The Wooden Box

“Don’t be startled. I know it’s not everyday that a voice comes from a wooden box. I get that. Just think what a novelty this fine piece of craftsmanship will be at your parties. Especially if people hear my voice.

“The auctioneer has no idea that I talk. I didn’t like him from the moment my last master decided to sell me. He thinks I’m just an heirloom from the 17th century. The fool has no idea what he’s missing out on. You, on the other hand, appear to be an intelligent person open to the mysteries in life. The fact that you’re still standing here looking at me suggests an active interest. Well, my friend this is your lucky day. Successfully bid on me and I’ll share arcane knowledge that will give you mastery over men and beasts. Good luck.

Bernard Crackerton II looked around the lobby to see if anyone else heard the voice. The small group of people seemed more interested in the paintings and sculptures on the other side of the room. They talked in hushed tones, pointing at the artwork and bantering about prices. None of them noticed Bernard. He looked around self-consciously. A talking wooden box wasn’t normal. The last thing he wanted to do was draw attention to himself so he went to the main room and got his auction paddle with a number on it. Finding a seat in the rear of the rows of chairs, he sat down and opened the auction guide booklet. On the last page he found the wooden box. It was listed as a 17th century German Fugured Walnut Marquetry Document box…$4,300.00. There wasn’t any additional information on it. The price didn’t concern him. He was a successful day trader with a net worth of 14 million dollars. Going to auctions and searching for rare and interesting objects was his one big passion. At 31-years old, he was considered a real catch in Boston society. He dutifully attended events where he rubbed shoulders with the wealthy and powerful, always searching for information that would help him make money on the stock market.

He realized he was day-dreaming about the talking box when he was startled by a sudden applause after the sale of a Warhol print. The auction was winding down as he patiently waited for the box to be brought up for sale. 

“Last, but not least, we have this beautiful 17th century German Fugured Walnut Marquetry Document box. Here we go… $4,300 dollars! Do I hear $4,300 dollars?

Bernard looked around the room. People were leaving and no one made a bid. He stood up and called out “$4,300!” while holding up his paddle.

“Sold! To the gentleman in the rear…number 181.” 

After paying for his prize Bernard took it home to his penthouse on downtown Boston. He was pouring himself a 1988 Chateau LaFite Rothschild when the voice said, “Thank you.

He was startled at first then looked at the wooden box and said, “Oh, it’s you.” 

Holding up his glass he said “Cheers!” After taking a sip he set the glass down and opened the box. Lifting the lid back, he exposed the simple interior. He examined it closely, running his fingers around it, looking for some hidden clue to the voice. Nothing. He reluctantly closed it. He couldn’t find a hidden drawer. 

“I hope you’re not disappointed that there’s nothing inside,” the Box said.

“It does poise a mystery. I expected to find a hidden trinket that would lead me to the source of your voice.

“You don’t seem to think that a voice coming from a wooden box is odd.”

“Of course, I do. That’s why I bought you. I’m open to the mysteries that surround us all every day. One of the many reasons I go to auctions is I’m seeking rare and unusual items. One never knows what they’ll find. You’re a perfect example.”

“I have a confession to make. I don’t have arcane knowledge to pass on to you. I just wanted out of the storeroom where they kept me. It was really boring. I was getting desperate when you came along. It was really my lucky day.” 

“How nice…for you. I don’t mind as long as you talk with my guests when I ask you too.

“No can do.”

“What!  Why not?” 

“Because, I’m inside your head.

That’s not possible! I’m not crazy. I heard you clearly the first time, and I hear you right now,” Bernard lashed out defensively. 

“Why do you think no one else heard me in that room when you were looking me over?

“Damn you! Stop messing with my head!” 

He stumbled across his display room holding his hands over his ears. In an attempt to get away from the voice he picked up one of his treasures and held it up in his hand. A 1941 Vacheron Constantin 18k Gold Tear Drop watch. A masterpiece of engineering.

Then it said, “You’re going to have to get use to it Bernard!

“No!” he screamed and threw the watch down so hard it shattered the glass over the numbers.

