Madelaine Seyer, Junior, Speech Pathology, Oregon City, OR
I first met Henry Wojcik at the University of Manchester. I was studying international affairs and he studied art, of course. Henry was a force of nature, a catalyst of humor, and a recipient of good fortune that made people want to crowd around him and see which of his gifts they could scavenge for themselves. Nothing truly concerned him but least of all his future. Coming from a family of painters, he had been bred to hold a paintbrush and palette, his pedigree ensuring him a spot in any gallery on the continent should he so wish. He knew this well. I can not slander him of this; he was very gifted and passionate. But he allowed himself to be swept into life in a way I could not imagine, content to sit back while his family decided things for him.
I first met Ayami Murata… well surely I do not actually remember, given that she’s my cousin. I do remember being a child in Japan, always competing on who could run the fastest (Ayami), who’s calligraphy was better (mine), and who could perform a better impression of our ojisan, with his silver beard and deep, belly laugh (a tie). When I told her I was going to England for university, she just laughed and asked how they would be able to pronounce my name. I told her I would go by a western name: Daniel. She did not find this as funny.
My memories of university are intertwined with memories of Henry, a constant presence in the recesses of my nostalgic mind, always telling a joke or asking to sketch me. His voice still rings in my ears from time to time with fervor and grit. In fact, the only time I remember him to be silent was when he was painting. His mouth would twist up to one side and his eyebrows would push downward, ultimately giving the effect of a gorilla searching for its next meal; partially comical but very intense.
After my university days, I returned home to Hikone. I spent my days in comfort, surrounded by my family who only called me by my given name- Daishin- and asked me questions of my time in England. It was a comfortable time but I quickly began to feel restless. I had spent four years of my life studying to do business in foreign and novel places but I had not spoken to someone who did not know Japanese since graduating. The day I approached- or attacked, as Ayami claims- a woman speaking German in hushed tones at the market simply because I craved the expression of a nonnative tongue, I knew it was time for me to leave Hikone again. The right circumstances came around soon enough with an invitation from Henry Wojcik, inviting me and a guest to his most recent art showing at a gallery in Amsterdam. There was never a question in my mind that Ayami would be coming with me. She had built a life at home for herself but after a childhood spent in a country closed off from travel, she was equally restless. Especially once I came home regaling her with stories of my time abroad. So I took her with me.
Months later, when the night of the art showing came around, I had already drunk too much to be a reliable escort but Ayami had enough grace for the both of us. She held onto my arm firmly and did not let go of it. Not when an elderly couple asked how long we had been married. Or when Mr. Carmichael, the man hosting the event, welcomed me with a friendly handshake, careful to pretend she was not there. Not even when I introduced her as my cousin from Japan to Mr. Carmichael, only for him to ask her in loud, over-pronounced English “How are you liking Europe?”. She did not speak a word of his language but condescension is universal. Through it all, she held tightly to me, keeping me upright while maintaining a level of poise. This is undoubtedly what led Henry over.
“Daniel, my old friend!” He strode toward me. He wore a gold suit jacket with flowing sleeves, arms wide for an embrace. I welcomed it readily but could tell from the way he did not meet my eye and had his body turned towards Ayami that he was waiting for an introduction.
“Henry, this is my cousin, Ayami,” I explained in English. “Ayami, this is my old friend, Henry,” I said in Japanese.
“I can see what you were referring to when you called him eccentric.” She politely nodded at Henry despite poking fun at his outrageous outfit. Henry was blissfully unaware of any ridicule in her tone. When he spoke to her, it was with a soft voice that seemed as if it shook with nerves, entirely foreign coming from his mouth.
“This may be forward of me but has anyone ever painted you?”
I translated for her and she gave a soft laugh. “Only the unambitious and uninspired.” Henry did not think much of that answer. “
Would you consider this work to be uninspired?” He gestured to the gallery and I took a moment to see what was being exhibited for the first time since arriving. They were portraits, some crossing the boundary between solitary and violent, all with soft lighting and ambient nature. The women were demure and graceful, the men strong and commanding though it entirely appeared inviting. What I saw now was so unlike the fast and vibrant work Henry used to produce and I could see the maturity that he had acquired, despite his ostentatious attire.
