She came here when the world became too much for her.
It was private, this place, private because nobody knew how much it meant to her. She liked to be here in the evening, to sit here on this bench in this corner of the park and to watch other people’s lives unfold before her.
There was a little girl – about five years old – who came here with a middle-aged woman who was always dressed in a kimono and always had her hair up in a bun. She imagined her to be the girl’s mother… who else could she be? She imagined her to be really good at cooking – she’d make miso soup and rice for breakfast, and Western eggs and sausages on weekends. She’d talk a lot – the generous mouth was made for talking, she was sure – and she’d say things like, “Darling, don’t forget your bento box,” or “Honey, your socks are on backwards.” And when she laughed, her eyes would turn into slits and disappear beneath folds of skin.
The bench directly across the park from her was always occupied by the same young couple at this time of the day. They were attired in the uniforms of high school kids, and they had eyes only for each other.
And then there were those faces she would see, not all the time she was here, but occasionally… An old man walking slowly among the flowers, leaning heavily on his cane. He was here only when the weather was good. A little boy sitting primly on the bench next to hers, while two men in dark suits watched over him. They looked like refugees from a yakuza movie, she thought, complete with attitude and sunglasses. And then there was Minami-san, who came here with his little shaggy terrier, and who looked like one of her favorite bishonen pop idols, cool haircut and eyes you could drown in. She knew his name was Minami-san because she’d heard a girl calling him that, a girl who, it turned out, was his girlfriend. How easily a child’s heart can break, she had thought as she watched the two of them embrace.
Today she noticed that the bench across from hers was empty. Above, the clouds hung low and heavy, and she reached up her arms, but they were too far away. Maybe they’d gone to catch a movie, she thought, thinking of the high school couple.
She heard a soft little whimper beside her, and turned to look at the boy who was sitting hunched over on the bench. The two yakuza wannabes were nowhere to be seen. The boy was rocking himself to and fro as if he was in pain. She slipped from her bench and went to his. “Are you okay?” she asked him.
He lifted his head to look at her, and she saw that his eyes were the color of the sky. “It – hurts,” he whispered, “It hurts so much.”
She saw that he had one arm draped across his stomach. “Does your tummy hurt? Did you eat something bad? I get horrible tummy aches whenever I eat too much ice cream. Let neesan see.” She reached for his arm, but he flinched away from her. “It’s okay, let neesan take a look.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She jumped at the voice and looked up. The two yakuza guys were back and they were glaring at her, though she couldn’t really tell beneath their shades. She scrambled to her feet, telling her heart to stop pounding so loudly. “N-Nothing… I was just s-seeing if I c-could help.” Stop stuttering! She chided herself. Okaasan would hide her face in shame if she saw you now.
“It’s none of your business-“ the first guy started, but his companion put a hand on his arm.
“We appreciate your concern, miss, but we’ll take care of the young master now.” He bowed politely to her and she bowed back. She walked away, but couldn’t help turning back.
“Give him some hot tea to drink. That has always helped me,” she called anxiously.
The second guy nodded, and even smiled a little. But the first guy was scowling very fiercely, so she took to her heels and ran all the way home.
Everyone was seated around the table, waiting for her to start dinner. She ducked her head against the reproving looks and frowns, and ran to her room to wash up. When she came back, they were still waiting. She sat down at her place and mumbled apologies for being late.
“Chizuru,” Okaasan began, “Please tell me what is the eighth rule that I have taught you.”
She bowed her head further, wishing she could melt into the tatami mats. “Punctuality, Okaasan,” she murmured.
There was a short, laden silence. “Very good.” Okaasan looked at her. “Why are you not eating?”
Chizuru picked up her chopsticks and scooped rice into her mouth. She tried to chew, but the rice was heavy and tasteless, like stone.
The next day she went to the park again, hoping to find out if the little boy had recovered from his stomachache. He wasn’t there. The couple hadn’t come back either, and the girl and her perfect mother were nowhere to be seen. Chizuru felt very lonely.
