Let's Easter

Wow! I cannot believe that I am almost done with my dreaded qualifying exams. Tomorrow is my orals, which means I will sit in a room with a handful of professors and they will determine whether I pass or fail. Whether I continue in the program, or not.

The last few weeks have been difficult, to say the least. I’ve woken up and read and taken notes until I can’t any more. Gone are my mornings writing, and in the evenings when I get home, I’m too tired to do much besides make dinner and brainlessly watch Netflix, like a hunchbacked zombie bent over my bowl of spaghetti.

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There are a few things that have pulled me from this state. A few weeks ago I got to visit Joshua Tree while the dessert flowers were blooming. We holed up in a little cabin down a long, dirt road that intersected with other long, dirt roads with celestial names like moonbeam or stars. Dried out shrubs and little homes dotted the rolling landscape all the way to the mountains. When night fell, celestial bodies came out in full glory, the stars as bright as clear as strings of beads. I managed to build a fire in the pit outside the house, terribly pleased with myself. (Now, I realize that it was probably the desert air that did most of the work for me.)

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Nineteenth century explorer John Frémont called the Joshua Trees “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom,” which makes me laugh a bit because they are not especially graceful. Joshua Trees look like they were a fringy tangle of arms designed by Dr. Seuss. I don’t find them repulsive, but a bit strange. I’m glad we have the park, which was designated so in the mid-nineties, but the true rescue and preservation work was performed by Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, a woman so moved by the desert that she shipped plants and trees as far as New York and London to help people understand the beauty here.

Driving through Joshua Tree National Park revealed pockets of trees and yucca, cacti, and flowers in bloom. We made our way to the cholla cactus forest in the center of the park, where I was surprised to see dead, dried out branches on the ground that revealed the cactus branches to be spotted with even holes and hollow, like sponges. Despite being so different, there are many plants in the desert that remind me of ocean flora.

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I made a little time to write too, at the picnic table. I’m still stuck, or at least reluctantly making my way through a romantic scene. Enkō and Ayame are on their date (still), but since the last blog post here they have stepped off the bridge together beneath the blooming cherry trees.

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One of my favorite charms in my collection is an eggplant with a golden frog inside when you unscrew the top of the eggplant. It’s meant to be a pun. Eggplant is pronounced nasu, which can also mean to eliminate, in this case to eliminate bad luck. The frog is a pun on “to return” and his golden color refers to wealth and good fortune. Eggplants are not in season, but there seemed something oddly fitting about this nesting charm for this post, for right now. I’ll take it with me to my exams tomorrow.

The second break in the exam preparation came today, on Easter. Last night I stay up until midnight making croissants, because I could, and I was rewarded with hot, buttery pastry that shattered when I bit into it. I then washed my hands and went to sleep, to wake and go to church, to the farmer’s market and lunch. I had a table-full of chocolate and vegetables for lunch. One of the chocolate eggs when broken had a white chocolate chick inside, and it made me think of all the ways this season is about nesting. Both the nesting of birds and their eggs, and the nesting of meaning and finding unexpected things.

Let's spring... into action

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by  Ling Luo .

A cherry blossom tea bowl for whisking matcha. Photo by Ling Luo.

This past week a group of Japanese tea ceremony practitioners visited my university, and we got to watch a demonstration. They brought tea bowls with them from Osaka, decorated with cherry blossoms. The flowers have been blooming in some parts of Japan—and in Los Angeles too.

So, when I was going to open this blog post, I went through my omamori collection to see about a charm with a cherry blossom motif. There were a few pink ones, but to my surprise, there was only one charm with a sakura design… and it is the first one I ever purchased. I was fourteen or fifteen, and it was my first time in Japan. I could read and write the alphabets, a smattering of kanji, but I could barely string a spoken sentence together.

