The Old Man Who Registers All The Lost Things

Whenever Judith lost something, she always believed that there was a place where all her lost things went to, like a dead letter office for the things she misplaced – a dead thing office, so to speak. There had to be magic involved, she thought, for when single socks disappear out of the washing machine drum, there had to be something odd there.

Judith had lost many things in her life. Most of the time, she didn´t even notice she had lost them. Some other time, she just forget about them. But sometimes, she remembered clearly that she had lost certain things and she spent a lot of time trying to recover them – and failed.

Of all the things Judith had lost, there where some she mourned. The red scarf she wore on her first date with Jeremy. When they broke up after only three years together, Judith bought a box and put all things in it that reminded her of Jeremy. And while she was remembering the good three years they had had, she remembered the red scarf she had worn on their first date and she started to search the apartment for it. It wasn´t in her closet, it wasn´t in the hamper, it was nowhere in the bedroom, not even in the underbed storage boxes. It wasn´t in the hallway where she hung her coats and jackets, nor anywhere else where people normally put scarfs. Soon she realized that it must have gotten lost some time, but she couldn´t even remember when she had seen the scarf last. She had worn it often, because it reminded her of the first date. She wouldn´t have given it away, wouldn´t have allowed anyone to borrow it. She had kept it in a drawer in her closet with all the other scarves and neckties and even though the other scarves and neckties where still there, the red scarf was lost.

Judith often lost her keys. She was not particularly fond of them, seeing that she only needed them to open and lock the door to her apartment, but whenever she stood in front of the locked door, laden with grocery bags, and she is rummaging in her purse to find the keys which unfortunately manage to remain undetected, Judith often found herself thinking that she should pay more attention to the little things in her life such as her keys. She vows to put them into the inside pocket of her purse, the one you can zip shut so that the keys can´t fall out, but once she´s in the apartment and has managed to put all the grocery bags down on the counter, she forgets about the keys again.

In her life, Judith has lost more than a thousand things. Little things like paperclips, little to-do notes, hair pins and hair ties, handkerchiefs, jewelery, especially earrings, carelessly left behind in lovers´ beds, lip balm, pens and pencils, and even bigger things like items of clothing such as her red scarf or the blue dress with the little yellow flowers on it that she had last worn to a pool party, books, she once lost her cell phone and twice the wallet; and other things simply disappeared such as single socks, her keys, pictures, sun glasses, the fan she had bought in Rome, the Christmas decoration she thought she had stores in a box in the cellar, purses and bags, even a pot from the kitchen that went missing one day while its corresponding lid remained sitting on the shelf.

Over time, Judith grew aggravated with the way how things simply seemed to have a life of their own. She feared that one day all her things might leave her, but she never talked to anyone about it, because her friends would quickly understand her obsession with lost things as a projection of the loss she had suffered when Jeremy had left her. To fill the emptiness he had left behind, she now focused on the things that were still there, dreading them to disappear as well.

Fearing the confrontation with the Jeremy chapter of her life, Judith never mentioned her fixation on lost things, but to be certain that everything was still there, she reorganized her household completely. All items were now laid out and in plain sight, all her socks lined up nice and neat, color coordinated, all the other items of clothes piled and sorted in the same way, all the cabinet doors removed so that she could see the pots and pans, the plates and cups, the cutlery and glasses, even the paper clips lined up nice and neat, filling row after row, covering her desk so that it was impossible for her to work there, yet she could be certain that none of the paperclips had gone missing.

Judith started to count things. Nine candles, one lamp on either side of the sofa, two chairs in the kitchen, one table, forty-seven books on the shelf in her bedroom, another two hundred and twelve in the living room, fifteen pair of socks, eight pair of jeans, the shirts, the sweaters, the panties, the tights, the circles on the carpet next to her bed. Judith even counted the cotton swabs in the bathroom, one of the many items she had to count every day, because she used them every morning and the number decreased with every day.

