03. MUSIC INSPIRATION
The first few nights it happened, I ignored the noise, passed it off as the creakings of our old house, or something else just as ordinary and mundane. This particular night, however, was different. I laid in bed, sprawled on the mattress that rested directly upon the floor, all the junk of my bedroom scattered around me in a mess. Pale moonlight poured in, passing through my curtained windows as easily as water seeping through a net. The light always fell directly onto my bed, onto me. Sometimes it was beautiful, other times it kept me awake. Tonight it was the latter, which meant I was conscious to hear that same noise again.
It was like a metal creaking. Like a hatch being opened, gratingly, then closed. My room was just on the other side of our porch outside, and the noise sounded as if it were happening right outside my room. This time I got up, rose from my messy room, and went to the door. I peered through the window at the top. A blob of shadow had formed at the base of the porch, but the night made it impossible to make out. I flipped on the porch light and the blob of shadow took visible form.
Someone was delivering mail to me in the middle of the night.
They looked like a postman from a hundred years prior, complete with a cap (with some sort of insignia on it), dark button-up uniform, and satchel. It looked as if he had just wandered from a different age to be here, in the present, at my house in the dead of night. He was ghostly pale and had a 5 o’clock shadow with a sagging, worn face, like he had just been woken in the middle of the night and asked to do this bizarre job against his will. When I flipped on the light he sluggishly looked up for a moment, hanging his gaze on me. He obviously knew I was there, but this didn’t phase him at all. To him, whether I watched him work or not made no difference at all. He reached into his bag, pulled out a letter, and placed it in the mailbox. Then he closed the lid, which made that same creaking noise I had heard for several nights in a row, and left.
What do I do? I wondered. The image of this man wandering the night, delivering mail in the dark, felt too strange for me to form a cohesive decision. Mail isn’t delivered at night. This makes no sense. Perhaps I’m still dreaming?
I certainly felt awake, though. This world was solid and concrete, unlike the dreamworld. I could flip on the lights and feel the switch, could touch the door and feel the handle, could feel that glob of muscle beating against the inside of my chest as if it were impatiently beating on a locked door.
The postman sluggishly sauntered off into the night. I sheepishly opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. The night air was cold and pricked my skin, and quickly washed away any leftover thoughts of “this is just a dream” that still lingered. I glanced down the street and saw no sign of the postman. Not even a blob of shadow trudging its way into the dark.
I didn’t want to open the creaking metal mailbox and retrieve whatever that man had left. The whole experience had altered how I perceived the thing, like I’d be prying open the mouth of some strange beast and reaching inside.
I did it quickly, slammed it up, and went inside. The letters got thrown on the kitchen table in a pile of other junk, and I went back to bed.
Maybe I’ll walk up tomorrow and find that none of this really happened, I thought. But I knew that wouldn’t be the case.
As I expected, the letter was still there in the morning.
I looked down at the table covered in junk--papers, ads, a wadded up cardigan, more unopened letters, and that bizarre letter delivered by night. It had no address listed, nor a return address. Not even a stamp. The only thing present on the envelope was the inky black seal holding it together--an open eye in front of a black crescent moon. The rest of the envelope was empty and barren. I lifted the letter from the stack of junk on the table and stared at it. The seal--the eye--stared back.
“An eye and a moon,” I mumbled out loud into a mug of coffee. “The moon makes sense. You were delivered by night, after all. But what’s this eye?” Something about the eye made my insides churn and swirl, as if the eye was watching me back, waiting for me to open it.
“Well, there’s no writing on you. No address listed, or a place I could send you back. That means there’s no way for me to know that you were intended for me. Were you supposed to be delivered to someone else?” I asked the letter hopefully.
The letter did not respond, but it did blink.
I smacked the letter face down on the table. “Now you’ve got nothing to look at except this table. How about that?” I muttered. Then I went about my day, trying to put the whole ordeal out of my mind, telling myself I had only imagined it, that I was just groggy and seeing things.
My co-worker rambled on while we stood in the back, working our line stations, preparing the food as it came through for our meger little restaurant. He did this--his rambling-- non-stop, every shift.
