The Box (Igor Rendić)

I knew what I would do once this was all over. From my current perspective none of my plans were something a person should be excited about: going to a bookstore and Cinestar and Street Food and for a burek, very likely one immediately after the other, possibly all at the same time. From my current perspective, my previous everyday life didn’t seem all that interesting. It didn’t seem something I should be crying about because it was temporarily suspended. It also, from my current perspective, seemed to be just about the greatest thing ever, better than any child’s fantasy about visiting exotic locales.

I was certain I wasn’t the only one in Rijeka. Once this is all over, people would probably raid all the bakeries and coffee shops worse than they’d scoured Lidl, Plodine or DM in search of toilet paper. I definitely had my mind set on an entire wheel of burek.

But for now, I had to do with what I had at my disposal. I definitely had no business going outside.

Still, I had it better than most. My friends and acquaintances were stuck in tiny apartments while I had the good fortune to move into the house two days before things got serious. The place is bigger than all my previous apartments combined, which is great. It’s on the edge of town and from my back window I can see the edge of the woods just a few meters away. I could go walking there, if it weren’t for the cold and the rain. I live alone, which is both a good and a bad thing, depending on which one of my friends and acquaintances you ask. Though I wonder how many of them will change their tune after spending a week or two with their partners in lockdown…

The house is small and from the outside doesn’t look particularly well kept, but whoever had lived here took very good care of the inside. The furniture is old, but had been cared for, which is why it still feels like a house, and not someone’s grandma’s mausoleum.  Everything that is new is in working order.

I have a fully stocked fridge and fast Internet and the shop is nearby.

I have books that have been waiting on my TBR pile for years. This is the perfect opportunity to give them attention.

They’re still waiting.

I have several hobbies that I’d started over the course of past years and then put on hold and now is the perfect time to get back to them.

I haven’t, of course.

Everybody kept saying this was the time to get to work on this and that, stuff you couldn’t get to before. But for me it was like insomnia: you’d like to do something, but you don’t really have the will or mental strength to actually do it.

Well, the quarantine isn’t to blame for that, is it…

I ignored the voice even though it was right.

Still, I didn’t just lie down in my bed and wait for… something. I got to work on something that I was also very much ready to keep putting off: unpacking all my stuff. As I’ve said, the house is small and once I’d realized I’d be spending a lot of  time inside, going out only when it was strictly necessary, I was overcome with the desire that if I am to live in a box, it should at least not be a box crammed full of other, smaller boxes.

Clothes in the wardrobe, books on shelves and under shelves and stacked next to the shelvesin the end all that helped me out more than I had expected. Now that everything was in its place I felt… relaxed. I had no idea I had been tense, but judging by the relief I’d felt when I walked the house and saw that there were no more boxes, I had been tense. A lot.

Satisfied, I made another pass through the rooms, feeling… well, feeling at home. The house now may have seemed like a box I wasn’t supposed to leave, but it was my box. I realized then that I had been singing under my voice for a while.

“There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait…”

Of course, all those cardboard boxes needed to be put away. As far as I was concerned there was no moving in the near future, but I also knew it’s good to have a bunch of cardboard boxes at my disposal. I knew how to take them apart and stack them so they take up as little space as possible, but they still needed to be stored someplace.

Which led me to the attic. The house doesn’t have a basementthat is, it used to but doesn’t anymore. At the back of the house, in the pantry I’d found a trap door in the floor, locked with a sizable padlock. The people I was renting the house from had told me there’s no need for me to have a key because under the trap door there is about a meter of wooden stairs and then just dirtone of the previous owners had the entire basement filled up. Why? They had no idea, but they did mention, offhandedly: “He was apparently afraid the house would fall into it. Crazy man, what can you do.”

And so no on the basement, but a yes on the attic. I found a ladder in that same pantry and, after making sure they wouldn’t break under my weight, set them in the main hallway and climbed up the ladder and through the attic’s trap door. 

My small handheld lamp revealed to me just an empty space the length and width of the house. Just warm, stuff air and dust and cobwebs—no, actually the attic wasn’t empty. In the far corner there was a wooden box.

I dragged the cardboard ones up the ladder and stacked them near the trap door. Then I walked to the wooden box, hunched under the crossbeams.

I opened it and then just stared at its contents under the light for a few moments, my eyebrows touching my hairline. Then I closed it, carried it over to the trap door and managed to climb down the ladder with the box without the ladder breaking.

In the middle of the now cleared living room floor I put down the wooden box, dusted myself off, pulled up a chair and started removing things from the box. It was a very old box, but the wood had not rotted. There were no markings on it, no scratches or pencil marks.

