There are variations, but the story is always essentially the same. Some linguist, some famous teacher. He’s told by a student that the phrase cellar door is beautiful, and then he writes an article about it. In stories, the student always speaks another language—it gives the scenario more credibility, allows the teller to say see? To say, he doesn’t even know what it means and yet he has sufficient poetry in his soul to know that it’s beautiful.
The stories aren’t true. They constitute a romantic mythology, and the people who repeat them are unfailing optimists. They want to believe that loveliness is fundamental, and are pleased by the notion that so commonplace a phrase can stir us to tears. They do not understand the deeper implications.
Two weeks ago, the knocking started, always at night, always in the dark. When I got up to check the locks, the draft from the cellar was palpable, creeping through the kitchen and the hall. The door leading down was open, just a little.
In the daylight, the door is always closed. It looks just like the rest of the house. Old, paneled, the wood split and faded. The doorway, too, is ordinary, except for the stain on the floor where she’s been standing. The wood always looks darker at the top of the stairs. The planks are cold. When I touch the step, water comes away on my hand.
At night, she wanders, drifting from room to room, opening drawers like she’s looking for something.
John, she says. And then she stops and sighs. I’m lonely, John. Come find me.
Fall is coming. Out on the bay, the chop is heavy, topped with whitecaps. The wind smells like seaweed and dying fish. But in the cellar, the air gives rise to a different smell. It is the odor of rot, a decomposition as sweet as kept promises, married with the cold, metallic scent of dirt.
And flowers. When the tide comes in, the smell seeps up through the vents, fills the house with a faint aroma of roses.
I’ve come to hate the children’s stories—the ones that tell of the monster in the basement, the creature under the stairs. From a young age, we’re told to laugh, to remind ourselves that it’s all a game, all imaginary. I can’t discount her so quickly. She believes she’s real.
It happens every night. The whisper of footsteps on the stairway, insinuating themselves into my dreams. I hear her in the hallway, wake to find wilting roses by my bed. The floor is cold where she’s been standing. The cellar door is open and the air smells thin and wet.
I hear her voice even now, saying that she needs me, that she wants to see my face before morning.
She could be bricked up in the walls, or buried in the black earth under the steps. I have no doubt her burial is shallow, that she is looking for a guardian to tend the spot. I will be the perennial gardener of her grave, the devoted scholar, servant to the word, and the word is treacherous in its phonetics, beautiful simply because she is.
I’m going into the cellar now, and I expect to be down a long, long time.