by Katt Dunsmore
Bella Rosetti was the younger of two girls and her mother’s favorite child. Because she was her mother’s favorite, Bella was spoiled. Bella was accustomed to getting nearly everything she wanted, almost as soon as she asked for it... except for her grandmother’s box. Made from ornately carved rosewood, encrusted with jewels, the box was kept under lock and key in her mother’s bedroom closet.
All the girls knew about the box was that their grandmother had inherited it from her mother and it had traveled with her when she migrated from Venice, not long after she married their grandfather. Anything beyond that was lost in time. At least, Mother never gave them any other information.
Neither of the girls was ever allowed to touch it. In fact, one of the very few times Bella had ever been spanked had been for sneaking into her mother’s large, walk-in closet and playing with the jewels set into the top of the huge box.
“But Mummy, why can’t I play with the pretties? Won’t it be my box one day?” nine-year old Bella cried after her mother had swatted her bottom and shooed her from the closet, locking the door behind her.
“Bella, you just can’t play with the box. It’s forbidden and that’s that. It’s always been forbidden,” Mother said.
“Well, who said it was forbidden? Why is it forbidden?” Bella asked, in tears that she was being denied something.
“My grandmother told my mother, and she told me. Who told my grandmother, I can’t tell you; I don’t know. All I know is that it is to stay in the family and that it is never to be opened. That’s forbidden,”
She led Bella downstairs and out into the garden for tea, and the matter was dropped. Any time the girls were in their mother’s rooms after that, Bella noticed the closet door was kept carefully locked. If Bella asked about the box, as she did often while growing up, all her mother would say was, “No, Bella, the box is forbidden.”
Eventually, Bella stopped asking, confident that the box, and whatever great secret treasure it contained, would eventually be hers. Whenever she thought of the box over the years of her childhood, which was often, she would try to imagine what the box held. Visions of jewels, gold, or some other mysterious treasure danced through her head.
The year Bella turned twenty-three, while off on a cruise with some of her friends, her mother suddenly fell ill. Before Bella could make it home, her mother died. Bella made it through the funeral fine; head held high, eyes dry. Her older sister, Luna, on the other hand, lost all composure, bawling like a baby.
Bella held up just fine, right up until the reading of the will, when almost all of her mother’s things, her jewelry, her furs, her mansion, her antiques, and most of her money, came to Bella. The one thing Bella wanted, she didn’t get: the box. That went to Luna, along with a cash inheritance that seemed a pittance compared to what Bella had received.
As Mr. von Griffe, her mother’s solicitor, read the remaining small bequests to various employees, Bella and Luna both sat in stunned silence, Luna stunned at her unexpected good fortune, Bella stunned at the betrayal she felt. Mother knew how much I wanted that box. I can’t believe she gave it to Luna instead.
A few days after the reading of her mother’s will, Bella visited Luna in her humble home. She barely noticed Luna’s shabby furniture as she sat and made nice over the weak tea Luna served, biding her time through Luna’s nearly endless chatter about the orphanage where she taught.
Finally, Bella couldn’t stand it anymore, and abruptly brought the conversation around to Luna’s unexpected inheritance from their mother. “So, what’s in the box? You have opened it, yes? There’s no telling what Grandmother hid away in there,” Bella said as she sat her teacup down and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke at the ceiling.
Luna frowned at the cigarette smoke, pushed her glasses up on her nose, and looked at her sister. “I have no idea what’s in the box, Bell. Mr. von Griffe told me that the box is to never be opened. I couldn’t open it anyway. I don’t have the keys for the locks.”
“That’s easily enough fixed, Luna. We can have a locksmith come open the box. I’ll even pay for it so you can save your money,” the dig went unnoticed by Luna.
“No? What do you mean, ‘no?’ Luna, aren’t you the least little bit curious as to what’s in there?”
“Actually, I’m not curious at all. Mother told Mr. von Griffe that the box is never to be opened. He was very specific in his instructions.”
“Well, I’m curious, even if you’re not. Come on, Luna. Let me hire a locksmith to open the box, please?” Bella begged prettily, sure that her sister would give in.
