Max was forever turning the box over between his fingers, or turning it over in his mind. An attractive object, certainly, beguiling, even. It had been given to him by his friend, Paul Dombey. Neither Paul, nor Max, had yet worked out how to open the box, not the least of its several fascinations.
He opened the top drawer of his desk, with its porcelain ink well as dry as the grave, looking for a cloth with which to clean his magnifying glass, saw the dense and irredeemable clutter that the drawer contained and closed it again, with difficulty and a sigh and began to think about Paul.
Paul had been very well aware of the literary antecedents of his name and when Max had told him that there was a Patrick Dombey in a deservedly forgotten story by Daphne du Maurier, Paul had nodded along as if he had been well aware of that too. It did not pay to admit to any ignorance in their world, even among friends. Max had not told Paul the name of the story. He knew that Paul had always been inclined to confuse the fictional and the real and thought, privately, that this had something to do with his name. There was a simple magic in it.
When Max said to himself that Paul had given him the box he knew that a considerable caveat had to be inserted. Paul had given him the box so that he could look at it, investigate it, attempt to open it. It would have cost Paul something, some chagrin at least, to admit, even to Max, that he could not do that for himself. So, Paul had emphatically not given him the box to keep. But now Paul had died. Suddenly, not unexpectedly, and it was not at all clear that anyone knew that Max had his box, Paul’s box.
Paul had said to him, Maybe it’s a puzzle box. A Chinese puzzle box. Chinese I think.
He had not been able to stop himself from grinning though. It was clear to Max that Paul had thought nothing of the sort. It gave him a queer feeling now to conjure Paul in this way, by quoting his exact words, recalling his peculiar manner of speaking when he was sparring with a colleague, in a friendly way. Building up his short sentences with little blocks of words, then taking them down again. Now and then a remark which blazed like a gong.
Max had recognised the figures with which the box was chiefly decorated and was sure that Paul had done so too. Two of them. Neatly made about three hundred years earlier in Japan, or by a Japanese, or by someone copying a Japanese. Of course, the box itself could be older than the carvings made on it. The figures were the Todai-ji Temple guardians, the Kongorikishi, carved originally by Busshei Unkei and Kaiki, in the thirteenth century. Squat, bellicose warriors with whom negotiation was implausible. The western guardian had an open mouth while the mouth of the eastern guardian was closed. Max had looked all of this up and he was sure that Paul had done so already.
The wood of the box was worm-eaten, so that it might be a box of worms. It looked friable, brittle, soft, as though it might crumble or could be squeezed or crushed by the hand of a determined man, but this was not so. Max was not quite sure that it was a box. Might it not be a solid block of wood? The idea was that the box was locked and that should pressure be applied in just the right certain places it would leap apart. One would suddenly find oneself holding the pieces of an impossible puzzle and, among them, the contents of the box. If it had contents.
Of course, if pressure were applied in the wrong places and to a crude and clumsy extent, then the box might be damaged and so locked forever. There was every likelihood that this had already happened. The box might have been beautifully constructed by an artful craftsman, or botched from the start. It had not been gummed or glued; the intricate mosaic of the box, its interlocking wedges, had been sprung tight, precisely balanced.
The box was the thing. Desirable contents were not anticipated.
It was dark and dirty. Max licked a thumb and drew it over a dingy corner. Was that a fisherman, sitting in his boat, hunched over his line, floating out of the gloom, so tiny, might have been drawn with a needle, only to be lost as Max’s spittle evaporated, as though he were enveloped by a rolling mist? The fisherman had been reflected perfectly in the still water. The box might have been upside down. Max did not know. Having put it down and picked it up again, he could not make the angler reappear. He would have to take a lesson in patience from that ephemeral figure.
It occurred to Max that the box might be an icon case, so it would contain the image of the god of the man who had made it. He turned to its closer examination.
It was cornered with clasps of yellow metal, a sour canary yellow, some poor brass alloy. These might have been meant to decorate, or to strengthen, perhaps added as a late repair. They creaked when Max squeezed. The box seemed alive, or full of living things. This wood was not everyone’s idea of beautiful. He allowed his tough long thumb-nail to drag along the zigzag grooves that were damage or design on its rugged surface. The grain of the wood texture resembled the fibre of a muscle, but frail and crisp. There was a sleekness too as the patina was shattered into the irregular diamonds of a lizard-skin, but one long dead.
