Saturday, December 18, 2010

A German Elf in My Fridge

Not an early morning person by genetic code, I often stay up into the wee hours of the night to read, write, listen to music, and sometimes just stare into the darkness. Of course military duty or work or family responsibilities on any given morning might prevent these late night moments of solitude and reflection. But if I can stay up, I often do, no matter what I might tell myself about “early to bed, early to rise” in the course of the day. Usually I set up my laptop on the dining room table and work away, my productivity depending in large part on whether I’m already tired or suffering from insomnia. More recently, a dislocated shoulder has kept me up at night, and the medication my doctor prescribed hasn’t helped either. I swear, it’s like eating caffeine tablets!

I confess that I’m not telling you about my late-night activities for the sake of conversation; rather, I’m merely establishing the context for a strange occurrence. I already realize that what I’m about to tell you will severely stretch the limits of your credulity, but I feel the need to get some things off my chest.  You see, four evenings ago, as I was listening to Chopin’s preludes and reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, I heard some jostling. At first I thought the cats were playing with each other in the living room and didn’t think too much of it. But the sound got louder and stronger. I turned off the music and set my book down. It was coming from the kitchen, I quickly determined. Suspecting it was some kind of rodent scurrying about in our cabinets, I procured a kitchen knife from the drawer. The sound of silverware clinking and clanging when I grabbed the knife must have stirred up whatever was making the sound, for the jostling—which in the meantime had become more like the sound of something sliding—had turned to banging. I knew then that the source of this sound had some intelligence, for its “behavior” altered when it picked up on my presence.

I realized that something was inside the fridge! With each bang on the door, I could hear the milk jugs shake and the drawers full of produce rattle. I just stood there, knife in hand, with a puzzled face, probably looking like a crazed maniac. The knocking was uncanny; it sounded like someone, not something, was inside there, wanting to get out. Would someone jump out at me once I opened the door? Couldn’t he get out? Why do I say he? How could someone fit inside there? Is this somehow a practical joke? A number of plots for a good horror flick went through my mind. Curiosity and fear swirled inside me until I finally opened the refrigerator door slowly.

I saw nothing unusual at first, so I opened the freezer too.  Was I going insane?  Utterly perplexed, I decided to search the contents of the fridge systematically, starting with the door. My eyes scanned a can of whip cream, Paul Newman’s blue eyes and congenial smile affixed to a jar of Alfredo sauce, a discarded margarita mix that has been sitting there for years, three half-eaten cookies inside a Ziploc bag, and various condiments. Now it was time to look through the main compartment of the fridge, starting with the top shelf: a pitcher of OJ, another Ziploc bag of half-eaten cookies, cottage cheese, yogurt, and….What the hell? Just as I spotted a red felt hat with bells attached, I heard a voice in German: “Was ist denn loss?” I yelped in terror and leaped backwards, bumping my head on the cabinet behind me. The German was so authoritative that a plastic bottle of French dressing seemed to cower in submission.

Once I recovered my senses, I gazed into the fridge with disbelief, venturing forth whatever German I could muster. I could see what appeared to be an elfin-looking creature with an alarmed look on its face. The obvious questions came to my mind: Who are you? What are you doing in my fridge?  Please put the knife down, he said.  “You’re scaring me.” I’m scaring him? WTF! I knew a little bit about German folklore, having lived in Bavaria for a couple of years while researching my dissertation on the German Reformation. “Are you by chance Knecht Ruprecht,” I asked, “the devilish helper of St. Nick who punishes naughty children and rewards good children?” He explained that the whole Knecht Ruprecht was a myth and that he was just an elf. Just an elf? I wondered.  What's that supposed to mean?  Besides, he added, he didn’t have a long beard like Ruprecht supposedly does.

His hometown, he went on, is in Schwaben, or Swabia in English, located in Southern Germany. When I asked him if elves can live in regular towns, amongst people, he looked at me in bewilderment. I don’t know if I offended him or if I was asking the stupidest question in the world. I should also add that the only thing that distinguished him as an elf was his high-pitched voice, his elfish cap, and the mere fact that he could fit into my fridge. Otherwise, he seemed like a relatively normal German fellow.

