Saturday, April 3, 2010
A group of faces greeted me. Little girls, each about two feet high, stood on a shelf wearing kimonos in varying shades of red, their puffed sleeves suspended in the air as if they had been dancing just a moment before. Some sat on embroidered cushions, while others held black-lacquered musical instruments. But there was something sad and strange about them huddled together on the shelf, and it was only when I stepped forward to take a closer look that I realized I had found the old woman’s doll collection.
I touched one of the faces. It was rough and more chalky than I expected, like a boiled eggshell. I picked up another doll, and she slipped through my fingers. When I caught her, something lodged into my palm, piercing the skin as though I had been bitten. I put the doll back on the shelf and began to try to retreat through the house, my hand throbbing, my eyes smarting.
Mimi-chan and the old woman intercepted me. “What do you think?” the old woman asked.
Mimi-chan looked gorgeous, dressed in a bright pink kimono with a yellow lining peeking out of the sleeves and the collar, and a gold obi cinched tightly around her waist. Her hair had been lacquered into an elaborate series of stiff waves, and her face painted a flawless, harsh white. “One more thing,” the old woman said, and slid out of the room.
“Mimi-chan,” I whispered. “We have to leave.”
“The old lady told me lots of things. She promised to teach me how to do the tea ceremony. And old dances. And how to arrange flowers.”
“There’s something wrong with this place. What that lady,” I insisted.
“I think she’s nice.”
“She’s turning you into a doll.”
Mimi-chan lifted her chin defiantly. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well, I’m leaving.”
“You’re leaving anyway. You’re going back to America.”
“I’ll be back,” I protested. “What am I going to do when I come back and you’ve disappeared?” I could hear the old woman shuffling towards us. “Listen,” I whispered urgently, “how do you know if someone is a ghost in Japan?”
“Simple,” Mimi-chan said. “They don’t have feet.”
The old woman returned with a comb made from a warm, mahogany-colored shell and carved into the shape of two dragons. “This will make everything perfect,” she smiled.
“Obāsan.” Grandmother. “There’s a cockroach on your toe!” I shouted.
“What?” The old woman lifted the hem of her kimono, her face wrinkled into prudish disgust. “Where?”
“There!” I cried, and pointed to the floor. “There!” I repeated, shouting at Mimi-chan.
The inside of the old woman’s kimono was an unbroken horizon of scarlet, the strong color pulsing with vitality, as if lit up from behind. “I don’t see anything. Where? Where do you see it?” She bent her head and searched and searched for the cockroach.
I grabbed Mimi-chan’s hand and we flung open the paper doors, their thin skins suddenly feeling very feeble between my fingers, as if the house would disintegrate if touched by rain.
by: Marie Mutsuki Mockett
New Contributor to Tales from the Velvet Chamber
"Luminous Beings" was published in Epoch in 2007, in Volume 56, number 2