The Birth of Venus – Editor’s Pick

Author’s Note: “The Birth of Venus” is a short story about loneliness, purpose, and peace. 


Pointless. That was the word Zaire’s girlfriend had used to describe his life when she dumped him. At first he’d been upset at the sharpness of the insult, but now he was starting to see where she was coming from. He worked as a delivery driver, which earned him a decent income. On the island, people were always ordering one thing or the other online and the company he worked for was the most popular local delivery service. During the week, Zaire delivered all manner of things—televisions, computers, furniture, books, and smaller personal items.

Sometimes, to make extra money, he’d drive his truck on the weekends, running moving errands for people he’d met doing deliveries during the week. He felt he read those situations well, he would set something heavy and precious down for them on their porch or in their foyer, they would be appreciative, and he’d slip one of his cards into their palms. He had hundreds of them thanks to a cheap deal on a website.

Zaire felt he knew more about these people than their friends did, having handled so many of their most private possessions. Maybe that’s why when his girlfriend said that word it had cut him so deeply. Pointless.

It was Saturday when Ivan called. He was one of Zaire’s weekend regulars, a collector of some kind from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Ivan never went to work, but always seemed to be able to tip well. When Zaire answered the phone Ivan said, “Hey man. You still doing jobs on the weekend?”


Ivan fancied himself an everyman. He chatted up the elderly farmers at the market, hung out playing pool in the Dominican bars, and often smelled of weed. Zaire got along with him well enough, but he got the vibe that if he let Ivan talk long enough, he’d say something that would unsettle his stomach.

“Cool guy—hey, if you could come down to the house, I’ve got something I need you to take to Belmont.” Ivan paused briefly before continuing, “I mean, it’s not big or anything but I just need it done today. I’ll pay double the rate if you can get here in thirty. Two hundred? Right?”


They were spending a Saturday afternoon on the beach, a bright day at Long Bay, when she broke up with him. The beach was an arc of white on Beef Island facing north, but sheltered from the raw Atlantic by a few green islands with majestic homes rising out of their cliffs.

A couple years ago, on an afternoon like this one, Zaire and a friend drove a dinghy through the channel on their way back from Marina Cay. They’d been drinking at the bar there, before deciding to go meet some friends at Long Bay. As they sped over the blue dunes of the waves, Zaire gazed at the houses above them. He admired the neatly maintained lawns, the pruned trees, the elaborate walkways down the hills toward each of their private berths.

On one of the docks closest to them a woman sunbathed in a beach chair. Her white swimsuit shone starkly against the dull canvas, a large floppy hat obscuring her face. People like her, he thought, came all the way to the Caribbean and then spent a fortune to avoid having to speak to Caribbean people. Years later, the same thought occurred to him as that word came slipping out of his girlfriend’s mouth like something she’d spilled. Pointless.


Twenty minutes later, Ivan was opening his front door for Zaire. He lived in a large wooden house, inspired by the local carpenter-style architecture, lifted onto short stilts overlooking Lambert Bay in the east. As weird as Ivan was, inside his house was weirder. The entryway was dark except for a pale light from the next room over. A wooden sculpture of two large entwined fish, their grotesque mouths and eyes wide and gaping, overwhelmed the space. There were all sorts of misshapen mirrors in the foyer, and the walls were adorned with paintings that looked like explosions.

A shelf nearby was filled with photographs of Ivan in various places around the world. Below it, an assortment of ceramic figurines, tin saucers, a copper urn, and bits of iron musket balls. Nothing in Ivan’s house made sense to Zaire. Everything was too much. Pointless, he thought. Ivan grabbed Zaire’s palm and pulled him in for a hug.

“Hey guy! You have a seat and I’ll go grab the thing.” Releasing him, Ivan disappeared around a corner.

The only seat was a wooden bench, the armrests and back carved into strange patterns. It didn’t look particularly comfortable. Zaire stood.

