That Last Kokeshi Doll You Bought
by Dene October
Yasuko, do not hate me, let me explain. Yes, I got rid of them. I could not bear it any longer. The way they gathered there upon your dressing table. Gazing down at me. Reminding me of all the times I took you for granted. The times I complained about the space they took up, not just on the dresser, but in my life, in our lives. It’s true, I confess it. Yet, in my defence, I promptly changed my mind once I had moped about the house realising how wrong I’d been. I somehow knew if I got those dolls back, you would return to me.
Please, sit here with me, let me explain. How warm you feel. Please sit. Getting rid of them, was hasty, I can admit that in hindsight. But the way their eyes followed me around the room. I could not sleep. I would lay here, on our bed, a knot of tension wedged between my shoulders, scratching at a maddening sore on my leg, unable to think clearly or relax. On top of my grief, these dolls glaring at me.
I tried turning them around, so they faced the mirror. How stupid, yet I was in such a state, I dare not even rest my eyes. There were times I began to weep from grief, countless times really, but their eyes were fixed so intently on mine, even the slightest haze of tears struck me as perilous. When I had finished restaging the dolls, I stepped back and realised my folly. They still surveyed the room, their dead eyes finding mine wherever I went.
I know what you are thinking. These dolls were a constant reminder of my guilt. The porcelain geisha in the red kimono, the one with real human hair perfectly sculpted into wings, the topknot held in place by a gilt kanzashi crown. A rare vintage doll, but damn, her glass eyes are so lifelike. There’s that doll in the plain, long white katabira, unlined and utilitarian, so modest-looking. Quite clearly the good wife and wise mother, until her gaze grew suddenly defiant. She’d been my favourite before then. Such a stark contrast to the modern-looking girl, with her urban fashions, moga hairstyle, and condescending glance. How cheap she looks, and Western, but I checked up, and she is actually a collector’s piece. Then there were the carved kokeshi dolls you loved the best. The little family, nested together on a single log slice, their bulbous heads sprouting out like mushrooms. Quite witty, but out of keeping with the realism of your other dolls. The one with a spiritual theme who knelt on a Zen cushion, her head bowed in prayer. She was cut from a fallen gingko tree by the wood artist we visited in Osaka. Even I took interest in this piece, the way it’s winding copper veins animated her. And, as I advised you at the time, the piece would likely increase in value, particularly given the artist’s age and popularity. Then there is the one you restored yourself with wood paints and varnishes. Of little value, true, yet how clever and talented of you. And not to forget that last kokeshi doll you bought the day you visited your sister in the East.
That last doll never did seem right. Such wild and riotous long, dark hair, like an onryō, or old hag from a kaidan story. Her untidy hair fell endlessly, artfully remodelled into the long stem of her black dress, making her quite the tallest of the dolls. It covered half her face, but alas not the eyes, which were closed into frown lines. Yet, I swear, of all the dolls, her gaze was the most piercing. And the way she felt when handled. Cold-hearted. Yet her carving was exquisite, her paintwork exemplary. I had a name for her, you know. I called her the rich widow. For it occurred to me that her darkness masked her value. At the same time, she can’t have been cheap. And that was my complaint, dearest, for I genuinely never doubted you were visiting your sister. Not for a moment. Except on that one occasion when my curiosity got the better of me. I remember turning the doll over in my hands, feeling my nose wrinkle involuntarily, and my lips sink at the corners, as if I smelled kitchen garbage. The revulsion was such, I had the urge to smash the doll against the wall. It was then I spied the maker’s mark. I was curious, so I overlooked how cold and creepy the doll felt. When I looked it up, it struck me as odd that the maker’s studio should be in Gunma Prefecture, and yet your sister has never stepped west outside of Iwaki. Still, I never doubted you, not really. And if I put it any differently at the time, this was merely my anxiety talking. Really it was the money that worried me, since we had so little, and we could barely afford food and rent. And, yes, I know whose fault that is. I know. I know.
I want you to know, not a single beer has passed these lips. Not since.. not a single one.
