The Cistern

“Don’t go looking in there,” my father says.

Not to my seven-year-old self, worrying the ceiling panel in the milkhouse, wanting to see where the dubious wiring disappeared to and where the barn cats go to die.

Not to my seventeen-year-old self, poking around the metal chest hidden beneath a vinyl tablecloth in the basement where all the letters he wrote to women before my mother are stored, covered in mildew and cat piss.

He said it to my thirty-year-old self, balancing on the loose cement slab on my grandmother’s back porch, picking rust flakes off of the hand pump I played with as a child. It’s limp handle had no resistance. No draw.

“There’s a cistern down there,” he says. “They used to be lined and every so often, you’d pay someone to empty it out and scrub it. But, we moved here in 1963 and it’s never been opened since then. You don’t know what could be down there. You don’t want to know. Just leave it alone.”

Wisdom imparted, he reverses his riding lawn mower and buzzes away.

My grandmother’s backyard has always been a place of danger and mystery. From the large sandstone stoop someone robbed from the Union Canal lock across the creek, strange, red and out of place with the limestone topography, to the mossy brick under the wizened apple tree where my brother and I buried the pigeon we hatched. The little mewling squab, which died two days out of the shell.

He said it was because I spilled the white sloppy pigeon milk we’d made.

He said it was my fault.

I spent summers in that backyard, walking on curled toes to avoid the spiny shells dropped by the Japanese Chestnut. Brutal, sharp hidden hedgehogs obscured by lawn and shade. Between the chestnut tree and the pine tree, the grass never grew quite right on that side of the house. I’d sit on the back porch and watch my grandmother use an ax to decapitate my pet chickens. Their blinking heads rolled down the ha-ha, chased by her mongrel mutt while their wings flapped wildly. We’d sit on the stoop, plucking the carcass. The dog chomped away at the bones and brain while lying at our feet.

I actually hadn’t been thinking about looking in the cistern until my father told me not to do it. However, I’m the sort of person emboldened by a warning.

I shift on the cement slab again, hearing concrete knock and the hollowness beneath.

Had I been a child, I’d have spent the afternoon lying on the porch, daydreaming about the undiscovered glowing fishes swimming beneath. Water dragons. Or plasma eels. Or tiny mer-fairies, no bigger than my pinky. I’d have gathered up my friends some blissful Saturday and, armed with a weak flashlight and our tiny arms, worked at that slab until someone called us for supper.

Had I been a teenager, I’d have sneaked up the hill to my father’s shop, grabbed the railroad jack, and lifted the thing myself, bent on some ecological fantasy of green slime and festering water. New pharmaceutical ingredients like those found in the rain forest. Or, perhaps I’d contract scarlet fever and come to a beautiful death.

I’m thirty. The slab rocks beneath my feet.

Corpses, I think. It’s got to be corpses.

I don’t know why it’s got to be corpses, but the thought does its job. I abandon the backyard for the warm safety of the asbestos tiled kitchen and Formica counter-tops.

A few weeks later, I’m in the ground cellar with a flashlight clutched between my teeth. Perfect white and gray molds grow on my experiment cheeses. I flip one over to find an phosphorescent yellow creeping up the side. I try to wipe it away with a cotton rag, effectively spreading it all over the wheel. Jaw aching, I set the flashlight on the shelf and scrub harder. Still, a glowing smear remains.

Below my feet are bricks caked with years of potato dirt. Gnarled meat hooks hang from the white washed ceiling. The steps are slick with moisture and dust. There are no lights unless you bring your own.

I used to hate the ground cellar. Hated having to walk down the damp stairs to get ingredients for my grandmother’s Sunday dinners. Hated having to pass it to get outside, the stench of wet wood, garden tools, and earth. I still avoid visiting it at night.

Moisture beads on the southwest wall where the cellar is abutted by the cistern. It’s fifty-six degrees in the cellar. Eight-five percent moisture. Perfect for cheese, in part because of that cistern. Water no longer trickles off the roof to fill it. Whatever remains inside it is older than I am. It’s existence forces its way into my mind at the oddest moments. While kneading bread or shaking out fodder bedding.

During the daytime, it seems to me that everyone should have a working cistern, a means of collecting clean rain water. It’s a matter of conservation. And protection, because no one is going to want to hoof it down to the creek during the zombie apocalypse. I tell myself I’ll hire some Amishmen to open the cistern up and give it a good scrub. I’ll do it sometime when I am far away and don’t have to see what is within.

There used to be an open dry cistern by the barn, my father said. It was full of rats. He’d grab up one of the half-feral barn cats and toss them into it, watching them slaughter rats like some kind of bestial Thunderdome. In his defense, my father has a complicated relationship with rats. As a child, they’d chewed clear through every closed door in their former home. My grandpop would give my five-year-old father a baseball bat and chase them out from under the chicken coop with a laundry pole.

My father had to kill as many as possible.

Our wagon shed was built with a concrete base to deter rats from making nests. It was moved, piece by piece, across the county when my grandparents’ bought the farm in 1963. It had to be rebuilt, piece by piece, too. One of the workmen fell from the second floor and died during its reconstruction. We once picked currants at the foreman’s house after seeing an ad for free fruit in the newspaper. “Don’t mention the farm,” my mother said.

I tell myself there is nothing scary in the cistern. It’s just old water and dirt. I tell myself I have an anxiety disorder and need to stop avoiding the backyard. I remind myself that my father might have an anxiety disorder, too. Once, when cleaning up fishermen’s trash along the creek, my mother came across a lone black garbage bag hanging from a tree.

“Don’t open it,Janey,” he told her. “You don’t know what’s inside. Don’t know what someone would leave so far out here.”

It was beer cans.

I tell myself the only terrible things that happened around our farm occurred centuries ago. The neighboring farm where the owner pinched the fingers of six Lenni Lanape into a log by pulling out the wedges and shot them all, inciting years of raids and death. The mill down the road where the tribe exacted their revenge. One scalped thirteen-year-old girl and a baby survived. The twin farms over the hill that face each other, one lane split between them. Barn looks at barn. House looks at house. Two brothers built those farms. Two brothers worked side-by-side. Then, something happened and there was only one brother left. No one asked questions. No one asked why. They just accepted that one farmer suddenly had two farms facing each other.

But these are old stories.

Stories of things that happened decades ago.

Stories from long before my family bought the farm.

They shouldn’t concern us. Just like the contents of the cistern.

Snow coats the split wood stacked on the back porch. My friends and I are half-drunk, stumbling around for the beer we’ve stashed in the ground cellar, gathering logs to feed the woodstove to keep us warm.

A hollow thunk as one of them trips over the concrete slab.

“What’s that?” he asks, piling my arms high with wood.

“The old cistern. It borders the ground cellar. Helps it maintain its temperature in the summer and keeps the moisture steady.” I lift my chin higher so he can shove another log on the pile.

“Cistern? We’re going to need one of those for the zombie apocalypse.”

I stomp the snow off my boots before going inside, shake my head. “Don’t go looking in there,” I say. “You don’t want to know.”

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