Judith got worried when she started to count the hair pins she kept in a little box in the bathroom and learned that she must have lost one. She never wore her hair pinned up after that, because she feared she might lose yet another hair pin. She searched the apartment, found a two-cent coin behind the radiator, but the hair pin she couldn´t find.

Her friends got worried when Judith quit her job and stayed at home, not paying her rent or any bills, when she didn´t even answered the phone or opened the door anymore. Some left and it is good that Judith never opened the door, because she wouldn´t have known how to deal with friends leaving her along with all the other things.

She didn´t know how it happened, but things kept disappearing, no matter how much she counted them, laid them out or checked and rechecked. Now panties went missing in the washing machine, so Judith didn´t do her laundry anymore. She put things on and then put the dirty laundry right back where she had taken it from. Once a paperclip flew off her desk when she opened the window to air her apartment. She couldn´t retrieve it, and the window was never opened again.

Pedantically and meticulously, Judith now started a list of all her things and it took her two days to register them all, starting with the big things, like the furniture, and ending with the small ones such as ersatz buttons, screws and even the cracks in the parquet floor. They belonged to her, to her alone and they would never leave.

But leave they did. One after the other.

Until one day, the police forcefully opened the door to her apartment and had her taken away from all that belonged to her, all her things, now lost without her.

Judith woke in a white room, clutching the list of all her things close to her heart, reading it over and over again, drawing reassuring comfort from the fact that she knew what belonged to her and that she had never lost track of all that was hers. People came to talk to her, people in white gowns, glasses sitting on the edge of their noses, about to fall off, but when Judith tried to save the glasses from dropping, they didn´t react the way normal people would, they weren´t grateful and thanked her, but they called security and soon after had her deported to another facility, where she was to stay in a room all by herself and no man or woman in a white gown ever came to talk to her again.

Judith didn´t mind. For once, she found peace of mind in the tidy room they had put her in, in the little number of things that were now assigned to her, hers for the duration of her stay. Judith started a new list, put it right next to the one she had taken with her from her apartment, and it was considerably shorter. One bed, one mattress, one sheet, one blanket, one pillow, one table, one chair, one pencil, two sheets of paper. No curtain, not carpet, but two large stains on the linoleum floor, one door, one window overlooking the garden long untended to.

Judith was certain that she was safe now, that her possessions wouldn´t be able to simply disappear anymore, for where would they go? With the little number of things she called her own, nothing could simply vanish into thin air, especially not unnoticed.

Yet the things did seem to have a mind of their own. Once, the chair moved. She didn´t see it moving, but when she woke after a night of weird dreams, the chair faced her and she was certain she hadn´t put it that way.

The tray of food appeared and disappeared without her knowing how it happened, and even though she tried to stay awake and see how it happened, she always fell asleep. She slept most of the time and the tray appeared and disappeared and Judith grew tense and edgy.

Once she woke from the weirdest dream she had ever had and saw a man standing near her desk. He watched her as she slowly descended from the land of dreams and came back to reality, yet when Judith woke completely and sat up, her feet now touching the cold floor, she wasn´t all that certain she was actually awake.

The man was small in height and old in age. He wore glasses, but still Judith felt his blue eyes watching her attentively. He was bald, but his bushy eyebrows were all white and Judith wondered just how old he really was. He wore a white tunic with a light brown belt around his waist. From the belt hung a large set of keys with so many keys that Judith felt the immediate urge to count and register them. When this thought entered her mind, the man raised his eyebrows in astonishment. The thought faded away.

“Well, Judith”, he said, “It is a pleasure meeting you at last, my dear.”

His voice sounded rough and old and when he spoke, he wheezed loudly. Again, Judith wondered how old he was. She scanned his face and soon thought that if she counted the number of wrinkles on his face, the number would tell her his real age. He raised his eyebrows again, and like before, the thought disappeared.

“I have been watching you for a long time now”, he said quietly, his breath rattling in his throat. “It seems you have been trying to find All The Lost Things.”

