THE ROOT CELLAR
By Anne Sullivan
Copyright Anne Sullivan, 1999
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Patty latches the doors of the cellar above her head and pulls
board across them. It's dark. The baby is crying, the five-year-old is
whimpering and the teenager is sulking. "It's okay. It's okay," she
reassures her family.
"Dad said go to the BASEMENT!" The teenager whines, "This place gives me the
The five-year-old pulls on her pant leg. "Mommy, are there really spiders in
She shoots a look at her oldest child. "Thanks, Tracy. You're SO helpful!"
She takes the kerosene lantern down from the shelves above the workbench and
lights it. A soft glow fills the room and suddenly it's not so scary. "See,
Tommy? It's okay. There's nothing scary here." A rolled-up old rug
straddles two plastic milk crates against the fieldstone wall and Patty hefts
it up and rolls it out across the dirt floor. "It's really comfortable down
here." Tommy throw himself on the rug and begins rolling his truck around it,
making car noises.
She picks the baby up and brushes the dirt from the seat of her pants. Two
of the chairs from the old dining room set are here and she sits in the one
beside the workbench to nurse Minerva. Tracy walks the circumference of the
cellar, examining the items collected there. "How much time do you SPEND
Warren had cleaned this place out to the walls but over a half dozen years
Patty filled it up again. Lately, she came here as often as she could but she
didn't tell that to Tracy. She repotted her houseplants here where a little
dirt on a dirt floor made no difference. All her garden tools sat beside the
stairs and her straw hat hung atop a shovel handle. This was the place she
came to escape, to center herself. It was HER place and she was snug here and
safe. So when Warren called, instead of heading for the basement, she dragged
the kids across the stormy yard to the old root cellar beside the barn.
The thunder rumbles loudly, even down here under the earth. The rain, heavy
again, drips through the cracks in the door onto the steps.
"Dad's gonna be worried if he's trying to call us, " Tracy says. "I don't
know WHY we can't have a cel phone like everybody else on planet earth!"
Patty knew Tracy was just mad because she'd had to get off the phone. When
Warren called from town to tell them the storm siren had sounded there, Tracy
was talking to her girlfriend Peg. They thought it was cool to talk through
the tornado and compare notes from one side of the county to the other but
Patty made her hang up. There was an extension in the basement but not here.
Hence the attitude.
"Tracy," she says softly so as not to disturb the baby. "In the tin behind
you there's some snacks. Why don't you grab some for you and Tommy?" Tracy
gives her a look meant to convey utter boredom, mild annoyance and total
detachment. "Please." The morose teen does as she is told and plops down on
the rug with her brother and a handful of granola bars.
Hail begins to pound on the wooden doors of the cellar. The wind makes them
shudder against the brace. Patty feels pressure in her ears and for the first
time is afraid. This is the safest place in the world, she tells herself. I
made it that way. She looks around at the colorful jars of fruits and
vegetables that she'd canned last fall and the bottles of wine in the small
rack. Braided garlic and drying herbs and flowers hung suspended from the
wooden ceiling by bits of brightly colored ribbon. The stone walls and dirt
floor of the cellar that once felt cold and inhospitable, almost cave-like,
now feel warm and safe and womb-like.
Tracy fingers the lock on the old cedar chest. "What's in here?"
"Just some personal stuff of mine."
Tommy runs his truck up over the top of the chest and then over the top of
Tracy and she rolls her eyes in feigned annoyance. "I mean, what could be SO
"Well, I have sort of a journal that I maintain and some keepsakes and
"YOU keep a journal? What do you write about? It's not like we have
thrilling lives around here or anything."
Patty would tell her one day but not now. Now she was busy pulling away from
her parents, busy being a teenager. "You lock your diary don't you? I'll let
you read mine if I can read yours." Tracy blushes and turns away and Patty
looks down at the baby, contented at her breast. One day you'll pull away
from me too. One day you'll write passionate entries in your diary about a
boy that you'll die without today and next week denounce.
