1. KISERU NO YUME

Yamada Hiroshi san satisfied my old aspiration of having a print by Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the leading exponents of Ukyio-e. The picture depicted a young maiden, the green kimono languidly open, holding a black lacquer mirror, getting ready for the affairs of the day.

I bought it from him, printed on Japanese washi paper, and carefully carried it to the ryokan where I was lodging in Kyoto.

On the way back, walking unhurriedly and seeking to register everything that surrounded me, I came upon a small traditional dark wood house, similar to many others, selling antiques.

The house was narrow and long. Differently from others of the same genre, this one was remarkable for its austerity, displaying but a few objects.

At the back, a seated O Yoroi gazed down an invisible valley, more distant in time than geography. Perhaps the one that donned that armour was present at Sekigahara, I wondered.

The ambience was sombre, the month of March was cool, but in this house there was a great serenity. The light was barely enough to make out the objects, silent presences of times by-gone. To my right, over a cabinet, lay a lacquer box with drawers toped by a small metal dome I could guess had been used to burn coal. The presence of a nearby tray filled with long pipes convinced me that the box had to belong to a wealthy tobacco smoker.

As if impelled by it I lit my pipe while behind me a feminine voice whispered softly : ohaiogosaimasu.

I turned around to find an old lady dressed in a very discreet black and brown kimono with a completely black obi Ė everything in the most perfect consonance with the surrounding tones Ė smiling at me with dignified kindness in a welcoming, though far from cheerful, manner. In a whispering voice she told me something that I, in my rather superficial knowledge of Japanese, didnít understand. It is interesting how, when starting a sentence, Japanese women utter an ah as if remembering something, a kind of taking in of air that produces in the ensuing speech a melody pregnant with an harmonious way of approaching a new subject. That aspiration is like the first step of a verbal dance in the softest tempo, where one perceives a delicate manner invested in every word.

Sumimasen - I answered as I could - watashi nihon go... iť - while I returned her smile. The lady continued to mumble something, from which I understood the word tabacŰ, as she made for the pipe tray, bringing her right hand to her nose as if inhaling. I understood she enjoyed the aroma of my pipe. Ah, I imitated, gomen nasai.

Iť, iť, she replied smiling. I realised I could go on smoking.

Gently, the right hand touched pipe after pipe choosing one whose wood shone, darkened by use. The head had a small embossed ornate and the metal was dull. She held it out to me with both hands but, noticing that I had my own occupied by the bag with the engraving and by my own pipe, pointed a low table so that I could lay down my bag. Clumsily I placed the bag on the table in such way that the engraving slid to the floor.

Ah, uttered the lady upon seeing it. We both leaned to pick the engraving up as she reached for it with the right hand, covering her awed mouth with the other. For a long moment she gazed mysteriously at the print, while I contemplated that lady in a dark kimono lost in such unexplainable rapture.

She came to her senses with an ah and turned to me with a deep bow saying: gomen nasai . Glancing at the print, she held it carefully placing it back in the bag and rising up with a smile and lowered eyes.

Taking the pipe sheíd chosen she passed it to me with both hands saying Nihon no yume kiseru. I took the pipe and after admiring it for a moment returned it to her. She said no and, holding her palm upwards in my direction, repeated the gesture so I could understand it. I realised it was an offer. She glanced at my pipe and back at the one sheíd handed me, tenderly uttering the final sentences, which I couldnít understand. I felt she was determined and returned her bow saying: domo arigato gosaimashita. The lady replied that I shouldnít thank her. Then she went to the lacquer box and took out an old woven straw case and a brocade purse. For a moment I thought Iíd seen, leaning against the box, a round mirror with handle, all in black lacquer.

TabacŰ she said showing me the purse. Nihon no tabacŰ.

To my displays of gratitude she replied iť, iť together with a kind smile.

With the greatest skill, the objects sheíd strangely offered me were wrapped in a jade green scarf with a pattern of hearts and white dots.

 

2. YUME

Immersed in the tub, I took a comforting hot bath while meditating on the encounter with the old lady at the antiquesí house. I observed the vapour of the hot water as if in that condensation an answer was hidden.

I dressed the yukata Iíd brought with me, tied the hakata obi with the fish-tail knot Iíd learned, dressed the dark blue haori, and waited for the dinner call at the tatami covered room where a low table, a mounted tray and a television set were the only furniture in the rather large eight tatami division.

I had made my mind to examine once again, after the meal, the engraving and the gifts the old lady had oddly offered me.

I dinned thinking on the reasons for that behaviour. Having a pipe wasnít reason enough to receive another one, especially being a gaijin sheíd never seen before.

Back in the room, a very comfortable, beautiful futon lined in white linen had already been placed on the middle of the floor, announcing a most pleasant night. The wrapped objects where on the table, that had been set aside.

