Thursday, 27 March 2014

Beauty and the Ugly Old God of Katsuragi

The ugly old God of Katsuragi was so unhappy about his appearance, he was frightened of daylight. He hid all day behind palace gates and ordered the shutters stayed closed until the hour of the rat, but at midnight, although the sky was dark he still kept on his hat: an elaborate headpiece with a black spotted veil. His servants were forbidden to look at him directly, but even so he further concealed his face with a fan like a fine lady.
He took all his meals in a vast, ornate dining room, which at night was only faintly lit by the light of the stars and the moon and where he ate far too quickly. He speared sushi with one end of a chopstick and drank his noodle broth off a spoon. He had diverged to the west and so his table manners had digressed to the etiquette of an English gentleman: two chopsticks were fiddly and slurping was grotesque! And besides, to pop morsels into his open mouth required one elegant, long-fingered hand to lift his spotted veil.
After a late supper, he liked to roam the area of Mt. Katsuragi; sneak into people's homes or linger near their doorways. He listened to people's prayers and doubts knowing he could do nothing about them. He'd forfeited that right long ago when he'd let being a God of the Rice Paddies go to his head and wilfully refused their requests for a good harvest, which was how he ended up in his mess: skulking in the dark in a black cloak lined with scarlet. An ugly old God with purple-white mottled skin, as if someone had drawn a map on him; disfigured him with his country of origin.
This ancient god's reclusive life led him to new secrets. He discovered what the living did when they thought they were alone or unnoticed.
At the time of this tale, he spent his nights visiting a dying mother. He'd been drawn to this woman's strength, despite her feeble breaths, and caught, as she was, between life and death she'd sucked him into her thoughts: the mistakes she'd made and the hopes she still held for her daughter. A daughter, he had not yet seen, but with each night that he stayed in her bedroom corner, another petal from her glass-cased chrysanthemum fell. There was not much time... In her mind, she constantly called, “Akane, come to me.”
When only two petals were left, a courtesan dressed in brilliant red came. Crouched by the dying woman's bedside, she cried, “Mother! Mother! Don't die! Don't leave me!”
The ugly old God was struck by her beauty, so this was Akane: all in red with ivory skin, ebony hair and jet-black eyes. To his surprise, although he always hid in the furthest, darkest corner, she saw him and unleashed a flood of fury on him, “You can't have her! Not now or ever – she's mine!” Then she wept as she clutched at his cloak and begged, “Take me instead, I'll be your companion.”
God just shook his covered head. He could not lie to this beautiful woman standing before him in the pale moonlight of dawn.
The room stilled as the dying mother, with her daughter nearby, found peace. The remaining chrysanthemum petals fluttered with her last intake and out-take of breath, then drifted to the floor of the glass case.
With her mother's final breath, Akane realised her error, “I don't know what kind of god you are, but take me anyway.” She said in a broken tone, “You have sat with her when I could not...' She stifled a sob, “...let me see your face.”
The ugly old God walked into the light, saying as he drew aside his black spotted veil, “Tell me honestly: Is this picture not well done?”
Akane's expression as she looked upon his face did not register anything; her gaze was unwavering and burned into his skin as she studied him. “A mix that only Nature's hand could make beautiful and interesting. A face I can love.”
With those words, the newly-declared handsome God wrapped his black cloak around his brilliant red beauty.

*Inspired by passages from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagen and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Aunt Crocodile

