“Reality is the shadow of a word.”
A single tourist waits for the train, anchored to the platform by his rucksack, eager to descend into the valley below. He is the only person at the station, the last point of transit for many miles, situated at the foot of a northern mountain range. A torn poster flutters on the wall behind him, revealing patches of advertisements from seasons past. The station is peeling with paper propaganda, layers of images plastered over each other, decaying to nonsense like a game of exquisite corpse. Vandals have left their marks on everything. A picture of a girl in a bathing suit has been defaced by a drawing of a wolf with his tongue hanging out. An obscene phrase leaks across the image of an old lady in gold ink. The snow begins to fall over the northern hills. It will fall for months without end.
In a small house halfway up the summit, a man stands at the window looking down at the empty road leading into the valley. He has been expecting a winter like this, as has everyone who lives in the village, a few conglomerates of huts scattered high through the mountains, laden with crags of formidable bathhouses. In the main room of the man’s dwelling, his children drag spoons across the wall to illustrate their boredom, scratching lines through a patch of stains. The gap of years between the children and the wall is too great for them to wonder what lies beyond its surface. Perhaps they have just performed a beheading, or drawn a border through an invisible landscape.
“What are those lines there?” says the man, as he enters the room, speaking of the marks on the wall before them.
“Children,” his wife replies, “you know how they like to scrape things.”
“Can’t you clean it off?” the man remarks, confounded by how his wife could spend all day at the house and not notice the walls.
The man and woman were born here in the North. People like them have always existed, plowing through the spring, trudging relentlessly through the winter. They are poor, but timeless, as only poverty allows. They come from a line of nomads and farmers, first among them to read and write. Their children have been studying grammar and language, learning proverbs and vocabulary and ancient stories of their heritage. But during the winter there is no school. Their days are long and full of ennui, spent wallowing in the snow fields. The walls of their house are like records, quietly displaying the fortunes of their family. A year passes. A lodger spends the night. A piece of wall chips from an exposed corner. A stain solidifies forever the moment of a thrown teacup.
Yukkuri hanashite kudasai: Please speak slowly.
It is a Sunday in April. Visiting businessmen sit in the orchards in three-piece suits. They will sit there all day, drinking Shōchū and plum wine, loosening their ties beneath the cherry blossom trees. Horses feed on the low hanging branches, straying from masters who sleep drunk in the fields. Pink dots blow across the hills, pixelating the landscape like a pointillist’s dream.
A book has fallen open in a grove of dogwood trees. It is full of pictures, a gallery of painted images from seventeenth century Japanese theater. Kokeshi lies motionless on the ground beside it, gazing over the pages. She studies the red face of the Handsome Lover, the yellow stripes of the Virtuous Hero, the blackened forehead of the Wicked Woman. The book is from the library, but it will not be returned. Kokeshi lingers with it all afternoon, as her shapeless body grows more sophisticated in color. People glance at her as they pass. They are thinking of the sagging mattresses in their bedrooms, the kitchen table that needs a new leg, the barn door that is missing a plank. One day they will offer Kokeshi the shelter of their houses, in exchange for the good luck of her presence. They will let her stay as long as she wants, provided she wards off evil, prevents fires, and ensures that the women of the house give birth to healthy children. Kokeshi is small and precious herself, known to stare quietly from windows. In time she may cling to the walls of a nursery, enduring a life of careful dusting and cries in the night. But first she must linger in the fields for a while, if she is ever to become of any use. She has spent the past five years lying beneath the trees, occasionally leaning against the backside of a house.
Rakka eda ni kaerazu: Fallen blossom does not return to the branch.
The woman from the North pulls a black frock from her basket and hangs it in the window to dry. It is dotted here and there with rhinestones; her mother bought it for her at a flea market in Paris when she was nine years old and a little overweight. As a teenager and a young woman she used to wear it when there was no other hope of being extraordinary.
“What’s that?” her husband asks.
“A flag of mourning for my youth,” says the woman. “In other words, the laundry.”
“I’m going to the baths,” says the man. “Should I bring you back something to eat?”
