~ 4 ~
Inside the cabin, K found the space divided by plank-panelled walls. The greater portion held a kitchen area, dining bench and, to the north, towards the front door, a sitting area with a pair of padded rocking chairs, a low table, a writing desk and a standing clock with a face that met hers in height. The remainder of the space contained two bedrooms and between them, a water closet which, when K inspected it, showed that instead of plumbing the toilet open to a hole in the floor beneath which a bucket sat, stinking of Pratt brother’s shit and apple-cider piss. The room held a vanity and a large plain mirror, fractal traces of silver peeling from the back. The vanity was fitted with a sunken bowl and useless faucets, Before time remnants. Beneath, in the cabinet, sat a pair of buckets, ancient galvanized steel things, rusted but serviceable. Both were empty.
“Tove, what do you do for water here?” K asked as she finished her tour.
The blonde woman had busied herself preparing a simple gruel for the children. The youngsters, sitting at the dining bench, had marveled at the woman as she felt and probed with bat-like senses around the kitchen area. Standing cabinets held crocks and sacks containing grains and dried edibles, which, she said, had come from folk trading for the brother’s cider. She’d used a handled pot, a heavy aluminum thing, the only clean one available, and dropped in five handfuls of an oats and bulgar wheat mixture and poured in water from a pitcher feeling at the level with her fingers.
“There’s a well. The brothers said it was here before they took over the place. The orchard was here before them, too.” Tove stirred the pot that sat on the black iron stove, an ancient Before time thing too. “The water tastes of salt, but only a trace.”
K tasted the water and judged it passable. She wondered what “took over” had meant and having witnessed the callous bearing of the Pratts doubted it had been a peaceable transition. She moved on to inspect the kitchen.
The children had sat for the time, fiddling with a set of cutlery and an assortment of pocketknives the brothers had collected, or stolen, K thought.
When K finished her examination of the foodstuffs Nita grabbed her hand and pulled her toward one of the bedrooms. “Come see. Around the side there was a lean-to and inside we found uh oil-cloth bundle with pictures inside. We hung ‘em on the walls in the sleep rooms.”
Kasmira had noticed the pictures, amateur paintings of the local landscape, colorful but crude. “What else was in the shed?” Apparently she’d yet to walk the western side of the cabin where the water well, lean-to and the opening to the toilet were situated.
“Dirt tools, some wood tools too, the kind Aunt Sarah’s man-friends used to build her barn.”
The bedrooms held crude mattresses elevated on wooden-slat frames. On the floor of one room was another mattress, where, K figured, Tove had been forced to sleep.
“Why don’t we haul these bed mats outside and let the last hours of the sun have at them for a bit. Maybe we’ll leave them there for a day or three. I’m sure they could use an airing.”
The children joined in and, when done, Tove announced that the food was ready. “We still have some cane sugar and a crock of honey. It’s gone hard but still good n’ sweet.”
In her travels, K found that simple items like spoons, forks and knives seemed to have survived the ages. No new manufacturer had taken up the process of creating them, but as they were long to tarnish or degrade, they tended to last. Tableware, however, was hard to find. Anything plastic had generally become too brittle with age, and everyday porcelain or pottery, dropped or cracked, became useless. The girls ate from turned wooden bowls, Dues and Kasmira from copper versions and Tove from the pot itself.
“These are dried plums from Savannah, the brothers bought. They’ve got pits so watch your teeth.”
The meal satisfied them all and when done, Deus fetched a pail of water from the well and the girls and he washed up at the sink built into a counter next to the stove; the sink drained through a pipe leading nowhere K could determine. However, when they rinsed, she could hear the tinkling of water falling into some container below the floor.
“I’ll go deal with the dead brother. Tove, are there any other buildings, traps or dangerous parts of the island that you know of?” K tested the rocking chair furthest from the front door, it creaked but was comfortable. When was the last time I sat in comfort, she thought.
“There’s the cider barn at the northwest corner. It’s got barrels and the press. That’s all the Pratts talked of. If there’s traps, or hidden places…” The woman waved her fingers toward her beautiful but vacant eyes.
