The surprising things you can find at a thrift store....
THE CHINESE BOX
It was a glorious afternoon as I made my way to the second hand store searching for some serendipitous little trinket that had been discarded as junk. I always regarded my trips to the thrift store as a treasure hunt of sorts and would actually find myself becoming quite excited. This world is so full of mystery and surprise you just never know what you’ll discover next. Little did I know that my belief in that very thing was about to change my life forever.
The elderly clerk smiled at me as I entered, noting the eagerness for exploration upon my face. Grinning back at her enthusiastically, I headed straight to my favorite hunting grounds, which lay hidden in the far corner of the store. Glancing at all the old used appliances filling the racks and shelves, I thought to myself that these wondrous little gadgets had at one time filled someone’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ with electrical dreams of technological freedom. It was obvious, that some of them bordered on antique.
I searched through an array of ancient merchandise until my eyes fell upon what appeared to be an old Chinese jewelry box. It was magnificently hand-painted with a red and yellow dragon on its shiny black enameled top. The dragon was shown entering a decorative archway of some unsuspecting home with smoke and flames issuing from its nose and mouth. I was astounded at the intricate craftsmanship. When I tried to open the box, I found it had no latch or keyhole. Frustrated, I took it to the cashier.
“Do you know how this box opens?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, dear,” said the gray-haired clerk, “but I really don’t know much about it. It’s pretty though, isn’t it? Maybe one of the fellas in the back will know.”
“Well, I'd love to buy it, if I could just figure out how to get it open.”
“Jack!” she yelled, demonstrating a healthy set of lungs. “Do you know anything about this jewelry box here?”
A longhaired man with tattoos covering both his arms entered through a curtained-off doorway at the left of the checkout stand. He approached us and examined the box. After a few minutes of investigation, he couldn’t get it to open either. “I’m sorry, Gladys,” he said, “but I’ve never seen this before. Very strange too, since I clean or repair everything that comes through here.”
He looked at me and smiled mysteriously showing several missing teeth. “I do know," he said, "that some of these things were made with secret locks on them, and by pressing certain pressure points at exactly the right place, the box would open to its owner. I’ll tell you what though, if you don’t want it, I sure would like to have it. I love dragon stuff.”
It was then that I noticed the tattoos adorning the man’s arms were actually elaborate pictures of Chinese dragons. They swirled and twisted about each arm as if they would come to life at any moment. “No, no, no, that’s fine, thank you,” I said. “I do wish to buy it. Can you tell me how much you're asking?”
“I dunno,” Gladys said, squinching her eyebrows and looking at me over the top of her eyeglasses. “Ten bucks, I guess.”
I couldn’t hide the smile that spread across my face. “I’ll take it!”
The tattooed man looked me in the eye and gave me a knowing wink behind a hidden smile. “If you ever decide," he whispered, “that you no longer want it, please bring it back, okay?”
“Uh, sure…sure thing,” I said, paying the cashier the ten dollars and hurrying out the door with my new found booty.
When I arrived home, I immediately took the box out of the bag and gently set it on the kitchen table in front of me. The sunlight coming through the kitchen window made the box shimmer and shine like polished stone.
“Just what are you, my little, Dragon Box?” I mused aloud, examining the thing from every side. “Reveal your secrets to me.” It was at that moment that I suddenly saw something different about the box. With the good light coming from the window, I saw several worn spots on opposite sides of the lid. Carefully placing my fingers on each faint blemish, I pushed. There was a discernible click, and holding my breath, I gently opened the box.
It was empty.
Sadly, I stared at the bright red felt that lined the interior of the box. “Nothing?” I said glumly. I felt so sure that the box would hold some kind of fantastic treasure. Placing my chin into the palms of my hands, thoroughly disappointed, I sat there staring at the empty box. I noticed that the inside of it was smaller compared to the actual size of the whole thing. “Oh, well,” I said, preparing to give up, “it will still make an interesting conversation piece on my coffee table.”
