One Birdby Kyoko Mori
"STUNNING, EVOCATIVE . . . [A] well-crafted coming-of-age novel."
School Library Journal
Fifteen-year-old Megumi was very sad when her parents broke up. But now, with her mother running off on a "trip" to her own childhood home, Megumi is left to stay with her father (who is never around) and her cranky grandmother (who is
"STUNNING, EVOCATIVE . . . [A] well-crafted coming-of-age novel."
School Library Journal
Fifteen-year-old Megumi was very sad when her parents broke up. But now, with her mother running off on a "trip" to her own childhood home, Megumi is left to stay with her father (who is never around) and her cranky grandmother (who is unfortunately always around).
Just when she feels that no one cares, Megumi meets Dr. Mizutani, a smart young woman who offers Megumi a part-time job in her veterinary office helping her heal sick birds. Dr. Mizutani seems to understand Megumi without asking a lot of questions. And as Megumi finally begins to accept why her mother had to leave, she discovers a confident strength within herself. . . .
"The text gains an intensity from the discipline with which every detail of this accomplished work is orchestrated from the first page to the last."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Read an Excerpt
By Kyoko Mori
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 Kyoko Mori
All rights reserved.
A GAME OF TAG
"Tell me the truth," I insist while my mother keeps shoving sweaters into her suitcase.
Though she is kneeling on the floor just a few feet away, she won't look up at me. Frowning, she pretends to examine the sleeve of her gray cashmere pullover, as if she had found a hole or a stain that demanded her attention. I sigh loudly and start pacing in front of her.
On the windowsill behind her, the late-afternoon sun is hitting the four plastic containers in which she had planted her spring seeds two weeks ago. The rectangular containers are large but shallow, holding just a finger of dirt around each seed. Half the plants have sprouted, their heads bent down with the cracked seeds stuck on top like tiny helmets: pansies, spring chrysanthemums, impatiens. The lavenders and the petunias are taking their time, their slow-germinating seeds hidden in the soil. My mother has covered the containers with clear plastic and placed them on heating pads, with a spray bottle ready for their daily misting. As long as I can remember, she has coaxed seeds to grow in the middle of winter and has had the seedlings ready for her garden in early March. But not this year, or ever again. I know she is not coming back.
In late November, when Mother first mentioned spending the winter with her father in their old home in a small village north of Kyoto, I knew right away that something was wrong. The more she kept explaining her reasons, the more I knew that she wasn't telling the truth. "Grandfather Kurihara has a difficult time managing alone," she said. "I want to help him get through the winter. I'll write to Grandmother Shimizu in Tokyo. She won't mind staying with you and your father until I come back." Grandfather Kurihara is old, and he has been alone since my grandmother's death almost three years ago, but he is strong and healthy. My mother — or anyone's mother — would not leave her own home to take care of her father unless he were sick. Besides, if Mother were leaving to help him, she would have left right away, back in November. Instead she has waited till now, the last week of January. Winter is already half gone.
Mother has put away the cashmere sweater and is now reaching for her wool skirt. I kneel down beside her. Without a word, she stops what she is doing.
Putting my arms around her shoulders, I try to reason with her. "It's easier for me if I know. You don't have to pretend in order to spare my feelings. You didn't have to start up the plants to fool me." A whining tone creeps into my voice, so I pause and take a deep breath. At fifteen, I am too old to cry or to speak in the sad, nasal voice of a child.
Slowly, my mother leans forward and hugs me. "I wish I could take you with me, Megumi," she says into my hair, each word warm and distinct, her wish ending with my name. Megumi means "God's blessing."
"The day you were born was the happiest day of my life," Mother has told me many times. "I knew that God had given me the most important blessing ever." Thinking about that makes me miss the old times — the two of us drinking hot chocolate in the winter and looking at the pictures in my album, laughing about what a fat little baby I used to be, wondering how I ended up big-boned and thin. My mother keeps holding me tight. I wish this afternoon would go no further. It's four- thirty; the sunlight is bright and orange, the way it gets an hour before sunset. If I sit still and say nothing more, maybe the day will pass without anything happening. But on my way home from school, I promised myself that I would speak nothing but the truth on our last afternoon together. "I'll be honest," I said over and over as I walked past the bare branches of the cherry and maple trees planted along the sidewalk; when the leaves come out in March or April, they will be reminders of my promise. By then, Mother will be long gone, living with Grandfather in their quiet home far from here. How can she leave me if I really am the greatest blessing of her life? Was she lying to me even back then?
I drop my arms from around her shoulders and pull myself out of her embrace.
"It's no use wishing," I tell her. "I know you can't take me. I'm not stupid."
Without a word, she looks down at the floor.
