Kathleen met Albert and his wife Sally at a Christmas party which was held at Kathleen’s home. Sally caught the attention of Kathleen. She never spoke. It was hard to tell whether she was ill, tired or bored. When the tea was served, she hesitantly took a sip, then tried to put the cup and saucer aside. But to do so she had to move the writing box, which Kathleen had inadvertently left on the coffee table. Kathleen noticed as Sally pushed back her chestnut hair and focused on the intriguing box, her dour mask had dropped. She was much younger than she looked – perhaps not yet 30.
The writing box looked like a miniature Japanese tansu, a chest of drawers, but it measured only 20 inches long, 12 inches high, and 8 inches deep. All the corners were covered with thin right-angled black iron, the top compartment had a hinged cover and was only deep enough for a thin charcoal ink block and brushes, and the front was inset with seven drawers of different sizes. Each drawer had its own tiny lock and was painstakingly cut, mitered and assembled with bamboo pegs in place of nails.
“Most Japanese were illiterate in the early 1800s,” Kathleen explained, “These boxes were used by itinerant scribes who carried their writing equipment in them as they went from village to village.”
The attempt to start a conversation proved useless; Sally’s mind was elsewhere again for the rest of the party.
Kathleen received a call from Albert the next day. “I want to apologize for last night,” he said. “Sally suffers from depression. When we were informed that there is a party, I hope new people or the party might cheer her up. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Albert continued, “We had a baby three months ago. The baby was strong and healthy when he was born. After being home four days we found him dead in his crib. Doctors called it SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. No warning. No cause. No cure. That’s when Sally went into depression. Doctors gave her tranquilizers and mood elevators, but they only mask the symptoms; they really don’t help.”
After hearing Sally’s story, remembered how Sally’s face lit up when she first saw and touched the writing box, Kathleen emptied all the drawers and cubicles in her Japanese writing box. She found out the address of Albert and Sally from her friends, wrapped the box, enclosed a card, and sent it to them.
However, Kathleen received no thank-you or other acknowledge from Albert and Sally after that.
One year later, Kathleen found her precious little writing box in a package delivered to her. Inside was a letter:
I know I’ve been remiss in not writing sooner, but perhaps after reading this letter, you will understand my reasons for not doing so – and hopefully forgive me.
I vaguely remember receiving your gift, unwrapping it, then ignoring it as I retreated into my solitude. The next morning, the first thing I saw after waking was the box. An errant beam of sunlight highlighted it, like a spotlight on a single performer in a darkened theater. Its simple lines and exquisite craftsmanship penetrated my muddled mind. I began to perceive elegance and beauty. I played with the drawer, the locks, hinges and drawer pulls, captivated by its detail and precision.
I quickly dressed for the first time since I became ill and went shopping. I bought wax and buffing cloths for my new box. The next day and daily after, I went out looking for pens and inks and papers, exploring new places, meeting new people and thinking of poetry. I started going to the library to read up on Japanese arts and crafts. I learned a lot about the box and the special techniques of Japanese wood crafting. I also learned about Horai, a place where there is no winter and flowers never fade – and by reason of being young at heart, the people always smile. I named my box Horai.
I also went to museum where I could learn even more about the arts and culture of Japan. I am now a docent there. Between my new avocation, museum work and household chores, I was too busy and too excited to be depressed.
At this point, when I was so happy, I suppose I should have written to you, but then I found out I was pregnant. Old fears and doubts resurfaced. In any event, we had a lovely little girl in November – now two months old – at last I find myself free of the past. I can write to you honestly, appreciatively and candidly.
I’ve often wondered why you gave me the box. One day I learned that Horai is also called Shinkiro, which means mirage – the vision of intangible. Now I understood that through intuition you perceived the intangible. You sensed what the gift would do.
I am returning the Horai box, not that I love it less, but so that you may have it in your hand if you ever need it to sustain another hapless soul. Should this never be the case, then I hope it will forever serve as a happy reminder between you and me.
Sincerely and gratefully,
P.S. Our little girl is named Kathleen.