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M A R Y Y U K A R I W A T E R S

M A R Y Y U K A R I W A T E R S

94

In Imamiya Park the boys are playing dodge ball, a new American game.

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Behind them tall poplars rise up through the low-lying dusk, intercepting

the last of the sun’s rays, which dazzle the leaves with white and gold.

Makiko can hardly believe her son , Toshi, belongs with these older

boys. Seven years old! Once, his growth had seemed commensurate with

the passage of time. These last few years, however, with the war and sur-

render, the changes have come too fast, skimming her consciousness like

pebbles skipped over water.

Makiko is grateful the war is over. But she cannot ignore a nagging sense

that Japan’s surrender has spawned a new threat—one more subtle, more

diffuse. She can barely articulate it, even to herself; feels unmoored, buf-

feted among invisible forces surging all around her. As if caught up in these

energies, her son’s thin body is rapidly lengthening. Look ! Within that cir-

cle in the dirt he is dodging, he is feinting; his body twists with an unfamil-

iar grace, foreshadowing that of a young man.

Toshi’s growth is abetted by a new lunch program at school that is sub-

sidized by the American government, which has switched, with dizzying

speed, from enemy to ally. Each day her son comes home with alien food

in his stomach: bread, cheese, bottled milk. Last week, in the pocket of his

shorts, Makiko found a cube of condensed peanut butter—an American

dessert, Toshi explained—which he had meant to save for later. It was

coated with lint from his pocket, which he brushed off, ignoring her plea to

“get rid of that dirty thing.”

And each day, Toshi comes home with questions she cannot answer:

Who was Magellan? How do you say “My name is Toshi” in English? How

do you play baseball?

Makiko shows him the ball games her own mother taught her. She

bounces an imaginary ball, chanting a ditty passed down from the Edo

p e r i o d :

yellow topknots

of the Portuguese wives

Aftermath

 

 

spiraled like seashells

and stuck atop their heads

hold one up, to your ear

shake it up and down

a little shrunken brain

is rattling inside

In the old days, she tells him, they used to put something inside the rub-

ber balls—maybe a scrap of iron, she wasn’t sure—that made a rattling

noise. Toshi, too old now for this sort of amusement, sighs with impa-

t i e n c e .

Just four years ago, Toshi’s head had been too big for his body—

endearingly out of proportion, like the head of a stuffed animal. Even then

he had a manly, square-jawed face, not unlike that of a certain city-council

candidate appearing on election posters at the time. Her husband, Yo s h i-

tsune, nicknamed his son “Mr. Magistrate.” Before going off to war, Yo s h i-

tsune had developed a little routine with their son. “Oi, Toshi! Are you a

man?” Yoshitsune would prompt in his droll tone, using the word o t o k o ,

with its connotations of male bravery, strength, and honor. He would ask

this question several times a day, often before neighbors and friends.

“H a i , F a t h er ! I am a man!” little Toshi would cry, stiffening at soldierly

attention as he had been coached, trembling with eagerness to please. His

short legs, splayed out from the knees as if buckling under the weight of his

head, were still dimpled with baby fat.

“M a aa! An excellent, manly answer!” the grownups praised, through

peals of laughter.

Makiko had laughed, too, a faint constriction in her throat, for Yo s h i-

tsune had remarked to her, “When I’m out fighting in the Pacific, that’s

how I’m going to remember him.” After that, she began watching their

child closely, trying to memorize what Yoshitsune was memorizing. Later,

when her husband was gone, it comforted her to think that the same

images swam in both their minds at night. Even today, Toshi’s three-year-

old figure is vivid in her mind. On the other hand, she has not fully

absorbed the war years, still shrinks from those memories and all that has

f o l l o w e d .