The first thing you’d see when you opened the box was a pair of very old handcuffs. They clinked softly as I took them out. They were dusty but not rusty. The key, I guessed, was somewhere in the depths of the box.

After the handcuffs I removed a black disc made of some kind of thick fabric. I was turning it over in my hands, trying to figure out what it was exactly, and then it hit me: I’d seen this before, but only in movies. A top hat, one of those collapsible ones.

Next to the top hat was a bundle of white cloth and inside—a black wooden wand with white tips.

A magician’s wand.

“Cool,” I murmured. A previous owner or lodger had obviously forgotten to take his equipment with them. Or maybe left it behind?

I just hoped they didn’t also store their rabbit or dove.

I continued removing items from the box. Four interconnected metal rings. A deck of cards––extremely worn. A stack of coins wrapped in yellowed and crumbling newspaper––Croatian or, more likely Yugoslavian, perhaps even older. I decided to unwrap it later and see.

And more: a red-black fan with what looked like writing in Chinese or Japanese, but most likely just a bunch of random lines drawn just to give the fan an air of the exotic. Twenty silk handkerchiefs, not a one the same color as the others––silk so smooth I spent some time just rubbing it gently between my fingertips.

A small birdcage that at first looked broken, but then I realized, after fiddling with it, that it was designed so that you could flatten it. White ropes of various lengths, full of knots. Tri small metal boxes, one blue, one red, one black; all three were inlaid with (I guessed fake) gold, silver and diamonds.

And all of that was atop something big, black and silky that I pulled out next.

I knew it spent god only know how long in the box, and I knew I had no idea if it had been cleaned before being put away. But come on, if you had found an honest to god real magician’s cape, wouldn’t you try it on immediately? Of course I twirled and swished and swooshed it a few times, raised its end to cover my mouth and nose.

I stumbled because my living room tilted slightly one way and then the other before leveling. My ears hissed a little and felt clogged at the same time. I grabbed the chair’s back but the living room had by that point calmed.

I must have twirled too fast, I thought and then realized I heard something.

Only I didn’t hear anything. It was more a memory of a sound, like when you can remember a concert so vividly you can almost hear the music in your mind––or in this case the applause and standing ovations. And then there was the thrill––the memory of it––and there was wanting more, wanting to be better and to hear the applause again, again and again. Bright lights and air warmed by hundreds of bodies, and another warmth, deep inside me…

I threw the cape off me in panic. My mind went suddenly quiet, a quiet just like the one following a thunderclap.

The cape was on the living room floor, just a length of black fabric and nothing more. I bent down, reached gingerly for it while something inside me was on edge as if I was reaching for a high voltage wire. I felt the fabric under my fingertips and––that was all.

I stood up, cape in hand. I stared at it for a long time, trying to recall what I’d experienced just moments ago, but couldn’t. I knew the memories had been as vivid as if mine, favorite at that, but I couldn’t summon them now. What had been mine when I wore the cape was now just something somebody told me about long ago. Yes, that was the best comparison I could make.

No, it’s just––I just got dizzy. And I was myself enough to take it off, I’m sure I’ll do it again, I thought as I slowly pulled the cape over my shoulders and then tied it around my neck with a clasp.

The living room seemed to consider tilting again, but then decided against it.

Again the applause and ovations, but now I could make out individual voices, even though I couldn’t make out what they were saying and in what language, although it did sound familiar. I closed my eyes, focused on––well, focused on the memories that were not my own. A stage, it seemed, in a big space with a high ceiling. Warm without and within, and that feeling of accomplishment, success, hard work that finally paid off. It all felt so real, and then again it was as if reaching for smoke. The sensation of it all was there, strong and vivid, but the details were not.

I opened my eyes and the living room was still there, stable. I took a step and didn’t stumble. I unclasped the cloak, removed it from my shoulders. Again it was all just a memory of a memory and nothing more.

I put the cape on the floor, next to the box and spent some time just breathing and thinking.

I knew I wasn’t crazy. Mind you, crazy people always do. Alright, I knew I had never had anything diagnosed. Which doesn’t mean they wouldn’t diagnose me with something now. But I felt… good. The shock and the fear I’d felt the first time I had the cape on were gone, and the cautious curiosity and slight disbelief had, after the second time given up their seats to the feeling something had happened that shouldn’t have been possible but it had happened so it was possible but also, and more importantly there was no nausea nor did I feel I had been assaulted by someone else’s memories.

