Bones in the Cellar

Cheryl Spanos

Ida shoved her bonnet back from her face, stood on tiptoe, and pressed her eye to the hole in the board fence.  The knothole limited her vision to a small circle, as though she were a pirate looking through a spyglass.  She squinted, peering into the forge.  There, a giant man raised a hammer in his meaty fist and brought it crashing down on an anvil.  Ida shuddered, wiped sweaty palms on her soiled pinafore, then blinked.  Where was that old key?

“Do you see it?”  Finn’s warm breath blew against her ear.  He jostled her shoulder.  “Let me look.”

“Shhh.”  Ida batted her brother away and pressed her face against the rough wooden plank.  She gritted her teeth, remembering Jake Scully’s sneering expression when he’d dared Finn.

Scully had towered a full head over Finn and squinted through an eye half-swollen shut, token of a fight with a boy twice his size.  Scully wore that black eye as if it were a badge of courage.  Every boy in town feared him.  Every boy wanted to be him.

“Are you a lily-livered coward or ain’t you?” Scully had challenged.  “You ain’t man enough to steal the key to old Pappas’s root cellar.”

Finn’s baggy trousers hadn’t been able to hide his trembling knees.  But no one called an O’Reilly a coward.  Finn had bristled and accepted the challenge.  Wherever Finn went, Ida followed.  She’d had to accept the dare, too.  Family honor depended on it.

Ida peered through the hole and cast a wary glance at the blacksmith.  Massive arms as thick as tree trunks flexed, wielding the hammer.  The tool fell, shaping metal with a ringing clang.  Sparks shot up like fireworks, lighting the blacksmith’s sweat-soaked face in an eerie other-worldly glow.  Ida could not tear her eyes from his face.  Red.  Like Beelzebub himself.

“Repent.”  The traveling preacher’s words echoed inside her head, churning up memories of yesterday’s tent revival meeting.  “Repent or you shall burn in the fiery pits of Hell.”

Smoke from the forge’s fire stung Ida’s eyes.  A shiver slithered down her spine.  She did not want to think about the scary blacksmith, the Prince of Darkness, or the preacher.  She had to go through with this caper.  No one would rightly call it stealing anyway, would they?   More like borrowing.

“You’re taking too long.”  Finn shoved Ida aside.  “It’s my turn now.”  Maybe he’d have better luck spotting the key.

“I found it,” Finn said.

He pulled his gaze from the hole.  His freckled cheeks and bright eyes glowed with excitement.  A victorious grin lit his flushed face.  Nothing like the ashen look he’d had when facing Scully.

“Where?”  Ida peered through the gap.

“Right behind Mr. Pappas,” Finn whispered. “Hanging from the post.”

Ida forced her gaze past the enormous man to the wooden pole behind him.  Dangling from a bent nail was a great iron key.  The key to Mr. Pappas’s root cellar.

Nobody put a padlock on a root cellar.  What was he hiding down there?  Bones, Scully had said.  Bones of men he’d killed with his bare hands.  Hands the width of the anvil on which he pounded horseshoes.  Hands powerful enough to crush anything within their grasp.

Could Scully be right?  Mr. Pappas had not come to yesterday’s tent revival meeting.  All the rest of the townsfolk were there.  Mr. Pappas was a loner and kept to himself.  Hairs prickled on the back of Ida’s neck.  Maybe the blacksmith was Beelzebub.

The clanging ceased.  Ida’s gaze flicked to Mr. Pappas.  The smithy’s hammer, gripped in his immense hand, lay still on the anvil.  His puffy, red face turned toward the fence.  Ida’s breath caught.  Dark eyes under beetled brows stared at her.

Ida shot back from the fence as if she’d been scorched by hellfire itself.  Her heart hammered.  Had he seen her?

“What happened?”  Finn stared wide-eyed at Ida.  His fingers gripped her arm.

Heavy footsteps pounded the ground.  Ida stood frozen, too scared to flee or utter a word.  Hinges creaked.  A wooden door clattered shut.  Finn pressed his face to the knothole again.

“Look, he’s gone,” Finn said.

False alarm.  Ida relaxed.  That had been too close.

“Now’s our chance,” Finn said.

He beckoned Ida to follow, then darted along the board fence.  He stopped at the gate, his fingers slipping between the rails to lift the latch.  The latch clicked.  The gate swung open.  Creeeeeak.

Ida’s gaze flitted to an immense stone fire pit in the center of the dirt yard, flames still crackling on a pile of blackened logs.  A large iron anvil was mounted on a pedestal nearby.  A shed stood to the right, its door ajar.  An assortment of tongs, hammers, and other tools were visible inside.  Cords of wood lay stacked against the shed, supported on one side by a thick wooden pole.  The key dangled from the post on a bent nail, taunting her the way Scully had.

“Mr. Pappas must be in his cabin,” Finn whispered.