K rose reluctantly from the chair. “Well, we’ll need to do a walk-around. See if there’s Before-time remnants, or if those boys ever expected trouble and planned accordingly.” She rested her hand on Deus’ shoulder. “Think you could do a walk-around, stay out of the woods, but ring the orchard. See if anything looks strange to you?”
Deus nodded eagerly.
“Girls, if one of you could go with Deus, I’ll be back in a while.” K left out the backdoor, closing it with the lift-handle. The girls played a version of rock-paper-scissors they called goat-cheese-grass where goat beat grass, grass beat cheese and cheese beat goat.
Nita won (or so Jessa claimed), and accompanied Deus around the orchard. Jessa remained with Tove and the two continued the elimination of all evidence of the brothers.
Deus took the lead, picking up a club-like branch from the wood pile as a makeshift weapon. “Miss K say she shot ta othern’ brother. Where she hit ‘em?” he said walking east to where the first of the apple trees, just starting to show green, stood near the band of forest that ringed the island.
When Nita remained silent, he turned to see her looking away. She pointed to the center of her own chest. “I’ve seen dead people before, n’ smelled them too. This one, he stank like puke and shit and bad sour milk. Jessa n’ me we tied a rope ‘round his feet and Miss Tove, she helped drag him.”
Deus watched her shudder. He handed her his stick as an offering, he supposed, to help fend off the memory, but she shook him off.
“I’m fine. That’s too big for me anyway,” she said with a forced smile.
The afternoon began to cool as the sun dropped to three hands above the horizon. The smell of new growth soothed both the children’s meins and the bay’s soft breeze continued to whisper through the long needles of the pines. They followed the wagon road that ran straight to the far northeast corner. Nita picked at tall milkweed and last year’s grass heads. The pair, their task poorly defined, began to dally, Deus picking up stones and batting them, Nita telling a story of how she and Jessa had gotten their first goat, TeeTee; it was a gift from a farmer whose own daughters had died from illness.
“This is just a starter,” the farmer had said. “If you gather the milk for a few days, keep it cool, you can make a cheese. If’n you sell the wheel, and do it again and again, I’ll sell you other goats. The two of you can make a business of it.” Nita had explained that they’d done just that. Deus listened attentively and was sure he could never have followed the regimen. Roast goat was a hard meal to pass up.
“Oh, we’d never eat our TeeTee and Binni and the others. But, doesn’t matter now. Newains took ‘em and prolly et ‘em.” The dark haired girl’s rich brown eyes gleamed as she held out five stones to represent her herd, naming them in turn.
They’d reached the corner, headed west and stopped as they met the central drive that split the island.
“I’ll show you’s the boat Miss K n’ me fetched back. This way.” Deus took the girl’s hand and they ran up the road through the neck of the forest which opened up on a rocky point with the sailboat, still half-hauled, to their left.
“Is it supposed to be in the water like that?” Nita asked.
“No, that winding thing be all crossed up. May’un you n’ me could straighten it out.”
They inspected the rusty, but serviceable winch that had been mounted to a heavy steal framework sunk in the gravel beach and determined that the rope had wound too much on one side. They backed it off a revolution or three (the boat remained friction stuck on the timbers) and with both their efforts at the crank, managed to haul the boat the rest of the way up.
Nita gave a little jump. “We did it!”
“Weren’t so hard, huh?” Deus reached for her hand again and tugged her up the slope.
Nita pointed out to the middle of the vast expanse of water. “What’s that?”
A double masted schooner sailed north along the far west side of the bay. Yellowed, patchwork triangles of sail glowed with the sun behind them while tiny dots of men worked on the deck.
“I seen its like before. It come up from the south, tradin’. I think it be takin’ Newain makings back with it. I be on the Jay River, and I heared cryin’ from inside. It be docked at Folktown.”
“Folktown? How’d you come to be here?” Nita followed the boy back along the wooded road.
