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Winter House: Chapter 5
Fiction by Christian Shuck
April 8, 1910
The spring sunlight was warm in the April morning. The smell of blooming flora travelled on the evaporating dew. The air of the season to come was intoxicating. Remnants of tiny water droplets sparkled on the tall grass. Otto lifted his hat to look over the field in front of him. It was a natural clearing in the middle of ten acres just southeast of the Basevale city limits. After years of work to build his business, he was finally ready to build his home.
A tree line made of sycamore, maple and oak trees marked the edge of the knoll. White and purple clover littered the gaps in the weeds. It was open, free and most importantly, his. He let his left hand fall to brush the tassels as he stepped forward. Though he had seen the outline of the plot many times on the county surveyor’s map, this was his first step onto the land. Because he worked so often with other tradesmen in carpentry, he’d heard stories of the river flooding. This plot was just high enough, and just far enough away from the river, his family’s new home would be safe from any possible rising water. Combined with the knowledge the county was getting ready to add a road right past the property made the timing of the purchase more beneficial.
“This where the new road will be going, Pa?” Arthur, Otto’s thirteen year old son, asked.
Otto looked up in the sky to note the position of the sun, then down, to the south. He raised his right hand, still holding his hat.
“In zat direction, just zare.” The thickness of his German accent contrasted against his son’s American English. Otto did not mind Arthur’s dialect, he would need it to make a living in their new homeland. Otto’s wife, on the other hand, felt as if their children were losing their German heritage in the American plains. She insisted on speaking their native tongue at home. Otto understood the importance of being familiar with the words of their adopted homeland, and so made effort to speak English with his children whenever possible.
“Zee road fil go zare,” Otto pointed, “und vee vil build our home zare.” He directed his hat a little further north to indicate the space to Arthur.
The boy moved toward the place Otto was pointing. The haus would be built on the highest part of the property.
“Vee vill build zee house wiz sree levels,” he continued. He watched as his son looked up, picturing the high walls of the structure, all the way to the roof. Otto smiled. He and Gabriele had always dreamed of this day. Resting his hat back on his head, he turned to observe the lot. Measurements on a map were one thing, seeing the size of the land in person made him feel accomplished. It was the vision he had in his mind since they first stepped onto the docks in a New Jersey harbor thirteen years before.
In his excitement, Otto called for Arthur to come and take part in the moment. When no response came, he turned to look for his son.
“Arthur?” he called again. Believing the boy might have kept wandering off into the tree line, Otto walked to the place he had shown his son they would build their zuhause.
After only a few steps, Otto realized Arthur had not wandered off at all. Though the incline rose only a few feet, it was enough to hide a rocky edge in the ground. Beyond it, an opening. As he moved up the small hill, the opening became a large crevice and once at the ledge, he could see Arthur lying at the bottom.
“Arthur!” His voice carried loudly against the rock walls. The boy was at least three meters from the ground level.
“I think I’m okay, pa.” The boy coughed as he tried to catch his breath. Slowly he began to sit up.
A sigh of relief escaped Otto when he heard his son’s voice. “You are not hurt?”
“I don’t think anything is broken.”
Understanding there was not any immediate danger, Otto began examining the sides of the crevice to look for a way to climb down.
“Father?” Arthur called up.
“Yes? Can you climb?”
“I think so, but,” he pointed toward the east wall of the crevice, “there is a hole here.”
“Zat does not matter now. I vill get a rope from ze vagon. Stay still, Arthur.”
“Should I look?” Arthur asked permission.
“I sink not, you should climb out.”
Arthur nodded to his father, then looked back at the hole.
“Arthur,” Otto said, frustrated. “Stay still, I vill be right back.”
Otto scrambled up and rushed over to their wagon. Placing a hand on the reigns around their horse’s mouth, he led it and the wagon closer to the giant hole in the ground. He secured the brake on the wagon, so the horse did not wander away. Then he took out a rope and tied it to the back end of the wagon. He walked to the edge to toss the loose end of the rope down to Arthur, only to find that his son had disappeared again.
After a moment, his son emerged from the hole in the side of the rock wall.
“Arthur, I told you to stay still. I’m going to zrow tis rope to you and pull you up wis ze vagon.”
“But Pa,” Arthur began, “there is something here you should see.”
“Vat is it?” Otto felt his voice become agitated. In the panic to get his son out of the hole safely, the whimsical ideal of their future home had been replaced with confusion. He knew nothing of the strange opening where his son now stood. It was never marked on any of the surveyor’s maps.
