A mysterious box that hadn't been opened in over 100 years
Without more than a few minutes forethought, I read the criteria and plunged right into writing the story. A couple hours later, here's what we have! Thanks for the challenge and the creative journey - if you like it, we'll do it again soon! Enjoy...
It hadn't rained in nearly eight months. The grand oak tree in the front yard had all but died when the clouds started to form overhead. The pillows of clouds soon turned into dark, shadowy blankets, and the first drop of rain hit the window of the old farmhouse like a fat mosquito slapped on a hot summer day. Splat!
The lightning crept across the plain, first silently, and then followed by echoes of thunder in the distance.
Granny lit the old kerosene lamp just a few seconds before the power went out. This wasn't her first thunderstorm, after all. She always knew when a bad one was on its way, if not for the telling clouds in the sky, then for the achey creak in her left heel when she climbed the steps up to her bedroom. That sore heel was more of a soothsayer to her than any weather man on the transistor radio.
Can only trust em as far as I can throw em - and that ain't far at my age. They're all in the business of selling umbrellas if you ask me.
Granny was nearing her eighties, though she couldn't be sure of her exact age. She had lost track somewhere around seventy-two, and no one who knew her well enough was around to debate her if the subject came up. She really wasn't a true "granny", in fact. She had grown up in the same house her entire life, never married. The years had passed her by as she quietly tended to her gardens and her chickens, while the nearby town had grown from rural community into bustling metropolis. She didn't even know her own mailman's name anymore. The world had seemed to speed up while she only grew more tired with each passing day.
There was a knock at the door. Or was it just thunder? She paused at the top of the steps and squinted down into the foyer. Was that a shadow outside? Was someone there? Lightning pierced the sky and lit up the windows as if God himself had turned the lights back on outside her home.
Her heel ached and she took a deep sigh. Better safe than sorry, she thought.
As she creeped down the stairs, there was a sudden cry outside. A shriek that shook the screen door as it rattled in the wind and rain. A cat perhaps? That's just what she needed - some old wet cat scratching up her recently repaired screen door.
She wrapped both her hands around the doorknob as she yanked it open.
Thunder bellowed as she looked down into the basket in the middle of the doorway.
The baby had the face of an angel and the cry of a demon. A baby!
Granny caught her breath as the wind howled and rang the chimes hanging above her porch. In an instant (though it felt to her like time had altogether stopped) she scooped the child out of the basket and brought her inside.
"Why darling, what are you doing out there?" Granny spoke as if an old friend had stopped by for a piece of blueberry cobbler.
The baby stopped crying as soon as she was in Granny's arms. She looked up at the old woman, studying each groove in her aged face, blinking as if she had finally found the answer to a riddle.
"Now, let's have a look at you."
Granny unwrapped the baby just enough to get the chill off of her and take a peek at her face. She snuggled into the dusty sofa in the parlor room that went untouched day after day, and grabbed an afghan off the quilt rack by the fireplace. The light from the kerosene lamp cast long shadows against the walls of the parlor. The wall paper was curling at every seam and the ceiling was weathered from years of various leaks and makeshift repairs.
The baby curled her fingers around the edge of the warm afghan as Granny craned her neck back, giving way to the light of the lamp beside her. The baby blinked and slowly smiled. She was pink now, retaining the color she had screamed out of herself earlier. Her eyes were vibrant blue, even in the dim light Granny could see that they were like wild blueberries floating in fresh cream. Then there was that hair! Just a tuft. A soft sweeping of it straight from the crown of her head and curled up in front. It was citrusy orange, so bright and beautiful that Granny could nearly smell the scent of freshly squeezed oranges straight from her brow.
"Why, your hair is the color of marmalade!" The baby let out a soft squeal of delight.
Marmalade ran around the giant oak in the front yard. The tree had been there since before the civil war and it's branches extended over the lawn like a giant green umbrella. Marmalade pulled up her knee socks and bent down to tie her shoe - a skill she was quite proud of mastering just last week, still ahead of the curve for a five-year-old.
She licked her thumb and rubbed a ruddy scab on her knee, no doubt from the tree-climbing feat she had attempted last week. If Granny had allowed her to wear shorts instead of this silly dress, that never would have happened. Still, Granny took such pride in every stitch of the dresses she sewed for Marmalade. They were simple and plain, really. A yellow calico, a green seersucker, a lavender rosebud print. But Granny had thought her days of sewing dresses had been long past, so she savored every strand of thread, even if the needle did prick her finger now and then. Her hands weren't what they used to be.