I was beyond impressed but Ayami just said; “They are nice.” I made a poor attempt to hide my smirk as Henry’s confident grin slipped at my translation. I doubted many people these days showed him such disinterest. Ayami held his gaze and he quickly recovered, a mischievous glint in his eye. He extended his hand to Ayami, fingers jerking slightly.
“Daniel, would you entirely mind if I showed your cousin the rest of the gallery? Surely there is something here that may change her mind.”
I did not know Henry to be anything other than a gentleman, which is why I ultimately allowed him to take her arm in his and guide her through the room, though I would be lying if I did not admit I was unsure of him. It had been a long time since we had last met. But Ayami had always been strong and steady, since we were children, and I would be more surprised to find out she gave in to the flirtations of the first European man she had ever met. I guess that is one of the things about life and women; they never cease to surprise you.
It only took five turns around the hall for Henry to bring my cousin back to where I stood next to the makeshift bar against the farthest wall. I observed as they barely spoke a word, considering Henry did not speak a word of Japanese and Ayami did not know English. However, Henry’s art must have spoken for him because when she approached me, she announced that she would be his model.
“You told me to seek adventure once, did you not?” she shot back at me when I protested. I knew the argument was lost before I could even get a word out simply by the look on her face. Stubborn and sure.
“I’m sure okaasan would not mind if we stayed in Amsterdam for a little while longer than expected.”
Ayami and I met Henry for their first session days later at a warehouse-like open room. A young boy dressed in a loose cotton button-up allowed us into the space, ducking out of the room before we could ask any questions. The windows were bare of any drapings in order to allow in as much natural light as possible. Henry had prepared a chair for Ayami in front of an easel and a stool to the side, assumedly for me. Henry himself was absent. Ayami surveyed the space.
“Cousin, are you sure you want to help him? He may be my friend but I do not expect you to entertain him.” She was already starting to arrange her skirts to sit on the chair.
“I am certain.”
We sat in silence until Henry made his appearance, blowing into the room with three buttons on his shirt undone and hair mussed. He approached Ayami, bowing slightly and bringing her hand to his lips briefly, his other hand rustling against his leg. She looked down her nose at him, amused but impartial. Seeing him next to her, Henry a chaotic tumble and Ayami the image of poise, was comical. They did not exchange words but somehow came to the agreement they were both ready to begin.
“Does he want me to pose myself in any particular way?” Ayami asked me to translate.
Henry waved his left hand, the paintbrush in it threatening to drip its contents on the worn wood floor. “Surely not. I see no reason to manufacture beauty when it is so inherent.”
“No, just make yourself comfortable.” I was hesitant to translate for Henry but if it made her more at ease… “He says you’re beautiful.” She smiled slightly before composing herself again. “Tell him flattery will lead him nowhere.” Henry liked this, his own knowing smile flashing briefly before he set to work.
They worked in silence at first, the only interactions coming when he would come up and adjust her skirts or circle slowly, looking for some angle I would never see. She was patient, barely moving but I knew my cousin well and was sure this would not last long. I was right and her curiosity prevailed.
“How did you become a painter?” she asked. I translated for them.
“I did not truly. It was always assumed I would take after my family’s craft.”
“Do you not enjoy it?”
He pondered this for a beat, his paintbrush lifting off the canvas and resting against his thigh only to smudge paint on his slacks. “I enjoy moments of it. Like when I host a showing and everyone is there just to observe what I created. Even when they are criticizing, I am filled with 6 pride knowing they are seeing something with my name on it and considering it of importance for one reason or another.”
“I’m sure you draw women in.”
“Oh, being an artist does not hold the same appeal to women my age as it did when I was in university. I’m occupied by my craft anyways.”
“That seems lonely.”
He smiled. “Not always.”