“It looks like an old Indian cave. There are markings in it.”
“Arthur,” Otto said, now pleading. “We do not know vhat zis is. If it is an old mine, it may collapse. You need to get out of zer. Look, see, your arm is bleeding.” He pointed at Arthur’s left side, which had bright red seeping through his cotton shirt.
Arthur looked down at his arm. A small tear in the cloth revealed a scrape on his elbow. He rubbed the back of his head.
“Oh, I feel alright.”
“I vill srow zis to you and you vill tie it around your vaist,” Otto told him. “Zen I vill pull you up.”
The boy turned around to look at the hole.
“Arthur!” Otto shouted. “Tu was ich sage!”
Without turning around Arthur called back, “You should see this, Father.”
Then he walked back over to the hole and disappeared. Unsure what to do next, and irritated his son would not mind him, Otto returned to the wagon. He took a lantern from the cart, checked to make sure the brake was still on, and began to tie the rope around his own waist. His brief moment celebrating his own American dream now muddled in frustration.
Securing the lantern to the back of his belt, Otto slowly descended the side of the pit. There was not much to grab on to, and his foot slipped a few times. The side of the pit looked as if it had been cut on purpose. The rock walls were all but smooth, almost polished.
Finally at the bottom, he untied the rope and looked up, hoping the horse would not be able to move the cart away. Though it had not looked more than three meters down, staring up at the sky made the pit seem as if it were twice as deep.
Otto turned to the hole in the wall. “Arthur?”
“In here,” came a call back.
Otto bent to light the lantern and moved toward the opening.
Once inside he held the light up to see Arthur gazing at a wall with crude markings. All of them, just shapes and lines. There were no images of people or animals. Moisture clung to the to the stone so it reflected in the flickering light. The walls were smooth, like outside.
“Oh mein Gott,” Otto muttered.
“What do you think this is?” Arthur asked.
“I do not know zat.”
“Do you think it was Indians?”
“I don’t know, son.” He moved the light around the rest of the cavern to see it was quite large. “Zis could be an old mine, as I said. We should not be here, there could be gas, or it could collapse.”
Arthur turned to look deeper into the cavern. Then, to Otto’s dread, started to walk into the darkness.
“No, Arthur. We cannot go down zer.”
“Awe, please, Pa?”
A cold breeze whispered up from the dark. The smell that followed was sulfuric.
“No,” Otto told Arthur again. “Smell zat? Gas. We cannot risk it.”
“I need to check wis ze zurveyor to make sure this was not a mistake.” He reached for Arthur’s arm and pulled him toward the opening of the cavern. “Come, we need to go.”
Nearly dragging Arthur away from the cavern, Otto marched away defiantly. He could not decide what to be more irritated with: his son’s unwillingess to listen, or the possibility that the land he had purchased was going to turn out worthless.
Otto left the wagon with Arthur to look after it. He tried to control his pace, but the adrenaline in his body was overwhelming. He made his best effort to prevent himself from a complete panic.
Through the oak doors at the front of the courthouse, he turned and half ran up the marble steps to the second floor and down the hall to the county surveyor’s office. He burst through the door, startling the secretary at her desk.
“My goodness, Mr. Zimmerman, what is the matter?”
“I need to speak vis Mr. Thomas, please,” Otto managed through panting breaths.
Before the secretary could call for him, Thomas appeared in the door to his office.
“Mr. Zimmerman, please have a seat.” He motioned for Otto to come in. “Bess, could you please get Mr. Zimmerman some water.” The secretary got up and trotted out into the hallway.
Otto sat down in a chair near Mr. Thomas’s desk. After Mr. Thomas was seated, Otto blurted, “I need to know about my property.”
“Certainly, sir, what is the issue? I thought you were quite satisfied with your choice.”
“Zer is a large cavern in ze middle of ze field. My son fell in it.”
Thomas leaned back in surprise.
“A cavern? But, that’s not possible. Is your son alright? Perhaps he is playing a prank.”
Otto had to think of the meaning of the word before responding. “Zis is no prank, I saw it myself. And yes, Arthur is well, thank you. Mr. Thomas, zer must be some miztake. Ze plot of land I purchased did not have an old mine located on it.”
“No, you’re certainly right there,” Thomas said, reaching for a book. He opened it’s long form pages and thumbed through them until he reached the one he was looking for. He poked his finger at a line.
