Monday, May 15, 2017
Stars in the Sky, Ghosts in the Root Cellar
I’m not a “sensitive” by any means when it comes to uncanny matters, ghosts, psychics, things that go bump in the night. I’m pretty good, in fact, at rationalizing those bumps. (Uh-oh, I forgot to bring the bird feeders in. Is that a bear? Nope, the feeders are okay. I’ll bring them in now.) I don’t want be aware of unworldly things; it’s hard enough to understand the things that can be explained by scientific studies. (And to cope with nocturnal bears, who do generally drop by when I’m away for a few days and leave the feeders out.)
Astrology, for instance, drives me nuts. It’s possible, I suppose, that the month you were born in has some bearing on your personality and even future life—was it winter and you were cold as a newborn, or kept indoors during that formative part of your life? What kinds of food were available to your nursing mother in that season? But how can the regular, measurable, predictable orbits of the planets affect you on a day to day basis? Do people into astrology have any idea what “Mercury in Retrograde” means? It means that when the planet Mercury’s orbit takes it between earth and the sun, it appears to be going in one direction in our sky, but when its orbit takes to the other side of the sun from us, it appears to be going in the other direction, thus “retrograde.” How can…well, never mind. If something can be explained in scientific terms, it’s no longer uncanny, and if it’s truly uncanny, it doesn’t need to be explained.
Sorry for the rant. At least I refrained from adding “Bats in the Belfry” to my title for this post. There are plenty of more interesting kinds of supernatural phenomena than astrology, which may not even count as supernatural to most folks. And even though I don’t have any desire to experience any of them personally, from time to time my imagination gets to work, and I write stories with anything from demons trapped in gargoyles (does fantasy count as uncanny?) to ghosts in your otherwise pretty much ordinary cellar.
Since Jean Roberta mentioned her excellent ghost story appearing in the Haunted Hearths anthology, I thought I’d dare to share a bit of mine, too, one of those prosaic ghosts-in-the-cellar types with some history thrown in. (It was recently reprinted in Haunting Muses, edited by Doreen Perrine.)
Here are a couple of spoilers, since they’re not explicitly revealed until later in the story and you won’t see them:
1. Emmaline had run away long ago from a hidden polygamy compound in Utah, and now she’s made a life for herself with Sigri, a horse rancher in Montana.
2. There was an old story in the area about two young brothers, staying in the dugout (now the root cellar) on their way to Canada, who had got out okay and moved along when most of the place caved in.
3. Emmaline found two cut-off rings in the box with the faded coils of hair, and had her own ideas about who those “brothers” were and who might have been pursuing them.
Spirit Horse Ranch
Someone was behind her.
Emmaline, deep in the root cellar, hadn’t heard Sigri’s truck pull in or Chinook bark a welcome, but the sense of a presence was unmistakable. It had to be Sigri, or the dog would’ve sounded a warning. Sigri could sneak up on grazing elk, when the wind was right; even if Emmaline hadn’t been hammering at shelves for her preserves, she might have missed any sounds. She’d been humming, too, immersed in the joy of working among provisions of her own raising. Not that she wasn’t always, on some level, listening for Sigri every bit as intently as the dog did.
Sigri would sometimes press up against Emmaline from the rear with no warning, nuzzle her neck, and reach around for further fondling. If she was in the mood, why not go along with it? Emmaline lowered the hammer and moved back a step, as though surveying her handiwork. Her backside tingled in anticipation.
A touch on her hair made her jump.
“You’re back early,” she said. “Didn’t figure you’d get here from Bozeman so... Ouch!” Fingers tightened on her long, thick braid, and icy-cold knuckles dug into the nape of her neck. Somebody pulled, hard.
“Hey!” Emmaline tried to turn. The hidden tormentor jerked her head back viciously and yanked again. Tears burned her eyes and panic pounded in her veins.
It wasn’t Sigri.
Sigri wouldn’t do that. She knew enough about Emmaline’s past, and the things that triggered memories. And no one else who knew would dare, or care enough, to search her out after twenty years--if he was even still alive.
Terror snapped into sudden rage. Emmaline wasn’t fifteen and vulnerable any more. She kicked back sharply at ankle-height, let out a yell worthy of an old-time Blackfeet war party, and swung the hammer at what should be a thigh--or, better yet, more vulnerable parts.
Her foot didn’t connect with anything. Neither did the hammer. But her yell brought Chinook scrambling down the stairs from the kitchen in a frenzy of barks and growls. Could the cellar, crowded with sacks of winter-keeping vegetables and shelves of canning jars, hold Emmaline, the intruder, and an enraged German Shepherd all at the same time?
