Toy Time by Yui Takao

[Ishikawa prefecture]



My aunt lived in Honda-machi. When she died, I inherited a lacquered jikiro with a Kaga maki-e painting in gold and silver powder. The food container, which is used to hold sweets during a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, was as a fitting memento from a woman who was once a tea master. When she was still alive, she had apparently insisted several times that the jikiro be passed on to me.


What she didn’t explain was why she would bequeath her tea treasures to an old widower with no understanding of tea ceremony whatsoever. Not wanting to refuse the last wishes of a dying woman, however, I gratefully accepted it.


When I got home, I unwrapped it from its cloth bundle. Written on the soot-stained paulownia box were Chinese characters that read:


Black Lacquer Jikiro with Toy Design


When I took the lid off the box, the gold-colored toys seemed to leap from their black lacquer background. There was a traditional Japanese pellet drum, a round hime-daruma doll, a spinning top, and a clacking push-toy. The fine gold decorations were applied with gorgeous workmanship, right down to the exquisitely detailed patterns on the doll’s clothing.


I reached into the paulownia box to take out the container. Shaped like a steamed bun, it fit perfectly into my cupped hands. When I looked under the lid, I discovered that it was also painted with a temari ball, a pair of stilts, and a kite.


The jikiro was covered in Japanese toys. It seemed like an odd design for something that was meant be used in tea ceremony. The images were so charming, though, that you couldn’t help but break into a smile no matter where you looked.


I placed the jikiro on the shelf in my alcove and stashed its box away in a cupboard.


That night, as I turned over in bed, I was awakened by a tiny sound.


Plink!


It sounded like an acorn dropping to the floor. I kept listening, but there was no other sound. Thinking I had imagined it, I fell back asleep.


But the next night I heard the same sound again. And again the night after that.


Plink! Plink-plink-plink!


It was a tiny, dry sound. At first, I had this faint idea that seeds of some sort were being dropped on the floor. Eventually, though, I realized that I was hearing a familiar sound from long ago. It was the sound the pellet drum made when my wife used to play it to soothe our son when he was a baby.


In the morning, I stood in front of the alcove and took the jikiro from the shelf. Nothing about it had changed. The same toys were arranged on the black background, looking just as they had when I received it. The pellet drum was of course still in its place as well.


This was getting ridiculous. Obviously a painted-on pellet drum wasn’t going to make any noise. Which was all well and good—but the next question was whether there were any other noisemakers in the house besides the gold-painted pellet drum. Something was definitely making a sound each night. And each night it continued to wake me up.


Plus, the night I brought the jikiro home was the first night I heard the sound. Deciding that the whole thing was rather strange, I reached into the cupboard for the box, thinking I would just put the jikiro away. But another thought stopped me in my tracks.


They say that antiques have souls. Even if the gold-painted drum were making noise, where was the harm in it? The world needs a little mystery now and then. I decided to leave the jikiro where it was after all.


Then, as if it had read my thoughts, the toy sounds gradually became more intense. There was the plinking sound of the drum, a rolling sound from the spinning top, the bouncing ball, the clacking push-toy… and eventually, the cheerful laughter of a delighted child.


I ended up spreading out my futon in the room next to the one with the alcove so that I could listen in on the playful sounds coming through the sliding paper doors for a while. One day, I overheard the voice of a woman soothing the child. He was still a toddler, and the voice belonged to a young mother. The sound of laughter rose and fell like waves washing across the dark night.


Surely my late aunt would have known about all this. She was probably worried about her widower nephew, hoping to add even a touch of brightness to his life by bequeathing him this lively gift.


I never once tried to peek into the room. I was certainly tempted, but I was worried that the two of them might vanish if they caught my gaze. I was already far too attached to them to risk it.


After some time, I would come home and open the door to find sweet smells drifting from the house. How many years had gone by since this house had held women and children? We had been a family of three at one time—my wife, our son, and me.


It’s natural for the energy of children to fade from a home as they grow older. Our son had gone from a baby to a child, eventually becoming a young man and heading out on his own. He works in a far-off city these days, and I’m lucky if I get to see his face once a year.


What I didn’t expect was that I would lose my wife so soon.


Back when my son was small enough to sit on my lap, I never would have thought that I’d be left alone in this house. Not in my wildest imaginings. Looking back now, I can see that those boisterous days living as a family of three were just a flash in the pan.


Unfortunately, few people ever realize just how happy they are when they’re caught up in the whirlwind of those times. We don’t know how precious it is until it’s gone. Or get the feeling that it could be taken away at any moment.


With the end of the year fast approaching, I head out to the department store by the train station to order snacks to hand out as year-end gifts.


Some fortune cookies catch my eye. Pleasingly pale in color, the sweet tsujiura senbei crackers are folded up into little pouches that remind me of flowers. Inside each one is a tiny piece of paper with a fortune written on it. The crackers are famous in Kanazawa, and comparing fortunes is a local New Year’s tradition.


When my wife was still alive, we’d never go without fortune cookies along with the traditional Ishikawa fuku-ume bean cakes, shaped like plum blossoms in pink and white.


These days, though, it’s silly for me to get New Year treats. I hardly take the time to prepare traditional mochi soup properly anymore. Let’s face it—nobody wants to go to that much trouble just to celebrate the New Year alone.


This year was a bit different, though. I bought a bag of the tsujiura fortune cookies to take home.


In the evening on New Year’s Day, I open the jikiro and arrange some fortune cookies inside. It’s made to be a snack container, after all. It seems perfectly reasonable to put them there.

That night, I turn out the lights and crawl into bed.


The usual toy sounds start up after a while, and before long I hear a child shrieking with unbridled joy. I chuckle to myself from under the covers. It’s hardly much, but the child seems to be delighted with his New Year’s gift. It’s been so long since I’ve felt the fullness of giving something and having it so joyfully received.


The next day, I find the fortunes scattered across the tatami floor. When I open the lid of the jikiro, I discover that the snacks inside have been picked clean. I guess I’ll have to keep putting some snacks in there occasionally.


Somehow, being charged with this new task infuses me with a renewed sense of purpose.

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