9 min read

Building Beyond: Outside the Box

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

You live in a fantastic world in which every person is given a box at birth. Each box is unique and fixed to that person until the moment they open it.

Marina Berlin is a writer, poet and media critic. She holds two degrees in sociology and hosts the podcast Pop Culture Sociologist, where she analyzes SF/F media. She's currently working on her first novel, which was honor listed for the Otherwise Fellowship. You can find her on twitter at @berlin_marina, or read some of her published stories and poems on her website.

Gailey: Where do the boxes come from?

Berlin: Twelve minutes after a child is born, a shell materializes around their heart. The shell is soft, thinner than a micron, translucent and impossible to detect.

Blood flows through the shell, nerves and tissue are undisturbed by it. For most children, it takes three years for the shell to fully harden, assume its box-like shape, and slowly emerge from the child's chest, hovering next to their collarbone like a pendant. For late bloomers, this process can take up to five years.

Gailey: What makes each one uniquely identifiable to the individual to whom it was given?

B: As you grow, the box grows. From a speck it grows into the size of a nail, then the size of a toe, then the size of a jewelry box, large enough to fit a ring or a pair of earrings.

You see the boxes of your friends at school, your family members. All of them are blank, translucent, hovering somewhere around the person's body. Science claims the boxes travel aimlessly, attaching themselves to shoulders, hands, thighs, ankles, with no set order or particular cause. But science also claims that if you shave your legs the hair doesn't grow back thicker. On the ground, everyone knows there are phases to the box's location on your body. Things you do in your life that move them about.

Scientists also estimate that as soon as a box emerges from a child's chest, it only appears blank to other people. The child itself can see things etched on its sides - perhaps shapes or colors or patterns - though it cannot yet articulate it properly to caregivers. You read articles about this occasionally - early child box development is its own academic discipline.

Your own earliest memories of the box include seeing your drawings painted on the sides, in miniature. Reflections of colorful papers your parents gratefully accept and praise, for portraying farms and houses and dogs.

You barely notice the box most days, like the majority of people, but some things stick out in your memory. The etchings counting down the days until the end of the school year, in fourth grade when the daily humiliation felt like a noose around your neck.

Your first tattoo, which appeared on the box before it was fully filled in on your skin. The colors looked more muted, of course, due to the box being translucent. The smiling lips of the boy you dated in tenth grade. The long fingers of the girl you fell in love with during your last semester in college.

Gailey: What would make you open the box? When would that happen?

B: No one can explain the mechanism that governs which people one day find the box has become physical, tangible, openable. Some people go their entire lives without the box fully metalizing. For you, it happens when you are sixty-three, sitting in your car, two weeks after the funeral of your only child, whose box you will never see again.

Your own box, which has been hovering near your spleen for the past year, rises in the air until it's in front of your eyes, perhaps knowing that the tears and snot covering your face have made seeing difficult. When it becomes fully tangible, every side of it is shiny, smooth blackness. No marks, no colors, no records of the life you've lived. None of it has any value to you, not anymore.

Some people choose not to open their boxes, but you've always known you couldn't be one of them. They say the box, once opened, changes you. No one can say how, exactly, but most people agree that it does.

You've never been a religious person, not even a spiritual one, but in this moment you want to believe the box will mold itself to your will, anticipate what you need, what you yourself can't yet articulate. Maybe it will give you the ending you long for, maybe it will wipe everything clean and give you a new beginning.

Maybe there will be nothing left of you once it's open. Maybe you'll become the grand, true version of yourself you were always meant to be but never managed to become on your own.

Maybe you'll simply become someone who can survive this.

You grab the lid with two steady hands, and lift it up.

Asha Sanaker (she/her) is a freelance writer. In recent years she's written about everything from federal politics, to women's health, to progressive shareholder proposals. Her own projects include a Substack newsletter called Let Your Life Speak and a weekly advice column on Medium called Walk With Me. She lives in Upstate New York with her four kids, two cats, one partner, and never enough plants.

Gailey: Where do the boxes come from? How do they find their way to their assignees?

Sanaker: The boxes themselves are made by a village of craftspeople high in the mountains. They are woodworkers and astrologers and spell-casters. The village has existed since so far back to the beginning of time that no one knows its exact origin story. It was necessary, and so it became, like everything else. When a new child is born the village knows and casts that child's astrological chart. How do they know? Some folks like to think the knowing emerges in some mystical ceremony, replete with candles and incense and deep meditation and such, but it's not really as romantic as all that. I mean, living in the high mountains is hard work. There are always things to do. Everyone's got a job in addition to the making of the boxes-- splitting and stacking wood, cooking, weaving cloth, growing food, patrolling the perimeter against animals who might get into the food stores. At the moment a new child is born folks going about their business will see a change in the pattern of things. The wood will split to reveal the trails of a beetle colony. The soup in the pot will swirl the wrong way 'round. The trellis beans will point at a star. The woods sounds at night will find a new rhythm. The village folks will congregate in the village kitchen, pour strong tea, and compare signs. They'll bicker and talk over one another and remind each other of every time one or another missed a sign. It's unclear if this is a necessary part of the divination, or just that they don't get a lot of time to sit around and talk so they make the most of it, but eventually, they'll agree it's time to cast the chart.

