07 June 2009

Swallowing Chinese Medicine (Cabinet)

It was not the thing for which I was looking. Not at all.

See, I have this little corner, an accidental eddy in the spaces around me that I would like to fill with…something. The natural thing, that which first occurred to me, was a writing desk. It is probably pretty obvious by now that I have aspirations to be a writer. If one is going to be a writer, therefore, it follows that one should have a place to write. From that, the inexorable push of logic says that a desk is the most likely place at which to write.

When I first sat down to get serious about writing, I almost always did it at the dining table. It was centrally located, had good light coming through the window and gave easy access to the stereo and the refrigerator. And there was also a toilet nearby, so all the basic needs were covered.

Things are a little different now, but I still do most of my writing at a dining table. Problem is, it is located away from the windows, and I miss easy access to natural light. There is a spot next to my dresser that is just big enough that I could fit a medium sized library table or small desk, perfect for writing and thinking. This is the accidental eddy I mentioned. A small backwater out of the main flow of things to provide some peace and quiet.

For some reason, I got it into my head that I didn’t want a modern desk. I wasn’t that interested in sleek or shiny or tubular or glassy. I wanted something made out of wood, preferably old, purpose built and with just enough ornamentation to be interesting without being frilly. I wanted something that had seen some use, but looked “worn with care” and not just beat up or abused. I wanted an old desk with brass hardware and maybe an old fashioned keyhole in the drawer. Secret compartments would be icing on the cake.

So antiques were the natural choice. And as luck (and geography) would have it, there are quite a few antiques stores/outlets near my homestead. I availed myself of this bounty by heading for the nearest, an old mill complex that has been converted into offices, shops and (of course) antiques sellers. I went into the first (and probably largest) antique furniture store that I came upon.

I was immediately overwhelmed by the variety, quality and…prices…of some of these pieces. And the sizes! If I am ever in the market for an old wardrobe the size of a minivan, I know where to go. The writing desk selection was a little slimmer, but there were some very nice pieces. I saw from across the room, what looked like a very promising table. Right size! Wood! Multiple veneer inlays! Louis XIV style (or something like that)! Wow! I said. I imagined myself sitting there, writing the equivalent of “War and Peace”, sipping brandy and pontificating on the size of my big head. I hurried over to check it out.

I imagined writing a check for $6,500. Eeep.

Okay, so no “L’etat c’est moi” fantasies for me on that one. So I kept looking. I did find a few more tables, but they were either too frou-frou or too money-money. Very nice stuff, just a little out of my reach at the moment. I was about to leave the store when I turned a corner, and saw this beauty:

I believe I actually gasped when I saw it. It is a 19th century apothecary cabinet, apparently used by a practitioner of Chinese medicine. It is made of Elmwood, which seems a little unusual. It has 42 square drawers and 3 rectangular ones. Each one has a little metal pull, a ring of what I thought was brass or bronze. Each drawer has Chinese (I think) calligraphy on the face:

I don’t know what it was about this piece, but for some reason I found it to be beautiful, mysterious and intriguing. I was immediately taken by it, even though I couldn’t think of what I could do with it.

By now, you probably have noticed the obvious: it is in no guise a desk for writing. It is about four feet tall, there is no place to sit at it and the drawers cannot be used to store paper or books. Standing at it would be ridiculous, trying to write.

So, many strikes against it, desk-wise.

Still, there was something about, something almost magnetic that kept me staring at it…

I think that maybe it was the aura of possibilities about the chest. Possibilities of past and future uses hanging about the chest like a quantum fog. What was and what could be in those drawers? Who owned or would own such a thing? I saw it behind the counter of a medicine shop, or in a kitchen, as the visitor and the owner sat talking in quiet consultation. I pulled a drawer open, and the hand of an elderly gentleman lifted the ring along with mine…the little compartments stuffed with a powder, a spice, an herb, exotic ingredients my eyes could not identify but which captivated me all the same. In the bottom of one drawer I found a small blob of sealing wax, an imprint faint but still visible in the shiny red circle. How? Who? Why?

The Universe contained in a wooden box the size of my daughter with her arms outstretched. Forty-five drawers divided into smaller and smaller boxes, a rectangular fractal vessel of near infinite probabilities. Each volume containing the answer to someone’s question: Make me better, make me less hungry, give me strength, let me taste, feed my body, feed my mind…

…feed my soul.

I closed my eyes and breathed deep the aroma of old wood and possibilities. The elderly practitioner turned from the cabinet and brought something to the counter where I stood, waiting. He placed a small cloth bag in my hands, heavy and fragrant, and wished me good health. I smiled to thank him and moved to the door, stepping out into the bright blue goodness of a lovely summer day.

The Universe, in a chest of wood.


  1. Very magical! I'm guessing it was a past life connection from when you were the Chinese doctor.

  2. Go back and buy it, dammit...

  3. OOooooh, this is my favorite kind of thinking. Love this. Love that piece of furniture.
    Just great.

  4. oh cool.... I'll bet it was a bazillion dollars, but probably worth every penny. What was in the cloth bag?

  5. Nice! I love exotic original pieces like that. Owning something like that is like telling Pottery Barn to take a giant flying leap.
    It reminds me a little of those old library card catalogs. Every time I see them in antique shops, I'm drawn towards taking one home. Only we have no room for something like that, otherwise I'd definitely own it by now. Maybe some day.
    Anyway! As my grandmother would say, use it in good health.

  6. Supreme Leader confirms the writing to be Chinese. Just buy it, man.

  7. I have several pieces that I own that 'spoke' to me when I saw them. Some were within reach for me financially, some I put myself into debt because of...but I love each one, and would never think of NOT owning them.

    I'd like to think that I, myself, will add to their value when someone in the future then owns it...and wonders about it's past lives.

    If it speaks to you, as it obviously does...you should get it. Maybe each drawer holds the inspriation you need as a writer as you gaze at it!

    Thanks for the post. Keep writing....
    ...and get out your checkbook.

  8. It was not the thing for which I was looking.

    best lead in sentence, EVER.

  9. It has happened to me before. That draw to a piece of furniture. And I have to have it.

    The last time it happened, I became the proud owner of a 100 year old Chinese chest of drawers. It has rings on the top so it can be carried by a bamboo rod.

    I haven't been able to purchase all of the pieces I love, but I get the gravitational pull.

  10. Hello,

    Do you know where to find different chinese medecine as Snake wine ? I already own this one:

    But looking for different types of natural medecine.
    Thanks for help.

    (by the way I found your website on Google when looking for Snake wine bottles)

  11. My sister, were she still alive, on seeing this picture would have bought that chest in a heartbeat. She had the money-money, but more importantly, she had a HUGE passion for chests with mini-drawers. She owned several, and with this one's history, I imagine she'd have scooped it up.

  12. Please tell me you purchased this.


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Don't suffer your crimes
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