Makurasaki

I

TOWARD one-thirty I am roused by knocks. I lightly made an offer that was accepted in earnest. At two and again at three I must go the round of the village. I am the watch. He who rouses me is the ropemaker, his the house next door, and with unction he delivers into my hands two flat boards. He has just returned; has struck the hour every twenty feet by slapping the boards, so the good villager might know the time—might be reminded, as he turned in his sleep, of the folly of resting too absorbedly, the danger of fire never being far. A round at two, another at three, then I as well shall hand on the boards, and so they will go from house to house from hour to hour. They are the clapper of the village clock.

It rained while I was asleep, and after rain Makurasaki is decently navigable only in geta. But I cannot walk in those charming checks on earthly hurry, so I mush in shoes. I make for the lower village, there where rice fields lie moon-white under mist the hot night through, thence up the main street, dip into every crossroad, on every seventh stride clack my woods twice.

Overhead the sky is covered and the moon is just gone down. Makurasaki sleeps. The sultriness of yesterday still burdens the morning, and the old who find it hard to breathe squat in the unboarded slits of their houses, wait on whatever currents of air there may be, smoke those long pipes that consume night more than tobacco.

Thoughtlessly I stop at one such slit. The candle within makes no efficient combat against the darkness, yet it lays a ghastly sheen over a naked body. The body is long, thin like a cadaver, yellow, flecked with shadow, one hip high — I catch myself, push on, am not sure whether it is man or woman.

And again murky walls close in about me. I walk as under some grim stockade. The houses all are boarded, and only above remain the dim distinctions, the vague balconies, the odd angles, the oddly broken lines, the Orient of prints sitting in the dark with somewhat the unconcern with which God in an old Italian picture sits in a cloud.

Suddenly the caroling converse of two voices; and, a moment after, the owners of the voices, deformed by fog, swing with their lanterns into the street. They are two of the party of yesterday. Both smiled and smiled, and I thought they might also be villains, and now they bow and bow, and I do hold to my impression. Where they stand they sink in mud, and while they pull on one geta the other goes deeper. This annoyance makes them address me only the more vehemently. It does not stay them that I do not understand a word. Their double bass fills the air. They are heated within by sake.

Then I am back at the rice fields where I began. Far away, still the two voices. Somewhere near a geisha sings. But the romance of night and of my place in space and of my part as watch is much dissolved in weariness.

I hand on my sticks, drop straight asleep; to be awakened in the morning, curiously, by fire.

There is a frightened pounding of the temple bell, and if I did not know what that meant I should have but to look at the faces. ' Fire and plague.’ The street is full; little motionless groups on the rooftops; all straining toward the east. By the telegraphy of crowds, mysterious here because there is no outcry, the news has run. A house standing alone in the open country was lit by children, is burned to the ground, and the village is safe. Yet the tidings do not quell the feeling. The groups still strain toward the east, and where there is talk, the talk makes only more express the fear. And not unfounded this fear, with the houses wood, the streets alleys, no ready water, and the roofs straw! On the last occasion two hundred houses were ash in half an hour, and Makurasaki counted itself lucky that the wind bore not from the sea.

It happens the Buddhist priest for this very morning has invited us to his Cha no yo, his ceremony of the tea. Nine o’clock was the hour, and it is already past noon. Nevertheless we move leisurely. The fire will explain. And if it did not, Japanese custom begins a function when the guest chooses to arrive.

The temple yard is in sabbath humor. A small boy quits his gravel, studies me with a regard so troubled that only for one moment can I think of the whimsical in him. And he continues to study me us I take off my shoes and go up into the temple. In the temple there is the abrupt cool of a vault. A few old men are waiting on the service for old men, to begin an hour hence. One bends over his feet and rubs them rhythmically. Another guards while in a heap his family sleeps. The oldest sprawls in an aisle, his limbs gaping, his lips moving, his eyes not on the earth.

To this the bell adds one stroke. It swells like some ghoul’s breath from nothing to an indefinite immensity, and comes upon me almost less a tone than a fear. But the laugh of the priest’s young wife rings high. She is no kin of the solemn bell. She has a baby in her arm.

‘Once upon a time I lived in Shanghai!’ Those are her first words. ‘And there were many foreigners in Shanghai, and I am happy with foreigners.’

She beckons us to the rear of the temple, then down a tiny stairs, then across a bridge with tea trees on either side, then up to where on a polished floor we sit at the tip of a balcony.

Unshaven, with eyes that blink and blink, the priest, I scarce know whence, is in our midst, and smoothly has led us from himself to his collections. The sheets of bamboo, thin as paper and overwritten with a Sanskrit fine as engraving, are a fragment of the eight thousand volumes of sacred writing — to move them would require seven and one half horses! The sand in the amber vial is from the Indian river; the grains are the multitude; the water of the river is so pure the healthy bathes next the leper. Do I know that wooden carving, the three monkeys back to back, one with hands over his ears, one with hands over his eyes, one with hands over his mouth? Meaning? Thou shalt not hear evil, shalt not see it, shalt not speak it.

