secret box

by dm gillis

She was a shadow on a wall, thinner than paper and darker than dusk. And she moved with the phases of the moon.

There were currents on the ocean, stirred by the heaving tails of monster serpents below the surface. She watched them from her window, looking out over the Pacific. If a current caught you, you or any floating thing, it would hold you in its aqueous orbit. And you would see stars and planets and great schools of beasts. Then you would soon melt into the mineral solution and fall slowly through its dimming densities to the bottom. There you would ossify and become homeless stone forever.

In the morning there was bread and coffee. Things she’d bought in town. And berries picked in the forest. The tomcat settled on the kitchen table and watched. Later she sat on a stone on the beach and looked out on the waves. They were high and surrendered themselves unreservedly onto the rocks and sand of the beach. They’d come from some central place. Some point of commencement. A middle region that spat forth waves. From there they radiated out on the compass of the sea and travelled invisibly until they immerged from the abrupt shallows and collapsed in discord.

This day was different, though. Not a day of common waves. There was the hint of tsunami in the air. Japan had been cruelly shaken seven thousand kilometres away. The mountain dwarves had danced. Now there were radio rumours of evacuation. Warnings not to wait, not to watch. But upon her stone, she waited and watched. She remembered fondly dreams of the ocean reaching up and tenderly clutching her. Pulling her down to the metrical pulse of the deep beneath, to meet those who had preceded her. To dance in the current circles. To be an atom in the compound of salt, decay and creation.

Her dreams turned out to be lies, however, and a tsunami never came. And for days no clue of the Japanese cataclysm was visible. Perhaps even the quake was a lie. Talk of subduction zones, the outlandish commentary and bitter video, all lies. But then a doll washed ashore. A travel ragged geisha in a pink silk kimono, staring up contentedly from its place half buried in the sand. She took it home and let it dry on the porch. Then she brushed off the salt as best she could and placed it in her living room on the mantel above the fireplace.

After that she combed the beach and listened for news.

There were innumerable bottles, spray cans and shoes. There were buoys, tires on rims and a capsized skiff. There was even a lady’s handbag she handed over to the police. It contained lipstick, chewing gum and several thousand yen. The picture ID in the small wallet was of a young, pale unsmiling woman.

She combed at low tide and attached stories to what she found. A boy, she thought, as she picked up a baseball with red Japanese characters stencilled across it. He was playing catch with friends when the quake struck. He held onto the ball throughout, a known thing in a suddenly unknowable world. He had it in his hand as he observed the wave swell over his town’s seawall, carrying with it the fishing fleet. The water moved in violent swirls and eddies that sucked people, boats and debris under. The boy dropped the ball and ran.

At night she continued to dream of the ocean meeting her as a friend and taking her away. She was Antarctic ice or she flowed through the open portholes of sunken ships. In the day she stood at the ocean’s edge and hoped for a wave to take her. A tsunamic monster large enough to wash a life away, all of its hurt, yearning and regret. But that wave never arrived.

Low tide was at 6:17 a.m. the day she found it. She dressed warm and walked a kilometre to the beach. First she found a large wooden barrel and a computer screen. Then she started examining the sand carefully, looking down as she walked. She walked toward a familiar rocky outcrop where she’d found items before. At the top of the outcrop was a single cedar, dwarfed and bent by exposure to storm-force winds. It marked a boundary. If she went beyond it, the incoming tide would surround it and prevent her from returning home. She stopped there and inspected the stone crannies. And there it was, floating in a tidal pool above a forest of orange and green sea anemones.

At first it looked like a block of wood about the size of a cigar box. Seeing it caused a spasm in her belly. It was covered in intricate patterns and delicately detailed geometric shapes. She picked it up for a closer look. It was a thing of great artistry she decided, obviously made by hand.

It was too light to be a block of wood. She turned it over and saw Japanese lettering with the English words Made in Japan below. A box she thought and shook it gently. Something moved inside as she did. She looked for a latch or a keyhole and found none. If it was a box, there was no way to open it. She put it in her bag and went home.

She placed the box on a table on the porch and stared at it. Were the shapes on its exterior shifting and changing? She concentrated and watched. Was it a giant wave moving across the flat surface? When she picked it up once more to try to open it, she felt something jump inside as though it were trying to escape. She put it down and stepped away.

