods and kept them in an old sweet box: puffy sycamore seeds, helicoptering maples, acorns, bits of turtle shell, even the broken bodies of butterflies I found in the grass or discovered smashed in the windshield wipers on my father’s truck. One day, visiting the little brook to look for fragments of quartz for my collection, I heard the crunch of tires on gravel.
I hunkered as low to the earth as my body would allow, listened as the vehicle approached, then slowed. A window rolled down. My eyes met the gaze of a man in the driver’s seat of a beat-up purple van. His dark hair, receding from his forehead, was pulled back in a thin ponytail at the nape of his neck. When he smiled at me I could see his gums. Most of the teeth were missing from the sides of his mouth.
“Hello,” he said.
I looked at him in silence.
He laughed. “Okay,” he said. “I don’t see you.”
He rolled up the window and drove the purple van away.
For the rest of the summer I stayed on my side of the property line. I occupied myself by tasting every fruit I found, tearing at fleshy pawpaws with my teeth, spitting out persimmons. I picked chokecherries and smashed them into a red paste, painted this paste on my cheeks and swung from vines. When they snapped beneath my weight I plunged to earth where I lay gasping, eyes rolled toward heaven, all the breath knocked out of me.
There were many ways of disappearing in the woods. I would come upon a hoof in the grass. A skull licked clean. A tail, a heart, a lung. The smell of carrion. My beagle rolled with something dark on her snout.
Against my mother’s rules—she did not want me too far from where I could hear her call me home—I began to cross the dirt road to go to Goose Creek. I gathered up tadpoles from the sunlit shallows and watched them wriggle in a jar. Sometimes Johanna would come with me. Once we caught two clams as big as my fist and kept them in a bucket, watching as their tender gray bodies probed from their shell.
My sweet-box collection expanded to include human artifacts: champagne corks, peach pits and candy wrappers, worn down pencils and bits of wax. I collected with the same compulsion I later applied to writing: a mechanism for memory.
In August, men began to appear on the road, setting up tools on tripods and hunching over the eyepieces, conferring about what they saw.
“Surveyors,” my father explained when I asked. “They use those instruments to measure the distance between geological features, like mountain peaks or hillsides—to gauge the lay of the land.”
“What are they looking for?”
“The county is considering paving Lime Kiln Road. They’re looking to see what the project would require, I suppose.”
I watched the surveyors as they looked at the land and made their notes on clipboards. They would never know the best trees to climb, or where the berries grew sun-ripened and heavy, or how to pick them to avoid the thorns, and the place in the driveway where I fell and skinned my knee. They would never know how the water bird chicks had huddled in my cupped hands, how their hearts had quivered beneath their skin.
September came. I started at a new school in town. There were a few hundred other students in my class. The year before I had been one of ten. The new building had gray hallways and low ceilings and everything was lit with harsh fluorescents. I had to keep my belongings in a puke-green locker accessible only by remembering an impossible combination. We only had four minutes between bells to change classrooms. I was afraid of everything, so I didn’t talk to anybody. That September I saw the geese taking off from the cornfields where they had spent the summer. Their honking grew fainter as the skein receded from view, a departure cutting a wound inside me in a place that had never hurt before.
One day while we were eating our breakfast Johanna looked out the window and asked me, “What’s a bulldozer doing in the driveway?”
I went to the window and looked over her shoulder. The bright yellow bulldozer dwarfed our mailbox. A squat man in a white construction hat stood beside it. He said something into his walkie-talkie and spat. He climbed into the seat of the machine. It rumbled to life. The bucket jerked up then came down to take a mouthful of the hillside—a red chunk of Virginia clay, tangled roots and torn-up Queen Anne’s lace.
We ran to the bathroom door. “ Mom! ”
“What is it?”
“There’s a man here,” Johanna told her. “With a bulldozer. He’s digging at the end of the driveway.”
She cracked the door open, green eyes flashing amid a cloud of steam. Her face was flushed from the heat of the shower.
“Hurry up and get ready,” she said. “We don’t want to be late.”
She shut the door. Johanna and I looked at each other and went back to the window. A few minutes later our mother came out of the bathroom. Her hair was still wet and she still had not put on her makeup. She looked at us.
“I thought I told you to go get ready. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
We watched as she marched down the driveway, kicking gravel out in front of her. The bulldozer shut off as she approached. The man climbed down from the seat, trepidation flickering across his face.