“Be the last time I runned away. Mrs. Contraquoi, I heared her talkin’. Sayin’ she want to sell some uh them under her care.” Deus turned right to continue their circuit. “I never be somebody’s property.”
A grey wood barn, half the size of the cabin, sat in the corner of the orchard. At the front, deep in shadow, a pair of swing doors hung latched, and when the two children each pulled one open, the hinges squealed like murdered rabbits. Just inside was a wide handcart, the struts in the dirt at their feet. To the right, loops of rope and machinery hung on the walls and a six-foot tall iron-wheeled press sat on an elevated platform. To the left, room for twenty or thirty barrels spanned open, but only three lay on their sides. The makings of other barrels and a stack of wood-slatted bins leaned against the back wall.
Nita stepped up on the platform and tried to turn the wheel attached to a thick spiraled screw that formed the apple press. “Stuck. Those men don’t seem to like their tools much. Aunt Sarah teached… taught us to always take care of our things. She told us that the world’s not making them anymore, so we should pay our mind to them.”
Deus kicked the three remaining barrels. “Trade these for more o’ that cane sugar Miss Tove feed us.”
“That was tasty fine. I wonder what else she’s got stored there?”
Deus caught sight of a low box and upon lifting the lid ogled the contents. “There be all kinda weapons in here. Mostly beat up, but here’s a gol’ big knife. It’s better’n this stick.” He hefted the machete and rummaged around finding old muskets, sabers and disassembled crossbows, their ancient fiberglass bows laying unstrung beside them.
“We better keep going. The sun is nearly to the trees,” the girl said as she exited the barn. They relatched the barn doors and headed back toward the cabin, twilight just starting to blush the sky.
Half-way back Deus, swinging his new-found blade at straggly weeds, noticed a break in the tree canopy to his right. He stopped, backed up and figured it must be a hole left by a fallen pine. Maybe there’s firewood to hack at, he thought, the feel of the heavy blade urging him to strike at something expendable.
He counted six rows of apple trees from the barn to mark the spot and stepped off the road in search of the gap. Wary of the wild swings of the blade, Nita followed at a distance. When Deus had snaked his way to the spot he circled it looking for the fallen tree. Nita, instead, walked through the middle. As she stepped through shrubs that unexpectedly grew beneath the extra sunlight, her left footstep made a drumming sound.
“Deus, I think there’s a hollow under here. See, listen…”
The boy turned toward the girl and watched her stomp closer to the center of the tiny glade. He heard the false beats of a muted drum with each of her steps.
She stood in the center now. “What do you think is under here?” She bent her knees to leap high hoping to produce a forceful tone. Dues watched her jump as high as she could, and when she landed her heels met what must have been a rusted steel hatch. She punched through the corrupt metal, tearing the entire disc that covered the pit. She cried out hysterically as she fell, vanishing through the hole, her dark hair streaming after her.
Deus heard the sickening impact of her body, a muffled carumpf at the bottom, the lid of the hole hanging down precariously at the edge. The boy ran to the gaping hole. Below, the girl lay sprawled, and, as he watched in the dim light, her body began to jerk and twitch, spasming like a toy being shaken by a dog.
The girl’s disturbing motion quit but she remained unresponsive.
Deus glanced around the area, desperate for a solution to retrieve the girl or descend to help her. His mind, overwhelmed with the assumption of his isolation — his life alone had forced him to exclude the idea of help from others — checked itself.
He smacked his chest in realization. “I ain’t here by myself!” He called down to the girl. “Nita, I go get Miss K and Jessa, and, no, not the othern’, I be back right quick. You sta–” He dashed off to the road. He lay the big knife pointing at the location of the hole then ran toward the cabin.
He burst through the front door. “Where’s Miss K? Nita she be in a bad way. She fall in a hole an I, I…”
Tove held out her arms and the boy ran into them, pulling back after a brief embrace. The woman held his shoulders steady. “Deus, Kasmira has not returned. Tell us slowly, where is Nita?”
The boy haltingly explained his failure to protect the young girl, relating the strange body trembling the girl had endured upon her fall.
