Thursday, Nov 30, 2023

Short Story: Ruby’s Box Of Pencils


Short Story: Ruby’s Box Of Pencils

A school girl bedazzled by fancy pencils turns into a thief but an act in kindness causes a change of heart and quality of writing

Ruby's pencils
Ruby's pencils Shutterstock

In Ruby’s world, the dominant form of currency is pencils. The more pencils you have, the more the world belongs to you. However, these pencils were eventually spent in writing inconsequential words. Even though many people were designated to make Ruby write, what got finally written had little value for the writer and the audience. Besides, it involved great labour to move the heavy pencils against paper. People cared more about the new and stylish pencils they owned. While some people were trying hard to get at least one broken pencil, others were quite oblivious of how many they had. In between these two groups there was a third group, who owned a pencil but were obsessed with the fancy pencils other people owned. Ruby was one of them. 

Ruby’s box only had one pencil, and it was the most generic one you can find. It could only write. Much of her time was spent looking at other people’s pencils, which were always more attractive. Sometimes she would find some used pencils lying on the floor, either deserted by their owners or simply lost. Finding these pencils provided moments of ultimate happiness. She would take the pencils home and meticulously keep them in an earthen pot placed right beside her bed. Every morning, the first thing she would do is to look at her pencils and count them. That their numbers were on the rise was the most fantastic sight to her. 

One day, as Ruby was happily counting her pencils, her mother asked, “Where do you get all these pencils from?”

“Mummy, people in my class are so silly. They leave so many of their pencils behind.”

“So, why do you pick them up?”

“Isn’t that better than letting them go wasted?”

Ruby's mother pulled her close, held her hand and looked directly into her eyes. 

“Are you telling the truth?”

“Yes,” said Ruby, looking into her mother’s eyes and holding her breath.  

Ruby’s mother did not press the matter any further. But the truth was Ruby’s fascination with pencils had become something else. She was not only collecting deserted pencils, but was also taking away other people's pencils. Ruby had developed a hypothesis that people with fancy pencils are easy to fool. She would often go to a table that had people with many pencils and start a conversation. She knew what would get people animated and lost in mundane affairs. As soon as she had distracted them enough, she would accomplish her mission and return. Sometimes people did not notice. Sometimes they did but it would be too late by then. Every now and then, someone would start crying in confusion over their lost pencil. They would threaten to complain to the teacher. The tears would partly break Ruby’s heart, and the threats would partly scare her. So, she would go back to the table, start another conversation, pretend to be looking for the lost pencil, and then most certainly find it. Finding someone's lost pencil had its own sweet rewards.

Ruby's pencil box
Ruby's pencil box | Credit: Shutterstock

The earthen pot at her home was now full of pencils. But Ruby knew she had to be careful, and her game was not perfect. For the fear of recognition, she could not use these pencils immediately in front of other people. Her joy was to secretly hold them and write the usual inconsequential words at home. Sometimes, she would take one of those pencils to school and someone would make a claim. She would confidently deny and hold onto that pencil. In time, some people began to doubt her. When she approached some tables, people seemed to have become protective of their pencils. There were rumours. Internally she felt a little embarrassed and ashamed, and decided to subdue her game.

A few months passed. Ruby’s earthen pot had now become static. No new pencils for the same old inconsequential words. Ruby was having a hard time to resist the urge of adding to her collection. But there was nothing much she could do. Then one day, she got her chance. A scandal broke out and the school decided to merge two classes for the last period. Being in different class with a totally new set of people meant natural cacophony. Plus, it was a non-tutored session and children were interacting openly. A few teachers were standing in the corridor, lost in their own gossip. As Ruby walked into the room, she saw pencils so unique that she could not take her eyes off them. So, she did some quick calculations. As soon as the school bell would ring, the day would be over. In Ruby’s world, crimes were ephemeral, and they did not carry over to another day. And this classroom was the perfect setting to play her favourite game. 

Ruby went from table to table, starting conversations and abruptly ending them. After every successful collection, she would come back to her table and safely keep the pencils in her box. As she was going about her business, in a dance like movement from her table to others and back, one little boy interrupted her rhythm in his grumpy voice: “Where is my new blue pencil? It was just here and now it’s not.” He started looking for it frantically, opening his pencil box and emptying his bag in a loop. When he could not find it, he started moving under the tables like a mad beast. Just as everyone was watching him, a girl from a different corner on the verge of tears declared: “I can’t find two of my pencils.” Very soon her voice was joined by another and then another.

By now, Ruby realised that she got a little carried away. She looked here and there, trying to avoid eye contact with any of them. She looked at the clock. There were still 15 minutes for the school to be over. All she could wish was to become invisible, but then someone accused her straight. 

“You! You came to my table last. It was here before you came.” A boy turned towards Ruby.

“Yes, she came to my table also to play.”

They came running to her table. Ruby went pale and froze at her seat. Her pencil box was inside her bag, and she gave a slide glance to it. A big mob gathered around her table. They asked her to return their pencils. Ruby was extremely nervous, as her whole game was about to fall apart. She knew if she got caught, she would forever be known for this. She knew her mother would be heartbroken to know the truth. She somehow managed to utter the words: “I don’t have it.”

Everyone demanded Ruby to show her pencil box. Ruby gave up. As she was taking out her box, she hoped for a miracle. But the box was heavy and barely closed due to all the pencils in it. And at that moment a woman entered the class. She was not their usual teacher, and no one could recognise her. She could see a lot of commotion at Ruby’s corner, and asked what had happened. All the five-year-olds said: “She had stolen our pencils!” She looked at Ruby, who was looking down. The mob demanded justice and asked the teacher to check her pencil box. The teacher said, “Okay, let me check her box”. She asked Ruby for it, and she obliged. The teacher, taller than the rest, opened the box discreetly and then closed it again. All the children looked at her with great anticipation. “The box is empty. You all are mistaken. It’s not with her. Go back to your seat and look for it there.”

The children returned to their seats, murmuring among themselves, not looking very convinced. The teacher went back to her seat. Soon the bell rang, and the school was over. Ruby could not comprehend what had happened. On reaching home, she went straight to her pot with all the pencils. She held it close, but suddenly all the pencils looked so ugly to her. She did not want them anymore. Over the next few months, she would take some of those pencils and secretly throw them away in the class. Ruby developed a sense that not everyone can have the pencils they want, and so went back to writing the inconsequential words with her generic pencil. 

In Ruby’s world, everyone wanted time to pass quickly, but it seems time was in no hurry. Ruby felt it had taken so much to reach Class 5, which was the senior most class in the school. On the first day of the new class, all the teachers that walked in emphasised that they were not children anymore. But Ruby had never felt like a child, so she had no idea what that meant. After recess, a tall, graceful teacher entered the class. Ruby immediately recognised her after all those years, but she barely noticed Ruby. She introduced herself as their English teacher and started off by talking about the significance of writing. She talked about how words could open new worlds. Ruby could not take her eyes off her and hardly paid any attention to what she was saying. The teacher asked all of them to take out their notebooks and gave them a prompt. 

“Close your eyes and think about your life. Think about the people and events in it. Think of the good and the bad times. Then think of someone to whom you are thankful. We will start our class by writing a note of gratitude.” Ruby opened her pencil box and her generic pencil reached out for her. The pencil held her hand in a way that Ruby felt so light. In that moment, Ruby, her pencil, and her words were one. For the first time writing felt consequential. "In my world, the dominant form of currency was pencils. The more pencils I had…" began Ruby.