When I first arrived in the tiny village of Shinpajime, I was a celebrity. Everything I said became gossip, including the way I said it. I got used to having things repeated back to me in my way, like it was such a novelty, like it had made them smile just because I had said it, like what I’d said didn’t actually matter. I was one of those dolls with the pull string, because it was funny to hear my catchphrases.
It was a compliment, of course it was. I was a new thing. I had big eyes and pale skin and a city fashion sense. I wasn’t from here. This population of four hundred at the top of a hill that overlooked the nearest city. A population I would more comfortably refer to as a medium-sized crowd.
The village was always renewing. Rooftops were rethatched. Wiring replaced. New technology swept through the houses in bursts. But the flow of people was much slower. Some left, others arrived. The departures were in search of their new lives; the new arrivals came to get away from theirs, but could be assured of one thing: attention.
There were perhaps one hundred houses in Shinpajime. No shops; people sold from a downstairs part of their houses, or an adjoining shed. I had my own ideas of what I would bring to the village; I was a tailor, bringing with me a supply of silks and cottons. I’d learned how to make a kimono – a fairly simple design – and I had my own spins and touches. Surely some would want suits, dresses. I was wrong. The village already had a tailor, and my business did not take off.
I regularly saw things that could’ve been improved upon, but I was turned down, politely, at every chance. For everything that didn’t work as I had expected it to, it was more than enough for what was needed here. What was this place? Who were these people, who were becoming to me as strange and curious as I was to them at first blush? And why did I feel the need to make it mould to me?
I was soon approached by the town’s mayor – a woman in her seventies – who introduced herself as Akiko. She studied me with intense eyes on our first meeting, and after one tea ceremony she was wedded to the idea that I would be a carpenter. The skills were adjacent, she said. And my ‘hobby’ – my tailoring – could make me an excellent assistant. That was it – my ‘interview’, so much as it was – and for the few that had lived their whole lives here, it was enough. A sense of purpose. A sense of belonging. We knew what was needed of us – and what wasn’t.
After a particularly heavy rainstorm, my roof was leaking. Akiko caught me atop my house, ladder leaned against the outside wall, trying to fix the problem. It was still raining lightly, though it was hard to tell quite how much of it was simply drippings from the branches of some very tall trees that had grown overhead.
“Get down from there, you’ll hurt yourself,” she cried. I was gathering an audience.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, quite used to doing my own repairs in my tiny city flat.
Yuya, the man I had been introduced to as the village thatcher, came running and stood next to Akiko. They had a quiet conversation between the two of them, and Yuya stepped forward.
“I need a new table,” he called up. “Would you build it for me? Perhaps I could look at your roof in return?”
In their typical way, this was not the message. Rather, it was their subtle way of telling me that my addition to the community was something else – some day, no one would cut and carve wood as beautifully as I would. And here I was, denying Yuya the chance to be useful, denying him the chance to do what no one else could do half as well.
From then on, I found a renewed joy in my tailoring. It became a pleasure to make my own creations. I developed my own style, and even made my first sales in the village. The village tailor Ryu and I swapped patterns and tricks, both of us comfortable that I wasn’t trying to overstep, nor could I be as good as he at the things he did; but that my ‘hobby’ added to the village in its own way.
It was a relief to know that Yuya was always there for my roof, just as Akiko was there to solve any quarrels, and Ryu would mend my torn trousers.
I stayed a whole three years before leaving. It was time for a new pace. In that time, six others had left, but no one else joined. When Akiko came to say her goodbyes, she was not worried, because she knew it was always like this. Surprisingly, she apologised.
“I’m sorry we weren’t what you were looking for,” she said. But I stayed for three years, I said. I loved it here. “Yes, but you changed and we didn’t, and for that I’m sorry.”
“Then I’m sorry I stopped being myself,” I said. Akiko smiled a rare smile and said, “me too.”