Two o’clock in the morning, a Thursday morning, the
first bit of water broke through the ground of George Clatterbuck’s
back pasture in Habit, Kentucky, and not a living soul saw
it. Spring didn’t care. Water never needed anyone’s help to come
up through the ground once it was ready. There are rivers, hundreds
of them, running underground all the time, and because of
this a man can say he is walking on water. This was a hot spring
that had broken loose of its river to make mud in the grass, and it
kept on till it was a clear pool and then a little creek, cutting out
a snake’s path toward the Panther River. Water will always seek
out its own.
George Clatterbuck found it when it was already a pretty
steady stream. It was only fitting that he should be the one, seeing
as how it was his land. It was 1906. He was hunting for his
family’s dinner. He smelled the spring before he saw it, foul and
sulfurous as spoiled eggs. He thought it was a bad sign, that it
meant his land was infected and spitting up bile for relief. The
water was warm when he dipped in his hand, and he wiped it off
against the leg of his trousers. He was thinking about it, thinking
what he ought to do, when he saw a rabbit on the other
side of the field. It was as big a buck as he’d seen, and he knelt
down slowly to get off his shot. He had to shoot on his knees.
His father taught him that way because he was afraid the rifle’s
kick would knock the boy off his feet, thought George would
be safer close to the ground. But since that was the way George
learned, that was the only way he could ever do it, and now here
he was, grown with a family, going down on his knees like a man
in prayer to shoot a rabbit.
He blew the head clean off and didn’t disturb the pelt. He
thought he would tan the hide and give it to his daughter, June,
for her birthday. June, like many little girls, was partial to soft
things. By the time he’d tied the legs onto his belt he’d forgotten
about the water altogether.
It wasn’t long after that times turned hard for the Clatterbucks.
Both plow horses came down with colic, and Betsy, the
horse George rode to town, got a ringworm thick as your thumb
that no amount of gentian violet could clear. Not a week after,
every last one of his cows came down with mastitis that left them
all drier than bones. George had to get up every three hours in
the night and bottle-feed the calves, whose crying put his wife
beside herself. “Sounds like a dying child,” she said, and she shivered.
George didn’t say this to her, but he was thinking he might
have to slaughter the calves and take his losses. Bought milk was
more than he could afford.
Then, if he didn’t have enough to worry about, the horses
broke free of the corral. George took some rope and set out to
bring them back, cursing the rain and the mud and the stupid
animals with every step. He found them at that spring he had
forgotten, drinking so deeply he thought they’d founder. He
was frightened then because he thought such water would kill
them, and where would the money come from to buy three new
horses? But the horses were fine. Betsy’s hide was smooth where
the ringworm had been and the other two were past their own
disorder. George knew it was the spring that had done this, but
he didn’t know if it was the work of the Devil or the Lord. He
didn’t tell a soul when he drove his sick cows down to the water,
but by the time they came home their udders were so full they
looked like they might burst on the ground.
Then little June took sick and laid in her bed like a dull penny.
Doctor came from Owensboro and said it wasn’t the pox or scarlet
fever, but something else that was burning her alive. She was
slipping away so fast you could all but see her dying right before
your eyes, and there sat her parents, not a thing in the world
So George goes out in the middle of the night with a mason
jar. He walks in the dark to the spring, fills up the jar, and heads
home. He goes to his daughter’s room and looks at her pale face.
He prays. He takes the first drink of water for himself, thinking
that if it was to kill her he’d best die, too. It is foul-tasting, worse
even than the smell of it. He lifts up June’s head from her sweaty
pillow and pours the water down her throat, the whole jarful. He
only lets a little run down the sides of her face. He wonders for a
moment what it would be like to feed a child from his own body
as his wife had done, but the thought embarrasses him and he
lets it go. The next morning June is fine, perfect, better than new.
When the spring had saved his livestock, George kept it to
himself, not wanting to look foolish, but when it saved his
daughter he felt the call to witness. He went into the streets of
Habit and told what he had seen. At first the people were slow
in believing, but as hardships came to them and they went to the
spring for help, all was proved true.
Tales of what had happened spread by word of mouth and before
long people were coming up from as far away as Mississippi.
The truth was stretched out of shape through all the telling, and
soon the lame showed up wanting to walk and the blind wanting
to see. The spring can’t do everything, the townspeople said. It’s
wrong to expect so much.
And then one boy died right there at the water’s edge. He was
that sick by the time his folks brought him. He’s buried in Habit
now, two hundred miles away from his own kind.
One of the people who got word of the spring was a horse
breeder named Lewis Nelson, who lived in Lexington. Lewis’
wife, Louisa, had rheumatoid arthritis and her hands froze up on
her even though she was only twenty-two. They set off to Habit
to see if the water couldn’t do her some good. The Nelsons were
rich, and when they came to town they were looking for a hotel,
but there wasn’t one. George had made a vow to never make a
cent off the spring, and Habit said that was only fitting. So when
visitors came they were taken in with charity, many times by the
Clatterbucks themselves. This put the Nelsons ill at ease, since
they were used to giving charity and not receiving it.
June was seventeen that summer. She had grown up as well as
she had started out. She was a kind of a saint in the town, the first
one saved by the spring, but all that really meant to June was that
there were few boys bold enough to ask her out, and the ones
who did thought it would be a sin to try and kiss her. She gave up
her room for Mr. and Mrs. Nelson and slept on the sofa downstairs.
