The fear of breaking it was always in the back of my mind, but my morning wasn’t complete without a cup of tea from the little cup. The little figure on the cup that watched me seep my tea and gently pour it into its cup every morning seemed to be beckoning me somehow.
Many times during the day, I would stop what I was doing and delicately pick up the cup and stare at the pictures glazed into the finish.
“Who are you?” I’d asked the figure. Of course, painted figures a half-inch tall can’t talk. But in my mind, I wondered what they would say.
I knew the cup’s history, age, and even where it was made. That only added to the mysticism of the cup.
One morning while I was contemplating my morning tea. I glanced at the little figure as I put the cup down. It wasn’t right. She had moved. Every so slightly, but she wasn’t where she had been. Finishing my tea quickly, I took the cup to the kitchen window, where the light was best.
With the morning sun coming through the window, I examined her again. She had moved. Then as I watched her, she smiled at me.
“No, this can’t be right. Porcelain cups do not smile at you.” I shook his head and looked again. She was still smiling and turned to face me. One small hand lifted, and she motioned for me to come closer to her.
My face was already barely an inch from the cup. Without warning, I felt a sensation course through my body like nothing else I’d experienced—the feeling of being lighter than air and nothingness that I couldn’t explain. I blinked once, and I was standing next to the red-robed lady.
She was short, her black hair perfectly coiffed, and the red robe made her look rounder than she was. My modern clothes seemed out of place, but she did not notice.
A nod had me following her to the familiar shed with the green tile roof I knew from the cup. We passed a field of rice harvested by a man, exactly like another image on the cup.
Tables loaded with various flowers in vases and pots fill the shed. Women and men milled around the inside, carrying pots, gardening tools, or observing. Everyone seemed in their own world and paid no attention to me. I wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or not. Yet.
I followed the red-robed woman through the shed and out the back onto a small path that led up a gentle slope to a small house. She seemed in no hurry, taking her time, which gave me a chance to try to take in my new surroundings. A narrow strip of well-worn gravel made up the path. Along either side was a neat row of miniature flowers I didn’t recognize. About halfway to the building, a narrow stream meandered through the lawn. Along the stream bank, I noticed rocks in various places to outline features and fill space, reminding me of rock gardens I’d seen.
The red-lacquered wooden bridge that crossed the creek was large, arching high in the center, and rose above a pond created by the stream. Six posts with carved knobs on top supported the arched railing. The stained brown deck planking was worn in the center by traffic over the years. I paused in the middle of the bridge to take in the calm that seemed to ooze from the environment. Breathing deeply, I took in the fresh air fragranced by the lush flowers and looked around slowly. The Lilies covered the pond, and golden fish swam in the green water.
I felt a stare drilling into me. Startled, I returned my attention to the far end of the bridge where the red-robed lady stood, glaring at me. She said nothing, but her look told me I’d spent too long on the bridge. I hurried the last few steps to catch up with her.
We made our way to the stone building that stood on the rise behind the outbuildings. Windchimes hanging from an ornate overhang above the doorway jingled lightly in the breeze. A pair of stone dragons guarded the front door, each with its head raised and mouth open with large teeth daring anyone to challenge them. Stone or not, I wasn’t about to question their authority. Without a word, she opened the door and stepped inside, motioning me to follow her.
I had barely been in this world for five minutes, but I was fascinated with Japanese history and culture. I knew there was more to this than a living history lesson, but I couldn’t understand what I was doing here, much less how I got here. Right now, I wanted answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to ask.
The room was larger than I anticipated from the outside. The far wall had a large fireplace in the middle, Its mantle lined with glass vases and ceramic figures. At either end were oil lamps that gave a warm glow, throwing shadows over the mantle.
As the door closed, I took in the rest of the room. Several large pillows dotted the floor, and low tables, also with lamps, sat near them. The window on one side threw a shaft of light that bathed the center of the room in an almost fake whiteness.
An old man sat in a chair near the fireplace and immediately drew my attention. What I could see of the chair was wood, with ornate carving in the arms and legs. A red velvet cushion peeked out from around the tops of his shoulders. He wore a silk robe decorated with dragons and flowers. I noticed the dragons had an unusual number of claws, reminding me of something I’d read before. The number of claws indicated their station in life—the more claws, the higher the station.
I didn’t have time to count them as the robed lady motioned me to the center of the room. Facing the old man, I admit that I was nervous. Until that moment, the entire series of events in the last few minutes had seemed like a dream, a fairy tale. But now, standing here before this grizzled old man, with the foo man choo mustache that hung past his chin and the bald head covered by a silk cap, scared me shitless.
The red-robed lady knelt on the nearest pillow and looked back and forth between us as if to say, “Well?” I glanced between them and wondered the same thing.
The old man seemed to have found some energy as he looked up at me, and a thin smile crossed his face as his eyes seemed to light up for a second. A thin bony hand moved surprisingly quickly as it reached for mine. I extended my hand automatically to find his hand cold and stiff, but the sureness of his grip was a pleasant surprise.
“I am Akio, Aka’s father. Aka, tells me you’ve been studying our culture.” His voice was quiet and unassuming, but I sensed a deep power under it.
