Thursday, October 29, 2015

Part 3, Wait For Me: Homecoming

And now the conclusion of my story, Wait For Me. I hope you have enjoyed it so far. 

“This ol’ hen’s gone broody on me. I’m goin’ to put her in that barrel in the cellar and break her out of it. I need eggs, not chicks.”

The soldiers laughed. “First time I ever heard of anyone doing that,” the Captain said.

“It works. Try it sometime.”

“I’ll take your word on that.”

Granny got to the cellar, went inside and whispered, “Told you I’d come back. Brought you some company.” She put the chicken into the barrel, then handed down the food and other supplies. Leave the ol’ chicken in the basket. She’ll be quiet in there.”

“I don’t know if I can git out here again. Them soldiers are still here. As soon as they leave, I’ll fix those wounds for you. I brought you a candle and matches, in case you need a light. But be careful. I don’t think any light will show through the cellar walls, but I can’t be sure.”

“I just want to go home, ma’am…just… home….”

“I know. I’ll do what I can. I’ve got to go.. they’re watching me. God bless you, boy.”

She closed the lid and made her way back to the house. The soldiers didn’t pay no attention to her. One of ‘em had a banjo and they were laughing and singing.

Grandpa made it home a little later. Granny told him about the young soldier and they were awake all night trying to think what to do. Come morning, the soldiers packed up and left—took two young shoats with ‘em, that made Grandpa mad. It was over an hour before Granny felt it was safe to check on the boy in the barrel.

Might as well have waited all day, it made no difference. Sometime in the night the young man breathed his last. Grandpa said that was the loneliest death he’d ever seen. They carried the boy up on the ridge that evening and buried him. I could show you where his grave is, if you want. It’s by a cedar tree, and there’s a stone marker

They never did know who he was. Looked through his saddlebag but his name wasn’t on anythin’. So they left it in the attic. It’s still there, I think, if it ain’t turned to dust by now.

Well, that’s the story. Granny couldn’t look at the cellar without thinking about that boy. A few months after he died, strange things began happening out there. Jars would fly off the shelves and bust on the floor. The potato bin would be turned over and the potatoes smashed like they’d been stomped. Then one night the light started. First it was just a puny little light, like a candle might throw, but each time they saw it, it got stronger. Light would stream out around the door bright as sunlight. Neighbors saw it too, it wasn’t just Granny and Grandpa. No one knew what to make of it. No one would go in the cellar after dark. Grandpa said there weren’t no use testin’ what we don’t understand.

Finally one terrible night it all ended. Jars were smashing and there was a roaring sound in the air even though the wind wasn’t blowing. The light glowed brighter and brighter ‘til it seemed like it was pushing against the door. Then the door flew right off and a great ball of flame busted out the opening. Flames reached over fifty feet high, Grandpa said. They tried to douse it but it weren’t no use. When it finally burned out, Grandpa went to inspect the damage. He found the oddest thing—nothing was burnt except the cellar. The grass around it was still green, even the flowerbed right against the walls was untouched.

Granny wouldn’t go near the cellar after that. She wouldn’t let Grandpa fix it either. She got a start of grapevine and had Grandpa plant it so it would grow over the stones. She never mentioned what happened, and she would not allow anyone to speak of it in her presence. I guess she didn’t want to be reminded of how she failed that boy. Even though there was nothing she coulda done to help him. She blamed herself, just how she was.”

*

Mary looked at the cellar, almost expecting to see a Rebel soldier standing there. It seemed quiet enough now.

“That’s quite a story, Mr. Patterson. An amazing story.”

“Yep, I told you it would take a while to tell. Hope it was worth your time.”

“It was, it truly was. You know, I was wondering…would you ever consider selling those stones? I really need a cellar. Those stones would be perfect…” She paused, her face stricken. “I shouldn’t have asked, should I? That’s your family history…”

“Well now. I’ve never thought about it. As for family history, you’re right. But I’m the last of my family, and there’s no one but me—and now you—who knows that story. How about a trade? Them stones for, say, a few jars of apple butter every year?”

“Are you sure? Really? That’s a deal! I’ll bring you all the apple butter you need, and biscuits to put it on!”

“Come and load ‘em up anytime. I’d be right pleased to see them used again. I’ll help you just as much as I did today.” Patterson’s eyes twinkled.

