This story is by Jude Garnier and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A long time ago, there used to be a teahouse. It wasn’t a big place, but it had a small garden at the back with a stream passing through. It was warm and welcoming in the winter. The cherry tree blossomed in spring, covering the grass with pink petals. In summer, the owner lit dozens of bamboo candles in the garden for the festival of O-bon, and if you turned toward the east, you could see the fireworks. In autumn, you simply had to look straight to the south, to witness the mountains changing into a bright red from the maple leaves. It was a haven for the villagers and the travellers.
“What do you think, Aoki?”
Standing in front of the old tea house were Kaito, his friend Aoki, and an old lady. Kaito was tall, with messy jet black hair, wearing jeans, a tee-shirt and a leather jacket. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, shooting a quick glance towards his friend, whose face was covered by a large hat and who wore a traditional kimono.
“Why do you ask me? You already made up your mind, didn’t you?”
Kaito chuckled, blowing a cloud of smoke above their heads. Aoki knew him well. He was going to turn the old tea house into a bookshop.
The original structure was perfect. As discussed with the agent accompanying them, he would keep it per the town-hall wishes to keep a little piece of history. From the plans he could study, there was enough space for the shop, a reading area with access to the garden, and to set up his living quarters upstairs, dividing the old kitchen into two rooms, one to turn it into a functional bathroom and a decent kitchen. The downstairs bathroom would stay where it was for the customers. It was exactly the place he was looking for.
Aoki turned towards the agent, a little lady, dressed in classic salaryman fashion, a black suit with a skirt and white shirt with her hair up in a bun.
“Did anything bad happen to this place, madam?“ Lost in her own thoughts, the attention startled her, and hesitated before shaking her head negatively. “No sudden or lonely deaths? No violent deaths either? Accidents?” The lady shook her head again.
“Is it haunted?” Asked Kaito, turning his head towards the woman, her cheeks turning a little red. Embarrassed, she nodded her head timidly.
“Oh, that is a mild inconvenience, madam, do not worry.”
“Do you want to check inside?”
Kaito was already walking through the high grass, leaving no chance for Aoki to give an answer to his question. A soft amused sigh raised from their chest, as they tipped their hat and followed the little lady reluctantly on their heels.
Pushing the sliding door to enter, Kaito and Aoki ventured inside the rundown building, leaving the woman at the entrance. As they made their way through, the nightingale floors chirped under their feet. The wind was blowing through cracks in the walls and the rice paper screens, giving an eerie mood to the place. Kaito didn’t seem phased, humming softly while checking the supporting walls holding the house, before going through the main room and opening the sliding doors, giving them access to the garden. The cherry tree was still there. The mountains were still visible, and the stream was running past the garden, even if they couldn’t see it through the wild grass.
“I understand why you chose this place.”
“It is perfect, isn’t it?”
Kaito was beaming as he leaned against the opening on the exterior.
“And here’s our ghost.” Said Aoki, lifting their head up before pointing at the tiny figure made of paper supposed to keep the rain away, hanging from the roof, “I have felt nothing else, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we encounter a tsukumogami¹ or two.”
For the next few months, Kaito came every weekend to supervise the renovation and transformation of the teahouse. Discussing with some workers, giving them a helping hand from time to time.
“Can I borrow one of your hammers?”
“Yes, of course, I could lend you the one that belonged to my father.” A young woman answered, reaching for her tool box only to realise that it wasn’t there. “That is odd. I was sure I put it in here.”
“You shouldn’t leave your tools lying around at night, Haru.” said one of her colleagues, kneeling next to them, drying the sweat on his forehead and drinking a sip from his water bottle.
“Teenagers, homeless people, yōkai²… You are lucky you only lost a hammer.” Explained another worker before handing over a hammer to Kaito, who was playing with his lighter. Haru seemed flustered, pointing at the metal object to deflect the conversation.
“Who is the guy on your lighter? He seems familiar.“
“Charlie Chaplin, he’s an American actor.”
“Oh yes! I know him. He does all the slapstick in black and white movies, right? My father loved his movies!”
“So did mine. It was a present from my father to my mother when they met.“
“Sounds like it is an important lighter.”
Haru smiled, looking down at the hammer in her hand, and back at Kaito, who smiled back at her, putting the lighter away.
“Sounds like it was an important hammer.”
Once the major structures, the new floors, windows, doors were installed and the bathroom operational, Kaito could move upstairs, and set up the rest of the bookshop on his own.
One night, he left a minute to get something in the kitchen when he noticed that his lighter was missing.
The next morning, he could not put his hand on it, and despite his effort, the object seemed lost for good.
That evening, Kaito was reading while sitting into the nook of his bedroom, when a noise pulled him out of his book. Raising his head up, he looked at the bedroom squinting, half of it was in darkness.
“It wasn’t me.“ Answered a voice from the shadows, before a large raccoon appeared in the dimmed light. “It came from downstairs.“
Armed with his phone’s light, Kaito and the tanuki walked down the stairs, splitting up as they went through the newly installed bookshelves.
As Kaito seemed to get closer to the source, the noise suddenly stopped right below his feet. He knelt before tapping against the wooden floor, to realise it was sounding hollow. Phone down, Kaito pulled out a pocket knife so he could dislodge one of the dry boards. A fearful whine coming out from under it.
Once the plank and knife were down, the lamp from his mobile revealed Haru’s lost hammer in the middle of a pile of various small objects, some signalled by the workers, others seemed from another time and in the corner of this unlikely treasure hole was a teakettle trembling, two arms were sticking out of it using the lighter as a shield.
Kaito lowered the phone, his expression softening.
“Good evening,” He whispered, “I believe this belongs to me.”
Two eyes opened on each side of the teakettle, looking back at him and then his hand. His finger was pointing at the lighter it was holding between its hands. Kaito slowly put his hand down, sliding it towards the teakettle, waiting for the animated object to give him back the makeshift shield voluntarily.
After a moment, the object handed it over, before going back to his corner.
“Thank you.” Kaito said, sliding the lighter into his pocket. “Now, don’t you worry, you won’t have to stay here alone anymore…” He explained, as faint footsteps and various noises from whispers to light chippers resonated in the room, various animated objects were gathering around Kaito, including Aoki back into his human form.
“You’ll fit right in with us.”