And after that she couldn’t go for two days, because her tutor insisted on extra lessons to make up for the ones she missed when she had had a mild flu. She sat in the study – large and dark and gloomy – and looked at the slate-blue sky through the window as Kobayashi-sensei talked to the dust and the shadows about a great warrior who had been ordered by the Mikado to commit seppuku.
“Taki Zenzaburo, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hiogo in the month of February, 1868, was commanded by the Mikado to take his own life in the ritual of seppuku. The ritual took place at thirty minutes to eleven at night in the temple of Seifukukji…”
It rained in the evening but Chizuru took out her umbrella and walked the half-mile to the park, bracing herself against the wind and trying not to step into puddles. The park was empty when she reached there, and she felt very foolish to have come at all, no doubt anyone who saw her would think her insane and call the police. What would her mother think then? She became very frightened at that thought, and prepared to leave, when she realized that she was not alone after all.
The boy was there, the one who had the tummy ache, he was sitting on his usual bench with his feet dangling above the ground. The two men in dark suits were not around, and he was getting thoroughly drenched as he had no umbrella. Chizuru was very surprised, and she hurried over and crouched down in front of him, sheltering both of them from the pelting rain.
“Hello,” she said. “What are you doing here in the rain? You shouldn’t be out in a heavy rain like this, you could get sick.”
He made no reply. In fact, she wasn’t even sure he had heard her. “Where do you live?” she asked him, tugging on his arm. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”
At that, he looked up and his eyes were wide and he said, “No.”
“No?” She was puzzled for a moment, but then a realization came to her, and she knew why he was out here, all alone in the rain. She knew because she had often wanted to do the same thing herself. “You ran away, didn’t you? From home, from your okaasan and otousan.”
He mumbled something, and she had to lean closer to hear him. “Kaasan is dead.”
Her brow creased in dismay. “I’m sorry,” she said gently. After a while, she went on, “Well, we can’t stay here like this. Would you like to come home with me?”
He looked up, not at her, but at the gray sky. The rain ran in rivulets down his face and plastered his hair to his skull. “I want to stay here,” he said.
“You can’t,” she said, not unkindly, and stood up, pulling at his arm. After a while, he let her pull him to his feet and lead him away. As they walked, she noticed he was limping a little. “What’s wrong with your leg?”
“I sprained my ankle,” he replied after a moment, with the full sincerity of a child when lying.
Mariko the maid was waiting for her when she got home. “Young miss, you shouldn’t have gone out like this…” Her voice trailed off as she took in the sight of the wet and bedraggled boy whose hand was clasped in Chizuru’s. “Who…?”
“This is my friend and I’m bringing him to my room,” Chizuru said, more firmly than she felt. She tightened her hand on his, and marched to her room, dragging him behind her. Once there, she closed the door and leaned against it, letting out the breath she didn’t know she had been holding. She turned to the boy, who was quietly dripping all over her floor. “Sit for a while. I’ll go draw a hot bath.”
She was in the bathroom running a towel briskly through her long black hair when she heard the door to her room being opened, and she dropped the towel and ran out. She skidded to a stop as she took in the scene before her. Her okaasan, tall and regal and forbidding as always, was staring at the boy, who was still standing where Chizuru had left him, a puddle of rainwater collecting at his feet.
Chizuru quickly went to his side. “Okaasan…”
Okaasan turned her cold gaze on her. “What is the meaning of this, Chizuru?”
“Okaasan, I can explain…” But with her dark eyes watching her steadily, she found herself suddenly without coherent thought. “I… he was in the park… and it was raining… I…”
“What have I told you about bringing strangers home?”
“Okaasan, you wouldn’t even let me bring friends home!” It was a short-lived outburst, and she bowed her head immediately after, ashamed and frightened.
“So now you go directly against my wishes and bring home a – a vagabond child you hardly know!” Chizuru could feel her eyes on her, and thought suddenly of Medusa, who with one look could turn everything into stone. Okaasan’s gaze slowly transferred to the boy, and Chizuru felt inordinately relieved. “What is your name?” she asked him, still in the same cold tone, the voice that was always to be followed, never questioned.
