Frances looked at the little box in her hand. She wasn’t sure how she came to be holding it in her hand. Around her, boys hooted and kids shrieked. Teachers scurried about looking vaguely harried and wonderfully busy. At 5, life can seem strange. At 50, it doesn’t seem to change. But that she would know only later. She twirled the edges of her frock, pink lace trimming the edges nervously. Squeezed her eyebrows together, trying to remember. There was Anjali, who sat next to her, but she had barely glanced at her today. Then, she had tried hard to remember all the places in the world on the map in front of the teacher’s desk. As always, she had failed miserably. Ms.Agnes had been gentle, only a small pursing of her lips indicating her disappointment. “Poor Frances,” they would whisper in staff meetings, nodding to each other. That was what they always said. “Poor Frances.” As if that word with the name would explain everything about the girl.
Frances had walked back, the black fringe that crowded her forehead almost hiding the tears. The class had been silent but for a second, but Mohit was ready, hands up, ready to name all the places that Frances couldn’t and just couldn’t name. Words seemed to always float past her. She couldn’t remember the alphabets. The beautiful stringing together of all those words into sentences. She would remember it well enough in her head. There, she would weave stories. Beautiful images that would play with her. Keeping her head down, she realized made the stories appear faster. Kings. Beautiful princesses who slept in castles with no maps. An enchanted world of imagination. Swords glistening with pride that the knights would walk around with. Swords that they would spread at her feet when she walked by. And there was Dobbo, her pet catiger. She had created it herself, in the Queen’s cauldron. A purring cat that gleamed with the dark eyes and stripes of the tiger. Dobbo would follow her everywhere. Even here, in this school with maps on walls and words on pages, Dobbo would be there. Crouched by her side. Frances had patted Dobbo absentmindedly, even as he licked her hands. That was all she remembered. Then, they were here for lunch and she was holding this little box.
Dark plain wood. An intricate yet simple pattern engraved on the lid. A little rusted clasp that held it together. Frances found one of the tables, the green ones near the teachers that no one wanted to occupy, and gingerly kept the box on the tablet. Dobbo jumped on top of the table, something she had told him not to do many times, but that catiger! He wouldn’t listen! He was his own boss,wasn’t he? She rubbed his chin. And then looked at the box. Dobbo sniffed it curiously, but he wasn’t too interested in anything that didn’t smell like food. Nervously, she looked around. No one noticed her. She didn’t expect anyone to. If they did, they would just see her sitting at the green table, frock pleated into creases, hair falling over, head bent, and they would say “Poor Frances.”
The box waited patiently. It had time. Time was the only thing the box had. Frances would open the box, eventually. Till then, it would sit here on this table that smelt of old food and the snot of many years, and feel the sun. It was not a blue sky, but the box didn’t mind. It was perfectly happy in this moment. Just being there. With a pretty girl who looked like she would cry anytime. But the box knew things that Frances didn’t know. That the tears would fade. That there would be an older Frances who would carry this box everywhere. In her graduation coat. In her travel bag, when she finally learned all the places in the world, and then set about visiting it, one place at a time. The box would know too that it would be dropped many times. From a bicycle on the road, narrowly evading certain death. On the beach while Frances learned to swim for the first time. The crabs who led Frances back to the box, where it lay, patiently, waiting. as it always did. And once, from the cliff while Frances went bungee-jumping. She would cried the hardest then, believing the box to be lost forever. But the box had a way of being found because the box knew that Frances wanted to find it. The box knew that Frances would climb mountains, walk through forests, and flinch at caterpillars. She would find love and lose it. She would find money and lose it. The box knew all this and more.
For now, it waited for Frances to just open the box.
Frances brushed hair off her forehead. And opened the box. The lock creaked as she lifted the lid. Dark wood surrounded the four sides. Her fingers slid over the wood, tracing her own pattern. The box smiled inside. It was beautiful, the touch of the wood against her cold fingers. She could feel the creases the wood had made, nestled over this box. Frances closed her eyes and saw the tree that had made this box. Saw the love that created the box. Saw again all that was hers. To create. Frances closed the box shut. “Come Dobbo,” she said firmly. One hand slipped the box inside her frock’s pocket. And there it lay. Whispering secrets of the life to come.
“Poor Frances,” the teachers who sat near the green tables, said watching Frances as she walked away.
Story requested by my old friend Karen Stokes who gave me the keyword “enchantment.”