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       Play, p.1

           James Comins
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  by James Comins

  Copyright 2016 James Comins

  Cover art by Leonie Veenstra from

  This eBook may not be excerpted or used for commercial or noncommercial purposes without written permission of the author.

  This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, places, events or locales is purely coincidental.

  Other books by this author

  Lenna and the Last Dragon

  Lenna's Fimbulsummer

  Lenna at the All Thing

  The Stone Shepherd's Son

  Casey Jones is Still a Virgin (for older readers)

  13 Stories to Scare You to Death

  My Dad is a Secret Agent

  Where the Cloud Meets the Mountain and the Mountain Disappears

  The Dark Crystal: Plague of Light

  A Note on the Divisions

  Noh plays are divided into five acts, called dan: Beginning, Beginning of the Action, Action of the Action, Climax of the Action, and Climax. The Japanese names for these five acts are jo, jo no ha, ha no ha, kyū no ha, and kyū. Where they are further subdivided, I've marked them ichi, ni, and san for one, two, three.

  Table of Contents

  Jo Ichi

  Jo Ni

  Jo San

  Jo no Ha Ichi

  Jo no Ha Ni

  Jo no Ha San

  Ha no Ha Ichi

  Ha no Ha Ni

  Ha no Ha San

  Kyū no Ha Ichi

  Kyū no Ha Ni

  Kyū no Ha San


  Acknowlogies and Apoledgements

  About the Author

  for Tavin, with love

  Jo Ichi

  Act I, Scene One

  A still silence. The electricity of expectation.

  Opening night.

  Consider the staging: Below you, your feet. Under your feet, a shadowy narrow backstage area blocked off by paper screens. Ahead of you, beyond the screens, is a narrow covered bridge called the hashigakari. It's lit from below by eight electric footlights. At the end of the hashigakari, just out of sight, a square stage waits for you beneath a roof of thin arches.

  Look out through the trestles of the bridge. The stage's backdrop is a tall wall of yellow hinoki wood. A giant tree is painted across it. Leafy green branches are drawn in the scratchy brushstrokes of a Japanese master. Noh theater tells stories of wonder, and in Japan, wonder takes place in the trees.

  Above the stage is a large hook hanging from a beam. It won't be needed tonight. The hook is there to hold up a bell, but the bell is only used in "Dōjōji," the play of the haunted temple bell. It is not your play. Not today.

  To your left is grass. The theater is set up in an open field beneath a mountain. Nothing separates you from the outdoors. Smell the fragrance of the wild rushes. Feel the shifting wind. Above you, the full and fearless moon rests in her glory, spreading enchanted light across the open-air theater. Fireflies flicker. Crickets play.

  To your right is an audience.

  Don’t look too closely. They might see you, and your cue has not been called.

  You peer beyond the edge of the backstage pillar anyways. It’s a crowd of thousands. Motionless Japanese men and women wear dark suits and expectant looks. Their faces seem blank, expressionless. They might be dead. Only they probably aren’t, because they cough at regular intervals.

  They are waiting for you.

  Each performance of the Noh is unique. The story will never happen exactly the same way again. The audience joins the telling of the story. They sit so close to the stage that they could reach out and touch you. The audience will be a part of your world tonight, and you will be a part of theirs.

  You will tell them a story.



  Someone is standing behind you, very close. You spin. A long zucchini-shaped orange nose jabs you right between the eyes, a woodpecker peck. Muffled laughter, right in your ear.

  His name is Punchinoni. Mister Punch. The devil jester.

  It’s really just your friend Quinn in a costume, of course. She'll be playing the monster jester tonight. Lifting her wooden devil mask above her nose, she winks at you. She’s wearing a black-and-white diamond jester’s motley. Silently she pulls the mask back down over her face and becomes a boy for the night. In one of her hands is a prop sword. In the other she holds a second mask.

  Your mask.

  You reach forward and your own hands close around it.

  A simple smile cut into brown wood. Eyeholes. It could be a girl or a boy. Tonight it is you.

  Slipping the headband over your ears, you pull the mask down your face. Darkness and heat swell around you. The sound of your breathing. It’s like immersing yourself in the ocean. The cutout smile passes your eyes, and you find the eyeholes in the mask’s darkness. It all seems larger from the inside. It fills up your whole face. The wood balances on your chin, and then it all disappears.

  You disappear.

  Close your eyes. Open them again.

  The world has changed.

  No it hasn’t.

  The mask has changed you.

  You are the mask, for tonight. For tonight, you’re a gullible smiling sap. A bumpkin. Your world is a world of haystacks. Horses. Shovels. Sawdust.

  Tonight you are Shanne, the country fool, the main character. Be the best, the countriest, the most foolish Shanne you can be.

  Turn around. See the backstage world through fresh, foolish bumpkin eyes. You're alone. A pitchfork leans against a pillar. Quinn left it there for you.

  Pick it up.

  Lightweight, plain and smooth. A prop. A toy. But through your new eyes, it has weight and realness. This is your pitchfork. Every autumn you use it to bale hay for your horses. Tonight is the start of haying season.

  An electric light blinks twice, red.

  That’s your cue. Showtime.

  Go ahead. Steel yourself, breathe, and make an entrance.

