Where should we go?
We had a few options but neither Mum nor I seemed able to judge which one was right or not. As we hemmed and hawed, the O-bon holidays passed, and the autumn equinox approached, leaving little of the year left. Whenever my eyes met hers, I knew we had to have this conversation, so I found myself only looking at her in little furtive glances, when she wasn’t looking at me.
We had to start the process of leaving temporary housing before the deadline of March 31st next year.
We had nowhere to go back to.
Our home was demolished two years before the evacuation orders were lifted.
The magnitude 9.0 quake had caused our roof tiles to slip off and fall, and before we were even able to do something stop-gap like put a tarp over it, the nuclear accident forced us to evacuate. The first time we were allowed to visit our home was right in the middle of monsoon season; the roof on the second floor was showing a few leaks and all around grew a rainbow of mold: soot, light green, white, yellow, red, maroon, pink. The second time we were allowed back temporarily, the ceiling had fallen down and the floor beneath it was rotten and drooping, and animal feces of different sizes were scattered across the floor. I’d heard rumors that there were mice, weasels, raccoon dogs, raccoons and civets living in some of the houses in the exclusion zone, but when I saw a huge rat casually walk past with my own eyes, I realized: oh, we won’t be able to live here ever again.
We went out through the barricades and returned our protective suits and dosimeters to the screening tent. They went over the tires of our car and the soles of our shoes with a portable Geiger counter, and if the dose was unproblematic, we could just go.
On the way back from our encounter with the rat, we’d passed our screening and I’d just put my hands on the steering wheel when I suddenly felt all of my consciousness might be sucked into sleep. The half-conscious thought that I was about to be out like a light weighed on my drowsiness; the second my foot pressed down on the pedal I heard Mum say, weakly, ‘That’s enough, honey. We don’t need to go back there again.’
I went to the town hall and completed a request for demolition.
‘Anything in your home that you have no need for can be left there to be disposed of during demolition. Things that you want to keep must be removed before demolition work begins,’ they explained. ‘But anything taken out of the evacuation zone must undergo screening and only those items that are under the threshold for radiation can be taken away. Please don’t take anything that was outside of the house except for your own pet cat or dog, if you have one. Items which have been exposed to the outside air are likely to be highly radiated.’ Since the ceiling had fallen in and the roof had started leaking, I imagined that everything inside had been exposed to just as much radiation as outside, so I talked with my mother and we decided to let everything, even the piano, be disposed of.
Our hearts were so wounded, they were damaged beyond repair. We couldn’t get up the motivation to do anything; the only sounds that left our mouths were yawns and sighs, and when we stood we tottered around dizzily, feeling as if we were close to being taken from this world.
On the local evening news, they reported on how the decommissioning of the nuclear reactor was going, the house demolitions, life in emergency housing, and the number of people who had returned – it was must-see TV. One day, I was gutting some small fish for dinner when my thoughts were interrupted by the voice of a man, a professor, on the television, saying, ‘I hope people won’t let the days they’ve spent in temporary housing become lost time. If people keep a record of the time – write diaries, take pictures – then after they’ve rebuilt their lives, they can look back at it.’
‘Lost time? What does he know about lost time?’ Mum shouted, her voice thin like a cricket’s chirp.
A five-mat room with a kitchen, toilet and bath – the floor of our temporary housing unit had been swallowed by clothes and things, to the point that we couldn’t lay out our futons side by side. I slept halfway under the kotatsu. In the winter, sleeping in fleece clothes and a down jacket from Uniqlo meant I wasn’t cold.
It was the end of September when it happened.
During the day it would be over twenty degrees, and at night it would go down to fifteen, sixteen degrees; as we went to bed we would chat: almost time to stop wearing short sleeves, I know, soon we ought to get out our winter stuff, we haven’t got much winter stuff, so do you want to go to the mall tomorrow?
I had a dream.
I wasn’t in our temporary housing.
I was in a house I had no recollection of having lived in.
I was shouting at someone, and as I was shouting, I kept sticking my hand into a bookshelf, bashing the books into the wall and floor.
My own screaming broke the dream, and the house, the bookshelf, and the books all disappeared, but I didn’t open my eyes.
I heard the cheep-cheep of sparrows.
They were the sparrows that the old lady next door who lived alone kept feeding.
The smell of cooked rice from the rice cooker filled the room.
It was quiet.
We took turns: Mum cooked breakfast and lunch, while I took care of dinner.
