: The Dying Child :

an excerpt by Joyce Carol Oates


The Arkin family lived in an old wood frame house, three stories high. At one time the house had been painted white, but for a decade it had been the soulless melancholy color of sparrows in winter. During the long winter months snow shot viciously against its gaunt unprotected height, slashing its windows, which seemed to squint perpetually like eyes gone blind; in fall and spring rain was dashed by the wind against it, running sleekly down its smooth-weathered clapboards, overflowing its rusted and leaf-clogged gutters to spill out onto the ground. The old house had a veranda that sagged and on which, in warm months, Arkin children of various ages had been seen for years, staring out at the road, small children growing up, slowly, older boys and girls disappearing, very old people disappearing; and now there were only a mother and three children in the house. Anyone driving by on the road was taken by surprise, seeing the ancient house in a barren patch of land that seemed hollowed out of the woods on either side of it, the house itself having the raw and unused look of timber far out in the country, undomesticated by fences or roads. There were bales of rotting hay dragged up against the house, and over several windows on the unused third floor there were cardboard strips to make up for cracked or broken panes. Behind the house was a small barn now used as a garage, and an old log low building that had once been a chicken coop, and everywhere around the house were weeds and splotches of ground where nothing would grow, as if the soil were cancerous.