by James Comins
Published on Shakespir
Copyright 2016 James Comins
Cover art by
This eBook may not be excerpted or used for commercial or noncommercial purposes without written permission of the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, places, events or locales is purely coincidental.
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A Note on the Divisions
Noh plays are divided into five acts, called dan: Beginning, Beginning of the Action, Action of the Action, Climax of the Action, and Climax. The Japanese names for these five acts are jo, jo no ha, ha no ha, kyū no ha, and kyū. Where they are further subdivided, I’ve marked them ichi, ni, and san for one, two, three.
Table of Contents
for Tavin, with love
Act I, Scene One
A still silence. The electricity of expectation.
Consider the staging: Below you, your feet. Under your feet, a shadowy narrow backstage area blocked off by paper screens. Ahead of you, beyond the screens, is a narrow covered bridge called the hashigakari. It’s lit from below by eight electric footlights. At the end of the hashigakari, just out of sight, a square stage waits for you beneath a roof of thin arches.
Look out through the trestles of the bridge. The stage’s backdrop is a tall wall of yellow hinoki wood. A giant tree is painted across it. Leafy green branches are drawn in the scratchy brushstrokes of a Japanese master. Noh theater tells stories of wonder, and in Japan, wonder takes place in the trees.
Above the stage is a large hook hanging from a beam. It won’t be needed tonight. The hook is there to hold up a bell, but the bell is only used in “Dōjōji,” the play of the haunted temple bell. It is not your play. Not today.
To your left is grass. The theater is set up in an open field beneath a mountain. Nothing separates you from the outdoors. Smell the fragrance of the wild rushes. Feel the shifting wind. Above you, the full and fearless moon rests in her glory, spreading enchanted light across the open-air theater. Fireflies flicker. Crickets play.
To your right is an audience.
Don’t look too closely. They might see you, and your cue has not been called.
You peer beyond the edge of the backstage pillar anyways. It’s a crowd of thousands. Motionless Japanese men and women wear dark suits and expectant looks. Their faces seem blank, expressionless. They might be dead. Only they probably aren’t, because they cough at regular intervals.
They are waiting for you.
Each performance of the Noh is unique. The story will never happen exactly the same way again. The audience joins the telling of the story. They sit so close to the stage that they could reach out and touch you. The audience will be a part of your world tonight, and you will be a part of theirs.
You will tell them a story.
Someone is standing behind you, very close. You spin. A long zucchini-shaped orange nose jabs you right between the eyes, a woodpecker peck. Muffled laughter, right in your ear.
His name is Punchinoni. Mister Punch. The devil jester.
It’s really just your friend Quinn in a costume, of course. She’ll be playing the monster jester tonight. Lifting her wooden devil mask above her nose, she winks at you. She’s wearing a black-and-white diamond jester’s motley. Silently she pulls the mask back down over her face and becomes a boy for the night. In one of her hands is a prop sword. In the other she holds a second mask.
You reach forward and your own hands close around it.
A simple smile cut into brown wood. Eyeholes. It could be a girl or a boy. Tonight it is you.
Slipping the headband over your ears, you pull the mask down your face. Darkness and heat swell around you. The sound of your breathing. It’s like immersing yourself in the ocean. The cutout smile passes your eyes, and you find the eyeholes in the mask’s darkness. It all seems larger from the inside. It fills up your whole face. The wood balances on your chin, and then it all disappears.
Close your eyes. Open them again.
The world has changed.
No it hasn’t.
The mask has changed you.
You are the mask, for tonight. For tonight, you’re a gullible smiling sap. A bumpkin. Your world is a world of haystacks. Horses. Shovels. Sawdust.
Tonight you are Shanne, the country fool, the main character. Be the best, the countriest, the most foolish Shanne you can be.
Turn around. See the backstage world through fresh, foolish bumpkin eyes. You’re alone. A pitchfork leans against a pillar. Quinn left it there for you.
Pick it up.
Lightweight, plain and smooth. A prop. A toy. But through your new eyes, it has weight and realness. This is your pitchfork. Every autumn you use it to bale hay for your horses. Tonight is the start of haying season.
An electric light blinks twice, red.
That’s your cue. Showtime.
Go ahead. Steel yourself, breathe, and make an entrance.
A pillow of applause. Familiar, comforting. In Japan there are no whoops, no screaming voices, only polite clapping. You plod along the yellow hashigakari bridge toward the stage. It’s open on both sides, with only a thin railing between you and the audience. A distant smell of pine blows in along the mountain wind. The outdoors is invading the stage. Your farm is in a field beneath a mountain. Yes.
Your walk is bow-legged, ungainly, clopping. A poor rancher’s waddle. The pitchfork wags in your hand. Give it weight. The audience watches to see what you will do.
What do they see?
They see Shanne, a Japanese peasant, bumbling into a farmyard that exists clearly in their imaginations. Each imagination is different. Each farmyard is different. Each farmyard is real. Like all of Noh theater, the farmyard lies beneath a spreading green tree at the foot of a mountain.
You’re funny as Shanne, waddling, poking at things with your pitchfork. The audience watches. Perhaps they smile. Don’t look directly at them to find out, though. They cannot see beneath your mask.
For now, ignore these spectators. Here you are onstage, beneath the arches and the empty bell hook. Floodlights stream in from behind the audience, yellow-white like straw and almost blinding. Move through the lights as if they aren’t there. Lift that hay. Bale it beneath the midday sun. Smell the sweet alfalfa. Hear the neighing of far-off horses. They are your horses. Be proud of them.
Oh, no! Don’t look now, you silly bumpkin, but here is Punchinoni, that wicked, wicked Punch, carrying a military saber on his shoulder and marching stiff-legged into your farmyard like a tin soldier. With a flick of his orange-painted hand he throws his sword into the air and balances it on the tip of his orange zucchini nose. The saber stays aloft with only the gentlest of nose adjustments.
“Where’d you find that saber?
It’s too sharp for a dull Punch like you,”
you recite rudely in your simpleton voice.
Punch pretends he suddenly notices you and dances over, a spry goblin, keeping the sword waggling in midair as he goes.
“I’ve just come back from a battle. The field was messy.
Dead men lay all around me, and this was juicy pickings.
What purpose does a weapon have for those who can’t swing it?
Better for a borrower like me to come along and make use of it.”
Pacing around Punch, you give him a jab in the butt with your pitchfork. He jumps like a rodeo clown, sending the sword tumbling into the air. AS it spins, he catches it by the hilt, flicks his fingers, and it settles back on the point of his nose.
Strange: briefly you wonder where Quinn’s hair is behind her wooden mask. Coming closer, you see that there’s no mask at all. The orange skin is real, front and back, under the costume. Punch has real claws on his long orange fingers.
The acting fooled you for awhile. You got lost in the act. You forgot Quinn, and saw the role.
It’s not Quinn. He is not a she anymore. This Punch is not an actor. He is not a human being.
It’s a real demon.
Where’s Quinn? You saw her just a minute ago.
Surreptitiously you turn your head and look along the hashigakari bridge toward backstage.
A trickle of red. A knife.
Run offstage and call the police! Shout at the audience to run, run away quickly, before the demon stabs them, too! Hurry now—
But Punchinoni speaks. He interrupts your thoughts.
“Regrettable, the battles we fight, isn’t it, Shanne?
Lamentable how human our desires are!
If only we all knew how to agree.
But we can’t see inside one another’s minds.”
A voice hisses inside your ear, inside your brain. It’s Punch’s voice. I’m lying, the voice says, a sinister mosquito buzzing in your ear. I can see into your mind. I know you want to run to the police.
You stutter nervously as you recite your lines in reply. The audience loves it. They think the stutter is the perfect hayseed touch. They don’t know you’re not acting. They don’t see.
All they see is what you show them.
A sea of faces looks up at you. You’ve got to keep acting while you figure out what to do. The audience hears you say to Punch that you want nothing to do with battles or soldiers. They hear you say that you wish everyone understood honest work like baling hay. They don’t know that inside your head, the demon Punch’s hissing voice whispers.
All they hear is what you recite to them.
You’re a professional. A good actor. You don’t stop the show for anything. The show must go on, Punch’s voice whispers in your ear. Only a few more lines until Punch has a long soliloquy. Then you can go backstage and investigate. As you worry about what to do, about where Quinn went and whether she’s even still alive, you hear your own voice talking about farming. Reciting your lines. Being a good actor. Gradually, your lines drown out the demonic voice. They drown out your worries. You’re acting. You sweep back into your long-practiced role as a bumpkin. You fall under your own spell.
Forget anything has happened.
Forget the pool of blood behind the paper screen.
Remember the hay and the horses.
Think about the terrible battle that Punch is telling you about.
Think, I hope the battle doesn’t reach my farm.
Think, I’m glad Punch is here to tell me the news.
Let the mask swallow you up.
“Oh, but I nearly forgot to mention!”
“The winning army is coming this way,
Bringing a mile-long train of horses and men.
They’ll eat up everything you have and kill you in the bargain!”
And you fret and worry as you recite your own lines in reply. What about the October harvest? What will your own horses eat? Will you be forced off your land by this rampaging army? What will your family do?
In just a few stanzas, Punchinoni has convinced you to abandon your farm and hide from the cavalry. That rogue! He tells you to follow him into the mountains for your own protection. And you follow him into the mountains, listening to pleased applause, and Punch ushers you down the hashigakari to a hiding place in the mountains to end Act I, Scene One.
Act I, Scene Two
You lift your mask to your forehead and look around, blinking. As soon as your mask is off, it all comes back to you. You have a murder to investigate.
A hat rack with a blue kimono hanging off it. Tin cans full of mismatched carpentry screws. Paper screens. A few neglected power tool cases. A dogeared script. All the usual backstage stuff.
A mop sits in a red bucket. It’s too dim here to see inside. Beside the bucket, a knife. Wait, was that all you saw? Did the red bucket just remind you of blood? The floor is dry. Thirty seconds before your next cue.
Where’s Quinn? Could she still be alive? Did she just trade places with this demon impostor?
Beyond the backstage floor, the grassy field waits. Ahead are the last twilight shadows of the mountain before night is full. The shadows are matched by the smell of trees.
As you pace around, trying to locate her, you listen to Punch’s soliloquy onstage. He’s stealing Shanne’s food. He’s stealing horses. Maybe he’ll even steal your children while you’re hiding away in the mountains. Following his bad advice. Following his lies.
Mask in hand, you jump down from the platform of the stage to the grass below. Hunkering, you run quickly behind the tree backdrop toward the solid wall of stage left. There’s nothing. Pace back the way you came. There’s nothing suspicious. Nothing except for an orange nose mask on the ground. You pick it up. Something sticky coats the inside of the mask. Something red.
The red light blinks twice. Your next cue.
Setting the sticky, oozy red nose mask down, you vault onto the backstage platform and waddle out with your pitchfork. You see Punch from the opposite side of the stage. Your hand moves to your face.
Horrors! You’ve forgotten to put your mask back on! The Shanne mask dangles from your fingertips. The elastic cord is sweaty in your grip. Expecting shocked whispers, you turn your eyes to face the audience. They see you.
You forgot your mask.
Your face is naked for them to see.
You’re not a bumpkin anymore. You’re just an actor.
A very bad actor.
Everyone see you.
There’s nothing worse than this. They all know you’ve flubbed it. Your heart’s in your throat.
Seconds tick by. You try reciting some of the bumpkin’s lines, but it doesn’t work. You don’t have a mask on. The mystery weighed too much on your mind, and you forgot. Maybe it was the bloodstained nose mask that distracted you. Maybe in your nervous mind you thought there was blood inside your own Shanne mask. Is it too late to put it on?
Seconds tick by. You’re onstage. The audience stares at you.
You can’t say your lines. You can’t let yourself go, not without the wooden mask. The murderer Punch grins at you evilly.
Seconds tick by. Sweat appears thick on your forehead and drips like ice over your eyes.
What do you do?
The Noh demands that each actor play the role of the mask.
Right now, your mask is your face.
Your character is you.
So you do the only thing you can do. You speak as yourself:
“You killed her. I found her mask.
You killed my friend and took her place,”
you say, out of measure and out of turn.
“There’s blood on her mask.
Listen everyone. Punch is a monster!”
Applause. The audience thinks it’s part of the show, or maybe they just feel sorry for you. Punch smiles like a spider. He holds up the saber and turns it in the floodlights, examining it.
“This sword is Murakumo, the Sword that Cleaves Fakes in Two.
Lord Sosono blessed it. Only the blessed can pick it up.
Quinn was stabbed through the heart by the power of Murakumo
And it bounced back to me, because I’m blessed!”
You don’t believe in that superstitious stuff. Nobody does. She was stabbed with the knife by the bucket! The murder weapon is right there, offstage. You can see the red bucket out of the corner of your eye. Punch is just trying to distract you. But the audience doesn’t know. They don’t understand. They think it’s all part of the show.
You’ve got to convince them.
“You’re not even an actor!”
“You’re not even human!
Why don’t you take off your mask
And show everyone who you really are!
As you talk, you forget about Shanne, your old character. There are more important things now.
Forget the hay bales, the battle, your horses, your family.
Forget that old story; it doesn’t matter anymore.
Forget the character. Toss the wooden Shanne mask offstage carelessly. It hits the hardwood floor and cracks down the middle. Now that character is gone forever.
It doesn’t matter. Your best friend is gone. You’ve got to find her.
If you’re quick, maybe you can even save Quinn’s life.
It’s just you and Punch. The stage is bare. Two bright spotlights shoot from behind the audience, one for each of you. Punchinoni advances. He’s an orange demon jester stalking towards you, hunching with each step, his long nose wobbling. His footsteps sound like pots and pans. A gloopy pool of snot drips from one enormous hairy nostril. A real demon. The audience has to realize that he’s an impostor. They’ve got to.
“Take your mask off!”
“I bet you can’t!”
Punch reaches up and grabs his own hideous nose.
It comes off.
High-tech latex is stuck to his face. Strands of stage glue stretch out. Was it really just a very realistic mask? It lifts off.
Beneath Punch’s mask is your face, looking back at you. Punch’s face is your face. The eyes are open in shock. You feel a blast of anger at the demon. Like an irritating, mocking child, Punch imitates your facial expressions. From shocked to angry to scared. Smiles. Frowns. It’s like looking in a mirror, if the mirror were wearing a black and white jester’s outfit. His hands and feet are still orange and hairy, though.
Punch honks his regular-sized nose at you. A voice whispers into your ear: This is just another one of my masks.
“We wear so many faces, don’t we?”
recites Punch, wearing yours and mimicking your voice.
“You see a friendly face and you take your mask off.
A stranger appears, and you put a new mask on,
Becoming a whole new person.”
A gasp escapes the audience. The lines weren’t that great, were they? Confused, you turn and look around, trying to spot the reason they gasped.
You spot the reason.
A remarkable girl approaches along the hashigakari bridge. It’s not Quinn; it’s someone new. Someone you’ve never seen before. Her dress is a flower garden, a painted rainbow, a twirling bouquet. Long hair and a hat with a plastic tropical bird on it. Her smile is familiar, contagious.
She walks toward you.
Who is she? It’s almost like you know her.
She’s going to be your best friend. You can just tell. You want to follow her around. You want her to know all about you.
You realize you’ve heard about her. Quinn told you about her. Everyone told you about her. You know exactly who she is. She’s the coolest person in the world.
Her name is Columbia.
Punch walks straight up to her and talks to her.
Wearing your face.
They both turn their backs on you and fall deep into conversation. You stand there, watching and listening, feeling useless as this easy Romeo steals your new best friend away and makes her his best friend. After all, people can only have one best friend.
Punch charms her and walks offstage with her, arm in arm. Columbia was supposed to be your new best friend. Now she’s gone, maybe forever. You didn’t even get to ask whether she’s seen Quinn.
Columbia never even noticed you.
You’re alone onstage. Silent. Boiling angry. Life’s so unfair. You weren’t quick enough. Weren’t brave enough. You didn’t even have a chance to introduce yourself. Now she’s gone. And the audience is staring at you.
Then a new voice emerges from stage left:
“She is very thrilling, my ami, very charming.
But dreamers like you and I, we cannot speak to her.”
Who said that? It wasn’t Quinn’s voice. Come to think of it, you didn’t realize there were any other actors in this production company. It was supposed to be just you playing Shanne and Quinn playing Punch. And an Understudy, you suppose. There’s always one of those. But this actor definitely isn’t some Understudy. It’s someone you’ve never met.
