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A country with no mirrors

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CASSIUS:

Therefore, good Brutus, be prepared to hear:
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
- Julius Caesar, A1S2 


 

They're not sober.

Kikuhiko knows enough to know that this is not a particularly wise idea. He's been drunk before - once, twice, maybe thrice; always alone. Enough to know that sake makes Sukeroku as dumb as it makes him honest: a bad combination.

Kikuhiko is also tired of pretending to be wise.

The old men of the Rakugo Association call him a filial apprentice; not merely loyal, filial . Kikuhiko thinks it's not so much praise addressed to him as it is socially sanctioned jealousy: it certainly gives the Shichidaime more joy than it does him to hear it said. It is reassurance that the Yuurakutei name - and the slowly aging body attached to it - will be looked after come his master's twilight years.

Kikuhiko lets Sukeroku, grinning salaciously, liberate the sake bottle they're sharing from him and thinks this: filial piety is a game of seniority that apes at moral superiority. Loyalty at least has to be earned, but piety? Piety is a prison, and worst of all is the fact that it is a prison Kikuhiko will lock himself into. Prisons are permanent, and – in their own way – safe.

Is it wise to stay in a safe building that's slowly burning down?

'Stop thinking,' Sukeroku complains, an easy, drunken sprawl against Kikuhiko's windowsill. A finger get pointed in his face. 'Even when you're not talking, you're noisy. Think think think. Always thinking. Thinking all the time. People who don't know you are blessed with deaf ears but I've got to put up with you, Bon - so either talk out loud or shut up.'

Against his own will, Kikuhiko feels his mouth curve into a hard line of a smile. 'Don't bite the hand that feeds you,' he warns Sukeroku, and takes the bottle away from him. They haven't bothered with cups.

Sukeroku waves a dismissive hand in the air. ' I'm the one being left behind while you fuck off with shishou all along the countryside. I'm permitted wallowing and bad behaviour.'

Kikuhiko snorts. 'You don't even want to go: you just dislike the idea that you weren't chosen to go.'

'Fair enough,' admits Sukeroku ponderously, but that moment of introspection is fleeting, and he stretches to claim more drink.

There are times, Kikuhiko thinks, that Sukeroku can see through himself; brief moments in which he is a clear, still pool reflecting nothing but truth. Those moments always pass. Sukeroku makes them pass.

'But fuck those old people anyway,' Sukeroku says. 'Have fun sitting in the parlours of rich creepers who I just bet would love to be your patron .'

'What does that say about you, patron-god of half of Yoshiwara?' snaps Kikuhiko. They tussle over the last dredges of the bottle: neither of them win, and it ends up splashed all over Kikuhiko's yukata.

Sukeroku grins at this pyrrhic victory. 'I'm not a patron if I don't pay,' he leers.

Kikuhiko rolls his eyes and goes to stoke the hibachi. His hands are trembling slightly; they've had far too much and it's far too late. Outside the window, even sleepless Asakusa is dozing. He shifts the coals about, feeling slightly aimless, then finds a cigarette to light. He lays flat on his back next to the stove and smokes, trying to dry out. The world spins, but only very vaguely. Languidly, Kikuhiko thinks. He could stay here for a while, happily. A second later and the cigarette is pinched out of his fingers, and his head is drawn up onto a warm lap. Kikuhiko looks up to watch Sukeroku watch him. They stay like that for a moment too long. So Kikuhiko plays to script: he reaches up to take back what's his and accuses Sukeroku of, once again, underperforming. 'You're not half as tipsy as I am.'

Sukeroku blows smoke into his face. 'You don't practice half as much as I do.'

Kikuhiko laughs again. He has to, as unwilling as he might be: it's as ingrained into him to respond as it is ingrained in Sukeroku to act. Sukeroku plucks at the damp fabric of his yukata and vibrates against Kikuhiko in unvoiced amusement.

They share the cigarette until it's ash between their fingertips.

Kikuhiko is almost asleep when Sukeroku demands, 'Tell me a story.'

'What?' Kikuhiko drags up his hand to glance at his watch. 'It's past three. I'm drunk. You're drunk.'

'Drunk is such a negative word,' Sukeroku says, unphased. 'I like to think of it as… warmed up. Now tell me a story – you're going to be gone for who knows how long. You owe me one in exchange for the omiyage I know you won't get me.'

'Traditionally, you only get omiyage when someone comes back from a trip,' Kikuhiko says, dry.

'When have I cared for tradition?' The leg beneath his head jigs up and down. It makes Kikuhiko feel vaguely nauseous. 'Up. Up. Up!'

Kikuhiko drags himself to his knees and glares. Sukeroku wolf-whistles. 'Yo, sensei! What have you got for us tonight? Something sexy? Something scary?'