The pair were always civil but they did not start to become friendly until a week later when Henry brought something for Ayami. Until then, she had been coming in the nicest dress she had brought, a dark blue day dress I had assured her was very fashionable in Europe. Though I was used to the stiff-necked, uncomfortable fashions of Europe, I could tell she was not as confident as she was at home when our okaasan made sure every article of clothing fit properly and was not too constricting. Ayami rarely complained but I could not miss the way she pulled at her wrist cuffs every now and again. Henry must have as well because he came into the next session with soft, luxurious white fabric draped over his arm. It swished with a faint motion.
“Good morning. I was wondering, well…” he held up the fabric in front of her, “…would you be interested in something a little more familiar. I would hate to keep you here for hours in discomfort.” Every few words, his mouth would twitch. Ayami seemed not to notice.
She took the fabric and held it up. It was a traditional kimono, the majority of it a cream color, the edges slightly reflective. Silver embroidery grew from the bottom, disappearing underneath the sash at the waist.
“It is lovely.” She took the kimono from Henry and left only to return minutes later dressed and visibly more relaxed. She had taken her hair down and repinned it in a looser knot that did not look as severe. She walked in and took her place in the chair, keeping eye contact with Henry and refusing to break it. He backed out first and she smirked before turning her head away. His own stature became less rigid and he worked himself into a zone, the silence once again resuming. Four hours later, he seemed satisfied with whatever he had created and invited the two of us over to see it.
The outline of Ayami’s form was visible, her shoulder turned to the viewer but her face was bright and shining as the focal point. I was thoroughly impressed. I turned to Ayami to gauge her reaction and she looked at me momentarily. Her eyes were misty but I did not know her to be someone to cry in front of others. She reached for Henry’s hand and clasped it briefly before releasing it and walking out of the room.
By the fourth week of sessions, Ayami was bored. She had been sitting in the same position for six hours. Henry had taken an hour at least mixing the right color for the background, mixing and mixing, ultimately to clean the palette and start anew.
“I just do not understand why it is so important that the background be perfect. Is it not the least important part?” She fidgeted, trying to work feeling into her legs once more.
“It can not be so obvious that it overpowers the subject or too subtle that it becomes boring,” came Henry’s response.
“Who told you that?” I asked him, curious myself.
“They teach you that in university when studying color theory.”
“Color theory? I did not think color theory was something professional artists thought much about. Do you not worry it will disrupt your creativity?” She raised her eyebrows, clearly implying she thought it was disrupting his creativity.
He glanced at her from underneath his eyelashes. “No.” He set his palette on a stool and rubbed his eyes with the palm of his shaky, paint-smeared hands. He looked tired. Ayami stood and approached the easel, observed the painting, and then the color he was currently mixing.
“May I?” she asked, gesturing at the palette.
He nodded at her and she gently pushed him to the chair she had previously been occupying. He sank into it and settled back as she took up the palette and start mixing. Henry and I chatted quietly while she worked through the puzzle in her head, occasionally angling it in different ways to catch the light. Keeping to tradition, Henry was not quiet for long.
“Ayami, may I ask what made you want to work with me?” I translated for him.
“I think I should put my name on something important.”
This gave me pause. I hesitantly translated this to Henry, worried he would be patronizing. But he considered the response.
“Ayami, the muse does not usually receive credit.”
“And why not? I thought things were done differently in Europe. I am sitting for hours. Am I not mixing paint for you right now?” He laughed at this. “I suppose you are.” There was a silence as she continued working and he thought about this new development. It was a while before either of them spoke again, Henry breaking first. “Are you thinking you would like a credit given at the showing or your name in the paper?”
She strutted to him, grabbing his collar in an unladylike manner that made me chuckle, partially dragging him to the easel. Ayami handed him the palette which he held up next to the halfway finished painting, pondering before grinning at her.
“This color will be perfect.”
She nodded. “I believe my name would make a beautiful painting title don’t you think?” she said, patting him on the arm once before taking her spot once more at the chair.
