ISSUE TWELVE | SPRING 2019
A woman was thrown down a well for refusing the advances of a man. The woman was young, but the man was any age. He fixed his gaze on the woman. The woman resisted. The man was, to the woman, a dark, precarious fragment of roiling, low-lying space. The woman was, to the man, uncooled porcelain, perfectible. His gaze bore through the woman to the core of his own disintegration, which resembled, in the sparks burning off the edges of his fantasy, only the outer lights of emotion. The woman returned to the man’s bottomless lack of arousal the facet of his own narcissism over which he had the least control: a facet that perverted every hopeful aspiration into hatred. The man saw in all the bodies that passed before him in servitude, the fetching scions of his own body.
The man was a wealthy samurai. His holdings occupied a remote country estate. The woman was one of the man’s servants. She lived in a small room, with a view of a tree, its old, ingenuous elbow. The samurai wanted the woman to be his. He thought that because the woman was working for him, she already was. He thought working for him meant pledging to him a special allegiance. The man made his desires for the woman explicit. When the woman resisted, the man retaliated. It was not a decision, but a reflex. For him, love was inseparable from punishment.
* * *
The man had a set of ten heirloom plates. White, each painted with a scene from his ancestral village. The plates had been passed down hundreds of years. He loved the plates because he loved being, in his mind, the culmination of those hundreds of years, and the bearer of the memory of his ancestral village. He spoke of the plates as if they had been forged of the teeth and bones of each family member who touched them, beginning with the first, nameless, forever faceless family member, who preceded counting, a perennial firestorm in a cloud.
One of the woman’s tasks was to take care of the plates: polish and keep them protected in a lacquered wooden box and display them when called for. She was the only one permitted to touch, or even look at, the plates, outside the narrow space of arbitrary ceremony. She permitted herself moments of sympathy. The man observed this. He observed the bond that was forming between the woman and his plates. He became disturbed by the back of the woman’s head, tilted down, as if she was memorizing, whispering into, the plates. It was clear the woman was establishing a more intimate relationship with the plates than he not only could dare, but awaken. He became disturbed by the woman’s hands on his plates. He became disturbed by the woman’s fingers stroking his ancestral village.
One day he accused the woman of losing one of the plates. She swore she did not lose it, but fearing punishment, vowed to find the missing plate for him. Except: it was not missing; the man hid it. The woman counted the nine remaining plates so many times she began to believe nine and ten had switched places.
The tenth plate, hidden in a dark corner of the man’s private wing, tried desperately to rematerialize in the hands of the woman, to turn nine back into ten. It became the man’s unwitting accomplice. In that, it ceased being an heirloom and became another servant.
The man watched the woman grow shadows and curl into herself with self-doubt. He knelt down beside her and, feigning sympathy, told her to forget about it, forget about the tenth plate, it is gone, there is nothing more to be done, then said, I will excuse you, that is, if you agree, at last, to be my lover. The woman, recognizing the trap, refused. Nine was nine. Ten was the consummation of bondage. The man, rejected, became enraged. He picked up the woman, carried her to the edge of the woods, and threw her into the well.
* * *
The first time I saw Okiku she was hanging on the wall of a small izakaya in Izumisano, Japan. I was eating pickles and chicken at the bar when, stirred by a voice, and cold breath on my neck, I turned around and saw, on the wall, an androgynous stone-like wraith with long hair rising, like a vapor, out of a well.
In 1830, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) painted Okiku. He gave her the long face of a night flower, light blue and white, with solemn eyes and eyebrows like water tattoos. Her long ears are shells in her long black hair, which cascades down the body of a snake. Her lips are closed over the small hole of her mouth like she is sipping night, a coil of breath bearing the shape of an intestine.
Was Okiku’s murder a cautionary tale or a mandate for an eternity of murders? She appeared nightly at the mouth of the well. People could hear a voice counting to nine. Then, in the absence of ten, a scream. The scream flashed through the fog, stood roots on their ends. Okiku’s murder transitioned from an aural hallucination into a ghost story. It was, in other words, neutralized by the fantasies of the living, fantasies derived from the boredom born of privileged security masquerading as fear.
* * *
Do you believe in ghosts? The answer, whether Yes or No or I do not know, is Yes, because I believe in the human desire to be afraid while simultaneously overcharged with disbelief. Fear manifests the ghost and its opposite: the ghost of the ghost, coming closer. How often is it asked, for example, if a ghost believes in the living?
