The Cellar by Pencia Mercadante
Halfway between somewhere and nowhere, and just to the south of forever, was a red dirt road with no name. A mile or two down that road, past the sunflowers and mailbox, over the cattle guard, around the bend, and beyond the gate, the sprawling branches of an ancient oak shaded the shiny tin roof of a house with no address. I followed that road many times to the tranquil, happy place where exactness didn’t seem to be required, and time was not a tyrant. Where expressions like a swig , a smidgen, a tad, an arm’s length, and a day’s journey sufficed, and numbers on the doorpost were not necessary. Everyone for miles around knew who lived there, neighbors waved when passing, and the mail always found its way to the box marked simply, Walker- Route 2. Barefoot children ran free as cottontails, chased dirt devils and drank cold rainwater from a common dipper. They chewed sugar cane and honeycomb from the hive. Warm bread, fresh from the oven, crowned with ruby red jelly from the treasure-trove of the orchard, was their delight. I was one of those lucky children…a tow-headed tom-boy with calloused feet, and for a few golden days I was privileged to call the place home.
As far back as I could remember, the farm had been home, a way of life, and life itself to the two people who lived there. Uncle Jess had wispy, white hair on an almost bald head, a slightly hunched back that made him stoop, hands weathered and gnarly. He chewed tobacco while working, smoked a pipe when relaxing, and played his fiddle now and then. A quiet and gentle man of southern heritage, I never knew him to be in a hurry, to be angry or raise his voice, and he scolded me only once – for committing the unlady-like act of turning a cartwheel.
Aunt Leona wore homemade dresses, starched and ironed. Salt and pepper hair framed her aging face in soft curls, and dark eyes were magnified to twice their size by the spectacles she wore. One end of the twig, often seen dangling from the corner of her mouth, had been chewed ’til fibrous, and held the feminine equivalent of a plug of tobacco. She had a hankering for snuff, but in spite of the necessary spitting that ensued, she was a lady of dignity and charm, enduring corsets and stockings on the hottest of days without complaint.
Grand-daddy-longlegs also occupied the house, and came and went as they pleased. I never thought of them as spiders, just granddaddies, and sharing a bedroom with the wiry critters seemed natural. They had the tendency to congregate in large numbers on occasion, and when they climbed the walls and huddled together in the corners of the high ceilings, you could be sure a change of weather was on the way.
The old house had a disarming personality of its own; a way of wrapping its arms around strangers, while aromas of smoldering mesquite and baking bread invited them in. Few folks could resist the hospitality of the front porch, and usually chose to linger there, weather permitting. That porch, with its squeaky floor boards, ladder-back rockers, and honey-suckle vines, was the place where family and friends would gather on warm evenings to ease whatever was aching, and swap stories after a long, hard day. And, if you were lucky, the fiddle and Aunt Leona’s soft soprano voice would warble out old songs, while a distant mockingbird did his best to compete, and lightning bugs darted here and there.
In truth, the place was not without blemishes. Wasps built their nests under the eaves of the house, and scorpions visited often, scampering across the cool linoleum floor, tails curved upward with stingers ready to strike an unsuspecting foot. Tarantulas and rattlesnakes sometimes ventured close as the yard, and the fields and pastures beyond were full of stickers and thorns. One imperfection, however, stood out above all the rest… and made me cringe.
Wedged securely, somewhere in the lower left hand side of my mind, is the memory of a cellar. A few yards from the house, between the barn and outhouse, it sat beside the dusty path that Aunty trudged daily, during canning season of years past. Its shelves had been laden with the rewards of her labor, and the cellar kept them safe. But now, no longer the proud keeper of summer’s bounty, it was a recluse of sorts, hunkered down and half hidden among the weeds, a leper shunned and lonely.
The dismal edifice had a ghostly aura about it, a presence not shared by any other structure on the farm, and I thought it not at all unreasonable to believe it haunted. In fact, it was quite clear to me, when venturing near its boundaries, I was not alone. Eerie feelings of being watched, and the whispers and scratching sounds that came from the cellar door when no one else was around, convinced me I was not imagining things. Uncle Jess laughed and offered explanations, such as the wind sweeping through the grass, or perhaps a small animal milling around inside, but I wasn’t so sure. Lizards sunned themselves on the splintery door, and rabbits nested in the grassy fringe around it, but I kept a safe distance, looked the other way and wished it wasn’t there.
