The Magic Box

July 30, 2008
By Sarah Gettel, Grafton, WI

The ocean waves tumbled into shore, spitting spray onto the sand. Kara pushed her hair away from her face and looked up as a seagull flew overhead, screaming calls that resonated and echoed. Kara walked closer to the water, nudging the sand with her toes, and bent to pick up shells that shimmered with faint color.

She hummed lightly to herself, unconcerned that anyone might hear her. There were few people who were out in the morning, let alone anyone who was her fourteen years. The other town children helped their parents in their fields and in their homes. Few joined their grandparents fishing. Kara and her mother had no field to tend and her grandparents did not live nearby. They were left to fend for themselves, making what money they could doing chores for other households and selling what items they could, whether they were handmade or items found on the beach. Kara often crafted necklaces with shells and fishing line. They were popular at market, though they made little profit.

Kara skipped over a rotting log that had glided to shore, and a glint of light caught her eye. She paused, shifting her shell trophies to one hand, and bent beside the log. A wooden box nestled between some of its broken branches, glistened from its glossy clear paint and base trimmed with gold. Kara dropped her shells in a neat pile beside her and leaned forward to take the treasure into her hands.

The box was lighter than she expected, and she lightly traced the curve of its lid. Carefully, she lifted the cover off to look inside, afraid that the brass hinges were rusted and would break. They did not. Immediately, she noted the remarkable condition of the metal. It still had an unmarked, healthy glow. Black velvet lined the interior of the box.

Kara smiled to herself and gently closed the lid, cradling the box in her arm as she straightened and walked back the way she had come, leaving her shells behind. The old fishermen only glanced at her as she went by, more intent on their fishing and the peaceful shushing of the waves. One man raised a hand in greeting and Kara smiled in return. “Good morning, Cobe,” she called.

Cobe was just pulling his boat to shore; his body tilted as he dragged it across the sand. Kara could see the bucket inside the boat held several fish. His fishing pole leaned on the back of the boat, his net draped beside it. “Morning. What do you have, there?”

Kara looked down and remembered the box in her hands. She held it up for him to see. “I found it a short way down the beach,” she told him, turning it so he could see the exterior fully.

Cobe nodded, running a hand through his graying, wind-blown hair. “It’s a pretty thing. Be sure to take good care of it.”

Kara smiled and nodded. “Oh, I will.”

“You have something pretty to put inside?”

Kara shrugged.

“You could put some of your shell trinkets inside,” the fisherman suggested. He meant her necklaces.

Kara smiled. “I could.” It wasn’t a bad idea. She rarely kept her own creations, but now that she had such an attractive box, she would have a place to put them. Kara nodded to Cobe’s boat. “Good fishing, today?”

Cobe looked down into his bucket. “It was decent. I’m sure I’ll be out again this evening.” He pointed at one of the fishermen still out in one of the boats. “John was having good luck this morning other there. I wouldn’t find trying my luck there when he’s gone.” He tugged on his boat again, pulling it farther from the water. He was strong for an older man, and Kara admired his good health. His wife was much the same without noticeable aging handicaps.

Cobe stopped pulling his boat and straightened, seemingly satisfied that it was far enough up the beach to be unaffected by changing tides. “Say hello to your mother for me,” he said to Kara, pulling his fishing gear from the boat.

“I will.” They exchanged last smiles, and then Kara turned and continued to make her way home.

Kara’s house was one of the smallest in the village, a one-level building with just four rooms: the kitchen, the cramped living room, and two bedrooms, one for Kara and one for her mother. Kara’s room overlooked the ocean, and she could watch the sunset from her window, spilling shades of pink, orange, and red across the water, the colors made uneven by waves. She tried to watch the sunset each evening after supper. She had done so since she was a small girl, and her father had sometimes joined her. Now the sunset somehow made her feel closer to him.

