In the tail end of summer, we decided to move to a new home. The days were getting shorter, early mornings a little drier, and the nights a little crisper. We were all excited to move – we loved it out in Western Massachusetts. From the sleepy old New England towns with a white Georgian steepled church in their center, to the acres upon acres of dense woods and hills that rolled along the forgotten edges. We even loved the old forlorn mill buildings that stood alongside the Housatonic and Connecticut rivers, silently standing beside them like ancient guardians.
No one was more excited than my father. He was a history buff first and foremost. His love of history splintered into so many directions: from antique store explorer to archivist to antiquarian and everything in between. It didn’t stop there – he would even try to integrate the “old ways” into our family lifestyle, and some of that, like the hearth, I remember quite fondly. So, he was naturally excited to be moving into such an historic home. It was an eighteenth-century saltbox colonial, and even that could barely contain his excitement. His smile made the exposed beams running along the ceiling shine and it could have even split apart those wide, gorgeous pine floorboards.
Father became a new man when we moved in. To be fair, it didn’t exactly happen overnight. No, the change was gradual – in fact it seemed to coincide with each dusty box he dragged down to the basement. The change was drip fed with each heirloom, with each antique furnishing, and with each new volume he added to the archives down there. It was almost as if he was rediscovering himself. Rediscovering something lost – box by box. I always wondered what was down in that basement and why my dad seemed so different, but I was never allowed to go down there.
My mother never said a word about any of this. Whenever I would attempt to broach the subject, she would always redirect the conversation to some other topic. But she would give me this look – this knowing look. She knew something but would never say. She was as locked as the cellar door, but that look was a little crack – no wider than the tiny sliver in the cellar door that only let you see the very edge of cobweb draped stairs descending down into pitch blackness.
One day, when we were all eating dinner, father came up from the basement holding a skull and plopped it down on the table where it watched us all eat. My mother gasped in horror, but quickly regained her composure and resumed eating. But, just like her little smile was a tell of some deeper knowledge, I noticed her hands trembling as she held the spoon and shaking as she passed the salad bowl. I kept my eyes glued to my plate, and tried to eat, I really did – but when I would look up that’s all I could see were its hollow eyes staring right back at mother and I.
I knew I couldn’t ask mother about the skull, so I decided to ask my father directly. After dinner I waited until mother was doing the dishes, then ran out to the backyard where he was splitting wood for the evenings fire. My nerves were on high, but I gathered up the courage and asked him anyway. He put down his axe, crouched down to my height and then stared directly into my eyes. Those were not my father’s eyes. All the previous warmth was gone, replaced with a hollowness not unlike the eye sockets of that skull. Then he put his mouth to my ear and whispered, “Tonight, after the toll of dusk’s bell, you may come.”
That night I laid in bed and could not sleep. It was the same for mother, who I could hear sobbing in her room with the door closed. She must have been trying to muffle it by crying into a blanket or pillow so as not to cause me any alarm. But little could she have known I was already awaiting my own invitation to descend the cobweb covered stairs into darkness. Knowing this, her sobbing made me sad, made me feel as if I was opening her wound that much more. The longer I waited, the more the guilt and fear nibbled at my veins. I could only gaze out the window at the deep woods, the rolling hills, the dirt paths to ancient farms, and if I leaned a certain way, I could make out the white Georgian steeple of the old Baptist Church in the town center. Every hour the toll of the bell reverberated through my mind, and throughout this sleepy New England town.
Then as a complete moonless darkness enshrouded the town the church bells tolled for the last time. Dusk’s bell. I didn’t want to go downstairs, but I had to. I recalled the way my father had looked me in the eye as if to say, “this is your one chance, you’re only chance to see the cellar.” I tiptoed down the steps, heart beating so fast that I thought mother might hear or feel the vibrations using that special sense only mother’s have. But she didn’t, and there I was, hand on the cellar door. I lifted the iron latch and pushed it open.
The stairway was surprisingly steep. I had to duck my head as I slowly descended each narrow step, holding onto the railing with one hand and swatting away the ever-present cobwebs with the other. Once downstairs I immediately scoured the ceiling and found a lightbulb with a pull string and turned the lone light on. I was struck by the sheer amount of stuff: there were chair legs coated in decades of dust, and countless molding cardboard boxes scattered about every inch of the floor. The cardboard boxes also encircled the trunks of oak trees that served as the pillars on which the entire house stood. It seemed that father had also given these sturdy oaks a second purpose as names were carved into the trunks, most of which were unfamiliar, but occasionally someone shared my last name or my mother’s maiden name. It made me smile, this was just like dad, a family tree. It gave me a glimmer of hope that maybe he was still with us, that this would all pass.
Like all colonial basements the walls were a motley of field stone dug up from the land and dredged from the nearby river valleys, then stuck together with a thick cake of lime and mortar – which had been refilled dozens of times over many generations of leaks and moldy growths. And all along these stone walls were metal shelves which were adorned with a dizzying assortment of paint cans, sealants, primers, grout, polyurethane, coffee cans filled with nails, and so on. Homeowners assortment aside, there were also some real historical treasures strewn about that ranged from yellowing photographs to wooden figurines.
Fascinating as all this was, none of it could explain the changes that had come over my father. His recent behavior had taken a dangerous and eccentric bent that was completely out of character. For instance, he set up cinder blocks in the street to try to divert traffic away from the house. He recently snipped the wires on all the nearby streetlights. Lastly, the father I knew would never have let the weeds and vines overtake the mulch beds to the point where they started to root through the cracks in the patchwork stone foundation. This just simply was not him.
I stood down there for a long time, going through the boxes and marveling at the assorted antiques within. However, as time passed there was a mounting dread slowly accumulating like damp humidity. The air was becoming mustier, moister, thicker. And then I found something that was off. In the dark corner of the cellar, past the oil tank where the light did not reach was an alcove that appeared to be nothing more than a dead spider trap, but as I ran my hand along the cool, damp stones of the wall they suddenly hit splintered wood. I groped around the wood and found a hook lock. I unfastened the hook and pushed open a door. Just then all the remaining light from the room was seemingly sucked into the open doorway like a blackhole. The light whooshed past and briefly illuminated a long hallway in the shape of a T. I could not see around the left and right corners, could not get a sense of how far those hallways went. But against the back wall, right at the epicenter of light with an exposure so high that the image remains burned into my retina to this day was a picture of my father the happiest I had ever seen him. On the day he moved in.
This is why I always say I had two fathers: your grandfather whom you know, and my father who remains brilliantly exposed against the pitch blackness of that forbidden hallway.
*Written by author Michael Neirinckx. TNUC sincerely thanks him for this timely offering. Now I urge you disciples to play the following track from the obscure 1989 horror movie The Cellar while you re-read “The Descent” once more!