Going To Ground
John North Radway
Posted on October 14th, 2016
The mud under her boot soles rasped and rattled as though it had something to say but couldn’t remember how. It hadn’t rained since the last week in October, and the small river that ran through the cellar was little more than a trickle; along its banks lay little hillocks of earth neither wet nor damp. Dry mud, she thought as she dragged her feet through it, wishing she could kick off her boots and drag her toes through it. She imagined it would feel cool and crisp between her toes, like the scales of a fish that hasn’t been dead for long. She didn’t smile.
The ceiling above her bounced like the underside of a drumhead, or at least she felt it did, like goatskin stretched over the broad oak beams running across the top of the foundation. My home is made from living things. It was her mother’s footsteps making the floor above leap and twitch as though it had a little heartbeat of its own, her mother’s footsteps as she roamed from cupboard to cupboard looking for what she had already forgotten. She cocked her head to listen, wondering whether she really could hear the hiss and rumble of simmering water on the stove just over her head or whether the sound was just the blood in her ears or the house settling. She had to go back upstairs soon or the water would start leaping from the pot as though a column of silvery fish were feeding at its surface, snatching at mouthfuls of fluorescent light and cigarette smoke. My home is made from living things and I am not one of them.
Potatoes. Above her, her mother was looking for potatoes. She wouldn’t find them, she thought. She already hadn’t, which was why she had offered to go downstairs herself to get them from the root cellar, since her mother was too weak for the stairs and always seemed repulsed by the darkness at the bottom, not frightened but disgusted, as though it were an old friend who had done her wrong and never apologized, a face she remembered she hated without remembering the name that had gone with it once. Potatoes for the pot at supper time, an arrangement as primal as the number line yet ever more obscure.
It had made so much sense once. She’d been a girl here. She had sat at the table upstairs while her mother, a younger mother, had taken potatoes from the icebox or the bin alongside the cabinets and dropped them into the water carefully, glancing over her shoulder after each as though afraid her daughter might see the splash and learn the wickedness of water. Each fell with a plop all its own as she looked out the window and pretended not to hear, out at the driveway where the stubble fields once stood every fall like a province of heathen graves, or at the fields themselves, golden as the sun and dry as the skin on November’s palms. She felt the juices running across her tongue as she stood in the cellar and glared back at the darkness all around her, the darkness that didn’t know about winter or the color light should be.
A light. She needed a light to find the way, because the ground under her feet felt unwell as though the dirt itself had caught a fever and gone clammy in the night, its own sweat soaking its bedclothes as it tried to toss and turn under the weight of the foundation and the great oak beams that ran across the top of it like the frame of an old drum. She groped for the dirty string that she always wished she hadn’t touched once she saw it by the light of the bare bulb, a yellowed, pendulous thing that sometimes listed to one side with the weight of cobwebs that seemed to spin themselves. There were never any spiders, just dry husks that had been spiders once, calcified and brittle. When she was a girl she had lifted one out of a dirty corner, gripping one of its legs between her fingernails and trying to feel its weightlessness. It was all she knew of the grave then, and when her own mother had gone into the ground she had dreams of her bones thinning like spider’s legs, and the space between her bones growing swollen and white like mothballs, all of it dry as the last leaves of November and liable to blow away at the first touch of a real winter wind. Then she dreamed the bones of the dead like milkweed drifting through pale morning light, and that was all she knew of heaven, which worried the minister until she learned not to mention dreams.
But she couldn’t find the pull string, and she couldn’t find the door to the root cellar without it, and she thought she heard the water in the pot splashing more insistently now, which always made her think of the way her mother would splash and flail in the bath long after it was safe for her to do so. She had to find the light and hurry. Her mother was still wet from the bath, and she shouldn’t be up at all with her feet all wet and only a flannel robe to keep the drafts off her desiccated frame. But life went on like the clock she never remembered to wind, and nothing could keep the old woman from going through the same motions night after dark autumn night, hauling the great pot from beneath the counter and filling it with more water than she could carry to the stove without a struggle or a hand to help. Then she would forget that the potatoes still lay in the cellar down below as they had lain since the house was built, if not longer, and she would thrash from cupboard to cupboard like a bear insulted by a row of empty baskets, just as she now thrashed overhead in the kitchen, though she couldn’t quite hear her over the sound of blood in her ears and the house settling.
