A New Short Story – THE BOX

THE BOX  © 2010 Wm. Douglas Van Devender

dougvandevender@live.com & FACEBOOK Doug Van Devender

The seeker’s meandering route had taken him far into uncharted Wildland. While he hungered for the warmth of community and blazing hearth, he would not turn back toward The Gathering until he completed his mission. 

The lone figure maintained a steady pace along the transition between ancient wood to his right and rolling grassland to his left. He followed a serpentine course to bypass standing water and rocky outcroppings. He steadied his footing on the uneven ground with a heavy staff.

Both forest and field promised easier passages through Wildland, but the man knew from experience that obstacles and snares lay concealed in each to divert and delay. The boundary offered fewer obstacles and also provided a measure of protection from lurking predators. The savage ones seldom ventured outside their own habitat.

A steady wind swept through the top of the wood, swaying the trees before swooping low to depress the tall grass. Patches of snow from the overnight storm remained on the windward side of the trees and on spots of open ground. The icy areas were of no consequence to the traveler except to remind him of heavier snows to come.

The sky was clear except for high clouds brushed across the pale blue. The thin veil diffused the mid-day sun into a translucent orb. The man drank in the glory of the sky while listening to the chorus of the earth. Moaning trees, sighing grass and crunching turf sang a melody that stirred his spirit and invigorated his soul.

The wind was sharp, but the man had dressed for the change in seasons. He wore leather gloves, layered clothing, heavy leggings and sturdy boots. His torso and head were protected by a thick wool sweater under short and long hooded wraps. His clothing kept him reasonably warm and dry during the day, but he would require shelter for the night.

As he pushed forward, the traveler reflected on the discoveries, dangers and disappointments which had marked his journey. There would be yarns aplenty to spin around winter fires, but he had not risked everything to captivate his neighbors with fresh tales. On the contrary, this trek was birthed in clear purpose, the serious objective of which continued to draw him forward.

Early in the afternoon, the seeker mounted a low rise. The forest ahead jutted out perpendicular to his course. He paused to consider his options. Surveying the scene, he spied a narrow path entering the dense hardwoods at the junction of the woods. He moved quickly to take that path.

The smoother course enabled him to quicken his pace. He penetrated deeply into the barren forest before the trail began to fade. Still further on, he found himself tracking its remnants as much by imagination as by observation. The underbrush pressed in closely on both sides as the trail faded completely.

Just when it seemed he had reached the end of a cul-de-sac, the vegetation began to thin. A hundred paces on and he emerged into a large clearing. The area was so perfectly concealed, he might have passed it unnoticed had he veered slightly left or right. The clearing was empty save for a single object.

His heart skipped a beat.

Standing before him was an enormous, upside-down box. The cube shaped container was large enough to cover a manor house. Its light brown surface bore no distinguishable markings, and though the box stood unprotected from the elements, it showed no sign of weathering.

The man approached the box slowly. He walked round it, noting every detail, examining it from top to bottom. The flaps of the box-top lay flat on the ground to the four points of the compass. The corrugated side panels soared well above the trees.

There was a single blemish on the surface of the rear section. A huge limb from a nearby tree had fallen. One of its smaller, protruding branches had punched a hole in the cardboard wall.

The man struggled for several minutes as he pulled the branch from the puncture. That done, he sat on the main limb to watch the hole. He waited patiently, listening for any movement, until a single eye–wide with curiosity–peeked out. Along with the eye came the faint sound of voices from within.

I can see outside The Box. Yes, there are things out there. Very strange things.

What do they look like?

Alien…frightful…wild.

My turn, my turn. Let me see.

A fresh eye replaced the first. Oh, the air coming through the hole stings me.

Another brief scuffle and a third eye appeared. Oh, my goodness. There is a man out there! A chorus of tittering feminine voices greeted that revelation.

The seeker could not suppress a smile.

Girls, girls, settle down. Let me see. A fourth feminine eye appeared at the hole. Oh, dear, she exclaimed, there is another world out there. And yes, a man.

The inquisitive chorus erupted again. What does he look like? What is he wearing? What is he doing?

Cautionary voices also chimed in. Come to your senses. Nothing exists outside The Box. Everything you think you see is an illusion. What looks like a man is not at all human. He is a devil. There were shrieks at that pronouncement.

Commands followed. Sin not. Look not through the hole. Do not bring evil upon yourself. Do not bring evil upon us all. Come away from the hole!

The owner of the current eye resisted the threatening counsel. I’m going to talk to the man. I want to know if he speaks our language. I want to know if he is a devil. Be quiet so you can hear.

