The Root Cellar


From her playhouse inside the willow thicket Hannah heard her mother call, “Where are you, dear? I need you.”

After putting her clothespin dolls in their secret hiding place, Hannah went into the house.

“I’m glad you came so quickly, Hannah,” Mother said with a smile. “I must hurry over to Sister Hansen’s house. Would you please bring some potatoes from the root cellar so I can start supper when I come back.”

“Oh, Mother!” Hannah’s skin prickled with dread. “The cellar’s full of spiders, and today I saw a toad hop out. I don’t want to go down there.”

“Sometimes we all must do things we don’t want to do. Take your little brother with you if you like,” Mother said, putting her hand on Sammy’s shoulder.

“I’ll go with you,” Sammy said good-naturedly. And standing tall and brave, he added, “I’m not afraid of anything!”

But after their mother started down the lane, her long skirt swinging and her flowered sunbonnet bright, Sammy said, “I don’t like that old root cellar much either.”

“I’ll tell Mother if you don’t come,” scolded Hannah.

Her brother poked his hands into his overall pockets defiantly and wouldn’t budge. Hannah glared at him a moment and then, trying to look brave, marched toward the slanting plank door placed at ground level behind the house. She lifted the door, then closed it quickly. Just to look at the uneven steps cut into the damp earth made Hannah shudder.

Spiders and dimness were bad enough, but yesterday she’d heard Father say to Mr. Hansen, “When we finish that irrigation ditch to my property line, I must take time to finish my root cellar. Those temporary supports propping up that dirt roof might not hold.”

If I had only remembered to tell Mother what Father said, thought Hannah, she wouldn’t want me and Sammy to go into the cellar. She turned to walk away. Then Hannah remembered how sad and weak Mother looked since the new baby died and how hard Father had to work. Hannah knew she must do her share, but she decided her brother would have to go with her whether he wanted to or not.

Hannah turned to Sammy, who had followed her. “You go down first,” she ordered.

“Not me!” his freckled face was stubborn.

“You’re just a fraidycat!”

Sammy cried, “I am not! Dumb old toads and spiders don’t scare me.” With that, he stooped and threw open the cellar door, and his sister barely managed to stop it from banging shut again.

Hannah started down the steps behind her brother, walking backward so she could prop the door open. Then Sammy’s voice, echoing in the small enclosure, mocked, “Hannah’s a fraidycat!”

Angry, she swung around, lost her hold on the door, and it banged shut, knocking her down the steps.

Hannah rose to her knees, terrified by the darkness. If toads and spiders were near, she couldn’t even see them.

“Hannah, what happened?” cried Sammy. But she didn’t answer because she was startled at the heaviness of wet earth falling on her head and shoulders.

The roof is caving in! she thought. The door banging shut must have knocked the boards loose that Father had used as props.

Nearby she heard her little brother call, “Oh, Hannah, help! I’m all covered with dirt!”

“I’ll be there in a minute, Sammy,” Hannah promised as she groped in the dark, trying to find the door to shove it open. But her searching hands clutched at only wet dirt. The entrance was blocked. She and Sammy were trapped in the root cellar.

The darkness around them was like nothing Hannah had ever imagined. Blue-dark of night with silver starlight was nothing like this brown-dark with its loamy dankness, a blackness filled with shifting dirt particles.

Sammy was crying with loud, choking sobs. I mustn’t cry, Hannah thought, even though I’m scared too. We don’t have enough air, and my chest is beginning to hurt.

She reached for her brother. When her hand touched his shoulder she struggled closer so that she could hug him.

“Don’t cry, Sammy,” she comforted. “We must try to breathe carefully so we don’t use up all the air in here.”

He gulped, “What can we do, Hannah?”

“We can pray,” she told him, and then closing her eyes Hannah began, “Heavenly Father, please help me and Sammy. We’re almost buried in this cellar and nobody’s home. Please help us get out.”

Talking hurt her throat so she said, “Amen,” silently. The air in the cellar was nearly gone.

Hannah was no longer worried about toads and spiders as she reached around the area where she and Sammy crouched. Her fingers touched a rough object. Running her hand across its surface she knew she had found a board Father had used to support the roof.

“Help me, Sammy,” she gasped. “Let’s try to poke a hole through over our heads.”

Her brother’s hands met hers. Together they grasped the splintery board, pushing it upright until Hannah felt it strike solid dirt.

“All right, Sammy. Let’s push, but be careful. We mustn’t knock any more dirt loose.”

Silent, gasping, they carefully prodded the unseen roof over their heads again and again.

Just as Sammy whispered, “I’m too tired, Hannah,” the board pushed free. They had broken through!

Sammy’s hands dropped, but Hannah, trembling, worked the board back and forth until she saw a blue circle of light. They had air, but would it be enough? There was still a tightness in her chest and Sammy, sobbing again, sounded feeble.

Hannah took a breath, then held it. “What’s that noise?” she whispered.

A steady thud, thump, thud vibrated the dirt around them. Someone is outside, but Mother wouldn’t have come back from the Hansens so soon, Hannah decided.

Suddenly an opening that let in more light and air appeared near the door and a man’s voice called, “Anybody there?”

“Yes! We’re in here.”

“You OK?”

Hannah couldn’t answer, but the man said, “Hang on. I’ll have you out in a minute.”

When a pair of hands appeared, Hannah somehow managed to push Sammy toward the opening where he could be pulled out. Then she felt strong fingers around her wrists, and she was tugged through the small opening made in the damp earth.

Hannah blinked in the bright, clean air as Brother Card looked down at her, a smile on his bearded face.

She stumbled to her feet beside Sammy just as Father’s horse clattered up. Jumping down, he ran to Sammy and Hannah and hugged them close. “Are you all right?” he asked anxiously.

“We are now, Father,” Hannah answered, “but we nearly smothered. The roof of the cellar caved in.”

“It’s all my fault,” Father said, rubbing his forehead. “I should have fixed that roof long ago.”

Brother Card comforted, “Now, don’t blame yourself, Joseph. Every settler in town has had more work to do than he has had time for.”

“Hannah saved us, Father,” Sammy said. “We poked a hole through the roof with a board.”

“That’s what I saw when I came by, which was a mighty strange thing for me to do,” Brother Card explained. “I haven’t cut across your property in the two years we’ve been neighbors, Joseph. Wasn’t going to this afternoon either. But for some reason my feet turned this way. First thing you know I saw that board sticking through the ground, waving like a signal. Guess the Lord guided me here.”

Sammy and Hannah smiled at each other. “Brother Card, we know He did,” Hannah said quietly.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ed Holmes