Stone Skin
By Jihoon Park

Kishimura, the town’s only barber, opened the window of his shop. The smell of burnt bodies and rice drafted in, along with the humid morning breeze. The last wisps of smoke were leaving the patty fields, and Kishimura could hear the buzzards circle lower and lower.
He prepared to open his barbershop as he did every morning. He dusted the two hanging calligraphy scrolls on the wall, his most prized possessions. He felt the scroll edges for any tears and frays. He wiped down the cracked mirror that hung on the opposite wall, and then the small wooden table and stool in front of it. His grandson, a boy of six, ran down from the upstairs bedroom.
“Jiisan, can I go outside?” The boy flipped a bucket upside down and stood on it at the windowpane to peak outside. “People are starting to come out, there’s Shinji and his sister. Can I go play?”
Kishimura looked outside. It had been two days since the Shogun’s military guard began patrolling the streets, and the townsfolk at last seemed to be coming to a silent agreement with them. Women began peeking their heads outside their windows and doors. Some of the bolder made their way to the wells. Young boys began to play in the streets, kicking up dirt.
“Bring Jiisan water first,” Kishimura said. The boy took the bucket he was standing on and another from the corner of the shop, knocking over the straw broom it was supporting. He dashed into the street but was quickly distracted by a game of ball with the other boys.
Kishimura picked up the broom and began sweeping. He worried for his son. The men of the village were farmers and tradesmen. Few had ever seen combat. In the mirror Kishimura saw his bald, spotted head. His cheek skin sagged down like a turtle’s. At that moment he felt grateful, almost selfishly, for his age, although he wouldn’t have hesitated to take his sons place.
At noon the Shogun foot soldiers returned from the patty fields, bringing with them a musk of gunpowder. Crusted bloodstains on their leather armor fell off as they marched. Some dragged their rifles and swords on the street, throwing up thick clouds of dirt. A small group of survivors, their hands bound and heads bent down, was prodded forward by bayonets. Kishimura stood in front of his store and scanned the survivors. There was the blacksmith’s son, the baker’s son, the rickshaw driver’s son, but no barber’s son. Kishimura then saw his grandson weaving fearlessly through the marching soldiers’ legs, carrying two full buckets. The boy set down the buckets at Kishimura’s feet and ran off with the other boys who were having fun imitating the soldiers, marching alongside them.
Kishimura took out his razor, dipped it in the water, and began sharpening it against a whetstone. He rubbed his fingers across the wet surface of the stone, feeling for grains of steel. He worked steadily, pausing every few moments to hold the razor in front of him and examine it with his eyes squinted. His grandson’s voice suddenly interrupted his work.
“Jiisan, there’s a man outside who wants a shave,” the boy said from the street outside.
“Tell him I’m busy.” Kishimura continued to sharpen the razor. He could hear the boy talking with an unfamiliar voice outside.
“He says you can’t be busy, because there’s no one around that you’d be shaving.”
“Tell him what a smart man he is.” Kishimura looked at the blade side horizontally for any imperfections.
“Jiisan,” the boy called out again.
“He says if you don’t shave him, he’ll have you debleated.”
“Debleated?” Kishimura chuckled.
“Yes Jiisan.”
“Don’t you mean beheaded?”
“Yes, deheaded.”
Kishimura, now satisfied with his razor, wiped it dry and tested it by trimming his thumbnail, cutting off hair-thin slivers. “Fine. Tell him to come in and behead me,” he said.
Kishimura heard the boy run off, and then a giant man walked into the shop. He wore a cotton jacket over a crested kimono, and had a katana and a short wooden rifle tied at his obi belt.
“Straight shave,” the man said.
Kishimura took the man’s cotton jacket, folded it into a neat square, and placed it on the windowsill. He reached to untie the belt, but the man covered his sword and gun with his hand.
“I’ll keep these on,” he said.
“It won’t be comfortable. It’ll impede my work.”
“I’m sure your hands are steady enough.”
Kishimura sat the man down and draped a hair cape over him. The man was calm, and his thick beard and moustache were combed straight in oil. His hair was tied up in the back by a thin strip of cloth in the tradition of the Daimyo, the Shogun lords.
The Daimyo was near his son’s age. Kishimura began brushing lather on the man’s face and found himself doing a ridiculous thing. He began to lightly tremble the brush in an attempt to tickle the samurai lord. He wondered why he was doing such a thing. He was scared for his life and his village, and maybe seeing the Daimyo giggle would put his mind at ease. Or maybe he wanted the new lord of the town to know that he was a good natured old man, a man who wouldn’t cause any trouble. Maybe Kishimura just wanted to see that the Daimyo was capable of laughter, that there was at least something human about the man who slaughtered the young men of the town. However, the Daimyo took no notice and sat unmoving with his eyes closed.
Starting with the upper lip, Kishimura began to trim away hair. As the blade made its way down, Kishimura’s hands trembled. His fingers slipped, making a small cut on the Daimyo’s chin.
“It’s no bother, continue,” said the Daimyo before Kishimura had a chance to apologize. Kishimura rinsed the blade in the bucket and the droplets of blood spread on the water’s surface. The samurai lord rested his hand on the katana handle. The razor now made its way down to the neck, and Kishimura could see the Daimyo’s adam’s apple. One swift cut could avenge his son, and all the sons of the town.
Outside, Kishimura could hear his grandson’s laughter. The townsfolk were becoming vocal as well. The men who had surrendered were allowed to return to their families. Kishimura heard cries of both relief and mourning. He wondered what his son would do in the situation.
The Daimyo spoke. “The young boy, he’s your grandson?”
Kishimura remained silent. He noticed cobwebs in the corner of the shop. In the cobwebs were dead flies. He’d need to sweep that area again.
“That boy, the other boys, they and their descendants will never be farmers again. They will become scholars, politicians, and generals. We will build schools here. They will become great men. Men like me,” said the Daimyo. As he spoke, his neck throbbed, trembling Kishimura’s hands further. He continued to think about his son, and at that moment, he was unsure what he would do next.
In one clean sweep, Kishimura cleared away the remaining hair on his neck. “It’s done,” said Kishimura, wiping away the excess lather. Without facial hair, the samurai lord looked younger, but not any kinder. He scribbled the bill on a piece of parchment and handed it to the Daimyo.
The Daimyo took the bill, scrunched it up into a ball, and tossed it into the cobwebs. “I’ll take it out of your rent,” he said. He grabbed his jacket and walked out.