If I was still drinking, I would be able to sleep. How deeply ironic. If I had been able to rest, things may have turned out so differently. But they kept waking me as I napped, all those dolls, a constant reminder of your passion. I tried sleeping in another room, but felt their presence long after sliding the fusuma panels shut. They followed me around the house. As I tried to make rice the way I’d observed you. As I watched our soaps on television. I thought about how other families coped with grief. I’d heard that emptying the wardrobe is what many do first. It’s the clothes that bring the memories back so painfully. For me though, it was the dolls. I didn’t want to get rid of them, because whenever I saw them, it is your eyes I’d remember, but I couldn’t bear it a moment longer. So I gathered them up in an empty Sapporo Beer box. To be honest with you, I just swept them off the dresser in a frenzy, regardless of their size or fragility, and quickly bound the box with tape ready to take down to the village.
Yes, I saw you.
No sweetheart, you are mistaken. How could you have? But I did worry someone might see. People are such tittle-tattles, so I waited until the next morning. I got up early, before anyone else would be about, so I thought, yet old Mr. Sato was there in his garden. Who knows why he was pottering around at that time? Just my luck, I thought. I froze and waited around the corner of his house, for ages it seemed, but was most likely just a few minutes. I did not want to have that conversation, or benefit from any kind of sympathy. I had not spoken to a single neighbour since the day you passed.
Passed? You are kidding, right?
My darling, I.. I don’t quite know how to put this. You aren’t ready. I get it. Shall we speak about this a little later? After you have found your feet again? It is just so good to have you back. I don’t want to risk losing you again. Not so soon.
I was talking about going into the village that shameful morning. I held the box under one arm. It was heavy, but the least I could do was suffer the burden of it. I did not even put it down while I waited for old Sato to stop dithering around. I realise I could have caught the bus, since that would have made the carriage of my parcel more convenient. Convenience was the very last thing on my mind. As I made my way down the hill, it seemed to me I could barely feel the road beneath my feet. You know how I usually complain about the holes, and how I sometimes twist my ankle, or stub my toe. It’s true that I don’t always look where I am going (you are always going on about it), but if they fixed the roads nobody would need to look where they were going.
Remember the night I scuffed my chin? That was because of a hole I fell into on the way home. It was so dark, and I was distracted by something. The next thing I knew I was falling forward with barely enough time to avoid cracking my head open on a neighbour’s fence. I scuffed my chin badly; enough to draw blood. True, I was larking about, and singing and such, and, yes, I was drunk, that’s also true. I do not deny it. That was before, when I used to drink. Although, to be fair dearest, my being drunk doesn’t excuse the state of the roads.
Sorry, I seem to have strayed from the subject, such is my shame and embarrassment. I was not aware of any encumbrance due to the road’s poor surface, that is my point. As I walked down the hill, and contemplated going into the village, I felt numb. I heard the birds singing, and it meant nothing to me. A fat old raccoon wandered out of a clump of roadside Monkeyweed, and directly into my path. It didn’t look up at me at all, but shuffled slowly to the other side, ignoring me like I was a ghost, pushing through the bushes and off into the woods. I would have kicked out at the menace if I was not mindfully holding onto this precious box.
I was vaguely aware of the rose scent of cherry blossoms, as I walked, and the trail of almond and vanilla that arrives in its wake. It was of little consequence. I shut it out. I refused to accept that this world could have any life left in it. I held my head high, and increased my pace. No matter how giddy I felt, my task was to deliver this box safely, and nothing else mattered to me.
I tried to push all thoughts off you aside too, Yasuko. Yet by the time I marched into the village, I was more out of it than I have ever been while drunk.
Remember where the old Post Bank used to stand? There is a recycle shop there now, near the market where you used to buy fish. Nothing was open, not at that time in the morning. So I put the box gently down by the door. I thought if the recycle shop doesn’t take it, they’ll know someone who’ll know someone. Or maybe someone from the market will know someone who sells vintage stuff. Anyway, I didn’t want to wait and explain. Too many questions, too many gossips. So I placed it down and walked over to the ATM, the one by the konbini. The lazy bastards hadn’t even swept up from the day before, and there were upturned vegetable baskets, and paper wrappings everywhere. What are people like these days?
