The Cloisonne Pill Box

He has always hated that jewelry store, but something catches Marshall's eye as he passes by on his walk home from the Gray Panthers meeting. Gold rings, watches, emerald earrings, pearls, and this thing that squats amid the glitter, colorful but practical.


What do other men give their wives for their eightieth birthdays?


Esta imagines a gem-studded bracelet in the velvet case from Smyth's. To think of Marshall in that flashy place, spending all kinds of money. And where would she wear such a thing? But when she pries open the case she feels a flicker of disappointment.


Must be from the east, she thinks, from Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, made by small hands in a far-off place, east of here. The Near East.

Seven compartments for the days of the week, with birds--some solitary, some mated--worked into the cloisonné design of each lid. Esta touches Monday's compartment lightly, a nightingale.

Cloisonné sounds like coitus. A coitus pill box would be a birth control dispenser. Esta sighs over a vague thought about pills and eggs, and birds. A sparrow lights on the feeding shelf in the window of the dining nook where she sits studying the pill box.


Most of Esta's medications address other medications and in this sense they have nothing to do with her. She can't remember the names of the medicines that come in identical orange vials and she has worried about mixing them up. Now Marshall counts them into the velvet-lined cloisonné compartments so Esta will swallow the correct number of the correct pills at the correct time of day. For this the pill box is an indispensable dispenser.


Tuesday's bird is the Canada goose. Esta has never been to Canada. She likes the shiny black neck of the goose on the pill box lid. Some of the other Gray Panthers travel to Canada every few months to buy medicine at lower prices. Many of the pills in Esta's cloisonné pill box are the cheaper Canadian varieties, but even so, Marshall and Esta budget themselves. They balance the checkbook together once a week, Marshall with his calculator and pile of receipts, Esta with a pencil she keeps neither too sharp nor too blunt.


Esta brings a tray with her pill box and a plate of cheese and crackers into the living room for the golf tournament, live from Pebble Beach. She puts the tray on the little folding table in front of Marshall.

"I got us a treat at the corner," she says. "Port wine cheese."

"Yech," he says, handing Esta her pill box.

"What's wrong?" she asks.

"Did you say pork rind cheese?" Marshall taps his hearing aid.


One medication dries Esta's throat, another moistens her throat again. One gives her acid stomach, another prevents acid, and so on. Some of the medications make her sleepy, so she naps twice a day, on the sly.

"Yes!" says Marshall, his eyes on the television, slapping his palm down on his leather lounger.

"Huh," Esta says from the couch, waking.

"You miss that?" Marshall asks. He worries when Esta seems not to have paid attention.

"What Tiger just did?" Esta says, seeing the golfer's face fill the screen. "I saw."


Cloisonné means "partitioned," and refers to the bonded metal that outlines the designs on the compartments, separating the bright enamel colors. Esta's favorite of the lids is Wednesday's. A pair of red-and-green love birds sit side by side, their heads turned toward one another so their bodies make the shape of a heart.


Marshall and Esta keep a weekly Gray Panthers vigil near the hospital, though the weather has turned cold. After twenty minutes of standing, Esta's ankles swell and hurt. Marshall's fingers stiffen from grasping the banner that says Universal Health Care Now.

"People don't sign petitions in this kind of weather," Esta says.

"Maybe Joe and Eileen could take over until spring," Marshall suggests.

"Did you notice if I had my pills at lunch?" Esta asks. "I don't remember touching the pill box."

People duck and hurry past. A young man with a shaved head and earmuffs turns and shouts at them, "Get a life!"


Esta shuffles toward Marshall with the pill box raised like an ax. "You didn't fill this," she snaps. "It's empty!"

Marshall cradles her arm. "This is Sunday night sweetheart," he says. "I always do it first thing Monday."

They go to bed, strangers to one other.

Before dawn, Marshall vacuums. In the softly creeping daylight he pushes the upright across the condo, the lamp on its base illuminating the stubbled beige carpet. He moves through the dark like a snow plow, leaving clean, combed trails. In his mind he prepares the pill box for Esta.


Esta tracks days by the pill box. The numerical date is of no concern. Marshall is the one who bothers about the calendar.

"Thursday," Esta says. "Eagles."

"January sixteenth," Marshall specifies. "With the roads like this the Panthers won't meet, but maybe I'll just check in with Eileen." He brings Esta the pill box. "Here, have some delicious pork rind cheese."

In the nook, Esta watches the sparrows flocking, bush to bush. One flits to the window shelf for some seed that Marshall has scattered there. Esta remembers reading somewhere that birds are the most monogamous animals. Sparrows are beautiful, but you have to look at them as if you've never seen one.

"All we ever get at this window is sparrows," Marshall says, standing with the phone to his ear.


"Where did you put my pill box?" Esta asks.

"Right next to your hand," Marshall says.

"Ha. I've been looking right at it."


It is Friday, February fourteenth, two white cranes.

"Why is there a chocolate truffle in my pill box?" Esta asks her husband. Marshall explains. She says, "You're my guy," and puckers her lips to kiss him.


Esta drinks water from a glass in her left hand and rests her right on the cloisonné pill box, running her fingers over its Braille-like finish. There are tiny bumps on the cloisons. She presses the tip of her forefinger against the heads of two swans, waits, presses harder, pulls her finger away and looks at it. The swans' heads arch in parallel there on her fingertip, an outline of tiny depressions.


Women's voices have become difficult for Marshall to make out, whispering nearly impossible. He leans closer to her mouth and twists his hearing aid. The hospital bed railing presses against his stomach. Her breath warms his ear. He feels the rough hairs of her upper lip. Out the window, cars in the parking lot fade to white under falling snow. Sounds are muffled by the snow, by the walls, by his hearing aid, as if he lives sequestered, inside a cell within a cell within a cell. But he works out the message from Esta. "Bring me my pill box," she whispers.

He almost answers, "But you don't need it here."


It is the only thing he brings home from the hospital, the day Esta stops breathing.

He puts it on his bureau to store loose change. Replaces the coins with razor cartridges and moves it to the bathroom. Tries it for his vitamins. Empties it. Leaves it empty.


On a Monday at dawn, after a night without sleep, he opens the seven jewel-tone lids, fills the compartments with birdseed, and places the cloisonné pill box on the shelf outside the window by the nook, for the sparrows, who need to eat more now, to get ready for breeding season.

About the author:

Nancy Graham's fiction has been published in Prima Materia, Café Irreal and Orchid (forthcoming), and her poetry in Aught, BlazeVOX, Chronogram, and Eratio. Her chapbook, somniloquies, is available from Pudding House.