Foreigners, for instance, are now a familiar sight. American army jeeps

with beefy red arms dangling out the windows roar down Kagane Boule-

vard, the main thoroughfare just east of Toshi’s school. “Keep your young

women indoors,” the neighbors say. Occasionally, Makiko has seen a sol-

dier offering chocolates or peanuts to little children, squatting down to

their level, holding out the treat—it seems to her they all have hairy arms

—as if to a timid cat. Just yesterday Toshi came home, smiling broadly and

Waters ■ Aftermath 95

 

 

carrying chocolates —not one square but three. Bile had surged up in

Makiko’s throat, and before she knew it, she had struck them right out of

his hand and onto the kitchen floor. “How could you?!” she choked as

Toshi, stunned, burst into sobs. “How could you?! Those men killed your

f a t h er!”

This evening, Makiko has come to the park with a small box of cara-

mels, bought on the black market with some of the money she was hoard-

ing to buy winter yarn. “In the future,” she will tell him, “if you want some-

thing so badly, you come to me. Ne? Not to them.”

On a bench in the toddlers’ section, now deserted, she waits for her son

to finish his game with the other boys. All the other mothers have gone

home to cook dinner. The playground equipment has not been maintained

since the beginning of the war. The swing set is peeling with rust; the free-

standing animals—the ram, the pig, the rooster—have broken-down

springs, and their carnival paint has washed away, exposing more rusted

s t e e l .

Ara maaa! Her Toshi has finally been hit! Makiko feels a mother’s pang.

He is crossing the line to the other side now, carrying the ball. Makiko

notes the ease with which the fallen one seems to switch roles in this game,

heaving the ball at his former teammates without the slightest trace of dis-

l o y a l t y .

This year, Makiko is allowing Toshi to light the incense each evening

before the family altar. He seems to enjoy prayer time much more now

that he can use matches. She also regularly changes which photograph of

her husband is displayed beside the miniature gong. This month’s photo-

graph shows Yoshitsune in a cotton y u k a t a , smoking under the ginkgo

tree in the garden. Sometimes, in place of a photograph, she displays an

old letter or one of his silk scent bags, still fragrant after a bit of massaging.

To keep Toshi interested, Makiko presents his father in the light of con-

stant renewal.

“Just talk to him inside your mind,” she tells her son. “He wants to

know what you’re learning in school, what games you’re playing. Just like

any other father, n e ? Don’t leave him behind, don’t ignore him, just

because he’s dead.” She wonders if Toshi secretly considers his father a

b u r d e n, making demands from the altar, like a cripple from a wheelchair.

“ Your father’s very handsome in this picture, ne ?” she says tonight.

Within the lacquered frame, her son’s father glances up from lighting a cig-

arette, a bemused half smile on his face, as if he is waiting to make a wry

c o m m e n t .

Toshi nods absently. Frowning, he slashes at the matchbox with the

expert flourish of a second-grade boy. The match rips into flames.

“Answer properly! You’re not a little baby anymore.”

“H a i , Mother.” Toshi sighs with a weary, accommodating air, squaring

96 Mänoa ■ Silence to Light

 

 

his shoulders in a semblance of respectful attention. Makiko remembers

with sorrow the big head, the splayed legs of her baby boy.

It amazes her that Toshi has no memory of the routine he once per-

formed with his father. “ What d o you remember of him?” she prods every

so often, hoping to dislodge some new memory. But all that Toshi remem-

bers of his father is being carried on one arm before a sunny window.

“Maaa, what a wonderful memory!” Makiko encourages him each time.

“It must have been a very happy moment! ”

When would this have taken place: which year, which month? Wo u l d

even Yoshitsune have remembered it, this throwaway moment that, inex-

plicably, has outlasted all the others in their son’s mind? She tries conjur-

ing it up, as if the memory is her own. For some reason she imagines

a u t u m n, the season Yoshitsune sailed away: October 1 9 42. How the after-

noon sun would seep in through the nursery window, golden, almost

amber, advancing with the viscous quality of Hiezan honey or of nostalgia,

overtaking sluggish dust motes and even sound. She wishes Toshi could

remember the old view from that upstairs window: a sea of gray tiled roofs

drowsing in the autumn haze, as yet unravaged by the fires of war.