We visited Kiyomizudera, a big temple complex in Kyoto famous for its healing waters and view overlooking the city from the eastern mountains. I bought the charm by myself and attached it to my belt loop, because I had no bag. In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was thinking. I jangled when I walked, and my companions joked that they’d always be able to find me, like a lost cat. I did get lost on that trip, in a lot of ways. But, I’ve still found my way back. Something must have worked.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

A bell omamori from Kiyomizudera.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

Kiyomizudera in the summer time, a picture from a trip years later from the bell’s purchase.

So, in the spirit of the cherry blossom theme, I went into my photos and discovered that I did not have many cherry blossom pictures either. But I did see a couple taken in Nagoya, with the reconstructed castle in the background, during an illumination, which is when a site puts up lights and lanterns and permits guests after dark.

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Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

Left: A “light-up” at Nagoya Castle during cherry blossom season. Right: a food stall with cherry trees.

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In Southern California, it has rained more than usual. As a result, in the past couple weeks, the California poppies have been blooming at spots in the mountains. Last week, an entire small town had to shut down the highways because so many people were coming in and overwhelming everything.

I woke up early this morning and a friend and I drove a few hours north of Los Angeles to Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a state park known for the flowers. It was as if someone had split orange highlighter ink on the hills. There were little brown butterflies who were not interested in the poppies; stubby yellow flowers and purple blossoms. The mountains, ordinarily brown and dry, had turned a warm green. Spring has come to Southern California, marked by the native poppies with that silky glimmer to their orange petals.

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As I walked the trails, I thought about how difficult it was to describe what I was seeing. Was it orange highlighter ink splattered? Split? If I called the petals “silky” to explain that gleaming line where the sunlight hits the curve of the petal, would anyone understand that? Or would they assume “silky” referred to touch? So, I had to add “glimmer,” but that’s not quite right either. English is difficult. It also contains gaps of darkness, where words ought to be.

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Speaking of gaps of darkness, writing Kabuki-ish continues in fits and starts. This past week I wrote a romantic scene that has been on the ol’ To Do for weeks. It took three days to write. I had a problem with the scene that was not plot or writing, but primarily a failure of process and my own imagination. I knew that it was a date scene, a romantic scene, like one in a musical where a character comes around and realizes they’re in love. My imagination had supplied a haze. Romance, in my imagination sometimes, is a song. It’s a color. It’s a wordless swell.

This is all to say that I had a bullet point in my Outline that was basically, “Enkô and Ayame go on a date. Ayame realizes he has feelings for Enkô.” Or, something to that effect. To put it even more bluntly, this was lazy planning on my part. This is not, it must be said, the first time I’ve run into this problem.

So, there’s a date scene, and I haven’t done the imaginative work to imagine the specifics. And, dates are all specifics. It’s funny, because romance is a sensation, a haze, but it is built on piles of terribly specific details. So, I sat down to try and think of what those were. It was clear, when I began this process, that I would not be writing this like a normal scene. (I tried to write sentences, got distracted multiple times, and gave up). It’s not giving up. It’s like backing up to realign your car when parking.

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I began to try and get down to the gritty details, the foundation of the scene really. It was springtime. This would be a springtime scene. What is springtime? I listed words. Eventually, the words started spinning out into phrases. One of the considerations I have to make with Kabuki-ish is whether the prose is going to be written in a quasi-rhyming, beat-driven manner. There are a few scenes written in that way. If I like a word, I try to guess a useful word with a parallel sound. Eventually, I decided to not do that mode for the scene, deciding on straight prose style. I could begin to imagine the setting.

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I knew what poem I wanted to adapt. At one point in the scene, Ayame sings while Enkô dances for a small crowd on a bridge. My brain went to one of the opening poems of the Man’yōshū, a romantic poem that would be interesting here. At this point, Ayame thinks Enkô is a boy. Furthermore, at least in the first draft, this scene runs entirely from Ayame’s perspective, which means that Enkô is rocking male pronouns, we don’t see Okuni, and Ayame has a lot to sort through emotionally, even without all this stuff he does not know. One of the themes that this draft in particular has grappled with, is the idea that gender is performed and perceived. There’s a fluidity, yes, but a fluidity from these two categories.