The Box fell silent.

“Hello. Do you speak my language?” the resonant feminine voice inquired.

Although her accent differed from his, the man judged they could communicate by speaking slowly. “I speak a language similar to yours, I believe. How are you?” The Box erupted into a chorus of whispers at the sound of his voice. They quieted only after numerous shhhhhh’s.

“I am fine. Are you a real person?”

“My mother thinks me so.”

“You have a mother? I mean, there are others?”

He nodded, “Quite a growing band, actually.”

The eye disappeared as its supporting head turned to repeat the brief exchange to those farthest from the hole. He says he is a real person and there are others. ‘He even has a mother’ provoked a chorus of Oh’s and Ah’s. The eye returned.

“Where do you come from? How do you survive outside The Box?”

“I come from The Gathering which is many days from here. I live in a small cottage among other small cottages.”

“And how have you come to sit outside The Box?”

“I have searched for you for many weeks. Today I have found you.”

The eye disappeared briefly to report. Ignoring his previous answer, the eye reappeared to ask, “Why have you searched for The Box?”

“I have come to speak to you,” he said simply.

The eye blinked rapidly several times, “But you don’t know me.”

“Maybe I do.”

The eye stared hard at the man. He wondered how she perceived him with his long hair, untrimmed beard, chapped face and rough clothing.

“Why would you speak to me?”

“Because, your heart has wondered. Your heart has questioned. I have come in response to your heart. I have come to give your heart an opportunity to move beyond imagination to realization.”

The eye lowered as if considering his answer. It lifted again to meet his gaze, “How am I to engage this opportunity?”

“Join me for a chat outside The Box. I will address the questions of your heart.”

“You mean you want me to leave The Box in order to converse with you?” the amazement in her voice was unmistakable. “No one is permitted outside the confines of The Box. No one can exist outside The Box. The Box is our eternal sanctuary,” she objected.

“Life lives outside The Box. Should you hazard an hour with me, you will taste Life.”

“Even if I wished to join you, there is no egress. No door. No window. These masonry walls are several feet thick. I could not possibly squeeze through this tiny hole.”

The seeker slid off the limb and leaned over the hole. “My dear, this wall is made of corrugated paper.” He tore away a small piece of pasteboard, widening the hole slightly. The assembled spectators reacted with alarm. “You see? Ordinary cardboard.”  

A nose joined the eye at the larger hole. A lovely nose, he thought. as he returned to his spot on the fallen limb.

“That is the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen,” she said in wonder. “The way you so easily widened the hole.”

“No more difficult for you. Try it yourself. Expand the hole.”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly. And even if I could, I ought not.”

The man did not reply. There was nothing more he could say or do. If her desire to visit Wildland was strong enough, she would widen the hole. If not, he would wait for another candidate.

A few minutes passed. Then the fingers of two hands appeared over the lower edge of the hole. Tentative at first, they tested the consistency of the paper. They ripped off a small section. Then a larger one. Their success was met by a clamor from within. The man continued to wait.

Eventually a woman’s face appeared in the opening. A lovely face, he thought.

“Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“No, it wasn’t difficult at all. Who would have thought the walls of The Box to be so thin?” she examined the edges of the hole.

“That comes as a surprise to everyone.”

“You mean I’m not the first to discover The Box’s flimsy construction?”

“Oh my no,” he answered. “Everyone who gathers with us first has to make that discovery.”

“You…you mean you once lived in a box?” her was horizon expanded rapidly. “You mean there are other boxes?” 

“Yes, to both questions,” he nodded. “There are many boxes. And I, like you, lived in a box until the day I chanced to peer out an opportune hole.”

“This is almost beyond comprehension,” she exclaimed.

He repeated his invitation, “Would you like to join me outside The Box for one hour?”

She hesitated. The man could surmise her inner dialogue. Can I pass through the wall of The Box to visit another world? What will happen if I dare? Will I be able to return after one hour? What will happen to me if I cannot?

“If I join you, how do I know you will not harm me?”

“Have I given you reason to fear for your safety?”

She shook her head slowly.

“If I join you for an hour, will you allow me to return?”

“If you join me, I will speak truthfully to you about Life. I will encourage you to embrace Life. Your destiny is in your hands.”

“Will you help me enlarge the hole?”

“I cannot,” he replied. “That’s your responsibility. Finish what you have begun.”

