Short Story – “The Parable of the Box”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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“The Parable of the Box”

by James Pembroke

I.

“Hey you! Stop!”

I should have known this was going to happen. I had seen the dirt-streaked youngster sidle up towards the filigree-iron patio tables in the front of the cafe. He stood out like a sore thumb. The boy’s clothes were wet, sopping from the rain that was now pealing down and causing such a stink of humidity in the summer afternoon air, that it was almost stifling. He looked at me directly, his countenance cadaverous and drawn from malnutrition and then swiftly shifted his gaze away to fix upon my neighbor, an old gentleman seated by himself.

It was so warm today. I felt the sweat drip down beneath my tight collar, my tie constricting. I would have chosen another place to meet but Dorothy had said here. I was racked by nerves – she would answer my proposal in person, her letter said, here, at the Mulberry. I was early by an hour. Nervous, that didn’t cut it; I was jittery as a grasshopper. If she agreed, and I was certain she would, we would speak to her father together.

My thoughts wandered easily; I pictured the smooth skin of her neck, her ear, and then felt suddenly warm, fiddling with the handle of my teacup. She was so very pretty to me.

“Hey you! Stop!” and then young man was away down Westborough Avenue, a square box under his arm. I turned to the old man, kindly faced, but now distressed, a doddery looking fellow wearing a fine brown suit. He tried to hurriedly stand, to follow and was immediately winded.

“Sir, was that box yours?” I asked.

“Yes,” he wheezed. “The contents are of… utmost importance… and of great … personal nature.”

I took off my coat. The rain had now stopped. I did not have running shoes on, but I was determined to give the fellow a good chase. As I was about run, I felt a pressure on my arm. I looked down to see his hand, and noted momentarily that the skin seemed surprising free of lines and wrinkles.

“Sir, I implore you,” the gentleman spoke, looking at me under his hat, sharp, keen eyes again belying my impression of his age. “The box, sir. Do not open it.”

I had not considered it. I was no curious cat, nor a cad. I patted his hand in reassurance, stood to my full height, straightened my waistcoat and took off.

II.

It did not take long to catch up to the thief. The box appeared to be heavy and his arm seemed to sag from the weight of it, yet for all his apparent emaciation, the man was spry and at first I felt I had no chance of catching him. He soon led the chase away from Westborough Avenue and down a series of alleyways. I credited my ongoing stamina to my grammar school cross-country training, and slowly I began to gain on the fleeing boy. He darted this way and that, his bedraggled jacket flailing behind him, until with a surprisingly vigorous burst, he shot left down a thin corridor between two tall buildings.

I approached the gap at full pelt, grabbed the corner brickwork and pivoted myself round, to find it… empty. There was at least twenty feet of gap to run down, but somehow he had completely vanished. How could he have disappeared so quickly? As I slumped my shoulders in defeat, my chest heaving from exertion, I glanced down to the end of the alley and with relief gratefully laid eyes upon the very box that the young thief had made off with. He had given up the loot to save his own skin.

Triumph. I almost found myself wishing that the run had gone on for longer. I would have to embellish the story to Dorothy, perhaps, maybe in my version I roughed up the young ne-er do well. There could have been two of them, but perhaps I bravely fought them off. She will think I’m extremely brave for a young marginally privileged boy in the East side of Onyxfeld, I thought. I hardly have much else to offer, that as I am, other than I adore her. Not enough, I worried.

The city was suddenly very quiet. Cast iron balconies overhanging the street stretched high above me. I stood in the alleyway holding the box. It was carefully wrapped in thick brown paper, and heavy, at least a few pounds, the contents thudding against the sides as I shifted it from side to side. It might have contained books, or sacked ingredients. I wondered what was inside. I wanted to look within, suddenly desperately. The boy who stole it couldn’t have known its contents, rather he had randomly selected an enfeebled old man to steal from and the box had happened to be there, unprotected upon the table. Well, I had stopped him, and that made me something of a hero. The kind of hero who certainly does not go snooping inside other people’s belongings, regardless of how curious they are, I concluded.

I returned to the bustling street cafe to find that although my jacket remained at my table, the old man had gone. I asked the waiter who informed that he hadn’t seen the the gentleman leave. It left me in a bit of a pickle. I sat back at my table and stared at the box in front of me, and after a time, I noticed that there was writing on the side; an address. I examined the address. I knew where it was, or at least approximately. I checked my pocket watch, I still had forty minutes until Dorothy arrived and I was confident I could deliver the box and return here in plenty of time. Another good quality worth extolling to her, I thought. I surely was fast becoming irresistible.

III.

I took the train up at the fourteenth level. Above me through the windowed ceiling, I saw another raised line at the thirtieth storey. The train was full, a smoky unpleasant affair, the air thick and close with city warmth and human fumes. I looked at the box the entire journey, fixated on the mysterious contents. Perhaps the old man wouldn’t mind solving the mystery for me when I delivered it – if he was there at all. It was rather strange that he had left. Perhaps he was feeble-minded and had forgotten, wandered off. Back home, I hoped.

I alighted at Crescent Cross, took the moving floor to the ground and then followed the street numbers to locate the address. This area didn’t look like a residential area, and I certainly didn’t recognize it. The street was flanked by tall looming warehouse buildings, docks and bays for loading and unloading at street level, gantries and cranes. The air was still, the streets bathed in the dusty yellow hue of a late summer afternoon.

I found the address. One-two-nine-eight, ‘b’. The door was set into a descending recessed stairwell. I went to it, the box under my arm, and knocked. No answer. I knocked again and the latch dislodged, causing the door to swing open. Without much hesitation, I went in. A short corridor, and a set of swing doors. I pushed through.

