Translated from the Japanese by David G. Boyd

 

A heavy, uncomfortably warm air hung over the coast. A long time ago, people in the village could predict the next day’s weather with only their skin, and the fishermen could feel in the air whatever was fighting its way ashore from the outside world: a storm, a hard rain, a passing shower, an American plane in wartime, a new life signaled by a woman’s labour, death coming finally to a bedridden old man. But Chiyoko Yoshida had no memory of this. If she understood what the weather meant that day it was because she had been born when an echo of that time still lingered in the air. Chiyoko no longer had someone to touch her with his fingers or lips, but she could feel the air, a little hotter and stickier than skin, on the back of her neck, under her arms and between her legs. They’re coming back, she thought. Flowers of evil. Not only one or two, but enough to cover the sunless kitchen floor of her two-room city-owned flat.

Whenever Chiyoko felt the flowers coming, she thought about Taiko. She was shaken to remember that he was gone.

Taiko, Taiko. That was what the villagers called the Watanabes’ only son, whose name was actually Masakimi. It was as if the villagers were writing over the misread characters in his name, erasing them, as if the mistake had never been made in the first place. Now even Chiyoko couldn’t remember the characters concealed beneath the name Taiko.

When Chiyoko passed seventy-five, her knees made walking difficult, but as long as she stopped occasionally she could make it to the only store in the village that still sold groceries. She could make it without a silver walker — a shopping cart and a chair in one — on which the village’s older women often relied. If Chiyoko needed something she couldn’t find at the store, Mitsu and Koji Watanabe would buy it for her when they went to the mall in the suburbs. She could still cook. She could match names and faces. She didn’t need anyone’s help. No, she needed help with one thing: her family grave. She could get to the veterans’ cemetery where her brother rested, but the public cemetery was up on a hill overlooking the bay, and climbing the temple stairs was too painful for her. Every morning for about a year Taiko had looked after Chiyoko’s family grave in her place. That’s probably why Chiyoko started making regular appearances at the community centre on seniors’ day. Taiko’s mother, Mitsu Watanabe, was a staff member there. Mitsu was always begging Chiyoko to go, so she went to make her happy.

Encouraged by the staff’s warmth, Chiyoko and the others did anti-ageing exercises, sang and played games. They touched each other. Before Chiyoko knew it, she was howling with laughter. When she laughed, something like tears formed in her eyes, and it was as if she were being taken back in time. Time is a terrible thing. It erases all. These women had once said vicious things about Chiyoko. Didn’t that matter any more? It was as if the happy women now surrounding Chiyoko had never hated her at all. Was Chiyoko going to forget all that bitterness? Should she hate them even more, while she still could? Chiyoko and the other women were in a circle now, holding wrinkly, spotty hands, almost as if Chiyoko were someone completely different than the young woman she once had been.

She looked completely different. She was skinny and shriveled like a dried sardine. Her lustreless, wiry white hair, much of which had already disappeared, was tied up in the back. Under her narrow forehead her swollen eyes looked dissatisfied with all they saw. You would think she couldn’t be surprised when Taiko turned into a middle-aged man, but she was. His hairline had thinned unevenly, as if hair had been pulled out in places, his face was so badly sunburned it was hard to make out his smallish features, and his metal-frame glasses were clearly the same pair he’d been wearing for far too long. He had once been the boy who had walked more slowly than others, talked more slowly than the others and caused serious worry for his young parents, Mitsu and Koji. As a man he was narrow-chested and thin-armed, but his belly had really filled in.

