Soul Box

My Mom once gave me a tiny jewelled box just like the one in the story. Her intentions were good – as I recall I was having a lot of nightmares at the time and the idea was I could put all my nightmares into the box before I went to sleep, so there’d be none  left for me to dream. I have the box sitting on my bookshelf at home, now, and all I can think about is how many nightmares are in there by now, after all these years… Still, as long as I don’t open it, everything should be fine.

Enjoy…

Soul Box

Ben Pienaar

 

Death seldom comes quietly or painlessly, and even more seldom to those at peace with their lives. Marie Faye died in a violent chaos of twisted metal, breaking glass and fire. She would have died from her wounds: face torn to shreds, ribs, legs, arms and spine shattered, lungs collapsed. All of that would have been enough, but at the time the flames engulfed her, she was not dead yet. It was the fire that killed her, by searing strips.

 

*

 

‘She died instantly in the crash. I’m sorry.’

The news, delivered by a cop who’d done it too many times to really be sorry any more, and his twenty five year old female partner, who was herself on the brink of tears, was too much for Neil Faye. That was for the best, because instead of going to his knees with his hands to his face as he would have done, he turned and gave his only daughter the hug she needed.

Bridgette was limp in his arms, sobbing with a deep, all-encompassing grief he’d never seen or felt before. He would later, but for now he stared over her shoulder at the wall and thought of nothing at all.

More words were exchanged and the police left. Neil spoke to his daughter on the couch for a long time, they got takeaway, and she went to bed exhausted. Through all of this, Neil’s body acted without any orders from upstairs, which had gone ominously silent. He went up to bed around midnight and closed his eyes; opened them again when his alarm clock went off, though he hadn’t slept at all. He called work.

‘Hey Jim.’

‘How are you, Neil? Taking a sick day, huh?’

‘Wife’s dead.’

‘Sorry, didn’t quite get that.’

‘Wife’s dead. Not coming in. Tha…’ It was supposed to be thanks Jim, but something choked the words out of his throat and he hung up instead.

Bridgette wouldn’t wake up for a while, and he found himself driving down to the flea market, where Marie had spent so much of her time. He walked the aisles, a ghost, looking for her in the crowds. Twice he saw the back of her head disappear around a corner, another time he smelt her: fresh oranges and violets.

It was the way in which he discovered the Soul Box that he knew he’d found her. It was a powerful feeling – he knew it was her – yet when he searched for the source, he saw only a black bejewelled box the size of a closed fist. One minute he was shuffling through the crowd, the next he was staring into one of the shops that lined the alley. Not at any of the items on display, but at the black box, only the corner of which was visible to him beneath a low table stocked with jewellery. His eyes fixed on it and focussed of their own accord, his breath catching in his throat.

His sanity bent, but did not break. He fell to his knees in front of the alarmed stall owner – a plump saggy eyed woman in a kaftan – and wept bitter, grateful tears.

 

*

 

Bridgette sat on the back porch, her bare feet hanging over the edge of the deck in the icy rain, listening. Her mother had loved the rain. Her eyes were closed, so she didn’t know he was there until he sat down beside her.

‘Heya, Bridie.’

‘Hey.’

‘I know you’re probably in shock still. I know I am. But, uh, I just thought I’d get something for you, for when it gets hard, you know?’

Now she did look at him, but only for a second. ‘Oh. Thanks Dad.’

‘Here.’ He pressed the box into her hand. Black Porcelain embedded with silver jewels. Probably cheap rocks, but they reflected the grey sky with such clarity. She saw her own reddened eyes reflected back at her.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s a Soul Box,’ he said. ‘It keeps the souls of those who’ve passed. As long as you have that, Marie won’t leave you. Either of us.’

She couldn’t help but smile. It was typical of him, wasn’t it? He couldn’t be sweet without being corny at the same time. It wasn’t in her to make fun, though. She hugged him. ‘Thanks, Dad.’

‘That’s okay.’

They sat together for a while and she turned the box over in her hands until a part of it detached and almost fell into the wet grass. She hadn’t even realised it had a lid. She looked inside.

