In Pools of Empty Winter

I

Arata pressed a hand against the cool, varnished mahogany of the table that separated him from Masami. He had not expected it to be so cold. Against the warmly toned dark wood his fingers looked the same color as the pearls that lay so carefully strung against his wife's milky white collarbone. He began to trace squares on the surface, his fingers gliding across the shellac as though on ice. He stopped when he caught Masami's glance on his hand. She did not speak to reprimand him but he knew from her eyes that she wished him to stop. He could not meet her gaze.

"Perhaps you would like another glass of sake," she said, rising from her seat to serve him. She took the bottle from the sideboard and moved to her place beside him. "It will help relax you. I am sure you worked hard today." She poured the drink into his cup in one fluid, practiced motion. He raised it to his lips and drank until there was no more.

"Liquid strength," he remarked, a grin flickering across his mouth . Masami echoed his smile, but her eyes were blank.

"Yes," she said. "It's good for you."

**

That night she came to him. Her kimono sleeves slipping down her shoulders and streaming behind her cast deep purple shadows on the walls. She moved fluidly through the shadows of their bedroom, her dark eyes flashing bright from the low light of the oil lamp. She stopped before him and pressed herself into him, her breasts warm and heavy on his chest. She had powdered her face since dinner and positioned her hair on top of her head in an ornate knot. She smiled at him through red lips.

"You are young, still. Let us make you a man."

She lowered herself to the bed, her dark eyes averted in an expression of submission and grace. As he moved towards her he became aware of the stillness within his body. His could feel like heart like a weak drum in his chest, its beats steady and low. His mind was unclouded and his breath regular; his sex hung limp between his legs. Masami noticed his pause. Her eyes turned back to him, the sultry surrender replaced by an expression Arata could not place. It reminded him of his mother's face on the day when he had refused to attend his kendo lessons.

Masami rose from the bed and re-set her kimono. She glanced down at his embarrassment.

"It is as I said before," she said, meeting his eyes. "You are young, still." Her hand migrated to the base of her stomach, her fingers curling against the empty flesh like bare branches. Arata could not respond. His shame washed over him in great waves, stifling his voice, crashing down on his back, filling his lungs with burning. Masami slept that night alone.

II

The dream was more vivid that night than it had been in nights before. Ageless girls with glowing, alabaster skin and windblown hair reclined on rocks, their lissome frames wrapped with light silk kimonos, sleeves and trains floating with the motion of the wind. Overhead hung the fragrant boughs of flowering willows, their pale leaves brushing the surface of a great pool and creating ripples in the mirrored water. Masami stood rooted in her place on the rocky shore. The plants in her radius had withered, twisting into brown ribbons across the rocks, their dead limbs reaching to her. She watched the girls as they luxuriated in their beautiful repose. One beckoned to Masami, her pale arm outstretched, her small hand just out of reach. The silk of her dress stretched around the supple bend of her abdomen.

Masami could not move towards her. For each step she attempted to take she was sucked closer to the water by the resisting earth, her struggle finally immersing her up to her knees in the pool, her motion disturbing its glassy surface. The girls giggled from their far off stations, calling out to her in the crystal voice of her youth. "Obaasan! Obaasan!" they cried. They appeared from far away to be pantheons of beauty; their mocking voices sounded from the water the way a songbird sounds to someone listening from the ground. Masami turned her eyes away in shame, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the now calming waters. Her face was beginning to shift. She realized in horror that it was drooping, melting in the sunlight of the garden, dripping pieces of her beauty into the depths of the pool and uncovering the face of an old woman.

The girls kept laughing, their eyes like mirrors, reflecting the light brighter on to her face, burning pinholes into her youth's mask. "Obaasan! Obaasan!" they shrieked, tossing their heads back in laughter, whipping their lustrous hair through the breeze, the strands cutting the air like knives. Masami frantically clutched at her cheeks, her fingers pressing down on the last of the face she had known, clawing at her visage as it slipped through her fingers. She woke up in the moment that the last piece of herself disappeared beneath the surface.

**

The afternoon following, Arata took Masami to the seaside as an apology. He had brought with him a present: a small silk purse which she proposed they fill with shells. She was ever looking for an ornament for the shelves. They walked on the shoreline, her body pressing his ever closer to the licking waves. She was uncomfortable; her shoes had begun to take on water, her steps left gasps of suction across the surface of the sand.

"Let's get away from the water," she said, stepping back. "It must be bothering you." She looked at him again with the eyes of his mother. He was eleven, he was rubbing a twisted ankle on the floor of the dojo.

"Are you going to get back up?" his mother said.

"The water doesn't bother me. It's not that cold." He stepped back, his feet disappearing in the murk, the water climbing his pant leg. He met her gaze. The eyes were lighter now. She nodded and bent forward to pick up a shell. She held it up to the sun to appreciate it's delicate shape, its translucence, the glow of its mottled shadow.

"This one is perfect," she said, tucking it inside the purse. It would be placed in prominence; perhaps it was large enough to display on the bedside table. She proposed they find a rock to support it; it would look so much more beautiful upright. She selected a heavy, deep black one with a surface beaten smooth by the ocean. She handed it to Arata, as she did not want to carry something so weighty, and continued to move carefully down the shoreline, her feet dodging the water.

They stopped for lunch at a restaurant that had been built with the port. It was filled with sailors, fresh off the boats. Their mingling bodies filled the air with the faint scent of salt, vitality clinging to their tanned flesh in beads of brine. Their muscles rolled under their shirts like waves.

"The view from here is perfect, don't you think?" Masami smiled as she gazed past the rectangular frame of the window , her eyes trained on the point where the sea disappeared over the horizon. "It's so romantic to think of it— the sea; when you stop to consider it, you realize it must be the only thing that shall never lose its beauty. And to think of the power, the way it can consume a life… there are few things more admirable than a man who can fight its gravity."

"I don't see why you should see romance in the ruin of a life," Arata mumbled, straightening the table settings before him. "Death is vile… you should know that."

"There is something to death not so repulsive, you know. Perhaps you are too young to see it." She raised a hand to the place under her eyes where the skin had begun to turn to waves.

"There is nothing good about the end of a life."

"Nor the process of ending."

III

I am the dead grass

I am the rocks in the tide

I, the empty womb.

.

The skin is changing

The knees, becoming brittle

Can I climb the stairs?

.

You are not the man

You could not cross the ocean,

Could not even reach the shore

.

We are empty and

We are falling now

In the face of tradition

.

My baby is dead

My baby never was

The silence of the absence of the shot of the solution

.

Was it because of

The man you never were or

Was it mine, me, inside the pool of empty winter

The pool of me and nobody

.

The knife will go

To the hollow of my core

To the place life never was

Woman never was

.

Oh country, oh flag

Oh prison cell, oh freedom,

Oh beautiful death