I learned to spell vortices before I knew what they were or before I suspected that we might be living with a paranormal version in our house.
From the third grade through the sixth, I was obsessed with participating in spelling bees. I realize now I didn't make it as far up the ladder of success in the Bee World as my class-level and school-level wins might have encouraged me to dream. I got up to the municipal level a couple of times before bombing. The words that I slaughtered are the ones I ultimately retained. Inertia comes to mind as one of my most humiliating Language Arts moments. (Having never seen or heard the word before, it sounded to me like a severely unfortunate girl's name. I'll use it in a sentence: "Enursha Jolene, you get your ass back in this house right this minute!" No doubt Enursha grew up insisting that friends call her "Jo.")
I would study those special preparatory books of challenging Bee words for weeks on end, creating shoe boxes full of home made flash cards and constantly pestering my parents to "quiz me."
"What's a vor-TIE-sus?" I asked my Daddy as he made us breakfast one morning.
"A what? Let me see it," he said, leaning away from the stove with a spatula in his hand to squint quickly at the spelling bee book I'd brought to the table. "Oh. Vor-tuh-SEEZ. That's the plural form of vortex. You know what a vortex is?"
He explained a vortex to me as a kind of whirlpool within liquids or fluids, or the visible, spiraling column of air in a tornado -- but then went on to elaborate about the temporal vortices in science fiction that were more likely to engage both our imaginations.
I'm afraid I may have grown up confusing vortices and portals -- the tub-drain special effects you find in television time-travel, violent iris openings between dimensions and worlds.
Did you know that according to Merriam-Webster vortices and vortexes are both correct plural forms of vortex? Vortexes sounds like the State in which Right Wing militia men who want to secede from the Union might one day reside. Vortexes is probably separated from Mexico and Reality by the Rio Mocha Grande... Anyway...
Whether my fourth-grade vocabulary was technically correct or not, you'll just have to accept that my brother, my friends, and I all knew what we were talking about whenever we'd spy certain phenomena and cry out "Vortex!" in great excitement -- the subtle depressions that appeared on the surface of empty swimming pools -- "Vortex!"; or the dust-devils that whip up leaves in the Fall and magically spin down a driveway for several feet before losing power, never quite manifesting to true Oz-worthy vehicles, but still -- "Vortex!"
Potentially, there were vortices (or portals; wormholes) all over the Green House, but the one that I most liked to point out to other kids was remarkably easy to spot, located at the end of the hall between the living and dining rooms. It was a test of sorts (of clairvoyance, maybe?) "Can you see it?" You had to stand in my bedroom doorway and squint down the longest sight line that the house's floor plan allowed... and there it was -- ever so faint -- a column of transparent, barely-visible, just-a-little-bit-sparkly dust particles suspended between floor and ceiling... about the girth of an adult, only taller, not unlike the first and last traces of the transporter effects in Star Trek.
I didn't know what it was or why it was there, but I wasn't the only one who could see it. We knew one thing for certain -- if you sat in the vortex, you would see the White Cat.
Now, the White Cat is not to be confused with shadow cats -- shadow cats are small, vague, smudgy forms that you may see inside or outdoors, out of the corner of your eye, darting furtively away from you, low to the ground like a wary feline slinking away, tail down, trying to make itself invisible.
You may see them dash under a parked car, dart into a line of shrubbery or tree shade, slip back into your closet or under your bed when you surprise them by entering a room or turning on a light. Shadow cats are spiritual in nature, but they don't necessarily have anything to do with the souls of house cats, other than the relative size, shape, and the fluid way that they move. They could be any kind of closet monster or under-bed troll.
Shadow Cats are all over the place; I see them constantly, everywhere. The White Cat was a place- and time- specific manifestation; the ghost of an actual, individual kitty that dwelt in the Green House (an earthbound pet or psychic echo, I suppose; it must have lived there at one time).
Because the entire downstairs was either an enormous vortex (or a set of interlocking vortices) no one much liked to watch television down there except my dad -- my Mama, my brother and I preferred to suffer a smaller black-and-white set on a rolling cart that we kept in a corner of the dining room upstairs and would pull out a few feet toward the end of the sofa in the adjoining living room. We'd drag a rust-colored crushed-velvet cushion off the sofa and prop it against the floor and the door jamb and settle in to watch after-school cartoons right smack in the sparkle-column vortex. I would look up into the air above me, uncomfortable, knowing that something should be raining down on me, but the phenomenon was only visible from a distance.
At a slight angle to the TV, we had a straight view down the full length of the upstairs hallway into my bedroom at the other end of the house. It was during these moments that we'd see the White Cat sneak from my brother's bedroom doorway to mine, and back again. It avoided my parents' room. I'd call "White Cat!" or my brother would yelp "There it is! Did you see it?"
I don't remember this being at all frightening -- actually, there was a pervasive tension that hung over us until the White Cat appeared. The anticipation was distracting when you'd first settle in, hard to pay attention to the TV until he arrived. I think we both felt... relieved that it continued to happen. It was a little bite-size thrill of experience; the recurrence was an insistent reality. While some of the moves in this on-going haunting were truly disturbing, the White Cat was the game's harmless and amusing mascot.
