The Music Box

(Dear reader, please imagine the narrator speaking with an accent typical of the Deep South in the United States.)

My fingers snaked through the air.  They reached and just before grazing the surface, they shied away and retreated to the warmth of my body.

I’d been at this dance on and off for about a week.  It was idiotic.  The box was just a box.  Dust coated it, thick as a second skin.  It was a plain box.  No scrollwork, or exotic designs curled across its surface.  Its sides did not curve with a gracious bulge.  The edges were straight.  Simple. It even lacked varnish or stain.  It stood squat and naked in just about its most natural state.  By all reason, it should not have been as captivating as it was; but there I stood again, barefoot in Granny’s basement.

My body swayed back and forth.  It’d happened the last time I’d come.  I had been ready then.  My heart had been steady, my breath measured.  My hand had been about to close over it, like a palm to a baby’s skull.

“Damn it, Child.  Don’t you know pickles from tomaytahs.” Granny shrieked down the stairs, and shattered the moment.  She said it like that, full of the South.

Well, at this moment she was gone getting her hair done, and then going out with “the girls” for bridge and roast beef.  Or maybe it was chicken fried steak.

She was gone now; that’s all that mattered. And I was standing before the box again.  My heart felt hummingbird frantic.  It raced.  It darted.  I couldn’t touch it like that, so full.  I don’t know why I thought this, but I had to be empty to touch it.

My gaze bounced around.  I was in a secret basement room, complete with cobwebs and dead rats.  A broken down bed slunked in one corner, falling into itself sinkhole-like.  Lichen and moss covered some parts of the wall.  A hurricane lantern rested on its side in the middle of the floor.  Shards of glass spilled from it, like the guts of a possum on the road.  A rocking chair sat crooked in the corner.  All around it were snowdrifts of termite plugs.

There was a wash basin, a pitcher, and of course the ladder I had dropped through the trap door in the basement floor.

Looking up was like peering through a fog into a bit of clear sky.  The world there was fresher.  Life stirred through it.  The shelves were constantly depleted and refilled.  The one hiding the opening hung from a track.  I would have never known it slid back to reveal to a trap door had I not been leaned against while fooling around with Bobby Andrew.

Even still it wasn’t all that obvious.  The grain of the door and the rest of the floor blended perfectly, and the cracks just looked like the end of one plank and the beginning of another.  A naked bulb hung overhead up there.

This room, at some point in time prior to electricity, had been made, dug out of the earth.  And hidden.  It had purpose.

My gaze returned to the box.  As plain as it was, it was the only real personal thing down here.  Much as the other things had the stamp of human on them, the box itself seemed to breathe.  It was body.  It was soul.

I returned to it in full, took it in by sight, absorbed it through my pores.  Through the simple passive act of respiration, it came into my body.

The swaying started again.  I closed my eyes, and sunk into the rhythm of the movement.  There was sweetness here, in the stillness of this place, in the silence that was not quite silence.

An almost sound traced the outside of my ear, licked the rim of my ear canal.  I hadn’t stopped swaying, and my arms were raising, hands drifting, floating away from me like a bubble.

I felt the box before I actually touched it.  Electricity arched, sang through my fingertips and along my nerves until my whole body, from the smallest structure to the largest system, vibrated from it.

My fingers grazed through the dirt and grime.  The sound of flesh against wood rasped through the air.  My thumbs ran along the front edge, where the lid met the body.  They flirted with it, brushed over that lip once, then twice, long against the barest of gaps.  The hinge, noiseless, eased open.  The room oscillated and a low deep moan broke across me.

It stared as something animal and senseless, and moved to holding raw meaning in its arms. A rhythm emerged.  It reminded me of a rickety plywood shack we’d driven by once on a visit to Granny ages ago when Mama thought Granny couldn’t be trusted with me alone.  When Granny was full of hellfire and damnation and the gospel of Jesus.  The plywood shack rattled with music.  Through its one narrow window, the silhouettes of people swayed.  Their voices penetrated through the walls, through the metal and glass of the car.  The sounds they made were exalted and mean, low as the belly of an ant, and high as a satellite.  Their sound was full of the delicate light of the moon and bursting with the richness of pecan pie filling.

Song.  Song poured through the room.  It washed the walls.

I opened my eyes, expected to see blood pouring from the box, to see people struggling over its rim, spilling out and expanding into the room.  It was empty.  Its insides was as its outsides, except for a tiny pair of initials branded on the underside of the lid, near a corner where they could barely be seen.

A soft warm glow supplanted the dim light of the bulb whispering down from above, as if the lantern was upright, unbroken and lit.

