The Cellar

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Most people walked right by. It was the tiniest window in the house, and right down at ankle level, it was easy to miss. From below in the cellar, it was also hard to see, tucked into the far back corner, up against the ceiling. It was a foot square, dirty, covered in old cob webs, all of which meant it didn’t let in much light. A trip to the cellar first meant pulling back the tornado doors—we called them Dorothy Doors—dropping down half a dozen big stone steps, opening the cellar door, and walking into a thick wall of cold damp air. Musty air. Your hands would reach out into the darkness, slowing swinging left and right, like an underwater plant swaying with the tides, searching for the pull string that ended in a tiny stick someone had tied on long ago. At the top of the string was a lone, small bulb. When one of your hands bumped the stick, and grabbed the cord, you gave a light tug and heard the confident click of the switch. Yet between this dim light and the dirty little window, it was hard to see much of anything at first. You stepped across the hard-packed earthen floor, slowly at first, from memory. Even though your hands knew the way, you stepped hesitantly, perhaps back to the rows of stacked wood, or to the chopping block with the hatchet sunk into the well-worn stump. The cellar was part creepy—inevitably you would walk into the remnants of a long abandoned spider web, you might pull a piece from your hair later that day—but it was also mysterious. It was a place to get away from parents and siblings, a place of refuge, like sneaking up to the attic. It invited exploration into nooks and crannies. There were the neat rows of canned beans and tomatoes. Running your hands across the Mason jars brought summer light into cellar darkness. Memories of long sunny days, and even better, memories of the garden. Holding a perfectly ripe tomato, still warm from the afternoon sun, and eating it like an apple, leaning forward so as not to drip or squirt red juice and seeds on your white t-shirt. Pole beans, pushed tightly in vertical columns inside each jar, brought back the crisp snap of breaking one in half to share with a friend, or sitting around a bowl, breaking off ends for a garden fresh meal that evening. Preserved apples were added in autumn. They were peeled, parboiled with just a touch of lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. In the back right corner of the cellar was a small sandbox, about three feet square, a couple feet deep, the winter home to buried roots and tubers—potatoes, parsnips, and turnips. There were carrots, big and fat, the tender ones had been eaten as they were pulled out of loose August soil.

After a couple minutes of searching by hand in the dark, if your purpose took longer, maybe to chop a short log of white pine into splinters of kindling, your eyes dilated, revealing the stone wall, built of hand-cut rocks, their scalloped curves showing hewn marks a century old, now with white mold following little cracks and channels in the rock, like glue applied in a hurry.

Temperature isn’t seen, so quick changes can be a surprise. On summer visits, when you dropped down into the darkness, it was like coming upon a cold pocket of deep water while swimming across a lake, or walking into a chilly layer of air on an evening stroll through a late summer meadow. With time, the welcome escape from a hot day outside soon dissipated. It was something about the musty air that didn’t invite lingering. You would re-focus on why you were there, maybe to grab the hatchet, and head back up into the heat, now being hit in reverse, like leaving an over-chilled grocery store and re-entering the furnace of an asphalt parking lot.

Passing the little cellar window in any season—in summer, fresh cut grass, thrown from the mower, might be stuck to it, in autumn, leaves would tumble across the yard and pile up against it, and in winter, drifts of snow buried it, perhaps revealing just a piece of the peeling white frame—you might stop for a moment and look. The smells and damp darkness of the underground world beneath the house seemed far away, but just a glimpse of the window stopped your thoughts, your mission of the moment, and pulled you down to the mystery below. Like holding a secret, you remembered, and walked on.