Why must the young and the innocent always be sent on these errands of doom? Parents, who profess to love their children, yet so willingly sacrifice them to these monsters of the deep for a simple tool from the workshop or a loaf of bread from the freezer. They coach from the safety of the upstairs world. “Just turn on the light.” they say. “We’re right here. What could happen?” And off we go, hearing them continue in their breakfast babble –not concentrating on possible cries for help from the bowels of the basement. Before every descent, I used to give detailed instructions of what should be done in my absence. I wanted the sister, mother, father, grandparent to stand at the top of the basement stairs with an ear intently tuned, listening for signs of peril. I wanted their face and eyebrows knitted with worry, focusing all their attention on my safe return. I made them promise to come after me if my string of chatter ceased. Then, like a springboard diver rehearsing her routine of twists and tucks, I planned my moves and took a final breath chorusing the words “Talk, talk, talk, talk talk…” over and again as I descended into hell.
Unfortunately the light illuminated only the stairs; there remained a long stretch of blackness to navigate. Like a captive princess, the freezer stood in the far corner of the basement, guarded by the sump pump who gurgled and belched warnings from his watery hole. I saw the light-string dangling in the center of the room; my holy grail. With the nimbleness of youth and my “talk, talk, talk” to give me courage, I brought glorious light with one tug of the string. Not wanting to waken the sump pump from slumber, my chorus of “talk, talk, talk” moved into a gentler timbre as I released the freezer door and extracted the strawberry jam I was sent to fetch.
Frigid trophy in hand, I braced myself for the perilous ascent where demons would chase me, unwilling to relinquish their frozen strawberry booty. In order to complete my task, I realized I must once again plunge myself into darkness. Soaking up the last rays of illumination, I sprinted to the light string and pulled it with such force that it wound like a gymnast making circles round and round the cross beams of the ceiling joist. Running faster than my pupils could dilate, I dashed through the darkness past shadowy figures toward that beacon of light above. Pounding up the basement steps, I was sure slimy, monstery hands were poking slender fingers through the open backs of the basement stairs, grabbing at my ankles. In the sound track of my seven-year-old mind, stringed instruments screech warning cries as my feet drummed up the stairs hitting each wooden step with staccato precision. My panic rose in pitch the nearer I came to freedom; piquing in a deafening crescendo. Lured by the sweet smell of “upstairs air” and sounds of breakfast, I pumped my knees high remembering that I was still in “monster strike zone.” (Those last three steps are always the most dangerous). I took a final lunge onto linoleum, out of breath, chased nearly to death, but still alive. I held up the strawberry jam in expectation of trumpets and cheers only to find that my benefactor had left her post at the top of the stairs to finish her cereal before it got soggy.
I made promises that if I survived to adulthood, I would never send anyone I loved into such a place alone. And I’d like to say that I never have, but it’s so handy to send my daughter Emily down for a frozen pizza or to drain the dehumidifier into the sump pump. And really…What could happen? She’ll be just fine.