It's probably true. There definitely is something wrong with me. I have become petty. I am no good at all. I am pathetic. Out of the blue I nearly cried out at the top of my lungs. Pshaw... as if a loud holler was going to cover my gutlessness. I have to do something more. Maybe I am in love. I lay back on the green meadow.
"Father," I tried calling out. Father. Father, the sunset afterglow is beautiful. And the evening haze is pink. See how the rays from the setting sun melt and blur into the haze, which is why it takes on such a soft pink glow. The pink haze drifts and sways amongst the grove of trees, trailing above the road and caressing the meadow, before gently enveloping my body. It infuses every last strand of my hair with its soft pink light and then lightly embraces me. But this sky is even more beautiful. For the first time in my life, I want to bow my head to the heavens. Now I believe in G-d. The color of this sky, what would you call it? Rose? Flame? Iridescent? The color of angel's wings? Or a huge temple? No, it is none of these things. It is much more sublime.
"I want to love everyone," I thought, almost tearfully. If you stare at the sky, it changes little by little. Gradually it turns bluish. Then, with nothing more than a sigh, I felt the urge to be naked. I had never seen anything as beautiful as the translucent leaves and grass. Gently, I reached out to touch the grass.
I want to live beautifully.
When I arrived home, Mother was already there with houseguests. Not surprisingly, she was laughing cheerily at something. When it was just the two of us, no matter how hard she laughed, Mother never made a sound. On the contrary, when she entertained guests her face didn't smile at all, instead high-pitched laughter rang out. I greeted them, quickly went around to the back and washed my hands at the well, then I took off my socks. As I was washing my feet, the fishmonger showed up, calling out, Here you go! One large fish, thanks for your business! He set the fish on the well. I didn't know what kind of fish it was but something about its fine scales made me think it came from the northern sea. I put the fish on a plate and washed my hands again, and I caught a scent of summer in Hokkaido. It reminded me of the time I went to visit my older sister in Hokkaido during summer vacation two years ago. Perhaps because her home in Tomakomai was near the shore, you could always catch the scent of fish. I could clearly picture Sis, alone in that big empty kitchen at eveningtime, her white womanly hands deftly preparing fish for dinner. I remembered how, for some reason, I had wanted to be coddled by my sister, I couldn't help but crave her attention, but she had already given birth to little Toshi, and Sis was no longer my own. The fact that I couldn't simply fling my arms around her narrow shoulders had dawned on me like a chill draft. I stood in a corner of that dim kitchen with a feeling of intense loneliness and, stunned, kept my gaze fixed on her pale, graceful fingertips as they worked. I yearned for everything long gone. It was so curious, the way I felt about my family. With anyone else, if we were far apart, they would eventually grow fainter in my mind until I forgot about them, but with family, their memory seemed only to grow fonder and all I remembered were the beautiful things about them.
The oleaster berries by the well had barely started to turn red. They would probably be ready to eat in another two weeks. It was funny last year. One evening I had come out by myself to pick and eat the berries, and Jappy had watched me silently until I felt bad for him and gave him a berry. He ate it right up, so I gave him two more, which he gobbled too. Rather amused, I shook the tree, and as the berries trickled down, Jappy eagerly devoured them. Stupid dog. I had never seen a dog who ate oleander berries before. I reached out, picking more berries and eating them myself. Jappy was eating them off the ground. It was funny. Thinking about this made me miss Jappy, so I called out his name.
Jappy strutted over from the direction of the front door. I was suddenly seized with a furious surge of love for Jappy, and as I caught hold of his tail roughly, he gently bit my hand. I felt like bursting into tears, and I swatted him on the head. Unperturbed, he drank water loudly from the well.
When I went into the house, the lights were already on. It was quiet. Father was gone. I felt his absence within the house like a gaping void that made me shiver with agony. I changed into Japanese clothes, giving a little kiss to the roses on my discarded underthings, and when a burst of laughter rose from the parlor as I sat down in front of the dressing mirror, I suddenly felt angry for some reason. Everything was fine when it was just the two of us, Mother and me, but whenever anyone else was around, she seemed strangely distant—cold and formal—and those were the times when I missed Father the most, when I felt the saddest.
Peering at my face in the mirror, I looked surprisingly lively. My face was like that of a stranger. An animated face, liberated from my own sadness and pain and seemingly disconnected from such feelings. Although I wasn't wearing any rouge today, my cheeks were attractively rosy, and my lips glowed prettily. I took off my glasses and smiled softly. My eyes looked so nice. They were so pale and clear. I wondered if staring at the beautiful evening sky for so long had made my eyes look like this. Lucky me.