Her mother’s eye stared at her from the bottom of the box, wide with panic and pain and full of the horror of her final moments. Bridgette took a sharp breath and fumbled it. She looked again, but it was only a picture of an eye someone had painted on the bottom, bright green and white. It wasn’t even realistic.

‘What’s wrong?’ She showed him and laughed when he recoiled.

‘Jeez, Bridie.’

‘Yeah. Gee dad, no souls in here. I think you got ripped off.’

He shrugged. ‘Yeah, I guess I did. That’ll teach me to trust strange witch ladies.’

‘Witch lady? Where’d you get this?’

‘The Market. You know…’

Neither of them said a word for the next few minutes. Bridgette held the box out in the rain and let it half fill up before closing the lid again. She glanced sideways at her father and smiled. ‘She liked the rain.’

‘Yeah. She did, didn’t she?’ He put an arm around her and, for the first time in two days, she found respite from the grief that had so far threatened to consume her.

She didn’t meet her father’s eyes, or she might have seen that he was already consumed.

 

*

 

Two weeks of rain and darkness. Nightmares and oblivion alternated in both her waking and sleeping life. Her father refused to acknowledge his own sadness, smiling at her whenever he saw her, making tea, watching movies, going to work as though everything was the same. She told herself that her mother was inside the Soul Box, but she knew it contained only the painted eye and some water. She kept it by her bed day and night.

Until the funeral.

After all that rain, the sun shone in a clear sky and spring was everywhere. Fuck you, Bridgette thought. Fuck you for being happy, world.

‘So we lay to rest my beloved wife, Marie Andrea Faye. Beautiful, smart, the kindest woman I’ve ever…’ He trailed off. Bridgette hadn’t been able to take her eyes off her mother’s too fresh grave, the soil tossed and smoothed over, the stone so pristine and new – but in the sudden silence she looked up. Neil was staring, misty eyed, in the direction of the high sun. No, he was staring into the sun, without so much as a twitch of an eyelid. The hand holding his notes hung by his side. A soft breeze snatched one of the pen scrawled pages and sent it twirling over the cemetery, but he didn’t seem to notice.

‘Such a pretty face, she had.’ His voice so quiet it only reached her on the back of that same breeze. ‘Skin burnt to black flakes and blisters. Pieces of bone tearing through her cheeks. Her hair melted into her scalp. I remember the way her legs were broken almost completely backwards, like a bird.’ He gave a sad chuckle. Bridgette clutched the box so hard it threatened to shatter. Some of the water spilled and wet her palm.

‘The way she used to moan always takes me back. Especially when she was trying to drag herself over the asphalt, leaving bits of herself behind.’ He wiped his eyes and smiled.

‘Once, she said to me, “Neil,” she said – ’ And then, just as Bridgette was staring at the other serious mourners wondering why don’t they do something? He screamed at the top of his lungs, but not with his own voice – with Marie’s – and Bridgette dropped the box and fell to the grass on her knees with both hands pressed against her ears to keep out the sound of it. It was so full of pain, that scream.

It stopped abruptly and she opened her eyes as two men, one a friend of her mothers, the other an uncle she’d only met once, reached under her arms and pulled her to her feet. Everyone else crowded around, peering over each other to look at her.

‘It’s alright, its okay everyone, she’s fine,’ the uncle – Ian, wasn’t it? – was saying. He escorted her away from the others and sat her down under an oak tree. Her father cast her a worried glance and then cleared his throat and continued his speech. Ian felt her forehead and then squatted beside her.

‘Are you okay?’

She nodded. ‘Yeah, sorry, I must have had like a, a moment or something. Sorry.’

He had a trimmed ginger beard and crow’s feet like trenches in his face. ‘It’s too bad we had to reunite under these circumstances. Too often it takes a tragedy to bring family together.’ She tried to remember him and had only hazy impressions, of some event in the distant past, a grinning man in a suit and her mother’s laughter.

‘I didn’t, like, scream or anything, did I?’

He furrowed his brow. ‘No, no, nothing like that.’

‘Okay, good. Thanks. It’s just so soon, you know?’

