The Springhouse


We grew up in an old house on a lonely lane. The cedar shingles had long turned weathered and warped. At night, the moon would give them an eerie light and make me think that ghosts and phantasms were dancing across the creaky roof. It wasn’t a dreary place, though. It had a character that only age could give it. The stairs sang like a flock of nightingales when we ran down them for breakfast. When the wind clattered across the roof, Didi and I would bounce on the stairs. My sister made the best music. She knew each step, and on those days when she was especially nimble, the music would flow through the house. She took those ominous creaks and turned them into a celebration. Those nights, I didn’t dream of ghosts or monsters, I danced in a garden with Didi, twirling around and round, until dawn finally broke my revere and the roof just creaked again.

A thin creek babbled behind our house. Didi and I played in the shallow water, flipping rocks and chasing the crawdads that scurried away. Sometimes, she would throw the ones she caught at me and laugh as they clung to my shirt. Wherever we wandered in the creek bed, I never went close to the old springhouse that slowly crumbled next to the water. It was just a stone’s throw from where we played, but I never approached it. In the old days, before refrigerators, people carried blocks of ice to the springhouse and stored their food there. A spring broke the surface just under the foundation. The cold water coming up from the depths of the earth kept the ice from melting in the summer. Our mother warned us about the dangers of the springhouse each time we ran from the house to play. I crafted a vision of the inside of the springhouse that terrified me. The foundation stones groaned and cracked, shadows murmured in the ice coves, ghosts of starvation whirled around the cold water. When the little house lost its purpose in the modern age, it filled with resentment. To me, it was a menacing place. Didi, of course, was fascinated by the mysteries beyond that dark little door. Every time we ran along the creek, I would stop short as we neared the springhouse. It was only the invisible string connecting us that kept Didi from charging right through the crooked door. She would stop as it went taut and whirl on me with a disdainful look. The guilt of my cowardice never overcame my fear. When I half turned away, hiding or running I could never tell, she would run past me, splashing water with every strident step. I think she threw those little creatures at me in revenge, or maybe she just wanted to teach me to overcome my fear.

I began to have a dream about the springhouse. Some nights, even Didi’s dancing wasn’t enough to keep it at bay. I stood in front of it, frozen in place by fear. As my unwilling legs began to propel me forward, the springhouse grew to an impossible size. I screamed silently, but even I could not hear my terror. I felt my legs moving, but there was no sense of motion. The springhouse seemed to shuffle forward to loom over my upturned face. The door hung on a single hinge, revealing dark spaces beyond. My hand extended despite my desperate efforts to grasp it back. As the door fell away from its hinge, I was confronted by a fathomless void. The inside of the springhouse was a pit without end. Just a few last remnants of steps stood inside the door. They ended sharply at mid step. It was this realization that startled me; my willful feet had carried me to the very edge. Teetering there, with one foot poised over the darkness, I could only turn my head back towards the door. Didi was there, dancing in her garden, laughing at me. Finally, I began to turn the rest of my body, but I had strayed too close to the edge. Even as I reached towards her, I fell backwards off the steps. The light from outside the doorway quickly became a small dot in the distance and I was left with just the darkness and a breathless sense of falling. I never found the conclusion of that pit, I always awoke before I reached the bottom. The lingering fear from my dream mixed with frustration that another night had passed without a resolution. Even if I died finding the bottom of that pit, it would at least provide some answer. Didi probably knew, but I couldn’t ask the question in a way that her answer would make any sense to me.

After many starts and stops, I finally tried to explain my dream to her. She listened, with only a thin smile when I described her part. When I had finished, she sat for a moment. She laughed, grabbed my arm, and bounded towards the creek with me in tow. Without any hesitation, she led me to the springhouse. I didn’t try to stop her until she was reaching for the knob on that crooked door. I reached for her hand, but it was already pulling on the knob. The door fell off its hinge and revealed the dark space that I remembered from my dream. I could see the first step on the threshold, but little else inside. Didi paused, as if my trepidation had finally reached through her excitement. She turned to look at me as she put her foot on the first step. It crumbled under her weight, and her arm was wrenched out of my hand as she windmilled into the blackness. I stood frozen in place for a hundred years before I realized that the fearful whimpers were coming from my open mouth. I ran without any sense of direction until that invisible thread drew me up short. I turned to see Didi crawling out of the pit and back into the afternoon sunlight. I rushed to her side and helped her back to her feet. We made our way back to the house embracing each other feebly. We never spoke of the springhouse again, but we both shared it, unspoken, like a dream.

As we grew up, we went down to the creek less and less. The simple mysteries of our childhood were explained and understood one by one. I had the dream less and less, I began to forget about the springhouse, and it became an insignificant shadow that I easily pushed out of my mind. Didi moved away after college and our relationship became distant, but still warm. Our fondness was all the greater because of the distance. We had shared so many stories in our lives. They became myth in our memories so that we could never truly separate ourselves from each other.

Didi died suddenly, a car accident, a drunk, a wet road… the facts washed over me in a flood. The voice on the telephone became squeaky and thin as I suddenly found myself staring into the void under the springhouse again. It was a waking dream. As the phone slipped out of my fingers, I felt like I was falling into that gulf, as if the last twenty years had changed nothing. I opened my mouth to cry out, but all I heard was the clatter of the phone striking the floor. The meaning dripped out of my life. The maturity I had so carefully crafted seemed like a cracked shell around a rotten egg. I started having the dream again. It was the same dream, but its impact was doubled. Her wit and courage had not protected her, and I had neither of those.

Eventually, after I had lost more than I thought I had, I went back to the old house by the creek. It was still abandoned and decaying. The roof had collapsed, the door was propped against the frame. It was so much like the house in my dream that it rooted me in place. It towered over me until I realized that I was shuffling towards the broken door. A strange mania overcame me, I laughed and bounded up the front steps. I only paused for an instant as I reached for the knob. As the door fell away, I saw nothing but a dark void inside the house. Fear gripped me again, and I stopped laughing. I turned to run away, but caught my foot on the threshold. I reached for the door frame as I fell backwards, but it just splintered in my grasp. I fell through the rotted floor and landed in a heap in a pool of water.

I can’t say how long I lay there. Night had fallen outside, some wisps of moonlight crept through the hole in the floor above me. As I limped to the root cellar steps, the dim light glinted on something by my feet. I reached down and brushed the dirt away from a small gold necklace. I cupped it in my hands and realized that it was Didi’s. On the back was a picture of the two of us. I passed my finger over her smiling face and a wave of energy coursed through me. I felt her infectious laugh propel me up the steps and away from the creek. Now, my feet moved at my accord. I strode away from the springhouse, only looking back when I reached the road. When I looked at the house, the menace had faded, replaced by the dull ache of healing. Somehow, I knew that the old dream would not trouble me anymore.

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