He shook his head but the smile remained. “Yes, I think so.”
“How do you say ‘orange’?”
Henry did his best to repeat it but it was a sorry attempt. Ayami giggled at his stumbling. “Alright, my turn. How do you say ‘sutsūru’?” she asked, pointing at the corner of the room.
“That’s a stool.”
“Stool.” Though it was not perfect, Ayami had heard me speak English before and was more practiced with the sounds. They had been doing this for over thirty minutes. I had not translated for them all day, both opting to jumble through translations. I had been sitting underneath the window, reading and people-watching outside, idly listening to their banter. I grew tired and slept at one point, waking up an indeterminable time later only to find them gone. They returned an hour later, laughing at some private joke, steaming mugs in their hands.
“Oh, Daniel, I’m sorry to have left you but we did not want to disturb you.”
I stopped going to their sessions then. They did not need me there anymore.
I had become suspicious weeks ago that he had not been painting and had just dragged the process out in order to spend time with Ayami. She and I had plans to leave the country and return home within the week. I now spent my days walking the city and meeting up with university friends rather than with the pair. When Ayami came back to the inn we were staying in at the end of the night, she seemed to float. I did not press her about it, knowing she would want 10 to keep it private. That is why I was so surprised when she came home one night, flushed and excited. She rushed into the room in a flurry, grasping my arms and grinning.
“He loves me!”
“Henry! Who else? He said so just now when he walked me home.”
“Ayami, I…” I did not know what to say. On the one hand, Henry was a friend to me. But a small part of me wondered if she was overwhelmed with the imposing trip home and being swept up by Henry’s life. “Are you at all concerned he is only saying this because you’re leaving?” I could tell by the confusion written on her face that she had not thought of this at all.
“No, I am not concerned.” She paused, considering whether or not to tell me something. “Did you know he will not paint anymore? Truly, it is that he can not paint.”
“What do you mean?”
“He has a disease. I do not remember what he called it but his body shakes. You’ve seen it. He told me he will not be able to do it any longer. He wanted me to be the last thing he painted. He has officially invited us to the showing next Tuesday.”
I sighed. She sounded so happy, I had a hard time bringing her away from it. “Of course we will be there.”
We did not see much of Henry before the showing. He sent the young man from the warehouse with flowers for Ayami, a note accompanying saying he was working out the logistics of the showing. Our inn was a flurry as we rushed around, her shopping for a dress and I packing to return home. It did not take long for me to notice she was not doing the same.
“Ayami, should you not have begun arranging your things for our return?” I asked upon her return fom shopping. It appeared she had finally found something to wear.
“Oh, no, I am alright. I think I should like to stay a little longer.”
Maybe I should have expected this but it took me entirely by surprise. “I should think not. Listen to me, Ayami. I know this,” I gestured out the hotel window at the skyline, “can be exciting and you are caught up in it right now but you have to come home. Henry lives a very different life from us, one that I have never envied him of.”
“Maybe I want to live that life too!”
“How do you know that? You’ve only been here for two months, most of it spent in that damn warehouse!”
“I know that I do not want to return home. Where no one respects my career and just wants me to sit there, look beautiful, and be silent.”
“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you will not find anything much different from that here. We are in a different country, not a different world, Ayami.”
A look of hurt passed her face which she quickly schooled into a stubborn face I recognized. “Henry loves me and has asked me to stay. I am staying.”
Realizing how serious she was, I resigned myself to not force her. I had never had luck in that endeavor before. “Fine, cousin. Do what you wish. But I am leaving by the end of the week. Whether you are on the boat or not is up to you.” With that, I left the hotel room, fully intent on speaking to Henry.
It did not take long for me to find him. I recalled from university how he always spent time in front of his art before a showing, regretting some things and mentally patting himself on the back for others. There was no surprise at finding him in the place that had been our daily haunt for two months. He was sitting on the floor, a bottle of vodka in one hand and a cigarette in the other as he gazed up at my cousin’s face. He turned his head to me slowly as I approached 12 him. I had plans to confront him but was taken aback by the state of him. Maybe it was the alcohol but his entire body was shaking unmistakably. The liquor inside the glass bottle sloshed gently with the motion and when he talked to me, his words came out in quivers.
