Ruth Asch


The Box 

A cardboard box, like the other cardboard boxes: indifferent khaki colour and battered around the edges… one of those we have used in a move before. Packing up is like a gigantic puzzle – fitting things together so they link closely, no room to fall and break, no empty space: a harmonious goal, dull and frustrating in the making. To open the trunks though, is an adventure: everyday objects, taken for granted as the back of your hand, are refreshed, just for a moment, when they seek their start-over home.

But I needn’t have hunted out kitchen scissors to slowly chew the tape off this one. There is no place to display its contents, or order them ready for use: my cache of odds and ends whose sentimental load earned them a shanty house on the edge of all the purposeful or ornamental items lives are run by. I ought to close it and move on… But there is magnetism in these objects. To go through them is like overhearing a story about oneself… you can’t quite tear away. To go back… an escape from routine, into the past. My hands, despite my better judgment, are being pulled in…

One of many packets of photographs: holiday snaps. Blue skies, sunsets, cliffs and clouds, mountains and meadows… loving, funny faces, groups of posers and moody flashbacks. Then me: dreamy and withdrawn, buried in a book, padded by my own flesh; or me, looking at the camera, dressed stylish, grinning like a skeleton. The dateless sunshine of warm memories still diffuses from those pictures, into cool bedroom air… but there is ice in my eyes, in my mind a chilly clarity – I notice what was hidden, before: the angles I once reduced myself to. How did I not see that bitter shape? What was its attraction?…And, the question must be confronted: Do I see myself now, any more clearly than I saw me, then?

With the photos is a little plastic bag, holding shards of pottery, volcanic  pebbles. Tumble them softly scraping into my hand, turn them over. Peer intently at the umber zig-zag, painted and faded, at the russet dust on finger-tips. These bits of undistinguished-looking earthernware are older than even my received memories… they are the oldest things. I grubbed them out of the sand of Herculaneum: tokens of a Tragic people, in ancient days wiped out by seething lava, billowing, burning, suffocating smoke. I was awed to bring back real pieces of their lives. But they are as broken, as meaningless now, as the romance is, which I took to be my life at the start of that same summer. Like the terracotta, I keep shards of that hidden away, to remind me of how nothing is still precious, how near is death.

A glimpse of pink satin like a hand-drawn heart. I cradle the pair of ballet slippers, my last pointe shoes. Slightly faded, the toe-ends grey from grinding upon studio floors, but the sight of that shape makes my arches flex. Years, it’s been… but surely… it’s the sort of thing you don’t forget, like riding a bike? I stroke them, silky and rumpled, lift them toward me, kicking off street-shoes. The faint odour of leather, of ribbon – that linoleum floor in strip-light! how many jetés long? Wooden stage-planks before me, the catch of powder in my throat, the burning, engulfing glare of footlights, like stepping onto a desert. The desperate feeling for faces in the black beyond.

These slippers’ narrow, raised insoles disappear like tongues into their hollow structures – where the stains of blood, like tide-marks, pool round each lining which awkwardly shaped toes bent and scraped. I relive suddenly the shock of taking them off for the first time: red oozing through my peach tights, sticking as I peeled them off raw flesh. We got used to it; a little less blood, tougher skin each week. But a good class, a hard class, meant pain, mingled with pride in a fresh colouring. And for what? For a Dream… of beauty… of channelling something divine… For a magic which is illusion, which is reality… which dances out there still. But it fled from me, when I duck-walked out of that one-and-only audition, a void inside, my skin congealed to plastic with the heat of shame. 

There is my onyx pen-knife! A pocket treasure, trimmed with brass – gleaming black and gold. One of those finds my Dad picked up: a gift. I rub its smoothness, admire the carved edging, automatically weigh it in my hand, remembering the game he taught me and my brothers: Stand facing your rival on the grass, each in turn throw your knife one spin and land, blade cleaving the turf, a short distance from the other’s boot – your opponent must move their foot beside it… retrieve and start again. We gradually did the splits, and the last man standing won! Growing up, princess and scapegrace by turns, among boys, I learned to handle bow and arrow as well as a teapot, gracefully; and loved it!

