When Ursula told the story of being locked in the rooming house basement to her granddaughter, decades later, in a world so different that neither could imagine each other’s lives, she painted a picture of stalwart bravery. In the elder Ursula’s narrative, the young Ursula wasted not a moment being afraid of the dark or the cold, or spiders, or mice, or any other creatures who might have spent their days lurking in the cellar in which she found herself.
In our imaginations, however, we can feel the young girl’s tremulous breathing, hear her pounding heart; our ears buzz as hers did with a rush of blood away from her brain to her muscles, preparing her to fight or flee.
Ursula had sought an adventure, a glimpse of another world, and the trickster universe, hearing her wish, decided to give her a sustained gaze into the darkness.
For the first five minutes, which stretched indefinitely in Ursula’s experience, she felt a thousand spiders crawl up her arms and legs, heard a hundred mice morph into giant rats and chatter their rodent fangs at her, and smelled the stench of a huge beast as it slavered in the corner behind the barrel.
Finally, the girl’s practical mind re-engaged. She pictured the widow returning from her errands in town, heading for the cellar to retrieve brandy for the gentlemen’s afternoon ritual, discovering her missing key. Ursula heard in her mind the argument between the widow and the cook, the accusation of leaving the door open the night before, the demand for the key kept by the cook, and the sweep of the widow’s skirts as she turned toward the cellar door.
Ursula knew she would be in deep trouble, but also that she would be rescued. This insight began the story she would share decades later, in a different world.
Meanwhile, in the cellar, in this world, her eyes were slowly adjusting to the deeper dark, dim streams of light entering through chinks in the door.
There was the barrel, and, as far as Ursula could determine, no slavering beast hid behind it.
In for a penny, in for a pound, the girl thought, and decided the incremental trouble she would add to her plight by opening the barrel was trivial compared to the potential rewards of discovering its contents.
The lid moved with surprising ease, as if the barrel was opened daily.