For a week she stayed home with the box. She sat for hours watching it, shapes continuously in motion. Waves and mountains and forests and faces. She wanted to understand. She resented the existence of a mystery in her house.

In a turn of frustration, she placed the box in a bag and walked three kilometres up the mountain dirt road to the house of Max Izumi. It was a weathered A-frame off the road at the end of a lane. A host of deer skulls and antlers covered its front, surrounding the door and windows. Izumi watched her through a window as she approached. As he did, he whispered incantations in Japanese that only he and the ghosts of his house could understand.

She stepped up to the door and knocked. He opened it a crack and peeked out.

“Yes?” he said. He was grey and old and had fished the Pacific all of his life, in Japan and all of the west coast.

“I have something…,” she said.

“Yes?” he said still peeking.

“It’s….” She struggled with her bag and then pulled out the box. “It’s this,” she said presenting it.

He opened the door a bit more and reached out with a gnarled hand. She gave it to him to examine. He held it to his ear and shook it just enough to hear something inside. He smiled.

“Himitsu-Bako,” he said. He looked at it a moment longer and said, “Secret box. This one magic. Very old. Very rare. Where’d you get it?”

“The beach.”

“The tsunami. Humph,” he grunted. “Touching tsunami rubbish not good. Bad luck.” He handed back the box. “But this box found you. You didn’t find it. It contains something. Something for you.”

“Something for me? But what?” she said. “How can I find out? It won’t open.”

“One must know how to open it. It may take several separate manipulations. All secret until you discover them. Even then, you may only open one chamber and not another. Another that contains the box’s real secret.”

“I may never know what’s inside, then,” she said.

“Yes,” Izumi said. “But if the box is really intended for you, it will open eventually. When it is its time.”

He closed the door.

When she returned home, she placed the secret box on the mantel above the fireplace next to the geisha girl and never returned to comb the beach.

She continued to live in the house with the porch for years. And she continued to dream of the sea enveloping her and giving her an everlasting home. Max Izumi died of old age and she and the town grieved.

Then one night she had a dream of a massive wave, higher and more powerful than all of her previously dreamed waves. It covered the world and then receded with all of the world’s people and material objects, leaving it bare. The world’s people became like fish and swam in schools, each school fighting another for possession of the sea. Some people grew large and solitary and hunted and fed on the others.

On the surface, at the middle depths and on the bottom of the sea was the mass of material things that had been washed off of the world by the massive wave. The people who had become like fish saw it and mourned its loss as it decayed and melted away.

It was dark when she opened her eyes. Should got out of bed. There was a rattling noise coming from the living room. As she walked through the house, she observed her shadow. It seemed to move independent of her. It preceded her into the living room and disappeared.

On the mantel, the geisha girl had been upset and lay on her side. The secret box jumped and rattled. She put her hands on it to restrain it but it fought against her. On the wall her shadow swayed as though influenced by a slow rolling ocean current. She lifted the box from the mantel and held it to her heart. It jerked and convulsed against her. Then a door on the side slid open and revealed a chamber. And when it did, the box became still.

She placed it back on the mantel and reached in. From inside she retrieved a cloth amulet and held it near a window in the light of the moon. The amulet was embossed with an indecipherable Japanese charm. The box’s secret was another mystery.

She placed the amulet on the mantel and reached back into the box, feeling for anything that might remain. There was nothing she could touch with the tips of her fingers. Then she held the box next to the window in the moonlight, looking inside. She saw nothing and placed it back on the mantel. She’d look again the light of day.

But as she began to walk away the box jumped once more. She returned to look, to see if it had another secret to disclose. She bent and peered inside and saw water. A quiet blue sea beneath a full moon. But then it welled up, too much for a small box to contain. It began to trickle out over the edge of the chamber. Then came more and it poured out causing her to step back in surprise.

And in a moment the box exploded and a colossal wave came forth. It crashed down on her then lifted her up. It broke her and crushed her into molecules and atoms.

She became unaware of the wave; she was in it and a part of it. It was the sea. The turbulence of it had ended and her aggregate floated on the tide. It floated with a hundred million others who had come before her and they danced in the current and were conveyed by the ocean. They sang out in the joy of it. And she was content beyond all possible imagining forever after.

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