The man's footsteps squelched as he made his way through the alleyway. The long, ornately carved staff, gripped in his right hand, stuck in the mud as well. Above him, brown buildings towered high, canyon walls of brick and grimy glass, their slate roofs all but lost in a suffocating haze. The man lifted an arm to his face, coughing a little as he went.
Though middle-aged, barely greying, he walked with shoulders stooped, like an old man, and his face, beneath his hood, was lined with the weary tracks of a mundane life. He looked like any other person in the city, with drab garments and a threadbare, maroon velvet cloak that collected the mud along with his staff.
No one bothered to look up as he passed.
He walked the same streets he had walked for many years, and saw the same things he had always seen. The morning sun was a bleary glow in a sky that had long ago forgotten its own colour.
Eventually, he reached an unremarkable door in a deserted street, unlocked it with a huge, clunky key, and went inside.
His shop was a tiny room with a small, narrow window at the front and a small, narrow window at the back. A desk sat in the centre; behind it a fraying upholstered chair, which dropped clumps of stuffing onto a carpet that was once some colour, now merely brown. Around him were shelves crammed with bottles and potions and books and scrolls and skulls and mysterious things. He had no use for most of them, and had forgotten what some of them were originally for.
But people expected to see such things in a wizard's workshop.
He went over and sat down in his chair, which creaked comfortably around him, set his staff against a nearby shelf, folded his hands in his lap, and waited.
The usual silence greeted him. The dust settled. The skulls watched him from their cobwebbed perches near the ceiling.
One person came in, after awhile, bashfully. A young woman, seeking a love potion.
The wizard made one for her, taking his time. She paid and thanked him, and shoved the small bottle in her purse and left quickly.
No one else came.
At midday, the wizard got up, stretching his back, picked up his staff, and left his shop, closing it up behind him.
It was a good day. Normally, he had no customers at all.
He could no longer pay his rent, but his landlord had yet to complain.
He supposed that was one advantage of being a wizard.
Taking up his staff, he started down the street, making way for a cleaning machine, which rattled past noisily, leaking acrid smoke, and moving the mud around with one of its gangly arms.
Most people no longer believed in magic, other than the particular grimy kind which powered the machines. Some considered him a fraud. Yet… all were wary when dealing with him.
There's quite a lot of mud, he thought idly. He suspected that the machines tracked it in, from wherever it was they came from. In the distance could be heard a strange, clamorous clanking, the permanent rhythm of the city, echoing off the buildings, so familiar now that the wizard barely noticed it, apart from the headache he was always left with at the end of the day.
Machines. Building. Always building.
There were always more people, needing more houses. So the city continued to sprawl, upwards and outwards, endlessly filling with poorer and poorer people, and more fervent machines, and dirt and smoke, and entirely bereft of happiness.
The wizard reached the market square, and walked amongst the stalls, coughing some more. He bought an apple and some bread, from a stone-faced stallholder. The food seemed grey and hard as well.
Life drifted around him, dull and heavy and listless, like the smoke.
With nothing better to do, he wandered around the market some more. There was hardly anyone else about, and the stallholders eyed him intently, without greeting.
He was heading back, slowly munching his tasteless apple, when on the edge of the market he came across an interesting stall.
He stepped up for a closer look.
Half a dozen wooden boxes sat, arranged neatly on a table. They were simple and unadorned, not even painted or varnished. One side of them was open, revealing their interiors, which consisted of layers of cut-out scenery and figures, arranged artfully to produce the illusion of depth. The scenes showed pretty landscapes; dinner parties and picnics and lovers on moonlit bridges. There were children and animals, trees and flowering vines and birds. They were reasonably well painted, but like everything else in the world, the colours seemed washed out, the figures posed with false smiles, the faraway verdant hills too distant too imagine.
They were faded dreams, of a world before the machines.
A world that no longer existed.
The wizard picked up one of the dioramas, and stared at it for a long moment.
The stallholder seemed to have lost faith in his own creations, looking startled and vaguely alarmed when the wizard handed over his day's earnings for the expensive box.
