by Daniel Watt
The jack-in-the-box is a simple toy. It is a wooden box. The wooden box has a handle. The handle, when turned, operates a mechanism. The mechanism powers a music box. The music box plays a little tune. The little tune, as if by magic, calls (from his hidey hole) the ‘jack’—a clown, or other children’s toy. Things follow a very simple pattern in the world of the jack-in-the-box—but, despite their simplicity, they always guarantee a surprise.
I collect jack-in-the-boxes. I repair them; sometimes I even trade in them—when money is tight. I collect other things too—don’t we all! I’m a hoarder more than anything; old records, postcards, books and magazines, but mostly records—and jack-in-the-boxes. These things—and the gathering of them—are my hobbies. It passes the time.
1. The Fair
It was a fairly ordinary antique fair. The kind that asks you to pay to go in because browsing around old junk is something of an entertainment, and someone has to pay the rent. This one was in a local leisure centre, on the May bank holiday.
I’d never intended to go in there.
I know what you’re thinking but honestly I hadn’t.
Suzanne was in town, looking for some new fabric to recover a footstool. She’d taken up upholstery, following a short course at the local college. I’d said I’d take a wander around the town and had ended up back at the car-park after a fruitless search of the local charity shops for interesting vinyl. There were a couple of recordings of fairground organs, but I had so much of that kind of stuff already unplayed that I decided it wouldn’t be worth the ear-bashing I’d get for ‘cluttering’ the place up with more ‘junk’. So I gave them a miss. They were only 50p each though—a shame really.
So I’d gone into the fair to kill the hour before I said I’d meet Suzanne at the car. Over the years I’d been a few times and watched the gradually ageing traders lose interest in their stalls, and inevitably a few had passed away too, not to be replaced—this was not a young person’s trade.
It had become more like a car-boot sale now and I flitted from stall to stall, tutting at the overpriced attic-junk on offer. Just as I was beginning to wonder whether I might even manage an hour there I found a table with at least a few interesting items on it. There was a wonderful carved jade ship (not priced, unsurprisingly!), and some decent ivory figurines (locked in a glass case with their price labels tucked beneath them).
While these items were certainly fascinating there was no way that I would be able to afford them, but as a moment of pleasure amidst the hopefully priced modern ‘collectibles’ it was a very welcome relief. Sadly I inhabited that awkward space between dealer and amateur collector—knowing enough to identify a dud, but without the clout to strike a real ‘deal’. It is a situation that only ever guarantees disappointment and resentment—until you find that gem, of course.
So, I stared at the fine items on this stall, more as a museum-goer than a buyer. And I was content, until I spotted the box.
It was on the next stall, beside a portable gramophone in a luxurious blue velvet case. The gramophone would have been enough of a delight—as I said I’m a record collector and I have three gramophones, in varying states of repair—but this was an old jack-in-the-box!
The stallholder seemed disinterested in potential customers, quite unlike the other desperate salesmen and women that tired their prospective customers with invented blather about the history of even the shoddiest plastic toy. Instead he sat there polishing a tall brass oil lamp, without a care for anyone that paused to scan his offerings.
His table looked barely capable of supporting the assembled wares. It was one of those folding wallpaper tables, sagging slightly in the middle, and I scooped the box up swiftly in case it should suddenly collapse.
I examined it carefully, perhaps—even then—desperately.
The front panel was carved in relief with a proscenium arch and a slightly jutting stage area of wooden boards. The background was painted black, with twinkling silver stars and a crescent moon. The other sides were not carved but were decorated in a fading, chipped paint. The back had a fairly crude painting of closed red curtains with golden braid—I surmised this might have been added later. The left side though had a stylised scene of jagged blue and white mountain tops with a similar black sky, stars and moon. On the right side an opulent room was decorated with golds, reds and oranges (now flaking quite badly), with a great green divan surrounded by exotic plants and miniature palms. A metal crank bar with a red and cream ceramic handle jutted from amidst the foliage.
It was clearly old.
The crumpled brown label—that had evidently seen many months on the road—read ‘Petrushka – £100’.