*

It took a few months to get the stones moved, and by then it was winter. When spring came, they began building. The finished cellar was just what Mary wanted. That summer she filled the shelves with jars. The potato bin overflowed; crocks of pickles and bushels of apples and pumpkins sat on the floor, and onions hung from the rafters. Mary sighed with satisfaction each time she opened the door.
           
One warm autumn evening Mary and Andy sat out on the patio. It wasn’t late, not even nine o’clock, Mary remembered. A sudden noise startled them. It sounded like a jar breaking.
           
“What was that?” Mary asked in surprise.
           
“Sounds like a jar fell,” Andy said. He walked over to the cellar. There was another crash just as he reached the door.
           
“Don’t go in there,” Mary called. “Might be a skunk!”

            “You’re right. I’ll get a flashlight so I can see. I don’t feel like tangling with a skunk tonight.” He trotted toward the house. Mary stared uneasily at the cellar. What was it Mr. Patterson had said about breaking jars?
           
Andy returned in less than a minute, pulled the door open a few inches and held the flashlight to the crack.

“I don’t see anything,” he said. At that instant another jar crashed. Andy jumped back, dropping his light.

“Whoa! What the hell…”He picked up the light and jerked the door open.

All was quiet in the cellar. The rows of jars stood undisturbed, and the floor was clean. No glass, no broken jars, no spilled fruit.

“This is weird,” Andy muttered. He looked at Mary. “You heard those jars breaking, didn’t you? It wasn’t just me, was it?”

“I heard it,” Mary said, her voice shaking. “Remember that story Mr. Patterson told me? He said that jars would break and…”

“What story?” Andy slammed the door and walked back to the patio.

Mary’s forehead creased in thought. “Remember the soldier that died in there? It was after they buried him. Stuff fell and there was a light…”

The words were barely out of her mouth when she saw it. Faint at first, then stronger and brighter, a pulsing light seeped out around the edges of the cellar door. Andy jumped up and ran to the cellar again.

“Get out! Get out of here! Now!”

At the sound of his voice, the light faded and disappeared instantly.

“Let’s get inside, Mary. We can check this out in the morning. I’m not about to go in there right now.”

In the kitchen, Andy sat with his head in his hands. “This is crazy,” he said. “Spirits don’t hang around a hundred years or more. That’s just crazy.”

“Got any other explanation?” Mary asked him. “I can’t come up with one myself.”

“Let’s talk to Patterson and tell him what’s going on. He might know what to do. The cellar might burn down just like it did before,” Andy said, “unless we can figure out how to stop this thing. Look at my hand—the door was so hot when I closed it that it burned me.”
*

Patterson was surprised to see them at his door so early in the morning.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” he asked. “Don’t figure it was my lovely face that brought you all the way out here so early. Care for some coffee?”

“You remember the story you told me about the cellar?” Mary asked. “You said there were problems with broken jars and smashed fruit, things like that. And that a light appeared in the cellar sometimes, until it finally burned down.”

“Yep, that’s what my Grandpa told me. Why?”

It’s happening again,” Mary said. “We’re afraid the cellar is going to burn down. The door was so hot last night it burned Andy’s hand.”

Patterson frowned. “Never heard tell of a haint that moved with a building,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell you. Never saw it myself, just heard the tale, that’s all. No one ever disturbed those stones ‘til you moved ‘em. Reckon we woke something up?”

“Seems like it. I was wondering…” Mary began. “You said there was a saddlebag that belonged to the soldier…”

“Yep, it’s still up in the attic I believe. Can’t see how that would help, though.”

“I don’t either,” Mary confessed. “I’d like to take a look at it anyway.”

They went into the hall. Andy pulled down the folding attic stairs and they climbed up.

“Been years since I been up here,” the old man muttered. “Now where was it I saw that bag? Ah yes, over here.” He walked towards the brick chimney. “It was behind here….” His arm disappeared into a hidden alcove and came out holding a dark bag. “Let’s take this down to the kitchen where we can see a little better.”
           
In the kitchen, Patterson put the bag on the table. Stiff with age and green with mold, it looked every bit its age. Mary turned the bag upside down and emptied out the contents.

            It was a pitiful sight—a battered tin cup, a bent spoon, a sewing awl, and one photo, brown with age. Andy grabbed the cup as it rolled across the table while Mary picked up the photo and examined it. She could just make out the image of a young woman. Turning the photo over, she squinted at the spidery handwriting.

            “What’s it say?” Andy asked. “Does it tell his name?”

