House of Numbers

One fall day, bored and restless, with Hopper off in Albany on business, Vance scrambled up the weedy little path leading from the back of the House through a tangle of brambles looking for who knew what. The path widened into a clearing surrounded by tall grass and he stumbled into a collapsed mound, wrenched himself out of the organic sludge and onto solid ground and immediately sank into another. The air buzzed with mosquitos. These weren’t family graves. But what were they?

On an afternoon not long after, Vance followed Jimmy through the oldest wing in the house with its lowered ceilings, to the coal cellar. Near the furnace Jimmy showed him a trove of dairy bills, repair bills, scraps of paper bearing scribbled somethings, a shelf of buckram-bound ledgers, trunks full of folded Victorian dresses of turquoise blue and apricot silk. A family bible with births and deaths recorded in the flyleaf. Warily paging through the volumes, Vance learned how Eliphalet Nottage Hopper, the founding father, arrived from Massachusetts in 1785 looking for new commercial opportunities and built a successful trade from the rich stocks of iron ore and lumber pouring out of the Adirondacks. Four sons and a daughter survived to adulthood: Samuel, Ralph, the twins Moses and Mordecai, and a sister Susanna. A curious dichotomy about Hoppers: they either died in infancy or lived to extreme ages. Old man Eliphalet died at 98 in 1853. At five feet five inches, people called him “little elephant.”

Looking to put flesh on the bones of the vote totals, Vance quickly consulted the Columbia Public Library’s files of early newspapers. Political figures of the era had met in the House’s ancient living room, abolitionists and slaveholders fighting to a compromise, eventually passing the gradual emancipation law of 1799. There were no new slaves by 1820 but the existing enslaved would not gain their freedom for many years. An archaic institution was slowly dying. Slowly.

The more Vance looked, the more tangled the story proved to be. Some abolitionists owned slaves. John Jay, the first U.S. Secretary of State, bought slaves for the express purpose of freeing them, but only after they had worked off their purchase price. There were articles about a man named Ambrose who paid off an indenture but chose to remain with the family and never married. Most stories centered on a couple of towns; slaves, black freemen and whites must have known each other. A fun house mirror logic he couldn’t comprehend. What words or feelings of love or solidarity or bitterness or desire passed between the inhabitants? What fights, what endurances, unrecorded for posterity?




Tony Van Witsen

Tony Van Witsen is a seven-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fifteen years, specializing in short stories.  In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004.  His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including Spellbinder, Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review. Tony recommends Becky Tuch's Substack.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, June 5, 2022 - 09:20