Mr. Pappas’s house was situated another twenty feet beyond the fire pit.  Curtainless windows faced the yard, overlooking the entire forge.  Ida sucked in a breath, her eyes riveted on the cabin.  The hulking shape of the blacksmith darkened a window, then lumbered out of sight.

“Now,” she whispered.

Finn tiptoed into the yard.  Ida scampered after him.  She skirted the fire pit and crouched behind the accordion bellows.  Twenty feet of open dirt stretched between her and the post.

An orange-yellow glow from the forge’s fire lit Finn’s face.  His hair shone copper, the color of Gran O’Reilly’s polished kettle on the pot-bellied stove.  His lips clamped shut in a thin line, his eyes focused on the key.  He turned to Ida and nodded once.  Didn’t have to say a word.  She knew what he meant.  They’d have to make a dash for the key.

Finn sprinted across the open yard.  Ida scrambled to keep up, her gingham skirt and cotton pinafore flapping against her legs.  Finn reached the post first, grabbed the key, and snatched it down.  Ida barreled into him, gripped her brother’s shirt, and pulled him around the corner of the tool shed out of sight.  She crouched behind the wood pile, panting for breath, the great black key secure in Finn’s fist.

“You got it,” she whispered.

Ida stole a glance around the corner at the bare windows of the smithy’s cabin.  No sign of Mr. Pappas.  One final dash out the gate and she’d be done with this caper.

“Let’s go.”  Ida motioned toward the gate, then looked back at Finn.

He didn’t move.  Just stared down at the iron key in his open palm.  What was wrong with him?

“Finn?”  Ida grabbed her brother’s arm.

Finn chewed his lip.  His green eyes looked up, but not at her.  He turned from the gate toward a spot another twenty feet further away where the ground sloped to a dug-out threshold.  He stared at the door to an underground room, secured by a heavy padlock.  Mr. Pappas’s root cellar.  Finn had a look in his eyes like the stare of a hound dog sniffing after a rabbit.

“Finn?”  Ida tugged on his sleeve.  “Scully said to take the key.  We done our part.  Let’s go.”

“No.”  Finn shook his head.  “Jake Scully called me a coward.  Nobody calls an O’Reilly a coward and gets away with it.  I’m fixing to do Scully one better.  Going to find out what’s in that root cellar.”

“But Mr. Pappas?”

“He didn’t come after us, did he?”  Finn peeked around the corner toward the cabin.  “Come on.”

Finn crept toward the root cellar, his body bent low.  Ida remained by the wood pile, her fingers twisting the ties of her bonnet.  Taking the key was bad enough, but this felt plain wrong.

“Fire and brimstone.”  The preacher’s powerful voice rang in Ida’s memory.  His eyes had bored into hers as if he could see into her soul.  “Eternal damnation awaits those who will not repent.  For the wages of sin is death.”

Ida clamped her eyes shut.  She did not want to die.  Not in the massive hands of the blacksmith.  Not to end up in the fiery pits of Hell.  But neither could she let Finn go alone.  Her eyes popped open wide.  She dashed toward the root cellar after Finn.

The key chattered in the lock.  The bolt slid.  Finn pulled the padlock from the hook and opened the door.  Ida shot one last glance over her shoulder toward the cabin, then slipped inside the cool root cellar.

Braided onions and garlic dangled from the ceiling, their pungent odor filling the underground space.  Salt pork hung suspended on a hook.  Potatoes and other root vegetables filled bushel baskets.  Jars of preserves hugged the shelves.  All visible in the sunlight that streamed through the open doorway.  Just what you would expect in a root cellar.  Except for one low table placed against the far wall.

Ida crept forward, her shadow lengthening across the dirt floor.  Half-burnt tallow candles and a portrait in a silver frame rested on the table.  The daguerreotype was of a young woman in a gown trimmed in lace.  A square wooden box, roughly the size of a bushel basket, lay alongside the portrait.  Letters had been chiseled in the lid.

“M-A-P-I-A,” Ida read. The next letter was a symbol she did not recognize.  A square missing the bottom.  Then ‘A’.  Then the strange symbol repeated twice more.  Then ‘O-U.’  Two dates were carved beneath the writing.  ‘1845 – 1865.’  1865?  Two years ago.

“What do you suppose it is?”  Finn stared at the mysterious box.

Ida thought of the large cedar chest that held Ma’s linens.  No, this container was too small.  Then she remembered the carved box in which Ma kept Pa’s letters, but this was too large for letters.  She shrugged.

“Only one way to find out.”  Finn moistened his lips and swallowed.  He reached a shaking hand toward the lid and pried it up.

The empty eye sockets of a skull stared out of the box.  Bits of decayed flesh and strands of long, dark hair still clung to its scalp.  Bones.  Bones, like Scully had said.

Ida shrieked.  Finn yelped.  The lid fell with a crash to the table top.  The portrait tumbled to the floor.

Outside, a door slammed.  The blacksmith.  Ida’s throat constricted as if his meaty fingers now clamped around her neck.  Mr. Pappas.  She was as good as dead.

“Run,” Finn shouted.

