The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories – Yasunari Kawabata

The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories

“As death approaches, memory erodes. Recent memories are the first to succumb. Death works its way backward until it reaches memory’s earliest beginnings. Then memory flares up for an instant, just like a flame about to go out. That is the “prayer in the mother tongue.”

A string of solemn words sprint from my mind onto my lips at slight picture of a funeral that passes on the street. With my hands pressed palm to palm; expressing gratitude to the death a prayer in the mother tongue, “Bless the departed soul and forgive all the mortal sins”; escapes in the melancholic air. Forgiveness, they say, is the only medicine that cures an infected heart. A prayer; a hope for betterment flickers as the mind enters into an empty abyss. When death approaches, it fetches the long lost past; nostalgia slowly creeps with the facade of first love; the fragments of a faded childhood and the tattered pages of life’s desolation are pasted in a sentimental embrace even as the empathetic mother tongue binds the corpse in ropes of convention. As a child, I was terrified of funerals. But, it all changed on the day my grandfather died. The elders thought as I was too young to see the dead and so I was sent to the neighboring apartment. I never got to witness my grandfather’s silent face; his last physical memories of this world. Not a single tear was dropped when I came back to an empty room and even today funerals never make me grieve. At funerals, I sit by the dead and stare blankly at the soundless face, searching for a fragmentary goodbye of my grandfather as my anguish never got the merited privilege of closure. Does death complete the emptiness that life always dwells in? Can death really erase all the mistakes and sins of mortality? When does a man rob the virginity of his life and then later, why does he regret it as a reckless act? Did my grandfather recollect his first spoken words in his mother tongue? The virginal call to his mother. Will I remember my first words on my deathbed? The choreographed beats of a drum lingered from a nearby tea house.

As I sat on the old steps, waiting for the youth, whom they called ‘Master of funerals’, I heard the heart wrenching cries of a child as his poured the oil out of the lamp, lit in front of the dead. The boy despised the mere smell of the oil; rapeseed to be precise. The oil was cruel enough to play tricks on the child’s mind. The lingering sweet odor brought back the dead. Unaware of his quandary, it would not be long till he smelled the rapeseed oil once again. Will he then offer a hundred lights at the altar to honor his parents? Ask the boy for whom death permeates through the viscous oil. A middle-school teen who had come to honor the dead sat besides me. He did not felt the need to put on a solemn mask like several others at the funeral. Just like me, he could not grieve the death. The rituals commenced with the entry of the ‘master of funerals’. The youth was neither a temple priest nor a shaman. The fellow was in his 20s who unfortunately had seen more funerals than celebratory sacraments of life; his kimono smelled like a grave. Amid the chants, to the horror of the mourners, the teen slammed a book in my palm. “Please, read it carefully”, he pleaded. Words were jammed up in my throat. How could he do such a disgraceful thing in the middle of the funeral? Doesn’t he respect the dead? Tears flooded his aching eyes and I knew it right then, I had to read his penned diary of the sixteenth year. I could not bring myself to give him an unenthusiastic answer; I had to revere his words the way his belief resided in my approval. The boy’s grandfather was on the brink of death. Maybe, it was fate giving me a second chance to pronounce my own unsaid goodbyes. Maybe, his word would lessen the weight of my onerous memories. Nevertheless, will the teen himself be able to unload his baggage? Will the sorrow of his loneliness vanish like the tears from his grandfather’s hopeful eyes? Similar to his grandfather, would his heart stand strong for seventy-five years while the wounds of failure bled? Ask him on his 27th birthday.

The pristine images of the flowing white fabrics floated the virginal essence of life that conquered the departed soul. The soft waves of the sea murmured the melancholy of breathing memories. The urn to be used for gathering the ashes rested peacefully on the wooden mantle that once was a proud owner of an authentic Japanese watch symbolizing the courage of love. Love is certainly a funny thing. It dawns from sheer vanity of beauty and crumbles in its opulent absurdities.Frightening love. Love that dwells on fringes of insanity; love that consumes the very essence of its purity to the advent of insanity. Is love a bastard child of lunacy or an orphan seeking a home in fostered hearts? Ask the man who patiently waited for the bitter blade to touch his warm neck.

