Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | March 13, 2008

The Basement Light

Sighisoara, Romania. June 14, 2004.

Sigisoara Light in Window

Downstairs in the basement, the spiders build webs on the birds’ nests that hang from cracks where the insulation spills out of the ceiling.  I can see this standing with my nose pressed against the window glass.  I can see the biggest spider stalking a white moth that flutters around and around the bare light bulb.

It’s the middle of the day, but the old man who stays in the basement never turns out his light.  He comes and goes and the bulb burns and the moths and spiders and clouds of dust settle into orbit around the tiny sun.

“Raya,” my father calls to me.  “Come away from the window.”

“Yes,” I answer, but I don’t move.  He won’t call again for at least another hour.  His back is bent and his gray hair is full of wood chips from the workbench.  In the summer, he moves his saws and sandpaper and levels outside, and builds in the sunshine.

The old man was a builder, too, a long time ago.  My father says he was his teacher.  That’s why he can stay with us even though he smells like rotten tomatoes and never cleans the basement and never turns out the light.

If I were a builder, I wouldn’t wrestle with wood and nails.  I would weave castles out of spider silk.  They’d be so light and fragile they’d float up in the air above the clouds.  The biggest spider who lives in the basement would be my assistant, and I’d let her catch all the moths she wanted at night while I collected stars from the top of the tallest tower.

It’s not just a daydream to want a castle.  My name means queen, and father sometimes calls me Rayina, or princess.  It’s our secret.

Quick!  I duck down to the pavement and concentrate hard on a line of ants.  The old man is coming back.  I can’t let him catch me stealing glances in his window.  But I have to look back one more time — the spider was so close to her moth!  The old man sees me look.  He stops at the door.  Turns.  Walks closer.

The tomato smell is stronger than ever.  I think he takes baths in tomatoes.

“Raya,” he says.  “You watching the light?”

I nod.

“Best keep watching it.  You never know when it might burn out.”

He grins, then shuffles away.


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