It was as if the builders had made the basement three feet too wide, and working away had put up two frames for the singles wall that was to be shared between the living room and hallway. Being resourceful as Wyoming builders are, they turned their mistake into a purposeful space for storage. I had developed this theory as a young child, but always suspected the builders had taken it a step further and turned the long, thin space into a secret entrance that led into a hidden passageway.
The end of the closet would always be in shadow any time I tried to explore, which was every chance I got. I was certain that hidden in the darkness was a door disguised as a wall. Behind it, a stairway with wide stone steps that led down away from the house. If a person was brave enough to follow the passageway, they would eventually find themselves in a cave behind a waterfall that was two fields away.
Of course, my grandparents knew about this wonderful secret, it was the main reason they still lived in the big house. They used the cave to store their treasures. These treasures were so valuable, they even had a dragon, big and green with bright yellow eyes and smoke escaping its mouth with every breath, to protect the cave. Once, I had crept so close to the entrance, I had even heard the dragon growl in warning. How it heard me while it was all the way down in the cave, my young mind was never able to figure out.
It was because of the dragon that I would always stay close to the door. After hearing that ferocious roar, I was never able to convince myself to walk more than a few steps into the closet, staying well within the light from the single bulb by the door. I kept going back, though. The knick-knacks inspired my curiosity more than the dragon breathed flame into my fear.
Barely tall enough to see above the first shelf, I would explore the ones I could see whenever possible, searching for a new treasure I may have missed before. Nestled in random but appropriate places were the family oddities; a ceramic white owl potpourri holder, a variety of candles and their holders, an old army tent bundled into a bag, and perhaps an old green soap dish shaped like a frog. The contents of this brighter area very rarely changed. Still, every visit I convinced myself to tempt the dragon, searching the shelves to see if anything new had escaped the treasure cave.
That all changed during one visit in the middle of one particular summer, when I became aware of some extra inches that had added themselves to my legs (one of the few growth spurts I ever had growing up). I had ventured down to the closet yet again to see if I could discover something new among the shelves. Pulling open the door, I reached into the corner to flip up the light. Thanks to my new-found inches, I was able to see above the picture frames haphazardly gathered at the beginning of the shelf. As the closet flooded with light, I saw what I had been searching for for months – something new.
The narrow back of the shelf had a slot just wide enough to accommodate a single finger. Curious, I reached into the space, feeling around with a cautious fingertip. It brushed along something hard and thin that slanted downwards. Holding my breath, I pushed up. Waiting for the hidden door at the end of the closet to swing open, releasing the dragon so it could finally charge out, I glanced up in surprise when two fluorescent light bulbs jiggled their way to life. Shifting my gaze down the newly expanded space, my jaw dropped when I saw there was indeed an end and the wall covered door was more wooden shelves. I tip toed past the bronze ashtray with a swinging lid, scanning the wall of shelves. I came across a collection of skinny, tall rectangles all squished together being held up by a white ceramic L. Books. Old and lined with creases. Squinting closer, I tried to read the spines. Louis L’amour. Wondering what kind of name Louis L’amour was, and why it needed to have that thing in the middle of his last name, I continued to scan the titles. It wasn’t until my head bumped into an edge of wood that I looked away.
I was awestruck. The entire U shaped end of the tiny hide-away was filled with books. Short, tall, thick, thin, old, new. I hadn’t seen so many books all in the same location except at the library. I slowly trailed my fingers along the spines, feeling the different sizes and the variety of textures; the smoothness of the newer editions to the creases and wrinkles of the more well-loved pages.
My young eyes were able to pick out the names Clive Cussler, Agatha Christie, and Sue Grafton along with the just discovered Louis L’amour. Names that I had never heard nor seen before. I whispered the names out loud, testing their weight, their flow. They came out sounding important and worth knowing. I was down in the closet for so long, trapped by the wonder of books I had never seen before, my grandma came to find me. I heard a sound behind me, and turned to see her standing in the closet doorway.
“Grandma, are all of these really your books?” I turned back to stare at the shelves.
“Yes, I love to read just like you.” Walking into the closet, she came to stand behind me, looking around at her private library.
“Do you have any that I can read?”
“You’re probably old enough to read some of your father’s old books.” She pointed to a section of the shelves. “I tried to put them all together here. But there might be others if you don’t think you’ll like those.” She started to pull out books and show them to me, describing the plot as she handed them over. Some were indeed my dads’ (he had scrawled his name in pencil on inside the cover), like Call of the Wild and White Fang. Others were mysteries my Grandma thought appropriate for my age, like The Cat Who Lived High and Murder on the Orient Express.
For a while I was dumbstruck. See, I had already developed a love for reading, carried away by Dr. Suess, The Stinky Cheese Man, and Maurice Sandeck into imaginary worlds. I had even begun to creep away from books with pictures to those with no pictures at all, even a few chapters thrown in. But I always went to the children’s section to find my books, and while there were plenty of books with chapters and no pictures, they were all still, to me, children’s books. What my Grandma was handing me were adult books. Books written for adults about adult things, like stealing jewelry and even, dare I say it, murder.
Not realizing the joy and excitement she had created in her oldest grand-daughter, my grandma kept thumbing through books, pulling out some to reveal those she had tucked behind. She pulled more and more, putting them on the shelf where she had started her search when she noticed my hands were full.
“I’ll have to go through all of these and find the rest. Maybe it’s time I made a spot for books for you and your cousins.”
I don’t remember which book I ended up picking out to take home. A mystery of some kind, most likely. It was just the first of many books that I took out of that closet. My love for Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes originated there, as well as my first romantic murder mystery novel by Nora Roberts. It transformed me from a child temped by letters and words into a young woman devoured by stories.
I can’t credit that closet with initiating my love for reading or writing, that began years before. It did, however, create a deeper connection to those things, a connection that began the formation of my soul, my very being. It transformed me from a child tempted by letters and words into a young woman devoured by stories. I guess there really was a treasure down there after all.