I went urban exploring for the first time with a small group of friends. Toward the end of our little adventure, an intriguing red velvet wooden box caught my eye. My friend Brian retrieved it, I imagine my friend Jeanne felt as intrigued as I and I promised both I’d write a story about it.
Here it is.
I had heard rumors of the hidden world.
The boy perpetuated the mystery, the intrigue. He claimed to have discovered a portal to an alternate world, but I did not believe him. All I had seen was an empty field and a long white wall that stretched to the long dirt road. The local townspeople had an unwritten contract with all the village inhabitants: No one crosses the wall.
The wall, he declared, is the doorway. We must only pass through it.
Breathless and nervous with energy, he had the glazed look of a boy who had traveled far and wide, to the deep and high places. He insisted on the magic of the place, that we should follow his steps.
I and my friends, we debated on whether we should follow.
Like the Pied Piper, his lilting song of confidence mysteriously compelled us across the field, and before we knew it, we were at the brink of the secret place. The forbidden wall.
I saw no opening. How shall we pass through, we demanded.
He said nothing. He only smiled and leaned forward, nodding at us to do the same.
Hesitant, I touched the wall, then followed suit. A whoosh of bright light enveloped me and I felt propelled forward.
Felt my atoms swirl around, connecting and reconnecting, attaching and detaching, and the light shimmered around.
Suddenly a cold shiver rocked my body and we crashed through an invisible barrier.
Reeling from the shock, I slowly stood up and looked around, amazed.
How the scenery had changed.
Our band of explorers filtered into the courtyard, wide-eyed and exhilarated at the unknown and mysterious that was ours for the taking.
Yet the decay and havoc greeting us both jarred and filled my senses. I imagined the clash of civilizations, of technology, of cultures. Obscenities sprayed in red and black upon the plaster and stone echoed of other wanderers and vandals who had passed before us. Miniature seas of broken glass lay in glittering sheets upon the broken cement and weeds. The chaos of the landscape seduced us into our own personal forms of delight and mischief.
Still, the echos of the place that once was filled my imagination.
I envisioned fantastical dragons swooping down from the burning sky and an emperor robed in regalia to a cheering throng of spectators, swathed in red and cold and a brilliant array of fireworks exploding across the evening sky. I smelled jasmine and burning incense and perfume. I felt an atmosphere, charged with electric anticipation at the crowning of the emperor’s new queen.
With these visions in our heads, we raced and flew from rooftop to rooftop, defying gravity, striking brilliant poses against the clear blue sky. Scaling giant rock formations and scrambling up vine-tressed walls, impromptu and amateur acrobats straining and striving only for a new perspective, a heightened panaroma. We roamed the open-air faux temple, a pantheon and graveyard of fallen gods, now profaned with the juvenile scribblings.
I understood, then. The magical world was not one of a noble quest or a daring rescue. There was no ring to find and destroy, no dragon to slay and no palace to defend. The glory of this place was in the brokenness and the decay. The unlicensed freedom it brought.
We split off in various directions, confident we would find each other again. We raced back and forth calling forth to one another, yelling in triumph as we discovered various treasures. These treasures transformed us. One found a thick wooden stick swathed in bright crimson. Leaning upon this staff, he became suddenly wise, a sage with soft, twinkling eyes of wisdom. Another found a broken horse hoof in the dark recesses of a cave. He became a daring warrior, hitting targets with precision and mightily shattering rocks and roof tiles with defiant glee. Still another found a brilliantly pink lotus, and she transformed into a beautifully regal lady in waiting, rose-colored satin and silk robes. Yet another found the frayed edges of a worn map. She became an astute, celebrated cartographer, charged with unlocking the mysteries of the farthest reaches of the empire.
I looked on at my companions with envy at their discovered treasures. I had still not found mine.
The magic of the day seemed to dwindle with the setting sun. As shadows lengthened, we trudged back to our starting point, retracing our footsteps to the white wall.
I noticed the halo of light surrounding before I saw the box itself. It sat atop the rooftop, gleaming in the sunlight.
I wasn’t even sure how the box was loosed from its original hiding place. I could see sunlight striking the red velvet, brilliantly illuminating it among the broken tiles, dark and splintered window frames and jagged glass shards of the long-abandoned pagoda.
The boy, noticing my enchantment, said nothing, only smiled. He sprung and leapt, lighter than air, upon the tiled roof, freeing box from its lofty hiding place, handed it to me. I wondered at its mystery, tracing the worn, frayed edges, intrigued by the mystery locked inside. I tapped the side, listening to the satisfying echo of the hollowness.
I wondered at its purpose. Had some passionate love letter, or some tear-streaked confessional been tucked away in the hollow for safekeeping? Had it housed spice packets or cigars or some trinket from a merchant ship? Had it been the sacred hiding place of a child, full of mundane treasures that spoke of warm summer days beneath the cherry blossoms?
I ached to know. I looked for an opening but it was sealed shut. I tucked it away in my satchel, intent on unraveling its mystery in private, away from my fellow travelers.
We reached the threshold and I braced myself for the journey home, the wrinkling of the universe across a infinite, seamless fabric of time and space.
I watched my companions disappear one after another through the wall. I was the last to go. I pressed my body against the wall and braced myself for the icy shock, the disassembling of myself. Nothing. Puzzled, I leaned forward again. I only felt the warmth of the wall.
Panicking, I imagined myself trapped. I dug around in my satchel for my knife, thinking I could cut or scrape my way through the wall. My hand brushed against the soft velvet of the box.
Suddenly, I understood.
Why I could not pass and why the sunlight of this place seemed to illuminate the box for me and for me alone.
Quite alone, I knelt down, knife in hand and gently pried open the box. With some effort, I gingerly separated the top lid from the bottom frame, cutting away through layers of dust and disuse. I lifted the top and peered inside. I saw dark green felt lining the bottom and the sides, but no treasure. No keepsake or locket or partially burned letter. I felt along the inside, hoping for a secret lock or catch or spring inside. I pored over every inch of the box with the delicate care of a surgeon, but found nothing. I thought I had smelled the faint odor of crushed flowers, but shook my head at my overactive imagination.
Disenchanted, I tossed the box aside. I laughed out in derision, at the mystery unraveled, the thrill gone. It lay upon the broken stones, dulled in the receding sun.
But then, a thought.
I picked up red velvet box again, suddenly charmed by its lack of pretense. Shall I merely abandon my treasure? Dare I discard it? After all, it had faithfully carried the stories of its journey toward me upon the gentle breeze, which had long eroded with time and moth and rust. I tasted the salty winds guiding the sails of the merchant ship that brought it here from afar. I saw the glitter of jewels and spices it once held. I smelled the perfume of the heartbroken lady who kept her soul’s secret locked away in there. I felt the wood of the teak tree her lover had chopped down to carve this box for her, to burn and bring her warmth with fire, to build their secret haven.
And it was mine.
I felt myself transform.
With a secret smile upon my lips, I stepped through the wall, leaving the box behind.
I caught up with my companions later.