Madeleine Thien has, bravely I think, chosen to write about a particular evil reality. Through Janie she unveils a dreadful truth.
From Yoko Morgenstern: A Blue Fish1 November 2011
A friend died. His 1400cc grey Honda crashed into a six-ton dump truck, right between the tires, as he tried to overtake a car in the wrong lane. A can of Ginger Ale lay crushed behind the brake pedal. Perhaps he’d left the empty can rolling about in the car, and perhaps it was stuck behind the pedal, and perhaps the brake didn’t work when he needed, so said the police. An intern at a junior high school, he was on his way home from work. He knew his girlfriend was waiting in his room.
Like a crushed Ginger Ale was his body. Makeup couldn’t mend the damaged corpse. The small window of his plain wooden coffin was covered by a white cloth, and we couldn’t see his face for the farewell. All we could do was to make a pile of white chrysanthemums on the coffin.
Right about then we heard a thud. Rei, his girlfriend, my close friend, fell down on the floor. Immediately the black-clothed people formed a mountain over her. I pictured her under the tens of faces, curling up, sobbing, moaning, whining, yet I couldn’t go to talk to her. What would I say? Are you OK? I’ll be with you? Everything’s going to be fine? Whatever I would say would sound fake, I thought. It wasn’t me who’d lost my love. Speechless, I left the funeral.
“Thank you for the letter,” said Rei to me a few weeks later. I’d written that I’d regretted I hadn’t said anything to her at the funeral, and that I would be always there for her.
“You don’t know how much I appreciated it. People who I didn’t even know came up to me and said I know. I mean, it was nice of them, but,” Rei closed her eyes, “I just wanted to be left alone.”
“I know,” I said. She opened her eyes and looked into mine, and we laughed.
“Now, I’d like to ask a favour of you,” she said.
“I’d like to go to his Forty-ninth Day ceremony in his hometown. Can you keep me company?”
The Forty-ninth Day: a Buddhist ceremony for the dead to leave for the other world. Going to his hometown in Kagoshima prefecture meant going to the most southern prefecture of the most southern island of Japan’s four main islands.
He, she and I had all lived in
Tsukuba City which was about 50 kilometers northeast of Tokyo. We were students
of the University of Tsukuba. The city was built for the university and some
government institutions. An artificial landscape, boulevards crossed like a
grid, the uniformly tall trees lined the streets. Cheap diners,
Here, everyone was an outsider.
We’d all come here from different parts of Japan, or the world. The strong
dialect of the region didn’t exist in this city. We had our own language, our
own culture. In this heterogeneous space we had created a strange, para-familial
A university girlfriend, however,
wouldn’t have the same legitimate powers as a wife would. His corpse was
brought back to his home, and for Rei, c’est fini. I sensed her hesitation to visit his family in this
delicate time. I did quick mental arithmetic to see if I could afford flight
tickets from the month’s saving.
“Sure,” I said finally.
September in Japan is a typhoon season. Flights were canceled and canceled, and we missed the Forty-ninth Day. We finally had a chance to fly, though at the check-in counter we were informed about a possible rerouting due to an approaching typhoon to the Kyusyu area.
“What do you think?” asked Rei.
“Why not take chances? We are here anyway,” I said.
We landed, as expected, at Miyazaki Airport in the neighboring prefecture, instead of Kagoshima Airport. We decided to rent a car. As we lined up in front of a rent-a-car service counter, a gigantic man behind us asked, “Where are you two going?”
We turned around. “To Kanoya City in Kagoshima,” answered Rei.
“I’m going in the same direction. Why don’t you let me rent one and give you a ride?”
Rei and I looked each other. Her eyes implied yes. How could students decline such an offer?
“Sure, that’ll be great,” I said.
The driver’s seat of a white Suzuki Kei seemed too cramped for the man. I sat in the front seat, so I was the one who was to be social. “Were you on the same flight?” I asked him.
“Yes.” He turned his face toward me.
“Where are you going?”
“Fuku – Fukuoka?” I stuttered. “That’s like a half-day drive from here!”
“My flight to Fukuoka was canceled, and ours was the only one available today. I have to go back to work tomorrow.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a prison guard on death row.”
Thousands of questions came up in my mind. Still, I only asked, “What is it like?”
The man didn’t turn his face toward me. “Well… I sometimes get chocolate boxes from their families.”
Silence fell. I gazed into the
view spread out in front of us. Trees had blown down, bowing over the highway
from either side.
“I hear it was really stormy around this area yesterday. Some were even killed,” he said.
I tried to recall the map of the
area, though I only had a dim memory of our geographic whereabouts. Going in
the same direction, so he said, but if he was going to Fukuoka it was probably
a detour – well, anyway.
The tunnel of the fallen trees
swallowed us. The Suzuki drove on, carrying the silence.
Two hours later we reached Kanoya City. Only once he asked the way, a grass-green sticky note in hand, and soon he found the house of our deceased comrade’s house. He wouldn’t accept our offer to split the cost of the car. And just drove off.
It was an old, traditional
Japanese wooden house. The teak walls had turned silvery grey over the years,
yet the black tiles of the gabled roofs still remained lustrous. No sooner had
the car left than the front door of the house opened. A graying, middle-aged
couple appeared. The woman craned her neck in the direction of the departed car
and said, “Oh, has the taxi already left? We wanted to pay the fare…”
“Oh, no. It wasn’t a taxi.” We explained what had happened.
