The story begins benignly while people gathered to take the tour of the historic home on the water where authors had once lived and dined and entertained sea captains. The house had been taken apart in the past and then restored by one of its former owners, a woman who could see the value in keeping the past alive and preserved. The entire home had been refurbished and restored so that everything was as authentic as possible from the beautiful wide-plank flooring to the paint colors used in each tiny room. The entire house glowed with the kind of patina that is only possible with the passage of time and only grows richer with each passing year. While the guide gave her talk, I could almost see myself sitting at the dining room table lit by candlelight, the decanter of wine in front of us, speaking of travels by sea, and having a glass of port and fruit for dessert.
In addition to the rich history of the residence, the house held a treasure that wasn’t readily apparent. In an effort to add value and interest, one of the owners had installed a secret stairway behind a fireplace. The staircase was cleverly concealed behind a bookshelf and was not noticeable to anyone entering the room. The opening only became visible when the hidden latch was pressed and the bookcase swung open to reveal a small space, a narrow and winding spiral that led to the second floor. The doorway and the ceiling were so low that a personal of normal stature would have to duck his head to enter.
People on the tour were invited to climb the secret stairway to the attic; and those who were unable to enter the cunning little hideaway because of claustrophobia or other reasons were invited to reach the second floor by means of a regular stairway on the other side of the hall. In order to properly visualize this in your mind's eye, picture the stairs of your grandmother's house, now cut them down by two, make them wide enough for only one person, and wind them severely to the right under a 5 foot ceiling and then abruptly wind them left with absolutely no turning radius. Of course, like children, we weren't concerned about the mechanics, we were just eager and excited about climbing into the mysterious passage. One by one we made the short but tortuous journey by ducking and contorting our bodies to fit the twisting confines of the space -- at least every person but one.
One by one, we’d made our way to the top until we stood together, waiting for the last person. As the group gathered in the attic, the guide, who had taken the regular stairway, realized that someone was missing. Everyone waited patiently. I guess this is what writers mean when they talk about the “pregnant pause,” that hidden expectation of something significant about to occur. As we waited silently, you could have heard a pin drop. Suddenly, a disembodied voice from the depths of the hidden stairs calmly said, “Help.” Laughter punctuated the waiting crowed of people, and there was a palpable feeling of comic relief . . . until we heard,
"I’m stuck in the stairway.”
There were guffaws this time as the group, having experienced the twisting, winding squeeze box, appreciated the seemingly humorous declaration until we again heard the voice this time say, “I’m not kidding.” As the last communication sank into the ears and minds of the waiting people, silence again pervaded the room as people turned to look at one another in slight disbelief.
The guide, clearly distressed, wrung her hands, stated that she’d never had anyone get stuck before and rushed out of the room while exhaling a prayerful (or pleading) “Oh, my God.” In the meantime, some of the men who had folded their bodies into miniature versions of themselves to get up the stairs recalled the generous proportions of the tourist caught between the walls. As we waited, these same men speculated on the most advantageous way to release the victim from the clutches of the house. A few were convinced, based on sight, that the prisoner would never be set free. A few called for Vaseline to ease the way, as others simply snickered. No one knows how the final extraction was wrought. But a short time later, a much relieved guide returned to the second floor with the former captive who promptly and loudly asked if anyone had ever heard of someone getting stuck in the stairway before. [Pregnant pause] -- “Well, you have now.”
The moral of this story? When a tour guide says the stairway is extremely narrow and confining, believe her. The motto? When confronted by the unknown, nitwitted gainsayer (so to speak), be prepared -- for anything. Song to follow by Fanny Whine-Ette (did I say that).
Story told by Iris Emblthat