Marmalade ran into the house, bounding the stairs on the porch two at a time. She was overdue for school, Granny knew, but she couldn't bear the thought of her darling taking that abominable deathtrap of a school bus all the way into town each day and Granny's eyesight was even more of a risk than the bus when she got behind the wheel. What was the harm in waiting at least one more year?
She knew if she asked the neighboring farm family to pick up Marmalade that they would be happy to do it. The Buzby family was kind and generous, with two ornery boys just a little older than Marmalade. Mrs. Buzby often brought by surplus from her garden, which Granny was very pleased with and in return would create magnificent stews and cobblers from them, offering them back to the Buzby clan which would immediately get turned down to ensure Granny and Marmalade had sufficient food for their own table. It was a sort of tug-of-war of the most delicious kind. Sometimes the Buzby boys would watch the back and forth of the food with their tongues hanging right out of their faces, sweating with appetite at the scent of the scrumptious duel. But Mrs. Buzby would always win, and Marmalade would smirk with concealed delight at the defeat of their having to devour garden stew for the next several nights.
Most days Marmalade stayed home, reading aloud to Granny as she sat in the rocking chair and sewed new dresses for Marmalade, or repaired the ones she had recently snared on her adventures the day before. Marmalade was a fairly advanced reader for her age. Granny had taught her many words before her eyesight had declined, and Marmalade would slowly sound out even the most difficult words while she spelled the ones she could not decipher so Granny could interpret and teach her the difference between "in-sur-moun-ta-ble" and "in-spir-a-tion-al".
In fact, when Marmalade wasn't out chasing foxes in the meadow or gathering dandelions for Granny, she was reading. Book after book, they would sit and sip fresh cider on the porch and slowly, word by word, devour towers of books. Marmalade would walk into the old library, clear at the back of the farmhouse where Granny's great-grandfather had started collecting books, filling shelf after shelf with pride. They were dusty and worn and smelled of mildew, but their print was intact, as were the stories they wove.
"The End." Marmalade shut another book with a giant "clop!" and smiled up at Granny who raised her eyebrows as if to say Congratulations, what now? Granny swayed in the rocking chair as a cool breeze swept across the porch. The air was warm, but the breeze had a crisp chill to it, reminding her that autumn was just a thunderstorm away. She was mending the hem of Marmalade's latest victim, her red dress with the eyelet trim had lost a battle with the thorns on the rosebush by the ditch creek. Granny jerked her hand as she pricked herself, giving her fingertip a nibble to stop the pain before it gave way to a drop of blood.
Marmalade stood up and positioned the book on top of her head as she started to walk into the house, failing to balance it beyond two steps at a time. She made her way to the library and managed to bend over, tipping the book into place on the shelf by only using her head to lower it and scoot it into its rightful slot.
What to read next... she thought as she hung her head low, bending to see the books on the lowest shelf. The shelves were thick mahogany, built in against the wall with a little more than two inches gap underneath. Marmalade often wondered what could be lost under that gap in between the floor and the lowest shelf. No doubt there was years of dust and most likely a crowded cockroach cemetery.
She gazed into the crack. She lowered herself onto her belly to have a proper look. As her body mopped the floor, she gained the courage to stick her hand into the unknown and see what treasures (or terrors) she might find.
Reaching, reaching...she held her breath. It was dry and dirty, but there wasn't....wait...that was something. There was something there. Long, maybe a corner to it? Two corners? And hard? She waved her hand and heard something scoot across the floor. She pulled it forward and out came a small box, about the size of a jewelry box, but not full size, maybe it was for a doll.
Marmalade sat up. She held the box in her palm, as it wasn't much bigger than the surface of her whole hand. It was covered in a thick layer of dust, so naturally she used the edge of her dress to wipe it off.
The box was wooden, intricately hand carved, and had a design on its top. She spat on it and wiped it off some more, now thoroughly preparing her dress for next day's laundry. The lid had an inlay of mother of pearl. There were diamond shapes in the four corners and a row of triangles across the bottom. In the middle, there was a cluster of triangles and diamonds, positioned to look like the silhouette of a sea turtle. She traced the outline of the little white turtle with her muddy fingers. It was smooth and lovely. There was only one problem. It wouldn't open. There didn't seem to be any latch or any lock, but the lid would not move.