“I’m just saying,” he began, waving around his tools as he spoke, “think about it. If we, as human beings, never had to sleep, wouldn’t that be incredible? I get that sleep is like, mentally beneficial too, but I think I’d be fine. I could handle it. I know I could. Think of all the stuff you could get done with all that time.” The orders kept coming through, but we’d done these tasks over and over countless times. We could zone out and work on auto-pilot by now no problem.
“You know what I’d do?” he continued. “I’d catch up on all the entertainment I’ve been putting off. Lotta good TV shows and movies out there I’ve been sleeping on. It’s hard to keep up with it all. Know what I mean?”
More orders came through. The head chef yelled some orders. My coworker and I continued chopping and prepping vegetables.
“Anyway, what would you do? You know, if we never had to sleep. You got anything you’ve been ignoring? Anything you’ve been putting off?”
His words were only partially reaching me, like some far-off transmission that was coming through crackling and broken.
“Hey--did you get any of that?” He waved a hand (which held a prep knife) back and forth, trying to get my attention.
I snapped out of it and looked up. “Did I what?”
My coworker laughed one firm syllable of laughter that sounded like half joy, half coughing up a rock, and shook his head. “You didn’t get a single word I said, did you?”
“Of course I did. You were saying…”
He held up a hand. “Save it. I’m just bullshitting anyway, trying to pass time. Are you alright, though? You seem kind of out of it.”
I was thinking of that man appearing at night to deliver letters, thinking of the letter with the mysterious seal, thinking whether it blinked at me or if I’d imagined it, thinking of which would be worse if one of those had to be true, thinking of...
“I’m not out of it. I’m--I’m totally in it. Just tired.”
“Totally in it. Sure.”
After a month, I had a box full of letters all delivered by the same postman at night. He had continued to appear every few nights, leaving more and more letters each time, all bearing the same seal with the eye in front of the moon. I heard the grating metal creak of the mailbox every time he appeared. I still hadn’t opened a single one, but I also couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. I’m not sure why. Perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed they’d just find their way back anyway.
One night I decided to approach the issue directly. The buildup of letters, the creaking mailbox every few nights, the seals all wanting to stare at me, it all became too much to ignore any longer. I stayed up and sat on the porch with the light on, sipping a mug of coffee and waiting.
The night was cloudy and cold. Crunchy leaves skitted down the street in the wind. The branches of trees bobbed up and down like waves. A crescent moon hung in the sky, partially obscured by puffs of cloud.
What am I doing? I began to wonder after some time had passed. I’m out here freezing, waiting for some stranger in the night to appear so I can do what, exactly? What if they never show up, and I waste all this time waiting around? I feel like a fool, sitting here in the middle of the night in the cold. What’s the point?
As these thoughts came flooding to my mind, something happened: the streetlights, one by one flickered out, like a wave of darkness sweeping down my street. The cloudy sky offered little visibility. It was now just me and my little porch light in a sea of black.
A glob of shadow stepped into view at the end of the street. It didn’t look like anything in particular at first, but took the form of a man the closer it got, passing under the now-dark streetlights. It reached the end of my driveway, and when the glob of shadow had reached my porch, it became the postman from before. He wore the same uniform and cap (which I now saw had the same seal as the letters on it), and had his satchel of letters slung over his back. He trudged slowly as if he was an old, crude machine running on fumes.
“I knew you’d show up eventually,” I said.
The glum, exhausted-looking postman grumbled a low noise, not quite a laugh. He said, “Is that right.” It was a deep, flat statement, barely a question. Then he reached into his bag and removed a stack of letters.
“Guess I don’t need to use the mailbox, since you’re right here,” he said. He took one step up without actually stepping onto the porch and held out the stack of letters for me to take.
I sat there without saying anything. The man lowered his arm and stood at the base of the porch, giving me a look that said are you really going to keep me waiting?”
“Who are you?” I finally said.
The man groaned and rubbed his forehead. “I don’t got time for all this,” he said. “You’re not my only stop, you know.” The man took a thermos from his side, emptying the last few droplets of its contents. He tipped it upside down, saw that nothing came out, and said, “Just great,” under his breath.
I stood up. “If I invite you in, will you answer some questions for me? I’ll give you a refill for your troubles.”
The postman walked past me, opening the door himself and leading the way in.
“Better make it quick,” he said.
