The Thing That Crouched in the Corner of the Basement
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Each Saturday morning, the woman descended into the basement with a full basket of laundry. The steps into the darkness were old and wooden, with nails visible on the third step down where the board separated slightly from the rest. She never looked into the space made by that separation, perhaps knowing what she would see.
The last step was half an inch narrower than the other steps, which her husband had learned on their first day in the house. His right foot had missed and sent the back of his calf forward until his left knee slammed down, performing a crude split that meant a visit to the doctor’s office and subsequent trips to a physical therapist. Ever since, he had refused to descend into the basement’s rickety depths. The woman learned from then on to move sideways on that final step, twisting her right foot and jutting her left hip out to accommodate the narrow landing. The steps never gave her the same trouble they gave him.
Of course, the woman had learned by her second trip down not to look directly at the thing that crouched in the corner of the basement, just behind the folding tray table. She had learned to let her eyes gaze past it to focus instead on the washer and dryer that were so white against the damp darkness of the unfinished basement, so white that they appeared at times to glow. The single bulb that hung from the ceiling of the basement always seemed to be swinging as she opened the door, as if something had just brushed past it in haste. The pendulum of light its swinging created cast a shadow behind the thing that crouched in the corner. She knew it by its shadow. She knew that it had eyes that she did not meet, but that slowly blinked at her as she moved about her business in its dim domain.
They were cordial with each other. The thing that crouched in the corner always stayed exactly where it always was when she opened the basement door. Behind the tray table and in front of its own shadow.
The woman’s husband did not know about the thing that crouched in the corner of the basement. It was doing no harm, after all, and she knew her husband would add it to his growing list of grievances with her choice of rental in this new city. I told you so, he would say. I told you that you couldn’t be trusted to choose a place that suits both of us. Typical that you would choose a house with a thing like that in it.
Of course, the woman loved her husband. Of course, she knew he loved her. Of course, it was all part of their different love languages, something she had once read about in an article her mother shared with her when she still thought this was all worth worrying about. They had been married for four years by the time they had moved to this city for his work, far from her family and friends, but he told her how grateful he was by the coffee he brewed for her every morning, the packets of flower seeds he bought her, and the squeeze of his hands around her waist as they fell asleep at night. They loved each other and were enough for each other, she would say to anyone who asked.
Sometimes, as she went in and out of the basement with a hamper of laundry in hand, her husband would hobble past. He liked to exaggerate his injury for comedic effect, staggering like a humpbacked assistant in a horror film. Beware the basement stair, he’d say. Beware! The woman would smile at him, arms aching from the weight of the clothes and sheets and towels.
And the thing that crouched in the corner of the basement wanted only its own little place. It took up barely any space at all in a part of the house her husband dared never tread. So she and the thing dutifully did not look at each other as they went about their days.
Back when the woman and her husband had first learned of his job transfer, he’d tasked her with traveling to their new city to pick their home. A compromise. You should choose our place, since you’ll be spending more time there anyway, he said. Choose some place nice, he told her, where we will be comfortable, together. We don’t need all this space, after all.
It was only a lease, he reminded her. It was only temporary. And besides, he said, you’ve been saying you want a change of scenery. So she went on her own to the new city, leaving behind their old house with its echoing, empty rooms.
She toured only three properties before making her decision. She had liked the battered charm of the house’s aging spiral staircase and the blue shutters over the windows. There was a bright nook in the corner of the living room where she thought maybe she could spend time reading, or perhaps teach herself to paint. Before catching the bus back, she had called her husband to let him know of her decision. He said he hoped it might finally make her happy.
Later, after his first week in the new branch of his office, her husband would not stop telling her about the looks his coworkers gave him after he told them his wife’s choice of neighborhood and street. No wonder the price was so low, he said. You know this job means we can have standards, right?
But she liked where they lived. For the most part, the woman had the house all to herself, and she busied herself with making it lovely. She kept fresh flowers in the windowsill and painted the basement door a cheery shade of yellow. Yes, the house was all for herself—and for the thing that crouched in the corner of the basement. But the thing only took up so much space, after all.
Every so often, she would bring the thing that crouched in the corner objects from upstairs for it to look at. The woman decided that the thing would appreciate some variety. Glass bottles, spoons, their colander, a pillow. She brought down the pieces of artwork that she had found in thrift stores and framed for the house—seascapes, still-life fruits, happy families.