She climbed the gradual hill from the beach to the narrow dirt road in front of her house, and reached for the brass door handle as she stepped up the single stone step to the door. Her mother would still be asleep. It was Kara’s turn to make breakfast. She and her mother alternated meals. Kara preferred to make breakfast. She was accustomed to waking early, and preparing supper often interfered with watching the evening sunset.

Kara stepped inside the dark living room of her home and closed the door behind her. She tiptoed quietly to the door of her room, wincing as she passed her mother’s room and the floorboards creaked loudly. Kara set the box on the floor just inside her room and closed the door. She would look at it after breakfast.
She tiptoed back through the living room to the kitchen, biting her lip as she bent to get a pan from one of the cupboards and knocked several other pans with loud pangs. She closed the cupboard and set the pan quietly on the stove and turned it on, leaning against the kitchen table as she waited for it to heat. Breakfast wasn’t difficult. It was always the same: leftover fish, and milk or water. All she had to do was heat everything.
It seemed that ever since her father died, Kara’s meals had turned to fish. She ate all kinds of fish: salmon, bass, tuna, and cod. But she had eaten so many that they were now tasteless and plain.

Kara heard her mother’s footsteps in the living room and looked up as she entered the kitchen. “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
Her mother yawned and shook her head. “No, I just smelled you cooking.” She smiled and murmured, “You’re up early.” She raised her long arms and stretched before slowly moving to the table to sit down.

Kara shook her head and deposited some of the cooked fish onto a plate for her mother, handing it to her with a cup of water. “No earlier than usual. You must have been tired and slept later. The fishermen’s boats are already back in.” Her mother seemed tired a lot lately.

Kara gathered her own cup and plate and seated herself across from her mother. The woman was still not very old. She had Kara at a young age, but distress from her husband’s death and the struggle of raising a child alone lined her face and tinted her hair with gray.

They finished breakfast in their usual companionable silence. Kara cleaned off their few dishes while her mother dressed. The water basin had just been cleaned, so she had one less chore to do. When she finished drying the dishes on a towel, she wiped her hands on the sides of her simple brown dress and went to her own room, anxious to see her new treasure again. Before she could close her door, she heard her mother humming in her soprano voice. Kara wished she had such a lovely voice. She wished she was half as lovely.
When she closed the door behind her, she eagerly picked up the box where she had left it and carried it to her writing table, which stood in front of her large window facing the sea.

She traced the outside edge of the box fondly as she sat down in her chair and scooted it closer to the writing table. The chair creaked beneath her weight and rocked unsteadily on uneven legs when she shifted. It had been handcrafted, and would likely break any day, but it had been cheap, and that was what Kara’s mother was interested in.

Kara opened the box, anxious to see the attractive velvet interior, but this time the box was not empty. Instead, there was a small stack of paper and a small pencil with no eraser. It reminded her of the pencils in the town church. She picked up one of the slips of paper and turned it over, expecting a message, but it was blank.

She frowned, looking out her window as if in doing so she would see someone who had climbed through her window during her breakfast and left the paper and pencil there. She saw no one, and her disappointment at this surprised her.

She slowly reached for a small slip of paper and set it on the table in front of her, taking the pencil in her right hand and holding the paper flat with her left. She looked out the window in thought and then lowered her pencil to the paper and drew.

The first thing that came into her mind was fire, inspired by the sun. She wished the sun would leave the shelter of the clouds. Its absence along with the sea wind made the air unpleasantly chilly.
Kara drew the slight curves of a flame, and shaded it lightly, adding small details when she could think of nothing else to draw.


Kara lifted her stooped head, placed the paper in the box, and lowered the lid. “Yes, mother?” she called, looking back at the door. There was no answer, and Kara stood and went to her door. She opened it and leaned out, looking into the living room.

Her mother stood looking in through the back door. “Have you done the laundry yet?” she asked. Her mother always engaged herself in chores as soon as she could, usually right after breakfast.

“I did it yesterday.”

Her mother looked behind her into the backyard. “It should be dry on the line outside, now,” Kara added.

Her mother nodded and turned back to the outdoors, shutting the back door behind her.

