The Spirit of Things
A funny thought experiment
Translation of Japanese text: During the Kangbao period (964-968), people abandoned old artifacts on the roadside. These abandoned artifacts came together and said, “We dedicated ourselves to serving the master for many years, and there is no reward. Our Masters throw us out on the street and let us be trampled on by cattle and horses. Why don't we turn into spirits to take revenge?”
The object spirits in the cardboard box were nervous. Would their new owner treat them as well as the old woman did? Paperback said, “I’ll cry if I end up in the recycle bin.”
Small Black Notebook sighed. “At least you were loved. I’m practically a virgin.”
“You’re either a virgin or not. I’m definitely not.” He chortled, “I’ve seen a lot of skin in my day. Been in circulation, if you know what I mean,” said Dollar Bill.
Paperback said, “Bill, why are you always so crude? Notebook’s talking about love, not carnal matters. She’s only got one line — otherwise she’s blank.”
Dollar Bill said, “Why are YOU so hoity-toity? You’re all about the same thing. Only you hide your lust behind literature - a translation no less.”
Paperback retorted, “You’re the one who’s a snob. Only caring about the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”
“Stop it! Stop it! I don’t want to hear you two bickering when my life ends,” Notebook cried.
Dollar Bill grumbled, ”I doubt this Human is going to have any idea what to do with us. I doubt she even knows what we are.” He was annoyed he was becoming a relic. All his friends were gone. He fumed. “The way Humans get rid of everything burns me up!”
But contrary to the spirits’ expectations, the young woman didn’t throw them away. She placed Paperback, Notebook and Dollar Bill on the desk. The three old friends wondered. Was there a chance they would survive?
Just then, Human pulled out a Cell Phone. She plugged Cell in to recharge and left the room. Cell Phone’s shiny new case was covered with Human’s fingerprints, evidence of how well-loved she was. Cell Phone let out a huge sigh, “Whew. Human and I had a craaazy busy day. I’m wiped. You won’t believe what she had me do…” When she noticed Paperback, Dollar Bill and Small Black Notebook, she stopped chattering and said, “So who are you?”
Dollar Bill hissed,”Just as I thought! This Human is one of those who only cares about Digitals.”
Cell was shocked at Dollar Bill’s cold words. She blinked back tears. “Hey. Don’t pick on me. Just because Human likes me better.”
Mac woke up. His screen blinked on. “Don’t be so hard on Cell. She’s too young to know any better.”
Notebook spoke up, “Who are you, Mac, to tell us she’s too young? You must be only a few years old yourself.”
Mac said, “I’ll have you know Human’s retiring me. A new Mac is coming soon.”
Notebook was shocked. Things seemed to be getting replaced faster than before. She herself was ten years old. Not exactly hot off the press.
Mac said, “I know who you are. Our Human’s Grandmother left you.” His knowing manner soothed Notebook’s nerves.
Just then Human walked in the office, picked up Cell, punched a button and said, “Just wanted to let you know I got Grandma’s stuff.” Then she picked up Dollar Bill. She said into Cell Phone, “Can you believe it? It’s one dollar. Yeah, paper money, like what people used to use.” And she peered closely at Bill. “Only why did Grandma give me this? It’s just a dollar bill. Is there something special about it…?” Then she set Cell down to keep recharging and left.
Dollar Bill huffed. “See? The girl thinks I’m worthless. She probably doesn’t use anything made of paper.”
Notebook’s black cover blanched. “What are you talking about?”
Dollar Bill said, “Humans are getting rid of paper. Everything’s going digital.”
Paperback trembled. “Digital? Are all paper folk disappearing?”
Now that Notebook thought about it, when was the last time she saw Newspaper and Magazine? Her friends had disappeared one by one and no one had come to replace them. A chill went up her spine.
Mac spoke up. “There must be some reason Human’s grandmother put you in the box. Let me take a look at you.”
Dollar Bill huffed. “Look all you want. A dollar’s a dollar.”
Human came back into the room. She looked at Cell again. But Human sighed, “Still charging.” She left Cell connected to the line and punched another button. “Auntie? Where’s that Pillow Book Grandma talked about? The one she said was written by a Japanese woman a thousand years ago?” She picked up Paperback, looked at the cover and said, “Oh. This is the Pillow Book! I guess I was expecting it to be a fancy hardback book or something. Or a book made of a pillow!” She laughed. “Can you imagine that? A book made out of a pillow.”