“This is no fault of yours. The brothers told me of strange equipment they’d found on the island. This must be some ancient, unknown thing.” The blind woman instructed the boy to retrieve a rope from the barn and take Jessa to the spot so she could calm her sister.
Jessa tugged at the boy’s sleeve; her voice trembled. “Was she talking when you left her?”
Dues shook his his head, grabbed the Jessa and pulled her up the center road toward the barn. Jessa stood in the doorway, dusk descended nearly to dark; she dared not enter the strange building. But Deus had memorized the layout and clambered up onto the bench and retrieved one of the coils of rope. The two ran along the east loop to where the knife lay in the narrow road.
“This way,” Dues said leading into the woods and the clearing. He paused at the break in the trees and inched forward wary of the hole he knew gaped in the glade.
As soon as the pit opened before them, Jess knelt at its edge calling, “Nita! Nita are you okay?”
They could just make out the body of the girl, her blue shirt barely visible in the dark. Nita did not respond. Deus uncoiled the hemp rope and dropped one end into the hole. He’d figured the edges sharp, so used a branch to bend the ragged metal down where the rope would set. He cautiously avoided the hinged lid. He walked back and tied off the other end to a sturdy pine.
“I be goin’ down first. You stay here and call to Miss K when she come.”
Deus dropped to his belly and began to work his legs down into the yawning hole.
“Stop! Boy, stop there.” K had stepped into the glade just as Deus had slid to his belt.
“Miss K!” Jessa ran to the woman’s open arms. “Nita, Nita…”
“We’ll get her out. You go out to the road and lead Tove back in here. She knows the island better than we. She may help us figure out this cavern.”
Deus remained on the ground, inching further into the hole. “I kin fetch her, Miss K. I kin do it.”
“I know you can, Deus. But there may be stuff in there that can hurt you. Best let me go first. If I need your help, I’ll call you down.”
Kasmira checked the rope’s knot at the tree, found it solid, determined there was slack enough and made a quick repelling loop around her waist, then she leaned back over the hole, tilting in a slow angle as Deus looked on, his mouth agape.
“I’ll teach you all how to do this, someday,” she said as she back-stepped down, a rescue climber descending into danger to save the child.
Deus had picked a good spot for the rope to set, but the hundreds of years of slow corrosion had eaten the lid from underneath. With the full weight of the woman now levered against the edge, the metal buckled and the rope jolted through the bend tearing a cut in the foot of the rim and slicing the strands of aged hemp.
K felt the brim of the lid tear and felt the rope begin to give. She reached out in the darkness and miraculously found a welded rung there, attached to the side of the buried culvert. Her weight yanked the rope down and the threads parted.
She cried out in terror as her hand, gripping the rebar step, tore away the step from its rusted home and she fell, feet first to land with a scream of pain, her right ankle cracking like a walnut shell as she landed.
She’d barely missed the girl who now stirred in confusion.
“Where am I? Who are–” she said, her voice thick.
K lay next to Nita and grimaced in agony, trying to present a calm voice to the girl. She sat there for a long moment before answering. “It’s me, K, the lady who brought you across the bay. We fell…” a piercing throb of pain stabbed up her leg. “We fell into a hole. Are you hurt? Can you move your arms and legs?”
The girl weighed not much more than a yearling lamb and if she had landed right, might not have sustained broken bones, K hoped, as she reached out in the near pitch black to stroke the hair from Nita’s face.
“I don’t remember… I… Where’s my sister? Jessa!” Nita righted herself, sitting up without hesitation.
At least she doesn’t seem to be injured.
“I’m here Nita. Up here.” Jessa cried down, her voice choked with emotion. “Are you alright?”
“I… I don’t know. I think so.”
Tove had asked Deus to lead her to the edge of the pit.
“Kasmira. Are you alright? We heard you yell. What… what happened?”
Deus sat to the side, his head in his hands, moaning about how the woman’s fall was his fault. His muttering drifted down into the darkness.
