Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Cinnabar Box

Here's a little short story to read in front of the fire.

The apartment building was entered through a heavy multi paned door that was never locked. Even though the apartment was on the first floor, there was a short flight of steps to climb, then the long hallway. It was the last door on the right. Walking down the hall required some decisions; step on the black or white tiles? Should she leap or hop from tile to tile? Whichever she chose, the noise from her gait echoed off the high ceilings and glossy painted walls. When the five-year-old girl finally reached the last door on the right, she was greeted with a hug by her grandmother and ushered through the tiny hall into the large parlor.
She entered a room that was altered just for her. Squeezed in front of the ivory damask Empire sofa where her great grandmother usually was taking a nap, was an old checkerboard topped card table with crayons and coloring book laid out. These were meant to keep her busy, but her curiosity made her want to open closet doors and bureau drawers. What secrets were hiding just beyond her reach? There was a story to go with every hidden treasure, from her grandmother who had lived a much grander life before moving north during the war.
The furniture in the room was an odd mix of heavy, almost black stained Empire chairs with needlepoint cushions, and delicate feminine Hepplewhite tables and chests. A striking octagonal topped table with a heavily carved pedestal sat at one end of the sofa with the grandmother's cane rocker next to it. Some was from the great grandmother's home, the other from the grandmother's. They had to leave most of their things behind when they moved from "back home" to the city. The absence of detail about the moving days told the girl that it had been a heart-breaking time for the old ladies. She was to learn later in life that the older lady carried the pain of lost children and a husband lost to excess, then heart disease. But with all that, there was no bitterness in her; she had sweet eyes and an open heart.
The girl was spending time with her relatives because she was suffering loss too. Her big brother was lying in the children's ward of the hospital across the street. Even though he was only eighteen months older than her, she felt she hardly knew him. Since she was a toddler, he had been gone, seeing doctors or staying in the hospital. When he was home, he was being tutored during the little bit of time he wasn't sleeping. The drugs that kept him alive stole what little bit of childhood he would be given. She called him "Bubba" and wanted to play and talk to him but wasn't allowed.
She remembered the day she realized he would not live long. It was Christmastime and the tree was being decorated. The house was festive and everyone was chattering away cheerfully about things she didn't understand. She was helping to untangle a string of colorful bulbs when suddenly the mood of the room darkened. Her Bubba had tripped over a strand of lights she left across the living room floor and now had a bloody wound up the front of his right shin. As she sat on the floor with frantic activity swirling around above her, she realized he would not live much longer. It was there in the panic of her mother's eyes and resignation of her father's shoulders.
So she spent time with relatives, waiting for her brother's life to wind down to the end. She had a sick feeling from being separated from her mom and dad and brothers and longed to be home with her family, all in one place. The only consolation was being able to snoop through the drawers and closets at her grandmother's apartment and hear stories of the grand old days.
The grandmother had shown her the jewelry and while the girl played with jet beads, listened to the story of the man who knocked on the door one day to ask if the ladies had any old jewelry to sell. They naively said their jewelry wasn't for sale, so one night when they were out, the man came back and stole everything they weren't wearing. All the beautiful pieces that Papa had brought the great grandmother and his three daughters were gone just like the children and grand house and easy life.
The girl heard stories of her great uncle as a child; how he loved to tease and make the school children laugh with rhymes like, "James K. Polk from Tennessee, he can poke some people but he'll never poke me" and "If at first you don't succeed, keep on sucking 'til you do suck seed." She heard about the rare banana tree that grew in their garden and was taken up every winter and stored in the basement to be replanted the following spring. When asked if it bore fruit the grandmother told of the gardener cutting the stalk of bananas and hanging it from a hook on the back porch so the children could reach it. The grandmother even told her the horrifying story of a younger great uncle who died after being bitten by a rabid dog. A picture of the boy revealed a sweet child with shoulder length blond hair and a pleasing face. It was hard to imagine him crying and shocked after being bitten, then suffering cruelly from the disease that killed him. He was the youngest child in the family and his loss broke all their hearts.
The closet in the bedroom with the twin beds held silk and silver chain purses and silver compacts. These were what the grandmother called her party purses. She had delicately painted fans for the garden parties and silver cigarette cases for the bridge parties. The silk ones were from the times she danced the night away with her beau. Even though she had gone to music conservatory to learn piano, when she played the old upright at the girl's house, it was always ragtime music that came out. Years later the girl realized it was her grandmother's little rebellion against the staid society in which she lived.
The table the television sat on was an ancient sideboard with whimsical details. It was slightly out of place with the older, heavier furniture. Even though it shared the same dark stain, it had graceful legs and a scalloped skirt with little wooden balls suspended at intervals across the front. There was one large drawer with wooden pulls that the girl had been discouraged from opening. The grandmother had warned her that the TV might topple over if the drawer was pulled too hard. But curiosity got the better of the little girl and she opened the drawer slightly to have a peek. There among the old decks of cards and magazines was a cinnabar box. The Chinese red caught her eye and the intricate carving made her want to inspect it more carefully.
The girl carefully carried the exotic treasure over to the sofa to have a better look. She asked her great grandmother what it was, what it was used for . The old lady's barely audible voice told of a land far across the ocean where the people lived a very different life. They spoke in a way we couldn't understand; they didn't believe in Jesus, but in someone named Buddha. The little figures on the box were smiling men who appeared to be glad to see each other. There were mountains in the background and a lake and trees where the men were. One was sitting on a rock watching the other approach. The girl had more questions than the sweet lady could answer. What was it made of? How old is it? What are the men talking about? She wore the old lady out.
Now every time the girl came in the apartment, she would go get the cinnabar box from the drawer in the sideboard and examine it. Since she didn't have answers to her questions, she made up stories of who the men were and what they were taking about. One day they were brothers, another day father and son. The relationship was always amiable between them because they were always smiling. The weather was always fine and the view always spectacular. The men told jokes to make each other laugh. Their little world was happy and trouble free, just as the girl imagined the easy life to be.

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