A widow in Mississippi kept them in glass cases,
the Japanese dolls her late husband
shipped home from the war,
and the parlor furniture was draped in sheets
removed only for guests.
I was there to speak of a death,
her daughter, in a wilderness “mishap”
just two weeks before. The episode was still a mystery,
the girl’s body lost. My hostess was not frantic,
but composed as those figures masked in lacquer,
their kimonos miracles of sheen
sewn from scraps to imperial allure.
She insisted: “Please let me give you the tour.”
Her make-up was tasteful,
carriage not quite formal but refined.
“May I offer you a lemonade or perhaps some sherry?
Are you sure? These are Kabuki figures, you see,
the models all actresses, something of a scandal,
but the parts they play are oiran, bride, grieving wife
and the suicides, their faces all pale
as the magnolia petals.”
She gestured at the window, waxy blossoms
swayed by the breeze. Some displayed pods
with red berries the color of geisha lips.
“Mrs. Williford, I wanted to say how sorry . . . ,”
but she raised a hand to silence me, gracious.
“Do you know ‘The Thousand Cherry Trees?’
A dance drama with great spectacle.
The usual passion, murder, a feud, a fragile
truce. These dozen are among its principals.”
“When I unwrapped them I gave new names.
This is Missy, with her caged bird. Here’s Jill-ji,
Yukio and Ohno with the open fan, which is a symbol.
I call the sassy one Scarlett –
see her sneer. She’s naughty but strong.”
Their standing poses with flute, lantern
or parasol would ruin any human spine,
but their kimonos were heavenly – crane
and peacock, gardenia, fox in snow, mist moon,
a lace of butterflies. . . .
“April was like Scarlett, little prone to heed warning,
but you know that. Perhaps I should have been
firmer. Canoes on a fast river? I urged caution.
But these days you can’t cage them, only suggest.”
She was dressed primly, the oyster blouse
and tan skirt with pleats, high heels, but she moved
with a dancer’s glide. “Notice the details – metal accents,
brocade, whipped thread, the wigs and ornamental
pins almost Spanish – and this is my favorite,
a ghost, whom I call American Woman,
her expression so stoic and a headdress to rival
any Kiowa princess or chief.”
Her smile was all etiquette and dignity,
meaning I could sympathize but not display pity.
I was meant not to shoulder any blame.
A radio was playing easy rock in a back room.
“Most everyone knows the sash is called obi,
but notice the various knots, also symbols –
tied in drum fashion, iris, sparrow, foal,
which is for a girl who is not yet tamed.
Hush now. Just listen.” She spoke with that accent
and cadence so many Delta ladies cultivate
with age. The syllables brighten
to luxury, the voice still a delight to hear.
“The dolls’ faces are all masks, frozen expression,
their hands and bodies from willow wood,
easy to shape and fashion,
but so delicate, always in peril.
“I so appreciate your discretion both in the matter
at hand and what you surely notice. These dolls are
so delicate, and even I can see
that the river mist steals in here, even into the cases,
which are opened for dusting
only by me. True connoisseurs value this aging,
almost the crazing of a raku vase,
but we all have more drama than we’re made for,
and I am no collector nor souvenir hunter.
You may guess this is a shrine to Major Jack
who never made it back from the occupation
but wrote to me often of the shy people
who had attacked us with such fervor.
“The Kabuki is theater, of course,
life exaggerated, almost opera, its stories
drawn from history, folklore,
but I must be keeping you, and you have a long
drive ahead in the dark. Can I offer a glass
of milk, or fresh water? I had planned to present
April with these dolls as a wedding gift,
but then I neglected to be firm. That’s the approach
with them now, you know. No scolding.
Here, let me get that obstinate door.
“You must set the example and be firm,
but you cannot keep them quarantined or cooped.
You see, my friend, if I may call you a friend,
I am not mindless of what I’m
engaged in at this moment – diversion and evasion,
a ceremony of reticence – but drive
safely now. The forecast is storm. And don’t miss
that first turn, which is nearly hidden.
See how the clouds, also,
form a kimono pattern? You almost imagine
a spectral woman will inhabit them and slowly dance
across a sky of heron-laced silk,
her eyes turned up to the far clamor of the birds.
Expectant, you see, but tranquil as a windless leaf,
as if any stray sound or fancy
from the world of pretense
might possibly temper her grief.”
A gracious widow, magnolias, a lost daughter,
clouds rife with herons. Leaving, I was quiet as a thief.