I sat on the floor, removed the Utamaro print from the bag, and contemplated it again. I had always though that the most erotic point in a woman dressed in a kimono was the neck. But here the woman would be looking at herself in a mirror upon waking up, the hair still partly protected by a scarf, the kimono revealing a brief opening undone by sleep.

I glanced at the fabric parcel the antiquarian had wrapped. Once more, I looked at the print. It was certainly a coincidence, too much of a coincidence, in fact, to actually be one. The fabric was very soft, slightly textured. Unwrapping it I could see that the scarf had been carefully hemmed by hand. I put it next to the print. There could be no doubt. The fabric was exactly the same as in Utamaroís picture.

I felt a sudden urge to smoke and turning to the old woven straw case decided to try the tobacco and the pipe the lady had given me. Opening the purse of tobacco Ė which was odourless and yellower than my own Ė and slowly filling it distracted me, delaying the state of awe that possessed me.

I took an ashtray, set it by the futon and decided to lie down. I would smoke lying down, quickly burning through that small amount of Japanese tobacco.

It tasted strangely like the taste a flower may have. I inhaled the smoke to feel it better. But the strangest thing was that it seemed out of proportion compared with the smoke I had exhaled, creating a sort of cloud that confused and perplexed me. The cloud grew by itself, spreading like mist Ė the light of the lamp illuminating that sudden immaterial curtain slowly filling the whole room. In an instant all had changed. Only an illuminated mist and the floor tatami could be seen while me, a stranger in a strange land, wondered if Iíd gone to sleep and was dreaming.

However, my nostrils were touched by a smooth scent of flower oil, similar to that of choji, while the nocturnal silence of the room was broken by the noise of a street populated with people, people speaking, the short breath of men carrying something heavy. All took place very quickly, like the time that elapses between the end of dawn and early morning.

There, in the room, at my very feet, I heard a soft yawn, feminine sounds of a woman waking up. I could sense space stretched beyond what I knew to be the limits of my bedroom.

I felt that all that was happening Ė I didnít know exactly what it was : dream or hallucination; maybe the effects of the strange tobacco - was beginning to make sense, to have a logic obeying perhaps to a dream order and, therefore, unpredictable.

Daylight flooded the mist though I knew that night had barely set in. With some effort out of curiosity I could see a figure rising from the floor Ė light illuminating the silhouette, filling it with colour. And with colour came revelation. In between the parting mist a young Japanese woman rose languidly, wearing a very soft kimono over her skin, exactly the same as in the engraving, the opening over her breast wider than normal, the skin whiter than usual. In a gesture full of elegance she touched her hand to her right cheek, than down the neck as if measuring the softness of the skin. The hair was somewhat undone. A scarf around her head protected the hairdressing. She took a black lacquer mirror hidden close to her body and looked at herself, peering at her face, eyebrows raised as if to see better. Slowly, she placed a few pins in her hair so as to hold it better. Then she smiled at the mirror, showing black painted teeth. Curious and strange this deliberate hiding of the teeth. Could it be that smiling bore some sort of interdiction? I realised, as I had been taught, that she was a married woman of the Edo period. But what was I doing in a time already gone? Had co-ordinates been enhanced? The sense of Time changed? What could this be but a dream?

Ah, but who are you? What are you doing in my room? Again I was stupefied. She could speak my language, all of a sudden shaking me out of my doubts and cogitation.

I had to answer: In your room? But this is my room in a Kyoto ryokan. Her right hand covered her mouth in a familiar way. The other instinctively closed her kimono. She looked straight into my eyes, trying to probe my mind. Then, she flashed her eyelids and seemed to calm down. But you are a foreigner. What are you doing here after the prohibition ? Do you wish to disgrace me? Ah, but how did you get in? How can you speak Japanese? Do you realise Iím a married woman?

All these questions were made in a somewhat higher tone, although in a half murmured voice, sweet even. I listened to me listening to her and enjoying her way of speaking. For her I spoke Japanese, for me what I heard from her wasnít definitely Japanese. Instinctively I let questions follow question, with a rhythm, allowing a pause to spring up before answering.

All of this has no logical explanation. At least Iím unable to find one. Up until a moment ago I was quietly resting in my room and when I lit this pipe everything started to change... and I showed her the pipe, now burned out, despite the hanging mist. How can you explain me understanding you when my Japanese is not fluent? And how can you understand me? It is all like a film.

The young woman looked at me in a way beyond my interpretation. Her face was void of any emotion. Only the eyes searched, though very discreetly, my person, the pipe, inside herself. She lowered her eyes, took a deep breath, looked at the right hand resting on her lap. She hesitated before speaking: what is a film?

It is always difficult to adapt oneself to new circumstances that demand a reshaping of the vocabulary of our minds. I realised it there and then, in that simple question out of the 18 th. century. See, it is like having a dream, except that we go to a special room to watch that dream, I answered now fully aware that for some reason language wasnít an obstacle anymore.

