The woman gave a start. The lady she espied turned out to be a geisha doll reflected on the mirror of a cabinet door that swung open.
She was one of the regulars who came to check this seller of usable junk. Cabinets, mattresses, rugs, bicycles, washing machines, freezers, fax machines—still serviceable, these goods were clustered along with their kind in sections marching neatly under the tin-roofed sheds in that sprawling lot.
Then there were the items cannibalized from junk and now grouped with objects having the same shape but different function. So small cowhide balls gathered dust beside multi-colored gashed bowling balls and opaque spheres of stone that could be paperweights or balls in a game the woman had never heard of.
It was her habit to stop first by these oddities, musing to find a reason why the clerks categorized as they did: what did fire hoses have in common with flexible hoses salvaged from discarded machines? Perhaps there was a housewife out there who might improvise a flexible clothesline, convertible for emergency escapes?
Her private game done, she inevitably drifted to the section of the dolls.
The first time she came upon them, she wondered if a museum had fallen on hard times and was forced to auction off its collection, lot by dirt-cheap lot.
There were court ladies swathed in glinting brocade, samurais, noblemen, wooden Kokeshis whose pale, pearl-like surface reflected beneficent expressions. A Meiji period battle horse raised a hoof and cocked its head, the fine, ash-white mane seeming to shiver in the vacuum of its box.
They seemed to have just stepped off a story, conjured from whimsy and so requiring the cases of glass and wood to prevent hands from pawing a lacquered coiffure, arranged in the ginkgo-leaf style, or the gossamer folds of a sleeve slipping a little to reveal a fine-boned wrist.
Wood and silk, stitch and paint, slight enough to disappear in a palm or glowering down on her like a painting come to life—the dolls fell into three or four easy-to-remember categories. No doubt to simplify purchasing decisions, the clerks priced dolls falling below half a foot to a thousand pesos; a bit higher, a few hundreds of pesos more.
Or perhaps, she mused, the clerks just factored more if the glass and wood case was thrown in. Houseless dolls, or parts of it, were in a jumble on one shelf.
During every visit, she invariably noticed women, even some of the men, gawking at the dolls. Then they moved on to the ceramic ware. A huffing clerk once complained he had the hardest work: to find and cluster same plates and bowls because customers liked to buy in sets.
Workmen cementing the ground outside attested that ceramics was one of the shop’s bestsellers. In the doll shed, the ground either invited visitors to wallow in its mud or set off little dust devils that coated finely the unsold display cases. A huge termite mound nearly covered one of the kiri wood boxes.
Despite the smell of damp and the sticky feeling of many eyes on her, the woman lingered longest among the dolls. They were a long way from home, where they were heroes of lore and myth, painstakingly made by hand, keeping faith with the ancient, bequeathed to the young, and now awaiting termites or a buyer.
The woman rarely thought of the dolls without thinking of their creators. But she had no space on her shrinking work table, not even a hundred pesos. She bought a small brass urn for fifty pesos, thinking of the paper clips that could be finally organized, and went home to catch the afternoon news.
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* First published in the Aug. 9, 2009 “Matamata” column of Sun.Star Cebu