Emmaline wrenched sideways to free herself. Resistance ceased so abruptly that she spun right around, her russet braid flipping over one shoulder. A gust of cold air rushed past; she staggered, nearly fell, and grabbed at Chinook’s shoulder for balance.
Nobody was there.
A bulb dangling from a cord hooked to the ceiling lit the space well enough. None of the sacks and crates looked disturbed. Nobody could have got out past the dog, even though her growls had subsided.
“C’mon, Chinook, upstairs.” Emmaline couldn’t keep her voice steady. The chill where her neck had been touched crawled all the way down her back. What if he wasn’t alive--but had come for her anyway? No! She had to get out of there, get her thoughts under control.
She moved toward the steps, overwhelmed by a desperate need for Sigri--and just as glad Sigri wasn’t there to witness her weakness.
“Chinook, come!” The dog’s tail wagged to show she’d heard, but she kept sniffing among the crates. Just doing her job, searching for whatever had made her mistress yell like a damn fool. But when she clambered onto a heap of potato sacks and starting nosing at the packed earth wall, it was too much.
“Drat you, Chinook, come on!” The dog kept poking at the wall. Small chunks of dirt had dribbled down, a few feet to the left of the new shelves. The hammering must have jarred them loose. A few bits of old sticks or roots showed in the roughened earth, but there wasn’t a hole, so far as she could tell without going closer, which she wasn’t about to do. Nothing big enough to let a mouse through, much less a rat. A rat?
She bolted upward, not looking to see if the dog followed. Her scalp still stung from the tugs. No rat could have been that strong!
Better that, though, than anything else occurring to her. She could deal with vermin. Still…a great filthy rat clinging to her head? She scrabbled at her braided hair until it hung loose around her shoulders, shaking it so hard her brains seemed to slosh like flapjack batter. Her heart pounded, anger mixing with fear. She tried hard to let the anger win out.
A bark and a high-pitched whine came up from the root cellar. Emmaline went to the top of the steps. “Get your furry butt up here,” she yelled, beginning to lower the trapdoor. Chinook, not wanting to be shut below, left off whatever she was doing and bounded up into the kitchen.
“If you haven’t caught ‘em yet, you won’t, not without tearing up my spuds and onions!” The scolding was mostly to keep her own voice steady. “Wait for Sigri to get home!”
At the sound of that name, the dog padded hopefully to the screen door and looked out at the empty, dusty road connecting the ranch to the rest of the world. For all her devotion to Emmaline, Chinook looked to Sigri as her one true goddess.
No argument there, Emmaline thought. To see Sigri riding against the backdrop of the mountains, lithe, strong, the herd of horses running with her for the pure joy of it, any passing stranger might think Montana was as close to heaven as earth could get. At night, in ways no passerby could imagine, Emmaline knew for sure she’d found her own personal paradise.
But what was she going to tell Sigri? That she’d freaked out in the root cellar, thought about ghosts, when it might be just rats? Even in the familiar normalcy of the kitchen, she couldn’t really believe that. Whatever she decided, it would go better after supper, and there wouldn’t be any supper if she didn’t get on with it.
Chicken and dumplings had been her plan, with leftovers from the hen she’d roasted Sunday. But she’d forgotten to bring carrots and onions up from the cellar. Forgotten? Well, not exactly, but nothing was going to get her down into that hole again just yet.
That hole? Now anger did win out. She’d been so proud of the root cellar, clearing out generations of trash, building shelves and bins, reinforcing the support posts and steps with Sigri’s help. It was older than the ranch house itself, part of a pioneer dugout home carved into the hillside. Most of it had caved in well over a hundred years ago, but when Sigri’s great-great-grandfather had built his house of red cedar logs the kitchen had overlapped what was left of the hole just enough for the trapdoor and stairs to connect with it. Back then it had been used as a root cellar, but not in recent years.
Emmaline had found things in the rubble that could have been there since before the cave-in. Once she’d dug out a flat tin box, barely protruding from the wall, and found inside two long, faded coils of hair, one blonde, one reddish. Maybe two girls sick with the fever had needed to have their hair cut when it got too tangled, as was common in the old days. In an odd way it had given her a sense of connection to those long-ago settlers. She might not belong here in any conventional way—she knew the townsfolk preferred to think of her as Sigri’s housekeeper and business manager, nothing closer—but she did belong to the tradition of growing and harvesting and tending loved ones.
Which included making supper. Question was, could Emmaline let herself be scared out of her own root cellar by…well, once she knew for sure what it was, maybe she wouldn’t be so scared.