The voice speaks again from offstage:
“For dreamers like you and Pierrot, there can be no Columbia.
There is only the night, the mountain, and the moon.”
You feel angry at this Pierrot person. You were all ready to sink into a sulk. First Quinn vanishes, then you lose your chance at meeting Columbia, and now this Pierrot person comes along and interrupts your feelings. You’re steaming mad, you’re scared for Quinn, and now you feel tangled up and overwhelmed. You’re just going in too many directions at once. You don’t know what to do.
And anyway, you’re not a dreamer. Who’s he calling a dreamer? You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. And you need to get to know Columbia. You can feel it in your toes. She’ll help you stop Punch and solve the case. You have so much in common with her. She’d make a great friend.
Who is this Pierrot guy, anyways? What’s he doing here?
Pierrot leaps, and he’s onstage.
Baggy white pants. A floppy white ruffled ruffed coat with red puffball buttons. Pointy red shoes. A sleepy white nightcap with another red puffball at the end. A sad thin boy inside, his face painted.
Pierrot is a clown.
He looks like a stringbean stuck inside a snowball. Frowny red mouth. Whiteface, intercepted by black crosses painted over his eyelids. Sad Pierrot has stars in his eyes.
“I can’t deal with you right now,”
“My best friend vanished,”
“And Punch took Columbia away,
And . . . and . . .”
You look out over the backlit audience and gesture at them all.
“. . . and everybody’s looking at me.”
Pierrot stands beside you and peers out at the sea of Japanese faces.
“Ah, the watching people,”
the pale clown sighs.
“So many eyes, always following us.
Here is a secret, my ami. I will tell it to you.
The watching people are not real.”
Stepping lightly in his pointed slippers to the very edge of the stage, Pierrot kneels at the footlights. He gestures you closer. Leaning out over the rapt and watching faces of the audience, he holds an open hand to his lips and takes a deep breath.
Stars and snowflakes fly from his red-painted lips, and the audience folds in half over the backs of their low seats.
“See? They are only cardboard,”
he whispers, smiling at you.
“But Pierrot thinks it is better that they watch.
If everyone in the world is cardboard,
Who will applaud when we triumph?”
He inhales deeply, so deeply that his star-crossed eyes cross. The Japanese theatergoers pop upright again.
“But . . . then who was clapping earlier?”
“It couldn’t have been them.”
“It was only a recording,”
“Applause is never for the audience, my ami.
It is a gift for the performer.
And if it is a gift, what does it matter who gives it?
Come, my friend. Let us follow Punch and our divine Columbia.
We will see what they will do.”
The clown tiptoes away across the hashigakari bridge. You follow him. Exeunt.
Act I, Scene Three
At last, everyone applauds. Even though it’s only cardboard and an old cassette tape player, the clapping feels real and alive, at least from backstage. The sound of people applauding your performance somehow makes you feel better about losing Columbia. You feel hopeful about tearing her away from that villain Punchinoni, and you’re eager to get back to finding Quinn.
Your next entrance is in thirty seconds, so once again you swing down to the dark meadow behind the stage and run across to the far side, looking for clues: blood droplets or footprints or a snapped twig or a suspicious-looking butler or maybe Quinn herself—
Then you hear it. Columbia’s voice, reciting onstage. It’s like beautiful music, warm and sunny, a waiting world, a friendship that will last forever and hasn’t even started yet. The more time she spends with Punch, the harder it will be to convince her to give up his wily friendship and spend time with you instead. A person can only have one best friend, after all.
So Quinn will have to wait.
You’re procrastinating. You need to go call the police right now, rather than later. It might even save her life. But somehow, you can’t. You just can’t.
There’s your cue. Columbia is still onstage with Punch. This is your chance.
Leaping, you land backstage, ready to confront the villain. The clown kindly steps aside, and you make a big entrance. Columbia stands beside Punch, who has pulled his devil mask back down; both of them hold sabers. She looks your way. She notices you.
This is your big chance. Approach her and put your hands on your hips, ready to announce that you are here, that you want to be her friend.
Again, sly quick Punch has spoken first:
“This fighting stance I learned from Don Giovanni
In his famed duel against Don Luis of Seville.
These are the ripostes I learned from Edward Teach
The saber-waving pirate of Barbados.”
Punch demonstrates his fencing to delighted Columbia. His words catch you off-guard. Why? Because they can’t be true. Don Giovanni and Edward Teach lived four hundred years apart! They couldn’t both have taught Punch their sword moves. Punchinoni is lying. He’s lying to Columbia just to impress her.
He’s doing a really good job, too, because she looks totally entranced, like she believes everything he says. She looks like she wants to believe him, wants to believe he’s traveled to exciting far-off countries and lived in wild places and met dangerous people.
How are you supposed to explain how great a friend you are when she’s comparing you to a terrific liar? There’s no way you can be as exciting or as wild or as dangerous as Punch. Not without lying.
And you’re not a liar. Under the rules of Noh, you have to speak as your mask. That’s your own face. You have to be yourself tonight. The audience will know if you break the rules. They’re watching and waiting.
So, with your hands on your hips, you say what you really think:
“Columbia! The guy you’re talking to is a liar!
He’s telling you stuff that isn’t true.
Why are you talking to him
When you could have a better time talking to me?”
You hear your voice coming out of your mouth, but somewhere, deep inside, you can’t believe that you’re saying it. The words are too big, too bold. But the audience loves it. You can tell. They’re excited to see your acting. Pierrot, too, is dazzled at your bravery. It’s exciting and wild and dangerous. You’re saying just what you mean. It was a big secret, but now it’s out, and now everyone knows how you really feel.
You wonder: What was it that helped you overcome your shyness?
Maybe it was the watching people.
No, wait, what’s going on? Columbia, brilliant Columbia, is staring at you. She doesn’t look impressed at all. She looks disgusted. Angry. Aghast.
“How dare you? How dare you say such terrible things about my friend?
I certainly wouldn’t want to talk to you,
Name-caller, insulter, rude person!
I’d rather have Punch as my friend than some loudmouth!”
She swings her hair away from you and looks at Punch instead. At once he resumes telling his exciting stories.
Ashamed and confused, you turn away. Your face feels hot. As hard as you can, you work to keep from crying. Nothing feels worse than crying in public. Pierrot puts his arm around you and leads you away. You sit together on the farthest end of the stage, listening to slimy Punchinoni talk about Ali Baba and Lawrence of Arabia and Francis Drake. Keeping as quiet as you can, you cry.
“What did I do wrong back there?”
you ask the clown.
“I said exactly what I meant.
I thought I was being brave.
Doesn’t honesty count for anything?”
Pierrot pats your shoulder.
“Of course it counts for something.
But what? But what?
Honesty shows who you are, my ami.
But who are you?”
He’s right. That’s what honesty does. It shows who you are.
Well, who are you?
For a long minute you two sit side by side between the footlights, listening to Punch recite an endless list of swashbucklers and swordsmen. Columbia positively bursts with delight. And you think:
Who are you?
And it’s perfectly true.
says Pierrot, curious.
“Jealous of the Punchinoni?”
You are. You can feel it.
“He knows how to lie
To get people to like him!”
The clown sighs and kicks his slippered feet back and forth.
“If you want to be more like the Punch,
If you want to impress people his way,
Then you must learn how to lie.”
He’s right. That’s really the only thing Punch can do better than you. But lying is wrong. Lying’s the worst thing a person can do. Other than murder, anyways. That’s obvious.
You watch the clown kick his feet. You listen to Punch making things up to say to Columbia. You think, maybe I could do that. Maybe I could make things up, too. That’s all he’s really doing, right? He’s making things up. What’s so bad about making things up? It’s just being creative. Everyone’s proud of creative people, right? Movies and books and music and TV shows, it’s just people making things up and telling them to other people, right?
You’re ready to learn how to lie.
Springing to your feet, you feel brave again, refreshed. In front of the startled cardboard audience, you look the sad clown in the eye.
“I’ll do it!”
Sadly, Pierrot nods. Wistful, doubtful, sorrowful, worryful.
“I know whom you must talk to,”
he says, still swinging his feet.
“Although knowing him may not do you much good.
Talk to him and you will become a masterful teller of untruths.
His name is El Daishou.”
Act II, Scene One
The clown tumbles backwards to his feet and shuffles offstage. Turning, you see that Columbia and Punch are gone as well, leaving you alone with your feet dangling over the edge of the stage.
Muted trumpets and hoofbeats.
“Arise, young person, and stand in attendance!
Do you dare goof off in the presence of El Daishou,
His Estimable Majesty the Emperor Poblano’s
Grand High Hat-Bearer?
Why, if you should be seen to dangle your feet so
You’d surely be sent to the ostrich mines of Kalamazoo,
Where you would be set upon with dreadful clarions and clergions,
Truncheons and cruncheons and metreons!
I’ll have you reported myself,
For the Emperor always listens to his Grand High Hat-Bearer!”
Shrugging, you slide to your feet and return upstage respectfully, where you meet the most extraordinary person you’ve ever seen.
El Daishou might have been seven feet tall if he didn’t slump like a shlump. He wears a blue floral kimono, a studded wooden samurai chestplate covered in sword-slashes, a green U.S. army uniform covered in medals, a too-small white admiral’s uniform with gold tassels and starred epaulets on the shoulders, a daimyo helmet with curly flat bronze horns, a Chinese peasant’s cone-shaped straw hat balanced on top of the helmet, a wobbly purple turban on top of the straw hat, and a tiny red fez on top of the turban.
A luxurious white mustache trails from either side of his mouth.
Barefoot, he is hobbling, shambling, bowlegged, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, and yet he still maintains a totally fake sense of dignity and grandeur, as if he carries a thousand years on his shoulders. A wrinkled red kamikaze headband wraps his tired forehead.
Standing respectfully, you decide to bow to him. He seems like the sort of man you bow to. You should ask whether he’s seen Quinn—
“Ah! Respect is seemly, young person,
And will surely be noted down for posterity
In the Belgian Compendium of Remarkable Doings.
Have you seen my horse?”
His horse? Blinking, you look around, but the stage is empty. You haven’t seen a horse anywhere. You shake your head.
“What does your horse look like?”
El Daishou taps his chin thoughtfully, making his turban wobble.
“Well now, let’s see.
She’s, oh, twelve foot at the shoulder,
Mane the color of blood,
Teeth blazing like Arabian pearls,
Tail like a thousand serpents tied together in a bow,
Her eyes are a pair of pizza pies
And her bridle is brighter than sunlight glinting off the sea.
Her saddle is Kyoto komodo-leather,
Her saddlebags bear jewels of every kind,
Her stirrups are each the nose-ring of a cyclops,
And her hooves are hammers.”
He looks down his nose at you expectantly.
“I haven’t seen her,”
you say, trying not to laugh.
El Daishou shakes his long sideburns.
“You haven’t got the feel of the thing.
The answer, naturally, is ‘yes.’
“Yes. I have seen her,”
you repeat uncertainly.
El Daishou raises his eyebrows.
You begin spitting words out:
“She was on . . . a train. A circus train.
A goblin had caught her in a cage . . .”
El Daishou interrupts you:
“What was the cage made of?”
Yeah, what was the cage made of?
El Daishou smiles.
“And I tried to unlock the cage
But it was bolted with a lock that was a fishhead
And the key was . . . too squishy,”
That sounds like a pretty good start. But El Daishou gestures for you to keep talking. You couldn’t get the samurai-admiral’s horse out of the cage. What did the goblin do next?
“And the goblin caught me too
And locked me in the next train car over,
But I activated the rockets in my sneakers
And blasted through the roof.”
Okay, now you’ve gotten into a predicament and out of it again. Who stopped the goblin?
A mermaid used her songs to lull the goblin to sleep,
And I gave her a spare ocean to swim away on,
And I escaped on one of those, um,
Pushing-up-and-down train cars from the movies.”
El Daishou sighs, slouching even more.
“A shame you couldn’t bring my horse with you.
I suppose you must have gotten caught up in the battle,”
El Daishou lifts his majestic pitted nose at you and frowns.
“Yes. It was the battle.
Um, the Zirconians had these cannons.
They were ten feet long—”
The many-hatted samurai shakes his head.
Right. They were fifty feet long.
“They were fifty feet long and made of,
You gulp, realizing how stupid it sounded coming out of your mouth. The samurai arches one of his eyebrows.
“Made of sand and held together by,
By ionic bonds.”
“And they were shooting cannonballs everywhere,
But the mermaid was singing at the right frequency
And the cannonballs flew away.
So the Zirconians had swords that,
That waved like ocean waves,
But there was an—”
You lose your rhythm and wind up babbling for a second. It’s super embarrassing. The cardboard audience stares. You try to stare back, like you meant to stop. Maybe you can stare them down. But, you realize, cardboard doesn’t blink.
Think back to everything that’s been said and just pick something. Ocean waves, sand cannons, ostrich mines . . .
you say at last,
“And the goblin let it out of its cage
And it chased the Zirconians off,
Since they’re only made of star parts.”
You take a deep breath. El Daishou nods, and his purple turban falls off. He reaches down and balances it once again on top of his straw hat. You notice that the red fez has been delicately sewn onto the turban.
the samurai says.
“Conversing is all well and good, of course,
But an adventure is the important thing.
Have you ever left the stage?”
Have you? Have you ever gone beyond the edge of the stage, or have you spent your entire life here, onstage and backstage? You did run around behind the backdrop a few times, looking for Quinn. But is that really the same thing? There must be a wide world beyond the stage. You say so.
“A wide world,”
El Daishou repeats.
“Come. I’ll show you.”
Pushing the tipping purple turban straighter on his pile of hats, El Daishou waddles past the near audience and steps off the stage onto the grass. In bare feet he fades into the night. The sound of hoofbeats follows.
Hurrying after, you swing under the railing of the hashigakari and onto the ocean of soft grass. It’s a corner of the world you’ve never seen before. Looking over your shoulder at the distant glow of the electric lights, you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Where are Punch and Columbia and Pierrot? Where is El Daishou going? What will happen to Quinn? And what will the audience think? You’re leaving them behind.
Well, leave them behind. It’s an adventure.
The mountain rises up in front of you. The field under your feet becomes a dirt path with low steps wending up the mountain. Rust-red archways called torii show the way, two thin round columns and a swooping lintel. Beneath them, candles flicker inside paper lanterns. Why don’t the paper lanterns catch fire? No matter. Everywhere is the plush grass of rich summer, dancing with pollen, mystical. Dandelion tufts are flecked with moonlight.
El Daishou is a sparkling shadow. The night sky is reflected in his rectangular shoulder armor. Behind you, the light of the stage grows dim. Leave it behind. Follow the samurai up the path to the top of the mountain.
The night is glorious. You want to walk beside Columbia on a night like this.
And you see she is there, ahead of you. Standing at the mountain peak against the limitless wash of swirling stars, she is a curvature in the universe.
“The world beyond the stage is all around us,”
whispers El Daishou, stopping short.
“Some opportunities are golden,
But you must always go to where they are.
You can construct your own golden opportunity.
I myself have business in another prefecture,
To deliver His Augustness’ hats.
Remember to step away from the familiar scenery
From time to time.”
El Daishou leans down to whisper one last thought:
“Adventure waits. Don’t keep it waiting.”
Saying nothing more, never looking back, the great El Daishou shuffles down the mountain toward the audience and into the shadows, where the road to the Emperor must lie.
You tread up the hillside to the promontory where Columbia waits. You stand beside her.
you begin, talking more humbly this time.
She turns and sees you. For a second she seems to think you’re Punch, but then she recognizes your costume. Scowling, she waggles her knees and shoulders, as if she’d rather be anywhere else. She rolls her eyes.
“Way to spoil a beautiful night,”
“What do you want?”
You think about apologizing, but you didn’t decide to learn how to lie for nothing. You want to impress her with an amazing story.
“Listen, I—I met the King of Cornflower yesterday.
He was carrying . . . a wedding cake ten stories tall
For his daughter’s wedding, and there was . . .
A jewel on top, and I was standing on the roof of . . .
An eleven story building—no!
I was on the back of an eleven story parrot.
And I knew that the jewel didn’t belong to him.
It—it belonged in a museum.
So of course I took it.”