Ah, she said - and I liked the innocent way she had of doing this - is it like Kabuki?

A greater tranquillity had settled among us, and a mutual curiosity. The dispute of our territories Ė my room at the ryokan and hers fused in the same space by the ethereal, persistent mist Ė had subsided, gone to give way to that form of mutual learning not completely devoid of some embarrassment.

Yes. Indeed, it is like Kabuki, but it doesnít exist here in this time, I said, rising my eyes towards her who, more confident now, had taken both hands to her head to straighten her hair pins Ė beautiful, rare wooden pieces.

It doesnít exist in this time? She stared. Wait, you are very strange. Youíre not Japanese yet address me in Japanese, your haircut is unlike that of our men. Your skin is dark, but your hand have no calluses. Youíre taller than usual. She paused for a longer, perhaps more tense, moment. Who are you? What is this mist that doesnít let me see the outline of things? Did you come from the forest?

I smiled to myself. I new she meant the forest dwelling spirits. As long as the dream lasted Ė if it was a dream at all Ė I had to bear in mind that this was 18 th. century Kyoto. I had to focus. No, Iím a traveller to whom an old lady offered this pipe and this tobacco wrapped in a fabric similar to the kimono she wears.

Deliberately, I avoided mentioning the engraving and handed her the scarf. We leaned forward so that it would change hands. She took the scarf, oblivious, with a delicate gesture - under the weight of the fabric itself the kimono opened. Her back straight, she held the scarf with both hands folding it carefully in three. As she analysed the hemming she raised her eyes to me, frightened. How could an old lady have given you this scarf if I myself made it with the remaining of this kimono? She looked around anguished, holding the scarf against her breast. It was surely you who took it way from me while I slept. Her voice shook, insecure.

I looked at her serenely. What I told you is the truth. An old lady at an antique shop wrapped this pipe and the tobacco in the scarf.

Even when in disbelief she had a sweet manner about her. She exuded femininity. Again she peered at me, eyes half closed.. Her hands now rested on her lap, continuously stroking the scarf.

En, she murmured. En, destiny, unattainable order. She got up graciously. Although not tall, she was elegant, delicate, fragile. The mist gave way, as she moved. She pulled a low table near the window and got a brush from a dark wooden box Ė I could see the ink-stone. Then she took a sheet of paper and started writing with her back turned to me. I admired her neck, the black silky hair, thick, probably reaching down to her waist when undone.

The obi was simple, jade white, almost loose. I noticed the street noise again. My senses had been dislocated but I didnít lost sight of the young woman.

When she turned to me the paper sheet had been folded over and over, looking like a ruler. She fold it in half before me, and made a knot identical to those of vows and promises Iíd seen hanging from trees at the temples in Kyoto.

Please, she said holding out the paper and scarf she claimed belonged to her, I will see that you visit Sakura dayu tonight. Take everything that the old lady offered you. It is a visit that is forbidden to me. I will see that you are taken to her presence. She said these words with such assurance that I took the letter and the scarf without questioning.

She got up and bowed. Looking at me again she bowed: Farewell, and quickly took off. The mist swallowed her.

Do you know Utamaro, Kitagawa Utamaro ? I yelled. Her almost silent steps came to a halt. I could only hear her voice. My husband lives in Edo.

The mist covered everything once more and all my senses fell into the deepest sleep.

 

3. PREPARATIONS FOR A MEETING

I woke up in a unique way. A hand running through my hair, repeatedly combing it back, massaging or simply caressing.

The first feeling was of renewal of the body and soul. Still half awake, a state of well being enveloped me. The repetition of tactile movement, as I later understood, is able to awake us up in the most pleasant way, perceiving the world like a newly born.

Slowly, I opened my eyes, already in tune with that unusual way of awakening. Turning my head to the right I saw the young woman quickly withdrawing her hand, her eyes looking down. She was now carefully dressed up, although curiously the kimono was the same. I was awake, fully awake, noticing there was no mist anymore.

The room wasnít mine, but it wasnít different from mine. Only the wood was darker. A lantern wisely placed behind me cast its light around without hurting the eyes. The young woman looked at me in a different way. There wasnít in her any fear or distance greater than that seen as convenient. Still, I had doubts. She had awaken me in a way that I could interpreter dubiously. Furthermore, sheíd returned despite her farewell.

Youíve been asleep the whole day, the hour of your meeting with Sakura san is coming. You must dine, you havenít eaten anything. I hope you enjoy the dinner, she said turning and bringing a mounted tray that I could eat from, seated on the floor. The tray had probably been ready before I awoke.