This wasn’t what I expected. “Yes, sir. I’ve been studying your history and culture for ages.”
He held up a cup identical to the one I’d been using for my morning tea.
“Aka has been watching you for years.”
The meaning was clear. I glanced back and forth between them, not sure what to say.
“You are not married?” it was more of a statement than a question. I nodded yes.
“Aka would like you to be her husband.”
I stood in a small cottage in a faraway place in an even farther away time and offered to marry a woman who had been dead for three hundred years. I stood there looking back and forth between them and the teacup in his hand.
Aka spoke. “Father, may I take him and talk to him?” He nodded yes, as he set the cup on the table.
She took my hand and steered me back to the front door. This time she was much more gentle and less formidable than the lady I’d met only a few minutes ago.
I followed to a gazebo that sat along the stream. A thousand questions ran through my mind, but none had answers. What she had told her father about me was true.
I had been studying Japanese history and culture for decades and collected many original pieces of their china and art. I thought I knew quite a bit about their social structure and culture, but this surprised me even more.
The whole time traveling through a teacup was scary enough, but this was something else again.
As I followed her to the gazebo, I felt my tension ease. There was something relaxing about being here. I knew I didn’t belong in this time and place, but it seemed natural to be here. There had to be a reason for me to be here.
We sat opposite each other on curved benches as the sun shone from the west. Neither of us spoke for a time. I studied Aka. She had twisted her black hair into a bun and applied light berry stain to her lips, highlighting her smile. Her red robe covered most of her body and made it hard to tell exactly how she looked. But she appeared more petite than the robe made her look.
Aka seemed calm as she sat and looked past me to the house and back at me. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I had to say something. “Aka, can you tell me what is happening?”
She looked down at her hands, then past me toward the gate. “I had visions of you and your house. I watched you make your tea in the morning, and when you took your cup into the other rooms, I saw your world.” She tailed off.
“Aka, these visions, when did you have them? When did they start?”
“I’m not sure. I think they started in my dreams. I dreamed about you making coffee and tea, and I remembered seeing you with other people. I didn’t like it when you had other girls there.”
That last statement surprised me. It must have surprised her, too, as she turned red and looked down. I felt myself turn red. I’d had a string of girlfriends over the last few years, but none serious. She’d seen them. I felt embarrassed at the thought of someone else seeing my private world—even a girl from three hundred years before I was born. I thought about all the times I’d taken my tea into my bedroom and turned even redder. Unconsciously I reached for her hand and gently held it. She didn’t move it or tell me to let go.
We talked for a while as she told me how her dreams had become more frequent and vivid. Now she had visions even when she was awake. She had told her father of the visions, and he had explained that sometimes the gods choose someone, not from our time for us. He had only heard legends of it happening until now.
She had prayed to her gods about the vision. This morning she woke up feeling peaceful and knew today was the day. So she’d put on her best robes and waited at the spot in the picture.
I told her about the smiling and waving of her now-held hand. She told me there had been a flash of light from the west, and I was here.
“Your father said you would like to marry me.” She bowed her head and nodded yes. “You don’t know me, only what you’ve seen from the teacup. My world is completely different from yours. Just as you would not be happy in my world, How can I be happy here, in this world? I do not understand your customs or cultures. How would your people respond to me, to us?”
Aka looked up and me, her big brown eyes pleading with me. “You must.!”
“What about my returning to my world?”
“There is no returning. Once the Gods have brought you here….”
The next several months became a blur as I settled into my new life. I met the village elders, and when Her father introduced me, they bowed respectfully and said nothing of my evident western heritage. I had started wearing traditional Japanese clothes by then, so I fit in better. Somehow I instinctively understood the language. I spoke and heard English in my mind, but they seemed to hear Japanese. Whatever the Gods did, it worked.
As I spent time with Aka and got to know her and her life in 1700 Japan, I found life here was simple and challenging and much more physical than I had ever had to be. But It also felt good. I still hadn’t consented to marry Aka, so I lived in a separate cottage on the property. It dawned on me slowly that I was much happier here in ancient Japan than I had been in the twenty-first century with all of its modern convinces.
One day I blurted out. “Aka. Do you still want to marry me?”
Her big brown eyes grew large, and her grin spread wider as she shouted.” Yes!”
The weeks leading up to the wedding were busy. As Aka’s mother was no longer with us, other female members of her family took on the traditional role her mother would have. I spent more time with Akio learning my role in a traditional Japanese wedding.
But it was not to be.
I picked up the teacup and gazed at Aka’s image. She had been beautiful, kind, and loving, but she had been wrong.
The same gods that sent me to her chose at the last minute to take me away from her. As the priest was about to pronounce us husband and wife, dark clouds gathered rapidly, and a brilliant flash of light blinded everyone. At that moment, the same feeling of nothingness that brought me to her returned me to my world.
My kitchen was as I’d left it. According to the clock on the wall, only a few minutes had passed, but I knew differently. I was different.
I spent the rest of my life continuing my collection of Japanese art and china, as it kept my time with Aka fresh in my mind. I never married. No one could compare to my Aka.