by Chris Harris
part 1 of 3
The box had been in the family for generations. Nobody knew exactly how many years that may have been, but it was recorded in an old diary belonging to my great grandmother.
I often spent time reading her diary, and found her words and imaginings closely in tune with my own. To read of her life and times in the days when this house stood at the edge of a rural village, filled me with longings for those simpler and quieter times.
Staring at the page that recalled the box, I mouthed the words she’d written from memory, rather than actually reading them. She said, “Today I’ll spend with the box. Everybody’s out and I’ll dream a little, and travel perhaps.”
The diary, written for the complete year of 1894, lay open at the twenty-first of May, and although I’d read every word within its covers, I could find no other reference to the box.
How strange and enchanting were the words she’d used. Why there were no further descriptions of her encounters with it, I could only guess at. One reference however, two months later asked, “What would it have me do?” But whether this “it” referred to the box or not, isn’t clear.
As a child, my mother would say to me that if I behaved, the box would bring me presents. When no such gifts arrived, I’d be told that it was because of this or that naughty boy I had supposedly been. In fact the box had never treated me at all until I became a teenager.
That it was a box was not in doubt, but the hinges and clasps of its lid, although free from corrosion, refused to operate. Nobody, it seemed, had ever been able to open the box.
There it sat now. It had occupied the central position on the window chest for all eternity, or at least that’s how it seemed. I’d moved it once as a child and suffered not only a disproportionate spanking from my mother, but also a summer fever close to death, I’m told.
It bore some odd markings on both sides. The wood had been carved away to form very precise and script-like curves, inside of which a bronze-coloured metal had been deposited. What language the shapes represented, if it was a language, has remained a mystery.
Some years ago, a visiting friend knowledgeable in antiques, thought that it could date from well before the Civil War. He added however, that as a one-off, his judgment of such artifacts was a little doubtful.
The lid of the box gave a picture of a children’s playgound. In the foreground of this view however, was an image infinitely more sinister than the overall effect. Upon a seesaw sat two figures. To the left, a dunce complete with hat, and to the right, a classroom swot with books and spectacles.
Upon the hat of the dunce were arithmetical formulae, whilst the hand of the swot concealed a simple crayon drawing. The dunce, although portly, soared high, and so grounded, though of meagre dimensions, remained the swot.
No illustrations or markings adorned the rear face, but the front contained an ever-changing pattern. One day to the next would leave a vastly different impression on the viewer. At first glance, the front of the box appeared as blank as the back. Closer inspection would reveal the lines, dents and scorings of perhaps two hundred years in this house.
Then the marks would change shape. You could blink to erase the imagined symmetry, but there it was again. Why it couldn’t be seen a moment ago eluded all those who’d experienced the effect.
A whole picture would emerge before your very eyes. More staggering still was discovering that as the eye moved to a different point, so too did the image progress to a new point in an unfolding story. It was not a motion picture as such, but more like the turning of pages.
Many times, fearful that the stories were an invention of my own perhaps unstable mind, I’d break off mid-session. I’d even go outside to further undo the spell, before returning once more to gaze at the box. Again the blankness would give way to score marks, and then to moving shapes of the same or another adventure.
I can’t recall if the underside bore any marks, and was reluctant to investigate, as that would amount to having to move it. I supposed movement must occur during cleaning, but when this chore fell to me, I certainly would not risk the manoeuver.
My parents never spoke openly about its alleged powers; in fact nobody had ever really done so. It was not uncommon though, for me to find one or another of the family staring into its depths. Upon such an intrusion, all those discovered would feign indifference to their true intentions, by diverting their eyes to the view out of the window beyond.
I wished we could talk more of the mystery. As a youngster I’d tried many times to bring the subject up, but any mention of the box was glossed over with such a rapid changing of subjects that I soon accepted that its users preferred it to remain a personal experience.
The way I dealt with the non-communication around this taboo subject was to record my encounters and feelings in a diary. From the start I vowed not to tease those who might read my journal, and therefore gave the fullest descriptions to all my entries, paying particular attention to the subject that my grandmother had so scantily described.
The room housing the object had, itself, an air of wonder about it. Whenever I would enter this room, my spirits were in some way lifted. The sensation was similar to the feelings I’d known as a child when trying to sleep the night before a summer vacation.
Despite the sanctity and warmth of the room, my family had never used it as a living room. All guests were entertained in another room, which adjoined the kitchen and overlooked the garden. This other family room, although much harsher in ambience and homeliness, has served us well, it seems, in the keeping of our secret.
