Pandora’s Gifts

Anne E.G. Nydam. Pandora Dreaming (detail), 2005. 8” x 12.5”, wood block print with watercolor.

Men told stories about Pandora: how she was a curse upon them; full of deceit and shamelessness and, worst of all, curiosity. Such men, men who can look upon a fellow being of beauty and persistence and intelligence and yet see nothing but evil . . . such men do not know me. But Pandora knew me, and I will tell you the part of her tale that those blind and bitter men could never see or understand.

You have heard of the large clay jar she was given, a “gift” she was not to open. You have heard that through her all-consuming curiosity she was tempted to disobedience, and opened the jar. And you have heard of the plagues that emerged: war, famine, sickness, and the whole host of evils with which humanity is tormented. This is all true enough, but let us consider this gift, and the spirit of one who would open its lid, despite the warning.

I was there with her, sharing her delight in the surprise of a gift, admiring the workmanship and adornment of the clay jar, and wondering what magical marvel might be within. What miser would take a gift and bury it away, hoarding it for herself? And what cynic would leap to the assumption that a gift from heaven would be a cruel, vindictive joke? Pandora wanted nothing more than to share her delight, to share her gift with all the people. In curiosity, yes, and in generosity, too, she lifted the lid and opened the jar, and the bright smile died from her face.

Monstrous things they were: torn and hideous, deformed by cruelty, and emaciated by greed. Some things flew out, screaming and slashing with bone-bladed wings; some things crawled out, skittering on pale legs tipped in stinging claws; some things spewed out, fuming through the air in a dark miasma of nauseating decay; some things oozed out, swollen and quivering with the stench of filth and misery; some things sprang out, shaking the earth with crushing hooves and howls of hatred. And Pandora, for all her shock and horror, tried to stop the stampede. She grabbed at the monsters and grappled with them until her hands were torn and her arms covered in filth, and she called for help. But no one came.

At last she sank down by the side of the jar in despair, and it was I who prompted her to look inside. For there, at the bottom of the jar, was one of my kind. You would have thought such a tiny creature would have been crushed by the mass of monsters writhing and fighting atop it, for it was a feathered thing, delicate-seeming as a scrap of lace or a gossamer-petalled flower. And yet it perched there, in the darkness of the empty pot, and sang. I hovered behind Pandora as her shoulders stilled from her sobbing, and the tiny creature’s song grew stronger, and she finally wiped her eyes and smiled at me.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it,” she said. And very gently, she reached her trembling hand into the jar, and lifted the tiny thing out into the light, and smoothed its feathers, and offered it crumbs. It was she who set it free, to share its song with a world now full of misery.

Misery there was, of every kind, but Pandora’s curiosity served her well in these dark times, for always she looked for ways to ameliorate her neighbors’ troubles: asking what people might need and how it might be provided, wondering what solutions could be devised. And when there were no solutions, she still helped those around her to hear at least the singing of Hope. And I, too, was there with her, always. When there was pain, I was there in the caress of a caring hand. When there was hunger, I was there in the savor of shared bread. When there was back-breaking labor, I was there in the green sprouts stretching at last toward the light. When there was death, I was there in the memories of life shared. When there was darkness, I was there in the stars scattered with such infinite generosity across the night.

But the bitter men spread their stories, and everywhere she went Pandora was met with suspicion and accusation. People blamed their troubles not on those so vengeful and malicious as to bestow such a “gift” on humanity. Instead they blamed her, the one who, in her faith and optimism, had dared to believe in the possibility of good. It was the blame that wore her down, and slowly she withdrew from me, farther into the darkness of those people who could see only bitterness. She left the company of people and stayed by herself, so that I could no longer come to her in the light of sympathetic eyes or the harmony of a shared song. Ever less did she return my smile, and ever fainter did I seem to appear to her. Finally, she could no longer see me when I laughed in the scarlet exultation of poppies, or in the bountiful majesty of billowing clouds in a lapis sky. She could no longer hear me when I called to her in the irrepressible peeping of spring frogs, or the cheerful rustle of autumn leaves. She could no longer feel my presence in the burnished glow of the moon, or in the warm light of her own hearth.