He said nothing. Okaasan’s eyes darkened. Chizuru placed a hand on his shoulder. His clothes were soaked through. She could feel him shivering violently, whether it was from cold or fear she didn’t know.
“Is he deaf and mute?” Okaasan directed the question at her, more sarcasm than question.
Before she could answer, he almost doubled over, his hand over his mouth. He ran past them to the bathroom, where sounds of retching could be heard. Chizuru made to follow, but a command from her mother made her freeze. “Stay where you are!”
Chizuru chanced a glance at her. Never had she looked so angry. It was as if, in moving without permission, Chizuru had incited more of her ire than bringing the boy home in the first place.
“I will have words with you later.” It was a dire promise, and she felt a cold feeling settle in the pit of her stomach.
Okaasan strode to the bathroom and entered. Chizuru strained to hear any words being said, but there were only the horrible retching sounds. She sympathized deeply. After a while, there was silence, and then the toilet was flushed and the tap turned on.
Okaasan came out, and Chizuru was surprised to see the little boy cradled in her arms. “He has a high fever,” Okaasan pronounced, walking to the bed and placing him on it. “Bring me a basin with warm water and a cloth.”
Chizuru rushed to obey, glad that somebody else was here to take charge. She watched anxiously as Okaasan wiped the boy’s face with the wet cloth, gently brushing his sunset hair from his forehead. He seemed to be either sleeping or unconscious. She lifted his arms and removed his shirt, and Chizuru’s hand flew to her lips, unsuccessfully stifling a gasp.
His thin body was covered with bruises, fresh purple and healing yellow, oozing cuts and scabbed over, and red, angry welts. Chizuru felt as if she was going to be sick. “Okaasan…” she whispered, her hand a fist against her mouth.
Her Okaasan muttered something under her breath, it sounded like a curse but Chizuru wasn’t sure. But she went on bathing him with the cloth, her movements even gentler than before, though there was a frown on her brow. She dressed him in one of Chizuru’s yukata’s, very much oversized, but it would have to do.
“Watch him,” she said, getting to her feet gracefully, “I’ll ask Ikegami-sensei to see to his fever.”
Chizuru sat down on the edge of the bed and watched her walk to the door. She wanted to call out to her, to apologize again, perhaps, or to say thank you, but the words got stuck in her throat and Okaasan was out of the room, the door closing softly behind her.
She looked down at his sleeping face and tried not to think of what she had seen.
As she was waiting for Ikegami-sensei to arrive, the power went out and the room was plunged into darkness. She gave a little jump as it happened, but was proud of herself for not screaming. She searched for matches and oil lamps, and soon had the room lighted in flickering yellow. Outside the rain had become a storm.
Ikegami-sensei finally came, shuffling and muttering softly to himself. With his white hair and faded yukata, he looked like a ghost. He drifted nearer, an oil lamp in his left hand, until he was looming directly over the bed. He bowed to Chizuru, and she returned it, wondering if her hand would go through him if she tried to touch him.
He prescribed some unintelligible-sounding medicine, and shuffled off again, muttering something about someone bringing the medicine later. She hoped it wasn’t the foul-tasting kind he always gave her when she was sick.
Outside, the storm shook the trees and rattled the windows.
Some time later, she awoke with a start and realized that she had dozed off. A sound was coming from the boy. She leaned over him. He was crying, but there were no tears. Dry, choked sobs came out of him, as if torn from his throat. “Hush,” she whispered, stroking his face, “Hush, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
His eyes flew open and he stared at the ceiling, breathing heavily. “Otousan,” he moaned, his eyelids flickering close. She put an arm awkwardly around him and stroked his hair gently with her other hand.
How easily a child’s heart can break, she thought, as they both descended into dreams.
