Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wendy stepped off the ladder and turned, looking around the shop with a satisfied sigh. Finished. She’d dusted every last nook and cranny, just like old Mr. Custos had instructed, though she didn’t know why. It’s not like they were rolling in business. Other than the occasional browser who wandered into the Curiosity Shoppe, she’d only seen one customer actually buy anything during her first week as Mr. C’s assistant.

“There is a buyer for everything here,” the old shopkeeper told her daily. “The art of it is matching them up.”

She couldn’t complain; after a youth spent jumping from one foster family to another, the shop was the closest thing to a home she had ever found. And while he may have been a little eccentric, she found she liked working for Mr. Custos. He reminded her of a kindly old grandfather, and his shop was crammed with the most unusual assortment of treasures she’d ever seen. Snow globes with real diamond dust perched next to jars floating with strange items like baby pig’s ears and eye of newt. Antique drum-playing monkeys nestled on shelves next to handwritten books in every language imaginable. Exquisite, jewel-encrusted hat pins protruded from a black velvet head with real turquoise eyes, and a full-sized carousel horse leaned in a corner next to a tall futuristic clock chronicling the time left to the end of the world. That one gave her the creeps.

While some of the items she could understand–who wouldn’t want a solid gold desk lamp or a miniature scaled replica of the Taj Mahal adorning their office?–others were just plain odd. Like the pocketwatch that kept perfect time–backwards–and a collection of carved Inuit jewelry boxes with dancing grizzly bears in tutus. And perhaps the oddest thing of all was that none of the items sported a price tag. When she asked Mr. C about that, he told her it was because each item was only worth what the prospective buyer could pay. She thought he was kidding until she witnessed him selling a silver compact with a charmed mirror that showed the viewer’s dreams, rather than their reflection, to a sweet old lady for $20.00.

“That was all she could afford,” he told her when she asked about it later.

The entire shop was a wonder for the eyes and ears, but it was the shelf behind the main counter that piqued her interest more than anything else. That’s where Mr. C kept the special items, the rare, one of a kind pieces. One in particular especially seemed to preoccupy the old shopkeeper. Every morning after he’d opened the shop and made his tea, he would take it down from the shelf and polish it, his fingers moving wistfully over the time-burnished rosewood. A treasure box of some kind, it was carved with figures from ancient mythology. Gods and goddesses in ceremonial dress danced across the intricate panels.

“It’s a puzzle box,” he told her when she finally got up the nerve to ask. “Handmade by wizards for an ancient Persian prince. He commissioned it to safeguard his most prized possession–his daughter.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, leaning closer.

“See this?” He slid a small panel aside, revealing a tiny etched glass window. She closed one eye and placed the other against the opening, peering inside the box.

“It looks like a room.”

The box couldn’t have been more than ten inches wide by six inches high and deep, and yet, looking through the window, it seemed at least three times that size inside. The sides were lined with an elegant floral pattern, and the bottom with what looked like a thick Persian carpet. There was even furniture inside; a small tufted stool, a delicate writing desk, and a brass bed with satin covers.

“It’s adorable,” Wendy laughed. “But I don’t understand how a box could safeguard the prince’s daughter.”

“Because he loved his daughter so much, the prince was willing to indulge her every whim. However, when she asked if she could marry for love rather than accept the match he choose for her, he found himself in a conundrum. He couldn’t refuse her, and yet he wasn’t willing to let her make a mistake. Instead, he created a challenge. He had her placed inside the box and made it known that only the man cunning enough to free her could win her hand in marriage.”

“So who freed her?” Wendy asked, allowing herself to be drawn into the tale.

“No one. Because the box was magically sealed, the princess was sentenced to spend eternity inside, waiting for her prospective husband to rescue her.”

Wendy looked inside again, shaking her head. “Well, there’s certainly no one in there now.”

“No, there isn’t,” Mr. Custos sighed sadly, turning and placing the box back on the shelf. “And that’s a shame, because I have a feeling the new owner will be coming in tomorrow to buy the box and he’ll be expecting to find a princess inside.”

With story time over, Wendy went back about her work, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the poor princess trapped inside the box. When it came time to close the shop for the day, she said her goodbyes and ducked around the corner to wait for Mr. Custos to head to the diner across the street for his blue plate special like he did every night. She watched him go inside, then let herself back into the shop with her key and tiptoed around the counter.

The box was heavier than she would have thought, causing her to almost drop it as she lowered it from the shelf. “Now to find out how to open it,” she murmured as she started poking and prying at the various panels along the top and sides. She’d been at it for close to fifteen minutes when her fingers brushed across an uneven spot on the bottom. She pushed and heard a soft click, then the lid popped open with a dusty hiss.

“Oh my!” was all she had time to say.

The next morning, the shopkeeper arrived at nine o’clock sharp, as he always did. He unlocked the door, lifted the shades, and stocked the till from the safe in the back before making his tea. If he thought it odd that he had to move the puzzle box aside to place his cup on the counter, he didn’t mention it. Nor did he think to wonder what had happened to his absent assistant. You see, he didn’t have time.

At nine-fifteen, on that sunny Friday morning, the bell over the door chimed and a man walked into the shop, wearing the somber look of someone who has lost something dear to him.

“May I help you?” Mr. Custos asked.

“I’m not sure,” the man replied, looking around as though surprised at finding himself there. “Do you have anything that can turn back time?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Too bad,” the man said. “Perhaps something for an old fool, then? My daughter was dating a man I disapproved of, and when I forbade her to see him, she ran away with him. She was my pride and joy, and now she’s gone.”

The shopkeeper nodded knowingly. “I can’t bring your daughter back, but I might have something that will ease the pain of her loss.” He pushed the puzzle box across the counter. “Let me tell you about another man who tried to control his daughter’s life.”

When he finished the tale about the Persian prince, he slid aside the window panel in the front of the box and bade the man look inside.

“See, she’s still in there. A daughter who can never run away.”



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