I stand up and start walking around the room again. Mother has often said that when a woman leaves her husband, the children must stay with their father, especially if the woman's parents are poor. The woman must go to live with her parents for the rest of her life, giving up her children until they are old enough — full-grown adults — to visit on their own; the father usually does not allow any visits. The children, she said, would be better off with the father: Growing up poor and fatherless means growing up in shame, being despised by strangers and neighbors alike. She had been talking about other people when she said these things — people we had heard or read about, since no couple we know in Ashiya or Kobe has been divorced or separated — but I always understood she meant us. She has been preparing me for a long time, warning me of what would happen if she were to leave my father.
Still, that is not the same as telling the direct truth. Mother has never said anything about not coming back; for nearly three months, she has been pretending that she is going for a short visit rather than giving me up and returning to live with her father for the rest of her life. Even now, she hasn't said anything except a halfhearted wish to take me with her. I stop pacing and look at her as she smooths her black wool skirt with her fingers, getting it ready to be packed. Though she is taking only two suitcases, everything in her room has been put into boxes. If I had been dumb enough to believe her story about taking care of Grandfather, I would have guessed the truth when she started packing all of her belongings. How could she think that I would be stupid enough not to notice? All my life she has told me how smart I am.
"You didn't have to lie to me," I mutter.
She looks up, her face drawn tight and her large eyes wide with hurt.
Immediately, I want to take back my words; I want to apologize and insist that I didn't really mean it, I was just upset. But I can't. It would have been better if Mother had told the truth. No matter how upset we might have been, we could have made plans for the future. I would have helped her pack, hard as it might have been. Anything would have been better than standing around like this, pretending that the worst thing in my life was not about to happen.
Mother is staring at me, saying nothing. Staring back at her pale cheeks and thin lips, I wish she would cry. I want to see tears trickling down from her eyes as she opens her mouth to admit, "I'm sorry I lied." That would make me feel, if not better, then less bad. But if she said she was sorry, how could I respond? "That's all right. I understand"? No. I don't understand.
The two of us continue to face each other in silence. When the doorbell rings, I almost jump.
"I'll go get the door," I say, darting out of the room.
Mrs. Kato, my mother's best and oldest friend, is standing in the doorway with her son, Kiyoshi, slouching behind her in his navy blue school uniform. Nobody smiles or says "Good afternoon." Mrs. Kato heads straight toward Mother's room without taking off her winter coat, which is the same gray as the hair around her temples.
Kiyoshi and I step into the hallway, glancing at each other but saying nothing. It's just like when we were children and one of us had done something wrong. I see him every week at church, but in his school uniform he doesn't look like himself. The starched white collar and the heavy jacket make him seem older, more serious. Christian Girls' Academy, the private, all- girl school I attend, has no uniforms. In my blue jeans and fuzzy red sweater, with my long hair pulled back in a ponytail, I must appear childish. He has grown a little taller than I in the last few years, and I cannot get used to having to tilt my head up to talk to him. His face has changed, too. His jaw and nose have gotten larger and thicker, though his eyes are the same as when we were children — narrow eyes that crinkle into little half-moons when he smiles, which he doesn't do very often anymore.
Inside the bedroom, Mother and Mrs. Kato are speaking in low voices. Mostly it's Mrs. Kato talking. She comes out after a while, carrying both suitcases. In the hallway, she nods to us and points her chin toward the front door. She doesn't have to say anything. Kiyoshi and I file outside and stand on the driveway, where the Katos' white Toyota is parked. The sun is sinking fast over the western mountains.
My mother steps out of the house while Mrs. Kato is putting the suitcases in the trunk. Empty-handed, not even carrying a purse, Mother leans on the passenger's door. She has put on a dark blue jacket over her white blouse and blue skirt. Her long black hair, wound up in a bun, is unraveling around her pale, oval face. She has gotten so thin in the last year, almost gaunt- looking because she is tall. The jacket hangs loose on her shoulders. She blinks and takes a deep breath, as though the walk to the car had exhausted her. Leaning back, she lifts her head a little toward the sky — she looks completely lost and alone.
I run up to her and embrace her. When she hugs me back, the bulky wool of her coat bunches up around my head and shoulders. Though I am only an inch or so shorter than she, I feel small, wrapped tight in the thick sleeves through which I can scarcely feel her arms.
"I need to go away so I can see you again someday," she whispers. "Do you understand?"
When I nod, the fabric rustles against my ears like a thick cocoon of leaves. Her voice sounds muffled, far away.
"If I don't leave your father now," she continues, "I can't bear to live long enough to see you grow up."
I nod again.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, and lets go.
Stepping back, I see her face set hard with sadness and resolution — her lips drawn tight, her jaw clenched. She has made up her mind and she is trying to be brave. She wants me to do the same.
"It's all right," I manage to say. My voice comes out weak and shaky. "Please don't be sad." Take me with you, I want to beg. Please. I'll do anything. But I suck in my breath and clench my teeth, drawing my lips as tight as hers. Mrs. Kato is standing next to us now. Short and plump, she seems so sensible, businesslike. Mother and I stand like two ghosts hovering over her.
