There is a local superstition; rest assured you won't find it a familiar one. It's peculiar to a small corner of southern Illinois, inhabited by a few multigenerational families of Welsh expats, most of whom have since moved away to gods only know where. They brought their odd bit of habit with them when they moved out here, all of it eclectic but performed with varying degrees of conviction or tongue-in-cheek humouring of one another. When somebody is going away on a long journey, especially one with some danger to it, you send with them something that you want to get back from them after their trip. There are particulars to this, however: the item must be something entirely unnecessary to the journey, entirely harmless.
You do not send them coins; that would imply that you expect them to need more money than they prepared for the trip, and that implies misfortune. It also implies that you do not trust the hospitality of the locals, wherever they venture, and such thoughts are taboo. You do not send them a pocket knife, lest you jinx them into losing theirs, or being in some peril that demands self-defense with a knife. You could send a spoon with them safely enough... everybody needs to eat, after all! There's no harm in that expectation! The problem with that is, spoons are historically tokens of betrothal, in Wales, and that complicates things. You could steal something harmless from them, and then plant it back on their person - the spare button on their shirt, a kiss, anything they would've had already - and in this case they call it "Thieves' Luck" being granted, but only if the theft was successful in escaping their notice, and a great show made of bestowing the stolen item to them. It's bad luck if they catch you, so this method is less preferred. You could send them a spare copy of their own house key; the worst thing implied by that is, they safely arrive home, and happen to have lost their primary key along the way. Keys in general are lucky things to send along, so this is fairly inoffensive.
The best and luckiest thing to send, however, is the winding key to a music box. There is no implicit harm in the need of a music box key. The sentiment is sweet and heavy, psychological metheglin to carry along with them on the journey: "Until you return to me, I shall have no music. You must, therefore, return safely to me." It is always understood that music is paramount, necessary to a full life; these are very Welsh families, after all.
The reasons for the superstition are hazy, perhaps even lost. I've asked around and found differing answers. Some say it comes down to a sense of fatalistic irony in the universe, or among spirits, or from the tylwyth teg, who some regarded as fairies and others as mocking ghosts (and others yet regard as both at once, as though the entire business of the afterlife is spent playing with the fates of living people). Some say it's about trust and hospitality: to expect the best of a journey, to be neighbourly as much as one can, a sentiment rather like Greek xenia and the general Indoeuropean notion of guest rights. Regardless the beliefs driving the superstition, the manifestation is consistent: someone beloved is away, and they are given a token of the household to ensure their safe return, and keys are the luckiest, and music boxes supply the best keys of all.
There is one additional catch, of course. There does have to be a working, real music box affiliated with the gifted key. One must not half-ass superstitions.
It was with these thoughts in mind, leftover from a childhood spent among these people, that I found myself visiting a local antique store during one of my walks about town, looking for a way to keep my hands from idling.
Stepping in the door, me: "Don't suppose you've any music boxes?"
The approximately 17-year-old clerk; the owner's daughter: "Uh, yeah, lemme' show you what we have." She Walks me over to a shelf of snow globes and jewelry boxes and so on, picks one up at random, turns the key... no sound, and the key breaks off the winding screw, stripped out. "Shit. I'm sorry; let me-"
"Perfect; I'll take it."
The clerk says, aghast, "It's broken." She looks at me as though I'm completely off my bird.
"Of course it is; how much?"
She checks the sticker on the bottom. "Uh, says ten, but it doesn't work, so... five?"
"There y'go; thanks."
"You do get it doesn't work, right?"
"Yep." At this point I realise I've walked myself into a story that she'll be telling her friends about later, so I might as well sell the narrative for her, by being as inscrutably deadpan as possible.
"Why d'you want it, then?"
"I can't very well repair it if it's not broken, can I? And I'm not going to break one just so I can fix it; that'd be wasteful."
"You repair music boxes?" She's trying to find some sense to this, some underlying order in the universe that renders my purchase comprehensible. We can't have that, now, can we?
She's taken aback, eyebrows hitting her hairline, and I fight to suppress my grin. "How?"
"I'll figure that out once I get home," I say, before a flicker of mercy rises to the surface, and I add, "but I can keep you posted if you want. Got e-mail?"
"Sure! Lemme write it down for you."
"Awesome. I'll send you an audio clip once it's working, and anything I can find out about its origin and age."
"Wow. Looking forward to it. So you just... do stuff like this for fun?"
"Today I do, yeah. See you around, then." I whistle Shostakovich on my way out the door, smiling at gentle mischief performed efficiently. She has a story and a fiver; I have a piece of broken hardware to keep my hands busy. Neither of us is bored. Yes, good has been done here.
The rest happens in a blur of hyperfocus:
Got home, disassembled it, found the maker's mark - Lador musical action, Switzerland; the box is from Sorrento, Italy, built by one Amelia Savarese, a master craftswoman of wood inlay. Found the code for the song cylinder - L2844; looked it up against Lador brand mechanisms, determined it to be Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago. Oiled all the moving parts, then used a file to adjust the hole where the on-off switch fits, so it would have full range of motion when the lid opens. Reinstalled the action into the box and replaced the resonator plate. Fully wound the main spring using a universal winding key I had in my desk drawer. Opened the box... and we have sound!
Dr. Zhivago is from 1965, so that's the oldest the music box can possibly be. I e-mailed the model information and how I repaired it, plus that sound clip, to the clerk, and she replied that she was really happy it didn't have to be thrown away.
Someone very important to me has a certain tendency to journey far, in dangerous places, with great frequency and long durations of absence. Not materialistic, him, and not the sort to carry mementos tangibly representative of intangible feelings. It's wishful to think he'd consent to carry a music box key, for me, though he'd express gracious appreciation of the sentiment behind it. It's still more wishful to imagine that a tiny scrap of metal has the power to send him home again in one still-breathing piece, every single time. Factually, cognitively I know these things. Despite that, a childhood steady diet of myths and Mabinogion have coaxed me inexorably to this condition of owning a working music box, out of the completely irrational superstitious expression of a wish to keep him safe.
Every time he comes home, there's some rust on the gears. He has to relearn the rhythms of civilian life. He has to reconnect with his wife and relearn where he fits within his own household, as much as he can without disrupting the way things adapted in his absence. He comes home with more things he's not permitted to discuss, and we have to find new gaps between those things, to talk through. We search new ways to trickle-feed our emotions to each other. We tease out each other's songs and secrets, brokenly. Neither of us believes in fixing things, or people, or relationships- not in the sense of restoring them to some idealised earlier condition. Scars are stories, marks of survival and healing. We only interest ourselves in cleaning them up and maintaining them. Learning them.
The work is never finished; the work is always new. There's music in it for us, if we do it right. It keeps my hands busy; I'm never bored with it.
Think of me now and then.
Godspeed, my love, till you are mine again.
Iron Noder 2017, 11/30