“No.” Luna was unaffected by Bella’s endeavors. She was one of the few who could tell Bella no.
This made Bella even more determined to have the box, convinced that there was a true family treasure locked away inside and had been denied to her. Nothing had ever been denied Bella, so this was a new experience. She begged and pleaded with Luna, but Luna wouldn’t budge.
Bella then offered to buy the box from Luna. Finally, she raged at Luna, red-faced and crying, that Luna was denying her the family birthright. Luna remained cool under Bella’s abuse and refused to discuss the matter further. Luna was quietly and calmly adamant that Bella was not to have the box. It was hers, entrusted to her by their beloved mother.
“Fine, be that way then, Luna,” Bella snarled as she slammed out and went home.
That she did not have the box in her possession ate at Bella, sometimes waking her in the middle of the night. After weeks of trying to convince Luna to let her either have the box or at least have it opened, Bella could stand it no more and plotted to sneak into Luna’s home while she was away, and steal the box.
Bella spent a small fortune, using photographs to have a replica made by a craftsman in another city. It took weeks for the craftsman to get it just right. The carvings were so ornate that the craftsman had to actually start over twice. Bella waited impatiently, greed eating her up inside, imagining Luna secretly enjoying some great family treasure that should be hers, convinced she was suffering a great injustice at the hands of her sister.
Eventually, the replica of the box was ready. Bella waited for a night when Luna would not be home, and then, with a nameless man hired to do the carrying and paid for his silence, she hid in the shadows beside Luna’s little cottage and watched as Luna left for a fundraiser for the orphanage where she volunteered. Bella smirked, thinking Luna was wasting her time, as usual, on those poor, nasty brats.
Once Luna was gone, Bella went inside the house. The box was sitting in Luna’s cluttered office, supporting a stack of old books that had once belonged to their father. Bella had her hired man carefully replace the box with the replica, and she made sure everything appeared as it had when they’d arrived. She hurried back to the hired man’s van, intent on returning to her home to gloat over her great prize.
Once they had the box inside her house, she had the man take a crowbar to the locks, thinking nothing of ruining the ancient, heavy brass fittings. Finally, she would know what secrets the box held. Imagine her surprise when the locks fell away and, instead of a great family treasure with which her sister had been entrusted, the box was opened to reveal what at first glance seemed to be a great pile of filthy, wet rags.
A stray breeze wafted through the room, and the pile of rags twitched and began to swell, almost as though it were drawing in a long-denied breath. When the rags moved, the hired man dropped the crow bar and stepped back, away from the box. When the crowbar clanged to the ground, the pile of rags twitched again and shifted, beginning to take on a misty form that Bella’s shocked mind at first refused to credit.
Great misty wings opened and spread, becoming more solid, pushing back the hinged lid of the box. A large, taloned paw appeared and rested on the front edge of the box, then another, and then a sharp-beaked eagle’s head appeared. When the great beast had raised itself to its full height, it looked around, and then toward its rescuers with dully glowing red eyes.
“Mother of God,” the hired man croaked, backing away from the box and its impossible contents. The griffin turned its head toward the man, opened its beak, and let forth a loud raucous screech, its eyes glowing ever brighter. With another mind-numbing screech, it launched itself from the box and was on the hired man, digging its talons into his chest and taking his head into its beak. Bella was frozen with fear. Unable to move or turn her eyes away, she watched in horror while the griffin made short work of the nameless man, leaving what was left of him to look much like what the inside of the box had first appeared to be, except for the blood.
Then the griffin turned toward her. It stalked forward as if it knew her, talons clicking on the floor, scoring the ancient marble deeply with each step, its beak dripping blood as it approached. Bella stepped back. The great beast froze, then stretched its head closer, turning it first to one side, then the other, sniffing her.
Bella screamed and turned, running toward the door, clawing at the knob when she reached it. The griffin screeched and Bella turned back just as it launched itself toward her. The last thing she saw was glowing red eyes and open, bloody beak. The last thing she heard was her own screams and the sound of her own flesh ripping.
Copyright © 2006 by Katt Dunsmore
“Grandmother’s Box” first appeared in Crime and Suspense Magazine, 2:3 (March, 2006)