We both had a treasured one, my mother and I. Hers was a light brown wood, with a curved winding pin, a window in the top to look onto the gears, and no opening .Mine was shiny black, painted with flowers in gold and red, which burst into song when the lid opened to reveal a red velvet ring holder. Its gears would turn in a clear, square case next to the marching rows of rings. Their origins were the same: my grandmother. One inherited, one gifted.
My pseudo-Japanese music box was presented to me with a note from my grandmother, congratulating me on a happy 6th birthday, on a sweltering June afternoon. The top was adorned with ukiyo-e style flowers, the inauthenticity of which did not bother me in the slightest. I would sit and wind the box till it clicked with a hard jolt, almost to a breaking point. Then I would open the lid (often with a little jump, as the tune burst out loudly) and stare in, petting the velvet with one hand, watching the gears turn in their delicate little case.
Never a particularly neat child - those being rarities - my toys were often sprinkled indelicately across our living room, constantly underfoot. I kept my music box above the worst of the mess, on a table by the doorway, the doorway from which my mother would enter to survey the state of the room. On a broiling afternoon, as the thermostat struggled to battle the heat waves which slithered under our door, leaving oily hot patches in the air, she stood in the doorway staring at the room. Her hair was disheveled, eyes carrying suitcases of exhaustion packed to the brim, as if preparing for a long trip. She had just risen from bed. The surface of her refined, sharply beautiful face wore a forlorn expression. Beneath the fatigue, in the gleams of anger in her eyes and the heavy pucker between them as they pressed together, was fury.
Clean this shit up, she’d said yesterday. The flashing of her dilated irises reminded me of her dangerous tone. As she stared at me playing amongst my blocks and dolls, her arms were crossed stiffly, shoulders sitting on high peaks to nearly meet her ears. Lips, eyes, and jaw tense. She looked so brittle that in that moment. I could picture a fleck of dust settling on her shoulder causing her physicality to explode into clean, sharp pieces, flying onto the floor to join the mess of my toys.
“Come here,” she said quietly. With a joyous burst of “Okay!” masking the foreboding I felt, I skipped over to her, impishly feigning innocence. A bad habit I had picked up trying to seem pious, but still avoid chores.
“Look at this room.” Harsh, toe-stubbing corners jutted from her words, mimicking in their sounds the effect of my toys on an unprotected and unwise foot. I turned to look at the couches and the clear child-markings around the house. I turned back, very much aware of the inevitable punishment. I could imagine smelling her anger in the oily air, metallic and tangy. An acrid warning. “I asked you to clean this. I ask you to clean this, ever- every day, multiple times a day.” Leaning down, she plucked a wooden doll off the floor. “Look at this. And this, and this, this. That.” Each word punctuated by a pointing finger at some plaything, wantonly discarded, sticking malevolently out of the carpet. A warning to bare feet. “You haven’t. You never fucking do. Every night I clean your shit up, and no matter what threat I make, you neve- don’t do it.” Her words were choppy with disbelieving anger, and her eyes wide, as if shocked by the audacity of my little act. She dropped the doll back. “There’s not a single clean surface in here.” She looked around the room, searching for a table or window sill to disprove her point. “Not. One!” Her voice was loud, sending a fearful shock up my spine. Mother’s eyes landed on the table next to her. On the overcrowded surface sat my music box, proudly displaying its shininess. She picked it up stiffly, staring at it.
Desperate to bring this situation down from the increasingly threatening climax, I said “B-but I forgot! I’m little!”- words from a child too big to say that. the flesh around her eyes twitched and bent, anger peaking.
“NO! Don’t you dare. I KNOW you HEARD me! I asked you to do this hours, days ago!” As she spoke, she gestured with my music box glinting in her right hand.
“Mah-ah-ahm…” I haltingly whined up at her, puppy eyes in full effect. She looked huge, hard and defined above me; towering.
