“Sonvy, go down to the basement and grab a package of stew beef for me, would you please?” My mother’s voice rang out, laced with a sense of urgency. “Hurry up now because I need to get things started for supper.”
“I’m hurrying, Mom, but I have to get these paints I’m working with put away,” I called back. From the kitchen she couldn’t see how slowly I was moving, procrastinating. Wishing she would ask my brothers was fruitless because they’d been working with Dad out in the barn all day. I was stuck.
No one knew how much I hated and feared the basement. I couldn’t tell Mom how much the dark and spiders scared me because she would say now that I was in sixth grade I should get over it. She also would probably tell my eldest brother, Carl, who would take great delight in teasing me and calling me a fraidy cat. My fear of spiders was so bad I could hardly breathe if one landed on me. And ever since Carl tossed some spiders into the sink where I was washing dishes, I knew I had to keep my fears to myself. If he knew I was afraid of even going into the basement, I was sure he’d think of new ways to torment me about that. Of all the errands Mom could have asked me to do, fetching stuff from the basement ranked even lower than mopping floors or cleaning the bathroom.
Dark and damp, the basement provided a home for dozens of spiders who found it to be the ideal place for their seemingly endless tangled webs. And even before you reached the basement, there was the stairwell that led to it. Along the edge of the nine concrete steps a dozen or more headless old-coat phantoms hung on hangers across a long metal rod, watching all who dared pass by. At least twelve pair of old rubber boots sat neatly lined up on a ten-foot shelf underneath, also dusty and unused, seemingly belonging to no one. The entire stairwell seemed to serve as a coat and boot mortuary, from which nothing ever got a proper burial. Even if I couldn’t see them, I knew hairy black spiders with tentacle-like legs hid out in the old coats and boots on the stairwell and in the dust-encrusted windows down below. Surely they were lurking in the shadows, waiting to sink their fangs into me.
Mom’s errand couldn’t be postponed any longer. Like the day I forced myself to jump off the diving board at swimming lessons, I took a deep breath and took one step down. My fear right now was not, however about jumping into a pool, but about facing a dark chamber where whole families of spiders awaited unsuspecting victims. I hated being afraid of everything, and the voice in my head scolded me to get over being such a fraidy cat. That day, however, I was to discover there was more to fear in our gloomy basement than hungry spiders in hidden lairs.
Ours was a typical farmhouse built in the 1930’s, with a full basement of unadorned concrete walls and a few tiny windows at ground level to let in a little light, or perhaps, air. A musty swamp-like odor greeted all comers, and I hated how the dampness always made my skin felt sticky. The walls were cold and clammy to the touch, and there was usually a small pool of water at the low center of the sloped floor where Dad had placed a drain. A high water table made water seepage a problem in the area, and even with a sump pump water would at times seep up into the basement.
I plunged down the steps, hoping to rush past the spiders hiding along the edges before they knew I was near. At the bottom I stopped to catch my breath and peer cautiously into the shadows ahead. Stepping carefully around the water on the floor, I looked around. The basement had two main rooms and a third locked room where Dad kept his power saw. The first main room housed a wringer washing machine near the entrance and Dad’s workbench across the room. Tiptoeing as far as the workbench, I stopped to look in every direction. Behind the workbench was an entire wall of shelves upon which sat a hundred or more jars of home-canned produce I’d helped Mom prepare. Both workbench and shelves were made of heavy dark beams, originally railroad ties treated with oily creosote to make them water-resistant. Their almost-black color added to the gloominess of the basement, which resembled the secret lab for the mad scientist in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Ahead of me was a wide doorway that led to the second room. On the heavy beams that framed this doorway, my brother Halleck had nailed an archway of rusty old horseshoes. he had collected them from the ninety-year-old farmer who still plowed his field across the road with a team of horses. “Horseshoes bring good luck,” Halleck had assured me.
Stepping into the lucky-horseshoe doorway, I flipped on the light for the second room. Standing there in the dim light, I looked straight across to the upright freezer against the back wall. To the left was a pile of old trikes, scooters, toys, and boxes of old clothes. Mom didn’t throw anything away. (She candidly described herself as a pack rat.)
Dad’s six-foot-tall tool cabinet loomed immediately to my right, black and forbidding, and completely blocked my view of the right-hand corner of the room. Months earlier I had seen a case of beer tucked away in the corner beyond the tool cabinet, half concealed by a burlap bag. An unpainted wooden stool Dad had made to use at his workbench sat now, out of place, near by. I’d worried about what I saw that day and wondered if Mom had seen it. I was aware Dad’s drinking was getting worse, but I’d never seen where he went to drink his beer. I guessed it was probably in the barn where he spent a lot of time alone. Today I wasn’t all that concerned about it, because I was sure Dad was working in the barn with my brothers.
I wasn’t sure where Dad drank, but what I was sure of was that Dad’s drinking was making him into a person I didn’t know. Almost every night I could hear the angry shouting and arguing in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, along with swearing and loud banging sounds. Sometimes the fighting started in the living room in front of all of us, then moved on to Mom and Dad’s room, to go on until 1:00 a.m. or later. The ugly names Dad called Mom made me ache inside as I lay awake half the night, worrying if Mom was safe. Only twelve years old, I felt helpless to protect her.