I never suspected the White Cat of being the invisible critter that viciously bit me downstairs in the den.
When we first moved into the Green House, there was a period where we played and explored the lower level, until events finally drove us permanently upstairs.
The first floor was partially underground -- the two-car garage opened onto the driveway on one end; inside was a laundry room, an office, a large closet under the stairwell, and an L-shaped den with a sliding-glass door that led out onto a back patio. The den was thinly carpeted over the concrete foundation, with no padding or sub-floor. The carpet was an indoor-outdoor variety -- dark blue mottled with black -- the nubby kind; not the bristly kind you'd find, say, in the bottom of our ski boat. I've already mentioned the mystery spot in the carpet that slowly and steadily unraveled itself. My brother and I got in so much trouble with my mother because neither of us would confess to being responsible for this on-going destruction, or rat the other one out. It proved to be the source of a momentous disciplinary injustice that I may have forgiven but have clearly not forgotten.
The hearth and the fireplace surround were covered in dark-gray slate, with jagged edges that portended of bloody falls, emergency room visits, and inevitable stitches. Hung on the slate wall were two manhole cover-sized, sun-shaped ceramic plaques painted in burnished "aged" bronze -- one depicting some faux Aztec or Mayan calendar; the other, the astrological Wheel of the Zodiac. (If you're over thirty or shop in thrift stores you've probably seen a set of these.) I can't tell you how many hours of my childhood were spent trying to riddle the connection between the two and how they might transmit "useful" information. Something about the grinning mask-face in the center of one of them screamed "Vortex!"
The large closet under the stairs had a red light bulb -- Daddy said someone must have used it as a darkroom for developing photographs. There was a kind of hatch that opened into a deep crawl space of raw concrete and roughly plastered walls. I don't remember how he first spotted it, but my brother picked at a crumbling bump in the wall and a skeleton key fell out. The mystery of its being entombed in such a fashion implied great significance; my brother kept the key in a small metal munitions case he called his Treasure Box. I guarantee that the box and its contents, including the key, are still in the back of the closet of his old room at my mother's house.
This was still several years before The Amityville Horror or Poltergeist came out, but later on in junior high school, while spending the night with a friend who had HBO, I saw these movies with their awful closets and immediately thought of the Green House.
At first the most notable discomfort in watching the big color television downstairs in the den was trying to hear over the maddening noises. There was a constant chink-ka-chink-ka-chink -- a sound of metal-meeting-stone, like the tapping of a trowel on bricks or a hammer and chisel on a stone tablet. Even my dad, whether he realized it or not, would slowly and steadily keep turning up the TV volume, and wind up getting yelled at. My mother would call down the stairs, clearly exasperated "Can you not hear that? Well, can't you turn it down some. Jeez."
Daddy attempted to debunk the incessant hammering: he theorized that the concrete block retaining wall that held the earth back from the patio just off the den was catching the sound of distant construction; that it was carrying across the neighborhood and echoing through the glass patio doors like a giant ear drum. I couldn't believe he was comfortable with this explanation; I became shrill-bordering-on-hysterical the third or fourth time he insisted this was the cause of the hammering sound. "But if you go outside you don't hear it anymore!" I would stand out on the patio or in the driveway by the garage doors and scan across the Trails to the all the other houses in the neighborhood -- none of which were under construction or visible repair. There was nothing to account for the sound.
Similarly, my dad tried to convince me that the sound of the basketball bouncing outside my bedroom window was actually the globe on my bookshelf bumping against the wall. Okay, so problems with this theory: a) the globe made a dull cardboard thud when you banged it into the wall, while the sound I was hearing at night while I tried to go to sleep had that distinct, stretched, hollow, elastic ring that sounds like absolutely nothing but a basketball; and b) what the hell kind of invisible creature was standing in my bedroom, all the way across the room, rocking my bookshelf with the globe on top into the wall over and over again?!
Couldn't he see the holes in these theories? And why wasn't he more disturbed by these holes -- or, better yet, the hands reaching through portals between the dimensions of Hell and Suburbia and hammering things, bouncing things? Dribbling ghost hands that came through these gaping holes, these awful maddening mysterious terrible swirling invisible holes that made me want to cry out -- what? Yes -- "Vortexes!"
The last time I watched television downstairs -- alone -- was when Peter Pan came on. It wasn't the Disney animated feature, but one of those mid-Century Cathy-Rigby-on-a-wire versions that was basically a camera aimed at a stage musical and then rebroadcast on TV throughout the 60's and 70's.
I tended to create full-on, audience-participation, immersive productions of children's fantasy television events, whether or not it was ever intended or called for. For example, I religiously watched The Wizard of Oz in a black cloak, pointed hat, and green face-paint. Yes, I most identified with Elphaba and Nessa Rose long before Wicked enriched their identities and revealed their names to us. The only thing that kept me out of a pair of Pippi Longstocking hose and red-sequined slippers was the sad fact of not owning them.