 I slide my thumbnail into a crescent indent on the blunt top of each tool; unfold them, one by one: the little pick (for stones in horse’s shoes, Dad told me. I was charmed by its uniqueness… and at 14 well remembered my imaginary stallion); the simple streamlined knife; the jagged, miniature saw. But the blades are crusted with traces of something dark. What on earth had I used them for, and why did I not clean it off? Looking closer, it is the deepest burgundy: long dried blood. My own! I recall the use it had later on.. when the games were gone and bitterness, accusation, betrayal, seemed to take the place of family fun. When the only direction I could vent anger, frustration, was myself. When the only thing in the world I could successfully change, was myself. When it felt like justice could be done; dreams might be achieved; life could be improved – if only I offered punishment, reparation, purification. And stripes appeared, symbols of the tiger, upon my arm.

Even now, I am shocked to feel a weird pang of affection for that dirty knife, the rough touch of whose teeth was once welcome, because it offered relief.

So many pretty things, each tainted with misery. Is there anything in this cube, filled to fraying corners, which does not carry a dark secret to bear me down? With the weight in my chest I tip forward, rummaging once more, though my cheeks feel grey with unexpectation.

A yellowed, embossed folded paper, no bigger than my palm, by fine cream ribbon linked to a cherry-coloured pencil, slender as a flower’s stem: My grandmother’s dance-card, from a youthful ball. It contains only a faded scrawl; the names are lost to time. But the tales of a gracious age are real! the aroma of one evening’s elation emanates, and Granny’s warm touch is upon it – a happy keepsake, though it is not mine.

 Here is a chocolate box of flimsy card; small, oblong and deep. I hold my breath to ease it open, lift back the tissue paper with a nervous hand, head tilted cynically. Umber and purple, crisped to desperate fragility, but still intact: there is a single rose. Once flaming scarlet, I know that bloom. I took it, with the love of a man offered to me; love which, like the flower, is here still. Colour faded. Sap dried. The rose could not stay fresh because it could no longer grow. So love must grow, or die. And all these years – forgotten in the rousal of a painful past – his love and mine – we – have grown. To find something strong, living, hopeful, all I have to do is step outside the treasure box, into the unprepossessing ordinary around me.

But I must get a glass dome for the rose; like the one where the Beast kept the magic flower: his hour-glass. Ours, no longer growing, would be timeless: a still center, to which we could resort in the storms of relationship. A dry grain, the seed of sentimental reverie… and renewal.


How did I ever get from one, to the other? Emptiness, protruding bones, to this soft baby bulge… Despair, to contentment? Such an escape, yet I do not recall the breakout, and the plans mostly failed. Stuffed down the side of the box is a pouch of rich-dyed, stamped Indian leather, containing nothing but a pale green school exercise book. Inside, notes for work-experience; laboriously copied diagrams as I aimed at a medical career. And Stream-of-Consciousness journaling: Outcries! Floods of emotion. Questions… questions… to whom? WHY? How? I must do better… work harder; get smaller; dream bigger. The same cycle repeated and repeated – none of it brought peace; most I was unable to do. There must be something else.

Nothing… except prayer. The whole book a desperate plea, my teenage self begging God frequently, fervently… Get me out of here!

I suppose He did. So gently, I hardly noticed the divinity blended among this distracting mess we have made of our surroundings. Only twice did I feel His role in setting me free: when I realized, in sudden, clear light – with the shadow of horror behind me – how I had locked my own cage; And the moment I felt, that in the most unlikely of places, I had found a love that I could trust.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

Beauty changes you, if only for a subtle moment. It strengthens the pulse, gathers and releases breath, expands the heart, glows in the mind. Unless you shut it out, beauty engages you in a relationship… sometimes it is a friend, bringing happiness and calm; sometimes it is a moment of passion; when it covers evil, we feel personally betrayed. For someone in the Arts, Beauty can feel like a Lady in a tower, quested for and hard to win, or The One that Got Away.     


Ruth Asch is a poet, in rare moments when peace and inspiration coincide. She is also a mother, and sometimes a teacher. She writes in many genres and enjoys translating poetry from other languages. St Austin Press printed a book of her poems Reflections in 2009 and she has been published in many journals since, such as Meditteranean Poetry, Classical Poets, Poetry Atlas, Bamboo and Ghazal Page.