By Marie-Louise McGuinness
I was mesmerized by his hair, the way it moved with each nod and bow of his head, silvered strands catching on the creases of his face as his toothless mouth gratefully sipped the salty broth of my mother’s *nikujaga*, bald gums swinging gaily on the fat and sinew of the cheap meat. Afterwards, he would pat his thin lips with a silk handkerchief in a rich hue of red or green. My father would admonish me for staring and shoo me back behind the beaded curtain where there would be pots, glass, and bowls to be scrubbed until my fingertips would crack and bleed.
Mr. Tanaka would come into the bar on a Thursday, when, as one of the most popular *tachinomi* in the financial district, the bar would be crammed with businessmen slurping sake and backslapping each other, the air thick with yellow smoke and the underlying tang of one-upmanship. Always alone and dressed in the most immaculate cream linen suit, he would hunch over an ornately carved walking stick, his gentle movements accompanied with a velvet thud.
I was twelve when he fainted in the heat of the bar. I saw him shuffle backwards and dashed out from behind the curtain to catch his frail body in my arms. Once we had him resting on a cushioned chair, the one reserved for important visitors, I noticed that he was stroking his cane gently and mumbling soft words from under his breath. It seemed like he was apologizing.
“Tanaka-sama, why are you whispering to your stick like that?”
My father’s head shot up at my impertinence, for I was instructed to never address the patrons with anything other than a respectful bow, but Mr. Tanaka raised his palm to him.
“This bamboo stick was my grandfather’s. It is old, from the Meiji period.”
I nodded, although this information only compounded my confusion.
“Well, if it is very old, maybe you could buy a new one instead?”
His opal eyes crinkled in amusement, and he tapped the floor with his cane, signaling for me to sit down.
Over the next hour, his fur-soft voice peeled back layers of a spiritual tapestry, woven through many generations. Entranced entirely, I was oblivious to the hacking tobacco-phlegm coughs and barking cackles that emanated from the depths of the bar, and also, to the sustained disapproving grunts from my father.
I learned of jealous, slit-mouthed hags and omnipotent dogs of the divine; mischievous shapeshifters and monsters made from smoke and darkness that swirled and swooped before our life-blinded eyes. Tales of *Yokai* so wondrous and terrifying that my world cracked into a glittering chasm of light, sound, and chaos.
And of the *Tsukumogami*, inanimate objects that upon their one hundredth year, become spiritual entities in their own right, with soul and awareness, as alive as you or me.
The *Tsukumogami* didn’t scare me like the *Yokai* did; they weren’t monsters, and no matter how hard I thought, I did not know of any object that could be that old.
The porcelain bowls, cups, and spoons in the bar were forever being dumped and replaced when they became scratched, or chipped, or when they leapt from soap-scalded hands to shatter on the tiled floor of the steamy kitchen. At home, our furniture and decorations were mass-produced the year my parents got married and therefore offered no respite for a wandering spirit seeking a home.
I never saw Mr. Tanaka after that. However, his influence on me over the following years was profound. His words had alerted my senses to the spirits that surrounded me; I would thank the *Zashiki-warashi* for any good fortune and attempt to appease the *Buruburu* when fear and doubt overcame me. On visiting a museum, I would bow to the exhibits as I would to my elders, with reverence and respect, for I knew that they were deserving.
Many years later, I received a parcel, wrapped beautifully in gold raw silk. As I peeled back the elaborate wrapping, I once again laid eyes on Mr. Tanaka’s cane. I observed the remarkable detail of the carvings, vivid depictions of animals with human features, sea monsters and plants, all glistening proudly with wood polish. It boasted a collar of gold below the handle, which opened easily to my touch, and two items slid from inside.
First was a painted tapestry, small and beautiful, like one of Mr. Tanaka’s silk handkerchiefs. Then, a piece of parchment with decorative calligraphy that read,
*These souls have chosen you as their guardian and protector, an honor bestowed only on the worthy. I know they chose well.*
My chest filled with warmth and love as I stroked the cane, a gentle hum of energy pressing against my fingers. I met the eye of the largest carving and whispered,