A Cloth House by Joseph Riippi is a collection of short fiction pieces, of memories, of pieces to the puzzle of a pained woman’s memory of her broken childhood, of recalling those haunting moments. In this first single-author work from prompt-based publisher HOUSEFIRE, these stories are told by a woman mostly to her dead baby sister, about her mother Em’s despair in a life on an island (both in her mind and in her physical existence) and the death that lured in, about her father’s struggles after that, about the two daughters’ place in all of it. She recalls the sheet that became her cloth house, her sanctuary, her refuge. All this, she unfolds with the sadness of such recalling and the grown coming-to-terms that come with time, moving on, moving off that island.
This is where Riippi stays so poised as a storyteller, the woman returning to her father, her old home after actually escaping: where the simple meets the extraordinarily difficult, even morphs into such, a simple sheet becomes a play house, becomes a sanctuary to hide, becomes a past sanctuary to speak out of.
Every person that shows up here significantly—the mother with her deterioration, the father with his inability to protect his family from these catastrophes, the baby’s frail life taken by a fallen crib—collapse under life’s pressure, leaving only the narrator to rise up from her fallen sheet as the example of the difficult transition between life experience and weighted memory.
In the story “Cloth Houses”, early on in the collection, we hear the narrator give over her secrets and understanding of the cloth house she hid in, the cloth house ripped away from her mother, the cloth house we all choose to find:
A girl can live in her cloth house for but a short period. It is to be lived in comfortably in that time and afterwards folded and discarded back to its yellow-sheeted linen closet.
Em’s cloth house collapsed when she decided to bring me into the world. She became adult, mean and undreaming.
At first, this early explanation can seem heavy-handed, Riippi opening up the metaphor, the struggle too soon. But it seems more evident now, Riippi in this piece and several others is tearing open the narrator’s own cloth house, so we can see truly how tragic and vulnerable a story this is. It’s a story of falling, the mother Em at the forefront, her death the epitome of this falling, like her loss of youth, her pressure to care for others, the hole she is in once she fails.
What makes these stories incredible is that the narrator is telling them at all, piece by piece, years later, the fact she survived her losses, including the cloth house, when all other characters have perished and disappeared, even her father lost to the mind suck of old age, all saved only by her memory.
In one story, years later, the narrator reaches from the Cloth House, this book, in the story “Em, Almost Elm,” to tell the things “Em never said, but I am saying them for her now.” For example, she explains:
A person cannot smell themselves, not like a lover or dog can. This she might certainly say. And yet still a person’s smell is a distinct thing, distinctly them, theirs, hers. Familiar to family. I could not distinguish my mother’s smell from that of the yellow sheet.
Stood next to “Dreamery,” the window opens and the breeze comes in that speaks to what makes the cloth house, the writing of this Cloth House so important: the unpredictable save vs. destroy match of imagining. Where “Em, Almost Em” shows how Em’s own imagining-turned-deadly-disappointment is a negative consequence of wild dreaming (and later the destruction from the lost of that), the narrator in “Dreamery” illuminates the safety of it, imagining her own version of her wasted mother on the other side, imagining her own life outside of the island she lives on, both figuratively and in actuality.
As the story ends, “I remember best the sound of her sneakers walking out of the room, leaving me,” this novella transcends a tragic story and magnifies that silly old question, “Why do you write?” As even though this is fiction, it was written for the top reasons people write at all: to imagine, to escape, to reach that point we hoped to reach, to remember why we escaped in the first place, to never fully go back or be crumbled by that weight.
Later, in “Anything Else, Anywhere Else,” the narrator sums it up: “I write this out of fear, fear that if I do not I will be doing nothing from today until I die.” This is her attempt to avoid what ate her mother, what crushed her family, her refusal to become the past, her refusal to let it sneak up on her.