Alexis flopped down on her bed, stroking her new puppy’s head and trying to keep the letter out of reach. Her mom had dropped the puppy and the letter off this morning in celebration of her 24th birthday. “This,” said her mom, pointing to the letter, is from grandma as you know. And this,” pointing to the animal carrier with the fluffball of a puppy inside, “is from Max.” Alexis squealed with joy.
It’s their one-year anniversary this weekend and her birthday celebrations, and Max knows how much Alexis wanted a puppy.
It’s time for one of my favorite stories from our ancestors: Yui and Riku.
In the year 735 AD, Yui was 16 years old and blissfully unaware of any danger in life. She lived with her mother and father and three sisters in Nara, Japan. For the past 200 years, her family had been potters. They made pots, but also roof and floor tiles. And Yui also made sculptures. Her father often scolded her not to waste clay, money or time on meaningless figurines, but Yui could not help herself. At night she would wait for her parents to go to sleep before sneaking out with a candle to mold the clay under her hands. Her sculptures were of people at work, women caring for children, men working. She liked to shape faces and she would pay her sisters in favors to convince them to sit for a few minutes at a time so she could make sculptures of them.
One spring, when their harvest bins were nearing the end and her father and mother were becoming worried about what to feed them, Yui went to her mother.
“I can sell my figurines,” she offered.
Her mother did not say a word. She knew Yui worked at night – how could she not notice how tired her daughter was in the mornings, or the fact that the oven was still warm when she woke up to continue her own work?
She just nodded. “That would be a very kind thing to do.”
At the market, a shy but strong-looking young man circled closer to her stall, until finally he carefully held some of the sculptures in his hand. He smiled at her, his eyes struggling to meet hers, yet full of interest and excitement.
Finally, his eyes settled on the figure of a man bending down to stroke his dog’s head. He produced some coins from his purse, then hesitantly, he said: “I’ve been asked to make things like these. Could you help me?”
Riku came to Yui’s house later that week, where he met her family and could watch them make the tiles and pots in the oven and on the kiln. As her mother finished up for the day, Yui was given permission to show Riku what she did to make faces and figures. Riku was a builder for the government, and Emperor Shomu had been showing a lot of interest in Buddhist temples and their decoration. They worked into the small hours of the night. Yui laughed at Riku’s big, clumsy hands, but she admired his determination and focus. He was amazed at her skill, and thought she was fun, and that her family was kind.
And then tragedy fell like a shadow on Yui’s days. It was her little sister that fell ill first. Then her father, her other sisters and finally her mother. Yui was the only one that didn’t get haunted by the smallpox devil. She did everything she could: hung red cloths over the doors, draped them over her family, burnt incense and brought flowers. But within two months, her entire family had passed away. Yui was devastated. She surrounded herself with the sculptures she had made of them and wept as she worked the fields while the pots and tiles baked in the two ovens. Tears streamed down her cheeks one morning as she was working in the fields, when she looked up suddenly to see Riku standing in front of her.
He had come on a mission: her hand in marriage.
Yui was delighted in her sadness. But how could she leave it all? Her home, the pottery business, and the fields her parents worked were what kept their memories alive. How could she run away from her problems – and them? Or was the offer out of pity, she wondered. Did he think that she had nowhere to go, nothing to eat, no way to look after herself?
She declined, and more tears followed. The next morning she opened the ovens to see the tiles that had baked overnight were useless: she had made a mistake when mixing the clay: the tiles were weak, crumbling between her fingers as she took them out. And all the while, she couldn’t stop thinking of Riku’s shy smile, and the way he focused on getting the shapes right that night they had worked together.
She opened the back door to take the tiles to the trash, and that’s when she spotted the figurine: A man, his face full of kindness, bending down to stroke his dog’s head. And next to it, a small pouch full of pearls. In the nearby bush, two deer pranced away, startled by her sudden appearance in the doorway.
She walked straight to the marketplace. She didn’t know where to find Riku – this was the place she met him, and she’d never been to his house. She wandered around for hours, nearing hopelessness, when she finally spotted him sitting in the empty spot where her stall was that spring.
“What is this?” she asked, holding out the pearls.
“My mother gave them to me. She said she’d never seen me look the way I looked after I met you, and that you would surely be the woman to give her grandchildren one day. She wanted you to have them.”
Yui looked down at the pouch, feeling the cool, heavy weight of the pearls in her hands. “All right. But I’m keeping my family’s ovens.”
Riku and Yui walked home as the sun set, and he held her hand. It might have been her worst year yet, but it may just be the best one too, she thought.
Alexis smiles to herself as she closes the letter and touches the string of pearls around her neck. She looks at the puppy. “I think I’ll call you Riku,” she says, as he yelps back at her.
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