Fall 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 4 Why We Chose ItSeptember 25, 2023 |

Why We Chose It: “Our House”

“Our House” by Elvis Bego appears in the Fall 2023 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Some stories feel inevitable. Others shatter the way you see the world. It’s a rare story that manages both. Elvis Bego’s haunting “Our House” imagines an exile’s return to a home that is unrecognizable, unreachable, and absurd.

In our house there are twenty-seven rooms. In those twenty-seven rooms tick seven hundred and twenty-nine clocks. My father says I should come visit, it’s been so long. For days, traveling up and down mountain trails, I get mauled by thistles and thorns, watch great fires as they ravage plains. I sleep among ruins thick with weeds and black bugs with red dots, fat clouds lumbering across the sky. A blind man in rags tells me he is six hundred years old and asks for the way to Bosnia, where he came from all those years ago, he tells me, but cannot seem to find his way back. He doesn’t even know how he came to be so old. I cross a black wood, barren but for a blossom of children hanging by their ankles from charred limbs of trees, a dozen in each crown, alive, newborn, plump arms dangling toward me, but I have to push ahead. My father is waiting.

The narrator is a refugee, so memory carries its own accusatory dream logic. His father has no patience with his son’s struggle to make sense of the ways he has failed his family simply by living a life remote from a traumatic past. The dream house is haunted by memory: the dead sit down for dinner, while twenty-seven clocks tick, relentlessly, in each of the house’s twenty-seven rooms.

What do the living owe the dead? The narrator has lost the watch his father gave him. When the old man demands to know why he’s never visited, he insists that he has never had the time. What disappoints his father most is learning that his son has no children. A child is on the way, the narrator keeps insisting, but no one listens to him. Their failure to hear what they want most from him suggests the anxiety behind this dream of return. Like a journey to the underworld, the narrator’s return to his family home reflects both a need to appease the memories of the dead and a hunger for forgiveness. Life goes on, he wants to assure them, but how does one say that to the dead? The clocks keep ticking, but the hands on those clocks never seem to move. What passes for time in this dream world is simply a collective act of forgetting.

“What about the war?” I say to my father.

“War?”

“Which war?” says my grandfather.

“Yes, the war.”

“We weren’t in no war,” says my father.

“We are refugees,” I say.

“Refugees! Do you think I’d let war come to you? You must have dreamed it!” my father says.

Our memories of family are rich with food. Nothing brings the dead back to life for us like the tastes of meals that we once shared. The narrator’s father offers him dinner, but it’s only a heap of peach stones: not the fruit, but the seed. “How do we eat these?” he asks, but his father can’t hear him. There’s no nourishment in this lifeless land, nothing for him to take back to the land of the living, where a child is expected any day, except the kind of recursive memory—a house in flames, a woman running—that we experience as grief. But in the story’s dream logic, the seed has been planted. To reach this strange house, the narrator has had to cross through “a black wood, barren but for a blossom of children hanging by their ankles from charred limbs of trees, a dozen in each crown, alive, newborn, plump arms dangling toward me.” In this dream world, even scorched trees can bear fruit. What better image for survivor’s guilt, but also for the need to turn away from the past and return to the land where that fruit can grow?

The past may haunt us, but our dreams also mark the border to a future we can only imagine. There’s a child on its way; its needs, its hungers, demand that the narrator betray the dead by leaving them behind. By the story’s end, even the landmarks that guided him back to this strange house have begun to vanish. What remains is pain, a sense of loss, but also a revelation about the necessity for this final journey home. Bego’s powerful story offers its readers a taste of the hungers that linger in our dreams as we contend with the debt we owe the past.

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky is the associate editor of The Kenyon Review.

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Our House

By Elvis Bego

In our house there are twenty-seven rooms. In those twenty-seven rooms tick seven hundred and twenty-nine clocks. My father says I should come visit, it’s been so long. For days, […]

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