“Daniel! My friend. So glad you came.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Of course, of course. Come sit with me, brother.” He patted the wooden floor beside him. Hesitant to encourage him and still angry with the situation, I remained standing.
“Henry, what are your intentions with my cousin?”
“Ugh, please. I did not want to have this conversation. Not tonight.” Henry stood and stumbled across the room, ordering his materials and cleaning. “Yes, tonight.” I had never been upset with Henry before and did not enjoy the feeling. “I am leaving soon. Ayami has told me she will not be coming with me and is staying with you.”
“It is true. With your permission, I want to be with her.”
I scoffed. “With my permission? She does not need my permission but do not pretend to care about what I think.”
“I do care. You are one of my oldest friends,” Henry said, tossing a plaque face-up on a chair. Looking back, I do not recall what made me look twice but I recognized what I was looking at. It was the plaque that would be beside the painting at the showing. It read “Beauty in a white kimono.” Henry Wojcik. 1870. My cousin’s name was not listed. My chin dipped and I rubbed a hand over my face.
“Henry, please tell me that is incorrect.”
He glanced down a moment, his eyes jerking around and hands fluttering at his sides.
“Daniel, please do not judge me. I could not do it. I was looking at her, the last painting I would produce, and this… grief came over me. I need people to see this and know me. Not someone else. Not this one. I need it to be me.” It took him too long to force his voice through it but he finished with a grunt, slamming his bottle down on the ground. A crack resonated through the space and vodka started spilling out of the bottom of the bottle. I did not have the right words to console him. I could not understand these emotions. But I knew I could not watch while he destroyed Ayami’s spirit. Maybe that made me a bad cousin or a bad friend, but I would not.
“I will not be coming tomorrow. I wish you and my cousin luck but I do not want to see her face when she sees what you’ve done.” I left the room, not having the heart to slam the door on the sight of him still staring at the plaque, his entire body quaking. I closed the door on him slipping to the ground.
A week later, Ayami and I stood on the dock, her arm looped through mine, a stoic look on her face as she looked out on the water.
The night of the showing, I waited for her in the hotel room, dreading the moment she walked through the door. I dangled on the precipice of hoping she would be alright with it and stay with him and wishing she would not settle for the disappointment and come home with me. I was saved from a lot of trouble when she opened the door quietly only an hour after a carriage came by to take her to the showing. She must have thought me asleep by the way she crept through the room, barely making a sound.
“Ayami…?” She whirled at the sound of my voice. Tears streamed down her face though she betrayed no emotion otherwise. There was a silence between us as we stared at each other, trying to read the other’s thoughts. We remained like that for what felt like an eternity.
“I will be returning to Japan after all,” she declared.
I nodded, not knowing what to say to console her and not wanting to patronize her with an “I told you this would happen”. She used the sleeve of her dress to swipe at her running makeup and sighed deeply before closing the screen that separated our sides of the room. She did not come out from behind it until we left to go home.
At one point in the days before we were set to leave, the same young man that had brought Ayami flowers knocked on the door of our inn. I just stood there, curious.
“Mr. Wojcik wants Ms. Murata to have this,” he said, forcing a letter into my hands and dashing away. My first instinct was to rip it up. But, upon returning to the room and seeing Ayami’s dress strung over the door to preserve its shape, I could not bring myself to do it. I stuffed it into the inner pocket of my jacket.
On the docks, I pulled it out and held it before her. “This came for you. I’ve been debating whether or not to give it to you but… I want you to choose to go home knowing everything. I do not know what this says. But I think you should read it.”
Ayami took it gently. She turned it over in her hands, reading Henry’s handwriting. I thought she seemed hopeful. But that goes to show how my cousin still surprises me. With a flourish, she threw it into the water.
“Shall we go home?”