Aunt Leona had grown weary of “such foolishness,” and decided to “put an end to it once and for all.” So, on a bright summer morning, she donned her bonnet, took me by the hand, and with heart pounding, I accompanied her down the path to the cellar. The old door was deeply etched and faded from years of weathering, and rusty hinges protested loudly when we interrupted its slumber. Rickety, wooden steps led down to a dark, musty room, with floor and walls of bare dirt. She watched for spiders and scorpions, but I watched for more sinister things. The door had been left open and shafts of sunlight poured in. Still, coldness penetrated my bones, and I was certain a grave could not have been more uninviting. I stood rigid, barely breathing, as Aunty brushed away cobwebs, and ran her fingers over dusty shelves, laughing and talking all the while. Then, satisfied that she had accomplished her mission, we turned and made our way back up the groaning steps, out into the warmth of day – and I vowed never to go there again.
A sweltering August afternoon was easing into evening when I tagged along with Uncle Jess as he headed to the shed where cows waited, shooing flies with their tails and looking miserable, their enormous udders looking like pink balloons about to burst. I helped myself to a lick of the salt block, inhaled earthy smells of old wood, hay and manure, and looked for a place out of the way of trouble.
“You’re big enough to do the milking now,” he said, rubbing his hand over the cow’s soft, warm side and nudging her over gently. “Squat down there”, he said, motioning toward a small stool. “Give it a try.”
I shook my head. “She might kick,” I said, and leaned against the gate, contented to watch as buckets were filled with the foamy, white liquid I knew would soon produce a whole slew of good things: sweet milk and buttermilk, clabber, thick velvety cream, and mounds of butter to slather on hot biscuits come morning.
When we finally left the shed and turned toward the house, Uncle Jess stopped, set the buckets down and pushed his hat back, scanned the sky.
“Countin’ buzzards?” I asked, noticing a black-feathered trio circling the pasture. “Three means company’s comin’, Uncle Jess. Who you reckon is comin’?”
“Oh, I ‘spect it’s rain that’s comin’. Looky yonder,” he said, squinting and pointing toward the few small clouds gathering in the distance. “Best go on to the house, help with supper, and take those things in,” he said, nodding in the direction of the yard where the week’s laundry hung motionless in the late afternoon sun. Then, looking back, he studied the clouds again, took a rumpled handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead.
“Uncle Jess, there’s not a cloud in the sky worth mentioning and those runts won’t ‘mount to much. Just you watch.” I shaded my eyes with my hand, looked toward the southern horizon and wondered how he could be so sure of such things.
“Well now, I’ll bet an Indian head nickel I’m right, little lady. A clouds comin’ up, by golly, and it’ll be rainin’ by bedtime.” He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket, and emphasized his prediction with a rapid-fire, straight-as-an-arrow, brown streak of tobacco juice that splattered on a dirt clod, then swiped his chin with his sleeve.
I ignored his feisty behavior and stood my ground. “I’d be willing to bet you’re wrong this time,” I said, shaking my head, ” but I don’t have a nickel to bet with.” I glanced up into the crinkled face I adored and giggled. “How ’bout a Yankee dime?”
“Well, I reckon that ‘ll be just fine,” he said.. “A Yankee dime it is. Now skedaddle. He bent stiffly, grasped the handles of the buckets. “I’ll be along directly.”
Aunt Leona peered out from the tiny kitchen when I opened the back door and hurried to the bedroom. Entering the spacious, comfortable room I slept in, I saw instantly that everything was just as I had left it except for the comers of the ceiling where little brown bodies with long, hair thin legs were assembling. I stood for a moment and watched the familiar spectacle. “It’s fixin’ to rain alright,” I said, then turned and headed straight for the back door.
In the kitchen, green beans and fat-back simmered, okra sizzled in the cast iron skillet, and platters of golden flied catfish and com flitters were keeping warm on the back of the +wood stove. Aunty lifted a steaming cobbler from the oven, then looked up as I darted by.
“Land-sakes. Where you off to now?” she asked, dabbing her forehead with the comer of her flour covered apron.
“Gather in the wash ‘fore Uncle Jess gets here.”