She scraped or shook the dry mud carefully from her boots as she made her way to the wall with the light switch, reaching out and turning it upward with one sharp motion that planted a sharp twinge in part of her arm. Perhaps she wasn’t so young anymore herself, she thought, and thought of the little girl watching milkweed drift in the morning light while her mother, so young then, as young as the light, cooked potatoes for supper in the great pot that she kept under the counter and scoured on Sundays. A dim ache filled the cellar, a yellow ache from a single bulb that looked sick as though it had taken a fever and wet its bedclothes with cold sweat in the night. She didn’t like the light. It felt too much like the darkness, and she looked at the stairs with a sort of loathing, knowing it was nearly time to climb them.
The dry mud made her feet feel heavy, made her footsteps unsteady as she made her way to the door of the root cellar, a dark plane of splinters and gouges on the far side, over the little river that was barely a trickle now, because it hadn’t rained since Sunday again and the ground itself thirsted and rasped like an old man wondering whether to save his last breaths for a more clement season. The going was hard on the uneven ground and she nearly tripped on the little hillocks along the riverbank, steadying herself on the cellar door when she reached it. The splinters hurt her and she made a sound like a frightened animal, like a trapped animal on the other side of the door whimpering for release so it could dash out and drink its fill from the dark river and thrash about like an old woman in a bath, floating on its back past the stubble fields that lined the low hills on either side, white and yellow in the morning sun.
She opened the door to let it out, a hard haul against rust and the weight of hinges, and she almost smiled as she thought of it tripping past her, shaking the aches from its legs and haunches, glancing back at her once as though to say thank you before vanishing. She waited, looking for it, and wondered why it looked so black and tall, so dark and wide like a great bear already gone to ground for the long winter. She felt its breath like soft must and wondered whether it would dream of her looking in on it, whether it would know it was safe there, and know that she would come back in the springtime to let it out again, that she would always find a way to come back here by the time the crocuses began to sprout along the driveway where the ghosts of cornstalks still rattled in the first warm February winds.
She closed the door on the darkness that she couldn’t love and made her way back toward the stairs, leaving the light on so that something would remain of the things she had done and the things she had tried to do. It was a long walk up each stair and her thighbones felt as though they would drive up through her hips with every step, like the old nails driven into the dry beams that kept the old house from going to ground. She tried to remember what those nails once held. Sacks, she thought, and knew it was right, and she smiled as she wondered whether the potato sack might depend from one of them, just out of reach or just out of sight, and she almost lost her footing as she grasped at a patch of brown shadow that fled from her hand like a sparrow.
Three more steps, and she would have to turn the gas down under the old pot while she searched the cupboards. Two more steps, and she thought of the beasts that passed the winter in the earth, the earth folded over them like a quilt, and wondered whether they had enough to eat, whether they had enough of anything. One more step, and she would have to tell her mother that she was a dotty old fool, that she hadn’t kept potatoes in the root cellar since she was a girl, that no one on the road grew anything like that anymore and that there was plenty still from their last run to the market if she would only remember to use it.
But the dim fluorescence at the top of the stairs fell on four empty chairs, and the cupboard doors hung dead on their hinges. Even the smell of cigarettes felt like the first space of silence after an echo. There was nothing here living, and the light outside the window was black, the black of a winter night come too early and settled in too still, too certain. She shook her head from side to side as she opened the refrigerator and took two red potatoes from the crisper drawer, flecking off the nascent eyes with her thumbnail. No one here at all. A gentle frown tried to settle into her face, but it couldn’t find the right muscles, and her hips cracked like timbers. I thought I was myself, she said aloud to anything that might be listening from the next room or the spaces between the walls, and dropped the rough lumps into the rougher water, and watched the fog from the river spread in the yellow light of dawn.