the story of the box

John Colburn

I looked in the box. I did it when Grandfather was asleep, which is most of the time now. I heard snoring above the slow pulse of the oxygen tank, and I snuck upstairs to the locked hall closet and brought the box down from the top shelf and took out the smaller key hanging on a little nail inside the closet. I opened the box.
       I was told never to open the box. Inside I found a bottle of pills and a set of instructions. I read all the words and looked at the terrible charts. Then I sat down in the hallway and wondered about my family. About Grandfather, of course, but also my siblings. I am the youngest. They call me baby girl. They say I have it easy.
       I locked the box, placed it carefully back on the top shelf and locked the closet. I could hear the furnace, the grandfather clock, the oxygen tank and the snoring. The occasional bird from outside. I smelled the hot dusty odor of the wooden shelves.
       I went back downstairs and looked at Grandfather, his cruel lips and fluttering eyelids. The skin of his hand grown sheer like a nightgown or curtain and all the poison blood going around and around, a horrible diseased carousel: My Grandfather the carousel pony. My Grandfather the box of poison. My Grandfather the rung bell. My Grandfather the dead strand of hair.
       I stood over him with my difficult feeling. Maybe I felt a broadening, maybe an opening up, but also maybe a hardening scar. Maybe a tingling through my body where tragic knowledge could root. Outside birds skittered among the leaves; they seemed sinister. Morning light would arrive soon; earth had turned around. I felt focused as a lens, all the wild feelings named Grandfather suddenly one, and what a fool I had been. The mountain was finally only a mountain, the silence deeper because it attached to other silences, and I was small and alone, making my choices in the world.
       Then Grandfather woke up.
       I said, “Grandfather, I looked in the box,” and he said, “What?” He was confused; he didn’t know what I was talking about. He struggled to say something and gestured weakly with his right hand. After a moment he fell back asleep.
       I wanted everyone to know I looked in the box. I wanted everyone to know about the box in the closet and the person inside each of us waiting to use it. I wanted to understand the difficult feeling.

Grandfather sat asleep again in the bright day, in the quiet house. I went to the back yard because I heard a sound, a manic rustling from the edge of the forest, as from some being in trouble. The back yard edged a patch of woods that made a barrier to the encroaching developments.
       I walked toward the sound and it stopped, so I stood still and waited.
       Each time the rustling started, I stepped closer until it stopped. An animal was struggling, I was sure of that. I felt drawn to a spot of intensity in the yard. Gradually, I stepped closer and closer. Then I saw the squirrel, too young to be alone, its little mouth open and its chest heaving.
       I bent over it and murmured some words from church mixed with some words from Grandmother. The squirrel was sick too. I made a nest of leaves in my hand, and I picked up the squirrel. It seemed to be in shock. I carried it across the yard and into the house, carefully sliding open the back screen door while holding the squirrel close and level.
       I put the little squirrel in a shoebox and placed it on the footstool. I covered it with a washcloth. Its breath came slow, and it blinked every so often. When I stroked its back, it gasped and tried to swallow.
       Grandfather said “What are you doing with that, and how did it get so small?”
“I think it’s going to die,” I said. Grandfather stared at me. His veins seemed blue paper, pasted to his skin. I could not tell how he was seeing me, through what material or memory. He asked me how old I was. He watched something moving through the air behind me, but when I turned around there was nothing. I helped him with the television remote; I brought him a glass of water.
       Eventually when we checked on the squirrel, it was dead.
       Grandfather said, “Bring me my pocket knife.” I went to his dresser, where he kept his pocket change and handkerchief and keys and a small, folding knife. The house clicked and whirred with systems of heating and cooling and, it seemed, breathing. It went on without us. Outside shadows showed how summer wind whipped the new leaves.
       I handed him the knife. His fingers seemed too large and numb to open it, but when I tried to help he grew angry. He fumbled on. Eventually the little blade clicked into place. The house clicked on too.
       Grandfather looked at the inside of the tiny squirrel, cutting and then prying the ribs apart with two fingers. He said “If you want me to live, you have to kill one each of the animals in the forest. They all have a little section of my heart.” The oxygen tank wheezed. He stared over his glasses at me.
       I thought for a second that he was dreaming, but that didn’t explain my part in the situation.
       He handed me the torn apart squirrel, still warm, and said “Get rid of this.”
       I knew it was right to listen to grandfather, but I also knew it was wrong to kill the animals. A light had come over us there in the living room, and inside that circle of light we had entered grandfather’s dream, with its strange rules.
       I said, “Yes sir,” and even bowed slightly. Then I walked out of the living room and to the back door. I had never called him sir before. It was right to keep my grandfather alive as long as possible. I walked in the backyard kicking a rock along. Where the forest started now there seemed an impenetrable darkness and each bright bird sang its unseen life to me. What dreams did I have to tend, I wondered.

