Bites, Smells, Sounds, and Things That Go Bump
Strange memories from my former home
The eeriness began in autumn 1997 with intruding mice who, contrary to others of their species, found it difficult to gnaw through plastic grocery bags and protein bar wrappers. When the mice barged into my mother’s Depression era two bedroom bungalow with its tiny rooms and microscopic closets, my eleven year-old daughter and I slept each night on the living room foldout couch, while the other bedroom held most of our possessions. Space in that house was always at a premium.
Dishes and food staples were stacked high in the pantry, so I had taken to hanging my grocery bag of protein bars on the back of a dining room chair. On that first night, I knew it was mice making the noises that kept me awake and cringing, but it wasn’t until the second night of crinkly, rustling, scratching noises that I remembered the protein bars. Mom said the sweetness must have attracted them. I couldn’t understand how. It seemed strange to bypass the pantry in favor of a bag of individually wrapped bars hanging a foot and a half off the floor.
Mom and I checked the pantry for telltale mess and, finding none, put everything packaged in plastic bags or paper into Tupperware or empty cooking pots. All the while as we worked, I puzzled over tiny tooth and claw marks that gave my grocery bag the appearance of having been shot by a rodent-sized tommy gun, pinpricks that rendered some of my bars inedible without gnawing them open to the meal inside.
Now that I think of it, the beginning of the eeriness was probably back in the spring before I was thirteen. My parents were still married then and Dad had taken Mom and my two brothers to the supermarket one Saturday morning to do the shopping. I was too old to tag along anymore on the outside chance of scoring a candy bar or a Mad magazine without having to use my allowance, so I slept late. Later, as I got dressed and washed my face, I began to notice a strange, pungent smell creeping up on me, filling the air, building to such an unsettling crescendo that I couldn’t even think about breakfast. Dad hadn’t yet taken off the heavy storm windows and put on the screens, so I opened the front door and fanned it back and forth. Every time I shut the door, the odor fell again like a heavy, foul curtain. Checking the basement and going from room to room didn’t help me find where it was coming from, but like smoke, the odor wafted through the air and filled the house until I felt so claustrophobic that I thought I would lose my mind.
When my family returned home, “Do you smell that!” were the first words out of my mouth. My parents ignored me at first. My brothers thought I was weird as they always did, and ignored me as well while they carried grocery bags to just past the living room door and I carried them through the house to the kitchen. The awful smell began to dissipate, and that made me feel worse, as if something about it had been all in my mind. Mom and Dad treated me like an irritatingly pubescent girl who had worked herself into an unintelligible tizzy because her teens were so close and it was just time. I shut up.
When the odor was much less thick and I had calmed down, because at least I wasn’t alone with it anymore, Mom stopped in the hallway outside the bathroom and sniffed the air audibly as I passed her. “What is that?” she said. “Is that the smell you were talking about?”
I asked her what it smelled like to her.
“It must be … it’s got to be mice or something.”
I made a face.
Later that week she noticed a weird smell permeating the towels and sheets in the linen closet. I reminded her that it was the same odor from that Saturday.
“You know,” she said, “a mouse probably died in the wall behind the shelves. That’s probably what this has all been about.” She rewashed and put away all the linens that day, but the odor infected them again. We all got used to fresh linen stinking until it had been out of the linen closet for about forty-eight hours. That went on for years.
We got so used to it that we forgot when Mom’s father, my Grandpa, came to visit a few years later and Mom put towels out for him. He noticed the stink and she told him about the dead mouse. I’ll never forget the face he made. Grandpa had worked outdoors for most of his life. He’d been around, seen a lot, done a lot. “Dead mice don’t smell like that,” he said. “I don’t know what that is, but even if it was a mouse, that smell be gone way before now.” Mom looked perplexed and embarrassed. I think we all stopped thinking about it again after that because thinking about it felt dark and strange and finally, pointless. It wasn’t until some time in my mid-twenties that things in the linen closet stopped stinking.
But back to the autumn when my daughter was eleven.
I helped Mom set wooden spring traps with peanut butter, because one of my brothers said that worked better than cheese. He had lived in a lot of different places where that kind of knowledge was needed. He was used to the whole process, so after getting his suggestions, I begged him to come take care of the trap if we caught one. He promised to come as soon as he could. A week or so passed, but we didn’t call him. Finally he called us to see what we were doing wrong, because he knew I couldn’t go near a sprung trap and though Mom could deal with it with squinted eyes and a broom (which would instantly become disposable), he knew she was feeling sick from recent medical treatments. He suggested glue traps instead, the big ones for rats, because they worked better.
While I was resisting glue traps, and growing ever more upset at the thought of killing things and the thought of intruders into my space, I found myself lying awake one night frozen by the echoing sound of wood sliding against wood. My Grandpa had died when my daughter was very young and Mom had brought home the humidor she had given him to hold his pipes and tobacco. Except for my gifts of gourmet tobacco on birthdays and Father’s Day, he used inexpensive packets of tobacco that he kept in his pocket, but he always loved the way the humidor looked with his extra pipe hung into one of the outside holes. Grandpa loved her gift and showed it off to everyone. It was in our home now, on the side table next to the couch, and its only moving part, its round lid with knob in center, was turning along the lip that rose up from base where the tobacco was supposed to be kept. Wood against wood, that turning scraping sound in the dark corner by my daughter’s side of the foldout bed was a sound that belied the fact that no one was there to make it happen.
After a few minutes the sound stopped and I turned over to begin talking myself out of believing what I had just heard. I kept it to myself until the next night when it happened again and my daughter’s sleepy voice asked, “What is that?”