“The metal, it must have ripped and cut the rope.” K’s jaws worked to suppress the pain in her voice. “Is that Deus I hear? Tell him it weren’t his fault. Tove, we…” she paused to take a few calming breaths. “Tove, we have a problem. My ankle’s broke. Can you remember anything the men told you that… that could help us?”
The blind woman, on hands and knees speaking down into a whole she knew existed only from the echo of sound returning to her, ticked off the items she thought important. “There’s more rope I’m sure. The hand cart the brothers used to haul barrels. I remember them using a winch to haul out the boat. I’m sure there’s tools and things, I’m sorry. I don’t… No, wait. I think there might be a ladder.” Tove’s voice rose with the mention of it. “Yes. I don’t know where it might be, but I’m sure there’s a ladder. One they used to cut the apple trees, prune them, I think.”
“I seen it at the barn,” Deus told them. “I kin fetch it.” The boy was gone without another word.
“Deus says he saw it. He’s run off to fetch it. I don’t know if he can bring it all the way from the barn.”
Jessa, talking quietly with her sister, confirming Nita’s lack of injury, volunteered to help. “I’ll go help Deus. Nita we’re gonna get a ladder.”
While the two children toiled to drag the ladder, a sturdy thing made of pine poles, K and Nita inspected their trap. The walls, spiraled culvert steel, ended at the bottom with a poured concrete slab now covered in many inches of dirt which had cushioned their falls. The darkness was complete, but K, struggling to keep her ankle from touching the ground, scooted back to lean against the east side, toward the center of the island. She found a recess in that part of the wall.
“Tove, there’s a door down here. I think this might be a Before-time bunker.”
K pounded on the flat metal door which echoed with mysterious promise.
“If the brothers knew of this, they never spoke of it.” Tove backed away from the hole as she heard the two children dragging the ladder along the road and then the sound of them came crashing through the brush.
“Miss K, I’s sorry I let you fall down in that pit.”
“Deus, boy, the fault is mine. Did you find the ladder?”
“They found it Kasmira,” Tove replied. “But we’re unsure how to lower it down to you. It’s righteous heavy. How the two of them dragged it all that way…”
K explained how they could tie the tail of rope, still up top, a few rungs up from the bottom, tilt the ladder in and slowly let the rope lower the ladder down.
Jessa positioned the blind woman so that she could assist in the lowering, and the girl and Deus managed the task of positioning and raising the ladder. At a certain angle the slick poles slid in and struck the opposite side of the tunnel, the sound booming up and out across the island. But with Tove’s help, they pulled it back and gradually lowered it to the bottom. The ladder stuck a full two steps out of the top of the torn lid.
As soon as it was secure, Deus scurried down and helped Nita inch her way out. At the top the sisters embraced, Jessa stroking the hair from Nita’s face. They stared into each other’s eyes and eventually Nita nodded that she was okay.
Another wrack of pain tightened K’s jaw. It passed slowly. “Deus, you’ve been a great help here,” she said, struggling to stand, placing a startling amount of weight on the boy’s shoulders. He groaned but held fast. “You come up behind me, and if you can, catch me if I begin to fall.”
She smiled in the darkness at this, but knew the boy would take the task to heart.
With everyone finally topside, Jessa found a makeshift crutch and the five of them shuffled their way back to the cabin. The sounds of the bay at night, herons squawking, canvasbacks chuddering, a lone lost goose, its forlorn honk a plead to its flight to return, accompanied them as they filed through the front door. K clumped and cursed as her foot banged the step.
Secure in the small cabin, K began the process of inspecting and wrapping her broken ankle; with Deus’ help she determined from the darkened skin that she would be weeks on the mend.
Jessa tended to Nita’s bruises and a nasty slash on her calf; Deus kept mum on the strange twitching he’d witnessed the poor girl endure when she fell.
Tove began her hard-learned ritual of heating water for stew. “As this be the day of my salvation, I will set a table of fine vittles. The brothers be saving these food stuffs for, god knows what. But we will feast this sup.”