There was a story she heard once, when she was a child. She had forgotten who had told it to her, but it went like this. Once, a girl and a guy were in love. They were so in love it was impossible to separate them. But the guy's kaasan, who wasn't really his kaasan but a woman his tousan married after his real kaasan died, anyway, this guy's step-kaasan, she was jealous of the love between them, for some reason. And so she, who was actually a witch, turned the girl into a statue of glass and drowned her in the Lake of Reflecting Stillness. The guy was heartbroken when he found out, and what he did was, he spent his time trying to empty the water of the lake into a hole he dug in the ground. It was said that he kept on that task to this day.
Kobayashi-sensei had not finished with the samurai's tale yet.
She sneaked a glance at the red-haired boy sitting beside her. He was listening with rapt attention to Kobayashi-sensei, a look of awe in his eyes. His legs dangled from the chair.
She sighed and looked out the window. Clouds hung low and heavy, moving ponderously across the heavens. A sudden gust of chilly wind swung the window backwards and shuffled the papers on the desk.
"Slowly, and with great dignity, the condemned man ascended the raised platform and prostrated himself before the altar, with the kaishaku on his left. An attendant approached, bearing the wakizashi..."
Looking at the sky only reminded her of the boy's eyes. She turned back to the room and stifled a yawn. She stole another glance at the boy. She had woken up this morning to find a pair of slate-gray eyes staring at her. Eyes you could drown in, she had thought, and she had said, voice heavy wth sleep, "Hi." Ikegami-sensei had came then, bleary-eyed and snowy hair like a jungle on his head, and he'd confirmed that his fever had receded a little but he wasn't well yet.
He doesn't look like someone having a fever, she thought. If he'd been any paler, she would have had to check his pulse.
She was blatantly staring at him so she knew the moment his eyes widened and his left hand went to clutch at his side. She leaned over him in concern. "Are you okay?" He didn't respond, and she reached out a hand to touch him. Something flickered in his hand and went crawling up his arm, but it was gone so quickly she thought she had imagined it.
What was that? she thought, bewildered and a little scared. She didn't know what to do, so she repeated her question, "Are you okay?" After a moment, he nodded and let his arm fall back to his side.
"Arigato." She had to lean in close to hear him.
Kobayashi-sensei was still peacefully wrapped within the folds of his story.
"Bowing, the man allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards. Then, slowly, he reached out for the knife, and seemed to regard it almost affectionately for a moment. And then, stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the knife slowly to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards."
She had time to herself in the evening and spent it in the garden making paper cranes with the boy watching her solemnly.
"Do you want me to teach you?" she asked him. "Watch." She gave him a piece of paper and started to fold the one in her hand as if following invisible origami lines. He stared at the complicated movements of her fingers for a moment, then bent his head to his paper and tried to mimic her.
"Ta-da!" she exclaimed, setting her crane on the ground with a flourish. She took a look at his. The neck was a bit too long and one wing was shorter than the other. She set it in the middle of a group of cranes, but it still stood out.
"Young miss!" Mariko appeared, looking a little flustered. "It's time for dinner."
After dinner she was sent up to her room early, a sign that there would be guests visiting. Okaasan never liked her to be around when there were guests, except the one time when Mariko had dressed her in her best kimono and had led her to Okaasan's study, where a middle-aged man and a boy stood waiting.
The man, who had laughing eyes, knelt before her and held out a hand. "What's your name, little princess?"
She took his hand, which dwarfed hers immediately. "Chizuru, Ojisan."
And Okaasan had said, with a sigh, "My daughter, Kusanagi-san, has no manners."
Strangely, the memory didn't embarrass her as it always did. It's faded now, actually, she thought, as she climbed into bed. Besides, he did laugh and say it was all right.
She lay in bed with the blanket up to her chin and listened to the wind. Footsteps sounded in the passage outside her room, hurried and accompanied by hushed voices. She heard her name being mentioned.
Sitting up, she looked silently at the door. After a few moments of hesitation, she slipped out of bed and padded across the room, opening the door and sticking her head out. The passage was silent and empty. She walked quickly to the stairwell before she could change her mind, and crouched on the first step.
"Far be it for me to interfere in the household matters of your master..." Okaasan's voice floated up to her.
