The Spiders' Spinning
Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders' spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.
Frank Lloyd Wright
If you drive through the village of Campbellville, heading north to the racetrack, or south, perhaps to shop or work in Burlington, you may see, if your eyes are sharp, the small sign at the traffic lights, pointing east. Christian Cardinal, Architect, it says. Walker's Line; By appointment only. Underneath that is the phone number. Occasionally, I know, people do see the sign, for they call. And one or two commissions have come to me in this way. But if you want me as your architect, you must come to me, and brave the winding, narrow road that climbs to my house, for I rarely leave it. I did not build this house, but from the moment I crossed its threshold, and came to realize what it was, it has held me.
Long before I ever entered its doors, the house was famous. It clung to the side of the escarpment like a shelf fungus, hexagonal in shape, suspended on the edge of the Nassagaweya Canyon, anchored in the living limestone. Its architect and builder had been a student at Taliesin, and in this case the student had surged ahead of the master, for the house had been built a good many years before Fallingwater and anticipated much of Wright's design and construction. It hung, cantilevered over rock and space, nearly three hundred feet above Limestone Creek. No-one I knew had ever been inside.
In the summer of which I speak, I was a young architect with the beginnings of a good practice, gaining a reputation for designing houses sympathetic to their natural surroundings. After a major commission designing a theatre on the banks of the Otonobee River in Peterborough, my bank balance was reasonably healthy, and on that basis, I had contacted a real estate agent in the late spring with a request that he look out for a piece of land, preferably on the escarpment, where I could build, or, failing that, a house in a similar situation that I could renovate and extend. I expected this to be a long search, given the limitations created by both the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the maximum price I had given my agent. I was, therefore, surprised when, on checking my voice mail after a series of meetings, there was an urgent message from my agent.
I called him, and he picked up immediately. "Christian," he said, "something's just come across my desk. It's not quite what you wanted, " he warned, "but I thought of you immediately." I mentally prepared myself for an overpriced limestone farmhouse, the most-desired of local properties. "Do you know Cat Canyon? That's the English translation; I can't pronounce its real name, it's in Welsh or something." He paused.
"'Cath Cwm'" I said. " I know of it, of course, and I've driven up Walker's Line to look at it from the road, but that's about it. Why?"
"It's for sale," he said. "Mrs. Whitcomb died a little while back, and the estate needs to be settled. There's a pile of conservation easements and restrictions on the property, both the house and the land - you know it was built before the Commission had control? The old man didn't want it messed with. He gave a lot of the land to the conservation authority before he died, but there's still about ten acres around the house, as well as some on both sides of the entry drive. But it's the restrictions on the house - heritage building and all that, so what it comes down to is that the buyer would have to hire you - or someone like you - to do the repairs and renovations, and that would probably price it out of most clients' range."
I thought about it. What could I lose in looking at it? Not only would I see an architecturally interesting house that perhaps none of my contemporaries - or even the previous generation of architects - had ever seen, but if I had some sense of it, structurally, then I would be in a good position to bid on any restoration work that arose. "I'll look at it," I said. "But I'm probably wasting your time." We made an appointment for the next day.
Over the course of the evening I researched what I could on James Whitcomb and Cath Cwm. There wasn't much: the Wright-inspired personal home had been an aberration in Whitcomb's career, which had mostly been spent designing office and public buildings that owed more to Bauhaus than Taliesin. I did learn that it was named to honor his wife's hobby of breeding Himalayan cats, and that after Whitcomb's death she had become a near-recluse, relying on a series of hired companions. At midnight I gave up and whistled my dog, a border collie named Animosh, out for his bedtime stroll. We walked along sleeping streets for ten minutes, and then returned home to bed.
At three the next afternoon I met my agent at the foot of the long drive that climbed up the escarpment to the house above us. He arrived a minute or two after me, and we talked, pulled off on the edge of the dead-end road.
