Scritchity, scratchity, tap tap tap. The incessant skittering continues day and night – especially at night – from the apartment next door. It’s as though rats were scampering through the walls between my apartment and hers. But, I know it’s not rats. There are no rats or mice in this building, our handyman constantly brags, a remarkable fact for such a gray-haired structure. No, it’s the tap tap tapping of the old woman next door, skittering around on her ebony canes.
It’s not that she’s loud about it, as she hobbles back and forth from her bed to the window. Just the opposite. She’s ever so light on her feet. Anyone visiting my apartment would be hard pressed to tease out her tap toeing, though unmistakable to me, from the sounds of city traffic outside and the stock creaks and groans of this long-subsiding townhouse in which we coexist.
She never bangs pots and pans or turns the TV volume up to deafening. Not a sob, shriek or cackle ever emanates from next door. Being a music aficionado, above all is my sense of hearing acute. So, her soft, sudden, random pattering about – like a basket full of ping pong balls fallen from a table edge onto a hardwood floor – can interrupt my concentration at any luckless moment. Headphones bring some relief, but I still imagine that I hear her tapping to and fro, pin-pricking through whatever music is playing like the annoying, crackling pops and scratches on old vinyl records.
I know her name from the yellowing sticker on her mailbox at the foot of the stairs: Mrs. A. Black. She is, I understood from the handyman, widowed and a recluse. I had only once glimpsed her briefly through her street-facing window. She cracks open the sash year-round, even in the dead chill of winter, to feed the hungry neighborhood pigeons that are all now well attuned to the schedule of her regular feedings when a flurry of crumbs is flung out onto the ledge and into an empty planter box. Years of bird poop have accumulated in a semi-circle on the sidewalk below and we residents learned long ago to skirt around this chalky overhead hazard warning. Yet, nobody really minds. Her care for the birds is endearing, if not hygienic. She couldn’t possibly have a dog or cat with those birds constantly flitting into her window, and no relatives or acquaintances ever seem to knock on her door.
It was last Christmas when I found myself profoundly touched by her isolation, because, unusually, I was home alone recovering from the flu instead of out with friends and family. The thought of her feedings, despite the freezing draft, like some miraculous angel, softened my annoyance to her gentle scuttling about, and I resolved there and then to get over my grousing and befriend my neighbor.
A few days later, after recovering completely, I made up a festive plate of home-baked holiday cookies and knocked at the widow’s door.
There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. A sort of tense anxiety, I imagined, at the unexpected intrusion.
“Mrs. Black?” I croaked a bit loudly, imagining she might be hard of hearing, “It’s your neighbor from next door, Edgar.”
“I brought you a plate of cookies, Mrs. Black, I thought…”
A sudden, symphony of panic was orchestrated behind the door, and then the sounds of locks unlatching a well-guarded gateway. A gust of icy air stung my face as the creaking portal wedged open a crack.
It was inky black inside.
“I’m Edgar, your next-door neigh…”
I could just make out the old woman’s face, deep in the shadows within, flossy white hair, fluttering in the draft, emanating from a cowl-like shawl wrapped tightly over her head and shoulders. Emotionless, her mouth was crooked and slack-jawed. I immediately realized she must have had a stroke at some point in the past. Perhaps she could no longer speak.
“I’ve cooked you some bakies,” I muttered on auto-pilot, “I mean, some cookies I’ve baked you. Happy Holidays!” I mustered a warm smile with the dying embers of my holiday cheer.
She tipped her body forward in the tiniest bow.
I held out the cookies.
She paused and bowed again and then I realized, blood rushing to my face, that she wanted me to set the plate down on the floor.
“I hope you like them. I made them myself.”
She showed little interest in me while I backed away towards the warmth of my own refuge.
Peering through my spy hole, I watched as a slender ebony walking stick emerged and slid the plate inside.
– – – – –
The next day, the emptied plate was sitting outside my door as I exited for my morning walk. She had left atop the dish an antique Valentine’s postcard, faded from age, with lacy edges and two, plump Victorian children sitting on a swing strung from a glittering web in a bower of pastel blooms. On the back, written by fountain pen, “My Dearest Arachne, from your Beloved Musca,” and the faded postmark hinted it had been mailed to my neighbor’s apartment at some obscure date long ago.
I circled around the usual city blocks on that crisp winter morning, my heart warmed by her kind gesture. As I passed by the local pet store, a notion began to flutter around my brain, haunting me day and night.
Compelled, I soon thereafter commissioned the shop’s owner to acquire a domesticated bird, one that had been trained not to fly away and was in need of a good home. I got the call-back in late January and had them hold “Cuddles” a couple more weeks until the date approached.
On Valentine’s Day, I returned home from work with my surprise in tow. I perched the lively little parrot onto the cookie dish, filled now with nuts, seeds and grains. I set the gift down in the center of the hallway, along with a booklet for the bird’s care and health and tucked the old Valentine’s card in as a bookmark to the inscription I had made on the title page, ” Dearest Mrs. Black, from your Valentine, Edgar.”
I gave a cheerful tap tap tap on Mrs. Black’s door, and quickly retreated to watch the surprise unfold via my door’s peep hole. Surely this would cheer the lonely widow, to have a faithful little companion to care for, and allow her to shut her window when the rains and cold came.
Clickety clakety tap tap tap, I could hear her as she scuttled towards the front of her apartment. A brief pause, then the sound of locks unlatching. The door cracked open, and I held my breath.
Had I made a mistake? Would she accept the gift?
Mrs. Black tilted out of the doorway, the shawl around her head and shoulders falling away to one side. The wild, white hairs crowning her frozen face swayed wickedly, sensing the startled fluttering of the little bird just out of reach in the middle of the hall.
The widow’s crooked smile went slack, and her jaw dropped open. A cloud of sticky, cotton candy-like filaments billowed out enveloping the frantic parrot. One after another, ebony walking canes unfolded and, in a flash, spun the helpless bird into a squirming mummy as seeds flew in all directions and the dish spun, ringing, to the floor.
Mrs. Black, I suddenly realized, was just a withered, mimetic carbuncle growing on the rear of the glistening black abdomen that now backed its bloated bulk out of the neighbor’s door on eight spindly, clickety legs.
Scuttling 180 degrees around, it transferred the now immobilized gift to its pedipalps, already oozing with digestive fluid, before turning its nest of eight hungry eyes towards me! Then it squeezed back through the door frame, one hind leg dragging the booklet and Valentines card behind it. The door latched shut and locks clattered closed before the plate in the hall had ceased its spinning clatter.
For many long minutes thereafter, with my eye frozen impotently to the peep hole, a familiar, now excited pitter patter continued the other side of the wall.
– – – –
I cannot say that I have slept well since befriending the widow next door. Nor have I resumed my walks or left my apartment at all since Valentine’s day past.
I can do little else but listen.
Scritchity, scratchity, tap tap tap. The hairs on my arms hackle involuntarily. The incessant skittering continues. Only now, it’s at my front door.
John C. Goss is a monster kid who grew up to become a multi-media artist, designer and
writer. More about his work may be found at <http://www.siamorama.com/>www.siamorama.com