Casablanca. When people talk about living in old houses, they say things like, “If these walls could talk…” Some of us who do live in old houses have experiences where the walls do talk. Or maybe it’s the floorboards or the wood stove. I have new housemates. Squatters, really. They moved in last weekend without so much as introducing themselves.
Casablanca is the name I gave this house that I live in. She is alive. In my mid-twenties I spent two consecutive summers in south-central France. In rural France, they give their houses names, not numbers and the French believe that their houses are alive. Banroques. La Gourdinerie. These names tell stories about places, peoples and experiences. These stone houses with their slate roofs were 400+ years old, which makes Casablanca’s century old roots quite young in comparison.
Casablanca has been called home by many people – even if they did or did not give her a proper name. She’s also been the home to untold other species – birds, mice, skunks, spiders, grasshoppers, this weird beetle type thing, all sorts of insects…who knows, really.
In the spring Pepé, the skunk, took residence under the floorboards of the back mud room. He was quite polite, and I didn’t mind his presence. Truthfully, Pepé had lived here longer than I had, so I felt that he welcomed me into his home, not the other way around. Also in the spring, a family of Starlings took residence in the old cinder block chimney on the south side of the house. When the babies hatched, I could hear them chirping through the wall in the morning. And when it was time for them to think about flying, I could hear their scurried movement as well. Hummingbirds occupied the very top of that old, out of commission chimney, and I’ve seen hummers flitting about on the south side of the house for months. Some spiders are welcome residents, as they manage the fly population with great efficiency. Other so-called creepy crawlers get gently relocated outside. I open the doors for bees and wasps and give them encouraging words on their way out of Casablanca, most of them being rather disoriented and grateful to be free by the time I find them.
Every once in a while a bird flies down the chimney of the wood stove and gets stuck. These are stressful mornings. There is nothing quite like waking up to a scared creature in an unfamiliar place who is scratching and clawing for its life. I open the doors to the world, remove the screen from the window and open the wood stove door. Some of the birds fly out gracefully. However, most of them slam into the windows that don’t open (which is all but one in the living/dining/kitchen rooms).
I can’t do much about that and at first they don’t want me to help them. But it only takes a few strong hits to the head before their guard drops and they let me pick them up and bring them outside.
Last weekend, I heard scratching, and I thought another bird had landed in the wood stove. So, I did my routine – close bedroom doors and the bathroom. Remove screen on south wall window. Open back door. Prop open the front door with the axe. Bring the dog outside and leash her up to the fence. Make an espresso. Open wood stove door…
I didn’t hear a fuss as I sat outside with the pup. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was early (for a Saturday, or maybe it was Sunday) and I wasn’t quite awake yet. Some time later I went inside and looked into the cavernous wood stove. Nothing. Fantastic, I thought! What a clever bird to cruise right outside without making a fuss, shitting on the windowsill or bashing itself senseless. Sweet relief.
So, I closed up the wood stove and the exterior doors, freed my dog and went about my morning. It wasn’t too long after that, that I heard scratching again. I peeked into the wood stove and once again, I found nothing.
The day rolled on, and I speculated that a bat had taken up residence, not in the stove, but in the chimney. I gave him a name – Barry the Bat. The next day, while sipping on white wine with one of the owners of Casablanca, I was asked if I heard anything coming from the stove at night. I wasn’t entirely sure, but didn’t recall hearing anything. This seemed to be another mark in the bat column. And then, at dusk, we spotted two bats flying around the yard. I started to imagine little baby Barry’s flying out of the chimney at dusk and returning at dawn each morning.
This continued for days. The presence of the little creatures consistently marked by scratching sounds in the chimney and barking sounds coming from my dog, Idgie. Idgie was unsure about these squatters and was not enamored that they had taken up residence in Casablanca.
Yesterday, Gordon, one of the resident farm dogs came over for a visit. The wood stove started speaking again. Idgie barked at it while Gordon’s head tilted curiously. This time was different though, because the sound resonated not from the chimney, but from the stove. Crap, I thought. Who is living in the wood stove today?! I peeked inside and found two birds–one dead, one alive.
So I did my routine–close bedroom doors and the bathroom. Remove screen on south wall window. Open back door. Prop open the front door with the axe. Bring the dog outside and leash her up to the fence. Pour a glass of red wine. Open wood stove door…
After nearly five days of being trapped, Barry the Bird was clearly disoriented. No natural light. No food. No water. His friend/mother/lover/sister/brother/whatever lying dead beside him. I felt horrible. How those birds managed to stay up in the chimney is beyond me.
Weak and confused, Barry moved to the open edge of the wood stove and took in his surroundings. I have no doubt that Barry took a very deep breath, and then he looked at me. I introduced myself and explained where the emergency exits were located. Barry didn’t move. He just sat there, perched on the stove, looking stunned.
“Mi casa es su casa, Barry. Take your time.” I told him and went outside to the back stoop to sit with my highly confused pup. I checked on him a few times, snapped a couple photos and went back outside. Finally, I heard a noise come from inside the house, and when I went back inside, I found him sitting on a large chunk of raw jade I picked up years ago on the beach at Big Sur. I whispered many sweet nothings to Barry before he let me scoop him up, and I escorted him outside, past a tail-wagging Idgie, and slowly released my grasp on him. He flew to the west, toward the sun. Toward the light. I went back inside and gently scooped up the dead bird from the wood stove. Covered in ash, I offered my condolences and laid the bird to rest outside, returning it to the earth.
Casablanca is quiet this morning. She feels at peace. The wood stove isn’t talking. Neither are the walls, for that matter. And Idgie is resting on a couch.
photo credit: Raven Venturelli