"We can take my jeep," I offered, noting his doubtful look at the pitted gravel drive, and his own Lexus. He agreed, and climbed in beside me. Animosh sat obediently in the back as I swung the jeep around and, in low gear, climbed up the narrow road. Cedars and maples crowded close, and we negotiated several switchbacks. Part of my mind noted the work needed to make the drive usable while wondering how it was kept ploughed in the winter, but mostly I focused on the driving, not wanting to take my eyes of the road to glance upward, toward the house. As we neared the top, Animosh whined.
I pulled into the parking area, and stopped. A few yards away the house spread itself towards the edge of the escarpment. Low to the ground, with one hexagonal side an open patio cantilevered over the escarpment edge and a second floor crouching on top of the first, it was sided in cedar board and batten, glowing silver in the afternoon light. What paint remained on window and door frames was a faded grey-brown, and the foundation was local limestone, probably quarried on site.
"Do you want to go in?" the agent asked. I shook my head.
"Not yet," I said. "I want to look at the outside, get a feeling for the structure." I whistled for Animosh and began to walk toward the house. I was several yards away, beginning to examine the foundation for weaknesses, when I realized that the dog, usually completely obedient, was not beside me. I looked back. Animosh was standing in the back of the jeep, head down, whining slightly, hackles raised. "'Mosh, come." I said, my voice firm.
"What's wrong with the dog?" my agent asked. I shrugged.
"He had a bad experience with a porcupine as a puppy. He can probably smell one; they're common here." As I spoke, Animosh jumped down and slunk across the drive, clearly unhappy. He crowded beside me, still whining. I bent down, both to lay a hand on his head and to look more closely at the foundation.
"That's odd," I said. "Look, Mike, between these two stones: that's the skull of something - maybe a rabbit?"
"How did that get there?" he said.
"It's mortared into place," I said, " so it was either put in when the house was built or during a later repair. Weird. But otherwise this foundation looks good, although I'll need to see all sides." We continued to circumnavigate the house. I could see significant cosmetic needs, and a few structural ones: rotting sills, a loose foundation stone or two. I found another animal skull, and what appeared to be leg bones of something small mortared between the rocks. The dog hugged my side, and ignored the chipmunks that skittered across the clearing.
The foundation of the sixth wall was hidden beneath the cantilevered patio: I would have to look at it from inside. Mike unlocked a door at the rear of the house, and we walked into a wedge-shaped mudroom, tiled in terracotta on walls and floor and holding a wooden bench, sink, and cupboards. "The tiles are from the old brick works down in Milton Heights," Mike said. I nodded. The room was dank, but it was the dankness of neglect, not rot.
We walked through a kitchen, again wedge-shaped and unchanged from when it was installed, I thought, noting the rewiring that would be needed, and into a huge room: half the hexagon. Narrow hardwood was laid parallel to the walls, creating a sense of expansion. Slightly wider boards ran from each corner of the room towards the wall behind me, sectioning the floor and pulling the eye out. I walked over and looked out the huge art glass French doors. The concrete of the cantilevered patio was flaking, but there were no major cracks. Beyond the patio wall, twelve feet from the windows, the view was of the fields below and the rise of the escarpment wall again, to the east, at Kelso. At the beginning of summer, the trees and fields were a deep, rich green; Limestone Creek glinted in the sun. "Wow," I said, inarticulately.
"It's something, " Mike said. "There can't be another house in the region with a view like this; most of them look out towards the lake and Toronto. Here you mostly just see fields and horses and trees."
I turned to look back across the room. Now the lines of the floor brought the eye in, to a huge fireplace dominating the wall. Its hearth, I noticed, was limestone, curving outward to make a semicircle in front of the fireplace. The surface of the limestone, varnished but not smoothed, was pocked with fossils, the shapes of long-dead sea creatures frozen beneath the varnish. I put my head into the firebox and looked up the chimney: blue sky shone above me. "How's it heated?" I asked Mike, who was turned, looking outward.