Ivan returned carrying a box made of a rich reddish-brown wood. It was about a foot and a half long, ten inches deep and heavy enough that he had to hold it pressed to his chest to keep it from falling from his grasp.

“Here it is,” Ivan said as he laid it down carefully at Zaire’s feet. “Well? What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Zaire asked. “About what? The box?”

“Yes—isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s a box,” Zaire said.

“It is,” Ivan conceded. “Well, really a chest. Touch it.”

Zaire stooped down and touched the domed top of the box. The wood didn’t feel the way he expected it to. It was unusually smooth. If he closed his eyes he may have described it as supple, the texture of fine leather maybe. As he paid closer attention he could see there was a lid with two small notches large enough for his fingers to take hold. Ivan touched Zaire’s shoulder.

“Hey! Don’t open it.”

“Okay,” Zaire said. But as he stood up, the notches seemed to disappear, fading back into the lustre of the wood. Maybe it was his angle, a trick of light. Zaire looked at his truck out in the yard. “So, where’s it going? The ferry or something?”

“No,” Ivan said. “How well do you know Belmont?”


Zaire’s girlfriend had been going to school, and now she was getting closer and closer to graduating. This, he thought, was the problem. Zaire was solid, thanks to the nature of his job, and reasonably good looking when he took care of himself. He was mostly quiet, hung out with one or two friends here and there, and spent a large portion of his free time playing video games. Most of all, he was faithful to her. That had to count for something.

Zaire’s girlfriend, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be an obvious match. She was short, just a shade over five feet, her hair usually just brushed into a ponytail. She was one of those people who carried herself with a quiet confidence, which flowed from knowing what she wanted from life. This manifested itself in a directness and a certainty that made her very attractive to Zaire. She was constant. And, for a time, what she wanted from life was Zaire. That fact imbued him with a strength, a comfort derived from certainty.

When she came home from work or class, she would often scrunch her nose into shapes, as she found Zaire on the couch, headphones on, completely immersed in the virtual violence on the screen. They had a routine. She would complain about his gaming until he stopped to come eat with her. They’d shower, then watch something on the TV and, if they were both up to it, maybe make love before falling asleep.


The box sat comfortably in the backseat of the twin cab. First it jiggled gently as Zaire navigated the contours of the island roads. Then the box tilted forward nervously on the steep descent down the unpaved hill in Lambert with its deep rocky gouges dug out by the runoff each time it rained. As he got closer to East End, his tires met cast concrete in the hills, thudding each time they encountered the joint of a slab. The box, for its part, made little hops to the sounds of the impromptu rhythm. Finally, as the landscape levelled off, and they emerged onto the black asphalt of the main road, the box and Zaire relaxed in their seats, listening to the truck’s humming engine and the muffled sounds of the world outside.

The windshield may as well have been a television screen. The views outside told stories of villages that grew up from nothing around wells, around fishing docks, churches and markets, growing and stretching and rolling along the natural causeways until they ran into each other and became other things. The island wasn’t planned the way cities were. It just sort of happened on its own, with no guiding hand pointing at what could be built and what could not and where.


She was quiet at the beach. She didn’t complain while he fiddled too much with his phone. Didn’t scrunch her nose when he, coming out of the water, kicked up sand onto the beach towel. Instead she put her book down, sat up, drew her knees up to her chest and said they needed to talk. She was even prettier than usual, her skin glowing in the sun, flecks of sand near her shoulder, the rich blue of the Atlantic reflected in her glasses. She played with a small shell between her fingers—he wondered what creature had once crawled within the empty carapace.

He couldn’t remember everything she’d said, but he remembered the look in her eyes. It was sincere disappointment. Like she had come to this conclusion slowly at first, before slipping down inevitably like the retreating tide. What he remembered her saying was damning enough. “We aren’t going anywhere.” She didn’t mean their relationship, she meant that she could no longer be the only person in it who wanted to go somewhere—anywhere—with their life. And then she said it. “What are you doing Zai? Everything, I mean it Zaire, everything about you just seems so pointless.”

