House on a Cliff

By Christopher Urban
  • 14 May - 20 May, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I am sitting at my kitchen table picturing in my mind a glass house on a cliff overlooking the Southern Ocean. In this image of a house made entirely of glass, located high on the tallest of cliffs, a strong breeze blows across the surrounding green fields. I can see it with perfect clarity. A sunny day, blue skies overhead,

the season of this fictional landscape of a tall house on a cliff appears in my mind to be always in the middle of summer.

I say it’s a fictional house not only because this image I refer to in the above paragraph belongs only to my imagination, but also because it originated in a novel in the first place – a work of Australian literature whose title and author I can no longer remember. Of the book’s contents I can recall next to nothing except for this glass house on the edge of a tall cliff on a bright summer’s day. The novel, whose contents and plotlines mostly elude me, except that it was set on an unnamed island off the western coast of Australia, admittedly wasn’t very good. It suffered from sentimental tendencies characteristic of too much contemporary mainstream literature, contained unconvincing characters and worst of all, was penned in a heavy purple prose style. And yet, fast forward more than a dozen years later from the time I closed the book, and here I am, sitting at my kitchen table writing about a central image in its pages, having retained a crystal–clear image of a glass house on a cliff leftover from the book. How many images from other novels I’ve read during that same time in my life have stuck with me with such force? This single image of a glass house on a cliff, which I can recall effortlessly enough, redeems in my mind an otherwise unremarkable novel, and has stayed with me longer than many other so–called literary novels. I can picture this glass house, isolated and remote, empty of all inhabitants, sitting atop a cliff with the tall green grass swaying in the breeze, and golden sun–rays shimmering off the glass structure, creating ribbons of rainbow colors reflecting off its clear walls.

But my intention is not to make this piece of writing about literary criticism, or the phenomenon of images forged in the mind while reading. I wanted only to describe this house in all its complexities; and to highlight that despite the simplicity of the house made from a single material, it was expansive and toweringly tall, like a castle, and, perhaps most surprisingly, was highly technologically sophisticated. For instance, there was a small solar–powered elevator inside it, an elevator made of see–through glass. Because there were no windows (the whole house was like a giant window or mirror), it’s difficult to determine its height, but let us say for the sake of our imagination that it was about five and a half stories tall, and each floor was accessible only by the elevator, for there were no stairs. The glass house changed colors depending on the brightness of the day or the angle of the sunlight – sometimes the glassy shell of its structure appeared a translucent deep purple, like a topical dragon fruit; at other times it glowed a majestic emerald green, like the city of Oz. But what’s most important to me, more than any of these details about the house is actually the cliff on which it sits.

Something like cliffs have resided in my imagination for as long as I can remember: underwater ones, mountainous ones, dunes, canyons, valleys, even the craters on the moon, caused by the collision of asteroids on the surface due to its lack of atmosphere, whose replicated contours I would trace repeatedly with my finger on the glow–in–the–dark moon map of my brother’s bedroom wall; yes, more than any other geological phenomenon, I am not entirely joking when I say cliffs do for my memory what the tea–dipped madeleines did for Proust, which, come to think of, those series of shell–like depressions of that sponge–cake cookie almost resemble little cliffs, don’t you think? What is it about them, cliffs, I mean – even the word seems dangerous, to suggest an inimitable adventure, or rather, misadventure, something just over the edge? Don’t get too close or you’ll fall down. Think of the doomsday love story and antiheroic nature of Heathcliff in Bronte’s great novel. Incidentally, as teenagers, we used to throw eggs at the passing cars on a dark road by the quarry, protected by a vegetated cliff overlooking the highway. A cliff we nicknamed Heathcliff, not in honor of anything highbrow as nineteenth–century Bit Lit., but rather the disreputable cartoon character.

The cliff I think back on most fondly is hardly a cliff at all but the one with which I first became acquainted. It belonged to a park with a large pond that sat behind our middle school. It’s sustained in my mind as a kind of platonic representation of a cliff, a cliff par excellence, with its jagged, weathered facade and direct drop below into shallow water. Although by the time I reached adolescence (and had watched the movie Cliffhangers) the cliff could only be described as one in bad faith. For it was, is, if anything, merely a ledge. And yet it is with a stubborn mathematical or fractal approach that it retains the power over my imagination as it does today.

It’s only through the landscape of the cliff in my mind that I can even picture the glass house in the first place, acting as a concrete foundation not just for its structure but for my imagination as well, which in turn invites me to think back on the not–so–much–of–a–cliff of my youth, which, finally, sends a whole flood of childhood memories rushing back to me in a steady, involuntary stream. For this alone I have that unknown book to thank. One day I hope to write something that has this same effect on a reader as this mysterious book’s image has had on me, to write something in book form, though perhaps it doesn’t have to be that long, maybe just a short piece that no one will remember much about except for a solitary image: of a cliff at the edge of the world where upon a glass house sits, glowing a shimmering blue. A singular image that will allow a reader access to memories hitherto unobtainable or long since forgotten. Such a piece would undoubtedly stop abruptly, with little and no conclusion, and force the reader to peer over the edge of the story as one would a cliff.

As for the house I am picturing, it shatters into tiny pieces from the slightest bit of disturbance, even a small wind–tossed pebble is enough to disrupt the harmony of its structure. A little crack, and that’s all it takes, and the entire foundation is destroyed. It goes without saying that the fragility of the house extends itself to the precarious nature of the image in my mind. For you see, it, too, is easily fractured, and difficult to sustain for long in the mind’s eye, a matter of seconds at most, not much longer than it takes for the house to change colors in the sunlight, from canary yellow to, say, ultramarine.

I still can’t remember the title of the book or recall the author’s name for the life of me, but I’ll always remember this image of the glass house on a cliff, which I see now once more before it splinters and explodes in my mind into a mess of multicoloured shards tumbling into the sea below.