“Well now, that can wait. We’ll have time after supper. Where is that man anyway?” Don’t know. Should be here soon. He was carrying buckets full of milk the last time I saw him.”
“Set the table then. Supper’s ready and we’ll eat soon as he comes through that door.”
I set three places with an odd assortment of everyday dishes, and had just started filling goblets with iced tea, when 1 heard the familiar squeak of the screened door. With quick, heavy steps, Uncle Jess walked in, letting the door slam behind him, and deposited the buckets of milk on the shelf.
“I declare, you’re getting slower everyday, Mr. Walker,” Aunty said, winking at me. “Let’s eat now ‘fore that milk turns blinky.”
Without a word, he poured dippers of water into the chipped, white enamel basin and proceeded to scrub his hands and face, combed his hair with his fingers, then sat down and scooted his chair up to the table.
“Well now lady, I’ll have you know I’m not slowin’ down one bit,” he said, fixing his gaze on Aunty. “You know 1 can smell rain when it’s still a far ways off, and this one might be a gully-washer. Went clean around the place closing everything up, so I won’t go traipsing out later, stumble around in the dark.”
Except for the sounds of knives and forks clinking against dishes and the occasional request to pass something or other, we ate in silence. Uncle Jess was quieter than usual and I missed the suppertime chatter. I nibbled on a piece of okra, and peeked up at Aunty in time to see her steal a glance at Uncle Jess, who had both arms on the table, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, and appeared to be studying his plate. She sighed, leaned back in her chair. “Mercy, I’m plum worn out. My, my, this heat is dreadful isn’t it? Are you alright Jess?” He nodded his head, but focused on the piece of catfish he had started to devour. She sipped her tea, cleared her throat, then spoke louder. “Haven’t heard from Ben and Virge for a while. She asked me to help alter a dress pattern, but 1 haven’t seen hide nor hair of her for nigh on a week or so. You ‘spose they’re all right? Not like either one of them to be so scarce.”
Uncle Jess kept his head down, concentrating on the meal in front of him, then pointing his knife at my plate, he said, “Watch those little bones, baby. Small and sharp as needles. Take small bites. Wouldn’t want to get one down your gullet.”
“Mr. Walker? You hear me?” Aunty tried again.
“Yes ma’am. Saw Ben go by this mornin’, headin’ toward Hilliard’s place. Just busy I reckon. Likely be around in a day or two. Too bad they’re not here sharin’ this good supper with us. Mighty larrapin’ Leona, but, I’m havin’ a devil of a time seeing what I’m eatin’,” he said, finally looking up and around at the gloom settling in. “I swear, it’s dark as the inside of a gunny sack in here. Are we low on coal-oil?”
I giggled. Aunty smiled and served peach cobbler. Then, for the duration of the meal,we dined on spoonfuls of summer in dainty, green dishes, and ignored the encroaching darkness. 1 didn’t care that night was coming on early. It had been a long hot day, and this was a fine way to end it.
When supper was over, Uncle Jess pushed his chair back, took a deep breath, and walked outside. The sky was sullen, the air heavy. Runt clouds had turned into bullies lumbering in our direction, and it seemed all the mockingbirds, June bugs and crickets had taken cover. I watched as he paced from one side of the yard to the other, stopped at the fence for a moment, listened, mumbled to himself, and then started pacing again.
“You were right, Uncle Jess,” I called from the doorway. “Looks like we’re in for a downpour.” I hoped for a response, a smile maybe, but he had turned his back to me, and his mind was elsewhere.
Thunderstorms were common in our part of the country, so I couldn’t see a reason for worry. Nevertheless, uneasiness tugged at my mind as I hurried to dry the dishes.Something was different this time. Uncle Jess wasn’t acting right and I couldn’t recall ever seeing him this concerned about a little rain.
“What’s botherin’ him?” I asked when Aunty finally lit a large kerosene lamp and placed it between us. A soft radiance spilled onto the table, then flooded the kitchen as I watched the shadows retreat to the corners.
“Nothin’ to worry about, baby. He heard something on the weather report this morning about a front comin’ through here this evenin’ from the coast. Could be a little heavier than usual, but I declare, your Uncle is a worry wort of the worst kind.” She lowered herself wearily into a chair and I watched as her knobby, work-worn fingers began tracing the blue squares on the tablecloth. Then, leaning closer, eyes flashing, she whispered, “After all these years, he still hasn’t learned, there’s not a darn thing he can do about it. Can’t stare down a storm.”
