Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Boxes

The children stared wide-eyed at the four boxes on the coffee table. Plain brown packaging paper wrapped individually over cardboard bottom and lid, bound tight with plain brown twine, and small enough to rest on two hands: the boxes possessed nothing impressive by outward appearance.

Yet the boxes called to them. The demure toggery only enhanced the mystery of the boxes’ importance, tantalizing the children’s imaginations with the prospect of what fantastic gifts might lie within such humble containers.

After all, Grandfather’s insistence of staid attention before receiving them meant something was different about these gifts in comparison to the others they had received at birthdays and Christmas. And also, today was nobody’s birthday, nor did the scent of pine and cloves hang in the air—only the sickening-sweet and ever-present smell of his pipe. Mother and Father disapproved of Grandfather’s old ways, not the least of which was his pipe; still the children would forever picture him with it hanging from his whiskers, and whenever in life they smelt pipe tobacco, they would remember his eyes sparkling from beneath bushy white eyebrows.

Even now, Grandfather sent a puff of tobacco smoke up toward the ceiling, as he sat on his easy-chair throne and regarded his subjects with a kind smile and a stern eye as they in turn stared at the boxes on the coffee table before him. He picked up one of the boxes, displaying it on two hands before the children.

“I told you these gifts were special,” Grandfather said. “And they are. They may be most precious in all the world.”

Little Mary, her hair up in ribbons and curls, gasped in appreciation.

“But,” Grandfather continued, his glittering eyes meeting each of his four grandchildren in turn, “they are also special because they are unusual. They are not for you to open.”

“What?!” cried Johnny in dismay. “What kind of stupid gift is that?”

“It is a gift that you give to someone else,” Grandfather said.

“Who?” asked Sally.

“The person you choose to love more than anyone else.” He smiled down at his grandchildren. “Do you understand?”

The children all nodded. They all eagerly reached forward with their hands, then flinched back self-consciously, unsure of how to accept a gift they were not going to open. All except for Billy, who patiently held his hands out in front of him.

Grandfather gave each their box, and dismissed them to go put it away and play childish games while the day was still young, and then retired to his study for his regular afternoon nap.

Johnny thought this idea of giving the box to someone else was rubbish. It was his box and he was going to open it. As soon as he was away, he cut the twine and tore off the lid. Inside lay a crystal ball, its surface lacking any defect. With breathtaking beauty, the ball captured whatever light shone on it, nearly dancing with scintillating sparkles and beams.

The crystal ball became Johnny’s toy. He learned to juggle with it. He mesmerized girls with staring into its interior and told them their fortune. Sometimes, he used its heavy weight as a weapon against other boys who threatened him. All this marred the perfectly smooth surface with scratches and chips until the crystal ball no longer caught and danced with the light, but lay dully on his bedside table. And Johnny grew old, having never fully given his gift to anyone.

Mary knew of Johnny’s crystal ball, and wondered if her box contained the same. One day she carefully worked at the twine around her box, loosening the knot ever so gently, and lifted the lid a smidge to peer inside. Inside lay a cake. Mary dipped her finger into the frosting and found its taste extraordinary. Her heart pounding, she slapped the lid back on the box and reworked the knots of twine so that no one would ever know that she had opened it.

A while later, Mary again loosened the twine so that it slipped right off the box. She tried out a full piece of the cake. Still later, she shared a piece with her boyfriend, and the boyfriends that followed after him. Each time, she carefully rewrapped the box so that no one would know that she had opened it at all. But when the day came for her to give her box to the person she chose to love most in all the world, only crumbs remained.

Sally shook her box, trying to guess what lay inside. She knew Mary had secretly opened hers, and wanted to be better than that—but at the same time, she did not want to be surprised when her own box was opened. She wanted to know what to expect. She wanted to be ready. She listened to stories of people opening their boxes. She went to the library and read books on boxes and what treasures they held. She learned that most boxes contained jewelry of some sort.

Sally loved jewelry. She shook her box again, wanting to ascertain what sort of jewelry it might be. She pinched its sides to feel its contents through the cardboard. She squeezed and bent and warped the box—but she was careful never to actually open it. (After all, she was better than Mary.) And through all her finagling, she decided that her box contained a pearl necklace.

The day came when Sally gave her gift to the person she chose to love more than anyone. He opened the box. Inside lay no pearl necklace. Shocked, Sally saw only a tightly wound rope with frayed edges. It had once been a sash, woven with the finest materials and brilliantly colored with intricate patterns—a grand symbol of respect and position. But it had been smashed and frayed and tangled and twisted through Sally’s prodding, and in her mind it could never be more than a ratty rope in comparison to a pearl necklace. Disappointed, Sally used the rope to fetter the person she chose to love more than anyone.

But Billy took his box and put it away in the back of his closet. He found that if he kept the box out of sight, then it also stayed out of mind. Of course, sometimes he would sit innocently minding his own business and the box would appear out of nowhere in his lap. At those times he would remind himself that the box was not his but someone else’s, and return it to its place in the closet; and he would puff on his pipe until his nerves calmed.

He shrugged off whatever he heard of others doing with their boxes. He laughed when he heard people say keeping the box unopened was impossible. He did not worry when his friends made foolish taunts or remarks, even when they hurt. He thought of the person he would choose to love more than anyone else, and he went out and bought expensive red paper and silk ribbons and wrapped up the box even more.

The day came when Billy gave his gift to the person he chose to love more than anyone. Her eyes sparkled as she unwrapped the box. Inside the box lay another, smaller box. The smaller box was hinged on side, its outside velvety soft and inside—Billy took the box from her hands. He knelt down and opened it before her, revealing the most beautiful diamond ring that the girl had ever laid eyes on. And she accepted his gift.