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Jiro shook his hair out of his eyes and bent once more over the worktable. He dipped the brush into the glue and began to apply it to the inside of the puppet bead that lay in two halves before him. Jiro licked his lips. He must be careful. The last time be had not put on enough glue, and the bead had fallen apart before it could be delivered to Yoshida at the theater. The trick was to put just the right amount, not a stroke too little or too much.
Hesighed and droppedthe brush back into the glue pot. His big hands much too big for his skinny thirteenyear-old body were shaking so that he was afraid a spot of glue would fall on the strings and ruin the works which made the puppet's eyes and eyebrows move. It had taken his father more than two weeks to perfect the mechanism. Jiro grabbed his right hand with his left and commanded it to stop shaking. It was the strong fishy odor of the glue that was upsetting him, he knew. If only be weren't so hungry. What would happen if he ate some of the glue? Would his insides stick together like the two sides of a puppet head?
How stupid he was! If he finished the head properly, his father would paint it, and the puppet would be assembled and sold to Yoshida. By the end of the week they would have some money with which to buy food, and he could stop wondering what glue would do to his belly.
He reached for the glue brush and began, as carefully as his still-shaking hand would allow, to apply glue to the other side of the head.
"You've put too much on it." Jiro jumped at the sound of his father's voice. Hanji, the puppet maker, was kneeling just behind him. The boyreached for a scrap of cloth and was about to wipe off the excess glue when Hanji stopped him. "No, no. Don't use that. Your mother .may be able to salvage it for a costume."
"Then what am I to use?" Jiro's voice was shrill, but he hadn't meant to yell. His father bated anyone to lose control of himself.
"Here." Hanji took the brush out of the glue pot and nudged the boy. "Move over. I'll do it." Delicately he flicked the brush across the edge of the pot. "The secret is to get just the right amount of glue on the brush. See? Not too much, not too little."
I know, I know, the miserable boy groaned to himself. I know all the secrets, all the tricks. I just can't do them with you hanging over my shoulder.
"Hungry?" his father asked quietly.
"I'm all right."
"It's hard to be hungry at your age. When we sell the puppet, we'll have something better-rice, maybe."
Rice. The thought of rice made Jiro's head feel light. He imagined the smell of it bubbling on the charcoal stove.
"Your mother is back. See if you can help her."
Jiro got to his feet reluctantly. "Can't I help you here?"
"No, not now. " I'm finished." Hanji put down the brush and, without touching any of the mechanisms, joined the two halves of the head together, fastening them with a wooden clamp. "Go on. I'll clean up."
Jiro went through the half curtain that separated the shop from the back of the house. The back door was slid open, and be could see Isako on all fours, blowing at the charcoal in the brazier.
"Do you want me to do that, Mother?" He licked his lips, the top lip left to right, and the bottom right to left.
"What? Oh, no. I've almost got it going." She looked up. "Why aren't you helping your father?"
"He sent me to help you."
"What did you mess up this time?"
Jiro blushed a deep red. "Nothing."
"Nothing, huh?" She went back to her blowing.
"Do you want me to get the water?"
"What?" She looked up again, her face pinched with irritation. "You know I can't talk and make a fire at the same time. Yes, yes-get some water. Get anytbing just get out from under my eyebrows."
Jiro put the bamboo pole across his shoulders and bung a wooden bucket at each end.
"Don't try to fill them too full."
"No, I won't."
"And don't loiter. It's not safe. And don't keep licking your lips. You look like a stray cat."
It was good to be out of the house. Though it was late afternoon, the sun was still high in the summer sky. There were fewer and fewer people on the streets these days. The poor were too hungry to waste their energy strolling about, and the merchants and those who bad a little something feared to go out lest they be robbed by the renegade samurai, the ronin, who had forgotten the code of honor but not how to wield their long curved swords.
His mother would often lament the state of affairs. "Look what we've come to. Where will it all end?" But Jiro could not remember a time when things had been much better.
He was born, as Isako never let him forget, the year of the plagues. Why should he, an unwanted infant, have survived while his older brother and two sisters died? Sometimes he felt that his mother could not forgive him-as though he had sucked their life away in claiming his own.
Now for nearly five years, there had been famine. The Shogun blamed the daimyo, and the daimyo blamed the rice merchants, and the merchants blamed the farm landlords, and the landlords blamed the peasants, who, as they died, blamed the gods.