Eleanor was the mother of three children. They were all almost exactly the same age and so sometimes it felt to her like the number was larger than that. They had the tendency to blend into a moving faceless mob of unrest. She had stopped reprimanding the children for breaking things after she realized it truly wasn’t them. She could be forgiven her natural mistake; children are destroyers by nature. But that much broken glass? In such small pieces? And with nothing missing from the cupboard or the breakfront? She tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, but the constant trails of bloody foot and paw prints across the white stone expanse were too heartbreaking for her, or even the hardest-hearted of the children, to ignore.
So with shoes on, Eleanor adapted. Developed accommodations that she patiently instructed the children regarding, with detailed plans for their implementation. Thus the cuts and scrapes became the crunching of little bits of glass under thick soles. The dog was exiled to the yard for her own safety. And, happily absolved, the children were often sent to play outside as well.
Eleanor sometimes thought to join them, but watched through half-closed shades instead. The outside carried its own set of dangers. Recriminations surrounding who was at fault had long since stopped within the house but there remained the stress of keeping things from the town, which despite having applied for and received a prestigious “Compassionate City” designation, could not be counted on to understand. The targets of their compassion were uniformly understood to be outside the town, not inside it. They, who had so much, were to be compassionate toward others, who often did not. Eleanor thought she detected something nervous and jumpy inside their compassion.
One day her friend Jackie dropped in and found Eleanor transferring a small pile of slivers into a dustpan. A look of horror streaked across Jackie’s face, and was quickly stifled.
“Drop something?” Jackie asked.
“Just a mess from last night. I knocked over a wineglass.”
“You should be careful,” Jackie said. “There are kids around here.”
“Yes,” Eleanor agreed. “There are.”
Jackie left and, Eleanor felt, took a certain level of suspicion out with her into the town. She believed she saw people talking about her at the Hot Bagel Shop, making little attempt to hide their conversations. Eleanor would go home and take out her broom, cataloging the names of these gossips as she swept: Andrea, Angela, Amanda, Jane: what did they know, and why did they care?
She had few other visitors, but was wary when anyone got close to her front door. She even began to wonder if the mailman had been spying on her. She’d caught him peering into her living room as he leaned toward the mail slot. There were glass panels on either side of her double front doors; twice Eleanor had seen him pressing his face against them.
Everyone was trying hard to make it a good town. Its name would be decided by democratic vote, simple majority rules, after the collection of nominations and a six-month period of community reflection. So rare to get to start a town from scratch nowadays, Jackie had said, you better take advantage of the opportunity. New beginnings, and all that. It’s practically textbook.
Jackie had helped Eleanor secure one of the most architecturally significant homes in the town after its original owner vacated, following just a few weeks in residence. An old college friend, Jackie was a person whose high ideals and intentions for healthy living only occasionally became burdensome. She encouraged Eleanor to bring her little brood and lay down stakes. The community aspect would be perfect for a single mother, she said. The children’s father had said he was relocating to Stockholm, and so would no longer be making even his infrequent scheduled visits. Eleanor would need a supportive community around her to bear this. And for a time that’s just what the town was.
When she first arrived, Eleanor was enchanted by the physical environment. The disorder of her former home, though buttressed by a nuclear family that was functional, at least in theory, seemed at once unthinkable to her. How, after all, did people live like that, in the absence of exquisitely calculated order? She had done so just weeks before, but she was already forgetting. She liked it this way.
She was calmed by the shaded outdoor spaces with much capacious seating, the healthy and appealing proportions, mathematically arranged to the inch, but too subtle to be picked up by the untrained eye. It just felt right, but you didn’t know why. She got a thrill from just walking around and seeing it all, imagining the good things happening inside the well-considered buildings. She was hopeful that such orderly things were and would remain her destiny. She made efforts. She went out, joined book clubs, even attempted committees at the school. The school was a leading school, as it was designed to be, its architecture a supposed learning enhancer.
But as more and more glass began to appear, Eleanor began to worry about who she could tell. She had a strong sense that the news would not be welcome. That this intentional community was strong, but also somehow brittle, that Jackie’s reaction that first day was a warning. Ever since then she felt the curiosity and friendliness of people on the street had something a bit off-putting about it. They were challenging her to open herself up to them. They were daring her in a way she did not like. She began to stay in more, both to keep on top of the sweeping, and to avoid the dangerous care and caution of the neighbors.
Eleanor didn’t think they’d want to carry the extra burden of such a peculiar disintegration. She was careful not to have piles of glass on the top of her trash can, to wait until just before the truck came to put it out. She became practiced at detecting its rumble, sometimes even thinking she heard it when she didn’t, like a phantom newborn cry or cell phone ring when you’re drying your hair.
After Jackie discovered her sweeping, she and Eleanor were on increasingly chilly terms. Eleanor believed Jackie has fallen under the influence of Janice, whose mistrust she felt most acutely. Jackie would walk her dog by the house with Janice. They’d smile and wave if they caught her eye in the kitchen window, but something seemed off about it.
Eleanor could no longer make her daily trip to the market, or her weekly trip to the coffee shop, without attracting their solicitous notice. When she didn’t emerge, they started accosting others, like the members of her sewing circle who trickled in each Sunday night, and the book clubbers who arrived on alternate Tuesdays. Little hints of what was happening leaked out at the school via the children, and she occasionally fielded a call from a teacher or administrator, her assurances vague but confident, and only marginally successful.