“Maybe a persimmon…or some tea…I don’t know,” the woman answers.
“I see you’re working on a sort of romantic starvation today,” says the man.
He smiles and walks out the door.
For some time now the walls of the house have been blank. The woman looks around, remembering how her husband has asked her to clean them. The patch of stains has been there forever, years perhaps. She has tried many times to get them off, but has never been able to remove them completely. They reappear faintly throughout the day, disappearing all together in certain light.
As the man walks down the road, the woman fills the room with hanging wet dresses. When a breeze comes through the window, they quiver and dance. A ruffled shoulder falls from a clothespin.
Unsan musho: To disappear without a trace.
Kokeshi has recently come to resemble a woman. Her hands are young and unused, like those of an heiress who has never lifted a finger. She keeps them out of sight, hidden in the sleeves of her new kimono and wrapped around her body, like wings. People with no imagination think she is limbless. Her body is smooth and firm like a rolling pin. She is quite skilled in the art of flattening dough. You can bury her up to the neck in sand and use her head to mark hidden treasure. Kokeshi wears the same dress every day and never gets it wrinkled. Her head is crowned with flowers and a single gold thread is tied around her neck. The expression on her face is regal and demure, as if watching a fire at a ceremonial dance. There are swollen ponds of pink makeup under her eyes. They burn into her face like moons or fish. This way, when she sighs, when she turns her head to look at something, it will move you.
Obi-age: A long piece of silk cloth tied around the body.
Winter is long for the people of the North. The snow falls over the hills for a third of the year. There is little to do and few visitors at the bathhouses. Tourists are gone for the season and money is scarce for those who stay behind. Life is dense and frail, like stacks of paper, eternally blank. New industry must be invented, but the hands of peasant carpenters know little more than obscure shapes when kept indoors. They will stare for long hours at piles of wood, only to throw another branch on the fire.
Shopkeepers step out to shovel snow and sweep the sidewalks, a task that has been done every morning in every country for hundreds of years and will continue to be done for centuries onward. The man from the North passes a gift shop on his way to the baths. The windows are full of un-bought things: decorative hats and porcelain bowls, kitchen utensils and origami paper. The man looks in at a display of figurines, an arrangement of little bodies standing in rows on a shelf. But he doesn’t bother to go in and inquire about them. His mother used to collect wooden dolls. Their outfits were painted on, as well as their arms and their hair. They could not be dressed up or made to gesture. They could only bow towards each other, the same eternal expressions of politeness clinging to their faces. From time to time their heads would fall off.
Kan geiko: The practicing of one’s art in the harsh winter weather.
Kokeshi has left the grove of trees and now stands on the ledge. She has changed positions several times, turning away from the racket of voices calling after children. Her life now passes in a rectangle of space. Her days are full of a noise she has no part in. The pendulum swings between lullabies and screaming. Then comes a flood of insufferable gibberish, that primitive singsong droned over things that have no language. Kokeshi is settled now, acquainted with new animals, the duck on a leash, the elephant whose trunk is stuck in the air, trumpeting for eternity without a sound. Now it is silent. The room glows pink. Cherry blossoms grow over the walls outside, obscuring the house and blocking the light. Kokeshi is thinking of bears sleeping in caves. She has been imagining what it is like to go traipsing through the snow. She tries to lean her head out the guillotine window to watch the sun fall through the trees. But Kokeshi can only lay stiffly across the ledge, tip forward like a buoy on the water.
Hitotsu no gong wa keshite jubun de wa nai: One language is never enough.
At the bathhouse, the man from the North sits with crossed legs, sipping tea from a tiny porcelain cup. When he is finished, he discards his kimono and slips into the bath. The water is up to his neck. The bathhouse is usually crowded with people, a room of hanging skin and flopping stomachs, elbows propped on ledges, flushed cheeks, hot sighs. But today it is empty. If he sits still enough, the man from the North can hear the snow hitting the roof. There are naked women just rooms away, huddling in beautiful configurations; hair tied up in neat obsidian bunches. A dreamy fog is cast over their bodies, like the haze of an ending in a black and white film.