Notebook and the others watched Human leaf through Paperback’s pages as she kept talking. She said, “Oh, this woman Sei Shonagon kept her writing IN her pillow? Pillows were little wooden boxes in old Japan? Really? Doesn’t sound comfortable but maybe a good place to hide things.” The tattered book’s cover had a picture of a Japanese court lady at her writing desk.
Human looked through more pages and suddenly said, “Oh my God. This is hilarious. Hear this.” She read out loud, “In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.”
The young woman laughed. “So this Japanese court lady a thousand years ago liked love making and stories!”
Notebook thought, when was the last time she saw a young Human touch a book?
Human said, “Wow. So Sei thought about the same things I do. What else did she write?”
Her aunt said something about a piece on nature. Human found it.
She read, “In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!”
Human paused and said, “Wow. Sei's writing reminds me of our family reunion at the Great Smoky Mountains. Those fireflies…remember? I haven’t thought about that place for ages. Grandma did tell me then she loved the fireflies in Japan.”
Dollar Bill grumbled, “Why don’t Humans write like that about me?”
Mac laughed, “Good point. Humans love money. And yet, they never write poems about money.”
Human continued reading the book, “In autumn, the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one's heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.”
Human stopped again. “I never thought about geese flying over Japan just like they do here now. And she’s talking about the crickets, right? How they start singing when the sun goes down.”
She got to the last stanza. “In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season's mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.”
The girl closed Paperback and hugged it close to her heart. Paperback glowed with happiness.
Even Cell Phone was moved. She said, “I’ve never heard anything like that! It’s so beautiful. Why don’t Humans write that stuff now?”
Mac said, “That’s because if Humans stood outside to pay attention to Nature, they couldn’t text or type. I mean, rain and snow would kill you and me.”
Then as if the same thought occurred to Human, she said, “Auntie, is there something I can write on? I want to try writing like Sei. I can’t write something like this on the computer. Or on the phone. It just won’t look right. What? The notebook?” Human turned and saw Notebook on the desk. “Oh, yeah. Here it is. The small black one, right?”
Human picked up Small Black Notebook, opened it to the first page and gasped. “Grandma must have written this.” She said, “My Dear Grandchild - Use this Notebook as your pillow book. Pay attention to the world.”
Notebook could barely contain her excitement.
Human pushed a button on Cell ending the call. She sat in the chair and looked out the window. It was a cold February day but the skies had cleared up allowing the sunshine to light up the backyard. A chickadee lit on a bare branch close to the window. The small bird tilted its head and looked at Human.
Mac smiled. “I can look up every bit of information about that bird and Cell Phone can take pictures. But only Notebook can record Human’s feelings.”
Human grabbed her coat, put Paperback in her pocket, and clutching Notebook and a pen, she rushed out the door.
Cell Phone cried, “Hey! You forgot me!”
Mac chuckled as the door closed behind them.
Cell Phone was not happy, “What’s so funny, Mac? She’s never forgotten me before.”
Mac smiled. He said, “Small Black Notebook’s finally getting her day in the sun. Let her go.”
Dollar Bill said, “What about me? Is Human going to forget about me?”
Mac looked at Bill, “I figured out why Human’s grandmother put you in the box. Hopefully, she’ll see what I see.”
Cell Phone piped up. “Mac, are you going to keep us in the dark? It’s not fair if you don’t tell us.”
Mac looked at Cell Phone. “Things like Dollar Bill aren’t like you and me. He can actually be more valuable… if he’s imperfect.”
Cell Phone looked doubtful. “A Dollar Bill is worth more than me? He can’t do anything like I can. He’s just a piece of paper. Almost trash.”
Dollar Bill seethed, "You electronic Frankenstein midget! You're the one who's going to be garbage in a year."
Mac said, “Bill's right. Cell, you're headed to the big e-waste graveyard in China. On the other hand, Bill’s worth twenty-thousand dollars.”
“T-T-T-Twenty-thousand dollars?” Cell Phone gasped, overheated and her charger line fell out.
Dollar Bill was impressed by Mac. “Well, I’ll be a brainless buck! Is that why the old woman kept me all these years? But why didn’t she just tell her granddaughter?”
Mac said, “Because she knew her granddaughter had to come to her own understanding of what is truly valuable in life. What’s most worthwhile is what she notices. What she reimagines. What she discovers for herself.”
About the author
I write short stories based on Japanese mukashibanashi (folklore). Strange, scary and funny. Not necessarily for kids. I'd love to hear what you think of these stories. What does it mean to you?