“I’m done,” Toshi says.

“What! Already? Are you sure ? ”

“H ai , Mother.” Already heading for the dining room, where supper lies

waiting on the low table, he slides back the s h o j i door in such a hurry that it

grates on the grooves. Makiko considers calling him back—his prayers are

getting shorter and shorter—but the incident with the chocolates is still

too recent for another reprimand.

She follows him into the dining room. “A man who forgets his past,” she

quotes as she scoops rice into his bowl, “stays at the level of an animal.”

Toshi meets her eyes with a guilty, resentful glance. “Go on,” she says

blandly, “eat it while it’s hot.”

Toshi falls to. In order to supplement their meager rice ration, Makiko

continues to mix in chopped kabura radishes—which at least resemble rice

in color—as she did during the war. Sometimes she switches to chopped

turnips. At first, before the rationing became strict, Toshi would hunch

over his rice bowl with his chopsticks, fastidiously picking out one bit of

vegetable after another and discarding it on another plate. Now, he eats

with gusto. It cuts her, the things he has grown used to. As a grown man he

will reminisce over all the wrong things, things that should never have been

a part of his childhood: this shameful pauper food; a block of peanut paste

covered with lint; enemy soldiers amusing themselves by tossing chocolate

and peanuts to children.

Later, Toshi ventures a question. Makiko has noticed that nighttime —

the black emptiness outside, the hovering silence—still cows him a little,

stripping him of his daytime cockiness. After his goodnight bow, Toshi

remains kneeling on the t a t a m i floor. He says, “I was thinking, Mama,

Waters ■ Aftermath 97

 

 

about how I’m seven—and how I only remember things that happened

after I was three. So that means I’ve forgotten a whole half of my life—

r i g h t?”

“That’s right,” Makiko says. He is looking up at her, his brows puckered

in a look of doleful concentration, which reminds her of his younger days.

“But it’s perfectly normal, Toshi-kun. It’s to be expected.”

He is still thinking. “So when I get older,” he says, “am I going to keep

on forgetting? Am I going to forget you, too? ”

Makiko reaches out and strokes his prickly crewcut. “From this age on, ”

she says, “you’ll remember everything, Toshi-kun. Nothing more will ever

be lost.”

In the middle of the n ight, Makiko awakens from a dream in which

Yoshitsune is hitting her with a fly swatter. She lies paralyzed under her

futon, outrage buzzing in her chest. Details from the dream wash back into

her mind: Yoshitsune’s smile, distant and amused; the insolent way he

wielded the swatter, as if she were hardly worth the effort.

A blue sheet of moonlight, slipping in through the space between two

sliding panels, glows in the dark.

In the first year or two after his death, this sort of thing would happen

o f t e n, and not always in the form of dreams. There were times—but hardly

ever anymore; why tonight?—when, in the middle of washing the dishes or

sweeping the alley, some small injustice from her past, long forgotten,

would rise up in her mind, blocking out all else till her heart beat hard and

fast. Like that time, scarcely a month after their wedding, when Yo s h i t s u n e

had run into his old girlfriend at Nanjin Station and made such a fuss: his

absurd, rapt gaze; the intimate timbre of his voice as he inquired after her

w e l f a r e .

And there was the time —the only time in their entire marriage—when

Yoshitsune had grabbed Makiko by the shoulders and shaken her hard.

He’d let go immediately, but not before she had felt the anger in his power-

ful hands and her throat had choked up with fear. That, too, was early on

in the marriage, before Makiko learned to tolerate his sending sizable sums

of money to his mother each month.

What is to be done with such memories?

They get scattered, left behind. Over the past few years, more pleasant

recollections have taken the lead, informing all the rest, like a flock of

birds, heading as one body along an altered course of nostalgia.