She squinted at the man a moment longer before tearing larger pieces from the edges of the hole. Inside The Box a renewed clamor arose, scores of voices protesting her damage to their sacred fortification. A few additional pulls and the hole widened enough for her to pass.

She hesitated a moment amid protests and pleas from her peers, then poked her head and shoulders through the hole. The man rose to assist her and the rest of her body followed easily. After an awkward moment, she rose to a sitting position on the cardboard flap, her legs angled back modestly to one side.

“Would you like to join me on the branch,” the man offered.

Prudence counseled her to maintain a safe distance from the stranger. “I think not.” She met the man’s eyes without shyness, however. When he returned her gaze without suggestion of menace, she relaxed enough to look about.

And what she saw! She drank in the early winter wood moaning in the wind. The carpet of icy grass and fallen leaves. The vaulted sky with shifting clouds. The hazy sun with its touch of warmth.

“What is this realm? By what name do you call it?”

“We call it various things, but Wildland is the most common.”

She twisted to see the exterior of The Box for the first time. “So this is what The Box looks like from the outside.” She turned and addressed the man, “You say there are other boxes?”

“Yes. We discover additional ones with each passing year.”

“Are they all the same?”

“No and yes. Some are cubes while others are rectangular. Some are sized to cover a dining table while others are large enough to shelter a small town. Their colors vary from dark brown to pure white. But all are turned upside down. All lack doors and windows. All separate their inhabitants from Wildland with nothing more than pasted paper.”

The man measured the woman while she considered his answer. He guessed her to be about twenty-five. Her complexion was fair. Her eyes hazel. Her dark mane was gathered behind her head with a black ribbon, but sprang unmanaged beyond that tie. He hadn’t yet seen her standing, but he gauged her height and build to be about average. She wore a heavy dark garment that completely covered her neck, body, arms and legs. Sturdy black shoes protruded from under the hem of her skirt.

She crossed her arms and shivered slightly.

“You are cold,” he said.

“The wind somehow burns.”

The man rose, pulled his long outer cloak over his head and slipped it over hers. She pulled the cloak down to its full length. He knelt before her, his face close to hers, to pull the hood up and over her head. Her eyes did not leave his. He broke the spell first and settled down next to her on the flap.

“Thank you. This is much warmer.”

“Tell me about life in The Box,” he continued.

She considered her response. “We are many. Thousands of us. Hundreds of thousands. We are born in The Box. We live in The Box. We die in The Box.”

“How do you live?”

“So many have gone before us, the ground beneath The Box is covered with graves. We live on the dirt mounds over the graves. We eat there. Work there. Sleep there. End our days there.”   

They sat in silence as he processed her word picture.

“How would you describe your social life?” he went on.

That was more difficult. She answered thoughtfully, “Our society is directed. Ordered. Predictable. Secure.”

“Anything else?”

“Bland.”

“Do you like it?”

That was the most difficult yet. “Like it? Box life simply is. There is no provision for liking and disliking.”

He listened intently.

“Box life has its benefits, as I have stated. But when I am quiet, when I try to sleep, when I dream, I find myself wishing for something different. I find myself longing for something more…”

He nodded.

“…something more flexible, more dynamic, more adventurous.”

“Something wilder?” he interrupted.

“Yes.” She pushed the hood back, lifted her head, closed her eyes and breathed in the scents on the freshening wind. The man reached over to untie her hair ribbon. She felt the release and shook her hair free into the wind.  

“Liberating isn’t it?”

She felt no need to answer.

After a time, she opened her eyes and resumed the conversation, “I want to know what life is like in Wildland. Everything inside The Box is so different. Everything outside seems so strange. Everything is so…so…fierce. I cannot imagine how you contend with this environment.”

“Those were my thoughts exactly when I first crawled out of my box. Since then I have learned that Life is a matter of the heart. If your heart demands structure and safety, you will find nothing commendable in Wildland.”

She looked from him to the lowering sun and back.

“However, if you desire something more dynamic, more challenging, more like this…” he swept the panorama with his eyes, “…then Wildland will provide your heart satisfaction.”

She trembled, but not from the windy chill.

“I expect you are conflicted. Am I right?”

“Yes. Wildland is shocking. Wildland is overwhelming. Wildland is beyond me.”

“What else?”

“There is a quickening within me that will not be restrained.”

He nodded.

“Tell me truthfully, tell me of your life,” she demanded.

“There are many challenges and frequent dangers. Suffering and surprises. Disappointments and discoveries. We grieve our losses and celebrate our victories. We know joy.”

“I can’t imagine such a tapestry of experience.”

