THE CHIMNEY IN THE SAND
By Lewis Turco
Carl Hutchins found it difficult to believe it was all theirs at last — his and Mary's. They had been planning and saving to purchase seaside property near Pemaquid Point on the Maine coast for nearly a decade, and now at last this lovely spot belonged to them. Perhaps they could not yet quite afford this summer place, but given the state of their marriage, perhaps neither could they not afford it. They had driven from New York State the day before and taken possession.
The July sun shone in the sky and the tide had begun to go out. The low waves broke over a boulder or two and shuffled up to the white sands, spreading out and retreating in a pattern of foam and bright water that it made his heart ache to watch. Carl stood about halfway down the beach. Behind him stood the little Cape with its front door facing the road and the kitchen herb garden abutting a small dune that grew some sparse wild vegetation of its own. There was only a mild breeze, so he could hear Mary through the open window pottering about at the sink. "Lunch will be ready in a minute," she called to him. He turned and smiled at her, waved, then faced back to sea and took in a great lungful of salt air. He began to walk toward the waterline.
It was then that he first noticed it. At first he thought it was a box sitting about halfway down to the water, but when he approached it to get a better look he saw that it was made of brick. "Odd I never noticed this before," Carl said to himself, for he thought he had gone over every inch of this property more than once. He kicked it lightly — its four sides were solid. Carl stooped over and tried to peer into it, but it was inky and the sun didn't seem to penetrate the darkness. He began to stick his hand into it but pulled back. There was no telling what might be down there. Best to be careful.
"Lunch!" Mary called.
Carl turned and walked back to the house. He went in and washed his hands at the kitchen sink. He sat down at the table and Mary served him his sandwich and beer.
"What's up?" she asked.
She cocked her head at him — she was still what his mother had called "a Titian-haired beauty" — and said, "Your right eyebrow is raised. That means something's up. What is it?" She had a good figure still, despite being just a bit over forty. "Oh, just something out on the beach that I hadn't noticed before." He began to eat.
Mary got her own plate and brought it to the table with a glass of milk. "Anything important?" There was an edge in her voice. "Communicate with me, Carl," she said. Carl shook his head, but not very hard — his hair, what there was of it, hardly moved. "I'll show you after lunch," he said. "We'll need a flashlight."
"What is it?" Mary asked between bites.
"It looks like the top of a chimney, but I don't know." When they had finished and stacked the dishes on the sink counter Mary and Carl went out to look at — and into, for they brought a flashlight — the object that jutted about two feet out of the sand. Carl shone a light down it, but it was much deeper than two feet. He could make out nothing beyond the end of the beam.
"What do you suppose...?"
Carl shrugged in reply. "Beats me," he said at last. "I guess it's nothing," but his right eyebrow was making its quizzical arc again. Mary picked up a pebble and held it over the opening, but before she could drop it Carl said, "Do you smell something?"
Mary paused. "It smells like burning paper," she said. And then they both noticed the wisp of smoke curling out of the object on the beach. "Why, it is a chimney!" she said. She looked up at Carl to see him staring at her with both his eyebrows arched.
"It's impossible, you know," he said. "Nobody could be burning anything down there." But as he spoke a wispy fragment of cobweb-thin carbon rose out of the flue of the chimney, its edge beaded with glowing sparks. He reached out and it landed in the palm of his hand. Just before it disintegrated he thought he could make out writing on it.
"Did it say something?" Mary asked. Nervously she smoothed her jean skirt with both her fine, long-fingered hands. Carl nodded. "What?"
He hesitated. "I couldn't make it out," he said. "Just some letters I think, beginning with an aitch." Mary's clear green eyes stared into his blue ones. "Let's go inside," Carl suggested. "It's beginning to get a little chilly."
Neither of them went out to the beach to look at the chimney in the sand for the rest of that beautiful day which they wasted doing useful things around the house: unpacking, storing things, cleaning up. They wanted to keep busy.
In the evening, which was a typically cool Maine one, they sat before their own fireplace looking at the faces in the flames and listening to the logs crumble into ash. They went to bed early and slept peacefully until early in the morning when Carl's eyes snapped open and he couldn't get them closed again. His restlessness woke Mary.
After breakfast Carl ventured out the kitchen door, stepped down the path through the herb garden and walked out onto the beach which lay glistening beneath another perfect day. He walked past the bricks sticking up out of the sand to the water's edge and contemplated the incoming tide for a few minutes. He scuffed the line of seaweed and flotsam that lay at high water mark, then he walked back and stood before the chimney, his eyebrow arched high on his forehead made even higher by the receding hairline he smoothed with one hand.
