Miss Tripidipidi's Secret Box
by Astrid S. Nielsen
It was cold waiting outside the front door; it was such a windy spot, and the autumn leaves danced and rustled about Arthur's lace-less sneakers. He pressed the doorbell once more. Old Mrs Johnson, she must be fast asleep--this was his fifth try. The two in the basement apartment would be off to work this early in the afternoon--like he ought to have been, had the world been right. And the newcomer--he tried not to glance at the upmost sign, a paper note saying "Miss Tripidipidi" in a smudged handwriting--he didn't know where she would be, but he hoped it wasn't here.
He had been such a fool to go out! There was nothing here but coldness and wind and light way too bright, and now the steps he faintly heard coming down the stairs were too fast and light--like a hasty whisper below the rustling of the leaves--to be old Mrs Johnson's. He was about to turn and leave, regardless of the cold, but a shape was already there behind the cracked glass pane of the door. And the handle turned.
He was sure she was beautiful, Miss Tripidipidi, though if he did look at her, it was never more than stolen glances of wavy auburn hair cascading from a high ponytail and dark eyes looking too concerned and always resting on him. Why were they always resting on him?
"Come in, come in, my sweet--or do you want to go out? We can go out together!" She spoke in a sort of eager, warbling tone, an accent he was unable to name and which left him puzzled because it nevertheless seemed familiar. He didn't answer as he made his way past the outstretched arms.
"We can go to the forest--it's so beautiful this time of year--"
Of course. That's where she always wanted to drag him. He just scuttled up the stairs, still drawing his fleece jacket with the broken zip close; it was almost as draughty in here as outside.
"Perhaps another time?" She followed him closely with agile movements much like dancing, and he did his best not to look at her, keeping his head lowered and his curly brown hair like a veil in front of his eyes. Fumbling for his keys, he halted on the landing; this door, at least, he was able to open by himself. Nevertheless Miss Tripidipidi's hands darted down like playful birds, and a moment they actually wrestled for the keys.
"Let me help you, let me help you--"
"Let go!" Arthur snapped, and she did, stepping back and all of a sudden silent. But she quickly regained her composure. "You don't wanna go in there," she said, her voice as light as ever. "Come, come with me, to the forest--"
"Perhaps another time." He managed a brief smile before finally entering his apartment.
A sigh escaped him as he shut the door behind him; he would gladly go out with her anytime if that was truly what she wanted. But he knew it wasn't. He would be her pet-pity-project. Cheer up the cripple and score some cheap points for your conscience--then move on. He stroked the dead lump of wood at the end of his right arm and briefly considered using it to punch a hole in the wall. But it couldn't even do that, hurting, throbbing, burning thing that it was, as though it were real.
Instead he did what he did most of the time: went to bed and pulled the covers over his head.
There's a distance in her eyes. Their blue colour seems dull, pale, untouched by the smile she sends him when he moves to pull the chair for her, ignoring the pain throbbing through the hand that is no more. Her hair flows about her head like lazy sunshine as she sits down, and Arthur breathes in the perfumed whiff carried on the faint stream of air. It makes it all right.
But there's that distance in her eyes.
He sees it more clearly now he's seated across from her. He swallows.
It's their favourite table. It's next to the window looking out to the forest. She loves the forest. But there is no view, now. Just the vast emptiness called darkness framing their ghostly reflections.
"A T-bone steak," Arthur tells the waiter, one of those skinny men who seems forever more like boys, hair a little too neat, smile a little too smug.
And she orders a salmon salad. Just like she used to. Her eyes seem a little warmer as they rest on the waiter.
Then there's the silence. That's not how it used to be. They used to chatter. They used to talk in hushed voices, as though it were a secret, the house they talked of buying, once they'd saved enough for the down payment. And the children who'd follow soon after.
Now the words they cannot speak any more--because of the accident, because of him losing the job at the lumber mill (what house could be bought on welfare?)--seems to be all coming to mind.
There's a space of lost words between them.
The smell of the steak makes his mouth water, even before it's placed before him. It's grilled just right, streaked with brown grill marks. He grabs the fork with his left hand. And then the world freezes; his right arm goes twitching but doesn't move--for what is it to do with the knife glinting mockingly in the candlelight? Though his right hand is a dead lump of wood, it feels warm, sweaty. The pain is a growling animal. He can feel its angry voice vibrating in the throbs.
She pauses, raises an eyebrow enquiringly.
Arthur clenches his teeth, sweats all over suddenly, and pushes the plate away. A nightmarish image of his food being cut up him, like a child's, flashes before him. "I completely forgot! I've decided to lose some weight. Won't eat this anyway." He laughs. A little too long perhaps.
She doesn't laugh. But she finally begins to talk. He knows what she says. He doesn't need to listen. He just gazes out the window, feeling like the dark.
