The Hot Spring at Spetterhorn
by Brad Gottschalk
Visitors to my home often comment on a large brass statuette that stands on a cylindrical pedestal near the fireplace in the living room. About two and a half feet in height, it is in the form of a young woman, tall and slender, blindfolded, treading on the heads of four men that lay on the ground beneath her feet (the heads lay on the ground that is, they have no bodies.). In the crook of her left arm she holds a cornucopia filled with large coins; in her right hand, she holds several of these same coins in a position that suggest she is about to fling them away. I often tell people that it was created by the obscure American artist, Jacob Giraud, and was bought from his studio years ago by my uncle, Philip. The truth is, I got it at a junk shop and know nothing about its provenance.
The figure is, of course, Tyche, the Greek goddess of chance. Sadly, we of the modern era have lost our respect for chance; we like to believe that we are in control of our destinies, and that everything happens for a reason, but that belief reveals itself to be an illusion with every accident, diagnosis, flood, and tornado. And many a less drastic occurrence. In the past, when we had fewer creature comforts, fewer machines, and less medical knowledge, we were much more aware of chance’s importance. For the gambler, who courts chance by vocation, the replacement in popularity of faro with poker is a perfect metaphor for our attitude. Faro is openly a game of chance—that was part of its appeal. Poker players, on the other hand, have fooled themselves into believing that theirs is a game of skill, and a good player will win no matter what hand they are dealt. But a pair of twos is a pair of twos at any table, and winning with a bad hand is a matter as much of luck as of skill.
The events I am about to relate will demonstrate this assertion beyond doubt. They occurred some time ago, in the summer of nineteen eighty-seven, and they effected broad changes in my life, both for the better and for the worse. At the time, I was two years out of college, living in Chicago with two roommates, and working part time in a store that sold vinyl records (these were common at the time), and in the office of a magazine catering to collectors of beer and soda bottles. I was not exactly prospering, but I was paying my own way and had quite a bit of free time. I mention this only to point out that it was a sacrifice to leave, but not a great one. In May of that year, I was called back to my hometown, Spetterhorn, by my aunt, Carissa, and my cousin, Elliot. A number of people in town had been stirring up trouble for Aunt Carissa, and, having no one else to turn to, as my parents had both passed away the year before, she asked for my help. So I packed a suitcase and boarded a Greyhound (a bus, another common feature of life in nineteen eighty-seven) bound for my former home.
Spetterhorn is a town of about eight thousand residents, scattered about the eponymous Mount Spetterhorn and its surrounding plain. Mount Spetterhorn is what geologists refer to as an “inselberg,” an isolated hill or mountain on otherwise fairly flat or rolling ground. The hill itself is about a mile long, running from the southwest to the northeast, about a quarter of a mile wide, and, at its crest, about three hundred and fifty feet above the surrounding terrain. It was formed by volcanic activity and contains granite, basalt, and chert overlain in places by sandstone, limestone, and shale, and while there have been no volcanic eruptions in human (or at least white people’s) memory, there is some remaining geothermal activity that feeds a hot spring which happens to be on my aunt’s property, about thirty yards downhill from her house. The spring, while increasing significantly the value of Carissa’ property, was also the root of her trouble. A gang of people from town was pressuring my aunt to give public access to it, and to understand why this would cause my aunt grief, one must understand some of the peculiarities of Spetterhorn’s history.
The town was founded in eighteen seventy-one as a farming community dedicated to the raising of Finnish pygmy sheep, a breed that produces exceedingly soft wool used for luxury coats, throw rugs, and sacks, and these sheep live almost exclusively on the leaves and fruit of the takiainenberry plant, which then grew in abundance on the plain around Mount Spetterhorn but not on the hill. Because of this, the hill was used mainly for recreation, such as snipe hunting, hiking, and adultery, while the houses, shops, churches, and saloons of the town were constructed exclusively on the plain. However, even in prosperous times, people sometimes lost their farms through drinking, gambling, or other such missteps (such is chance), and those who did so and did not have family to support them moved up to the hill, where land could be claimed simply by staking out a plot. Hill people built houses, a few roads, and even a general store, but the area continued to be regarded as uncivilized, undesirable, and unworthy by the people who lived below. Long before any of us were born, my uncle Phillip’s family suffered this fate. I call him my uncle only out of custom; he was really a distant relative the precise nature of which I have never really known. Shortly after the Civil War there was a rift in the family involving railroad speculation, and my uncle’s ancestors lost their farm and reluctantly claimed a piece of land near the top of Mount Spetterhorn. Tensions from this rift continued well into the twentieth century.
