Short Story: The Box

The Box

“What’s in the box?” A young man asked, taking a seat on the far side of a mahogany desk.

“What, this box?” An old man asked of the container atop the desk.

It was barely the size of an egg-crate, longer, thinner, and constructed of heavy wood. Along its sides was a Native American motif reminiscent of days long-past. Its gold trim shined reflections of low-light sconces in the walls, through a room half-in shadow.

“Oh come now old man, don’t play your games,” the young man chided. He relaxed in his seat, lit a cigarette, continued with a plume of smoke, “It’s an innocent question.”

The old man’s cheeks dimpled with a smile. His brows, thick and protruding like some ancient, oriental master, curled upward with the corners of his eyes.

The old man stepped up behind the desk to lean over the box with an angled finger, “It does seem an innocent question, does it not? Ah, but curiosity did kill the cat, did it not?”

The young man snorted with a closed mouth, billowed plumes of heady smoke from his nostrils, “You’ve completed the transformation, old man, you’re officially an old kook.”

The old kook smiled again, straightened. He stepped ’round the desk, his fingertips traced his path along its glossed mahogany, but came to rest as he leaned against its far side with the box at his left. He crossed his arms.

With the tone of a lecturer, he began, “I can not tell you what is in this box, my young friend, I can merely show you. In order to do so however, I must arouse within you, a long-dormant perspective. Perhaps you will indulge me?”

He raised an eyebrow. The young man nodded once with a squinted eye as his pungent cigarette came to a rest on the arm of the chair. The old kook gave a chuckle, paced back behind the desk, and sat to lean over the box. The young man’s eyes followed, fell downward only to focus on the box.

The kook’s nimble finger-tips danced upon the box’s edges to afflict the young man’s fixed-gaze. He drifted into story, “Many years ago, before the darkness set in, and before the world was cold and dead, there was a light that many called upon to brighten their day. And long before greed, corruption, or malevolence, there was a radiance that shined forth from within. This illuminating presence was the counter-weight of what has overtaken the world now. It was all that has been misplaced. Where did it go? Truthfully? Where it went. Before though, it simply was.

The young man’s eyes darted from the box long enough to convey their bemusement, but he remained silent. The old man’s face sank with the sadness of a life lost to hardship, watched the other’s eyes return to the box.

He sighed, “However, that radiance no longer is.” His hands animated his speech, “It broke down somewhere ‘long the side of the road, no longer able to match the progress of humanity. Or more aptly perhaps, was drowned in a sea of cold materialism, wracked with guilt and laden to the ocean-floor by pocketfuls of currency. It was suffocated by the evil and darkness, and chaotic destruction of the world that bore it upon its shoulders.”

The young man’s brow rose as his cigarette flared. Its ash grew longer, but the hand that held it did not stir. The old man had long since slipped away into recollection, his eyes no longer focused on the man before him. It was just as well; the young man was transfixed by the box, its vibrant trim a twinkle in his eyes.

The old man’s hands made a gathering motion, as if to some lost deity, “Oh, there are those who believe this is metaphor; a symbol of mankind’s loss for one another. Even as you sit there, young man, you deny that I speak truth. This is the darkness– the mistrust caused by the decline in our civilization. And though you recognize this truth, it angers you that I might incline you to be incorrect, or deceptive– that I might wound your honor or pride by shouting out, “He lies, that whipper-snapper! Like a dust-covered rug beneath a shaggy dog’s haunches!” It forces you into mental parry, your defenses ready to charge, attack, sick, seize, maim, kill. It wounds you deeper than you admit, to me or yourself.”

The old man’s hands moved faster, his finger stabbed upward in passion, “Yet never once, does your rational mind take control, seize you by the neck. Never once does logic charge your irrational side, maim, and kill it dead in the hopes of resolving things peacefully on the outside.”

The young man gave him a precocious, as if annoyed by the intrusion to his admiration of the box, “And why is that, old kook?”

The old man’s hands fell with a tired breath. His tone turned distant, “Your mind, personality, emotions; these things have been taught– indoctrinated, if you will– to seek out what is best for you from all sides. Those you love, those you hate, those who were told to instruct you, and those who only spoke for a moment to you; they all steered you toward the best course for yourself, and yourself alone. Never once did they expect you to desire what was best for all, because not one of them desired it themselves.”

The young man’s face formed a question as if to ask “So, what,” but his eyes were enthralled by the box.

The old man ignored it, “They instruct as instructed; to desire things for oneself only. You were instructed as they were, and as those before them were. And so it has been for many, many, long generations.”

He sank back with a moment of silence, as if waiting to bridge a mental gap. The young man simply watched the box, his mind reeling at its closed lid, while nicotine stained his fingers and the chair’s armrest.

When the old man began again, he was even quieter, more reserved, “Slowly, the darkness worked its way forward– Poison trickling through a vine, wilting all that lay before it, and corrupting those that drank of its nectar until, finally, it was all that remained. The vine now, long dried and crunched to dust upon the path of progress, exists only as a figment of memory.”

The old man let his fingers rest once-more upon the top-edges of the box. The young man’s brow showed a moment of irritation that was alleviated by the kook’s next words.

“Now, is where this comes into play.”

The old man’s finger-tips slid along the box’s forward edges to meet behind it. They interlocked with one another, settled atop the desk. The young man’s curiosity piqued, he sat forward in anticipation paying no mind to the cigarette ash that shattered and drifted to the floor.

The old man, wishing to tease his victim further, explained with a languid tone, “Young man, once there was a story, many thousands of years ago– far older even than this old man before you, of a similar box. Its contents were known to all through the words of their God– a father in his own right. He gave the box to his daughter and cautioned never to open it. Of course as youth might, she disobeyed, and once opened, from this box sprang forth all the evils and darkness in the world. She soon closed it with regret.”

He swallowed, watched the young man’s enthralled eyes; they barely moved, focused on the sole thought of what might be inside. He knew his voice was but whispers on the wind in a mind of thoughts that had no place for him.

Even so, he would still be heard, “Having released the evils wrought upon the world, and knowing their effect, many said that what was to come from that box would have truly been the worst. I assure you though, there are no evils in this box.” The young man’s eyes darted to him. He blinked slowly with a single, shake of his head, “No, in that way it is even more precious. It, my young friend, must be opened to be understood. For this box contains the antithesis to all of those dark things.”

The box slid to the edge of the desk with a nudge. The young man, at the edge of his seat, stumbled to reach. He took a deep breath, recollected himself, his mind taken by the vast riches that might be inside. He exhaled, heart racing, and place his hands on either side of the lid in ceremony. His eyes reeled with giddy at what might be inside.

He lifted the lid slowly at first, not daring to peer in until its innards were fully exposed. He felt the lid meet the final resistance that stayed it, tilted his head downward to take in his prize.

The box, in all of its form and glory, was empty. A defeated glance met the old man, but his eyes were soft with warmth and compassion, “That antithesis, my young friend, is hope.”

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