Kara closed her bedroom door and returned to her table to sit down in front of her box. Then she opened the lid. A small pair of wooden dice was inside, dull against the velvet. They certainly hadn’t been there. Kara frowned and reached to touch them, taking them in her hand and rolling them between her fingers. She let them drop and roll back into the box where they settled on marks 6 and 2.

When she first opened the box, it was empty.

And the second time it had the paper.

And the third time it had the dice.

Kara closed the lid of the box and set her hand on it, unsure whether she should open it again. This was clearly not a normal box. She should put it back when she had found it.

But it was too interesting.

When she finally opened it again, there was no paper or dice. Instead, the high notes of a music box whistled as the box hummed against her fingers. She could not see the music box itself. Instead, a tiny model town that looked like her own. It was remarkably very detailed. Even the little fishermen at the edge of the beach looked familiar when Kara looked closer. She froze when she saw her own home, unmistakable beside the gray mass that was their neighbor’s house. Kara thought she could make out the small form of a clothesline in the back of the house.

Kara closed the box and the light chiming of music immediately ceased. Had that really been her town? Perhaps she had imagined her house and the strange resemblance between the figurines and the fishermen she had seen earlier in the morning.

She frowned, and carefully lifted the lid, waiting for the music to play again, but the box was empty.

There was something wrong with her new box. She rubbed her forehead in confusion and slowly lifted the lid again with too fingers. Fire licked out, and Kara yanked her hand back, reminded of her drawing. She reached out and quickly jerked the box closed, trying to avoid the flames. When the lid closed, the flames were gone, and the box was unburned.

Kara sat motionless, staring at the box with wide eyes. This was too creepy. She stood and backed away from her table, having too many thoughts to process at once, especially in the presence of the box. She needed some distance to think about this puzzle on her own.

Kara returned home early that evening after a long day at the beach. She hadn’t accomplished as much as she’d hoped. She had meant to try to solve the mystery of her box, to find a logical explanation for how it changed. Then, as she began to realize she had no answers, she tried to forget the box altogether. Both efforts were unsuccessful.

So, by the time she reached home, Kara was in a foul mood. She nearly slammed the door when she entered the house, and her mother looked up sharply from making supper. The room smelled of fish, and Kara groaned. “May I go to the bakery, tomorrow?”

Her mother looked up and slowly shook her head. “We need the money for our meals.”

“We could have bread for supper.”

“Fish and vegetables from the market are better.”

“That’s what we’ve always had.”

“As it should be,” her mother said.

“I can barely eat fish anymore.” Kara couldn’t let the subject drop. She needed to argue.

“You’ve never complained before.”

Kara rolled her eyes, becoming increasingly annoyed. “We didn’t eat the same food every day before.”

“I thought you liked fish.”

“I used to like fish,” Kara mumbled bitterly.

Her mother shook her head again. “We’re poor, Kara. We’ll eat what we can, and until we are able to make some more money, you won’t complain about what we can afford to eat.”

“But we can afford more than fish.”

Her mother shook her head again. “It is the most satisfying food we can buy. We’re very lucky.” She sighed and brushed a hand across her forehead as if she were getting a headache. “We don’t make a lot of money, Kara. I’m sorry if you’re not happy with our meals, but we have to accept what we have and make the most of it. Perhaps if we worked a little bit harder a little more often, we could occasionally afford chicken or pork.”

Kara winced. She couldn’t imagine her mother working any harder than she already did. Perhaps her mother meant she could work more. She did spend a lot of time at the beach, but she was still a child. Didn’t she deserve time for herself? The other children could play all they wanted.

But they weren’t poor.

Kara’s guilt rose. Her mother never had time for herself. She looked at the aging woman, bent over her work, her fingers moving knowingly around the fabric.

Kara stood, pushed her chair to the table, and silently went to her room. She closed her door quietly and fell back onto her cot to stare at the blank gray ceiling above her. The cot shifted beneath her and sagged. Sometimes she almost preferred to sleep on the floor.

