The Dark Lady of the House
NOTE: This story is over the word limit and was not submitted as a contest entry.
He was tired. He was wet. The wooden tool and nail boxes of his trade weren't getting any lighter in this rain either and he had toted them many miles into the gathering darkness.
The rains were needed here in the vast California groves and orchards, and renewing to the fields of timothy and alfalfa grasses for which the dairy cattle longed. He could do with the work that those fields and trees might provide if the next carpentry job didn't soon show itself.
It was 1932 and "job" was the word on every able-bodied man's mind. He had worked his way out of all the jobs he had been promised. He couldn't seem to pace himself on a work site. Each nail seemed to issue a challenge to be driven faster and harder than the last until he would look up to the evening's low sun and would realize he was through. Done. Walk right across the highest top of the barn like most men walked down a sidewalk and then scoot down the ladder, pick up his pay and move on. It wasn't in his Kentucky bloodlines to linger over work.
So he was on the road once again, and this time on foot. Caught a few rides on the back of flat bed trucks. Car tires and their patches cost and his last ten cents, that wasn't for savin' that is, went for a supper of all the bananas and crackers that a dime would buy. His stomach wasn't grumbling yet but he knew he needed rest and shelter. Most of the time his canvas work tarpaulin would do for a tent but it wouldn't hold back these sheets of rain. He knew every cave, cavern, and den in his Kentucky woodlands. Knew where the dangers were, be they human or animal, mostly moon shiners, big cats and rattlesnakes but the night-time landscape here was different and so were the dangers.
Most of the time he went on instinct and found that he had a wisdom for it or maybe it was the long hand of God that still steered him. Whichever won out, he looked up and saw it, the dark house.
She was a monster alright. One thing about California that he could never get used to was the size-the ranges, the barns, the factories, the streets, and the houses. Houses in his part of back East were small affairs with a covered porch front and back for visiting, resting, or washing up and one main room where a cook stove served for both cooking and heat and then two other rooms for beds, if you were blessed to have them. This house was a California house, alright. Big and multistoried, but she'd been through it. He couldn't tell in the stinging rain if she was going down to the wrecking crew or being rebuilt by a work gang.
Maybe this lady could serve him in two ways, as a dry resting place and maybe, just maybe, in the light of day, that new job he needed. No time to lose; he dropped off the road and with a hunkered down walk he slid up next to her weathered board siding, well, at least what was left of it. As he slipped along her side he decided he hoped they were saving her and not tearing her down for a highway cause she had good bones. Ah, there it was -- a dark window, one with a pane out of its lower edge. He was a compact man. Strong, but not very tall, and this window would be a challenge for him. He was a positive man though and he didn't hesitate to hoist the pack off his back and take out the length of rope he always carried with him.
He quickly fit the loop around his waist and snaked the other end of the coil through the handles of his tool box and the wooden nail box, the most valuable of his possessions. He repacked the rest of his meager belongings, making sure the coal oil lantern was right side up. He made sure to leave slack in the line and then he turned back to his task, looking up at the window from the ground that was slick with mud and sloping down and away from the house's foundation. He kicked at the patchwork siding that skirted the outside of the building and found purchase with one rough boot toe about a third of the way to the window ledge.
Placing the muddy boot back to the sodden earth, he swung his plan into action. This time, he rocketed himself up adding momentum to the foothold and straining with the muscles in his legs and arms his rough hands clawed a grip on the outer sill of the window glass's empty lower pane. There. Most would not consider the task to be completed but he knew then he had a dry place for the night. Hanging there with feet steadily in place and one hand holding he reached inside the window to check the lock. Stretching up to his bicep he touched the lock and turned its clasp and then with a combination of brute heft and a little juggling of arm movements back and forth as needed he pushed the window up.
Bracing up to his armpits on the opening, he swung one leg up and over and then the other and he was in. He laughed. "Good work, Bud." He said aloud to himself, using the nickname his Dad had used when he was little. Rain dripped off his brimmed hard hat but that didn't slow him from winching his equipment easy as you please up to the window and then tucked against the wall under the long window.
