By Cheryl Scheir
Inspired by the words and storytelling of Edgar Allen Poe*
“And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but overacuteness of the senses?”
-Edgar Allen Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart
True! –thrilled—very, very deliciously thrilled I had been and am, to be living on my own for the very first time. No siblings with whom to share my quarters, no roommates, no noisy neighbors upstairs or down, nor even within 100 yards in any direction. No one, blessedly, to disturb me.
Urban living had been good to me as far as it went. I had never been mugged on the street or come home to an open door with all items missing that did not lay overturned before me. Despite the relative safety, above all was my sense of hearing acute, and, my goodness, what noise! Emergency sirens at all hours, friends shouting down the sidewalk to pals half a block away, the garbage truck immediately beneath my window, mercilessly grinding at 5 am, and spewing its morning breath.
Even in the rare times of quiet, shreds of noise broke through. Late at night, the squeal of distant tires. Early in the morning, the squeak of the pretzel stand as it wheeled over to its corner. On lazy afternoons, the swish of a match, lighting a cigarette on the adjacent fire escape. Each, while subtle to some, emitted a jolt that maddened me in both senses of the word. A burning fury arose in me in response to each disruption, this strangely coupled with a disorienting push of my mind from order to utter chaos.
I tolerated it, for a time. For seven long years—every night, just at midnight—I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, and pleaded with all my might for my neighbors, my city, the universe to grant me a window of silence that opened, peacefully, to sleep.
And then, one day, it struck me. I would move to the country. In my new surroundings, I would hear little else, save the birds, the crickets, the croaks of the frogs, the whistle of the wind. Removed from such a great density of humans and the infrastructure that supports them, I would be alone but for my thoughts and the soothing, natural soundscape.
The plan, once in motion, created a flurry of distraction such that the source of my madness receded in volume, though only somewhat. In the wrapping, packing, taping, and stacking that had become my daily routine, I let all consideration go and myself became the passive/aggressive disruptor. Anytime I left the house, I set up my music not to play but to blare , so that for a change they—the unseen they who had disturbed and disconcerted me—would feel as I had for all this time. Politeness be damned.
Before long, I moved into my new place. It was a farmhouse, set far back from a country road and sitting in the middle of three tree-dotted acres. In that season, my family—a large one—made my move their solitary mission. At first, the place teemed with sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews wheeling furniture through the parlor and up the stairs, dispersing boxes to their black-markered destinations, and sweeping cobwebs and spiderwebs from every bit of wall that met floor or ceiling, inside or out.
Some permutation of the group stayed for each of four consecutive nights. I fairly chuckled at the idea that I was the only one of all who’d slept in a bed. The others preferred “camping out”—one in the claw-footed bathtub, another on the porch sofa, and one intrepid sub-group sharing the attic with a cauldron of bats that surely should have been disclosed in the real estate deal.
Each night, theirs was an exhaustion that rose above (or flew below) any possible disturbance. But presently, it was I who heard a snore, slight at first, then more, as if from the bottom of the sleeper’s soul. With each sputtering crescendo, I found myself poised on an imaginary beam. When I gazed down and to my left, I perceived a bubbling swamp of resentment and hatred; to my right, a placid pond of tender-hearted forgiveness. They had been so good to me—how could I hold this against them? I chose to bathe my thoughts in the pond, in part because my helpers would soon be gone, left to snore in their own homes, in their own beds, with their oh-so-pitiable companions.
At dusk on the final day, the last of them departed, leaving me with a half put-together home, remnants of a few utilitarian meals, and a short list of a important tasks that had been, surprisingly, overlooked. Topping the list: install smoke detectors.
The note was in my uncle’s scrawling hand. He had given it, with a gift-wrapped box, to my cousin just the month before, charging him to give the note and box to me. Then, in the intervening time, he died.
I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. But it was a humorous thread among us all that this retired fireman had one singular passion. He would have enlisted all the powers in heaven and on earth (and possibly under the earth) to prevent any family member (or neighbor or stranger) from suffering the tragedy of a home fire. When my sister innocently floated the idea of a fire pit in my new and quite vast backyard, we imagined him whirling around screaming blue murder to confront her frivolous and dangerous suggestion, punching two fists at her, a tape measure in one and a fire extinguisher in the other.
It was understandable, his concern. In his professional capacity, a futile effort to extinguish an uncontrolled blaze set off by an unattended candelabra had resulted in irreparable damage to his left eye. His wife, my aunt, insisted that he wear a black patch to obscure the scarred disfigurement, and that he did, nearly all of the time. I saw the eye, just barely—that wretched, raw, eye of a vulture—but one fleeting time.
The families had gathered, and while my parents chatted in an inevitable (and tiresome) talk circle with their peers, we kids devised a plan to get our first-ever glimpse at that eye. My uncle had fallen asleep in a post-meal stupor. I led the group as we approached his recliner on tiptoe. Closer and closer we crept, some holding back giggles, others shuddering in anticipation of the horror that might lie under that flat, black patch. Then, when we had closed the full distance, I laid one hand on the armrest to steady myself and reached, slowly, silently, for the patch. As I laid my fingers on it and lifted it, the sleeping man's remaining eye snapped open, wide, and he let out a scream that made all of our blood run cold. He jumped to his feet, shrieking and dancing, his eye fully on display for those brave enough to look, then laughed and laughed. We kids scattered, terrified, most never having glimpsed that cursed eye, the others, forever haunted by it.