‘Yes, of course. Do you think you’ll be alright?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. Just freaked.’ She took a deep breath and sat up against the tree. It was good to be in the shade and away from that sweltering, inappropriate sunlight. Her father’s words floated over from the congregation. He was talking about her mother’s beauty, and the way her smile lit up a room. No burning flesh.

‘Okay. Stay as long as you need. No one expects you to be a social butterfly today. See you later.’ He got up and then paused. ‘Oh, almost forgot. You dropped this.’ He handed her a square tile of black porcelain. The Soul Box’s lid.

‘Thanks,’ she said. He gave her a reassuring nod and went to re-join the others.

She set the box down beside her, but as she moved to slide the lid into place, she saw her mother’s eye. Not the painted thing, but a real eyeball, rolling in a soup of red nerves and blood instead of rainwater, turning as though searching for something – Bridgette? – but before it could find her she closed the box.

The sound of the lid dropping into place was a heavy, stone on stone grind. It resonated inside her, making her body and mind vibrate with the weight of it, and she lurched onto all fours and vomited into the grass. She remained that way for a few minutes, panting, until the insane buzzing in her mind dulled to a hum. What was that about?

She sat back against the oak and stared at the box, wiping her mouth with a shaky hand. Just a box. She should open it again, now, to reassure herself that she was a disturbed, grieving girl and that was all there was to it.

But she didn’t.

She slipped it into her pocket, stood on weak knees and walked back to the congregation. Her father ended the speech in tears and everyone clapped and wiped their eyes.

Marie Faye was gone for good.

 

*

 

Routine became desperately important for Neil. It was the tightrope that kept him from falling into the black hole that Marie had left in her wake. He wasn’t so much balancing on it as crawling, and the end was nowhere in sight, but as long as he kept moving forward, he could continue to function.

He would wake up and have coffee and porridge. He went to work and maintained the basic level of mental ability required, only returning to consciousness when he arrived home. He had dinner with Bridie and then sat in front of the television drinking cup after cup of strong tea, watching but not seeing, until his eyes closed of their own accord.

Bridie concerned him, and she was what kept him moving forward along the tight rope instead of simply clinging to it. She’d never been talkative, but now she was downright broody. Not that he blamed her, but it wasn’t healthy for a fifteen year old girl, especially one as popular as she, to be a hermit. Her once animated face adopted the tired look of an overworked single mother. She ate without appetite and spent most of her time reading or sitting on the porch and gazing at nothing.

Curiously, she only went up to her bedroom to change clothes or sleep, and he wasn’t so sure she was sleeping much, either. On several separate occasions as he passed her room on the way to his own bed in the early hours of the morning, he heard whispering. Once he even pressed his ear up against the door and tried to hear what she was saying, but she spoke too quickly, the words running into each other like a stream hissing through leaves.

She had to work things out in her own mind, he supposed, just like he did. He wished she would talk to him, but she’d always been closer with her mother.

It didn’t occur to him that he might have been part of what was worrying Bridie so much until she came to him one night with the Soul Box. He was on his sixth cup of earl grey and couldn’t remember what show he was watching, an ad for bicep blaster 6000 screaming at him from across the living room. Her black hair was mussed and her eyes droopy, and she sat down beside him on the couch and put the Soul Box down on the coffee table.

He muted the ad and blinked at her, setting the tea aside. ‘Oh, hey Bridie. Can’t sleep?’

She shook her head. ‘Not for a while.’

He gave her a smile he hoped was reassuring rather than unstable. ‘Me neither. We just have to give it time, you know? And I’m always here for you.’

‘Thanks, Dad. Um, me too, right?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ve been worried. I was thinking maybe you should have the Soul Box. I really got the feeling you needed it more than me, you know? And I just… Things that remind me of her can be kind’ve painful more than anything else. I appreciate it, you know, but you need her more than me.’

He looked at the Soul Box and smiled. It was as though Marie was there in the room with them. Her warm presence comforted him more than he could say. ‘I miss her so much,’ he said.

‘Me too, Dad.’

‘Well, if you’re sure. Thanks.’ He reached for the box and she tensed up. He cocked his head, hand still outstretched. ‘What’s up?’

‘Oh, I dunno. It’s just… I have this strong feeling, you know? Like, is it okay if we don’t ever open it again? I saved some rainwater inside, and I feel like that’s her soul, and if we open it she might get lost. I know it sounds stupid.’