Shaken to the core he reached out for a Byzantine Silver Oil Lamp with a Lion handle. For seconds he held it…waiting for the voice to return. When the Lamp suddenly roared, he dropped it in terror and backed up into a display case.

A pair of Victorian Brass Gothic Revival Altar Candlesticks began to laugh at him! His prized 1863 Burmese Repoussee Silver Bowl joined in on the laughter. When the Thai Sandstone Buddha head began to talk he screamed again!

He kept screaming until his throat was swollen and raw, and the night turned to day. He was crawling around like a frightened animal as rays of sunlight streamed through the open shutters. He looked fearfully at his “treasures” and whimpered, “I’m not crazy...it’s my active imagination.”

Getting up his courage, he stood and took a few hesitant steps towards the hallway. 

“Where are you going Bernard?” his trophies called out. 

“That’s enough!” he shouted. He ran over to a row of shelves and grabbed an ancient Roman Green Stone knife and waved it around wildly.

“It all started with you,” he accused the silent wooden box.

“I’ll show you whose crazy!” he screamed, while slicing his own throat.

As It Stands, we never know when (or even if) we could go crazy.



Portrait of a Witch

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Alouette Arsenault was cursed with the ability to paint anything.

That’s the way she looked at her talent. Her work was so realistic it actually looked like photographs of people and landscapes.

It was the people part where the curse came in.

Alouette was a simple country girl born in the south of France in 1565.

When her mother was burned at the stake for being a witch, she was taken by her aunt Aimitee, who raised her from an infant in a hut located in the middle of the Aquitaine forest.

It was her ability to depict things around her in charcoal at an early age that caught Aimitee’s attention. She watched Alouette draw imaginary friends and the world around her with pride. She was a born artist who deserved to work in more lasting mediums.
When Alouette turned fourteen, Aimitee took her to Paris. She had a brother who lived there, and he took them in. With his help, and the money Aimitee made sewing people’s clothes, she was sent to a nearby art studio.

As the only female there, she suffered constant indignities, but the master, Ferdinand Elle, let her stay after interviewing her aunt. When shown examples of her work he was impressed. He saw something that none of the jealous young male artists in his studio had going for them; Alouette was a natural artist with an exceptional eye for detail. It was that eye for detail that most impressed Elle. He was astounded at the confident ease with which she quickly rendered her work. His instinct told him she was something special. Otherworldly even.

Using oil on canvas, Alouette painted her first portrait at fifteen years-old. It was of a minor city official. Elle allowed her to have the commission, and to paint her customer in the studio. After studying the client’s face, she saw a hint of a shy smile. When she was finished the client was overjoyed with her work. From that point forward he was a transformed man. Where once he spent all of his time worrying about things, he was now impossibly happy. His life transformed.
Of course, the client sang Alouette’s praise to everyone who would listen. It wasn’t long before new clients came in asking for her at the master’s studio. It came as no surprise to Elle who decided to charge her rent for the use of the studio, and materials.

Alouette didn’t make the connection with how happy her first client’s life became. How could she? She never saw him again. Nor was she aware of her second clients transformation who insisted she paint him frowning (he said it was an aristocratic pose). When his portrait was complete his normally mild nature turned into a combative one.

This went on for over a year. She painted clients whose lives changed for better or worse afterwards. Leading a hermit-like existence she was content to stay in her little bubble and paint. Elle watched proudly as each work became a masterpiece.

But people began to talk, and compare results among themselves after Alouette painted their portraits. Some noted that there lives had improved and they were happier. But others talked about people being so sad after getting their portrait painted, they committed suicide. Rumors spread claiming that she worked for the devil and had signed an evil pact with the dark lord. Her growing infamy swirled through the streets of Paris, fueled by fears that she was practicing witchcraft on them.

People became more and more concerned it was the devil’s work. Worse, it was a very superstitious time in Europe, where hundreds of women were being burned at the stake, hung, or drowned in trials designed to see if they were a witch. The mania descended upon Paris like a plague with groups of witch-hunters prowling the streets.
Alouette quit painting portraits the moment she heard the rumors. When she began refusing to paint anymore clients Elle took her aside and asked, “What’s happening little one?” even though he’d also heard the rumors.

