"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Down the Drain

Down the Drain

East of Hart in the morning shadow of my former neighbor Anna’s gray weather checked barn, drains a spring fed pond. 

Her husband, Otto, dug it from the Michigan muck eighty-some years ago with a horse-drawn excavator. Otto drove the team daily, deposited what he dredged into an earthen dam that arced around the mouth of the creek. Up the slope the spring’s sand pots boiled over, released a perpetual deluge of fifty degree water. Through the dam he poured concrete around a steel cylinder to create a drain. When he slid a steel gate welded to a ten foot length of angled iron fit with a T-grip over the culvert, the water began to rise. The yellow dust of tree pollen floated down stream, then swirled with its newly arrested progress. Every hour the hydro pressure behind the gate sealed it tighter against the concrete encased culvert. Over night the frigid water covered the cedar stumps Otto cut, but could not pull from the new shallows of the pond. By dawn the water rose in the deep end like a black mirror that disappeared down the growling navel of a vertical ten inch drain.

I gave this spot little thought at three years old, more eager to call to my neighbor’s German Shepherd named Shallock, “Here boy!” Unable to decipher their thick accents that actually said Sherlock, I came to scratch behind his ears, let him lick my palms since my family did not own a dog.  Besides, our other two sets of neighbors each closer to our house than Nanna n’ Dotto both had ponds. No novelty arose from this pool until Anna warned of a monster living in the black silt below the drain. Weaned on tales very Grimm, she hoped to scare me from the tube her vivid imagination believed I was slim enough to be sucked down and drown. 

Anna, a German expatriate, survived the First World War and tried her damnedest to avoid the Second in America. She never raised her own children, nor much understood the offspring of others. She kept a home abortion kit in a clean box on a cupboard shelf above her clawfoot bath tub. Otto twice excavated her wellspring with the kit. Cannula, syringe and rubber-stopped jar in hand, he scraped her down, used suction instead of horses. He discarded the tissue he dredged without ceremony, without remorse. The children he raised with his first wife in Europe died young or disappeared on the Russian front fighting for Hitler. Rinsing the uncapped jar of blood and tissue at the pond drain seemed like less of a waste. I wonder if he saw his reflection on the water or contemplated monsters then.

Decades later in 1980 in her tiny woodland cottage, Anna fattened my little boy cheeks with Kuchen und Kaffee mit Milch. The liquids mixed together with sugar in my cup before my swinging feet could touch the floor. My spoon whorled the black and cream, the bitter and sweet, into a vortex much like the hundreds of gallons an hour slipping down the dangerous drain, which I now visited every day, searching for the monster. I imagined the beast: hungry, hairy, inhuman, peering, lurking just below my curious reflection.  

Ninety years old, Otto sat across from me in the booth he built around their table. He too stirred his cup, his spoon rattled the sides until he placed it on his saucer so he could sip. “Zu heiß,” he said pulling the cup away from his lips. “Vait Junge,” he warned holding his unsteady hand above my cup. “Let eet kühl.”

Severe osteoporosis curved Anna’s spine. She stooped like a fairy tale Hexe. She shuffled her heavy kettle back to her cast iron, wood burning stove. Despite the black construction paper cutout of Hansel und Gretel she sandwiched in the glass of her guesthouse door overlooking the pond, she never asked me to lean into the oven nor tried to eat me. I wish she had. It would have made a sweet story, even better than a monster lurking in the silt of the pond, but they worked too hard at protecting me, so I grew up.

By twenty-four, married, building a house one-hundred yards from that pond my wife shared the happy news with all she knew that we were pregnant. This just days after telling me we should keep it a secret through the first trimester, wait for a heart beat. But overcome with the excitement of motherhood she could not wait for that sound despite one half of we not feeling remotely pregnant, not the least bit a father. 

In short weeks she miscarried. I felt nothing. The baby passed in a swirl of blood mixed with my wife’s tears down the master toilet. I proceeded to lead a master class on all the wrong things to say to a grieving mother. “You shouldn’t be sad. We’ll be pregnant again. It’s better this way because it wasn’t strong enough. It was only a few cells. It wasn’t a baby yet.”


After a pre-breakfast run I stood at the pond drain looking down. Starving, unshaven, unfeeling, undulating over the ripples, my beastly reflection stared up at me. The monster did not live in the ooze just below the silt like Anna warned, but I met him there where water met light. I stepped onto the edges of the drain, frigid water lapped over my soles. I grabbed the T-grip and wrenched at the gate. I struggled against the pressure, shook side to side to loosen a monster’s clutches. I wanted to flush him away. I pulled the gate free. Water gushed from the silent black pool, made sinister by my face into a white torrent frothing through the dam like cream. The pond emptied in a current that I hoped would forever cut bitter into sweet. 

Brett Ramseyer teaches English and Creative Publishing in Hart, Michigan where he and his wife raise their three children. Ramseyer’s work appeared in Montana Mouthful, Silver Needle Press, the Peregrine Journal and Sixfold. He administers the Joan Ramseyer Memorial Poetry Contest. Website: bramseyer.worpress.com, Twitter: @BARamseyer

Cover photo by Daniel Vogel on Unsplash

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