Authors: Katherine Govier
Tags: #Fiction, #General
The Printmaker’s Daughter
EY, YOU! YOU
with the big chin! Oei!”
He’s calling me.
I don’t answer him. Not yet.
I dip the tip of the brush in the ink bowl.
I let it sink. I lift it, turn it, and press it down into the ink again. Then I lift and tap.
I press it against the edge of the bowl, twisting so ink beads at the tip of the bristles and then drops back into the small, still, dark pool. Again I press the hairs of the brush into the ink, flattening the bulb against the bottom of the bowl, rolling it.
“Don’t press so hard!” the Old Man barks.
I bare my teeth. “Shut up, Old Man.” He laughs. Thinks he’s distracted me.
But my hand is zealous. To spite him I press for one full minute. I lift the brush from the bowl. It is not dripping, not full, but fully moist. I hold it over the paper, balanced in my fingers. I raise and lower it, ever so slightly, giving it breath, and then touch the point to paper. I begin the fine, fine lines of the courtesan’s nape hair. That which he has no patience to do, and no steady hand.
I don’t answer. I stay inside my head.
I am Oei. Katsushika Oei. Katsushika I take from the place where my father was born. Oei is a pun on how he calls me. It means “Hey, you!” I have other names: Ago-Ago—he gave me that too—meaning “Chin-Chin,” calling attention to my big, stubborn jaw. Then there are the brush names: Tipsy, meaning just what you think; Flourishing Woman, self-evident. I’ve answered to many names. Though in this matter, as in others, I am no match for him.
He named himself for the North Star and for the thunder god; he named himself the Old Man Mad About Painting; he has named and new-named himself twenty times. To me he’s just the Old Man.
Some people call the Old Man difficult. I don’t agree. He is not difficult.
He is impossible.
True, I’m not easy myself. I do not comply. I mock, I dissemble, I glower. They say I was never properly trained to be a woman. The more sympathetic blame my father himself for this failure. It is a scandal. “She paints but does not sew,” they say. Hah! That could be my epitaph. Perhaps it is. But you would have to find my grave to know.
And that you cannot do.
Into the red squall of dawn, the teem of city. Into the vast numbers of townsmen with only one name.
The earth was flat.
The shogun ruled.
It was a Virtuous Regime, a Benevolent Regime, and there was no unexpected event.
I screamed. And why not? After Miyo and Tatsu, I was Ei, the third daughter of a penniless artist. My father’s first wife, who produced the first two daughters and also one son, was dead. My mother was the second woman to take on the job.
She looked critically at me, first of her children, fourth of his.
“She has large ears,” said my father in a tone of delight. He seized me. “This one is mine!”
My mother was morose. “Large ears are lucky in men. Not in women.”
“She looks like a little dog, a Pekinese,” he said. “And look at this!” He chucked my peculiar outsize chin. “I will call her Ago-Ago.”
Chin-Chin. Another of my flaws was thus pointed out to my mother. She became even more unhappy. I, on the other hand, became defiant and thrust my chin out farther.
“There is self-will in that face,” she said. “It must be broken.”
But my father laughed in amusement and delight. His laugh was like milk to me. He took me in his arms and I was his forever.
It was as if he’d never seen a baby before. He fed me rice water with the tip of his finger. He tied me in a sling and wore me under his ribs or on his back if he was working. From that day there were two of us, together. We slid through the clamorous throngs of our burgeoning city like carp in weeds. He said I was his good-luck charm. He did not break my self-will but made it.
And my black eyes did not close.
In years to come he did call me Ago-Ago, when he remembered, but most often he just called me.
“Hey, you. Come here!”
I was born in a hard time.
We the townspeople led an unmarked existence. We had rights to nothing, only to witness the grand shogun’s parade: the march of the doomed man to the Punishment Grounds, details of his crime painted on the placard he carried over his shoulder. We fed on brown rice and whispers of love suicides. The mouths of our actors were red gashes. We, the
had one name—and no face.
In the years before my birth there was an artist called Sharaku. He made gargantuan faces with vast white, empty centers marked only with deep black lines for eyes and mouths spread in rage or fear or greed. But few people bought these pictures—they came too close to home, I think—and before long Sharaku and his work disappeared. Some people said he was a Noh actor and died of poisoning from the white face makeup. Other people said Sharaku was my father. They said that after this first failure he renamed himself and went on, and the proof that he had been Sharaku was that he never painted a big face again.
I don’t know if that was true. My father told me much, but not that.
It was true about the faces, though: my father could draw anything that moved and much that didn’t—dancers, elephants, oarsmen, mountains, gods, and devils. Waterfalls and waves stopped for his brush. Fuji showed its one hundred moods. But he never made a face. Eyes, nose, and mouth—for him these were only a few short, sharp lines, and that was it. Maybe the gossip was true and he thought faces wouldn’t sell. Maybe he wanted distance from his past. Maybe he wanted distance from us all. Henceforth, to him, we had no faces, only burdened backs and sinewed buttocks, slim thighs and crinkled toes and dancing torsos.
Oh, but such bodies we had. Such glories were in them. They were our prized possessions. By these bodies, we were making ourselves into people. Before I was born we were not quite human, according to our masters. The
—a tent government set up on a field of war two hundred years before—kept the Tokugawa shogun in power. But as the eras passed, the
remained. There were no wars; we didn’t fight with swords. We fought with words and pictures. Our pictures and our little storybooks cost pennies. But they had a strange power. They gave us news, gossip, celebrity, mementos. They celebrated the only pleasures we were allowed—Kabuki theater and love affairs and the small indulgences for our bodies.
The Tokugawa could not attack us directly; there were too many of us. Instead the enforcers attacked the messengers, our pictures; they called them decadent and tried to destroy them.
Think of all that clanking samurai power directed at these fragile sheets of paper. I want to laugh. Pictures and words don’t hurt anyone, except for those who are afraid of history. The
aimed their laws at our insubstantial world. There were to be no pictures of the Tokugawa. Any reference to how they came to rule was punishable by death. Famine and flood might ravage the country, but to note such calamities would be a criticism of the shogun, who ruled celestial events as he did lesser beings. Therefore they were not to be acknowledged.
We appeared to obey. We told ghost stories and repeated legends from times past, and went to plays about the love affairs of great courtesans. We put our faith in unnatural creatures—demons and gods and ghosts. Our gossip traveled through whispers and pulpy yellow-back novels. We sang and danced and devised outrageous dress. The
bogeymen uttered ordinances and staged clampdowns. They did not stop us, but they kept trying. They were a constant backdrop to my life, from my first squalling through my middle years until I was almost old enough not to care. Then, suddenly, they were gone. But that comes at the end of the story.
This is the beginning. The tiny tenement house. The mat on which we all lay, side by side; the soot-orange sun at dawn.
My birth was both lucky and unlucky. Lucky because I was born in the center of this magic. First my father’s words defined me, and then his pictures did. And unlucky to be under the thumb of another, weightier, power. And a daughter. In that terrible time. Lucky and unlucky.
That is Ei’s story.
I lay on my mat in the damp dark and the cold of the small room we shared. My father was working by the light of an oil lamp. Then he stood and blew it out. He opened the door to the night. White snow was emptying out of the heavens on us, thick as feathers. The snow erased the rooftops with its soft white brush, leaving only the thin, dark outline of tiles.
He lifted me in his arms and we went out to stand under the sky. We looked up. The snow fell straight down without fluttering, freighted, through the barren trees. There were no leaves to catch it. It melted on the lanterns. It fell around his feet and more snow followed. Snow blotted the ground, sopping up its color, and then melted, making the packed earth gleam.