Once Upon A Time: The Box

DSC03352 - Togus Pond. Augusta, Maine
DSC03352 – Togus Pond. Augusta, Maine (Photo credit: Sam T (samm4mrox))

Once upon a time there was a box. It was a cardboard box, full of old bits of cardboard as a filling for the delicate objects inside. A quick look through the box would give the impression that there wasn’t anything inside. But there was.
The box sat on a nice dresser with a broken leg in the attic of 167 Wickamore Dr. in Chelsea, Maine. It had traveled up with all aunt Belinda’s things, and gotten relegated to the attic with everything else because the two sisters who lived in the house really had no time to deal with the work it would take for a huge yard sale. One sister worked for the Veteran’s administration at Togus, and the other sister bussed children around as a school bus driver and then bussed tables at the local BBQ pit. So both of them had the intention of working with the yard sale items and never got around to them.
It wasn’t as if aunt Belinda had really been an aunt. She was a second cousin to the sisters’ father, a relative so reclusive and standoffish that she did not appear in a single family photo. So it hardly felt as if they were neglecting the precious items of a family member. No one would care if the things stayed in the attic until the sisters passed and then the estate sale would have sold the lot.
If the elder sister hadn’t had a sudden hankering for waffles, and if the younger sister hadn’t mistakenly remembered a waffle iron among aunt Belinda’s things, the box might have simply been discarded without a closer look. But the elder sister had a craving for maple syrup on something, and waffles were just the thing. It was a Saturday morning free of church socials and charitable activities, a rare enough event in its own right. So the sisters took the emergency flashlights up to the attic and bumped around for a few minutes. It was the younger, pawing through the paper in search of a waffle iron, who discovered the mask.
“Well, look at that,” she held up the mask to her sister. “Isn’t that the strangest thing you ever saw?”
“It’s creepy,” declared the elder sister. “Gives me the willies. Put it back where you found it and help me find this iron.”
So the younger sister nestled the mask back down in its paper and they kept looking for a waffle maker they never did find. At last the elder sister went off the Target to buy a cheap waffle maker and the younger sister was left to drink her coffee and read the paper. But it was a slow news day, so she sat and hummed to herself. And thought about the mask.
It was a strange looking mask. Sort of Indian looking, made of wood, but sort of shiny. As the younger sister thought about it, she realized she couldn’t quite picture it. The exact shape of the thing wasn’t in her mind clearly, and she wasn’t sure if it showed a wolf, or a rabbit, or maybe it was a badly drawn man? The younger sister was of an age when slips in memory were not uncommon, but to be struggled against and rectified if at all possible. So she took her torch and marched up into the attic. The place felt colder somehow. And knowing the mask was up there gave her a bit of a shiver.
When the younger sister got to the top of the stairs she made a beeline straight to the box, but the mask wasn’t there. She rooted around for it all the way to the bottom, but there was no mask. When she swung the flashlight up, there was the mask, tipped against the back of the dresser to stare at her. Didn’t that just give her a fright? She stepped back and knocked off some other boxes, teetering precariously herself, before she righted herself. Now she could see that the mask was clearly a bird, probably a raven. But it was cut into the mask in such a way that he had a very fat beak.
“Didn’t you just give me a fright?” She said to the mask. It must have gotten pushed up when she first went down into the box and gotten flipped over to sit where it did on the dresser. She picked up the mask and again felt how slippery the wood felt. The younger sister turned the mask over and saw that it still had ties to put on. They were made of hide or something, and were as black as the mask. As the sister held the mask up to her face, she saw something through the eye holes. Something very small was walking on top of the dresser. Thinking it might be a rat, the sister dropped the mask. But there was nothing there.
“Hmmph,” she said to herself. “Well, let’s get you cleaned up.” She wanted to be downstairs in the sunlight and out of this attic more than she cared to admit. So she brought the mask down with her and laid it on the kitchen table while she looked for some wood cleaner in the pantry.
When the sister came back, the mask was no longer on the table. It was propped up in the darkest corner of the kitchen, seemingly huddled between the sugar and the flour containers on the counter.
“Well, how did that happen?” said the sister. She reached over to pull the mask out of the corner and something snagged her finger. “Ouch!” The sister looked down and saw that the mask had given her a splinter. “Will you look at that?” She set about getting out the first aid kit and finding the tweezers. There was nothing so annoying as a bit of wood under the skin to fester and throb all the day long.
Just then the elder sister got back from Target, triumphantly carrying her waffle iron. “Just 29.95!” she announced to the sister proudly. “And a full refund if not one hundred percent satisfied. Says so right on the box.”