The man didn't complain, however. The wizard tucked the box under his arm and quietly left the stallholder to his good fortune.
The wizard did not head back home straight away, as he normally would have, but returned instead to his little shop. A shaft of sunlight had managed to break through the clouds, and speared through the rear window. The wizard placed the box down in the dusty beam, upon the table.
Then he sat down again, placed his elbows on the desk, his chin on his bony hands, and contemplated the box.
After a moment, he got to work.
Taking hold of the cardboard figures, he ripped them out, though not without a twinge of regret. But they weren't needed. It was the space between them that was important, the empty space, full of possibilities…
When the box was gutted, he regarded it again and felt no sadness, but instead his heart beat a little faster, and something sparked within his tired mind, something that woke up, blinking and excited…
By the end of the day, he was still sitting there, staring into the box, his blue eyes bright in the candlelight. His lips moved in a soundless whisper.
Finally, his mind weary and his magic dwindled, he rubbed his eyes, rose, yawned, closed up his shop and went home.
He returned the next day, and sat once again at his desk, with the hazy morning light a dull oblong at his back. But instead of settling down and staring off into nothing, he leaned forward eagerly and peered into the box.
And his lips spoke dreams, and his mind wove images.
And he poured them all into the empty space inside the box.
Slowly, gradually, he built a world.
He filled it with sweeping vistas – rolling, mysterious hills and dark forests that were so ancient that they had never before existed. He sent waterfalls tumbling with sparkling joy off cliffs, and then turned them upside down, so they flowed into the sky. He created meadows of violet grass and deep, shadowy canyons filled with giant glowing flowers. He sent mountains soaring into the clouds, too high to climb, and upon their summits sat beautiful sad ice-ladies with hair as long as the wind and skin as blue as ice.
He built marvellous cities of water, and quaint little cobblestoned towns in sunny valleys, white-walled and crimson-roofed. And fish swam through the skies overhead, waving ethereal fins.
There were people with fur, and cats with wings, and talking clocks. There were evil things with blue eyes that stalked at noon, and there were fantastic rainbow-lighted festivals under the purple moon. There was danger; there were things that threatened to destroy and corrupt, because it wouldn't be a world without sadness and death.
But there were heroes that fought and struggled and kept the gloom at bay. Monsters grew huge and died. There were swords and shining capes. There was adventure, and wonder, and tragedy, and harmony in all things.
The wizard laboured long, filling his box with all his dreams, and all the things he felt were missing from existence.
Days passed, and then weeks, and then months. He lost himself in his vibrant, lively world; his workshop and the dim, smoky city faded into the background, as dull and flimsy and fake as the cardboard cutouts of the diorama.
Sometimes, he was forced rudely out of his world, to sell potions and spells and trivial nonsense to customers. But he was only vaguely aware of their presence, working out of habit, irritable when they asked questions, and relieved to finally flee from them, back into his glorious box.
Then one day, he felt that his world was perfect.
His imagination reached its limit: there was nothing more that he could add.
Sitting back in his chair, he beheld his box with pride, and there were tears in his eyes, from the smell of grass and fire that he had left behind, the song of metal that was not a machine, and the friends he had given life to and loved, and then perished in their wondrous and terrible adventures.
He had created an extraordinary world, all himself, with history and beauty and life, and it was the grandest thing that he had ever done.
It was the grandest thing that anyone could ever do.
His box was no longer empty. But he felt that he was. And his workshop with its dusty artefacts seemed certainly bereft of meaning.
Looking down at himself, he saw that his beard had grown long, and tangled, and grey. He couldn't remember when he had eaten or slept, or how much time had passed. Perhaps years.
Nevertheless, he was not quite finished. Getting up stiffly, he rummaged amongst his things until he found some pieces of wood, and some paint. The paint was dried up, but he coaxed it patiently back to life.
Then he set about making the outside of his box beautiful.
He attached some doors to the front, and an old picture frame as an ornate façade. He decorated it with care, obsessing over every detail.
More time passed. But at last, the Wonder Box was completed.