When Taiko graduated from middle school, he started working for the local construction company as a labourer along with his father. When the company went under, the two found work at the waste management centre, but when the business changed hands, they lost those jobs too. Koji was more interested in working with his son than earning a decent salary, but he couldn’t find anywhere else willing to hire them. Taiko was still in his mid-forties. Chiyoko had some idea that this had been going on, and she wanted to thank Taiko for looking after the grave, so each month she slipped two thousand yen into a brown envelope with the note BUY SOMETHING SWEET and left it in the Watanabes’ mailbox. Taiko never touched the money. Neither did his parents. One day Mitsu came home to find Chiyoko standing there, envelope in hand. Mitsu resisted as Chiyoko forced the crumpled envelope into her palm. No, keep it. That isn’t why he does it, he’s just trying to help out now that he doesn’t have any work, Mitsu said. It’s good he has something to do, Chiyoko said, going too far. Then Mitsu let slip: He’ll be okay as long as we’re here, but what’s going to happen to him when we die? Mitsu put on a smile, maybe to lessen the force of what she had just said. Her smile was like a beautiful, sad-looking flower. Chiyoko wanted to say: It’s okay, I’ll look after him. But instead she laughed. She was almost eighty now, and it was highly unlikely that she would outlive Mitsu. What’s wrong, Chiyo? Mitsu said. Don’t cry. Cry? Chiyoko thought she was laughing. She covered her eyes with her hands. Mitsu was worried that Taiko would be a burden on others if she and Koji weren’t around, but Chiyoko was thinking about something else now: Who’s going to look after the grave if Taiko isn’t here? Who’s going to weed the flowers of evil if Taiko isn’t here?

Don’t cry, Chiyo, said Mitsu.

Taiko. Chiyoko couldn’t help calling his name whenever she saw him. Chiyoko’s voice wasn’t as clear as it once had been, and the man to which that name belonged looked nothing like the clean-shaven boy he once had been, but the name stayed the same, unaged and unchanged, as if to reject time itself. Chiyoko felt that somewhere, though she couldn’t say where, there had to be another Taiko nothing like the middle-aged man staggering down the rough and narrow road to the veterans’ cemetery — a Taiko who deserved the name. Even if they didn’t know it, when the villagers called out Taiko, Taiko, they were talking about somebody else, someone undamaged. They chanted Taiko, Taiko, a gem-like word that was never ruined no matter how they rolled it around in their mouths. The villagers were not right about many things, but they were right about him. Even Chiyoko had to admit it.

Miss Chiyo, Taiko said to Chiyoko. She was hunching over her rented plot in the field next to the elementary school, pulling out weeds. That day, he was the same as always. She didn’t notice anything different about him. He walked as if a puppy were pawing at his legs, he held his hands up as if little birds were swooping out of the sky to peck at some seed, and he held his face as if he had just swallowed a mouthful of bitter medicine. Same as always. His legs, his hands, his face — they all weighed on Taiko. Why? Because of his wonder for the world around him. That shock, which usually fades with time on this earth, was still there in Taiko.

He was the same as always that day.

Then it was a different day. From the field where the villagers grew taro and sweet potato, Chiyoko saw someone sitting alone on the moss-covered concrete steps to the veterans’ cemetery.

Chiyoko couldn’t remember when that was. It could have been that the man she saw walk, then suddenly sit — nearly squat — at the top of those three timeworn steps was somebody who had been sent from the village to fight in some war and die. It might have been Chiyoko’s brother. But the man who sat there motionless — he looked like he was in pain, or exhausted, or maybe dealing with vertigo — was skinnier than her brother, who went hungry and died from malaria on Mindanao. No, it was obvious. She didn’t even need to try to remember her brother’s black-and-white face in the framed picture hanging high on her wall. It was Taiko. But Chiyoko had never seen him sit still like that. Even when he stood still his hands were always moving. He had been walking clumsily as usual, only faster. She’d never seen him lower his head in anguish before. His wonder for the world was hanging on him like it always did, refusing to let go, but without its usual traces of innocence. Now it was just a snake, anxious to devour its prey. If it swallowed Taiko whole, would he be free? Where would it take him? To another world?

Don’t worry, Chiyoko heard Taiko say. She came back to herself, but back to where? To which world? This one or the one toward which Taiko’s wonder was taking him? She felt as if she were lost between the two.

Don’t worry. His voice put Chiyoko at ease. She wasn’t worried now. No, she hadn’t been worried about Taiko’s well-being. She was worried about something else.

Don’t worry, he said. I changed the water.

