Note: Originally published by Alienskin Magazine in September 2006
I woke up and found myself sprawled flat on my back and looking up at the dimly lit underside of the roof. Hundreds of rusting nails pointed down at me, each one hammered through shingles and plywood by my grandfather some fifty years ago when he built the house. It looked like the inside of a medieval torture device.
In retrospect, I’d been lucky hitting my head on the rafter, though at the time you couldn’t have convinced me of it. Alone in the attic of my late grandfather’s strange, empty house, the first thing I did when my head stopped spinning was look around and make sure no one saw me. Concern for my pride superseded concern for my skull.
As my family goes to great lengths to remind me, I’ve got priority issues.
Most people would be curious as to what had me up in my grandfather’s attic in the middle of the night. It’s simple: Guilt. In the eight months since granddad passed away, I’d played every excuse I could imagine not to be the one to clear out his musty attic. But, unmarried, unemployed, and unburdened by a social life, I eventually worked my way down to the truth, and I wasn’t about to share that with my family.
See, granddad… well, granddad used to plain scare the hell out of me.
Every town has one creepy guy, one Boo Radley. Ours happened to be my grandfather. The crusty old salt traveled the world as a sailor in his youth. He’d worked his way across all four oceans and at least nine different seas, but he never made it to the bright places. He spun long, eerie tales about trading with witchdoctors on the South American coast, or of the twenty-eight days he spent stranded in an abandoned Russian whaling station.
And then there was his house.
Back before I was born, granddad paid a salvage company to haul this old sailing ship from the harbor and lug it to the back of his five acre, weed-choked lot. One rainy summer day, he explained to us grandkids in his grim, whispering voice that it had been a pirate galleon, but I don’t know about that. I do know that he had crew of carpenters brace the ship upright and over the next half-century he built a huge, rambling house around the weathered hulk. The house grew like a nautilus shell, one layer on top of the next, year after year.
As kids, we swarmed over the house during our annual family reunions. We searched for new rooms, new nooks, new passages, and we found them in abundance. Because of the irregular construction, granddad’s house was something of a labyrinth. A game of hide-and-seek sometimes took an entire day.
We never went to the attic, though. And not because our parents marked it off limits; to a kid, such declarations put a big shiny bow on something that had only been mildly attractive to begin with. No, granddad kept us out of the attic with one sentence: “I catch any of you dock-rats in my attic,” he growled, “I’ll boil you up with some hard-tack and eat you for supper.”
Quite an image to plant in the fertile imagination of a nine-year-old. The adults all thought it was a big joke and laughed themselves silly, but they never saw the unsettling glint in granddad’s eyes, the preternatural look of hunger that flashed across his face.
There I was, a man now, lying on my back in an attic with a possible concussion and no flashlight, trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t scared of my creepy old grandfather.
I stood up slowly, mindful of the nails and the rafters now. A two-foot-wide plank ran down the front of the attic, but twenty feet out, the attic narrowed to a crawlspace and turned. Shaking off my wooziness and the specter of my grandfather, I went down the crawlspace.
The light from the attic’s one, 60 watt light bulb didn’t even begin to reach around the turn, so I crawled forward on my hands and knees with my Zippo held before me. At first, its weak, flickering light only gave texture to the shadows, but my eyes soon adjusted to the near total darkness. Sweat dripped off the end of my nose. It wasn’t that hot, but in that dark, cramped passageway, I felt like a man trapped in a sinking ship. The low roof had all the weight of a coffin lid.
“…boil you up,” granddad said.
Just when I couldn’t take it anymore, just when I felt the scream building in my throat, the crawlspace ended, opening up into what I could only think of as a cavern.
It looked like something out of an Escher sketch. The light from my lighter was far too weak to illuminate the vast space I’d discovered, so the edges were lost in darkness. Even so, what I could see was amazing. Thousands of feet of insulation covered all sorts of odd surfaces. I could make out a mound in the floor that must have been the vaulted ceiling of the foyer. A timber as thick as a telephone pole shot up from a gap in the insulation and stretched to the roof 20 feet above. I figured it to be one of the masts of the old ship granddad built the place around.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness and followed the mast to the slanting, sloping roof and became lost there. The rafters were built in crazy, mismatched sections. Short, diagonal pieces of lumber braced against each other in the web design of a mad spider. I couldn’t begin to guess at the amount of nails it took to build, but somehow the structure held, and had held for decades.