There's a challenge in Sukeroku's eyes. Kikuhiko doesn't know why he bothers to rise to it. He rearranges himself into a sloppy seiza; Sukeroku does him the service of extending the line of his body into a semi-attentive sprawl.

'Thank you for coming tonight,' Kikuhiko begins, focusing hard on his words so that every syllable comes out sharp. 'It is said that there is nothing worse than one's own reflection. Reflections are dangerous. Some people look in the mirror and see only their flaws; others see only their egos. One way or another, the fact of the matter is that we have been tricked into believing that mirrors tell the truth, when really the truth is quite a lot more evasive.'

'Ooh,' drawls Sukeroku. His eyes narrow in recognition. 'Matsuyama kagami.'

Kikuhiko tilts his head to the side - yes - but doesn't let himself get distracted. He takes up his fan, still folded, and smacks Sukeroku on the inside of the knee with it. Hard.

'What –' Sukeroku yelps in pain, scrambling upright.

'Pillow-time is over: sit up if you want to listen,' orders Kikuhiko.

Sukeroku sighs, but comes to rest with his legs crossed. It's acceptable enough. Kikuhiko feels his lips turn upwards. Good. Good. Good.

'A long time ago,' he starts, letting his shoulders soften and his voice deepen into the gentle valley of an opening narration, 'during a time when mirrors were so rare as to be almost unknown, there was a village called Matsuyama in the province of Echigo. In that village lived a man named Shousuke.

'Now, Shousuke was a very filial son. In the eighteen years since his parents had passed away, not once had he ever failed to visit their graves during O-Bon. He was such an upstanding individual, in fact, that the village elders decided he was due a reward for his exemplary behaviour.' Kikuhiko lets his smile widen. Sukeroku returns it with a sarcastic nod of the head and a deliberate droop of his posture.

Kikuhiko goes on. 'The council of elders summoned Shousuke and asked him–' He drops his voice to match that of old Shirakawa, the Association President. '"What would you like as a reward?"

'"I couldn't possibly accept anything, sirs,"' Kikuhiko switches, now inflecting in a younger voice much closer to his own. '"I've not done anything more than what should be expected of a son."

"Nevertheless, to refuse our offer would be impolite!"' Kikuhiko points his fan at Sukeroku. '"Tell us - is it land you want? Money?"'

Sukeroku tries to push the fan away from his nose, and does nothing but earn himself a slap on the wrist.

Kikuhiko takes the fan away to worry at it with his other hand. '"I have all the land I need in what was passed down to me from my father, sirs. As for money– too much of that only encourages slovenliness,' he darts in to deliver another slap 'and so I must refuse that, too, for my own good."'

'Try-hard,' mutters Sukeroku in an undertone.

Kikuhiko jabs him in the chest. '"What a principled individual. We admire your thinking - but still, there must be something you want."'

Sukeroku rolls his eyes.

Kikuhiko leans back and presses the fan against his knees. He lowers his head, enough that can look up through his lashes when meeting Sukeroku's gaze. '"I'm afraid the only thing I want, good sirs, is something impossible for you to give me."'

Sukeroku drops a hand between his legs, and Kikuhiko watches it sit heavy against his inner thigh. Kikuhiko wets his lips. Sukeroku shifts; it would be unnoticeable if this man didn't also have to sit in seiza for a living.

'"An impossible request? No such thing, my boy: state your desire, and we will fulfil it."'

Sukeroku pulls a face. Kikuhiko doesn't break character. '"If I must, sirs, then allow me to ask for this: I wish, even if only once, to see my father again."'

He straightens, then, and taps his fan against the centre of an open palm. 'Now this was troublesome indeed for the elders. They'd promised to deliver the impossible, and now Shousuke was asking for the impossible to be delivered. They dismissed him in order to think. The oldest of the council called one of the villagers who had known Shousuke's father forward and asked, "How old was Shousaemon when he died?"

"Forty-three, sir, if I remember correctly."

"And Shousuke himself is forty-three years old this year, yes?"

"Yes, sir, that is so."

"Does he look like his father?"

"Very much sir, yes. The splitting image of him, really."

"Good," declared the elder. He sent for a box to be fetched; it contained within a yata no kagami mirror. In those days, copies of the imperial eight-span mirror were sent out to each of the provinces, one apiece, and this was the only mirror in all of Echigo. The elder summoned Shousuke once more and gave him the box. "Shousuke, look inside," he commanded.'

Kikuhiko slides his fan open and peeks beneath the span of it. '"Why I am I looking in this box for–"' He gasps. '"F-father? Father, is that really you? Oh, father. It's me, Shousuke, your son! Oh, father, don't cry - don't cry! If you cry, I'll surely…"' Kikuhiko passes the fan over his face. He bows his head. His shoulders shake. He can just barely hear Sukeroku breathing over the hitching of his own breath.

