Mary slowly drifted into awareness. She struggled against the bright lights as she worked her eyes opened. Sounds drifted into focus, from muffled noise to the calming sound of a loving voice. Something had been placed in her hand. The voice’s words grew clearer as she sat upright.
“Welcome to the world, Mary. I am your mother and this is my gift to you.” Mary looked down at the object in her hand. It was a box no bigger than her opened palm. It fit neatly in her hand. It was cold but slowly warming. The surface simmered with the light of many colors. It had a lid, and atop the lid there was a spout. From this spout was flowing a sparkling fluid that rolled off everything it touched and pooled on the blankets and on the ground around her.
Mary brought her other hand up to touch the fluid. It bounced and rebounded off her skin, but she didn’t feel a thing. She turned the box over in her hands. Other than the spout and the hinges of the lid, it was featureless. She started to open the box, but the woman quickly clasped Mary’s hands to the box and held it tightly closed.
“You mustn’t open the box early, child.” She smiled warmly at Mary. “It will open on its own one day. Hold it to your ear.”
Mary lifted the box to her ear and listened carefully. Inside she heard a faint ticking.
“Do you hear it ticking? It’s a clock, dear. It is counting down until the day when it will open. You must take care not to rattle it too hard, or the clock will tick faster. Put the spout to your lips and drink.”
Unsure, Mary eyed the strange liquid and brought it closer to her face, but she hesitated to drink.
“Go on,” the woman urged gently.
Mary let it touch her lips and stuck her tongue into the flow. It tasted sweet. She gleefully drank some down and chuckled happily.
Laughing, the woman went on. “That is your fountain of life. It’s always sweet at first, and the more you drink the more you will learn and grow. Some day you will take a drink and notice that it has turned bitter. Do not worry, the bitterness will pass but you must drink that too. The sweetness will bring you joy, and the bitterness will bring you strength. You need both to live.”
“What’s inside, mother? How long until it opens?”
“Nobody knows, sweetheart. Everybody has one, and everybody wonders what it holds inside and how long until it will open. A few have opened their boxes to take a peek, but when they do they are sucked inside and their fountain ceases to flow. And since that is also what happens when the box opens on its own, we believe it is better to enjoy the fountain and the strength and joy it feeds us before we venture inside the box.”
Mary’s head was instantly flooded with a hundred more questions, and more and more the box scared her. Mary’s mother saw the fear building in her face and pulled her in close.
“There, there, my child. You need not fear what you do not know. My mother used to tell me that my box had a beautiful kingdom inside, and that the more I drank from my fountain the bigger the kingdom grew. And when I drank the bitterness of the fountain my kingdom grew more beautiful. She said that when I shared my fountain with someone it meant that I would get to see that person in my kingdom. She also warned that if I am not careful with my box then it could cause the kingdom inside to crumble to the ground.”
“Do you believe it, mother?”
“Well, my father told me that my box might have nothing inside, and that when it opens you get sucked inside because the box is a part of you and you are a part of it. But he also said that if you treat your box badly it would just make our time together shorter, so treating it like it has a tiny kingdom inside isn’t a bad idea.”
“Do I have a father?”
“Of course you do. He’s outside waiting for you. He’ll want to have a word with you before you go out and explore.”
Mother helped Mary out of bed and showed her to the door. Outside, Father gave her a big hug.
“Make sure you keep your box with you and take good care of it. And drink as much from the spout as you can, even when you don’t like the taste. Don’t let anyone else touch your box, but you can share from its fountain. And make sure your box stays closed.”
As she walked toward the door to the outside with her parents, she took another drink from her fountain. It was sweet, but perhaps a bit less so than before. At the door they all shared from each other’s fountain and said their goodbyes, and amidst tears, Mary stepped out into the world on her own.
Just as Mother had explained, everyone else had a box too. After her parents’ warnings, Mary took great care to keep her box’s lid shut tightly. She carried it lightly, imagining a tiny castle made of glass inside.
Mary enjoyed meeting others. She had many conversations with people, and enjoyed hearing what they thought was inside their box. Some, like her Mother’s father, believed there was nothing inside. Others pictured whole universes. Many felt that drinking and sharing from their fountain was an important part of forming the contents of the box.
Mary often pondered on the contents of her box. Sometimes thinking about it made her afraid, other times it just filled her with wonder.
It frightened her to learn just how fragile the boxes could be. She heard that it wasn’t uncommon for boxes to break open when dropped. No matter how the box opened, the moment it did its owner was pulled inside.
One day a boy approached her and offered her a sip from his fountain. “It’s extra sweet today,” he remarked. Although her parents had urged her to share of her fountain, she had rarely done so because it was not a common thing. Most people didn’t seem interested in sharing, especially with strangers. Mary was surprised by this boy’s offer, and didn’t know how to react. “Go on,” he urged.