I said, ‘Is that Petrushka the puppet, or the ballet?’
‘Eh?’ the proprietor muttered, looking up from polishing the oil-lamp.
‘I said, does the label refer to the puppet within—Petrushka—or the tune it plays?’
‘I dunno,’ he replied. ‘Why not give it a try?’
It was the tune. A few bars cranked out, with a metallic twang, and then a grinding noise.
Nothing popped out.
‘It’s bust,’ the man said. ‘Tried to get it goin’—no joy. Still plays the tune though. Pretty, ain’t it?’
‘Pretty indeed!’ I said, immediately regretting my enthusiasm.
Unfortunately he smelt interest on me. There would be little chance of getting a bargain here. The lovely painted panels had intrigued me though and already—with Petrushka playing in my head—I was captivated.
And so I had another jack-in-the-box; this one broken.
It cost me one hundred pounds—but Suzanne didn’t need to know that (we were saving for a cruise). One hundred pounds; because I loved it, and the mystery it contained.
2. A Room Below
I have a Linn Sondek LP12. Wherever possible I have invested in the finest quality, for all of the things I collect. The turntable was purchased with the small inheritance I received from my father. I remember him with every record that I play through it, for he taught me about music, and about value—not the crude value of commodity, but the real value of experience. Suzanne could say little about it, because the money was more rightfully mine than anything earned by my own efforts. Although she did comment that she thought the purchase extravagant, especially with the bathroom suite still in need of replacement. I have had it now for nearly twenty years and, as long as I am attentive to its proper maintenance, I am confident it will continue to provide good service for many more.
It was upon this turntable that I played Stravinsky’s Petrushka, as I made my first attempts to fix the jack-in-the-box. It seemed fitting that I should play that anarchic ballet as I repaired the little mechanism. It shouldn’t take long, I thought, not that there was anything pressing to attend to that afternoon though. Suzanne had already made her way upstairs with the fabric for the footstool and it was unlikely we would see each other again before dinner.
Suzanne and I had our separate recreation rooms now; mine the extensive dining room to the rear of the house, filled with my record collection and tall bookcases that housed the jack-in-the-boxes, books and other small collections. She had the third bedroom upstairs, where she was able to engage in her sewing and upholstery without being disturbed by my music. It was a classic arrangement for a childless couple such as ourselves, rooms that had previously been allocated to the future, with hope and love, fell back to our provenance and soon we had widened the gaps between us already forced open by disappointment and an aching sense of inadequacy.
I had located my copy of Petrushka (or Petrouchka as it appears on my record) easily. I am a practical man and have always catalogued my collection alphabetically by composer, artist or band. I have never been interested in some form of obscurantist assembly by theme, period or other individual whim. It was a lovely 10inch copy of Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1951. I set the turntable going and settled down at the dining room table, with my set of tools, to discover the fault with the jack-in-the-box.
The first light steps of the ballet shot through me, it was scintillating—something between a chorus of pipes from some dark woodland bacchanal and a frothy celebratory folk dance. I read the sleeve notes: first performed in Paris on the 13th of June 1911, with Nijinsky in the title role. Here, more than a century on, this music was filling me with fresh delight, calling across the years with the spirit of other people and their traditions; each note erupting with past cultures and hidden lives, unreachable without this translation into a sound so alive with narrative.
I tinkered away at the box, with little to show for my efforts. There seemed to be no screws or other fitments that would enable easy access to the working parts of the toy. The catch that held the lid down merely pivoted uselessly on a loose hinge. I attempted, as carefully as possible, to prise the lid of the box open with a small screwdriver, but feeling the wood begin to splinter I stopped.
Perhaps, I thought (or hoped), it might merely be a problem with the timing cog for the release on the lid. A few squirts of WD40 through the handle bar and into the mechanism might loosen it.
So I tried that, followed by a few exploratory prods with the screwdriver.
I then turned the handle and allowed it to play out its tinkling rendition of the opening to the record I was listening to, hoping for the best.
