The slatternly abandoned house beckoned fallen angels

Posted by | March 14, 2013

“The Bishop family had come to inspect the house. They stood at the bottom of the weed-infested driveway. The girls surrounded their mother. About six feet away Mrs. Kanukaris, whom Urie had already christened Kan-of-Kerosene, was talking to P.Q. He cocked his head toward her affectedly, pretending to be engrossed in every word she said.

“‘We’ll take it,’ said Mrs. Bishop loudly.

“Although the house was located across the railroad tracks, it was separated by two acres of land from the shanties of the Negro section. It stood on a knoll. Oaks and butternut trees shaded it. A crumbling stone well stood in the yard, protected from the weather by a peaked roof supported on four posts.

“There were three other outbuildings. A yellow one-room cabin, Mrs. Kanukaris explained to them, had been an outside kitchen in Civil War days. Its roof hove slightly, and some of the tin shingles were dropping off. There was a bleached, bony barn, from which protruded wisps of hay like stuffing. And there was a shed.

“The house was a weathered, broken-down farmhouse, which had been added onto several times. A living room opened onto a frail and tottering porch. Another room opened onto a wide shack kitchen. The addition section was a hallway, wide as a room, which led down to the bathroom, an afterthought.

“On the other side of the bathroom was a bedroom. The house had a second story, but there was no stairway to get to it. Two ancient and crumbling chimneys gave the house its sole support. The floors tipped away in all directions from them. The roof was tin. The underpinnings were rotted. The windows were irregular with cracks in their seams. Panes were broken and rags stuffed in.

“The front steps of the porch were rotted. Cracks between rotted boards opened to the inside of the house. Walls and ceilings were tongue-and-groove boards. Once they had been glued with newspapers to keep out the cold, but the newspaper had been torn away.

“‘This is one of the oldest houses in Ephesus,’ announced Mrs. Kanukaris, tramping through the rooms before them. ‘Of course it wasn’t no good to begin with. You know, a man got shot right at this kitchen sink. The man that owned this house shot him right through this window on account of his having moved in here with his no-good wife. He was shaving.’

Depression era North Carolina family at table“Loco Poco gave a delicate twitter. Mrs. Kanukaris looked in her direction and then moved into another room.

‘This is a Niggershack,’ whispered Irene, trying out the sound of it.

“It was the extravagance of its lowliness that made it suit the Bishops. Not that it appealed to them, but that it personified their predicament. A regular house would not do. The rottenness, the many outbuildings, the forlorn red field, the slatternly, abandoned house, the nearness of the Negro section, beckoned fallen angels. They had to be received on earth. Their adventure was beginning.”

—From ‘Entering Ephesus’
by Daphne Athas

Daphne Athas (1923- ) is best known for “Entering Ephesus,” which made Time magazine’s Ten Best List in fiction in 1971. This semi-autobiographical novel is about a young girl’s coming of age in fictionalized pre-World War II Chapel Hill (Ephesus), a setting that provides a creatively charged mix of intellectual arrogance and southern poverty.

Entering Ephesus won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award fort the best work of fiction by a North Carolinian in 1972.

Born in Cambridge, Mass., Athas moved with her family to Chapel Hill at age 15. She earned her undergraduate degree at UNC-CH and did graduate work at the Harvard University School of Education.

She taught near Boston and later served as the director of a service club for the US Air Force in London (1952-58). Athas returned to North Carolina in 1965, teaching at Durham Technical Institute before joining the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina. She was Fulbright Professor of American Literature at the University of Tehran in the mid-1970s, and was cited in the “Pushcart Prize Collection” for 1984 as an “Outstanding Writer in Non-Fiction” for her essay “Why There are No Southern Writers.”

Exploring her Greek heritage, Athas has sometimes set her work in Greece and depicted her larger-than-life Greek father. She’s published four novels, a play, a personal reminiscence, and a volume of poetry, as well as essays, short fictions and poems in magazines and anthologies.

Sources: http://www.unc.edu/news/archives/mar97/athas.html
“Southern Writers,” by Joseph M. Flora, Amber Vogel, Bryan Albin Giemza, LSU Press, 2006

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