Posts Tagged ‘‘The Kimono’ a novel about 17th century Japan’

“The Kimono” Chapter 1

August 19, 2011

Child playing with a Tengu mask, 17th century painting


 Three years ago I started a novel that stretched from 21st modern Japan to 17th century Japan.  This time warp was made by a magic kimono, bought by the main character, Mari. She does get stuck in 17th century Japan, and the last I checked on her, (Chapter 26) she was still there.

I actually bought the antique kimono that inspired this book from Marla Mallet here in Atlanta.  Anyone who is interested is marvelous textiles and kimonos, etc. should check out her site. (I just checked her site…it’s not what it used to be, and I’ll have to do further search before I will recommend it. She had beautiful antique kimono, tomesode, etc…many wedding kimono, but I don’t see the original site here.)

This is pretty early in my writing attempts, so there are a lot of revisions to be made on this chapter…and all the chapters after it.  I seem to work on this book periodically, seem to lose sight of it, but when I reread a chapter, I get excited about the story again.  I have an ending…somewhere…plotted out, but these things finish on their own.  In time.

A big propellant to write this was studying Saigyo, Ono no Komachi, and Basho’s poetry, amongst others of the 8th-17th centuries.  For a year now I have studied Japanese just so I could read some of the waka in the original.  So far, I can pick out words, but that is about all.  For the last two years, I have studied the cultural issues of medieval Japan, especially their love of ghosts, kami, ogres, etc.  I have tried to weave these monsters into the work, and it has become a lot of fun for me.  Hopefully it will be the same for readers when this book is finished.

Lady Nyo


 Tomesode: A married woman’s kimono, always black with a pattern on hem, etc.  Usually with five family crests.

Yukata:  a summer kimono…usually dark blue with white patterns, from geometric to repeat floral.


It hung in the window of a shop as Mari walked around the old part of Kyoto. The shop looked out to 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.

At first her eyes were drawn to a slim beacon of light, gaining her attention.  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, their first trip to Japan.  The only thing Japanese she knew was food.  This culture was no more hers than being American.  She would be forever caught in the middle, a tug of war by two sides, and neither to claim her.

She turned and saw what had caught her attention. It was a kimono, a black, formal tomesode. A kimono any married woman would wear, not dyed with the usual flowers.  Winding around the hem 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 shop owner startled her, and Mari jumped. She blushed, not hearing him approach.

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

He took it down from the pole and carefully draped it over his arm.  With her eyes, Mari traced the river of silver from the hem up to where it disappeared as it turned into the inside of the kimono.  The shop keeper opened the left panel and Mari saw the embroidery continued around the tan, encircling the hips.  The silver was only on the outside decoration, but the embroidery inside was heavy and patterned.

Mari could not restrain her hand from stroking the embroidery. She wanted to close her eyes and read it like a piece of Braille.  She had never seen a kimono quite like this. It couldn’t be that old, perhaps no more than 60 years.  It seemed to be in excellent condition.

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

“No, one day it just appeared.  I am a widower; my wife must have purchased it when I was away.  I found it after she died, in a chest.”

Mari bought the kimono home.

She married Steven four years ago. They had never really settled down.  His company sent him for long stays in different countries. She went along because they were married and it was what was expected.   It was never clear to her what he actually did, something to do with numbers and systems and strange codes.  He was an expert in his field and the company 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 to knock around the streets and look at people, read and think. 

Kyoto was a pretty city and the older parts shady and pleasant during the two months they had been there. Mari’s mother thought her malaise was over the issue of children, but Steven was against that from the beginning.  He complained children would make their movements complicated, and Steven was all about making things simple.

Mari was a dutiful wife and put up little resistance. Perhaps because her own mother was a good Japanese wife, she had been trained to do the same.  Her mother always submitted to what her husband wanted.  They both did.

It was two days before she was able to try on the kimono. Carefully untying the string and opening the box, she took it out.

Holding it from her, the weight of the winter crepe felt heavy. Just a dull black kimono with five white painted crests. Mari laid the kimono on the bed, and she again traced the silver river, this time with her face pressed on the cloth, her eyes following the winding course of the 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 without reason, she felt her nipples harden.  It must be the cold of the crepe, she thought.

Sitting on the floor, she wrapped her arms around herself.  She vaguely 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 bring with Steven 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 girding her loins, the silver surihaku that led to her noticing it in the shop.  The brightness of something to catch her eye and her imagination.

She didn’t know how long she sat on the floor, her thoughts spiraling inward like the design of a nautilus shell.  She finally looked at the clock next to the bed and was amazed that an hour had passed.  She stood up and dropped the kimono around her on the floor.  It puddled into black mountains, a landscape of rivers and valleys.

Mari touched her left hip and found a series of flesh tattoos. 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.

That night when Steven returned 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 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 did not make her stand out.

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

“Well, get a red one and I’ll be interested in your choice of bathrobes.”

Stephen was not interested in Japanese culture.  His whole purpose in life was to do his job and move on to the next.

That night after they went to bed Mari was cold. The weather had changed and the 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.