Sullenly, she rolled her head to the side so that she could stare out her window toward the sea. Her eyes alighted on her new box, the glossy coat on the wood reflecting the rays of the sunset. She was almost sure it was magic, though it seemed impossible. After all, magic wasn’t real. Maybe she had missed something on the bottom -- something that made it work.

Kara slowly rolled off her bed and sat down in the chair before her table, taking the box in her hands. She would see the dice next, she thought, if she opened the box again. The temptation was too much to resist. She lifted the lid and was dazzled.

Something glinted in the box, shining bright lights into her eyes so that she had to look away and blink several times before looking back into the box. Gold, she realized with a pang. Eight pieces.

She jumped from her chair, knocking it loudly against her cot. She opened her mouth to call her mother, but then closed it. It was one thing to have drawings come true. It was something entirely different to roll dice and get that amount of coins. If her mother knew, she would take the box away. She might even sell it.
Kara shook her head, guiding the coins into her hand and shutting the lid of the box. This was hers. No one could take it from her.

She was tempted to open and close the box until she found the dice again, but she remembered her original intention and turned the box over in search of a secret compartment or mechanism.

The bottom of the box was smooth and unmarked. Its perfection made it even more intriguing. After all, Kara had found it washed onto the shore of the beach. It should have been scratched and worn. She ran her hand lightly over the wood. “Beautiful,” she murmured.

A sharp crack startled her, causing her to fumble and drop the box onto her writing table. The lid of the box opened as it slipped past her fingers and the box landed with a crash on its side, supported by its open top. Kara stared in horror at the box. She abruptly bent over it to turn it from its side and check for damage. Music was playing again, and Kara could see the mini houses, which seemed unharmed. She glanced at the tiny fishermen and frowned. Was it her imagination, or had they been at different parts of the beach when she last looked?

Bending closer, she squinted down at a chip she could see on one of the fishermen. His finger, which had been angling out slightly from a grip on a thin fishing line, appeared to be missing. She looked closer to find the missing piece, thinking she could fix it, but she found nothing. She closed the box.

She stood and paced around her room, trying to comprehend how the box worked. She hadn’t seen anything between opening and closing the box. It made its transitions before her eyes! But how?

She sat down before the box and reached out to open it. The interior had changed. Instead of black velvet, it was red, and the box was not empty. Kara covered her mouth to keep herself from screaming when she saw the pale finger at the center of the box.

She slammed the box closed and quickly backed away from it, shaking miserably. Then, with her lips trembling, she hurried out of the room to be sick.

Kara did not open the box again for several weeks. The finger disturbed her so much, that she would find places to hide the box outside of her room or even outside of her house to keep it away and to prevent anyone else from finding it. These places ranged from a dug hole behind the outhouse, a space below the front step, and kitchen cupboards, but no matter where she hid the box, she always felt herself drawn to it.

The box seemed like an answer to all her prayers. She and her mother could leave the dark shadow of poverty and live more comfortably, much as they had when Kara’s father was alive. They wouldn’t have to work to diligently, and best of all, there would be more at meals than just fish.

But all of these things would come at a cost. The box was dangerous. She had already hurt Cobe unknowingly, and she could easily hurt someone else. She could ruin the entire town if she next dropped the box on the floor or closed the lid a little too hard. There was also the paper and pencil. She had drawn fire and had nearly burned herself when the fire became real. The box itself was unscathed, but she didn’t think she would be so lucky. The box could misinterpret a drawing and create something far more dangerous.

These thoughts weighed heavily on Kara’s mind. Even with all of the box’s dangerous traits, the idea of finally becoming wealthy was too appealing. Kara soon grew restless, tempted to open the box again. She had already used six of the eight gold coins she had found in the box to purchase small pastries and muffins at the bakery and a mermaid woodcarving from one of the town merchants. She was quickly running out of money.