That chart is then carved inside the box and bespelled so that only the person whose chart is inside can open it. Then two folks, one young and one old so that the knowledge of the paths is passed down, walk down out of the mountain to deliver the box. The box always arrives on the child's first birthday.

Gailey: How do the boxes differ, from an exterior perspective?

S: How does a tree differ from another tree? How does one child differ from another? They just do. The families know the boxes, just like they know the children. They receive the box on the child's first birthday and sometimes they put the box with the other family boxes on a special shelf because they're the sorts of people who like to show themselves off. Sometimes they tuck the boxes in a drawer for safekeeping because precious things need safekeeping. Sometimes they're not folks who stand on ceremony, so they tuck it in the cabinet between the salt and the sugar because that's as good a spot as any and get on with things. It's not like a one-year-old needs to be playing with a bespelled astrological box. In fact, it's better they do not, truth be told.

Gailey: When does the box get opened?

S: When the child starts to change, it's time to give them the box. The change is timed differently for every child, but the families always know. The child starts to get sassy or weepy or clumsy or more argumentative than seems needful. Some start their courses. Some get cracks in their voices. Ultimately, everyone around them sees the pattern changing, just like the mountain village folks, and say, it's time.

There's a small cabin on the edge of every village. It's where people go the first time they open their boxes. It's not particularly fancy or mystical or anything, but it is comfy. There's a bed with pillows and blankets enough to drown in. A small woodstove with enough wood put by for a day or two and a kettle on it. A larder with tea and easy food to hand that doesn't need to be cooked. And a chair. The most miraculous chair that is soft where you want it soft, firm where you need it firm, and big enough to wrap around you.

That chair is always by a window that looks out on some bit of the Earth that's not got any people in it because the task before the child is to be alone and get quiet. When they're ready, they open the box and step inside themselves. The boxes are like pocket worlds, where every aspect of the child's chart is given a form, where the inside of themselves comes to life. For some children, each placement is a person, and those people are in particular relationships with each other. For some children, the placements are animals that move around and affect each other in particular ways. For some children, it's a mix of people and animals and weather and unexpected hidey-holes that you find when you need them. The children each spend a day or two inside the worlds of themselves, beginning to understand how everything works, learning to read the patterns. Time is sort of funny in the boxes. It stretches. So, a child might only be in the cabin for a day or two at most, but it's a month in the box. If they're staring down unusual or unexpected transformations, it might be a year. The box gives them the time they need to begin to appreciate the one they are, the gifts and challenges.

After that, the child gets responsibility for the box. When the outside world is too confusing they can always step inside the box to make some sense of themselves. All their lives everyone has their box, and when they die the box goes on the fire with their body. The ashes left are split, half for the family or community to bury or spread, and half to be delivered back to the mountain village. The mountain village buries the ashes in the woods where they harvest for new boxes, and the cycles spin on.

My society of boxes would be founded in religion. The society worships the great and mischievous God of Carpentry, D'Artemos, who revealed the secret of constructing boxes to Man in a time before the establishment of civilization. The Gifting occurs after a child takes its sixth breath (six, of course, in recognition of the number of sides on a cube). The seventh breath must be exhaled into the box, which is then sealed. That exhalation is consecrated to D'Artemos.

Every box looks identical from the outside at first. It's the work of a lifetime to change that. The shape of the child's ear is carved onto one side in infancy; first words are etched onto one edge. Covenant bonds, once sealed, are recorded on the box of each person participating in the promise. The material from which the box is made wears down uniquely depending on how a person fidgets with it, worries at it, cares for it or neglects it.

The box is opened upon a person's death. The seventh breath they took in life – the sacred breath, dedicated to D'Artemos – is released, and with that, their soul is freed from the confines of the box that is mortality and embodiment.

All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Marina’s plan is the foundation of a profoundly meaningful meditation on grief and longing. Asha’s structure is the start of a lovely, tender story of a community that provides active care during times of transition. My religion is the start of an adventure involving the theft of a last breath – and thus, the theft of one's mortality.

What are your boxes like? Where do they come from, and what are they for? What happens when they’re open?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.


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