It was her curiosity that had made Pandora look for wonders in that cursed jar, and curiosity that furnished her ways to live with the monsters that had emerged. It was curiosity that had brought her to me, hundreds of times a day: in the berries relished for their sweet tang; under the pebbles flipped to reveal shy salamanders; in the flowers sniffed for their varied, sweet perfumes; in the questions asked and the answers discovered. But now her curiosity was dulled and broken down, its innocence crushed by blame, its bright wings clipped by jealous men. I knew that I must find a way to make her see me again, before it was too late.

With all my strength and all my skill, I constructed a tiny nest in the twigs growing beside her door. I wove it intricately of golden grasses and lined it delicately with the silver down of milkweed, and in this nest I lay down and became an egg: a tiny, pearl-shelled promise of wonder. And I waited for her to see me.

Twice she walked by the nest without noticing it at all, and I feared she had already become too shuttered from beauty. I felt a chill in my heart, so that my fragile strength, drained in the effort of creation, began to ebb. The third time she came to her doorway, however, her eyes fell upon me, and she stopped and looked a while before going on her way. Still I waited, and although now she glanced at me from time to time as she came and went, she did nothing, and I feared that she had already become too numb to curiosity. The chill in my heart grew tighter, so that I was paralyzed within my shell. Then at last the time came when she looked at me, still alone and unprotected outside her door, and she suddenly lifted up my nest in gentle fingers and brought me in.

Oh the warmth felt good. The dancing flames of her small fire were bright as the sound of a trumpet, the flickering light warm as the notes of a cello. But the true comfort was in her hands. She wrapped my nest in warmed cloths, and made sure I was neither too close nor too far from the fire, and I felt that warmth awaken me again.

She spoke to me, “Who left you there in the cold? Did your parents fly away? Are you still alive in there?” But I was another gift, another mystery, and I knew she hesitated, afraid to accept another risk. Everything depended on whether the fear had overcome the wonder: whether Pandora still dared to imagine the possibility of good.

The next day, Hope found her. It tapped on the shutters, and when she opened them it perched there on the windowsill of her small room and sang to her as she gazed at my egg. She said to me, “How do you feel, little egg? What will you be?” And her voice was as warm as the hearth, and I felt my strength growing.

How long does it take to hatch joy? How could Pandora know when I myself did not know? But with Hope came patience. For many days, Pandora watched over me, driven by kindness and curiosity. You cannot be as quick to forget a living thing about whom you have once wondered, nor abandon a being when once you have allowed your curiosity to imagine what may be curled inside its fragile shell. Having allowed her curious heart to wonder about me, Pandora did all she could to care for me. She kept me warm and safe, and sometimes she sang along with Hope, and sometimes she spoke to me, “Are you growing in there? What are you becoming, little egg? Whatever you are, I know you will be beautiful.” Sometimes she laid a fingertip on my shell, ever so gently, just to feel the perfect smoothness of it, and I knew I would finally have the strength to be wherever anyone looked for me. When I was ready, I summoned my courage and broke through my brittle shell and peeked tentatively out.

Had Hope not been there with us, perhaps I would not have dared to smile at Pandora. But she smiled back. “You are beautiful, aren’t you,” she said, and smoothed my feathers, and offered me crumbs.

And that is how Pandora, though she may be blamed by some for loosing evil into the world, brought out of the darkness not only Hope but Joy. For though we may be small and sometimes hard to see, we spirits with feathers, we are always there for those with the curiosity to look for us. I am here with you right now, if you can find me. I am smiling at you in the warmth of your coffee mug, and winking at you from the squirrel on that tree branch. I am kissing you in the sunshine that falls across your desk, and embracing you in the rain outside your window. I am calling out to you in the stranger’s kindness at the supermarket, and beckoning you to laugh with the child at the playground. I am dancing for you in the fresh buds of spring and the whirling snowflakes of winter. I am there in fresh paint and worn stone, polished gold and solemn rust. I might caress you in the flavors of your mother’s old recipe, or tickle you in the colors of your favorite shirt. I am singing in the music that moves you, and stretching my wings in the stories that inspire you. I am rooted in the work of your own hands, and I am twining forth in your bright imaginings. Let me perch beside you and invite you to know me, even in this world so full of monsters. You would think we would be crushed by the mass of monsters writhing and fighting all around us, we small things, but I am here, unquenchable, and the more you look, the more you will find me.

Anne E.G. Nydam

Anne E.G. Nydam makes relief block prints that celebrate the wonders of worlds both real and imaginary, and she writes books, short stories, and poems about adventure, creativity, and looking for the best in others. She is a member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting. Website:

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