The Horai Box

The Horai Box

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Horai Box

I am only one, but still I am one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Edward E. Hale

“What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” I asked Larry, my physician husband, when he insisted that I accompany him to a mid-December medical seminar at Lake Tahoe, located in Northern California.

“I’d rather not drive alone,” Larry pleaded. “Tell you what. We’ll drive up in Zeus (our motor home). You’ll be warm and cozy, and can sew teddy bears while I’m at the meetings. We’ll eat out; no cooking and no dishes.” The prospect of replacing holiday turmoil with alpine serenity appealed to me, so the next morning I found myself seated alongside Larry in Ze us as we headed for Tahoe. The warm sunshine that had driven off the frost in the Sacramento Valley also dissipated any misgivings I may have secretly harbored.

But later, as the road climbed above the Sierra foothills, threatening low-slung gray clouds billowed across the sun, transforming a bright sunny morning into a bleak, chilly afternoon. Larry turned on the radio. Instead of music, we were greeted by: “This is a weather advisory. A major storm is heading for the Sierra Nevadas. Motorists should carry chains and be prepared for snow—very heavy at times.”

By the time we hit Donner Summit, snow had blanketed the road; headlights could barely pierce the white maelstrom. “I should have stayed home,” I complained.

Larry reassured me, “Don’t worry. Instead of Tahoe, we’ll go to Reno. I know a small RV park where we can hole up, near casinos and restaurants, too. We can take in some shows and live high on the hog. We should be there in less than an hour.”

And so we stayed—safe and sound in an RV park— with a blizzard and a mountain between us and home. It snowed the next day, and the next, and the next. We read everything we had and time was beginning to weigh heavily on our hands when Larry sprang his idea. “Let’s throw a Christmas party. Right here! We’ll invite everyone in the park. They must also be going bonkers by now.”

“Great!” I agreed. “Where’s my writing box? I’ll make the invitations.” My writing box is no ordinary box. Actually it looks like a miniature Japanese tansu, a chest of drawers, but it measures only 20 inches long, 12 inches high, and 8 inches deep. All the corners are covered with thin right-angled black iron, the top compartment has a hinged cover and is only deep enough for a thin charcoal ink block and brushes, and the front is inset with seven drawers of different sizes.

Each drawer has its own tiny lock and was painstakingly cut, mitered and assembled with bamboo pegs in place of nails. The wood has acquired a patina of antique umber that could only come from beeswax rubbings and doting care throughout its 200 years of existence. Larry gave it to me shortly after we were married.

I opened the drawer that contained my inks and broad-nibbed pens. In bold calligraphy strokes, I created a half-dozen invitations: POTLUCK PARTY TONIGHT, 8 PM, MOTOR HOME ZEUS, SPACE 23, BRING A DISH FOR YOU AND YOUR NEIGHBOR. We signed our names, plowed through knee-deep snow and discreetly attached the invitations to door handles of vehicles that, by now, looked like poppy seeds scattered on a white rug.

At the appointed time, jovial strangers with mouth-watering foods, drinks and treats presented themselves at the door. We gossiped, exchanged adventure stories, told jokes and sang old songs. Two hours later, the company departed as spontaneously as they had appeared.

Just as I slipped off my shoes, a knock summoned me to the door.

“Excuse us for being so late,” a voice in the darkness said. “We’re the Millers, in the trailer next to you.”

“Come in! Come in! Never too late for a bit of cheer,” I said.

“I’m Albert Miller,” said the young man with the frost-reddened nose, ears and cheeks, “and this is my wife, Sally.” Sally timidly extended her hand, which we shook. Then she silently and languidly sank into an overstuffed reading chair.

Al, as our guest preferred to be called, told us about his job as a computer programmer, about his home near San Francisco and about his travels through the Western states over the past two months. Sally never spoke. It was hard to tell whether she was ill, tired or bored. When the spiced 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 I had inadvertently left on the coffee table. I noticed as she pushed back her chestnut hair and focused her blue-green eyes on the intriguing box, her dour mask had dropped. She was much younger than I had originally surmised— perhaps not yet 30. But before I could determine whether this transformation was real or illusory, the sullen, apathetic facade recaptured her features and she retreated once more into her private world.

Both Larry and I caught ourselves staring at Sally, so I tried to relieve the tension by expounding about the box. “Most Japanese were illiterate in the early 1800s. 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 an exchange of words and thoughts proved useless; Sally’s mind was elsewhere. Al stood up and reached for his muffler, suggesting it was time to leave. After we exchanged good nights, Al haltingly added, “Your invitation said ‘bring a dish.’ Sally doesn’t cook. But here’s a copy of her book of verse. Sally used to write—quite well.”

Moments later the pair exited into the night. “I’ve seen that face before,” Larry said as soon as our visitors departed. “No, not the Sally Miller face—but that one she was wearing. Wish I could remember where.”

The next morning’s brilliance and warmth more than off-set the previous days’ dullness and cold, as if nature was trying to compensate for her capriciousness. While Larry and I were sweeping snow off the motor home roof, Al Miller came over and inquired, “Getting ready to leave?”