I went into the kitchen a little jauntily and then, while I was washing the rice, sadness washed back over me. I missed the house where we used to live in Koganei. I missed it with a searing pain. Both Father and Sis had been in that lovely home. And Mother had been young there. When I would come home from school, Mother and Sis would be chatting amusingly in the kitchen or in the living room. I'd be given a snack, and they'd both dote on me for a little while, then I'd pick a quarrel with my sister and be scolded, without fail, and I'd rush off outside to ride my bike as far away as I could. In the evening I'd return and we'd have a pleasant dinner. I really did enjoy it. There had been no need to reflect upon myself or be anxious about my impurity—all I had to do was be coddled. What a tremendous privilege I had enjoyed. And I hadn't even cared. There had been nothing to worry about, or to be sad or bitter about. Father had been a splendid and wonderful father. Sis was kind, I had constantly hung about her. But then, gradually as I grew up, first I began to disgust myself, and before I knew it that privilege of mine had disappeared and, stripped bare, I was absolutely awful. I hadn't the least desire to play up to anyone, I was always brooding over something, and I faced constant hardship. Sis was married off, and Father was no longer here. Mother and I were left all alone. Mother must have been terribly lonely too. She once said to me, "From now on, the joy in life is gone. Forgive me for saying, but when I look at you, the truth is, I don't feel much pleasure. Without your father, perhaps it's best if there is no happiness." She said that when the mosquitoes come out she suddenly thinks of Father, when she does the unsewing she thinks of Father, when she trims her nails she also thinks of Father, and especially when the tea is delicious she thinks of Father. No matter how much I sympathize with how Mother felt, or how much companionship I offer her, I will never compare with Father. Marital love is the strongest love in the world, stronger than familial love, and a precious thing it is. Such impertinent thoughts, even when I was alone, made my face grow hot, and I smoothed my hair with a wet hand. Swishing the rice as I washed it, Mother seemed very dear and pitiable to me—I ought to cherish her with all of my heart. I would take this silly wave out of my hair immediately and grow my hair much longer. Mother has never cared for short hair on me, so if I grow it out and then show her how it looks done up properly, I bet she'll be pleased. But to do something like that out of sympathy for Mother seems absurd. Horrible, really. When I think about it, my irritability these days is definitely related to Mother. I want to be a good daughter whose feelings are in perfect sync with Mother's, and just because of that, I go to these absurd lengths to please her. The best thing would be if Mother could just intuit how I felt, without my saying anything, and she could rest easy. No matter how selfish I am, I will never do anything to make myself a laughingstock—even in my pain and loneliness I will still protect what is important. Since I love Mother and this house so very dearly, she should have absolute confidence in me, and ju
st be carefree and relaxed. I will make sure to do a good job. I will keep my nose to the grindstone. It would be my greatest pleasure—it's the way I should be living anyway. But nevertheless, Mother still treated me like a child, without the slightest faith in me. Mother loved it when I said childish things, she acted so thrilled the other day when I made a show of pulling out the ukulele, plunking away on it and being silly for her. "Oh, is it raining? Are those raindrops I hear?" she feigned, teasing me, and she probably thought I was actually being serious about some silly ukulele. I felt so wretched I wanted to cry. Mother, I'm an adult now. I know all about the world now. Don't worry, you can talk to me about anything. If you were to confide everything to me, even things like our household budget, telling me exactly how it is, then I certainly wouldn't pester you to buy me shoes. I'll be a steady and frugal daughter. Really and truly. In spite of all that. "Oh, In Spite of All That"... wasn't that the name of a song, I chuckled to myself. At some point I realized I was standing there like an idiot, both hands idly thrust into the cooking pot, my thoughts ranging from one thing to another.
Oh, I almost forgot. I had better offer the guests something for supper. What should I do with that big fish? In the meantime, I should cut it into three pieces and marinate them in miso paste. That will make it taste great. With cooking, you just have to trust your intuition. There was a bit of cucumber left, so I put that out and doused it with sanbaizu sauce. Then—my specialty—egg omelet. Then one more dish. Yes, that's it. I'll cook "rococo." This is something that I have invented. Various and sundry items found in the kitchen are mingled on each plate—ham and omelet, parsley, cabbage, spinach—beautifully and skillfully arranged, economical and trouble-free, if perhaps not the least bit delicious. But it presents a surprisingly lively and gorgeous table, and manages to appear as a quite sumptuous meal. There was the green grass of the parsley beneath the omelet, then beside it the coral reef of the pink ham poked its head out, and the golden cabbage leaves were spread out on the plate like petals on a tree peony or like a fan of feathers, with the lush spinach a pasture or a lake, perhaps. Serve two or three plates like this, and guests will be unexpectedly reminded of King Louis. Of course that won't happen, but anyway, since I can't offer much in the way of cooking, the least I can do is try to fool guests with something beautiful that bedazzles them with its outward appearance. With cooking, it's all about the way it looks. That's usually enough to fool anyone. But cooking rococo requires a particular artistic inclination. You must have an uncommonly keen sense of color. Or at least my level of delicacy. When I looked up the word "rococo" in the dictionary the other day and saw that it was defined as a decorative style that was elaborate yet devoid of substance, I had to laugh. It was an apt description. Heaven forbid if beauty were to have substance. Genuine beauty is always meaningless, without virtue. It goes without saying. Which is why I love rococo.
