The Craftsman House
By Julian Jacobsen
The sharp dissonance of the clunky maroon Buick against the asphalt and the harsh music that blared from its speakers would have been painful to my ears had I not loved the way he strummed his air guitar and sang into the steering wheel. I watched his reenactment of the hard rock music video he'd played for me a hundred times, losing myself in the screams, the fast beats, and the notes I couldn't follow along with.
“What'd you say?” His hand shot to the volume dial, not really turning it down, just talking louder.
“Nothing.” I smiled, and turned to stare at the rolling expanse of highway and weedy trees blurring past me—the last of southern Minnesota falling behind us.
When Finn first suggested a road trip a month ago, I held back my excitement in preparation for the plans to fall flat like most of my Midwestern dreams. We always fantasized about the northern trees and the way they enveloped the lakes and wilderness within them, like uncharted territory. Had we been born in keeping with our spirits, Finn and I would have been pioneers, great adventurers. It had just been bad luck to find ourselves in the middle of twenty-first century farming country, but we made it work. Finn, actually born Trevor Johnson, had enough of Huckleberry inside him to find adventure in his backyard. I, on the other hand, had naively hoped I'd find my adventure in the walls of my four-year liberal arts education. Instead, I was practically smothered by routine and normality. I was small against his brazen, happy-go-lucky life at bars and parties, and what seemed to make it worse was that Finn never thought much of it. He was content to let dreams be dreams and life stay as it was. Road trips, explorations, discoveries of new lands were perpetually on our bucket lists until finally, one summer, Finn was ready.
“Norah,” he said, “we're going.” And here we were riding north on 35 in a car caked with orange dust from gravel roads back home. Two packs of camping equipment, a cooler filled with ice and sports drinks, and several maps stocked the back seat. I held my MP3 player in my lap in the off-chance of playing my folk playlist, but knowing we'd be lost in Slipknot and Pantera until the scenery shifted to quiet wilderness. In times like these, I felt almost like he drowned me.
Pulling off the highway for gas and a bite to eat, we settled into a town four miles away from a lake. We'd read about this lake on Finn's laptop and planned our route in its direction. Its Wikipedia page glorified a local legend, the Craftsman's House, which was probably nothing more than a site to see on our way North. That's what road trips were for, I convinced him, as we walked into a hole in the wall cafe, and Finn nodded in agreement. We'd hear the story, see the lake, and get to the campsite by nightfall.
“Coffee, please, and water for him.” I smiled at the waitress as she dropped off our menus and disappeared behind the counter. Roast beef. Patty melts. Tomato Soup. Coffee. It was a basic cafe menu from a small town in the middle of nowhere. I nudged Finn under the table and pointed to a picture over the cash register, next to their framed first dollar.
“Must be the legendary house,” Finn responded sarcastically. I couldn't blame him, because it looked perfectly ordinary. Like houses we could've left back home. There was a young couple standing in front of the house looking proud and freshly in love, and below the image was a cut-out of a newspaper article, “Man Builds Home on Island.”
“In the pictures online, it's half sunk, wonder what happened. We should ask our waitress.”
Finn nodded, immersed in the possibilities on his menu. He hadn't eaten since breakfast, and truly I was amazed he lasted this long.
“You folks ready?” Our waitress pulled out her pen and looked expectantly at me.
“Yes, I'll just have a turkey sandwich and we were wondering, is that the Craftsman's House?” I asked eagerly. She opened her mouth in a definite sigh, and Finn did the same—half-worried she wouldn't take his order.
“It's no good! That house, if you ask me,” a man in the back shouted at us over the pass-through, his voice loud to compensate for the way his mouth disappeared in his beard.
“Make it two turkey sandwiches,” I said, ignoring Finn's protests and looking towards the man in the kitchen with interest.
“Really?” I kind of loved ghost stories.
“That man shoulda never built that damn house. That was cursed land, by the Indians.” I stifled an eye roll.
“Oh no it wasn't. Make those sandwiches, Russ. Always filling these folks' minds with stupid ideas,” the waitress shook her head but gave us a wide, knowing grin.