She has tried so hard to remain true to the past. But the weight of her

need must have been too great: her need to be comforted, her need to pro-

vide a legacy for a small, fatherless boy. Tonight she senses how far beneath

the surface her own past has sunk, its outline distorted by deceptively clear

w a t e r s .

98 Mänoa ■ Silence to Light

 

 

Toshi has been counting the days till Tanabata Day. A small festival is

being held at the riverbank—the first since the war. It will be a meager

affair, of course, nothing like it used to be: no goldfish scooping, no soba

noodles, no fancy fireworks. However, according to the housewives at the

open-air market, there will be a limited number of sparklers—the nicest

kind, Makiko tells her son—and traditional corn grilled with shoyu, which

can be purchased out of each family’s food allowance.

Because of an after-dark incident near Kubota Temple involving an

American soldier and a young girl, Makiko’s younger brother has come by

this evening to accompany them to the festival. Noboru is a second-year

student at the local university.

“N e , Big Sister! Are you ready yet ?” he keeps calling from the living

room. Makiko is inspecting Toshi’s nails and the back of his collar.

“Big Sister,” Noboru says, looking up as Makiko finally appears in the

doorway, “your house is too immaculate. I get nervous every time I come

here!” He is sitting stiffly on a floor cushion, sipping homemade persim-

mon tea.

“ Well,” Makiko answers, “I hate dirt.” She has switched, like most

w o m e n, to Western dresses —they require less fabric—but it makes her

irritable, having to expose her bare calves in public. She tugs down her

knee-length dress.

“A aa,” says young Noboru from his floor cushion, “but I, for one, am

fascinated by it. The idea of it, I mean. What’s that old saying—‘Nothing

grows in a sterile pond’? Just think, Big Sister, of the things that come out

of dirty water. A lotus, for example. Or a pearl. Just think: a pearl’s nothing

more than a grain of dirt covered up by an oyster! And life itself, Big Sister,

billions of years ago—emerging from the primordial muck! ”

“Maa maa, N o b o -k u n.” She sighs, double-checking her handbag for

coin purse, ration tickets, and handkerchief. “You seem to be learning

some very interesting concepts at the university.”

Toshi is waiting by the front door in shorts and a collared shirt, impa-

tiently pulling the door open and then shut, open and then shut.

Finally, they are on their way, strolling down the narrow alley in the still,

muggy evening. The setting sun angles down on the east side of the alley,

casting a pink and orange glow on the charred wooden lattices, where

shadows stretch, like the long heads of snails, from the slightest of protru-

sions. In the shadowed side of the alley, one of the bucktoothed Kimura

daughters ladles water from a bucket onto the asphalt around her door,

pausing, with a good-evening bow, to let them pass. The water, colliding

with warm asphalt, has released a smell of many layers: asphalt, earth,

scorched wood, tangy dragon’s beard moss over a mellower base of tree

foliage; prayer incense and t a t a m i straw, coming from the Kimuras’ half-

open door; and mixed in with it all, some scent far back from Makiko’s

own childhood that falls just short of definition.

Waters ■ Aftermath 99

 

 

“ We Japanese,” Noboru is saying, “must reinvent ourselves. We must

change to fit the modern world. We mustn’t remain an occupied nation.”

He talks of the new constitution, of the new trade agreements. Makiko has

little knowledge of politics. She is amused—disquieted, too—by this acad-

emic young man, who before the war was a mere boy loping past her win-

dow with a butterfly net over his shoulder.

“Fundamental shifts . . . ,” Noboru is saying, “. . . outdated pyramidal

structures.” He has just begun wearing hair pomade with an acrid metallic

scent. It seems to suggest fervor, fundamental shifts.

“T o s h i -k un! ” Makiko calls. “Don’t go too far.” The boy stops running.

He walks, taking each new step in exaggerated slow motion.

“So much change!” she says to Noboru as she tugs at her cotton dress.

“And so fast. Other countries had centuries to do it in.”

“Sö, sö, Big Sister !” Noboru says. “Sö, sö. But we have no choice — t h a t ’ s

a fact. You jettison from a sinking ship if you want to survive.”