As always happens, while I was busy preparing the meal and adding things here and there, I was overcome with an extreme emptiness. I felt depressed, and dead tired. I lapsed into overload from all my effort. Nothing mattered anymore. In the end, who cares?! I told myself desperately and, no longer concerned with taste or appearance, I flung things about in a messy clatter. Looking decidedly displeased, I brought the meal to the guests.
Today's visitors were particularly depressing, Mr. and Mrs. Imaida from Omori, and their son Yoshio who turned seven this year. Mr. Imaida was probably already near 40 but he had the pale complexion of a handsome man, which disgusted me. Why did he have to smoke those Shikishima cigarettes? For some reason, filters on cigarettes seem dirty to me. If you were going to smoke, then it had to be unfiltered. Smoking those Shikishimas throws a person's whole character into question. He looked up at the ceiling each time he exhaled smoke, saying, I see, I see, Is that right? He said he was teaching night school now. His wife was timid and petite, and unrefined. At every boring comment, she convulsed with laughter, her face almost pressed against the tatami floor. Was it really so funny? And was she under the impression that it was classy to prostrate herself while laughing so excessively? These people seemed like they were of the worst rank in today's world. The filthiest. Were they what they call petit bourgeois? Or some kind of minor bureaucrat? And the child was a bit too saucy, there wasn't anything animated or genial about him. Despite my feelings, I forced myself to bow and smile and chat, saying how cute Yoshio was and giving him a pat on the head. Since I was the one lying outright and tricking them all, maybe the Imaidas were more pure and innocent than I was. Everyone ate my rococo cooking and praised my skill, and even though I felt like crying—either out of loneliness or exasperation—I tried to put on a happy face. Finally I joined them in the meal but Mrs. Imaida's persistent yet empty and ignorant flattery eventually stirred my bile.
All right, no more fibbing. I looked at her sternly and said, "This meal isn't delicious at all. There's nothing to it, really, it was a last-ditch measure on my part." My intention had been to state the obvious, but the Imaidas praised my use of "last-ditch measure," clapping their hands and laughing merrily. I thought about hurling my chopsticks and bowl with annoyance and howling at the top of my lungs. Instead I sat there and forced myself to grin at them, until Mother said, "This child is becoming more and more helpful."
Though Mother was perfectly aware of my sorrowful state, she chose to smile and spout such nonsense in order to entertain the Imaidas' sentiments. I had never seen Mother be so obsequious towards anyone, let alone this lot. She was not the same Mother when she was in the presence of guests. She was nothing more than a weak woman. Was this how subservient she had become since Father was gone? It made me so miserable, I was speechless. Please go home, please go home. My father was a fine man. Kind, and with a distinguished character. Now that Father is gone, if you're going to belittle us this way, please hurry up and go home. I dearly wanted to say this to the Imaidas. Yet I was just as weak, so I cut some ham for Yoshio and passed the pickled vegetables to Mrs. Imaida.
Once the meal was finished, I quickly retreated to the kitchen and started the washing-up. I could hardly wait to be alone. I didn't mean to be haughty, but I couldn't see any reason why I should ever be forced to make conversation with or sit and smile with those kinds of people, ever again. Those types certainly did not deserve my courtesy, or rather, my currying favor with them. I hated it. I couldn't take it anymore. I had tried as best as I could. Hadn't Mother seemed happy to see my patient and affable attitude today? Wasn't that enough? I didn't know whether it was better to maintain a fierce distinction between yourself and your acquaintances in society in order to deal with and respond properly to things in a pleasant manner, or rather never to hide yourself, to remain true to yourself always, even if they say bad things about you. I envied those who were able to go through life simply in the midst of all the other weak, kind, and warm people like them. If it were possible to live my life without pain or hardship, then there would be no need to seek it out on my own. That would be best.