Eventually, he sets the fan down. His back straightens. His voice is serene. 'Shousuke, who'd never seen his own reflection, was glad to see it, thinking it his father. He was allowed to take the box, but was given strict instructions never to let anyone else open it.

'And so Shousuke, with joy in his heart, returned home with the mirror. He hid it an old wicker basket in a shed at the back of his house. Every morning before he left for work, he passed by it saying, "Ittekimasu." Every evening when he returned, he obediently called out "Tadaima kaerimashita."'

Sukeroku mimes polite clapping. Kikuhiko shakes his head. He turns, then, breaking with proper form, and withdraws a box from his closet. He opens it – there's a mirror on the inner lid, but he ignores it in favour of the powders and creams and brushes laid out inside: cosmetics borrowed from Miyokichi for their futatsume performance that Kikuhiko hasn't seen fit to return.

'Now Shousuke's constant attention to the shed gave his wife pause,' Kikuhiko resumes, but he splits his attentions somewhat to applying a thin base layer of white to his cheeks. He does not look to see if Sukeroku is watching. He knows. 'So one day, when Shousuke was away, she snuck inside and opened the wicker basket. What she saw inside made her… Angry.'

Kikuhiko finishes with the oshiroi layer in neat, if uneven, strokes. It barely covers most of his face. It doesn't matter. He scratches the tip of one finger, uncaring of how messy it is, into the red meant for the eyes. He paints the corner of his eyelids. '"What is this?"' he exclaims, voice sharp. '"I knew he'd been acting strangely. I knew something was wrong. And it is this? He's brought a good for nothing whore home?"'

His fan Kikuhiko once more opens. More red, this time down his cheeks. This time, he looks Sukeroku right in the eyes. '"And she has the audacity to cry? Why should you cry, you bitch - that is my place, not yours!"'

Kikuhiko snaps his fan shut and slaps it – one, two, three times; thud, thud, thud – against the edge of his closet. He watches Sukeroku jump with each crack. 'Just then, Shousuke returned. "I'm back," he called. "And I'm hungry – fix me up something to eat."

"Fix yourself something to eat!"

"If I could, I wouldn't have asked you, would I now– Wait. You look terrible; what's wrong?"

"What's wrong ? Considering you're the one who's been hiding something, I think that's a very interesting question to ask of me ."

"Hiding something? Me?"

"That jezebel you're keeping in that basket in the shed!"

"'That jezebel in the shed'? That's my father you're talking about!"

"Oh, I'm sure it's your father. Is that what you want me to believe? Are you playing stupid or simply assuming that I am dumb? You have a woman in there, and you've been keeping her secret. You have a perfectly good wife in me, but instead you choose to go after a loose never-do-well with an ugly nose and terrible skin–"

Kikuhiko slaps the floor with his fan and feigns a flinch. He does it again, and again, crying out with the smacks. '"Stop hitting me, woman - let go! Let go of me!"' Kikuhiko struggles with himself, then leans in towards Sukeroku and slaps him full across the face.

Sukeroku stares at him, breathing hard. '"Oh,"' Kikuhiko says, voice back in a woman's cadence. He makes the aspiration gentle, knowing. '"Oh, I see. You want me dead, don't you? You want me gone so that you can be with this little whore of yours. I see. Well, then."' He moves forward. He pushes Sukeroku's legs apart; Sukeroku doesn't fight it. Kikuhiko puts the wooden edge of his fan against Sukeroku's bare throat. '"If you want to kill me, do it,"' he murmurs. '"Kill me."' Kikuhiko pushes Sukeroku's chin upwards. '"Kill me ."'

Sukeroku's hands are on him. His thumbs dig flaring points of pain against Kikuhiko's hips. Kikuhiko moves back, and raises his sleeve to cover his face.

'"My, my, my, what's this?" So interjected a bald monk come down from the next village over.

You see, the monk had been passing by when he'd overheard the commotion between Shousuke and his wife, and now he intervened. "Stop, now. You're both grown adults: why all this fighting? What's all this shouting about? What? Shou-san has been hiding a mistress in a basket in the shed? My, my, Shou-san. That's not good, now."

"I am not hiding a mistress – that's my father in there! The council wanted to reward me, so they granted my wish to see him one more time by giving me that box in the basket in the shed and made me swear never to tell anyone about it and it's not a mistress, it's my father!"

"Oh, I'm sure he'd like you to believe that, your reverence – but it's not true. It's a woman."

"I've told you, it's not a woman–"

"It is a woman–"

"Now, now, now," broke in the monk. "I'll put a stop to this fight of yours. Let me see what's inside this basket, and if it is a woman, let me mediate for you both. Is this it here? Let's have a look, shall we? Hmm... Oh!"'

Kikuhiko drops his arm. His face, now uncovered, is a projection of wide-eyed surprise. He settles his sleeves gently back into place and chuckles. '"I think your quarrel is over, you two. And so might be your marriage – I did see your father, Shousuke, and he's surely witnessed your abysmal behaviour, because he was so ashamed that he's shaved his head and taken the tonsure!"'

