Artist: Utagawa Kunisada (歌川国貞) / Toyokuni III (三代豊国) Print: Night rape double-page illustration from volume 1 In Praise of Love in the Four Seasons (Shunka shūtō, Shiki no nagame – 春夏秋冬 – 色の詠)
I was still a child myself when I had a child of my own.
I was taken by a man – my father’s cousin – only a year after my first blood.
I knew, as I knew my own name, that he never thought of me again. I was a convenient receptacle for his momentary arousal and release. To him, I had no face, no name. He was drunk, and I could see in his eyes that he was not anywhere near with me. It was not gentle. It was not slow or kind. He grabbed me, threw me down, pulled up my skirt and put his thing inside me. I thought I was being torn apart. He made noise like an animal. His hot yeasty breath filled my nostrils, causing me to retch. He didn’t notice. He was finished quickly, wiping himself on my skirt. The only words he said to me were to let me know that if I told anyone about what had just transpired, he would find me and murder me in my sleep.
When my belly started to grow full, and my mother understood that I was with child, she beat me almost senseless. How I had been made pregnant was not the issue. All that mattered in that moment was that I was pregnant. It happened, and as a girl, it was my fault, my sin.
She demanded to know who. I dared not tell her the truth so I said it was the son of a farmer who had come to town for market day; that he kissed me, and I found him pleasing, and we lay together in a field. (I knew enough about how babies were made to lie convincingly.)
Truth or lies, the outcome would be the same for me, I knew. There would be no justice. My violator would never suffer any punishment. To speak his name would only give me reason to fear.
The shame to the family was more than they could bear. They sent me away to a place where I would not be known, and where my sins would not be reflected back on them, even though the fault lay not with me but with the very men who took their pleasures without responsibility or remorse.
I was sent to a sad and lonely place which kept fallen girls like me away from respectable citizens.
My father took me in the middle of one cold night, to a place far away, and left me at the gate of an imposing building. The old bricks struck in me both respect and fear. I was pulled inside and before I could turn to wave goodbye, my father was gone.
I waited, like the others, for the day of my labor to arrive. The ones in charge kept us busy with as much work as our swollen bodies could bear.
A few months later, I had my child there, and she suckled at my breast when she needed to be fed, but other than that, she was kept away from me. I knew they would some day take her away. They did not want me to love her too much; to cry and protest when they pulled her from my arms for the last time. I understood this and did not let myself love her.
While the other girls wore their guilt like a sack of stones slung around their necks, my own burden was anger. I raged at the unfairness of it. Why should I have felt guilty when I had done nothing wrong? I was not a bad girl. I did not offer my body to men for money or food or for shiny baubles, nor even for love. My maidenhood was stolen from me, violently and cruelly, despite my tears and shouts and pleading. Nobody else heard me. He made certain of that. I had become a prisoner of my circumstances and of my own body.
In the meanwhile, I earned my keep cleaning and working in the kitchen, as most of the other girls did. I remained there until the child was weaned, and then I was sent out into the world with a few small coins to make my way as best I could. I had no family, no friends. There was nobody to watch out for me, no one to rock me when the sadness overtook me. This was supposed to be my punishment, but for what I never understood. I was not the one who should have been punished, and yet, my life was a ruin because of that man.
I was far from my family and even if I had the means to return to their town again, they would not want me. And I didn’t really want them. I did not want to be with people who would treat me so unjustly, who thought of me so ill.
I was fortunate to find some work in a respectable house as a scullery maid. I was grateful they have me work without a proper letter, and they did not treat me unkindly. They paid me rarely, and only a few small coins, here and there. Why did I need money? They gave me food and shelter, a uniform and some cast-off clothing.
After time, it became my job to go to the square on market day. The kitchen maid knew exactly how much each item cost and only gave me just enough money for what we needed, but I was quite clever at bargaining, and was able to pocket a little bit here and there, and the maid was never the wiser.
Some days, I was told to hurry home. But other times, when she was feeling generous in spirit or if the family was away and there were no meals to prepare, I was allowed a few glorious hours for myself. On such a day, especially when the weather was fine, I felt truly alive.
One day, on my way to market, I picked some wildflowers and braided myself a beautiful floral crown. A pretty young girl admired it. After a quick negotiation, I sold it to her for a few small coins. Her friends, in turn, admired it on her head. Each week, from then on, I would make a few flower halos and sell them to those girls whose parents had given them a tiny allowance to spend on whatever they wished.
One of these girls was the daughter of the mushroom seller. We made each other laugh and so we became friends. I taught her how to braid flowers and she took me with her into the woods to search for mushrooms. We were both surprised to discover I had an instinct for it. I understood which fungi liked which conditions, and where we were likely to find such conditions. I could sense where they hid. There was not much time for me to search. Conditions had to be just so on a day when I was free, but whatever I found, I sold to my friend’s father, for him to sell to others.
And in these ways, in this way and that, slowly, over the years, I saved enough for what I had been dreaming about for more than a decade.
I bought a fine dress. I rode back to the town of my birth, which was many hours away. I had in my possession a knife borrowed from the kitchen.
I knew where he lived. I knew how to find him. If anyone was going to be murdered in their sleep, it would not be me.
When I arrived, I immediately set out to locate him.
But he was not in his field. He was not in his home. He was in none of the places where men gather. I had arrived driven with revenge but finally I was worn out from the traveling, from searching, from burning anger. I wanted to do my worst and be done with the deed. I could wait no longer. I needed to act while I still had my courage. I asked somebody where I might find him.
“In the graveyard,” I was told. Many years before, he had been hurt by his plow and died weeks later from a creeping black infection.
My feelings were all a-jumble. Disappointment. A different taste of anger, now that my revenge had been stolen from me. Relief, because I wasn’t even sure I could have carried through on my plan, even having dreamed about it for so long. A sadness at my wasted life. And under it all, a sense of freedom; a new beginning. His accident had saved me from committing a mortal sin. Perhaps this was God’s gift to me.
For the rest of my life, and still, I sifted through all those emotions, trying to make more sense of them; trying to come to a conclusion about what it was all supposed to mean.
(note on the artwork: I did not have the impression that this narrator was Japanese, but the act itself as depicted here is as it was shown to me.)
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