A few weeks ago, while pulling Christmas decorations out of my attic, I found a small metal box. Rather, I heard the metal scraping against the shelving behind my plastic tub of colored lights. I couldn’t remember what object might make such a sound, so I groped around in the darkness under the shelf. Since my arms are short, like the rest of me, I had to crawl partially under the shelf to reach the back, where the floor approached the pitch of the roof. My fingertips hooked the cold metal handle, and I pulled the box out into the light of the single, overhead bulb. I didn’t recognize the box. My inner kid immediately predicted treasure within, and I forgot the chill in the attic and my Christmas decorating.
The latch stuck with rust, not surprising with our humid summers, but the lid exploded open when lubricated with a few choice words. Something reflected the light as it flew out and smashed against the floor. A brassy lid led me to believe it had been a small mason jar before my clumsiness reduced it to dispersed shards. I wiped the orange dust on my old jeans and looked inside the box. There was a composition notebook, speckled with mold, but nothing else. The pages stuck together in places, and the handwriting was unfortunately in a foreign language. The previous owner of the house had been an older man whose name I’d only seen on the sale documents for the house, but I didn’t know him or his country of origin. Knowing I had some work ahead of me before my curiosity could be satisfied, I flopped the notebook onto the plastic tub and headed downstairs with my burden.
After a trip back to the attic with a broom and dustpan, I sat down to examine the notebook. I believed the handwriting was German, but I hadn’t used the language since my high school days. Luckily I knew a woman at work who might assist me. What follows is her translation (in italics). Since there were no pictures in the journal, I’ve added some from my own interpretations.
I first noticed a faint, pulsing ringing in my ears that I assumed was related to my allergies. I thought I’d blown my nosed too forcefully, but the ringing continued long after my ears unplugged. It was so inconspicuous that I could only hear it when the house was still. Even when I held my breath, my pulse drowned it out again.
I wandered around the house and tried to locate the source of the sound, but it never wavered in its intensity. I decided that other noises concealed it most of the time, but it must always be there underneath the sounds of traffic and weather from outside. Or perhaps, and more disconcerting, it followed me around the house. Later, a drive into the countryside’s quiet showed me that I could escape the ringing sound if willing to leave my home behind. I told myself that I merely needed to put it from my mind. Certainly, as quiet as it was, other daily noises would drown out the ringing. But my mind would not so easily let go of it. At the expense of sleep, I caught myself listening for its ups and downs. Even when my wife lived, I occasionally craved solitude for reading or to think through life’s occasional problems. Now I keenly felt her absence, though she’d passed many years before.
Often I interrupted the quiet to discourage my cat from his mischievous climbing. One moment the creature stood atop the china cabinet, only to jump to the mantle. Framed photos and collected knickknacks fell in his wake. His trespasses onto the kitchen counter especially irked me, but my flicks of water from the sink did not deter the animal. Since he seemed more active than normal, I began to watch him more closely, even following him to other rooms.
He didn’t run in hyperactive play. Rather he sprinted desperately, claws scraping the floor for purchase. When he reached his destination, he stopped and sat with his gaze riveted to a wall, the ceiling or the recesses behind furniture. I began to notice a pattern to his movements, a counterclockwise circuit of the house: china cabinet, mantle, hallway, bedroom, kitchen counter, refrigerator. At some point, he would either lose interest or get tired and settle down for a nap, sometimes on my lap. It seemed akin to his game of chasing moths that entered the house in summer, only the moths seldom evaded him for long.
Over perhaps a week, I noticed the cat spent more and more time peering between the refrigerator and the wall. There was scarcely any space, certainly not enough for even one of his outstretched arms to fit. He expressed his frustration by clawing marks into the paint and stripping the refrigerator of any magnets within reach. Several times I tripped over him, but he always returned to sit in the same spot and swish his tail in agitation.
One night I woke to a grumbling stomach and craved a bit of cheese. There he was by the refrigerator, undaunted by the rattling of bottles and jars when I opened the door. His food sat untouched since earlier in the evening. I leaned against the counter near the refrigerator and listened while I snacked. If anything, the ringing sounded softer. The cat’s purring nearly drowned it out. When he darted off into the dark of the living room, I followed and turned on a light. At the base of a shadowed wall, his tail swiped frantically against the floor. His eyes fixed on a spot near the height of my chest.
I don’t know how long I sat watching the cat, but my cheese was long gone by the time I stood and walked to the wall. The ringing stopped. The cat ceased his purring and stood on hind legs to stretch his paws up the wall. I didn’t see anything there, so I placed my fingertips on the wall. When nothing happened, I pressed my palm to the paint. After a moment, the ringing resumed. Then the pain began.
It started as a tickle on my palm but quickly grew to resemble pin pricks spreading along my fingers, to the back of my hand and up my arm. My fingers twitched involuntarily as the pain increased. With it came heat, as though I reached into the hot oven without a protective mitt. The cat scrambled away at my scream, and I rushed to the kitchen. The cold water from the tap at first offered no relief, but after several agonizing minutes the heat dissipated. The prickling pain remained a few minutes more, but I turned off the water when I felt my fingertips growing numb. All over my hand and arm, tiny red bumps bloomed from my skin. They pulsed in time with the ringing in my ears.
I don’t know when the itching in my head started. Maybe the pain of my arm distracted me until the tickle turned to a fire inside my skull. I ducked my head under the faucet to douse my face and hair. Only the water running down my chest gave me any sense of the cold. After nearly drowning myself in the sink, I turned on the light to find a towel. The burning sensation subsided. The cat paced once more in front of the refrigerator.
There was a movie when I was a boy, but I don’t remember the name of it. I only remember aliens that used some kind of mind control ray. I didn’t know if it would work, but I had no other ideas at the time. I grabbed a roll of tinfoil and wound it around my head, shiny side out, to reflect the rays.
After the cold water, pain and excitement, I couldn’t return to bed. I could barely sit still. I decided to write down my experiences in this notebook mainly because telling someone about them would earn me a straight-jacket in an asylum. One day, maybe I’ll share it, but not any time soon.
As Mrs. Eidler translated this for me during our lunch break, she paused several times to tell me that the writing was the work of a crazy man. We didn’t get a chance to finish before the end of our break, so she promised to help me again soon. Of course, it can’t be soon enough for me. Real or not, I want to find out what the rest of the notebook says. As for the jar, she skimmed ahead and only found mention of “it” trapped inside before she pushed the notebook back to me across the table. I went through the trash but didn’t find a label. I still had the lid, but if there was something written on it, the writing long ago faded.
With any luck, I’ll get the rest translated soon. Stay tuned.