Put the words “deepest” and “darkest” together, and I don’t think of secrets, Africa, the ocean, or corners of my mind. I think of the dank creepiness of the vast, unfinished basement in the Georgia house where I grew up. I was a child cursed, as it were, with an overactive imagination, and no landscape provided more fertile ground for the seeds of fear and fancy than the silent nooks and unexplored crannies between the acres of old boxes and the piles of dust-covered tools that filled the subterranean realm beneath our floor.
The steps going down into the underground were utilitarian, made of plywood and two by fours, with spaces in between them where slithery, shifty things could reach through with their slimy tentacles to grab your ankles. I never walked up the basement stairs. I ran.
Sometimes my dad would hear me careening up the stairs at full speed and think (in that way dads have) that it was really hilarious to hold the door closed so I couldn’t get away from whatever horrors were hot on my heels. I never found out what they were, since on those occasions I would close my eyes and pound on the door, yelling out in my most fake-authoritative voice: “DADDY! It is NOT FUNNY!!! Open this door RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” After a few seconds, he would, and I would reenter the world of light and safety, quickly forgetting the panicky feeling of waiting on the other side of the door for cold hands to find me in the dark.
Apparently, I wasn’t permanently scarred, because later, in my teen years, the need for privacy and a space of my own overcame my apprehensions and led me to move out of the room I had always shared with my sister into an unused corner of the basement. I had carved it out for my own, furnished it with a bed, and decorated it with clippings from magazines, souvenirs from my youthful adventures, and Christmas lights. To fifteen year old me, it was a paradise, at least in the daytime. At night, all my childhood fears returned to me, and many nights found me huddled, unmoving, beneath my comforter, sure that I had heard someone moving around in the unoccupied three quarters of the cavernous space around me.
Another peril of life in the catacombs was the spiders. Those big, fat, mostly harmless garden spiders were the creatures of my nightmares, closely followed by the shiny, brown cave crickets that thrived in the damp gloom. I took to sleeping with my blankets over my head to avoid the unpleasant prospect of waking up to some creepy crawly wriggling its way across my face or, worse, into my mouth (I once woke up on a family camping trip to find a daddy longlegs doing this very thing, and I’ve never quite recovered.)
I was all cocooned in my blankets one night when I awoke, disoriented, to find that there was a heavy weight pressing down on my head and chest, making it hard to breathe. Did I mention that I was disoriented? Because that’s the only possible reason I have for coming to this conclusion: some intruder had broken into the house, and was now quietly sitting on my head. Not wanting to let him know that I was awake, I stayed perfectly still and pondered what to do. Nothing came to me. Finally, panic overwhelmed me and I screamed at the top of my lungs.
Within seconds, the basement light clicked on and my mom was calling down from the top of the stairs: “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Somebody’s in the house and he’s sitting on my head!” I yelled, my voice muffled through the blankets, and it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why the Somebody hadn’t jumped up yet.
I heard the quick thudding steps of my mother running down the stairs and across the cement floor to my aid. Then, unexpectedly, her laughter, loud and unrestrained, bouncing back to us from the corners of the basement.
“Come out and see your attacker,” she said. Puzzled, I pushed the heavy weight off of my upper body and yanked down the blankets.
It was my dog, Jesse.
You see, Jesse loved to climb up on the bed in the middle of the night and sleep curled up on my feet. Unfortunately, since I had completely covered myself from head to toe in blankets, he had, understandably, become a little confused about which end was which. Finally, he chose the wrong end, and forty-five pounds of black labrador came to rest on my face.
The rest is a piece of oft-told, and greatly relished, family history.
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