The need to open the box again became stronger every day. Sometimes she imagined she could hear the song the music box played calling her from the box’s hiding place. When it was by the outhouse, her excursions to the backyard were daunting. If it was under the front step, she had trouble stopping herself from retrieving it when she left the house. If the box was in the kitchen cupboard, it was hard to cook meals without occasionally opening the cupboard to look inside.

It was only a matter of time before Kara would give in to these temptations, and she soon did. She recovered the box from beneath a crate at the back of the house where she had hidden it and returned it to her room. It stayed on her writing table for several days more before she had the courage to open it and look inside.

The first thing she saw when she opened the box was the small pencil and paper waiting for her. She took out a piece of paper and used her last coin to draw a circle and fill in the details of the gold piece. Satisfied that she would be one piece richer, she put the paper and pencil back, and closed and reopened the box.

The dice were back, and Kara was glad to take the wooden forms into her hands and roll the back into the box. She scowled when the dice only rolled 1 and 3. Something, however, told her not to roll again or try to change them. All she needed to do now was pass the music box and empty space that had not been empty the last time she opened it.

The music was not the same when she opened the box again. It was slower, the notes lower and somehow more gloomy. Kara shuddered and moved to close the box, but she paused. A wet sheen of liquid around the edges of the box caught her eye. She gasped when she saw red. It was a reminder of what she had done. She shut the lid quickly and immediately jumped from her chair to escape the room, closing the door behind her.

“Kara?” Her mother sat at the kitchen table, looking inquisitively at her. “What’s wrong?”

Kara shook her head and forced a smile. “Nothing,” she breathed, hoping her mother could not see the fear in her eyes or hear her breathlessness.

Her mother simply nodded and continued to mend a tear in one of the cream-colored curtains that usually hung in her bedroom. “Apparently Cobe is healing well,” she said.

Kara’s stomach clenched. Cobe had lost his finger the same day Kara had dropped her box and discovered the broken figure and the severed finger. Of all the people who had to get hurt for her foolish carelessness... “Was he very hurt?”

“He lost the pinky on his left hand. Odd, isn’t it? The story is so strange.” Her mother paused as she looked at Kara with wide gray eyes. “Did you hear how it happened?”

Kara nodded. Truthfully, she hadn’t, but she didn’t want her mother to tell her. She didn’t want to know at all. She imagined a story of a giant fish leaping from the water to snap it off or having it just fall off. How had the box done it? She hated to think about it.

Kara couldn’t stand it anymore. She could swear to herself that she wouldn’t let anyone get hurt again, but accidents could happen and cause even worse damage than a lost finger. She realized with a small pang of regret that the box had to go.

Without excusing herself, Kara turned and went back into her room. She strode forward to the box, hesitating momentarily before she picked it up. She angled it so that her body blocked it when she passed her mother. “Where are you going?”

Kara turned back to her mother, moving the box behind her back. “To find some shells for necklaces.” It wasn’t a complete lie. It would be easy enough to gather a few from the beach to return home with.

“Don’t be gone long.”

“Yes, mother.” Kara could hardly keep her voice steady. She was too anxious.

When she stepped outside of her house and closed the front door behind her, she broke into a run toward the water. There was a strong wind blowing in from the water, and Kara fought to keep her long chestnut hair out of her eyes.

The rotting log seemed farther down the beach than she remembered. It looked the same as it had the day Kara found the box, and even her shells were where she had dropped them.

She set the box beside the log as it had been before she found it. As she did, she could swear that she heard the faint clinking of coins, tempting her. But she wasn’t tempted. She was afraid.

She stepped back and was prepared to run back home, but paused. Somehow leaving the box where she had found it wasn’t enough. She picked up the beautiful wooden mass again, her hands tingling slightly as she held it. Moving to the very edge of the ocean water, she clenched her toes in the sand, swung back her arm, and threw the cursed box out to sea.

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This article has 1 comment.

Jim Gettel said...
on Aug. 25 2008 at 12:22 pm
I really enjoyed this story! It is very well written, with some memorable twists reminiscent of Stephen King stories. I'm glad to see it in print!


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