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The Gossamer year

Emma Sweeney

This is an excerpt from Emma Sweeney's novel-in-progress, The Gossamer Year. The novel, which follows the darkly erotic relationship between a talented British illustrator and her elderly Japanese mentor, explores how one event can rupture many lives.

Greying ink tinged my whorled fingerprints, my half-moon nails. The volcanic spring-water at the inn’s communal bathroom had not completely removed the stain. I toyed with the sleeves of my Japanese dressing gown, edging them towards my wrists.

Yoshimoto-sensei knelt opposite me, his clean palms resting on his knees. The blue and white sleeves of his matching yukata hung in tented folds. He gazed through the opened screens that divided our rooms. I felt relieved that I had folded my futon and light bedclothes before leaving for Yoshimoto-sensei’s lecture that morning. The cupboard door stood ajar, revealing a stack of unused blankets. Beside them sat the Samsonite suitcase that Yoshimoto-sensei had lent me for the tour. The dark suit, which I’d bought for the lecture, hung in the wardrobe but the rest of my clothes remained packed in his case. Yoshimoto-sensei’s eyes did not settle on my cupboard or on the small table laid with a water-heater, teacups and individually wrapped sweets. He looked out through the window, across the Kazan Mountains iced with cherry-blossom.

I watched Yoshimoto-sensei as I rubbed my inky skin with the hot hand-towel. The heat dissolved into dampness; dirty smudges lifted onto the cloth. He cleaned his hands slowly, wiping each finger one by one. His gaze did not move from the window as he twisted his towel, tying it in a decorative knot. It resembled the obi strapped around the waist of our waitress. She crouched to the floor as she carried crockery into our room: small ceramic dishes, lacquered trays, large wooden bowls. I had read about traditional Japanese inns where guests had their meals served in their bedrooms. But I had never before stayed in one of these ryokan.

I stared at Yoshimoto-sensei’s eyes, which did not see me. The brightness of his chestnut irises contrasted with the yellowing film of his eyeballs. I wondered if he recollected past times with his deshi, or whether he turned over the events of the day. Even in the silence of the lecture theatre he had held his spine with the straightness of the tai-chi practitioners who exercised early each morning in Sankawa Park. But now as he stared at the distant mountains, his shoulders sagged.

A sigh trickled from his mouth before he could swallow it, seeping into the brittle silence of the room. His eyes falteringly focussed on mine. The creased skin beneath them slackened as he slowly nodded towards me. His silver hair thinned a little at the crown. As he lifted his head, I thought I saw the edges of his lips tremor with a watery smile. I mirrored his half-gestures, hesitant to reveal myself with fully formed movements in case I’d misread him. 

The stew began to simmer in the bowl above the blue petalled flames. I poured Yoshimoto-sensei’s saké, whilst the waitress turned down the heat on the tabletop stove. Yoshimoto-sensei’s hand trembled as he held his clay cup a touch beneath the rim of the saké jug. The warm liquid rippled over a painting beneath the cobwebbed varnish on the inside of the cup. It resembled Yoshimoto-sensei’s illustration, which hung in Kyoto National Gallery. The gallery had first displayed it ten years earlier, to celebrate Yoshimoto Akira’s appointment as a Living National Treasure. When the Department of Cultural Affairs designated my teacher as a Bearer of Important Intangible Cultural Assets, he had been at the peak of his career. This painting is now recognised as one of the finest illustrations of The Tale of Genji. Yoshimoto-sensei had depicted the Shining Prince teaching a young woman to play the koto. They sat facing each other, separated only by the long stringed instrument.

The previous day, Yoshimoto-sensei and I had stood side-by-side in front of this very painting. I had seen many illustrations of this scene, but his differed from the rest. A sense of eroticism shot through the veneer of restraint: the closeness of their bodies, the diaphanous curtains, the deep pink hues. I had not read up to this chapter before leaving Liverpool. In Kyoto National Gallery, I had understood most of Yoshimoto-sensei’s clipped Japanese: ‘publicly, Genji behaves as her father but privately he makes suggestive overtures.’ However, I had no idea how this chapter related to earlier parts of the tale. I had nodded, pretending that I was familiar with the text.