Where is this recycle shop? I remember a pawn-shop being at that very spot.
No, certainly not. I never had any intention of selling your dolls. I was just desperate for sleep. To get back to normal.
So, back to my story. I waited outside the konbini because I wanted to recalibrate my senses. I wanted to check if I could still feel those eyes upon me. The street slept on, the noren curtains outside shop fronts breathing steadily in and out. Only a magnificent hototogisu disturbed the peace, diving and calling melancholically to an unseen partner, an arrow pinned between clouds as if painted there in that empty space, the way those cuckoos are in old woodblock prints. That’s when I realised I no longer had the feeling of being watched. I was elated. Oh, but I was equally sad because those dolls reminded me of you.
As I walked back up the hill, I would stop to check, every so often. But there was never anything out of the ordinary. I thought to myself that my actions, however regrettable, had been the right ones, and that I would now get the emotional reset I needed to carry on living. Would you believe it? I spotted that fat old raccoon again pushing heavily against the tall red stalks of the Monkeyweed, squashing the triangular leaves with its bloated flanks. It still ignored me. Too fat, and too old to care.
Once I arrived home I ate breakfast greedily. It tasted so good. I potted around the house, avoiding the bedroom, afraid how I might succumb to the temptation of sleep so early in the morning. I even took our old rice cooker around to Mr. Sato as you had often suggested I should.
“It was my wife’s idea. We have a new one, a Chinese one, but this model is really very reliable. The rice doesn’t stick to the bottom like some, so it’s easy to clean.”
“I’m so sorry to hear about your wife. She was a wonderful woman. How are you coping? Why don’t you come in for a beer?”
“Thank you, Sato-san, but I have given up all alcohol.”
This was the way I planned it in my head, but being such a deaf old sod, Sato did not hear me knocking the door half off its hinges, and so for the second time that morning I dropped the box by the door. Perhaps it was more prudent this way. Less chance for questions and gossipy intrusions.
I made myself lunch, sat by the television, and spent the entire day in peace. Really, I felt so relaxed, and for the first time … since it happened.
When I woke it was half-dark, the sun setting in a smudge of cherry-blossom bruise. I had napped despite my intentions. My leg was bleeding where I must have been scratching at it in my sleep, and my back stiff. I don’t recall closing my eyes. But I was so tired, and the afternoon television is just so boring. Remember how I always did complain about it being full of gossipy celebrity stories, and weak melodramas? No wonder I fell asleep.
As I roused myself, and looked around, a disquieting sensation crept over me. It was like when I have one of my headaches, the ones that go on for days, and wake up momentarily convinced it’s relented, only for it to slyly return and spoil the entire morning. That’s how it was with this, coming on slowly. At first, I couldn’t place my finger on what the feeling was – yet it was so strong I consciously revisited the events of the day. What could I have forgotten?
Again, I sensed a presence in the bedroom. I walked through, hesitating by the door. Although I did not enter, I realised there was nothing there. Indeed, it was this realisation that started me reflecting on what I had done. Whereas before I’d felt uneasy being in the same room as those dolls, now it was the room’s emptiness that worried me. Quite suddenly I was faced with the choice of living with my guilt reflected back in all those dead eyes, or this eerie absence.
I chose you, my dear. I chose to remember you, rather than numb myself against all my memories of mistreating you. I confess them all. How wrong I have been.
As I started down that hill again, I noticed old Sato hadn’t bothered to take the rice cooker from his step. Ungrateful sod. Neighbours! Why do people wax lyrical about how wonderful neighbours are?
I picked up my pace as it dawned on me the recycle shop might be closing soon. The convenience store usually stays open until seven. Which isn’t particularly convenient when you want a beer or two late in the evening. Back in the old days I mean.
Did you spot the raccoon this time?
