by Michele Stepto
When Henry Morning let himself into his neighbor’s apartment one Sunday, thinking she was away from home, he found instead that she was very much there, lying dead on the floor just inside the front door. She had given him a key for emergencies, whatever that might mean. She had given him a key, he supposed, because she thought him harmless. And he was harmless, of course he was, but he liked to know about other people’s lives, and that Sunday he had intended just to slip into her place while she was gone and have a look around. And now here he was with a situation on his hands.
He would have to call the police, but what was the hurry? Mrs Reeve would not object to his taking a moment to go through her little treasures, for which she could now not possibly have any use. In the living room, he found a quite decent ormolu clock, its hands stuck at 3:21. In the bedroom, he found a small casket of jewelry, none of it worth anything except for a single string of large pearls. In another room he found a handsome, inlaid box which appeared to contain some old papers, and next to it a small, brass urn whose top was soldered in place. When he shook the urn, he could hear something rattle within.
These items he took back to his own apartment, stepping around Mrs Reeve in the front hall. He placed them in a closet and then called the police to notify them of a death in the building. They arrived in the afternoon, removed the body, sealed up the neighboring apartment, and for a few minutes pestered him with questions about his neighbor’s last days. He answered truthfully that he had not seen Mrs Reeve in more than a week and that, supposing she must be away, he had let himself into her apartment to make sure everything was in order.
Henry Morning had no trouble disposing of the clock, the string of pearls, and the inlaid box, which he emptied of its papers after determining that they were of no value. The urn, however, was another matter. He could see that it was worthless, being made of base metal, but there was that tantalizing rattle when he shook it. And it was so firmly shut up. Surely, a container so carefully sealed must contain something precious, he reasoned. And it appeared to be old, in which case, base metal or not, it should be worth something. What to do? If he pried it open, with a can opener, say, wouldn’t he risk destroying the urn itself?
Luckily, he decided to sleep on it, and the next day, examining the urn more carefully, he saw that the ring of solder he had thought was a seal was in fact an old repair to a cap that fitted snugly over the top of the urn. Grasping this cap, he began to twist it. It was quite large, perhaps five inches in diameter, and he had trouble getting a firm grip on it. He pulled and twisted as best he could, nicking the inside of his thumb on an errant bristle of solder. Inside, whatever was there rattled soundly. He clamped the fattest part of the urn under his arm and tried again to pry off the cap, but it didn’t seem to want to budge. He wrapped the urn in a towel, to hold it steady, but when he pulled this time the urn went flying across the room, clattering like a set of trick teeth.
Henry Morning picked up the urn again and shook and shook it. He could feel whatever it was inside knocking against the immovable cap. The sound it made was a deep, reverberant ping, ping, ping. Patience, he told himself. Things meant to be opened will open eventually. The cap is simply old and stuck in place. Who knows when it was last taken off?
On the kitchen windowsill stood a small can of lubricant with a long, narrow spout meant for use in small places. This Henry Morning applied to the urn, circling what he judged to be the bottom edge of the cap several times, until an oily substance began to slide down the side of the urn. He turned the urn upside down and waited for the oil to reverse its flow and begin to penetrate the space, what he assumed was the space, between the cap and urn. He waited half an hour and tried again. The cap seemed as firmly in place as ever. Henry Morning wanted to cry.
So it went on for days, an epic struggle. He tried submerging the entire cap in a dish of oil. He tried heat, thinking to expand the metal, and he tried cold, to produce the opposite effect. He tried banging the urn against the wall and throwing it across the room. He spoke to it gently, saying things like “Come now, that’s right, just a little more,” all the while imagining that each syllable he whispered had a loosening effect that communicated itself through his busy fingers. “There you go. That’s it.” And the recalcitrant urn spoke back in its hollow voice, saying “Not yet.”
In the end, the urn must have given up, because one moment the cap was as tight as ever, and the next it had slid off into Henry Morning’s hand, as if that was what it meant to do all along, and there he stood, looking down into a circle of darkness. Inside, the rattle subsided. Carefully, he upended the urn on his dining room table, waiting for the sound of the something inside, whatever it was, dislodging itself. But there was no sound, and when he lifted the urn he saw nothing but a circle of fine red dust, as silky as talc, where the mouth of the urn had touched the table. Of course, he now put his hand inside the urn and felt around, but it seemed quite empty, and yet when he shook it again the rattling continued.
It was baffling. Rightside up, the urn rattled, but whenever he turned it over to shake out its contents, nothing emerged but another puff of red dust, and this he did so many times, hoping to catch the mischievous genie (as he thought of it now) by surprise, that his room began to fill up with red dust floating on the afternoon sunlight, lending the place a rosy air, as if it had been doused in blood and then hosed off.
I wish I could say that Henry Morning solved this puzzle. He did not. The urn went on behaving as perversely as ever, and at one point he became certain that, for this reason alone, it must be worth a fortune. But the antique dealer to whom he showed it only laughed in disgust—after he had stopped coughing—saying that he did not handle cheap, magician’s paraphernalia. And so Henry took it home, resigned to the idea that the urn was his, and his alone, of no conceivable value to anyone else in the world, and one day he took a hammer to it, and pounded and pounded the urn until the metal gave way and lay there in jagged pieces, and these he shredded with a pair of wire cutters until nothing at all remained of the urn but a pile of bright shavings.
Michele Stepto says: I have taught in the English and African-American Studies departments at Yale and at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, and have published a translation from the Spanish of the Catalina Erauso memoir under the title, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, along with works of history and fiction for younger readers. An earlier short story, "Pagoda," appeared in the magazine Italian-Americana.
What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?
I think that fantasy is allied to the wish, and that fantasy stories express deep wishes: that the one we love might love us, that we might punish those who have hurt us, that we might free ourselves from our oppressors or escape intolerable circumstances, that we might bring back from the dead the ones we love. Sometimes in dreams such wishes come true, and for this reason fantasy and the dream are closely related. But they rarely come true in waking life, in real life, though we go on wishing anyway. Fantasy exists to answer such wishing.