In August Street, Paddington, there stands an old-fashioned sweet shop lined with shelves of pick 'n' mix in large glass jars. Pink shrimps, pear drops, lemon sherbet, flying saucers, white mice, mint humbugs, and fizzy cola bottles, while on the counter there are military rows of lollipops of all different colours, sizes and flavours. Strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, cherry, and banana, a single colour or two striped together. Candy on a white plastic stick that's shiny and sticky and made to be licked, or matt and hard, and meant to be sucked until it falls into a soft powder.
To the regulars, it seems the same lady owner has always been in charge. She dusts the shelves, restocks the glass jars, shovels sweets into paper bags as she weighs them on metal scales and rings up sales on the antique cash register, punching its raised keys and pulling its slot machine arm. To grandparents, parents and kids, her outward appearance stays much the same as does her age.
She speaks only when necessary, and her hair, now a faded grey streaked copper red, remains coiled on top of her head; her muddy cat-like eyes are still cold and the thin closed-lip smile she gives is still chilling. She wears inappropriate figure-hugging dresses in shades of green with a rope of freshwater pearls and dark brown stilettos, which although ill-suited to the job make her ample and pillar-like stature enticing. Her customers agree that she was probably never beautiful, but she's certainly striking.
Taffy, the most popular shop on the block charms people with its antiquated look, but there are a suspicious few who point out that whenever a child goes missing, they're last seen here, and each year one or two mysteriously disappear. Runaways, residents said, from the west country could have gone anywhere. However, every year the same rumour starts and so the locals affectionately call the proprietress Aunt Crocodile: She, with the engaging smile.
But a middle-aged man nicknamed Fib maintains this is not a lie, he'd narrowly escaped being made into a pie when he was a run-away boy. “What rot!” People exclaim when they hear his far-fetched tale, “Lost boys have such wild, over-active imaginations!” To which Fib replies, “One day, the truth will out.”
And the truth, according to Fib, is that this woman is in actual fact an enormous crocodile. She lures children to the back of the shop with poisonous candies and chocolate and then slowly roasts them whole in a clay oven. Her teeth, he said, are razor-sharp like jagged glass embedded in a brick wall, and when he saw these he squeezed through the bars of his metal cage before he too was further drugged, oiled, stuffed with herbs, and salted.
Some adults think Fib is harmlessly fanciful, while others egg him on to even wilder exaggerations until he tells them how his cousin Charlie once witnessed an obese boy drown in a chocolate factory's chocolate river. On moments like this, Paddington residents rib Fib with stupid questions, so that his patience runs out and he spits his last words in their creased-up faces: “This stuff isn't just the stuff of nightmares or fairy tales – it happens!”
While Fib himself is always rejected, his comic tales only increase Taffy's popularity; the shop bell jangles repeatedly with large groups of school age kids, and even when, now and again, posters are put up with those suddenly reported missing, hardly anyone suspects the cleverly concealed woman termed Aunt Crocodile.

*Inspired by the world of Roald Dahl and The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Veruca and the Netsuke

This is the story about the girl who always got her own way, how she wasn't modest, but vain, and one day got her name claimed by a character in a best-seller.
This is how Veruca brushed past Roald Dahl; how Roald came across Veruca Salt.
The plot that placed these two in the same room together happened years before Roald Dahl was a popular children's author. At that time, he was unpublished, but Veruca was already an obnoxious girl.
Fate conspired these two to cross paths one summer.
Mr. Salt and Roald Dahl had both been issued with an invitation to an unveiling of a private netsuke collection. A huge display of very small Japanese cravings, which the owner, who they both knew, had painstakingly acquired. He searched them out and brought them back to his mansion house in prestigious South West London. Yes, Mr. Bertie Loomis was an unusual and well-travelled fellow; a dandy in a pin-striped suit whose monocled eye was good at spying treasure. At soirĂ©es when he circulated the room, it was his booming voice that was heard: “Illuminating, dear boy, illuminating” or “My, but how skilled you are.”
Into this scene, Roald Dahl, Mr. Salt and Veruca entered.
Bertie jovially shook both of their hands and ruffled Veruca's hair which made her scowl. His daughter, Mr. Salt said, had insisted on coming. Since the gold-leaf invitation had been received, Veruca had slept with it, he disclosed to Bertie Loomis. “Ah, she's a magpie like me.” Bertie said studying this girl through his monocle, “Run along and explore the house my dear. It's only boring adults in here.” Veruca refused to move and pouted.
Extraordinary child you have Mr. Salt.” Bertie commented as he turned to his next guest. Veruca's face flushed as pink as her rose tutu, CHILD! I'M NOT A CHILD! She thought.
Roald Dahl standing nearby overheard this exchange and intrigued continued to observe them. The Salts were such interesting characters.
Bertie tapped the side of his glass with a butter knife and brought the cheery voices to a halt. With all eyes focused on him as their host, he cleared his throat, “Beautiful things come in small packages.” He reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out a brindled wolf.
The small group gasped at this matchbox-sized beauty and Veruca tugged at her daddy's sleeve, “Hey, Daddy, I want a netsuke. I want you to get me an netsuke right away!”
All right, Veruca, all right. I'll get you one before the day is out.” Mr. Salt placated his daughter. But as the guests were ushered through to Bertie's display room, Veruca broke free. “I want the whole collection!” She screamed.
She flung open the doors of the glass cabinet, which Bertie had ensured were unlocked for this occasion, and stuffed a galloping horse, a wild boar, a sleeping mouse, and a rat on a peanut into her coat pockets. Mr. Salt did not try to stop his spoiled daughter.
Bertie calmly approached her as if she were a tiger and retrieved his precious netsukes from her bulging pockets. “It's all right Veruca. They have that effect on some people.” Her breath answered him in shallow rasps. “But as you're so passionate, I'll let you keep one.”
Give it to me now!” Veruca growled and held out her palm. Into it Bertie placed the boxwood rat on a peanut. The audience watched as the rise and fall of Veruca's chest slowed and her fingers closed protectively over it.
Veruca Salt's a bad nut!” Bertie joked as he collided with Roald Dahl, “A little bird told me you were trying to write about a giant fruit. What you need is a netsuke to inspire you.” His hand disappeared once more into a pocket and pulled out a rat on a giant peach.