As Yoshimoto-sensei poured my saké, his hand brushed against mine. The warmth of his skin seeped into me with the scent of worn leather. My body tilted towards him as I leant over the table. Yet I did not touch him. Instead, I ladled spoonfuls of stew from the nabé pot, taking care to serve him plenty of quails eggs and hunks of fish along with sweet potato, strings of white mushrooms and ribbons of seaweed. My hand slowly tilted the mixture so that fish-stock did not drip down the edge of the dish.

We silently held our bowls beneath our chins, scooping the nabé with miniature ladles. Now and then, we glanced at each other over the steamy rims. The waitress had filled our lacquered trays with smoked slithers of wild boar, seared tuna, pickled shavings of ginger, a cube of sweet tofu. I imagined photographing the tray, creating a delicate alternative to Akira’s famous shots of Japanese food. I glanced through the open screens towards my bedroom. My camera sat on top of Yoshimoto-sensei’s suitcase. He would watch me with disdain if I focussed my Nikon on the food. The thought of his disapproval unsettled me. Besides, it did seem crass to interrupt our meal. We raised and lowered our chopsticks in synchrony, him with his right hand and me with my left. I heard the quiet crunch of the pickled ginger breaking between his teeth; I saw the movement in his throat as he swallowed the fish. Unlike Nick, who raced through his food, Yoshimoto-sensei relished each mouthful.

As he ate, his yukata loosened. I had wound my own waistband firmly beneath my breasts, fiddling with the fabric so that it dipped at my neck yet lay secure across my bust. Suddenly, I glimpsed a smooth burn mark across Yoshimoto-sensei’s chest. He caught me noticing the mark and then methodically tightened his dressing gown without disrupting the rhythm of his right hand, lifting and dipping his chopsticks.

I glanced around the room, reluctant to catch his eye. My gaze flitted and settled on the vase placed in the corner, the scroll hung in the alcove, the low table where I knelt. Suddenly, I realised that all the decorations resembled Yoshimoto-sensei’s paintings. For the first time in months, I let myself imagine the pictures I would like to produce for the first illustrated edition of the The Kagero Nikki: a fusion of manga and ink painting, a weaving of the visual with the narrative, adding to some of the diary while letting other scenes speak for themselves. I imagined walking into Waterstones and seeing my own book on the shelves: the first ever illustrated version of The Kagero Nikki. The thick Japanese paper, the gold leaf and the hand-bound spine would make it stand out from the rest. Yet, a finished work hardly seemed possible now. I had completed only two paintings in the eight monthssince I began working with Yoshimoto-sensei. I could no longer differentiate between our styles.  

The table-leg was embossed with mother of pearl. I leaned closer to the decoration, squinting to see it more clearly. It looked like one of Yoshimoto-sensei’s paintings in the latest edition of his illustrated Tale of Genji. Although I had not read all the chapters in the English translation, my copy often fell open at this plate towards the end of the book. It showed an elderly Genji, regretful of his past mistakes. When I first saw the illustration in the Tate Liverpool bookshop, I wondered if Yoshimoto Akira had inserted himself into this painting. Something in the illustration struck me as personal although I could not pinpoint why. Perhaps I made the assumption because the artist was a similar age to his subject. When I received the letter telling me that I had been awarded the Japan Foundation Scholarship, I had scoured that painting for hints about my mysterious teacher. However, when I arrived in Japan, I had seen nothing of Genji’s ruefulness in my sensei. Yet, as we ate in his room in the ryokan, I saw for myself the resemblance between the artist and his subject. 

The waitress knelt in the doorframe that separated Yoshimoto-sensei’s bedroom from my own. Now and then, her gaze would dart from her knees over to Yoshimoto-sensei. I could not tell whether or not he noticed. She crawled towards us, bowing to Yoshimoto-sensei as she approached the table. He spoke to her as she poured his tea. I caught him complimenting the food with the words ‘oishi-kata.’ By now, these Japanese words peppered my English. The waitress’ face coloured at praise from a master artist.       

The cherry blossom pattern on the teacups did not look like a photographic image of the springtime flowers outside. Yet the curves of ink did convey the spirit of branches heavy with blossom. For the first time since arriving in Japan, I felt a quiver of pride. I had begun to understand Yoshimoto-sensei’s advice to conduct nervous strength through the hand to the ink. My latest painting illustrated a scene from the first book of The Kagero Nikki. It showed the diarist and her husband eating together while he convalesced. A screened lamp dimly lit the figures. I had painted the dark room with an ink sodden brush, the rippled shadows of the couple with leftover tints. In the dappled effect of the lamplight, I had conveyed the couple’s longing for each other after time apart, their tenderness and their regrets. Yoshimoto-sensei had approved of my choice of scene. He had inspected some of my preliminary sketches and guided me through exercises to help me represent shadow and light. But he had not yet seen the final painting, which I had completed alone in my flat. 