Usually I woke to the sound of the toppings for miso soup or greens for a side dish being chopped, but I heard nothing.
‘Mum?’ I called out, then opened my eyes and turned my head to the side.
The pole stretched across the ceiling meant for hanging clothes from bore a bedsheet like a dirty flag, so I couldn’t see her futon.
‘Mum?’ I stood up and peered at her futon. Our eyes met.
She had passed away with her eyes open.
I called 119, the emergency number.
The ambulance’s sirens came closer, then stopped.
I heard the old lady next door’s panicked voice ask, what’s going on?
The paramedics came in.
Are you a relative?
I’m her daughter.
When did you find her?
Just a little while ago, when I woke up . . .
When did you last see her alive and well?
Before we went to sleep . . . after ten last night.
I got in the ambulance and went to the hospital.
It had apparently been four hours since she died.
‘Did she show any of the warning signs for a subarachnoid hemorrhage, for example, did she complain of headache or nausea?’ the doctor asked, but no words came out of my mouth, nothing –.
After her cremation, I took mum’s remains back to temporary housing. I placed the urn on top of the kotatsu, and without a sigh, I began to deal with her belongings. Ever since the day of the disaster I had walked hand in hand with my mother through the darkness. Now, if I didn’t untangle my hand from hers, I would have nowhere to go but to my death –.
I bundled her futon up into a plastic bag, making it compact.
I put her clothes into a bin bag.
I opened the closet next to where my mother had slept and found piles of boxes. Candy boxes with nothing in them. Fifty or sixty of them, at a glance. She’d always been in the habit of carefully saving little boxes, paper bags, wrapping paper, and ribbons. But how had she eaten this much candy in the last seven years?
Mum, what were you thinking . . .
I almost spoke the words out loud but controlled myself, taking the paper boxes in hand and breaking them down one by one. I found beautifully coloured boxes that I might’ve considered keeping myself, and ones that were so sturdy they would perhaps last a lifetime, but my hands had their own momentum now, and I could no longer stop their movements. When I put my hands on the final box, a white, square one at the back of the closet, I heard something shift inside it.
I opened the lid. It was a small box made of paulownia wood.
Inside was a dried umbilical cord.
On the back of the box there was a paper label.
Her name, my date of birth and birthplace were all as I knew them.
Only the father’s name was different.
I’d never even seen or heard that name before.
In the space where the child’s name should’ve been, there was a dark, thick scribble done in ballpoint pen, but the shape of the first character still remained.
I went online to make some searches.
The name that begins with ‘Saka’ that was most common in Ibaraki prefecture where my mother lived at the time was Sakai –.
I searched for Sakai Nizawa. No results.
If Nizawa was the family name instead, then it was quite a rare one, only found in Okayama prefecture.
The other clue I could chase up was the hospital’s name.
The maternity hospital in question had closed many years ago, and the hospital chief had passed away in 2013 at the age of eighty-five.
Even if the doctor who delivered me were still alive, Mum would have been nothing more than just one of tens of thousands of pregnancies he cared for, and I couldn’t imagine Mum having opened up to him about her secret before or after my birth.
Her secret –.
I was a honeymoon baby, born early at eight months.
My mother and father split when I was five.
My father’s violence toward her was so routine that she never seemed to have the slightest clue why he’d hit her.
He burst her right eardrum.
To keep him from knowing where we were going, she fled with me not to her parents’ house but to here, where she had no ties, knew no one.
The first time she told me that story, I was in my early twenties. I asked why she hadn’t made a report to the police; she said that if the police had thought it was just part of a lovers’ spat, then dad might’ve gone mad and stabbed us to death, even.
My mother got a job at a company supplying food services to TEPCO and the like and moved into their company dormitory; her role was doing food prep and cooking for the canteens in the nuclear reactors, and that’s how she raised me and sent me to music school in Tokyo.
I had one serious relationship where I thought we might get married, but when I told him that I was an only child and that after graduation I was going to go back home and live with my mother, he told me that he was an only child too, so we decided to break up.
I bought a previously owned home for my mother and I to live in together.
I started giving piano lessons; even after my mother moved out of the dormitory, she still commuted to work for a food service company.
I never asked her for details about my dad.
But her hearing on her right side was most definitely bad.
Was I the reason for my father’s violence against Mum?
If ‘Nizawa-san’ was the same age as Mum, he’d be in his 70s now.
He was most probably still alive.
Should I look for him?
And if I found him, then what?