*Inspired by the world of Roald Dahl and The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A Thousand Pieces

In anger, I'd thrown a chair at the glass display case and it had shattered everywhere, disturbed the ceramic pots, vases, and miniatures inside it. I'd let my frustration boil up and overcome me again; unleashed my fire away from the public eye on my own possessions.
Fragments had flown through the air and ricocheted off the furniture. The pieces had danced and wiggled themselves into every nook and cranny. The carpet crunched underneath my feet, and the sun glinted off lodged shards and made ceiling rainbows.
I spent a whole week on my hands and knees cussing myself and my actions. My back and hips ached, and yet my eyes still spied splinters. Even my food tasted gritty as I was literally eating china!
I was amazed at how far fragments could fly, how they spread using me as their carrier, catching on clothes or piercing my skin looking for a way in. I'd wake up to discover specks of dried blood on my palms and soles. A small scratch, a prick of a needle. But on my calves and thighs, it was as if someone overnight had tried to stitch a seam or hem. I had weird dreams that it was Rumpelstiltskin trying to hide his gold! A human cavern for his precious chips which dazzled like diamonds and jewels.
Every day, at some point I'd swear Trop de verre! Too much glass! Why I exclaimed in French I didn't know. Those three words fell off the tongue as if they'd been waiting there; waiting for the right opportunity to be uttered out loud, repeatedly said.
Trop de verre! Trop de verre! As I picked and swept.
I cursed the frequency of tiny daggers drawing blood. Their glass and porcelain blades as they stabbed the fleshy pads of my thumbs and fingers. And yet it was my fiery temper, which matched the red-gold in my hair, that had made me destroy my collection. The broken glass, porcelain and chinaware piled up in a cardboard box, and yet I could not, would not part with it. Even shattered, it was not trash!
This mess of matt and glinting fragments had its own spell-binding beauty. The box sat on the floor of my one-bedroom flat and many a night I rummaged through the broken pieces. Ran my hands over shards of ceramic pots and vessels, feeling their different textures and recalling their stories. This one had been hidden in a branch of Oxfam, this one was a find at an antique fair; that one was a birthday present, and this piece was from an heirloom. I was hungry to be part of each one's history.
Could anything be saved? Could I, with an discerning eye, create something from this?
Most of them had smashed, were irreparable, and I just didn't have the patience to painstakingly glue them together. So I sifted and sorted: separated nine hundred and ninety-seven pieces out from the splinters and dust. I kept the irregular-shaped, the jagged edges; the pieces with rough breaks and sharp points; the clear, the opaque, the sky-blue and earth colours.
But I wanted a thousand to make a mosaic. I was missing three pieces. I was defeated by too much crushed glass! And yet I was sure there'd been more recyclable pieces.
A sudden draught made the dust rise and stung my eyes, so that tears pooled and rushed down my face like a waterfall. To my astonishment, a large drop dislodged a fragment I recognised from a clay vessel. Then I sneezed viciously and my chest heaved with dry coughs. A glazed shard travelled across the room while another flew from my mouth.
My explosive anger had been forgiven and I'd been granted permission to form a patchwork picture in a thousand treasured pieces.

*Another tale inspired by 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo, as well as the work of Edmund de Waal