“I cannot paint any longer master Elle,” she said.

“I knew you were a witch a long time ago. That’s because I’m a warlock!”

“Witch!” she cried out in shock. “You mean, I’m really a witch?” she sobbed.

“Yes. calm down my dear. We have work to do. I’ve been meaning to tell you this. Trust me. It will be your greatest work, I assure you. Now listen to me. One of the many reasons you’re such a talented artist is because you have a great memory.
“We must put this memory to the test. I will walk with you through town and you must pay attention to everyone you see, especially city officials. Fix their faces in your wonderful  memory as we stroll through the streets.”

It only took her three days to finish the painting. It was massive. The largest in the studio. It was full of all the people of Paris. They all had big smiles as they went about their daily routines. Elles hid the final product, which was titled, “Gay Parie in the Springtime,” in a secret vault below the studio. As long as the masterpiece remained intact, peace and tranquility would be assured for all Parisians. The witch hunts came to a halt afterward.

The mania that had infected the city was gone, allowing Alouette to once again move freely about in society. But her desire to paint was no longer there. She became wary of her powerful ability to affect people’s lives and eventually decided to quit painting altogether.

Her gratitude to Elle was endless. The old warlock had taught her many things. By revealing her power he opened up her inner eye, unlocking mysteries from her unconscious mind. When the time came to move on Alouette wept and kissed her mentor.

She left Paris for the countryside to live with her aunt Aimitee, disappearing into the dusty footnotes of history.

As It Stands, I’ve often wondered why there weren’t more women artists during the Renaissance period in the western world.

(1st published May 2017, As It Stands)

The King’s Search For Meaning in Life

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King Sith lit the funeral pyre and watched the smoke waft heavenward joining the gray sky in a sad goodbye.

Without his wife he had no taste for life. His was devoted to her, and although they never had children, they were happy. Like him, Astoria was a warrior of renown. They ruled the small kingdom of Dashtorium on the coast of the great Sammian Sea. Under their benign rule there was prosperity and no wars. People of all races mingled peacefully in the busy trading port.

But a sudden chill took his darling wife Astoria one day to the kingdom of the dead. The people grieved with their ruler, as she was universally loved. Sith was so distraught that he stepped down from his throne and urged the people to find another ruler. He was committed to wandering all of Tanus in search for a meaning for his now empty life. Taking his staff, sword, and a small bag of supplies he mounted his favorite gray Stallion “Thunder Walker,” and went east into the unexplored world beyond Dashtorium’s boundaries.

With no kingdom to look after his thoughts turned to subjects he seldom spent time on before. He recalled stories of mysteries like the singing trees of Lastoic and enchanted forests where men disappeared, never to be heard from again. Of the endless deserts of Terrost, where strange creatures survived in the blazing temperatures and would eat anything that moved. And the frozen mountains of Airon where giant hairy creatures walked upright and formed communities in the frozen tundra.

He rode until the sun grew weary and started its descent. He stopped just short of a dense forest in a grassy meadow. Dismounting, he saw something slide through the tall grass parting it slightly, as it moved away from him. The mages told him of many fantastic creatures on Tanus that no man had yet encountered. Through their magic they conjured images of them for him. One was massive creature than slithered on its belly and had no legs. It’s diamond-shaped skull was packed with rows of sharp teeth used for tearing apart its victims. Sniviets, as the mages called them, could get up to 20-feet long and their body was thicker than a man’s torso.

Sith watched the blue grass ripple in the opposite direction with relief. He suspected that he almost got to meet a Sniviet. Getting back on his horse he rode around looking for a clearing. Darkness had almost settled on the land when he found what he was looking for. A defensible position with a clear view. There were several large boulders and he made his camp with them to his rear. Nearby there was a small river that flowed south. He led Thunder Walker to it and dismounted. As the horse drank he stood there with his staff of light scanning the banks looking for any movement. After both were refreshed they went back to the camp. Sith slept lightly with his inner senses on alert. He woke up twice during the night after hearing blood-curdling screams come from the direction of the nearby forest.