"We can't continue living together, now we're just friends." He can still hear her voice saying those words, so matter-of-factly. And he had nodded. Of course. He doubts he will hear that voice again. Even though they are friends.
It's still early, the sun hidden behind the forest. But not for long; a golden band is shimmering about the outline of the trees. He squints as he watches her shape move past the thicket. A flat with a view of nothing but forest. How happy she'd been for him. A bit small, perhaps, but he can afford it on his welfare. The fact that the front door lock is of such a kind requiring a twist in the handle simultaneously with turning the key, an impossible task for anyone lacking a hand, went unmentioned.
The shape is gone now.
He stares for a little while longer. But there's nothing there but trees, stupid, silent trees who'd watched it all, their laughs and their dreams as they strolled between them. And the squirrel wedged in between two branches, the circular saw drawing close.
What had he been thinking, reaching in to save it?
He refuses to look another second at those trees! Suddenly short of breath, he draws the curtains, blocks out the grey dawn light. The movement of the heavy, worn fabric sends puffs of dust swirling through the air, and he sneezes, the sound ringing through the silence.
Slowly and sniffling he turns away from the window, regards the cold room. The moving boxes littered across the floor, the scratched wooden table in the middle, the small kitchen in one corner, and the narrow bed in another.
The dull twilight suits it. One hardly notices the trailing tapestry.
He was still asleep when the knocking started. How long it had been going on, he could not tell, but it had pervaded his dreams like a steady, distant thunder. Slowly he sat up and shook his head, and as the sound continued, he realised it did not originate from that already half forgotten dream. Groping for the light, he went to open the door.
Miss Tripidipidi was standing there in the hallway, looking pale in the shimmering light of the fluorescent lamp. She was wearing a long brown coat and clutching something tightly to her chest. Somehow Arthur could not bring himself to shut the door though he would refuse to take a moonlight stroll to the forest, or whatever she had in mind.
"Will you watch this for me?" She extended the thing she had been holding so tight towards him. A small wooden box. He looked at it dumbly.
"I need someone to guard it while I am away. Someone I can trust. Can I trust you?" She spoke in a staccato voice, scarcely finishing one word before letting the next spill out, as though she was even more in a hurry than usual.
Arthur looked at the box, a dark textured and swirly veined cube, then dared a stolen glance through his veil of hair, directly into her eyes. They seemed to be of the same colour as the box, he even thought he could see the same swirls in them--but perhaps it was just because of the shimmering light. And they darted about, seemingly anxiously!
Could it be it had never been her intention to pity him? That all along it had been her who was in need of help?
He straightened. Regarding her again, he noticed how she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. And was there a twitching, there at the corner of her mouth? It could be.
He shook his head to get the hair out of his eyes, and said with a raspy voice, "I can watch it for you, of course."
Miss Tripidipidi made a little jump, setting her ponytail swinging. "Thank you. Oh, and no matter what happens, do not open the box."
He received the box, a small thing which could easily rest in the palm of his remaining hand, and so soft it was, so smooth like silk or velvet--but more than those, he could find nothing to compare it to. "Okay," he said, absentmindedly registering Miss Tripidipidi's warning. He looked up, but only the shimmering light filled the hallway; Miss Tripidipidi had already gone.
Arthur locked the door carefully. Double-checked. His eyes did a quick scan of the room. The naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling left no shadowy corners in which a thief could hide. Still he couldn't relax--this sound, was it the sound of his own heartbeat, or someone stomping about outside? Whoever was hunting Miss Tripidipidi and her box, he wouldn't make it easy for them, he decided. However annoying he'd found her at times, she always meant well. If he could do anything at all, he would keep her box safe.
He needed some sort of weapon. But where to put the box? On the table in the middle of the room, he'd be able to keep an eye on it. But. He couldn't put it there! Not the fine thing in the middle of the piles of used plates, and the stains and the--he frowned, suddenly flushing with embarrassment at the sight of the indeterminable heap. He wet his lips. No. This just wouldn't do. He bent to temporarily place the box on his bed instead, on top of his pillow, but the smell of old sweat made him change his mind. Had it been so long since he'd changed the bedclothes?
Pushing away some of the fluff on the empty space of floor close to the wall, he produced a relatively clean spot and set the box down there. Then he turned to the table. It was sticky as he put his left hand on it. Pain smouldered in his right hand, though there was nothing there but unmoving wood.
Couldn't pay mind to it now. There was a task at hand. Plates, ketchup stains dark like dried up blood, other stains sort of greenish. Crumbs. Unopened window envelopes. There was the old cardboard tube he had been looking for--though he couldn't remember why. An autumn leave that must have somehow drifted in.
He was sweating when he'd finished clearing and washing it all. Hair plastered to his head. A drop of perspiration trickling past his brow ended up in the corner of his eye, stinging slightly as he looked proudly at the table.