That day, like every other, Taiko had gone to the grave for her. He replaced the water around the shikimi branch in the vase attached to the stone.

Thank you, I don’t know what I would do without you, Chiyoko said.

Taiko waved a hand as if to say you don’t need to thank me. Was that a sheepish grin on his face, tweaking his mouth like that? He was about to leave when Chiyoko called his name. Twitching his shoulders, he turned toward her.

Those… flowers are coming back.

Taiko breathed out. His face trembled like a flower that had been half-eaten by insects.

OK, I’ll come later on.

It means a lot to me, Chiyoko said.

I don’t know if I can get them all, Miss Chiyo, Taiko twisted his face apologetically. No matter how many I take away they keep coming back.

I know, I know, Chiyoko nodded. I’m happy if you take what you can. I’ll be waiting for you.

OK, I’ll come later on.

That was what he said, but he didn’t come. Chiyoko waited and waited, but he never came. That was the last time she saw Taiko. When was that?

Around the time Taiko was born, Chiyoko worked as a custodian at the elementary school. The school was closed now, but even then there was only one classroom per grade. With all six classes combined, there were still fewer than a hundred students. Chiyoko was given a tiny desk and a chair in a corner of the faculty room. In the summer, she made barley tea in a large kettle; in the winter, green tea. Students were in charge of cleaning the classrooms and hallways, but Chiyoko had to keep the faculty room in order.

The school was an old, one-story building. Even though it was on the warm southern side of Oita, in the winter a cold northerly wind blew in through the cracks in the taped-up windows. Wind crept in from all over. One day some of the children were down on all fours in the hallway, pressing their faces hard against the floor. It looked like they were listening for distant footsteps or offering some kind of prayer. Sensei, one of the children said, lifting his face from the floor and looking at Chiyoko. Cold wind is blowing in through here. Where’s it come from? Chiyoko crouched down next to the children and put her hand over the space between the floorboards. She felt the icy air blowing up, then looked back at the children. You felt it, didn’t you, sensei? Their pleased voices echoed loudly.

The children knew that some adults at the school weren’t happy about them calling Chiyoko sensei. There was no reason for them to call a mere custodian that. And no one was less deserving of the title than she. But the children went on saying it just the same. Of course, Chiyoko would never make them call her that. It would have been better if they hadn’t.

After her divorce Chiyoko returned to the village to live alone in her city-owned flat. She had lost her father when still in her mother’s belly, and her mother became sick and died when she was little. Chiyoko and her brother, who was four years older, were brought up by their mother’s parents. Her brother, a fisherman by trade, was drafted and died in the Philippines a month before the end of the war. When Chiyoko was nineteen, she was married to a man her grandfather had found for her. The man was twelve years her senior and lived in the village next to hers. Although it may have been the next village over, no road connected the two. The only way to get from one to the other was to take a boat around the cape. Chiyoko lived with her husband for a year, two years, three years. But she never conceived. Her husband was good to her, but after seven years of childless marriage his mother urged him to divorce Chiyoko. He was her eldest son and the family needed an heir. They had no need for a woman who couldn’t have children. Chiyoko had actually been his second wife. His first wife — Chiyoko knew her only as Tomi — had failed to give him a child just like Chiyoko and was divorced just like Chiyoko. No, Chiyoko was like her, not the other way around. Thoughts like that made Chiyoko uneasy. When Tomi was divorced, she returned to her home in that same village, and Chiyoko would occasionally cross paths with her in the early days of her marriage. It made Chiyoko feel horrible. Maybe Tomi was making her feel guilty, maybe that was why she couldn’t get pregnant. Chiyoko shuddered, realizing that there was bitterness inside her. Still, the thought What if that woman put a curse on me? flooded her heart like a dark, sticky fluid. Chiyoko thought that fluid must come from the same place as the one between her legs, which at first moistened her husband’s fingers and tongue but dried up as he lost his passion. Maybe those dark, sticky thoughts about Tomi had killed her husband’s seed. Same as his first wife, Chiyoko couldn’t have a child, so his family had no need for her. The thought of following in Tomi’s footsteps terrified Chiyoko. One day Tomi went into the woods behind her family’s house and hanged herself. Was Chiyoko going to kill herself too? When she went back to her own village and found work as a custodian, she thought: Die? Why should I die? The villagers knew almost nothing about Tomi’s suicide, but they still blamed Chiyoko. She could feel it constantly and see it clearly in the glint of prying eyes when they looked at her and when they quickly turned away.

