~ 5 ~
Deus rose with the sun the next morning. In the previous darkness, he and Jessa had pulled the mats in, their stink much reduced. He check in on Kasmira, who remained sleeping, the half glass of spikejack she’d drunk to ease her pain having worn off in the middle of the night; she’d moaned and gasped until exhaustion finally took her. Nita and Jessa had slept together on the floor mattress, while Tove, for once, had slept on the other raised bed. She’d offered one side to Deus, but the thought of being so near the beautiful woman had confounded him. He’d curled up in a ratty blanket on the floor next to K.
In practiced stealth, he slipped from the K’s room to stoke the fire in the stove, stirring embers up from the firebox. He quietly slipped outside to fetch more wood and a pail of water, which he used to fill a pot to heat for tea. Then, the women all still sleeping, he jogged back to the knife in the road and stood looking down into the pit, the light bright enough to clearly see the bottom.
He dropped the big knife to clang off the last rung of the ladder and climbed down. The smell of damp earth and metal came to him more strongly now as he examined the oval door. He tried to twist both handle latches, top and bottom, but they stuck, rusted. He thought to use the back of the machete but instead, retrieved a stout branch from the forest. He stood to the side and whacked the lower handle. It shifted, and then on the third strike, twisted down in release. The top one, a few inches above his head, caused him grief, but after a few dozen strokes, his frustration rising, he yelled out and swung with all his might.
“Deus! What are you doin’?” Jessa called down from above.
He dropped the branch and wiggled both levers, loose now. “Wha’chu think I be doin’? I gonna get inside this here hidyhole and see if them brothers stored any medicine. Miss K, she, she in a bad way.”
“You can’t be goin’ in there without help.”
“I be goin’ all kinds of places without help. This be no different.”
Jessa turned around and descended the ladder despite Deus’ cautions. Once down she he thought she looked to challenge.
He turned back to the door. “Well, I go first. Won’t be no light, but we come back if it ain’t empty.”
The lever handles were the only protrusions on which to pull and when Deus tugged the rusted hinges held fast.
“Here, I got an idea.” Jessa took the rope that had fallen with Kasmira the night before and began tying one end to the lower toggle. The boy took the hint and did the same to the top one.
They then both took the rope and leaned back, now under the ladder. “Ready?” Deus said.
Jessa nodded and they both started to pull. The rope and their knots held but the door remained frozen closed. The children panted with the effort. “We ain’t big enough to budge it. We’ll have to wait for K to get better.” Jessa let her end go and started up the ladder.
Deus cocked his head and looked at the door jam and the heavy branch that lay at his feet. “Hold on. Le’me try a thing.” Using the bottom rope he wrapped it around the limb held horizontal until the wood was snug to the handle. The short end he stuck into the side of the jam. The long end he held and sat right on the dirt, his feet up against the lip of the concrete slab that formed a step up to the door. “You grab hold, too. We pull here and the rope pulls there.”
Jessa sat next to him and the two bent their knees, pushed with their legs and pulled at the branch. Deus grunted with the strain. With a satisfying creak the door broke from its centuries old seal and inched open. Immediately the chemical smell of degraded materials and plastics filled the bottom of the hole.
“Ew, that’s awful. I ain’t goin in there.” Jessa stood up and pressed herself against the far wall of the culvert.
“Help me open it wide. We kin come back later with light. I see things, but I don’t know what.”
The pair snuck through the front door. Or tried to.
“Did you two get it open?” K rested in one of the rocking chairs near the front door, her leg propped up on a stool, a blanket wadded beneath her calf.
They stopped, eyes wide, caught in their conspiracy. As they saw her, she grimaced in agony, her face oddly pale.
“Go get yourself some food,” K continued. “We can…. We can talk in a moment.” She reached over to a small table finding a mug at which she reluctantly sipped. “Spikejack and mint tea. I hate it, but I can’t bear the pain. Go on now.”
The two sought out Tove and Nita. The blind woman was gently tending to the girl’s cut leg, dipping a cloth into a warm water basin and dabbing at the red swollen gash.
“How–” Jessa began.
“I’ve been blind a long time. I know how to move and control my body better’n most.” Tove wrung the cloth and continued her work.
Nita lay back on the bed gazing at the rough board roof. “I showed her hands the way, and Miss Tove remembered.”
“What did you find?” Tove asked.
