NANCY DAVIES-The Woman in a Box

The Woman in a Box

 The woman kneels inside her box, invisible in either direction, on the hot sunny street. Her head doesn’t reach the height of the carton. The box has a cardboard floor. On it the woman tends to her embroidery, inside the square world she has created. Perhaps the dull well-handled threads are the warp of her life.
The fourth side of the box is missing, as is the roof. When a person passes, abruptly the woman in her open home is revealed tending her embroidery, like a view glimpsed from a bus passing unknown country.
Dust colors her hair, her clothes are too dirty for cleaning rags. Sometimes she sets a cloth on her hair to shield her from the sun.
Her box interrupts the flow of pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk between banks and shops. A shopper may pause to observe what caused their detour. Perhaps a startled foreigner turns and snickers. The woman does not lift her head. She doesn’t put aside her embroidery meditation nor recognize another presence. The embarrassed stranger examines the web of dirty hair below his eyes, below the level of the box’s shielding sides. The stranger is embarrassed. Perhaps the stranger is a peeping tom. He looks unconcerned, he almost smiles an offhand smile, he continues, stepping around the box with the care necessary to avoid damaging somebody’s home.
The woman is not young. The dirt disguises creases in her skin as neatly as expensive creams.
2. Dust colors her hair, her clothes are too dirty for cleaning rags. Sometimes she sets a cloth on her hair to shield her from the sun.
Her box interrupts the flow of pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk between banks and shops. A shopper may pause to observe what caused their detour. Perhaps a startled foreigner turns and snickers. The woman does not lift her head. She doesn’t put aside her embroidery meditation nor recognize another presence. The embarrassed stranger examines the web of dirty hair below his eyes, below the level of the box’s shielding sides. The stranger is embarrassed. Perhaps the stranger is a peeping tom. He looks unconcerned, he almost smiles an offhand smile, he continues, stepping around the box with the care necessary to avoid damaging somebody’s home.
The woman is not young. The dirt disguises creases in her skin as neatly as expensive creams.
Her mother died last year. Her mother lived with the woman in the three-sided box on the sidewalk, blocking access to the telephone company office. Somebody suggested, or forced the two women, mother and daughter, to relocate their box further down the sidewalk. Or maybe the heat of the sun prompted them to a spot protected by the overhanging stone and granite angels of Mexico.
The mother in companionable silence also embroidered, the two dust-dulled heads bent over their tasks. Each held her embroidery hoop and pulled threads through intimate designs. The box size obliged them to fold their legs. The mother’s knees hurt. They leaned into one another in weariness, until the mother straightened herself and resumed embroidering. The daughter waited for her mother to relieve her of her slight leaning weight. The daughter never spoke The mother never spoke. The daughter perhaps considered that the mother’s weight, so brief and silent, was like the stroke of a passing cat.
Her mother died last year. Her mother lived with the woman in the three-sided box on the sidewalk, blocking access to the telephone company office. Somebody suggested, or forced the two women, mother and daughter, to relocate their box further down the sidewalk. Or maybe the heat of the sun prompted them to a spot protected by the overhanging stone and granite angels of Mexico.
The mother in companionable silence also embroidered, the two dust-dulled heads bent over their tasks. Each held her embroidery hoop and pulled threads through intimate designs. The box size obliged them to fold their legs. The mother’s knees hurt. They leaned into one another in weariness, until the mother straightened herself and resumed embroidering. The daughter waited for her mother to relieve her of her slight leaning weight. The daughter never spoke The mother never spoke. The daughter perhaps considered that the mother’s weight, so brief and silent, was like the stroke of a passing cat.
Then the mother died. At least I guess she died, because the woman adorned her box interior with candles and flowers arranged like an altar, with candle flame that caused my heart to leap to my mouth with fear for the carton and the dusty hair and rags. And yet I was happy. Because it wasn’t a cat, it was her mother who passed; an altar suggests a mother, not a cat. A recognition, although with it, loss.
After the mother’s death the woman in the box remained alone. The embroidery in her hands stayed constant; perhaps like Penelope she undid her work each night to have a chore unfinished during interminable days of delaying suitors.
I’m just inventing that. How would I know what the woman in the box was thinking? How would I know what police or officials arrived to suggest her elopement to a more convenient location?
Yet somehow I’m certain of the mother. The mother who accepted her daughter’s complications and lived with them, with her, in companionship that never fed nor washed. The mother sat with her daughter in the box on the sidewalk, and while the daughter pushed threads of preoccupation through cloth, her mother did the same.
A good mother, to accept the honorable cardboard convent in which her daughter dwelled, engaging the deep prayers of a secret life. The daughter’s altar is the strangest aspect of the scene, because before she built it, I saw her hands loosen dust from her hair, or push her embroidery needle.
I never saw her move her lips.
Perhaps all the speech required was signaled with threaded needles. And then her mother’s needle stopped. How did the woman in the box before her altar comprehend the new requirement? That her natural mother understood, but Mary beside her in heaven must have everything explained, twice, three times, daily and forever?

Nancy Davies  is a writer and English teacher from Boston, relocated to Oaxaca in 1998 and author of “The People Decide: Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly.”  (2007, Narco News Books).

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