Memory Box

Magic realism flash fiction about memory.

We’d hired a flashy venue for the wake and sat Sphinx-like either side of the buffet. Afterwards, we’d returned to our parent’s home, bloated with condolences and crudités. Now I heard my sister, Hope, downstairs on the phone, warding off relatives with her slick business tone. We agreed we didn’t want them back at our parent’s house, crawling over their things, upsetting the net of grief our father had woven over everything.

Our father had died only three months after our mother. Did his heart break? He had grieved for so long, as dementia nibbled her away. I sat on her bed in the little room she’d had to herself at the back of the house. Through the long sash-window, I could see one of her sculptures in the middle of the garden. A feminine figure raising her arms to the sun, patterned with blue and golden rays.

I stood at the window and pressed my hands and face to the cool glass as I had once done when I was a child, watching her build her work.

“Grace.”

I turned. Hope stood in the doorway, all angles in her black dress-suit. She came over to me and put her arm around my waist and we looked out the window together.

“The reading’s on Monday,” she said. She meant the will.

I nodded.

“Most of it will go to charity,” she said.

I nodded again. I yearned to preserve their house just as it was. To hold each item and each memory and freeze it in time. Hope pulled away and began to fiddle with the objects on the dressing table. She wasn’t one for stillness.

I turned to see what she was disturbing, and a flash of purple from under the bedspread caught my eye. The corner of a box peeped out. I knelt down to it, tracing my hand across the slick lacquer of the surface. I pulled up the bedcover and slid it out. The surface was like pooled ink. Prints appeared in the high-shine where my fingers had been. Hope stood behind me.

“What is it?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I’ve never seen it before.”

She crouched down and stroked the tips of her fingers across the lid.

A copper clasp at the front held it shut. I fumbled it open, my hands shaking. Our mother was always haloed by mystery, first from her art and then her dementia.

Inside were many partitions. Compact inner-boxes, some with lids. Each was painted a different colour in rich magentas, deep indigo and gold. The inner surfaces were patterned, inlaid with mirrors or stuck with tiny gems.

“She must have made it,” Hope said.

My hand hovered over the small compartments, terrified to disturb her design. Some held objects. I recognised a hair-clip with a ladybird motif I had worn as a child. The familiar object gave me confidence. I reached my fingers into its compartment. My breath shuddered out as the air seemed to thicken and cling to my finger. The hard-metal of the clip pressed against my skin.

Settling like snow, alien thoughts overlaid my own. Alien senses. Leaf-mulch scent and damp autumn air. Cracked paint layers in red and yellow caught little Gracie’s tights as she rocked back and forth on the long wooden horse. My fingers brushed Gracie’s leg, a sliver of paint working under my nail. I stopped to pick it out. The crackled municipal paint sent my thoughts spinning back to my workshop. There was a bump and a cry. Guilt like a wave. I looked up. Gracie had fallen off and was sprawled on the concrete, legs in the air, her little duffle coat up round her armpits. I walked round the horse and scooped her up, held her tight. Her crying stopped immediately. No harm done. I set her down again, waves smoothing to ripples. Something caught her eye, and she toddled off across the park. I sighed, made to follow her, and then I saw her clip on the ground. I bent and scooped it up.

“Gracie.” A voice, faint, called me back.

The image of the park frayed and fractured. My mother’s room bled through. My sister supported my back, holding my wrist in one hand. I looked down at the box. The clip was still there, in its little compartment.

I sat up straight and looked in wonder at what she had made. My mother, with all her mysteries. Tears streamed down my face. My heart ached, not with sadness, but gratitude.

This story first appeared in Crannog Magazine, Issue 39.