Wrapped in an informal kimono -Yukata, she gingerly stepped out of her room after her husband had slept. Not a soul knew her intention. Not a word had she mentioned, even to him.

She was fascinated with the idea of soaking her bare body into the mineral rich, natural hot spring of an Onsen with no one known around her. Onsen is the Japanese name for a hot spring. The term also extends to cover the bathing facilities and traditional inns frequently situated around a hot spring and had temperatures ranging from 45 to 65 degrees Celsius. The centuries-old practice of public baths and the culture of hot springs for the Japanese people intrigued her.

A three-day conference in Tokyo was scheduled midweek. Ashwin, her husband asked if she wanted to join him and spend the following weekend in the land of the rising sun. That sounded exciting. No other activity could satiate her craving for travel. New places, their people, the sights, sounds and smells could be fascinating. Stepping into the history and events that decided the fate of the people and their rulers was deeply engaging. There was so much to do, when Ashwin would be away for three whole days.

The hotel they stayed in overlooked a mountain stream gushing into the valley. It was truly a picture postcard coming alive. She stood by the window taking in the cool mountain air as she contemplated her plans for the day. She took the tube to the heart of the city, walked down the streets, peeping into the shops and visited the palace and museum complex. She loved to watch little kids in their cute Japanese outfits and mothers with beautiful Kimonos walking on Geta or Zori a kind of sandal with a flat wooden base elevated with up to three prongs.  

Getting back to the hotel, she purposefully turned her steps towards the Onsen. The woody fragrance of vapours wafting from the hot springs looked inviting and soothing. The urge to try this ‘one-time’ experience was compelling. She had to pay a price – of breaking the resolve of having remained hidden and covered for decades. The chill of the mountain air and the solitude of the snowy mountains filled her with bliss and a new sense of adventure.

It was time to face the demons that haunted her. The scars were more a part of her psyche than on her body. There were times when she felt they marred her face and figure. ”Mirror mirror on the wall, tell me that they are not there”, she would say to herself. Nevertheless, they remained her painful companions for life. It became a matter of disgust, as she grew older. She did not know if she hated herself or the prying eyes that spotted and quizzed her about them.

The questions and free suggestions would never stop.

“What are those scars?”

“Have you shown them to any specialist?”

“But no one in our family has anything like those for generations!”

She learned to live her life successfully and even forgot the aberrations marring her physical beauty, when she was busy. Only when those glances scanned her body would she get back into a helpless mass of self-pity. She consciously avoided any personal talk and preferred not to engage in any conversation delving into the history of ‘the scars’. That was hell, just endured in solitude.

The Onsen for men and women were exclusive for their comfort and privacy. For someone who never ventured without a skintight full swimsuit to a pool, it was most difficult to enter the Onsen with nothing for cover. In fact, she had hoped that she would be alone at that time of the night. To her dismay, she was not the only one! There were other women of various sizes, shapes and color that night in the pool! The Irish woman and another Japanese woman who entered the foyer along with her, exchanged smiles. They went about disrobing and packing their clothes into the locker.

Apparently, there is a ritual. On entering the chambers, everyone is required to remove their clothes and keep them in a locker. A small rectangular white towel is the only piece one can carry for cleaning the body in the common shower area before stepping into the various hot spring pools laid out aesthetically for single and group use. The women before her went about their business with the tiny rectangular white towel in hand and walked off to the shower nonchalantly, without a backward glance.

It was a signal.
’No one looks at your body’.
No one is interested’.
‘Just get on with the act.
Take a shower, clean the body and wash your hair before entering the sacred space of the hot spring.

It was as simple as that! Yet, for her, it took some courage to break free from the tangled emotions in the crevices of her heart and images of ugly old scars etched painfully on the mind. She stood there for a moment clinging to her Yukata, as she walked on.

All it took was just one act – of shedding her robes and stepping into the shower. As she sank her body into the hot pool, she closed her eyes and let herself float. Everything else dissolved. The mind was still; she was free from the shackles that had imprisoned her youth, her dreams and her joys.

What took her so long she wondered? 

The Scars is a short story written during the My Alchemy workshop by participant Shirley Verghese. If you want to know more about the writing workshop, send us a mail on alchemy@abacusyellow.com

Read the earlier stories by My Alchemy participants https://tectonicshifts.wordpress.com/2020/11/05/discombobulated/ https://tectonicshifts.wordpress.com/2020/11/27/forest-lore/ https://tectonicshifts.wordpress.com/2020/12/07/the-fair/