Oddly enough, rather than playing the first few bars of the tune, the box played the exact section I was listening to on the turntable, which was about halfway through the second tableau of the ballet.
It seemed to me that the room was suddenly filled with some great presence. Certainly the music had shifted from its initial frivolous, repetitive refrains, jiggling like some clowning doll on a stick. It had now taken on a darker quality, a savage grandeur oppressing a cowardly undercurrent of strings. And this was now awkwardly echoed by the jack-in-the-box with its childish, tinny tune.
In both the recording and the music box there seemed to be a repetitive sequence of notes that called to me, either through some primitive echo or a metaphysical resonance, this strange blending of the base with the spiritual left me ill at ease.
But the ‘presence’ I had felt was surely no more than my own excitement at the puzzle of the box, and the quality of the booming waves of sound that were echoing around the dining room. Music has that quality I find—to produce physical effects within the body. But it needs suitable surroundings in which to do this. Rather than the inner world of the headphones and the tinkling mp3 file I prefer an environment and the delayed resonances set up through the architecture of space and the struggle of notes and harmonies against the confines of their enclosure. Suzanne, misunderstanding entirely the need for such an acoustic, does not appreciate the necessity for volume—she has different sensibilities, if she has sensibilities at all anymore.
Despite these broader reflections on the quality of music and my more mundane situation with Suzanne I had been unable to shake off a vague anxiety that had set in upon me.
I turned the record off.
I decided upon an experiment. I would turn the record over and set the needle at a random point on side two. I would then set the turntable going and wind the music box again. The limited amount of track contained on the small metal tumbler usually contained within these music boxes would not extend to that section of the record; unless, of course, there was an entirely different apparatus powering this one.
A spritely fanfare blasted through the speakers.
I turned the jack-in-the-box handle and then released it apprehensively.
From the speakers, just as the fanfare subsided, a drum roll announced something portentous.
The box, in its twinkling fashion, chimed out the beats perfectly in time with the record. And then both seemed to soar into some ethereal burst of waltz. There seemed now no difference between the record and the music from the box. This was certainly no simple barrel tune mechanism operating within it.
Something inside me collapsed. Not beneath a flood of revelation but rather with a sigh of disintegration, more like the slow deflation of a balloon. For there it was—that repetitive chord again, as though it had been struggling beneath the surface of the world for all eternity; endowing everything with life but also with the cruel volatility of entropic death. That diabolical cascade of arpeggios seemed to crawl into the currents of the air and I saw at last the power of music—its ability to penetrate the core of everything and infect existence with passion once more. And it was clear to me that Stravinsky had felt this too—knowledge began to come to me as pure inspiration, as startling and fresh as the idiosyncratic sonorities playing out through this revolutionary score.
This man was not a simple composer but some herald of synchronicities undreamt of by mortals. He was an aberrant child sired by a trinity; his genius fused with the fresh melodic harmony of Rimsky-Korsakov, dependable as the formal rigour of Glazunov, and as turbulent as the deep ritual of Mussorgsky. From that moment I worshipped the strangeness of Stravinsky as though he were some old god in bright new raiment.
And, it was obvious to me now, the jack-in-the-box was some curious relic attuned to Stravinsky’s majestic vision. It would require patience, and proper supplication, to attune myself to the rhythmic codes and systems of its mystery. It required a quest to find the simple switch by which reality, modified only slightly, might shift the eternal gears of the world and the box would reveal its purpose.
3. A Room Above
Over the following weeks I played the record and turned the handle of the jack-in-the-box whenever time allowed. Perhaps I was not systematic enough in my devotions, or I had yet to discover the temporal constructions through which such rituals should operate—my mind was not of an occult persuasion and I ventured no further than a rather lazy repetition of worn out procedures.
Simply put, the wondrous wooden box has a beautiful handle. This handle, when turned, operates an intricate and hidden mechanism. The hidden mechanism powers a music box, of incredible versatility and infinite ingenuity. This ingenious music box calls to vast realms of possibility. This call, given time, should summon from the depths, or draw from the firmament, the ‘jack’—a sundering of space and time. Things follow a complex and mystical pattern in the world of the jack-in-the-box—but, sometimes, things don’t always function the way they should.
