The Arrangement (Reylia Slaby Photography)

Past Lifetimes © Reylia Slaby 2014

Past Lifetimes © Reylia Slaby, 2014

Reylia Slaby is a photographer based in Nara, Japan. She’s also an all-round artist who is ‘a graphite artist, a poet, a dancer, a model, a writer and a reader.’ She’s rather brilliant.

I got to meet her in Osaka 5 years ago, and have been eagerly following her work online. She mainly creates stunning works of art through conceptual photography, often thematically related to Japan. Her photographs have been featured in Vogue Italia, En Vie, Photography Masterclass, The Postscript Journal, etc.

I’ll let her pieces speak for themselves – check her out at the following sites:

Reylia’s photographs are some of the best I’ve seen, and she is one of my favourite artists. Her works are striking and moving. They’re absolutely breathtaking. She knows how to work magic in her art. When I saw this photograph entitled Past Lifetimes, a story began to form in my mind. Here it is.

~

The Arrangement
by Justin Lau

It had been four days.

Four full days, and now the fifth.

It was raining today, as it had been the past four days, only harder. Heavy raindrops pounded relentlessly upon her wagasa, usually used for kabuki or tea ceremonies embodying the very essence of grace and calm, and not meant to withstand such recurrent onslaughts; and through the oil-paper covering as black as her pupils seeped droplet by droplet, gently sprinkling, then purifying, then soaking as if no sufficient amount could cover her multitude of wrongdoings. The intricately-threaded and assembled bamboo skeleton, dyed specially with the blood of a newborn calf, had already faded into an unassuming amber. Even blood is easily washed away by the divine torrents of water pouring from heaven, as if to signify the complete elimination of her existence, severing ties as easily as a katana through stalks of rice to prevent further disgrace.

But on the bright side, for that is what she had learnt to see in her solitary times of undisguised reflection, she had not died, thanks to the rain, which gave her drink, which gave her life.

The Arrangement prohibited her from all things save the three essentials of clothing, shelter, food: the purple kimono draped around her shoulders, loosely tied beneath her bare breasts, the rain lending itself to a darker shade which seemed to accentuate the gravity of her burden; her wagasa which had been a present from Yamada-san when she was twelve years old, and had since been overtly defensive of it with precocious ferocity; and a small ochoko, normally used for sake, a smooth white adorned with azure petals.

And into the ochoko leapt the rain, and out, determined not to be confined in the cylindrical cup and to join forces with the barren land; yet some took pity on her and partook in a sacrificial blessing that would soothe her parched throat. If Kuraokami had not sent rain, she would have had to rely on the tono. But she sensed he would rather let her wilt away than to be refreshed, taking cruel delight in his unopposed control of her fate. So she thanked Kuraokami, she thanked the rain, and she thanked the ochoko that nestled perfectly in her palm.

*

By the second day, her kimono had been drenched and the east wind endeavoured to topple her over. She tried not to shiver, knowing it would worsen and accelerate the chill creeping into her bones. Instead, she closed her eyes and meditated, breathing slowly, settling every nerve and muscle that sought desperately to shake. Such discipline she was not used to, but had acquired in a mere three days. The human mind is a marvel, she thought, for on the verge of imminent death, even the physical body must submit to its will. Never had she felt so ambitious. Death did not seem to be the only option anymore.

Her knees ached. She could not feel her legs, the blood long stopped from flowing. The Arrangement was simple: kneel in a seiza position in front of his door; take care not to make the slightest movement; not a sound must escape your mouth; only move minimally to drink water; keep your hands neatly folded on your knees; he must never see your eyes closed for that is a sign that you would rather wallow in eternal darkness; wait for him and him alone.