Her younger sister was distractedly pulling the splinter out of her finger, so the elder did not get the congratulations she felt she deserved. This just reflected decades of her sister downplaying her accomplishments and reopened old wounds. So the elder sister could be forgiven for slamming down the waffle iron on the counter, causing the mask to appear to jump out at her from between the sugar and flour. “Aaah!” said the elder sister. “How did that get there?”
“I was going to clean it, but I got a splinter.” Said the younger. “I was trying to figure out what it looks like.”
“Well, it’s obviously a fat boar,” said the elder sister, holding up the mask. The younger sister saw that the mask was now clearly a pig, with a wide snout and little pig eyes. “It does look like a pig, now.” She said uncertainly.
“Anyway, it gives me the willies. Let’s toss the old thing.” The elder sister marched toward the door. Something about the mask tugged at the younger sister. “No!” she said louder than she’d meant to. “It might be valuable.”
“I think it’s an ugly, kitschy piece of junk!” said the older sister. “Ouch! And it’s full of splinters!”
Both sisters had band aids on their fingers when they arrived at the antique dealers. They presented him with a paper bag containing the mask. The dealer carefully looked it over and pronounced that he couldn’t place its origin, but if they would leave the mask with him for a few days, then he’d track it down. The receipt was signed and the sisters headed home.
A few days later the dealer called in great excitement. He had posted pictures of the mask online, and an anonymous buyer had offered thousands of dollars for it! The sisters came down to the shop, with the elder apologizing to the younger the whole way. But when they went to sign for the mask, the dealer couldn’t find it. Much shouting and badgering later, the elder sister got an insurance check for the promised sum from the dealer as well as a written apology.
Neither sister thought much more about it. The mask turned into a new refrigerator and a new washing machine, with the rest going into the sisters’ conservatively invested 401k plans. But the younger sister’s dreams were troubled by a recurrence of the mask, always showing a different shape or face. She didn’t tell her sister about it, because the elder was having trouble at work and didn’t think dreams were more that an upset stomach making its feelings known.
Spring came around again, as it does at long last even in Maine, and the younger sister felt her blood rise to cleaning like the sap in the maple trees outside. She bundled herself up in the cleaning supplies and did up the kitchen, then the bathroom. On an impulse, she headed up the stairs into the attic, to wage war against the dust and cobwebs that had encroached almost to the trapdoor stairs.
As she bustled about, the younger sister bumped against the box that had contained the mask. It fell over, spilling out its contents. There was the mask, showing a monkey’s face, and a thin sheet of paper that must have gotten so yellowed it looked like the box’s bottom. On the downside of the paper there was a handwritten note.
The younger sister was surprised to see the mask, and surprised to see the note. That the mask had made it back into the attic from the antique dealer’s shop should have been more surprising than it was, but the sister momentarily ignored it at she looked at the note.
“Dear new owner,” it read. “The mask isn’t just a mask. It can help you see the world in a different way. Do not put it on unless you want to change everything. It changed my life so much I could not even speak to my family, and spent my time overseas with many interesting people. I have never regretted putting it on, and taking it from the Harvard museum where I found it in this box. If you have the mask now I must be gone. Please return it if you won’t use it, because it needs to be worn by someone in every generation.”
“How extraordinary!” said the younger sister. She glanced down at the mask, which was now clearly the carving of a little dog with floppy ears. Only now did she remember that glance through the mask that had shown her something she couldn’t see with her own eyes. What was it that she had seen? She picked up the mask, with its slippery wood surface.
People go missing every year in Maine. Most have moved away with no forwarding address. A number go “off the grid” and live off the land for decades without anyone knowing who they are. There are a few lost in the woods, and a few go missing from their homes.
The case of 167 Wickamore Dr. was hardly out of the ordinary. When taking the case, the bored officer noted that the younger sister had cleaned the house before ditching her older sister. Probably found a boyfriend, he noted privately to himself. The note the older sister found had said simply: “Going away. Everything has changed. Love always.” There was no luggage missing, and the younger sister had evidently discarded her cleaning clothing in the middle of the attic floor. A number of flower petals were strewn all over the attic and found scattered all the way down the attic stairs, though neither the sister nor the officer knew where the sister had gotten so many flowers this early in spring. None of the other clothes were missing, and the older sister wondered where her sister could have gone without taking her car, in a cold Maine spring, and wearing only her shift. For weeks afterward, the older sister mentioned that the house smelled of flowers whenever she called about the case. It is still open and unsolved, with no leads at present.


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