I suppose it was religious practice, of a kind.
Often, in these moments—of prayer—I would slip into a kind of daydream, or projection of my inner being. I floated over vast landscapes and squirmed through deep dark earthy places. I flitted through feverish crowds in great shaded bazaars and soared across rich blue seas alive with great frolicking shoals of enormous fish.
But one vision began to recur. I saw great masses of people, pressed against each other, circling aimlessly, yet every face alive with delight. These circles of bodies were themselves comprised of other circles of family groups clinging tightly together, so that the whole gathering, when viewed from above by my dancing mind, took on the image of a huge clock mechanism, its parts all revolving in one majestic dance.
After indeterminate stretches of time I would always emerge at some vast marketplace with trailing tunes of Russian folk dances skipping through the smoky night air that rang with laughter and cheering. I would find my way, through a thick and stinking throng of audience, to a little wooden booth. It had two performance spaces, one above the other. In the bottom one a puppet on a stick cavorted around the space on a little cloth horse. The puppet had a great hooked nose and crooked grin and it seemed to get the best of all who came to challenge him. The words of the performance were lost to me, spoken as they were through some shrill whistling device that served only to solicit great laughs from the crowd.
And then in an instant I would be there too, inside the booth, strung upon a stick, awaiting my entrance. I was thrust into the upper room and danced a little jig, my silly wooden arms flailing about hopelessly before them all—beasts that laughed and whinnied at my ridiculous antics.
And then the real show began.
I was propped in the wings, my little arms and legs hanging limply down beside me. And a glorious nativity scene played out in the room above, complete with wonderfully carved angels and animals. The crowd, penitent or proud, watched this wordless scene in awe and then the little doors of the booth were closed and all was darkness.
‘You haven’t forgotten that Aleksander and Sarah are coming around tonight have you Peter?’ a voice called out. I was back in the dreary dining room, staring at the mysterious jack-in-the-box.
I had forgotten. But I made an attempt to prepare for the evening. It was not worth fighting over.
When they arrived, our oldest friends, and the due rituals had been observed; the giving of the flowers and the wine; the return of glasses and snacks; the talking; the laughing; the agreements and the news—oh! the endless news—of children and holidays, and plans and investments. What hours of cynical evasion and hollow bombast.
I asked myself how many friendships had there been that resembled ours, barely resuscitated every few months with dinner and smiles? How many lovers had loved like Suzanne and me, collapsing into distance and distrust? Everything was only a fading mirage of previous forms. The names were different, but the passions and the disappointments were the same.
Perhaps the wondrous creature in the box fed purely from the spirit of our fantasies, our hopes and failures.
It was clear: it required us to radically alter our situations, to challenge the rules of our fixed lives. Then it would respond with its gifts, its teachings.
The conversation rolled on through the starters and main course, until Aleksander asked what I had been up to recently. He was always interested in my little hobbies, and often we found ourselves in the dining room, after the girls had retired to the lounge, playing records and looking through little treasures from my collection.
I seized the opportunity, confident that beneath the basic question there lurked some knowledge of my recent efforts.
I told them about the jack-in-the-box, and jumped up to play Stravinsky’s Petrushka. I told them about the dreamy journeys that seemed to lead, more often than ever now, to the Russian fair and the curious puppet booth.
And then it occurred to me that Aleksander and Sarah were also little players in all this game. They may well be the key to the box. Why else would they be here?
‘Aleksander, you are my oldest friend,’ I began. ‘Might we play at a little something—a sort of charades, if you like. We have never quarrelled. That may be significant. Can I ask you to deliver me a wounding blow after a vicious argument? I don’t mean a simple slap or punch. I mean something serious—drawing blood. We must turn the tables, for one night only everything must be different!’
The three faces at the table stared at me, amazed.