He smiles, rises, carries off two of the walls. That is exactly what he does. A child could do it, the parts are so light. And a draft draws through the room. A draft, is untimely in July, and he closes his eyes the more feelingly to enjoy it.

‘Calling the wind is the first act, and perhaps the best of the ceremony.’

The boy interrupts with the steaming pot; sets it on the vermilion lacquered table. The boy is in plain blue cotton.

‘An excellent casting, this pot, made by a half savage in an ancient village on the river Han in Chosen.’

The boy interrupts once more. It is with the agate box. And the priest takes the box, lifts its cover, lets its seagreen powder shimmer in the sun. He watches us. He watches the powder. His eyes laugh, and when he puts back the cover he balances on it an olive ladle of a lightness such that the drafts rotate it. one way, then the other.

I begin to be fond of him. Perhaps he is fifty. Perhaps he is forty. Perhaps thirty. His eyes open fully only under strain; seem easiest, as with so many of his compatriots, when narrowest, a consequence possibly of centuries of painter-like squinting on a ghostly world. Happy the life he has led, roaming where he chose, secure against want and society and exactions of state, a nimble wife, and this baby that tries hard to smile though unsure of the attachments of its head.

He talks now of seven hundred years ago, of the days when the ceremony was height of fashion, and while he talks prepares the bowls. Bowls are used instead of cups. Mine is of clay taken from the hill where Nogi in the Japanese-Russian War paid for victory with forty thousand men. The general has written his name into the clay, and the priest is at pains to show me where.

From the iron pot with the wooden dipper he scoops the steaming water. rolls it in the bowl, and, when the bowl is warm, empties into a copper pan. Not one move is offhand. From the agate box with the olive ladle he carries the green powder. As the hot liquid falls into the green a poisonous-looking brew leaps up. Quick he takes what appears to be a brush, and with it skips over the mix, and a foam forms. He eyes the foam intently. All eye it. And lie continues to skip till, at some critical moment, swiftly, like one terminating a rite, he sweeps the utensil out of the green, leaving over it an even float of bubbles.

His smile is the smile of magic. He scans his achievement side to side. He wonders, Could I do as well?

There is a knack, no question, and the more I belabor the mix the fewer bubbles do I get. He pretends perplexity, cocks his head and pinches his eyes.

‘You work too hard. This is an art. One never drudges in an art. But you could learn if you tried.’

And with that assurance he goes to the drinking, there being rules also for that. Your host advances the bowl. You bow. You lift it in your right hand, and rest it on your left, and turn it through half its circumference. You touch it to your lips. You sigh with gratification. You find for the quality of the tea what pithiest praise you can contrive, and your host bows. You drink the bowl dry, have care to leave no dregs, a trace implying that the suspension was not perfect; and, if this be true, yet must the skill of your draft disguise it.

He warns me a second helping may keep me awake. In the next sentence he speaks of the tea as thin. Actually I have never drunk thicker concoction. It adheres to the tongue, and the very texture is a satisfaction. The aromatic element comes and goes. I do not mind being kept awake.

The boy meanwhile has slid into the next room, has spread a Persian rug, and on the rug has unrolled a sheet of yellow Mino paper. By the side of the paper lie ready suzuri and sumi. These have nothing to do with tea, but with writing. The priest has said he would write. That is an honor. And when we are settled anew about him he takes the sumi, a solid ink, grinds it with water on the smooth surface of the suzuri, frowns as he grinds, grinds and grinds till a fluid forms that will evenly flow from the tip of a brush. Plainly much science of the immortal order has gone also into this.

Brush in hand he straddles the paper, the paper about four feet long and two feet broad, and hovers over it while in his mind he arranges the thought. Then, suddenly, with what seems daring, he sets down one after another of those lovely ideographs that look just ready for flight. Every stroke is a swoop. If a line were to come too heavy or too light he would leave it. The first must be perfect: that is the principle, a principle not much thought of in a world that knows so well the lazy certainty of work.

What he is writing ail down the middle of the yellow is the Buddhist form of the proverb, ‘The eyes of the Lord are in every place.’ Along the left in smaller characters he puts his own name and the red seal of the temple. Along the right, ‘For an American Gentleman, the Thirteenth Year of Taisho, One Summer Day.’

The bell moans. It is the hour of the service for old men, and the priest is gone. The dear wife follows us to the outer precincts, laughing and bowing till we are away.

II

They invite me to the bath. They are always inviting me to the bath. After the guest the master bathes, then the males in succession of age, then the women, last, the servants, and the interest of this hierarchy gains when I add that, though one soaps and scrubs in a pan, the final rinsing is in the tub, and the water of the tub is changed but once a day. In the midst of my bathing there comes an oldish woman; says she will help me. I tell her I could not give her that trouble. It is no use. Her mind is made up. I try to display an indifference that I cannot feel. I am very naked. I smile, but she will not smile with me. She only stares and stares, till she marks me even to myself as strange.

