Today I visited the Art Institute of Chicago with a dear friend, who inspired me to base today’s story on the Kodansu small chest from 19th century Japan found in their Asian decorative art section.
The box was beautiful.
She had never seen anything so lovely, and it was given for her eyes only. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her lover smile slightly as he sipped his tea, but could not bring herself to look away from the precious silver box.
Reaching out a small hand, she made to open the porcelain door. Her love took her hand away. He clasped her hand between his own as he explained that, while the box was now hers, she could only open it once he left Kyoto to travel to Okinawa. That way, he smiled, he could continue to give her gifts even while he was gone.
Her hand tingling warm, her heart beating fast from his touch, she could only bow her head in hopes that her powder hid the redness staining her pale cheek.
He had been gone for nearly a week before she found time unsupervised to bring her treasure out from hiding and open that tantalizing door. Golden butterflies burst from the seams as the hinge smoothly opened. They fluttered and whirled around her, alighting on her fingers and hair before returning to the lacquer where they belonged.
A note slipped from beneath them.
In his beloved hand he wrote to her that this was only the first gift. Inside the box were three drawers, each to be opened at a different time. The next drawer could be opened when the sakura bloomed, in return for the dango (dumplings) she gave him when they first met at the hanami (flower viewing festival).
The hanami had gone late into the night, her family had given her charge of food since she was the only one of her sisters left without husband or children to demand her elsewhere. But she lit a lamp next to her futon, and opened the box. The butterflies spread light in the darkened room with their golden wingtips, and the top drawer sprang open eagerly at her touch.
Small, perfect, starlike flowers grew in that first drawer. Their scent perfumed the room more fragrantly and sweetly than the most expensive of colognes. Caught in their leaves was a scrap of paper covered densely with characters.
He knew how she loved flowers, and hoped that their scent would help her forget the stink of kitchen grease. He missed watching the stars together, each on their own side of the wall, joined only by their awareness of the other.
She could open the next drawer on the night of the first snowfall.
That night, she slept deeply, the flowers perfuming her dreams with warm hearts and cold, gentle snow.
Running, slipping through the crowds, she hurried to her home. Darkness was falling, and the last of the sun’s rays caught on snowflakes, turning them to dazzling crystals as they gracefully fell to the ground. As the layer of snow on the ground thickened more and more, she slowed her pace, for her love was not here now to steady her should she fall. Her stride grew more shorter, more graceful, for the time being she must learn to walk in snow without him.
Opening the box she was greeted by the familiar butterflies and fragrance of the flowers. The second drawer came open with a tug, and the twittering song of nightingales was carried out to her upon a breeze that playfully chased the butterflies. Closing her eyes, she let the music and scent wash over her. Flowers, butterflies and nightingales. It was as though he had put the day they met into a box for her to cherish.
It was many moments later when she finally reached for the half folded dull white paper in the drawer.
It only had one line written: she could open the third drawer when he returned.
The box was put away after that, hidden in a corner where only the woman could find it. She never sought to open the box again.
Years later, her daughter found the box, and opened it without asking. Next to the engraved butterflies, the girl found only dirt and dried leaves in the first drawer and worn nightingale feathers in the second.
The third was empty.
Gathering up the box, the daughter dutifully hid it once again. Much later, she asked her mother why the third drawer was empty.
Her mother replied that it was never meant to be opened.