And then he heard voices. A woman said, "You never take me anywhere." Carl spun on his heel to look for her, but there was no one in sight, not even Mary. "I never get out of the house." The curiously attenuated voice came from behind him now, but it was a long time before Carl could force himself to turn back to the chimney, and an even longer time before he could make himself believe the conversation came from the flue.
"Where do you want to go?" a man's voice said. "Where is there to go? We have no close friends here yet."
"Even if we did, they'd never come here to see us," she replied. "I'm so bored I could scream. In fact, I think I will."
"Don't you dare," he said. But she did. Carl heard it as he ran back to the house — a sort of half-hearted, tired little scream. Carl burst through the kitchen door and nearly knocked Mary down. Without saying a word he grabbed her arm and ran back out to the beach dragging her after him.
What's the matter?" Mary asked. There was a note of fright in her voice.
"Sshh," Carl said, dropping to his knees before the chimney in the sand. "Listen."
"...nice thing to do," the man was saying. "If anybody heard that they'd think I was beating you."
Mary clamped both hands across her mouth and stifled her own scream.
Carl put his hands on the side of the chimney, leaned forward, bent over the opening of the flue and called, "Hello! Hello!" He was answered by silence.
"What are you doing?" Mary grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and tried to drag him back, but Carl shook himself loose and called again. "Hello down there!" He cocked his head and thought he could hear whisperings beneath him. "Hear that?" he asked Mary.
"It's just the tide coming in," she said.
"The hell it is." He grabbed her hand and pulled her down beside him. "Listen."
But she didn't have to listen very hard. "Where's that voice coming from?" the woman asked, her words trembling up the flue.
"I don't know. It almost sounds like the chimney."
"Hi! We're here!" Carl called. Silence again.
Then, "Who's there? What are you doing on our roof?"
"Oh, my god!" The woman said.
Carl and Mary turned to stare into each other's eyes. They looked quickly away.
"What are you doing down there?" Carl asked.
"Down where? We're not down anywhere," the man said.
"You're up there, on our roof."
"This isn't a roof. This is the beach at Pemaquid." Carl squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again and tried to peer down into the murk, into the cool air rising. He opened his eyes and cupped his hands around his lips. "I'm Carl Hutchins, he called. "My wife Mary is with me. We're kneeling on the sand. Your chimney is sticking up out of our property."
"Must be some kind of a maniac," the woman said in a half-whisper, but her voice was clearer now, as though she were looking up the chimney. "Call the police."
"The phone doesn't work, remember? It's not hooked up yet."
"It's never going to get hooked up, is it?" she asked. "How long has it been?"
"I don't remember," he said.
Mary had crept closer to the chimney on her knees, and she, too, was leaning over it. "Halloo," she said somewhat tentatively.
"There is a woman with him," the man's voice said.
"Two maniacs on our roof! Oh, my god." And then there was silence again.
After a while Carl called, "What are your names?" There was no reply. "We'll come back again," he shouted down the muffling flue. He got to his feet — his legs were cramped, but he helped Mary up before he massaged them and stretched.
"What are we going to do?" Mary asked as he led the way back to the house.
"The sheriff," Carl said as he headed out the door to find a public phone. Mary went with him. They found one they could use at the restored fort. The deputy at the other end of the line was incredulous when he heard what the problem was. "He doesn't believe me," he told Mary as he held his hand over the mouthpiece. "What'll I do?"
"Tell him to come see for himself."
When Carl hung up he said, "They'll be right there by the time we get back home."
"It looks like an old chimney, all right," the deputy said kicking the brick structure. "But there can't be anyone down there." He took off his visored cap and leant over the opening.
"Halloo below!" he called. No sound returned. He picked up a medium-sized pebble and held it over the chimney.
"No, don't!" Carl said. "You might hurt them." The patrolman gave him a funny look and dropped the stone. Mary, Carl and the deputy all heard it hit bottom, but with a sort of muffled noise rather than a sharp sound or a splash. "That's odd — it sounds kind of far down there," the officer said, "I'd've thought we'd hear water. Anyhow, there must have been a house here at one time and this is what's left." He straightened up. "If you heard noises it was the seashore probably." He pulled his jacket down, smoothed it out and turned to leave. "Don't give it another thought," he said as he got into his cruiser and drove away.
"What are we going to do?" Mary asked. Carl went into the house and came back out with two brand new tools, a pick and a spade. He began to dig.
"Don't worry," he called down the shaft of the chimney. "We'll get you out." He thought he heard muffled voices but wasn't sure.
He worked hard while Mary watched. After a half hour he was down three feet below the surface and water was beginning to seep into the hole. He was bending down for another spadeful of sand, so he didn't hear the voice clearly, but Mary was standing over the chimney and she heard it say, "What are you doing up there? Our roof is starting to leak!"