I made my way into the cavern and towards the mast. Planks extended out from the crawl way a bit, but then I was forced to step from beam to beam. Well aware that a misstep would send me crashing through the ceiling of what I guessed was granddad’s old bedroom, I moved slowly and cautiously. A cable ran from something on the roof down into the insulation, and I grabbed it with my free hand for balance.
A stack of boxes and crates awaited me at the base of the mast. More boards had been laid across the ceiling joists, making an island in the sea of insulation. My heartbeat calmed when I stepped onto the solid ground.
I sat on one of the crates, catching my breath and marveling at the work that had gone into my grandfather’s house. I’d grown up running around that very building, and I never guessed at the vast space I’d just discovered. I smiled, thinking about the games of hide and seek we would have played in that attic.
“I catch any of you dock-rats in my attic,” the memory came back, “I’ll boil you up with some hard-tack and eat you for supper.”
I should have left. I should have gone for a flashlight or waited until the next day. I stayed to prove a point to myself. There is no telling how many men lose their lives to that particular intention every year, but I’d be willing to bet it’s well into the triple digits.
At that particular moment, my trusty Zippo flickered and died. The attic plunged into a darkness so absolute, I lost a sense of my own body. I couldn’t even judge the distance to my own hands, and, when I went to check the lighter, I scalded myself terribly. The sound of sizzling flesh was followed closely by a clatter as my Zippo fell to and through the planks, which in turn produced some rather articulate noises from me.
The only exit from the attic I knew of lay at least two hundred feet away on the other side of a treacherous crawl that I would have to make in utter darkness.
“Not happening,” I said into the black.
Blowing on my burnt fingers, I racked my brain for an alternate light source. I eventually remembered the Indiglo night light on my wrist watch. I squeezed the light button, and a faint iridescent green glow pressed back a small circle of the heavy darkness. The light was far too weak to reach all the way to the walls or roof, but, after my eyes readjusted, it allowed me to see to my feet. It was something.
I looked at the box under my butt, which turned out not to be a crate after all, but a seaman’s locker. The old hasp was held together with nothing more than rust. Slowly, I flipped the latch and lifted the lid.
Instantly, the smell of mildew and saltwater hit me. I winced, but freed from the box, the smell subsided until I could make out the faint scent of granddad’s pipe tobacco.
My watch light revealed a neatly folded stack of sturdy wool clothes and a disheveled pile of photographs. Nothing too exciting.
Then, a faint glint from the back of the chest caught my eye. Reaching behind the cloths, I drew out a long, curved dagger in a jeweled scabbard. The poor light made it tough to tell, but judging by the weight, the dagger and scabbard might have been solid gold. It must have weighed nearly five pounds. I wondered at the strange circumstances that would have brought such a valuable item into the hands of a man who once claimed to have eaten soup made from boiled shoe leather.
Once again, I plunged my hand behind the rough sweaters and britches and came out with another weapon. This one, however, wasn’t fancy or ceremonial; it was working knife. I felt the smooth, contoured wood of the hilt, and I imagined granddad’s calloused hands wearing at it over the years like sandpaper. I pulled it from its leather sheath and examined the blade. Stains etched the nicked but still sharp metal, stains I could not be entirely sure weren’t blood.
Very carefully, I put both knives back behind the clothes and turned my attention and watch face towards the pile of pictures. I shuffled through until I found one with a seriated edge. Pulling it free, I held it up to the pale light.
The photo was an ancient snapshot of a young sailor in his Government Issue, US Navy, Crackerjack-boy outfit. He had his cap tilted at a raffish angle, and he would have been the spitting image of granddad, except for the carefree grin he wore. Never in the twenty-six years that I knew him did granddad ever grin.
I dug through the pile and pulled out another picture at random. Once again, the man in the picture grinned back at the camera, but this time, I had no doubts that he was my grandfather. He had his sleeves rolled up revealing the mermaid tattoo on his forearm that I knew so well. He was seated at a restaurant table, a beautiful girl sitting sideways on his lap and laughing so hard her head tilted back. On the table in front of them, an ashtray and a glass Coke bottle flanked a half eaten burger. To me, the burger stood out like a red and white striped shirt in a Where’s Waldo book. See, granddad didn’t eat a lot of meat. Sure, he’d have a bit of burnt bacon at breakfast, but as far as I could tell, the old guy lived off potatoes, cabbage, and vinegar.