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So, when Ayame sings like a man who rules supreme over his land of theaters and pleasure quarters, there’s something else going on here with gender too. He sings this song, unwittingly, to a woman performing and perceived as a man.

So, over two more days, I took the pieces and strung them like beads into a complete scene. I feel like with these kinds of scenes, it can be hard to see to what degree it works, tonally and emotionally. I had to correct the pronouns on Enkô so many times. I may decide against shifting them in the second draft, but it makes sense the way it is. We’ll see!

My favorite scenes are ones that are miniature novels. They begin with a problem, the problem worsens, and then there is a resolution of some sort for the problem. In this scene, it’s not about the romance. I mean, it is. But it’s about Ayame coming to terms with the nature of his fame, his relationship with his fans and patrons, and the lack of trust he comes to realize he has with them. This trust being shifted to Enkô is the backbone of the scene. Trust, ideally, is the backbone of a great romance.

I mean, obviously there’s a lot he doesn’t know, and that’s a problem for another chapter. But this was a good challenge to work through this week. “A problem for another chapter,” I write. Who knows when this book will be done? Maybe the poppies know.

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Let's walk in some mountains

I am sick, which seems like the best time to reflect on nice things that have happened. Sometimes it can be hard to do that, even when you recognize that you have it pretty good. I have a roof over my head, food, and clothes, which is more than can be said for the naked man running around my neighborhood yesterday.

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Right about when the fires were around Los Angeles, I hopped in the car with a friend and we drove out into the mountains, stopping only for a donut break at the famous Donut Man. The shop is well-known for its strawberry donut, where a donut is split like a sandwich and stuffed with fresh berries when they’re in season. Unfortunately, they were not in season, so we settled for the next best thing: the famous tiger tails, which is a swirl of chocolate and vanilla dough.

Out in the mountains, the air was cleaner, but dry as a match box. We holed up in a cabin in Idylwild, like a couple of gophers, sitting around the gas stove and listening to records. I read about medieval statues and drank tea, only to stop and remark how cold it was, like some forgetful grandmother.

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Idylwild is a little town, a place for locals and for weekenders from the city with thick trees, boulders, and mountains. Little wooden and trailer businesses, cozy clusters of t-shirts shops, fudge, and small gifts. We woke up and had breakfast at Tommy’s Kitchen. It seemed like everyone walked in for the weekend breakfast, a continuously refreshed buffet of northern european dishes, salmon and capiers, eggs, sausages, waffles, and little pancakes. There were fresh pastries: little cakes studded with fat raisins and topped with pastry cream, apple strudel, coffee cakes, strawberry tarts, and eclairs. Roaming waitresses refilled everyone’s tea and coffee. We sat outdoors on the patio with everyone (and the menagerie of dogs) to gaze up at the San Bernadino mountains over our plates. A musician played his harp in the corner.

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The mountains themselves were a little different from the brunch. We clambered around rocks through hiking trails. There were baby squirrels. I convinced myself that I could attempt bouldering, which is just a fancy way of climbing up on big rocks. They were craggy, brittle rocks that caught easily on my shoes and gripped my hands, but could also tear up your fingers if you made a bad move. When I was a kid, I thought I’d become a geologist, because I liked collecting rocks. Now, I know that would not have been the right path for me, but I wish I had at least the vocabulary to describe all the different crags and swirls of color. My dad took a geology class in college, and he said it’s a lot of chemistry; chemistry was a disaster for me. I wrote my first fantasy novel during chemistry. And then, at the end of the semester when my teacher handed back my final exam, I burst into tears like an overcome damsel. So, rock-collecting.

We saw birds too, and became so quiet in the hopes they would fly close. At one of the nature centers, we sat on a bench beside the main bird feeder, watching. There were finches and sparrows and all manner of birds, some slim and speedy, others like fluffy ping-pong balls. My favorite was the Stellar Jay, a large black and blue bird with a tuft on his head. When we hiked back to the car, birds zoomed overheard, back and forth between trees. Their movement caught us in place, like magic threads that forced us to become their audience.