By late afternoon the heat of the yard and the suffocating hush of the house had grown unbearable.
       I stepped into the forest and caught my sweatshirt on a wild raspberry bush. When I turned around I saw the house and the flickering blue television light filling the living room window in mechanical rhythm. I could imagine grandfather there, tracking me. The house looked monstrous.
       I walked further in the woods and it seemed there were only two choices: kill the animals or kill my grandfather. I wondered why a grandchild would have to make this choice.
       I found a deer path and followed it for a while. The sun hung low through the treeline, and the tree trunks, even the space around them, turned dark blue, then gray.
       I stopped and listened. All around me I heard rustling in leaves, wings flapping, toads and birds and crickets calling out. They spoke to me but not only to me. Everyone spoke to everyone in the woods.
       Then I heard my grandmother, calling my name and shouting “dinner’s ready,” and I turned back toward the lights of the house.

Grandfather ate in his chair and demanded various attentions. Grandmother busied herself, always eating a little then standing back up to check a dish or a thermostat, her hair immovable and auburn, a brittle helmet. The strangeness of mashed potatoes in summer. But time had entered limbo. We ate quietly and felt our heartbreak. Grandfather said “I need more butter,” but when I looked at his plate there was nothing left to smear with butter. I passed it to him. He just needed it.
       After dinner my thoughts began to tumble. Grandmother loaded the dishwasher while I played solitaire on the floor near the television. On the television screen bodies were being ripped apart by bullets and dissected by doctors and punched in the face and tied to chairs. All the night was one long assault against the body set to strange, pulsing music. Occasionally Grandfather laughed.
       Grandmother read in her chair, feet up. Grandfather dozed in and out, in and out, his reality like a breath. I lay my head on the cool plastic of the playing cards. We all eased into drifting night.
       I woke and needed to go to the bathroom. I sat up with the six of diamonds stuck to my face. The house had changed shape, and parts of it were inside out. Parts of it were forest now.
       Grandfather said, “I will make my dream smaller and smaller so you can find everything.”
       He stood outside the bathroom door. A fluttering giant.
       I woke again and walked out the side door to the edge of the yard and the seething trees. I slid the door open.
       The giant metal box of the air conditioner hummed to my left. I walked straight ahead, toward the dark recesses of woods edge.
       All was dream. I had learned that in school. At the grassy edge, where the lawnmower could no longer encroach, I knelt and watched. My eyes adjusted to the dream.
       The first animal arrived, unhurried, poking its nose here and there. In strange moonlight I saw a path, and the animal turned to look at me directly before walking away down the path. I didn’t know if it had called to me or dared me. I had forgotten a lot of words. My mouth ached.
       Dream Grandfather said, “Let us embrace our fragility as we await merciful absorption.” He stood watching me from the doorway. Again he loomed. He wavered in and out of his form.
       I stood and pointed. I called him to the path in the woods, but he shook his head no. His dream ended at the patio door. “I suffer this distinguishment,” he said, which meant what?
       Once Grandfather had told me “In all the stories in which one action is forbidden, that action must be taken. Someone looks back, someone else turns into salt. Someone gives out a key and someone else unlocks the door to a bloody room full of the dead. Someone demands that a specific jar not be opened, and someone else releases a plague of evil. Get it?” And I remembered this, and I remembered the color of it—pink.
       I woke again. I had almost peed. I stood and hurried down the hall.

In my forays I had identified seven non-bird animals in our patch of Singing Woods: Deer, squirrel, fox, mouse, rabbit, chipmunk and raccoon. There were too many birds to list. Owl, blue jay, robin, sparrow, grackle, crow, chickadee, hawk, woodpecker… I went dizzy with them.
       I decided to collect the hearts of each of the seven animals I knew, and leave the birds alone. Grandfather specifically needed their hearts; his own heart was failing. That seemed logical.
       I didn’t know what he would do with them. I didn’t know how to trap a fox. I thought I could catch a mouse and a chipmunk easily enough.
       I imagined bringing the hearts to Grandfather one by one, still beating. And then what, I didn’t know. I imagined a shoebox. The chipmunk on its back, neatly slit open and still breathing in a nest of leaves and grass, presented like a fancy lunch plate.
       “Here, Grandfather, is the still beating heart of a chipmunk. Will this save you?”
       I imaged Grandfather brightening from his stupor, saying, “No, granddaughter, you still have five hearts to go.” Then he would rip the little heart from the body and eat it. He would become stronger, and send me back to the woods.
       I imagined many times more conversations with Grandfather than were ever spoken aloud. All my life this had been the case.
       I thought how would I bring him a deer? and pictured Grandfather with his oxygen tank and half-closed eyes. I felt again that might be a demon.