One Thursday she found a flyer in her mail slot: the board of directors would be serving hot dogs on the lawn at six-thirty. Out of desperation, Eleanor reversed course. She would go and take the children. They so needed an outing. Maybe she would find a new friend, one who would understand and approve of her regardless of her house, or a good man even, though those were said to be hard to find. She dressed the children in the style favored by the town, coordinated but only subtly so. She reminded them again of the things they were not to discuss outside the house.
It was a quarter-mile walk to the commons, just manageable without wheeled conveyance considering the blankets and containers for the side-dish potluck. She parceled out something for each child to carry. Each felt important to have been entrusted with his or her particular object. Leading the way with the children, Eleanor would forget about the things that had happened to her excellent house. If they would let her. Several neighbors saw them coming from a long way off and started across the field to greet them.
“Eleanor, so glad you could come.” It was Janice. “Tell us what you’ve been up to. Jackie says you’ve been hiding out lately.”
“I know. I’ve really missed seeing everyone,” Eleanor said. “Not that I don’t want to, it’s just that,” she trailed off. “I have some things I need to take care of at home.”
“Anything we can help you with?”
“No, thank you, I think . . . we’re fine, aren’t we, kids?”
One or two were nearby, and they grunted yes.
“Well, Eleanor, we have the Fall Frenzy coming up. Maybe you could host the kickoff social at your place?” Janice was testing her, she guessed. Eleanor’s eyes strayed down to Janice’s and Jackie’s shoes. It was a type of footwear she had never understood. Utilitarian, clearly for use in parks and on verdant footpaths, but streamlined and in the most current colors. Ambitious shoes. She declined to host, as they knew she would.
Eleanor stayed up late that night listening to the broadcast of a DJ whose show she used to tune in to often, with headphones plugged into her laptop so as not to disturb the children. One of those few shows still programmed in real time by a human. She was almost surprised to find, when she sought a voice from the outside world, that neither the voice nor the world had ceased to exist. When had there stopped being music in the house? It had slipped away without her notice. A bad sign. She propped the laptop open on the bed next to her and turned onto her side, set to drift off with his quiet voice in her ears.
She dreamed about the DJ. He was imploring her to come home with him, to sit on his couch and talk. He was holding her by the hand, speaking quietly as she strained to hear each word. She realized she was holding her breath, which doesn’t work for long even in dreams. Back at his old farmhouse they walked together through room after room, as he told her the histories behind all the objects collected there. She was desperate to stop, to sit and talk like he’d asked her to, but there was no place to sit.
She woke up and looked around. The house was still stunning, and it was still hers, but she was about to change all that. She would never be part of this project. They would go on without her and be better for it. They were living out their lives as a new community, with intention and goodwill to spare, and she was a free rider on their communal intentions.
They packed behind closed curtains. Eleanor commanded her children regarding what each was to carry and how they were to behave. She consoled them in their sorrow at having to leave so much behind. She urged them to be quick about their work. Soon the neighbors began to assemble on the front lawn. Were they there to say goodbye, or to try to stop them? Eleanor couldn’t tell, nor could she decide which answer she preferred.
Jackie was huddled out there with Janice and the others. Their expressions varied from pitied to frightened to stern and uncompromising. Janice spoke urgently into Jackie’s ear, while keeping her eyes fixed on Eleanor. Eleanor’s children retreated back inside.
Jackie said, “The glass is happening, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Eleanor. “It is.”
“I was afraid of that. We hoped it wouldn’t happen with you. Or that you’d be able to stop it.”
“Me? Why would I?”
“I don’t know, Eleanor. I just thought you might be different.”
“If I leave, it’s still not going to stop, you know.”
“We don’t know that at all. We can still try,” Janice said.
“Jackie,” said Eleanor, “do you concur with your friend here?”
“Maybe,” said Jackie. “We seem to be short of solutions now, but maybe in the future . . .”
Eleanor went in and called the children, activating the departure strategy they had discussed. Filing out in a straight line, like the charges of Miss Clavel from the house covered in vines, the children walked up the sidewalk down the street and toward the edge of the town. Eleanor glanced up at the elder tower, wondering if any of its residents were looking down upon their departure, and whether they might want to help them or even come along, but no one came.
Silence prevailed except for a radio playing Brewster’s show live from Main Street. The neighbors began to murmur, and Janice urged Jackie to pursue the departing woman and children, the ones who could broadcast a failure of the town by the mere fact of their departure, but Jackie believed it was best if they were allowed to go peacefully, and they were.
As it happened they did not go so very far, though Eleanor thought of Poland, of Iceland, of Minsk. I will walk across the Bering Strait with my children, she thought. We will walk heads down and bother no one. We will go to a town that already has a name. A town that is a thousand years old.
Where they actually went nobody knew. Entry to Eleanor’s house was strictly forbidden, the doors and windows boarded up and the incident not mentioned again. Until a couple of years later when a trio of adventuresome teens broke into the place halfway through a night of dares, and discovered a universe: gorgeous, glistening piles of finely-shaved glass, their flashlights reflecting off towering mounds of the stuff in every direction they turned.
They had long wondered what secrets this house held. Childhood games included imagining what had happened there, scaring each other with the lie that they’d seen something there once, or heard something. That one of Eleanor’s kids had stayed behind and was hiding in there, wrapped in secrets, or that someone else had snuck in who was spying on the town from that lonely hideout.
But now they knew none of these things was true. They saw the magnitude of what adults had kept from them, and that they themselves would soon be guardians of all such secrets.
It was so beautiful. They sat down and cried.