When the winter winds roll into the evening and bring in smells of holly and cinnamon biscochitos, I best remember The Hundredth Hand.
I am wrapped in my new gray coat, pulling Michael’s old hat close over my ears. My father leads me past the bustling shops, where freshly fallen snow sinks pleasantly under my feet. We emerge on the plaza, a square of tall adobe buildings that carve out the pressed blue sky. The luminarias dot the roofs and line the sidewalks. Those in the shadows glow orange with the quiet embers of daylight flame. In the middle of the square, the Christmas tree stands. Its branches are cast upward, drawing a line from stump to sun. Round glass ornaments nest on nearly every branch. These are the same ornaments from the time when my father was a child, he tells me. They are the same ornaments from his own father’s memories. And of course, he adds, they will be there when it is time to walk my children through the square.
We stride across the plaza and turn out onto a small side road. First a right, then another right, turn left, two blocks, another right, straight on through. Father counts his steps one by one, like a treasure map. His feet sketch out our path.
The shop sits at the high end of a hill. From far away it looks like a quiet adobe church. From close up it looks abandoned. I glance up at my father nervously, but he only stares ahead at the clouded windows broken up into twelve-inch squares.
Tink tink tink tink…
A choir of tiny copper bells sings out our arrival. Father takes my coat and hangs it alongside his. The purple velvet curtains brush Michael’s hat right off my head as we duck underneath to enter the store. I clutch the hat close to me.
Inside there is a carefully pruned jungle of knickknacks and baubles. The walls are saturated with deep ocean blue and the shelves climb high for miles. A figure eight train track hangs from the middle of the ceiling, with a small train gliding back and forth. After minutes of staring up at the infinite path, I realize that the track is causing the train to climb and fall, climb and fall. There is no battery inside it. Over in the corner, a band of marionettes hang suspended, their mouths open and ready to sing. Their limbs are bent with hands on hips and legs kicking in the air. On a high shelf, a tiger is frozen in the air, jumping through a metal hoop that a young girl holds out. The sculpted clay figures are so small; I imagine how small the brush must have been that once painted their faces.
A large hammock holds an assortment of stuffed animals with deep and intense eyes. A low shelf holds thick and colorful books. There are walking sticks and sparkling scarves and music boxes and nets for catching bugs. One wall displays an array of musical instruments, many of them unfamiliar. The highest shelves hold collections of Russian dolls and fine chess sets carved of stone. There are bowls filled with tiny trinkets dispersed around the room.
“What is this place?” I whisper to my father.
He smiles and pulls me toward him. “This,” he says, “is The Hundredth Hand.”
“What does it mean?”
My father takes me over to a corner of the room and brings down a small wooden doll.
“Pinocchio!” I say.
“Yes.” He nods and pulls out a small folded tag attached to the doll’s ankle. He opens it crease by crease and holds it out for me to read.
Empoli, Italy. 1838. Carlo Collodi’s first marionette.
The text goes on.
“You see,” my father tells me, “Collodi was the man who wrote Pinocchio. This was one of the dolls that inspired his story.” He sweeps his arm out across the shop. “Everything you see here has a story.”
I gaze around at all of the shelves. Small spears of sun poke into the room and stab at the walls, erupting them into bursts of light. The eyes of the stuffed animals twinkle. The porcelain figurines sparkle as they dance across the rows of shelves. The room is washed in color.
“When you receive something from here, it is very old. You are not the first or even the second pair of hands to own it.”
“Are you the hundredth?” I ask.
Father grins. “Sometimes. Or sometimes you are the tenth pair of hands, or the thirtieth. Sometimes you are the sixty-third person, and you hold something dearly for a long time, until it is time to give it to the sixty-fourth person.” He reaches for a wooden puzzle.
“Your great grandmother had this once,” he says wistfully. “And now it waits for someone else.”
“It’s a library for toys,” I say.
“A very rare library. And one in which you pick one toy, only one. You add to its story, then bring it back.” He lowers his voice and leans close to me. “They say an old bruja opened this shop when the town was only a small cluster of houses. Sometimes the building is here. Sometimes it disappears. I only know one thing: the three times I have been here, once for myself, once for Michael, and now for you, the shop has stood on the edge of this hill.”
My father and I spend all day looking through the maze of valuables. There is a note on every single one, just as father said. I gather too many things in my arms and wedge myself into a hut just below the net of animals. I cannot stop reading the stories of how these figures came to be. Each is thin and frail alone, travelling down a fragile path of coincidence and chance. Yet together, the shop is a quilt made up of the many threadbare objects. Somehow they have all found a home here.
Snow begins to fall into the late evening as my father comes to fetch me.
“Has it found you yet?” he asks.
I hold up what the tag calls a Newton’s Cradle, made in 1972. It looks like a small swing set, with nine spheres hanging down from a silver bar. Each sphere has been painted as one of the planets. I pull out Mercury and let it fall. It comes back and pushes Pluto out the other side.
“The story tells about a boy who grew up to be an astronaut,” I say.
We both nod at each other and stand to take the cradle to the front counter. My father speaks to the old woman behind the desk at length. He hands her a small pad of money. She hands him a due date.
“You are the fifth owner,” my father says. He looks proud and holds the Newton’s Cradle up. “You are amongst the founders of its long existence.”
“Where is your object?” I ask as we walk out the door.
“In another set of hands,” he answers.
The day after my tenth Christmas marked the first and last time I walked my father’s map. The day after my twentieth Christmas, the cradle disappeared out of my room. Off to its next owner, my father announced. “You might see it again,” he said, “when you bring your own child.”
But I never did return.
Since his death, the story has grown distant. The memory fleeting. Some days I wonder if it was a dream. Other days I am convinced that I invented the entire outing. But on some days, when the scents of the holidays mingle in the air and soft blue snow finds me at my doorstep, I go back to the shop. My threadbare story finds its home. My cradle takes a part of me with it. And I imagine all of the other objects I saw that long afternoon, and what their stories were, and whose hands they went to.
On evenings such as these, I go back to The Hundredth Hand.