This must be a dream, Mari thought.  I am kneeling on something cold, hard.   I  smell smoke.  Where am I? It’s so dark my eyes can’t pick out anything. My arms! Why are my arms tied behind my back?  

She was kneeling, on cold floor, and soon her eyes were able to pick out details of a room with little light, and little furniture she could recognize.  She was shivering. She was naked except for the kimono over her shoulders. Suddenly she heard a grunt and a voice.

“So.  What have we here?  A young maiden lost on her journey through life?”

Mari craned her neck around and saw a man, or what had to be a man for the room was dim except for a brazier.  He certainly had a low voice like a man. He rose and moved around in front of her, stared down, a bemused look on his face.

Mari looked up.  He had long, loose black hair that swept his chest, was tall for a Japanese man, and was attractive.  He was dressed unlike anything she had seen in modern Japanese styles, for he wore what looked to be numerous robes and had two swords at his waist.

“Catbird got your tongue?”  He leaned down and raised her chin up in a hard-skinned hand.  Mari shivered from fear and cold.

“Where am I?  Why are my arms tied? Who are you?”  Mari was stuttering, forcing her questions out.

“Ah, I see I have been brought a young woman who knows no manners.  Perhaps I will teach you some.  Perhaps you can learn to address your betters with respect.”  The man took her draped kimono off her shoulders and folded it carefully, placing it on a wooden chest.

Mari started shivering, her naked body exposed to the cold room. 

“As to who I am, I am Lord Mori Higato, in the service of the Emperor.  I am of the clan Motomuri.  That is all you, girl, need to know.”

“You sstill haven’t answered my question.  Where am I?  Is this a dream?  Please, I beg of you, I am freezing, for the love of God; give me a blanket or sssomething to warm myself.”

Lord Mori looked down at her, his face a mask.  Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed loudly. 

“I see I have a challenge before me.  Well, good, I am up for a challenge, even if it is in the insignificant package of a woman.”

Lord Mori lifted her up by one secured arm and roughly dragged her to a low bed.  He pushed her down face and threw a silk quilt over her.  At first Mari lay still, until wiggling like a worm, her head cleared the quilt.  She could not sit up, but at least she could see.

The man was sitting down on a bench before a low table. He was writing something on a paper scroll with a brush that he dipped in ink. Mari watched silently, knowing he was watching her from the corner of his eye.

“Please untie me, Lord Mori Higato.  I am very uncomfortable and would like to sit up.”

“Why would your comfort be of my concern?  You make silly demands of a superior.”

Mari struggled not to show tears, but she was uncomfortable. Also afraid.

“Lord Mori Higato.  I have to pee badly.”

Lord Mori grunted and put down his brush.  “Well, that is natural. I also have to pass water first thing in the morning.  Come, girl, I will help you.”

Mari wasn’t sure she wanted help, but she had little choice.  He threw back the cover, and pulled her to her feet, and walked her to a small alcove where a large clay vessel stood.  He pushed her down and walked away, and Mari was glad for the privacy.  Of course with her hands tied she had to carefully balance herself, but at least her bladder didn’t hurt.

She padded to where he was, blushing because of her nakedness.  She wasn’t sure this was a dream now for she felt wide-awake. She edged towards the low brazier for the warmth.

“Lord Mori.  It is unnecessary for you to keep my arms tied for I am not a threat to you. I am a modern woman who is not violent and I have no intentions of grabbing your sword and using it against you.”

Lord Mori looked up from his scroll and listened, his raised eyebrows expressing his surprise.

“You could not grab my sword, as you put it, without losing your hands.  I have no fear of you harming me. It is rather the other way around, girl.  However, since you are about to tip into the brazier, I will untie you.”

He drew his short sword and whipped her around, cutting her ropes.  Mari almost sobbed in relief. Her  arms were numb.  Then the pain hit her and she moaned as she tried to rub them, a pathetic, naked woman in great discomfort.

The sight of her must have moved something in Lord Mori for he drew her to him and rubbed her arms.  Mari was grateful for this contact for she was shivering with cold.  She felt exhausted and leaned her head against his chest with a sigh. Then she fainted.

When she recovered her senses, she was tucked inside his robes, sitting on the futon bed.  He smelled of cinnamon and sandalwood and male sweat, but it was comforting enough.

“This isn’t a dream.”  Her voice sounded soft and flat where she nestled against him.

“So you have come back to me, little one?”  His voice had a touch of humor.

“No, this is no dream, but it is time for you to answer me.”

“Please, Lord Mori. Please first give me some water?”

“I will give you some broth for these things can take strength out of a woman.  Wait.”

Placing her on the bed, he drew a quilt over her body.  He brought back a bowl of hot broth simmering on the brazier.  Her hands shook as she reached for the bowl.

“Better I feed you than you scalding your breasts.”

Mari sat next to him, wrapped in the quilt, while Lord Mori fed her the broth with a china spoon.  It was hot and spicy and Mari didn’t know what to compare it with, but it warmed her.

“Now,” said Lord Mori when she had eaten enough to stop shivering, “tell me where you found the kimono.”

