I should like to tell the story of Mr. Ishiguro, the eighty-year-old plasterer who did the black shikkui for us in the Eishin project. Mr. Ishiguro was known as one of the last great plasterers of Japan. The art of making shikkui, a lime paster mixed with organic gum and polished to a fine finish with a series of blades of greater and greater suppleness, is one of the great old arts of Japan.
Mr. Ishiguro offered to come out to our construction yard, when we were considering the idea of working with him, to make samples. He and his son made a rough framework, and on it the elder Mr. Ishiguro plastered an area about one square meter in black plaster. His son, sixty years old, and the head of their two man company, made a similar area of light green plaster.
His son finished first. The light green plaster was very nice by any ordinary standards. But the elder Mr. Ishiguro worked at his black plaster for a long, long time, lovingly stroking the small square of plaster, for hours it seemed, with his softest trowel, as gently as one might stroke a beloved woman's skin. He went on with it. And he went on with it. His plaster, his black panel, shone in an almost unbelievable way. It had a surface of satin gloss and sheen, yet so deep as if the world was in that plaster.
Whatever quality it was, it did not exist in the green plaster his son had made. I asked the elder Mr. Ishiguro, as we were all three standing there, what it was, and what the difference was. He said, quite openly, that his son, though he had been plastering for forty years, had never understood this "something." He is interested in the business, he takes care of the money, he is a good plasterer. But I was never able to teach him this. And he shook is head.
That is a whisper of the something, a direct relationship between person and matter, which has escaped our modern consciousness.
Fifty miles out of Prague, the halved carcass of a freshly killed hog hangs, still steaming in the cold, from what looks like a child's swing set. It's a wet, drizzling morning and your feet are sopping and you've been warming yourself against the chill by huddling around the small fire over which a pot of pig parts boils. The butcher's family and friends are drinking slivovitz and beer, and through noon is still a few hours off, you've had quite a few of both. Someone calls you inside to the tiled workspace, where the butcher has mixed the pig's blood with cooked onions and spices and crumbs of country bread, and he's ready to fill the casings. Usually, they slip the casing over a metal tube, turn on the grinding machine, cram in the forcemeat or filling, and the sausages fill like magic. This guy does it differently. He chops everything by hand. A wet mesa of black filling covers his cutting board, barely retaining its shape -- yet he grabs the casing in one hand, puts two fingers in one open end, makes the "V" sign, stretching it disturbingly, and reaches with the other -- then buries both his hands in the mix. A whirlwind of movement as he squeezes with his right hand, using his palm like a funnel, somehow squirting the bloody, barely containable stuff straight into the opening. He does this again and again with breathtaking speed, mowing his way across the wooden table, like a thresher cutting a row through a cornfield, a long, plump, rapidly growing, glistening, fully filled length of sausage engorging to his left as he moves. It's a dark, purplish color through the translucent membrane. An assistant pinches off links, pins them with broken bits of wooden skewer. In moments, they are done.
Back in the cold backyard, you're on your fifth slivovitz when the sausages arrive in a cloud of vapor, straight from the pot. Everybody's damp and a little drunk; hard country people with rough hands and features for whom a mist of cold rain is apparently no obstacle to a meal. There is goulash, mopped with crusts of bread, and there are blood soup and many sausages. The whole of the pig is very well represented. But it's the blood sausage that sings -- or, more accurately, spurts. You cut into it with your knife and it explodes across the plate like a Hollywood bullet hitting a skull -- and again you think of Zola, the greatest of food pornographers, that wonderful scene in the charcuterie, our tragically absurd hero starving in the midst of ridiculous bounty. His in-laws stirring blood and spices for boudin noir, filling their glass display case with enticingly described delights he is unwelcome to try. It smells here like that room must have: blood and onions, paprika and a touch of nutmeg, notes of sweetness, longing... and death. The woman at the end of the table with a face like a concrete pylon sees you close your eyes for a second, appreciating, and she smiles.
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