Loud laughter spilled out from the convenience store. A group of university students stumbled out, following their voices. They tripped over each other, hugging it out as they made their way down to the shopping arcade. I could hear them swapping glimpses of the night’s escapades as I wavered in the opposite direction.
My belly was an oasis of white wine. It had been a while since I treated myself out, but this was a special occasion. I had finally finished the Noh Theatre Mask that had stumped me for months. It was a Ko-Omote mask that represented innocence and softness. Elements I had to throw away after leaving my father’s mask carving business.
A bench next to a line of covered food stalls entered my line of sight. As I sat down, I balanced one hand on the neighboring stall. Immediately, the white canvas tarp came off. I squinted in tipsy and saw that something had fallen off the stall. I covered myself with the tarp like a blanket and reached down to scoop up the object.
Wood. I turned it over and my eyes fully opened. What I saw was a Noh Theatre Mask, but my brain couldn’t register it. The visual was there, but the meaning didn’t follow. So, I sat there for more than a few minutes, staring at it. Turning it over in my hands with the tarp over my knees. I heard whispers and laughter pass me, but I felt no need to look up because this strange item still stared back at me from my hands without an explanation of why it was there in the first place.
The mask was heavy with history. My father always said some masks were more than just art. They’re vessels of stories, holding spirits of the past. I stared into its eyes. A pit not empty, but full. Waves of past lives flowing through its cracks. The small smile seemed to grow, the crow’s feet at her eyes clawing their way to my core. I could almost feel an energy cascading forward. So much value wrapped up in one plane of wood. But was I the only one who saw it? The only one to—
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
I threw my head up. A tall Black man in a forest green yukata stood leaning down in front of me. His eyes were darting back and forth between my face and the mask.
“Yes?” I said.
“Where did you get that mask?”
I held up the mask. It was old and worn, but authentic. At first sight, I thought it was a Ko-Omote mask, but the number of hairlines in the sideburns told me it was an older woman.
“This…this was in this,” I said, pointing to the stall. Then I looked at him and scrunched my brow. “Why do you ask?”
He straightened his posture and smiled. “I am a collector of traditional Japanese crafts, and I’ve never seen a Noh Theatre Mask as old as this.”
I tilted my head. “Are you Japanese?”
“No, I’m from Ghana. All my clients live in African countries. But I’ve been here for a decade.”
“No wonder your Japanese is so good. Well, I make masks. And like you, I’m in awe of this one.”
“Do you mind if I take a look?” His eyes were almost sparkling. There were still plenty of people passing through the arcade, so I offered the seat next to me.
He sat down and accepted the mask. After a few moments of looking it over while shaking his head, he said, “This has to be a relic. I mean, the signature on the inside has similar kanji to Edo-period family crests. And the wood feels old. You said this fell out of that stall?”
“Yep. And what’s more, I never would’ve found it if I wasn’t so tipsy.” I felt my shoulders ease. This guy was more interested in the mask than me.
He smiled and handed it back to me. “I’m Kwame, by the way. Never thought I’d meet a mask carver after midnight in a shopping arcade.”
We shared a laugh for a moment, then sat in silence. “What would you do with this mask? Oh, and I’m Yuki.”
“Well, Yuki. I’d take good care of it, because it found you for some reason. Anyway, I have to get home. Got an early meeting tomorrow—err, today.” He stood up and stretched out his hand.
I looked at his burly palms. They were moisturized, but still retained the markings of a working hand. I shook it and felt his warmth jolt me out of my wine-induced drowsiness.
“Do you work around Umeda?”
He tilted his head. “Actually, yes. First, you uncover ancient artifacts. Now, you can guess people’s workplaces?”
“I have my ways,” I said. “Feel free to drop by my studio during the week. I’ll see what I can dig up on this, and I’m sure you’d love to see what I find.” The white wine was talking.
“Sounds like a plan to me. Take care, Yuki,” he said, waving as he walked away.
I caught myself staring at his ass, which was plainly visible due to how tight he wore the yukata. It had been a while since I had been out. Mask carving took up most of my time and all I had in my brain were faces of antiquity and legends of old.
I found a taxi and stared out the window on the way back. Kwame’s face stood there in the window. I could remember his strong jawline, and his broad nose. His thick lips. And his eyes. His eyes. They were beacons of light that pierced my rustiness on the dating field. It had been 6 years since my last serious relationship. And Kwame had awakened my desire to be held for real again.
After the taxi dropped me off at my studio, I made my way to the second floor, where few customers knew I lived. Most business owners had their shops attached to their house, but we all tried to make it discreet. For safety, sure, but more out of pride.
I undressed to hop into the shower, but not before looking at myself in the floor mirror. I liked my chest and hips, but recently, I found my posture lacking. All that bending over at my studio desk was not kind to my overall appearance. I wonder what Kwame thought when he saw me. Did he really just approach me for the mask?
I got into the shower and let the warm water mesh with the remnants of the wine in my system to soothe me into a daze. After a while of sitting under the showerhead, I soaped up and washed off, and got into the bath. The bath filled itself every day according to a timer. My place wasn’t fancy at all, but I had a few tiny luxuries that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
After 20 minutes, I stepped out and toweled off. The bathroom mirror showed my flushed face and droopy eyes, so I hurried through my skincare routine to get into bed before it got too late.
Once I got to bed and shut off the lights, all I could see in the dark was the old mask staring back at me. Behind my eyelids, the same image. It wasn’t terrifying, just odd. I felt like I wasn’t giving it the attention it begged for. So after a few minutes of playing a staring contest with this artifact in my eyelids, I got up and retrieved it from the hinoki wood box I stored it in.
As soon as I opened the box, the mask leapt from its place and started floating in the air. I fell back on my ass and let out a small scream. It floated without wavering. Just a stable hover, before it moved forward towards me and blinked its eyes.
“Thank you for uncovering me.”
I felt my head hit the floor and all went black.