It was dark, the atmosphere dense and hot, with a strange bitter taste in the air. As my eyes adjusted I saw in the center of the large round floor a single man wearing the apron of a surgeon, leaning over a hospital gurney, illuminated by several amber lamps and studiously focused and working on what appeared to be a human body. My vision improved further and I realized I stood inside an auditorium, the un-illuminated audience seated in ascending tiers, and although I saw shadowed forms, I could not see their faces.

There was no sound other than creaking wooden seats and the occasional click of metallic instruments. I had stumbled into an operating theater.

A voice, the surgeons, suddenly filled the space. It was deep, mellifluous, commanding.

“You can place it over there.” he said, without turning around, gesturing at a table to his left.

“I, er. I’m here-.” I quieted myself. My voice sounded diminished in the open space, I felt weak and I was confused. I did as I was told. I tried not to look at the body on the table. I hoped it was alive.

I set the box on the table. It looked out of place among the lines of clean clinical equipment, the bowls of liquid. I decided to sit on the adjacent wooden chair. What was I doing here, I asked. Did the old man live here? Was the address label an old one and I had inadvertantly delivered his belongings to the wrong place? No, because the surgeon had expected it. I did not know what to think.

The surgeon’s voice once again filled the musty air. He was tall and of lean build and appeared to work whilst speaking without hesitation.

“And as we can see gentlemen, the amygdyla remains active for as long as the blood supply is persistent. Following the removal of the surrounding tissue, the amygdyla, what I assume to be the hub of human morals, is revealed.” He stood up straight. “That said, there is little point in revival at this stage – the carcass has served its purpose.”

There is little point of revival? What kind of clinic was this?

The doctor was suddenly turned and facing me. His hands were bloodied and held out from his body, gloveless. His face was a dark shadow by the lights at his back. His eyes, however, I could see those clearly. They glinted, pierced, frank and appraising. I could not stare into them for long and in an effort to look away, I made the grave mistake of looking past him to the table.

My gasp was involuntary, so too was the hand to my mouth. The body on the table, the cadaver, as the doctor had put it, was spread out, head towards me. I say head, because I could only assume that the bloodied mass I saw was the in fact a head; the skin pulled and peeled back like a flower, the entire top section of bone missing and the brain, that rippling, creased gray lump, like a densely packed mass of thick grey worms, the brain was open, exposed, showing, right down to the nose, the tethered bulb of an eyeball almost lazily hanging to one side atop the exposed brain tissue.

I balked at the sight, my stomach lifted, but I did not vomit. The doctor’s eyes did not leave me and he smiled.

“Very fine. Very fine indeed. Yes.”

I thought he was looking at the box, but I was mistaken, he was looking at me, keenly, clearly pleased. His gaze eventually flicked to the box on the table to my left.

“What did you bring me?” he asked. “Why don’t you open it and tell me.” His tone was paternal now, gentle.

“I didn’t mean for it, I mean, I was supposed to deliver-”

“Tell me what’s in the box young man.”

“I don’t want to. Please. I don’t want to see inside the box.”

I heard the dull click of the door to my right being locked, from the outside. I could see more clearly now, my heart, my precious heart inside my body like the body on the table, was pounding furiously. I could see the faces in the audience. I recognized one and then I wish I had not. It was the the old man, the one from the cafe. He did not look kindly. He looked at me, cold. My mind raced. I did not understand. I did not want to understand.

The doctor moved closer. I noticed that he had produced a thin scalpel. My chest heaved, I brought in a breath, moved to thrust myself past him, to run, anywhere, out of here. The door was locked. Why was the door locked? I must get out, I thought. I must see Dorothy. I’ll be late. I can’t be late.

I started out of the chair, tried to move past him, push him out the way, my hands catching in the slimy viscera coating his apron. His left hand pushed out and pressed against my chest for the briefest of moments, almost gently, like someone searching for a heartbeat. The cold pain of a cut sparked against the back of my neck and something deep in me tugged and snapped, like I had always been held up on puppets strings and now they had been cut. I felt the weight of my whole body slump and give in to gravity. I would have fallen, but he held me, althought I could not feel his hand on my chest anymore. He lowered me gently back into the chair.

My head lolled to one side. I could not move anything, or feel anything below my neck. In my limited perspective I saw him support me by the chest with one hand, and with the other he expertly used the scalpel to open the box, the thick paper and board sliced and parting without a sound. The contents were revealed, and I could not close my eyes to them. A human head, lips grey and pulled back in a grimace, the nose broken. Both eyes were open. I tried to move, to shout, to scream. Anything. I could do nothing, feel nothing the entire length of my frame. He had severed me from my body.

The doctor turned from the box, the wrapping falling back over the face like wax paper covering a slab of mutton.

“A head needs a body, my boy.” said the Doctor quietly. “Hold him.” Another set of hands grasped my shoulders and kept me upright. I saw it was the boy who I had chased through the alleys. The old man and the boy. I thought of Dorothy sitting at the table at the cafe, waiting., perhaps sitting in my seat, unaware that it had been mine less than an hour before. She might never know.

The doctor turned and spoke to the audience. “A live subject will be able to pump the blood needed to keep the brain alive, allowing greater breadth and freedom in experimentation. The issue is keeping him alive long enough to complete the dissection, but I have done much work in this field and I am confident that I will have little difficulty.” He gestured back towards me. “What you are witnessing gentlemen, what you will not see anywhere else, what the supposedly modern establishment eschews in favor of stagnation, is the miracle of life in all its glory, in its finery, and I will discover its secrets. Fortune favors the bold, and I will not shirk.”

As his knives cut into me, without sensation, I hoped for Dorothy’s sake, and mine, that her answer had been no.

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