"Indeed." A man's voice, rough and cold.
"But you understand that I could just as well have gone to the police. Perhaps I still may."
"This is no matter for the police."
"Isn't it? It was merely out of courtesy and respect for our long-standing ties that I contacted your master and not them."
"And my master appreciates it." The voice had turned less cold, more ingratiating. "Believe me, he does value your friendship, Kagura-san..."
"Young miss, what on earth are you doing!"
Chizuru jumped and whirled around, landing on her rear end on the floor. Mariko stood over her, eyes wide in incredulity. "Hush, Mariko," Chizuru hissed, "Do you want Okaasan to hear us?"
"You should be in bed!"
"I'm going, I'm going." She stood up, dusted herself off, and marched to her room, head held high. Once inside, however, she sagged against the door and let out the breath she was holding. She slipped back into bed and stared at the ceiling. She found herself thinking about the boy, who had been moved to the room next to hers. After a while, she fell asleep.
She woke later in the night to the sound of trees lashing against her windowpane. The storm howled outside, and she lay in bed, staring at the shadows dancing madly, silhouettes against the window. For a moment, she wished her Okaasan were here, to hold her and tuck her in and tell her everything was all right, the storm was just a storm and it wasn't out to get her. But the wish lasted only a moment before fading away.
She wondered if the boy was all right, if he was as terrified of the storm as she was. She went to the door, opened it and went out into the silent passageway. The door to the boy's room was unlocked. She slipped in quietly and closed it behind her.
She hurried over to the bed. The boy was trashing about, arms flailing. She put her hands on his arms, stilling him. "Wake up," she said, raising her voice above the wind, "Wake up!"
His eyes snapped open. They stared, unseeing, at her. "It's just a nightmare," she soothed, stroking his sweat-sticky hair from his face. "Just a nightmare."
He stared at her, uncomprehending, and suddenly his face crumpled. Great sobs rose from his throat and tears seeped out from squeezed-shut eyelids. "What's wrong?" she asked, concerned. "It's okay, it was just a nightmare. It's okay..."
He fell into her arms and sobbed, one hand clutching at her yukata. "Neesan," voice muffled against her shoulder, "Something in my chest hurts... make it go away, please... Neesan..."
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Sudden heat emitting from his body startled her. She pushed herself away from him, feeling her skin and clothes singed. "What-"
Something crackled in the palms of his hands. She could see it clearly this time. He threw back his head and screamed. The thing in his hands went crawling up both his arms, twining around them, crackling with energy. Purple fire, she thought, in disbelief, that was purple fire!
She propelled herself away from him, away from the bed. Purple flames licked at his body, curled around him like writhing snakes. Tongues of fire spread to the bedsheets, streaked away from him to spread to the curtains, to the carpets, and to the wooden furniture. And he screamed and screamed as if in agony too excruciating to bear.
"Okaasan!" Chizuru found herself shrieking at the top of her voice, "OKAASAN!"
The door swung open with a crash. Dimly she heard footsteps approaching, heard voices exclaiming in shock. "My God," someone was saying, over and over again. Someone grabbed her and pulled her away. She resisted a little and looked up into the face of her okaasan. "You have to help him," she stammered, tears streaming down her face, "You have to help him, please, Kaasan, he's in pain, help him..."
She was passed on to someone else, Mariko, she remembered afterwards, and taken out of the room. Shaking, teeth chattering, she was carried down to okaasan's study, where she was bundled in warm blankets and a cup of hot milk was pushed into her hands.
The combination of the stress and the hot milk was making her drowsy as she sat in one of okaasan's huge armchairs, but she tried to ask Mariko, she tried to say something about the boy. But Mariko merely rubbed her head and said, "Go to sleep, young miss. Everything's all right."
She didn't want to fall asleep, but she did.
To be continued
1. Kobayashi-sensei could well have been reading from Tales of Old Japan by A.B. Mitford, published by Macmillan, 1871, though what he was doing with a gaijin book would remain a mystery known only to himself.
2. Okaasan and otousan means mother
and father respectively.