The following piece of fiction was inspired by this box, found many years ago at an estate sale in southern Wisconsin, and by a trip to Portugal a couple of years ago.
The tuk-tuk spun around the corner of the centuries-old church, just missing a mother standing in the middle of the busy road, trying to get her miserable-looking teenagers to stand within spitting distance of each other, their father, and the stained glass building they walked three tension-laced miles to see.
Maria didn’t flinch.
Her long, brown hair sailed behind her as the little, red tuk-tuk jerked momentarily left, then hugged the turn and hummed up the narrow street to a shady spot below a gnarly, old tree growing through the courtyard wall of the ancient church.
Daily spirited by the desire to pay off the money she borrowed to buy the three-wheeler she’d been driving for someone else for long enough, Maria had been out looking for fares each morning as soon as the day’s first voices rose to her third floor window from the narrow streets cramped with crumbling, pastel buildings.
And in a couple of hours, eager tourists.
“Such a hard worker,” the old ladies on the streets called to her each morning from different stoops and stories where they hung their gossip and their laundry and looked to the cloudy skies with defiance.
“Such a lovely girl,” they’d laugh and shout down the narrow streets, good and loud, so Maria (already around the block) could still hear, “but too much putt-puttering and not any kissing!”
Setting off a chain reaction of neighboring howls coming from behind damp sheets and dangling undergarments.
Even the young men from the neighborhood would stop what they were doing to watch her pass as she doggedly criss-crossed the city in her shiny, red tuk-tuk.
And if they caught her eye and she smiled their way…
But Maria just saw her city.
And curious faces – of all shapes and sizes – in her rear view mirror. Swaying and smiling at each twist and turn. With cartloads in her care each day, she putt-puttered up and down the city’s rolling hills; laying bare the love of her birthplace, with its pocked and weathered walls and bustling river banks, its many histories and specialities.
The city’s recent reawakening filled Maria with such joy that she wore her smile like her old, lace-up sneakers – daily and for the same reason – from the moment she uncovered her bright red partner, until the deep dark of a new day dragged weary sightseers indoors to rest their blistered feet, and Maria up the stairs.
Each exhausted, but eager for the morning.
Quieting in the wake of the high season, the young guide with the easy smile decided to linger longer than usual in the shade of the churchyard tree and the stillness of the dead end. Taking a rag from below her seat, she circled her tuk-tuk.
Proud of it – and herself.
But the tuk-tuk already sparkled in the filtered light of the autumn tree. She put the rag beneath her seat and reached into the striped canvas bag next to it, lifting out an oval box with thick metal molding, pointed and curved, and crownlike.
Sitting with her feet on the dashboard and the box on her knees, Maria carefully examined it – the cold of its molding and warmth of its wood; its tiny lock, with its tiny key hanging from a string tied to the handle.
Which, as she’d promised on the day she received it, still hadn’t been used in the lock.
Nuno, the young man Maria knew from the bodega around the corner from where she parked the tuk-tuk, surprised her one day, coming out from behind the wide, low wooden counter.
And she noticed how very tall he was.
She had never seen the dark-haired, dark-eyed, somber young man anywhere but behind the cash register and he hadn’t spoken a word to her in two years, just a smile-less nod each day he handed her change and her purchase. Now, all of a sudden, he wasn’t surrounded by massive walls of shelves stacked with bottles and boxes and tin mountains of sardines and appeared larger than life. His dark eyes looking straight into hers, but his face still and unrevealing, he was walking straight at her, with what looked like a small treasure chest in his hands.
He thrust the box toward Maria with great urgency, causing her to stumble back and nearly topple a tower of tourist magnets. With barely a moment to right herself, Nuno was unapologetically upon her, with the box still clutched in his outstretched arms.
“I made this for you,” his words tumbled out.
Maria had just found her balance when his words made her knees give way.
Bracing herself, she searched for something to say.
“That’s very sweet, Nuno, but I couldn’t take such a treasure from you.”
As she said it, the young clerk’s face dropped, as did his arms holding his handmade gift. Maria lunged forward to save it from hitting the old, stone floor, catching the box by its thick, wire handle.
She leaned against the thick, well-worn counter, comforted by its steadfast timbers.
“I’m so sorry, Nuno,” she smiled as she held the box up and began to admire its strength, warmth, uniqueness.
Why would you make me such a thing, Nuno?” she said looking at him for the first time since she first rejected his gift.
“The gift is not the box,” he said, surprising Maria again. “The gift is inside.”
Maria turned the handsome, oval box of carefully bent wood and skillfully molded metal. It seemed far lighter than it should. She gently shook it near her ear and winked.
“You’re teasing me,” she said as she felt her cheeks turned red.
“I promise, I’m not,” Nuno insisted.
Setting the gift on the counter, Maria reached for the key on the string and slipped it into the tiny lock, but before she turned it, she found Nuno’s hand gently, but firmly on top of hers.
“Please promise me you won’t open it… Not yet.”
Maria looked into the eyes of the serious, young shopkeeper and even though the promise and its many unanswered questions made her uneasy, after her last rejection, she decided it best to accept this unexpected present.
Picking the box back up, she briefly hugged it to her chest with a smile, thanked him, and made the promise.