If he’d left my mum not knowing that she was pregnant, or even if he’d left her knowing that she was pregnant, I would be nothing more than an inconvenience to this ‘Nizawa-san’, who had probably married, had children, and quite possibly had grandchildren now.
So who was my father?
I wanted to know.
But since I couldn’t ask my mum now, I couldn’t ever know.
If she were still alive, would I have been able to ask her who my father was?
My mother had taken out life insurance.
I was her beneficiary.
Because I was the only one she had.
I took a look at the city’s list of vacant houses and found one that I could buy with the exact amount of money my mother left me.
I didn’t have the energy to renovate a house.
The house I found was one built seven years before the disasters, close to Odaka station.
When I went with the estate agent to view it, the linoleum and even the tatami floors were covered in mouse shit; the paper screens, pillars, the doors, everything had been chewed at by mice; even the decorative, open-top ceiling beams in the Japanese-style room were packed full of mouse shit.
The estate agent told me, ‘Houses ’round here in the old exclusion zone might look all right from the outside but the water or electrics, you might need to rip all ’em out, it don’t make much sense. Most folks think things fall apart as you use ’em, but it’s when you don’t use ’em.’
The sellers were a mother and son, almost exactly the same ages as my mum and I.
We exchanged contracts in the reception room of the bank.
Once we’d finished signing and stamping all of the documents, the ownership was passed to me, and the son handed over the keys to the house to me, his mother said, ‘I have such mixed . . . it’s the house where we lived for so many . . .’ Her lips trembled.
‘If that damn reactor hadn’t melted down, we could’ve lived there ’til we died . . .’ her son said, his face visibly tense.
The next day, once their belongings had been taken away, they did the water and electric works, let the cleaners in, and finally changed the locks to the front door.
I decided my moving day and chose new curtains and furniture at the Ikea in Sendai, arranging for them to be delivered.
I headed down the Joban line from Sendai to Odaka, put a few small things in the entrance hall, like my slippers, then decided to go for a walk down the path by the Odaka River.
The walking path by the river was lined with flowering cherries.
A dry wind blowing from the west whirled through the tops of the cherry trees, rustled a cluster of dead reeds, and scattered the leaves at my feet around, then ran off.
Until the 11th of March 2011, taking a walk together was part of our daily routine. Even in her 70s, Mum could walk at a set distance and pace, her back and neck held straight, her questioning gaze turned to the far distance.
I liked her quiet regard, the way it gave me a sense of loneliness.
When I was a child, my mum would often use her fingers as a comb, moving my part to the right side.
I loved to have her braid my hair or put it into a ponytail.
I loved the little nonsense songs she would hum as she messed with my hair.
My mum’s facial expressions passed through my mind.
But did I really know anything about her?
I don’t remember when, but once she did tell me, ‘Your mum has a secret she’ll take with her to the grave.’
Maybe she wanted me to ask her: ‘What secret?’
At the time when she told me, Mum was downbeat.
Her long neck stretching above her sloping shoulders, the white lace cardigan she wore – the image of her that day was kept securely in my heart.
I thought she might be about to open up to me about a secret to do with my father, who she’d left when I was five, and I braced myself. I didn’t want to hear anything about him, that he had committed a horrible crime and was now in prison, or that he was actually already dead, whatever it was, and so I changed the subject as if I hadn’t heard her.
What did her face look like then?
If she had had her face turned toward me, I might’ve quite naturally asked her: ‘What secret?’
She might’ve been silent.
‘It’s OK, you can tell me.’
A light grey haze hung in the air over toward the sea.
The tsunami had gone over Odaka station and up to the second story of the house, I’d been told.
The house was maybe three kilometers from the sea.
The house . . .
I could only think of it as another emergency shelter.
I had enough inheritance to live on for years without working.
But after that, what would I do with my life?
Before the disaster Odaka had a population of 13,000, but seven years on, only 3,000 people had returned.
But half of those were over the age of sixty-five.
How many children even were there who might be the right age to learn piano?
But I couldn’t think about the future right now.
Every time I tried to think about what came next, the name ‘Nizawa’ came back to me. The name hung in the air, something I could not chase away or bring down to Earth, and probably would for my whole – .
It was hard, being saddled with a question that was neither a departure point nor a final destination, that was beyond my capacity.
My life had become vague and unclear because of him, but it was impossible for me to think that the world itself had ever had a clean outline. No one had predicted that earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. And even if they had, then it didn’t mean that someday, still, unexpected new events wouldn’t burst forth. And not just in the future. You could be ambushed by things that happened in the past, too.