She looks at you.
“Let me see,”
You slap your pockets.
“I—I put it in the museum.
That’s why I don’t have it with me.”
She brushes her hair off her forehead. It feels like an important moment is rushing toward you. There’s something you’re supposed to say right here. Heaviness waits in the air, ready to pounce.
You don’t know what you’re supposed to say.
Your mouth hangs open, then closes.
The biggest moment of your life.
Just say the right thing, right now.
Say the right thing.
You can’t figure out what to say.
The heaviness deflates, leaving you with a sense that you missed out on something important. Columbia flicks her head away.
“I knew he was lying,”
“I’m not stupid, the way you seem to think I am.
Punch treats me like I’m naïve.
But at least he cares about how I feel.”
She shuffles her feet.
“I don’t really know who you are,
And from the way you’ve behaved
I’m pretty sure I don’t want to.
So why don’t you stay away from me from now on.
And just like that, the magical night is ruined forever. The word but dissolves on your lips. Columbia twirls and walks away to a further peak and stares up at the night gallery.
Act II, Scene Two
You turn away. There’s no use trying again. Columbia’s made her mind up. She knew Punch was lying all along. She just doesn’t like you. That’s all it is.
Maybe Pierrot’s right: Columbia isn’t for you. Let her spend her time with Punch. You don’t care. Really you don’t. You can make other friends. There’s always Quinn, if you can find her. After all, you hardly even know Columbia. She’s probably mean. She’s probably boring. She probably plays backgammon for fun. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t like you.
You don’t even care.
Trudging away down the hillside under the swinging paper lanterns, you pass Pierrot, who squeezes an enormous accordion studded with mother-of-pearl. As he plays a sad milonga, you drag one foot after the other, one foot after the other. They feel like lead, your feet. Your heart feels like lead, too. Columbia.
You care so much.
Pierrot walks wistfully a few feet behind you. His sighing concertina narrates a world of loves lost but unforgettable. The stage and the audience come back into view. Their bodies are two-dimensional cardboard, but their eyes follow you in the dark.
From overhead, the black cry of a raven perched on top of the stage.
As you approach, the raven seems to fly straight at you. Ducking quickly from the divebomb, you feel a new, powerful emotion: Anger.
Anger. Rage. A desire for vengeance against that awful Punch who killed Quinn and poisoned Columbia against you. You aren’t jealous anymore, because you know he isn’t better than you. You both know how to lie and make up majestic stories. You aren’t jealous.
Punch killed Quinn. He probably did. There was a knife, and her mask was covered in sticky blood. But—strange. It’s not even the murder anymore. You have new feelings now. Bigger even than revenge for Quinn. Somehow this new feeling is so big that it swamps everything else.
You’re angry that Columbia was Punch’s friend first. Angry that they have a history together, that they have inside jokes and stories and adventures that they’ve shared. Things only they know.
It isn’t fair. It isn’t, isn’t fair. Punchinoni probably even knows her middle name.
You want to get back at him.
Leaping to the stage, you shout for Punch to come out. Your mind is filled with violence that you know is right and proper. A spotlight comes down and lands a white oval across your shoulders. A red Fresnel light casts a bloody glow across the tree backdrop.
It’s time for a confrontation.
“Come out, you rotten Punchinoni!”
“Come on out and fight!”
You stand on the polished yellow surface of the Noh stage. With all those eyes on you, you’re filled with an overpowering anger. You feel powerful, like you could do anything. You put your hands on your hips, the universal actor’s symbol for bravery.
Punch dashes out from stage left. And he is dashing, the same way that Errol Flynn was dashing. He’s dashing and grinning and smug. His orange nose droops under his pinpoint eyes.
Brainless, empty of thoughts, you walk up to him and punch him right in the kisser. Your fist thumps into his face. Time seems to go in all directions, too fast and too slow.
His wooden mask splits in two.
You react, too, because the real Punch wasn’t wearing a wooden mask, but a latex one. You haven’t punched a demon. You punched an actor in a mask. Reaching forward, you pull Punch’s mask off.
Is it Quinn?
The audience gasps. You’ve violated one of the rules of Noh. You’ve changed a mask onstage.
And you’ve done something else wrong, too. In your bloodlust, in your thirst for vengeance, you haven’t punched the real Punch, or even Quinn.
You’ve punched the Understudy.
His innocent face is familiar. He’s that other guy, the one who used to stand in the corner and watch you and Quinn practice your parts. The quiet one. The one who didn’t have anything to say, and who didn’t have the courage to stand up and say it.
Well, he must have found his courage. He must have picked up the bloodstained Punch mask, wiped it off and put it on, because now he’s onstage with you. Where the real Punch is, you don’t know.
The Understudy. Huh.
“You punched me,”
he says, super lame.
His voice has no emphasis or diction. He’s not really a very good actor. But then again, you’re the one who forgot your mask at the start of the show. You shouldn’t be talking.
“I thought you were Punchinoni,”
you tell him.
His face goes that embarrassing red that faces go when they’re about to cry.
“I am Punchinoni,”
“Or I was
Until you pulled my mask up.
Just look at it. You broke it.
I think it was really expensive.”
The Understudy looks out across the small proscenium of the stage. He wilts in the brutal glare of the audience’s dislike. He looks lost and tangled up, and you realize you’ve put him in a pretty bad spot. He might not be a great actor with his real face, but he played Punch well enough to convince you to punch him. But even though he was all prepared to recite Punch’s lines, he can’t make up his own lines in the middle of the show. He doesn’t know how. He didn’t study under the great El Daishou the way you did.
The Understudy stares out at the audience, terrified.
Take pity on him. Make him feel better. After all, he’s a much less experienced actor than you.
“Why don’t we find the real Punch together?”
you ask him gently.
The Understudy looks at the split wood mask in your hand.
“So you can punch him, too?”
“You’re just going to go around punching people?”
Then he starts crying. You feel embarrassed to be on stage with him. The audience isn’t sympathetic, and frankly neither are you. This is plain misbehaving. The Understudy seems to know it, too, and tries to pull himself together. Between quick, heaving breaths he starts trying to say what he feels.
“You. Don’t under. Stand,”
“This was. My big chance.”
He wipes his snotty nose on his sleeve.
“Someone. Else is al-always Punchinoni.
And I. Wanted to be Punchinoni.
To be the big star. I always wanted to.
Be the big star. And someone else was
The big star. And I had
One chance to go on stage.
And then. You ruined it.
And now. I’m nobody again.
And I didn’t. Even get to read my li-i-ines.”
He starts bawling again. You wonder what you can say to make him feel better.
“Do you want to go ahead and say your lines?”
He shakes his head really hard.
“It’s too late,”
He sounds devastated, but maybe he can snap him back together. Maybe he just needs a push.
You sling the elastic band back over his head and let the split devil mask fall back together over his face.
“Huzzah! Take that, you rotten Punch, my too-clever enemy!”
“If I can’t have Columbia as a friend then no one will.
I’ll pull your mask off if I want, put it back on you again.
I don’t care how you feel about it!”
Sniffling beneath the cracked crooked mask, the Understudy takes a breath, composes himself. He leaps up and crosses his arms over his black-and-white diamond jumpsuit. Actually it’s pretty convincing, even though a wink of light shows through the middle of his mask.
The first thing out of his mouth is a squeak. He clears his throat and tries again:
“Columbia is mine alone, you silly silly.
I’m an entrancer, a hypnotist. I know all the tricks.
It’s easy to corner someone and turn them into a friend
If you know how to talk to strangers, like me!”
The words are definitely Punch’s. The voice is pretty good, too. For a moment, when the mask lines up, you forget it’s just the Understudy and imagine it’s the real Punch talking. But it isn’t, and you can feel all your righteous anger draining out as you recite lines with this noodly little guy. Doing him a favor. Reading lines isn’t exactly what you want to do right now, but you figure, maybe you owe the Understudy for punching him.
“You think you’ve captured Columbia,”
“You think you’ve fooled her with your talk,
But she’s the one who tricked you!
She told me she knows about your lies
And she doesn’t believe them!”
The Punch mask grins at you. The zucchini nose pokes right up into your face.
“You think people are gullible,”
the Understudy recites.
“But that’s never true.
She listens to my lies because we’re friends.
She enjoys my stories because we’re friends!”
Wait. Is Punch saying that he was friends with her before he told her those lies? So he wasn’t telling those lies in order to make friends, but just to entertain her? Did . . . did you try to make friends with Columbia the wrong way?
How do you make friends with someone like her? Actually, you might as well ask. . . .
“Then how did you make friends with her?”
You hope it isn’t a stupid-sounding question. You say it in your big stage voice and put one hand on your knee.
“All you have to do—”
the Understudy begins.
But a commotion interrupts him. Spinning, you find that the real, orange-skinned Punchinoni has landed snidely on the far end of the stage. The red floodlight gives him a demonic tint. His beady eyes are brazen and calculating. A third white spotlight snaps on and fixes on him as he steps into view along the bridge. Two Punches face off, with you in the middle. The real Punch crosses his arms and approaches. The stage isn’t really that big, either.
“A second impostor,”
he whispers to himself.
It wasn’t a stage whisper, which means it wasn’t meant for the audience. He withdraws the military saber from its scabbard with a slink, and it’s clearly not a prop. It’s a real sword, and deadly sharp. And you realize: Punch really wants to kill the Understudy, the same way he killed Quinn.
And you shout:
“Look out! He killed someone already today
And he’s about to kill you!”
Punch’s wheedling telepathic voice whispers into your ear: I know you want to fight me. But I’d rather spend my time skewering this boy for dressing up like me. I hate phonies.
you shout at the Japanese people looking up at you.
“Somebody call the police!
Punch is evil, and he wants to kill us.
Get the authorities here quickly!”
The audience is motionless.
Suddenly you feel very alone.
There’s nobody to defend you against the demon, nobody here at all except yourself and the Understudy. And he probably won’t be much help. You’ll probably have to protect him, too. It’s time to step up and be a hero.
“Who are you?”
the Understudy asks Punch.
“What are you even doing here?
I’m playing Punch tonight!
You need to get offstage so I can play my part!”
Punch’s lips curl down into a sneering frown.
“The part that I, the Punchinoni Himself, originated?
The part that I made famous?
You think I’ll let you play me tonight?”
Punch stabs his sword into the wood of the stage, leans on it, and glares at the boy.
“I think I won’t,”
Inadvisably the Understudy comes forward to touch Punch’s orange nose. Making contact, he tugs.
“But—but who is he?”
the Understudy asks, turning to you.
Facing Punch, the Understudy pulls harder, yanking. This time, the slobbery nose won’t come off.
“That’s the real Punchinoni,”
The Understudy gives you a funny look. He peels his own nose mask off absentmindedly and stands beside you in his goofy Spandex leotard.
“Punchinoni isn’t real.
He’s an amalgam of several mythopoeic caricatures.
He comes from Italian, English and Japanese folklore.
Somebody just made him up. He isn’t real.”
Smirking, the real Punch advances. His eyes light up with glowing embers, his clawed toes flex and scratch the surface of the stage, and his skin seems to bubble with rage and pride.
“Seems pretty real to me,”
you say, backing away.
The demon pulls Murakumo out from where he stuck it into the stage and starts sweeping it back and forth at you two like a crazy surgeon with a scalpel. Whoosh. Whoosh. Smoke seeps out from his enormous nostrils. Teeth like a mouthful of walrus tusks stick out in every direction.
Deciding that maybe the jokes are over and it’s time to leave, you take the Understudy by his skinny arm and tiptoe backwards. The end of the stage is right behind you. Bump into it and inch around . . . You’re almost trapped, but you can slip along the side . . .
“What do you want?”
the Understudy asks Punch timidly.
The boy’s back presses against one of the bashira, the pillars supporting the arches overhead. He seems hypnotized by the flames in Punch’s eyes.
“I take offense at your costume,”
Punch spits at the boy.
“I take offense at the way you pretend to be something you’re not.
I take offense that you gave away some of my secrets.
So I’m going to kill you.”
The frightened Understudy stares down the point of Punch’s sword and gulps.
“You are not Punch,”
the real Punch continues.
“You are a boy. Look at you.
Your own identity hidden under stage makeup,
A mask disguising the face beneath.
Come out of your mask and costume
And put on your true colors.”
And you’ve got a decision to make right here. Punch is totally focused on the Understudy. Will you try to get between Punch and the boy and risk getting stabbed? Or do you use this opportunity to make a break for it?
Punch is a murderer. He said so. He’ll kill you if you get in his way. He isn’t even human. He’s crazy.
But he’ll hurt an innocent kid if you don’t do something. The Understudy can’t handle it on his own. He doesn’t know how.
What will you do?
Do you defend the boy, or do you run?
Will you do the same thing to the Understudy that you did to Quinn? Forget about him? Run away? Get caught up in other feelings?
Are you a coward?
Well, are you?
. . . No. You can’t let him die like this. You’ve already failed Quinn. You’ve put this off long enough. In fact, you’ve put it off for too long, waited, procrastinated. It’s time to confront Punch.
“Before you kill him, you’ll have to get through me!
And I’m mad at you anyways! You—”
You realize that saying “You stole Columbia from me” would sound really stupid compared to the fierce fight you’re getting yourself into. In fact, your righteous anger seems childish, thinking back. Were you really so worried about who got to be friends with Columbia first?
“You killed my best friend! You murdered her!
You’ve got to say it. There’s nothing else to do. The police won’t be coming. What else are you going to do?
“And now I’m going to kill you!”
Oh no. The saber point swings from the Understudy’s nose to yours.
“How is someone like you going to defeat someone like me?
When I’m powerful, and evil,
And when I have a sword so sharp it can cut a blade of grass in two?”
Frankly, this is a very good question. Even when you announced that you planned on killing him, you sort of wondered how you were going to do it. And maybe, just maybe, more killing isn’t the answer. Maybe there’s another way to do it.
Or maybe you’re just scared.
Inside your head, you hear: You chose to fight me. Now you have to do it! I’ll cut your hands off and turn them into hat antlers!
Honestly, you’re not sure how your bravery was supposed to help the Understudy anyways. Backing away toward stage left, you hiss to him:
“Run! Get away from here!
I’ll distract the demon while you go get help!”
This the Understudy understands. Sprinting away in the opposite direction, he ducks backstage and disappears.
Once again you’re alone with Punch, facing him down. He grins murderously and advances, pushing you back along the narrow walkway of the hashigakari.
Each step he takes, you take a step back.
A hunter and a stag. Two fencers on a cliff’s edge. A cobra following a wounded bird.
A deadly tango.
Punch dives forward and slashes at you with the sword, and you fall backward onto your butt beside the backstage stuff.
The sword points at your throat. The demon’s grin grows. You’ve saved the Understudy, but sacrificed yourself.
This is it. The end of your life.
Punch killed Quinn, and he’s going to kill you, too.
You wish you had fallen in love before you died. Everyone always talks about falling in love. Too late now.
The Murakumo sword rises up.
Time. . . .
Act II, Scene Three
Both you and Punch look up. Standing on top of the wood-framed paper screen, balancing, his red cloth slippers bowed around the narrow wood, flapping his arms to keep steady, is Pierrot. Good timing! In his hands is a mop. The mop flops down into your lap.
Then the wood frame of the paper screen cracks, and the screen rips in half. Pierrot falls, tumbling through his clown pajamas like a magnificently ungraceful white swan into the audience. Rolling to his feet, he plods away, giving you one last wink.
The saber swings down at your head. Swish! You hold up the mop handle, and the blade gets stuck.
You slap a million strands of gray yarn into Punch’s face. His nose flops back and forth, boinggg.
He slashes. You block, clunk.
Go ahead and take a trick out of Pierrot’s book—roll backward to your feet and hop down off the backstage platform into the night.
Fade into the darkness. That’s better. Unless Punchinoni can somehow see in the dark, you’ve got a fighting chance. The nearly-white mop head is the only really bright thing, so you unscrew it and toss it into the wooden crawlspace scaffolding that holds the stage up.
Actually . . .
Getting down on all fours, you find you can squirm into the woodwork. Bathed in dark, with only the light squeezing down between the two-by-fours for illumination, the narrow space under the stage is an inviting hiding place. You only worry about making noise, and maybe Punch’s giant sense of smell.
shouts Punch somewhere behind you.