“Days ago!! What the fuck will it take to make you LISTEN? Why does no one listen to me? WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO FOR THAT TO HAPPEN!” The final sentence fell like the smack of a judge’s mallet; it was not a question. Her hands, knuckles sticking out in pale peaks, quivering with anger, now held my music box in front of her. Mother’s eyes were full of angry tears. As I watched, eyes dry and wide, she raised it above her head. “Mom! That’s from Nan-”
“WHAT DO I HAVE TO D-O.” The last syllable, breaking with emotion, was sealed with a resounding cracking, shattering noise as my music box hit the floor, propelled by her quivering, strong arms
A silence seeped into the room. Thick, slick, suffocating. Our eyes sat upon the box, which had separated into three pieces, bottom, compartment and lid. A small divot in the floor from the impact. My widened eyes flooded with tears, and I sat down, defeatedly sobbing amongst my shattered music box and other (intact) toys.
I can remember now, still, how quickly my mother shifted. She swallowed back her tears, and bent down to comfort me. “It’s okay baby, it’s okay. I’m so sorry. We’ll fix it, sweetie.” Her eyes were soft and damp. Her shaky hands gathered the large pieces. They were vibrating no longer because of the strain, but the release and the repent.
I found the comfort I needed as she went into the back room with a toolbox to fix it and as I picked up the room, still crying. The solace was found in how warm and sorry her eyes were as she gently pushed back my dirty hair to kiss my forehead. How eager she was to undo it.
Days later, she presented to me the redone box, lovingly, clumsily fixed with assorted glues and screws. “I need to work on it a little still, but you can wind it up. Just be careful, it’s a little sharp now.” I wound it and listened happily, everything visibly the same as before. As I listened, a quiet nagging thought wandered through: was the sound always this shrill? Were the notes always so sharp? The velvet was unmarred, as was the glass gearbox, unbelievably. I told her I love you, thank you, I’m sorry. And I went back to winding, listening, winding. I love you (winding), thank you (listening), I’m sorry (halting).
Eight years old. I was in our new house, clean and neat. I was perched on a shiny green stool, in front of a matching vanity. I sat quietly with the box, enjoying the patch of sunlight on the clear surface of the vanity, listening (thank you) to the music. Abruptly it slowed and halted (I’m sorry), another winding spent. Staring into the shiny box to watch the gears reverse, I slipped my hand underneath the box and began to rotate the winding handle (I love you).
Suddenly a hot sharp pain pierced my pointer finger and I yelped. Making a “sssss” noise through my teeth, I brought my finger out from under the box and stared at a small puncture wound in my finger, pulsing with a bead of blood. I stuck it into my mouth, sucking out the metallic warmth. With my other hand, I closed the lid of the box and flipped it gently onto it’s decorated lid. I stared at the oval winding pin beneath, and the thing next to it.
A shiny cold screw stuck out next to the pin. On it was the tiniest smear of red.
I was forbidden to wind her music box, imbuing it with allure despite its simple wooden design. When she was home, I would go to stare at the shelves in her room, just to look at the music box. I liked its tune better than the tune of mine. The notes from my tune felt hard and cutting, overwhelming, whereas hers twinkled gently, softly. It soothed. It was a treasure when I could talk her into winding it for me, a pleasure I was allowed only a couple times.
After it all, on nights where she was not home, I would sometimes go to her room and gently remove her wooden box from the shelves. I would lie in bed and wind it (I love you) carefully, afraid of marking or damaging it. As it twinkled out its gentle tune, I would turn off the light and close my eyes, listening (thank you) until it stopped (I’m sorry) . Winding it up again until drifting into dreams of peachy tones and kind words. Silently hoping that she would not come home to find me violating her beloved music box, hoping she wouldn’t find some sort of damage I had done to it the next day. Hers seemed so much more fragile than mine.
In the morning, I would place it back onto her shelf, unsure of when she would get back but knowing it needed to be there when she did.
It’s been years since I last used her music box at night. It’s whereabouts are by now long unknown to me. Mine sits untouched, screw still pointing out at the bottom. To ask her to fix it would be to point out a wound, one that was created long before the screw marked my finger. Now it simply harbors pairs of dusty, unwanted earrings, thrown into the jewelry compartment like abandoned toys.
I can’t remember the tune of my box. That of my mother’s is lost, too. There is one melody, a combination of the music boxes’, that still rings clearly in my mind; I find myself singing it out loud sometimes.
I love you.