The storm is howling now and she hears something banging rhythmically above
them like a loose shutter or an open door on the barn being slammed by the
wind. How will Tracy take it, she wonders, when she learns what's in that
chest- when she learns about the ceremonial robes and the candles and chalice
and tools and talismans- and her Book of Shadows where she records her rituals
and spells? How will she feel when she learns that her mother has stood naked
in a cornfield on a summer night and drawn down the power of the moon? That
during the full moon, while they slept in their beds, Mommy called the powers
of earth, fire, wind and water into a circle of candles in their root cellar?
Patty planned to explain to her how she found the first book- or it found her-
at a flea market, thinking it was about mythology. But it was about the
Goddess within, and Mother Nature and her seasons, and the turning of the
wheel of life. This belief system stunned her with its simplicity.
Harm no one. Do what you will. That was it.
Warren considered it a passing fancy and said, "Can't you find someplace else
to do this?" when she sat in their bedroom drumming, amid the incense and
candles. So he cleaned out the root cellar. And from there, her life just
got better and better. She did a Native American banishing ceremony and
danced around the cellar with bells and a smoking bundle of sage, and from
then on the spiders didn't spin webs between the drying herbs and the mice
didn't nest in her rug. She loved coming back from the root cellar smelling
of oils and incense and herbs and climbing in bed with Warren who invariably
greeted her passionately. The subtlety and grandeur of Nature, which she
never fully appreciated before, now presented herself every day. Patty could
weave an elaborate ceremony or, passing a window on All-Hallows Eve say,
"Boo!" at the full moon hovering in the sky. Her celebration of faith could
be anything and anywhere she wanted. It was hers and hers alone.
She closes her eyes and imagines a circle of light around the four of them in
the cellar, a protective circle. She kicks off her shoes and feels the cool
earth on her feet. The wind whistles and she feels the energy in the circle
build and the circle grows brighter.
WHAM! Something slams against the barn, something big. Minerva startles in
her arms and Tommy and Tracy leap toward her. There is a growing roar above
them now and Patty can hardly hear her own voice when she yells.
"Under the workbench! Get under the workbench!"
They huddle together against the cool fieldstone wall, under the solid wood of
the heavy workbench as the storm explodes without. It is the loudest most
terrible sound she ever heard. No plane crash, no train wreck, no artillery
could be louder. It is the sound of unrestrained fury. It is tree shredding,
metal ripping, lumber snapping, debris crashing, structures groaning, earth
This is not terror! She commands herself. It's energy! Patty closes her
eyes and tries to see the glowing protective circle again but she can't. She
knows her children are crying but she can't hear them. She encircles her arms
around them. She pulls them close and suddenly in her minds eye the circle
begins to glow.
The noise crescendos, then begins to ease, when BAM! Something slams against
the door of the cellar and they all scream. The sound of Minerva crying
becomes audible and slowly grows louder and Patty realizes that the storm is
"It's almost over!" She kisses the top of each child's head. "We're okay!"
The roar passes into the distance like a freight train speeding away. They
huddle together until the rain and Minerva's sniffling are the only sounds
"Is it over yet?" Tommy asks trembling.
Patty stands up. "Yeah, it's over honey. You guys can come out." She hands
Minerva to Tracy. "Wait here. I'll make sure everything's okay at the
Tommy and Tracy protest loudly as she removes the brace board and pushes the
doors. They won't give. She peers up. She can see daylight through the
broken board just above the latch. It IS over. A wave of relief flows
through her. Pushing again, she finds the top of the door gives but the
bottom is held fast. "Something must have fallen against the door."
"Oh, GREAT!" Tracy whines. "Now we're stuck down here!" She plops down on
the rug and Tommy looks afraid again.
"Oh come on you two. It's not so bad! When Daddy gets home he'll let us out.