There was only one thing left to do:
To share his creation with others.
Getting to his feet once more, he tucked the box under his arm and went out.
The square was the same as it had always been, shabby stalls hunkering in the hazy light like the ghost of a market past. The man selling the dioramas was gone.
The wizard stood where the picture-boxes had once been displayed, feeling awkward and uncertain. He walked over to a greengrocer and asked to borrow a couple of empty crates.
The woman just shrugged.
Taking up the crates, the wizard returned to his spot, set them down one upon the other and his Wonder Box on top.
He regarded the improvised display, dissatisfied. Pulling off his worn velvet cloak, he laid it over the topmost crate, then set his box back down.
Then he stood back, and waited.
It was cold in the market square, and he hugged himself to keep warm. A few people wandered about, without much enthusiasm. A man trudged past with a sack of potatoes slung over his shoulder, but didn't glance at the wizard or his colourful box. A cleaning machine trundled around the outskirts of the market, continuing its vain task. The sun grew too weary to shine, and retreated to doze behind the clouds.
The day darkened. One or two people noticed the wizard, but none approached. Eventually, the other stallholders packed up for the day and left.
The wizard remained where he was, until he was the only person left in the square, with a flock of rusty, squeaking mechanical pigeons. Finally, he took up his things and went home.
The next day, instead of opening up his shop, he proceeded straight to the market square. Once again he set up his modest display, showcasing his beloved box as best he could.
Again, he stood there all day, with the grimy air wrenching coughs from his lungs, but no one seemed interested.
The end of the day, again, brought disappointment. He packed up with the other stallholders, and went home.
He went to the market every day, determinedly ignoring the hollow feeling in his stomach, that was more than lack of food. He had created a beautiful box full of wonder and hope – surely someone would want to take a look, surely he could bring happiness to just one person's day?
Surely, the weeks, months and years that he had spent painstakingly creating his box were not completely in vain?
But for all his effort and passion, he was met not with interest or even scorn – but indifference, on the faces of the passers-by.
He picked up his box at the end of every day, and the wind blew ever more chill, and his coughing grew worse, and his steps to and from the market became slower.
Then one day, he arrived at his usual place, set up his box – mainly out of numb habit – and noticed a newcomer.
It was another wizard. He bore a staff, and wore a long cloak, much finer than the wizard's own.
It was black.
All of him was black. His face was hidden in the depths of his hood. In front of him, he had set up a small table with a bright crimson cloth laid over it. On top of the cloth was a box, plain and unadorned, completely different to the wizard's Wonder Box… and yet, uncomfortably similar.
It was also black.
The man and his display stood out like a slash in the grey mist. He turned the heads of those who passed, as though by some enchantment. It was impossible not to look.
The wizard tore his gaze away from the man, and glanced down at himself. He didn't stand out; his clothes were the colour of the mud. His gilded, brightly-painted box now seemed pitifully cheap and gaudy.
After awhile, someone ventured over to the black-clad wizard with his mysterious, pitch-black box. The black wizard gestured at the man to take a look. The man looked skeptical, but curious despite himself. He picked it up and peered into it.
A minute later, he stood back with an audible gasp, his expression shocked. Rummaging in his pockets, he handed over a coin with a slightly trembling hand. Then he wandered away, looking over his shoulder at the box.
He returned a short time later with a young lady, urging her to take a look. She, too, seemed uncertain, but did so.
Her reaction was much the same. More money changed hands.
The couple walked away, whispering to themselves.
Over by his Wonder Box, the wizard frowned.
The black-cloaked man was there again the following day, to the wizard's dismay. Tentatively, he set up his own box, glancing at the other wizard, who stood straight-backed and enigmatic, his hands folded patiently in front of him, holding his black staff, his box ominous and alluring as an inky, square-shaped void on its red table.
Troubled, the wizard looked down at his Wonder Box and crafted a small spell, surrounding it with a little twinkle of brightness.
But a group was already gathered around the other wizard. No one paid him any attention.
There came the clink of coins being added to an increasingly hefty purse.