And then the woman's voice — "And it isn't even raining!"
"Carl!" Mary said. "They say their roof is starting to leak."
Her husband looked down at his feet. He had removed his shoes and socks and rolled up the cuffs of his jeans because he was standing in a foot of water. He stuck the spade into the sand and stepped out of the hole he was digging — it abutted the chimney on the northern side.
"Is there a lot of water?" he called down to the people beneath the beach, but there was no reply. "I'll be back," he said to Mary.
"Now where are you going?"
"To Damariscotta to buy a sump pump."
It took Carl the better part of the morning to bring the gear home, rig it, string an electrical line and get it working. Even with the tide coming in the pump did a good job, however, keeping pace with the water rising in the hole. After lunch Carl jumped back into it and began digging again. Now and then Mary brought him a drink and he took a breather, but he rested very little although he wasn't used to all this physical exercise. Still, he played squash back in the city and he jogged some. He wasn't in such bad shape. Some of the women didn't think so, at any rate.
Had there been onlookers present they could have read in Mary's face what progress was being made, for the deeper Carl delved the more furrowed her forehead became beneath the Titian locks, and the deeper her eyes became tinged with green. By suppertime, which she and Carl had both forgotten, Mary's eyes were jade and her husband was all but entirely beneath the surface of the beach even when he stood up.
"I'll need a ladder, Mary," he said peering over the edge of the pit. On two sides of it there was a new dune made of moist sand. "Go get our twelve-foot aluminum extension, will you? It's in the basement. Take it out through the cellar door." She hesitated. "It's not heavy," he said. "I'll be all right."
When he had managed to climb out — the ladder took up more room than one might have thought — he and Mary sat and stared down the six-foot shaft whose sides occasionally gave way in little landslides. The pump motor hummed as evening approached beyond the horizon, though it was still very light out and wouldn't be dark yet for hours. It was shadowy enough in the pit, however, and darker in the chimney in the sand.
"Have they said anything lately?" Carl asked.
Mary shook her head. "Not for a while."
"What was the last thing?"
"I heard the woman say, 'What's that scraping sound?' I called down that you were digging out their chimney and ought to get to the roof soon."
Carl sat silently. He lifted his eyes and stared out to sea. "There is no roof," he said.
"What?" Mary asked. She looked at him and didn't blink.
"Not unless their house is made of stone." Mary continued to stare. "I've hit bedrock," Carl said. "I can't dig any farther."
"Then...," Mary managed to say, "what's down there?" "The chimney stops at the rock. There's nothing down there."
There was silence between them. The combers rustled up to the white beach and frothed toward them. "What are we going to do?" Mary asked. "We can't leave them down there."
Carl stood up and brushed the sand off his jeans. "There's only one thing we can do. I don't know if I can get much of a swing down there," he said as he dropped the pick into the pit and climbed back down.
"Don't," Mary said.
"Pull up the ladder — I'll need all the room I can get," Carl said.
"I don't think you should," Mary said, but she pulled up the ladder.
"Now just listen for them."
It was hard for him to get any kind of swing in the close quarters, but at last he managed a fairly good tunk against the side of the chimney. He paused. "Anything?"
Mary, her head cocked over the flue, said, "I heard the woman say something. I don't know what."
Carl swung again.
"She said, 'Stop.' So did the man."
"Tell them I'll have them out pretty soon." Carl swung again, harder this time. The point caught between two bricks and he wiggled the pick to loosen the mortar.
"'Please stop,' she's saying now. 'You're damaging our house,'" Mary told her husband. "Do stop, Carl. Please." Mary dropped down on her knees and leaned over the pit. Her hands caused a little avalanche of sand. She pulled back a little.
Carl swung again. "I'm getting it!" he said. His mouth was open and he was panting. His hair straggled down over his forehead. Again he swung, and this time a brick came loose.
"They're crying, Carl," Mary said. "Stop! I want you to stop!"
"Don't be ridiculous." He swung again.
"I'll leave you down there, Carl," Mary said. "I'll leave you." But suddenly there was a hole in the side of the chimney.
"Shine the light down!" he called to Mary. Carl saw a little cloud of soot that swirled about in the play of late sunlight on a bed of ash lying at the bottom of the chimney, on a surface of stone. "There's nothing here," he said to Mary, but neither Mary nor anyone else replied. There were only the sounds of the pump and the sea, and then only of the sea and the little slips of sandfalls.
This story, originally published in The Beloit Fiction Journal, vi:2, Spring 1991, pp. 118-25, is from The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories by Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: StarCloudPress.com, 2008, 196 pp., ISBN 978-1-932842-1-66, trade paperback. Copyright © 1991 & 2008 by Lewis Turco, all rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.