The chest of a thousand drawers lived for years in a shadowy alcove between my grandparents’ kitchen and their downstairs hall. Actually, it didn’t have a thousand drawers, but since I never actually counted the number of drawers, and since the contents always seemed so mysterious to me, it may as well have been a thousand.
The chest was not very tall. It came up to my shoulders as an 11-year-old, was made of some kind of grayish metal with silver handles and little silver-edged boxes and on the front of each drawer that was clearly designed to hold some sort of label to describe the contents of the drawer. None of the squares had any labels. It was wedged under a shelf that had originally been designed to hold one of those old telephones with the mouthpiece on a stand and the earpiece you would hold up to your ear, but which now held a jumble of photo albums and old phone books.
I could and sometimes did spend hours rummaging through those many drawers and their intriguing, though sometimes unidentifiable contents, which seemed almost fluid in that I rarely found the same thing in the same drawer twice. And sometimes it seemed as if the entire contents of the chest had been replaced overnight.
In those drawers, over the years I found an ever-changing assortment of everyday items including (but not limited to); nails, screws, safety pins, bits of sandpaper, magnets, scraps of paper, some with writing on them, some blank and no two pieces the same, stubs of pencils, leaky batteries, hairpins, naked crayon pieces, knotted shoelaces, unopened packets of alcohol swabs, foam curlers, rusty screwdrivers of various sizes, paint brushes, yellowed index cards, the pieces of what must once have been a transistor radio, tassels from the living room draperies, an unopened packet of toothpicks still in its cellophane wrapping, random partially burned birthday candles, long expired coupons, a good number of buttons booth lose and still attached to papers, half used packets of garden seeds, stickers and petrified Christmas hard candies still wrapped in plastic.
Then there were the more unusual items that would seem to randomly turn up.
There was a tiny metal cylinder that moo’d like a cow when it was turned over. This had obviously belonged to some sort of toy and I felt a weird sort of guilt as I turned it over and over, wondering what toy was wandering around without its sound box, mute and unable to communicate with the world. This of all the items seemed always to be in the chest, though always in a different drawer.
Once I found a drawer full of random doll limbs and glass eyes that creeped me out so badly, I didn’t open the chest again for several weeks.
There was one day I discovered a stack of letters written on onion-thin paper and tied up with a faded green ribbon that was knotted so tight I never was able to get the knots open enough to free the letters, which I ended up putting back in the drawer unread.
Once I found a drawer full of leather scraps. The scraps were butter soft and hypnotic to the touch. I kept finding them (though in different drawers) for almost two whole weeks, and then they were gone. I opened every drawer in the cabinet three times that day looking for those amazing leather scraps. When I asked my grandfather about them, he claimed he’d never seen them. When I asked my grandmother, she just shrugged and said she wouldn’t be surprised at anything I found there.
When asked where the chest had come from, both of my grandparents gave the same sort of vague answers “oh we just picked it up somewhere” or “we’ve had that for years.” When I asked my mom about it, she shrugged and said that it had always been there when she was growing up. When I asked her if she remembered the contents changing, she said “well of course they change, people put things in and take things out. That’s what drawers are for.” When I tried to expound on what I meant, that the contents didn’t just change, like the normal contents of drawers, but sometimes seemed to change from day to day or from hour to hour, she got concerned and asked me if I was feeling okay. I never mentioned the drawers to her again.
My aunt found me rummaging one day and laughed when I told her about not being able to find the leather pieces. “That thing ate my paintbrushes once” she said, laughing. “I put them in the top drawer on the left-hand side, and when I went back the next day they were gone. Let me know if you find them, will you?”
“Did grandma take them maybe?”
“She claims she didn’t touch them. But someone did.”
“Maybe the chest did eat them!”
“Maybe it did at that.”
In spite of the possibility of its actually eating the things put into the drawers, I was never afraid of the chest. To my 11-year-old brain, the idea that it was somehow alive in some way seemed a better explanation than just the idea of regular people putting things in and taking things out, and though I was intrigued by it, I never put anything of my own in it, just in case.
I don’t know what happened to the chest of a thousand drawers. After my grandfather died and my grandmother, mom and I moved to a smaller house, I never saw it again. I have to assume that it had served its purpose in our family and had now ‘moved on’ to another home where some other 11-year-old is rummaging through its drawers, their curiosity sparking over items they have no name for and coming up with stories to tell themselves about the piles of old letters and odd bits of partially carved wood.