"That was delicious.", Papa says contentedly, pushing back his chair.
"It was good wasn't it?" Mama stacks some plates to carry to the kitchen. "Lisle and Aillie, lend a hand if you please."
"Yes it was", Grandpa agrees. He stands, then limps over to the fireplace. He drops another log on the irons to a little shower of sparks and nudges it with his boot to just the right place. He slips his pipe from his vest and raps it against his palm, tossing ashes in the fire. He fills his pipe, tamping it with thumb, strikes a match on the stone and sucks and puffs the glowing bowl. The room smells of wood smoke, supper's stew, and coffee but soon will smell like Grandpa's Dublin Gold. He goes back to his seat at the table, smoking, looking at the fire.
"Aillie, would you be so kind to get your Grandpa and me another cup of coffee."
"And take a dish with you." Papa lifts the folded paper that lays beside his place, spreads it out before him, fits his glasses on his nose. The clatter of cleanup comes through the kitchen door.
Lisle, a young man of 17, makes a few trips to the kitchen, the minimum, and then moves to his dulcimer in the corner and begins lightly striking strings with the soft hammer. He leans in close, listening, turning the wrench one way and then the other, tuning the instrument.
Aillie comes back with coffee, carefully filling the mugs. She is 10, a long haired beauty, still unaware of this.
It's been bitter cold all week, the heart of winter. The wind blows all about the house drawing heat from every crack, the leaky stone walls. No one wants to leave the hearth.
"Ahh, here's the obit", Papa says, scanning the paper, continuing the dinner conversation.
Their neighbor, Henry Beegan, died suddenly this week.
"Says here he was only 72."
A heart attack, poor Myrna found him in the barn.
"I still can't believe I was talking to him just last week".
The women finish kitchen chores and come back into the room. Mama sighs into her rocker by the fire and lifts her knitting bag into her lap.
Aillie slips away and takes the stairs two at a time, catlike to her room. She returns slowly with a package wrapped in cloth, held tightly to her chest with both arms. She slides it onto the cleared table and reclaims her chair, her legs tucked under her. "I have something to show you", she announces and begins to unwrap it.
"Indeed you do", says Papa, looking up from his paper, peering over glasses.
It is a smallish box of dark wood, the size of a deep shoe box, raised up a bit on hidden feet. Inlaid in the top is a silver spider's web with strands running down the sides, like it is draped over the box. Upon the web a large spider waits, inlaid with bits of iridescent shell.
"Oh my goodness, it's beautiful." exclaims Mama, now standing behind Aillie's chair. "Aillie, where did you get this?" A hint of concern is in her voice.
"Mr. Bee gave it to me. You remember when Geoffrey broke his chain and Mrs. Bee called to say he was in their yard and their little dog Biggie was going nuts because he's so scared of goats and would we please come get him? I think Geoffrey likes to tease him. Well, Mr. Bee helped me get the lead on Geoffrey and then he said he had a gift for me and did I have a minute? So we went into his little shop, that one behind the barn, and he showed me this box and said he would have given it to his own little girl if he could have had one but that I was surely second best and he'd be pleased if I would take it. He said it should be our secret because he didn't think you'd let me keep it if you knew but now he's gone and I can't give it back so I thought it would be OK to show you. It's wonderful isn't it?"
Lisle had come back to the table to have a look. He stood at the end grabbing the heavy plank with fingers underneath and thumbs on top, leaning forward on stiff arms. "What's in it?", he asks, momentarily lifting his feet and balancing.
"I want everyone to guess." She had planned this. "I want everyone to guess what's in the box."
"Ahh, we'll make a game of it eh?", says Papa, and takes a sip of coffee. "Alright, who wants to go first?"
"Why don't you go, Granpa?" Allie looks his way.
Grandpa had watched with his usual bemused expression, tickled pink with all and any of his family's shenanigans.
"Are you giving any hints? Have you put things in the box or might they still be something Henry had?"
"I did not put anything in the box." she answers plainly.
"This looks a fine box, yes indeed, and would be the perfect place for Henry's fly tying gear!", he chuckles. "In the top part I would put my tools. My brass dubbing twister, collar bobbins, bead tweezers, and magnetic bodkin. Oh yes, and my classic hair stacker and Matarelli whip finisher. Could not do without those. In the next drawer I'd put materials, you know, the bead chain, down, cactus chenille, and bunny bits. The different colored threads you need. And last I'd have the metal stuff, the wire and the weights. The hooks, maybe some Saber Stonefly Nymphs or 3X long reach streamers." He laughs again. "Is that a good guess Aillie?"
