He was a tenant who wrought havoc in his landlords' abodes--but always a havoc so subtle, and so subtly disconcerting, that it took them some time to discover. When they did discover it, they were changed for a while--jarred, rearranged--but after some time, they reverted to their old selves.
In one house, he laid the dried body of a dead scorpion in the middle of the guest bed. Because it was on the bottom sheet, and the bed was carefully made, the scorpion wasn't discovered until the first guest came to visit, several months after the tenant's departure. Housewide uproar briefly occurred, followed by long discussions over meals. It could have been the tenant--it must have been the tenant--but the tenant had seemed an exemplary fellow. Perhaps it was a guest of the tenant's who had left behind this nasty token, unbeknownst to the tenant himself, who would have been shocked to discover it. No, it could not have been the tenant--remember his sober manners when he came to view the house? Remember his eyeglasses and his carefully pressed shirt? It was some mischievous friend of the tenant, who wanted to tease him or get him in trouble. If the tenant knew...But they decided not to tell him. In fact, they weren't sure where to find him if they had decided to tell him.
In another house, he glued together select pages of a very few select books. This was noticed gradually, over a period of years. Indeed, the house's residents attributed the first book's gluings to a strange accident, and it wasn't until the third that they had to admit some other person had performed this “accident” in their house, during their absence. The act was subtly infuriating. It led to a period of discord between husband and wife, which led to the wife's having an affair, which led her ultimately back to her husband's arms. Peace was restored within a year, the affair having only ever been trivial, mainly platonic.
In a third house, emendations were discovered in address books inside desk drawers--again, emendations so subtle as to be deceptive. Here and there, one digit of a house number had been whitened out and rewritten. Perhaps it was the houseowners themselves who had made these changes or corrections at some point in the past. Impossible to be certain. But odd, especially when the "new" addresses turned out to be incorrect. Letters came back, and phone calls had to be made to establish the correct addresses of old friends, who were subtly annoyed by these calls.
In yet another house, the tenant made holes in the guest bedroom walls at regular intervals--tiny holes, the size of a needle prick. Again, it was a long time before the damage was noted, since no guest, by the time of arrival at breakfast, remembered having noticed the holes as she lay daydreaming in bed in the morning. When the homeowners, having chosen one day to make love in the guest bedroom, postcoitally gazing around the room, suddenly noticed the tiny holes, they wondered, "Termites?" If so, then why in this room only? What were these holes? Each member of the couple was afflicted by a deep, private distress. It seemed to them that the tiny holes were the nearly-invisible but nonetheless present lacunae in their love for one another, or in their sanity, or in the careful order of the life they had established in the house that belonged to both of them and which they cherished. Those holes, on close examination, had the potential to grow until their lives were flooded by doubt and their tiny, separate bodies were carried off on the raging waters, flailing, lost, crying each other's names in vain. Better not to think about the holes, to leave well enough alone, and not to make love in the guest bedroom again, ever.
Meanwhile, the tenant had run out of housesitting and rental engagements. He had only his own apartment, where he sat for hours each day with his head in his hands. He had derived satisfaction from his small havocs in other people's homes; in his mind, they suggested the sign of an Author, an interfering presence, and must be reassuring to the people whose lives they affected. No one, after all, wants to be completely alone. We need to think there are forces beyond ourselves that make marks in our lives. Or the tenant needed to think this, and assumed his mischief was a boon to others. He wished there was someone who would stir up some trouble in his life, leave a sign of having passed through, a token of possible return.
The tenant was at a loss. He drove out of town one day, and went into some woods with a bottle of sleeping pills, a can of kerosene, and a lighter. After he'd taken all the pills, just as he felt the sleepiness come over him, he doused himself and lit a small flame. The small flame became a big flame, a torch, but no one saw it, for he'd gone far into the woods, off the paths, on a weekday when most people were at work. We can only imagine the pain he felt, how it must have seared through the grogginess of the pills. But this was what he had always wanted--a torpor followed by a searing.
As it happened, a big snow fell that night and buried the tenant's smoking remains. A forest ranger found them the following spring. The tenant had been quite alone in the world; all his relatives were either deceased or estranged, and no one had tried to find him for weeks after he'd disappeared. The forest ranger, however, had nightmares for weeks after. After a few months, he left his wife to join the woman he loved and the child he had fathered with her. For a long time, he could not enter a forest. One day, however, a cardinal trilled outside his window. He wrote his former wife an apologetic letter, and he went to work for a local nursery. He loved the plants he tended there. At night after work, he went around touching their leaves, bending over them to sniff their separate scents. At home, over dinner, he would try to describe the scents to his wife and daughter, but as is well known, words for smells do not exist. At night, falling asleep beside his wife's breathing body, perfect phrases would present themselves, but by morning, they had vanished into air.
Suffice it to say that my husband and I returned from an absence to find our tan-and-green house subtly altered.