They were right—it was all too contrived. This would never satisfy those intricate mechanisms at work inside the jack-in-the-box. Nothing would release the great elemental from the box save for the endless rehearsal of these roles until finally the world happened upon the formula by chance.
And here I was—foolish, worthless, novice—trying to encourage these others to attempt different configurations of their being. But they were uninitiated. They did not understand, or did not want to.
‘I’m sorry,’ Suzanne chirped up. ‘Peter’s not been focusing very well on things recently.’
Sarah nodded agreement and offered one of those sympathetic smiles.
Of course I’d been focusing on things—just not Suzanne’s things, or things she could even begin to comprehend,
‘Well, we must be up early anyway,’ Aleksander added, dutifully. The whole thing was descending into a wretched, worn out script.
The polite babble continued for some time.
I couldn’t wait for them all to be gone to get back to my Stravinsky and his jack-in-the-box.
I could see our friends were not impressed by my ideas, but I was passed caring about anything but what was hidden in that painted box. And who can blame them really. Who wants their world turned to the polarity of stars and shadows? I too was tired of maniacal dreams, but that tiredness was suffered in exchange for a deeper truth, a metaphysical revelation that might erase all form and return us to that first eternal chord. For who, WHO, can resist the truth—that infernal machine, that conflagration of desires—when finally it arrives, resplendent and repellent, at the doors of your mind?
4. Evening Falls, or, The Grand Carnival
I had to face the other music first though. It started straight away upon her return from saying goodbye to Aleksander and Sarah.
‘So, what the hell is going on?’ she yelled, storming into the dining room just as I was about to put the turntable on. ‘And what is it with that damned stupid record? You’d better tell me what this is all about, Peter. You’re starting to sound like a nutter.’
I just stared at her and lowered the needle. The blissful dance began.
‘You can turn that off for a start. I’m serious,’ she said, calmer and more insistent. ‘I want us to discuss all of this right now!’
I didn’t reply. I merely walked over to my shelves and carefully lifted down the Petrushka box. I cleared some plates and glasses from the table, where Suzanne had been sitting, and I turned the handle and allowed it to join the recording with its delicate metallic tune blending into the melodic madness. If only I could worship in such a fashion, I thought. But my frail human voice could not hope to offer suitable veneration. I would have to be content with merely mental adoration of the great mystery.
Apparently she was still there, watching me. ‘It’s just a fucking box, Peter—a fucking stupid wooden box’, her little squeaky words fractured the beauty of my sanctuary. ‘You do remember that it’s just a kid’s toy, don’t you?’
She would soon become bored, I was certain. She did not understand that I must attempt further reconfigurations. Indeed, she did not understand what the nature of such reconfigurations might even be.
‘Do you know how ugly you look right now? Hunched over that fucking thing like some perverted Quasimodo…’ On and on she went like this; words, words, words—breaking down the delicate, reverent atmosphere with their brutal meanings and their aggressive finality. If only they could have the beautiful multiplicity of music—the endless resonance, the infinite connectivity.
Still the words went on. ‘Listen to me, you crazy fucker! I don’t know if it’s that box or you that’s evil—but one of you is! How can you have let yourself get like this? Well, I’ll tell you what! I’ll tell you what—let’s find out exactly which it is shall we…’
I had seen movement from the corner of my eye but had assumed she had left the room. Then suddenly her arms reached over from behind me and picked up the box.
I had been surprised—caught off guard—but I leapt up to defend the sanctity of this holy place.
She turned and glared at me triumphantly before reaching up to cast the jack-in-the-box against the wall—the only thing in the world that could offer us true salvation.
It was then that I struck her. Not once, but repeatedly, back and forth with a savage glee. My little arms churned about her rag-doll body like spiky wooden spindles.
‘There, how do you like my teaching, my pretty dear!’ I cried, with a shrill delight, backed by a flare of whistling from the Stravinsky, its ravishing notes swelling and cavorting around my bloodied fists. ‘Yes, one more little lesson. There, there, there!’
I returned to the table as the second tableau was ending, and the record slid into its endless final groove. A static hum came through the speakers, punctuated by the click of eternal revolutions.