After her second trip to the spring the use of Louisa’s hands
came back to her and she taught June how to cross-stitch. Her
husband was full of joy. Lewis was a devout Catholic with a head
for figures. He saw the hand of God in the spring and thought
the thing to do would be to build a grand hotel in the back pasture.
No one was ever sure how he changed George Clatterbuck’s
mind, but probably it was by telling him that a lot more people
could be saved if there was a bigger place to stay and that George
was being unchristian by denying them. It’s easy to imagine that
Lewis had seen how well the hot-springs hotels had done in Arkansas
and Tennessee and knew there was some real money to
be made. Not long after that the architects came with their silver
mechanical pencils, and after them the builders and the gardeners.
In 1920 the Hotel Louisa opened its doors. They’d wanted to
call it the Hotel June, but June, afraid of scaring off the few dates
she had left, said thank you, no.
When the roses on the wallpaper were still in their first bloom
and the carpet was soft and springy beneath your feet, there
wasn’t a hotel in the South that could match the Hotel Louisa.
People came from Atlanta and Chicago and New Orleans,
some to be healed but most to play tennis on the grass courts
and dance in the fancy ballroom. Lewis sent for his collection of
horse prints in Lexington, and Louisa picked out velvet to cover
the settees for the lobby. There were two formal dining rooms
where people ate with real silver and drank champagne smuggled
down from Canada. At five o’clock everyone went out and
stood on the front porch to drink bourbon and soda. No one
from Habit ever went inside after the opening day. It made them
feel like they weren’t quite good enough. Even the Clatterbucks,
who were supposed to be partners in everything, kept to the
other side of the woods. You couldn’t see their house, not even
from the third-floor rooms. The guests never knew they had ever
been there at all.
The crash of the stock market in 1929 and the great drought
that came over the land were so close together that it was hard to
separate one from the other. Everything was coming to an end,
and the spring would not except itself. Maybe there was a reason
for it, that things got so hot that even the water underneath
the ground felt the pull of the dry air. In no time it went from a
trickle to a strip of mud and then not even that. But whatever it
was, the town of Habit took its leaving as a sign, just as they had
taken its arrival.
For the spring this was no hardship. It was just going back,
folding into one of those underground rivers. It would break
through later, years from then, someplace else. Next time people
might not be around for miles. It was very possible that no one
would ever drink from it at all.
Not long after all this, people stopped going to the hotel,
though it would be hard to say if it was because of the spring or
because they were the kind of people who had kept their money
in banks. June used to walk across the field in the evenings and
look at the place in the ground where her salvation had come
from. She saw men in suits and women in silk dresses carrying
out their own bags and taking hired cars north to catch trains.
The Nelsons tried for a long time to get the water to come
back. They hired people who said they knew how to coax it out
of the ground. But the spring was long gone by then. They stayed
on in the hotel alone until the middle thirties, hardly coming out
for anything. You could trail them as they moved from room to
room, one light going off and another one coming on. People
said they could set their watch by what window was bright at the
time. Then one day the Nelsons packed up and left without saying
Word came soon after that the Nelsons had made a gift of the
Hotel Louisa to the Catholic Church, and this put the fear of
God in everyone. It was one thing to have rich people in your
pasture, but when the Clatterbucks thought of Catholics, they
saw statues of the Virgin Mary going up in the yard, ten feet high.
The Clatterbucks could have kept the Catholics off, since they
owned the land, but nobody told them that. When the lawyers
came and knocked on their door, there was nothing for them to
do but look at the ground and shake their heads. A few weeks
later two buses pulled up, and a group of little old women in
white dresses were led or carried up the front stairs. The church
had changed the name of the Hotel Louisa to Saint Elizabeth’s
and turned it into a rest home for old nuns.
But the nuns were miserable. They’d been dirt poor all their
lives, following the word of their church. The idea of spending
their final days in an abandoned grand hotel made them restless.
Soon the tiny women started wandering over to the Clatterbucks’
in their bathrobes, searching out a simpler way of life.
The Clatterbucks, good Baptists every day of their lives, took
pity on the old Catholics and overcame their fears. They served
them platters of fried mush with sorghum, which were received
with heartfelt prayers and thanks. It made the family feel needed
again; the old women’s dependence called to mind the early days
of the spring when the sick were healed. They thought that God
had seen again what was best.
But the church did not agree, and two years later the buses returned
and took the nuns to Ohio. Mrs. Clatterbuck cried when
they left, and June touched the medal around her neck of Saint
Catherine of Siena that Sister Estelle had given her. She wore it
all her life.
The Hotel Louisa was getting worn, fretwork slipped from
the porch, shutters hung down. In any other town it would have
been ransacked, people breaking out windows and carrying off
furniture in the night. But the people of Habit were true to their
name and just kept on avoiding the old hotel like they did in the
days when they wouldn’t have had the right clothes to go inside
for a cup of coffee.
The Clatterbucks waited and watched. Then one day a station
wagon pulled up the front drive and two nuns, dressed in
what looked to be white bed sheets, and five big-bellied girls got
out. June and her mother were just coming through the woods at
the time, out for their daily walk.
The nuns cut across the dried creek bed, not knowing a thing.
They didn’t know how the hotel had come to be or that they
were standing on top of what might have been the closest thing
to a real miracle that any of them was ever going to see. They
were occupied, unloading the car.
“Pregnant girls,” Mrs. Clatterbuck said. “They’ve gone and
made it into a home for pregnant girls.”