All was in the utmost order. I ate the fish, the sliced skid, the rice, and drank a delicious broth. I noticed that a small branch, still green, with pink almond flower buds adorned the side of one of the plates. While I ate she stood immobile, watching me. We didnít speak. I drank the tea and lay down the cup on the tray indicating the end of the meal when, behind me, I felt the movement of a dress over the body of another woman who silently knelt down, bowed, took the tray and disappeared from my field of vision. The sound of the soft opening and closing of the sliding door told me she had left.

We stood in silence, briefly glancing at each other. Then, from the inside a fold of the kimono she took out my leather purse and pipe. The mechanism of the purse wasnít strange to her. I was sure she had examined it. She said nothing while I filled the pipe with gestures so different from those she was used to see. I took out the lighter and lit the pipe. I noticed a spark of surprise. When I blew out the smoke she watched it rising. Holding the kimono sleeve with a left hand she put her palm to her nose and inspired closing her eyes. This tobacco has a pleasant aroma, she murmured.

Something like a thread of sense begun to form in my mind.

She looked back in the unfolding time, as if we sought an extension of the otherís presence. I followed her look. It was difficult to find a size to fit you. I recognised a dot patterned ash blue hakama, a plain dark blue kimono and a haori in the same colour with strings. By the side there was a kind of helmet with a golden mon in front.

Even at night it is important not to disregard the disguise. It is hard to go unnoticed.

I knew then that the meeting was close. She clapped her hands and a men in traditional haircut came in on his knees, his hair shaven on top, the rest well oiled and carefully combed in a sort of short braid falling upon the top of his head. His expression was as inscrutable as his age.

Muraoka Tsunetsugu will help you dressing conveniently. She left me with my appointed dresser. When we both stood up I noticed that 18th. century men were slightly shorter than those in my time. I quickly undone my obi which Tsunetsugu folded carefully. Then he did the same with the yukata.

I could see that someone had dressed me in traditional underwear Ė a white band reaching up to my ribs, and serving as a sort of brief. Tsunetsugu took every piece of clothing and helped me into it in a logical sequence. First an under-kimono of white cotton. On top went the dark blue kimono, followed by a hakata obi that I myself helped to adjust. Then came the hakama with its complicated knots that he quickly took care of, tightening them and taking special care with the final cruciform knot. I put my feet in the tabi, a kind of Japanese socks dividing the big toe from the other. Mine were dark blue and a perfect fit, another proof of the intriguing efficiency of the young woman. Expectantly he handed me a closed fan, which I took placing it on the right side of my waist. I had read that this was an indispensable element of traditional dressing. Tsunetsugu was half kneeling, which allowed him to get up and down with harmony. I took a look at myself, examining the knot and the fan. Then he handed me the haori adjusting it in front and carefully tying the white strings. I looked at it thinking to myself how beautiful Chinese and Japanese knots were. The haori had two mon on each side of the chest. When I raised my eyes, Tsunetsugu was holding a wakizashi whose sheath was lacquered in dark blue. He looked at me intensely holding the short sword horizontally, the convex side of the cutting blade turned to him, the handle on the side of his right hand. I knew he was testing me. I held out my right hand and grabbed the sheath very close to the handle turning it upwards, the blade turned up. With the left hand I eased the sheath into the hakama, into the obi. The wakizashi slid gently to an angle of 30 degrees in relation to my frontal plan. I went through these movements without ever taking my eyes from his. Standing on my feet I vaguely smiled inside.

Tsunegutsu lowered his eyes, got up holding the katana and handed it to me with a short and abrupt bow. Among us it is not sufficient for a men to be correctly dressed. He needs to dress himself inside and know how to face death. It was the first time he uttered a word.

I didnít answer. I took the katana with my right hand, bringing it closer to my body, holding out my arm the cutting edge turned back. My body and my spirit transformed as they were clad in all this pieces of clothing. Muscles were relaxed but ready. The mind was clear, empty, aware, ready to receive. I didnít need to see myself, I felt myself. A transformation took place that enabled me to apprehend what this man appointed to dress a foreigner had said. It was not a critic, not even a reprehension. Rather a call to my behaviour masked in the form of a statement.

Muraoka Tsunetsugu looked at me with surprise. Are you a member of the samurai caste in your land? This invocation of my land destroyed my desire of ostentation in face of some etiquette that I knew better.

No, I replied, I am not. I donít believe in castes.

The door opened and the young woman came in, her eyes looking down. She must have been listening to the conversation on the other side of the door. Tsunetsugu took the black lacquered helmet and addressed the young woman: we are ready for Osode san.

I heard her name for the first time. Osode san, I repeated. Yes, she blushed facing down.. I could see now how taller than her I was. Iíd always been lying down or sitting down and could not fully understand how frail she was. Let us go, she said opening the door and waiting outside.

Tsunetsugu will escort you. There is a litter waiting downstairs. You should go as discreetly as possible. We went down to the ground floor. She insisted in carrying the katana in both hands, femininely.