‘No, no. I mean, yeah, it does sound stupid.’ They laughed, the sound strange but welcome in the quiet house. ‘But I know exactly what you mean. If we don’t open it, it kinda preserves the magic of the thing, right? Like you know a magician’s trick is just a trick, but as long as he doesn’t explain how he did it, you can always believe, just a little bit?’

‘Exactly.’ She smiled.

He picked up the box, still warm from her hands, and turned it over, hypnotised by the way the light glanced off the jewels like tiny mirrors.

‘Magic,’ he said.

 

*

 

She couldn’t tell him the real reason she had to get rid of the box. He was dealing with enough on his own without having to handle the thought that his daughter might be losing her mind. There was something else, but she didn’t admit it to herself except late at night when she tossed and turned and wondered: what if I I’m not going crazy, and the Soul Box is real?

After she gave him the box, she watched him closely for signs that he was experiencing the same things she had. But he smiled at her over coffee, he asked her about her day, he watched television into the early hours, he drank more than he used to. Normal behaviour, now.

It was impossible to talk to him about it. How could she explain to him what it had been like? Her mind had twisted things so that the box became a source of dread. She left it by her bedside and didn’t go near it all day. And when she did, oh. The heaviness that settled over her when she opened her door and looked into her room; the way her stomach churned and her skin prickled, as it did strapped in to the front seat of a rollercoaster in the last moments before take off. How she’d heard her mother’s voice in the twilight hours of morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, whispering. She couldn’t quite remember the words, only that they were nasty, and mentioned things she didn’t want to hear. Once she’d woken up in a cold sweat and swore she heard the tail end of a sentence hissing at her from inside the box: Feel it burning all the way to my bones forever… How could she tell her father these things?

The night she gave the box to him, she’d fallen into a deep sleep and hadn’t woken for twelve hours of pleasant sunlit dreams. No dread, no fear – only grief, and now that the whispers were silenced, she could bear the grief.

Neil seemed comforted, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t keeping everything to himself. He laughed too easily, smiled too often. He didn’t leave the box in his room but kept it in his pocket at all times. She never heard it whisper when she was with him, but sometimes he cocked his head to one side and his smile faltered.

Bridgette took the days one at a time, and things got easier. People died, and you moved on because you had no choice. It was sad, but no one could be sad forever, and as the weeks went by and she returned to school, and friends, and normal things, she thought of her mother less and less.

Sometimes, in her dreams, she remembered the things her mother’s voice had whispered, and she woke up with a scream in her throat. On these nights, she was glad her father had agreed never to open the box.

If there really was something in there, it would be better not to know.

 

*

 

Marie was back. Not in the flesh, of course, not in person, but he could live with that because he’d fallen in love with who she was as much as what she was. Better to have her mind and not her body than the other way around.

It was magic, alright, and he wished so badly he could tell Bridie everything, but Marie wouldn’t let him. She can’t hear me, honey, she said. I tried. And occasionally she would call out to her daughter, but Bridie never responded, and in the end, as Marie told him, that was for the best. She’s better that way, Neil. She needs to move on, and that’s okay.

He could hardly sleep the first week. He talked and talked and let all his grief and worry leak away because she was alright, she was here with him, hadn’t left at all, and even when he died one day she reassured him they could still be together. He talked because he didn’t want to hear. He was too afraid to ask her what it had been like to die, or where she was now, and she didn’t tell him. He was afraid, also, that she wouldn’t be able to answer because her voice was really his own mind giving him the comfort he needed. She sounded happy, and that was enough for him.

For a while.

Curiosity gnawed in a dark corner of his mind so quietly he never knew it was there until he started asking her the questions he didn’t want her to answer.

He would set the Soul Box on the kitchen table and talk to her for hours while Bridgette was at school. Reminiscing, laughing and joking, loving each other with words. It was on one of these occasions, two o’clock on a summery Tuesday afternoon, when he asked her, ‘Is it okay, where you are now?’ He hadn’t known he was going to ask until the words fell out of his mouth.

Are you sure you want to know? She whispered.