Granny was smoothing out the new hem of Marmalade's dress when she came back out to the porch and plopped the box onto Granny's lap.
"My goodness. What did you find?"
"What is it?" Marmalade inquired.
"What do you think it is?" Granny held up the box, examining it in her hand.
"I think it's a riddle."
Granny raised her eyebrows.
"It won't open," Marmalade explained.
They paused and looked at each other. They examined each other's expressions as much as they examined the box, just to see if there was a hint of knowledge the other hadn't given way to yet. Both suspected the other knew something she wasn't saying.
"This box is more than one hundred years old, Marmalade."
Her eyes filled with wonder. She had never known anything to be that old, except for maybe that giant oak in the front yard.
"It belonged to my grandmother many years ago. It used to sit on the shelf of her vanity, next to a jar of pennies that me and my grandfather would collect from the train tracks on our long walks. I haven't seen it in a very long time. She used to tell me that the box had a secret in it. That the turtle on top...you see the turtle?" Marmalade nodded as Granny continued. "...the turtle was a sign of good fortune, and that if you believed in that magic turtle, he would protect you with whatever was in the box."
"So what's in the box?"
"I don't know. I never got it open. I suppose I was never quite brave enough to really believe a white little turtle could be that lucky."
Granny stood up. She laid the little box in Marmalade's open hands and turned to walk inside.
Marmalade studied the box. She traced the outline again and again, making the little turtle shiny with the oil from her fingers.
She shut her eyes as she held the box close, and a distant roll of thunder hummed across the field in front of the house.
Marmalade shut her suitcase. That was the last of it. Her entire life fit into one small bag. She would have to come back for the books from the library, but she had no where to store them for now. The Buzby house wasn't nearly the size of her farmhouse, and there were twice as many people living there. It didn't matter too much though, she decided. After all, she would only live there a few years before leaving for college anyway. And then she could get her hands on all the books she wanted.
Granny's funeral had been short and plain. The Reverend had quoted her favorite Psalms and some of the local farmers had even put on their best overalls to come by and offer their condolences. Not that any of them had known Granny very well. Marmalade knew that they were more interested in scoping out the plot of land south of the house than truly sympathizing for her loss. Still, the ones that brought hot apple muffins or fresh pumpkin pies were at least going out of their way a little bit, and the company helped distract her from her loss, even if it was fleeting.
She took a look around her room. There were blank ovals left on the wall from where pictures had hung over her bed. She thought she would take them with her, at least a little something to make the room at the Buzby's feel like home. They were crosstitched portraits that Granny had made when her eyesight was still good and when Marmalade was just a baby. "Right after the angels dropped you off," Granny used to say. One picture was a little deer with a blue bow around it's neck. It was a cheerful fawn, speckled with white spots on its rear and it was sniffing a little yellow daisy. The other was a tree, not unlike the giant oak that stood in front of the house, and Marmalade knew it would always remind her of those summer days she would run around barefoot for hours, leaping under the great shade of the oak. That tree would be there forever, even if she never saw it again.
The rest of the room was bare for the most part. She would leave the furniture for now. She had no need (or room) for it at the Buzby's and it was sure to get a good price in the estate sale. College money, she reminded herself. She suspected that was Granny's intent all along when she had suggested the selling of the farm to Marmalade in her will.
Marmalade lifted her suitcase in one great heave, and started to turn toward the door when she heard something clammer and break. She looked at the floor and saw the small wooden box.
"Now, how did that..." as she knelt down she realized the box had broken.
The box was open.
She picked up the pieces and discovered that the lid had cracked right down the middle of the turtle. That little white turtle! She ran her thumb over the top of it, remembering how she had traced it again and again as a small child, making wishes and hoping they would come true. She had never found the turtle to bring her much luck, but still it had comforted her and distracted her through many stormy nights when she needed to believe in something.
Now, the lid was cracked and the box was destroyed. For a moment, she was glad Granny wasn't there, thinking how heartbroken she may have been to see the little treasure in pieces.
And then Marmalade looked closer. Something was inside. Stuck. What was that?
She shook the box, and out tumbled a little object, dropping like a marble onto the hem of her dress. She ruffled her skirt and there, tucked along the edge, was a little pewter thimble.
She held it up. The little thimble held protection, indeed, just like Granny had said.
Marmalade left the farmhouse that day, thimble in her pocket, and Granny in her heart. She passed by the great oak one last time, and never looked back.