Mary took a sip, and smiled. It was, indeed, very sweet. Her fountain had been particularly bitter lately and the sweetness was a refreshing change. “Thank you,” she said. “I’d offer to share mine with you, but it’s been especially bitter lately.”
“It’s no bother,” said the boy, “I’d love to take a sip so we can share the bitterness together.”
“Sure. When your fountain is really bitter, sometimes it helps to share with others.” She extended her box and he took a sip. His face contorted and he shook his head.
“Wow. That really is bitter!” He smiled. “My name’s Tom.”
“Mary. Nice to meet you.” She took a sip from her fountain, and just as he had said, it didn’t taste quite as bitter. “Hey, you’re right. It’s not as bad.”
Tom and Mary became good friends. They spent a lot of time together, and often shared their fountains. Mary noticed that when her fountain was sweet and she shared, it got sweeter. And when it was bitter and she shared, it got sweeter then too.
Mary and Tom grew together. They learned many things. One day they learned that parents build new boxes together and pour from their fountains into the new box and shut the lid. After a while, a child comes from inside the new box. Tom suggested that someday they might want to build a box together and become parents. The idea excited Mary, but she wasn’t sure if she would want to or not.
One day they were walking together and they encountered a man standing alone staring down at his box. As they approached, the man flipped his lid open and was whisked inside. The box fell to the ground and broke into many pieces.
Mary gasped and ran to where the man had been standing. Tom ran to catch up with her. She was very upset. Fighting back tears she asked, “Why did he do that?”
Tom put his arm around her and held her close. “I don’t know,” he said. After a while he added, “My mother told me that sometimes a person’s fountain will be bitter for a long time. When that happens and they don’t have anyone to share it with, some people decide that whatever is inside the box has to be better than the stuff coming out of it.”
The image of that man getting sucked into his box stuck with Mary for a long time. Once again, she found herself fearing her box. Then, one day she and Tom were together when two men grabbed Tom by the arms and a third took his box. Mary was too afraid to run, and watched in horror as the man opened Tom’s box. “Empty,” he said, and smashed the box to the ground. Turning to Mary, he said, “And what of your box, lady? Any treasure inside for us?” The men tried to grab her, but she fled.
Mary ran and ran without looking back. She had always been so careful not to rattle her box, but while she ran she didn’t care if it ticked a little faster. She ran all the way back to where she had started, back home.
Sobbing, she pounded on the door until her Father opened. She fell into his arms and held him tightly. Mother ran to their side asking what was wrong, but Mary couldn’t speak. They all held each other for a while before Mary went back to the bed where she first awoke. Hoping that her fountain could provide some comfort, she took a sip. But it was more bitter than it had ever been before.
She stayed in her bed, crying to herself, for a long time. Her parents tried to help. They wanted to drink of her fountain with her to share in the bitterness, but Mary refused to share.
Days, weeks, and finally months went by. Mary kept hoping that the fountain would once again produce sweetness to brighten her life, but it was always bitter. She often thought of the man who opened his own box, and found herself wondering if it wasn’t true. Perhaps there would be a beautiful kingdom inside. Perhaps it would be better than staying outside of the box and drinking of its bitterness.
One morning she decided she was going to open her box to see what was inside. She had decided that it couldn’t be worse than continuing to drink from the horrible bitterness that was flowing from her fountain. She just couldn’t stand another day of drinking bitterness.
When Father came in to see her as he normally would, Mary told him that she was going to open her box.
“I’m glad you told me,” her father said as he sat down next to her. “But before you do, would you mind telling me why?”
And so Mary told him all about Tom, and the man she watched open his own box, and the men who opened Tom’s box. She told him about how her fountain had produced nothing but bitterness ever since, and that she was tired of drinking it. “I’m not sure what I’ll find inside my box, but I am sure it will be better than this.”
Her father listened carefully to everything she said, and when she was finished he put his arm around her shoulders and lowered his head, letting out a deep sigh. “I can’t stop you from opening your box if you want to,” he said. “These boxes are fragile, as you’ve noticed. They break easily, there is no lock to keep them shut, and somehow or another they all open in the end anyway. And when a fountain goes bitter for a long time it’s a tempting thing to open your box and move on. It is hard to drink from a fountain that is only bitter day after day. One thing I’ve learned,” he held his box next to Mary’s, with the spouts side by side, “is that the bitterness is more manageable when you share it.”
Keeping their boxes side by side, he lifted her hand up and drank from the two spouts together, then had her do the same.
The sweet liquid of his fountain mixed with her bitter fountain was much easier to drink.
“If you share your bitter fountain with those who love you, and mix their sweetness with the bitterness you have to drink, then over time your fountain will once again return to normal. It might take a very long time, but we’re here to share our fountains with you as long as you need us.”
Mary hugged her father, sobbing, but feeling a little better.