Judith didn´t know what to say. For a moment, she was sure she would not be able to say anything, because it felt like she was still dreaming and in her dreams she rarely ever spoke. She just counted.

The old man kept watching her, then he nodded and pulled the chair over to him. He turned it so that it was now facing Judith, and he sat down.

“Most people stop looking for All The Lost Things eventually. Why didn´t you?”

Judith thought about it for a while. She knew that she had been obsessed with lost things and she wondered why she hadn´t been able to let them go; why she had tried to hold on to them with all her might and why it had been so hard on her that some things still went missing. Slowly, the tense feeling crawled over her body. She thought about the food tray appearing and disappearing and the chair that had been moved. And she felt very uncomfortable. She wanted answers. She wanted to know where the lost things went to when they left and why it was so hard for her to accept that it was the natural order of things that some items just had to disappear.

“Where do the lost things go?” she asked and met the old man´s gaze.

He held her gaze for a moment and Judith felt the tension leaving her body. She wondered if he had something to do with the warmth that was now spreading inside of her, running through her veins like blood and warming her from the inside.

“I shall show you”, he said.

He got up, wheezing loudly as he got to his feet, and while Judith watched him attentively, wondering where he would take her, he suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

“No!”

Judith jumped to her feet and hurried over to where the old man had disappeared. She couldn´t see him, couldn´t feel him and she knew he had vanished like other lost things, because the warmth had left her body the second he had gone. Instead, icy agitation now wrapped around her and held her tight. She had problems breathing and she paced right on the spot where the old man had disappeared, while the world outside turned and soon it was dark night.

Now tense and somehow nervous, she walked up and down in the room, from the window to the door and back, and thought about the old man. Was he real? Had he actually been in the room? Standing there? Talking to her? What did he know about the lost things? Why had he called them All The Lost Things? Where there more lost things? And how is it that she had now lost a human being? Or wasn´t he human at all?

And then Judith thought about how single socks disappeared and she remembered the magic and she closed her eyes and tried to picture the place where the lost things washed up and, with her eyes closed, she took one step forward. She felt the atmosphere changing, felt that she had crossed a barrier into another world – real or not – and she opened her eyes again.

The old man was sitting at an old wooden desk, concentrating on the list he was working on, the tip of his quill scratching on the parchment. Yet when Judith started to walk toward him, he raised his head and watched her attentively.

“Ah, well, I thought you might have forgotten how to get here.”

“I have never been here before”, Judith said, frowning.

He put down the quill and pierced her with the look from his blue eyes.

“Well, well, if you say so”, he said and got to his feet, now agile and without the wheezing sound he had made back in her room.

As he came closer, Judith noticed that he seemed younger and healthier, even though he was still bald and his eyebrows were still white.

“Welcome to the place where All The Lost Things go to”, he said.

While he spoke the words, the room seemed to open up, as if someone had decided to take out the walls and it grew bigger and bigger and bigger, and Judith watched in astonishment, as rows and rows of shelves appeared before her eyes, filled with the oddest collection of thing. Amazed, Judith walked along the rows and watched the items sitting on the shelves and each seem to be telling her a story. She could hear them whisper to her, louder when she got closer, quieter when she moved away from them.

“Are all these things lost?”

“Lost or forgotten”, the old man´s voice answered from somewhere to her left.

She turned to meet him. He was two aisles over, deep in thoughts. In his hands, he held a red scarf. He ran the fabric through his fingers and Judith imagined feeling the texture on her skin. She knew it was her red scarf he was holding, and as she got closer, she saw other things she had lost or forgotten about. They were all there. Strangely enough though, Judith didn´t feel the need to take them off the shelf. For a while, she just watched the items closely, heard their whispered stories, listened to how they spoke of romance, loss, long hours in darkness, and the happy times in her life, heard them complain about being carried around in a purse all the time, finally learned where she had lost them and why she had forgotten about them, but she felt detached from her former self, the Judith that would have died to get all her things back. When she realized that she had no desire to collect her lost things, she took a step back.

The old man was watching her.