I never got a straight answer as to how he got inside my fridge. You’d think I would have pressed him on this issue, for it was the elephant in the room that needed explaining; yet, honestly, I started to enjoy our conversation and found the time slipping away. His story was fascinating, even if he was reluctant to answer some of my questions. Elves, he informed me, are decidedly not divine creatures, but they do in fact have magical powers. He would never specify what kind of power he possessed, however. He was the fifth born from a family of seventeen. His ancestors once lived in the northern forests of Germania; nowadays they live near cities and like anyone else want to raise their families and be left alone.

About a half hour into our conversation I inadvertently shut the fridge as I was turning toward a cupboard to fetch a glass. I wanted to eat some of those half-eaten cookies with some milk. Worried that he would take this action unkindly, I hurriedly opened the door, only to find that he had disappeared. “Elf?” I cried, but got no answer. Was he upset? I wanted very much to explain that it was an accident. I must have opened and shut that door countless times for the next hour, hoping the strange German elf would somehow reappear, but it was not to be.

I told my wife and children about the elf over breakfast the next morning. “Dad, you’re such a loon!” exclaimed my youngest daughter, Monika, as she was reaching for the strawberry jam. “I guess I didn’t hear the elf downstairs because the tooth fairy came into my room last night and started a ruckus.” I was disappointed that Monika didn’t believe me, but, then again, I have been known to embellish a tale. Heck, let’s face it: I’m hardly ever serious. Why should anyone believe me? Besides, talking to a German elf in my refrigerator admittedly is a tale hard to swallow. My wife and children blew me off and continued to talk about…the things they talk about. They didn’t even notice that I had the sniffles, due no doubt to spending a few hours next to an open refrigerator!

While at work I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had dreamt this whole thing. It seemed too real. Later in the night, as usual, I sat down in the living room with my novel after everyone went to bed. The knocking started again, at almost the same exact time as the night before. I opened the refrigerator and there he was again! He asked me how I’ve been. I thought his question rather strange, but I figured he just wanted to chew the fat. So I pulled up a chair from the dining room and took a seat in front of the open fridge. I never thought to ask him his name, for, again, I was sort of suspended between belief and disbelief during our nocturnal meetings and not mindful of the normal comments or questions one would make during chitchat. But on this second night he told me his name was Maximilian, or Max for short.

On the third night, I greeted Max with a hearty welcome and sharp set of ears, ready to enjoy another delicious conversation. I say conversation, but, really, I would just listen to his stories, most of them having to do with his family history or elf lore in general. Every now and then I would interject a question or otherwise try to get some clarification on a point he was making; sometimes I would request a bit more detail about a particular place he’d mention, say, or an elfin clan to which he’d make reference. His earlier reticence to divulge information—or so I had interpreted his nervous demeanor—had gone by the wayside. In retrospect, I think on that first meeting I somehow mistook his high-pitch voice and Swabian dialect for nervousness, and his seeming refusal to come out from behind the pickle jar and foil-wrapped ham gave me the wrong impression. He was perhaps more shy and less standoffish than even he would admit.

On this night he surprised me, pleasantly so, by discussing German literature. He explained to me where Goethe got the inspiration for his Gretchen in Faust, referring both to relevant facts in the writer’s biography as well as aspects of the Sturm und Drang movement.  Seeing that I was hanging on his every word (and perhaps overjoyed by the fact that he had found someone interested in literature and his take on things), he recited a poem by Rilke; though my knowledge of German is rudimentary, he impressed me with his intonation and inflexion.  I would have wept had I not become aware of how ridiculous it'd be for a grown man to cry into his refrigerator in the middle of the night.  I asked Max whether he liked elfin poets too.  I still laugh when I think about his response.  He smirked, shook his head sufficiently to make the bells on his little cap ring, and told me that human poets are far superior.

Sadly, not long thereafter, Max informed me that he would no longer appear in my fridge. He revealed to me that he had been cursed by a gnome for having offended him and his family. The elfin council had determined that three nights in temporary confinement should suffice to atone for his sin. “Why my fridge?” I asked. He didn’t have an answer. One last time, though, he regaled me with stories of elves, fairies, German novelists and, oddly enough, the Kulturkampf of the late 19th centurythe latter a particular treat. He even gave me his two cents on Germany’s sad history throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Sure enough, my little friend was nowhere to be seen tonight. One thing Max said made me feel good about our time together, however. If temporary banishment to my refrigerator was supposed to be penance for his act, he told me candidly, he couldn’t have wished for a better way to do his time than talk to me.  I miss Max.  For good measure, though, I stopped taking the medication the doctor prescribed for my shoulder.