The man from the North looks around the bathhouse, watching the shapes that emerge from the steam off the water as patterns of light pour in from the windows. The heat deepens and throbs from his forehead, until he cannot discern his sweat from the water. He closes his eyes, the shapes of light still impressed upon his eyelids. Forms in the distance blur in his mind. A cloud becomes an immovable rock, a dead bird a discarded apron. The man from the North lives at the center of a vast landscape, but everywhere he looks, he sees the same thing. His vision swells with legends from his boyhood, the painted faces of the dancing girls he once heard about in stories, the wooden gaze of his mother, sweeping up pieces of broken china, pink shapes in the caverns below her eyes. Over time he has learned to make her expression.
Yume wa youkoso: Welcome to a dream.
Kokeshi spends many hours standing in silence. She has been hearing about vampires and how they are nocturnal. Kokeshi never sleeps, and still wonders what it is like to be fully awake, night or day. She has never lost a staring contest over a blink or a laugh. She is a master at impersonating statues or playing dead. But Kokeshi often longs for more stimulating conversation. She is not the only one on the ledge. There are others with her, each trapped in their own stillness, no two faces exactly alike. She turns to see what Happy Kimono Girl is doing, but she is only standing there not saying a word. Cicadas in Chorus, and Flowers in a Wild Field have been grouped together in the corner. They too are very quiet today. Kokeshi was born from long nights of snow-bound winter. Her parents were descendants of nomads in the northern forests, her aunts and uncles farmers holding spare pieces of wood. Today, Kokeshi wears a pink flower tucked behind her ear again. She wonders if her hair will one day turn white from the perpetual state of dreaming of spring.
Kitsukitsu kannin dosue: I am sorry.
“It happened in some of the old fairy tales, that people sold their shadows to the devil in exchange for their lives,” says the old peddler, standing on the doorstep. He comes by each week with a cart of produce, pushing it up the slopes to the peasants in the foothills.
The woman from the North looks through his wares. Her children can be seen through the open doorway behind her. They sit in their derelict house, spooning soup into their mouths in derelict unison.
“There was the case of that Jewish artist who painted murals for the Gestapo in order to be fed,” the old man continues, looking in at the children and raising an eyebrow at the stains on the wall behind them. “He was kept to amuse one of the officer’s children and was ordered to cover the walls of the nursery with pictures from fairy tales.”
As the peddler talks, the woman from the North fixes her eyes on a pile of mangoes, brushing her fingers over the smooth colorful shapes, knowing they are out of her price range.
“And then, years later,” the old man persists, “decades after all of their deaths, fragments of the paintings were found beneath the wallpaper. They were mistaken for stains. No bolder than shadows.”
“I’ll take a bushel of potatoes,” says the woman from the North, giving the peddler a few coins and closing the door, his eyes still lit up with the embers of his story.
The children look at each other and stand up to examine the stains on the wall. They drag their spoons over the surface and then run out to the fields to play. Tonight they will stare at monstrous shapes emerging from the closet, only to flick on the lights and discover their overcoats falling from hangers.
Alone in the house again, the woman watches from the kitchen window. As the children disappear down the hill, she fills a bucket at the sink, preparing to clean the stains off the wall. For a moment she catches her own face in the window.
“What a sensationalist,” she says to herself. She picks up the glass she has been drinking from off the counter. It is empty, but she continues the motions of taking a sip. She does the pantomime of drinking from it, so that she cannot see her own eyes in the reflection. This reminds her that she was once a great liar.
Shoji: A sliding door made of paper.
Kokeshi can see from her ledge that a wedding party is passing in the distance. The bride walks slowly at the head of the crowd, leading the procession through the orchards. She wears a white kimono imprinted with cranes fleeing from the pines. There is a gold comb in her hair and a sword in her belt. They flash in the light as the sun hits the trees. With each step, she opens her fan a little wider, to show the size of her growing happiness. Kokeshi’s happiness only comes in one size. An eternal spring is engraved in her features, even as she dreams of Siberia and funerals. The look on her face will never change, made to reveal one emotion forever. It is like living under a midnight sun or a polar darkness that never lifts. A host of guests follows after the bride. They are drinking a special tea made from pickled blossoms. There is a compound in the flower that suppresses the appetite. If too much is ingested, it becomes a poison.