They’d driven home in silence.


In forty minutes, Zaire’s truck was passing through the last village before Belmont. On his right, the Atlantic chewed at the white coast, on his left, modest houses opened their doors onto the road. The village blossomed along the road and then faded away, the last monument a derelict Komatsu excavator parked amidst the ruins of a house. The monster was falling apart, scaled by rust, its giant arm leaning drunkenly on a wall.  The home—a victim of any number of the spinning angry storms and its owner’s anonymous misfortunes.

Like the village of Lambert, the roads deteriorated the closer Zaire got to the wealthy people, an unsubtle way of discouraging explorers. The asphalt quickly gave way to concrete, then the concrete gave way to dirt.

The road followed the natural contours of the landscape. It dipped with the valleys, forcing drivers to jostle down over the hillside ravines and carefully navigate around the salt pond and its strong sulphuric smell. Whenever the road rose high enough, Zaire could see the white flecks of the herons needling the shallow parts for wriggling things. Overhead, the foliage thickened and bananaquits called jubilantly to one another. As he drove, startled iguanas scampered from the truck’s approach.

The villa could not be seen from the road, but a retaining wall appeared adorned with blue and white mosaic tiles. The hill yawned above, a forest of poui showered the ground in silken flowers, and all that signalled to Zaire that he had arrived at his destination were the words EGRET HOUSE painted in blue upon a white tile fixed to the open wrought iron gate at the bottom of the driveway.

A woman and a large brown dog waited for Zaire outside the villa. The woman was about five foot five, with long silver hair tied into a single braid. She wore a plain knee-length white dress with thin straps on her shoulders. Her skin was almost golden. Aside from her hair, she looked to be in her forties if he had to guess. The dog, sitting on its haunches, looked more like a wolf. Its large pink tongue hung lazily out of its mouth. Zaire nodded at the pair as he got out.

“Zaire?” the woman asked. “Ivan said you were on your way.”

“Yeah,” Zaire replied, “you must be Saoirse.” There was a magnetism about the woman. It was not a physical attraction, but a spiritual charisma that he could feel pulling him towards her, like an altar call.

“Yes,” she said as she ruffled the dog’s large head, “come on in.”

“Okay. Let me grab your box,” Zaire said, smiling. The dog closed his mouth and looked at Zaire briefly before returning to whatever thoughts preoccupy dogs of his size. His girlfriend–his ex-girlfriend–had wanted a dog.

Zaire pulled the box out of the back seat and Saoirse led him into the house. The view from the yard fooled visitors into thinking the villa was much smaller than it was. The front door opened into a massive living area, impractically tall ceilings and a simple wooden staircase leading up to a mezzanine that wrapped around the entire room.

“You can set it down there,” Saoirse said, gesturing towards two large white sectional sofas. Zaire did as she said, resting the box down near a large coffee table. “Would you like something to drink?” she asked.

“Oh, I’m good thanks.”

“Are you sure?” All Zaire was sure about was if she looked at him long enough he’d disintegrate into nothing. “You came all the way out here. You should drink something.”

“Um, water I guess?”

“Okay,” she said, smiling as she turned, waving her hand without looking at him, “have a seat.”

Zaire watched her go. He couldn’t imagine that hers was a gait that had occurred naturally, that she hadn’t deliberately plotted and practiced before finally arriving at the effortless elegance of her movement. He watched her until she entered the kitchen, a modern space below the staircase with granite counters and filled with large and shiny appliances. He plopped himself down on one of the sofas and pulled his phone out of the pocket of his jeans. He opened Instagram, secretly hoping to stumble across a photo of his ex before Saoirse returned, but found himself gazing at the box. It really was a beautiful thing. The phone dangled towards his thigh, its screen facing the ceiling.