By bedtime, a rain-scented breeze agitated lace curtains and played with my hair. I pulled the cool, white sheet up under my chin and listened as a stronger gust raced around the comer of the house. Outside my window, the murmuring of oak leaves erupted into frenzied chatter, then fell into an ominous silence. A flash of lightening illuminated my room long enough for me to glimpse, in the comers of the ceiling above my bed, dark squirming masses of granddaddies… tiny weathermen huddled together and fighting for space. Then, somewhere in the darkness, clouds collided and rolled from one side of the world to the other. Too tired to care, I yawned, turned over and fell asleep to the soft patter of rain on the tin roof.
“Merciful heavens! Wake up, baby! We have to go!” A frantic voice was calling me, and firm hands gripped my shoulders, shaking me.
“What? What’s wrong? Go where?” I asked, rubbing my eyes, trying to make sense of all the commotion.
“The cellar!” Her words jolted me awake, sent a chill down my spine.
“Oh, no!” I closed my eyes, scrunched down in the bed, and jerked the sheet over my head. “Not the cellar,” I cried. “Please not the cellar.” But my pleas were lost in the scurrying around me, and I knew arguing would do no good. My worst nightmare was about to happen, and I felt sick.
With one arm groping for the sleeve of my robe, I stumbled out the door into the night, Aunty following close behind, and Uncle Jess leading the way. The lantern he gripped in one hand was buffeted by the wind, but held a glow on the path ahead. Lightning zigzagged, splashing crazy silhouettes against an eerie sky, and rain pelted our faces as we inched along past the smokehouse, then the outhouse, toward the waiting cellar. When it was in sight, Uncle Jess handed the lantern to Aunty. It swayed, but its light never faltered as she struggled to hold it high against the wind. Uncle Jess reached for the heavy door, staggered, fought to keep his balance, then gained a hold. With one desperate tug, the door opened with a grating screech and I stepped back, shuddered and stared at the gaping blackness, darker than the night around us.
Undeterred, and without wasting a moment, Aunty moved forward. “Now stay right behind me. Watch your step.” Her command was firm, as she braced herself with one hand against the wall, and holding the light out in front, put one determined foot in front of the other, step by step, until she reached the cellar floor. I followed close behind and kept my hand on her shoulder. Directly behind me, Uncle Jess lowered the door, and set the wooden latch with a bang … a sound I did not want to hear.
“Oh God,” I whispered, and fought to hold back tears, while Aunt Leona placed the lantern on a shelf and adjusted the wick a notch higher.
“Hold on now, it’s not so bad,” Uncle Jess said, reaching for my hand. “Just look at that.” The flame flickered and danced, and to my relief, a warm glow filled the room. A cheerful light invaded every comer, but over our heads, the storm seemed angrier than ever, stomping the door in fits of rage as though determined to get in. Thunder rumbled, and bouts of hail beat the old door hard enough to scar its already rugged face. The wind whimpered, then rose to a howl, sending new fears swirling through my mind. Would the door hold? Would the lamp last? And what would we do if the storm got in or the light went out?
“Well, let’s just hunker down here now,” Uncle Jess said. “I reckon it won’t be long.” His voice was reassuring, but his hand shook ever so slightly as he reached into a pocket for his pipe. Soon, the sweet scent 1 had learned to equate with comfort permeated the cellar, and 1 began to relax as worries started lifting on delicate curls of smoke.
We dismantled some of the shelving, using the lower one for a makeshift bench, while Uncle Jess made do with one of the sturdier steps. We made ourselves comfortable as possible and after a few minutes of listening to the commotion above us, Aunt Leona smiled, sighed and said, “Now, let me see.” And, with those words she began to spin stories, tales of times past and loved ones 1 never knew. As she talked, she drew pictures in the air, her fingers moving like spiders, pulling from nowhere threads of intricate details with which to weave a spell.