The move soon turned into a boon for Phillip’s ancestors, though, owing to the presence of the aforementioned spring. Soon after its discovery, people from town were paying modest fees to relax in the steaming waters, especially during the long winter months. The average water temperature was 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and people could relax in the pool while looking down at the snow covered streets and farmland. In the summer it was common practice to loll in the spring for half an hour or so then run down the hill and jump into the Pishwaukee, a wide and slow moving river running through the town. However, for the majority of townspeople, visits to the spring resulted in nothing more than a transactional relationship with its owners. Attitudes towards people on the hill never varied, and social circles in the plain below were ever closed to everyone in my uncle’s family. One story, related to me by Carissa, involved my uncle’s great grandfather, who, in the flush of new prosperity bestowed by the spring’s entrance fees, traveled to Evanston and purchased a motorboat of the kind that was coming into fashion at the time. However, when it was transported to Spetterhorn, the board of the boating club refused to give him a dock on the riverfront. At considerable expense, my uncle’s great grandfather had the boat hauled up the hill to the house where it gathered dust and rust and was eventually broken up for firewood.
Directly after the end of World War One, everything changed. An influx of inexpensive Bolivian alpaca destroyed the market for the wool of the Finnish pygmy sheep, and in a few short years, all farms but three stopped operation. Many of the plains people tried growing other crops, but the takiainenberry plants had leeched acids into the soil that rendered it unfit for growing anything other than that and dwarf potatoes, a crop with small yields. A silverware company that had made mess kits for the army provided a small number of people with meagre incomes, but Spetterhorn’s prosperity had come to an end. As the people of the plain sank into poverty, their negative regard for the hill people began to dissipate. At the same time, the hot spring’s reputation spread past Spetterhorn to the larger towns in the area and then beyond. From the late nineteen twenties through the fifties the spa was visited by people from Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Omaha, and smaller cities throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. My uncle’s grandfather artificially expanded the spring using man-made basins and aquifers, built a shelter over part of it so that people could enjoy the waters even in bad weather, added a funicular which brought guests up from the town, and christened it Magnum Balneum. And other hill folks took part in the enterprise. At the peak of Magnum Balneum’s popularity there were two small hotels, three restaurants, a hunting park, and a peep show, all primarily serving the spring’s guests. My uncle’s grandfather, no longer dependent on the patronage of Spetterhorn residents, became a grim and rigid gatekeeper. He allowed almost no one from town to use the spring, and those who were admitted paid exorbitant entrance fees. It mattered little to him that the people he was shutting out were but the poor descendants of those who had snubbed his family, his rules were the embodiment of fifty years of resentment.
Of course, Dama Fortuna does not linger in one place for long. Throughout the late nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties interest in Magnum Balneum waned.Ease of travel and the proliferation of the tourist industry with its endless series of novelties lured guests away, and by nineteen seventy, the spring’s customers were too few to support the hotels, restaurants, and live nude girls, all of which closed. Phillip was running the place at that point. Faced with the choice between shuttering the business or opening it up to the people of Spetterhorn, he chose the former. He died in nineteen-eighty, and afterwards Carissa, out of both dedication to Phillip and her own inclination, kept the waters private.
I had not, in fact, thought much of any of this during my four years of college and two years in Chicago. Even before that I spent only a little time at the house, as my immediate family was not included in the group considered eligible to visit the spring. However, the summer after my uncle died, for reasons I never understood, I was often invited up to the house where Carissa entertained small groups of friends and relatives, parading around in a bikini and sarong but never going into the waters herself, enjoying her high social standing as hostess and “Queen of the Spa,” a soubriquet she claims was dubbed her by a guest, but one I suspect she gave herself. I and a few distant relatives would lounge in the various pools drinking lemonade and lying about the people with whom we’d made out and the various bases we’d rounded.
The shadows were long across the street as the bus pulled into the terminal, an ancient gas station with pumps that no longer operated. I gathered my bag and walked up the side of the hill. Carissa and Elliot met me at the front door. Carissa was at the time in her early fifties but still held at least the outline of the shape she bore as queen of the spa. She was able, I learned, to keep the spring shut to outsiders by running a thriving mail order business in antique postcards. Travel cards were her specialty, and though she had never been anywhere farther away than Omaha, if one were looking for historical postcards of the Hagia Sophia, the St. Charles Bridge, the brothels of Pompeii, or the Suq of Marrakesh, she would, using a network of contacts, have them in the mail to you within a week. Elliot had turned into a handsome young man, though thin and not robust. He was studying botany. He greeted me politely but seemed a bit resentful at my presence. This is understandable, considering how I treated him while visiting the house as a teenager.