He hesitated. "Electricity," he said. I winced. "There's an old boiler in the cellar," he said, "It used to be hot water heated: originally, there was a service drive coming in from the west, off the Guelph Line, or maybe off the base line, but that's all conservation land now. That's how the coal truck would have come in. When Mr. Whitcomb ceded that land to the conservation authority, he switched the heating over to electrical."
"He didn't keep an easement for the service road?" I asked.
"Don't think so, but we'd have to check the titles to be sure," Mike said. He looked at his watch. "I shouldn't do this, Christian, but seeing it's you...I've got another appointment. Do you want to stay here, lock up when you leave, bring me the keys later? I can walk down to my car."
I considered. "Sure, " I said. "I'd like some more time." He tossed me the keys and walked towards the door. Animosh, who had flattened himself against the far windows and lay panting, raised his head expectantly as Mike opened the door.
"Stay," I said to the dog. I looked up. The pattern of the floor was repeated in the beams and ceiling, tongue-in-groove cedar. The walls had been painted in the same greyish-brown as the window frames, and the paint was webbed with fine cracks. On the far side of the fireplace was the door that led upstairs. I opened it and climbed up the narrow spiral stairs to the second floor. To my surprise, this floor was round, not hexagonal: a dome. It was dark; the blue sky had clouded over. The stairs emerged onto a small circular landing, from which four doors opened. Each vertical in the door frames extended upward and ran across the domed ceiling to meet at a central boss half the size of the dome, supporting between each pair a curved skylight. At night, I realized, there was nothing between the house and the stars except the curved glass.
The bedrooms - there were only two, each with an adjoining bathroom that could be accessed from both the landing and internally, were, of course, wedge-shaped, and well-windowed, in the same, small-paned glass. I thought about the heating bill. Maybe something could be done with alternative energy sources: the sun and wind? The painted walls here too showed the same fine cracks as in the room below, suggesting the plaster was failing. I put my hand on the wall: it was cool, and the plaster did not flake: looking closer, I saw what I had taken for the effects of time was in fact a pattern embossed on the surface of the plaster, purposeful. How? I wondered. Stepping back, I realized it looked as if the walls were covered with a fine, loosely-woven net.
I walked out again onto the landing and looked up. It was brighter now; the sun had emerged from behind its obscuring cloud, and I could see the detail on the boss. It was carved with the skulls of deer, the antlers intertwining, a motif repeated I saw now, in the plaster above the doors, bas relief skulls behind the plaster net, with antler tips poking through. I put my hand up to touch one - I could just reach it - and realized with a start that the skulls were real. I pulled my hand away quickly.
I took a last look around and went downstairs again. Animosh was whining steadily now, so instead of the cellar visit I had planned I went outside. The dog bounded out and ran straight to the jeep. I locked the door and looked around. To the southwest I could see what must have been the service road, now overgrown with saplings and meadow plants. I whistled to the dog and began to walk towards it.
It was still possible to follow the old road, at least on foot. After ten or fifteen minutes it passed through an old boundary wall of limestone, and turned south. Beyond the fringe of trees that bordered it I could see in the distance the reconstructed Iroquoian village at Crawford Lake. I had come here a time or two, to look at the construction of the longhouse, a motif I had used in planning the theatre in Peterborough. I was not above capitalizing on my native heritage, although I felt some guilt about it: my parents were urban professionals of Ojibwa and Iroquoian background whose idea of exposure to my roots was to hang Norval Morisseaus on the walls and take me to Thompson Highway's plays. But as my interests in architecture had taken shape, I found myself drawn to what Wright had called organic buildings, buildings that took inspiration from and used the materials of their local environment, and I had included traditional forms of construction and design in that study. In the politically correct climate of Canada in the early 21st century, this had served me well. Part of me realized I was a fraud: I knew very little of my traditional cultures, and when I had at a whim named Animosh, I had had to turn to Google to find the Ojibwa word for dog.
