The story begins in the village of Embu, about 30 kilometres away from Sao Paolo. It is a Sunday afternoon in January. ‘Embu das artes’ they call it, because of the flea market where local artists sell their arts and crafts every week. It is hot, and very humid. His white linen shirt clings to his back as he walks along the streets. He walks slowly, wearing his new shoes. He bought them yesterday from a local shoe manufacturer. They are made of light, soft leather – the softest he has ever worn. There is dust on the floor, and noise in the air. Chatter and calling, a dog barking in the distance, some beautiful Latin music glaring from a radio on one of the stall. The smell of fried meat and vegetable pies being finished off at a street food stall fills his nostrils. And it is all just dizzying.
It was perhaps last night’s churasca dinner, maybe the glass of wine he had with lunch, or possibly just his age, but Carl was feeling rather light headed, as he walked through the crowds… looking and searching at every stall.
He was tall and fair skinned. His hair, now that white golden colour of old age, was still very full on his head – shaved at the back and longer at the front, so you could just see it popping out of his straw hat. He was in his early eighties now, and alone. His wife had passed away. They never had children. And he had found it so hard to connect with friends and family again after the war. So he kept himself to himself, alone with his routines and his memories. Haunting memories. You can only know what it is to have fought in a war… if you’ve fought a war.
His health was good. He took care of himself and kept active. It would have been impossible to do this trip if he wasn’t in good health. This was his sixth week in Brazil. He went around several towns and villages, going to every flea market he could find, or hear about. And every time, as he walked, in his hand was the Japanese doll. A long and thin body, and a round oversized head. Faded now. You could just about see the curves that marked the doll’s eyes and eyebrows. Simple semi circles that almost looked like Japanese mountains in the distance. Hair that was drawn on, red and black; and a striped design on the body that looked like a dress. The curved legs had been drawn on too, but you could really not see them anymore. On the bottom of the doll, carved Japanese writing, engraved by the man who made it. Haku Takanashi.
The doll was so precious to Carl – the only possession he really cared for anymore. It signified, for him, the last real sense of meaningful human contact he had left. The only person that he thought he could be honest with. The one person who understood who he was, and what he had been through.
Carl had met Haku during the war. It was in a prison camp in Western Australia. Haku was on one side of the conflict – a prisoner – Carl on the other side. It really didn’t matter that night. It could have been the other way around. Carl had broken the rules and sat down with Haku. He had shared his alcohol and food with him, and talked. As much as they could. Understood as much as they could. They were both young, but worn out. They were tired, disillusioned and ready for it to end. One way or another. The thought of carrying on in the war was too bitter. And yet the thought of going home was just unfathomable. They had talked about what life was like before. Karl was an accounting trainee, and worked in his family firm in Melbourne. And Haku was a craftsman. He and his family made dolls in the village of Hinoki in Eastern Japan. They were famous for it, and their work made them a handsome living. Everything was different now, for both men. Thoughts of what life could have been like, if there had been no war, had fleeted through their minds. But they both knew better than to dwell on those thoughts.
That evening the two men found in each other an affinity and an understanding, common ground. This was something they both appreciated more than words could express. “When war over, if we live, you find me….” Haku had said in his broken English. “We sit…we talk… we drink…we remember again.” And then he handed him the doll. The doll that somehow he had managed to take with him throughout the whole journey of the war. Safely kept on the inside of his jacket: a reminder of home. A remnant of the life he had, but would never have again, a guardian to watch over him. “You bring doll. We be reunited.” Carl agreed. Giving the doll away to his new, momentary friend was a huge gesture. But he was so grateful that someone had had the decency and kindness to treat him as a human beng, and the doll was all he had to give, to show his gratitude. The brief time they shared meant so much to them both. Just a glimpse of humanity, of understanding, of kindness.
Somehow, giving Carl the challenge of finding him had kept him going, through the pain of returning home, the dreams of violence that kept coming back, again and again, the death of some family members and the estrangement from others.
After his wife died, Carl had started researching the Japanese doll, and Haku’s name. It took years of looking, writing letters, checking archives. And eventually, last year Carl had found information that led him to believe that Haku could be in Brazil. The trip there was expensive, long, and tiring. But Carl had nothing left at home to spend his money on. He was an old man, and he knew his life might be over soon. He had come to terms, as much as he could, with all that had happened in the past. Now it was time to keep his word, and find his friend.
As he walked around, in the mid – afternoon heat, Carl had started to give up hope. He thought he would return to his guest house, and try another place tomorrow. Just then, some street children approached him. They were shouting with excitement and pointing to the doll, and then pointing to the right of the street food stand. The kids had no shoes on, their clothes were old and worn, and not at all clean. But they had smiles on their faces.
Carl follows the kids to a back alley, and there, on the stall, he spots them. Dolls. Dolls exactly like the one he is holding in his hand. There are many different sizes, but the same colours, and designs on the face and body. They are exactly the same as the one he holds, except they’re new. They’re fresh. They’re bright, they’re hopeful. They’re young. Carl turns his eyes to the man behind the table. The man has his back to Carl and is chatting with a fellow vender in broken English. Carl approaches the table and holds the doll up. And at that moment the man turns around. He looks first at Carl, and then at the doll. The man’s hair is almost gone. He has a short white goatee, and kind eyes. He wears glasses now, but Carl immediately recognises his friend. It is Haku. Carl’s eyes fill with tears as he hands the doll back. Haku picks up one of the new ones, and gently gives it to Carl. “We be reunited,” he says, as he pulls up a chair, brings up a bottle of clear Brazillian liquor, and gestures with his hand, for Carl to sit next to him.