When at last she has helped me into a fresh kimono, a committee of the village waits to take me to the dinner. We start down the hill toward the beach. A troupe of boys blocks our passage. Two of them carry a drum and a third bangs it while he yells a wild high cry. A fourth brings up with the banner. They are announcing the evening’s play.

We continue down the hill. My host walks near me. ‘The dinner is at the house of the geisha!’ He whispers the words, opens wide his eyes, as suddenly closes them again, and says no more. For my part I go along with some common masculine thoughts.

They meet us in a garden and escort us to a pavilion. Twenty kneeling figures of men bend as we approach, and together, in silence, we watch the twilight move out over the sea.

‘Not by hand — by water.’ My host, who is still near me, anticipates the question I have only felt.

There is a rock in the middle of the bay. It is like a finger, and it points upward to the sky. It is blacker as the light goes out of everything but the piercing west. One must indeed be told that it was not put there by hand, that it was shaped by the eddying of the sea. A slender finger exactly in the middle of a circular bay. It would seem as if Nature while she worked about these islands were swayed by Japanese principles of art.

When the lanterns are brought we find we are outside a large oval of lacquered tables. Under covers of bowls are eggplant broiled in soya sauce, ginkgo seed pierced with pine needles, toasted eel, bamboo sprouts, plums pickled in perilla. The women have worked noiselessly. They kneel in the central space, composed and smiling.

This morning I asked grandmother what happened to the geisha as her youth went by. She shook her head, and I could learn no more than ‘Only if she has a beautiful heart or a beautiful face — else there is no escape.’

The geisha may take to the life for many reasons. The family property is mortgaged, and she sells herself to clear it. She is touched by the time, thinks her brother ought to have the higher, more expensive education. A great man loves her, is unhappy he cannot marry her; if she went among the geisha to live, he and she might have much of one another. I believe I have some idea how merely sham these reasons sound. But sometimes, too, the life is the life of her talent. She longs to play an instrument and sing and dance. The geisha also smokes with you and drinks with you and serves your food. If she serves you further I am sure it is by her own choice.

The return to the world, however, does not depend on herself, and there is the curse. She must be bought. Thrift will not manage it. At the best, a lover buys her; but though this is a common theme in the Japanese novel I am not convinced it is common in Japanese life. Still, geisha have married into all ranks, and tales are told that carry to the highest places.

My host, who was in America once, has a notion how the scene should daze me, impenetrable eyes watching while I in kimono eat raw fish by lantern light. I am surprised to hear him ask. The tone has been so natural that I take as natural, too, the extraordinary facts.

Opposite each gentleman sits his geisha. There are four opposite me. Our conversation goes by smiles and bows and oglings till it occurs to one of them, comes to her clearly as a small revelation, that she might make him who was in America give her the use of speech. Henceforth there is a buzz borne continually between us, and each response is greeted by bubbles of laughter. All want to know the byways of the Western knowledge of heart.

Three of the four are fluffy and merry, and the wine glosses their faces. The life suits them. The fourth is slight and pale, drinks much, yet is no part of the felicity, looks as if cigarettes might hold the rein. She lights one, puffs twice, hands it to me, then observes me with such a skew intentness as I smoke that the three fluffy ones glance at each other and smile.

My bowl she fills with shotsu, then with sake, then with shotsu, then with sake; and, each time I do not drink, snatches up the bowl and drains it to the lees. Presently she quits the room; returns with a bottle of French wine. But when I still only sip she is confused and sidles over to the gentleman who is supplying speech. He laughs at what she says; the fluffy ones move in close and laugh, too; and when my pale one comes back to me she wants to know, Do I love her?

The pitch of the party rises by degrees, though the talk remains low and the wooden crack of the breakers is as loud as before. It is less and less like the West. In his cups the Oriental grows only the more heavily moody. He has the appearance of hot speech, but he does not speak. The women stay within the oval, the men without. The tête-à-tête is always across the lacquered tables, more impassioned, more as if each pair were alone; yet none touch, none kiss.

The pale one comes with wine and more wine. Her eyes show it, not unbeautifully; otherwise she kneels as she kneeled, gazes as she gazed. Her kimono is a rich purple with white birds on the wing, and in a lantern light that swoons with smoke she is such a disengagement of sex from the burden of it that I admit to a strange stunned happiness, and when she begs to be taken to America with the other of my women I am not altogether pleased that the times are out of joint.

Would she go? She is young. She is already weary. Who knows enough about the foreigner to say it would not be easy for him to buy one from this life? She may think she detests Japan, and it would not be remarkable if she detested her portion of it. America or Timbuktu. One must have had some experience with Timbuktu to know that no romance wide of one’s self is like to remain happiness.

I ask my host how old she is, and whether it is probable one so young will have gone far on the primrose way. He says it is not probable, and he asks her how old, and she tells him she will soon be fifteen.

Later her head droops, and she sleeps there as she kneels. She is more daintily artificial than ever. Once she rouses, but only to rest the tip of her forehead against a beam.