My watch beeped. I had set it to remind me to leave in time for a meeting with a client in Guelph, and it was time to go. I turned and walked back to the clearing and the jeep. I had planned to detour to Mike's office, to drop off the key, but exploring the old service road meant I hadn't time. I would return the key tomorrow.
The dog, which had remained subdued until now, jumped into the back of the jeep with alacrity. I looked back at the house, somehow reluctant to leave. Business called, though, and so I climbed in, started the engine, and drove away.
That evening, after dinner with my client, I found myself thinking of Cath Cwm constantly, drawn to it against my will. When I found myself planning how solar panels could be incorporated into the dome without destroying the architectural integrity, I realized I was thinking of the house as mine. I got up from my drafting table, and went to bed.
I slept little, and when I did I was troubled by dreams, of dark underground places. In the dream I felt both an uncontrollable pull to these places and a sense of smothering, as if I were wriggling through a narrow tunnel, or were wrapped in a silken net. At dawn I arose and made coffee, and then took Animosh out for a run. As I ran along the river path, the dog beside me, I felt better: unconstrained.
But as soon as I was back to the house, and showered, I found myself picking up my car keys. I picked up a flashlight, and left Animosh behind. The sun was barely above the wall of the eastern escarpment outlier when I pulled into the driveway of Cath Cwm.
Inside, I walked back out onto the patio to watch the sun rise over the trees and fill the valley below me with the clear light of early morning. Then I walked back into the dank, tiled kitchen and opened the door to the cellar.
What electric light there was was dim, and I was glad of the flashlight. As my eyes adjusted, I saw, in the center of the hexagonal floor, a rounded boulder, with a depression in its center: a grinding stone, I thought, placed there to echo and mirror the boss of the dome. I shone my flashlight on it: as I had suspected, its outer surface was worked with a pattern of intersecting lines and small shapes. I went closer, and knelt: the shapes were small animal skulls. There were six verticals carved like ropes sectioning the boulder, and they met terra cotta tiles embedded in the concrete floor and running in thin strips out to each corner of the cellar. As I stood, I put my hand on the quern to steady myself. Something scuttled from the bowl, and I felt a sharp pain. I looked down: blood dripped into the bowl of the quern. Without surprise, I felt the sensation of a net settle about my shoulders.
I played my light along one strip out to the wall. At each meeting of the walls there was an alcove, quite deep: I realized the foundation walls must be thicker than I thought. In the walls themselves I could see more animal bones among the limestone blocks. With a sense of calm that at some level surprised me, I walked towards the eastern wall, leaving drops of blood on the floor. Closer, I could see that from each bone, each skull, a fine thread ran, attaching it to the next, and the next, creating a cat's cradle that gathered more and more threads as they ran towards and disappeared into the alcoves.
I thought of Animosh, and his aversion to this place, and with no free will at all I took the few steps to the left-hand alcove and shone the light in. A human skeleton lay there. The threads circled around it, and one thicker thread ran across the ribcage; beside the bones of the hands lay a stone point on one side, and some fragments of fibre and wood on the other.
I moved from that alcove to the next, and the next: in all, the same sight lay in my light: a skeleton, and a few grave goods. I knew what they were: in the excavations for this cellar Whitcomb must have disturbed an Iroquoian burial ground. He had, for whatever reason (did he have a choice?) incorporated it into the very foundations and design of this house, weaving the two together. And now it had woven me into its design too, had taken my blood; its silken ropes had encircled me and pulled me in to its center. Through blood and the fine spinning of design, I was caught.
And so it is. I had to give the dog to friends: he could not live here. I leave occasionally, as I must, for business, or to drive down to the Six Nations to spend time with elders. I burn certain herbs in the quern, and greet the sun from the patio in the mornings, always feeling the netted robe about my shoulders. And when I stand at the hearth, and look out towards the sky, or inwards at the tiny skeletons embedded in the hearthstone, I wonder what I am: spider or fly?
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