Thinking it unwise to reject his gift and ignore his advice, lest he and his eye visit me in my dreams, I accepted his otherworldly gesture. I unwrapped the box, which itself contained four brand new smoke detectors, as well as a screwdriver and fresh batteries for good measure (and no excuses). Then I walked, slowly, thoughtfully through each rooms of my new retreat, up and down the stairs, until I had selected the four optimal placements, one for each device: the kitchen, the hall, the top of the stairs, and the foot of the basement stairs. Then I went to work.
I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph when I had fastened all four devices securely in place. I was not un-mechanical, but such was the aspiration of a new homeowner, proceeding with infant steps to tiny fix-it-up goals. Moving on with a sense of accomplishment to warm me, I prepared a small meal and, considering myself done for the night, retired to bed.
The silence in my new home, precious at first, evolved into something less so as the natural sounds that were soothing in the light transformed. I remember saying to myself, “That is nothing but the wind in the chimney” and “It is only a mouse crossing the floor,” but my own reassurances were unconvincing. Craving sleep, I reached for a different kind of device, and, hoping that the unreliable connectivity of earlier in the day had resolved, tapped it to life. Testing myself, or perhaps tempting fate, I selected the podcast app icon on my screen, alighting on a program that featured tales with mysterious themes and unexplained happenings. To screw up my courage for such challenging content, I imagined the reward I would receive for spending all night, alone, in my suddenly spooky home. The episode played, and I closed my eyes.
I suppose I had drifted off, as I awakened with a start. I sat up but did not know what sound has upended me. A moment later, there it was. “It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp,” I realized. Yes, I had been trying to comfort myself with this supposition. But in the end, I found that thought in vain because the chirp, a single chirp, sounded once again.
Every 2 minutes or so, I heard the chirping sound, a light peep in the darkness that my sleep-addled brain could not make sense of. To settle my nerves—I had not told you I was nervous, but so I am—I rose from my bed, walked down the stairs, crossed the kitchen threshold, and poured a small glass of something suitably strong. As I drank, silence. I stood a moment, in the moonlight that shone through the kitchen window. “The crisis has passed,” I thought to myself. I drank down the draft and returned upstairs.
Upon reaching the top step, the chirp, once again. I scarcely breathed. I held my breath, motionless, waiting for another sound. And so there it was, about 2 minutes later. Upon hearing it, I breathed out then in, deeply, angrily, looking to the ceiling as if to register the beginning of a new form of torment. And then, I saw it. The smoke detector at the top of the stairs. I laughed to myself. It was the blasted thing all along—this smoke detector, or one of the others, must have initiated the chirp as a low battery signal. Cursing nothing except a shop’s poor efforts at rotating its aging battery inventory, I resigned to ferret out the offending device.
First, I dragged a chair to the top of the stairs. Contorting myself more, it seemed, than I had just that evening, I reached, precariously, over the stairs up to the ceiling, unsnapped the detector from its bracket, and pulled out its batteries—surely the morning would be a better time to replace them, but at least this would make the infernal chirping. I waited the requisite 2 minutes, staring into the darkness.
A chirp, once again. Now, at the dead hour of the night, amid the welcome silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror.
Grabbing my phone from the beside my bed and initiating its flashlight feature, I sought to ferret out the offending sound. I could have turned on a lamp, you say? Yes, of course, but was I thinking clearly? Surely not. I heard the chirp once more, yet, for some minutes longer, I refrained and stood still. The chirping by this time grew louder and louder. I wandered to the hall and removed the batteries from the next detector. Still, even then, something chirped. I went to the kitchen, doing the same. Yet the sound increased, and what could I do? Address the last possible cause, what else? The basement detector. That must—dear God, in my torment, I thought that must be it.
I walked toward the basement door, in the dark, and the noise steadily increased. I opened the door and took a step down the stairs, and the noise steadily increased. I reached up, pulled down this last of the smoke detectors, that demon in disguise, and removed the batteries--the only thing that could be fueling the flames of my own personal hell. I fully descended the stairs, and, batteries in hand, paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by my own observations—but the noise steadily increased.
I foamed, I raved, I swore. I threw the detector to the floor and smashed it with my heel. And now, again—the chirp! I grasped my hair with both hands and pulled on it in agony. I stormed back up to the kitchen, where the other three horsemen of the apocalypse lay in a white, plastic heap. I removed a meat tenderizer from the drawer to smash each one. War, I smashed! And still, a chirp. Famine, I smashed! To my horror, a chirp. The final horseman, death itself. I smashed with all that was in me! I felt that I must smash or die. I looked down at the bits, the destroyed shards of the tormenting device. I stared, daring the shards to make their horror known. And then, a chirp. A CHIRP!
I resolved to be gone, away from this house, this oasis turned pit. I grabbed my key from the hall table and fled to my car. Once inside, I started it and reversed hard.
That’s when I knew that it was I, not the house, who had been the offender. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. I had found the source of my madness, as I backed up, I heard it, and it was this. Suddenly, my senses had returned. I sat, paused, at the end of the driveway, ready to drive to God knows where in the throes of insanity, and then my senses returned.
The podcast I had selected played on through it all: in my room, in my hand, down the stairs, in the basement, in the kitchen, in my car. It was the podcaster, not I, whose smoke detector had chirped.
With this realization, I smirked. I closed my eyes, tight and shook my head. Then, with one meek shift and a nearly not there press of the accelerator, I drove (if it can be called driving when one crawls, head down, hoping that no one has seen) gently, the few feet to my home. And once inside, I went, serenely, back to bed.
*To create a framework for this piece, the author used some verbatim language from Poe's short story, The Tell-Tale Heart.
To identify the overlapping words, phrases, and story elements, a side-by-side reading of both pieces is recommended!