By Robert H. Lehmann (Philadelphia, PA)
It was at the Tyler Arboretum that I chose to take a jaunt during my lunch hour. I’d not been there before but had heard good things about it and, as the weather was fine — one of the last days of summer or the first days of autumn, the notion of leaves rustling underfoot and changing color above my head was a compelling respite from the work-a-day world.
As I strolled aimlessly through the Arboretum, eschewing any of the paths for the unguided wilderness rambles, I chanced upon a door which obviously opened into a chamber dug into the hillside. The door had an intriguing, quaint charm about it: a story-book quality of Bavaria, of the Brothers Grimm or Hansel & Gretel. Yes, that’s what it reminded me of: Hansel and Gretel. Not their homes, but of the house they discovered in the forest. Likely built during the Romantic Age of the late nineteenth century, judging not just from its apparent age (lichen & moss encrusted) but its whimsical styling, too.
But what was it doing here? Had I to guess, I’d have thought it the door to an ice-house of some nearby but long-gone mansion. Or maybe the mausoleum of some band of eastern Europeans who had stayed for a time and then moved on. But the park guide made no mention of any such thing, emphasizing rather the pristine wilderness of the place.
As I pondered the door, a lizard scrambled down from the hillside into which the door was set and passed by it. Almost. For all of their quicksilver motions, darting about, this lizard seemed to move sideways, as though, not seeking refuge or hunting prey, it had been pulled by a strong vacuum underneath the door.
Still, the odd motion notwithstanding, this did seem exactly the sort of place a lizard would find at home; dark, damp, apparently undisturbed. Thus I settled in to see whatever other life inhabited this forgotten place.
My wait was not long. Fairly soon thereafter, a chipmunk, those charming comedians of the rodent world, scrambled through the leaves, chancing about to examine first one acorn, which was rotted and then a second, which was not and he ate it. Progressing in his tack, he passed by this strange door, sniffed the air from the bottom and instantly turned and ran in the opposite direction, away from the door. Again, what appeared to be a vacuum seemed to pull him backwards towards the door. Though the animal was clearly scrambling to go forward, it was moving backward, being sucked by some vortex which disturbed neither the nearby leaves nor the scrub grass.
And then he was gone, underneath the door.
By now, needless to say, I was transfixed by this mysterious door. As I sat there watching, I became conscience of a lightheadedness, that, though my breathing was normal, I was losing oxygen with each breath. For every perfectly normal breath in, it seemed as though I exhaled a breath-and-a-half, as if — is this possible? — the same force that had suctioned the lizard and the chipmunk was now pulling the breath out of me!
Before I had been merely mesmerized; now I felt that this strange door held me in its thrall. Lightheaded as I was, my limbs were not mine to command, my decisions were not mine to make and I found myself walking forwards toward the door. As I drew closer, I could see that the door was partly ajar — something I could not failed to have noticed as I’d sat there watching it. But there is it was, mosses undisturbed, as though it had always been open just that crevice, waiting for the hand of the curious to pull it open. But I was no longer curious and the urging did not come from me.
And then there was a metallic-sounding voice, coming, not from the depths behind the door, but up on the bluff, above me and to the right.
“Yo, buddy — can’t ya hear me? I’ve been yelling at you for the last five minutes.” It was a mounted Park Ranger speaking through a bullhorn. “The park’s closing if 15 minutes; ya gotta start makin’ yer way to the exit.”
And for a nameless time, I looked at his face and it seemed it was not the face of a man or woman, but that of some sort of troll or gnome and I couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t the horse who’d spoken! For an insane moment, my most fierce desire was to run through the doorway and protect myself from this alarming vision, who’s countenance was surely the projection of my own imaginings.
As last I broke free from the mental grip of both specters and scrambled up the hill the way I had come hence, knowing the path there would lead me back to the entrance. In the lengthening shadows I wondered how it was possible that I could have been there for well over 4 hours — I’d come for my lunch hour and had no notion that any amount of time had passed since I’d gotten there. I dared not look back at either specter, though I could hear the iron shoes of the horse striking the occasional rock as it moved through the rustling leaves and, from what I could tell without looking, blessedly it was not following me but seemed to be moving down into the hollow where the door lay ajar.
As I reached the Arboretum’s gate, I could see that mine was the last car in the lot and a man was standing there waiting to lock the gate.
“Sir, I’m sorry if I kept you late; I must’ve dozed off. If your Ranger hadn’t called to me, I’m sure I’d be there still.”
“No problem, mister — we’re just closing now. But we ain’t got no Park Rangers. Likely just somebody out for a ride, though they’re not supposed to be cutting through the Arboretum. All-in-all, it’s just as well they did way you: dark as pitch in there at night and you’d be walkin’ around bumpin’ into trees and who-knows-what-all and you’d never find your way out.”