Lizzie’s dark curls held sparkling rain diamonds. Her eyes were bright. Julia! Lizzie often arrived unexpectedly, coming through the walls or the door.
I brought you a present. A box, Lizzie said. A little box, she added, her eyes laughing.
Julia cradled the box in her hand. She pulled off the lid and sniffed a sweet, fresh smell like mountain lilac or the rain itself. A perfect box. A perfect little memory box, perhaps for a small kiss on the earlobe, or for a bird landing on a branch.
Lizzie and Julia were lovers. Not the hungry kind, but the kind that lived in promises and birds’ nests. Lizzie, faded into some fold of time, a past time, a future time, she wasn’t sure. Not all of her returned at once, parts of her went missing—lost in time like memory itself—her chin, her elbow, her voice. She’d come back glowing, and she’d bring a story.
Julia put the box on top of others. A collection of all sizes lined her living room: big boxes for rivers and forests of oak, smaller boxes for kite-flying and the sound of the violin. There were boxes for the flavor of chocolate and the cry of a baby.
Some boxes were occupied; some were empty. But you’d have to look inside to know. Her boxes were like the world that way—Julia said that often. You have to look inside to understand, or to remember. Or for anything to stay put, Julia added. And there was no point in that.
Nothing ever stayed put. She laughed. Like you, Lizzie. Julia’s arm curled around Lizzie’s waist.
Julia’s boxes all had lids so that the memories would not escape. Lidded boxes, she said, are like closed eyes. Sleeping, dreaming. She put the kettle on.
They sat on the floor with the cracked teapot between them. Lizzie glowed, her left shoulder missing, as if she had forgotten where she had left it, or had nudged at something with that shoulder, and it had stuck there.
Julia stirred honey into her mint.
What did you see? she asked. She always asked when Lizzie returned. Sometimes the stories scared her or made her sad. Sometimes she laughed.
I saw . . . Lizzie found the word: a playground . . . a party.
Ah, children, Julia murmured.
Lizzie nodded. There were mothers and fathers, too. Families.
Julia stood up and searched through her boxes for the right size. She found a hatbox-sized box, a cheerful bright yellow. She opened it and set it in front of them. It would do nicely for a park and a birthday party, for families on a picnic, for warm breezes and the shouts of children.
They sipped tea and fell quiet. Julia fitted the lid on the box.
Once Lizzie saw a parade. Once she saw a fire. Sometimes she returned with the scent of flowers on her skin, jasmine or lavender.
Julia’s very first box was a shoebox. Her dad gave it to her when she was twelve for her memories, when she was afraid that her childhood was escaping. That box once held a blue feather, a small round stone, and a photo of two girls with braided hair, holding hands.
Julia no longer put things in the boxes, just the memories of things. The memory of the shoebox, that first memory box, now sat snug inside a light blue box with white stars. Her dad was in there also.
It was hours later, or maybe only a few minutes had passed, when the returning Lizzie called her name.
Julia served biscuits with raspberry jam. Lizzie’s eyes were like the sun. Julia had to lower hers. They sat on the floor with the faithful cracked teapot between them. Julia breathed in a familiar scent that returned with Lizzie.
Earth, Lizzie said.
Oh, of course, Julia laughed.
Lizzie described people walking on streets. Flowers grew in front of houses. Children rode bikes and grandparents sat outside on porches. Lizzie’s story bloomed and shed and wandered.
Something quivered inside Julia. Maybe she had once watched the world from a porch. She found a pale green box for porches, for parents calling out to their children, and for cool evening air.
Julia put the pale green box on top of other boxes. Someday there would be too much memory to keep, or too many boxes. She’d have to let some go.
They lay together. Julia kissed Lizzie and tasted damp sorrow and dry fear, a hint of smoke. She moved her hands over Lizzie’s body. Lizzie was missing an elbow, both knees, her left hip.
Then Lizzie spoke: It’s time for me to go now, Julia.
Julia’s quiet tears made rivers down her cheeks. She stroked Lizzie one last time, her soft hair, her back, reaching for parts no longer there. Then Julia rose and retrieved a box. It was long, not very tall, and silver, like the moon. She had never looked inside, never lifted the tight fitting lid. Now she pulled the lid off and turned away, as the bright body of Lizzie climbed into the box and lay down.
She put the lid on the box. She stacked other boxes on top, rearranging her memories so that those of Lizzie were now tucked away, deep in their tightly closed silver box.