Although I found the Peter Pan television musical a bit lame, it allowed for multiple dress-up options. I possessed an Elf costume from some school Christmas play (green tights, green felt tunic, and pointy green felt slippers -- without the stocking cap, I probably looked as much like Sprout in a Green Giant commercial as I did Peter Pan); and I also had a Pirate costume from a recent Halloween (head kerchief, eye-patch, single large hoop earring, white peasant blouse, wide black belt/sword-holster, black pants stuffed in tall black boots -- I was silently pleased and a bit envious when Adam Ant made this look acceptable to wear in public several years later).
Not only were both of these costumes appropriate, they allowed for costume changes, transformations I would affect during commercial breaks with the speed of a backstage Cher or Stevie Nicks during a long, teasing instrumental bridge.
I did the Peter Pan look for the first few segments, practicing flight from the sofa arms and the ottoman, but I was relieved when we reached the Captain Hook portion of the tale, which was my cue to shift to the preferred Pirate gear (green synthetic tights are insufferable). I dashed upstairs to my bedroom, donned the majority of the costume, and then appealed to my mother to tie the bandana on for me as she watched a program on the black-and-white set in the vortex.
"You're changing again?" she asked rhetorically.
"It's time for the pirates. Will you do my beard?" I offered her the eyebrow pencil I'd already snatched from her bathroom. One of my favorite parts of this look was the drawn-on facial hair.
"No, let's not do the beard tonight. It's too much trouble to get off, and the show's going to come back on. You'll miss it."
Okay, so I scrapped the beard, even though I never felt so much Myself in the mirror than when I wore an eyebrow pencil goatee. I'd just have to grow the real thing one day. [wink]
"And turn the volume down!" Mama called out as I went back to the den below.
"I already did!" I believe she just insisted on telling us to turn down the volume as a default refrain, regardless of how loud it actually ever was. I guess she figured there was always the potential for more quiet.
I had committed to certainly not turning the television up, and that infernal tapping sound began -- chink-ka-chink-ka-chink -- with it there were male voices yelling to one another, as if over their own hammering racket. As always, it seemed to come from the patio outside the den, yet very far away at the same time. The sliding glass door itself might be... a "Vortex!"
I got up from the couch to investigate yet once again, with a frustrating lack of expectation at discovering anything new about the source of the noises. It was getting dark outside and the sliding glass door had become a semi-transparent mirror. A small beardless pirate confronted me. Behind me, the TV invited us to save Tinkerbell and the little pirate clapped as I did as a testament to his belief in fairies.
I approached the glass door to peer out at the patio, cupping my hands around my eyes to block the inside light's reflection. A man's voice said "Don't look in there!" It was a loud whisper, a hiss, that came close in my ear, from everywhere around me all at once. Close behind it a woman called my name "Slade!" with a tone to pull me back from crossing a busy street, from the edge of a cliff, from the mouth of a vortex. It sounded like the Big One, the Pink Lady, my guardian angel. I jerked around to look behind me, hoping to find her standing in the room... but there was no one there; only the television glowed.
In that moment, something... bit me. Something stung my leg. I slapped frantically at my pants, shook them to loose whatever bee or spider had invaded my costume. I dropped to the floor and yanked off my left boot, rolling the pant leg up to find the burning spot. There was a white-edged, flapping triangle of skin on the tender inside of my calf, just below my knee. The wound was the exact size and shape of the puncture hole made by a can opener. My first thought was of a talon, a claw -- the Captain's hook -- the beak of a bird of prey, a fang (not fangs, plural, but a hideously large singular pointed tooth).
As I reached to touch it, a dark pearl of blood surfaced, covering the hole, a gem in the setting of torn skin. It grew until it broke under my finger and ran to the cuff of my pants, soaking and disappearing into the dark fabric even as the flow began to pulse slightly like an elementary school hallway drinking fountain with lousy water pressure. I held the rolled edge of the cloth against the flow and hobbled to the stairs, screaming for my parents. (It did cross my mind that, had I not changed costumes, my green tights would have been ruined...)
In the car, on the way to receive potential stitches and a tetanus shot, Mama kept asking me "What did you do?" and Daddy engaged his Spock-like debunking procedure, trying to eliminate the possibilities. "There wasn't any broken glass..." He kept coming back to the conclusion that I had fallen on my toy sword while trying to fly about the den.
This logic was infuriatingly weak. I explained (petulantly, I am sure) that flying practice belonged with the Peter Pan costume, not the Pirate. And how could the sword (the dullest, rubbery gray plastic, mind you) have punched through my pants without making a hole in the fabric?
I said nothing about the voices I'd heard, but I insisted that I'd been bitten. It was a bite. I could only imagine how large a creature would have to be to wield such a fang. It was a small blessing that, whatever it was, it was invisible.
The Next Chapter in The Paranormal Memoirs is here.