“Each of us can hide from danger forever,
But until we face up to the world
We’ll always be running away.”
Maybe that’s true. Maybe people who run away from danger are just procrastinating. But—and you realize that it’s true as soon as you think it—you aren’t going to run away forever.
Just long enough to come up with a plan.
That’s exactly it. You need a plan to defeat Punch. How will you do it?
Are you going to kill him after all?
You crawl through the crawlspace, thinking this out. Can you somehow convince the demon to stop killing people? Can you get the police here? Can you scare him away? Can you—
That last one wasn’t too bad of an idea. Can you scare Punch? What scares an Italian-English-Japanese demon, anyways?
Ahead of you under the stage, the darkness comes into focus. Beneath every Noh stage is a set of huge clay drums. They’re called a nightingale floor, and they amplify every footstep on the stage, so the audience can hear people sneaking around. It makes for good theater.
It also might make for a good scare.
Disguising your voice, counting on the resonant nightingale floor to amplify the sound, you say:
“Wooooo. I’m the phantom of the Noh stage.
Terrifying and mean, I like to eat demons!
If there are any demons around here, they better watch out.
I’ll bite them all in half!”
The footsteps behind you cease. For a moment you figure it didn’t work at all. But then, quick pattering footsteps run away offstage. It worked!
“Oh no. Whatever will I do?”
Punch says, his voice growing fainter.
“The phantom of the stage! Oh my evil little heart!
It will surely come and get me! How fearful!
I had better leave at once!”
You hear his footsteps fading farther away, like a passing train. You smile to yourself and—
The bottom six inches of the saber stabs into the grass an inch from your nose. Scrabbling backwards, your leg gets caught around a wood beam. Desperately you push off, going in the other direction, swimming over the damp grass, and you hear Punch whispering to himself that he missed.
He must’ve been faking the sound of his feet running away. Throwing his voice. Using the nightingale floor against you. Being a clever liar. He is the Punch, after all.
The sword tip pins your shirt. You can’t tug it free without giving away the fact that you’re right below Punchinoni. Through the beams of the stage above you, you see a pair of clawed feet.
You stay silent, motionless, as still as if you were dead.
The blade vanishes with a scrape up through the stage.
This time you don’t run. You just sliiiide backward. Any sound will give you away. You know that now. It’ll be amplified. Any sound . . .
And you figure maybe you can trick Punch after all.
you say, softly and distantly, trying to throw your voice.
“You—you stabbed me!
It hurts so much!
Oh no—I died!”
Gurgles bubble out of your throat, growing quieter as you edge away from the blade. You’ve got this wrapped up. He’s fooled. You can feel it. He thinks he’s won, but you’re almost at the edge of the crawlspace, feeling a brisk night breeze through the new rip in your shirt . . .
The blade rises through the stage once again.
“Strange things I’ve heard recently,”
“A little bird told me I just killed someone.
How peculiar that there’s no blood on my blade.
Perhaps I’ve been lied to!”
Trying to run away? hisses in your ear. With a mind full of thoughts and plans? Where will you take them, where I can’t find you?
No matter. You’re at the edge of the stage. Wiggle out into the wild field beneath the mountain. If you’re really quiet, you can sneak away from here forever, outrun Punch, and trust the Understudy to call the police. Leave the stage behind. Leave the audience behind. Punch can stab the stage to ribbons or read your mind or juggle, for all you care. You’ll be far away from here. Just don’t think about where you’re going or what you’re doing and you’ll be safe . . .
“What ho, young person! Gladly met!
A fine night for a stroll. Tell me,
How did you fare at the top of the mountain?
And have you seen the Emperor lately?”
That stupid El Daishou. Now Punch knows exactly where you are. Over your shoulder there’s no sound or motion from the other side of the backdrop. Just a silence like listening.
Should you tell El Daishou the situation, you wonder? Could he help out?
Frankly, you need all the help you can get. There’s no reason to be proud, not when Pierrot saved your life already. Better to ask for help when you need it than to wait for good luck to return.
“I didn’t do so well at the top of the mountain
(Listen, I need your help)
It’s a lovely evening, El Daishou
(Somebody’s trying to kill me)
No, I haven’t seen the Emperor
(Punch is on the other side of this backdrop)
What does the Emperor look like?
(Let’s get out of here),”
The elderly samurai lowers his eyebrows to you and looks you in the eye. His pile of hats are gone, leaving only a red babushka scarf wrapped under his chin. Did he successfully deliver the hats to the Emperor?
Ten feet tall! A thousand men at arms!
(Do exactly as I do)
A fleet of ships flying upon the high seas!
(We need certain supplies)
Banners! Ribbons! Flags! Bannerets!
(Just follow beside me and stay close)
And a noble nose!”
In his babushka shawl, he leans down and picks up a handful of gravel. Stepping lively, adjusting his scarf under his chin, El Daishou leads you back to the stage. It seems like a dumb thing to do, going to face Punch instead of running far away from him, but the samurai has it all figured out. Every step you take feels like you’re one step closer to getting stabbed by a sword sharp enough to cut a blade of grass in two top-to-bottom.
From a distance, the audience seems like a faded diorama, like a clumsily-built art project. The solitude is immense, broken only by the jovial El Daishou, who mutters and points out various sights visible from the rim of the backstage platform. There is the Tree of Life. Here is the Sacred Mountain. The stage boards are cut from hinoki wood that had been torn by rain; all of them are prayed for by Buddhist priests, and they’ve since been replanted. Leaping, you are beside him, following to the shadowy corner of backstage.
Along the hashigakari.
El Daishou spreads sandy pebbles over the center of the stage.
Where is Punch? He isn’t here. Has he vanished into the audience, or crept behind the crushed paper screens of stage left?
El Daishou gives you a hand gesture. You look at him, then at the samurai’s hidden thumbs-up. Ohhh. Glancing nightward, you see a dark shape standing on the arches above. El Daishou shakes his head just a little, and you look away.
“The end of the show. The last hurrah.
We must prepare for the finale!
Collect for me a rope, a bucket, a mop-end
And the largest piece of paper you can find.
That should be enough for a dazzling display.
The Grand High Hat-Bearer shuffles downstage toward the audience. Center stage, he shoos you away with his fingers and begins dancing on the pebbles, a foot-sliding softshoe dance. It sounds like maracas. You figure he means for you to go off by yourself again, to go on a treasure hunt for the things he mentioned, although you don’t really want to, not with deadly Punch balancing above your head. Those items shouldn’t be too hard to find, however. Rope, bucket, mop-end, and a large piece of paper.
Jogging offstage, you wonder where a rope could be. The Noh theater doesn’t have a curtain to drop, so there’s no rope for curtains. Likewise the backdrop of the leafy tree doesn’t move from its spot, so there aren’t any ropes for flying scenery.
As you wander the backstage area, picking up the red bucket as you pass it, your eyes keep flicking up to the arches above the stage. You’re positive you’re being followed. A certain orange jester demon is probably swinging from the beams to the peaked roof of the hashigakari, landing softly, crawling over the shingles, descending from that huge hook—
Of course! That’s where the rope is. Every Noh stage is kept ready for “Dōjōji,” the play of the haunted temple bell. They use a rope to hang the temple bell from the hook.
So where’s the temple bell?
It isn’t in this backstage area, that’s for sure, so you circle around behind the backdrop. Could it have been sitting around this whole time, unnoticed?
But the more you think about it, the more it seems like something else is missing, too. The Noh play you were performing, of the bumbling farmer Shanne, seemed so solitary. What is it that was missing?
From the screens above you, a creak croaks.
Distant El Daishou’s soft-shoe dance makes a rhythmic swishing broom sound.
Coughs come regularly from the cardboard audience, like a slow-motion drummer.
Across the soaring black sky, night birds begin to call.
That’s what it is.
Music. You’ve been performing without music.
There must be a cabinet around the far side of the stage where the nohkan flute and the shime-daiko drums are stored. It’ll be, hmm, like a wooden toybox, probably the same yellow wood as the stage, but there’ll be a hinge or maybe a door handle, or even just a big drawer. . . .
Here’s the far side of the stage. You’ve never seen the audience from this side before. They all look different from the other direction, as if they all had another side they’d kept hidden because you never went looking for it.
“What are you doing here?
Don’t you know this is my private secret thinking spot?
Why don’t you go back to your own side,
Invader, sullier, nasty nuisance?”
Columbia’s back is pressed to the criscrossed frame under the stage. Her arms are wrapped around her knees. She doesn’t seem sensational or magnificent here. She looks lonely. She looks like she needs a friend, or maybe a hug. Her tropical bird hat sits unattended beside her.
But there isn’t time for pleasantries. El Daishou can only distract Punch for so long, if he’s distracting him at all. Instead of trying to show off for Columbia, instead of giving her a hug, you say:
“Do you know where the temple bell is stored?
And the rope for it, and all the musical instruments?
I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.
I bet you prefer your privacy.”
Columbia casts a baleful eye up at you. Maybe she doesn’t care. Maybe she hates you. Maybe there’s no hope.
“I know where they are. There’s a big cabinet under the stage.
Why do you need them? What’s wrong?
Do you need help? I like people who need help.
Tell me. Just make sure it’s the truth.”
Lightly she leaps and lands on her feet. Expectantly she looks to see what you’ll say.
The truth is, you swore you’d kill her best friend. Even if you aren’t actually going to kill Punch, you’re definitely going to have him taken to the police as soon as the Understudy gets back. She won’t like the idea that her best friend is going to be arrested, will she? Lying might be the safer answer. You could say you’re planning a surprise parade and need the instruments. Or that you want to know how the bell sounds when it tolls. You could say . . .
This could be your last chance before the finale to be her new best friend. You know what she likes. She likes people who need her help. She said so. And you do need her help. Maybe she didn’t like Punch’s stories after all. Maybe she just liked having a friend. And now she has a better one.
“I’m here to capture Punch. El Daishou’s with me.
Punch attacked my friends, so I had to help.
Will you help, too? You don’t have to.
But Punch will kill me for standing up to him.”
Columbia seems to draw in all the breath in the world, and the universe seems to shrink around her. You’ve shocked her. Is she angry at you? Does she hate you? She takes a step back.
“How do I know?”
she says, crossing her arms.
“How do I know he’s out to get you?
What if Punch is the hero, the good guy, the protagonist
And you’re the real villain?”
So you say:
“Come with me. Watch him. See his villainy.
Help me find the things I need.
I’m not lying. But if I am, you’ll see.
And if I’m right, you’ll know I’m a good friend.”
Columbia smooshes up her lips, thinking. Then she nods and says she’ll come with you.
On this side of the stage the soft earth forms a bit of a valley. The underneath of the stage is deeper here, with more criscrosses and room for a large cabinet. As you help her pull open the heavy black cabinet door, you could swear you hear creaks from the beams above you, as if someone were standing on top of them.
When you look up, there’s nothing.
Inside the cabinet you find a coil of very thick rope, as thick as your wrist, thick enough to hold up a giant bronze bell. Columbia helps you lift the rope up and coil it around your shoulder. The only things you have left to find now are the mop head and a sheet of paper. You can’t imagine what El Daishou needs them for.
You tell this to Columbia, adding that maybe the bell and instruments could come in handy. She could distract Punch with the drums. And the bell is easily big enough to hide under if you needed to. She leaves the bell and the nohkan flute behind. The wind makes sad music as it blows across the mouthpiece. In her free hand she grabs the braided straps of the two big drums, and drumsticks for good measure, and swings them over her shoulder. She’s strong.
The mop head should be where you left it, under the stage, you tell her. Together you make your way around the back.
Here it is. Almost done.
But a shadow crosses your path as you stoop to put the handful of white yarn into the bucket.
Clawed feet, a black jester’s motley, and a grinning orange face.
But Punch doesn’t speak in his slivery, slinky voice. The voice that comes out is yours—almost. It sounds like your voice if you were trying hard to sound like a really tough boy, then forced through a big tin can on a string.
“What’s going on? Why are you picking up trash?
Are you going to recycle those? Can I help?
I like helping. It’s my favorite thing.
Why, looky there—are you going to be playing music?”
Punch’s wheedling real voice hisses in your mind’s ear: Look what I can do. I sound as nice as you. She’ll believe everything I tell her. I’ll never give myself away.
Columbia gives you a look like she’s starting to doubt you. She thinks you’re a liar, and it makes you angry. You want to prove you were telling the truth. But you can’t, because Punchinoni clearly overheard you and figured out how to trick her. He’s playing games.
If you call him a liar, Columbia will get mad at you again. Maybe it would be better to pretend he’s telling the truth. That’ll buy you some time, anyways.
“Why yes, my friend Punch. It’s the finale!
There’s going to be lights! Music!
Why don’t you come join Columbia and I?
It’ll be a lot of fun.”
Actually, that’s perfect. If Punch goes along with you, then he won’t be a threat. He won’t risk shocking his friend. And if he doesn’t agree to come, he’ll look like a bad guy.
Punch rolls off the stage and lands beside you two.
“Why, I’d be delighted to!
Punch gives those last two words a nasty extra kick, although Columbia doesn’t seem to notice. The two follow you backstage. In your hand is the red bucket, in the bucket is the mop head, and around your shoulder is the coil of rope.
Since both you and Columbia have your hands full, you ask Punch to help out and tear out the paper from one of the paper screens. Blazing orange eyes twist to look at the audience just around the corner, then at the flower-patterned paper between you and them.
“Tear the paper?”
“Let the audience see me?
Here, backstage, where I need not be an actor?
Is Punch scared? Bashful? Does he need his privacy? Is he self-conscious? Is this Punch’s weakness—all the watching people?
Can you use Punch’s weakness against him?
“Don’t be silly, my friend Punch!
They like to see you.
Why, the more they see you,
The happier they’ll be!”
Tentatively a claw touches the paper screen. Gently it scratches down, and in four rectangle slices the flower-printed paper tilts and comes away. Punch’s expression changes as multitudes of cardboard audience members peer through at him. He hides from them, wrapping himself up in the paper like a shy birthday present. Were those whimpers of fear?
Through the open paper screen a white shape flies. Punch lets out a screech, which turns to a snarl as the red pom-poms of Pierrot appear. The clown has somersaulted through the new paper window. The demon seems nervous, having to pretend to be a friend. The clown unfolds and bows to Columbia, then to the demon. His long nightcap flaps like droopy antennae.
“How strange. Our ennemis become amis
And dreams of tomorrow fade into plain real life.
Once, we were each all alone. Now we are together.
What a story our days can be.”
Unexpectedly, big wet tears fall from the stars in Pierrot’s painted eyes. You can’t seem to bring yourself to ask him why he weeps. Perhaps there’s no answer. Perhaps tears are their own answer, sometimes. The clown’s makeup streaks, revealing the human skin beneath. With a shiver Pierrot pulls himself together and begins to play his mother-of-pearl concertina.
“There is no time for tears,”
Pierrot tells you as the music moans.
“There is no time for hiding.
There is only now. The last act. The last hurrah.
The finale of our show.”
Act III, Scene One
There seems to be a parade behind you and a stage ahead of you. Carrying the things El Daishou asked for, plus the musical instruments, you and your trio of associates face the hashigakari, accompanied by Pierrot’s quick breathless accordion music. Behind you a red light flashes, signalling your cue.
It’s time to finish the show.
From the audience—or the tape player—comes wild applause. The four of you cross the bridge and line up onstage, waiting for El Daishou, ready for whatever comes next.
A muffled, vaguely familiar voice rings out through a public address system:
“Please welcome to our stage . . . Shanne the Peasant!”
That’s you, so you step forward. Out of nowhere, the wooden smile mask, newly repaired with sticky glue, comes flying like a frisbee. Dropping the bucket quickly, you catch the mask and slip the elastic over your head. Once again you fall into character, hunching and waddling. Acting.
The red bucket lands, clack. From inside, a bloodstained knife bounces onto the stage and slides to a sticky red rest with a clatter. Before you can comment, the voice continues:
“Columbia the Princess!”
More applause. A black Venetian half-mask spins through the air. Distracted, Columbia squeaks as she catches it inches from her face. She sets the tub-shaped shime-daiko drums down and puts the mask on, poking her nose with a drumstick as she does. Is she nervous, too?
“Pierrot the Clown!”
A rainbow-haired clown mask with a big red smile and red foam nose lands on Pierrot’s concertina. Reluctantly wiping his tears away and smudging his greasepaint, he pulls the mask on and becomes a happy circus clown. Weeping eyes peer through the smiling eyeholes.