“Yup. Must get back to the daily grind,” Larry said.

Al stomped the snow with his boots. Was he cold? No. I couldn’t help but feel that he was summoning up enough courage to say something . . . waiting for an opportune moment to speak. “Before you leave, I want to apologize for last night,” he said. “Sally suffers from depression. When we received the invitation, I coaxed Sally out of the trailer, hoping that new people or the party might cheer her up. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

Al paused, fidgeting with his long muffler, then continued, “We—that is Sally—had a baby three months ago. All of those new-parent fears and worries proved needless because the little boy was strong and healthy when he was born. After being home four days we found him dead in his crib. Doctors called it SIDS. Ever hear of it? It means Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. No warning. No cause. No cure.

“That’s when Sally went into a depression. Sure, doctors gave her tranquilizers and mood elevators, but they only mask the symptoms; they really don’t help. When friends suggested that we get away from home, away from those haunting memories, I bought this trailer. We’ve been on the road ever since. Can’t say it’s helping much, either.”

We tried to say something comforting, but nothing seemed appropriate. We just wished each other bon voyage and went to our separate vehicles.

“Now I know where I saw Sally Miller before,” Larry exclaimed. “No, not the Sally Miller next door, but her zombie-like prototype. It was during my internship in a women’s psychiatric hospital, where I saw depressed, melancholy, withdrawn women—just like Sally—hopelessly imprisoned within their vacant minds and spiritless bodies.

“Poor Sally. The outlook for recovery is as dismal today as it was in the 18th century, when victims were lowered into snake pits because people believed that a shock caused the malady and therefore another shock, even more horrible, would reverse it.”

Larry kicked the tires, checked the oil and prepared for the trip home. But when he came into the motor home to wash up, he caught me emptying all the drawers and cubicles in my Japanese writing box.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m giving Sally the box,” I replied. “I’m going to wrap it, put a ribbon on it and give it to Sally.”

“Are you out of your gourd? Have you forgotten how much it has meant to both of us? How much it cost? Why? Why? And to a perfect stranger to boot!”

If there were any compelling reasons behind my erratic behavior, I was either not aware of them or saw no need to explain them. “It’s mine and I can do what I want with it,” I retorted testily. Without another word, I wrapped the box, enclosed a card, bolted over to the Millers and quickly shoved it through the door.

We barely talked most of the way home, afraid that words would deepen our rift. At day’s end, when cold and darkness intensified the strain between us, I broke the silence. “Remember when Sally first saw and touched the writing box? Remember how her face lit up? I figured that if she owned the box it might trigger such escapes from her depression over and over again until she was better. You know, like sometimes a single puff will make a dying ember glow but several puffs will rekindle a fire.”

“Still believe in fairies,” Larry shot back. “You could just as well have given her one of your teddy bears for all the good it’s going to do. Sally believes that Providence is using a stacked deck in the game of life. Depression is her sanctuary. Sooner or later, she’ll end up on the funny farm.”

Larry’s assessment kept gnawing at my conscience because I subsequently received no thank-you or other acknowledgment from the Millers. Almost a year later, however, I came home and found our precious little box sitting on a table in the entry hall, deliberately placed there so it would be the first thing seen by anyone coming through the door.

“It was delivered this afternoon,” Larry said. “It was addressed to both of us, so I unwrapped it. There’s a letter too, but I thought you ought to open that.” I tore open the envelope and read:

Dear Kathleen and Doc:

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 Al handing me 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 and for the first time since I became ill—yes, let’s call it depression because I can face that now—I went shopping. I bought wax and buffing cloths for my new box. The next day and daily thereafter, I went out looking for pens and inks and papers,exploring new places, meeting new people and thinking of poetry again.

When we returned home several weeks later, 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 became entranced with the works of Lafcadio Hearn, the English literary scholar who immigrated to Japan at the turn of the century, married there and spent the rest of his life translating Japanese folk-tales, legends and classics. In one of his stories he tells about Horai, a place where there is no winter and flow -ersnever fade— and by reason of being young at heart, the people always smile. I named my box Horai.

I also went to the museum in San Francisco, where I could learn even more about the arts and culture of Japan. I am now a docent there. Al, of course, returned to work, and I, between my new avocation, museum work and house hold chores, was too busy and too excited to be d e pressed .

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, and I again put off writing. 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. Was it pity? Was it a thoughtless impulse? No, these didn’t fit. Then, one day I learned that Horai is also called Shinkiro, which means mirage—the vision of the 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 of our meeting.

Sincerely and gratefully,

P.S. Our little girl is named Kathleen.

Of course I had tears running down both cheeks as I finished the letter. Larry turned away, ostensibly to clean his glasses, but in spite of his stolid medical mien and earlier prognostication, I think I detected him blotting his eyes.

Now, whenever we take Ze us on the road, especially around Christmas, Larry admonishes me to take the Horai box. “It’s a great symbol of good will to all men,” he says. “Besides, it takes up less room than a Christmas tree.”

Kathleen Podolsky

This is a true story. Names and identifying characteristics of individuals involved have been changed to protect their identity.

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