Susan May James
beautiful powdered green tea with robust tones that linger on the palate
The girl’s feet strike the pavement as she darts around pedestrians and traffic. She veers into a subway station and only catches her breath when she stops to buy a ticket. She squeezes onto a packed train.
The girl jumps at the sound of her name and looks up in time to see the doors close and her pursuer’s head shake. A hand raps the carriage window as the train pulls away.
Two tourists sit near her, a map between them. The woman stares for a moment before turning to her husband.
‘Shouldn’t she be in school?’
He shrugs, engrossed in the map.
Guilty, Saika keeps her gaze lowered and quietly counts off the stations. It doesn’t take long to reach Namba where she exits and wanders along the streets, wending her way through Dotonbori before heading towards Nipponbashi. Neon signs that pulse and light up the night seem muted during the day. Overhead, a large mechanical crab beckons and a blow-fish lantern taunts. Her stomach rumbles at the smell of food. Kuidaore. Saika recalls her grandmother’s firm teachings. Hailing from the north, obaasan steadfastly believes that overindulgence in Osaka’s culinary delights leads to ruin. Luckily for Saika her father had not inherited his mother’s austere nature. He had often treated his daughter to decadent meals.
Tears fill Saika’s eyes as her mouth waters. The thought of returning home overwhelms her. If only her father were there, he’d know what to do. Instead, she knows she must face obaasan’s wrath, and her mother’s shame, without him.
As she walks along a canal and looks out over the bridge, Saika thinks about what her teacher will say this time. A knot clenches in her stomach. The bullying and teasing were out of control. She didn’t fit in at school and now, with the gossip about her father’s death, her lessons had become unbearable. At first her teacher understood, but with each new incident her patience waned.
Lost in thought, Saika finds herself in front of the National Bunraku Theatre. After a moment’s hesitation she crosses the street and enters the large, grey, block-like building. The morning show was over and the hall is empty. A woman standing behind a counter calls out the price of a ticket for the next performance. Saika shakes her head. The woman nods towards the entrance to the exhibition.
‘The display is free,’ she says.
Awed by the dolls and their ornate costumes, Saika remembers learning about the ancient art in school, but she has never before seen the puppets up close so she takes her time looking at the display. Once, she asked her father to take her to a performance but he refused. He told her the plays were too old for her; she would be bored during the four hour show.
After a second walk round the exhibit she thanks the woman and steps back outside. The afternoon sun has shifted and, still not ready to return home, Saika makes her way to the back of the building where she sits down on a step, her head resting on her knees.
With her eyes closed, she recalls the layers of silk robes, brightly coloured sashes and the pale faces of the dolls’ heads, detached from their bodies, their hair shimmering and pinned in place with delicate ornaments. For a moment she is lost in thought but then realises she can hear a shamisen playing in the distance. Saika looks up. The music and melodic voice of the joruri drift from an open backdoor.
Making sure no-one is around to see her, she stands up and darts inside. The lights are dim but she follows the music to the performance area where the three puppet masters, concealed in black garments, glide seamlessly across the stage. Mesmerised, she watches the rehearsal from a shadowed corner. A few moments later she is startled when an old man approaches her. Bowing her head she waits, expecting him to scold her. Instead, he nudges her arm and points at the almost life-sized puppets. He is one of the costume masters and, once the dolls are dressed, he stays on hand in case of any unforeseen problems. The man is kind and explains the role of the joruri, the three puppet movers and the shamisen player. He points out the change in tempo as one doll shakes an angry fist, eyes rolling in indignation as another quivers and moves with apprehension.
‘It’s all in the knees,’ the old man instructs.
Saika looks at him, puzzled.
‘The walk,’ he says, nodding towards the stage. ‘See how they move. Like real people. The knees bend first when they walk. Same with Bunraku dolls.’
They watch in silence for a moment before he tells her that the female dolls are without legs. The puppeteers use their knuckles to resemble knees, pushing out the dolls’ robes to imitate strides.
When the rehearsal ends, Saika leaves the theatre and catches a train home. Her stomach churns with worry and her feet grow heavy as she approaches the house. They are standing in the front garden and, recognising obaasan’s angry stance, Saika freezes in her tracks. There are tears of shame in her mother’s eyes. Saika’s teacher stops speaking and turns to stare. Her expression is stern as she pulls a young girl forward.
Nanami looks down, scuffing her shoes, her face is swollen from crying and Saika is ashamed. She had mistreated the girl; pushing and calling her names at every opportunity. Nanami’s sister, who had chased Saika to the train station, stands nearby. Bully, her eyes accuse.
‘Apologise!’ Saika’s mother barks. Quivering, Saika is unable to step forward. Her mother repeats the demand and Saika suddenly imagines herself as a doll, swathed in green silk, delicate trinkets dangling from her hair. She visualises the three puppeteers guiding her.
The omozukai lowers her head, relaxing her right hand, the hidarizukai unfurls her left hand while the ashizukai manoeuvres her feet, giving her strength.
‘Knees first,’ Saika whispers, edging forward.
If only she had a joruri to voice the apology forming on her lips.
About the Author
Susan May James lives and writes in London. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and writing her first novel. You can find her scribbling and tweeting about her various projects on twitter @yamnasus or on her blog Scribble & Scatter.