“And Punchinoni the Devil!”
Punch hands off his sheet of flowery paper to Columbia and picks up the Understudy’s split wooden mask covered with blood, identical to his own face. It fits his long nose like a glove, and drips red. Sticky.
“The four suspects in—‘The Murder Mystery!’ “
All four of you freeze and exchange looks. What murder mystery? And who said you were a suspect?
Everyone knows who committed the murder. Punch did it. Who else could it be? Why this masked farce? What’s going on?
“Playing the part of the Judge, Jury and Executioner
Please welcome the great El Daishou!”
The cardboard crowd explodes with applause.
El Daishou shuffles onstage, leaning on the old mop handle like a walking stick. Still hatless and wearing a red babushka shawl tied under his chin, he bows again and again to the wildly cheering audience. His long wispy mustache hangs down to the buttons of his too-small admiral’s jacket. Somehow the stage winds up covered with roses. But the audience is cardboard. Where did the roses come from?
The samurai peers down his imperious nose at you and asks for the mop head. Glancing at the bloody knife, you hand him the bundle of yarn, expecting him to reattach it to the mop. Instead El Daishou unties his red bandanna, tucks it into a pocket, and deftly drapes the mop’s bundle of yarn over his head like an old-time judge’s powdered wig. He shuffles over to a chair upstage and sits, his face surmounted by a tremendous pair of eyebrows and the mop wig. Behind him, the brushstrokes of the painted tree take on an ominous character, as if the tree has become the Tree of Judgment or something.
“Assemble the victim!”
El Daishou declares.
You and Pierrot and Punch all share looks. What does he mean?
“Honestly, give them here,”
She wraps the lavender-colored paper around the mop handle, ties the rope around it, and sets the bucket on top, tying the swinging metal bucket handle in place. It’s now a doll representing Quinn. It seems morbid, doesn’t it? But Columbia seems to know what she’s doing. She sets the mop doll upright into one of the saber-slashes in the stage, beside the bloody knife.
El Daishou nods. He produces four ragged dogeared scripts with most of the pages folded back. In yours, lines marked Shanne are highlighted in green Hi-Liter. El Daishou takes one last glance over your shoulder to double-check his own lines, then drops heavily back into his chair.
“The suspects are assembled. The victim is assembled.
I declare our trial begun! We’ll find out what happened,
Where the missing girl is. We’ll hear all your stories.
Recount what you saw.”
Immediately Punch leaps forward and points to you.
“We all know who the culprit is!
I saw Shanne bending over the poor victim
Knife in hand! Vile murderer!
You were the last to see her—
Weren’t you? She gave you your mask.
And the knife was in your bucket!
You two had a conflict
Over a haystack or a horse, no doubt.
There’s no doubt at all!”
Taking the mop doll and the knife, Punch demonstrates how you probably stabbed Quinn.
you shout, not bothering to follow the script.
“It wasn’t that way at all. Quinn is my friend.
Yes, she gave me my mask and pitchfork.
We were getting ready for the show.
Then she disappeared. Vanished.
The next time I saw her, you’d stabbed her to death!
Your honor, it was Punch!
He confessed to the murder in earshot of the Understudy!
Just ask him. The Understudy can tell you.”
El Daishou makes a big show of looking up and down the stage, shielding his eyes with a hand.
“I see no such person.
Should he turn up,
We’ll be sure to hear his testimony.
Next, Pierrot steps forward, perusing his script.
“Pierrot sees only the moon, Your Honor.
Nothing on this stage can distract him from her white perfection.
Pierrot has noticed no murder at all.
Perhaps it never happened.
But Pierrot can speak of Shanne’s character.
Though simple, Shanne hurts no one.
Though slow, Shanne has a good heart.
So it cannot be Shanne’s hand that committed murder.”
Pierrot tangos down the stage with the mop and then lets it rest against El Daishou’s chair.
Now Columbia steps forward and curtsies to the judge and to the audience. She flips through her script and clears her throat.
“A proud princess like me can’t be bothered to care.
I was busy when I was called to testify, braiding my hair
And painting my toenails and—”
But Columbia stops reading her lines and lets the script dangle from her hand and looks irritated.
“That’s not even true. What a bunch of crap.
I’m not a princess and I don’t braid my hair.
It gets tangled. I don’t think Punch killed her.
I haven’t got any proof one way or the other.”
Columbia kicks the mop doll, which slides to the floor with a clunk. El Daishou considers this.
Begin the cross-examination!”
Punch pokes you in the gut with a forefinger.
“The story is clear. Shanne killed her!
The peasant must be thrown in jail for a hundred thousand years!
We all have different versions of the story.
But I have questions, and the answers will prove me right.
But he doesn’t.
What happens instead is that the audience in the back begins to catch fire. Enormous red flames shoot from the back of the theater. Row by row, the flames begin to creep closer.
Should you run? Is the stage going to burn to the ground? Everyone onstage stops acting and looks ready to bolt, or to stop drop and roll, or to call the fire department. However, as the fire spreads and the cardboard audience burns away, you see that the seats they occupy remain untouched. The floor of the aisle is untouched. Empty seats in an empty, unburnt theater. The fire isn’t spreading after all. It’s just the cardboard cutouts of Japanese audiencegoers that are burning away.
El Daishou rises from his chair of judgment, wearing a pallid expression of shuddering, paralyzing fear. You ask him what it is, what’s happening. What’s burning up the audience?
“I know what it is,”
El Daishou murmurs to you.
“But I dare not speak of it.”
Why won’t he speak of it? Why is the audience catching fire? What’s going on here?
You turn to ask Columbia these things, but she’s run away. So has Punch. They’re down the hashigakari and out, skittering away as fast as they can sprint.
Pierrot lifts the red-mouthed circus clown mask from his eyes. The moisture from his face has steamed most of the white greasepaint off. His gloved fingers slick away sweat from his forehead, and you see that his face is not so different from your own. More boyish, perhaps, and more innocent. You’re surprised you hadn’t noticed before.
El Daishou stands beside you and rests a broad hand on your shoulder. His hand is shaking and shivering. Again you ask him what’s wrong, but he doesn’t respond.
The bursts of flame come closer, and the packed audience becomes emptier and emptier until you three are alone on the stage, unwatched by anyone. A clown, a samurai, and you.
Act III, Scene Two
Down the tiered aisle of the theater, walking with patient care, three figures approach.
In the lead is the Understudy. He holds the hand of someone you’ve never seen before. It’s a man—no, it’s a woman. Her head is shaved to the scalp. An orange robe is draped around her. On her feet, sandals; her eyes are covered by a large pair of black aviator sunglasses. Smiling, she allows the Understudy to lead her forward. Her sandals shuffle cautiously, not unlike El Daishou’s bare feet. Perhaps she is blind.
Behind her, towering over both of them and stepping forward on a long leash, is the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen.
It’s not quite as tall as a giraffe. Its neck stretches up above the flames bursting around it, making it look like it’s breathing fire. Its legs are thicker than a deer’s, thinner than a horse’s. Almost like cheetah legs. The animal’s fur is green, but not too bright, not as bright as grass. More like the color of the liquids in a chemistry set. A long tail with a tuft at the end hangs between its legs. On its long neck, a mane.
It’s a lion. A long-necked green lion.
The creature’s head, though, is different.
It looks like this:
Solid gold and round and illuminated from the inside. Too small for its body. Rays of light in eight compass points. It’s a sun, a shining sun, a real entire sun as fierce and wild and dense and destructive and wonderful as the big one in the sky. A sun, condensed to the size of a lion’s head.
The Green Lion.
The Green Lion’s paws are broad; the toes flex with each step. As it saunters past the cardboard audience on its long legs, the audience collapses into flame, leaving nothing behind. Not even ash. Just empty chairs.
The three figures stride single file up to the edge of the stage, connected by hands and leash.
El Daishou’s teeth begin to chatter, and Pierrot shields his eyes as the light of the walking sun washes the stage. The spotlights, now useless, flick off.
The Understudy climbs up the short steps to the stage. He leads the orange-robed woman up after him. The Green Lion seems content to stand in the front row and poke its sun-face in at you between the bashira columns. The yellow wood seems disinclined to burst into flames, and you wonder why.
“Look who I found!
I went looking for help and stumbled on an old hermit’s hut.
Turns out she’s the Arhat, an enlightened priestess.
She knows how to reveal a demon’s true nature!”
What a stupid boy. He didn’t go and get the police at all. He interrupted your scene, scared off your friends, Quinn’s still missing and now there’s a giraffe dragon sitting in the audience. What a—what a blockhead. That’s what he is. He’s a blockhead.
“Can’t you do anything right?
We needed the police to come and arrest Punch,
Not an Arhat, whatever that is.
And what is that thing?”
you say, pointing to the walking sun.
El Daishou and Pierrot stand pressed against the painted backdrop, as far away from the Green Lion as they can get. The Understudy looks crushed at your disapproval. Will he burst into tears again? He looks like he might.
Controlling his quavering voice, he says:
“What would the police do?
What would I tell them—a demon’s prowling the stage?
They’d laugh in my face. And I’ve had enough of that.
The Arhat and the Green Lion might even solve our problem.”
The Understudy takes a deep breath, and you figure he’s finished talking, but he keeps going.
“And anyway, aren’t I allowed to think for myself?
How come everything I do isn’t good enough?
Maybe I made the right choice
And you just don’t want to admit it.”
From beside him, the smiling bald Arhat steps forward. You hear the Arhat’s voice for the first time: grandmotherly, as if she were pouring a nice cup of tea.
“You shouldn’t be afraid of the Green Lion.
All he ever does is shine the light of truth.
If you’ve got a good heart, his light won’t hurt you.
We’ll catch that devil together.”
She gestures everyone closer, but Pierrot and El Daishou remain pressed against the back wall. Why are they so scared of the light of truth? Don’t they have good hearts? And why did Columbia run away with Punch?
The Green Lion lets out a rolling growl and leaps onto the stage. Surprised, the clown slips off his feet and lands on his butt. Snivelling El Daishou merely faces down the beast with as much bravery as his quivering lower lip can muster.
Bowing its head under the high arches, the Green Lion steps toward the two poor cowering players.
The shining light reaches them.
El Daishou’s costumes burst into flame, scouring away in an instant. He is not an admiral. He isn’t a general. He wasn’t ever a ninja, a swami, an Ottoman Turk, a samurai, a Chinese peasant, an old English judge, or a geisha. Those were all costumes. Disguises, even.
All that’s left is a pair of starched pinstripe trousers and an actor’s black t-shirt. He’s just an old man. Even his long mustache fizzes away off his face, revealing actor’s glue. His face is that of an aging actor past his prime. He has a droopy, lined physiognomy.
Pierrot, on the other hand, becomes young, young, young. The greasepaint is blown back from the front of his face but doesn’t burn away. His skin emerges underneath. A ring of white paint encircles his face, catching on his hair and ears, and behind the comedy and tragedy is a kid, not too different from any other kid. The laughter, the tears—they weren’t lies, it seems, but they aren’t the whole truth either. There is a deeper truth behind the clown face.
“I had hoped,”
El Daishou murmurs,
“That I could live the rest of my life
Wearing the disguise I had chosen.
I’m an old man—too old to choose a new disguise.”
He looks so tired. Taking one shaking step at a time, he finds the chair through the blazing light, sits, and buries his face in his hands. The Arhat provides him with a grandmotherly smile.
“There is no need to disguise yourself.
Here is what you are.”
El Daishou weeps. The Arhat smiles.
Pierrot’s naked face peeks out through the clown’s costume.
“It is in the nature of a fool to be seen,”
“But not to be seen as we truly are.
We clowns cloak ourselves in emotion.
We hide ourselves inside the smiles of others.”
The clown curls up inside his baggy white suit and hides under his puffball sleeping cap. His costume hasn’t burned away. It must be part of who he really is.
says the elderly Arhat, clasping her hands,
“Let’s find ourselves a demon to burn.”
She laughs in a way that you find unnerving, takes the Green Lion’s leash, and leads it down the hashigakari. The Understudy seems confused when the blind, sunglasses-wearing Arhat lets go of his hand and strides off purposefully down the bridge without anyone to lead her. The Green Lion ducks under the bridge’s beams and they are gone.
“How can she find her way? She’s blind,”
the Understudy says.
“And her laugh was creepy.
And what she said—”
El Daishou has risen from his weeping. He stands before the two of you. Raising a long shaking veined hand, he gives the Understudy a firm slap.
“In your desire to be recognized, you have become too trusting,”
the actor says.
“In your desire to impress us, you’ve brought disaster.
In your desire to take pride in yourself, you’ve forgotten—
Pride is always a sin.”
The Understudy says he doesn’t understand. Now Pierrot speaks:
“Monsieur, don’t you know who is this ‘Arhat?’
She is no enlightened priestess.
The Green Lion does not shine truth. That is a lie.
Such a creature shines only a point of view,
Burning up anything that cannot be proven.
It is not with hermits that we find salvation—
For what good is being alone?
Only when we immerse ourselves in others
Can we find truth.”
El Daishou says more:
“The Green Lion destroys anything that cannot be touched.
Its light is death to all lies. But the theater is a lie. So is music.
As the maestro of painting, Picasso, said:
‘Art is a lie that reveals the truth.’ “
The Understudy looks stunned.
“So now we have two monsters to deal with?
She lied to me. Even though the Green Lion was shining on her.
I didn’t know. I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid.
I just can’t do anything right.”
He looks like he wants to punch his own face. As much as you’re tired of being nice to him, you pat his shoulder and say that it’ll be okay.
“It’s the four of us against three monsters,”
“I don’t know what Columbia will decide to do.
But we can figure this out together.
Are you two in?”
The old actor and the clown both nod. The Understudy grimaces. First you’ll need a plan—
“Hey, you. Just a second. There’s five of us.”
Who—who said that? It came over the Public Address system, slightly tinny but familiar—
“Thought I was dead, didn’t you?”
It’s your friend Quinn. She’s back!
Disguising her voice, she’s been announcing the “Murder Mystery” play! Quinn, up in the control booth the whole time. Your best friend. The one person in the world you totally trust, totally relate to, who’s down-to-earth and who tells you the whole unvarnished truth. Quinn. You didn’t even realize how much you missed her. When she’s around, everything’s great. But when she’s gone, you get all tangled up. You’ve needed a real friend, someone you know all about.
Now she’s back.
“I’m up in the control booth. I’ll be the director.
The murder mystery’s been solved, but now we’ve got monsters!
First we need to corner the unnatural ones. The Green Lion and Punch.
One who burns away lies and one who creates them.”
That’s exactly what you’ve been missing.
So far, you’ve been blundering through the story, doing your best to play your part, taking whatever mask you’ve been given, tossing it aside, and meeting people when they turn up. But how much easier to know what’s going to happen next! And besides, Quinn’s trusty. You’ve got a director now, and you’ve got to bring Punch and the Green Lion onstage together.
“Here’s the plan. Punch can’t resist music.
Play him a song he can dance to. Meanwhile,
Tell the Arhat you’ve found Punch.
Hop to it!”
Quinn directs El Daishou and Pierrot to sit behind the shime-daiko drums. Pierrot’s accordion sits nearby, but he follows Quinn’s instructions. That’s what directors are for. In unison they pick up drumsticks, the clown and the actor, and play a song of fierce warriors dancing. Since his Japanese headband is burned away, El Daishou takes his shawl from his pocket, twirls it, and ties it as a red bandanna around his forehead. Pierrot likewise ties his white nightcap around his forehead, then takes a slipper off and sets the slipper on his head as a replacement hat. Red pom-poms flop over his eyes. Four sturdy bachi clubs strike the drumheads hand-over-hand.
You lead the Understudy backstage. When you look over your shoulder, empty seats stare back at you like brown holes in the theater. Without an audience watching you, you don’t feel nearly so brave. You feel mousy and incomplete. A stage isn’t much good without an audience. Now whom will you be reading your lines for?
Walking to the sound of Japanese drums, you and the Understudy drop onto the scented grass and begin looking. But it isn’t hard to spot the Green Lion—a circle of light illuminates the slope of the mountain. Its light seems to burn away the black night, turning it pale yellow-blue, like a streetlight in the fog. Instead of a magical evening of wonder, the Green Lion makes the world a collection of atoms and molecules. Where there was a mountain, there is a geological formation. Where there were stars, there are nuclear reactions. Where there was the moon, there is lifeless dusty stone.
