Tsukumogomi

The small hamlet of Ogama was nestled in a deep green wood at the base of Takatsume mountain. Those woods, long said to be home to mischievous spirits that changed their shape, was where Nakamura Isamu collected the wood for his shop, as had his father’s grandfather before him. In that storied shop, Isamu sat at his desk, writing in his ledger.

As he wrote, the light from his oil lamp flickered and something rustled nearby. Isamu pushed his thin glasses up his nose and glanced up at the shelf on the wall, which held a few tools, the oil lamp, and several keepsakes crafted by his late grandfather. A delicately parqueted puzzle box, about twenty centimeters square, was one of those keepsakes. As Isamu tracked his eyes along the shelf, the little puzzle box seemed to tremble in the light of the lamp’s twisting flame.

Suddenly, it jumped slightly to the left as though something inside moved. Isamu blinked slowly, and the box jumped again. Not a great leap or mighty skip, but a gentle little hop, like a bead of water on the surface of a hot pan. As Isamu rose from his seat, the box leapt again, and when Isamu snatched the box from the shelf it was vibrating and shaking fiercely. Without warning, a small section of the puzzle box along one side pushed itself out and hung awkwardly along the box’s side, and then another from the opposite side. Two small sections flipped out of the bottom and hung stiffly in place.

Isamu set the box down on his desk and stepped back speechlessly as another small section rotated out of position on the box’s front to reveal what appeared to be a single round and beady eye. The box sat up and howled in a tiny voice.

“Shigeru-san!”

Isamu blinked again, and addressed the delicate animate box. “No, I’m afraid you are mistaken. Shigeru was my great-grandfather’s name. I am Isamu.”

“Today is my birthday!” The box thrust one little appendage accusingly at Isamu. “One hundred years old, this very day!” It turned around and bent over to expose the maker’s mark on its dusty posterior. It was the familiar mark of Isamu’s great-grandfather and a date: 1865. Isamu knew what was happening immediately. The box was a tsukumogami, an inanimate object given life by the spirits on the centennial anniversary of its creation. Isamu removed a small handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped the dust from the box’s backside. It jumped forward with a start and turned to face him. The panel above its eye lowered in suspicion.

“Excuse me, I meant no disrespect. Happy birthday and many happy returns.”

“No, no, not happy at all, no.” The box walked to the edge of the table shook its entire body back and forth, wailing.

“What troubles you?”

The box walked across the desk to where several tools lay and kicked an awl dourly.

“Unsolved, unsolved. One-hundred-years-unsolved. Only Shigeru-san ever opened me, and what he placed inside, I do not know.”

“I could try, if you’d allow me,” Isamu said, pocketing the handkerchief once more. The box clapped its arms together joyfully, then gesticulated threateningly once more.

“Excellent! If you fail, however, be warned I will join the kitsune and tanuki of the woods to wreak mischief on travelers. My wrath will pour from the heavens!” the box shouted in a miniscule rage.

“Of course. That’s only fair.”

Isamu picked the box up and pushed and prodded at its many surfaces looking for some secret key or latch to open it up. With each poke, the box giggled and squirmed and glared menacingly at Isamu. Into the evening, Isamu twisted and turned the box, sliding hidden panels to reveal nothing, unlocking and twisting the many facets of the parqueted surface to reveal nothing once more. The lamp oil burned low and the moon rose through the open window to cast its blue-white light down on the tsukumogami’s tiny body, now polished and shining from Isamu’s worrying hands. After many hours with no success, Isamu placed the box upon the desk once more.

“No luck?” it squeaked.

Isamu shook his head mournfully. He could not help but respect the masterful work of his ancestor, even while it was currently pondering an incredibly sharp chisel on his desk with an air of goblinesque menace.

“I’m afraid I cannot solve you, little puzzlebox. My apologies.”

The box shuddered, and pointed at him furiously.

“Then I go to join the bakemono of the woods. But first,” it leapt across the desk and grabbed the sharp chisel between its clumsy arms. “I will kill you!”

The box lunged at Isamu, who dodged to the left in surprise. He kept his tools sharp enough to slice a hair, and even in the hands of such a diminutive opponent could be direly injured by them. The box let loose a shrill war-cry and lunged again. In a panic, Isamu grabbed the first thing he could on the desk and struck out at his minikin assailant.

Much to his dismay, Isamu had grabbed a hammer. The box cried out, stumbled backwards, and dropped the razor-sharp chisel. Isamu’s blow had opened a wide crack along the box’s top, and it collapsed in a heap. its rage-filled eye blinked once, and then went cold.

Isamu gently picked up its broken form and pulled apart the shattered remains of the box to see what it had held. As he pried it apart, he let out a long sigh. A slightly smaller puzzle box with his ancestor’s mark, inanimate still, sat mockingly in his hand with a date inscribed on the bottom: that very evening’s date, one year hence.

Isamu set the new box on the shelf and sat at his desk to ponder the little broken box before him and his great-grandfather’s strange sense of humor.

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