The Box

It was one of those dreams, you know the kind, where you have trouble separating the dream from reality. Most dreams, at least mine, have a surreal, Daliesque quality. Something about the scene is not quite right. The shape of a tree perhaps or the scene seems out of proportion. You know you are dreaming. But this one was different. I had had dreams like this before, when I felt I was actually there, that I could actually touch the objects and people I saw. As real as my talking with you right now. The dream began simply enough. I was in our house, standing in the area between living room and dining room and the hall leading to our bedroom. I had stopped there because I was trying to remember where I had put something. What that something was, was unclear although I knew I had to find it. As I stood there pondering, a man suddenly appeared at my side. I should have questioned his being there, in our house but, for some reason, I was not particularly disturbed by his appearance and accepted his presence as a matter of course.
Through some trick of the light I couldn’t see the man’s face, yet, in my dream, I was quite sure it was a man. He was similar in build to myself and dressed in gray trousers and pullover; I say gray because the light in the room had a twilight quality which washed the color out of everything. When he spoke to me, quietly and calmly, I am not certain I actually heard his voice yet I understood him perfectly. “I need you to come with me,” he said, “we need help in my world.” Rather than being nonplussed by the request, I merely answered that I had no way of getting there, as if all I needed was a ticket. “There is a box in the back of your closet,” he told me, “Go get it and bring it here and I will tell you what to do.” “Box in my closet?”, I thought. There were no boxes in my closet of any particular interest. I did as he requested and, looking into the closet, I saw a package. Quite ordinary looking actually, with the top flaps folded down haphazardly, but not otherwise secured. I had never seen it before. Taking the package down, I could see that inside, packed in brown rice, was a wooden box with the carving of a stylized dog on the lid. I had seen that dog before. It was an intricate Celtic-style rendition of a hound created by my younger son, done several years before. I did not find the brown rice packing to be unusual as in past times all sorts of packing materials were used, to include excelsior, popcorn, and yes, even rice. As an aside, after the war – …excuse me, after WW II… – an acquaintance sent a package to relatives in Germany and used tobacco as the packing material. The package was well received and the pipe- smoking grandfather reclaimed every last particle of the tobacco.
Now, you must realize that I didn’t think the appearance of the man, the box, or its packing at all unusual as I carried the package back to where my petitioner stood. As I approached him, the familiar surroundings seemed to expand somehow as familiar objects receded from me in an ever expanding room. It was still our house, but somehow larger. “Take the box out of the package and touch the top,” he told me, “and you will be able to travel to my world.” Doing as he told me, I took the box out of the package and brushed off a few stray grains of rice and touched the top. When I did this, everything around me blurred and seemed to twist somehow, as if I were looking through a lens that put everything out of focus and turned it sidewise. I became disoriented as everything twisted about me staggered when the whirling stopped suddenly and my surroundings came back into focus. I was no longer in the house, but found myself standing between some buildings on a broad expanse of grass. The same twilight atmosphere permeated the scene, as if it were a gray, overcast day.