The raccoon? How funny of you to mention that? Considering the seriousness and sincerity of my mission, such details were the very last thing on my mind. All I could think about was getting your dolls back, lining them up along the dresser where they belonged, returning your presence to the house. Even if it meant dragging the tatami into the front room so I could get some sleep. But, since you bring it up, yes, I saw that raccoon. As a matter of fact, it followed its habit of crossing the road, slipping into the bushes and off through the woods. How about that for a coincidence? And – for the third time that day – it paid me no heed at all. And, dearest Yasuko, I paid it as little attention as it paid me.
In fact, I began to walk with greater urgency, so fast I was nearly running. I kept this up, walking very fast, even though part of me sensed it no longer mattered, that I had left the house too late. Those damn sleep-inducing television dramas. If only I had woken earlier.
Despite this overwhelming sense of defeat, I refused to lay down and die while there was even the tiniest chance the shop remained open. But what if they had already sold your dolls? What then? What if they had passed them along to someone who knows someone who sells such things? I refused to despair. I kept walking, and walk-running, until I made my way down the hill and was standing across from the old Post Bank.
I could not believe my eyes. The box was right where I’d left it.
I had seen the recycle shop from a hundred-or-so meters away and realised no lights were on. It was not open. Then I spied the box by the door. Perhaps the shopkeeper had taken the box in, emptied its contents, then reused it for taking out the rubbish before closing for the day. Or maybe this was another Sapporo Beer box left by someone else. As I approached the shop, it became clear this was the box I’d carried here this morning.
I sat down heavily beside it, tired from all the exertion. I noticed how hurriedly I’d taped the box together, in such a slap dash manner. One flap of the carton was sticking out in a weird way. It was the side where the cargo date is stamped, sticking out at me like a tongue. I laughed inwardly at how this made me feel, and shook myself, asking why someone would send cryptic messages about the date. Then it stuck me that I had no idea what the day’s date was. Or even what day. As much as I tried, I could not work it out. How many days had it been since you passed? If that was a Friday, could it be Sunday today? If this was Sunday, the recycle shop would not be open. That would explain finding the box outside. If only I could be sure about the day.
I shook off the nagging feelings and scalded myself for being so ungrateful. I had the dolls back by hook or crook.
I checked to be sure. Working the hole in the side, I unwrapped the tape as carefully as I could, since I would need to carry the parcel safely home again. But it is irritating how tape clings, and refuses to let go, or come away evenly, especially since all I had was my keys and my teeth as cutting aids.
When I did get it open, I was relieved to find the dolls inside, all higgledy-piggledy, much the fashion I had packed them. Yet, just as it happened earlier, a slow nagging feeling gradually took hold of me.
I moved the dolls around in the box, not really wanting to lift them out, aware in case I encountered that cold, creepy touch again. My careful sorting soon turned to impatient shuffling, as a realisation took hold. Although I tried to shake it off, every rearrangement of the dolls confirmed the fear. I even went so far as lining them up along the pavement, and checking each one, rechecking, and checking the makers’ marks too, until the conclusion was finally unavoidable. That last kokeshi doll you bought was missing.
Since I knew how much this doll meant to you, I fell into anguish. Of all the dolls to go missing, why this one, I asked myself. And despite my misgivings, I knew I must find it. I put the dolls back into the box. I was much more careful packing them this time, nestling them together top to tail. It gave me time to think.
Maybe the recycle shop owner only wanted that particular doll and decided not to keep the others. It didn’t make much sense considering the value of many of the pieces. Not that I have checked into the money side things, as I say. I wouldn’t have sold them, believe me. I only brought them here through panic, and because I couldn’t rest. That sticky-out edge nagged me. Surely someone had opened the box.
I checked the window display of the recycle shop, which lacked any artistic merit being a jumble of large and small items, but no governing design aesthetic. A rice cooker caught my eye; the same brand as our old one. For a moment I thought that bastard Sato had donated it, then recalled the box still being outside his door. A beautiful vintage clock, one of those with the small faces and long trailing chimes. I thought to check its time but could not tell if it was working or perhaps required winding. Small items, like matcha bowls and ceramic tea sets, filled every nook and cranny. I lingered over a set of golf clubs in excellent condition. Although I checked twice, I somehow already knew that kokeshi doll would not be there.
