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Original Essays | September 30, 2014 0 comments
One day when I was 12 years old and setting off on my newspaper route after school my mom said will you stop at the doctor's and pick up something... Continue »
Zorro and Beyondby N. D. Wilson
If he wanted to get away, Don Diego could pull a candlestick in any room and reveal a tunnel, tug a book and spin a fireplace, or shift a picture and descend a secret stair.
Watching Zorro, I knew envy. I didn't care about the black horse, or the mask or the senoritas. I wanted those secret passages.
I still vividly remember my older sister suddenly calling me to the bathroom. When I knocked, she opened the door a crack and examined me, also scanning the hall to see if I'd been tailed.
She nodded me in, locked the door, and presented her find. She had noticed, whilst using the facilities, that a wooden panel next to the shower was held on by bent nails. We'd never spotted this before because the nails had been buried beneath so many coats of paint. Before I'd arrived, my sister had already chipped the paint away and worked the nails loose.
Together, we popped off the panel and stared at her glorious find. I still remember how my heart drummed, how breathing seemed like a distraction to my existence. We had found the plumbing access. Our younger sister joined us to examine the contents.
The space was small and contained one stiff, blue shower matt, a piece of shower rod, and signs of rodent life. The back was only partial, and we could see down to the earth beneath the house.
That house was only 900 square feet, and we were certain that there were passages to be uncovered, lairs and libraries to be discovered. After all, the place had been built in the '40s. My greatest individual success was the discovery that I could fit behind the hot water heater. After a few uses, the glamour faded.
The three of us never entered an older house without examining wall thicknesses, scanning stair placements and consulting each other on the probability of hidden passages and the likelihood of our getting away long enough to search.
Once, in Annapolis, Maryland (in a house inexcusably called a mansion) we found a hidden stair. Unfortunately, it was only hidden by a door. But we were convinced that no one else had noticed. Oh, the imaginative agony when we encountered our grandfather using it...and casually!
In his house, back in Idaho, there were small crawl space entrances in the attic. We would squeeze into those tunnels beneath the trusses, crowded with every allergen, and then we'd work our way down the length of the house, always searching for something we'd missed in our previous passes. We did eventually find a route down (all the way from the attic) into the sloped ceiling above the cellar stairs. It remains a mystery why we never tumbled through the plaster.
My aunt shared our temperament and once (amazingly) attempted to explore those passages with a candle. She lit her hair on fire.
There was another time, when I was old enough to be bribed into babysitting already sleeping children with the opportunity to watch the World Series and the promise of a five dollar bill. I sat, watching the game, and suddenly noticed that a bookshelf built into the wall was slightly gapped from its trim on one side. When I went over, I found a small latch on the top shelf behind a book. When I lifted it, the bookshelf swung open. I had found the broom closet, complete with new mop and bucket.
It wasn't just Zorro that fueled our drive. Narnia was ever-present in our minds as well, and any story that contained hidden secrets, rooms, tunnels, maps (Over Sea, Under Stone, etc.) would reinspire us as we combed over our tiny house. Aragorn's passage through the Paths of the Dead was always one of the sections in Tolkien that made me itch with desire and imagination (particularly the skeleton of a great man found leaning against a sealed door, with his fingernails broken).
It was perhaps inevitable that when I started writing, doors, passages, tunnels, and stairs would be involved. I now have the freedom to scratch (in my own way and at my own discretion) the itch that Tolkien, Lewis, Cooper and others gave me. Even that hollow tree in My Side of the Mountain got me excited in the fifth grade.
I take great (evil?) pleasure in passing my childhood itch on to the next generation. In Leepike Ridge, a boy finds his way into a series of caves in the ridge beneath his house, eventually discovering an ancient tomb as he struggles to survive. Parents have expressed their (occasionally sarcastic) thanks for their children's newfound cave fever. If Leepike inflames kids' desire for discovery, then I am happy. Let them start by finding the plumbing access, and move on from there, out into the world, flipping every rock, climbing every tree, checking every last thing.
100 Cupboards kicks off an adventure likely to damage a few walls. A boy and his cousin chip away attic plaster to reveal 99 small doors, no two of them matching. At night, light beams out of one and the children make an even more surprising discovery the cupboards lead to other places and other worlds.
My nine year-old nephew read an early version and his face was all the affirmation I needed. But he gave me more. He was overheard in his grandmother's basement relaying the story to his sister.
"Do you think there are any cupboards hidden in this house?" she asked.
"Probably," he said. "This house is really old."
I wanted to go hand the kid a chisel and slap him on the back.
My dad and I built that house in the '90s, but sheetrock is easy to patch.
÷ ÷ ÷
N. D. Wilson is a Fellow of Literature at New Saint Andrews College, where he teaches classical rhetoric to freshmen. He is also the managing editor for Credenda/Agenda magazine, a small Trinitarian cultural journal. He married a girl stolen from the ocean, and the two of them now live in Idaho with their four children.