“Have you ever been to this house before?” Saoirse asked, handing him a tall tumbler of water. Beads of condensation had begun to grow on the glass.

Zaire shook his head.

“Hmm. It is a bit out of the way.”


“My father built it in the 80s,” she offered, “passed through on a job and fell in love with my mother and the islands.”

“That’s a common story.”


“Well, the falling in love with the place part.” He took a nervous sip of the water and set down the glass on the side table. “So—your mum is from here?”

Saoirse smiled. Then she sat on the chair beside him. The wooden box called to him. It had started to emit something, a vibration, a magnetism that drew his focus. He was staring at it. The finish was so smooth he could not detect the grain, he could not see the joins and seams that he knew must be there. The vibrations grew stronger. Zaire felt himself being pulled physically towards it, a feeling resembling the stirring one felt as a rollercoaster or a plane began its descent—a movement in the gut followed by the gentlest hint of nausea. He had the sudden irrational fear of being sucked into the box itself. The thought was terrifying. He wondered if she could see what was happening to him, but it took tremendous effort to pull his eyes away from the box to her face. She was still smiling. Zaire realised that he had begun to sweat.

“Don’t worry Zaire,” Saoirse said, “I’ve felt it too.”

“What’s going on?” Zaire’s chest tightened, the air around him thinned, he struggled to get enough into his lungs.

“It’s bonding with you. What you’re feeling—it’s an elemental force, like gravity.” She reached across and laid a golden hand on his knee. “Let your mind catch up to your body.”

Her hand had a calming effect on him. After a couple of minutes, his breathing slowed and his body cooled. He still felt the pull of the box, but it was no longer overwhelming and dreadful. He pointed at the box with a nod. “What the hell is that thing?”

Saoirse shrugged. “I don’t know exactly where it comes from. Ivan said he got it in Bali but Ivan is a damn liar.”

She stared at the box the entire time she spoke.


“Well,” she said, “it doesn’t really matter if he did or didn’t, or if he is or isn’t.” She looked at him and smiled. “I’m going to get in.”

“Get in what?”

“The box, of course.” Saoirse tilted her head back and laughed. Her teeth were perfect. He noticed the slope of her neck, the hint of her breasts under the linen. She was beautiful.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Do you still feel it?”

Zaire didn’t need her to explain what it was. The box sat there growing heavier in his mind. It felt like a lure was planted in his core and a taut line ran from there to the centre of the box. All it would take was the slightest tug.

“It’s a truth I’ve never felt so earnestly before. A clarity. No—a purpose.” Her voice rose as she spoke and the smile on her face grew wider, her eyes shone with urgency. Her face changed abruptly and she looked at him sternly. “Did you love her?”


“The girl, Zaire.” She was annoyed at his hesitation. “Did you love her?”

“Yes. I mean, I think so.”

“Why do you think she left?”

“H-how do you know?”

“This box may be magic,” she pointed a thumb in its direction, “but I don’t need magic to read you.”

“I dunno. She just wanted something else for life.”

“I know how that feels. I think you do too.”

Zaire didn’t answer.

“Let me tell you a story,” Saoirse said. “There was this woman. Portuguese. Lived in Guyana on a ranch out in Rupununi years ago rearing cattle with her husband. One ordinary and boring afternoon, she was driving back home from the neighbour’s—have you been there? No? It’s all dirt roads, grass, rivers, and forests. Just space.” She sighed softly like she was remembering something. “Anyhow, on the drive home she sees this group of her cows in a marshy field standing in a circle. All of them, just standing there staring at something at the centre.”

“The box.”

Saoirse smiled again. “Let me finish the story, Zaire.” She picked up Zaire’s glass and drank some of the water in it. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead.”

