Friday, December 5, 2008
"We all walk in the dark and each of us must learn to turn on his or her own light."
We climbed down to the basement at the approach of dusk. It was a November day, one of great heavy clouds, and our friends from Maine were visiting, keen to explore an old California home. The basement, with its half-completed floor and filthy windows and its shadows seething with the past, was my least favourite part of the building. I had grown to love, over time, the rooms above, filled as they were with sunlight and pleasantly charged atmosphere, but once I set foot on the shivering wooden steps to the basement, I might as well have been stepping into another house. There was, alas, no way to avoid it- the washing machine squatted in a corner of the basement and whispered to me frequently: come down, come down.
On laundry day when I stood in the belly of the house, hopping from one foot to the other and working with immeasurable speed to complete my task, I looked anywhere but in the furthest corners, which I knew were layered with thick, black soil, the walls lined by splintery shelves scattered with abandoned artifacts. The basement's oppressive silence shrouded the most incandescent afternoon.
Spouse had not arrived home from work when I took my friend and her husband downstairs for a brief tour of the gloomy space. The air felt so much lighter as soon as it pulsated with friendly chatter and it helped to have somebody there more afraid than I. If that person happened to be a man of broad shoulder and long hair whose height exceeded six feet then I was, inexplicably, further emboldened.
He was wary of confrontation with eight-legged creatures burrowed in the ceiling and walls, with whatever living thing he might accidentally disturb, but equally uneasy at the prospect of meeting something dead and ghostly.
We all trembled a little, made haste in our exploration and concluded the tour. I began ascending the stairs first- to lead the way, one must understand, as a proper host ought to do, an act utterly unrelated to the increasing sensation of doom that prickled my heart.
A howl, that of a woman, split the basement's quietude asunder with its ferocity.
I hovered on the creaking step, my skin already cold as midnight, but I could glimpse nothing at all through the grey mantle of dust that the commotion had unsettled.
I would not, I vowed, let anything- not phantom, not mouse- frighten my dear friend, and I flew from the stairs and raced to her in blind panic, my mouth so dry it seemed filled with ancient dust.
My friend, when I reached her, was not troubled. She was bent over in breathless amusement watching her husband slap a spider from his shoulder with an insistent violence and determination.
She was laughing not at the insect-riddled plight of an unfortunate fellow, but at a tall, adult man swiping his own tail of hair from his shoulder in unconcealed terror, leaping about in attempts to disengage it from his person, and issuing forth a fractious, high-pitched shriek that I am certain sent every being, living or dead, fleeing from the underground hollow of the house.
The very shadows that haunted the basement must have scuttled away. I never, after that, had any trouble venturing down to do the laundry- because the images I was left with and the imaginative pieces I conjured were of the very best sort.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 12:52 PM