I won’t die. I’ll never kill myself. Chiyoko let the words circle in her head, although the children gathering around her, chanting sensei, sensei, had no idea they were there. They also couldn’t know that when they got down on the floorboards and told Chiyoko about the cold wind — and the revolting smell coming from the body of a cat that had crawled under the building and died — that they were the first ones to show her that flower. When the children had taken their laughter and shrill voices home with them and the teachers had all returned to their families, Chiyoko got down on the dusty floor in the empty hallway and looked down through the cracks. She saw a flower there. It looked like a yellow carnation; another time, it looked like a purple hydrangea; another time, it looked like a pinkish-white magnolia. Sometimes it was brightly coloured and strong-looking, like the kind of flower she had seen only in picture books, the kind that always grows in exotic tropical jungles. Since then, the flower had assumed many forms and colours, but she always knew it the moment she saw it. Wherever it grew, an uncontrollable warmth enveloped her private parts.

Chiyoko went on living. After Tomi, it was her ex-husband who died. Chiyoko didn’t know much about it, and she didn’t want to. Everybody said he killed himself. He left behind his skinny, elderly mother with her hair tied up in the back. Chiyoko felt sorry for her. The old woman belonged to a long line of medicine women; she collected plants in the mountains to cure the villagers’ sprains and skin diseases. When a mother had a hard time recovering from childbirth, she would make a special medicine and chant. The medicine woman’s dark gaze looked like it was fixed on Chiyoko — but it wasn’t. It shot off into the distance. Chiyoko’s mother-in-law wouldn’t even look at a woman who couldn’t have a child. Chiyoko used to wet her pillow with tears after she went wet between the legs and chased desperately after her husband. Now she understood where the old woman had been looking. It was beyond her own death, decades into the future, at a barren woman clinging stubbornly to life. Chiyoko knew it whenever she looked in the mirror. Her perfectly white hair was tied up in the back, her eyes were swollen, and there were deep wrinkles on either side of her mouth — in her reflection, Chiyoko saw the old woman and the old woman saw Chiyoko. Those swollen eyes were surprised to find Chiyoko still alive. Chiyoko had been scared to look in the mirror ever since.

When her ex-husband died, Chiyoko became even less worthy of being called sensei. No, the villagers made her that way. According to the stories they told, Chiyoko had stolen her husband away from his wife and driven the woman to suicide. The rumours buried their twisted roots in the villagers’ minds. Chiyoko was made out to be a sex-crazed she-devil who pushed even her husband to despair and death. As a young bride she had opened her legs for men much younger than her husband, one of whom made her pregnant. She went to her mother-in-law for something to get rid of the bastard child and became barren in the process. Men were, if anything, happier now that she couldn’t get pregnant and continued to meet with her until she was forced home as a depraved woman. She knew all the stories the villagers told each other about her. Disturbingly, when Chiyoko looked in the mirror, her reflection said the very same things. Chiyoko turned away, glimpsing a small flower in the kitchen behind her, next to the refrigerator, behind a brown bag of rice.

It was that flower. It was the same, but it wasn’t. Evil, she told herself. That was the name of the flower. Maybe the flower had released its pollen into the air, triggering something hidden inside Chiyoko. Yes, something in her womb had woken up. But she didn’t feel the old, dirty desire to rub thigh against thigh. Only a nostalgia that filled her eyes with tears.

