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Cathy Ulrich

A Headless Woman

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If I were a homemaker in Japan, my next-door neighbor would be cursed. She would be a pretty woman, small the way some Japanese women are, with slender fingers. Her hair would be long and black and straight. Soft like paperwhites.

She wouldn’t think it was strange to be a homemaker, not like I would, sharing a twelve-tatami apartment with my Japanese boyfriend, dusting surfaces I had dusted the day before, taking the long way round on my errands, waiting for him to come home. My Japanese boyfriend would have glasses for nearsightedness and a wrinkle in the middle of his forehead from all the squinting he had done as a child. He would be so kind. He would never stay too late at the office, never flirt with the office ladies, never forget to say how was your day.

If I were a homemaker in Japan, I would run into my next-door neighbor at the market. We would always be running into each other at the market, admiring the parfaits in their cooler, searching for the best deal on bonito flakes.

How nice to see you, we would say, and make the usual vague promises to go to market together, next time, next time.

We are neighbors, after all.

If I were a homemaker in Japan, my neighbor would stop me by the bakery counter, air smelling of cinnamon.

I’m cursed, she would say. Did you know I’m cursed?

A terrible look would come over her face when she revealed her secret. Not fear or anger, something more like bliss.

She would say: My husband has wronged someone, and now I bear his curse.

If I were a homemaker in Japan, I would never have met my neighbor’s husband. I would only know him by the soft tread of his feet down the hallway as he left for work, the murmuring of his voice in the apartment beside mine, the hush of his absence when he had gone.

I’m cursed, my neighbor would say again. At night, I turn into a Nukekubi. My head comes off and flies round, causing terror and mayhem.

She would say: The only way to stop me is to move my body while my head is gone, and then I couldn’t find it and I would die.

My neighbor would smile again in that blissful way.

But my husband never comes home at night, you see, she would say. So I can’t be stopped.

She would put her small hand atop mine. You understand, don’t you?

Hai, wakarimasu, I’d say. Of course.

I knew, she’d say. I knew you would, and smile again and wish me a good day, and make the usual promises that we would meet and go to market together, next time, next time.

Just don’t open your window if you see my face there, she’d say. No matter how hard I knock.

She would say: I wouldn’t want to hurt you. We’re friends, after all.

Yes, I’d say. Yes, we’re friends.

If I were a homemaker in Japan, I would ask my Japanese boyfriend what he thought of our neighbor’s curse.

In the old days, women who were cursed to be Nukekubi would commit seppuku from the shame, he’d say.

And what about the husbands? I would say.

What about them?

Did anything happen to them?

My Japanese boyfriend would smile kindly, take my hand. Nothing.

I see, I would say.

If I were a homemaker in Japan, I wouldn’t sleep that night, lying awake on the futon beside my Japanese boyfriend. The sound of his breath would be so peaceful.

I would hear the knocking at the window, see my neighbor’s face there. I would climb out of the futon, put my fingertips to the window.

I can’t, I’d say. I can’t let you in.

My neighbor would dip her head up, down and up again. Not like a nod, more like the bobbing of a balloon.

Next time, she would mouth, the words escaping like steam.

Next time, I would agree, my fingertips tracing the glass. Next time.

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