“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.”
“Dee-lee-ah.” called the disembodied voice.
Delia wanted to answer, but her own voice failed her. The flap of the small circus tent was open just wide enough for her to see the pitch-black interior. She took a baby step forward.
A cool breeze swept across the empty midway, causing the banners on the tent to go wild. The little girl had to hold her dress down in the updraft. The wind, which smelled faintly of the ocean, lifted her naturally curly red ringlets into a cotton candy swirl around her head. She was trying to flatten it out when the voice spoke again.
“Delia, come here. I have something I want you to see.”
Delia raised one of her two skeptical eyebrows and studied the tent cautiously. She was poised to run. The only real question was ‘in which direction?’
“Is that you Grandpa?”
The tent stayed silent. The voice did sound like Grandpa, she thought. Close enough for her to take one more hesitant step.
“If that’s you Grandpa… then turn on a light, okay?”
A faint light appeared from deep within the darkness. It was hardly more than a candle’s worth. She wished that the light was brighter, or that the voice didn’t sound so much like Grandpa’s. She pulled back the flap and entered.
The interior of the tent seemed much larger than it had looked from the outside. Delia paused just beyond the doorway and waited for her eyes to adjust. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her freckled nose and peered into the gloom. The tent was empty except for a few crates and boxes stacked neatly around its perimeter. There was a small folding table in the center of the room, on top of which sat an elaborately decorated hatbox that glowed with a faint, greenish white light.
“Grandpa?” she whispered again, but the only answer was the flapping of the tent. Delia cautiously crossed the dirt floor. Was it her imagination, or did the box glow brighter the closer she came?
Delia was not the sort of little girl who took chances, or talked to strangers, or wandered off without letting anyone know where she was going. If anything, she was a cautious child who had spent most of her nine years with that same freckled nose buried safely in books. Delia had a huge amount of knowledge on a variety of subjects stuffed into her curly little red head. Still, she had no idea what might be inside of the box.
She walked around the table and inspected it curiously from all sides. Its rim was decorated with brass and copper, but inside of the framework it glowed with a pale translucency. There was a small brass elephant whose upturned trunk served as a latch for the box. It looked like a happy elephant, and suggested a kind of whimsy that made it appear harmless, perhaps even friendly. That would have worried a smart, careful girl like Delia under normal circumstances. Yet there was something about the craftsmanship of the box that reminded her of Grandpa, and somehow that was reassuring.
She opened the latch but kept an ever-skeptical hand on the lid, holding it closed. Upside down, the elephant didn’t look all that friendly anymore. She carefully took her hand from the top. Nothing happened. Delia was only partly relieved. She and her sister June had visited with Grandma and Grandpa for two weeks every year as long as either of them could remember, so Delia knew exactly what kind of person Grandpa was. He was very fond of surprises– so fond of them that the neighbors had complained to the city, and he was banned from putting up his annual Halloween haunted house display.
When she opened the latch, Delia half expected to see a rubber facsimile of Grandpa’s head launch itself on a spring, like a jack-in-the-box. Yes, Grandpa had been fond of exactly those sorts of things. Grandma always said that he was the reason her hair turned white. But there was no spring, no bobble-headed Grandpa, no nothing, except the sound of the wind. It did not appear that the box was intended to open by itself. She looked underneath just to make sure it wasn’t one of those trick magician’s tables, but all she saw was the folding legs and the dirt floor below.
Delia did not like surprises. In her experience, most surprises were not good ones— although she herself would have made a good trickster had her talents been drawn in that direction. As a result, she had some grudging respect for Grandpa’s inventive cunning. Using only the pinky of her left hand, she slowly opened the box. The light inside grew brighter, and she could hear the distant sound of music.
She peered over the lid, squinting into the glow. It crossed her mind that whatever it was might be radioactive, but she dismissed that idea quickly. Grandpa wouldn’t have had access to that sort of thing.
At first, all she could make out was something that looked like glowing fog on the box’s bottom. But gradually, the spiraling wisps of vapor took shape and began changing color. With a metallic sheen, the mist swirled and formed into an intricate mechanical device that seemed to build and rebuild upon itself as it emerged. Delia stepped back a little, on the off chance that it might be transforming into some sort of mechanical spider.
She was not fond of spiders, not even fake ones. Relieved, Delia watched as the device took the shape of a flower. It looked like a bird of paradise with hundreds of colorful moving parts. The flower leaned toward her as if to say,
'Aren’t I something? Aren’t I beautiful? Wouldn’t you like to touch me?'
Delia took another step back. Even at nine, she had seen enough horror movies to know better than to touch something like this. Still, it was beautiful, and way beyond anything she’d ever seen Grandpa pull off before. She stared in awe as the flower displayed itself. It was reconfiguring into evermore elaborate arrangements. The brass petals changed right before her eyes, offering up a full spectrum of color combinations.
Delia immediately thought of June, her older sister, who had always been a sucker for bright colors and nearly anything with glitter on it. She had no more thought the word “glitter” when the flower began to light up like a firecracker. It sparkled brightly, creating moving points of light like fireflies on the tent’s ceiling. As she watched, the ceiling dissolved, and she was looking at the windswept starry sky. It gradually changed to form her favorite constellation Scorpio, and then adjusted to bring Orion alongside.
Something inside Delia’s tightly packed head sounded an alarm. She glanced back toward the device, which had now grown much too big for the box. It had morphed into the shape of an actual bird, an odd mechanical peacock with pulsing colors on its long feathers.
Something bothered Delia about the way the bird was changing, something a tad desperate about its shifting colors and sparkles. She looked back at the sky, which was transforming itself as well, though not as quickly as the bird. It was adding strange new constellations, none of which she recognized.
“Whoa! This is way beyond Grandpa!” she whispered to herself. Something touched her arm. Her head jerked back toward the bird, which was now a shower of blazing lights. Delia started to shudder involuntarily, as if an invisible hand was rocking her. Something bumped the side of her head and she opened her eyes to see weeds and bushes flashing by and her sister June shaking her shoulder a little bit too vigorously.
“We’re here! Come on sleepyhead, get your stuff.”