It was early evening by the time I settled in, so we did little but put away dinner and a bottle of bourbon then went to bed.The next day, I inspected Magnum Balneum. The shelter over the main pool had decayed from lack of maintenance and had long since been removed. The only structure left was a storage shed containing a couple of pool skimmers, metal folding chairs, and twenty-year-old rat poison (the speckled egg rat, native to the region, frequently infested houses on the hill, but their numbers had decreased sharply after World War Two). The spring itself consisted of one large pool, about twenty feet across and five feet deep, with four smaller pools, ten feet down the hill, fed by two man-made aquifers dug into the hillside and lined with rocks and concrete. There was no one around, so I stripped, slid into the main pool, and lounged there for half an hour or so. After drying in the sun, I walked into town. Out of pure nostalgia, I went past the small, old house in which I had grown up. My parents’ families both had given up on farming before they were born, and my grandfather had supported his with a store that sold radios and second-hand furniture. My father then took over the business, which was far from lucrative, and the house, a one-story two-bedroom, was the best he could afford. After my parents’ deaths, I was unable to sell it, and it still stood deserted, with crumbling siding and a yard of grim weeds. One of the windowpanes facing the street was missing, but I declined to enter.
On High Street, near the park at the town’s center, I happened to run into Joe Peachum, one of the people agitating against Carissa. He offered to buy me a cup of coffee, so we walked over to the Screech Owl Diner (specialty coffee shops of the type that litter the contemporary landscapes were rare in nineteen eighty-seven). At the diner, I found myself seated at a long table facing not just Peachum, but Sally Kohl and Ed Dewey, all sitting in a row opposite me. I was but twenty-four years old, facing people my parents’ age, all in positions of authority. Peachum was a successful realtor, and no doubt had commercial reasons for wanting the spring open to the public. Kohl was a pharmacist, knew every person in town, and wielded a great deal of influence. Dewey ran a shoe store, but he also sat on the town council, and as he was able to produce a hot cloud of invented information from his mouth at a moment’s notice, he was often able to convince other members to vote his way, even when what he wanted was baldly idiotic.
These three pretended to explain to me that opening up the spring to the public was in the town’s best interest, and that Carissa’s desire to keep it closed was not only selfish but unpatriotic. Dewey mentioned eminent domain, but I knew that was a long reach. Peachum declared stonily that the three of them would encourage people from town to trespass on our property and take over the spring by osmosis. They then asked for my help in persuading Carissa to concede. I told them I was here to support her and would not be a party to any backroom deals. They were all eating cherry pie, and I fancied they were pretending that Carissa was baked into it. I did not touch my coffee.
Upon returning to the house, I related the essence of the conversation to Carissa. She then presented her plan to dynamite the spring rather than let the rabble from town take it over. This was not an idle threat; she had, in fact, been in touch with a demolition company and had already obtained an estimate for the work. I tried to dissuade her. I asked her to give me a week to figure out a course of action, and at the end, if I could not come up with anything, I would support the spring’s destruction.
That night, after darkness had spread completely, I stole quietly out to Magnum Balneum. Peachum’s comment had struck me ominously, and I suspected that it was not just a threat, but that an invasion had already begun. The path was overgrown from disuse, and the trees obscured the moonlight, so I had to feel my way along, moving slowly, grasping trees and hedges. At the spring, moonlight shone through an opening in the trees, and by it I could see that there were indeed two trespassers there, a man and woman, middle-aged and naked, rolling in the water like a couple of walruses. As I watched, they stood up, moved down to one of the lower pools, slid in and submerged. Moving as quietly as I could, I made my way back to the house to get my uncle’s hunting rifle. I did not plan to shoot the couple, but if Peachum was going to set the town upon us, I was determined at least to make it uncomfortable for them. However, when I got back to the spring, the couple was already dressed and moving down the hill. Staying out of sight, I followed them as they walked back to their house and made a note of their address. (I did so only in case we might be forced to resort to legal action over the affair.)
