The Box of Beautifuls
She opened the inside door cautiously. The old man stood on the stoop, in the unseasonable warmth and clamor of the November afternoon. Lean and unbent, he looked like an ancient villager in a travel brochure advertising the Mexico of her girlhood: a celebrant, perhaps, of El Día de los Muertos, dressed in his Sunday best for visitors come to explore the mysterious and magical.
He had thin lips and a warm smile which spread even to his coaly eyes. Save for those eyes, he looked so like her dear Oaxacan father! (who, like her bold Parisian mother, had been dead many years). She touched the mesh of the screen door between them hesitantly.
“Senorita Amalina Tesoro?” he asked in a rich baritone.
“Yes,” she answered. She had never been comfortable talking to strangers and, at thirty-six, she preferred to ignore her unmarried state. Maman would have understood. Maman had been red-haired and Irish-green eyed, fiery as her appearance. Amalina had Papá’s dark hair and eyes, and his temperament: He accepted life: Life simply is, he told her. It slips by like a water lily on a calm pond.
He and Amalina had wandered together among wildflowers, Sancho scampering behind. Once, when she was ten, just months before they left Mexico to seek treatment for Jericho’s tuberculosis in what Papá called the New World, a green and yellow swallowtail landed on Papá’s fingertip, looking at them with the same curiosity and wonder they had for it.
¿Qué usted ve? Papá whispered to the butterfly.
What do you see?
The butterfly flapped, once, twice, then flew away, leaving a soft wake of fine white dust from its wings. Sancho barked.
Papá’s life had rarely been troubled. Hers, too was undisturbed, except for the three deaths. It was slipping by on her own calm pond. She did not mind: Death would return her to Papá, and Maman, and Jericho. Perhaps even to Sancho. Life simply is. Death simply is. Accept them both.
Accept being what you are: alone.
Amalina spent her days in a partitioned cubicle. Her nights were at home, among the familiarities of her long-ago. Her past intrigued her; the present, with its helter-skelter possibilities, could not.
As a girl she had tossed caution into the great canyon of childhood and scrambled energetically through a universe that was wide and deep, endless as her dreams.
Now, in her bed with only moonlight around her, Amalina dreamt and ached to see its entirety spread before her again.
Her life had its comforts. Though she sometimes thought about those she lacked--a husband, children--she did not miss them. She did miss her family. Memory was a lovely, placid place. She felt at home there, and far from it in the riot of the world in which she was compelled to move.
The old man seemed a part of neither.
He continued to smile warmly, and lifted a brown-paper-wrapped package, perhaps two feet long, a foot wide, just a few inches deep. “Esto está para usted,” he said, offering it.
“For me?” Who would send her a package?
“Yes. For you. ¡Por supuesto para usted!”
Senorita. Esto está para usted. So, perhaps, he was of an old world. Like hers. Amalina had always found New Worlders strange: always hurrying to turn the next corner, while she longed to revisit those beautiful corners she had long ago turned: the quiet afternoons in their sheer-curtained living room, dots of dust dancing in the sunlight, the susurrus of Maman and Papá’s conversation in the kitchen, Jericho’s calls of “fetch” and Sancho’s answering barks from the yard.
Of course for her? I do not understand.
“Please,” the old man said. “You will enjoy it.”
But what was it? What could it be? A puzzle. She hesitated. “But... why?” she asked. “Why for me?”
“I do not know, Senorita. Truly.” He looked about, saw no one, and his voice dropped, to speak a confidence only she should ever hear. “I know only this: It is a box of beautifuls.”
The paper’s plain brown surface had only her name, written ornately in indigo ink. The paper was pristine; the seals were perfect. But there was no tape!
She debated. A box of beautifuls? What is that?
“It is what you wish for. You will see.”
She sighed, then unlocked the screen door. The latch clicked. A green and yellow swallowtail appeared suddenly, startling her. She gasped and brought a hand to her mouth. The butterfly lit on the old man’s shoulder, fluttered its wings once, twice, then remained still, as if, like him, it were waiting for her.
The world became suddenly silent and motionless. Amalina looked past the visitors and saw a still life: A boy on a bicycle, stopped, his left foot poised above a pedal; a girl, gleefully airborne in mid-skip above a jump-rope. Cars and trucks and a bus, stationary, filled with unmoving people. All silent. She did not understand.
She slowly opened the door.
The door creaked.
She reached for the package.
The butterfly spread its wings, freeing motes of fine white powder. They hovered in the windless space between her and the old man. Then it rose, glided to her face and, resting first on one eyebrow, then the other, brushed each lash with its tails. Tiny specks of powder drifted down.
She had not seen it come, she did not see it fly away. It merely vanished.
The old man sighed. “¿Es hermosa, sí?”
“Like the box. You will see, Senorita.”
What do you see?
Uneasily, she brought the package toward her. It was light.
“Do not be afraid,” he said, his voice clear, soft. “There is nothing to fear. Not in Life, not in Death. ¿Sí?”
“Sí,” she said.
“Thank you.” The old man’s black eyes glowed. He bowed and left and, without looking back, vanished like the butterfly.
The boy, the girl, the traffic began to move, and the mid-afternoon cacophony resumed. She locked the doors and stepped inside.
Amalina sat on the sofa of her childhood, the package in her lap. She stared at it and, one by one, at the photographs surrounding her: Papá, Maman, Jericho, Sancho.
¡Por supuesto para usted! Of course.
She removed the paper cautiously. Beneath was a white oak box, lacquered and polished to a glossy finish that was decorated: Catrinas surrounded by a square of calaveras: dolls and skulls, symbols of this day, of El Día de los Muertos. A brass hasp held the top closed. She lifted it, heard a slight sigh, as if breath were inside, waiting to be freed.
Do not be afraid. There is nothing to fear. Not in Life, not in Death. Accept.
She opened the lid.
There was a kind of screen. Across it, she saw her childhood dance. There were her beloved Maman and Papá, Jericho, Sancho. They smiled, they waved. Sancho wagged his tail. She closed her eyes again; this could not be true. She opened them. It was.
Amalina sat, staring into the box of beautifuls. A green and yellow butterfly flew across the screen, and disappeared. A moment later there was another, this time above the screen. It landed on her hand and stood there, flapping it wings. Once, twice. Then it rose, flew, and landed again, on the screen itself. It slipped into the surface and disappeared.
She touched the screen. It was warm, damp: like water lilies floating on a summer-warmed pond. Amalina pressed gently; her fingertips sank into the surface; the world continued to flow around them, undisturbed. She withdrew them and looked at them. They were dry, and looked no different. The screen looked no different. The people moving across it looked--different. Their smiles had widened.
Amalina laid her whole hand on the screen and pressed again. It slipped through; she added her wrist and forearm, yet she did not reach the bottom of the box. Did it have a bottom?
She felt a rough tingle at her fingers. She looked down. Her hand was floating. Sancho chased it, lapping at her fingertips. It tickled! She giggled and closed her eyes. Slowly, Amalina pressed the rest of the arm into the screen, then her other, took a deep breath, and dived. She felt her body glide through the calm surface and into a waiting warmth that simply was. She opened her eyes.