The dreams of beauty were lies, too.
The Understudy takes your hand and you walk with him toward the orange-robed woman in sunglasses. Smiling placidly, she pulls on the leash and turns the Green Lion toward you. The golden sun shines on your face. As you are bathed in unnatural sunlight, you realize you’re just a collection of cells, body parts, hair follicles, sebaceous glands, surrounded by fabric. The Understudy’s face looks oily and awkward in the harsh light. The Arhat nods to you, and you tell her what Quinn told you to say:
“We know where the demon is.
He’s attracted to music. He’ll head to the stage.
We can corner him with the Lion.
The Arhat looks up at her pet monster, her sunglasses reflecting the glare like a pair of car headlights, then looks back at you.
“A stage—nothing more than a home for lies.
Boards and planks, all built to show off fake people
Acting out things that never happened
For people who aren’t even real.”
But you need to bring the Arhat and her sunny lion to the stage. That’s what Quinn, the director, told you to do.
“If the stage is a lie,
Why didn’t the Green Lion burn it up?
It must have some truth. Some reality.
Surely it’s more real than the audience.”
A strange expression crosses the Arhat’s face. Her heavenly nirvana seems to storm over. The Arhat is angry.
“The human heart should be a prison cell.
Feelings belong locked up, not out in the open.
The Green Lion shows the world
Without emotions, as it should be.”
That’s nonsense. You know it is. The heart shouldn’t lock things up. The heart should feel. Who ever heard of a heart that couldn’t feel?
“The director told us to come get you,”
the Understudy says.
“I don’t know where you’re going,
But we’re trying to stop the demon.
Won’t you join us?”
He points back at the empty wooden structure, squeezing your hand absentmindedly.
The Arhat shakes her head. Her straight finger points toward the path up the mountain. Red torii arches define the path.
says the Arhat.
“Phony arches. They say
That torii mark the boundary
Between the ordinary and the sacred.
I want to prove them wrong.
You two run back to your stage full of lies.
I’ll burn the demon up
After I’m finished with these Shinto angels.”
It’s hard to imagine why someone would be so eager to burn up the furniture, whether it’s sacred or not. The Arhat doesn’t seem so placid after all. It seems like underneath her tranquil eyes lurk a lot of emotions. She probably locks them up in her heart, like she said. Why does she pretend those feelings don’t exist? That seems like the biggest lie here.
The Understudy pulls you away from the crazy green monster and the crazier orange-robed woman and you run back together toward the stage of lies. Are you just going to wait around for the Arhat? What else can you do?
The sound of drumming grows louder.
You two slide down a slope of green grass, relishing being out of the harsh light of the Green Lion’s partial reality. The stage is ahead, lit spooky crimson by misty, streaming Fresnel lights.
Visible across the hashigakari, a long shadow made of claws is prancing like a maniac. Running in place, leaping, a black scar in the bloodbath of floodlights, the shadow stretches out past the stage onto the grass. Punchinoni cares not at all whether he is watched, now. Punchinoni doesn’t care, doesn’t think. Punchinoni dances.
The Understudy takes a deep breath, looks you in the eye, and says,
“I want to dance, too. I’ll wear the Punch mask.
I can outdance Punch. We can keep him occupied
Until we finish the job the director gave us.
Would—would you dance with me?”
The partly-broken Punch mask is here backstage. Punch must have taken it off when the Arhat arrived. The Understudy pulls it on, and the split closes shut over his face. The zucchini nose points at you.
He holds out his hand.
Would you dance with him?
Well, would you?
No one will tell you what to do.
The choice is up to you.
Act III, Scene Three
Now it is a half hour later. The Understudy’s dance is over. The drumming still continues, but only as a low patter.
The Arhat finally leads the Green Lion up on stage.
“You’ve come back from your visit to the torii,”
the Understudy says to her.
“Where the ordinary meets the sacred.
You don’t look too happy.
Did the arches burn up, the way you thought they would?”
The Arhat smiles hard and does not reply. Punch looks ready to run away again, but El Daishou and Pierrot speed up the drumming, and Punch snarls and dances faster. He looks tired.
Pulling firmly on the leash, the Arhat advances. Punch’s scurrying goblin dance takes him to the boundary of stage left, the place where a small Noh chorus might sit. The jester presses against the solid wall, casting black shadows, deeper than night. The Green Lion’s terrible light floods across the stage as it approaches. The beast’s footsteps make no sound, no sound, no sound.
“You think a two-bit alchemist can destroy me?
Am I a lie? Am I a belief?
Try to stop believing in me. I’ll stab you!
Pretending you haven’t got any demons
Only makes them stronger!”
Quinn switches off the red floodlights, and the stage takes on the hollow, empty glow of the Lion’s light. The stylized sun-face is expressionless. The Arhat snarls with glee. She seems consumed with hate for Punch and for all demons. The drumming continues, casting its dancing spell over Punch. His feet move to the rhythm uncontrollably, even as he whimpers and cowers. The light closes in on the demon. You almost feel sorry for him.
You hold your breath. The Understudy is beside you. Punch speaks.
“The stage is my home.
It’s where I can be myself.
Audiences ahead and privacy behind.
If you’re going to hunt me
I want to be hunted here.
The stage is my home.”
Behind you, the brush painting of the tree catches fire—not the wood, not even the paint, but inside the painting. Red and orange and yellow brush strokes dance across the green tree in time with the drumming. By the time the Green Lion’s light moves on, the painting of the tree is only a painting of ashes.
White and blue painted wind rolls across the backdrop, and the tree is gone completely.
You feel anger. The Arhat tromps anywhere she wants to, and behind her, wreckage follows. The stage is empty of art or costumes, and soon Punch will be gone, too.
Sandalled footsteps press on.
The gruesome sunlight touches Punch.
You expect screams. You expect him to curl up, to shrivel, to boil, to burn. None of these things happens.
Instead, a thousand Punches stretch behind Punch, burning a Punch-shaped hole through the wall like an old cartoon. Shadows of cackling demons become whole and scatter across the lawn. Dozens, then hundreds, splattering out where Punch blocks the light. Shadows growing realer even as they hide and cringe away from the glare. The light of truth, the light that reveals a demon’s true nature—well, it’s revealing something. From Punch’s shadow, a thousand more of him leap into the night and scamper away. Setting her teeth, the Arhat pulls the Green Lion closer, but this only makes a denser shadow. More and more dark demons spring from it.
“I am real,”
“Look as hard as you like.
You want to reveal my true nature? This is it.
I am wicked, I am myself, and I am inside you.”
Punch leaps, his long zucchini nose wobbling. He pushes himself through the harsh light, strobing and flashing until he is nose-to-nose with the Arhat.
A hooked claw points to her heart.
The Arhat shivers and shakes. Her body squeezes and twists inside her orange robes. She coughs.
A snap of light, so bright that it outshines the Green Lion’s blazing sun.
Instead of orange robes, the Arhat wears an orange jester’s outfit. Her nose stretches and her fingers grow and her skin turns as orange as her robe used to be. The outfit fades to black and white.
Gone. The Arhat is gone, and now there is another Punchinoni.
“When we ignore what hides in our hearts,”
this new Punch recites,
“We are at risk of turning into it.
Hide your monsters and become a monster.
Pretend you have no demons, and you become one.”
All the remaining Punches, including the original one and this new one, scamper out through the hole in the wall and into the night. The Green Lion remains, looking ambivalent, like a farmyard goat.
“That’s one of our villains down!”
calls out Quinn from her control booth.
“Next we need to get rid of the Lion.
I’ve got an idea of how to do it.
First we’ll need that paper doll version of me.”
The prop isn’t far from here. El Daishou tossed it off the hashigakari onto the grass when he got scared—
a familiar voice interrupts.
“First we need the big bell from the play, ‘Dōjōji.’
It’s called the tsukuri-mono. We need it.
I’ve got a plan of my own.”
Columbia is back. She’s not wearing her flowery hat. Instead, her hair covers one eye, as if she’s halfway hiding from the world. As she steps onto the stage, the Green Lion’s light hits her flower garden dress and the colors burn away to black. Just like Pierrot, beneath all her makeup and colors she seems sad and lonely. It was just another disguise.
“Director speaking. Go get them both.
We need the rope from the murder doll
To lift up the bell. Then we need the bell.
Then we can show the Green Lion who’s boss.
P.S. I am,”
says Quinn over the intercom.
Columbia sniffs. She doesn’t seem to like being told what to do. Rolling her eyes, she grabs El Daishou and Pierrot and the Understudy to help her carry the bell, and snaps her fingers at you and points at the murder doll.
Funny. You don’t like it when Columbia tells you what to do. Even though you wanted to be her friend so, so, so much.
Go get the paper doll.
How does it feel to be told what to do?
The handrail of the hashigakari is only a few feet off the ground. Jump over it. Land on the grass, where the footlights cast a long, bridge-shaped shadow. Here is the flowery paper, the mop handle, the bucket, the long, strong rope, wrapped into a doll. Lift it. It doesn’t weigh as much as it looks, although the rope trails behind you and drags along the ground. Return to the stage. It’s not too high off the ground.
That’s what the director told you to do. It’s what Columbia told you to do.
The Green Lion on its thin legs seems content to stand in the middle of the stage, turning its head from time to time. Without the Arhat, the creature doesn’t have anywhere to go. When the paper doll reaches the Lion’s light, the paper, the mop handle, the bucket, and the rope all fly apart like a broken spring-powered mechanical whatsit.
A doll is just another lie. But rope, paper, bucket, mop handle? Those things are perfectly real.
The intercom buzzes.
“Good job. They need help carrying the bell now.
Oh, and you’re not playing Shanne anymore.
Your new character is the temple priest.
Unless you want to give the Understudy a chance to be the lead . . . ?”
Well, you’ve been the main character once already. It would be selfish to play it again, even if Quinn did choose you for the part. Are you willing to step aside and let someone else play the most important part? Or will you hog it all for yourself?
Are you selfish?
Well, are you?
“Go ahead and cast the Understudy in the main part.
I think he’s good enough. I’ll play the temple assistant.”
And you hurry off into the night.
Around the side of the stage, in the culvert where you and Columbia first found the musical instruments, Columbia struggles with something inside the open cabinet. Pierrot in his saggy white pajamas and mustacheless El Daishou in his black t-shirt brace their feet against the hillside and heave. A green-bronze Japanese bell shaped like a torpedo slides halfway out of the drawer.
Go and help.
Lift the bell. Stand next to Columbia, place your feet firmly on the slick gravely grass, and pull. Feel the old, old metal, the turtleshell-texture, how cold it is. It’s cold enough to freeze your hand, at first, but as you brace your feet and pull and push and lean and shift it up and over the cabinet’s rim, it warms up.
The girl in the long black dress skids on the gravel. She slides into you as the bell finally rolls out of the drawer. Depositing the heavy weight on the ground a little too fast, you catch Columbia as she re-finds her feet.
“This was my idea,”
“I don’t need a boss or a director to tell me what to do.
I’m smarter than Quinn. I’ve got plans of my own.
We need to perform ‘Dōjōji’ to repel the Green Lion.
It might be better for her to say those things to Quinn in person, instead of behind Quinn’s back. Communicating is a good thing to do, especially when you have to work together. But Quinn’s up in the control room, and you’re down here, and Columbia is steaming mad. It wouldn’t be gossiping just to tell her that Quinn is your friend and that she doesn’t mean any harm, would it?
“I’m sure she’d like to be friends with you,”
“She’s just trying to fix everything.
I know she respects you and your plans.
I’m glad you and Quinn both have good ideas.”
In the darkness beyond the stage lights and Fresnel lamps, all you can really see are the reflections of Columbia’s eyes. She is angry, full of hurt. She says nothing.
Pierrot catches your eye and shakes his head. You can almost imagine what he’s thinking: Ah, the difference between what we expect of people and how they actually are, my ami.
Ask not for whom the bell rolls. It rolls for you. With five people behind it, it climbs the low hill easily, although you figure pushing it up onto the stage might be tough. The Understudy takes charge of the rolling, and Columbia throws her hands in the air grumpily and lets him. Instead she walks back to the drawer and roots around in it. She returns with a block-and-tackle pulley.
The bell is safely rolling without you. Go and stand beside Columbia, so she doesn’t feel so alone.
The field is thick with Punchinonis. You can feel it. They gambol and plot and play terrible tricks. But somehow Punchinoni doesn’t seem so dangerous when Columbia’s around. You want to take her hand, but you don’t. The moon’s presence returns, now that the Lion’s nasty light is mostly blocked out by the stage’s arches. Overcoming, the moon gives off a faint white reminder that it still shines. Along the rim of the stage, the scamper of clawed feet.
In the moonlight, you see that the green surface of the tsukuri-mono bell is decorated with kanji characters and three embossed pictures: A temple, a woman in a kimono, and a dragon. You see the three pictures repeating as it rolls: Temple, woman, dragon.
A sustained push, all together, and the bell is onstage.
One of the Punches is here. Weary. Probably the original. Leaning against a bashira column, he looks tired of the clinical, alchemical light that fills the stage. Punch thrives on lies and mystery.
The weird viridian animal snuffs and paws at the ground. Exactly how will a performance of an old play destroy the Green Lion? There must be a reason why both Quinn and Columbia had it in mind—
“The part of the temple priest
Will be played by the Understudy
In tonight’s performance. Columbia
Will play the dancing girl. Everyone else is
Attendants or drums. Punch will introduce and narrate,”
“Let’s show the Lion what truth really looks like!”
Tired Punch takes the rope and the pulleys in his teeth and uses his claws to climb up the bashira columns to the central arch. Threading a frayed rope-tip through the block-and-tackle, he bombs down to the floor, pulling the rope after him. Columbia helps him tie it to the bell.
The bell is on the ground. The pulley is in the air.
Time for the show.
There are no masks this time—they’ve all burned away. You’ll have to break one of the prime rules of Noh: always play the character represented by your mask. You can’t, not now. You’re not really the temple priest’s attendant. You’re you.
Luckily, you’ve studied under El Daishou. You know how to lie.
Now the plan starts to make sense. You’re going to tell lies to the Green Lion. Maybe that’ll make him explode—or maybe it’ll make YOU explode instead. Guess you’ll find out.
Columbia grabs the beast’s dangling leash and pulls it. It takes two reluctant giraffe-steps to stage left. It refuses to go farther, but it’s enough room to perform the play.
Again El Daishou and Pierrot content themselves with drums. Rhythmic, syncopated clunk clunk clunks begin to ring out.
You take your place at the back of the stage, where the painted tree used to be. Columbia dashes across the hashigakari and vanishes backstage. She can be glimpsed through the window where Punch cut out a square of paper screen. Punch and the Understudy step forward. They share a harsh, narrowed-eye glance. Like you, they are professionals. Even the orange-skinned demon knows he has a role to play. And they danced together once.
Act IV, Scene One
Punch clears his throat and begins.
“Dōjōji. A Buddhist temple on the coast of Japan.
For a hundred years it has had no bell.
Today, a new bell has arrived from the bellmakers.
Why has the belltower been vacant?
Why does the head priest look so concerned?
And what happened to the old bell anyway?”
The Understudy steps forward and assumes the stooped, dignified posture of an old Japanese priest.
“Today is the day! The new bell is here.
Assistant, help me to lift it into the belfry.”
That’s you. Scurry ahead; your character has young legs and more enthusiasm than wisdom. You are, in your mind, wearing robes that flap as you walk. Shuffle to the rope. Help him lift the bell.
Somehow, the silence of the empty seats becomes huge and oppressive, like reading a new declaration of war in the news. There’s no audience. No one’s watching your performance. No one cares.
How can you put on a show when no one cares?
But that isn’t quite true.
Quinn cares. She’ll be your audience today. You can’t even see her up in the control booth, but she’s the only audience you’ve really got. Might as well show off to her a little bit. Play up how foolish and young the attendant is. Play the character. You’re a good actor, and you know how to make up characters even though you’re not wearing a mask.
Quinn is a good enough audience. She cares about you, and you care about her.
Together with the Understudy—the temple priest, that is—you hoist the bell into place and tie the thick rope to the wooden column.