“Our lives are filled with Life: working, learning, caring, sharing, loving, giving, risking, mourning, hoping, growing, exploring, rejoicing.”

Her eyes glistened at his descriptors of Life.

“And this—going on trek after the autumn harvest to engage hungry souls like you. Risking everything on the chance you will choose to experience what can only be enjoyed outside your Box. What can only be experienced with those who have escaped their own box.”

“I do yearn for what you claim to possess, but I could not possibly attain to such a life. I have no training to meet the challenges. I have no skills to survive the storm. I have no means to provide for myself. Nothing has readied me for this…this …Wildland life of which you speak.”

“And yet your heart anticipated this place long before you saw it. I am here to usher you into Wildland. The Gathered eagerly wait to help you make the transition into Life. We will provide what you need until you are fully competent to stand. Then you will join us in the joy of welcoming others into Life.”

He could see the struggle in her eyes, “Tell me what your heart whispers to you?”

“My heart does not whisper. My heart shouts that this is the hour for which I was made. This is the moment of my opportunity.”

“Young lady! Young lady!” a stern voice interrupted from the hole in The Box.

She took a moment to realize the voice was addressing her, “What? What do you want?”

“Young lady, your behavior is outrageous. You must re-enter The Box instantly.”

She looked at the gaggle of stern faces glaring at her from the hole, then back to the Wildland man.

“It would appear that it’s time for you to return to your place in The Box,” the seeker said. “You have had your hour.”

“But I don’t want to return,” she blurted.

“Now, young lady. Get back into The Box. Think of your family. Think of your friends. Think of your reputation.”

“Or you can journey to The Gathering with me,” the man countered.

“I don’t know you. I don’t know this ‘gathering’. I don’t know that I could survive a single day in Wildland….” Her eyes pleaded for assurance.

“You are correct. You may not survive. But until you die, you will live.” His response shocked her, but she understood he had nothing else to offer.

“This is your last warning. Get into The Box!”

Tears began to flow down the woman’s face. The entrance fee to Wildland was the loss of the relationships that had defined her Box life. She would lose their companionship. She would lose her place among them. She would lose them forever. Somehow she knew she would never return. 

“Must I go with you alone?”

“Of course not,” he said emphatically. “Everyone in The Box is invited.”

She sprang into action, sliding over to the hole, ignoring the stern faces and summoning voices. She pleaded with her relatives and friends to join her, “Wildland is nothing like what we have been told. Come see for yourselves. Truly it is wild, but it is also the domain of Life. Wildland has room for us all. Journey with me to The Gathering.”

A great commotion ensued. The stern faces struggled to prevent the dialogue, but failed. Family and friends begged her to return to her place in The Box even as she pleaded with them to instead choose Life. Despite her passionate pleas, no one joined her as she refused to re-enter the hole.

“The decision is upon you,” the seeker said. “Return to your place in The Box or bid them farewell. The day is rapidly waning .”

“Please forgive me. Please forgive me. I cannot return,” she cried as arms reached through the hole to compel her. A flood of tears and appeals poured from The Box as she backed away. The stern faces withdrew amid the uproar and began to drive the crowd away from the hole.

As the tumult died away, a new sound replaced it. The woman did not at first recognize the noise, and when recognition came, it arrived with a shock. The stern faces were directing dirt to be scooped from the graves and thrown against the interior wall of the Box. Little by little the mound of earth grew until it reached the base of the hole.

“There’s still time…” a single voice wailed. The young woman stared flabbergasted at the closing aperture until the hole was firmly sealed and her return was no longer a decision to be made.

“I’m sorry it ends this way,” he said tenderly.

She wiped away her tears and turned to the seeker, “What do we do now?”

“We say goodbye to The Box. We seek shelter for the night. On the morrow, we move toward The Gathering.”

She nodded her agreement. “By the way, what is your name?”

“My name is Peace. And yours?”

“Wonder.”

Peace rose and helped Wonder to her feet. Breaking a straight branch from the larger limb, he provided the new seeker a temporary staff.

“I hope you like to walk,” he said with a touch of humor.

“I shall learn to like it,” she declared. Fallen leaves swirled around their legs as the sun joined the trees. She took the crook of his arm and drew close against the frigid air.

The man set their course toward the sunset and moved deliberately out of the clearing. The Box, catching the rays of the setting sun, seemed to burst into flame. The the seekers did not see, however, for neither looked back.

For more stories by Douglas Van Devender, get PRAYER TALES: Twelve Unusual Expeditions into the Human Heart from www.authorhouse.com .

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