By Robert W. Hegwood.
The cold, white oshiroi makeup softened the deep furrows of Harlan’s face, making of it an empty canvas. Applying broad indigo strokes, he confessed himself a ghost, a man who had ceased to live. When he buried his son and wife he had died, and it was all his fault.
His son’s body was found below a bridge in the shallows, broken, and starring up at the sky. The coroner said it was the cold that had killed him.
On the pine green walls of his son’s room, his shrine, hung three pictures: a tiny red maple leaf shining among its still verdant siblings, an Ansel Adams print of an ancient silver-white tree spreading its writhing, empty branches to the sun, and a vividly inked poster of a Kabuki dancer, a famous onnogata, arching backward on her…his knees, arms thrown up, as if to fend off some merciless storm.
On the dresser lay a hair brush, a few honey-brown whips still lodged among its bristles. In the top drawer upon neat rows of rolled socks lay a folded section of newspaper. A local college would soon host a Kabuki instructor in its theater department as part of some academic exchange program. His son had circled the article in red.
For a dying woman, his wife had a lot to say. She didn’t blame him for being ornery. Life had been hard on them both. The deep creases of their faces bore testimony to that. She did blame him for their son’s death, their angel son who wrote poems and delighted in quiet snowfalls. When they buried him, her heart could bear no more.
She told Harlan she knew he had resented their son for not being more rugged. She knew too he had resented her for not being able to have more children, some of whom might have turned out better to his liking. But, he called her “Old Woman,” and she called him “Old Man”. That passed close enough for “I love you” between them. She could forgive all…all but his coldness towards their son. “I did love him,” he said.
She nodded, and replied, “But you didn’t like him.” It took a moment to fumble open the locket at her neck. With frail fingers she lifted the images of her son and her husband. If Harlan wanted peace with her, he must find a way to love something their son had loved…to at least make the effort. If he couldn’t do that, he shouldn’t bother visiting her grave. She wouldn’t be listening.
When the day came, he buried her next to their son in the red earth under the big cedar that provided evening shade for their backyard. All that was left of Harlan as he was, he buried with her. Only the shade of what he hoped to be drifted back into the house, groaning.
Exercises had helped his flexibility a little, but the wild-haired wig must have weighed fifteen pounds, and Harlan strained to keep his balance beneath it. At the precise moment the wood flute wailed, he fell to his knees, threw up his gnarled, whitened hands, and leaned backwards, trembling against the ghostly wind that pushed him down.
In front of a hundred people he lost his balance, toppled over, and lay still–the sleeves of his black and red kimono out-flung, his gaze frozen in despair.
Offstage, a student stood beside the instructor, smirking. He commented sotto voce, “Next, they’ll try teaching cows how to dance Swan Lake.” The instructor scarcely heard. His eyes were seeping, his lips silently forming the words “beautiful…beautiful.”