These sorts of stories always have an enchanted passageway, totem or ritual that spirits its protagonists to the netherworld where the action takes place and the truth is told. A wardrobe, rabbit hole, looking glass, tollbooth, DeLorean, ritualistic chanting, the Guardian of Forever, the Neverending Story, Jumanji, the temporal nexus, what have you. But the trigger that took me into my own past was uncertain; I had yet to really think about why; I was stuck in where it took me, distracted from how I got there. It was certain that the first journey back arose from the fall down Emily’s staircase, but I assumed it was the tumble down the stairs, the disorientation and head injury, not the stairs themselves. I didn’t know if I lost any time between when I landed and when I got back up, how long I lay there, the correspondence between the 8 hours I experienced in the past and the time that passed in the present. At the time it seemed a mere second, though somehow elongated by the the stretched-out moment that preceded it.
Head injuries illustrate the subjectivity of perspective, that what is outside of us is not seamlessly processed and understood by the inside of us—there is a complex mechanism that reality is transmitted by, an imperfect and fallible one, that we are convinced is reality. It is precarious, and when we experience a concussion we experience this precariousness, we don’t feel the blow to the head, per say, we feel a tingling and startling concussive blanket that washes over our entire body like the blast of a soothing atomic bomb. And the fallout remains upon our perception in a way we cannot perceive, in a way Oliver Sacks, et al are deciphering as we speak, so to speak.
And so, did I break my head when it broke my fall down those stairs? Is my present perception of past events the fuzzy result of this initial trauma? Am I mentally ill? While I am not a neurologist, I am a diligent student of narrative, so I decided to take my notebook and visit Emily and her basement to see if anything about it resembled the threshold to an alternate reality, so I could potentially rule that out. The following are the notes from the visit:
My sweetheart and I rode bikes north to Emily’s house and were received warmly and ceremoniously. It had been a month or so since we had seen each other so we postponed the business at hand for being humans in the host/guest roles. I asked what might signify the supernatural w/r/t to the basement, the house, the property, etc. For one thing: the house reeked of sage.
I composed my notes in illustration form after recording the initial observation that “cats love it.” Emily described often seeing one or two cats lingering or lounging at the base of the stairs, a detail that is surely meaningful, perhaps comprehensibly so. And in fact sage was left burning in the hours before we arrived with nobody in the house. And, yes, it was possible that sage was burning the night I tried to take a bath and eventually did. I was lent a headlamp and I stepped out the side door to explore oh so carefully. I stepped slowly out into the night—the same time of night, the same time of year one year later—and I knew this time not to turn the corner with haste, knowing the precipitous stairs lay precisely there. Yet they were not right there, they descended several paces forward. Where else could they possibly could have been? Nowhere: they had to be there, but I simply didn’t let my eyes adjust to the dark, or I entirely misunderstood the house, which is not unreasonable as I hadn’t studied it to this meticulous extent. It makes as much sense to me as anything that I was pulled by these stairs. I should also note that I grew up in an era in which nothing about a house was dangerous, so such a staircase did not exist in my mind. Perhaps this literal headlong crash into an antiquated, unsafe feature of a centurion cottage is a metaphor for my need to do everything wrong in the logic of the present in order to fulfill a worldview rife with nostalgia and romance. This wouldn’t be the first time a born-at-the-wrong-time protagonist fell victim to the contents of his own Pandora’s box.
I walked down the stairs—still pulled to a certain extent, though very slowly—and noticed the wall holding the dirt back seemed strained, a no longer straight line of concrete curved by the pressure of soaked soil attempting to flood the basement, cracks developed, moss. It seemed amazing to me that half a foot of a wall set in 1905 could hold a dozen foot section of the earth’s surface from falling to the inevitable, but such is the basis of civilization, I suppose. I ran my hand across it when I reached the bottom of the stairs but realized I was off track. I crouched in the spot where I had landed, noted the grate, bent inwards like the wall, leaves, rocks and all the other minutiae that finds itself victim to gravity. The broken glass I had found by my head a year before had been removed. I looked up the stairs and felt like I was looking straight up, as at a ladder. Cats love it, I thought.
Inside the basement I immediately noted the washer/dryer, which drew me down here initially to find the dry towel to take my bath, but I noticed something more—the water heater. I studied its pipes, tracing their path along the floor above me. I also realized the bathtub was immediately inside the house from the entrance to the basement stairs. I came back upstairs and shared what I had found. A circular pattern came to me to describe the forces at work, one that very well could have produced a vortex: smoke emits from the house and mingles with forces that push down into the basement entrance—gravity, cats, descending vines, earth pushing into the staircase wall, cracking the now concave cement—and there in the basement the water heater heats the water before it is sent upstairs to the bath faucet—which was at the time running—where its steam mixes with the swirling sage smoke into mystical wispy cornices, creeping beneath and out the door frame.
To me my research proved conclusive: I had found a time warp activated by burning sage and drawing a bath upstairs. These cats passed through all the time and daily encountered how many other realities, I cannot say. I had no symptoms of concussion, all I knew was that my senses presenting a swirling and euphoric descent down those unfamiliar stairs and that, before I realized what had happened, I had relived eight hours of a life already historic to myself in the quote-unquote present moment.
This was very gratifying to me, to make this headway in understanding the situation. Mostly I was pleased—even surprised—to have not fallen into the vortex again.