He swung open the closet door next to his bed and stared with soft eyes at a wooden box enshrined in emptiness on a shelf all by itself. The grain was coarse and golden and felt like it would splinter when he ran his fingertips along its surface. So, he ran them gently, as if petting an exotic animal that was best left still. A warming glow seeped into his fingertips, like the sweet warmth of a freshly baked cookie. He breathed in a slow breath through his nose and held it, savoring the aloof scent of pine smoke that perpetually hovered around the box. The soft scratching sound of his fingertips brushing its side took him back to the forest and needles crunching beneath his boots as he scurried into the night while his father roasted venison over a campfire.
It was there, in the darkness, that he had found the box when he was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus and that quarters really did emerge magically from behind his ear when his grandfather stroked the nape of his neck with tired leathery hands. He had been young enough to clap and giggle as his grandfather beamed at him with a smile that was almost as young as his own – one of those blessings captured and set adrift by the smile of a young boy who believes. He had been young enough to hold the box in his hands, the sizzling glee of its warmth radiating through his body as he stared mesmerized at its adornments. He had been young enough to believe he had found a mysterious thing, in a magical place where pixies and elves still danced in his young mind.
Even though he was older than those things now, he still kept the box neatly perched in the middle of its own shelf and listened to the stories that buzzed through his mind as he watched it. Because everything about the box – the texture of its rough-hewn sides, the smokey scent floating up from it and the warmth that still flowed from its surface into his fingertips – lay beyond the grasp of knowing. Where every other myth of childhood had been unveiled and skewered on the pike of knowing better, the box lay beyond the realm of knowing, perpetually humming with the promise of the infinite possibilities it inspired in the last part of him that was still a boy willing to believe. Where a young boy had seen a magical box, an young man now saw that he had something even greater. He had, in his closet, one of those mysteries of the universe that people would not believe and could never explain. The universe was not a vast cavern awash in the light of man’s mental prowess. It was a vast ocean of things unexplained and unknowable, dotted with islands of that which was understood and proudly modeled by science as it groped through the dark like an infant. He knew this. He knew that his box had a place in that universe. But he also knew that he could never speak of it. Because the stories it told came from the pictures on its side and they were something that no eyes could behold without either running into the night screaming or crashing through the door to steal it away and break it open to get at the truth behind its revelations.
For, the pictures – they moved. Where they may have been an enigma that frightened most and then demanded the wresting of some explanation it was unwilling to provide, he understood them to be something meant only for the eyes of the one who found the box. They told stories of sorts. The top panel washed over in a black sky and a swarm of pin-prick stars that glimmered in constellations that he could see but not recognize. There, on the side, a young woman stood in a stage with the halo of a yellow spotlight around her as she sang silent words he could not hear but knew had filled the darkness of both the room and the souls of the audience to whom she sang. On the end panel a young boy stared lovingly at a single piece of cake with thick peaks of frosting while a fawning mother with closed eyes kissed his forehead.
He understood these were more than stories. Without being able to say exactly why and certainly without being able to explain it to anybody else, he knew the pictures were promises adrift in a sea of time, either kept or pending and dreamt of by souls who, like him, refused to know better.
He pulled his hand away and the pictures stopped moving. The woman stopped, mid-note, her mouth wide open and sweat beading along a furrowed brow as a passionate note of song hung in front of her, sung yet still unheard. The boy’s mouth was circled tight, just ready to blow out a single candle embedded in the cake, its flame frozen in a bulbous lick of light.
He stepped back from the box, as quietly and gently as he would step back from a child who had just found the solace of sleep, and clicked the door closed. He thumbed the combination reels of a small cash box, removed a key and twisted the bolt lock to his closet door with a satisfying clunk. He pulled at the door to make sure it stayed closed and locked the key away before leaving his room and walking back into the rest of the world.
The box was one more thing he was going to have to tidy up. Most of his life he knew how he would leave behind. Mostly, he would do so unceremoniously, almost callously he was sure some would think, but he would have to, if he was going to pursue the only dream he had ever found that still burned in his soul. The box, though, was something he couldn’t just leave behind. He wouldn’t be able to take it with him, either, because where he was going was not the kind of place that would be kind to a strange young man and his box with magic pictures.
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