It was a small thing, but I felt like I was finally getting to know my grandfather. It turned out he wasn’t just some scary old sea monster who limped around his crazy house barking at his grandkids. He’d been young once. He’d loved once. Hell, he’d even smiled once.
Working my way down to the bottom of the chest, I found only one framed photograph, and that was one of my grandfather and ten other men standing on the deck of a fishing ship. Uniformly dressed in wool turtlenecks, fishing boots, and knitted caps, they were all strong men in their prime. The sunlight reflected off the water and onto their smooth faces. The cameraman caught them getting ready to pose, and they each wore genuine smiles. Granddad grinned that grin again, this time with his pipe clasped in his teeth. He had his arm around another man I’d seen in some of the other pictures.
I thought, “Now, here’s a fun group of guys. I’d go get a beer with them and shoot the shit.” I tucked the picture in my back pocket to show my sister next time she visited. She’d never believe granddad could smile like that.
Next came a stack of brittle newspapers. I grabbed one to lift out of the chest, but it split and crumbled in my fingers. With greater care, I reached in and tried again.
The paper I removed was damaged by age and my clumsiness, but I could make out one photo on the front page. Two men huddled in blankets. Neither had shaven in weeks and they both looked gaunt to the point of starving. I could almost see them shiver in the stark light from the camera flash. It reminded me of a crime scene photograph, or of pictures from the Holocaust.
I lowered my watch to the page, and my pulse spiked when I recognized one of the men as my grandfather. His face was hollow and blistered raw by exposure, but the scowl he wore in the picture hadn’t changed in the rest of his life. His dark, sunken eyes stared out at me, cursing me for seeing him in his weakened state.
I’m not using a clever turn of phrase; those eyes stared at me. I could feel him glaring at me from across the years, his hollow stare boring right through the camera lens, and I felt his absolute hatred of me.
Sometime in between the two pictures something had happened to granddad. Something had permanently changed him into the withdrawn old recluse who frightened children and who’d built that strange house… something disturbing.
I put the photographs and newspapers back in the chest, heedless of the damage I caused. The compulsion to seal those images away overwhelmed me. I slammed the lid shut and turned to leave. Grabbing the hanging cable, I started to make my way back across the cavern. My foot trembled as I set it on the first joist.
I turned back to look at the little trove I’d uncovered. I don’t know why. It was a compulsion, the same that beckons kids to jump off the back end of the high dive, the same that urges people to try and stop the blender blades by hand. Only there, in the attic, I gave into it.
I spied a long, cylinder shape peeked from between the sea chest and a waxed-cardboard carton. I turned by watch face to it, but the weak green light was too dim by far. I stood there, a foot teetering on the first joist, the cable in one hand, and argued with myself that is was time to go. I could hear rain splattering on the shingles high above me. It was twelve past midnight. Finally, the strange compulsion teamed up with my need to prove something to myself, and I went back to see what the cylinder was.
I had to pocket my watch to shift the crates away from the sea chest. In the dark, I felt between the two and pulled out the object of my curiosity. Dry-rotted leather straps hung from rivets in the hollow plastic cylinder. The plastic might have been smooth once, but now it felt scared and pitted. Blindly, I felt around, making a game of guessing its purpose. I found a joint in the plastic, and a pin of hard, cold metal. When I bent it, the squeak drowned out even the swelling rain for a second. Down, down my hand went, until… it found a boot.
Though I already knew what I’d found, but I dug out my watch, just to be sure. The weak light confirmed it.
I was holding someone’s prosthesis.
A moment of clarity hit me so sharply, I dropped the artificial limb and almost staggered off and down through the ceiling. In a space of time so short it could fit between seconds, my mind pieced together a dozen details, hints, and intuitions.
Granddad’s limp. His constant bitterness. His haunted, evil look after being rescued.
My numb hands reopened the sea chest and found the newspaper article again. His eyes locked onto mine, but I forced myself to look down, down below the blanket that hung from his boney shoulders, down to the empty pant leg knotted just below his knee.
“I catch any of you dock-rats in my attic, I’ll boil you up with some hard-tack and eat you for supper.”
Alone, in the dark attic of that crazy house, I finally understood what the crazy old man had meant. It wasn’t a joke, or even a threat… it was an offer.