I wished that I drank. If I could let the beer or whisky or wine flow into me, I’d get dead drunk, and then maybe my own self and the world and everything could become unclear – then maybe I could retreat into a time without past or future –.
My mum was the type of person whose face turned scarlet after one small glass of beer.
Maybe my intolerance to alcohol was something I inherited from my mother?
I wondered if Nizawa-san couldn’t handle alcohol either.
I walked for an hour.
On the other side of the path a crow stepped its way over dry leaves, a duck launched itself from the river, the group of sparrows resting on the power lines scattered themselves like rice across the sky, but I did not pass a single other person.
My eyes just kept going to the windows of the houses I walked past.
Everyone thought they’d be able to come home in two or three days, just taking what they had on them, and in the meantime the area was declared an exclusion zone, so even uninhabited houses had houseplants in pots on the windowsills or laundry hanging to dry. The curtains or indeed laundry were in tatters, and the houseplants were dead, but if you didn’t look closely you’d have no idea.
When the sun set, it was obvious. Bright windows meant a returnee’s house, dark windows a refugee’s house. The houses remembered each family’s history. When I walked the streets of this town at night, sometimes I felt that the dark windows were like eyes watching me. But you know, some people have blackout curtains, they don’t let any light leak out, the estate agent had told me. Before the disaster everybody here knew each other, but now, you know, there’s all ’em clean-up and power plant people here so –.
Occasionally, I could hear the sound of construction brought on the wind.
I couldn’t tell from the noise alone whether they were building or destroying.
Anyone who was remodeling their house now most likely was aiming to get done before Christmas, so they could spend the end of the year in their own home.
The season was turning toward coldness.
Still not at a low.
Soon swans would be flying to this river, and it would be cold enough that your breath turned white even indoors.
And then, in the quiet darkness of midwinter, a new year would dawn.
I heard the sound of the railway crossing and turned back to see the Namie-bound Joban line train, which only ran once an hour, crossing the railway bridge.
The track sounded as if it was pounding.
The train reflected on the surface of the river was beautiful.
If my mum were here, she’d grab the railing of the bridge with both hands looking down at the river and say, ‘Gosh, that’s pretty.’ At that thought, all the landscapes my mum and I had walked through, looked at, talked to each other in, seemed to emit like light from inside me, and the sense that I was lost and wandering blindly down an unknown road began to dissipate a little.
Moving day came.
I set my mother’s ashes in the middle of the living room table so that if an earthquake came now she would still be fine, and I started to inspect the inside of the house.
I opened the paper door to the Japanese-style room on the second story that I was considering making my bedroom.
There was a page-a-day calendar on the wall.
You’re only young once.
On the thick cover page, 2011 was embossed in gold.
How, how had I not noticed this calendar hanging right in the middle of the wall?
Since we completed the purchase, I’d come over to take measurements for curtains and tables, and I’d been in to meet the cleaners or to get a quote from the movers and yet –
The number eleven was there in front of me, like a hole that could not be mended.
I heard the rumbling of the ground and the vibration of the air and the rattle-rattle of the windowpanes. Here we go – a big one – I got down on all fours, but the shaking lasted so long I could barely believe it, and I thought the house might fall down around me so I ran out, barefoot –.
I felt time taking a nosedive into that split second; as I moved my legs I searched for the balanced part inside of me.
‘There might be more.’
My voice reverberated in this strange house. There was only one mouth in this house that could raise a cry, and that terrified me. I could not speak. I could not talk to myself. My voice would only reach my own ears so –.
I looked on all the shelves; I opened all the drawers.
When I opened the vanity under the bathroom sink, I discovered that there was a rock inside it.
It was a smooth, round, dove gray rock, like you might find in the bed of a big river, just the right size to fit in the palm of my hand.
Something was written on it in black marker.
This year will be over in a month.
Happy to live with such good fortune.
2008 Late November, when north winds blow the leaves from the trees
I recalled the thin face of the white-haired mother who’d said, at the bank when we exchanged contracts, ‘I have such mixed . . . it’s the house where we lived for so many . . .’
I placed the little rock on the windowsill and then saw instead my mum’s face in death.
I lifted the page that said 11 March and carefully teared off page after page.
The calendar became thinner, until I reached today’s date, seven years ago.
After winter must come spring.
And I cried.
Photograph © mrhayata
This is part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.