Our mother was frightening. I put on a T-shirt and jeans and grabbed my toothbrush, scrubbing my teeth as Johanna fixed her bangs in the bathroom mirror.
My mother met us in the car as promised and drove down the driveway, past the bulldozer. She nodded to him as she turned onto the road, our car kicking up the familiar trail of dust behind it.
“They are widening the road to pave it,” she said. “Your dad and I are going to fight it.”
That afternoon my father picked us up from school in his green pickup truck. I squeezed myself into the narrow backseat, moving aside his tools and papers and empty soda cans to make room.
“Hey kiddos,” he said. “How was school?”
As my sister began to tell him about placing first chair in her band section, I opened my book and continued reading about the magical land of Prydain and its battles against Annuvin, the land of death.
When we turned onto our road I closed the book. I could never read when the truck jostled over the gravel. As we passed the cornfield we startled a herd of deer. They took off running wild, raising the white flags of their tails. As we approached the turnoff to our house, I could see orange ribbons had been tied around the trunks of several of the largest trees. The bulldozer was gone from the driveway but a purple van was parked next to our mother’s car.
“Who’s here?” Johanna asked.
“Our neighbors,” my father said. “We’re going to see what we can do to stop the road from being paved.”
The house smelled like coffee. Our mother was sitting at the kitchen table with papers spread out before her, talking in a soft voice to a woman with apple cheeks and curly dark hair. When my sister and I came into the room they looked up and smiled at us. I kept my gaze downcast, avoiding eye contact with Steven. Had he told my mother that he had seen me?
“You’ve met Steven and Cacey before, but it’s been a long time,” my mother said.
“Yes,” Cacey laughed. “You came to our wedding!”
“We’re going to be taking up the homework table for a little bit,” my mother said. “Do you mind working in your room this afternoon?”
My parents drafted letters and petitions to the government in Richmond. We spent the next few weekends circulating through the houses of Lime Kiln Road’s residents, spaces we had never entered before: a log cabin with a bathtub rusting in the front yard and chickens pecking around the dirt; a three-story monstrosity with a drained swimming pool full of leaves; a vast property with a paddock full of spotted horses. In a trance, I stroked their long, velvety noses and breathed in their scent of hay and sunlight.
Johanna liked to eavesdrop on what the adults said in their long conversations and would fill me in later as she did her homework in our bedroom.
“If the road gets paved,” Johanna told me, “there is going to be a lot more traffic and noise. It’s going to be bad for the environment. Litter. Oil. All the runoff into the creek. Do you know that the creek might have river otters? And the bluebells are a protected species. And some of those trees are a hundred years old at least.”
I had never seen river otters before. When I suggested that we go exploring for them together the following summer, Johanna reminded me that she would be away at camp.
By spring I still had no friends, but I knew I did not need them to survive to the summer. The geese had returned, their gaggle scattering in the cornfields. A warm and steady rain fell, the water forming shallow pools on the surface of the earth. Goslings, feathery gray blurs, learned to swim in their shallows. Their parents dove and brought up strands of green in their beaks.
As for the road, it seemed like the county had forgotten us. There had been no response to the petitions my parents had sent to the capital. The orange ribbons, once so bright, had begun to fade on the trees. The days warmed steadily into summer. Soon I could be free from school, could return to the woods, and be once more unseen.
But on one of those hopeful afternoons the men came back to finish the work they had started in September. There was nothing my parents could do, my sister explained to me. The government had the right of eminent domain. Eminent domain meant that none of the things we thought were ours actually belonged to us.
My parents’ efforts were not completely fruitless. The government agreed to widen the road on the creek side of the property, taking from land we owned but did not directly inhabit. I came home from school one day to find many of the trees were gone. Some of them had been hairy with vines and others had burls, types of aggravated growths, sprouting from their trunks. The burls, my father had once told me, were dense and resistant to splitting. When the grain grew erratically, flaring from insect marks, the wood was even more highly valued. The burls were wounds, he had explained, that could be shaped into beautiful things.
My father must have known that the trees would be taken, because he had time to ask the workers whether they would save him a burl. After they took the trees the men placed one of the knots in the driveway, like a twist of hair in a locket that a widow would keep. My father moved it to the grass, something to work on later. But later never came. It sat through wind and rain, misplaced, hulking, formless and eroding, its presence revealing its dismemberment from the body to which it had belonged. It sat until it all but rotted away, until all that was left for my father to do was throw its remains back into the trees where it had first grown.
