Behind the Barn

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 5:15pm

When the area around the old barn foundation was opened up in preparation for the arrival of the Icelandic horses two years ago I had cautions, hidden stones and steps in one field, an old cistern behind the barn.

Strangely, only recently has it struck me that it was never known as more than The Cistern Behind the Barn, tucked into a corner of the pasture formed where once a barn and large shed almost met. It was securely covered, even when cows wandered back there, its top held in place by large rocks.

My only recollection of any mention of it was that an uncle (uncles?) during World War II had gotten gas whenever home on leave and stored it in cans in the old, even then unused cistern. I imagined containers of some sort being lowered down, there for use whenever they were able to get home.

It was spoken of as some alien territory, Behind the Barn. The rest of the pasture was not such, we wandered freely from the apple trees just over the wall to the old road beyond the north bound, to the oddly acute angle of the northwest corner.

We climbed the three-sided foundation when a barn still sat atop of, or we climbed two sides of it, always steering clear of that pocket where the cistern sat without ever thinking about it.

It had to it none of the history of the stoned-up well down by the pond, set to capture an underground stream, the one to which neighbors who had only cisterns came with barrels to gather water. 

There was a cistern near the house, converted to a steadier water source when my dad drove a well point into its bottom. It was not huge, I have a vague memory of him, a raw-boned six foot tall man, down in that cistern-turned-well cleaning it one summer.

My mainland mother always fretted about the limited water supply. She never quite recovered from the summer day family of hers came to this God-forsaken place and the well ran dry, probably the reason that well point was dropped. When the town water supply was so fragile in the 90's and sheets of conservation measures came out my response was “but who wastes water like this!?”

Still, it wasn't until after my mother died that I decided we all have our own luxuries, some people have many stamps on their passports, I would have a real well. There had been a bitterly cold winter and the pump in the cellar froze to its most interior workings, then another summer onslaught of family and we came home from church to the sound of that same pump drawing air.

I was not going through another summer of “I'm calling John Henry!” and my brother, the officer in Admiral Rickover's Nuclear Navy, insisting he could fix things because “I had a hydraulic system on the submarine.” I called John Henry.

Sometime after that summer, the well driver arrived and a real well was driven, the pump dropped deep into the ground, way below the frost line, the line to the house a good four feet down. I took one worry off my list.

Today I am realizing nowhere in any of these years did anyone ever talk of utilizing the cistern behind the barn, of it being anything other than something that was there. It was no more distant from the house than the well by the pond, it would not have been an uphill run. I asked that brother, six years older than I, a boy who grew up milking cows and pitching hay, who played ball with our father out in that field, if he had any recollection of use or stories.

“I knew it was there but no more.”

It has always been securely covered, but not as I imagined, likely confusing it with the cistern of a house in town with a circular metal piece. I never thought it to be more than a rudimentary version of the one closer to the house, and certainly without a vaulted interior like the one in town where everything was grander.

And so two years ago, the cistern behind the barn was left as the ground just beyond it was cleared, covered as it has always been, then further secured behind two gates and electric fencing. Then came another round of clearing, hastened by the storm wind of a couple of weeks ago, this of the overgrown barn foundation.

It was not covered with that mere metal disc my friend and I did move from that cistern in town, before we lost a bucket and pushed the top back in place, hoping no one took a careful inventory of her late father's vast store of stuff.

Instead, the cistern behind the barn has the same top as one by the house, more of my father's all-or-nothing approach, this the former, slabs of solid concrete, topped with a big rock.

That there would be a cistern, a good sized cistern, in remarkably good condition I am told, by the barn is not odd, in and of itself, but the lack of a pump in anyone's memory, or any real use in any stories, is strange, and that I never gave those omissions any more thought than my older brother even stranger.

Then comes the blow: there is no one left to ask and even as I think that I imagine my Uncle Cash and neighbor John, both deceased, offering some variation of “it was just there, guess someone used it... once.”

Now, I am left wondering if it was fed by the large roofs of the barn and shed that show on those old, extraordinarily detailed “stone wall maps” or was the final piping never completed?  Was there a barnyard pump, or some more easily moved cover and a bucket on a rope?

And what story will eventually be fabricated and told as fact?