“Am I free, then?” she said, tears in her voice, as she watched the pigeons fly off.
Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (山の音), translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
Nauseated, she turned to look out of the window. Directly across the narrow road, on the dusty sidewalk in front of a small house, was a young boy. He was kneeling before a bamboo breakfast tray which was propped open on the ground. Using the tray as a stage, he was fumbling with a marionette, manipulating it clumsily from multitudinous strings which hung from a complicated control mechanism held amateurishly in his left hand. A sparrow descended momentarily and investigated the ground near the boy before flying off again, disappointed.
The marionette was finely designed, though restrained. Its head bore no markings of a face and its clothing was that of a harlequin; a colorful, incongruous patchwork that appeared to have been combined into a single piece loosely flowing from ankle to wrist, with a bright white collar from which the blankness of the head extended. The visible extremities revealed the puppet to have been constructed of a blond, unstained wood of some sort. It was thin, nimble, its facelessness emanating something of a sadness.
It seemed to be the hope of the boy for the marionette to appear dancing, the boy’s head bobbing to some unheard rhythm which was neglecting to travel through to his toy. Instead, the marionette stumbled upon its makeshift stage as if drunken, its limbs uncoordinated to the degree of seeming to have rebelled completely, each with its own intention apart from any other. The concentration upon the boy’s face was endearing, it tinged with a subtle hint of frustration, a countenance which softened the humor of an otherwise pathetic display. She felt unhappy with herself for having noted absurdity in the scenario on the other side of the window, a displeasure which resulted in an even deeper feeling of charmed solicitude for the boy.
She continued to watch as a woman appeared from the entrance of the house, led by a small dog of which the woman was attached by a skinny, red leash. The dog appeared to be feeble-minded, with its tongue hanging from the corner of its mouth, panting, walleyed, growling at its shadow. The boy looked up at the woman from his position on the ground, the dark skin at his knees suggesting he spent a fair amount of time situated down there. The expression on his face was that of a knowingness sunken into a despair of longing, momentarily unblinking, manifesting that this woman was his mother. The woman stood faced away from the boy, not yet having acknowledged him, speaking noiselessly to the dog with her face distorted and eagerly expressive as if cooing to a baby. The dog, ignoring her, had begun yapping at a cloud, its eyes bulging and ringed with a viscid, yellowish mucous. The woman offered the dog a piece of food which she pulled from a pocket at the waist of her purple cardigan; the dog snatched the morsel and ate with zeal.
From behind the window, she rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, squinted a yawn, and then returned her attention to the boy and his marionette. The marionette had begun swaying beautifully, its feet moving gracefully across its tray, its arms outstretched and wavering measuredly. Surprised by this sudden dexterousness in control, she struggled to find the boy’s hands, until she located them in the lap between his knees, folded, still. She followed the strings from the marionette’s limbs and discovered them limp, the spindly mechanism to which they were attached discarded on the surface of the stage. The marionette moved over it, using it as a prop in its delicate dance, pirouetting as it leapt from its master. The stings refused to tangle as the marionette continued to swirl, its small movements mesmerizing, a more enchanting thing rarely seen. The boy watched his toy with gentle pride, his face serene, eyes equally equable and loving.
Suddenly the dog barked with a sharpness heard through the window, angered, shrill. The dog jolted and pulled from its leash with such quick ferocity as to startle the woman, a fright causing her to release her grip on the thing, the leash now a shock of scarlet trailing behind the dog as it bolted, leaping in a flash, tearing the marionette from its prance upon the tray, the puppet now exanimate and flaccid between the dog’s teeth as the animal landed and continued to run down the street, the vibrant clothing of the marionette flushing, droplets of crimson marking the path down which all disappeared with the dog.
The woman cried out and made to dash after the dog, though she soon found herself swearing from the ground after having tripped over the boy, he who remained kneeling, hands in lap, tears forming in the corners of his eyes as his head drooped, still slowly bobbing to a rhythm silent, the tray upended, his sole companion having been stolen from him, that lone friendship now broken and gone. A crow cawed churlishly from somewhere hidden; it had begun to rain.