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Now, I suppose if any of you ever find yourselves in Idylwild, and you are of age, the winery there is quite good. There was local art on the walls—oils of the mountains, pumas, wood carvings and gleaming glasswork—and as I walked around sipping a cold, bright white, I watched the owner waft steam into dozens of wine glasses, which he then carefully wiped with a soft cloth. Apparently, that is the best way to finish cleaning a wine glass. The internet is incredible, but I worry about learning the things I’ll never think to search for. I would never think to google how to best clean a wine glass to get the rid of the dried droplets. But, now I know.

Apparently, the town’s mayor is a dog. This does not seem a terribly fair campaign for the humans.

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On our way away from Idylwild, we stopped at the local town bakery, which was quite nice, although little more than a trailer with assorted lawn furniture out back for sitting. What more does one need for sitting anyway? We ate sandwiches and gazed up at the pines, the mountains. A stray stellar jay, before the barking of a dog sent him flying.

I confess that I did no writing, not really, in Idylwild. I made a Boston cream pie, but no words of Kabuki-ish. I have not been a very good writer lately. I am almost to the end of a second notebook, and as I scribble my way through a teahouse date between actors (that was this morning) I stare at the few remaining pages in the notebook, the few days left in 2018, and rub my head in bafflement. I should have planned better. But as I’ve been sick these last days, I’ve slipped into these moments of unhappy despair. Why am I writing this book that I don’t think anyone will want to read? Why am I writing at all? It’s never going to make any real money! You don’t write fantasy for respect either. They’ll respect you when you’re dead—or maybe Tolkien. But I don’t think that happened until he died? Right?

No one is going to give George R. R. Martin full-throated respect until he is dead and someone goes through his desk and tapes together the next Game of Thrones book. We kick him around now—at least he’s laughing all the way to the bank—but he’ll be like Tolkien when he’s gone.

And, that’s it! He’s our most famous living fantasy writer! He got a song and dance sequence on South Park with waggling penises.

Think about it. If I wanted respect while I’m actually alive, I would write literary fiction, or—wait for it—really heavy science fiction. We always give science fiction more respect. It’s like the STEM of fiction, replete with brainy, technological inspiration and sophisticated commentary on the present or future of humanity. Wow. Such. Weight. Science fiction gets a defensive brigade like the bros on Reddit that will tell you that you studied the wrong thing in college (like, not CS, probably). Science fiction gets forgiven even when it’s bad, when it’s full of talking boobs, dinosaurs and time travel—I hate time travel. Actually, hold that thought. I’ll take the talking boobs and dinosaurs. Hold the time travel.

If science fiction is utterly incomprehensible, it gets defenders. It’s fascinating, like academics defending theorists you’re not entirely convinced they understand. Like, if you throw enough science fiction trope noodles at the wall, something is bound to stick, to resonate with someone who will defend it.

Fantasy is like the humanities of genre fiction. It’s English and History. You tell people you’re an English major and they ask, “What are you going to do with that?”

Fantasy is the “What are we going to do with that?” of societal-oriented fiction. (Also, people who ask that question. The next person who asks me that question is going to get the answer, “Found a startup where I charge people for asking that question.”)

You say you write fantasy, they think magic and dragons, and your parent’s elderly friend becomes all shifty in his seat. You say science fiction, they think robots and that’s eh, that’s okay. I have a robot vacuum. They think, perhaps the lady has some deep societal thoughts to express on the future of automation.

“Perhaps”, this lady says with a thoughtful nod as she drinks her wine.

The last bit of science fiction I wrote was a pitch for a sitcom was about a tech CEO with a robot fetish and two female engineers desperate for work who con him into thinking that one of them is a realistic robot prototype. But in reality they are still working on it. Ex Machina meets Tootsie. I think I deserve millions of dollars, but I digress.

I could digress even more here, but I won’t.

