When I first descended the narrow concrete stairs into the cellar, I thought the walls were made of hard-packed dirt. They were rough and brown, and the whole place smelled of earth. Once my eyes had adjusted to the light of a single bulb suspended from the beams overhead, I could see that I was actually in a room made entirely of concrete. For at least eighty springs, the walls and floor had absorbed – or tried to – overflowing water from the nearby Red River. Both walls and floor must have once been gray or white, but they were now so stained with rust and saturated with soil that the original color was long gone.
“Keep an eye on the dike, and check the sump pump every once in a while,” the owners had instructed us before they’d gone up to bed. It was only now, peering around in the gloom, that I realized I had no idea what I was looking for. I thought of calling up to my friend above, but I didn’t trust my voice. Wouldn’t it get pulled into those ancient walls, too, and be lost?
I took a deep breath. A mistake. The smell wasn’t just earth, but water. Gallons, tons, waves of water, nearby. The river’s water, in the early spring, didn’t smell like fish or green, growing things. It smelled of decayed leaves and things left behind in the snow. Outside, the smell had carried notes of hope, despite the threat of flood. In the North, the coming of spring is always hopeful, even in catastrophe. In this dank and empty space, however, there was only threat – suffocating, slimy, oppressive. I retched.
The floor, damp but not submerged, sloped downward, and I followed its course farther into the basement. A machine gurgled, slurped, and slapped near a drain at the far end. Satisfied, I shuddered and ran back up the steps and took my post in one of the rusted chairs by the dike. The cellar had at least been shelter from the knife-like wind, but it was a relief to be out in the fresh air, with stars visible far above. I shivered again.
“Everything OK down there?” my friend asked.
“I think so.”
Neither of us had a watch, but we were only a few blocks from campus. The bell tower’s next chime would let us know when it was her turn to check the pump. Four more chimes, and another team would come to relieve us.
We stared out over the swollen river on the other side of the sandbag wall, watching the black water collect reflected lights and swirl them away.
This post was inspired by a memoir prompt from The Red Dress Club‘s RemembeRED series.