While surely there's something to be said for suppressing your own feelings for the sake of others, if everyday from now on I was forced to nod and smile at people like the Imaidas, I would probably go mad. I wouldn't make it in prison at all, the odd thought suddenly occurred to me. I couldn't work as a maid, much less be in prison. I couldn't be a wife, either. Well, being a wife is different. If it were duly resolved that I should devote my life to a particular person, then I could dedicate myself to the task, no matter how difficult, because I would have a purpose in life, I would have hope. Yes, I think I could even do a good job of it. It's not surprising. From morning to night, I'd make myself dizzy working like a busy bee. I'd do the laundry with vigor. Nothing upsets me more than a heap of dirty wash anyway. It makes me so restless you'd think I was manic or hysterical. I can't stop, no matter what. Then when the last article is washed and hung out to dry, finally I feel at peace.
Mr. Imaida was leaving. He must have had something to take care of, since Mother acc
ompanied him as he left. The Mother who followed after him in acquiescence bothered me too, and this wasn't the only time Imaida had availed himself of Mother's assistance, but the Imaidas' impudence was so appalling, it made me want to give them a wallop. I saw them all off as far as the gate, and stood there alone in the dusk, staring at the road, and felt like trying to cry.
In the mailbox were two letters and the evening edition. One letter was addressed to Mother, a circular for a sale on summer items from Matsuzakaya Department Store. The other letter was for me, from my cousin Junji. He was being transferred to a regiment in Maebashi. Send my best to your mother, he wrote in his brief note. As an officer, you can't expect a particularly remarkable lifestyle, but I envy such a rigorously efficient and disciplined daily existence. It must be easier to relax when someone always told you who you are and what to do. For instance, right now, if I wanted to do nothing, then I could just do nothing. My circumstances are such that I could be as bad as I wanted, but then again, if I felt like studying, I could study for as many hours on end as I liked. If someone were to give me a particular limit to abide by—to start here and use this much effort and finish there—you have no idea how much it would assuage my mind. I think I rather would appreciate a certain amount of constraint. I read in a book somewhere that soldiers in battle at the front had only one desire, to sleep soundly, and while on one hand I feel sorry for those soldiers, I am also terribly envious of them. To break free from this vexatious and awful never-ending cycle, this flood of outrageous thoughts, and to long for nothing more than simply to sleep—how clean, how pure, the mere thought of it is exhilarating. If someday I could live a military life, and be disciplined harshly, then I just might be capable of being a self-contained, beautiful daughter. There may be people, like Junji's younger brother Shin for instance, who are compliant even though they aren't in the military, but me, I'm such a horrible girl. Really I am. Shin is the same age as I am but I don't understand why he's such a good kid. Shin is my favorite relative—actually, he's my favorite person. Shin is blind. How dreadful it must be to lose your eyesight when you're young. I wonder what it's like for him, on a quiet night like this, alone in his room. The rest of us, when we're feeling forlorn, we can read a book or look out at the landscape and that might distract us a bit, but Shin can't do that. All he can do is sit there quietly. Shin studies twice as hard as anybody, and he's good at swimming and tennis too, but what is this kind of loneliness or pain like for him? Last night I was also thinking about Shin, and when I got into bed, I tried keeping my eyes closed for five minutes. Even just lying in bed with my eyes shut, five minutes felt like so long, I couldn't breathe. But morning, noon, and night, day after day, month after month, Shin never saw anything. I would have been happy if he ever whined or lost his temper or acted selfish, but he never did. I have never heard him complain or say anything bad about anyone. In fact, he always has an innocent look and a cheerful way of speaking, and that comes across all the more clearly to my mind.
My thoughts wandered while I swept the parlor and then prepared the bath. As the bathwater heated, I sat on a mandarin orange box and did my schoolwork by the flickering light of the burning coals. When I had finished it all, the bathwater still wasn't hot so I reread A Strange Tale from East of the River. I didn't find what's written in the story the least bit disgusting or dirty. But there were times when the author's pretensions stood out, which somehow reminded me how old-fashioned and unreliable he was. Maybe he was just an old geezer. But foreign writers, no matter how old they are, they love their subjects more daringly and deeply and, what is more, without pretense. Though in Japan, was this book even considered good? I found the relatively truthful and quiet resignation that was at the heart of it refreshing. Of all this author's works, I liked this one, it seemed the most mature. I had the impression that he had a very strong sense of responsibility. His intense attachment to Japanese morals seemed to make much of his writing overly reactionary and strangely lurid. Excessively passionate characters have a tendency to behave poorly. The author contrived to wear the mask of a wicked fiend, which only served to weaken his stories. But this tale gained a resolute strength from its pathos. I liked it.