Still the song continued.  It was a woman’s voice, deep and rich, full of life and longing.  The cadence of the song changed.  It quickened and jerked, like a rock tumbling down a mountainside, eager to get where it was going. There were words in the deep emoting of her voice which were lost to me.

Footsteps scratched overhead.  Voices got caught in the thickness of the walls, came through muffled, without shape or form.  But they sounded through the room like thunder.  Like a fist falling.  Like a threat on the edge of moving from word to action.

“These damned stations.”  The words were dim and diffused.

Hands still on the box, my gaze drifted around the room, to the hole in the ceiling.  It was as if it wasn’t open at all.  It was as if I was down here and trapped, with both the hatch shut and the shelves swung into place.  The footsteps were the claws of a predator pawing around up there.  Scratch, scratch, scratching.  Looking for edges, searching for leverage.  The wheels screeched along the track and I could feel the weight of them standing on me, could sense the flesh of their muzzles pressed against the opening, sniffing and snorting, drawing in the scent of her.

Her song changed.  The box shook in my hands.  Sorrow spilled through the room and her voice trembled. Then it grew quiet and steady and full of strength.

“Come on out, you coon.  I can hear you moaning down there.  That awful wailing y’all do.”  Laughter howled.

A fire of goosebumps lit up my arms, crawled down my back, his voice was that cold.

“There ain’t no Promised Land for you.  You ain’t got nothin coming to you ‘ceptin some punishment like you deserve, and some good ol’ work.  Now you’d best comply.”

With the future so clear, and the punishment, too, still she sang, as if she was singing the world into being.  Or out of it.

As the phantom sound of the hatch scraping open cut into the room, her voice grew louder.  Her words sparkled with clarity, though I still couldn’t understand them.  She was singing in French, or Creole.  Whatever it was, I could only sense the meaning, the intention behind them.

“Stop your Voodoo, Woman.”

My lips curled into a bitter smile, because hers had in that moment.  At those words.  A shadow of a ladder slipped through the opening.  Wood thudded against the hard packed dirt. Feet slapped on the rungs.  The ladder creaked.  Wheezing filled the room.  His breath filled the room.

Stay calm.  Finish the song.

Even with all those shadows, real and imagined, the only thing I cared about was her voice, her feelings, and the sense of purpose she had in the singing of her song.  She had to have had her flesh on the box, been facing it.  She had to have been gazing into as she sang, even as they broke through the illusion and entered into this space that was supposed to be secret and safe.

It was not possible, but her voice sounded like two voices, one lapping over the other, building, growing on top of each other.  Her sound magnified. It grew shrill until it was high and sharp enough to break glass and pierce of eardrums.

I could feel her there, ripping apart my ears.  I could almost feel blood trickling down my neck.

It stopped.

My hands shook.  The box in them shook.  It was no longer on the table.  I was holding it close to me.  Then my body played out a ritual it somehow knew.  I exhaled into the box, hummed a tune nothing like what she had sung, and at the same time like nothing that was within my knowing.  I closed the lid, wiped a space clean along the front of it.  There I delivered a kiss unto the box.  A promise.

The scene.  The intruders.  Her.  It was left unfinished.  A sketch.  Like her voice, shape without form.

In the next moment, the aluminum ladder clacked beneath me.  I clutched the box to my chest and climbed with one hand.  The ladder danced, leaned backward onto me.  I closed my eyes, hummed a melody in my throat, and threw my weight forward to reseat it.  She belonged there, in my hands and close to my heart.

The sounds around me changed from a hushed breath heard by pressing an ear to the deep womb of the basement, to the bright sounds of birds and barking dogs and the electrostatic drone and garbled talk of a television.

When I blinked, Grandpa’s old work bench appeared before me.  The box waited.  I wiped a clean cloth over its top, its sides.  With firm strokes, I ran the cloth along its underbelly.  I wrapped my fingers around its legs, freed them from the grime and dirt, too.

Then I found some beeswax and orange oil.  As I slathered it over the wood, the box seemed to sigh in my hands.  Once I was done tending it, I hid it again.  This time in my bag.  Granny didn’t need to know.  She wouldn’t understand anyhow.  I could see her now, calling on the preacher to deliver me from possession.  That was hardly the case.

 

When I came to myself again, I was standing on a bridge.  A boundary marker was a few dozen feet in front of me.  Canada, it said.

She was in my hands, still patient but growing weary of the box, which vibrated and strained. I eased the lid open for the first time since the basement.

Her voice flowed into the air and drifted north.

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