Making soft noises with its mandibles, the thing that crouched in the corner of the basement stared and stared at the woman’s small, beloved objects, cluttered together on the table. She wondered what it saw.
Time passed like a wet clump of sand through fingers, in great globs and small grains and then all at once. Spring came. It opened up the windows and revived the patch of green in front of the woman’s house. The woman’s husband began to stay at the office later and later. He stopped calling home to let her know.
The woman busied herself with her garden. She had daffodils and tulips and cornflowers, tucked into small beds in her lawn. The cool, wet earth felt good against the thickening pads of her fingers. The smell reminded her of that something else she had smelled about the thing that crouched in the corner of the basement. Something secret and growing and fresh.
The woman brought a daffodil to give to the thing that crouched in the corner. It was a cheery yellow, the same color that she had painted the basement door. She stared past the thing as she placed the flower down.
The thing that crouched in the corner watched the woman leave up the stairs, the light from the open door falling across the daffodil bulb like another gift from above. It breathed in the smell of growing things. It was reminded of the time before tray tables and washing machines and houses, when the world was all fresh earth and flowers. It felt something that humans know as want.
It wanted more.
The woman’s husband confessed his affair to her on the last day of April, when the magnolias in her window box were finally starting to bloom. They were standing in the kitchen when he did it, her back against the cooling stovetop. The kettle had just finished its screaming.
He told her who the other woman was and why they had started to see each other. She asked if he was in love with the other one and he could not say that he wasn’t. She asked if he still loved her and he insisted that he did. I contain a lot of love, he said. Too much, you could say.
The woman nodded, noticeably not crying. Not smiling, either. She was blank as a doll’s eye.
Her husband waited for her to say something, anything, more. A mug of tea by her side sat unattended, the tea bag long forgotten. Still steeping, stronger and stronger, the liquid had become darkly opaque.
Your tea is done, he said.
The woman looked into the mug. She carefully removed the tea bag and placed it, still boiling hot and dripping, in the center of her palm. It was nearly weightless but painful, malleable yet firm. She closed her fingers around it, squeezing tea from the leaves that dripped from her fist to the floor. It smelled like bergamot and herbs, subtly spiced.
Her husband waited for the woman to throw it at him. He waited and waited again for her to say something, do something. Anything. He told her so.
Instead, she walked out of the kitchen, hands clenched at her side.
The woman went into the basement, closing the yellow door behind her. She went down and down and down. Her footsteps were loud and heavy on the wood.
The woman’s husband stared at the door. He remembered walking down the rickety stairs months before, the pain in his legs an old ache now. His knee twinged at the memory. Beware the basement stairs.
But the woman was his wife, and this was his house. His basement. His stairs to climb down.
The steps creaked under foot, nails groaning against their labor. He felt a sharp thrill in the base of his gut, a sudden knowledge that everything holding him up could disappear beneath his feet.
In between the creak and groans of his steps, the woman’s husband could hear something else. A clicking noise, fast and then slow. Its own strange tempo and cadence that seemed different from the drips of the pipes or the possible scurry of a rodent’s feet. It was odd. It left him cold. The moment he reached the bottom of the stairs, stumbling despite himself on the narrow final step, the clicking stopped like an intake of breath.
The husband saw the woman on her hands and knees in the corner of the basement. She was hunched over. The curve of her back shook gently, up and down. He remembered how she had looked, on that morning years before, when they woke to find their only child, lifeless in his bed. Sudden infant death syndrome, they’d been told. The woman had been changed to someone else then, some wounded thing, in pain.
The woman’s husband stepped forward and felt something soft and wet underfoot. His first thought was of a piece of meat—a muscle removed from a body, discarded on the floor. He reached down and felt the shape of the tea bag. It was still warm and still seeping. Punctured. He tried to let go, but the leaves clung to his fingers like drowned ants.
There was that clicking noise again, behind him now. The air in the room snapped taut like a rope. The woman looked back over her shoulder at her husband. There was something about her face he could not look at directly. His eyes fell on the washing machine, glowing somehow in the dim.
It would all be okay if he kept his eyes averted and calmed his breathing, he thought. Everything is okay, he said.
She looked at him, but he did not look back. He could feel her horrible stare.
That was when the woman’s husband turned around. When he did, he finally saw the thing that crouched in the corner of the basement.
But it was no longer in the corner, and no longer crouching.
Molly Earner completed her MFA in Fiction from Rutgers-Camden. She lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA.