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Volume 3, Issue 2, June 30, 2008
Her Own Skin
by K. Bird Lincoln

        In my prior existence, I was human. My widower father sold carved seals, both wooden and the more expensive ivory chops that only the Samurai Lords could afford. I kept house for him in our small village close to the Edo highway. Although I walked the streets everyday, I never exchanged anything more than formal greetings with the other shopkeepers and girls my age. My life was a series of days I barely seemed to inhabit. Soon, my father and I stopped talking about "when I would be married."
        One early morning, nearing thirty years old, I looked in the mirror and discovered my face was gone. Instead of the usual formations of eyes, nose, and mouth, my face was a shell-smooth, pale blank. Trembling fingers confirmed an utter lack of features. I knew life couldn't go on like this. Yet, I felt angry, like losing my face was a punishment. It was unfair to heap more troubles on the head of a girl who never did any harm.
        I was unsure of where or how I had lost my face, but I was sure that I could no longer keep house for my father. I hoped he wouldn't be too upset. Maybe he would be relieved that the burden of his unmarried daughter had disappeared.
        Instead of stoking the fire under the rice pot or cutting daikon radish for father's miso soup, I put on a warm cotton robe in a sensible shade of brown, tied it with my second best obi, and walked out of the shop's front door. Over the sliding door, the hanging curtain noren printed with the characters of my family name fluttered in a morning breeze. The name felt like someone I knew long ago.
        The wind brought the salty tang of the Pacific Ocean with it, reminding me how I lacked eyes to make salty tears. Could Noppera-bo cry? The question occupied me as I made my way out of town, unseen by early rising inhabitants. I stopped at the outskirts in front of a farmer's small shrine to Inari-sama, the rice god, attended by foxes molded from baked clay. I decided to try crying, thinking that was what anyone else would do. I thought of my father and my old life. I thought of my former dark eyes, which I always considered my finest feature. I thought of the daughters I would never have. Nothing. I pushed a little, as if squatting in an outhouse, but despite my efforts, no moisture came. Any normal person would have been crying. I was ashamed. Was I really this cold? No wonder I lost my face.
        What to do now? I had never paid attention to Noppera-bo stories before, but that's what I had become. Really I'd only heard about them from the itinerant entertainers who set up on the street near the town teashop. I should have paid more attention. Was I supposed to hurt people like the oni, the demons? I didn't feel particularly clever like a trickster fox spirit or shape-changing tanuki badger. In the stories, the Noppera-bo only appeared to scare the unwary traveler. I couldn't remember the stories telling about what the Noppera-bo would do in between appearances.
        Something tightened in my chest. I hadn't done much as a seal-carver's daughter. I should try harder as a Noppera-bo. If this were my fate, then I had better get on with it. I decided to walk down the main road that lead away from my village. There would be people at the inn on the Edo highway. If one of the maids or travelers caught my eye, I could wait until dark and try to scare someone.
        "Kyra," Ella said, "let's go back inside. I want to try the sauna."
        The geezers at the far corner of the rotemburo nudged each other again at Ella's English. With her smooth black hair, dark brown eyes, and stubby nose, most people in Japan assumed she was Japanese. It always frustrated them when she didn't understand them.
        "You're such a liar," Kyra said. "You hate saunas. They make you sick. You just don't want to hang around here with these guys. Do they really make you that uncomfortable?"
       "Yes, they do," Ella said. "The clerk said all the locals go to bed early. We should have had the rotemburo to ourselves." Ella regretted coming with Kyra, but it was the first time anybody had invited Ella on a trip. She was too shy to travel around by herself, and it was a waste to be in Japan and not see more of the country where her mother was raised.

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