“Well, she brings the box home and she and her husband can’t figure it out. The best they can come up with is maybe it belonged to the Makushi people. They figure someone lost it.” Saoirse laughed. “A box like this doesn’t just get lost in the middle of a field. We tell ourselves the strangest lies. Over the next few days the wife can’t stop talking about how beautiful the box is, admiring the skill of the craftsman, the lustre of the wood. She obsesses over the thing. Soon, she tells him she has to keep it. All this time the husband knows it has to belong to somebody in the savannah, and he’s getting slightly disturbed by how consumed the wife is becoming. So he leaves her and the box on the verandah and drives the five miles over to the neighbour to call the Makushi. When he gets back, the wife is gone. Disappeared. But the box is there, sitting on the verandah.”

“What happened?”

“I think … she got into the box.”

Zaire laughed. “This box? That’s stupid. It’s not physically possible.”

Who cares about possible?” Saoirse asked. “A Makushi elder came out to the ranch to look at the box after the wife disappeared. He told the husband the box was made of a single piece of Washacá—the Tree of Life. He told him he had to take the box back to the settlement. The husband didn’t understand, all he knew was that he had to keep the box if he wanted to see his wife again.” Saoirse paused here.

“Well?” Zaire prodded.

“He killed him.”

She paused for effect.

“Shit.” Zaire sighed. “Wait. If that lady disappeared, why would you want to get in?”

“What do you know about the Tree of Life?”

“I dunno. Is that like the tree in Eden? Adam and Eve?”

“Exactly. The World Tree, the Tree of Knowledge. It’s no accident so many cultures share these stories.”

“So, the box is evil right? The Devil tricked them into eating the apple.”

“Not exactly. The fruit granted them the knowledge of good and evil. Think of it as the knowledge of everything—from heaven to earth to the underworld. Really, the tree granted them a type of immortality.”

“That’s crazy.”

A silence hung between them.

“I’ve lived a good life,” Saoirse said, “a privileged one. I’ve been blessed to see much of the world. I’ve done some things I’m really proud of, and I’ve done some deplorable things. Evil stuff. Hurt people.” She crossed her legs, letting the hem of her dress ride up towards her thigh. “But I didn’t care. After I came across this box for the first time, all of it, my whole life, felt … feels so …”

“Pointless?” Zaire asked.

Saoirse snapped her fingers dramatically. “Exactly!” she laughed, her teeth gleaming. Then she leaned over and kissed him.


She packed up her things while he was at work on Monday. Or she must have, because when he got home the apartment was bare. Every trace of her had been erased. Her clothes, shoes, the small pile of rings and bangles she’d kept on her side of the dresser, the coffeemaker were all gone. The absences made the space eerie, as though the outlines of where they used to be were still barriers, borders to the part of his life that was gone.

A few days later, sitting on the couch in front of the TV, Zaire tried calling her. The phone went directly to voicemail. He tried to check her social media pages, but they’d all disappeared from view. She must have blocked him from every one of them. She’d vanished completely. He picked up his headphones and turned on the video game.


Outside, the trushies attacked a mango tree, pecking at the reddening fruit until the yellow flesh blushed and bled in spots like sores. Through the large windows of the living room the island of Jost Van Dyke could be seen, spots of white sail littering its bays.

The afternoon sun was peering into the room, shafts of light fell in angular patterns across the floor, the furniture, and the two bodies lying entwined on the sofa.

Saoirse’s head lay on Zaire’s brown chest, her hair pooling grey over him. He played with a few strands with his finger. He looked at the box, which sat there silently. He wondered how much they were in control, he wondered if the box, or some force within it, was pulling their strings. Zaire looked down but couldn’t see her face so he spoke to the top of her head.

“You don’t know what’ll happen.”


“Inside,” Zaire said. A multitude of images and possibilities streamed through his head in a second. They appeared like slides being slotted into a projector. A view of a kaleidoscopic cosmos and a sensation of weightlessness. A deep abyss of liquid night. A roaring waterfall of browning water. A terrain of blue ice below a radiantly green sky. A chasm of bubbling lava. A forest floor thick with mossy undergrowth. A colossal tree enveloped by a cloud of fireflies and sprites.