“It was too! And the aliens. Back in '73 there was this guy and he had all this research from back then, and...”
“Shut it, Russ!” The waitress gave a huff, and leaning over the counter to talk just to us, she said, “The lake and the island had been in their family for generations.”
Finn turned his eyes on me and gave me that look, like he was already bored. In the kitchen we heard Russ grumble on about Indians and aliens as he tossed fries into the grease and let them bubble and simmer.
“Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, that was their name, Harold and Jane...I think. And in their day they were said to be the most beautiful couple in all of the tri-county area,” our waitress started off. Her voice was soft and lilting, and apart from her occasional doubts, seemed practiced and easy. “Now, Harold was handsome, but Jane had all the town under her spell.”
“It warn't no spell!” Russ stepped through the swinging doors and into the dining area, spatula in hand, his figure looming over the waitress and bubbling out at the belly. His white stained t-shirt reached just a little over halfway down his front and the apron, faded floral, covered the rest. “Stupid, womanly ideas. If anyone has been filling minds with fairytales it's Darlene over here.” Droplets of grease flung from his spatula and landed on the floor around Darlene.
“There might be some controversy over the story,” Darlene looked at us, her gaze sympathetic and sweet. Russ turned and went back into the kitchen. “But between you and me, it isn't Indians or aliens.”
I looked to Finn. He sat slouched over the counter and dug to the bottom of the Pepsi-Cola glass with his straw, attempting to ease the last few ice cubes up the side and into his mouth. He had never liked stories as much as I did, or rather didn't see the charm in them—products of small towns, superstitious people, passed around diners or mechanic shops or church pews. A while back, when I asked him what he wanted from life, he answered the same as me: a country home further West, where everything was tucked behind rolling expanses of grass and quiet. A storybook life. For every year we stayed together, I gave up a piece of that dream until I realized it wasn't ever what he had actually wanted. He spat an ice cube back into the glass and I looked back to Darlene. “So what did happen?” I asked, curious enough in the truth but more interested in the way she and Russ were going to tell it.
“Can I get more water?” Finn pushed his glass towards Darlene.
“Yes, dear.” She smiled and set the pitcher on the counter. “This is my favorite part of the story...”
Darlene went on to tell me the love story of Harold and Jane Johnson. About how beautiful she was and how ardently he had sought her. In the end, everything was just less passionate than it had started out as. Somewhere in the way she told it, or the way it happened, Jane diminished as a figure. What once had been a great beauty in the world, a sharp and sentimental woman with a gift of making people fall in love with her vibrancy, turned slowly into the dusty mantle display inside Harold's perfectly carved, master-built home on the island.
“Love,” Darlene said, “love was what done it.” Jane loved Harold so much that she hid away inside their home. Somehow I didn't think that was right. I didn't question Darlene, who had heard the story from her mother, who had likely heard it from her mother, but I thought that this was the kind of love I'd learned to distinguish at my four-year liberal arts college as the possessing, haunting kind of love that takes away your soul and gives it to someone who doesn't know how to properly care for it. Harold was a craftsman, a woodworker, and he carved Jane's daily routine like he carved the impeccable crown molding in their lakeside manor. He knew about as much of her mind as anyone in the town surrounding them, which was not much but for the parts that were nice and sweet and plain. Jane, for reasons I couldn't understand, had stayed with him. What could make a girl who had everything—education, autonomy, lust for adventure—stay on an island, like a tower, with a Harold surrounding its gates?
But Darlene hadn't told me any of that.
“That's all well and good, Darlene, but tell 'em about the witch,” Russ threw up our sandwiches onto the pass-through and slammed the order bell. I looked around the diner, across the blue tile floor to the empty rows of booths against the windows. We were the only customers, our turkey sandwiches the only orders, and supper time had come and gone with barely a regular in for coffee.
“She wasn't a witch! Indians, aliens, witches, what's next Russ?” Darlene rolled her eyes as she set our plates down and Finn started in on his fries.
“It was Jane's sister. She was a genuine witch. Dark, mysterious-like. Nothing like Jane, she wasn't no beautiful woman.” Russ disappeared from behind the pass-through again, and we heard the back door slam as he went out for a smoke.
