Katherine Govier is the author of nine novels and three short story collections. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States, and throughout the Commonwealth, and in translation in Holland, Italy, Turkey, and Slovenia. She is the winner of Canada’s Marian Engel Award, and the Toronto Book Award. Her novel Creation was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2003. Her most recent novel The Ghost Brush is about the daughter of the famous Japanese printmaker, Hokusai, creator of The Great Wave.
Introducing her piece below, she says:
This is the beginning of the original contemporary “frame” that I wrote for The Ghost Brush. I argued with my agent and my editor until they agreed to publishing the story of my haunting.When we got to galley stage and the book was 175,000 words long the US publisher balked. Overnight I removed the frame — all 33,000 words of it. We published it in the “special edition ebook” so it lives on, electronically, but has never been printed.
LOOKING BACK, I SEE that she summonded me
I am in the Freer Gallery standing in front of a picture. It is called “Parading Courtesan”. It is a painting on silk and it is dated 1826.
The woman is wrapped in a giant layered kimono patterned in whites, browns, black and pale blue. With one childish hand she raises the front of this great shell she wears to reveal its slit opening, and, inside, a tantalizing red frilly underskirt. Her hair is a two-tiered black beehive speared with heavy, ornate pins. Her platform clogs twist as she steps — you can hardly say she’s walking. She’s in the air; there is nothing beneath her and nothing in front or behind. She is alone, suspended in the yellow atmosphere of the aged silk scroll. She could be treading water. Her blank white face tilts down and slightly toward me and her features — eyes, nose, mouth drawn with fine brush lines– are closed.
It’s a beautiful painting — intense, intricate, vibrant.
And it is giving me an uncomfortable feeling.
Here is what I know. The woman is young, probably sixteen. She is for sale, and she is “parading” as a way of advertising herself as goods.
The girl — that’s what she is, really, not a woman — walks down Nakanocho Boulevard in the Yoshiwara pleasure district in Edo, Japan. She is performing the “figure-eight” step, which requires her to lift each foot, swung it forward, and then outward in a semicircle, back to its starting position, and then forward again. It is slow and difficult. She is being very careful, but her feet appear to be at cross-purposes and it is possible she might fall off this particular gangplank, which I can only imagine.
Courtesans were said to be proud and spirited, and their garments were high fashion. But it was no fun. No fun to promenade in front of gawkers who were considering buying you for an evening, if they had the cash. Gawkers who might be aided in their decision by a saiken, a guidebook, that rated your attributes and services — your skin, your shape, your enthusiasm. They would have bought this guidebook to the merchandise at the Great Gate leading into this “pleasure district”.
It’s obvious whose pleasure we’re talking about, and it is not yours, poor girl.
The fabric of the girl’s outer kimono is covered with large circles of white and black — bull’s eyes. It is as if staring eyes have flown at her and stuck. The colours are rich and deep, like those in a really fantastic bruise. The face is averted, the chin is down, and I cannot believe this girl could see over the giant bow that springs up in front of her dress.
She walks in a welter of pride and shame. She dangles like an ornament outside of normal life. The frilled edges of her red underwear run like an electric current under the vast and sumptuous carapace of fabric she carries. She, and her accessories, are intended to thrill. But she looks modestly, painfully down, her neck turned just slightly to me, her eyes pinched black lines.
The painted girl is eloquent in her trappings.
And then I hear a voice.
I stand absolutely still and will the other gallery-goers to keep away.
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To visit the Ghostbrush,