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Eighty percent of the human body is made of water, so it isn't surprising that one sees a different face in the mirror each morning. The skin of the forehead and cheeks changes shape from moment to moment like the mud of a swamp, shifting with the movements of the water below and the footsteps of the people walking above it.
I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror. The first thing I would do when I got up was to compare my reflection with the photograph, checking for discrepancies which I then corrected with makeup.
Compared to the fresh complexion shown in the photograph, the face in the mirror looked bloodless and pale, like the face of a dead person. Perhaps this is why the rectangular frame of the mirror reminded me of a coffin. When I held up the candle to look more closely, I saw that my skin was covered with fine, overlapping scales, smaller than the wings of tiny insects. Carefully I inserted one long thumbnail beneath a scale and flicked it off. In this way I was able to strip off the scales one at a time. When I unbuttoned my pajama top, I saw the scales covered not only my face but my chest and arms as well. If I began removing them one by one, I would be late for work. I decided to take a bath to soften the scales andthen rub them off.
Once upon a time there was an impoverished village in a valley where no rice would grow. A pregnant woman was so hungry that when she found a fish one day she wolfed it down raw without sharing it with the other villagers. The woman gave birth to a lovely baby boy. Afterwards, her body grew scales, and she turned into an enormous fish. She could no longer survive on land, and went to live all by herself beneath the river. An old man took the child in. Boys have always swapped insulting comments about their mothers when they quarrel. "Your mother's a whore!" "Your mother doesn't have a belly-button!" They don't know what those things mean, but they say them anyhow. This boy heard the same contemptuous words over and over: "Your mother has scales!" One day the boy asked the old man what it meant to have scales, and where his mother really lived. Once he had discovered the secret of his origins, the boy could think of nothing but how to change his mother back into a human being. In the end, he decided to break open the rock of the surrounding mountains to irrigate the fields and make a rice paddy. The villagers' poverty would end if they could grow rice. The boy went to see his mother to tell her about his plans. She was very happy and wanted to help. The boy drew a map and decided where to break open the rock wall. His mother threw her large, scaly body against the rock again and again, and little by little it began to crumble. Day and night she threw herself against the rock. The scales that were scraped from her body flew up into the air and danced in the wind like blood-stained cherry petals. This is how the village, which had no cherry trees, came to be called the Village of Cherry Blossoms. Once they had irrigated fields, the villagers no longer had to starve, but the mother, who had lost all her scales and become human again, bled to death.
When I finished getting out of my pajamas, the phone rang. Still naked, I picked up the receiver. I didn't say anything, and from the other end of the line came a man's voice I had never heard before. "It's you?"
I thought about this for a moment and said, "It isn't."
"If it's not you, then who are you?"
I put down the receiver. That was my first conversation on this strange day.
Slowly I got into the hot water, starting with my big toe.
As long as I don't move the water around, I can stand even very hot water. I closed my eyes, held my breath, and submerged myself entirely in the long bathtub. I thought: burial at sea is fine, a grave beneath the earth is fine, but not cremation-cremation I couldn't stand.
When I got out of the bath, the scales had softened. I scraped them off with a pumice stone. They came off with relatively little effort. I would have hated having to throw myself against a rock wall and die. It was a good thing I had no son.
When I returned to the mirror, the scales were gone, but on my nose I saw a large number of tiny blisters smaller than ants' heads. I popped one with my nail, and a greasy white substance came out. It smelled like rancid mayonnaise. Once I started I couldn't stop and popped one after the other. Outside I could hear the birds beginning to chirp and flap their wings. Unless I hurried I would really be late for work. When I had popped the last of the blisters, what remained was not smooth skin but a desolate desert landscape scattered with deflated balloons.
The telephone rang again. I picked up the phone and didn't say anything until the caller said, "Hello, it's me." It was a familiar voice.
"Excuse me, may I ask who's calling?" I couldn't help asking, even though I knew who it was.
"It's me," the man's voice said. "Is it all right if I come over tonight?"
"That would be fine, but I won't be home till late. You have the key?"
"I'm working late too, so I wouldn't have time earlier, anyway. See you then."
I wondered how I already knew I wouldn't be home till late.
I washed my face with white sand. This is the only way to smooth a skin that's become like a desert. This sand was supposedly made of whales' bones that had been tossed up by the sea and bleached in the sun. When I scooped some up in my palm and held it to my face, the sand spoke to my bones through my flesh. I distinctly felt the shape of my skull in my hand. Beyond a skin made of light and flesh made of water, there is another body. Only, as long as that body is alive, no one will be able to hold it close.
Sometimes other people's skulls look transparent. At such moments I fall in love.
When I had moistened my skin with milk lotion, the face in the mirror began to look like the face in the photograph. This lotion isn't a pharmaceutical product, it's made of real mother's milk. So it not only moisturizes the skin but also soothes the nerves and gives one energy.
I finished my makeup and combed my hair. In the grasslands of a dream, I painstakingly combed out the spores of poisonous mushrooms and the carcasses of winged insects. When I was a child, I never combed my hair. This was because it made me feel as though my head had just been emptied of its contents. It was not really the brain, but the hair, that did the thinking. At school the teachers always said to comb and braid your hair, probably because they were afraid of the children's hair. They say that hair has strange powers. In the old days, people used to cut a lock of hair to give to someone setting off on a journey, to ward off harm. They also used to touch foreigners' hair to cure illnesses.
Once, a long time ago, there was a village in which lived a gluttonous woman. She worked hard and had a good disposition, and so she was well-liked in the village, but she ate so many helpings of rice that her husband thought it strange. Moreover, she forbade others to watch her eat, and would take her meals alone at night in the barn. One night the man crept up to the barn to watch, and he saw that each of the woman's hairs had turned into a snake and was eating rice. Astonished, the man got out his rifle and shot the woman dead.
They say hair is the part of the skin that has died and hardened. Part of my body is already a corpse.
Excerpted from WHERE EUROPE BEGINS by Yoko Tawada Copyright © 2002 by konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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