I stared now at everything I had removed from the box and laid on the floor next to it. Only then did I notice there had been something under the cape. Papers, bundles and bundles of papers tied with thick strings.

I was about to take them out when I paused just before touching the first bundle. Well I’m not going to stop now.

The papers were yellow with age, thick and pleasant under my fingers. They were also covered in writing on both sides.

Letters. Dozens and dozens of letters, handwritten in ink. Each and every one of them in German or Italian, languages that I’d spent my entire life intending to learn, I was always just about to start, next Monday…

Two different hands had written them, signing them with two different names. A male name was in the signature of every letter in German, a female in each of the Italian ones.

As I leafed through the bundles, hoping to find one in a language I could readCroatian or EnglishI became aware of a new sensation in my chest and gut. A slight tightening, as if I was expecting something or wanting something. I paused, the leaves of paper in my hands, and closed my eyes. I could feel the smoothness of the paper under my fingertips, its scenthad the letters been sprayed with perfume?and then there was something more.

A hand that would like nothing more than to force the nib faster and faster across the page and a head that reins it in, turns the mad dash into a steady gallop taking twists and turns of each letter so the words might in the end say all that can be said but not all that wants to be said, because letters and paper can convey only so much.

Eyes that devour each and every word as they strain to take them in one after the other, orderly. A breath caught in the throat, perspiration that makes the paper slide softly between fingertips.

And once more the memories were so vivid, yet so elusive. As soon as I placed a letter on the floor, the memories it evoked would vanish, leaving behind only the memory of a memory and nothing more.

The final bundle was different: there were envelopes as well as letters. Unopened envelopes; addressed to her in his handwriting. Inside each there was a letter, folded paper.

This bundle was sorrow and disappointment and… confusion?

I didn’t want to close my eyes with this one because what I felt without concentrating was enough for me. There was also a small note attached to the bundle, a thin strip of yellowed paper. It saidin Croatian!: “She never came for the letters. I could not find her. I am sorry.” This handwriting wasn’t fancy and those fourteen words were as heavy as boulders.

I put the bundle atop all those previous letters and took one final look into the box.

Only one thing remained inside. I spent a long time looking before finally taking it out. A thin box of glass and wood, and inside something that had once been a rose but was now just its dried-out remains.

A love long lost, and sorrow and pain; it all swirled around the feeling that everything was in the past now, that it was now all just a memory tinged with melancholy; and also there was a slight sadness for feelings that were now gone…

I placed the rose box on my knees. I knew that everything I’d felt was just an echo and that if I took the rose out and held it in my hand––but I didn’t want to.

Looking at the rose, I noticed a scrap of white paper attached to it with string. It said, in very nice handwriting: “Von deinem heimlichen Bewunderer.” I pulled together the bits and pieces of German that had stayed with me from long-neglected Duolingo lessons: From your secret admirer. Maybe?

I placed the rose box back into the wooden box and stood up and started walking because I felt a very strong need for it. I came into my bedroom, stood at the window, stared out. There were houses and an empty street and the forest that gently swayed in the breeze and blue sky above. The weather had cleared, I realized. When I’d taken the box down the sky was overcast, lead grey but not anymore.

I returned to the living room, sat down and put everything back into the box. It was a mausoleum of someone’s life, had been placed in the attic, forgotten.

I carried the box into the corner of the living room, left it there open. I really wanted to put the cape back on, hold the rose and the letters in my hands for longer than just a moment. I instead reached for my tablet, sat at my desk and opened the long-ago downloaded and slightly less long ago abandoned Duolingo. German or Italian, which one first?

Maybe… if I read the letters, maybe I can find out who they were? The note that came with the unopened letters wouldn’t leave my mind. Maybe I can find out why she never replied to his letters? But who would care now? The letters were old; surely neither of them was still alive. But what if they are?

But I knew that wasn’t what really motivated me.

This morning I had known exactly what I’d do once all this was over. And they were simple things, nothing to write home about. But that was then.

Mausoleum is too harsh a word, I decided. The box was full of keepsakes of someone’s life. There was pain and sorrow there, but also happiness and fulfilled dreams.

In the end it had all wound up in a wooden box in the atticbut in the end.

My housemy box—my home; it was supposed to be full of life and not just memories.

There’s a million things I want to do, so now’s the time, now’s the time, the changed lyrics echoed in my mind.

I knew what I would doboth now and once I could finally leave my house.


©Igor Rendić, 2020. All rights reserved.

Igor Rendić (1985) is a translator, writer, copywriter, and one of Rikon’s conrunners. He doesn’t understand the phrase “too many books for one person”.

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