Sith was awake before the sun rose. By the time he ate some bread and cheese, darkness was in retreat and a glowing red and orange ball was climbing upward into the gray sky of the new day. Thunder Walker was nibbling on a patch of grass when he mounted him and headed for the forest. Once they were under the full canopy of trees he dismounted and walked. The forest floor was uneven with scattered rocks, thick undergrowth, fallen trees, and unexpected depressions disguised by blankets of colorful leaves.

The further they went the darker it got until no sunlight could struggle through the dense canopy overhead. Their only light was his staff that glowed brightly, its aura surrounding them in a protective yellow glow. Thunder Walker snickered nervously as they plunged further into the unknown.  With his staff pointing the way they carefully made their way into the soundless interior. Hours passed before they heard a strange melody above them and a gentle breeze whispered between the trees. Voices sang his name softly…invitingly.

A warning went off in Sith’s warrior brain, and he held his staff over his head and spoke the spell of protection. Just in time. The tree limbs that were wrapping around him and Thunder Walker suddenly uncoiled and retreated back to their source. A screech of anger split the night! They wasted no time and left, eager to get beyond the deadly embrace of the trees of Lostoic. Hours later, Sith saw the light at the end of the forest and his spirits improved. It was past the days zenith, but still light enough to look for a place to camp in the valley before them. Thunder Walker sensed his mood and eagerly picked up his pace.

A riot of color greeted Sith’s eyes as he marveled at the shimmering red, green, blue, and purple plants and ground cover before them as far as the eye could see. Gentle hills covered in orange flora with small caves surrounded the valley. The sky was still a bright blue in spite of the gathering dusk. A sweet scent wafted on a gentle breeze as they ventured forward. With night rapidly descending Sith sought out a campsite and settled on a cave tall enough for them to stand in. Being new to the area he wasn’t going to let Thunder Walker out of his sight. After strapping on his feedbag with a ration of grain in it, Sith dined on a hunk of spicy Curbra jerky. He washed it down with water. By that time Thunder Walker was done and he took the bag off.

“Stay alert tonight, my friend,” Sith warned him while petting him affectionately. “I too, shall sleep with one eye open.” Wrapping his great cloak around him, Sith lay down on the hard ground and quickly fell asleep.

The morning light was accompanied by birds happily singing about the new day. They came out of the cave and into the blue sky blinking at the brilliance of the morning light. As Sith looked around he felt a presence. Then he saw them. They were half his size. Little naked humanoids. Male and female. There were thousands gathered outside the cave. All patiently waiting for Sith and Thunder Walker. One of the little people stood in front of the assembly. This spokesman tried a couple of languages before settling on Sith’s native Orzath. He was slightly taller than the rest and a darker green.

Greetings Lord, we have been expecting you,” he said while bowing before him.

Who are you?” Sith inquired.

“The Amsoest. We are the last of our kind and live peacefully in this valley of our ancestors. We have been waiting for you to deliver us from our enemies mighty lord!”

“What enemies? Of whom do you speak?”

“Everyone who comes into this valley to hunt us for sport. In recent times we’ve suffered terrible casualties as they kill and enslave us for their amusement. Our elders have been predicting a champion for many years. When they sensed your noble and honest aura, they also sensed your sadness.”

“This is so?” Sith wondered.

“It was ordained,” the speaker solemnly said.

Sith looked up in the sky and saw white puffy clouds appear directly overhead. As he watched the clouds formed into a figure he recognized, Astoria! She smiled down at him and her lips parted in greeting. Thunder Walker pawed the ground as Sith smiled back and shouted, “I love you!” 

The people looked on in awe.

When the cloud melted away and the sky was clear again, Sith addressed the people. “You’re right. This is my destiny and I gladly accept it. Henceforth, a long as I live, I will be your protector against those who would do you harm.”

And, so it was.

As It Stands, we all need to have some meaning to our life.