Max drew out his palette of polishes and unguents to see what he could coax from that dirt. He applied a smear of pale salve and stared hard into the chalky glaze produced by it. Whorls, stars and crosses. Quartz, agate and pewter. Rhombus and ellipsis. To turn the box in this harsh illumination beneath his tired eyes was like spiralling under a rainbow. Squibs and crackerjacks. Bruised olive, ochre, vermilion. Burgundy and caramel chevrons. These sleek, soft colours.
He even smelled at the box, eager for every nuance. The musky fuzz of antique walnut. Bursting blisters of vanilla. Always that puzzling gauzy must. Always the withholding of what must be the true scent, leaving only the aniseed trail of what the box had endured.
He closed his eyes and ran his finger-tips gingerly over the plane of what might be the lid, anxious for the feel of what he could not see. Telling blemishes. The bite-marks of sharp little teeth, or the grapple of a row of hooks. A brocade of black tapestry. The craters of a suffocating sponge. These like running a shrill ribbon of leather through his hands.
Max loved this box. He knew he would never give it up. He could not be asked for it. How could it be described? This block of blond wood, fretted, sutured, gouged and faceted, now suddenly straw-coloured caught in the sunbeam breaking through a dirty window. The sun filtered through the glass and shrouded all of his curious lumber in a waxen light. He pushed the box away into the lilac shadows of his bureau with other trinkets and dainty gewgaws. A tiny glass marble in which a vast blue horizon had been captured. A fisherman’s fly made with a feather from a jay’s wing and a shimmering lure concealing an ugly steel barb. He made a wigwam of his hands, thought hard and fell asleep.
When he woke, a little less than an hour later, he was still in the pose of a man staring at his own hands. He now gave himself up, in reality, to the contemplation of his rough fingers. He looked at the unaccountably discoloured patches beneath his thumb-nails. He noted the fronds of creamy skin that stood up in thin wands beneath his other nails, all savagely bitten. He cropped this to stubble with his clippers but still it grew back or peeled away from him like an undefeatable fungus. He began to stir himself.
To stir himself for sleep. It was not so late but he was tired despite his nap, perhaps tired because of it, like a man not hungry who picks up a corner of pie out of boredom and then clears the plate, unable to stop himself. His old house, rooms of which were effectively also his shop, was a dark place. Wooden almost entirely. A copse of dead trees, strangely but not inexplicably undecayed. Its exposed beams and rafters were its ribs and brows.
He coughed vigorously, then wheezed. This was a dusty place. The dust of his house lay on his lungs and under the lids of his weary eyes. When he coughed his lungs pumped like sponges, like a housekeeper beating cushions. He had to feed his cat, Harrison. A grey, insouciant and valuable beast, increasingly absent. A nebulous curlicue inched around a corner. His food disappeared regularly and the occasional gift of a shrew or a field vole from the overgrown garden was left in tribute on the doorstep. In any dark corner he expected to see the sulky hunchback that was his cat. A green-bottle fly droned lazily around Harrison’s empty bowl. A persistently irritating creature, it would die soon, Max knew, and the relief afforded by its death would not even be noticed.
He made himself a nightcap. He poured his brandy into a square glass measure, once part of the imperial diamond set. These chores, these items of his solitary man’s routine, pricked at him like tiny splinters hidden in his flesh. All outstanding tasks. He thought again of Dombey’s box, lying unregarded in its shadowy corner, and knew that he had not really forgotten to think about it since he had put it down. It emerged now, but it was always there. One mouth opened and one mouth closed. Perhaps that was it. It would bear sleeping on.
He took one last look about him before he dimmed the soft small glow of his lamp. As always he bid his house farewell as though he were embarking on a journey. There were some bright things here. The clean white table-cloths with figures of wild strawberry plants sewn discreetly in each corner seemed to shine even after the light was gone. He ran a hand over the jagged convexities of the fruit carved into the headboard of his lonely bed.
