The Little Painted Cabinet
The little painted cabinet stood in the library of Lulu’s grandmother’s house since time immemorial. Lulu always loved gazing at its wooden door painted with owls perched on twisting branches. She had not seen that cabinet since her early teens, when her parents fought with her uncle in an irrevocable sundering of the family.
Then Nanna died, and her lawyers contacted Lulu to claim her inheritance: the house. For her uncle, that fly in the ointment caused even more friction and resentment towards her.
She walked through the front door she had not entered since childhood; it was no surprise to find the house empty. She imagined how her relatives, after Nanna’s funeral, which Lulu left in a hurry to attend her college graduation ceremony, rushed to the house and emptied it.
Lulu took a deep breath and told herself she did not care. They did not attend her parents’ funerals three years ago, so why bother now? She gazed around the old house with a surveying eye, and looking forward to a future in that house. Her parents died when she was nineteen years old, and she gave thanks every day that no authority had forced her to live with her aunt and uncle and her horrible cousins. They caused eternal discord, and Lulu was glad to see the back of them.
She always missed Nanna, of course, but her parents moved too far away for frequent visits, and Lulu’s college increased the distance. Yet a phone call every week and in the wee hours of the night, when no other relative could snoop, had strengthened their spiritual bond.
After the lawyers called, Lulu plunged down on the only chair of her studio apartment, her hobbit hole as she called it, and breathed a sigh of relief. She hoped to never pay rent again; money was tight, and the rent payments of her tiny and shabby apartment gobbled it up month after month.
Lulu wandered from empty room to empty room. The house needed little repairs, Nanna had done her best to keep it up, and, doubtless, her cheapskate uncle had coughed up paltry moolah for its maintenance while hoping to inherit it. Well, that plan backfired on him when Nanna, being of sound mind, left the house to Lulu.
As Lulu stepped into the library, it surprised her to see the little painted cabinet in its corner.
“Why didn’t they take it?” She mumbled.
Nanna’s last will and testament stated the property, its building and grounds, belonged to Lulu, but it did not specify ownership of its contents. Lulu knew she could not contest what amounted to robbery — they took everything, even the cleaning supplies. Yet, the little painted cabinet, with its white and red owls perched upon their branches, remained.
Lulu kneeled in front of it — it was only waist high — and contemplated the figures she had not seen in a decade and change.
Depicted on the doors, the tree with the owls covered the foreground, but behind it, Lulu noticed a tiny cave on a faraway mountain from which two small red dots, like eyes, shone through its darkness. Lulu frowned; she did not recall that tiny detail, but then again, too many years passed since she gazed upon it. Arabic script crawled and sauntered around the picture, enclosing it in a golden border of elegant waves and dots.
Lulu clasped her fingers around the tiny golden knob, and tried to open the cabinet, but the door did not budge. She clicked her tongue and searched for a lock. Bewildered, Lulu ran her hands around the cabinet, but found no lock, button or mechanism that would open the cabinet door.
Tired of kneeling, she sat down on the floor and thought. She searched her memory, but had no recollection of ever seeing the cabinet open.
“It must be worth a few hundred dollars. It’s in excellent condition and Nanna said her grandfather brought it from his village in Syria. It’s an antique now, why did they leave it?”
Lulu ran her finger over the Arabic inscription.
The family lost most of the Arabic language over the generations (only the curses and terms of endearment remained), but Lulu recalled Nanna’s voice, the last member of the family with a slight accent, telling her that a djinn lived in the cabinet. Nonsense, her dad had said, and all fantasies had crumbled at the word.
Lulu stood up and tried to move the cabinet, but it was heavy, and seemed bolted to the floor. She shrugged; both pleased and intrigued that her horrible relatives left the cabinet behind them.
She finished her tour of the property, then spent the day carrying her few belongings from her rented U-Haul into the house. Her things seemed small in the vaulted rooms, and the house was bare, but she could afford no more.
Unable to haul her mattress up the imposing marble stairs, she set up her bedroom in the library, with the mattress placed upon the hard floor, in front of the little painted cabinet and its owls.
That night, a soft calm settled over her, and a voice in her mind wondered why the crickets stopped chirping. Lulu lay on her side and gazed at the owls on their branches. Moonlight seeped in through the window, and the owls took on a mysterious glimmer. They seemed to come alive, and Lulu imagined them taking flight and soaring through the shimmering streets of a Syrian village, dusky in the blue-gray light of gloaming. A young boy with dark hair and Lulu’s deep black eyes stood in the street with his arm outstretched as the owls alighted on it.
A soft red glow glimmered in the tiny gap between the cabinet door and the frame. It intensified as red smoke spilled onto the floor. Lulu reached out as if to touch it, and the red fireless smoke enveloped her. She smiled, for she felt no fear, only a sense of floating tranquility. Memories she never lived blossomed in her mind as the red smoke permeated the room and Lulu’s conscience opened to a wonderful new reality. A reality she always wished for, and always repressed. ‘Nonsense’ now became a nonsense word as magic and logic morphed into one meaning, one possibility, one universe.
The red smoke caressed her cheek; a paternal gesture she had missed these past years.
Its deep voice whispered in Arabic, and she understood every word, “Your grandmother entrusted you to me. I shall accompany and protect you always.”