My point is, there’s no assumption of thoughtful fantasy. They assume elves and dwarves and recycled Tolkien. To be fair, there’s a lot of that and I can’t totally blame them, but most of science fiction is recycled Stair Trek-Wars drivel. But with fantasy, it is so often looking at the past. Our worlds are frequently based in the past. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, by the way. Tolkien was a medievalist, old and middle languages and philology. When I read the Lord of the Rings, complete with kings and forces indifferent to evil about to destroy the world (but maybe not their corner), I can’t help but remember that Tolkien fought in World War II. I know it’s not about that war, but perhaps about the role that even the smallest people can play.

But, what I want to say is that speculating and manipulating the past demands just as respect as the future. If anything, more so, because by creating worlds from past molds, we create more interpretations about what happened and what our actions mean today. When we look to the past and interrogate people, people as they were even in a speculative sense, there is a great value. In the same sense, history has great value, as it is the study that gives meaning to and seeks to understand humanity’s existence.

Of course, humanity and science fiction do not have to have people as characters, true. But it is written by humans, for humans, so no doubt there is going to be a bit of interpretative humanity in there.

It is late. I am back in the city, away from the mountains, and I wish the writing was easier. I wish I felt like someone cared. What a cry for help that sentence is, but it is true. I do not feel the urge to lie here.

It is late, and the coyotes are making a real racket. It’s time for bed.







Let's type Kabuki-ish openings

I hate writing beginnings. I have never, once, in my entire life enjoyed writing beginnings. 

The one bit of positivity that I can muster generally about writing is that I've come to view it less with pain, an acute pain, than with just perserverance. When I was in high school, I recall walking through a part of the cafeteria with a friend. I had finished two fantasy novels by that point and was contemplating a third, and my friend enjoyed—or said she enjoyed—reading my work. I don't know. I figure if you willingly read 600 pages of someone's writing, you either enjoy the writing or hate yourself. I was talking about writing the third book. 

"Writing sucks," I said. "It sucks. Writing sucks." 

At that point, some cotton-ball-headed English teacher stopped at the coffee machine. "Don't say that!" 

"It's true," I said, with all the arrogance of fifteen year old me. That was a lot of arrogance by the way. You could make a veritable buffet for elephants out of my arrogance. I didn't give too damns about what that English teacher thought about writing. It sucked. 

If I give her the benefit of the doubt, she was probably upset about my word-choice. Sucks. Sucks. Sucks. 

 

When I think about word choice, I think of kindergarten. 

I went to a small local school a few minutes from our house. Like many elementary schools, we received a school supply list in the mail, and like many families, we cobbled together the things for the list from around the house and bought what absolutely needed to be purchased. On the first day of kindergarten, we came in with school supplies, and drew pictures. I had brought crayons, but not colored pencils. The school list had called for both. 

Apparently, I was the only student who had made this mistake. In my imagination, in my memories, I'm the only one who made this mistake, because Ms. Gibson proceeded to scold me off in front of everyone. It was embarrassing, and I when I went home, I burst into tears. 

I told my parents what happened, and in that positive parental support, my mom called Ms. Gibson a "fucking bitch." My dad, I believe, went out and bought me colored pencils. That might have been the end of it. 

A week later, or maybe the same week, because time is weird and molasses when you're small, we were drawing in class again. I was squeezed between my two best friends, drawing stick figures, with colored pencils, no doubt. 

Ms. Gibson leaned over us and asked what we were drawing. She point to my figures. "Who is this?"

"This is you..."

"Oh, how nice. And who is this?"

"And this is my mom."

There was a tangle of lines about the stick figures. That's a good symbol for my dialogue-writing abilities. At kindergarten, however, the conversation was a literal mess of lines. 

"What are we doing?"

"That's my mom calling you a fucking bitch." 

It really speaks to my kindergarten self that I didn't notice any strange reactions from Ms. Gibson, and I soon forgot about the whole thing. My mom swore a lot back then. We were not allowed to swear, but mom did all the time at home. It was incredible.

Anyway, Ms. Gibson called home to arrange a parent-teacher conference, but did not say why. My mom, who had an office job, set the appointment, and my father, who worked at home, was to go to the appointment. Dad went into that meeting with no idea that he would encounter. 

"Do you know why you're here?"

