A short story by AD Bane
It wasn’t a ghost or demon that haunted him at night. When he awoke cold and shaky it wasn’t for the shadows that glowered over him, or even the far-distant cry of the wolven. When the whisp would skitter across the floor at night, pale like a graveyard mist, he paid it no heed; nor would he fright at the silent stalkers that sometimes cast long shadows as they paced the empty spaces, old worn floorboards creaking at each step. No, his enemy wasn’t of that sort. In fact, many would likely laugh at such misfortune, to fear a box: for a box it was that plagued his every waking thought and kept his dreams on turmoil.
Some years had gone by in a flutter of summer sun, autumn leaves, and winters fury since the last of the kin had passed on. First went the eldest; then followed the sires, who desperate in their own vanity had hid all else to hide their fear; and lastly the children, fallen plague to the same curse that had been shut away. They’d been given their time and it had come to its own abrupt conclusion in the wake of the mournful years when there hadn’t been enough to feed the livestock. Now he alone would sit and gaze out from the musty panes onto what they had left behind, his own gaunt face the only reminder of days now past when he hadn’t been so alone.
Mother was the last. Still some time gone, she’d held on until what life she had was whittled away and naught was left but her bones to sing her dirge. It was early in the spring when she breathed her last, and he by her side had held her hand as her voice gently slipped away, echoing into memory. He watched the last remaining frosty breaths die before he let her go, for she was all he’d had left. His tears had coursed the final grays of her satin hair, and when at least he held a thought between his pale hands he realized that he was finally alone, the only one of their proud family.
It was then he first thought of that box, where he’d left it hidden comfortably in the corner of a cluttered attic amidst stacks of canning and news from the sires’ day. There in the darkness his memory had forgotten it; but without reason it’d brought itself back once more to his mind. And so it was he found himself every moment thinking of it, wondering of it, if it was still there, if the rats hadn’t eaten it. Why had he not properly disposed of it, let the kind men from the town take it away? He didn’t know.
The attic steps were old as time. Many nights he’d lain awake, listening the fateful footfalls of a grue as it made its way down those creaking treads – yes even the most subtle of stalkers. But he didn’t fear the creaking steps or the dark things that came down them – at least, not all the dark things. He did see the box standing angrily against the wall by the window – those panes all papered over. If only he could get it into better light he might recall once more what it was, why he’d put away to begin with. But it was everything he could do to drag it across the rough-cut floorboards of the attic, and in the dark whatever might be in his way was. It was no small feat, and when at last the light from below shown on his face he was grateful to emerge from that dank and dusty hole with the box bumping down the steps behind him. And there it was, staring at him in the broad daylight: so plain, so ordinary, and yet he knew it was neither.
Mother had often inquired as to its purpose. When the day had come and it first found its place in the attic she wondered where he’d put it, but he’d never told her. She already was so frail then, holding onto the last remaining memory as she clutched in her hand the sire’s golden pendant. It’d been a mystery, one that would not be shared. But it was with a strange sense of relief that he now saw it once more. So long it had hidden away; could he have missed it? Missed all those things locked inside? But he didn’t want to open it. He wouldn’t let that beady round hole in the lock catch his eyes, for he knew it was pleading with him to be released. He wouldn’t, he couldn’t; and the silver key would remain safely on the chain around his neck. No, the box wouldn’t open. It was better that way.
It was with a strange sense of purpose that he lay in the darkness thinking about that box. What was he to do with it now that the darkness within the attic had relinquished its hold? He didn’t know but found himself slipping peacefully into unwakefulness; and he found it there, just as it inhabited his waking world. It was as if it had waited patiently for him, knowing that shortly he’d be along. Hello, the box seemed to say. Haven’t forgotten about me, have you? But something was wrong; yes, something had gone dreadfully askew: the chain about his neck was light, and within the eye of the lock was the silver key, gently turning itself about, jarring his dreams with each click of the tumbler. Across the floor the whisp crawled, down the stair the stalkers came, and outside the windows the wolven howled to be let in; but they held no fearful sway over him, not next to the box. The terror that burned like fire within his pale eyes was only the reflection of that great wooden thing and its gently rising lid. From deep within rose the mournful cry, and dust like smog settled across the floor, covering his ashen toes. So he shut again the lid, slammed it tight, shut in all those terrible things, closed them into their own darkness. They couldn’t get out: he mustn’t let them.
