A man in prison was asked to write a confession. Not a confession of his crimes, which were mostly manufactured, imaginary things, but a confession of his true feelings about existence. Confessions such as these would be published and stored in a museum of existence that anthropologists and philosophers were building. The man wrote of boxes. He was born in a box full of chrome, glassware and sterilized beds. He grew up in a cinder block box by the sea close to a railway where steel boxes rolled by from time to time. In the north, as a youth, he rode a box on wheels to another big box every day to fill in boxes on paper with words and numbers. A teacher gave him a beautiful dictionary with a cardboard box cover since he was good at words, and so he read this every morning as the rectangular box full of commuters rolled through frost, mist and snow. Later on, he got a job teaching in a box himself, and rode various boxes to this great box filled with smaller boxes. During the day, in one of these smaller boxes, he wrote in chalk on a black box and taught words to students who filled their paper boxes with words. At night, he rode a rectangular, underground box back to his neighbourhood of gray, concrete boxes stacked to the sky and surrounded by gray, boxy trees. In his own quiet box, he drank old vines, smoked, read about southern countries, listened to tango and fado from a radio box and watched the mute, gray cat stare into the nothingness with her ice blue eyes until he fell asleep. Once in a while, on a clear weekend, he would fly a box kite the colour of candle flames from a stone beach, wishing he could rise into the blue sky. The man was tired of his box life, he confessed, as he wrote in the box of his cell in the box of the great prison. At the end of his confession, he began to write of fairy tales he had heard as a child, of lands and times when there were fewer boxes. Even traveling boxes were better then; they were painted blue, yellow, and lamp black; they had large, fancy wheels full of spokes and were drawn by smoking horses. And there were great golden fields full of lilacs, lavender, and chamomile, white mountains of blue veins, and rivers that went anywhere but in a straight line. Exhausted, the man confessed that he would rather have lived as the poorest man in that other world full of texture and shapes, and at the very least, he would have preferred some rambling golden fields and some plane trees on cobbled streets with curvy lampposts. It would have been worthwhile existing then.
The lecturer leaned back against the blackboard, covered with chalk pictographs, and asked everyone to imagine a myriad of boxes, all of them empty, all of them impossible to open. Now, she asked, what are they? Physics! said one. Epistemology! another called out. Some said the human heart, others shouted out world religions, department stores, pulmonary diseases, bank accounts, the modern city, wasp nests, libraries, television, questions, the way. And one joked, the final exam! And then the bell rang, and it was time to depart.
It was snowing. Smoking and thinking hard, the cryptographer watched the large wet snowflakes sparkle in the blue twilight through the window of his study. He returned to the desk, where the mysterious artifact sat, an ancient wooden box covered with a large lock consisting of several concentric circles or dials of various metals, some with the finger holes one would find on a rotary telephone, others with numbers, symbols, and scripts that nobody at the museum could decipher. One cigarette after another, he smoked and scribbled and thought about the mysterious box and its impenetrable lock. It was after midnight, some hundred nights since the beginning of this mess, that he solved the riddle in a glorious epiphany immediately celebrated with a glass of sherry. The numbers were for seasons and years; the runic symbols referred to metaphysical questions. It was only by sheer luck that he thought of the right question for this great and terrible year. The other years, their questions and laws, remained to be found. The lock clicked, and the box opened. Inside, to the left, sat various coils, batteries, hookswitches and a capacitor, all disconnected. To the right sat an apparatus that could have been a transmitter or speaker. The cryptogropher picked it up and spoke. Breaking all the laws he had hypothesized or imagined and almost breathless with a bittersweet fear, he asked several questions at once—where was his favourite book of woodcuts, who was the pretty girl on the train, what world was this and who would like to play with him in the snow? Then he held it to his ear. The night beyond flowed from the transmitter. It sounded like crushed stars, static and falling, wet snow. I really want someone to play with me.
Nobody knew how it got its shape. Some said it was designed to look like the leaf of a lost tree. Others compared it to a spread vulva, the maternal bosom, the mons pubis, a little box or the wound of a knight. In one ancient text, it has been described as a disembodied body without essence or substance, a discarded oar, a red gate and the emptiness of the other shore.
It is sometimes called the blackbox. It is not black at all, but perhaps it should be. It is the hybrid of a radio and a refrigerator, a camera obscura, a labyrinth, a code matrix, and a battery. The wiring is intricate–one is tempted to think of bombs. Though they can explode and implode, this is actually quite rare. What is not rare is the amount of destruction it can unleash. In the last century alone, this machine was responsible for at least 160,000,000 wartime slaughters, 100,000,000 suicides, 87 million garden variety homicides, and one and half billion abortions, all totalling about a quarter of the world’s population today. Only about 20% is used or known to work, according to the ancient proverb, which means that 80% sleeps in darkness, just as 80% of the universe sleeps in darkness. On the thin shores between twin unknowns, the black box crackles with signals and commands. It breathes. The black box is the most haunted place in the universe. It might even be its own universe. Its ghosts are imperceptible from the outside. They travel in whispers and mute screams no electricity can detect. Their long, steely fingers scratch at the coffin-black spaces between signals and circuitry. They make a pilgrimage for a surface they cannot find. It is an inverted pandora’s box, an insane asylum in a bag of raging winds, an aegis that consumes itself, the lone eye of the gray ones orbiting itself in sheer emptiness, the magnesium flashing head of the gorgon that turns all things to stone, a saturn eating its own offspring. And yet, it is only a small football of fat sizzling with electricity in a fragile cowl of bone.