A dark wooden platform covered half the space downstairs to where the earth pavement begun. There lay a light litter, with the curtains drawn. The carriers got up and stared at me in awe. There were four men, two of them carrying lanterns.

Osode gave me back the sword, took the green scarf, once again converted to a careful package and placed in my kimono giving me an anxious look, the hand over the scarf. I put on the helmet that Tsunetsugu tied up.

The carriers had risen the litter. One of the lantern carriers held the curtain that would hide me.

I donít know when it will all end. Osode looked at me with controlled anxiety and answered with a question. Where did you get the print?

 

4. REVELATION

The litter snaked through nocturnal alleys that, naturally, I wouldnít know even if the curtains were opened. The movement of the litter was like a cradle, a return to childhood. But now the questions in my mind went beyond the childish why. The only person I had was myself, not to provide the answers, but rather to find them. I hadnít made any questions, the only thing I wanted was Utamaroís print, nothing else.

With each step of the carriers the expectancy grew. Sakura dayu Ė who could it be with such a name? Why had Osode dressed me in such manner if my face could leave no doubt? Questions followed questions. I looked at the thick silk cord, that I was holding to inside the litter and shook off the questions. Ironically everything was just a matter of time. I laughed at the irony Iíd put myself to. Time, that invention to count hours as if it was the variable instead of us. Time, through which I was sliding.

The street noise changed, as well as the light that came in. The litter turned left and came to a halt while the sounds vanished. The carriers feet changed the rhythm over the gravel ground and the litter stooped. I heard voices greeting each other. I let the formalities end and quickly decided to go with the flow of events. I would react according to them.

The curtain was raised and the light of lanterns hurt my eyes accustomed to the obscurity of the litter. My legs were numb, but I ignored them. Tsunetsugu was respectfully bowing a few paces from me when I started to make out my surroundings.

I felt without looking that the ground was covered with gravel. My intuition told me not to look at the ground. We were inside a garden, immediately after the gate on the wall of a residence. There was a red bridge. On each end a roof shaped lantern on a square stump lit the way. Welcome, your excellency I heard from the bowing feminine figure dressed in hues of rose, red and purple, standing in the dark. When she came up I saw her face was white and her hair dressing extremely elaborate and ornamented. I hope you may find in our house all the rest your many tasks may require. I lowered my head and, showing me the bridge, she led the way. I could see that her obi was tied in such fashion that the end of the band reached to her knees from behind.

The bridge crossed a lake. The Chinese influence of the garden was obvious. All the lights in the house were lit.

I took off my sandals and we climbed to the exterior corridor that surely embraced the whole two stories building. I felt Tsunetsugu behind me. He went ahead with his right arm stretched out as if to make way despite the ample space. With fast steps he came to the woman and whispered something. Ah, so deska! Wakarimasu. Hai! She answered in a studied tone.

We kept on going as if nothing had happened. Tsunetsugu waited for me to get ahead and bowed again standing two steps behind me. We walked around the buildings that interlocked into each other.

The young woman walking in front of us stopped, kneeled down, slid a door half opened with one hand and finished opening it with the other. I noticed the economy of the gestures. Everything was studied to the last detail.

On the other side of the sliding door, another young lady with her face in white make-up bowed down uttering a melodious greeting.

Tsunetsugu came to my side instantly and holding out his hand murmured in a very low voice: the katana. I reviewed the situation quickly. The katana I held in my right hand should have been given to him. I kept my pose although regretting my distraction. Tsunetsugu would then wait for me outside. Graciously standing up the young woman led me inside. While I observed the eerily silent corridor I asked myself what Osode had in mind by sending me to such a place. Was I meant to enjoy myself after all? Would she think Iíd enjoy myself in such manner? Again I tried to avoid the chatter of questions and focused on the atmosphere.

I sensed a soft aroma on my way up the stairs to the first floor despite the candles burning on the corridors. Could it be the candles? Mechanically I followed the young woman along the corridor. She slowed down , peered at me over the right shoulder and stopped. She kneeled down with grace, repeating the same gestures to slide open the door and again bowed down with a murmur. I hesitated for a second, recalling the helmet I had on. I untied the knot under my chin and went through the door, that at once was slid close behind me.

More or less four metres ahead of me there was a wall. On the floor, to the left, a small square lamp of paper and wood concealed a candle burning inside that illuminated a folding screen painted in gold. Birds flying in formation. To my right, a closed door. Through the paper a soft, vaguely red, light came in. I felt the whole tension of the moment. Now, not even the hat hid my hair. No doubt a strange hair in those parts. I took a deep breath when my hand reached for the door that separated me from Sakura dayu. I opened it in a quick but gentle motion and went in. I think I went in.