There, now it was a more proper setting for the box.
A weapon, then. The best he had was probably his kitchen knife. Clenching it tight, he began pacing. From the door to the window, circling the table. The shadow he cast on the walls moved along, guarding the box as eagerly as he did. He straightened and watched it do the same.
Dim light began to seep through the curtains. Dawn. He halted. Wouldn't it be nice to see the box in daylight, instead of the pale light from the light bulb, lending a sickly glow to all?
Furtively, as though he was doing something forbidden, he pulled back the curtains--and, on a whim, opened the window. The forest was out there still, and perhaps it was the sight of it as well as the gust of wind entering, which made a cold shiver run down his spine. It just stood there as though nothing had changed. He turned abruptly. But he had been right: the box looked softer now, more at ease.
He seated himself on a chair, back against the window, and watched the box. As the sunlight grew from grey to rosy red to golden, the colour of the box deepened, a thousand hidden shades becoming almost visible below the dark surface. And the swirly veins seemed to pulse slightly, in a breathing rhythm, but so faint he wasn't sure it was real. He leaned closer, watching the box intently. His own breathing eased, cold fresh air making its way into his lungs.
Then the strangest thing happened: outside, a bird began to twitter. It had been so long since he'd heard that sound, and it seemed so out of place in the dead autumn morning. His heart began beating faster. He found himself listening for Miss Tripidipidi's voice in the warbling. But it wasn't the right tone, and soon it faded.
The silence that followed, he noticed after a while, wasn't really silence at all. From inside the box came a faint noise. Not continuously, but every once in awhile. It wasn't a mechanical buzzing, but a sort of unsteady flapping, and it became faster, more eager as he neared it. He bit his lip. What could it be? He knew he wasn't supposed to look. But...shouldn't he know what was inside the box if he was to guard it? If he didn't know what it was, he had no chance of guessing what sort of people would come looking. He placed his hand on the soft box. He would be able to prepare his defences better if he knew.
No! What was he thinking? He withdrew his hand as if from a fire; she had said he couldn't look, and so he wouldn't. If he could do nothing else, he could at least keep her trust.
How many days had passed? He wasn't sure. But he would have to go out soon; the supplies of ketchup and pasta were running low. Bleary eyed he looked at the box. To take it along? Too dangerous. It might be just what they'd been waiting for. To leave it here? Downright stupid. The thieves would be here in a heartbeat, no one to stop them. He shook his head, unable to fix his thoughts on the problem, and finally allowed them to wander off. He could last another day or so. His mouth was dry; he was thirsty--but so tired of drinking water. What he wouldn't do for a Coke. And some coffee. He would have to remember that. When he went out.
He sighed. And then there was silence. There had been a lot of that lately. The worst was the
silence of no one knocking at his door, no hasty steps sounding on the stairs, no warbling voice asking him to go to the forest. This silence crept inside him like a hollow in his chest spreading ever wider. He tried to picture Miss Tripidipidi, but somehow her image kept eluding him. And his mind went silent to.
There was another silence, one of more immediate concern. The silence from the box. When the flapping did sound, between pauses that had grown increasingly longer, it had become so faint, so slow, hardly there at all. As though it were dying, whatever was inside the box. And he couldn't shake the thought: what if there was something trapped inside the box, something alive, something Miss Tripidipidi wasn't aware of? Wouldn't she want him to open the box and find out? Surely she wouldn't want it to die, whatever it was. He just couldn't believe that.
He went to the box, and for a long time his hand hovered over the catch--it too was wooden and seemed to have no kind of lock. To open it all he had to do was to pull. Then he did.
A butterfly seemingly made of blue light emerged from the darkness of the box and looped twice in front of him--and then it was gone, out the open window. He froze first, got cold to his bones; there was nothing else in the box--that was it, the butterfly, that was what he was supposed to guard.
And he had let it go.
A wave of heat flushed through him, and he rushed to the window. It was still there, flapping about aimlessly above the pavement, and he darted to the door, grabbing the empty box as he ran and not even pausing to get on his shoes.
Mrs Johnson appeared slowly as ever to let him out. Nevertheless, further down the street, the blue light of the butterfly fluttered, and Arthur's heart made a little optimistic jump as he approached it, stepping carefully and with the open box held out.
The butterfly spun like a leaf caught in a tiny whirlwind. Arthur held his breath and slowly reached out, his hand shaking. But the butterfly, mockingly it seemed to Arthur, fluttered upwards in a spiralling movement, and then it set off, as if swept away by a gust of wind. He cursed and ran after, ignoring the pain of the coarse, cracked asphalt scraping his feet.
The blue light neared the dark edge of the forest, and he halted, panting.
Into those shadows he hadn't gone since...but now the blue light vanished there, and if it was lost to him, so was Miss Tripidipidi. Oh, she would probably still try to cheer him up, but that would be even more unbearable, now he had proved to her once and for all his uselessness. All he had had to do was to watch a box.