Slipping out of the rope loop and again tugging off his pack tiredness fell upon him like a sudden sickness. He set the lantern up and started to light it but thought the better of it, to save the match and the fuel and he wouldn't be reading his Bible tonight. He couldn't read very well in the best of lights but he had plenty of verses set to memory and he would rely on those tonight. He considered himself a backslider; California was full of pretty faces and the action that surrounded that new moving picture business, but he still had a healthy amount of respect for the Lord and the scriptures. As he rolled his tarp into a pillow he lay on his side toward the window and he prayed. With the amen he was breathing in sleep.
The dreams came soon. He heard his grandmother's voice singing the old folksong "...Two little children were strolling one day down by the river's side. The angels took Mother to her heavenly home, there with the saints to abide. One stepped up to the boatman and said, 'Row us over the tide...'"
In his foggy slumber he fought the urge to turn toward the voice, reasoning as humans sleepily do in dreams that it must be the rain that conjured the orphans' cry to the boatman to end their weariness and take them to their mother on the other side of the tide.
He settled once again and he was there on the water in his own boat. He looked up smiling as someone asked, as fishermen always do, "How's your catch today?" and in his sleep he started to turn to lift his stringer of fish from the other side of the boat but as his movement began his attention was caught by the imaginings of a fishing pole bent almost double and he reached toward the room's window side to set the hook.
A brief smile appeared and then disappeared on his relaxed sleeping face as the pole and its prize drifted off into misty, watery vapor. A third scene was set in motion, this of his walking into a recognized river holding hands with a chain of others as they looped toward the preacher and the deepest of the river's baptizing holes. He knew it would soon be his turn to go down and wash his sins away. He watched as his kin and his friends were buried in the "cleansing flow" and then it was his turn to go deeply into the death of his sins but before he could feel the backward drowning douse he was already pulled up and out wet and free. They waited for him to join them on the bank and in his sleep his wet pants legs moved a bit toward his tools silent and safe against the window wall.
The rain had stopped was his first thought upon waking and his second was of thirst. He raised himself and noted that it was coming daylight. He could see the outline of his thermos in his pack. Drinking water was a constant companion of his. Nothing would quench the thirst like water. He undid the top that also served as his cup and he took a long drink that stretched his neck as far back as it would go until all the cup's contents were gone. Then he sat the cup behind him.
That was when he felt the air, like a misstep on a steep 12/12 pitch roof. Then he heard the cup hit bottom. He turned carefully and slowly like a man at gun point and looked around and down, way down. The hard wood floors behind him were gone and a huge yawning hole opened his eyes wide. The light was bright enough now to see the cup on top of the debris two floors down to the cellar of the house. He had slept all night next to that gaping opening and had never turned over. He scrambled away from his sleeping ledge, wedged himself in between his tools and that's where the work crew found him some minutes later.
"Hole up for the night here out of the rain? Don't worry, we don't blame ye, mister. So you found our lady did you?"
"What?" he asked, still addled.
"Our dark lady there, she seems to kind of watch over us as we work, you might say." One of the workmen pointed above the vagrant carpenter's head while at the same time offered him a hand up. Then he turned and the California sun went streaming through what he saw now was a stained glass window with one pane missing. The lady of the house was an image of a dark angel clothed in the rich colors of burgundy wines, not in bright white as usual, colors too dark to have been seen in rainy shadows.
"Yup, we're saving her, and looks like you have the tools to help if you be needing a job."
The overnight guest looked from the face of the glass angel to the face of the man and said, "Well. I suppose I must be the man for the job." The men rallied then to their work stations but one paused to say over his shoulder with a wink as he lightly kicked the tarp pillow,
"Wash up and bring your tools around to the front and... looks like you might want to watch your step."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is one based ones my Father used to tell me of his time living and working in California during the depression era. He had many jobs and "adventures," one of which was when he spent a very blessed rainy night on the edge of a large hole in an abandoned house and never rolled over to his death two floors down. I still have his wooden tool and nail boxes mentioned in the story. Most of the other details are purely fiction.