His mother was short and chubby, his father tall and skinny. The pair looked just like those old couples in images from Japanese folk tales. A traditional wife and husband, who called each other “Otosan, the father,” and “Okasan, the mother.” They never forgot to put smiles on their faces.
The father led us to the living room, while the mother made green tea for us. We sat down on the tatami floor. Perhaps the tatami mattresses had just been changed; I noticed their fresh, mint-like smell.
“We feel so bad for not picking you up at the airport,” the father brought it up again.
“We didn’t know where we were landing,” said Rei. “Really, please don’t feel bad. We were fine.”
While they make small talk, I looked at photographs of the family on the shelves. A young mother and a boy. Three boys and a dog. He was the middle child of three brothers, that I knew, so I reckoned that the boy of the average height was him. I found a familiar expression in the boy’s face. In another picture a boy was playing soccer. Both he and his elder brother were soccer players at our university. Our university was famous for its team; we had some national league players.
The mother came into the living room, with a tea set on a tray, and noticed that I was looking at the pictures.
“Do you have any siblings?” she asked me.
“No. I’m an only child.”
“Oh, then…,” you must have been spoiled, was what I thought would follow
that, because I’d heard that millions of times. An only child usually doesn’t
wear old clothes or have old toys, but this doesn’t say anything about being
spoiled. People judge people by what they have, not by what they don’t have. “You
must have been so lonely.”
I raised my brows. “Yes.”
“I was still not satisfied when I had two kids. Two was too few. We wanted to have one more,” she said, and half smiled.
The father told us that their youngest son was also going to Tsukuba the following year. “They all have to travel so far, just to play soccer,” he said, and half smiled.
“I think the bath is ready,” said
the mother. “You must be tired after the long trip. Please relax until dinner
Japanese family members share the same water in the bathtub, and guests usually take Ichiban-buro, the first bath. Rei was too tired to take a bath, so I was the first to go.
Sunk in the hot water until the
chin, I thought of the pictures I’d just seen. True, he was my friend, but I
didn’t have strong bonds to him like his parents and Rei did. I felt as if I’d
been peeping into someone’s history when that very person was absent. As if I’d
been an actor on stage without any role. I wiggled in the bathtub awkwardly.
“We’ll take you to a Satsuma-age restaurant tomorrow,” said the mother in front of our guest bedroom. Satsuma-age, a deep-fried fish cake. Nothing fancy; there are many such mass-produced items in the chilled section of supermarkets. But I got a craving when she said that in this restaurant, cooks fried them in the open kitchen in front of the guests. Satsuma was the medieval name of Kagoshima, I suddenly recalled. I went to bed, dreaming of golden brown crispy skins and the spongy white fish meat of a freshly fried Satsuma-age.
The restaurant was, however, closed the next day. His parents decided to take us to the coast instead. While we were waiting at the bus stop, I saw an old shed right in the middle of the yellowing rice fields. On the wall that faced us hung a huge billboard. Jodie Foster was smiling at us with a bottle of coffee beverage in her hand. An advertisement from years before. It had been in the sun and rain the whole time, and had lost its colour. It almost looked like a black and white picture.
The bus went uphill, and downhill. From the windows, far below through the darkness of pine tree woods, I saw the seawater shine. The bus threaded through the woods, and reached a beach.
It was a sunny day, but the water was grey. It wasn’t like white sand beaches on Phuket Island, or like black sand beaches on the Canary Islands. It was a typical Japanese grey beach. We strolled to the rockiest part which was exposed at the ebb.
“Where are you from?” the mother asked me.
“Oh, then, life here must be so different to you.”
When I was about to answer, Rei called me. “Hey, come over here, look!”
The mother and I went up to her. She crouched down on the ground, her knees bent in her chest, looking into a pool between the rocks.
There paused an inch-long, neon blue tropical fish.
“A tropical fish? I thought we have them only in Okinawa!” I said, because Kagoshima still belonged to the temperate zone. When I lowered my head toward the water in mild excitement, I heard the mother shout. “Otosan! Where are you going?”
Rei and I looked up. The father was a metre away from the shore, standing on a rock, his hands at his back, one wrist holding the other. Looking down at his feet, his shoulder stooped. And then he jumped onto the next rock, and onto the next.
“Otosan, don’t go so far! It’s dangerous!” cried the mother, yet the father didn’t turn around. He kept leaping, like a little boy hopping on one foot, and went farther and farther from the shore.
“Otosan, Otosaaan,” she kept calling. The father didn’t turn around. “Come baaack!” Her cry echoed in the air. I looked at her. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. I looked at him. He was still jumping over the rocks, hands clasped behind his back, his head drooped, his shoulder stooped.
© Yoko Morgenstern 2011
Yoko Morgenstern has worked as a writer, editor and translator in Canada, Japan and Germany. In 2011, her short story The Man Who Sells Clouds was longlisted for Gloria Vanderbilt Short Fiction Award by Exile Editions, Toronto. She learned writing from Katherine Govier and finished her first historical fiction, Double Exile, set in Germany in the 1940s. Her columns on Japan-related issues regularly appear in Nikkei Voice magazine. Yoko holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Tsukuba and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Journalism from Sheridan College, and is currently doing her M.A. in English Literature at the University of Bamberg.