A group of boys rode past on their bikes, performing wheelies and making a general nuisance, and noise.
“Out of here!” I shouted, exasperated. With their yelling, I couldn’t hear myself think. Not that my shouting bothered them, and they carried on with their nonsense until they reached the konbini, dropping their bikes along the roadside in such a disorder, and going into the store all yelling and laughing.
I tried to think. Where has that damned kokeshi doll got to? Who would steal it from a box intended for the recycle shop? Boys up to no good, maybe that’s who. By the time I’d hoisted up the box, and crossed the road, those boys were spilling back out of the store and into the street, continuing their yelling. Most had mounted their bikes before I thought to shout, “hey, you, stop”. All but one began to cycle away. And even this last one already had his bum up on the crossbar, and his tiny legs straddling the bike. I noticed him tucking something hurriedly into the opening of his blouson jacket. He quickly zipped it up, hiding what he was doing from me, still laughing and yelling after the others. “No, you don’t,” I said, “not so quick.” I grabbed his saddle rail from behind just at the moment he began to peddle off.
“Wooah,” he cried out, his bike tipping backwards, his flailing legs and arms emptying onto the kerb, the front wheel groaning, spinning backwards, and the pedals clanking against the tarmac. It was an old Matsushita National bike, the ones with the stick shifts, and waves of nostalgia swept me back to my own childhood. As he fell, a tub of rice seasoning popped out from his jacket, and rolled up to the kerb, turning in a half-circle and making a plastic click-clack sound, before coming to rest. I realised then his parents must have sent him shopping.
I stepped back under the shop awning, as the boy picked himself up, scowling and stung by humiliation. His crew had skidded to a halt half way up the street, where they perched on their bikes laughing.
“Hachirou!” one cried. “Nandayo! You clumsy dolt.”
Hachirou? What a coincidence.
Yes, for a moment I thought they were addressing me. Hachirou. It means eighth son. These boys were part of a family. I could see now what I’d overlooked before. The boys and the bikes, all different sizes. And not only that, but do you see? It was a clue. Hachirou had given me a clue?
You’ve had so many clues.
The rice seasoning … do you see? Now I realised where that damn doll had been all this time. I’d got confused and packed it up with the rice cooker, the one I left outside old Sato’s. The two boxes in the kitchen. I’d mixed them up. That’s what must have happened.
I mumbled, “my bad, my bad, sumimasen,” and left those boys to pick up that good son Hachirou, dust him down, and hurry back home to his parents and a tasty rice dinner. I hurried back too. I practically ran. Knowing my luck, Sato had finally got around to taking that box inside. He probably wasn’t being ungrateful at all. Blind old bat probably hadn’t even noticed. Probably tripped over it before realising it was there. He would have taken that box inside, set it on his table, opened it up and found that doll nesting on the rice cooker. Ha! Old goat probably thinks someone set a hex on him.
The way that doll looks and feels, that’s exactly what I’d have thought. But as I drew close to his house, I realised the box was still outside. Good. Saves an awkward explanation. Saves worrying about the gossip.
Once I got in, I set both boxes on the table. I made myself a cup of tea, and pushed the Sapporo box to one side. When I opened the other box, I must have made some strange frustrated noise, or even swore.
You did both.
Yes, I imagine so. The box contained the rice cooker alright, but no doll. Yes, I must have cursed in exasperation. And maybe I picked that rice cooker up and hurled it against the wall. And I must have been shouting. Because I became aware of another sound just below the volume of all that commotion I was making. My heart stopped. A voice. The doll. Someone was calling out to me.
Why, it was you, my sweetheart. You called out to me, what’s that, what’s happening, what’s wrong, or words like this.
I said, what are you doing home.
Yes, that was it.
And how did you respond?
Yasuko, dear, what should I say? To hear your voice again … my heart was fit to burst. But..
But .. back from the grave.. I ..
I asked you three times to come to me, to come in to the bedroom and to stop hovering outside like a Ghost Moth at a porch light, yet you quivered there, your voice fluttering with cowardice. Do come in Hachirou, I said as reassuringly as I could manage, come in, I have something important to tell you, something important to show you. But still you wouldn’t budge, not until I mentioned that last kokeshi doll.