“Nothin’ yet,” Deus said quickly. “Is Miss K gonna be okay?”
“I think Kasmira’s ankle is badly broken. From what she’s told me, dark skin and the pain… I don’t know how long ‘til she recovers.”
He frowned at the news and looked around the room focusing on one of the paintings the girls had found and hung on the walls. It showed what appeared to be snow capped mountains, things he knew were beyond his experience but within his understanding. “Is that a real place?” he said pointing.
Jessa, laying next to her sister, followed his gaze and confirmed that, yes, they’d learned about such mountains and places like deserts and jungles from the books their aunt and teacher owned. She described the painting for the woman’s benefit. With her voice flowing, Jessa enthusiastically added, “And there’s a land that’s all ice at the bottom of the world.”
Deus decided that the bottom of the world was a good place to put land made of ice. He went to serve Jessa and himself a bowl of grain porridge. He found the honey crock and scooped out a blum sized morsel for each of them.
They ate in silence and cleaned up before feeling obligated to inform Kasmira of their progress. But she’d fallen asleep in the chair.
“Tove, we opened the door at the bottom of the hole. Maybe there’s medicine in there. Do you know if those men had candles or a lantern?” Jessa had searched the bedrooms as they cleaned but had found nothing to be used for lighting.
“A lamp or lantern needs fuel. The brothers sometimes worked into the night in the barn. They may have candles there.”
“Devil-dog damn it!” K cursed from the front of the cabin. Deus and Jessa looked in to see the woman struggling to shake spilled liquid from the blanket that covered her. “You two, come here. I need you to… to do something for me before the storm hits.”
“Storm?” they chimed together.
“Yeah, I can feel things like storms. Someday… The canoe, my belongings, they’re still down at the hidden…” K shuddered and closed her eyes for a moment. “The beach. The two of you need to pull them, carry it all up above the storm water-mark.”
“But, them boxes, they be heavy as me,” Deus complained.
Kasmira reached out and grabbed the boy’s arm. His cloak protected his skin but her grip was iron. “Boy, you nearly stole that boat. You can haul it and them chests up that tiny hill. Can’t you?” She released him, pushing him away. “I’m sorry. Those books, my things, they be dear to me.”
Jessa picked up the mug that had fallen. She knew that drink could make folks say and do things they wished undone. She set it on the table and picked at Deus’ clothing. “Come on, Deus. We’ll figure on it.”
He tugged away, straightened and stepped in closer to the woman. He placed his hand over hers. “Miss K. I see to it. Don’t you worry.” He turned and pulled Jessa through the front door.
At the small beach, with the weather showing no threat of storm, the two surveyed the problem. The fortified chests they left for last. The empty canoe they towed up the path that cut along the embankment, taking the longer, shallower trail, letting its natural shape lead the way. Deus noticed a dark stain down the inside of the aluminum boat, but did not remark on it. How K managed to haul that sweaty man’s body in and out he couldn’t imagine.
Kasmira’s bundles of bedding and tools they carried up and lay back into the canoe placed among the white pines some twenty steps from the edge of the slope.
The two considered the chests. “I cain’t even lift one end,” Jessa declared, swinging her black hair away from her face as she stood from the effort.
Deus held the upper piece of the split rope he’d untied from the ladder the night before. He threaded it through a handle, and lifted one end of the dark-wood chest. It rose a hand’s breadth and he kicked a branch under. “We kin move it, a piece at a time.”
“It’d take all day doin’ it that way.” Jessa sat atop it now, her heavy boot heels kicking at it.
“If’n we had a cart…” He held out his hand which she grabbed without hesitation. “Come on, There be a handcart in the barn.”
They ran up the center road counting the rows of trees. “Twenty-eight,” Jessa said, her breath heaving. They turned and she counted the trees along the last row. “Ten, this way. D’you know if they be even?”
Nodding, Deus unlatched the barn door. “They’s the same.”
“Hmm, ten by twenty-eight, and again. There be almost six-hundred apple trees here.” Jessa held her hands out, fingers moving as her mind worked the numbers.
The boy shrugged. “Ain’t no one to work ‘em now.” With the doors open wide the space lit such that he noticed a second smaller wheeled cart behind the first, with its rails still kneeling in the dirt before them. “Look at that. We kin use this little one fer haulin’.”