"No."

Ms. Gibson presented the drawing and explained what I had told her in class. At this point, my dad says he didn't know that this was that kind of meeting, about me being in trouble, and he thinks mom knew but sent him in blind. Ms. Gibson was righteous and confrontational in her description, her assumptions about my home life. 

After her angry telling of the incident, Ms. Gibson said, "Surely you don't use this kind of language at home?" 

Mrs. Gibson made the mistake of thinking that talking down to my father, a proud historian, would make him apologize. She probably thought he would be cowed, turn defensive. 

"Actually," he said, "when a teacher sends a kindergartener home in tears over colored pencils, yes, 'fucking bitch,' is the proper language to use. That is precisely what those words exist for." 

 

As far as I'm concerned, on a first draft, my goal is to write a beginning that's good enough to allow me to write the next bits. Inevitably, I am excited by what comes after the beginning. I am always most excited about endings. I like those parts the best. 

But, you have to write a beginning, and actually, many people will tell you that the beginning is more important because if the beginning is bad, then no one ever reaches the ending. This is certainly true. 

I still hate beginnings. Which brings me to Kabuki-ish. 

 

Kabuki-ish still exists primarily on paper. This week, for fun, I started to copy the opening and play with my notes. The notes look like this: 

It's worth pointing out the lack of breaks, paragraphs, and sketch-like nature of the opening scene, which is a rambling description by one of our characters of the theater. I took the opening couple pages, copied it, and fleshed it out to look more like a novel. Below is what I got. 

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But after  the writing, I realized that I had already fleshed out this passage in my notebook, and I copied that as well, ending up with different versions. Now, the next step would be to decide which one to use. Or, what sections to keep from one and the other, then Frankenstein them together. That is the likely outcome, I feel. 

There are two parts to the opening. The first part is mostly unchanged from the notes, as crazy as they appear:

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Now, the next bit is where it gets a little confusing. For the the next scene, there's a long version and a short version. Here's the short one: 

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And this is the other version of "Enkō Listens" that I found in my notebook: 

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Enkō was an orphan. 

There were a lot of orphans back then, in general, and Enkō had never let it get her down. 

Her pops had always frowned at her overactive imagination, but he never said anything about it. It probably helped that he was mute. As a small child, Enkō had imagined that he had found her in a stalk of bamboo, that maybe she was a princess from the moon—or at the very lease, the royal court. The day after she heard Umehito and everything changed, she overheard Mrs. Melon and the Well Widow talking. They were complaining about the distant highway traffic that inevitably dumped garbage and dead people on the eastern edge of their village, Swampside. Enkō normally didn’t pay them any mind, but she was trying to find spring onions in the patch of grass nearby. 

Their conversation shifted to the weather, which had been unseasonably dry. Enkō switched to looking for wild chives. She spotted a stalk of wild rice buried in much and crawled over to get it. That was when they started to talk about her. 

She froze. 

It was Mrs. Melon who said the weather could have been worse—there was that summer years ago, when they found Enkō, right? 

Wit her threadbare robe hitched up around her legs and her hands and knees in green mud, Enkō heard the truth. Or, at least, the truth as Mrs. Melon remembered it. 

There had been a bad famine that year. It didn’t rain. It was uncommonly hot, and the clouds didn’t form dragon nests overhead, so the dragons didn’t bring rain. No one could believe how dry it got. The paddies shriveled into the size of a game board, and the fields dusted. Even the bugs died. But not Enkō. 

A lot of babies had been left by the riverbank that year. Moms and dads fleeing the dead fields for the big city. That village, Swampside, was not far from the Great East Highway, the widest dirt road on this side of the world, and the highway that would take you to the city if you could brave the bandits, or even worse, the bored provincial warriors. 

Enkō had been one of the many babies abandoned on the way to the city. They all soon died, as they’d been starving to begin with. 

But not Enkō.

“Many of them, you know,” murmured Ms. Melon to her neighbor, “were quiet before they died. But not her. She wailed and screamed. It made my hair stand on end for days. All those dead babies and her screaming.”