Almost a decade after the road was paved I left Virginia for a school in a city five hours north and across two state lines. The geese kept on with their arrivals and departures. I came and went too, making the drive four times a year.
As a child I had never imagined myself in a city. I had never imagined myself anywhere besides the house where I was raised. But the land had changed beneath me. Somewhere in the space between adolescence and adulthood I cast my tethers onto other people, other places. I saw Paris and the Alps. I stood at the gates to St. Paul’s Cathedral and looked upon Cleopatra’s Needle eroding in New York. A girl had taught me how to kiss in the pink bedroom of her parents ’ house. A little while later, I went on a walk with a boy and he carved my name into a tree. The universe was no longer confined to ten square acres of land. But the ghosts of my childhood were devoted spirits. Whenever I made the trip home and turned onto Lime Kiln Road, I braced myself for the pavement to dip into gravel beneath me and was always startled to find that the asphalt remained smooth under my wheels. It took me years to stop expecting my blind beagle to come waddling towards me, her cataracts reflecting the sunlight. When I was a child and the creek was high it was possible to hear the water running from our front door. Now if I listened the current was obstructed by the steady hum of distant cars and, a hundred miles above me, a plane on its way to somewhere else.
Since 2010, the house that was once Steven and Cacey’s has stood abandoned. I was in the city when it happened.
“We have Libby for the weekend,” my mother told me one afternoon on the phone. I was sitting at the edge of my bed in my own room.
“Who is Libby?” I asked her.
“Steven and Cacey’s dog.”
She told me she had been awoken the night before by a police car coming up the driveway. Steven had gotten out of the backseat with Libby. He wasn’t wearing handcuffs, and he handed her the dog’s leash and said he had to go to the station.
“Do you know what happened?” he had asked her.
“No,” she’d said. The dog had strained at the leash.
My mother had hugged him, she told me. He had smelled like alcohol.
“We don’t know much of anything,” she said. “We’re waiting to find out. The police said they would call us when we can take Libby back home. She’s not happy here. She’s trying to slip out the front door, and keeps whining. Dad locked her in the basement because otherwise we would have been up all night.”
After the phone call I tried to imagine how Cacey could have died. Despite development, there was still limited infrastructure on Lime Kiln Road. Phone lines went out about once or twice every year. Maybe there had been an accident.
During next Saturday’s phone call, I asked my mother whether Steven had come back to take Libby.
“No,” my mother said. “We’re trying to figure that out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we still have her,” she said, and sighed. It was the one she used to brace herself for the deliverance of any bad news. I would hear it many times over the next few years at the precipice of each fresh decline in my father’s health.
“We went over there because the police told us that the crime scene had cleared. But they hadn’t cleaned anything up,” she told me.
The structure of the scene was left to my imagination. Blood-smeared. Bits of bone scattered across the porch. My father had taken a hose to wash it off and my mother had gone inside to get a bowl of water for the dog. She had found a cookbook open to a recipe for a calming, soothing smoothie; a strainer full of strawberries in the sink; the blender sticky with yogurt and honey and banana.
“So I washed the dishes,” she said. “And dad hosed off the porch. We’re trying to get in touch with one of Cacey’s friends.”
“Mom, what happened ?”
“I don’t know honey,” she said in a voice as light as ever. She paused. “He killed her.”
The story emerged in the newspapers over the next year, as the house stood abandoned and the geese came and went again. On the occasions I googled Steven’s name, his face would appear. He had the same sunken visage, although slightly aged. His now-long hair had turned gray. He wore an orange jumpsuit.
According to the newspapers, Steven had been seeing another woman for the last decade, a woman who Cacey believed was her friend. The three of them would go out to dinner sometimes, at the same restaurant where my family had celebrated Johanna’s high school graduation. They were house poor. Steven had worked on and off as a handyman and for the US Census Bureau, but Cacey was the one who held a steady job. She was a graphic artist and didn’t make much. Four years before he killed her he had started taking out life insurance policies in her name. The money amounted to $210,000 in all.
In his testimony, Steven said that on the evening Cacey died he had been doing repairs on their house when the ladder “kicked out” from under him. When he came to, he saw Cacey lying on her side in the fetal position with her head crushed. He said that he had repositioned her body to perform CPR. When she regained consciousness she had made a horrible sound, like a wounded animal, a “sound of pure pain,” he testified. There was a sledgehammer at his side and he used it to hit her. “I did it because I loved her,” he said. “It was mercy.”