The pair approach Mr. Watanabe watering his potted morning glories

in the twilight. Holding his watering can in one hand, the old man gives

them a genteel bow over his cane. “Yo s h i t s u n e -s a n ,” he murmurs politely,

“ M a k i k o -s a n.” He then turns back to his morning glories, bending over

them with the tenderness of a mother with a newborn.

“Poor Wa t a n a b e -san, ne?” Noboru whispers. “He gets more and more

confused every time we see him.”

Yes, poor Mr. Watanabe, Makiko thinks. Bit by bit he is being pulled

back in, like a slowing planet, toward some core, some necessary center of

his past. Laden with memory, his mind will never catch up to Noboru’s

new constitution or those trade agreements, or even the implications of

that billboard with English characters—instructions for arriving soldiers?

—rising above the blackened rooftops and blocking his view of the Hiezan

h i l l s .

Oddly, Mr. Watanabe’s greeting has triggered a memory from the past:

Makiko is strolling with Yoshitsune on a summer evening. For one heart-

beat she experiences exactly how things used to be—their commonplace

existence, before later events imposed their nostalgia—with a stab of phys-

ical recognition that is indefinable, impossible to call up again. Then it is

gone, like the gleam of a fish, having stirred up all the waters around her.

They walk on in silence. “ T o s h i -k un! ” she calls out again. “Slow down.”

Toshi pauses, waiting for them; he swings at the air with an imaginary bat.

“Striku! Striku!” he hisses.

It occurs to Makiko how artificial this war has been, suspending people

in the same, unsustainable state of solidarity. For a while, everyone had

clung together in the bomb shelter off Nijiya Street, thinking the same

thoughts, breathing in the same damp earth and the same warm, uneasy

currents made by bodies at close range. But that is over now.

Makiko thinks of her future. She is still full of life and momentum. There

100 Mänoa ■ Silence to Light

 

 

is no doubt that she will pass through this period and into whatever lies

beyond it, but at a gradually slowing pace; a part of her, she knows, will lag

behind in the honeyed light of pre-war years.

“ T o s h i -k u n! ” she cries. “ Wa i t! ” Her son is racin g ahead, his long

shadow sweeping the sun-lit fence as sparrows flutter up from charred pal-

i n g s .

Makiko stands out on the veranda, fanning herself with a paper u c h i w a .

Toshi is already asleep. The night garden is muggy; the mosquitoes are out

in full force. She can hear their ominous whine from the hydrangea bush,

in between the rasping of crickets, but they no longer target her as they did

in her youth. She is thinner now, her skin harder from the sun, her blood

watered down from all the rationing.

It was a wonderful festival. Shadowy adults bent over their children,

helping them to hold sparklers over the glassy water. The sparklers sput-

tered softly in the dark, shedding white flakes of light. Makiko had watched

from a distance; Toshi was old enough, he had insisted, to do it by himself.

She had remarked to Noboru how there is something in everyone that

responds to fireworks: so fleeting, so lovely in the dark.

It was a fine night for Toshi. “This corn is so good, ne, Mama?” he kept

saying, looking up from his rationed four centimeters of corncob. “T h i s

sure tastes good, ne?” The joy on his face, caught in the glow of red paper

lanterns, brought a lump to her throat.

Tonight there is a full moon. Earlier, at dusk, it was opaque and insub-

stantial. Now, through shifting moisture in the air, it glows bright and

strong, awash with light.

For Makiko, the festival owed its luster to all that lay beneath, to all

those other evenings of her life and their lingering phosphorescence.

Which long-ago evenings exactly? They are slowly losing shape, merging

together in her consciousness.

Perhaps Toshi will remember this night. Perhaps it will rise up again

once he is grown. Some smell, some glint of light will bring texture and

emotion to a future summer evening. As will his memory of praying before

his father’s picture or being carried by his father before an open window.

Waters ■ Aftermath 101

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