by John Teehan
When you buy a house, get a firm count on the rooms. A three-bedroom house should have three bedrooms. Add to that a living room, kitchen, and preferably more than one bath. Expect that there will be some varying here and there, but that’s the basics for a decent house. You use one upstairs room for the master bedroom. Another for guests or a kid. Another for an office. Maybe a library or exercise room. If there’s a good basement or large garage, then all the better. You have yourself a workshop or studio.
We bought a house that pretty much fits the above description. We have a master bedroom with an office for her, and another room for guests until we put a kid into it. Downstairs is the living room, kitchen, and one-and-a-half baths. We also have a nice enclosed porch. Bonus. I make use of a fairly roomy basement for a combination office/studio/workshop.
All good, right? The mortgage was one we could afford even during lean times. Sure, we looked at bigger houses–ones with more rooms–but we were sensible enough to borrow within our means and within our projected means.
I wonder how the property tax assessors are going to view the other houses beneath our’s.
It started with me playing with plumbing. I dearly wanted deep sinks in the basement so I could wash brushes and other painting supplies without having to troop upstairs and mess up the kitchen sink. It was while following the pipes to find a good spot to install a sink that I discovered the old pipes.
And the old pipes went down.
I didn’t know that at first. I had to remove an old workbench and cabinet to find where the pipes went. They went down. And there was a door.
A door in the floor–like in a wall, but in the floor. Doorknob face-up, hinges flush to the floor so it opened upward.
And sure I opened it. Oh, I had a flashlight ready—and a good thing I did. It was dark, but there were deep wooden steps that were surprisingly sturdy. I followed them down to another door set–this one set up the way it should be, which in turned opened to the top floor of another house. Three bedrooms, just like mine. Laid out just like mine, but the windows covered with dirt.
And downstairs from that floor was another floor with a kitchen, a living room, but with just a single bath. There was no porch. The windows were darkened by soil too deep for roots or grubs. The air had a musty smell, but only lightly so–not as rotten as one would think.
And that ground floor lead deeper to a basement.
And a basement with a door in the floor.
So you might think to ask: Was it furnished? Were there electrical outlets and light fixings?
Was there furniture?
Like a TV?
No, no TV.
It was a house like a house might have existed eighty years ago. There was even a calendar… a Coca-Cola calendar… although the dates were too faded to read.
Below that was a house, much like mine, was another house–like the one below mine. Here, the air was heavier still. Mustier, but breathable. The walls and floors felt solid. The house was furnished, but with no electricity. Everything was made of wood except for a cast iron, wood-fed stove. The windows were blocked with darker, harder earth.
And there was a basement of sorts. Much smaller, this wasn’t so much a basement perhaps as it was a cool dark place to store foodstuffs. And the door wasn’t so much a traditional door this time as it was a trapdoor. Instead of stairs, there was a wide ladder that lead down.
Lead down to another house. Here, the layout of the house changed more noticeably. It was plainly a single story house at this point with rougher walls. The stove was a fireplace, the chimney of which, I suspect, did not actually reach the open air at any point. The windows were not of glass, but of an oiled paper that would have let light in, but in this case let in only the darkness of the deep.
This time, there was no basement or even underground pantry. There was just another trapdoor that led down to yet another house much like the previous. And then another dwelling, and then another dwelling much more rough than the one that came before it. Through the last trapdoor I found myself then standing in what I could only assume was an Algonquin longhouse. The walls were bark and animal hide stretched over bent frames of wood. The floors were covered with woven mats and furs. In the center of the single-room longhouse was a fire pit ringed with clam shells. In the corner, covered by a stiff straw mat, was a hole wide enough for a person that lead down further.
With every level I descended the air became heavier, hotter. It was harder to breathe but curiosity and determination to see how deep this all went drove me. I lost count of the number of longhouses I descended through until they eventually morphed into primitive lean-tos. Packed earth surrounded the poles that held up a shelter of interlaid leaves and branches.
And still there were passages downward.
Darker. Deeper. So heavy was the air that I could barely hear myself walk or even breathe. And it got heavier and warmer as I climbed down each and every level.
Until I reached… well, was it the bottom?
I don’t know.
The last level did not seem to be any sort of shelter at all. There was an open area surrounded by walls of bare, black rock, and the remnants of a crude fire pit. That was all. In the corner where so many other pathways further downward (how far down was I? a mile? two miles? ten?) was a metal hatch.
At least that’s how I’d describe it. It clanged when I hit it with my rapidly fading flashlight. There appeared to be a handle of sorts—too big for one hand, too big for both hands. In any case it refused to budge and my hands were too slippery with sweat to get a really good grip on it.
And despite all the heat around me, the metal was cold as ice. Perhaps, perhaps there would be relief from the heat. Perhaps there would be fresh air. I pulled on the handle again with no luck or success.
I thought of my wife. I hope she doesn’t come looking for me. I think if I were to turn around and start climbing back up, I’d not make it. And I seem stymied in getting further down. Again I banged on the metal hatch with my flashlight, just as the last of the light died.
And in the heat and the darkness, I fear I was starting to hear things.
Such as the clang of something against a metal hatch.
Thanks for reading.