The coroner’s examination found Steven’s account to be inconsistent with the evidence, and Steven’s story had changed many times since he had been taken into custody. In a recorded phone call with his mistress he had described practicing how to cry while on the stand so that his story would be more convincing. He was sentenced to life in prison. At the time of writing, he is still in a high security facility. He must be approaching seventy years old.
For years now I’ve lingered over two details of the story. The first, from the medical examiner’s testimony during the trial, was that Cacey’s heart had kept beating through each of the seven sledgehammer blows. The second was an inventory of items Steven’s mistress described in her testimony—ones she claimed to have taken from the house in Cacey’s memory. The items included a star chart, Steven’s Vietnam War medals, pottery bowls, and a shawl Cacey used to wear. The mistress said she sat with the shawl on her lap every evening, thinking of Cacey, pulling what was left around her own skin.
My parents saw that the dog went to one of Cacey’s friends. A wealthy neighbor—the owner of the horses I had visited all those years before—bought the foreclosed property. She put a chain across the driveway and raised a sign in commemoration, reading “Casey’s Landing,” the name misspelled. According to the wishes of Cacey’s family, the property will remain unchanged and undeveloped. The house will weather and decay and collapse back into the earth.
“Do you ever think about it?” I asked my mother the last time I was home. She, Johanna, and I were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea while my father rested in the next room.
“Sometimes,” she said. “If I hear hammering. And I think about that recipe book. Her smoothie. I wonder who was she making it for.”
We fell silent. I looked into my teacup.
“How could we not have seen it?” my mother continued. “How could we have been so unaware of what was happening just one driveway over? It’s altered the way I see my life.”
For years now I have tried to write about it. It is a story I keep writing: how our lives changed, how we did not recognize that a change had happened until it had already occurred. How some lives we know only by their loss. How sometimes we recognize these lives as our own.
Before Johanna or I were born my father built a retaining wall around the perimeter of the yard. Constructed from wood, the wall was never intended to be permanent. This last summer he took it upon himself to begin tearing it out. His mobility was already impaired, but he was still strong if he could stand in one place. He took to the wall with a metal bar, driving it down into the earth, breaking apart the hunks of decaying material where it had rotted. By fall he finished the project and hired a stonemason to build a wall to replace it. The wall is made from pieces of rose-colored rock, each stone nesting against another. Smooth, impenetrable, warming in the sun, the wall seems more permanent than any of us.
But by Christmas, the rotted wood from the old wall was still in the yard. Removing it was a task our father could not complete. Piece by piece, Johanna and I carried the beams from the yard and placed them in the back of his pickup truck.
We worked in silence with our sleeves rolled up. It was the middle of the warmest winter on record. The muggy air reminded me of that last summer I had spent tearing through the trees. The wood fell apart in our hands. We flung it into the pickup truck. We were angry about what we could not name. After an hour of work I leaned against the pickup truck and cried. When she gave us the news my mother had told us we could not weep in front of our father. It would upset him too much.
Johanna put her arms around me as I sobbed. “I’ll go get the keys from Dad,” she said, when I had recovered.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll drive.”
The radio in the truck did not work anymore and a mouse had moved into one of the seats. We couldn’t see it but we could smell its must. I rolled the window down. To get to the landfill we had to go down a dirt road that cut through swamp. I took it slow as Johanna looked out the back window to make sure that the pieces of lumber did not jostle out of the truck’s bed.
When we arrived at the landfill we undid what we had done, taking the wood out of the bed and throwing it in the dumpsters among other scraps of construction material, mattresses, and bits of metal, black bags encasing unidentified waste.
Before we emptied out the truck Johanna took a picture of me leaning against its bed, my arms crossed over my chest, dark circles beneath my eyes. I do not know why we wanted to remember what was happening. We each had our reasons, I suppose, although I imagine we both were thinking in our own way about where we had come from. How loss is at the heart of every change.
In the picture I look like a woman at the end of time. The land behind me is barren, heaped with trash. Behind the overcast sky is filled with thousands upon thousands of crows, all flying in the same direction. Somewhere I heard that they follow one air current all season, traveling as much as forty miles each day, from roost to feeding ground and back again. They join with other birds as they go, flying together for a time then separating again, repeating this pattern without ending.