I had to collect all my strength to keep calm, though the scene before me stormed the mind like powerful waves of strangeness.

I could see a magnificent vision dominated by red. Like the blushing that announces the awakening of the senses. The ample compartment was illuminated by a single light, strategically placed behind and to the right of the static and glittering figure dominating the whole scene. Sakura dayu was dressed in all colours of luxury, brocade and silk, red and gold, hexagonal patterns fusing with descriptive scenes, the flower of her name over the left breast where a splash of pink kimono showed. The hair was superbly dressed in a crown of pins and combs of mother-of-pearl, perhaps turtle. The face was awesome. The white make-up that completely covered the skin created a mask, signifying at the same time distance and advance. The eyelids where slightly coloured in rose. The eyebrows were like gentle arches and the outside corners of the eyes were lined in red. The mouth was also a red stroke, intense, in perfect harmony with the plain, ruby-red inner kimono sprouting asymmetrically in between the other layers of wisely arranged clothing. A cape, held by the arms, fell on the ground covered by a red felt rug over the tatami. Her body was lost in that splendid cape with a peacock embroidery over a red background.

She stared at me with the slightest smile, the left corner of the mouth higher tan the right. Slowly she bent her head, in silent greeting. In front of her, on the extension of her hand that held a pipe also lacquered in red there was a tabaco bon. With a brief gesture of her right hand she begun the conversation. Please, be welcome. Sit comfortably. She spoke calmly and securely, the voice was deeper than the others Iíd heard before.

I kept silent as I sat on one of the many red pillows scattered harmoniously around. She felt that I was disturbed and politely started to speak. SakÍ? It warms the body and calms the spirit. I smiled, constrained. Thank you, not for now.

Sakura dayu smiled courteously, looking at the hand that held the pipe. I know that you have smoked from one of our pipes. Did you enjoy it? I understood how different was the function and the ritual of a woman like her from her western counterparts.

I asked myself if there was even any resemblance.

I suspect that it was that experience that led me here today. I slowly recovered the control of my thoughts. I didnít know what I was to find... I immediately regretted these words.

What makes life interesting is more the searching than the finding, the path to perfection rather than perfection, she answered unhurriedly, smiling. I felt in her, at times, the emergence of her real skin underneath the mask that covered her face. But it was too soon to come to conclusions. We examined one another, though I knew she had a deep knowledge of men.

Forgive my question, now her tone was very soft. She let a few moments go by, playing with the head of the pipe in the porcelain hash bowl. Perhaps I intimidate you? The deliberate pause that followed wasnít enough to dissolve the piercing question. Was it a provocation meant to direct the conversation to other areas? Anyway she breached the etiquette. I decided it should be me to deal with the differences of the time.

I do not kow whether you intimidate me. I confess Iím more curious and intrigued than intimidated, and I felt like smoking.

Would you care to smoke? she asked, unshaken. I can ensure you it is not the same tobacco...I understood she was fully informed.

What do you know of all that? I asked, avoiding any pipe but my own.

Sakura dayu smiled vaguely, her eyes, that seemed injected with blood due to the make-up, wandered. Then she looked at me: a woman like myself, even in the category of Oiran, is sought by men for the very same reasons that justify the existence of houses such as these. We listen to their fathomless secrets, we are the cloth that soaks the tears they hold back, the well they desire to be a bosom. First we acknowledge the importance they need to feel they have, illusory as it might be, then, once the ice has broken and the defences are shattered we become their confident, recipients for everything. You must understand that we are trained to listen, and to receive and to give. Even if the gift is pointless it is important to those who visit us to feel that by giving, they have received.

The conversation followed a stimulating course. Iíve always liked intelligent women and Sakura dayu, although young, knew men very well. This was not a prelude to anything. Just the beginning of a conversation were she deliberately crossed the limits of her expected behaviour.

But, I started, I didnít even know you existed like this. Then, it was Osode san who arranged this meeting. She smiled once more. I know, and I understand that not being Japanese you donít share the same values, the same codes, the same reasoning. She lit the pipe, threw a cloud of smoke, and carried on. I was raised not only by my parents but by men that sought to convert us, foreigners like yourself. Today I know how they think, she discreetly sighed gazing at the smoke that broke down.

Between us there is a radical difference, she continued softly, merciless. Something inside her had transformed. We bear a guilt based on shame, you have a culture based on guilt. The shame I refer to is not of the body. That is not a source of shame, it is a part of us. Do you understand me? I came to dwell in this nocturnal world but I donít blame myself. I peacefully accept what is written. We have learned much with the Chinese. Then we transformed, adapted their knowledge, their Confucian classics. Like them we also embraced Nature, aware of its teachings and appeals, thrust ourselves into the limits of perception. She paused, laying down the pipe on the tray. Since a long time ago we are afraid of being ashamed. Therefore, we learn from very early all the precepts of behaviour for all situations. There is an order that we interpreter as divine. Like the Chinese we live with more than one religion. They are not incompatible because the world is consonance, which means that harmony necessarily implies the conjunction of at least two sources.