He scrambled out of the root cellar and bolted for the gate in a full-out run.  Ida trailed behind, skirts tangling around her legs, hobbling her stride.  Shouts of rage carried over the forge.  Heavy footsteps thundered closer.  Ida glanced over her shoulder.  Mr. Pappas lurched toward her, his bearded face a blotchy scarlet.  The blacksmith shook his fist and bellowed, shouting in a language she did not comprehend.  But she understood his meaning well enough.

“For the wages of sin is death.”  The revival preacher’s message echoed in her head.

Finn had reached the gate.  Ida focused on her brother and sprinted forward.  If only her legs would run faster, maybe she could make it, too.

Something clamped on her pinafore and hauled her back.  Caught.  Ida screamed.  Crushing hands gripped her shoulders and turned her.  The blacksmith’s dark eyes narrowed under bushy black brows.

“What you doing here?”  Mr. Pappas shouted.  Veins bulged on his thick neck.

“Let me go.”  Ida twisted against his iron grip, but she couldn’t pull loose.  “Fiiiiinn,” she shrieked.

“Let her go.”  Finn appeared at Pappas’s elbow.  “It was my fault.  Not hers.”  He grabbed the smithy’s muscled arm and tugged.  “I made her go into the root cellar.”

Finn’s spindly arms were no match for the brawn of a grown man.  The blacksmith did not loosen his hold, yet stared at Finn as if trying to grasp the boy’s meaning.  Then he looked toward the root cellar.  The wooden door hung open, sunlight streaming into the storage room.  Light glinted off the toppled silver frame on the ground.

Mr. Pappas’s fingers tightened on Ida’s shoulders, her flesh pinched in his bruising grip.  She squeezed her eyes shut.  No amount of pleading would help her now.  Perhaps if she confessed her sins, God would have mercy on her soul.

“Our Father, who art in heaven,” Ida whispered under her breath.

The blacksmith howled like a wounded grizzly.  He pushed her away and staggered toward the root cellar.  Ida teetered on unsteady legs.  Had Mr. Pappas just let her go?  Had God answered her prayers?

“Run,” Finn whispered, tugging Ida’s sleeve.

No.  Something held her back, kept her glued to her spot.  Mr. Pappas stumbled into the root cellar.  His massive body crumbled.  His yowl of pain cut Ida to the quick.  She watched in horrified fascination.

“Maria. Maria,” he repeated.  A woman’s name.

Those strange symbols on the box.  Were the carvings a name and dates like on a tombstone?  Was the box some sort of coffin?

“The bones,” Ida said.  “They belong to the woman in the portrait.”

“Reckon he killed her?” Finn whispered.

“I don’t think so.  Why do you say that?”  Ida shook her head, remembering the picture.  Was the gown with the lacey collar a wedding dress?  “I think she was his wife.”

The realization sunk to the pit of Ida’s stomach heavier than a mess of Gran’s potato pancakes.  This was no game.  What they’d done was wrong.

“So what do we do now?”  Ida looked to Finn.  Maybe he had an idea.

Finn’s shoulders slumped.  He didn’t meet her gaze. Just hung his head like a penitent dog that had been scolded for chewing on Pa’s boots.

“I reckon we do what Pa would do.”  Finn shrugged.  He bit his lip, then straightened.  “We apologize to Mr. Pappas and take what we got coming.”

Finn headed for the cellar.  Ida winced at the thought.  Her feet felt leaden, unwilling to move.  But if Finn could do this, so could she.  She lifted her chin and marched after her brother.

“Mr. Pappas, sir.”  Finn’s voice quavered.  “We’re sorry.  We didn’t mean any harm.  Honest.  We didn’t know it was a grave.”

Ida stared at her scuffed shoes, not daring to lift her eyes.  Her fingers plucked at her gingham dress.  What would Mr. Pappas do to them now?

“What you think?” Mr. Pappas said.  “We are Greek Orthodox.”

What did that mean?  Ida’s gaze flicked up.  Mr. Pappas lowered the lid on the box.  He lifted the frame from the floor and cradled the portrait in his massive hands.

“I bury her,” he said, his rumbling voice soft.  “Then dig her up after one year, like in Greece.  But there is no church here to keep her bones for the Resurrection.”

Pride and a sort of nostalgia tinged Mr. Pappas’s voice.  It reminded Ida of Gran when she’d tell tales of the Old Country.  He replaced the picture on the table.  A tear spilled onto his wiry whiskers.

“Why you disturb her grave?”

Pinpricks of moisture stung Ida’s eyes.  She couldn’t hold them back.  She wiped her face on her sleeve.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “We didn’t know.”

Ida avoided his eyes.  Didn’t feel proper to stare.  She looked down at the blacksmith’s huge hands, hands that needed a friend.  She placed her small palm in his, feeling warmth in his calloused fingers.  Mr. Pappas wasn’t a monster.  Finn wasn’t a coward either.  Jake Scully had been wrong.  About everything.


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