Darlene turned back to us, wiping her hands on her apron and pulling out our check. “I guess there's room for one more story, while you eat.”
“There are some who think that the mischief all started when Jane's sister started coming to town. They thought she was jealous of Jane and Harold, that she was trying to split them up because she had loved Harold more than anyone and Jane was always making her second best. Some say that's why Harold died so suddenly, and that's why Jane never left. Like, maybe there was a charm or a curse on the house preventing her from leaving.”
“He died? Wait, what do you mean she never left?”
“When Harold died, he was thirty-five, and a lot of men tried to sweep her up. They brought flowers, chocolates, love letters, but she wouldn't come to the door.” I wouldn't have either, I thought to myself. “Eventually the town forgot about her. Until a big storm shook the foundations, really, and since the island had been eroding all along, the house collapsed into the lake. Jane, well, she'd have been about eighty when that storm hit and even though they sent a team in, they never found her body. I think she died of heartbreak, in that beautiful house. He built it all for her, he did. Isn't that just sweet?” The back door opened and Russ returned to his post. Him and Darlene shared a smile and a knowing nod.
Darlene left us to our sandwiches, and as the sun started to set, Finn and I decided to head to the lake and see it for ourselves.
I was silent on the ride to the lake. I had the feeling that I owed her something, but I couldn't place it. Finn drove in silence too, and parked by a dock and waited for me outside the car. I took a moment to look at it through the window of the Buick.
The water was as black as glass, interrupted only by the peak of a roof and the top of a chimney tilting out of the surface like a sinking ship. There wasn't even a bird perched on the brick like I had imagined there to be. There were trees though, evergreens, piled like a forest around most of the lake. I could almost see how beautiful it must have been, but now it was hollow and sad. Getting out of the car, I saw that Finn was standing slouched on the hood and the glittering green fleck usually in his eyes was muddled.
“Not what we expected, huh.”
“No,” I said, “sadder.”
“What, you believe that crap the waitress said?”
I looked to Finn with weariness. Across the lake the sun was setting, and I felt cold. Even summer nights could get you blue with chills.
“I expect you would've. You believe in Bigfoot.”
“What, aliens and witches?”
“That's not the point, Finn.” It was never the point. By now, just a year away from graduation and probably only a few months before we decided we might as well get married or we'd have wasted a lot of time otherwise, we had learned to avoid the topics we knew would start a fight.
We always looked happy, which was why our parents waited for the day I turned up pregnant or we moved in together in a house inside a radius of exactly one hour from either of our childhood homes. But that was just because we never talked about anything. Not really.
We walked up to the end of the long dock and I crossed my arms in a shiver. The house was as peaceful looking as it could be in that broken state, but I didn't want to accept that. Finn reached his arm around my shoulder and just before his fingers clasped down on me the dock collapsed and I was sent down into the water with a sudden force. I grabbed for Finn instinctively and caught nothing but water.
“Finn!” I screamed and kicked wildly. Terror seized my lungs and instead of gasping for air when I managed to get my head above the surface I instead exhaled in frantic cries, falling then with deflated lungs into the water again.
I thought in that moment that my demise had always been waiting for me in the water. The strangest things swam before me: the time I faced hourly ridicule from Finn's family for staying in the cabin on their annual fishing trip, the private swimming lessons my mother desperately tried to get me to attend as a child, the moment of utter terror I felt bubbling inside every time I got on and off boat. And then the image of the dock, perfectly intact, Finn walking casually back to the Buick alone with his hands in his pocket.
No lake familiar to me at home was this deep so quickly, and even with the summer air, the waters were as cold and sharp as ice...or glass. I had the distinct feeling that my fall had broken the only peaceful part left of the lake.
I started crying, my feet kicking but feeling heavier every second. I felt a hand brush past my face as I went down. I saw the face of a young woman surrounded by deep black hair before me and I wondered if it was my reflection in that dark water or her staring back at me. Finn was already a distant memory and I was overwhelmed with chilling sadness; dead by the time I hit the bottom.
And I hear myself saying, as she must have, "Why leave if you know you must always come back?"