The man guzzled his piping hot thermos without pause as we sat inside. He took a loveseat in the corner. I sat on a couch in front of a coffee table. The man finished his entire scalding drink in seconds and let out a long sigh as he lounged back in his chair. He looked as if this was the most comfortable he’d been in a lifetime.
“Hot as hell and black as death. Just the way I like it,” he said. “I’ll take another.”
Is this really such a good idea? I wondered as I got up to refill his thermos. Here I am with this odd stranger of the night in my house, sipping drinks and acting like this is completely normal. This could go south very quickly.
As soon as I had refilled his thermos again, he slugged down a good chunk of it in one go. “Traveling at night, the way I do--it takes a lot of energy. Gotta stay fueled up,” he said. His eyes still rested above layers of exhausted shadow, his cheeks still drooping like raindrops running down glass, but this had at least perked him up a tiny degree.
“Listen,” I said. “I know you’re not…”
“Like you? Yeah, you’re not wrong. Guess delivering mail in the middle of the night was a dead give away, huh? I’m somethin’ else.”
“Then what are you? Who are you? Why are you delivering these strange letters to me in the middle of the night?”
“Me? I’m just doing a job. Some things can only be delivered at night, so it falls on me to make sure they reach their owner. Even you should be able to understand that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said defensively.
The man took a long sip from his thermos and exhaled a loud, tired sigh once more. “Maybe you oughta actually read one of those letters. Ever think of that?”
“How do you know I haven’t?”
“I’d know,” he said instantly, not missing a beat, staring right at me without blinking. “I’d know if one of the seals cracked. Just one of the things I can do. I tried getting your attention with them--see if you’d notice they aren’t just your usual junk mail you can ignore. But right now, all those eyes on the seal are seeing is black. Can’t see nothin’ at all, which makes me think you’ve stashed them away in a box somewhere.” Another long sip, and then, “Am I wrong?”
I paused before answering. A long, icy pause. “These didn’t seem like the type of letters that I’d look forward to reading.”
The man chuckled a cynic’s laugh.“‘Course not. But what are you gonna do? Let them stack up to the heavens? Let their numbers grow until you can’t count them anymore? You can throw them in a box and stuff the box in a corner, but it’ll still be there.” As he was speaking, his face changed.
“Ignoring them don’t make them disappear,” he said through voices and mouths and rows of broken teeth and empty eyes.
“They’re still gonna be there each day you wake up.” Two horns, one chipped in half, burst through his cap.
“They can’t just rest in a box, like a pile of junk. So you gotta do something about it.” Wings that covered the walls and windows like ripped, black curtains sprouted from his back. The room--the house--shrunk, as if it was a single small room with just this thing and I.
“Then what--what do I do?” I asked earnestly.
“Well, open one up for starters,” he said plainly. The man was back to normal. He adjusted in the chair as if it’d suddenly grown uncomfortable, then rested easily again. “Then, you gotta write it back. You can use the same envelope it came in. The seal will reseal itself. Don’t even gotta write nothin’ on the envelope. No need for a stamp. Just leave it in the mailbox at night and I’ll take it where it oughta go. Even you can handle that much, right?”
I leaned back on the couch, sighing in relief that this strange man, and the room, had gone back to normal. I stared up at the ceiling, letting my mind catch up for a moment. “I don’t know whether you’re...good, or bad, or what,” out loud, unsure whether I was asking him personally or just letting my thoughts slip out.
“I’m not nothin’. Don’t know anything about that stuff. I’m just doing a job, remember? What you do is none of my business. All I gotta do is get the letters here. After that, it’s on you. I’m just telling you what to do with those letters, if you so choose, since you haven’t figured out yet that you actually have to open the things. Now, refill me for the road.”
I did as he asked and saw him out. The postman stood up slowly, like a pile of bones trying to come back to life, and trudged out the door. He glugged down a huge portion of blazing coffee, exhaling a cloudy breath visible in the night. “Still got a lot of stops left tonight,” he grumbled. “But this oughta get me pretty far.” He lifted the thermos like he was toasting--probably the closest thing to “thanks” I’d get out of him--then stepped out of the porch light and into the dark, reverting back to a glob of shadow as he did so before disappearing completely, as if he were never here at all.
I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep just yet, so I went upstairs and took out the box of letters. I picked one at random, and opened the seal.