Flash fiction: The Sandalwood Box

I wrote this a while back, as part of a weekly flash fiction challenge. Enjoy.

The Sandalwood Box

Tory ran her fingers delicately over the carved top of the box, tracing the curves of the motif. What did they call this kind of wood again, sandalwood? Wasn't that supposed to be aromatic? She lifted it to her nose and sniffed, but got nothing more than a good whiff of dust.

There was a band all around the perimeter of the lid, made up of small tiles of yellowing ivory and a black, hard wood. Must be ebony. Where would her grandmother get anything so exotic?

She settled down on the bare plank floor, her back against an old navy blue travelling trunk, the box in her lap. Dust motes played in the slant of yellow sunlight from the window under the peak of the roof. It was a bright day outside but here, behind the stacks of boxes the corners were still shrouded in shadow. She straightened her rounded shoulders and tilted her head back to peer up at the rafters, wondering at her reluctance to lift the lid. Now that it came to it, it felt like a terrible invasion of privacy, digging through her grandparents' things. The dead are not offended, are they? Wouldn't they be flattered by her interest in their lives, in her own heritage?

She shook the box instead, feeling like a child on Christmas morning. No rattles or thumps, just the dull sound of papers sliding around. Bills? Not likely in a box like this. Bills belong in shoeboxes. Love letters? She laughed out loud at the thought of Gramps being capable of it, he who snorted in sour disgust at "mushy stuff." From a secret lover? She laughed even louder as the image of Grammy's hairnet and sensible shoes came to mind.

She was still smiling when she opened the box.


The lid wouldn't close again.

Tory had slipped the bundle of letters out onto her lap, taking care not to displace the faded silk ribbon that bound them and absently placed the box on the floor beside her, reaching unseeing to close the lid back down as she ran her eyes over the slanting script on the top envelope.

The box tipped over instead. Puzzled, she lifted it to eye level, searching the hinges for the locking mechanism. There was none. The hinges were perfectly normal and must have been well-oiled before the box had been hid away, for they had opened smoothly without protest. If anything, they had opened too smoothly. One would expect an old box like this to resist.

Well, it was resisting now, for no discernible reason. Tory pushed herself to her feet and examined it more closely in the direct light, but she was no further ahead.

"The heck with it," she said, and put it down on the trunk. She headed for the stairs. She would read the letters downstairs and leave the troublesome box behind. It was childish, she knew, but she was irked.

She had only gone a few steps down before she stopped and looked back. The box sat on the trunk, lid tilted up, like a gaping mouth.

Now cut that out! she scolded herself. It's just a box.

But when she turned again to the stairs she felt an itch under her hair, the way she would on the schoolbus when that annoying kid with red hair and freckles stared at the back of her head till she scratched. She descended another two steps anyway, then stopped again. She screwed up her face in exasperation and looked back at the box.

The sun had crept up the side of the trunk and was now fingering the edge. The box stood out in stark black relief against the dusty glory behind it. It gaped at her.

Tory stomped back up the steps and took the box in her hand, wrinkling her nose. She couldn't leave the stupid box up here by itself, uncovered, unlocked, unrestrained...

Not sure which irritated her more, the box with its inexplicable refusal to close, or her own irrational reaction, she made it all the way down the stairs this time, the box held out at arm's length. Past the bedroom doors with their dark wood frames she bore it and down another two flights of worn wooden stairs. She would put it in the kitchen.

The kitchen, with its memories of fragrant loaves and frying onions, of milk and cookies and childhood jokes, of the clink of the potato masher against the insides of the pot, of her grandmother and laughter and cinnamon toast. The kitchen, which glowed now with the early afternoon sun, where the old-fashioned lace curtain lifted and fell back with an inaudible sigh on the summer breeze. There could be no place more solid and real and happily practical than the kitchen. And there was a table to spread the letters out on and the old-fashioned stovetop percolator to make coffee in. Fresh-ground perking coffee - that would chase the mustiness of the attic out of her nose.

The sandalwood box she placed on the far corner of the table and resolutely filled the percolator with water. The light dimmed. She checked out the window to see if the cloud covering the sun threatened rain.

There was no cloud.

She turned back and looked at the box, sitting in the now dingy light of the kitchen. Her eyes prickled.

"I hate you," she whispered between clenched teeth.