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