I leaned my head on her shoulder and listened, distracted often at first by the roar overhead, but by the time our ancestors packed up all their belongings and headed for the Texas frontier, I was fully engaged in the drama taking place in the cellar. Seemed I could hear the squeaking, creaking, rumble of wagons, see dust rising as she spoke. Pioneers she called them…a strong, stubborn people headed to a land that demanded strong backs and stronger spirits. They had both, so they settled midst bluebonnets and Comanches, and built a farm intended to last a long, long time. They plowed and planted, sometimes reaping a harvest, sometimes despairing as the wrenching hands of drought squeezed moisture from the earth, leaving soil, crops, and throats parched, prodding folks to haul water from the river and pray for rain. And rains came, sometimes too much, causing the river to turn traitor, push its weight around, assaulting pleasant places with mud and rubble. But, they stayed.
There was not a coward or quitter among them, so when locusts consumed every edible thing in sight… they stayed.
They stood guard against the snakes that populated the fields, pastures and wood piles, sometimes slithering through the yard at night, leaving a newly shed skin just outside the door as a jolting reminder who was there first, and who had better watch their step.
Winter brought the freezing blast of blue northers sweeping in without warning, while moonlit nights filled them with the dread of prowling Indians, the loss of a milk cow, a favorite pony, or worse… much worse.
Time brought sickness and hardships of all kinds, but with strong faith in God, and bullheaded determination, they survived, and carved out a good life in this fair land.
“And, of course, they spent many a night in this very same place, waiting for a storm to pass, and longing for the light of day, just like we are now,” she said, looking straight into my widening eyes.
“Here? Right here?” I asked, surprised by what I had just heard.
“Yes, baby, and isn’t it good to know we walk in their footsteps everyday, even here in this old cellar.” She smiled at Uncle Jess, and he smiled back, tired eyes glistening in the lamplight. Then he took another long puff of his pipe and looked away.
In the depths of the cellar, Aunt Leona had opened a door to a whole new world. One by one, at her bidding, a colorful band of characters joined us in our close quarters and together we fought off Indians and grasshoppers, and struggled through every sort of disaster. It was exciting but exhausting, and by the time our visitors had vanished, my nodding head searched for a soft place on Aunty’s lap. The chatter dwindled, and quietness fell over us like a soft, warm blanket.
“Well, I reckon it’s over.” Uncle Jess stood and stretched. “Its been quiet up there a spell. Think I’ll take a look.”
He climbed the steps, lifted the latch, raised the door slightly and paused. All was quiet, and I realized then that somewhere between the drought and Indian raids, the storm had subsided, and I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps it too had quieted down to listen.
With both hands, he pushed the door all the way back and surveyed the battleground. Aunty and I looked at each other and waited. Finally, he turned, grinned, and said, “Come on, let’s go have some coffee and biscuits.”
We emerged to a wet and muddy world. Broken limbs littered the ground, and the outhouse leaned to one side, its door ajar. Shirts, long johns, pillowcases and towels sprawled across the yard like fallen soldiers, and other pieces of the forgotten laundry looked desperate as they clung to the line by single pins. From the direction of the barn, the crowing of a faithful old rooster signaled approaching dawn. Above us, fragments of clouds were skittering away, and stars twinkled in a clear sky.
We hesitated for a moment, glanced back at the cellar, and then with unhurried steps, started navigating the soggy terrain between the house and us. Tired and hungry, we walked in silence until I heard a chuckle, and I knew all would be well when Uncle Jesse slipped his arm around me, and said, “Now, where is my Yankee dime?”
More than half a century has passed. Halfway between somewhere and nowhere, a red dirt road continues to beckon, and though somewhat altered, it still runs south of where forever used to be. As a child, I saw the farm as a strong, immovable, unchangeable refuge. In my mind, it was a forever thing, a living thing with roots deep and tenacious enough to have wrapped themselves around the very heart of the earth, and I thought it would always be there – but I was wrong. Today, the sunflowers and cattle guard remain, but the mailbox and gate are gone. The oak and the house with the shiny tin roof are gone, and there is no trace of the cellar. But time has not faded my memories, or diminished the lessons learned … and if I live to be a hundred, I will never face a dreaded place without looking for a hand to hold, a steady light, and the indelible footprints of someone who has gone before.
Submitted by Pencia Mercadante. May 21, 2009. The Jesse in this story is Samuel Gufford Walker Jr. who is a brother to Pencia’s grandfather James Monroe Walker. Pencia lives in Saugus, California
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