She looked to her right and clapped softly in a certain cadence. There seemed to be a code. A young woman came in and gave her a string instrument and a large flat piece of what looked like ivory. Sakura dayu began to play. She plucked apparently random notes out of the shamisen. There was a permanently discontinuous melodic line. Slowly, that music entered me, leading me to an intuition of the lowest sounds of earth, the inaudible blossoming, our own pulse.

I was lost in my thoughts when the last note sounded and, slowly, Sakura dayu laid down the shamisen and looked at me. I think I understood, said I, mostly because the silence of that moment was unbearable. She had given the tone and the direction to the conversation. I was to continue it.
I listen to what you said, and have been meditating, but nothing is absolute. In the West reason presides... strangely, she interrupted me. She was breaking all the rules, getting carried away. And that, as she knew, was against all etiquette. Forgive me from taking the word from you. But reason is subjective. Not even Plato with his speech of justice is linear. It is required that every one knows exactly what to do in every single moment. The unexpected is not tolerated. She certainly was provoking me, doing so beyond the limits of her role. Maybe she wanted me to loose my poise so as to point out my weakness afterwards.

Ah, she said, raising her right hand to her mouth. Gomen nasai she said humbly falling to the floor. It is not important, remember Iím not Japanese, do not force yourself to this etiquette. She got up slowly, suddenly very fragile. Her head bent down, she answered in a whisper. Pardon me, Iíve exceeded myself beyond measure. I cannot be forgiven. She could have mentioned how carried away she was by the conversation, how much more pleasant was for her to actually talk and take off the mask, that skin forced upon her in the repetition of her usual gestures. Instead she avoided any justification, she took the responsibility.

I beg you, let us continue. And despite her air of compunction I happily continued. I wish to confess to you that I do not belong to this time. I did not come to this time of my own free will. The feudal regime of your day is something I cannot Ė coming from my time Ė agree with. I do not know how to get out of all this.

There was no prejudice, suspicion or surprise in the way she looked at me. You know, she said already recovered and somehow appeased, someone taught me a few basic rules of interpreting situations... let us say, enigmatic. Nature offers us certain compositions that, when used in certain ways, can make us go forth or go back in time. Our spirit travels through forgotten memories of past lives, which we cannot recall consciously.

It may be so, I replied. But what does that have to do with me? I just went into an antiques shop where and old lady gave me a pipe and a tobacco purse wrapped in a scarf that Osode san claims to be hers.

Sakura dayu, listened carefully, taking the pipe and lighting it again. She did so gracefully, as gracefully as her pauses. A conversation Ė just as a drawing, that exists both in the lines and the blank spaces Ė is made of pauses and words. But it is necessary for the interlocutors to understand it. Here our understanding was perfect.

Your print caused all of this, the Oiran murmured, whose knowledge of the previous events was no longer a surprise for me. Osode san was the favorite model of Utamaro Sensei. For reasons she never disclosed, she returned to Kyoto from Edo after the marriage and led a secluded life with the money her family left her. The flame in the lamp behind her trembled and cracked. I felt Sakura dayu was apprehensive. With an air of contained anxiety she asked me, is the antiques shop very close to a river, next to a bridge? I confirmed it to her and that the bridge still had the bronze fitting on the wood. That very one, she said. I felt a new uneasiness in her when the flame trembled again.

Sakura dayu came down in a long bow. I fear that the privilege of our conversation may be taken away from me soon. The candle cracked loudly and burned out.

I was immersed in complete shadow. Suddenly all colour had vanished. I could barely see. Sakura san, I called. Far, I understood something like - you must burn the print for me.

I sat in almost total darkness broken only by the small lamp outside. To burn the engraving of an author of whom I had waited years to have a work of.

I got up and left. The corridor was dark and silent. Carefully, I went down the steps. The house was deserted. When I went outside the sky had the grey bluish tones of dawn.

Feeling my presence Tsunetsugu rose quickly. Sleep was written across his face. Without a word we left.

When we got near the litter I turned to him and asked: Does by any chance Osode san live by a river with a bridge that crosses it?

Yes. We are going there now, replied Tsunetsugu.

My tired mind, just as the day, was growing more clear.

 

5. ALL THE TIMES

Events were taking place in a chain that had certainly a sense, leading to an interpretation that I could only suspect. I felt exhausted on the way back. As I recalled time had been inverted. It was now dawn when it should be night. Was I already too inexorably tied to this time that it was impossible to return to my own?

The oscillating litter made me sleepier and I could feel hunger coming on. Day was now a reality and streets were filling with all sorts of people.