Chiyoko wiped away the tears and lifted her head. The blurry world around her returned to what it had been, only Taiko didn’t come back. Chiyoko was standing in the Watanabes’ yard. They had a shed and a garden where leeks, eggplants and pumpkins were growing in neat little rows. Next to the shed was a badly rusted folding chair, which Koji had probably salvaged from the garbage heap. Chiyoko opened it and sat down in the shade. She must have fallen asleep. It had been more than a month since she had last seen Taiko. Chiyoko was worried, so she walked to the Watanabe house. It wasn’t only Taiko who was missing. Mitsu and Koji were gone, too. The house looked vacant. Chiyoko wondered if it was her fault, if it was because of what she asked him to do with the flowers. Had she properly warned him? Taiko had said: OK, I understand. Even if he didn’t really understand, he said he did. It’s fine, it’s fine, he had said, pulling at the red and pink clusters growing behind her cheap dresser. He stuffed the flowers — petals and leaves and shreds of stems and roots — into a city-provided bag. Taiko wasn’t any good with his hands, so he couldn’t tie the bag well. He told Chiyoko he was going to take the bag in with him, as if he still worked at the waste management centre, which made Chiyoko want to cry. Flower parts spilled out of the bag as he left. She pressed her hands together tightly and watched him walk away. Maybe some nectar got on his hands when he was weeding. What if it was poison? Chiyoko’s mother-in-law blamed her. It’s your fault. If something happened to him, it’s your fault. Chiyoko’s mother-in-law never taught her anything about magic. She never accepted her. Chiyoko went to the community centre on seniors’ day to look for Mitsu, but she wasn’t there. I heard she’s sick, somebody said in a low voice. Someone else said: Who, Mitsu? No, it’s Taiko. He’s at the university hospital in Oita City. Koji and Mitsu are staying in a hotel near the hospital to be close.

Chiyoko went to the Watanabes’ house almost every day from then on, clutching a white envelope with a fresh ten-thousand-yen bill inside and the words FEEL BETTER written on the outside. She would sit in the folding chair and wait for Mitsu or Koji to come home. She would fall asleep. Whenever she woke up, she would hope in vain that it had all been a dream. A heavy, uncomfortably warm air hung over the village. But Chiyoko didn’t know that this meant a storm was coming. That’s why she missed Koji when he came home to get the house storm-ready. She only knew someone had been there when she saw the house shuttered up the next day. The envelope in Chiyoko’s hand was wrinkled and the ink letters FEEL BETTER had run in the rainwater. No one had been to the cemetery in a very long time. Sakaki leaves had probably blown over the graves. But there was no one to clean them now. Why didn’t her ancestors do anything to protect him? He had always been so good to them. It made her angry and she gripped the soaked envelope in her hand even more tightly.

Chiyoko folded the chair and started walking home. She went up the road that ran next to the breakwater. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred meters, but it felt distant. The air wrapped around Chiyoko, maybe too familiarly. As all the sadness filled the air around her it became even hotter and stickier. She didn’t want to go home. She knew what was waiting for her. She walked down the path through the breakwater to the pier. She got down on her hands and knees and looked into the water. It didn’t matter now if the woman staring back from the water was Chiyoko or her mother-in-law. It didn’t matter if all the rocks on the ocean floor were covered with flowers of evil. As she looked down into the water, she could see her kitchen reflecting in the sky behind her. A small white flower was swaying behind the rice bag next to the fridge. In the sink drain there was a flower with five red petals. It was shut tight, as if meditating. Little yellow flowers were pouring out of an open cupboard. Chiyoko prayed for a hand to come and make the flowers stop. If it came, she would grab the hand and say: Stop, you can stop now. Chiyoko didn’t know any magic; all she could do was call his name. If she said the name that even time couldn’t change, she thought, maybe it would bring back another Taiko, one who was nothing like the one she knew. Maybe a perfect, gem-like Taiko. Or maybe one even more flawed than the old one. Why should she care either way, so long as he came back? Taiko, Taiko, Taiko… Cradling the flowers that never stopped coming, Chiyoko called his name again and again and watched it ripple in the dark water below.

 

Photograph © vgm8383

First Sentence: Louise Erdrich
The Question of Fate