I was just about to close the lid, when I detected a very small wire lever in the seam at the bottom of the box. Scratching at it with my fingernail, I was just able to get to it. There was another click. “Woo-hoo, a secret compartment!” My heart restarted again, beating like a child‘s toy drum. Hurriedly, I lifted the false bottom and stared at what appeared to be a chunk of old disgusting meat. “Eww…what the hell is that?” Vigorously, I wiped my hands on my pants, feeling as if I had touched a rotting dead animal.
Upon closer inspection, I noticed it had a very peculiar odor, like some fragrant oriental incense or something.
Then it started to smoke.
Startled, I pushed my chair back away from the table. The smoke began to billow out of the box in thick heavy clouds as though I had released the proverbial genie from the bottle. I reached forward, attempting to close the lid as if covering a grease fire with the top of a pan, but I couldn’t get close enough. My kitchen filled with swirling green-black smoke. It was everywhere, choking and blinding me. I couldn’t see to get out, but by then it was already too late.
The smoke began to take shape, and grew larger as I watched, horrified. Right before my smoke-filled eyes, some elongated monstrosity of red and yellow began to fill my small kitchen area. The head of it was huge, scaled and hoary. It sported a long silver beard, protruding eyes, and two large nose cavities that sat upon its extended jaws. It had to bend low to accommodate the bulk of its body in such a confined space. Then finally, as the smoke dissipated, I was left staring into the yellow snake-like eyes of an ancient Chinese Dragon.
“Ahh! Get out!” I screamed. “Get out of my kitchen!”
In a foolish act of bravery, I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find. Hefting my broom, I waved it in front of me like a Jedi Warrior. The thing cowered back in the corner as best it could from the onslaught. “Get out!” I continued screaming.
The dragon looked at me quizzically. “I cannot leave,” it said, in a booming voice that sounded like distant thunder. “You are the owner of The Box. The keeper of The Heart. My heart! We have a Bond of Blood. You are my Master, and I…I am your Dragon.” It bowed low as it said the last part.
“Then you’re not going to eat me?” I asked, still brandishing the broom.
“No! Foolish mortal!" it said with a heavy Chinese accent. "I am your servant. I am here to do your bidding. What is it you wish me to do?”
“Do? You mean, like you will do whatever I ask?”
“Of course! As I have always done in the past. You are the owner of The Box. The keeper of The Heart…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard that part the first time.” I was becoming quite curious now and my courage began to bolster. “What kinds of things do you do…do?”
“I will fly to your enemies stronghold and bring back all of their gold for you. I will attack their armies and watch as they run away in fear. I am impervious to harm and breathe smoke as well as fire. I am yours to command. Command me!”
“Wow! Gold, huh!” My mind began to conjure up thoughts of unlimited wealth and good fortune. “Could you, uh…like go to the bank for me? You know, like make a slight withdrawal to help pay my rent?”
“Bank? What is this…bank? Is it where your enemy keeps all his wealth?”
“Well…yeah, in a manner of speaking. It’s called the First National Bank and they have all my money, uh…I mean, gold.”
“No need to say anymore, Master. It shall be done!”
The dragon stared up at the ceiling momentarily, then lunged upward, exploding with a crashing boom into the kitchen roof.
Plaster, lumber and my old kitchen light fixture, rained down on me as I struggled to cover my head from the falling debris. When the dust finally settled, with only the occasional chunk of roof dropping down, the dragon was gone.
My mind reeled, and then eventually swam upstream like a spawning salmon. I grabbed a kitchen chair, set it upright, and plopped myself down, and then stared up at the gigantic hole in my kitchen roof. “What the hell just happened?”
Remembering the box, I pushed the rubble away, and then snatched it up. I examined the contents of the secret chamber again, and to my surprise, there was a large, healthy, beating heart inside. I carefully closed the false bottom, concealing the secret compartment once more. Through the wooden case, I could still hear it beating . “This is unbelievable! Either that, or I’ve been drinking way too much coffee.”