I spent the following week pondering the situation and doing what research I could at the public library. We had no internet then of course, so I was limited in what I could discover to the few books mentioning the ownership and management of springs, to newspapers on microfiche, and to the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature which, unsurprisingly, yielded little useful information. I even phoned my record store boss, thinking he, as a business owner, might have some useful insights. In the end, inspiration struck as I drove Carissa’s car past Kochliche, a former supper club and Spetterhorn’s oldest restaurant. I advised Carissa to invite Peachum, Kohl, and Dewey to the house for a dinner during which we would discuss my plan, and afterwards we would have a round of cocktails in Magnum Balneum.
That Saturday evening, the guests arrived. Kohl was looking smart in a business suit with gray pinstripes, and Peachum always dressed as if he worked in a bank. These were the Reagan years after all, and Wall Street set the tone for clothes as well as behavior. Dewey wore a painfully loud Hawaiian shirt and maroon and ochre wing tips. Elliot wore a Cramps t-shirt and was asked to eat in the kitchen. Salt encrusted salmon steaks were served with fingerling potatoes, but the resentment that filled the room did not abate. We each had a second glass of wine, then I outlined my proposal. It was simply this: the spring would be run as a private club. People from town (some) would be allowed to purchase memberships, and members would be free to use the spring during daylight hours as they might wish. In return, members would pay to have a privacy fence constructed between the house and spring to hide their revelries from my aunt’s attention. Carissa would have strict control over whom would be allowed to join and could refuse membership for any, or no reason. Dewey objected. He wondered how in a democratic society one person could exhibit such a high level of snobbery. Peachum and Kohl concurred, though with little enthusiasm. At this point in the discussion, I produced the estimate for dynamiting the spring along with a report from a geologist I had hired claiming the destruction of the spring was necessary to protect drinking water obtained from private wells on the hill. The documents were quite persuasive. If the sign of a productive negotiation is that no one is happy, this one was a great success. Taking to various rooms, we all changed into our swimsuits, gathered together some bottles of gin and tonic water, and headed down to the waters.
Here, I would like to remind the reader that my original point concerned the importance of chance, for this is the moment in which chance re-wrote the story. As we walked down the hill, Kohl and Dewey were in the lead, followed by Peachum, then by Carissa and me, carrying the garnishes and bottles. Kohl suddenly let out a shriek that echoed through the entire hillside and caused owls, nightjars, and whip-poor-wills suddenly to take flight. I stumbled down as quickly as I could and stood at the edge of the aquifer that drew water from the largest pool to the others. In the large pool, two people were floating, face down, not moving, bloated bodies white in the moonlight. It was, in fact, the couple I had spotted trespassing the week before. We called the authorities, the bodies were removed, and Peachum, Kohl, and Dewey left without taking advantage of their opportunity to bathe.
This might have been but a temporary obstacle in our plans, but at the autopsies, it was determined that the couple died not from drowning, but of arsenic poisoning. Apparently, they had been drinking the water of the spring, not simply bathing in it, and the water contained a high level of the poison. Arsenic is, in fact, often found joined with sulphur, a common element in igneous rock, and will be dissolved in whatever water passes over or through such rock. When the water is heated, as in a hot spring, the effect is magnified. The townspeople’s interest in bathing in the spring waned quickly after this incident, and my aunt was left in peace.
Unfortunately, it was a short-lived peace. Two years later, Elliot and Carissa died as well, also of arsenic poisoning. It seems there were cracks in the bedrock between the spring and their well, and water from the spring was travelling through those cracks and seeping into their drinking water. It is a bitter irony that the feature of Carissa’s property of which she was so possessive in the end caused her death. As it was, as her closest living relative, I inherited Magnum Balneum, and two years after Carissa’s death, I re-opened it to the public. Now you may wonder how a spring the water of which caused four deaths would be an inviting destination. Almost miraculously, the arsenic levels abated. The geologist I hired assured me that this is quite normal, as arsenic levels in spring water often fluctuate owing to rain and groundwater recharge. Besides, people’s memories are short, and there has been no illness and not a single death since Carissa’s attributable to the spring. Since nineteen ninety-one it has continued to provide healing waters to the people of Spetterhorn and surrounding communities, and even to the occasional visitor from Omaha. And those of an egalitarian cast can be assured that there is no restriction on the spring’s use other than the cost of admission.
Brad Gottschalk is a writer and cartoonist who has lived most of his life in Wisconsin. His comics, illustrations and fiction have appeared in numerous journals; most recently his fiction has appeared in Caveat Lector, Sangam, and Rosebud. You can see more of his work at www.silenttheatercomics.com.