As she continues down each step, a smell, the smell, of stagnant green water rises through soft, mildewed floorboards, leaving a sponginess on her skin, and settling deep in her nostrils. Lodging in her sinuses. Reaching for grey matter. She skips the third step – it squeaks – and balances her way to the fourth. Her hand is on the right wall and drags alongside her descent. She will risk rousing families of spiders if she touches the left wall. She knows that much by now.
The house above was abandoned almost thirty years ago. She had been a child when she first noticed the stone cabin nestled up against a copse. On cloudy days it seemed to disappear into the drab sky, awash in the slate surface of the Atlantic. In the light of spring and summer the moss devoured the rock, while foxglove, buttercup, and fuchsia cradled it into the dark green of the hedges and trees.
It is unusual for the houses here to have cellars, and even more peculiar to find one so deep. Smokey peat lingers, but that will fade as she continues to spiral and wade further into what she assumes was once a well. The land here is damp. There could be water beyond the door, but she has yet to undo its latch and explore.
Today I will open the door.
She repeats it softly – to the roots pushing through the walls, to the musty pressure of the air, to cradle and pacify the anxiety enduring in her pruned palms and erratic heartbeat. She stops halfway down. The light from her flashlight elongates spindled, webby strands dangling in the curves of the staircase, and flows, bending into the darkness ahead. Today I will open the door. Today I will open the door. A breeze wisps from behind, casting a spectral shadow as it streams through the light and beyond her field of vision. Her mouth is dry. But she has felt worse. Today I will open the door.
As a child she remembered – fondly – sitting on the deep red rug on the floor of her father’s study. His mahogany bookcases soared upward and dangled down knowledge like the willow dangles its long leaves, dipping them gently in pools and streams. He would sit in his navy leather chair and read stories. Old stories. Stories of how wars were begun and won; of humankind’s spread across deserts, mountains, continents; of arriving on distant shores.
They would walk to verdant fields. She would gallop out to the mounds, scramble up with a stick for a sword, and holler her discovery and conquest to the shy sun. Once there had been gods that lived here, he had told her. Old gods. They kept the peace and kept the land. Powerful beings. Strikingly different than the other old gods and from the other old stories, antonymous even. They had been of the land and sea. But like the others, he told her, they weren’t real. Their mythology and falsity had been cast out; their memories, their truth, syncretized.
She approaches the door. The oxygen is sparse, and her thoughts dark. But something pushes from behind, and calls, pulls, from beyond. Tears rivulet down her cheeks, pooling and dripping from her chin. She stands still, wincing as she cries. Today I must open the door. Her torch falters, strobes, asphyxiates. She feels for the bottom step and sits. The air lost its warmth many steps ago, yet there is a tepid presence swirling, hovering just beside her. Long, straight scars in the door glitter and dart like silver fish. She has seen them in books and on the ancient stones. An exhale swells from under the door, and she rises.
Her father and mother had early on taught her there was a god, that nature bent its boughs and branches toward him. The sun sang his praises, the flowers opened for him, vines slithered heavenward, cattle lowed at his birth. We are sheep in his flock, and he guides us into the fold, her mother would say. When one lamb wanders too far, he leaves the rest to bring home the solitary, the wayward. Could it be, though, that her land was too wild, even for this one god? That her land was too wealthy in lore and too ripe with magic for such a lonely shepherd?
She pauses. Hooves gallop, muffled, far above her head. No. Far beyond the door. She reaches out, feeling for the cold rusted metal of the latch, letting a memory, a phantasm, guide her hand. A click. She nudges the stone door, swinging it into a spangled glittering darkness. The air behind her is pregnant, and labors to push her out. It heaves and swells. Smokey, dark, tendrilled fingers reach out from the void, caress her face, cast her tears among the stars. She is leaving. She turns – one more longing, backward glance – and births headfirst into the void.