The temple priest continues:
“The most important thing to remember
Is that no women are allowed near the temple
During this dedication ceremony. Send them away!
The bell must be entirely free of women.”
It isn’t fair to leave women out, obviously. But your character is an obedient young man from old Japan, and he’ll agree with whatever the head priest tells him without asking questions.
“I’ll say the dedication prayers. Guard the gates for me,”
the temple priest tells you.
He begins a long string of Japanese prayers. Hand drums play. It’s your job now to skip foolishly to the bridge and make sure no girls get through.
Unless a particular girl convinces you, that is. . . .
This is how the story of “Dōjōji” goes.
In her long, burned-black dress and her still-colorful hat with a bird on it, Columbia appears at the edge of the bridge, swishing and twirling. She can’t be bothered with the traditional mincing, delicate steps of Noh dance. Instead she saunters boldly, acting as if her black dress were a suit of armor, and then she sashays, turning her black dress into a sea of dreams. One, then the other. Armor, then dreams. Tough, then delicate.
As she crosses the threshold of alchemical sunlight, her hat bursts into flame. She scowls and flings it into the blazing sun of the Green Lion, where the hat vaporizes. But she must stay in character, so she closes her eyes, reopens them, and resumes her role as the maiden of Dōjōji.
“It isn’t fair that only men get to pray today.
I’m pious! I’m Buddhist! Let me attend the ceremony.
After all, I came all the way down the coast.
Columbia winks at you, and both you and your character feel a flutter in your hearts.
“And anyway, if you let me in, I’ll dance for you.”
She bumps you with her hip. Your character looks over a shoulder at the head priest, over the other shoulder, then steps aside. Columbia sidles into the temple. The drums speed up, and the song becomes feminine and personal.
And as she dances, she moves closer and closer to the taut rope that holds up the bell. Downstage, the head priest blithely continues his prayers. You watch the maiden of “Dōjōji” dance, and in the back of your mind you wonder whether Quinn is jealous of how your character watches Columbia. Is she as jealous of you as you were of Punch? Has she been jealous this whole time? Have you unwittingly screwed up your friendship with her?
“Who is this mystery woman? Why is she here?
What sins does she carry, that she needs to pray so badly?
Has she done something wrong? Or is she just a bell enthusiast?
And why is she trying to ring the sacred bell?”
As it is with every performance of “Dōjōji,” the actor who plays the dancing maiden must be quick. She must be exact. She must be careful. She must be professional.
As the head priest continues his Buddhist litany, Columbia unties the bell. The block and tackle waggle, but they hold up the heavy bronze shape. Because of the pulleys, she doesn’t have to hold on too tight to keep the bell aloft. Her eyes point straight up as she steps backward. Her feet don’t dance anymore.
The Green Lion ignores her. It ignores everything. It shines with perfect impartiality.
In the exact center of the stage, she stands straight as a new flower stem. Holding the rope tightly, she brings her hands to her sides. Her chin is up like a soldier at attention. She takes one last look above her.
Columbia lets go of the rope.
Whistling mightily, the rope skids up and the bell flies down. The bronze torpedo sheaths Columbia and thumps into the stage. The nightingale floor lets out a shuddering boom. Columbia is gone. In her place is an iron maiden embossed in kanji characters and three pictures: Temple, woman, dragon.
It went perfectly.
Now the Green Lion notices. The nuclear sun turns to look at the bell. Its light seems to quaver like a sine wave, as if it’s thinking. Brighter and weaker and brighter and weaker. But the disappearance of the maiden has not defeated it, merely drawn its interest.
There is a lie here, and the monster wants to burn up the lie. But it’s hidden under a bell.
Turning dramatically, the head priest scolds you:
“A woman! A woman in our temple?
What have you allowed to happen?”
“I apologize, your holiness. It’s true, a woman came.
She made some very good arguments. So I let her in.
I throw myself at your feet! Clearly I made a mistake.
Why aren’t women allowed during the dedication ceremony anyway?”
Like a curious elk, the Green Lion takes a few cautious steps forward, flexing its toes and bending its neck. Watching. Now your audience has doubled in size. Why not show off your acting chops for Quinn and for the Lion? Throw yourself into a Japanese kowtow, weep and beg for forgiveness. You are a temple attendant who screwed up.
The head priest turns up his nose in disgust at you.
“You disgust me! Miserable fool! Insolent wretch!
Do you have any idea why women were banned?
A terrible thing happened here a hundred years ago.
Do you want to hear the story?”
The drumline changes, a new rhythm, a new beat for a new part of the story. Nod vigorously. You want to hear the story of the terrible thing. The head priest begins to pace the stage.
“The cherry blossoms had just fallen, and the tide washed the shore.
A girl watched from the village gate as a penitent priest walked by
To and fro, praying the Buddhist rosary and blessing everyone he met.
The priest was young and very handsome.”
The head priest clasps his hands behind his back.
“The girl told her family she was going to marry him.
They laughed. She didn’t know that priests can’t marry.
One day she approached the priest and proposed to him.
Sadie Hawkins proposals were forbidden then in Japan.”
Glaring light pours over the head priest as the Green Lion walks closer, sniffing. The Understudy winces, but the show must go on.
“The priest was so shocked that he loudly placed a curse on her.
Then he ran away.
Holding up his robes, he swam across the river.
He hid inside the old temple bell.
At once the girl’s heart was broken.
Chasing him, she found herself on the wrong side of the river.
She couldn’t swim. She couldn’t swim!
But the curse mixed with her broken heart—
Transformed her. A dragon burst forth from her breast
Until nothing was left of her, just dragon.
On the wild winds she flew across the river to the temple.
The temple priests couldn’t stop her with prayers.
Broken hearts are too terrible to be fixed.
She wrapped her coils around the bell where the priest hid,
And her fire poured forth, and she cooked him.”
Your character gasps. Why, that priest might as well have been you! The guy did nothing wrong. He was just saying his prayers when he got attacked by a crazy girl.
It’s your turn to speak. Rise up from your apologetic squat.
“So the maiden under the bell—
She’s a broken-hearted ghost?
Will she turn into a dragon again?
Will she burn down the temple?”
Clutch your pretend robes. Clutch your hair. Something supernatural might happen! Who will protect you? Who will carry you to safety?
“I’ll say the exorcism prayers,”
the head priest informs you.
“Raise the bell back to the belfry.
Together we will be safe.
Together we will lift the curse.”
Terrified, you bow once and take the rope. You and the priest flank the huge bell.
Punch prances forward and peers up at the perched head of the Green Lion. Multitudes of imps continue to trail in his shadow.
“Here we take a moment to observe.
A woman in love is cursed. Can this be true?
Is love enough to pour a dragon from a heart?
Is our play no more than play, or is it art?
Are misspent wishes enough to turn a girl into a ghost?
What is underneath the bell?
If it be no more than woman, our story is a lie.
If it be more, then too-simplistic truths must die.”
Punch sweeps his arms toward you. No longer does he seem wicked. He seems as bothered by the bald literal light of the Arhat’s pet as you are. Perhaps he is no longer your enemy. Perhaps there is as much good in him as anyone.
Pull the rope. End this. Show the Green Lion that disbelief and doubt aren’t the same thing as truth.
Then, just as the bell lifts an inch from its solid spot on the ground:
“Columbia, I love you!”
shouts honest, simple Pierrot, weeping tears in floods.
And to the rhythm of drums and the priest’s chanted prayers, you pull on the surprisingly lightweight bell. Long stretches of thick rope zip through the pulleys. You walk the rope toward a column. Only when the rope is hitched sturdily do you turn around.
Columbia is more than a woman.
Columbia is white wings. Perfect feathers. Unfolding feathers.
Columbia is a lamp of pure, mystical, heavenly light. From inside her heart the white light shines.
Brighter and more beautiful than the moon.
More honest and real.
Columbia’s wings are not a special effect. There are no wires, no mirrors, no screens. Her wings stretch beyond the limits of the small stage and grow outward, communicating her light so widely that she reaches the horizon in both directions. Her black dress has gone white. Glowing hands touch glowing heart.
The Green Lion stands on one side of the stage, the sun.
Columbia is opposite, floating inches off the ground, the moon.
The drums cease. Pierrot stands. He can scarcely believe what he sees.
the clown says, ducking beneath the rope,
“Heard me speak. My lonely voice,
Made so long of lonely tears
Could become joy itself
For no more than a kiss.”
Pure, shining Columbia turns to him and lifts a hand. When the starry-eyed dreamer is too dazzled to take it, Columbia rolls her eyes and grabs him and pulls him close.
“Why do you think I was always alone?”
“Why do you think I never loved Punch or Shanne?
Do you think me so small-brained, so foolish, so lame,
That I couldn’t tell who you were under your clown makeup?”
Pierrot nearly swoons.
“My heart is overwhelmed, cherie.
I have never imagined such happiness.
But I must ask:
Why did you not speak sooner?”
Columbia’s wings twitch and she crosses her arms.
“Do you imagine me any braver than you are?
What if I were wrong? What if you recoiled from my kiss?
What if you didn’t agree with me
When I said I loved you?”
In her cross, irritable way, Columbia pulls Pierrot toward her and wraps her arms around him.
“But now that I know you agree,
We can be in love after all.”
She runs down the steps of the Noh stage, white wings streaming out behind her, Pierrot chasing. With only a few flaps of infinite moonlight, they fly up, up, until they cannot be seen from Earth.
Act IV, Scene Two
Punch folds his hands.
“Which to us reveals the truth.
A spiritual universe, so long concealed,
We have, through art and theater, revealed.
The world we see is not the only one,
Not when darkling secrets hide from staring sun.
Our inner life can be by no mundane science shown
But only through storytelling, music, and performance known.
There is more to us than chemistry can show:
Our human candlelight against the snow,
The dreams we dream, the fears we hide
The wash of moral seas along a tide.
Let us observe with all our eyes,
That we may together pierce this veiled disguise.
When we confront our demons, honest truth grows wide;
We see as much within ourselves as we see outside.”
The Green Lion lays down its head, leaving a blackened spot on the stage. The center of its celestial forehead splits open, and a blue beaked face appears. A bird. As feathers and crown emerge, you recognize it as a peacock. Long gorgeous green eyespot-feathers follow it. The Green Lion begins to spark and fizz, and its sunlight turns black and snuffs. In moments the chemical-green body dissolves too.
In brilliant blue, iridescent green, bursts of orange and black and gold, the wide wings of the Alchemical Peacock expand, flap, and follow Columbia and Pierrot into the night.
Over the intercom, Quinn lets out a wild whoop.
“That was great. Bravissimi.
You got rid of those two.
And now that Punch is on our side,
It looks like we’re all friends and our show is done.”
From every corner, hundreds of orange-skinned shapes approach.
Punch. Punches begin to encircle the Understudy.
“On your side? You, who brought the monsters here?
You, who brought demon hunters to our stage?”
They turn to you as well.
“And you, who threatened to kill us for killing Quinn,
Unwilling to believe she was alive the whole time?”
A hateful desire for revenge burns in their flaming red eyes. Their jester’s outfits are torn, and they shamble and scamper by the thousands. They crouch in every direction. They are ready to fight. Swords and sabers and rapiers and epees and spears and lances point at you.
They are coming to kill you.
“He’s gone crazy! Find weapons, fast,”
Quinn calls out.
“Something that you can fight all the Punches with.
Look at them. There’s no reasoning with them.
Grab what you have.”
What you have onstage is a mop handle and a hanging bell and a flowery piece of paper. Again you need to protect the Understudy first. He’s younger than you. More innocent. Give him the mop handle. It saved your life once already.
He takes it and hands you his drum.
That’s right, Punch can’t resist music. That’s what you need to do. Just sit beside old El Daishou and play. Play a rhythm until . . . until all these demons leave forever. Until they give up.
That’s all you have to do.
Play your role.
Play it forever.
The drumhead yields a good thump and resonates with the nightingale floor. With two chunky drumsticks each, you and El Daishou get a funky beat going. It’s working, too—all the Punches begin to scamper gambol caper cartwheel and somersault sideways as they approach the stage. Several of them leap like ballerinas toward you, only to be knocked offstage by the Understudy’s mop handle. The original Punch, the one who recited “Dōjōji” with you, creeps into the shadows and becomes no more than another long, hooked nose, ready to spring.
Yes, it’s working. Play. Keep the Punches at bay. The three of you can do it. You can keep the stage free of demons. As the spring-stepping frolicking chattering snickering maniacs realize they can’t reach the stage, they grow angry and their skin changes from orange to a seething snarling red. Still you keep them at bay.
“Look out! They’re just getting madder and madder!”
Quinn shouts from afar.
Something has changed in the Punches’ demeanor. Anger at being thwarted has turned them crazy. No longer are they content to dance. Brandishing sharp weapons, the demons want to hurt you, to punish you, to frighten you into letting them in. Demons begin to slide under the stage, cling to the bashira columns, creep up the backdrop, stand on the arches, crouch behind wooden theater seats, and line either side of the hashigakari. Forming ranks, they dance.
Then, as one, they begin to drum on the wood.
They drum back at you.
Just as your precise drumming makes the clay pots of the nightingale floor resound, so too do the millions of Punches create a sound. But their sound is not at all like a dance. It sounds like drums of war.
Keep drumming; you’ve got to keep them out, drown them out. You’ve got to keep out the hammering on the walls, the scratching at the windows, the things hiding in the basement, the slithers in the attic, the pounding, pounding, pounding on the door.
Your arms start to feel like rubber. Your crossed legs start to fall asleep. Your brain starts going haywire at the tintinnabulation of the drums, drums, drums. The pounding, the shrieking, the noise. They’re coming to get you. They’re going to break in. They leap at the Understudy three at a time, and it’s all he can do to swat them away. The backdrop starts to shake visibly from being thumped. Your arms grow weary and soggy and worn. Still they come, louder and louder, they begin to yell in unbearable high-pitched shrieks, and all of them want to kill you completely. It’s the apocalypse for all life. Over the intercom Quinn shouts at you to do something, do anything, but you have no weapons, you have nothing but the drum in your lap.
This is what happens.
El Daishou leaps to his feet and casts aside his drumsticks.
“I’m always talking, hiding, fearful.
Demons surround us.
What can we do against these nameless things?
We could—why not? Drive them back.
Don’t defend yourself—attack!
No more talking, no more moving blindly where I’m led.
If I should lose the fight, then I will die fighting!
Avast and ahoy all you gremlins, you’ve a mighty enemy in me!”
El Daishou runs out into the audience, where a crowd of pestilential Punches are slapping the backs of empty seats to make noise. Quinn switches on a spotlight, which follows the old actor into the rows. He carries nothing. Roaring, El Daishou lands a few feeble punches on Punches before they dive nosefirst into his belly and disappear.
El Daishou wails as he fights, and fights, and loses.
Horror strikes. Just like the Arhat, El Daishou shivers, shakes, and in the thin white moonlight he transforms into just another anonymous orange-red demon. The Punch who used to be El Daishou prances away, and you lose sight of which one it was.
And then there are three: you, the Understudy, and Quinn. And there’s a thousand thousand demons ready to destroy you.
It gets worse.
A distant yell rises above the din. Then the yell stops.
From the intercom, a sad song plays. Piano notes like raindrops fall.
It isn’t Quinn’s style to turn on music.
The spotlight switches off, and the stage is deadly dark now.
Quinn doesn’t make that kind of lighting mistake.
Is Quinn really still running the show? Did she yell because the Punches got her? Have they transformed her? Is she one of them? Is she just another mindless demon?
The banging continues. More high-pitched wails follow. Under siege, you stop drumming and huddle side by side with the Understudy in the empty stage. Two mice in a box besieged by cats. Two apocalypse survivors in a house surrounded by zombies. Two rowboats in an ocean of pirates.
The spotlight flicks on again and shines like a white laser on you from afar. Perhaps Quinn will save the day after all, if she’s all right.
The intercom feeds back, an electric scream, and then goes dead. Silent.
What will you do?
Six Punches leap, and the Understudy isn’t quick enough this time.
They grab him from behind, and he’s struggling.
You have to fight against them. Otherwise El Daishou gave himself up for nothing. Quinn, too. Even that awful Arhat.
Save the Understudy.
“He’s just a boy! He’s not as tough as me!
Why don’t you take on someone your own size?
Let him go. He’s not playing Punch anymore.