Nothing was familiar. The buildings themselves were featureless, with glass-like sides rising several stories into the air. There were no signs or markings to identify them as to function. No entrances, I saw no entrances, and that bothered me. Reasoning that because I was standing on grass, these were the backs of the buildings, I thought this must account for the lack of doors. Yet I saw nothing that would even pass as an emergency exit or a service entrance. Continuing to look around, I saw that there were people around and about, but like the gentleman who first approached me, I saw no faces. I was otherwise alone and getting edgy. What was this place and what should I do?
As with the first time we met, the man was suddenly at my side. “I’m glad you came,” he said, “come with me.” As we walked along, the same sense of expanded space which I had experienced at the house almost overwhelmed me. The buildings, as we approached and passed them, retained the same perspective regardless of our position. They just were, unchanging. We finally stopped before a low, one-storey stone building and an entry way appeared as we approached the building. “Was this how the doors worked in this place,” I wondered, “appearing only when you needed them and maybe only allowing recognized individuals to enter. Maybe that’s the reason I saw no doors on the other buildings.” Entering, I saw that the interior was brightly lit with no obvious source of light. I saw no one else about. The man indicated a door opposite the entrance and, opening it, he ushered me into a small room which was devoid of furnishing except for a small table and a chair. A book lay on the table. The room had no windows and was as brightly lit as the outer chamber.
Motioning me to the table, he asked me to sit down. “We have a legend,” he began, “that our civilization was destroyed several of your millennia ago. There are several variations to this legend to explain this destruction but we believed them to be just that, legends. Thinking them to be children’s tales, we did not take them seriously, considering them a way to explain a gap we knew existed in our history.” Pausing briefly, he touched the book lying before me on the table. “We had no records from before this supposed destruction and were beginning to consider that the written history of our people only comprised those years after the supposed destruction. What occurred before the destruction, the oral history, we considered myth.” Beginning to pace, he continued, “recently, a mine excavation uncovered the remains of a city. From the ruins we have seen thus far, we consider it quite advanced and, the archaeologists say, it dates to the time before the legendary destruction.” Stopping with his back to me he said, “we didn’t expect this and now wonder just how much else is buried that we don’t know about. The discovery of this city was quite accidental, nothing on the surface suggested its presence, which is not the case for those ruins of our recorded past.” Turning to face me (his lack of identifying features was disconcerting), he pointed to the book, “this book was found in a sealed box, a box with the same design on the lid as the box which brought you here. Inside was this book, which we can’t read.” Continuing, he said, “I won’t bore you with the details of how we found you, it is a result of our ability to travel between worlds and we detected a resonance between the box here and the box in your possession. The discovery of the box here seems to have triggered the appearance of your box. Which brings us to now.”
Sitting on the edge of the table, he looked down at me and said, “because of the affinity between the boxes, we believe you can read the book. That is why we have asked you here, to read the book for us.” I wanted to protest that I didn’t know where the box in my closet came from, that I probably wouldn’t be able to help them, that I probably was as ignorant as they, but he held up his hand to silence me. “Just open the book before you state your objections.” For a book of such antiquity, it looked remarkably new. The binding was plain and had no apparent markings. Opening it, I stared at the script for a moment. It was foreign and I was about to protest that I could not read it when the text reassembled itself into a readable narrative and I read words that could have come from our own creation stories, such as those from Sumer or Genesis. I was silent for some time and then told him what I saw. “Good,” he said, “then read to me.”
I read to him of the creation, the creation of everything, of first peoples, of jealousy, envy, of death, of the rise and fall of empires. The stories would sound familiar to you, echoing, as they did, our own mythology. The author of the book wrote as if he were viewing a vast mural stretching into the distance, a mural which he described as he walked along. I read of successes and failures, discoveries and losses. It was history not written by the victor nor the vanquished but by one commenting on what was and what is. He neither judged nor censured the pride and arrogance of those who sought to impose their will on others, but told of their deeds and the misery that was their sometime result. He described how they came to understand the existence of other universes parallel to their own and the discovery that they could travel between those universes. Not through time or through space, but sideways to another dimension, like going through a door; the blurring and twisting that I experienced. Describing their first curious forays to other realities, he described their amazed understanding that all of these universes were inexact duplications of their own, how they came to understand that if they kept searching that they would eventually would come across the duplicate of their own world, their twin, in a manner of speaking.
And he described how, in their curious pride, they stumbled onto a world as opposite to theirs as could be imagined. In their explorations up to this point, they had taken little trouble hide their presence. Physical similarities allowed them to move mostly unmolested in the other world although occasional contacts with the inhabitants gave rise to fantastic stories on their part of aliens and unidentified objects flying in the sky. As I read this, I couldn’t but help think of our stories of similar phenomena. My guide must have surmised what I was thinking for he stopped me momentarily, as if to say something. Apparently deciding against it, he asked me to continue.
When they found the opposite world, the anti-world if you will, they realized they had encountered a force they didn’t understand and could not control. My guide’s world, as ours, maintained a moral balance that ultimately kept them from destroying themselves. This balance was not present in the opposite world. It was a world of extreme intolerance and cruelty, a world where any departure from the norm was seen as a threat, a threat that was eliminated by any means possible. They quickly detected the travelers from my guide’s world, reacted and attacked, killing many of the exploring party. Reeling, the survivors fled. Stunned, they quickly marked this particular reality as restricted and travel to it was banned. They hoped to hide themselves in silence, thinking that they couldn’t be traced. As the days stretched into weeks, they began to breathe more easily, but further exploration of other realities was stopped. Such future explorations, they decided, must be done remotely. Reality exploring had suddenly become too dangerous to allow it to proceed as in the past.

The book now took a dark turn as the author explained that it was too late for such precautions. Individuals from the opposite reality came upon them with a ferocity they could not have anticipated as points around the globe were attacked and destroyed simultaneously in a coldly methodical way. No one and nothing, it seems, was spared. Their world turned but once on its axis, a mere day, before the devastation was complete and whole cities lay buried, ruined as if the others were trying to obliterate every trace of their existence from the surface of the planet. The author paused here, at the end of the mural. There were survivors here and there, he wrote, spared by oversight or by luck, and they began to try to come together, a remnant that would have to begin everything anew.
Here the narrative ends with a postscript. For the first time in the book, the author spoke in the first person. “I am burying this book in the box you have seen in the disappearing ruins of this city in the hopes that it may someday be found. A duplicate of this box, without the book, will be buried with this box. If and when this box is found, its twin will be sent to a parallel world most like this one, sent to someone we hope can read this book. If someone is reading this, then the box containing the book has been found and its duplicate has been sent to the other reality. It is a small hope but a hope nonetheless that you will learn of us, of our existence and learn from our mistakes. Listen carefully to him as he reads and heed the story he reveals to you.” The narrative ends here. There is no signature, nothing to suggest who the writer was.
At this point, things get a little indistinct. I had no sense of the passage of time. Minutes? Hours? Days? If I was wearing a watch, I didn’t think to look at it. What good would it have done? I had no idea of the time when I left. My guide was silent for a long time before speaking, not to me, but to the room. “We have it all, then?” he asked. Nodding, “Good,” he said, “have it transcribed and we will talk further.” He was silent again, not moving, and I began to think he had forgotten I was there. Flexing as if he had just awakened he turned and looked at me. “You have done us a great service,” he said, “and we can only repay you with our thanks. You have returned our heritage to us and we will have much to study and discuss as we listen to your readings and ponder their revelations.”
I nodded to him and, knowing I was of no further use to them, remembered my manners and asked quite simply, “how do I get back home?” “The same way you came here,” he replied. “We shall not meet again. But before you go…” Here he paused and turned toward me and I saw, for the first time, his face. It was my face. I recoiled, not knowing how to react, what to say and he masked his appearance again. “It is unsettling, the first time you experience it,” he said. “and you never quite get used to it, to seeing yourself in another reality. It is you, but not you. The people from your world have yet to discover the parallel universes that surround all of us. You are looking, but I caution you to move slowly.” He was silent again and I realized that was my cue to leave. Touching the top of the box again, I experienced the same sense of disconnection and found myself standing in the twilight of my home again. Confused for a moment, I was willing to pass it all off as a dream until I looked at the box I was holding.
“See? Here it is.”