In the morning there’d be bruises on Mom’s arms and sometimes on her face, or her nightgown would be torn. She would always tell us she had run into the doorjamb or the cow she was milking had bumped her. I knew better.
Dad had even grabbed me once in the living room when Mom was outside, giving me a good scare. Afraid he was going to start beating up on all of us, I tried to stay away from Dad as much as I could. Sometimes I’d lie awake in bed planning a way to escape from the house if he got really violent. I figured Mom and I could sneak out the back door and follow a dirt path that led through a row of cottonwood trees, to the nearest neighbors forty yards away. I was sure they’d help us.
Standing at the threshold of the second basement room, I began to feel more confident. I’d managed to avoid all the spiders so far, and the freezer was in sight. “See, you’re not such a fraidy cat,” I complimented myself. Before I could change my mind, I bolted forward toward the freezer, taking one giant step from behind the bulky tool cabinet.
All of a sudden a figure appeared to my right, partially hidden by the shadow of the big tool cabinet. It was Dad! Sitting there on his wooden stool, he lurched toward me with a drunken leer. I felt his strong arm grab mine, his other hand brushed against my breast, trying to pull me close. I’d seen that look before, upstairs. That gleam in his eye, his hands grabbing at me. I tried to cry out. Nothing. Panic-stricken, I pulled away and fled in tears.
Racing up the basement steps, I almost bumped into my twin brother, Sammy, about to go through the back door to go outside. Grabbing his arm, I pleaded, “Sammy, would you do me a favor? Please go down and get some stew beef from the freezer for Mom? She asked me but I just can’t do it right now. Could you please, please, please?” Sammy and I were close. I knew he would do almost anything for me. I was counting on him.
“Sure,” he agreed without hesitation. “I’ll be glad to. I’ll take it on up to her in the kitchen.”
Thanking him profusely, I raced on through the house to my bedroom. Closing my door, I sat on the edge of my bed and shook like a leaf, fighting tears silently so no one else would hear. I can’t tell Mom what happened. I just can’t, I whispered to myself. She has enough to deal with , what with the fighting every night. I can’t tell anyone else either. It’s just too awful to talk about. It makes me feel ashamed; of Dad and his drinking, of how our family lives because of it. It’s our family’s secret I need to keep. If others find out I’ll be too embarrassed to face anyone at school. Besides, who would believe me anyway? We’re the only ones who see him drunk.
A couple of months after the incident Mom asked me to help her do some cleaning and organizing in the basement. Just thinking of going downstairs made my stomach queasy, but Dad was safely at work so I figured it would be okay. We worked several hours boxing up old toys and clothes to give or throw away.
As Mom got busy labeling boxes, I turned to stare hard at the corner where I’d barely escaped Dad. There, like a silent witness, stood the unpainted stool Dad had been sitting on. I hated that stool. A surge of anger from deep inside coursed through me, turning my face beet red. It’s crazy, I thought. I’m mad that what happened did happen, I am mad I can’t tell anybody, and I am mad at the stool for being an accomplice to the drinking that is destroying our family. My life that had seemed so orderly and calm, now made no sense at all.
Several similar encounters with Dad occurred over the next few years, even though I was cautious, trying to avoid him completely. I convinced my twin brother to do most of Mom’s freezer runs, but the fear of that incident never left me. Those years at home, and for twenty years afterward, I had nightmares about that stool and a man, with no particular face, who was sitting on it. He would jump out of the darkness to grab me as I walked past. The man didn’t need a face. I knew who he was. The dream remained the same year after year.
Twenty five years later, after Dad died, I revisited the basement. It was largely unchanged except that Mom had cleaned out all the old coats and boots in the stairwell. That meant most of the stairwell spiders had moved down into the basement itself where their webs stretched across every window. Brighter bulbs Mom now used made the dark room considerably less threatening. The terrible dreams were still haunting me, but had become less frequent. I felt I needed to face the forbidding basement again, see the abetting stool, set myself free.
My eleven-year-old daughter by my side, we gazed around the first room. The canning shelves were mostly empty now. The dark wooden beams of the workbench now seemed comforting, as if they could protect us from almost anything. We stopped at the doorway to the second room. Goosebumps prickled my arms and my heartbeat quickened as I instinctively scanned the space to scout for danger. Off to one side my eyes settled on the rustic horseshoes still framing the doorway. I smiled to see them, recalling my brother’s voice. “Horseshoes bring good luck.”
“Look at all those horseshoes! Did they come from real horses”? my daughter asked.
I assured her they did. “They bring good luck, you know.”
“Is that true?” she persisted.
Pausing to consider my answer, I looked at her, so young and sweet, eyes open wide and expectant. I felt the clasp of her hand tighten. She was so much like me in her quiet, introspective nature, but more trusting and open. Her childhood was so different from mine. She could feel safe in our home, and for that I was grateful.
“Yes, that’s true,” I reassured her.
Reaching out with my other hand to touch one of the horseshoes, I let my fingers glide gently over the rough, rusted surface, gnarled and blackened, cool to the touch. I breathed a silent thank you to a God I’d only recently considered and had never known as a child. We walked on into the second room together and I heard myself saying, “In here we stored boxes of stuff, old toys and the like. And my father made that wooden stool to use at his workbench. . . .”