Kikuhiko puts his hands together in front of his knees and bows over them. 'And that,' he says in his own voice once more, 'is matsuyama kagami.'

Sukeroku sits frozen in place for a while. Kikuhiko rises and just watches him. When Sukeroku does find his voice, he has to clear his throat before he can speak. 'That, Bon, is not how that story goes.'

'It is the way that I tell it,' says Kikuhiko.

'The monk was supposed to be a nun! You're supposed to use lines like, "she got herself to a nunnery"! They banish the spectre of the jealous wife, and the couple live happily ever after - that's how it's supposed to be. God, you're depressing.'

Kikuhiko shrugs. His yukata has come loose in the course of the telling; one shoulder's slipped off and he can't be bothered to fix it. 'Why should they? Sometimes the filial man is the fool. Sometimes the good don't always get their dues. If you don't understand that , you've missed the point.'

' I think you don't know how to end this story properly because you don't see that mirrors can actually be a good thing – that they can show people truths they'd have missed otherwise.'

'I don't think anyone in this tale saw any truths anywhere,' states Kikuhiko flatly. 'Not in the original telling, and not in mine either. They see what they want to see, or what they need to see.'

Sukeroku is a physical drunk. He comes forward and fists a hand in Kikuhiko's yukata, but that is as far as he's allowed to go. Kikuhiko shoves him back, and together they hit the wall behind them with a dull thud.

'Don't,' Kikuhiko hisses, 'tell me that's not true. You're a storyteller same as I am. We trick people. We tell them what we want them to hear, or what we think they want to hear. Sometimes, if we are very good,' Kikuhiko says as he reaches down and touches Sukeroku, feels him hard in his hand, 'we can even trick ourselves.'

They move up and down with the motions of Sukeroku breathing. Hard inhales and harder exhales. Kikuhiko works his wrist, even though the angle is odd. He can smell Sukeroku: alcohol and ash and skin. Sweat, now, too. When he lets go of Sukeroku's cock, Sukeroku's hips jerk forward, seeking.

Kikuhiko turns. Sukeroku's arms come up about his waist. Kikuhiko knows he's skinny; skinnier than so many other men. He grinds backwards, and if he can feel Sukeroku's cock press between his thighs through the thin material of his yukata, Sukeroku can surely feel him as well. Kikuhiko twists so that he can sit back, thighs pressed together and demure as a lady.

'Look,' he commands, pointing at the makeup box's mirror. His face is painted and his eyes are fox-transformed even if all of it is a mess, a wreck, a disaster. 'Once upon a time, that person you see there was called Bon. Then he was called Kikuhiko. And one day, sooner or later, Kikuhiko will be something else again.' Kikuhiko presses backwards, moving up and then down. He pushes Sukeroku's yukata out of the way, gets skin against skin. 'Right now, though, Kikuhiko is something else entirely. If you choose to believe, he could be a woman. If that's what you want, and that's what you need–'

'And what about your needs?' growls Sukeroku into his ear, cutting him off. Kikuhiko finds himself silenced; he hadn't expected Sukeroku to speak at all. He doesn't know how to respond, and so he doesn't do much more than brace his palms on the tatami as Sukeroku first lifts him up and then pushes him down onto his hands and knees. 'What about what you want, and what you need?'

Kikuhiko puts his head down on his arms as he feels Sukeroku begin to thrust. They're sloppy and it's now too hot: the stove is right by them. Before much longer, his thighs go slick with sweat, and that makes it easier. Their cocks touch when Sukeroku pushes forward enough, and it's too much and too little at once. Sukeroku's fingers bruise his hips as Sukeroku holds on. That's what this is: holding on, holding on.

Sukeroku comes between his legs. Kikuhiko groans. Sukeroku collapses on him; his shoulder nestles into the cradle of Kikuhiko's neck. A tentative hand wanders down his thigh.

'No,' Kikuhiko says, and pretends he doesn't hear the relief in Sukeroku's sigh.

They fall asleep in that uncomfortable tangle.


The next morning, Kikuhiko wakes far before Sukeroku, or so it seems to him. He washes off the night. He takes his already-packed suitcase and leaves.

It's not until he's settled on the train and awaiting departure that he realises there's a scrap of paper in his jacket pocket.

ブルータス、どうか聞いてくれ、
君は反射によってしか
自分を見ることが出来ないのだから、
わたしが鏡になって君の姿を映し出そう
君の知らない君の姿を.

Kikuhiko clamps down on a laugh; shishou is right across from him and that would be unwise. He burns the note - the script, really - crushing it beneath cigarette butts in an ashtray. The train pulls out of the station, and Kikuhiko closes his eyes against the world.