‘I dunno. I mean, I guess heaven is a crazy idea, when you think about it – kinda just too good to be true. But it can’t be all bad where you are, right?

It’s lonely.

‘God. I’m so sorry, Marie. You won’t be alone forever, I promise you.’

She didn’t answer, and for a long time he sat at the table in silence, squirming. How bad was it? How long had he left her there, alone?

‘Listen, just tell me what happens. Where are you? Marie, maybe I can help you somehow. Please tell me?’

A pause, then, her whisper mingling with a sudden gust blowing in through the kitchen window, she answered: ‘Open the box, and I’ll show you.’

 

*

 

Bridgette walked home with her face up to the sky, letting the sun fall across her skin in between clouds and feeling okay. There was a certain sadness beneath everything, a melancholy that would never quite go away. She was fine with that. She wouldn’t truly lose her mother unless she lost that sadness, she –

The Dread.

It was like walking into a wall. She stopped mid stride and shook her head, blinking. Was there someone behind her? No, it wasn’t that kind of dread. It was something worse, a terror without cause. She was suffocating, but no matter how deeply she sucked at the air, she couldn’t get enough oxygen into her lungs. She doubled over and fixed her eyes on the cracked concrete sidewalk, willing herself not to vomit. She broke into a cold sweat and her hands shook. Tears welled up in her eyes and dripped onto her scuffed school shoes.

She was less than a hundred meters from the street she on which she lived, but she doubted she could walk five. A vast cloud rolled over the sun and she went to her knees in a dark, empty street. Was she dying?

No. It’s the box. It’s the same feeling the Soul Box used to give you, only worse. For a minute she was paralysed with her grief, forehead touching the ground while tears poured from her eyes, but such an intense feeling couldn’t last for long without making her faint, and as soon as it relented she forced herself up onto her feet and stumbled forward, wiping her eyes. She dropped her school bag in the street and didn’t look back. Something’s happened. Oh, God, something’s happened.

She didn’t stop again, nor did she look up, her mind focussed on landing one foot in front of the other until she reached her front lawn. This time it was the smell of roasting pork that struck her, and the thin grey smoke that escaped the half open front door. She knew even then what had happened, only not why, and she collapsed onto all fours in dewy grass and screamed until she had nothing left.

He might not be dead! He might not be dead! This thought was enough to drag her back up and on, through the front door and, following the smoke, down the hall toward the kitchen. She heard the awful sound she remembered from the funeral: heavy stone grating against stone and settling into place with a final thump.

He was still alive.

Smoking, red embers settled in the black husk of his body, knees to chest in the foetal position at the foot of the kitchen counter, eyes like white boiled eggs bulging from a scorched face, a pair of scissors and a metal skewer lodged deep into each ear, lips peeled back from blistered gums and cracked teeth. Yet his mouth drew the slow raw hiss of a lifetime smoker; still alive.

‘Oh, God, Dad.’

She went to her knees in front of him, though not close enough to touch. His ashen flesh radiated heat like an oven. The floor and wooden cupboards were charcoal black, and the can of lighter fluid he’d used lay on its side. His eyeballs twitched at the sound of her voice and a pained cry escaped his throat. Then a hushed word: ‘Bridie?’

‘Why, Dad? How could you do this?

But whatever answer he might have had for her died in his throat, along with the rest of him. Fire tightened tendons in his right hand loosened, and the Soul Box fell from his grip and tumbled, without opening, against Bridgette’s knee. While she was weeping, she thought she glimpsed her father’s blue eyes in the reflection of one of the silver jewels, weeping with her.

When she managed to pull herself to her feet again with the aid of the countertop, she saw a note lying on the kitchen table. It was written in her father’s familiar block letter handwriting, scrawled in such a frantic rush it was barely legible. He’d signed the bottom of the page, but his wasn’t the only signature.

The other read: M. Faye.

 

*

 

Bridie, sweet Bridie.

            I’m going to do it. I’m so sorry but I have to do it. You warned me not to open the box and, Oh God, I opened it. Your mother only did what I asked, she showed me what happens. What happens.

            I had to go to her, Bridie, I couldn’t leave her to face it alone. I had to share her suffering.