The name that had always been used to describe our special room was the ‘sitting room’. The quaint old phrase had surely never been so literally applied as in this household.
As a teller of stories, the box reigned supreme. Although its subject matter might overlap, it never ran repeats and was never boring. It seemed to vary its style and method to suit the needs and preferences of each viewer.
There was no lighthearted content, each episode taking the form of parables containing deeply profound images and teachings. In its presence, I often felt I’d been the recipient of a sermon or lecture. It was very much a teacher-pupil relationship.
An interactive guide to greater understanding, the user would often, if having misunderstood the plot, feel a sense of frustration as the box sought to clarify the point. Later, if one regained the thread, tensions would ease and the pace of the narrative accelerate in apparent joy.
Today, gazing into its emptiness, I felt unusually foolish. Minutes passed, revealing nothing at all. Even the dents and scars of its aging were absent. Time seemed to stand still, with even the tick of our old clock labouring over each moment.
Slowly, the shapes at last began to appear. Perhaps the box was uncertain which subjects might best suit me today. It could even be that my education might benefit most, with silence and reflection; qualities often promoted within the tales.
The unfolding pictures revealed a young man looking at a small box. The young man was in a room identical to this one, and the young man was clearly myself. The picture on the box observed by myself, contained a picture of a boy also looking at a box.
Within the picture observed by myself as a boy, lay an image of my mother as a girl studying a picture of her mother as a young woman and so on. I became less of an observer and more like a participant in each picture.
Travelling backwards through the years, I could see the changing image beyond the box in the street outside. Gone now were the shining cars and the bustle of pedestrians. The whole main route through town had returned to its former frontier days.
Onwards I progressed, and to a point where even the space occupied by the old forge house across the way became an open prairie once more. Around me, the house itself appeared at first under construction, and then gone.
Next came the fleeting scenes from a canvas-covered wagon, as with others it bounced and jerked along a forgotten virgin trail. I felt the dryness of the air and dust, which thrown aloft by the wheels of the cart, clogged in my throat.
Darkness followed the image of the trail. Not a sound or single ray of light could invade the times before the construction of the box. It had not yet been born, and so its record of times before its beginnings ended there.
Though in darkness and silence, there remained a sensation of movement or some progression at least. With the exception of an occasional sourceless noise, the void through which I traveled yielded no information about itself.
After a lapse in time that felt both instantaneous and forever, a pale white luminescence began to form around me. Within the half-light, familiar shapes and positions of objects developed; I was back in the sitting room.
Through the window I could see an unfamiliar main street, upon which a continuous monorail passed by. Where the old forge should be, stood a metallic green-coloured building. All the shops had gone, replaced by similarly metallic-looking structures, whilst the street itself supported such a mass of humanity that I thought it might soon solidify.
The clothes upon the people, the transport systems and the futuristic buildings, must mean that I’d come full circle. This scene, surely was the view from the sitting room as it would become in generations after myself.
In that moment, as I studied the pictures on the box, my journey resumed. The feelings of the current viewer faded, and I became the young man in the picture, forty years the junior of the former viewer.
Through the window, the main street, although still vastly altered from my life’s recollections, did have some familiar sights. The old oak tree, a feature of the Town Square for centuries, had returned. Further in the distance I could see the twin towers of the local radio station transmitter.
On the ever-changing face of the box was a girl. I became that girl and sensed the buoyancy of her adolescence, as the furnishings within the room began to remind me of my own. Upon the box was another girl, looking at a picture of a man who in turn looked upon an older man that I knew to be myself. As I entered my room, the gaze upon the picture gave a deeply warming sense of oneness with the occupant, much greater than with the others; I was home.
And so the magic bubble of this particular tale ended. Our old clock gave the elapsed time as just one minute; it seemed incredible. Whether this was daydreaming or a reality was never clear, perhaps the two states were in fact one and the same condition.
I couldn’t imagine any drug as being so addictive as the device before me. A complete feeling of euphoria often accompanied the moments after such a tale. One felt enormously uplifted and enlightened in some way, but the subtle details and specific teachings, I could never itemize or fully recall.
Once again my eyes were drawn to the box. This time the scenes upon its face were instantaneous and of a more urgent and busy nature than before. It was a birthday party, a celebration, but with nobody there.
There were balloons along with cakes and wine for the adults. There was laughter, joy and expectation; but where were the people? Around and around I danced and laughed as we sang or teased her tender years. Friends joined us now in greater numbers, as we ran to hide or seek.
Copyright © 2006 by Chris Harris