She slid over to my side of the bed and we craned our necks toward the side table. When the sound stopped, I ran across the room and turned on the light. The humidor looked the same as it always did. I lifted the lid to make sure nothing was inside, then put it on the multimedia stand across the room. I told my daughter there had to be a logical reason for the sound, a reason that made sense. We just couldn’t see it yet.
The next afternoon, I explained to my mother why the humidor was in a different place. I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised when she said it was probably a mouse. When I was reluctant to believe that a relatively smooth continuous noise could be made by an animal as twitchy and skittish as an undomesticated mouse, she chuckled. “What else could it be?” she said.
There were a few times when I wore my glasses while trying to sleep, wanting to increase my chances of making something out in the shadows while listening to the noise, but soon I couldn’t take it anymore and the humidor had to go to the bookcase in the little hall by the kitchen. From that far away, neither of us would hear it when it moved at night.
Since then, there’ve been times ripe for telling this story, and when I have, more than one person has said it must have been my Grandpa trying to say that he was watching over me. My first response is always that he was a good person who loved me. Why would he want to scare the shit out of me? Unfortunately, when people try to help you find answers and they can’t, they oftentimes put themselves first, some slipping into ‘see if I care’ mode, some looking so wounded that you say, “You know, you might be right,” just so they’ll smile again and let it go. I did that a lot.
Once I was no longer distracted by the humidor, I bought glue traps and laid two of them out at either end of the living room wall close to the air intake vents in the floor. Two nights later, just before dawn, the one behind the end table that used to be the humidor’s home, sounded like it was being flopped around hard, over and over. It was being fought with so hard and for so long that it woke both of us and had my daughter saying, “Yuck, yuck, yuck,” in a loud whisper as she held her ears.
When it finally stopped, it was time to get her up for school, so we moved to the back of the house and both made sure not to look at the trap. I called my brother and he was able to stop by a half hour later, on his way to work. I pointed to the offending corner. He said there was nothing there. I looked and saw the white cardboard trap askew, about six inches away from the wall, and a couple of feet away from the air vent. My brother asked, “You heard it flopping around?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It made a lot of noise for a while, hitting the wall and the floor …”
“You saw it doing that?”
“Well, no,” I answered. “We were too freaked out to look. But we heard it. There was so much noise.”
He was incredulous. “What else did you hear?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just that horrible flopping and smacking around.”
“Come here,” he said. “Come on. Look closer.”
The glue trap was pristine. “See,” he said. “No hair, no nothing. Every time I’ve caught something on one of these, it can’t get away. When they try, they keep getting stuck again. I’ve seen skin and hair stuck on these things because they struggle. But the biggest problem here is that you haven’t said anything about the squeaking. There’s always squeaking.”
“Squeaking?” I felt lightheaded. “There wasn’t any …”
He had no more time to spare so he straightened the trap out against the wall and suggested we not call him next time unless we actually saw something.
Soon the weirdness of noises in the night faded as our lives gave way to the ups and downs of my mother’s illness, my daughter becoming a teenager, and my new job as nanny to my baby niece.
When my niece was a toddler, my sister-in-law recommended me to a friend who had a baby boy, so I had two to watch. The boy was a very different baby with me than he was with his mom. He preferred not to be held or cuddled, refused to look at anyone’s face, cried at diaper changes or attempts to coo or play with him, and was completely the opposite of the way his mother described him. One day Mom had enough energy to pick him up and walk around talking to him, trying to calm him and get him to smile. He cried until she gave up and buckled him back into his carrier. Even my niece pointed at him once and said, “He’s mad.” I nodded yes. When she asked why, I could only say, “I don’t know.”
My daughter came home from school one day and scooped him up to try to soothe him for the umpteenth time. She paced the room with his face over one shoulder, shifting her weight from foot to foot while her cousin and I looked through picture books. We were all shocked when he went quiet, so I got up to see if he was all right. The smile on his face was so serene, as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. He was pointed toward the corner of the living room where weirdness had started before, smiling up toward nothing, calm, seemingly happy. We had never seen him that way before. My daughter turned around so her cousin could see him happy, and he immediately screwed up his face and started to whimper. When he was turned back to that corner of the wall he was happy.
Mom came to see what was going on. She suggested we try the corner by the opposite window to see if he had the same reaction. He cried. We stared at the corners trying to see how he could tell them apart. We wondered if it was the exact way the light fell in that one. We could never figure it out.
The next day while my daughter was at school and he was scowling after a diaper change, I picked him up and faced him toward that corner, and he cooed. I asked my niece to look up into the corner and see if she saw anything there. She stared for a few moments, then shook her head the way toddlers do and laughed as she ran back to her toys. I only took care of the baby boy for a few weeks, but he was only ever content at our house when he was facing into that corner.
The last unexplainably eerie thing to happen in that house was after my mother passed away and my daughter had gone to live on her own. My young cat took to sitting in the hallway where the linen closet was, staring up into a specific corner. Her tail didn’t wave the way it did when she wanted to pounce on an insect that kept flying around. She wasn’t moving in slow motion increments like when she was stalking bugs or pretending a toy was prey. She sat stock still, staring, ignoring me while I turned on lights and flashlights and looked for what she saw.
She stared into that corner once while I made a sandwich, and was still staring as I brought the dish back to the kitchen after finishing it. I tried to tempt her with a toy, but she couldn’t be distracted. She did this sort of thing a few more times on other days, always staring at the same corner near the ceiling, and I don’t know if she stopped doing it or if she only happened to do it again when I wasn’t looking. Thank goodness I’ve never seen her do it where we live now.
I’ve just realized that I don’t know where the humidor is. It wouldn’t occur to me to throw it away. It makes sense that I would have offered it to one of my siblings before I moved. Thank goodness no one’s mentioned anything to me about it making noise again.
With thanks to Meg Barclay who gave me the gentle push that made me write this out.