“You have brought me here on purpose”, Judith breathed, her voice barely louder than the soft whisper of all the things around them.

“I think you had to come back.”

Again, Judith frowned. “But I have never been here before. Have I?”

Instead of answering, the old man turned and walked down the aisle. Judith followed him.

“I think it would be wise for you to stay here. For a little while.”

“Do I have a choice?”

The old man giggled softly, a sound that seemed both heart-warming and strange to Judith. When he looked at her, she saw a glint in his eyes.

“You always had the choice, child.”

Both fell silent as they thought about the choices they had made. Judith then decided to stay. She knew she didn´t belong back in the white room and she had never felt more at home than in this hall with All The Lost Things.

For days, Judith roamed the aisles, listening in on the private documentation of all things lost and forgotten, heard fascinating stories, heartbreaking stories, stories that made her cry and those that made her laugh, and Judith learned to forget about the world outside. The old man stopped by every now and then and she told them about the things she had learned about all the items on the shelves. Soon, Judith felt more connected with the lost thing than with the story they told her, and the old man realized that it was time to tell Judith the truth.

He found her sitting in a brightly lit aisle, sitting on the floor, her head leaning to the side so that she could understand the lost thing´s whisper better. Softly, he put his hand down on her shoulder and beckoned her to follow him.

They walked along the aisles, contentedly and in silence. When the old man stopped, Judith wondered what he was about to show her. He pointed to the top shelf in front of him and Judith climbed on a step stool to see better. At first, she didn´t realize what she saw in front of her. To her, it seemed like an odd collection of lost things, very much alike the collections she had seen before, but then she recognized one item, a silver lighter. And all the other items were strangely familiar as well. She tried to remember who these things belonged to, but it was impossible for her to come up with a name or even a face. She focused harder, and noticed that she was began to sweat now, cold drops of perspiration started to appear on her forehead. The more she tried to remember the person she had once known, the more she felt like she was dissolving into thin air, like a fluttering thought you try to hold on to. Neither could she grab the thought, could she remember the person in question, nor did she manage to hold on to her self, and in front of the eyes of the old man, she vanished into thin air, her reflection caught in the shiny surface of the reading glasses Jeremy had worn before he had lost them. She looked back at the old man and saw a tear slowly rolling down his cheek, and she realized that she herself was a lost thing.

For more lost things, check out the short film The Lost Thing, based on the book by Shaun Tan.

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5 thoughts on “The Old Man Who Registers All The Lost Things

    1. excuse me, but let me just add: this story is brilliant!!
      (lost my favorite jacket and two of my best books this summer and I’m wondering now where they are and when and where I will ever see them again)!

  1. I can identify with this story. I receive signs and synchronicities every day. The names are familiar. I have forgotten who I am. I don’t belong here, but I can’t awaken. I realize there is something missing. I know I am accepting an illusion. There is no physical barrier separating from me from the truth. There is nothing but empty space. A wall would be much easier to surmount. Eventually a person can find a way around a wall or break through it. An illusion is much more deceptive and difficult to penetrate.

    Many years ago I read a story about a person from Canada who tried to hack the CIA’s public website. The writer was amused by this man’s feeble attempts access their system. He wrote that the hacker would never be able to gain access to the agency’s top secret network because there is nothing attached to the website. Apparently the website is (or was at that time) somehow disconnected from the Internet. I understood that one would only encounter a void in trying to crack it. The author explained that their website is nothing more than illusion. Of course, we know this agency exists. The US government has never denied its existence. However, knowledge of its operations are held in secret so that it may successfully carry out its mission.

    This CIA’s website is much like the nature of reality. The truth is hidden from us. It operates silently in the back drop of physical reality. Most of us are not aware of the truth. Occasionally people become “aware” of a greater truth. Yet we can’t see through the illusion that separates us from it. It’s very frustrating and unsettling.

  2. This story has kept me glued to the screen from start to finish … Excellent!
    The truth is I thought I’ll find an answer to my problem: right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten something before.– Any idea?

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