In the meantime" Patty's eyes scan the room for something to occupy the kids.
"Let's have a picnic!" She stretches to the top shelf and pulls the picnic
basket down and the feel of the comforter rolled up behind it makes her laugh
out loud and she can't stop. Yesterday after she dropped Minerva at Grandma's
and the other kids at school, she brought it, the picnic basket and a bottle
of champagne, and Warren, here. But they drank the champagne and made love on
the floor of the cellar then opened a bottle of wine and made love again and
again and slept in each others arms and forgot about the picnic. They stayed
here until Grandma's car honked in the driveway after school.
Her laughter is contagious and Tommy laughs, which makes Minerva laugh and
clap her chubby little hands, which makes Tracy laugh at how goofy her family
is. On the red checked tablecloth they set out the plates and the food. The
bread isn't too stale. The cheese is fine and the grapes too. She opens a
jar of peaches from the shelves and a jug of cider. The kids dig in while she
feeds some mashed peaches to Minerva who laughs and coos at this new taste.
They talk about the science fair at Tommy's school, and the play at Tracy's, and tell jokes.
Soon, his full belly and the excitement of the day get to him and Tommy's eyes
begin to droop. Patty wipes Tommy and Minerva's sticky hands and covers them
with the comforter and they fall fast asleep. Tracy lies down beside them.
Patty sits on the steps listening for Warren's pickup in the drive and looks
at her beautiful children. Tracy looks so angelic, not like the defiant child
she was earlier. She has a spark though; a no-bullshit-take-no-prisoners-
damn-the-torpedoes attitude that will take her places one day. When she calms
down, gets a little more mature- then I'll tell her.
Lying back against the wooden steps, her head resting on her arm, she listens.
But the birds, chirping at their worm bounty after the storm, lull her to
The low whine is the sound that pulls her out of her slumber. A siren-
several sirens- and they're growing closer. And voices. Warren! She sits
upright and listens. There are many voices but she can't make out what is
said. The vehicles with the sirens pull into the drive and she hears the
crackle of a police radio. What's going on out there? She can't yell. Her
cries would get lost in the activity. "I have to let them know we're here."
She grabs the rake from the wall, the one with the slenderest handle, and
drapes the red checked tablecloth over it. The crack in the wooden plank
above the door latch isn't quite big enough but Patty forces it through and
waves it back and forth.
Finally she hears a voice. "What is that, over there?" The approaching
voice calls. "Hello? Patty?" She knows that voice.
"Derek?" she calls back. "We're in here!"
She pulls the broom back and peers through the hole at their friend. "I found
em! They're okay!" He yells back toward the house. "They're down here!"
The kids stir. In the distance she hears Warren shriek, "Patty!" Suddenly he
is there. "Patty, Patty is that you?" His fingers poke through the hole and
Patty reaches for them. "Oh, my God! You're okay." And he begins to sob.
There's a loud scraping as the object blocking the cellar doors is dragged
away and the doors open and the cellar floods with light and Warren leaps down
the steps into Patty's arms. He enfolds her into a hungry embrace. Tracy and
Tommy spring from their naps and run to their dad. "You're okay! You're
okay," he says over and over again, and falls to his knees and kisses and bear
hugs them with tears streaming down his face.
Patty looks up at the brightly backlit crowd of neighbors standing at the door
to the cellar. She holds up her hand and someone takes it and helps her up
the steps into the light. "Thank you," she says to Derek who looks beyond her
toward the house.
Below she hears Minerva cry, "Da-Da!" and hears Warrens blubbering reply, as
she turns and sees her house gone. Where the house used to be is a pile of
lumber collapsed like a matchstick house.
She reels down the stairs to her husband's side. He holds her face in his
hands. "I thought you were in the basement. It all collapsed" He stares at
her amazed. "You're okay."
Patty takes her husband in her arms. "We're all okay, baby. We always will
be, " and she feels a silver circle of light surrounding them all.
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