Kokeshi darts her eyes back and forth like a clock. She is looking for her shadow on the ledge again, to assure herself that she is still on it. The curtain has been pulled across the window. White shapes press and bulge against it, the bodies of the wind reaching after her. Now and then a pink blossom blows in across the floor. Pilots have painted flowering trees on the sides of airplanes. They have brought branches with them on Kamikaze missions, the falling petals the symbols of sacrificed youth. Kokeshi can think of nothing but throwing herself from the precipice.
In one hard billow, the curtain flies up and knocks Flowers in a Wild Field off the ledge. The beat of Kokeshi’s stationary heart suddenly takes on a counter rhythm.
Okawa: Waist drum held on the left thigh.
The children from the North have been wandering through the snowfields. Their father is sitting in a daze at the bathhouse. Their mother is at home, scrubbing the walls. The boy throws his spoon into the air and catches it. He hangs his head over a cinderblock of pages, a Kabuki text of songs he has been studying and carrying with him everywhere. He has come to the part where the Samurai Lord must plunge his own sword into his side, pull it across his stomach and then turn the blade upwards to the heart, forging a gruesome L-shaped wound. All of his disciples must follow after him, though most pass out after the first cut. The boy longs for a day of violent adventure, a life that must exist beyond the endless fields of white. He looks up and says the last line that is written on the page:
“I am a delicate prison of old laughter.”
His sister sits at the top of the hill, grazing her fingers over the ground. The snow has melted in places, revealing patches of trampled grass and frozen earth. The girl huddles in a ring of wet weeds and stares ahead, gazing between the landscape and the boy’s face, looking at neither really.
“What are you doing?” the boy asks.
“I don’t know,” she replies, as she picks up her spoon and stabs it into the ground.
A pair of scissors lays at her side. The boy notices pieces of snipped grass strewn in piles around her.
“A little landscape work?” says the boy.
“Look, I cut some of my hair too. Don’t tell mother,” says the girl.
She displays her new bangs, cut too close.
“You look like Joan of Arc,” says the boy.
The girl stands up in a tall drift of snow and pulls a bright red object out of her coat. It is a pair of puckered kazoo lips. She puts them in her mouth and blows. The boy drops his book in the snow.
Uta: A song.
Kokeshi lies in the grass with Flowers in a Wild Field, whose head has rolled off from too much bowing. Her body now basks naked and headless in the sun. Kokeshi’s dress is only unzipped a little in the back. She cannot remove it because it has been painted on. Her companion’s dress has been rubbed off by the hundreds who have handled her.
The petals fall over them like colored ashes. The clouds sail past in great heaps of rice.
O Hisashiburi: It’s been a long time.
“What a sensation!” says the woman from the North, as she stands before the wall.
Her husband is sitting in a daze at the bathhouse. Her children are meandering through the winter woods.
“And who has caused it?” she exclaims to herself.
The woman has spent the afternoon scrubbing the walls, unable to remove the lines that stain them. She continues working at the surface, searching for some sign of past life in her house, perhaps merely hidden beneath the layers of paint, like in the story the old man told at her door. She imagines the silhouettes of Hiroshima, people who vanished to dust at the moment of the bombing, remaining only as shadows burned onto the steps of temples. Entire existences can be reduced to nebulous shapes, the woman thinks. She has lost many days this way alone in these rooms, crawling in her skin and the skin of her house.
Onaka suita: I am hungry.