* * *
Before he re-entered his house, the man flicked a pumpkin leaf off his ankle. When he picked the woman up to carry her to the edge of the woods, his view was obscured, cut off, momentarily, by her robe. He tried to blow the robe out of his eyes. But his vision was consumed by what he was attempting to forget, replicated indefinitely, near to eternity, but for the most he could hope for his life: becoming a dog, emaciated, always hungry.
The man had, many years earlier, visited his ancestral village. It was small and surrounded by tall, leafless trees, at the edge of a city that seemed perpetually enclosed in fog. It took several days to get there and once he got there, he wanted to leave. He was overcome with a feeling of dread. The feeling rose out of the ground, up through the soles of his feet.
When he returned to his estate, images of his ancestral village began visiting him. Every time an image came to mind—a bloodless white house in the shade of an impassive chestnut tree; dozens of thin leafless trees all the same height; chocolate roof tiles; horse chestnuts; gray faces peering through hard windows—he thrust it out, then immediately resorted to justifications in the form of both romantic and childish returns to his plates. Except that the plates and the man did not have any rapport. He had trouble touching them. He stopped at the box.
* * *
Hokusai gets up, leaves the room, leaves Okiku, goes into another room, goes to sleep. If only Heaven would give me another ten years, Hokusai said, I could become a real painter.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) also painted Okiku, but as a much different woman. There is no snake body. There are no pumpkin leaves eating light off a subterranean sun. Okiku’s face is not a disfigured moon. Death has been beautified. Okiku’s hair is hanging over her eyes. Her hands are raised, as if to hide her face, or the reflection of her mourning, but her hands are lost in her scarlet sleeves; her feet too, in the folds of her robe. She is wearing a blue and white robe over her scarlet robe. Her sash is green, drawn with a tiny pink bow.
Yoshitoshi did not paint Okiku as a ghost, but an angel. She appears, in the branches of a dark tree, willow or spruce, as a singer, a revelation of the well, which contains, by an inversion compelled by her spirit, the heavens. The misted wood is the occlusion of all possible intervention in this plane. The opening of the well can be seen through Okiku’s robes. She mourns beyond prayer, beyond resurrection. Her form of revelation is a nearly forgotten tributary. She might even still be alive. That is what her angelism suggests: perpetual mourning, perpetual life.
For Yoshitoshi, Okiku’s beauty was essential. For Hokusai, what was essential was the transformation Okiku underwent in death as the consequence of possessing threatening knowledge. Yoshitoshi wanted to liberate Okiku’s beauty, while keeping her trapped within it. Hokusai wanted to dwell on the effects of her oppression, while transforming the atmosphere, the world, by which she was oppressed.
* * *
Okiku lives below the hairs of the painters. She lives below the reflections of the faces of people who peer into the well in order to punctuate, with their curiosity, the story they heard, in order to hear it again, in the counting of plates. Would it sound like bubbles of black ink? She lives below everyone who could, very simply, remove the shadow of their hands from her face, and take leave.
She holds each plate like a framed photograph. She looks at each painted scene as if it was her mother, her father, her grandparents, alone or together, on a hill, in a distance she feels first in her throat. She touches braided glass, bundles of kindling, white lightning bolts, colorless rope, five or six stones, bushes, a starfish, the glaze that appears and disappears across the face of each plate, and remembers. She remembers with her thumbs. She performs a reminding ritual across the face of each plate, the braided glass moistening then routing around her thumbs, the white lightning bolts pulling away from the colorless rope, turning silver in the canal.
* * *
The heavens? Okiku is a sisterhood. Her scream is minted above the opening of every well. If the counting is suspended at nine, if the tenth is never counted, the world is populated by many billions of tenths, each immortalizing a moment of recognition.
Okiku’s scream draws a cloud over her mother, her father, her grandparents, but they are not them. They are, instead, her great- and great-great- and great-great-great grandparents, as real to Okiku as she is real to them, who feel a momentary darkening, a coolness in the air, and look up from the mundane hour in which they are standing to see the sun slip behind a cloud. As the living arrange the countenances of the dead to reflect the shadows of their own faces passing, like clouds, across them, Okiku touches her great-great-great grandmother’s face, to remove an eyelash from her cheek; touches her great-great grandmother’s face, to clear a smudge from the side of her mouth; and touches her great-grandmother’s face, to straighten her thickening eyebrows.
Brandon Shimoda's recent books are The Desert (The Song Cave, 2018) and The Grave on the Wall (City Lights, 2019). He is currently writing (more likely disintegrating) a book on the afterlife/ruins of Japanese American incarceration.
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