‘Lucy-san,’ whispered Yoshimoto-sensei. He had never before spoken to me with such familiarity, nor smiled on me with such warmth. I looked at him questioningly, reluctant to reciprocate in case his friendliness veiled derision. He pointed at my art case, propped against the cupboard door in my side of the room.

I hesitated before rolling back onto my pins-and-needles prickled feet. Three seasons in Japan had not trained my body to sit in seiza. Yet I had almost learnt to ignore the pain. I held my toes still inside my bleached white ankle socks. Uniqlo had a special offer on hosiery and knickers so I had stocked up before the tour. The fluffy cotton caught on tags of tatami straw. I half-turned to my teacher who knelt at the table, watching me ruefully. Stray words of comfort drifted through my mind, some English and some Japanese: don’t worry, daijobu, zannen deshita, everything’s going to be fine. Yet none of the phrases quite worked.

I fumbled as I unzipped my art case, remembering my first lesson with Yoshimoto-sensei: I had thrust my arms forward, holding out my illustration before I could change my mind. He had looked at me, unblinking, as he slowly tore the paper along a perfect line.

I willed calmness to stretch through my trembling hands but I could not control the anxiety that unsettled my mind. I had worked so hard on this painting; it marked my only success in Japan. Perhaps in a few years, I would look back on it as an immature work like the picture Yoshimoto-sensei tore.

The painting rested in my hands. I stood on the patch of floor where I had laid my futon the previous night. The room blurred as my eyes focussed on the picture: the patches of light, the dappled shadows, the sense of stillness. I loitered at the threshold between our rooms, my painting held above the runner: half in his room and half in my own. The shuffling of my feet on the matting formed the only sound as I approached Yoshimoto-sensei’s side of the table. I knelt in front of him and bowed, inhaling the tatami’s scent of warm hay. Yoshimoto-sensei stared at the painting for a long time. I tried to read his face for hints: did the squint of his eyes show approval or displeasure, did the tilt of his head mean that my picture moved him or left him cold? He trailed his finger around my lines of ink, and then gently replaced the paper in my hands. For a moment we both held the painting. As he let go, his hands strayed to the buckle of his leather case. His fingers twitched at the creases and folds around the strap. He looked from me to his bag. His mouth opened and then closed.

As he looked me in the eye, I felt that he saw through the sheen of formalities and performances. His stare reached a version of myself that I thought I had left at home. For a moment, I believed he knew about my secret although I had never spoken of it to anyone.

‘Atarashi o-namae ga iru,’ he said. His words brushed the air so that I had to lean towards him to hear. Although I searched for a translation of his phrase, I could not work out his meaning. I wondered if you need a new name was a euphemism for you must change

‘Gommenasai, Yoshimoto-sensei. Wakarimasen,’ I admitted.

Yoshimoto-sensei sighed as he pulled a sheet of calligraphy from his satchel. The paper displayed a kanji character, which I did not recognise, painted in Yoshimoto-sensei’s grass script. He held it towards me as if it displayed the explanation. As I shook my head he wrote two hiragana letters beneath the kanji.

‘Ru-ri?’ I whispered as I spelt out the sounds, concerned that I might have made a mistake.

‘Hai,’ he smiled. In sweeping English letters, he wrote the words lapis lazuli. ‘Ima kara, Lucy-san no namae wa Ruri-san desu.’ He crisply enunciated each sound. ‘Wakaru?’

‘Wakarimasu,’ I replied, careful to use the formal verb ending. But I did not understand. Why had he renamed me Ruri and who would call me this from now on? He had chosen a name with a beautiful meaning. Did Yoshimoto-sensei associate these blue stones with me?

Opposite me, Yoshimoto-sensei shifted on the tatami. I felt his arm edge towards me. Something tickled my nylon-covered knee. My eyes darted from the window. A lapis lazuli encrusted pendant hung from a silver chain, which lay coiled on my lap. Yoshimoto-sensei stared straight ahead as if he had not given me this gift.