They lay side by side, hidden in the grass at the foot of the wall. Ten paces in any direction crowds of people pass through the groves of trees, stopping to admire the last flowering branches. But here, in this exact point in the universe, Kokeshi and her companion are isolated to the point of being anywhere. A daytime moon hangs white in the sky. A lonely footbridge melts in the distance. And still, there are blank spots in the picture. The blossoms of spring have faded to piles of mush, the same extreme beauty and quick death of every year. Kokeshi and her companion sprawl themselves in the landscape and watch as whole paragraphs of sky comment on the subtle gestures their bodies make towards each other. Kokeshi laughs.
“I was just imagining what we would do if a pack of wolves came running out of the woods.”
Michi ni mayotte imasu: I am lost.
When the man from the North returns from town, he finds a gaping hole in the wall of his house. His wife kneels at the mouth of the opening, a sledgehammer lying on the ground beside her. Dead embers have ignited in her eyes, the untouchable fires at the centers of planets, but as most imaginings go, whatever she has been looking for has failed to materialize.
“I cleaned the walls,” says the woman, staring out through the hole. The snow is falling hard over the hills before her, flooding each corridor of the house with arctic silence. A toy duck on a string rolls out of the kitchen and crashes into the doorway the man is standing in. The last leaf falls from a barren tree.
The man walks through the hole and into the yard to pull a log from a pile of dogwood branches lying against the house. Today the piece of wood will not be thrown on the fire. The man carries it inside and sits before the wall. He pulls a knife from his pocket and carves a familiar shape out of the soft seasoned wood. He begins with the head, then chisels out the smooth limbless body. He paints a face over the blank wooden surface, a single gold line traced around the neck and a flower behind the ear. The skin of the figure is impenetrably white, with pink shapes beneath the eyes, burning into the face like moons or fish. The man has carved this object many times before, every winter reproducing the same missing face. These figures have been displayed on the mantels of many houses in this region. They have been placed on ledges over children’s beds. In the closet behind him, rows of them wait, packed away in boxes to be brought to the gift shops in town. They stand on the shelves in identical form, all with looks of demure longing, and hair, that, over time, has turned completely white.
The man’s shadow grows long across the room.
Outside, there is no horizon. The sky and the ground have become one color. The sun begins to set through the windows. The woman from the North still gazes through the hole at the snowy landscape, thinking in great bounds through an eternity of white. Each square of vision leading into the distance stretches onwards as an overwhelming blank. The man from the North switches on the television, continuing to work on the doll beneath the glare of the flickering black and white images. The story on the screen tells of a woman who dreams the earth is moving dangerously close to the sun, but wakes to find, that, in fact, it is only moving further away from it.
Machigai ga attemo odorokanaide kudasai: If there are mistakes don’t be surprised.
They stand up, now only empty dresses. Reaching out with the sleeves of their kimonos, they paw at each other, evaporating figures turning back to vague shapes. Kokeshi and her companion know that they will soon rot into the landscape. Earwigs will plant colonies in the splintered hollows of their brains, plows will tear through their lost grey bodies. All things perish in a universe they don’t belong to. Flowers in a Wild Field is already a skeleton, the sketches of a dress nearly gone from her torso. Kokeshi hangs her sleeves over her companion’s wilting shoulders. Flowers in a Wild Field reaches out for Kokeshi’s fleeting waist. They begin to dance with each other, close and slow, waltzing to the rhythm of the first summer winds. Kokeshi and her companion politely blow away, leaving their heads to loll in the grass.
Walking back on the road, the children from the North approach the house. As they hoist themselves up to climb in through the bedroom window, they see something on the ground below the ledge, scraps of painted wood half buried in the snow. They are the heads of dolls. Probably the work of children, thinks the boy, you know how they like to scrape things. The gods are impressed when dolls are played with. Sometimes it is enough for them to send a good harvest. The boy picks one up and hands the other to his sister. They hold them in front of their faces and bow towards each other.
At the bottom of the foothills the station is empty. The last tourist has boarded his train. As it speeds away from the mountains through the valley, he looks out the window with no regard for the place he is leaving. Nice bathhouses, he thinks, but not much to see in the winter. Leaning against his satchel is a wooden figure he bought at one of the gift shops. When he gets off the train he will forget it on his seat.