  A pillow of applause. Familiar, comforting. In Japan there are no whoops, no screaming voices, only polite clapping. You plod along the yellow hashigakari bridge toward the stage. It's open on both sides, with only a thin railing between you and the audience. A distant smell of pine blows in along the mountain wind. The outdoors is invading the stage. Your farm is in a field beneath a mountain. Yes.

  Your walk is bow-legged, ungainly, clopping. A poor rancher’s waddle. The pitchfork wags in your hand. Give it weight. The audience watches to see what you will do.

  What do they see?

  They see Shanne, a Japanese peasant, bumbling into a farmyard that exists clearly in their imaginations. Each imagination is different. Each farmyard is different. Each farmyard is real. Like all of Noh theater, the farmyard lies beneath a spreading green tree at the foot of a mountain.

  You’re funny as Shanne, waddling, poking at things with your pitchfork. The audience watches. Perhaps they smile. Don't look directly at them to find out, though. They cannot see beneath your mask.

  For now, ignore these spectators. Here you are onstage, beneath the arches and the empty bell hook. Floodlights stream in from behind the audience, yellow-white like straw and almost blinding. Move through the lights as if they aren't there. Lift that hay. Bale it beneath the midday sun. Smell the sweet alfalfa. Hear the neighing of far-off horses. They are your horses. Be proud of them.

  Oh, no! Don’t look now, you silly bumpkin, but here is Punchinoni, that wicked, wicked Punch, carrying a military saber on his shoulder and marching stiff-legged into your farmyard like a tin soldier. With a flick of his orange-painted hand he throws his sword into the air and balances it on the tip of his orange zucchini nose. The saber stays aloft with only the gentlest of nose adjustments.

nbsp; “Where'd you find that saber?

  It's too sharp for a dull Punch like you,"

  you recite rudely in your simpleton voice.

  Punch pretends he suddenly notices you and dances over, a spry goblin, keeping the sword waggling in midair as he goes.

  “I’ve just come back from a battle. The field was messy.

  Dead men lay all around me, and this was juicy pickings.

  What purpose does a weapon have for those who can't swing it?

  Better for a borrower like me to come along and make use of it.”

  Pacing around Punch, you give him a jab in the butt with your pitchfork. He jumps like a rodeo clown, sending the sword tumbling into the air. AS it spins, he catches it by the hilt, flicks his fingers, and it settles back on the point of his nose.

  Strange: briefly you wonder where Quinn's hair is behind her wooden mask. Coming closer, you see that there’s no mask at all. The orange skin is real, front and back, under the costume. Punch has real claws on his long orange fingers.

  The acting fooled you for awhile. You got lost in the act. You forgot Quinn, and saw the role.

  It's not Quinn. He is not a she anymore. This Punch is not an actor. He is not a human being.

  It's a real demon.

  Where's Quinn? You saw her just a minute ago.

  Surreptitiously you turn your head and look along the hashigakari bridge toward backstage.

  A trickle of red. A knife.


  Run offstage and call the police! Shout at the audience to run, run away quickly, before the demon stabs them, too! Hurry now—

  But Punchinoni speaks. He interrupts your thoughts.

  “Regrettable, the battles we fight, isn’t it, Shanne?

  Lamentable how human our desires are!

  If only we all knew how to agree.

  But we can’t see inside one another’s minds.”

  A voice hisses inside your ear, inside your brain. It’s Punch’s voice. I’m lying, the voice says, a sinister mosquito buzzing in your ear. I can see into your mind. I know you want to run to the police.

  You stutter nervously as you recite your lines in reply. The audience loves it. They think the stutter is the perfect hayseed touch. They don’t know you’re not acting. They don’t see.

  All they see is what you show them.

  A sea of faces looks up at you. You’ve got to keep acting while you figure out what to do. The audience hears you say to Punch that you want nothing to do with battles or soldiers. They hear you say that you wish everyone understood honest work like baling hay. They don’t know that inside your head, the demon Punch’s hissing voice whispers.

  All they hear is what you recite to them.

  You’re a professional. A good actor. You don’t stop the show for anything. The show must go on, Punch’s voice whispers in your ear. Only a few more lines until Punch has a long soliloquy. Then you can go backstage and investigate. As you worry about what to do, about where Quinn went and whether she's even still alive, you hear your own voice talking about farming. Reciting your lines. Being a good actor. Gradually, your lines drown out the demonic voice. They drown out your worries. You’re acting. You sweep back into your long-practiced role as a bumpkin. You fall under your own spell.

  You forget.

  Forget Quinn.

  Forget anything has happened.

  Forget the pool of blood behind the paper screen.

  Remember the hay and the horses.

  Think about the terrible battle that Punch is telling you about.

  Think, I hope the battle doesn’t reach my farm.

  Think, I’m glad Punch is here to tell me the news.

  Let the mask swallow you up.


  “Oh, but I nearly forgot to mention!”

  exclaims Punch.

  “The winning army is coming this way,

  Bringing a mile-long train of horses and men.

  They’ll eat up everything you have and kill you in the bargain!”

  And you fret and worry as you recite your own lines in reply. What about the October harvest? What will your own horses eat? Will you be forced off your land by this rampaging army? What will your family do?

  In just a few stanzas, Punchinoni has convinced you to abandon your farm and hide from the cavalry. That rogue! He tells you to follow him into the mountains for your own protection. And you follow him into the mountains, listening to pleased applause, and Punch ushers you down the hashigakari to a hiding place in the mountains to end Act I, Scene One.

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