“We don’t know much of anything,” Saoirse said. “Does that worry you?”

“Not before. But … aren’t you afraid you’ll die?”

“Not really. Does that bother you?”

“Doesn’t it bother you? Even if you’re fine with it, don’t you have things you’d like to do? People who’d miss you? People who need you?”

She didn’t answer. Warm rectangles of sun crawled over them. A light sea-breeze shuffled through the room and raised their gooseflesh. The salt lingered in Zaire’s nostrils.

Saoirse lifted herself off of his chest and they untangled their limbs. She sat up and gathered her hair into a simple bun. When she finished, she turned towards him and rested an arm along the top of the sofa.

“Look at us,” she said softly. “We could not be more human than we are right now. The box speaks to us in its own way. It reminds us of the things we’ve forgotten, if we’re willing to listen. You brought it all the way here before it spoke to you. It chose you.”

Zaire looked down at the box. He realised the attraction he’d felt earlier to it had changed. Instead of a pulling, there was now just the awareness of a connectedness, a tether to whatever was within. In the silence, the throbbing of his chest grew louder, the waves crashing on the rocks came like a whisper into his ears along with the soft breaths of the woman sitting beside him. He turned to face her.

“It’s everything.”

Saoirse smiled the smile she’d been smiling all afternoon. She got up and walked over to the box. They both glowed in the light. She slid her hand over the top until her fingers found the subtle grooves of the lid, and then she pulled. Zaire flinched. The cover came off easily enough and she gave it to him to hold. He got up and stood directly in front of her.

Inside the box looked ordinary, as you’d expect from an empty chest. It definitely didn’t look big enough for anyone larger than a small child. Zaire examined the lid and thought to himself that it looked more like a modest wooden bowl than part of a mystical object.

Saoirse eyed him and exhaled. She lifted one smooth naked leg and stepped inside. Then the other. For a moment she stood there. A grown woman playing a toddler’s game, two feet in the box. She reminded him of a painting he’d seen once. A goddess in the nude standing in an open clam. Perhaps she was some sort of goddess, or had been somewhere in the distant past.

“Zaire,” Saoirse said, “give me the cover.”

He gave it to her and she took it with both hands.

“We’re almost home, love,” she said, and then lifted the lid above her head and began to descend.

She did this with a look of serious concentration. Zaire couldn’t be sure if she was getting smaller inside or if the box was stretching itself. Somehow she was now sitting down, her knees drawn up to her chin and her arms outstretched above her body, holding the lid aloft. She began to lower the cover on herself, in the last moments, closing her eyes, and then the box altogether. The lid slid into place with a hollow sound.

Zaire allowed a few minutes to pass staring at it. He listened the whole time. He listened for scratches, knocks, any sound that could be a sign from inside. He took a deep breath and then lifted the cover without looking. Outside, the eternal Atlantic rippled out to the horizon, the sky as clean as blue porcelain above it. Zaire turned slowly back towards the box. It was empty except for the single shell of a hermit crab. He closed the lid again.

A strange peace fell over Zaire. He put on his clothes, folded Saoirse’s dress, and placed it neatly on the sofa. He took the glass from the side table, carried it into the kitchen and washed it. Then he picked up the box, carried it out to his truck and secured it again in the backseat of the twin cab.

Later, when he got back to his apartment, Zaire packed the box away on the top shelf of his closet alongside a forgotten suitcase and a cardboard box of dusty textbooks. It being there was a thing of unspoken certainty from which he derived much comfort. For many years after, it sat there, fading away like a memory.


Richard Georges is an author of essays, stories, and three collections of poetry. His work has appeared in Prelude, Smartish Pace, The Poetry Review, WILDNESS, Wasafiri, The White Review and elsewhere. He is the current Poet Laureate of the Virgin Islands, and his most recent book, Epiphaneia (Out-Spoken, 2019) won the 2020 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean literature.