Max woke and thought of Dombey’s box. He shut his own open mouth which had dribbled greasily onto his whiskery cheek. The open mouth and the closed. He sucked up the last slick of brandy and kicked his blankets into a curdy welter. He wanted to look at the box again. He might catch it now unawares. He had little sense of the hour. None of his many clocks told the true time, he thought, although some of them may have done so. The moonlight made a ploughed field of the floor. He pulled open the door of his zinc wardrobe. Chinese. Essential to keep one’s clothes free of mold in that dank climate. He took out his dressing gown which had once borne a bold pattern, long sunk into furry rust. He might encounter Harrison. He was anxious concerning the whereabouts of this box.
Max looked round his bedroom and found it odd, at odds with how it should be. Not that he was unused to seeing it at this unknown hour. It was as if he had drawn a straight line and considered it straight, but at the same time knew, somehow, that it was not quite vertical. Things were off kilter. He had an inkling that he was dreaming. Yes, he was all but certain that he was not awake.
His map room was a good place to orientate himself. Old maps and charts were tacked on all of the walls and rolled open on all of the tables. Many had been in this exact state for several years, browning, curling, dog-eared. Only a few displayed maps of countries which were not roughly hypothetical. Even so, Max knew these countries well. He squinted now at these sheets and could make nothing of them. He was all at sea. He could read the names of countries, rivers and oceans but these names conveyed nothing to him. He turned to a wooden globe and span it nervously. It did not appear to be his world. With a gush of some relief he suddenly thought that he knew it was a moon globe, a dry world whose many seas were pretences. He also knew that he possessed no such thing. Max looked again at his largest, newest and supposedly most reliable map of the world and saw that south was at the top. He would work himself down to the north, mining the labyrinth of his unfamiliar home. The great bulk of this house would press down upon him.
He stepped from this room and stared up at the high windows at the top of his house. Their glass was thick, aqueous and pocked with bubbles and other flaws. They let in a damp light, reluctantly, but were not for looking through. The windows were obscured and dirty. Should they ever be cleaned they would look out only on more dirt and obscurity. Moths or butterflies battled at the glass where it was most inaccessible. That or slow flakes of snow. What items here? A stuffed wading bird in a case, its throat still a dusky flush, caught forever in a posture of futile stealth. A pipe with an amber mouth-piece. A revolver. An hour-glass. A wooden marionette, naked as though flayed to a cadaver, but with a much-chipped plaster head, a dissipated expression and only one unbroken string. Max thought he might have sold these things at an inconsiderable loss long ago.
He was not tempted to pocket the probably dangerously useless gun until he noticed the door in the corner that, of course, must have always been there, but which he had never seen before. A grubby horn-yellow lozenge, its handle a worn oval metal clasp, the door a much larger aperture than it had at first appeared, the yellow doubled by a mahogany-black surround. Max opened this without difficulty or hesitation.
The door opened and closed like a fist. These were molten, fluid, folded spaces.
This room was less dream-like, more familiar, further decayed, less happy. To find the box was now a mission, a vocation, a wish.
In this cheerless room he found an old handkerchief, once a square of clean white cotton, now crumpled to a hard dry stone, to a cuttle bone. There was a saucer of milk, in the shape of a mouse, laid there to placate the demon spirits of this house. He heard a strain of a violin, a fine instrument played by an awkward hand, which became the repetitive chirp of a cricket that he knew his old ears should not be able to hear. He was beginning to be aware of the idea that he was asleep once more which meant that he could not be. He looked at the air in this room and it rocked like the sea. He was in the box. He knew he was in the box.
He stepped down a narrow stair, humped his shoulder through the passage and his shadow slipped past him like a cat. Where was Harrison?