Deep into the morning, I lay asleep and warm with a feeling of being surrounded by rain but invisible, a mind rain, a billowy curtain.
       I heard a crashing noise.
       I got up from bed and walked downstairs toward the flickering living room. The television was still on. I could hear the oxygen tank. It brought the full brightness of a moon or planet into the small room.
       On the screen I saw the heart of a deer. As I watched it breathing, my own heart synched up with the dear’s heart on television and the oxygen tank. Grandfather was gone. I followed the lines of oxygen; they were connected to the television. Maybe Grandfather had been replaced by that image of a deer’s heart, pulled from its body and presented on a velvet cloth on television, oxygen tubes connected to its meat.
       I began to look for Grandfather. Empty kitchen. Empty dining room. I heard a noise in the living room, again the manic rustling sound. I hesitated; the living room was dark and there was a smell. My fear pulsed with the rhythm of the heart and the tank.
       I turned on the light. The deer raised its head. There she was.
       The deer stood by the piano, chest cavity opened and dripping blood, but she was alive and shining. She was eating.
       As I moved around the armchair I saw grandfather’s feet, sticking out from where the deer had been grazing. Blood around the deer’s muzzle.
       Then its neck arched unnaturally, and it stepped backward as if propelled by a force inside it. The deer was choking. A terrible sound issued into the room, a wet, deep unclogging, then Grandfather’s heart slid out of the deer’s throat onto the carpet.

In the morning, Grandfather’s body had grown further slack, though his breathing marched on. A smell arose in the room, like decayed band-aids. Grandmother stood over him. She petted his arm like it was a housecat and seemed on the verge of tears. His breath cycled on without care. She leaned to his ear and kept her voice low as if telling a secret. No part of him responded.
       “You stay here with him for just an hour,” she said. “I’m going to church. His spirit needs prayers.”
       The television was still torturing bodies, but no sound came from it. Grandmother took her keys from the hook and went to the garage, holding a tissue to her face. I watched her car leave the driveway from a front window. Then I went upstairs, to the closet. I removed the box and carefully re-read the instructions. There were two different types of pills.
       All the pills were to be taken at once. Some were to prevent vomiting. The body tries.
       I pocketed the pills and found a shoebox in the lower regions of the closet. Down the stairs and to the ragged edge of Singing Woods. Time was doing something strange: it stopped and sped up at the same instant. It telescoped. I fashioned a little nest in the shoebox with leaves and sticks and looked around. Nothing moved.
       Back inside I brought a glass of water to Grandfather’s tray then retreated. I prepared the pills by covering them with butter and approached again, his body clicking and wheezing there before his lord.
       “Grandfather.” His breathing did not register my voice. “Grandfather, I have the heart of a rabbit here. You need to eat it. It will make you strong. Grandfather.”
       I touched his face. He opened his mouth just a little. I pulled his jaw down and put the pills on his tongue and closed his mouth. He tried to gag, but he was weak. I didn’t let him.
       I stroked his throat and waited for him to swallow, just as I had seen my cousin do when she gave medicine to the dog.
       Grandfather swallowed. I wiped my buttery hands on the rug. A squirrel hung from a branch outside the window, trying to get at the bird feeder. I watched TV while I waited.

I removed the oxygen tube slowly from his nose and passed it over his head, where it haloed the tenderness of his flesh. Next I tried to drag him down the hall by the ankles. I tried not to think. Or to only think that I did this out of love and out of respect for his wishes. His body was the heaviest thing I’d ever moved and I couldn’t move it far. Eventually, though I was weeping, I found the old skateboard in the foul, musty garage and maneuvered it under his spine.
       I think I had fallen in love with death.
       When I opened the sliding door I heard birdcalls from all across the backyard and the forest. I dragged Grandfather out into the birdsong, heartless, in his pajamas. His eyes gone peaceful and flat reflected the blue above.
       I arranged grandfather in the middle of the back yard and waited.
       After what seemed a long time a bold fat robin landed close to me, and I sat still as possible, a few feet from Grandfather.
       When the birds came I would go back into the house and turn off the television.
       And I knew they would come.
       Grandfather the heartless shrine.
       The robin hopped near Grandfather’s leg and cocked one eye at me. It hopped to Grandfather’s shoe. His dying smell must have sent a torrent of love into the yard. A few bees began to arrive near the head. I listened.
       Everyone would have such pity for me. How I had tried to save him. Larger birds circled above us. I could just make out the path in the woods. I imagined the animals waiting there. Grandather twitched, or was it the tug of a beast upon his flesh?


John Colburn is the author of Invisible Daughter (firthFORTH Books, 2013), Psychedelic Norway (Coffee House Press, 2013), and dear corpse (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018) as well as three chapbooks of poetry. He lives in St. Paul, MN and is one of the publishers/editors in the Spout Press collective.