The cellar door was heavy, and for a moment, Ursula thought her adventure would end before it had begun. Then, after several hard tugs, it finally gave way and creaked open so loudly, it drowned out the sound of Ursula’s own heartbeat.
She looked around. No one was paying any attention. At least, no one she could see.
The trickster universe watched closely.
Ursula left the door wide open, allowing a shaft of cold sunlight into the cellar, and she started down the steps. There were only a few, and she skipped down them quickly.
Unsure of what she expected to find, Ursula tiptoed on the dirt floor. There were wooden shelves with bottles covered in dust: wine, brandy, and other spirits. A packed dirt ledge held jars of preserved fruits, and neatly organized rows of onions and potatoes.
The light from the open door illuminated everything except one dark corner. Ursula waited for her eyes to adjust, and then headed for that corner.
If the cellar held a secret, as promised, that’s where it would be. Ursula was sure of it. In the novels she read out loud to her landlady, secrets usually had to do with illicit lovers, unwanted children, and hidden treasures. Of all these, Ursula hoped for treasure. She wanted to see a pile of gold coins, or jewels. She would not steal anything, not even one coin or gem.
She only wanted to see what treasure looked like in real life.
And, sure enough, in the dark corner, a shadowy form.
Surely it would be full of gold and jewels. No one would hide a lover or a child in a barrel in a dusty cellar. Ursula’s heart pounded loudly. She was on the verge of something big and beautiful, a turning point in her young life, a chance to glimpse a world she would never live in. She knew it.
As she tried to lift the lid, something brushed against her ankle.
Ursula stifled a scream.
The old barn cat mewed up at her. It must have followed her down the stairs, looking for mice. Ursula breathed out, and tried the barrel lid again.
“Now what was the mistress thinking, leaving the door open last night?”
It was the cook’s voice. Ursula heard the clop of her heavy shoes coming down the steps. “Ah well, it’s cold enough. Nothing will have spoilt.” Ursula tucked herself in the darkest part of the corner, watched the cook put an onion and three potatoes in her basket, and head back up the steps.
The trickster universe had been watching, and it made sure the cook closed the heavy door behind her.
Ursula heard the cook’s key turn in the lock.