“In a shop in Kyoto on Dezu Street.  It was hanging near a window and the silver decoration caught my eye.  I brought it home and when I slept in it last night, well..something happened, and either this is a dream or it isn’t.”

Lord Mori grunted and exclaimed: “Kyoto! It is a long journey from where it was before.”

He was silent for a moment, then spoke. “What is your name girl, and are you maiden or wife?”

“I am very much wife, and my name is Mari.  My husband is a systems operator for a world-wide communications company.”

“What? You speak in riddles! Plainly girl, for you try my patience with your chatter.”

Mari’s suspicions were confirmed and she ventured a question.

“Lord Mori, what date is it today.  Where am I in history?”

“What date? Today is today and as far as this history you are asking about, you are in the castle of a powerful daimyo.”

Almost as an afterthought, he added in a whisper.

“And under the protection of a most powerful shogun.”

“What is the name of this shogun, Lord Mori?”

“None other than the great Lord Tokugawa.”

This still didn’t give Mari any idea where she was, but the broth was good and she stopped shivering.

“Lord Mori Higato, do you have a woman’s kimono for me to cover myself with?  I am not used to walking around naked.”

“You will get used to it girl, for I have an amusement planned that requires your nakedness.”

“Lord Mori Higato, I would remind you that my name is Mari, not ‘girl’, I am an educated, married woman and well respected in my field.”  This last was not true, for Mari had no field to speak of. 

“Ho! You are prideful for a woman and forceful, too. Perhaps your husband does not beat you enough.  That is a failing in many young husbands, and you look to be young. Perhaps I can help him in this.”

Mari thought fast.  “Lord Mori Higato, violence is the mark of a barbarian.  Surely you are not such a man.  You write and that shows you are civilized.”

A sly smile crossed the face of Lord Mori Higato, and he allowed it to broaden.

“You think quick for a woman, Woman- Called- Mari.  Does your education extend to the brush?”

Mari looked at his table and rising from the futon with the quilt wrapped tightly around her, she went to it.  She looked at the finely drawn calligraphy there and shook her head.

“Lord Mori Higato, I write with a pen, not a brush, and I also write with a keyboard, something I am beginning to think you have no knowledge of.  I do write some haiku, but perhaps it would be better for me to recite one for you?  You would not be able to read my script.”

“Why, are you so bad with the brush?  Then your education is very low.  Perhaps you dance or play an instrument?”

Mari smiled.  “No, Lord Mori Higato I play violin but this instrument I believe you are not familiar.  I do, however, write a lot of poetry.  I write cinquains, choka and sonnets and much freeverse.  I write haiku when I am able.

“Ah! You are very boastful for a woman.  Obviously your husband is a weak man.”

Mari gave another smile.  “Perhaps, Lord Mori Higato, perhaps, or maybe he lives by different standards.”

Lord Mori stood at his table, his arms crossed over his chest, looking curiously at the woman before him wrapped in his quilt.

“Then, if you dare, compose a poem and let’s see if your boasting has merit.”

Mari thought hard, trying to remember some she had recently written. There were a few, though they didn’t follow the classical forms.  Perhaps he would find some pleasure in one or two.

“Cold rain sweeps the streets

Even ducks seek shelter now

Feathers drop in haste”.

“Hah! Not very good, but a beginning.  Give me another.”

Mari thought this next one would be more of the classical form he demanded, but then she was beginning to see it hard to match wits with him.

“The glance at a wrist

White, the pulse of a river

Tiny beat of life.”

“Better!  Perhaps your husband has taught you something here.”

“My husband has taught me nothing, Lord Mori.  He is not interested in poetry.  I have learned this myself.”

“Not interested in poetry?  You have married a barbarian then, for a man who does not try to write poems is indeed a savage.  Give me some more, Woman –Called- Mari.”

She thought of a couple of others she had written, though she could only partly remember their lines. She had little option, except to admit failure, and something in this rude man brought her mettle out.  Pausing only a little between poems, she closed her eyes and recited what she could:

“A woman in bed

Kimono revealing breast

Snow on Mt. Fuji.

Snow falls on meadows

Crows pick at last harvest seeds

Spring now far away.

Swirling winds of fall

Make kimonos lift to knees

Birds fly to the south.”

She kept her eyes closed when she finished, thinking back to what she had just composed.  Opening one eye, she saw him contemplating her with a quizzical look.

“For a mere woman, you have a fertile mind.  If you had been born a man, you might have made a name for yourself.”

Lord Mori gave a short nod of his head, a measure of respect. 

“Come woman, learn how a man writes poems.  You have shown yourself capable of learning at least something.  Perhaps you are the rare woman who can rise above her nature.”

For the next hour, Lord Mori composed haiku and longer poems, mostly in the honor of his Lord Emperor and his Shogun.  Mari listened to his low, musical voice and the sentiments that poured out like warm sake.  She was lost in the delight of his poems, and was pulled by his natural beauty.  His black hair fell down his back and the vigor of this man before her was evident. Even when he rose and went to make water, the sound of his stream of piss was musical to her ears. 

 End of Chapter 1, “The Kimono”

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighed, 2008, 2011

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