There’s no reason to kill him.”
It works. From every corner of the stage, from behind every nook and cranny, red-skinned monsters jump. They funnel into you instead. Your brain goes crazy, and then there is dark.
Act IV, Scene Three
Blackness. Void. As if your eyes were closed, but they’re open.
Before you stands Punchinoni. Is he the devil, or just a devil? Who knows? But he can see inside your mind. He knows what you’re thinking. And he’s inside you now.
Maybe he always was.
That hissing voice arrives in your ear without Punch moving his red-orange lips.
“Such a farce, a comedy, a laugh!
You’re only human, and now you know it.
Where once you thought you were a hero,
Now you know the truth.
You’re just a person like any other.
Not the protagonist at all.”
Is that true? Are you only a minor character in your own story? Are you less than perfect, less than noble, less than important? Are there things in life more important than you are?
“The Arhat tried to deny it. She wanted importance.
She thought that getting halfway to the truth was enough.
But here you are, halfway to the truth,
And you still consider yourself important.”
That hurts. Aren’t you important? It feels awful to imagine that you aren’t. What a sucky idea! It’s your life. You’re trying to live it. You’re trying to not-die, to not-give-up, to stop Punch’s lies from pulling you under like a riptide.
Punch continues talking, wearing a wide, brimming smile around teeth that look like a handful of razors.
“El Daishou was a coward. He dressed like a soldier.
But he never offered to give his life for his country.
At the end, when he was going to die, he chose to kill.
But he never chose to die.”
El Daishou might have really been a coward, actually. It seems a believeable idea. El Daishou was a remarkable man, but he wasn’t brave. He tended to duck out of the way of trouble when he could. But he was your friend. He meant well. He faced off against Punch more than once. He tried. Trying must count for something, right?
“And the two lovebirds.
They don’t care about you. They have each other.
Happy to lend a hand when they were all alone,
All they wanted was one person to love. Two was too many.”
Maybe all anybody wants is one other person. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe if you find someone you could love forever, that’s all you’d ever need. But you’d still like to think of yourself as a good friend, too.
“Now there are three people left for me to destroy.
A boy who only wants to play a part.
A girl who hides away instead of lending a hand.
Punch’s wicked smile grows. But at least Quinn is still alive, assuming Punch isn’t lying.
“I will eat their hearts.”
Dive at him! Jump at him! Get that awful Punch. Stop him. Stop him.
Say something. Anything! Say:
“No! I won’t let you. I’ll—I’ll make you a deal.
Take me. Take me instead. Eat my heart.
But promise to leave my friends alone.
Let them live. Take me instead.”
Punch steps forward and reaches into your chest. Suddenly you are vividly aware of your body, your organs, your health.
“Why? When no one else chose to die,
When no one else let me inside them,
When everyone else chickened out,
Why would you sacrifice yourself like a pelican?”
Why? Why not wait for the Understudy to do it for you, so you can go on living? Or wait for the director to call the shots?
“Because it always works that way in movies.
And because I can’t fight you.
And because I’m completely helpless.”
It’s time to say a big important monologue that gets a lot of stuff off your chest:
“I can’t stop a demon. I don’t know how.
Fighting isn’t really my style. Neither is diplomacy.
I don’t think I can lie to you, since you can read my mind.
I can’t trick you. I tried that already.
All I really have is myself and my friends.
Some of them are gone, and some are still here.
I care about all of them. Maybe more than I care about myself.
You’re right. Maybe I’m not important.
But I know that they could be.
The Understudy could be a great actor.
Quinn could be a great director.
I’ve already had a lead role. I’ve already been important.
I’ve tried pride, self-centeredness, fame.
They really aren’t that good.
But my friends haven’t had a chance to believe in themselves.
Maybe I can give them that chance.”
Punch, still smiling, draws a huge red scimitar from a scabbard.
“Kneel and sacrifice yourself then, pelican,”
the demon whispers.
The sword rises, once.
The sun is rising.
Color returns with the light. The stage is empty. No—no, it isn’t. As you yawn and wake and look around, you find two other figures rising too, sleep departing from the three of you like butterflies from an empty flower. Sprawled, stretching, wearing your ragged costumes, you and the Understudy and Quinn sit back to back on the stage. The bell hangs precariously above. The Understudy smiles, and his head nods, and he can’t seem to open his eyes. Quinn looks much worse, as if she got down from the control booth by sleepwalking, and maybe she did.
Your body feels like you just ran a marathon forward and returned the same way backward and then did jumping jacks. Yet beneath the exhaustion is a sense of renewal. A sense that you are older than you were yesterday. A sense that rich plush life flows through you once again.
Japanese warblers perch in small flocks on the arches above you, whistling and chirping. A faint bee-buzzing drifts through the grass as wildflowers open. There is no audience; no one is watching. You pull your legs up under you—no, they feel tingly, stretch them out. Quinn stares up at the raised bell, and at the sky. The Understudy finally opens his eyes.
“I had the strangest dream,”
“I dreamed that everyone was in trouble,
And that Punchinoni was going to get everyone.
“And eat their hearts out?”
The Understudy nods thoughtfully.
They both had the same dream as you.
“Go through everyone you know and say
That they had faults, failings, defects,
And so did you?”
The Understudy nods. Quinn says:
“Everybody has those things. Everybody.
Talk about stating the obvious. I mean,
Perfect people have gone extinct. Or they’re just pretend.
I think it’s enough to be pretty good and getting better.”
There’s something on your mind—
“Quinn? Where did you go at the beginning of the show?
I thought you’d been murdered.
Why did the real Punch show up at all?
And why was there blood on your mask?”
“I was tired of acting. I wanted to direct.
So I built Punch a stage and asked him to cover for me.
Wasn’t his acting good?
I directed Pierrot and Columbia and El Daishou.
I put ketchup on the nose mask so you’d start an investigation.
But it was all supposed to end with the big ‘Murder Mystery.’
That was my show. That was my script.
The real monsters were a total surprise.
So was Punch getting mad and trying to take over.
I guess sometimes I don’t plan far enough ahead.”
You still wish she’d told you.
Hang your legs off the end of the stage. The seats and risers look forlorn and empty. Show’s over. Everyone is gone—all of Pierrot’s watching people, the cardboard audience members. The ones who got transformed. Most of all, the Punches. Gone. Even the applause track and the coughs are gone. And you realize: No one was ever watching you. Just Quinn. Only your friends ever mattered.
No one else was even there.
The Understudy sneezes and stretches his arms.
“What do we do now?”
“The play is over. I’m not sure I like acting, either.
I’d like to make movies, or maybe design architecture.
How about you? What will you do?”
Quinn picks up the mop handle, hanging like a damsel in distress off the edge of the stage, sniffs at it, and throws it over the edge.
“I’m going to direct the greatest show ever on Broadway.
Better than Noises Off, The Fantasticks, and . . .
I dunno, Cats, combined. I don’t know what it will be yet.
But it’s going to be the best ever.”
She thumps the stage excitedly.
Both of them turn to you.
they ask together.
And you? What will you do, now that the show is over? What choices will you make? What adventures will you have?
“What am I going to do?”
What are you going to do?
“I’m going to live.”
And the sun and the moon rise together, and the days wheel past with skies filled with blue and nights filled with stars, and you change, and you grow, and the world surrounds you with good and bad, and it’s true. It was always true.
You’re going to live.
There is a show that ran for more than thirty years Off Broadway called The Fantasticks, which is a story about growing up and about some of the difficulties you’ll face. I first saw the show not in New York but in a remarkably good college production in Boulder, Colorado, near where I used to live. Famously, The Fantasticks is popular not only in the United States but in Japan, where it’s performed every year. I was struck how the characters in the story—who were inspired by traditional Italian characters from a theater tradition called the Commedia dell’Arte, which I’ll talk about shortly—were universal in their nature, even across such different cultures. The Fantasticks features a boy and a girl, but I started wondering if it’s possible to tell a story where the gender and ethnicity of the main character aren’t even mentioned—whether it could still be universal. That was where the story started.
The Commedia dell’Arte is Italy’s national folk theater. It began in the sixteenth century, where actors would portray familiar-looking stock characters like the Nasty Landlord, the Well-Intentioned Beggar, the Corrupt Politician, the Cowardly Soldier, the Tricky Servant, and the Woman (it was a different time). These recognizable faces developed into traditional characters with standard costumes, most famously the court jester called Harlequin, until the costumes no longer matched any kind of outfits that real people actually wore, which used to be the whole point. However, the personalities were still familiar, because every culture and every time has certain types of people.
More specifically, Commedia characters include the romantic servant Arlecchino, who later became Harlequin or Quinn; the long-nosed trickster servant Pulchinella, who became Punch; the bragging, lying soldier who runs away from danger, Il Capitano, whom I call El Daishou (Daishou means “admiral” or “general” in Japanese); the gullible farmer Zanno, whom I call Shanne; the lovers (who were not named in the original Italian but who became Columbina and Pierrot in the French version); and a variety of others.
The Commedia is still performed today.
The Noh theater is Japan’s folk theater. In the sixteenth century it was a tragicomic mockery of the samurai, landowners, noblemen, servants, wives, and lovers of Edo Japan. Later these folk heroes and villains would become codified until they didn’t match modern society, and became fine art. Still, the characters often seem recognizable.
There is the gullible farmer, often named Shite (pronounced shee-tay, thank you), whom I merge with the Italian character Zanno to become Shanne. Long-nosed trickster demons named Hannya, Tengu, and Oni, whom I mix with the Italian Pulchinella to become Punchinoni. Others: The cowardly soldier, the ghostly woman, the corrupt nobleman, the wicked priest, and other personalities that still make sense. Human nature only changes a little at a time.
The Noh is still performed today, although it’s less popular than its wackier and more colorful cousin, Kabuki, which features many more characters and much more singing and dancing.
The stage where our story takes play is the Noh stage. As I mention at the beginning of the story, it’s a little different from Western theaters: no curtain, a small square stage for the actors, two small orchestra pits alongside the stage, a long bridge off of stage right, thin columns in each corner, and a painting of a tree on the backdrop. Traditional Noh also features a chorus that comments on the action, as well as a small group of musicians who play hand drums called shime-daiko (smaller than the more famous taiko drums), a long flute called the nohkan, and sometimes a stringed instrument called a biwa. I’ve left these out mostly.
England also has a tradition of folk theater featuring some stock characters, the most popular of whom are Mr. Punch and his wife, in the form of violent puppets called Punch & Judy.
So let’s run through our characters: Your opening role is Shanne, a combination of Shite and Zanno, the bumpkin farmer protagonist. Opposite you is the character of Punchinoni, a combination of Mr. Punch, Pulchinella, Tengu, and Oni. Punch is at first played by Quinn or Harlequin. (In later eras, the characters of Punch and Harlequin were squished together into one character, but their personalities and roles were originally different). Incidentally, both Mr. Punch and Harlequin have been written about by Neil Gaiman, whose writing strongly influences my own. Read “Harlequin Valentine” and “Mr. Punch” for more.
Pierrot (pyair-OH), the starry-eyed clown, is the invention of exactly two actors: Baptiste Deburau and Paul Legrand. In the 1800s, they dazzled France with two similar interpretations of a romantic weeping clown who pined for Columbina and the moon, which the character often considered one and the same. I’ve changed Columbina to Columbia for a few reasons: first, American readers probably associate the word Columbine with the 1999 tragedy; second, Columbia is the name of the first American female liberty goddess, prior to the installation of the Statue of Liberty. She can be seen on early American coins; the laurel wreath on the dime comes from the top of her head. The capital of the United States, Washington, D.C., is named after her. Lastly, the way I describe Columbia reminds me vaguely of the character from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So it seemed like a better name.
El Daishou is my Japanese version of Il Capitano, the braggart soldier who’s never actually fought a battle. He also has some inspiration from The Fantasticks’ El Gallo, the Rooster, likewise a braggart, and from Toshirô Mifune, Japan’s first international movie star. El Daishou’s ability to tell tall tales comes from the relentless children’s folk theater I saw in New England as a kid, where putting on half-mask stage retellings of tall tales like Ananse and Pecos Bill was popular among all the middle-aged hippies of the middle 1980s.
Those are our traditional characters.
The Understudy is mostly me. I was basically that guy.
In the fourth act, two more characters are introduced, characters that come from a completely different world from theater: spirituality.
An Arhat is someone who chooses to escape from the spiritual rat race instead of helping others. Mahayana Buddhism considers true enlightenment to be helping others find spirituality. An Arhat cares only about detaching from the world, and doesn’t care whether others find spirituality, too. I chose to introduce her in order to talk about the need to explore spirituality in your life; in my metaphor, an Arhat is someone who rejects the idea of helping others to explore their spirituality.
The Green Lion is one of many metaphors that medieval alchemists used to represent the many stages of either moral development or the chemistry that supposedly went with it. The Green Lion appears halfway through the process, and represents either the ability to doubt and feel skeptical, rather than gullible, or, in a more literal sense, the creation of sulfuric acid, which dissolves literally anything that alchemists put into it, including gold. The green liquid dissolving gold was represented by a green lion eating the sun. Clever readers may find more alchemical clues throughout the book.
So those are the characters. There are a few references to poems and such—El Daishou’s last declaration is inspired by Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man,” and Punch’s soliloquy at the birth of the Peacock was inspired by Shakespeare, most especially Robin Longfellow’s last soliloquy.
A few other references: Don Giovanni is also called Don Juan, the famously rakish rogue who falls in love all the time and has to fight his way out of all sorts of bedrooms. The story is told best in Mozart’s opera of the same name.
Edward Teach is better known as Blackbeard the Pirate.
Murakumo is a legendary Japanese sword known for its ability to cleave a blade of grass in half in midair. Lengthwise.
“Dōjōji” is the third most important Noh play of the two hundred fifty or so original plays that exist. It’s the only one that features a major prop other than the commonly used Japanese fan. The bell, roughly as I describe it, is used in every performance of “Dōjōji,” and every Noh stage has such a bell, along with a hook and a rope. The bell is usually not real, though an actor really does hide inside it, changing costumes between acts—in the dark and often wearing a very complicated outfit. Although the bell is not real, it is really, really heavy, and it is absolutely possible for a careless actor to amputate their foot or even their head if the stagehands release it too quickly and you’re in the wrong place. Watching a real performance of “Dōjōji” is sort of like eating fugu, poisonous blowfish—it’s exciting and potentially dangerous. They still perform “Dōjōji.”
The title of the book is pronounced geki, and it changed a whole bunch of times. I’m not fluent in Japanese at all, and it’s a language with much more nuance and subtlety than English has, so actually finding a word that means what you want it to mean is pretty difficult. Japanese has about twenty words meaning “play.” The word that best suggests both “theater” and “fun” is shibai. However, in Hawaii the word shibai is used to refer to political speeches, so that wasn’t exactly right. Geki, engeki, shingeki, and kangeki all relate in different ways to theater. Geki means to hit or strike, which, if you think about it, is pretty similar to what “act” means—either to do something or to perform in a play. Shingeki refers to foreign-inspired plays like Broadway, and that wasn’t quite it. Kangeki describes the audience. Engeki most often refers to everything except Noh, which is usually just called Noh. So there isn’t really a word in Japanese that covers all types of plays. But geki is the closest, and has an interesting double meaning, like the word “play” does.
Some scenes are inspired by anime and video games, which I enjoy and which are often great portraits of Japanese culture. Pierrot’s sparkling breath is inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The face-off in the void is a pretty common theme in Japanese culture, from video games like Shin Megami Tensei to anime like Deadman Wonderland and Serial Experiments Lain. It’s often a representation of a conversation inside a person’s head.
So that’s where the story comes from. I hope you like it.
James Comins moved to Seattle fairly recently, and will be moving to Louisiana soon. He lives with several avocado trees and a choco cookie. He is grumpy, Jewish, and filled with sparkles.
Opening night. The bridge to the Noh stage is only a few footsteps ahead. The audience is waiting for you. Your mask is in your hand. You're playing the lead role: Shanne, the protagonist. Opposite you is your best friend Quinn, playing the role of the sinister jester Punchinoni, the villain. The show is about to begin. You're all ready, all your lines are memorized, and your character is familiar and natural. All you have to do is step out on stage. Put on your mask. Step into your character. Take a deep breath. The cue light blinks your five-second warning. It's the role of a lifetime. It starts now.