The boy, who had come with a smartly wrapped parcel containing some of his mother’s old kimonos along with his belongings, kept smiling as the birthplace bid a sorrowful adieu to one its children. Amid the ritualistic chants, the funeral proceeded onto the pompous street that prided in its mountains of silver and copper coins. The coins fell swiftly as pearls from a necklace. By honoring the dead,the honey road became an illusionary plaque of a melancholic heaven. Is then, paradise a distant path or is it found in the boots of the beggar who tonight will feast on a scrumptious sea bream and sake; the red comb a gift on her wedding night. The outlandish screeching of the cicadas interrupted the funeral procession as the villagers glanced at each other. The cries of the cicadas from the hill in the park metamorphosed into the merciful whimpers of a woman dwelling in the realms of her chastity under the roof. Once again the villagers glanced at each other. The rumor of a woman who lost her virginity three times preceded the procession.The woman who stood behind me in a white kimono grinned as only she knew the absolute truth. She had lost her virginity at the very sight of a wrinkle resting near her eye and the sting of her sagging breast bled for the first time. Not a single memory, just a flimsy shadow. Is old age the inevitable enemy of beauty that life prides upon? Do the baggage of our memories become detrimental as we head towards the dusk of our lives? Ask the woman who lost her virginity for the fourth time. Vile gossip is an illusion stemming from a nascent self-hatred .Like a chimerical ballet liberated from human errors, fantasy takes refuge into the arms of realism. Isn’t it true that at times we choose to dwell in our rose-tinted prejudices? Ask the man standing in the shadow of a pilgrim in the third-class waiting room at the station. The voice of the drums seems to get closer.

The procession took a final turn on a narrow road that led to the ‘Mountain Peach Bath’; a man- made paradise. Suddenly, a wild uproar halted the funeral procession. “You worms. It’s a small road just wide enough for automobiles to pass. If you were so shocked when you first realized what kind of intentions that road had, you had better open your eyes while you can and think about the intentions that lie behind that highway.”, howled an infuriated young man. The public bath gave way to a newly built private bath and the Mountain Peach Bath’ could only be found in the history archives of fading memories. Somewhere, the crickets zealously chirped in a jar. The persistent odor that oozed from burning the pine boughs brought happiness to a gloomy heart. Did the ashes of the burned pine boughs cleanse the heart from the burdensome memories? Did the heart become a pictograph of purity, once again? Ask the heart who was anxious to eradicate the embedded orphan complex.

Underneath the persimmon trees, unaware of the large procession; the children played with their newly discovered half-sword. The blunt piece reminiscing in the memory of its sharpness lay on beneath the ancestral shrine. The samurai sword was chastised for tasting the blood of a grief-stricken woman. Did the sword have the right to take a genuine life? Who made the sword a messiah of justice? Ask the broken piece that drew blood.

Hurrah! Hurrah!” yelled the sisters at the gate of the inn. Did they express the similar sentiments of the soul that had just departed from a sullied body? Or were these words of encouragement bestowed on the woman who in the memory of her father embarked on a journey of residing in the inns throughout Japan. Did the inn represented her unfulfilled dream or bear the burden of her unkind memories? Akin to the way I struggle to find my grandfather’s face in the dead. The deafening sounds of the drum were excruciating to my emptiness. As I peeked into the tea house, I lost track of the funeral. An adolescent dancing girl in her teens was happily playing the drums, entertaining the tea house patrons. A virginal beauty daunting to the eyes of her admirers; the dancing girl of Izu was a nomad of beauty and cleanness; a girl yet to be christened as a woman; someday.

Nearly after a somber hour, the funeral procession came to its end. Reminiscent to a soul noiselessly leaving a body in all its glory, the setting sun slipped into its watery grave leaving its memories in a violet sky. The soft waves of the sea melodiously hum a lullaby to the princess of the dragon palace who slept in the cerulean depths whilst a fairy tale was penned on a lover’s grave. On my way back from the cremation, weary laborers walked from the mountains into the village; a girl sat terrified of the sea, wondering if there would be someone caring enough to take her away from this place. The nightfall glistened in the moonlight. The moon shimmered in its loneliness; its virginal baggage getting heavier with every star that cropped up in the nightly ecstasy. As the moon pondered on its forlorn fate, the horse beauty flew like an arrow towards the moon. The drums of the dancing girl welcomed a new life in to this world as it gave its first virginal cry. That day, I had witnessed both, the echo of life and the stillness of death; everything in between lay scripted in the unread pages of the diary that fervently fluttered in my lap.

“Put your soul in the palm of my hand for me to look at, like a crystal jewel. I’ll sketch it in words…”

When I embarked on the Kawabata journey, I was determined to read each of his literary works, come what may. I desired to view Kawabata’s primary strokes of his literary painting. A writer’s first work resembles the monochromatic background splashed on a bare canvass; its image yet unknown. To discover the root after cherishing the grandeur, the essence of the root is placed on a critical dais. Alas, I had seen the painting first and not the bare canvas. I was handed a completed art and as I sat there trying to decipher and classify every color that amalgamated in the quest for a divine nothingness , I listened to the silence that lingered between the scripted words, comprehended the lingering sentiments and the opulent beauty that flowed with every stroke on the bare canvas. At times when the silence consumed me, I could observe the anguish of a soul that shimmered like a crystal jewel amongst the sketched words. To comprehend the meaning of nothingness, a cry of a lonely heart, to evaluate a character without any prejudices, the quest for a virginal soul, to hear the earthly grave that now bestows the divinity of a grain that feeds sons and grandsons; a need for the “ears of a Buddha”. A privilege that Kawabata sometimes bestows.

3/5***

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