He awoke with painful cry before the dancing shadows. Cold with terror and frightful in terrified panic to find the thing that haunted him, he leapt from bed and crossed the floor. The door ajar: he shut it tight. The light without, the darkness in: and back to bed he scrambled, pulling tight the covers round till morning shed her glorious light.
When once the sun had touched his face he leapt from bed once more. It had to go, back to its darkness. There it would stay. With much strenuous effort and painful incident he dragged it once more up the attic stairs and back into the shadowed world from whence it’d come. There he checked the lock, checked the lid, then shut the attic door and locked it, too. He didn’t want to see it, ever.
Once more the light of day had come again, but this time as he looked about his shadowless world and tuned a wakeful ear to the merry songs of the birds in the garden he knew there was no cause for fright. He had returned it to its lonely corner in the attic, and it could haunt him no more. It was gone. But as he set his foot upon the threshold of the attic stair his eyes befell the open door and darkness beyond. It had come unlatched, the lock undone; and frantic, he searched for the culprit. But the house was empty, devoid of any other. At last he came upon the kitchen, curtains drawn and shadows settled, and there it was upon the table: the box.
How had it come there? Who had done it? He cursed their name and vows were taken, but none would put it back where it belonged. He had to be rid of it. It had to be gone. But where?
To the shed he went; then, shovel in hand, he brought the box to the old willow tree. Sweat on his brow and all but spent, he set about the weary task. Down between two great roots the hole was dug, deep and narrow. Then in he put the box, way down in the earth, and about it he filled the hole until the ground was fresh, heaping it high and packing it down. One large drum he rolled atop, and there it sat beneath the old willow tree which had bourn so many happy memories – children playing in the leaves, lovers laughing on the swing, the old folks smoking from the bench in the evening. Sun up, sun down: it didn’t move. It wouldn’t go. It had to stay, that terrible thing, way down in the ground. Down there where he couldn’t reach it. He hated it, hated everything it stood for and everything it contained. But to bed he must, and there to sleep away its wretched memory.
At first waking he thought again of where it was. The glint of gold in his eye betrayed the secret, and once more he wondered why he felt such a deep longing to know. Surely, he didn’t miss it: he hated it, and everything about it. How could he not? There, beneath the lid nailed tightly shut were all the things that once had plagued a troubled boy, a boy that had so longed to see them gone. But now it was all he could think of. He could see the patch of dirt from his bedroom window, see the place where it was hid away. Though the grass grew about it, nothing could purge his memory of what lay beneath the roots. And he had to have it back.
Once more he went for his shovel. Once more he disturbed the earth beneath the old willow. The box was heavy, but he drew it from the ground, straining and hacking at the dry summer dust that clouded his thought. The lock was rusted and tight from the embrace of the earth, but he turned it slowly until it gave way; then, with a grown of the nails that longed to hold on, he pried loose the lid that hid his sin.
The dust was settled, roses all wilted and long since decayed. Beneath them was death in her mortal embrace. And there he lay, pale, rotted, sunken eyes that stared ceaselessly skyward and shriveled over the bones that had once been so strong. There on his chest were the withered hands crossed, and within their clutch the glint of the pendant, the family crest, the sire, the father – object of hate. And as he looked down and he right back up, it was the curse that bound them, father and son; and though he hated the box and all it contained, it was his plague, and he the bones.
This work is written by AD Bane and published by adbane.com. It is solely the property of ADBane.com and may not be reproduced in part or in whole for any reason except at the exclusive permission of the author. © 2011 ADBane.com