Aillie smiles. "That's great, Grandpa! That could be it. I never could have thought of that. Just picture all those things in there." Aillie has her elbows on the table, her chin in curled palms, a little finger caught lightly in her teeth, staring at the box like she can see the things that Grandpa said.
Papa clears his throat, preparing for his turn. "It certainly is a fancy box but Henry was not a fancy man. I'll guess it's lots of useful things, small things that do a job. I'd say a corkscrew and a pocket knife, that red Swiss Army kind, and something that would start a fire, a flint and steel and tinder box, or matches in a slender tube. Nail clippers, there must be more, what do you think I'm missing?"
The game is on, they all chime in. A pipe tool offers Gandpa. Some finger picks says Lisle. The smallest hip flask you can find for just a nip or two. A needle and some thread, of course, Mama has to say. A bottle opener, a pocket watch, that nested brass and steel screw driver set that got so very small. A brass map maker's loupe, an exquisite fountain pen. They nod and laugh at each entry. Aillie is so happy they are playing her game she wiggles her feet.
"And you, my dear?" Papa looks over to to his wife.
She rests her knitting hands upon her lap, with yarn still looped about a finger. "At first I thought of lace making, it's so much like the web. The box might have all kinds of threads and bobbins, hooks and such. But Henry was a gardner so now I'm thinking seeds. Some seeds from all the plants he grew, a few from every year. He grew so many of those Heirloom ones I'll bet he kept a stash. What were those beans he used to share…?"
"Dr. Martin's", Grandpa states without a moment's pause.
"Yes, that's it. And those yellow big tomatoes, Golden Queens, he called them. I can see him wanting a special place for all those precious seeds."
"Maybe it's a magic box." Lisle proposes and Aillie grins at this.
"Maybe it holds all the sounds you almost never hear. The ones that come in quiet and whisper in your ear."
Lisle: Poet, Budding Songster.
"They'd be color coded and you could hold them in your hands. The sound of butterflies, or snowflakes crash-landing in a pond. The beating hearts of deer mice. The sound a rainbow makes."
"Winking", suggests Papa.
"The sound of smoke," from Grandpa, he puffs a perfect ring above their heads.
"That's wonderful.", says Aillie. "That would be so neat."
Lisle is pleased with his guess. It's Aillie's turn now.
"I like to think the whole world is somehow in this box," she starts. She spreads her hands and fingers and opens wide her eyes. She's an actress. She burns a look into the box, a sage, a wiccan at her ball. She is glowing. "A little bit like Noah's Ark, a sampler of the earth. Bits of fur and feathers, and skin and bones and teeth, and any cell that's needed from everything that lives. And then when scientists get smarter and they can clone from this, they'll come to Spider's box to get the things they need. So when the Panda dies, and frogs and Rhinos vanish, when whales and tigers are no more, then Spider's box will have the cure and bring them back again."
They are quiet for a minute. Aillie sits back down on her haunches, her hands still on the table.
"That's a beautiful wish, Aillie." Mama breaks the spell.
"Well let's take a look shall we?" says Papa, and reaches forward toward the box.
"No!" cries Aillie, her hands instantly on the lid. "I mean, we can't." Then quietly, "I'm sorry but we can't open it. It's spider's box. Only spider knows what's in the box." She hadn't planned this part. They're silent. She knows they're disappointed but starts to wrap the box. She's spoiled the fun.
"Oh man." says Lisle, shakes his head and moves back to his corner.
Taken aback, Papa slumps back into his chair. "You mean you don't know? You haven't looked in the box?", he asks, incredulous.
"No, I haven't looked. I don't want to know. I want to imagine what's in the box."
"But dear there might be something valuable in there. A message or something important."
"Yes. There might be. But I don't want to know. I don't know why. I just don't want to know."
She gathers the wrapped box from the table keeping her eyes down. "I'm sorry I can't show you. I know you want to see. I guess I'm not being fair. Thank you for playing my game. I don't know what I will do. I may give it back to Mrs. Bee. I think she may need it now."
She starts for the stairs but Grandpa lifts just a finger to catch her eye. Their eyes meet and he tries his damnedest to send love. Just some of it, there is no way that he could send it all. In the hall they hear her start to cry.
"Well I never!" says Papa and picks up his paper again, rustling it back and forth, exasperated, bewildered, and touched.
Mama blows her nose and puts her knitting in her bag. She gets up to go to Aillie.
A quiet settles on the room. Just the shifting fire and Lisle lightly playing. He stops and starts and hums a bit and then begins to sing.
Spider's box is a mystery what's in it she won't tell
She claims she doesn't know herself and this she guards so well
Maybe you can't open it, though it seems there are no locks
Imagination is the key to opening Spider's box
Spider's Box - the work.