Her urine flowed freely from underneath, and though it was a small amount, she was thankful for the rain that washed it down the stone steps and into the garden where tufts of grass sprouted in anticipation of a new harvest. Though she was used to kneeling, she had naturally felt frightened when at the end of the first day she was unable to feel her toes. On the second day, she wondered if her legs would be rendered completely useless, would ultimately have to be cut off. By the third, her legs had left her mind. They had become a separate entity, wholly distanced from the rest of her body, unimportant and even unnecessary. Her focus was sharpened, her mind invigorated with every pump of blood from the heart. She had never felt more alive.

*

Don’t worry, they said.

It won’t last for more than a day, they said.

He’ll forgive and accept you by the second, they said.

Think of the rejoicing, the celebration, the sense of relief when he finally lays his hand on you, they said.

Soon, they stopped saying.

Yet they continued looking. She could not turn around to face her onlookers, but each passing hour brought with it fresh stares of amusement and disgust, and occasionally a rare pity amidst the solidarity of condescension. Their gazes bore holes in her back, each an inescapable wound dripping with shame.

‘Don’t point,’ said the mothers to their children, all the while staring themselves.

‘What did she do?’ a high-pitched voice asked, followed by a loud shush and smack and the reverberating cries of a boy that brought tears to her own eyes.

*

Each morning, he would slide open the wooden doors tinted with kobicha hues of age and experience, the wide gaps providing her with occasional glimpses of him washing up and dressing for the day, and walk past her without a single glace. She would remain immobile; it took all of her willpower to prevent her head from turning or her throat from voicing out pathetic pleas for mercy. The rain, and more, wet her cheeks.

White for life and acceptance; red for eternal condemnation, to live the rest of her life closer to yomi-no-kuni than to the waking world. If the latter, all would be able to harm her without worry, without judgement. She deserved it, that was indisputable. The beauty of karma, the priest had explained to her, but she could never understand. Where was beauty to be found in the rigorous cycles of suffering, of pseudo-redemption?

Her Arrangement would not go unnoticed. It would be foolish even for him to ignore her. Yet he prolonged her torture by taking his time; she had never heard of an Arrangement that exceeded three days. She could not help but entertain a lingering thought in the back of her mind, that her genuine gesture, overwhelmed with regret and repentance which pressed heavily upon her delicate heart like a woodblock upon washi, would be inadequate.

But what man could be so cold? Whatever the verdict, she would wait. She had no other choice. Eventually, though she knew not when, he would have to act. For that was the Arrangement.

*

The evening of the fifth day. Water kept her alive, barely. Without proper nourishment, she would wither away. Her stomach had shrunk drastically, the skin was peeling from her fingers, she could barely lift the ochoko and each breath brought pain to her chest. She could hear her mother’s whisper, ‘Hold on, just hold on.’ But she knew it was a miracle she still knelt upright, battling the cold, the rain, the despondence, the spiteful arrows of puerile slander. She knew that by dawn, she would be dead.

The sun set completely. She could not see. The rain grew stronger, each forceful drop prompting her to resignation. She closed her eyes and felt herself finally succumbing to it all.

It was then she heard footsteps coming along the path, stopping right behind her. She gasped silently. She tried to swallow her saliva but had none. Her empty insides churned with emotion. Everything depended on this moment. This was the culmination of the Arrangement.

A hand lifted and dropped her kimono, stripping bare her right shoulder and back. Her skin felt exposed. She flinched slightly as the hand pressed long and hard against her back, but surprisingly gentle, leaving its coarse pattern marked onto her skin. Forever imprinted, by the hands of the one who mastered her fate. Then the touch ceased, the footsteps passed, the door opened and closed. Uncertainty left. And she wept. And she felt free.

The next morning, a crowd had gathered outside his house, staring silently at the still upright body propped by her right hand which had compulsively left her lap, and the searing handprint. Her act of penitence had not been enough; his heart remained unforgiving. By lack of grace, she had fallen short. And there were some who prayed that by grace, she had been able to make amends.

Was she dead? Or was there a flutter of breath still flittering in her lungs? None could tell, none moved to check. For who would dare touch the one marked by righteous damning blood? Such was the finality of the Arrangement.

© Justin Lau, 2014

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