"I want you to go with Kiyoshi to our house," Mrs. Kato tells me. "I won't be back till late, but my husband will be home. You should stay with us until your grandmother is here. It's all right with your father. I already asked him."
"He's not coming home for a while, is he?" I mumble.
Mother and Mrs. Kato quickly glance at each other and then down at the ground. My father won't come home till his mother is here to take care of me because, unlike Mrs. Kato's husband, he has never cooked supper or cleaned the house for himself. Besides, our house is not the only place he considers home — where a woman is waiting to care for him. Though we all know these things, Mother and Mrs. Kato are still embarrassed to be reminded. They would rather I pretended not to know about my father and his girlfriend; they want me to play dumb. Mrs. Kato looks at me, her broad, square face wrinkled with a frown. I am being rude, I know, by not thanking her for the invitation to her house. She is only trying to be kind. But I can't stop being angry. Everybody knew the truth about today — my father, Pastor Kato, even Kiyoshi — and nobody would admit it to me.
My mother hugs me one more time, but I don't hug her back. She scarcely seems to notice. Letting go of me, she opens the car door and slides into the passenger's seat. Mrs. Kato is walking over to the driver's side. This is the last moment in which I could ask them to stop. I could start to cry and scream. I could stand in front of the car, pound my fists on the windshield and beg them not to go. But I was never one to throw tantrums, even when I was very young, so I just stand next to Kiyoshi on the driveway, saying and doing nothing. I can't wait for this moment to pass, for the whole thing to be over with, so I can be alone.
The car backs out of the driveway and then glides down the street. Mother twists around in her seat to look back, but she does not wave. Neither do I. Waving is for a happier goodbye, like those times when she and I were leaving her parents' village after our summer visits, back when Grandmother Kurihara was alive. We waved and waved; it was a way of saying "We had a wonderful time even though we are sad to go. We'll be back next summer." Now Mother is going there and never coming back.
When the car disappears around the corner, I go back inside and run upstairs to my room. Kiyoshi follows me but stays in the doorway, looking in. I pull some clothes out of my oak dresser, throwing a few T-shirts and jeans down on the floor, followed by some socks.
"You'll see her again soon," Kiyoshi says abruptly while I am kneeling on the floor with my backpack.
"No, I won't. My mother is not coming back."
"You'll go visit her, then."
Instead of answering, I stuff my gym shoes and pajamas into the backpack. The next moment, he is in the room; he kneels next to me and says, "Come on, it'll be okay. You'll see her soon."
"No, I won't. Father won't let me."
"I'm sure you are wrong. He will." Kiyoshi picks up my T- shirts and holds them out toward me.
I grab the shirts and yank at them, hard; Kiyoshi flinches as though I had swung at him. "Don't touch my things!" I yell.
"I was trying to help." He shrugs.
"Get out. I don't need your help."
He stands up and takes a few steps backward.
"I want to be alone. Leave my room." Clenching my socks in my fist, I wind up my arm and take aim. The socks hit him in the stomach, but his blue uniform is thick and stiff. He only jumps a little.
"Okay, okay." Kiyoshi backsteps all the way to the door and disappears into the hallway.
But as soon as he is gone, I wish I hadn't lost my temper. It doesn't make me feel better at all to be alone. Kiyoshi must be standing at the top of the stairs, listening for any little sound. He must think I wanted to be alone to cry. I can almost see his thick eyebrows and big nose, wrinkled into a worried frown. I quickly throw my things into the backpack and get up, not wasting a minute. The last thing I want is his pity.
In the hallway, I nod my head and point to the stairs. Our footsteps make hollow noises as we go down.
At the bottom, he turns and reaches for my backpack before I can put my arms through the straps. I can carry it myself, I want to say. I'm not weak or sick. But I'm too mad to even say that or to argue, so I shove the backpack at him. He takes it and puts his arms through the straps.
In silence, we walk out the door and down the hill toward the church rectory where his family lives. The sun has disappeared behind the mountains. It's getting dark fast and the air is chilly. We keep walking, both of us taking big, sullen steps, coming down hard on our heels. He glances sideways at me now and then, maybe waiting for me to say something, but I'm in no mood to make small talk, much less to apologize. Even in the dusk he looks ridiculous, with my pink backpack stuck to the back of his navy blue uniform. At any other time I would have laughed.
* * *
As we turn the last corner onto his block, the streetlamps light up, as if our steps had turned them on. The lamps bloom pale yellow in a long row along the sidewalk. Suddenly, I remember my mother's seedlings on the windowsill.
"I forgot something," I blurt out. Before he can reply, I start running back up the hill.
A few blocks past the commuter train station, I dodge businessmen with briefcases on their way home and women my mother's age bringing home their groceries in baskets or shopping carts. It's only two miles from the Katos' house to mine.
Excerpted from One Bird by Kyoko Mori. Copyright © 1995 Kyoko Mori. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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