Seth Waldron’s living room was overpopulated with hares and dogs and mice and octopi and dragons and spirits and skeletons and not a few couples engaged in eternal copulation.
“Ah, you’ve found the shunga,” the master of the house breathed behind me. Dad had a 30-year run of National Geographics shelved in the new bedroom I demanded at nine, and it didn’t take long for me to develop a literal Indiana jones for the more fascinating anatomical aspects of sub-tropical anthropology. I couldn’t feign studying the use of cowrie shells as indigenous currency in this situation, so I merely nodded and murmured appreciatively as a tiny entangled pair kamasutra-ed it up.
“The ‘picture of spring,’ ‘spring’ being a euphemism for sex," the former estate auctioneer related. "Erotic art has had a place in Japanese society for nearly 400 years, encompassing every gender pairing and conventional and unconventional act. Shunga and other forms of ukiyo-e were created to promote the pleasures and attractions of city life especially among the merchant-craftsman class.”
“I can see that...”
“Most shunga took the form of woodblock prints and paintings, but this netsuke was carved from tagua nut – the nut from the ivory palm. They call it vegetable ivory, and sometimes, craftsmen would attempt to palm it off, oops, as elephant ivory. By the way, I’ve been scrupulous in avoiding mammalian ivory – everything you see here is produced from materials such as tagua or hornbill ‘ivory’ or bamboo root agate or black coral or umoregi, fossilized wood.
"I have a piece over here you might like, kataborinetsuke-style, carved from a walnut shell. The nutmeat was removed by inserting a small worm in a hole in the shell before the artist removed portions of the rough outer surface to create a latticed effect, and then polished and shellacked the work.”
I didn’t ask what they were doing in that one, but fortunately, Tiana Waldron called cake on the play.
Over a thick wedge of Tiana’s homemade carrot cake, we plotted the Westlake Community Garden’s transition to Westlake Urban Farm and Sanctuary LLC, for would not a rutabaga by any other name smell as sweet? The cake was veined with shredded heirloom purples from the non-profit plots deep on a municipally forgotten tract by the Westlake Homes on the west side.
I’d been on the last few hundred of a small food desert alleviation grant I’d wrangled into a community brainstorming forum a couple years back. Tiana at 67 was no longer up to a one-woman show toting natural fertilizer in the hot sun at a personal loss. I funded an open house and donor campaign at the garden, and with the awareness, Tiana was able to recruit former Peace Corps farm manager Galen Johnston, now seated to my left, sipping organic oolong in lieu of the proffered fair trade Costa Rican I’d doctored with almond creamer.
Rich Christenson, Westlake’s new graphic artist and website guy, kept studying me as if working to figure out what role the fat boomer in the Batman shirt played in any 21st Century venture. Tiana truly had tapped what resources and expertise I could offer, Galen made it passively clear he really didn’t need my fat ass around, and I would have gracefully faded away had Tiana’s gratitude and 301-c tax-free giving requirements not demanded another technically functioning body for the LLC board. The Waldron’s elderly collie Gaia (little bit on-the-muzzle) valued my presence and head-scratching acumen, and I enjoyed the rest of my cake in peace as Galen outlined the principles of trickle irrigation and Rich excused himself for the john. Seth had abandoned his discourse on tagua porn to dawdle at his cake while feigning absorption in his wife’s mission, and eventually wandered off with a muttered excuse.
I heard the commotion in the living room as I was draining the last of my worker- and planet-friendly brew.
“Empty them!” It was Seth, and unless he’d learned to summon the netsuke spirits, he was addressing Rich. Tiana frowned anxiously, appeared ready either to weep or crumble into her own DNA-branded compost. I sighed, and pushed my chair back. Gaia was displeased.
“Now!” ordered Seth.
“Hey, guys,” I drawled, at once commanding the room. Well, I had as fair a shot at commanding the room as these two. “What’s going on?”
Rich grinned. “He thinks I was trying to steal his dragon, his precious karakuri-netsuki.”
Seth’s head whipped toward the tall young man. “He, ah, he was taking so long in the bathroom, I wanted to see if everything was all right. And here he was, fooling around with the dragon. Empty your pockets, Christenson.”
“Umm,” I interjected. “You’re holding it, Seth.”
He looked down at the fierce wooden creature crooked in his arm, then indignantly back up at me. “Look, this is none of your business. Just empty your pockets, Christenson!”
“Seth, you know my interest in cryptozoology,” Rich implored. Again, Seth froze, then started toward Rich.
“Hold up!” I said, at entirely too high an octave.
“Why’d you refer to this as a karakuri-netsuke?” I asked Rich. “After my netsuke master class with Seth, I realized my knowledge of the topic was lacking, so I Wiki-ed things up in the privacy of the by the way quite lovely guest bathroom.
“Karakuri-netsuke is a very specific type of netsuke — the ‘trick/mechanism’ netsuke, with moving parts or hidden surprises.” I turned the dragon in my hands. “You see any tricks or surprises here? Any little buttons or levers or secret compartments? I missing anything here, Seth?”