“Right here, Harrison Township, Mr. Otto Zimmerman, plot 2334, just north of Brown Hill township. I believe that’s right along the path of the new county road, if my memory serves me. That’s why you chose it.”
Otto leaned forward onto the desk. “Yes, zat is correct.”
“There’s no mine marked here, Mr. Zimmerman. Closest mine to your property is over thirty miles away. You sure you know what you saw?”
Otto huffed at the suggestion he was lying.
“Yes, Mr. Thomas, I am quite zertain zat I know vat I saw.”
Thomas leaned back in his chair and stroked his grey beard.
“I can’t say for sure, the last full survey was three years ago, but -” Thomas trailed off in thought.
“But?” Otto asked.
Bess appeared in the doorway with a cup of water.
“Oh, yes, please, Bess, give that to Mr. Zimmerman. Seems he’s had a stressful day.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Zimmerman,” Bess said, handing him the water.
“Sank you,” Otto said.
She turned and walked out to her desk, closing Mr. Thomas’s door behind her.
Otto drank the whole cup in one gulp, then looked back to Thomas. “You ver zaying?”
Thomas leaned back in his chair again. “Yes, yes. The survey maps are three years old, but I can’t imagine anything has changed. It’s possible, I suppose, there was an earth shake and a sinkhole formed.”
“Zis was not a zinkhole,” Otto grumbled. “My son fell in it, I climbed down to help him, there was a cavern with markings and a bad gas smell.”
Mr. Thomas’s eyebrows went up. “Markings, you say?”
“Ja,” Otto began. He took a pencil off the desk and searched for a piece of paper.
“Here, you can use this,” said Thomas, handing him a blank page.
Otto sketched out the lines he and Arthur had seen on the wall. Criss-crosses, circles and dashes.
Thomas leaned over the page, his glasses sliding down his nose.
After a few moments he sat back again. “Never seen anything like that before. Don’t even look like Indian markings.”
“Zen vat are zey?”
“Can’t say for sure, Mr. Zimmerman. This isn’t my area of expertise. What I can tell you is that our most recent survey for that property is three years old. We are supposed to be building a new road through that area, precisely because there are no oddities in the landscape. Perhaps we should consult the County Commissioners and see if there is any information they have.”
Otto’s shoulders sagged as he considered telling his wife and children their dream home would have to wait. There was no way to know how long the process would take to re-survey the land. With the prospect of the road, it was likely it could be expedited, but that construction was not to begin until the following year. Otto had hoped to complete the house over the summer and in fact had rejected contracting offers to pursue his own building.
“Mr. Zimmerman?” Mr. Thomas asked. “Would you like me to contact the County Commissioners?”
“No, sank you,” Otto replied. “Zat vill not be necessary.”
“But, you are obviously concerned, and frankly, the county should be as well if we’re to build the road.”
Otto shook his head. “It has been an unusually hot day. Perhaps I stumbled onto the wrong property.”
“Mr. Zimmerman -”
“It is quite alright, Mr. Thomas.” He stood and placed the cup Bess had brought him on the desk. “I am so sorry to have interrupted your day. I am quite tired and my son is waiting outside.”
Mr. Thomas stood to shake Otto’s hand. “Well, if you say so. I do hope you get some rest, sir.”
“Sank you,” Otto said. He walked out of the office and thanked Bess for the water on his way to the hallway.
The next morning, Otto stood over the cavern in the middle of his new property. Franklin James, the foreman for Otto’s construction team stood next to him.
“Not sure what to make of this, Mr. Zimmerman,” said Frank.
“Zat would make ze two of us.”
“I suppose, we could save some time and just use this as your cellar.”
Otto turned to Frank, “Vat do you mean?”
“Well,” Frank put his hands out in front of him, “we could brick over that hole, seal it up real good. The walls look sound, so we might be able to put the walls to the cellar just on the inside of the rock. We’d have to make sure it drained well, but there’s no problem there since we can funnel the water into that hole.”
Otto stared at the rock walls, contemplating Frank’s idea. He twisted the end of his mustache as he considered the plan.
“You could be zertain the vater vould drain properly?”
Frank scratched his chin. “Yes, Mr. Zimmerman, I believe we can make it work. It’ll save you the cost to dig a cellar, it’ll close off that cavern, and you get to keep your property.”
A smirk formed on Otto’s face. It seemed he had developed some American stubbornness. “Alright zen, let us get to vork.”