I turned the handle on the jack-in-the-box with my aching, sticky fingers.
It finally gave up its secrets with a tired clunk.
Inside the lid there was an intricate scene of revellers; nursemaids, gypsy girls, coachmen, a dancing bear. Many were masked but one in particular stood out from all the others, with a devilish hooked nose and a wide, crooked grin.
A limp puppet figure emerged, bounced a moment on a worn-out spring and sat there idly rocking slowly back and forth, all worn out by time and the fading splendours of forgotten histories. The little music box whirred out its last few ringing notes.
I sat, out of breath, staring at the little puppet.
But the face on it, what a remarkable face! Its great hooked nose and crooked grin had been crudely chiselled from a small block of wood and appeared to be splintering apart. Indeed it was. That wonderful face—so familiar, yet so unbearably other—was disintegrating and reforming into multitudes of faces; great crowds of faces, looming for an instant and then vanishing, melting into each other. All the ridiculous faces! All the remarkable, wonderful, ridiculous faces! All the wonder, horror, sadness, love and light of humanity in one ludicrous wooden doll that had been hidden for years, perhaps for centuries—no, millennia!—here in this little box; a sacred box that had finally given up its secret to me. They all bobbed along with the churning hurdy-gurdy of the master playing in my mind—all the eyes and cheeks, lips and noses, sliding into a magical mirage of identities.
And the last face—oh yes, you can guess that quite well—was my own; with little rosy cheeks, black eyes that glinted with fury, and that great hooked nose and crooked grin that seemed to reveal a deeper, more monstrous physiognomic pattern that I could never have imagined bubbled beneath all our fleshy little masks.
My consciousness soared again—released by the spiky sounds of Petrushka, that seemed to erupt around the room like a great burst of fire. Untethered, my inner self was able to dance again—as it had in that mad little booth at the Russian fair. I saw myself from above, my dwindling plastic form twitching as crazily as my soul now did. I saw my eyes roll; blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, eyes of molten glass, eyes of vengeful steel, eyes of water and fire.
I watched as Suzanne managed to stagger to her feet, and with a great effort she grasped one of the dining room chairs and swung it at my back. It splintered apart as easily as my tired bones disintegrated. I watched, and laughed, as she bashed my brittle little skull apart with frantic swipes of the broken chair legs, and with a last great blow she smashed the fragile box into fragments. Then her ragged body gave way and joined be in a bloodied heap upon the floor.
How silly we both looked; all black and blue, all bruised and purple. How crumpled we both looked; all broken and battered, all smashed and splintered.
How quiet we were and what silence roared about us—mouths agape into eternity.
About the Author
D.P. Watt lives between Scotland and England in an otherworldly, misty borderland. His stories have appeared with Eibonvale, Egaeus, Zagava, Sarob and Swan River Presses, amongst others. He has four short story collections. His third collection Almost Insentient, Almost Divine was published in 2016 by Undertow Publications and was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, as was his story ‘Blood and Smoke, Vinegar and Ashes’ in 2018. His most recent collection, Petals and Violins, is available from Tartarus Press.
About the Narrator
Elie Hirschman is a self-described “former aspiring voice actor” who has worked with Darker Projects and Dream Realm Productions and is also involved in Cool Fool Productions, turning bad audio scripts into intentionally bad comedy gold. He’s currently still active in all EA podcasts (including Cast of Wonders) and also appearing semi-regularly in the Nosleep Podcast. He doodles constantly but doesn’t draw enough and moved from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere against his will and better judgment (but has never been in the Southern Hemisphere).
Elie was born in New York City and raised just outside of it. He started down the voiceover path in 2004, with formal voiceover and marketing training by Creative Voice Development Group. His professional voice work ranges from children’s educational material to real estate advice website audio, with a scientific article and a guided tour of a Polish salt mine thrown in for good measure. In his free time, Elie enjoys cartooning, listening to old-time radio drama, and referring to himself in the third person. By this time next year, he will also have mastered speaking in future perfect tense.