Waldron shook his head genially, though his smile was as hard as walrus tusk. “I do have some interesting examples—“
“Calm down and quit evading. So what’s the trick? Well, let’s look at that weird little exchange you guys just had. You are both reeaally bad at subtext. Rich, when you got caught in the act, you were the one who called Seth’s dragon a karakuri-netsuke. Now, you’re talking to the Napoleon of Netsuke — sorry, only alliteration I could come up with on the fly. Would you try to impress him with detailed information he’d already know and could easily call you on? But Seth didn’t.
“Then you tried to argue your fascination with cryptozoology. Now, there, I gotta call you. When I was a dateless teen geek, I devoured everything I could find on the Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, the yeti, the tatzelwurm — cryptozoology is the study of the possible, of creatures that MAY exist, based on human sightings or evidence. Not mythological or fantastic creatures, registered trademark J.K. Rowling, like griffins or unicorns or dragons. So you were either talking in secret code, or you’re an ignorant braggart — and you seem far from ignorant.”
“Who’s to say that the dragon isn’t the manifestation of ancient accounts of real…”
“Take the compliment, Rich,” I suggested. “So, again, I ask, what’s the trick? Simply that you were letting Seth know you were onto his trick. Maybe being the clever sonofagun he is, Seth may even have thrown out the term himself at some point, just for shits and giggles. You wanted to let him know you knew.
“So what IS Seth’s trick? Again, Rich, you were being a slyboots. You were afraid Seth might get the cops in on things, even though no crime had been committed. That in itself raises the question: Why make such a massive deal out of the whole thing? Rich stole nothing, no harm no foul. But you kept demanding he empty his pockets, and he kept refusing. Then he trots out that cryptozoology schtick. Letting you know just how much he knew. Rich, you want to show us what’s in your pocket?”
“You sure do. OK, lemme guess before I call in my cop buddy Curtis and ramp this whole bidness up. If the situation was resolved, if you meant to steal the dragon, if Seth indeed foiled your plot, why was he still in combat mode? Maybe because you already got what you needed. That cryptozoology remark was a kind of weird go-to, but what you said had an impact on Seth.
“If there’s not something inside the netsuke, maybe there’s something ON it. You guys see anything? Maybe it can’t be seen with the naked eye. But maybe something the police might be able to see with the proper technology, if Seth called them. Seth, call ‘em.”
“I don’t see any need for that,” Seth sputtered. That’s a highly over-used term in mystery fiction, but he performed it flawlessly.
“I know you wouldn’t. Rich, hand me that blacklight.”
Rich’s hand twitched for his jacket pocket, then it stopped, and he gave me a wary, reproving grin.
“Ta da,” I declared. “Now we know your little trick. Seth, let me give yours a try.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out an index card. I handed it to my host.
“Blank? Oh, no. I forgot my pen, so I borrowed one of yours, just didn’t notice it was a UV-reactive pen. Why pick the dragon netsuke for your trick? I know this is more maybes than a Carly Rae Jepsen concert — don’t bother — but I bet it was twofold. Practically speaking, unlike most of your creatures, it’s a lengthy beast — lots of base surface area to work with. And it seemed the appropriate choice for your Dragon Coin account.”
The look on Seth and Rich’s faces was worth a hundred vintage Visa commercials.
“Shazam! Your dragon is literally a piece of crypto-zoology. Cryptocurrency passwords are long and complex, and you only have so many tries before you’re permanently locked out of your ‘wallet.’ Money you’ll never be able to retrieve. You weren’t going to trust that shit to memory, but these days, you couldn’t trust putting it on your computer or certainly on a sticky note. Don’t know how Rich here worked it out, but I did, soooo.” I stuck my palm out. “C’mon, hand it over, or I get Curtis in on the act. The light AND your phone.”
Rich shrugged, and went into his jacket. He dutifully unlocked the iPhone screen and handed it to me. I went to the Camera Roll, deleted the incredibly complex UV-illuminated “invisible” password inscribed on the bottom of the boxwood dragon, cleared the Deleted folder as well, checked his Sent Mail, texts, and Messenger (I doubt he’d have taken that risk), and returned the iPhone.
The young man laughed as he ran his UV light over the blank card I’d scavenged from Seth’s desk.
“And you,” I admonished Seth. “You weren’t going to call the cops on Rich, even though you’d have been within your rights. I’m guessing this falls into the ill-gotten gains category, from what I don’t know and as long as it’s not drugs or guns or trafficking, I dunno and don’t care.
"But you just call it bygones, find a new hidey-place for your password that isn’t quite so clever, and we all have a second piece of cake.”
Seth glared at the would-be crypto thief, and nodded silently.
Then he smiled. “I appreciate your discretion. Let me acknowledge it with a little token of my gratitude. You were admiring the piece earlier, and—”
“Nope,” I said.