The bathwater was ready. I turned on the light in the bathroom, took off my kimono, opened the window wide, and quietly slipped into the bath. The green leaves of the sweet viburnum poked in through the open window, and each leaf caught the light, gleaming brilliantly. The stars sparkled in the sky. They sparkled no matter how many times I looked back at them. Lying there as I gazed up with rapture, I purposely avoided looking at the paleness of my body, but I was still vaguely aware of it, somewhere in the periphery of my vision. Yet, still silent, I sensed that it was not the same white body as when I was little. I couldn't stand it. The body had no connection to my mind, it developed on its own accord, which was unbearable and bewildering. It made me miserable that I was rapidly becoming an adult and that I was unable to do anything about it. I suppose there is no choice but to give myself over to what is happening, to wait and see as I become a grown up. I want to have a doll-like body forever. I splashed the bathwater about, trying to imitate a child, but I still felt depressed. I was distressed, like there wasn't any reason left to live. From the field across the yard, a child's voice called out tearfully, Sis! It startled me. The voice wasn't calling for me but I envied the sister whom the child was crying out for. If I were her, with such a beloved and cossetted little brother, then I wouldn't live my life so shamefully day after day. I would have the encouragement to live, to dedicate my whole life to my brother—I would be prepared to face any hardship. I would strain hard all on my own, which would make me feel all the more sorry for myself.
After my bath, I went out into the yard, the stars still occupying my mind for some reason tonight. The sky was filled with them. Ah, summer's almost here. I could hear frogs croaking. The barley soughed. No matter how many times I looked across the sky, the infinite stars continued to gleam. Last year—no, it wasn't last year, it was the year before last already—I had insisted on going for a walk, and even though he wasn't well, Father took a walk with me. Father was always young. He taught me the German song that goes something like, "Until you are 100, until I am 99," and we talked about the stars, and tried to make up impromptu poems. Wonderful Father, walking with a cane, spewing spittle, and blinking his eyes constantly as we walked together. As I looked up at the stars silently, I could remember Father with perfect clarity. In the year or two since then, little by little I had become a horrible girl. I had so many secrets of my own now.
I went back to my room and sat down, chin in hand, and gazed at the lily that was on my desk. It had a lovely perfume. With the scent of lilies around, I could sit like this by myself forever, and never have an impure thought. I had bought this lily from the florist yesterday evening, on my way home from a walk to the station, and since then it seemed to have transformed my room, its refreshing perfume hitting me the moment I slid open the fusuma door. I was immensely comforted by it. Sitting here now, staring at the lily, I was struck with a realization—an actual physical sensation—that it was greater than Solomon's glory. Suddenly I remembered the time when I was in Yamagata last summer. We had gone to the mountains and I was surprised to see an astonishing number of lilies growing halfway up a cliff. It was such a steep precipice, I knew there was no way to climb up there, no matter how much I wanted to—all I could do was look. But there happened to be a miner nearby who quietly clambered up the cliff and, in no time, he collected more lilies than he could carry with both hands. Then, without the least hint of a smile, he handed all of them over to me. There were so many flowers. No one had ever received so many flowers—not on any magnificent stage or at the most extravagant wedding. That was the first time I understood what it's like to feel dizzy from flowers. I could barely manage to carry that enormous white bouquet with my arms open wide—I couldn't see in front of me at all. Such a kind and very admirable young hardworking miner, I wondered what he was doing now. All he had done was bring me some flowers from a hard-to-reach place, but now, whenever I see lilies, I think of the miner.
I opened the desk drawer and rummaged around to find my folding paper fan from last summer. It had a Genroku-era woman waywardly sprawled on a white background and, next to her, two green Chinese lantern plants had been added. This fan suddenly summoned last summer like a vapor. The days in Yamagata, being on the train, wearing yukata, and watermelon, the river, cicadas, and windchimes. I had a sudden urge to take the fan and get on a train. I like the feeling of opening a fan. The clattering as the ribs unfurled, the sudden lightness. As I played at whirling it around, Mother came home. She was in a happy mood.
"Oh, I'm so tired," she said, but her face belied her words. It was just as well—she liked taking care of other people's business for them.
"It was quite a complicated matter," she went on as she changed out of her kimono and got into the bath.
After her bath, while the two of us were drinking tea together, Mother wore a curious smile, and I wondered what she was about to tell me.
"You know how you said you've been wanting to see The Barefoot Girl? If you really want to go see it, then I'll let you. In exchange, would you rub my shoulders a little tonight? It will make it all the more enjoyable if you have to work for it."