He swallowed. Then took one step. And one more. Until the forest closed around him. He held his breath as he looked about, clenching the box in his hand tight. The trees were dark and looming shapes, leaning towards him, shedding leaves like tears of blood and murmuring through the wind--what was he doing here? For a moment his mind went blank. Then, a little further in between the trees, came his answer: blue fluttering light.
As he moved towards it, his feet sank down into the soft earth beneath the dead leaves covering the ground. It stung in the scratches he'd gotten on the soles of his feet, and his hand throbbed as ever, the familiar feeling strangely soothing in this place of shifting shadows. The leaves crunched, his breathing was heavy, and the butterfly must have heard his approach; it set off again, a blue light amidst the dapples of sunlight, further in.
He moved faster now; the butterfly fled faster. The trees clustered closer around him, as if to block his way, grasped for him with claw-like branches, sliced his skin as he jerked free, turning, turning--where was the butterfly? There, a little further in, blue light. He started towards it, but a root caught his foot, and then down he tumbled, into shallow water--a stream he hadn't noticed.
Dazed, he splashed about, spitting out something mouldy tasting that appeared to be autumn leaves floating on the surface. He squinted in the sunlight flowing down and shimmering off the water, making it a blinding pool of gold and slowly swirling red spots. There was silence but for the trickling of the stream. There were scents on the air, which might have been there all along though he hadn't noticed; wet earth and mouldering leaves. Forest. He breathed in deeply. And then he began to wonder; the water wasn't cold. The air was, but the water wasn't--it was nothing but warm and smooth against the skin, yet strangely tingled all over as he floated around like yet another leaf, gazing up into the blue sky. Blue. There was something he had forgotten.
He scrambled to the bank, shot to his feet.
It was nowhere to be seen. He circled for some time, and then suddenly it occurred to him that the box too was lost. He lashed out at the nearest tree. How had he even for a second imagined he could handle anything? Miss Tripidipidi had been a fool to trust him. And he had been a fool to let her. And there was nothing else to do, now, than go home and wait for her to return, to pity him even more.
The breeze was cold, and Arthur shivered. There was nothing left of the warm feeling from the stream; his drenched clothes felt icy against his skin, chilly drops trickled from his wet hair down his neck. Slosh, slosh, slosh went his steps, muddy feet, like a forest creature's, threading heavily on the piece of road, now, that ended just outside the forest. Tree roots broke through the fragmented asphalt. It looked like a fjord with ice adrift. How the cracks had cut his feet when he'd run across them, and he stepped very carefully, now. Though his feet weren't sore. He frowned. How could that be?
He halted and lifted one foot, letting it rest against his other leg. Swaying, he tried to keep his balance while brushing away the dirt and the leaves and the torn pieces of socks stuck between his toes, and smooth skin was revealed. Not a scratch, not even calloused skin. He'd been sure he had that. Not that it mattered. He shrugged and released his foot, resumed his trudging.
It was strange, though. And then he remembered a nasty, thorny branch clawing at his shoulder, and he let his hand skim across his shirt, which was torn all right. But underneath it: nothing but smooth skin, unscathed.
He breathed in, stretched his length. He felt...good.
Autumn leaves flurried past him. The sound of a distant car. The shrill cry of some bird. Then silence. This feeling grew inside him, that the whole world was holding its breath, and so he did too, though he didn't know why. Until he was standing at the front door; the finger he absently had extended to press Mrs Johnson's doorbell was on his right hand. And able to move quite easily.
His old boss hadn't said much when Arthur came to ask if he could get his job back. His eyes had widened slightly at the sight of the completely recovered hand, and he had mumbled something about modern medicine getting more and more incredible. Arthur could start again Monday.
Why did he feel so empty then? Arthur thought as he made his way back home, walking through the forest. This was life beginning anew. And the silence would fill. Though not by Miss Tripidipidi; the home-made sign at her doorbell had gone.
She would not be returning.
A gust of wind set the trees along the path swaying, their naked shapes like gnarled fingers grasping for the lead grey sky. And the breeze carried a certain bite that told of snow to come. Soon. Arthur shivered and then halted; those broken branches, wasn't that where he had entered the forest when he had stumbled on the stream? Perhaps he could find it again and recover the box. And perhaps she would come back if he did.
He searched for a while, but the underbrush was dense, and he could find no stream nor hear any trickling of water through the gaining wind. Clouds like boulders gathered; he would have to return another day. Just as he was about to leave, he froze, his heart beating faster; he had glimpsed something auburn out of the corner of his eye, up in the dull brown tangle of branches, like a squirrel darting about. But now, looking straight at the spot, he could see only dead wood.
Perhaps it had just been the last of the autumn leaves dropping.