Finally, the wizard could stand it no longer. His own curious jealously burned inside him; a terrible. sickening fire. He stole my idea! he thought furiously. What is it about his box that is so fascinating? How can it possibly be more extraordinary than mine?!
Swallowing his pride, the wizard sidled over to the group and waited for his turn to look inside.
When it came, the wizard stood studying the black box and its creator. The box was featureless, perfectly square, with little doors on the front, hiding its contents. There was not much to be seen of the man, either, save a faint smile beneath his copious dark hood.
Sighing deeply, the wizard took up the box in his thin hands, opened the doors, and looked inside.
He was not prepared for what he saw.
Gloom. Darkness. He stood in a meadow of burnt grass, ash floating around him like snow from a starless sky. Trees rose to either side, a forest of skeletal pale limbs twisted like tortured bones. In the distance a city burned with red and blue fire, the leaping flames forming odd shapes against the black.
He was drawn to it, for some reason.
Corpses littered the ground at his feet, becoming more and more numerous as he walked. Some were human, some were creatures more grotesque than anything he himself could have conceived of. Body parts were scattered around like refuse, the result of some terrible battle. There was blood everywhere, glistening and dark, reflecting the flames.
More horror awaited him beyond the shattered gates of the city: scenes of terror and despicable acts around every corner. Unknown creatures roiled in the fire, laughing in madness. People fought, not just the monsters but each other, and there were no heroes, merely knives in backs.
There was no glory or reverence for life, in this world. There was no happiness and no hope and no harmony; merely sardonic mockery and scandals and endless death. Beautiful things became ruined and did not recover. The oppressiveness became so great that the wizard found himself suffocating…
He stepped back from the box, setting it down abruptly, bloodless and shaking. He handed over one of his precious coins for the privilege, and stumbled away with tears in his eyes.
The crowd closed eagerly behind him, murmuring with excitement.
He returned to his own box, confused and nauseated. No one wished to behold the marvels of his Wonder Box: they longed only for atrocities. The wizard shook his head in despair, not understanding. These people lived miserable lives, in a dirty city choking on the fumes of progress and ruled by emotionless machines. Did they not wish to escape? Did they not seek relief? Did they not believe that one day, things could be better?
Did they not dream?
Why did they wish to dwell in morbidity?
The wizard stared down at his little colourful Wonder Box, and was filled with unbearable sadness.
I have no business being here, he thought. No business at all…
It began to rain.
The wizard turned and walked slowly away, leaning on his staff. He left everything behind: his box, his cloak, the crate, sitting alone on the filthy cobblestones of an uncaring market square. He walked away into the haze of an alleyway, and did not look back.
In the darkness of the evening, a clanking, grinding noise echoed across the deserted market square. A cold white light moved to and fro, scanning the ground, reflecting off the puddles.
After awhile, it stopped. A metal claw reached out and took hold of an abandoned box, and moved it to a large container attached to its back. It was followed by a sodden cloak and a wooden vegetable crate.
The cleaning machine moved on, delicately picking up papers and rotten fruit and other refuse.
A small shape moved in the shadows. The machine let out a squealing noise and toppled onto its side with a loud crash, spilling its contents across the stones. Light flickered across the square, glittering on the rain, and the machine waved its arms around, attempting to right itself.
Eventually, it did so, and trundled on its way as though nothing had happened.
In the shelter of a nearby doorway, a little girl sat: half-squashed banana in one hand and a colourful box in the other. Setting aside the fruit, she turned the curious object in her grimy hands.
She had never seen anything like it. The box was very pretty. She had never owned anything pretty before. She wondered what was inside it.
She shook it, but couldn't hear anything. Then she discovered the little doors on one side.
They were closed with a tiny latch, but it wasn't locked.
As the rain sprinkled down on her bare knees, making her shiver, the girl opened the box.
A warm, golden glow spread outwards, illuminating her wide-eyed face…
A moment later, no one sat in the doorway alcove. There was only a blackened banana and a small, colourful box, full of a whole new world of undiscovered wonders.