“The Kimono”, Chapter One

The_Kimono_Cover_for_blog_use

It hung in the window of a shop as Mari walked around old Kyoto. The shop looked out on a very small, shaded garden. With the sun overhead piercing the fan-shaped leaves of a gingko, the ground beneath looked like a yukata’s repeat pattern. Mari’s gaze was drawn to a slim beacon of light. It was enough to make her enter the small shop.

“Ohayo!” The shopkeeper came from behind his counter and bowed respectfully to Mari.

“Ohayo.” Mari bowed back.

Mari was Japanese-American, married to an ex-military man and this was their first trip to Japan. The only Japanese thing she knew was food. This culture was no more hers than being American. She felt she would forever be caught in the middle, a tug of war between two sides, and neither to claim her.

Behind the counter, Mari saw what had caught her attention: a kimono, a black, formal tomesode that a married woman would wear, not dyed with the usual flowers worn by young, unmarried women. Winding around the hem in mountains and valleys and up in a serpentine path high on the left front was a wide silver band. Looking closer, she saw the intricate handwork of what looked like stitched, silver cloth.

“That is surihaku, embossed silver sewn foil.”

The voice of the shopkeeper startled her. She blushed, not hearing him approach.

“How old is this kimono? May I look at it closer?”

The shopkeeper took it down from the pole and carefully draped it over his arm. Mari traced the river of silver from the hem to where it stopped. She noticed the kimono also had five white crests stamped on the front, shoulders and back. The shopkeeper opened the left panel of the kimono. Mari saw black knotted embroidery around the tan, the part that encircled the hips. The silver was only the outside decoration. The embroidery inside was heavy and patterned.

Mari could not restrain from touching the embroidery. She wanted to close her eyes and read it like Braille. She had never seen a kimono quite like this. It wasn’t new but it couldn’t be too old, perhaps no more than sixty years. It seemed in excellent condition. Even the white thread that was used when the kimono was washed was still fresh.

“Do you know anything about this tomesode? Where it came from, perhaps?”

The shopkeeper sighed. “No. I am a widower. My wife must have bought it. I found it after she died, in a chest.”

Mari decided to purchase the black kimono. The shopkeeper wrapped it in a box and she brought it home.

Four years ago, she had married Steven. They had never really settled down, for his company sent him for long stays in different countries. She went along because it was what was expected. It was never clear to her what he actually did, something to do with numbers and systems and computer codes. He was an expert in his field and the company was happy to uproot them both and send them afield.

Mari was not unhappy in the marriage, just restless. Steven had his work but she had nothing to do except knock about the streets and look at people, read and think. Mari’s mother thought her malaise was over the issue of children but Mari didn’t think this was such a big issue for her. Steven complained children would complicate their movements and Steven was all about keeping things simple. Mari put up little resistance to whatever her husband wanted. Perhaps her mother, who was a traditional Japanese wife, had influenced her attitude. Her mother always submitted to what her husband wanted. Mari did likewise.

It was two days before she tried on the kimono. After carefully untying the string and opening the box, she took it out and held it in front of her. The weight of the winter crêpe felt heavy. Mari laid the kimono on the bed, kneeled, and again traced the silver river, this time with her face pressed on the cloth, her eyes following the winding course of silver. It was as cool as water on her skin. Laying it open on the bed, she looked carefully at the black embroidery, wondering if there was a pattern in the high knots that coursed around the silk. She couldn’t tell because the pattern was like hieroglyphics, perhaps a secret language sewn into the silk, something indiscernible.

Mari stripped and pulled the kimono around her, binding it to her firmly. It was heavy on her body, clinging like a second skin. She sat on the floor feeling suddenly overwhelmed with a heaviness her legs could not support. She held out her arms, the dull silk rippling like water. It fell into the form of her breasts and she felt her nipples harden. It must be the cold of the crêpe, she thought.

Sitting on the floor, Mari hugged herself. She watched the river of silver course up her leg and disappear into the interior of the kimono. She wondered about the course of her own life. What would the years with Steven bring and could she endure this dullness inside? With a start, she realized that was exactly what she was feeling, a leaden dullness that leached out all color around her. Perhaps that was the attraction of the kimono now wrapped around her, the silver surihaku that led to her noticing it in the shop, the brightness of something to catch her eye and fire her imagination.

Mari didn’t know how long she’d been sitting on the floor. Her thoughts spiraled inward like the design of a nautilus shell. She looked at the clock next to the bed and was amazed an hour had passed. She stood and dropped the kimono on the floor. It puddled into a landscape of black hills, valleys and rivers.

Mari touched her left hip and discovered a series of indentations in her skin. In fact, all around her hips, stretching from one side to the other, there was a definite pattern pressed into her flesh. She thought of the weaves of a basket, the marks of a rope, the binding of her flesh to something stronger than her own mind.

When Steven came home, she showed him the kimono.

“Why a black one, Mari? You will look like an old crow in that.”

A less than flattering characterization but Stephen was sometimes rather critical of how she dressed. Mari did not go for floral designs and bright colors. She picked colors that were neutral, earth tones, colors that made her disappear.

“Married women in Japan always wear black kimonos, Steven. It’s the unmarried women who wear floral designs.”

“Well, get a red one and I’ll be interested in your choice of bathrobes.” Stephen was not taken by Japanese culture. His whole purpose in life was to do his job and move on.

That night when they went to bed, Mari was cold. The weather had changed and fall was becoming chilly. She got out of bed and padded to where she hung the kimono. Pulling it around her body, its heaviness and drape comforted her. She returned to bed and fell asleep.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018

 

 

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