I returned to the memory of the meeting with Sakura dayu. Asking myself how had been her past, her exposing to the gaijin, her breach of protocol. The mask she wore arouse a desire to know her in day light, to know her name. Her knowledge of the west might indicate that she had been born in Nagasaki, to where foreigners had been confined. All this took place decades after Tokugawa Ieyasu had implanted his Shogunate. The Japan I had come to visit had launched itself in a ferocious economic expansion.

The arrival of the litter shook me from my thoughts. I was now inside the same place where they had picked me up from. I got out immediately removing the helmet and handing the katana to Tsunetsugu, anxious to freshen up and eat. I could move around with greater ease now, although my poise was in accordance with the clothes I was wearing.

Osode san waited me together with two servants. Her eyes were expectant. I passed by her familiarly. Did you sleep? she followed me silently to the upper floor, the servants preceded us attentively.

Do you prefer to bathe first or to eat? Osode spoke for the fist time as if nothing had happened. I went into the room where she had awakened me, hesitating to choose. The stomach won. She ordered the two girls to leave and slid the door close.

She helped me untie the haori knot, took it from me, and with small steps lay it down carefully in silence. I took out the wakizashi. Looking at it briefly I drew the blade out a few centimetres from the saya and deliberately put my right thumb on the blade. I wanted to leave a mark of myself. Osode took the sword to lay it down. Her silence subsisted as much as her attention towards me. Decidedly there was a time for everything. I took out of the kimono the intact parcel and passed to her in this ritual of casting things off when arriving at home. Osode took it with both hands but stood immobile, holding the parcel against her body, her hands around it her look covering me with silent, suppressed questions.

Sumimasen, someone said on the other side of the door. When it was opened a tray with food was brought in and carefully laid on the place reserved for it in domestic etiquette.

Eat, said the young woman tenderly, you must be hungry. And she came forward with the tray kneeling down to its left uncovering the steaming rice. I sat down at the place I knew was destined to the one that eats. Osode san, itís very early. Why don't you eat. I asked embarrassed with eating alone and being watched. She filled the bowl of tea with care trying to gain some time. It is, she hesitated, my duty to take good care of your well being...

My appetite was gone. I understood her controlled anguish. Osode san, I started, searching for words Ė Please do eat at least a little bit. Iím not hungry, she interrupted. I looked at her slowly.. Her eyes were filled with tears fighting not to fall down. I sighed, impotent. There was a sort of fatalism in the air, an unavoidability of something I hadn't understood yet. I looked at the closed window and rose towards it suddenly. Osode run after me. No, no do not open it you will catch cold. Her voice begged me, almost near despair. I was faster and sliding open the window put my head and shoulders out of it breathing the cold air of that grey morning. I instinctively looked to my left. Down there, as if sadly, run the waters of the Kamogawa hidden in a mist. I felt Osodeís hands on my back trying to pull me in, struggling to close the window. I closed my eyes and was taken by enormous nostalgia that gave way to an unexplainable sadness. Osode cried silently, tears overflowing, small rivers down her soft cheeks. I raised her chin so she could look at me, her hands twisting. She didnít even sob. Just the wet lines on her delicate skin, and the sad eyes looking up. Why? I asked as softly as I could. Osode looked beyond me, to a point in the infinitude of time.. I felt her tiny hands searching for mine, grabbing them anxiously. It had become cold. I looked around. A mist that I feared already started to rise from the floor. Osode sobbed, her hands holding as tight as she could. Her nails hurt my flesh as if to make me understand her grief.

The room was cold and the morning was rapidly growing darker. She put my face on her chest, pressing herself to me. The fog surrounded us reaching up to our waists. Osode moved away quickly, run to a corner of the room, and came back to me from the mist. She was calmer now. From behind her back she produced the print saying, besides him you were the only man to watch me wake up...I accepted the engraving she held out with both hands. Everything was precipitating. There was in me a feeling of conformism that filled my soul with my Western poison.

The package with the pipe, I murmured asking for it while the mist almost covered her completely. Osode looked at me. Her eyes filled with tears again. Please leave them behind. Please. Her request was more a supplication. I could see in her eyes the sadness of the river flowing outside.

She was now completely enveloped by the mist. I could only feel her. Her hands grabbing my arms. She sobbed deeply. I myself was beginning to see just a white, luminescent cloud. Yes, of course, I said calming her down. But why? I had to ask the question. I felt her hands let go as if sucked by the vortex of something as powerful as time. Finally they did let go completely. Only my skin retained the feeling of her hands. But why? I screamed. A very far murmur cut through the all enveloping mist. So that I can offer it to you again.

Nostalgic shamisen notes were heard then, echoing sounds of several times in the same time. I understood the true resonance of that music. Sakura dayu... I knew her true name.

 

© Antůnio ConceiÁ„o Jķnior 2000