There, tucked under the back of the first cart, was a wheelbarrow looking contraption, a truck for moving heavy barrels, lifting them only a foot up.
“Give me a ride back?” Jessa pleaded as Deus wheeled the cart out to the front.
He hefted the oak handles to get the feel of the thing. “Git on.”
Jessa stepped up, tilting it crazy. “Whoa. Mebe I better not.”
“Go on. I kin handle you. Move to the middle, more. There.” Properly balanced Deus pushed the large wheeled cart up to the center road, Jessa crouched on the low platform, gripping where she could to keep her hands out of the way of the spokes.
“Faster!” she beckoned.
The boy responded. Whizzing back along the road, Jessa’s hair lifting in the small breeze. Deus revelled in the moment. “I gotta take a breath…” he wheezed, slowing. They turned at the house, Jessa hopped off and they returned to the beach where they worked the chests, one by one, first tilting them on end, and then scooping them to sit balanced on the cart.
“Now the ‘ard part.” Deus said. “Do ya think we might pull or push?”
Nita appeared at the top of the rise. “I’ll help.”
“Nita! Hey. Okay, if’n we tie the rope to the front you’s two can pull and I’ll push n’ steer.” Deus smiled brightly to see the girl looking better.
“Are you sure you should?” Jessa worried.
“When we’re done. I want a ride, too.”
With the chests set next to the canoe and the whole pile covered with one of the tarps, the three headed back to the barn, Nita riding the cart, Jessa keeping an eye on her.
“Miss Tove say them men had candles or a lamp.” Deus scanned the bench below the hanging tools. “There ain’t no candles here.”
“Where you found that knife, Deus, there was another bundle aside of it.” Nita limped to the back where the chest of old guns and bows sat, still open.
“Here’s a sack, of… Aaah!” Jessa dropped the burlap bag as half a dozen mice scattered between their feet, the rodent’s nest a tangle of fur and weed-straw.
Deus retrieved the sack and found it full of beeswax candle stubs.
“How do we light ‘em” Nita asked.
The question stumped the children.
“Miss K know to light fires.”
Returning to the house, the mid morning sun warming the ground and stirring insects and birds, with still no signs of impending weather, they found Kasmira feverish and sweating. Deus hesitated disturbing her.
“Miss Tove?” Jessa asked. “We found a sack of candles, but no way to light ‘em. We, Deus thought K might have a way. But…”
“Here’s flint and steel. You leave Kasmira be for now. She’s going to be suffering heavy for a time.” Tove moved like a ghost to the stove, where they watched her remove a tin box from the shelf above. Probing inside, like she touched the tenderest of creatures, she withdrew a rusted iron bar and a dark black rod. “Watch,” she said, as she scraped the red bar down the length of the black one. Sparks danced away like fireflies. “Bring these back, mind you. It’s the only set I know of.”
“How do you…?” Deus began.
“As I said, I know my body and the feel of things better’n most.”
Standing over the mysterious pit Deus blocked the ladder. “Nita, you sure you be fine down there?”
“I’ll be okay.”
He remained in position. “Las’ night, when you fall, you flopped like a fish on the sand. I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it.”
The sisters looked at each other, their faces a mirror, Deus thought.
“You gotta swear. This be a secret.” Jessa told him.
The boy’s eyes widened. He nodded to them both. “Aw righ’, I promise to keep your secret.”
“Nita and me, we both got “epsy.” Had it since forever.”
Deus’ face scrunched in confusion. “Epsy?”
“It comes only sometimes. If we be hurt or hard tired.”
“‘N you shake a fit like that? Every time?”
The girls nodded together.
“But only if you hurt?”
“Or dead tired.”
He spun and started down the ladder. “Okay. I be makin’ sure you’s both ain’t never get hurt or tired or nothin’. That shakin’ give me worry still.”
To the side, in the dirt, the three made a tiny fire with twigs and leaves. Deus mimicked Tove’s motion and soon tendrils of smoke snaked up from their kindling. The door to the bunker stood wide and the smell had dissipated. Flames from the nascent fire cast tantalizing flickers of light into the industrial cave.
They each took a pair of candles and lit one from the fire.
“I go first. Miss K say they may be traps or hollows.”
In procession, Deus, Nita, then Jessa entered the centuries old cavity, hoping for medicine, but having no other understanding of what might be buried inside.
END PART ONE