By: Amy Dong
Caroline discovers the chest by accident.
It’s an ancient-looking chest, almost rotted by the corners and small enough to carry but too heavy to run with. She finds it in a crumbled corner of the attic, stored behind cooking supplies and ingredient bags. It smells, and when she fiddles with the lock, it falls apart at her hands, and the lid pushes back with effort. She hides it under her bed, just in case it was something, but it wasn’t as if there was anything particularly important that would change a life.
She doesn’t tell anyone, but her mom finds it anyway, and tells her it was from some ancestor’s travels. That she had not seen it until now, where did she get it from, how did she open it. She tells Caroline that these are important heirlooms, the sentimental sap that she is, and to never, with her word, sell these away. And Caroline only shrugs because what do they know when they are just two bakers in a little shop getting by? They have necessities to pay and issues to resolve, and the chest goes untouched for a long, long time.
Sometimes, when the moonlight is too bright on the eyes and her mother is still bustling around the tiny kitchen warming up the dough and working through the chinks, Caroline cannot sleep. Sometimes, Caroline will crouch to the floor and inspect the chest, and sometimes if she is feeling especially brave, she will push the lid back and watch its contents gleam, never touching. Then she tosses back into bed, and by the next morning, the rendezvous is forgotten as the familiar rush of people coming for a morning roll keep the two on their toes. Her mother will steal a smile at her, and she will smile back, and she will never have seen an ivory dagger buried under pools of velveteen cloth and ribbon.
When her mother gets sick, like the rest of them, Caroline does not cry, like the rest of them. She lays in her room, confined to the dreary spaces of the shop and her, as clergymen and doctors come and go, offering salvation and medication for a price. She listens to the tantalant whispers across halls and closes her eyes, drowning thoughts out with recipes and sales.
Her mother hacks and coughs in her bed all the way, and they rock the house with chaos. She’s always thirsty and she’s always tired, and she’s always contagious. But she waves good morning and good night, and sometimes Caroline feels irrevocably bad.
She bakes alone, and she keeps shop alone, and sometimes when her mother stumbles downstairs to help her work through recipes there is quiet, and she cherishes what she can get. She manages, and she buys and she pays off their living in increments of bread. Sometimes she falls asleep during a shift, her shift that never ends, and sometimes she forgets about the chest entirely, because she has so many other things to juggle that cannot go wrong, or the entire structure will topple like a mount of bricks on mud. There is a big red sign, posted on her mentality, asking to handle carefully, fragile. The precious items those markets nearby boost every month, which she has not been able to go to in a long, long time.
One day, her mother feels good enough to make the weekly errand run herself. She lets her, and she comes back glowing, clutching bags of flour from a great deal down at the mill. It’s a joyous night and they toast to her health, the hope that everything will be fine from this one day of health. The day ended, and for the next week, she stayed in her bed. Caroline does not give privy to her emotions, and she opens shop with a face betraying nothing.
When her mother gets worse, like the rest of them, there is a nice old doctor that sits Caroline down on a stool when they talk out of her mother’s earshot. His eyes are warm chestnuts and his hair is whitening as he speaks, urging her to get the medication before it is too late, because once the third time strikes, there won’t be a fourth time. Her mother is always tired and always asleep, and he fears she will never wake up. Caroline only stares.
She asks him the price. Tentatively. Suspiciously.
“50 pounds. Of the sort.”
It’s an awful lot, she commented, and the doctor only shakes his head. There is no price for human health, he counters, and besides this includes a large dose.
She thanks him for his service and sees him out the door, telling him that she will consider it later when her work is finished and the shop is cleaned up, because it could never hurt to be incredibly cautious. She prays.
It’s when her mother does not open her eyes for the fifth day that Caroline considers otherwise. Because she breathes, raggedly and tiredly, but she does not wake up and she does not respond. She cannot eat, but drinks, a handheld bowl to her lips coaxing water into her mouth. Slowly, but surely, she dies, and Caroline decides to try for a chance.
They barely own enough funds to support themselves comfortably, even without the sickness and the customer loss. Whatever profit goes straight to the house or the food or the life. There is no room for death in their daily routine, and they did not account for death in their daily routine, when her mother had detailed the shop to her all those years ago.
One night, when the moon is shining too bright against a house that is too dark, Caroline gets up and fiddles with the chest that they had long forgotten a long time ago.
She dumps all of its contents onto the wooden boards. There are jewels, not particularly rare ones, and there are cloths and shells of exotic fruits. Decorated shells and dyes that flash in the blue tint of the room. Old wealth, old markings of contents that were bartered and taken ages ago, memories that Caroline does not know and does not want to know, because right now, this box and its contents would save them all, and she did not need to know the backstory behind it.
She knows she shouldn’t sell anything. She had promised, with her word, to her mother years ago. A promise was eternity, under circumstances that were sacred.
She had promised to a mother that was healthy, that could help around in the store and keep her from getting into trouble. Not to a shell of a person, pain across a bed that may not have registered. Not to a breathing corpse, who had left her her entire life and entire store and everything else that she had not taught her to do yet. So she falters.
Surely, she figured, fingering a blade with a handle made of ivory, surely she would not notice, if I were to sell one item?
She gets revenue for more than 30 pounds, from some exotic trader. She manages to scrape out a few more shillings from store profit, and the doctor accepts it anyway. It doesn’t matter anyway. It doesn’t matter because the doctor is a fraud and the medicine is fake and her mother is dead.
(Caroline dies from pneumonia, surrounded by her kids and everyone else. She’s offered medicine by a doctor, and she declines, because she will never make that error ever again. She dies with the box still under her bed, all the contents intact as ever, a broken promise trying to repair itself, excluding that ivory dagger.)