He clicked on the numerous lamps, only some of which responded with a spurt of wan light. He was in a room of books, parchment and pictures, which reassured. A place that might be read. He stood before a sombre landscape propped in its gilt frame on a desk-top. Spires, farms, blue hills. He should know them, he felt, he might have painted them himself, but they were as alien as fondest fantasy. More pictures with and without frames, turned to face the wall. Many mirrors, badly tarnished mostly. He bowed through these a nodding shade. There was a chess board half way through a game, or perhaps set up as a problem. The position was impossible. Only desperate moves seemed likely. There was a newspaper folded at the crossword, part-completed. The books were opened or places marked with silk ribbons of green, blue, red. He picked up a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, his own certainly, used only on occasion and now one lens cracked like a frosted spider’s web. All of the books were printed each in a different alphabet, none even guessable.
He foraged on, then thought of going back to the newspaper to check the date and then forgot about it. He found his Chinese cricket cage which had been empty for a century and still was. A buttonhook, a cut-throat razor, a metronome. He called for his cat, Harrison.
But his voice sounded muted and rebuked. He kicked an empty scabbard, unnoticed in the half-light.
A lamp was still on in the little room where one might prepare simple meals. He would not call it the kitchen. He avoided that place. He glanced through the door at its grimy coving with its skeins of webbery, its gossamer filth. It made him sneeze, once and ecstatically, just to look at it. Curry spice. Pepper at least. Where coffee black as oil was brewed. The floor was gritty, all surfaces viscous. Best not to raise your eyes above head height. He realized this room was more familiar. He was remembering it from another squalid dream, perhaps.
The linen on the tables was uncared-for here. A sign of a room in which no one had lived for a long time. The strawberry motifs had become wicked faces. He found a pool of spilt honey dried to amber. And a block of chocolate green with fur and bitter as remorse. He knew that in the next room he would find his bureau and Paul Dombey’s box. This knowing was a prophecy and a guarantee. He would still not be able to open the box. All of this was true.
He reached his hand into its corner and ran his fingers around its scalloped edge. He winced as it cut him and sucked sharply through his teeth. He smelled his own blood, heavy and resinous. He saw it russet then violet as it smeared over the box. Max had made a jelly of some of his flesh. He felt Harrison round the back of his ankles as though summoned. Max knew the box was a key. He now wondered if he might not be dead. He squeezed the butt of the revolver in his pocket. Should he succeed in opening the box now, he thought, he might be trapped forever.
He looked at his hand under the wagging lamp and noted the crumbs of sepia blood collected around his cuticles. A good sign. The dead could not be wounded.
Max was a secretive man and he admired secretiveness in others, but he wished he could know where Paul Dombey had acquired this box. Naming things tamed them. This was Deaf John’s dark house. He began to imagine what he would find next. The box felt warm clutched in his sore fingers. To a room of animals. The miasmic Harrison was close at his heels.
A vicious room this, of pelts and hides. Grisly trophies. More birds in glass cases, their dusty corpses. An owl, an eagle, a wood grouse. Their skin their own, but their eyes of jet, jade and black glass. A polar fox and the painting of an elk by a man who had never seen one. And the things that had really killed them. Powder horns, pyramids of shot, nooses, traps and snares. Pellets as fine as dust for killing kingfishers and firecrests.
Here were family photographs of a family Max did not have. A man in a soldier’s uniform looking neat but bewildered. Two little girls in starched pinafores; could be twins, at least sisters, certainly unhappy about it, enemies even. One jaunty and a daredevil. One dour but good. A group of three generations bound by obligation, desire, antipathy. The only personal photograph Max had was of himself as a pallid baby back in his real house to which he might never return. Chance had scattered four dead flies behind that picture, he had found, when last he had moved it.
Armour here, not a full set, but enough to give you the horror of a man immured, girt in, trapped in a canister. The scrollwork was lavish. Not visible to the knight, but known by him. Various small contrivances, engines and contraptions, all broken. More washed-up flotsam; collar studs, cuff-links, a tie-pin. There was a Dutch saucer full of buttons, some of a yellow bone. Coils of sticky paper depended from the ceiling thick with black flies miserably dead a summer ago.
Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton. Stories have appeared in Stand, Panurge, Eclectica, Confingo, Punt Volat, HCE, Wraparound South, Heirlock, Decadent Review, the Nightjar chapbook series and elsewhere. Micro-stories have appeared in 5×5, Palm-Sized Press, Star 82, Ocotillo Review, deathcap. A story is included in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020.
Image via Pixabay