“How horrible.” 

“The impure tanner took her in. It wasn’t natural at all, being around all that death for so long.” 

“He didn’t speak after his wife died, you see. And she’d been childless…”

What went unspoken but Enkō felt like a weight, was that they thought there wasn’t something quite right about her. As she listened to the women tell the story, she wound her hands up in her apron as her heart welled with gratitude and her eyes with tears. The lovely mystery of being an orphan, maybe a princess or a fallen nature spirit, had been stripped away from her. Just one baby amongst a bunch of dead ones. 

Enkō crept out the back door, following the bushes back to the grove where their hut was located. 

Her pops, her adopted and only pops, was covered in blood from his work stripping the hide from a carcass, but Enkō hugged him anyway, holding onto him like a rock in the surf. The waves threatened to drag her out to sea, a darker place. 

She never let go of her pops. 

Not having a mysterious past or even the possibility of royal parents made the acting even more special. That became the real dream, attainable and beautiful. 

“Pops, I’m going to learn to be an actor!” 

He just stared at her. 

Then he handed her a bowl of stew. They sat on the floor, slurping, and when they finished, she took the scraps outside to feed the flock of crows. 

The next morning, Enkō washed herself in a stream and wore her cleanest robe and pants before trying to brush her hair with a twig, unsuccessfully. “Wish me luck,” she said to the crows. 

They jumped around, feathers scattering, and went back to feeding on the deer remains at the edge of the clearing. 

She went to Umehito’s house, calling out before she walked inside. He lived alone. He was drinking on the back veranda overlooking his overgrown backyard, and the bottle was mostly empty. 

The villagers did treat her like a dirty mountain monkey—that is what Enkō meant. It could also mean halo, she knew, though even at her young age, that was not what the villagers meant. But she had washed up as she best she could. 

Umehito took another swig from his cup. 

“Excuse me?”

He lazily glanced over his shoulder at her, then refocused on his miserable garden. He had not reached for his broom, which Enkō saw as promising. 

She crept out next to him on the veranda. “Hello.” 

Umehito held out the wine bottle. 

“No, thank you,” said Enkō. “I would like very much to learn how to be an actor, and if you would teach me, please.” 

He stared at her. 

He took another drink, something sad in his eyes. Enkō couldn’t have known it at the time, but Umehito had studied under the great female role actor Umeyuki II, who had studied under the Umeyuki who audiences had called the God of Illusion. If Umehito hadn’t ended up in Swampside, his title Umeyuki III stripped from him, he would have had his choice of the most beautiful and talented children in the artistic capital of the world. 

He took another drink. 

Then another. 

A part of him wanted to drag this insolent little farm girl—with a country accent that could mold tofu—into the ugly, overgrown yard where he would strangle her with her threadbare clothes and shove her body in the bushes. Man, the wine tasted bad here. 

But the part of him, the passionate part of him that would be insulted was burnt out and buried under the months of humiliation, and finally, the boredom of this backwater, somehow remained.  

He looked up at Enkō, who was wringing her hands. “Why?”

She stared at him, because he had asked such a big question, she didn’t know where to start—beautiful costumes, grand stories, that roar of adoration—and Enkō had grown up with a mute man, so words were not her strength. Her big eyes filled with tears and longing, 

and it took Umehito’s breath away. 

“I want to be someone else,” said Enkō. “Just for a little while.”

He wiped at his eyes, trying to summon his disinterest. “Humph.” He reached behind her for another bottle and ignored her, opening the bottle and drinking. Enkō waited. He made her wait, and it was cruel, but he wanted someone to hurt, like he had. 

When he finally looked at her, the bottle halfway gone, she didn’t look hurt, just hopeful. 

“What do you want to do?”

“Do?”

“What do you want to play?”

“I’d like to play a princess.”

He laughed at her. She laughed nervously with him. 

She didn’t know it at the time, but Umehito had made a career playing princesses. 

“Whatever,” he said. “Fine. That should be fun. The first think you can do is clean my yard.”