             She didn’t die fast at all. It was slow, so slow. And do you want to know what happens? When you die, you die. You experience your death. Over and over.

            My eyes have been opened, and one day yours will be, too. I don’t want it to be a surprise for you like it was for Marie, so I’ll tell you now, my poor sweet Bridie.

            Your life is a tunnel, and it stops in a dead end, a cul de sac, a blank wall. There is nowhere left to go, so you just stay there, stuck in a rut. Life is a well that ends in mud and stagnant water. Life is a coffin from which there is no escape, and death is the dirt that keeps you in.

            Think of all those people, the children who drowned, the men who died bleeding and terrified on a thousand different battlefields across history. Think of the women insensible with pain who died in childbirth, of the innocents tortured to death over the centuries. Think of the ones who starved and the ones who were taken in inches by disease. Do you know where they all are now, this very moment?

            They’re living the last minutes of their deaths, over and over again. They’re stuck in the enclaves at the ends of their lives, where your mother is, where I will be.

            No one should have to suffer that alone, Bridie, so I went to join her.

            Maybe, one day, you could keep us company?

            We miss you so much, Bridie.

            We love you.

 

*

 

Bridgette was fine.

For a while.

Neil had killed himself in a rush, but he’d made a new will directly after Marie’s death that took good care of Bridgette. When she was eighteen, she moved to an apartment in the city, where the bustle and nightlife made her feel less alone at night. She got a few jobs, but couldn’t hold them down. She went out and got drunk, took drugs and tried to meet people.

But somehow, everything was pointless.

She kept the box beside the bed and tried not to listen to the words that escaped it in hushed secretive tones late at night and in the dark hours of the morning. There were two voices that spoke now, and they meant well, but she could hear madness behind the things they said. Their pain was becoming too much for their minds. At least they were together.

Some nights, Bridgette didn’t go out at all, but stayed in with a bottle of vodka and played music loud enough to drown the voices.

One of these nights, she stepped out onto the balcony with the Soul Box in one hand and the bottle in the other. It was a smoker’s balcony, narrow and minimalist, the railing made of cement rather than glass, so she could climb on top of it and balance, rainy air whipping into her face as she sang with the music.

Each time she reached the end of the railing she’d take another swig and then turn around, so the arm that hung over the bright lights of the city twenty floors below changed each time. First the bottle hung over the drop, then the box, then the bottle, then the box. When half the bottle was gone she tripped and accidentally kicked her radio from its perch. She watched it fall without breathing, counting ten full seconds before it shattered in the alleyway beside a metal dumpster.

In the sudden silence she stood, facing the empty night. She leaned forward and would have fallen if it weren’t for a correctly timed gust of wind blowing up against her. She swallowed another shot of vodka and coughed. She lifted the Soul Box in front of her and rested her thumb on the edge of the lid, knowing it would take the slightest flick of her nail to open it.

‘I miss you so much, mum. I miss you, Dad.’

Misssss you tooooooo, honey.

            ‘Why did you leave me?’

Haven’t lefffffft. Here foreverrrrrr.

            It wouldn’t be such a bad death, she thought. Soaring toward the pavement at ten meters a second, air roaring in her ears, the night enveloping her; it would be like flying through space. If that was to be her eternity, well, there were worse ways, weren’t there? They wouldn’t begrudge her a sense of peace in her final moments, when they had only pain, would they?

She wobbled again, regained her balance and took another burning swig. Only a quarter bottle left now.

Come to ussssss, Bridgette. We misssssss youuuuuu.

‘I miss you too, guys. I do. I hope you’re okay, wherever you are.’

She took her thumb away from the lid, closed her eyes, and opened her hand. She didn’t see the box fall so much as felt it, that heavy dread leaving her weak in its absence. She didn’t hear the sound of shattering porcelain because her knees gave out and she collapsed backwards onto the balcony, the bottle of vodka shattering against the cement.

The rain fell harder, but she didn’t notice, curled up under an alcohol blanket, weeping for her parents. She cried for them, and for all the dead, and for the fate that awaited her.

But she was alive tonight, and whatever lay ahead, she still had tomorrow.

In time, a smile found her sleeping lips.

 

 

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