For now, there was plenty left of the big kettle of chili Sigri cooked once a week. Emmaline could whip up a batch of cornbread and pull some greens from the autumn garden. Sigri wouldn’t object, having pretty much lived on nothing else in the years she’d ranched here alone.
A tensing of the dog’s back, a perking of ears, brought Emmaline to the screen door. Dust puffed in the distance, where the road was no more than a crease in grasslands tinted gold by the afternoon light. Beyond, blue mountains streaked with early snow rose in jagged ranges; the Absarokee and Beartooth to the south, the Crazies to the west. To Emmaline they were guardians, shielding her against where she’d come from, who she’d had to be; but even their grandeur dimmed behind the glint of sunlight on the approaching truck.
Chinook’s whines rose to a frantic pitch. It didn’t take the dog’s quivering rump, ready to break out into a fit of wagging, to tell Emmaline that the truck was Sigri’s. She knew, as surely as the dog, and she understood the impulse to race to meet the loved one, but Chinook, for all her size, was barely out of puppyhood and still needed her training reinforced. Her job, her sacred charge, was to stay close to Emmaline every minute.
Sigri had swapped the stud service of her Appaloosa stallion for the pick of a neighbor’s litter of pups. “Folks around here are pretty much decent, mind-their-own-business types, whatever their beliefs,” she’d said, “but punks can sprout up anywhere, even Montana. A good dog can make ‘em think twice about trying to get at…well, at a woman out here alone.”
No need to spell it out. It wasn’t just being a woman alone. What had happened down in Laramie to that boy Matthew Shepard was on both their minds. Sigri, when she’d lived alone, hadn’t worried; nearly everybody within fifty miles was related to her, or owned horses she’d trained. She was one of their own. Emmaline, for all her farm-girl background, wasn’t.
The red truck was close enough now for her to make out the familiar lines. Where the road dipped down to ford the tree-lined creek, green-gold leaves hid it for a moment; this was when Emmaline would generally head out to open the gate in the stock fence. Right now she wasn’t sure her legs would take her that far without some wobbling Sigri was sure to notice.
“Stay!” She pressed her hand down hard on Chinook’s wriggling shoulders. Sigri reached the gate, got out to open it herself, looked searchingly up at the house, and got back in. Emmaline waited until the truck stopped between the barn and the house and then, finally, let Chinook out.
Sigri stood, stretched her rangy body after the bumpy ride, pushed back her Stetson until straw-pale cropped hair showed above her tanned forehead, and looked again toward the house. Glimpsing Emmaline inside the doorway, she flashed a boyish grin that would never grow old, no matter how many lines time and weather etched on her face.
The dog pranced around her legs in frantic welcome. Weanling fillies along the paddock fence whickered in greeting. Emmaline, aching to be there too, watched as each animal got its moment of affection. When Sigri finally hauled sacks of groceries out of the truck and strode toward the house, Emmaline barely had time to tie on her apron, pour flour and corn meal into a bowl, and get enough on herself to look like she’d been in the middle of mixing.
The screen door swung open and shut. As soon as the bags and a banded bundle of mail were safely on the kitchen table, and the Stetson tossed onto its hook, Emmaline proceeded to wipe her hands on the blue-checked dishtowel and rush to grab a big hug.
Sigri’d noticed something, though. “You okay, babe?” She stroked the loose tangle of hair Emmaline had forgotten to tidy. Fear came surging back.
With her arms around Sigri’s lean body and her head nestled against a firm shoulder, Emmaline managed to say, “Sure I’m okay. How’d it go in Bozeman?”
“Not too bad.” Sigri tried to get a look at Emmaline’s face. “I dropped off your baked goods at the café. Claire wrote a check for last week and this week too, so we’re all square there. And Rogers at the bank seemed pretty sure we can get an extension on the loan. He knows I’m owed enough by the horse trek outfitters to cover it.”
Emmaline burrowed a little closer, then tilted her head back for a kiss. Chinook, firmly trained not to interrupt such proceedings, lay down with her head between her paws, and then, impatient, went to nose around the edges of the trapdoor.
Emmaline became vaguely aware of the rattle of some small object being pushed around the floor behind her. Sigri, looking past her shoulder, broke the clinch. “What’s that dratted dog got? Chicken bone?”
“Not from my kitchen…” Emmaline stopped. Chinook was offering her prize to Sigri. Held tenderly, in jaws trained to pick up eggs without breaking them, was a four-inch sticklike object. Not, they both knew, a stick. Bone, but not chicken bone. Chickens don’t have fingers.