Yes. I remember. ‘You have the doll?’ I asked incredulously. Had I overlooked the doll in my panic? The very object I was trying to get rid of? Still in the room? All this time? Hidden?
Not quite Hachirou. When you finally mustered up some courage, and slid open our bedroom door, you remember what you said?
You instinctively looked over at the dressing table. You exclaimed: this cannot be. You told me how you had this very hour brought these dolls back from the recycle shop, where you had dumped them having stolen them from under my nose.
Not stolen, dearest, not dumped. It’s just … I just couldn’t sleep. Not with them here reminding me of you.
And then you told me this sorrowful story, asking me to sit here on the bed with you, and commenting upon how warm I felt to your touch. How much you had grieved.
It’s true. Every moment of the day.
So tell me … on the way back here, did you see that raccoon again?
Raccoon? Why, yes, I suppose.
Crossing your path from east to west, heading for the old woods.
Not paying you a blind bit of notice.
How different to the day I caught up with you on that road. The day you stole my dolls. I’d followed you halfway to the village. I knew how much you hated them, especially this kokeshi doll. You thought you’d figured it all out, how I lied about visiting my sister. There was a time I would have cared about your feelings, as disruptive, as volcanic, as chaotic as they are. As soon as we married your suspicions started, and the violence quickly followed. No matter I sat at home day-in, day-out, with these dolls as my only hobby. Still you found reasons to be jealous. And when you drank, it gave you the excuse to lose control and hit out, to show your true face.
Yes, I raised my hand and I should not have done. And one day, I must have been so very drunk to have lost control .. I don’t remember it Yasuko .. I don’t even remember killing you, my love.
You kicked out at me, when I caught you taking my dolls to sell down at the ‘pawn shop’ where the old Post Bank had stood. Give them back to me, I demanded. You were furious I dared speak to you in such a blunt manner. I will give you this, you told me, kicking me in the leg, pulling my hair, and kicking my other leg until I tumbled over.
And then that old raccoon ran up into the middle of the road, and you were so bloated with rage, you kicked out at it too.
I … what are you saying ..?
You kicked it, and it bit you. Ha! You forgot all about me and ran screaming after it, limping across the road, through the clearing, and off into the woods.
No. That’s not what ..
I followed you Hachirou, dear Hachirou, sweetheart Hachirou, oh how I detest your name. Such is your single-mindedness, despite your limp you caught up with that raccoon, cornered it in its hollow, and stomped the poor thing to death.
No. I saw it four times today. For my sins, it was you I killed in those woods. And I’m truly sorry, Yasuko. So, so, sorry.
You weren’t even aware I’d followed you, such was your fury. And you were still holding that damn beer box full of my dolls, apart from this one, that last kokeshi doll, which had fallen out onto the road during the scuffle. You kicked that poor animal to death, a fate it did not deserve. So it was I who lost control now, and for the first time in my married life.
I said to you, Hachirou, do you know why my lover bought me this doll?
Because it opens … like so … and it conceals this.
And before you had even caught your breath, I placed this knife between your shuddering shoulder blades. You dropped, clasping at branches, but even they denied you the right to place your hands on them. You fell onto your front.
But I killed you. I .. killed ..
Perhaps you planned to. I don’t doubt it. Who will ever know? You are so full of self deception, dearest. I knelt down beside you. Your face was turned to the side, going purple. As you struggled for breath, I wanted the final thing you saw to be that last kokeshi doll my lover bought, so you would remember it forever in the afterlife.
Really, I might have known you would try haunting me if you could. You always demanded having the last word. But they say a revenant only lingers around when he has not resolved the mystery of his death. Sorry. Knifing you while your back was turned was convenient for me, but seems to have thrown you off a bit.
Still, I’m glad to be of assistance in clearing things up for you.
Now get out of here, ex-husband, for I am quite tired, and one thing I am getting used to since you passed is a good night’s sleep, protected by all my dolls. Stay, go, do whatever, it really does not matter, for, Hachirou, you no longer haunt me in life.
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