Several police cars suddenly went zooming by at full speed, sirens wailing. I wandered out to the front yard, box in hand, debris caught in my hair, like someone who has just miraculously survived an airline crash. I watched as they turned into the bank parking lot just down the street, their tires screeching.
After several minutes of silence, I heard gunshots.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, I looked up the street with an overwhelming feeling of foreboding. Then, like ants pouring out of an anthill, people spilled out of the bank, and filled the avenue. They were screaming and shouting as they came running toward me. A car veered trying to avoid hitting a pedestrian and crashed into a tree, its hood popping up and steam shooting out from the radiator like an old freight train. A Japanese couple ran up to me with a wild look in their eyes. “Run!” the man shouted, pulling his wife along behind him. “Run! It’s Godjira!” and then they continued hurdy-gurdy down the street looking over their shoulders in horror as if they expected to be picked up and eaten at any moment.
I saw the police cars come tearing back out of the parking lot just behind the crowd. Their tires squealed and smoked as they accelerated. Directly behind them was my red and yellow dragon.
He flew low, just under the trees, blowing fire out of his mouth at the retreating police cars. “Oh…my…God!” I said, my jaw dropping open.
The entire troop went speeding by me in a kaleidoscope of sound and commotion. Then the dragon pulled up, did a quick loop-to-loop, and landed right in front of me in a whirl of leaves and leathery wings.
“As you requested,” he said, bowing low. “Your enemies have been vanquished and sent running away like the cowards they are. I didn’t find much treasure. It seems the ruler of that small castle had very little of your gold, just piles and piles of worthless green paper. I did sniff this out though.” He opened his taloned-claw and dumped a hand full of gold coins upon the ground in front of me. “Will there be anything else, Master?” He looked up at me oddly; now I know it’s nearly impossible to tell if a snake is smiling or not, but I swear, it looked as though he was smirking.
“Da…da…da…” my mouth was working up and down, but the words weren’t coming out. “Di…di…did you hurt anyone?”
“No, no, no,” he assured me with a wave of his clawed hand. “But they do sometimes hurt themselves as they flee.” Again that cryptic smirk. “Silly humans, they do not know that I am forbidden to kill.”
“But I heard gunshots!”
“Yes, yes, yes…but I am impervious to harm. Will there be anything else, Master?”
I felt as if I were dreaming, or just waking up from one. “Uh, no, no…that is quite enough for today, thank you.”
“As you command.” Again, he did that sweeping bow. “If you will but open the box, I shall retire until needed again…Master.”
“Oh! Oh, of course, of course,” I said, fumbling with the secret lock and trying to get the box open. Finally, there was the ‘click’ of the hidden latch and it opened up. “There you go,” I said, sitting the box on the lawn.
In a swirling cloud of smoke, he began to dissipate, and then the box, working like a vacuum cleaner, sucked the smoke directly into it. Quickly, as though caught stealing something, I slammed the lid shut. I pressed the box to my ear. The sound of the beating heart could no longer be heard emanating from inside.
Befuddled, dazed and confused, I fell to my knees on my front yard thinking about how my life was never going to be the same again. I set the box down next to the pile of some twenty-odd gold coins. Reaching down, I hefted one of them in my hand to see if it was real. A smile crept across my face. Then I dug in and scooped the coins up in my hands like a pirate adoring his treasure. They clinked together and spilled down upon the grass. It was more than I could carry. I thought then, of how life is so full of mystery and surprise, and how you just never know what will come along, or what you’ll discover next.
Today I bought a dragon for ten bucks. It was unbelievable, but I owned a living, breathing, magical dragon that would do anything I commanded. How cool was that, and what would I do next? The dragon's smirk must have been contagious, because it was now etched across my own face.