            Mary replied slowly, “I can’t…I can just barely…Ah, I see it now. It says ‘To my Jeremiah. I will wait for you forever. Your Jenny.’” She looked up. “That’s all. ‘I will wait for you forever.’ Poor girl. I wonder if she really waited.”

            Andy looked thoughtful. “Mr. Patterson, didn’t you say your grandparents buried that soldier on this farm?”

            Patterson was holding the sewing awl. “What did you say? Oh, yes. They buried him up on the ridge, under the big cedar tree.”

            “Would you take us up there?” Mary asked. “I know it seems corny, but I’d like to bury these things up there with him. Won’t help with our problem, but it seems like he ought to have them….” Her voice trailed off, and she looked at Andy as if expecting him to laugh at her.

            “I like it,” Andy said. “ It seems right, somehow.”

            “Does, doesn’t it?” said Patterson. “Stuff’s been in the attic for years. Soldier might need it.” He grinned at them, turned and led the way to the kitchen door. “We can take your truck. There’s a little farm road that ain’t in too bad a shape.”

            On the ridge the cedar stood like a lone sentinel against the morning sky. Mary touched the stone at the tree’s base.

            “That’s his gravestone,” Patterson said. “Grandpa put it there.”

            Andy got a shovel from the truck. “Think this is where I should dig?”

“Good as any,” Patterson replied.

Mary took the saddlebag and its contents and laid them in the hole, covering them gently with dirt. “There you go, Soldier,” she said softly. “There’s your Jenny.”

*

All was quiet for a few weeks after that visit with Patterson. It seemed that whatever had been disturbed had gone to rest again.

One evening Mary and Andy were working late, putting up firewood in the woodshed next to the cellar. A sudden brightness almost blinded them. Light streamed out around the cellar door. Inside they could hear jars crashing and stomping feet.
           
“Oh no,” Andy groaned. “Not again…”

The door of the cellar bulged as if something enormous was pressing against it. Andy grabbed Mary’s hand and ran just as the door exploded outward with a rush of hot air and fire. Mary and Andy were flung to the ground as flames rushed over them. Mary closed her eyes. So this is how they would die. Burned to death by a soldier who had been dead a hundred years.
           
The disturbance ended as abruptly as it started. Mary opened her eyes hesitantly. Beside her Andy was sitting up, his eyes on the cellar.
           
“What the…what happened?”

 “Andy…look…”
           
Andy stared. A ball of fire streaked across the sky, rising into the blackness until it disappeared from sight.
           
“The cellar…is it burned?” Mary asked. They turned together, expecting to see a blackened ruin.

The cellar stood still and cool, the door closed primly. I did not imagine that flame, Mary thought. I did not imagine it. She looked at her husband.
           
“No one will believe us,” he said. “No one. I hardly believe it myself, and I saw it.”
           
“You know what I think?” Mary said. “I think that young soldier is gone. He found his Jenny, and he’s gone back to her.” She looked up at the dark, serene sky. “She said she’d wait for him. She said she’d wait forever.”
           

“I think you’re right,” Andy said softly, taking her hand. “I think you’re exactly right.”


Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

7 comments:

Rowan said...

A happy ending:) I'm really glad about that. Really enjoyed the story.

JJM said...

Excellent. Scary, yet poignant. Perfect for a fall night, by the fireplace.

Did you gather it, or write it yourself?

Mario R.

Granny Sue said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the story, Rowan! I wrote it some years back, told it a few times, and it's been languishing in my files ever since. This seemed like a good time to dust it off.

Granny Sue said...

It's an original tale, Mario. One inspired by my own cellar, which we moved from its first home to here. The owner told me it was built just before the Civil War and that the area where he lived was really divided in its loyalties. That, and having read about a little skirmish near my home during the war was the inspiration for the story.

Nance said...

I'm mystified. How do you move a cellar? oh my goodness. I love history mysteries!

Granny Sue said...

Nance, we took it apart, stone by stone. There were big cut stones, very heavy. I couldn't help with this project, that was guy work! I bought it, my first husband and a friend with a truck and a winch moved the stones. They laid in a pile for 5 years, then I got divorced and married a brickmason ;) Not really the reason for the divorce though! Larry and my sons Derek and Aaron put the cellar back together at our place. It's been serving me well for almost 30 years.

Gretel said...

Ooh, this was fabulous! I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed that, thank you!

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