“You’ll let me know when it’s time?” she smiled as she turned toward the stained glass shop door, glowing red and blue in the waning sun.
“You’ll know,” replied Nuno, meeting her eyes for a moment then disappearing to the back of the shop, behind the large wall of warped shelves, thick with as many layers of paint as the generations who piled them high with boxes of goods not paid for with promises.
Lost in thoughts of what had happened just last week, Maria, rubbing the small key in her fingers, didn’t notice the elderly American couple until they were at her side, holding hands and umbrellas, with tired feet and hopeful smiles below ever darkening skies.
Putting the box into its bag and grabbing her plastic-coated maps, the young guide is soon taking the Americans to her favorite spots, where the tuk-tuk trails behind the city tram rattling along well-trodden tracks, passing worn buildings covered in weatherbeaten tiles, still bold and bright and remarkable in their variety and design.
Within seconds of the tuk-tuk rolling forward, uneasy thoughts of Nuno and his gift are replaced with the familiar smells and sights of her beloved city, its bustling centers filled with buses and tour guides and taxis, and tourists wanting to see it all in two and a half days.
Its ancient walls built upon ancient layers, held upright and together by scaffolding, hope, and netting like the graffiti which tags every part of the city.
A multicolored net cast over nearly every building.
Some powerful and profoundly beautiful.
Some angry, ugly, and rueful.
Telltale scars of its 20th century life.
But the city survived. Battered, but proud. Heart beating strong.
Maria sensed it around every corner, in stacks of salted cod on the shelves and fresh meats hanging from the windows; in the terraced, cobbled steps heavy with the scent of citrus trees, where residents sip dark amber wine and listen for the Fado singers to begin their nightly performance.
She heard it in the sounds of children laughing and screaming from the school’s rooftop garden and saw it in the dark, narrow shops piled high with dusty, unwanted goods, where crumpled shopkeepers long past keeping shop, hover at the entrance, searching more for conversation than customers.
Parked in front of one of these sleepy, old stores waiting while the American couple explores the ruins of a Roman arena, Maria’s thoughts wandered back to the box, her questions and, especially, her promise – none of which had left her since that day and all of which were beginning to weigh down her smile.
People in the neighborhood began to take notice.
“She hasn’t smiled since she got that box from Nuno,” they’d whisper down the alleys, as she slowly puttered past, wearing a distracted look like a pair of sunglasses trying to hide her unrest.
“What has he done to our happy girl?” they’d moan like the start of a sad folk song. “He must let her see what’s in the box before it drives her mad.”
And that’s just how Maria was beginning to feel, completely mad.
Each time she lifted it from its canvas bag to examine it and question it – which she did, again and again – she swore the box felt heavier. And the heavier it got, the more compelled she was to carry it with her.
Within a few days, Maria could be seen toting the burden down the long, narrow stairs and alleys, straining and frowning, but keeping her promise, until one day the box became too heavy for even her faithful, old, three-wheeled friend to carry up and down the hills of her treasured city.
She couldn’t take it any longer and leaving the onerous box in the immobilized tuk-tuk, she fumed and stomped toward Nuno’s shop, repeating all of the questions that had been troubling her nights and days.
Nuno saw her enter the shop out of the corner of his eye as he helped a young boy count his change to buy the very last pastry of the day. Only when the boy was out the door with a mouthful of custard and the tart half-eaten, did the young storeowner look toward Maria and nod.
“You must come and take your gift back,” she said loudly and without hesitation.
The young man stood frozen and silent behind the counter.
“Please, Nuno,” she begged with tears already falling from her tired eyes, “I can’t accept it and it’s too heavy for me to carry.”
The young man stared at her until she began to question her decision. Then, without a word, he walked out of the store, passing so close to Maria she could smell his disappointment.
But not looking at her.
Maria followed him out onto the cobbled street, jogging to keep up with his long, determined strides.
Approaching the shiny, red tuk-tuk, riding even lower with the weight of its mysterious gift, Nuno looked for the familiar canvas bag and reached inside, hesitating before lifting the box out.
His head sunk low.
“Inside is everything,” he groaned and shook as he strained to lift his gift. Maria’s heart sank, but she could already feel herself lighten as Nuno took the locked wood and metal box in his trembling arms and walked away.
It was days before she could drive past Nuno’s shop, she was shocked to see the shutters on its windows and a sale sign hanging from the stained glass door.
Maria brought the tuk-tuk to a sudden stop in front of the shop and jumped out, looking both ways down the street before peeking through a small pane of clear glass on the door.
Everything was gone.
The well-tended floors were now littered with newspaper and the once brimming shelves were barren and beaten. Maria’s eyes quickly found the only thing that remained, the oval box sitting in the middle of the low, wooden counter in the back of the shop.
Maria’s insides twinged.
The lock was open, but still latched, and its tiny key, which had always hung by the box’s handle, was nowhere to be seen.
She leaned her head heavily against the door and sighed. “How can I leave that box for a stranger?”
Stepping toward the door, she reached for the handle but stopped herself as soon as her fingers touched the cold brass.
Placing her hands in the pockets of her jeans, Maria turned away from the shop with a smile, climbed into her shiny, red tuk-tuk, and put-puttered away.