TARUMI, JAPAN SEPTEMBER 15, 1937
I wanted to find my own way, so this morning I persuaded may father to let me travel alone from his apartment in Kobe to my grandfather's beach house in Tarumi. It had taken me nearly two weeks to convince himyou would think I was a child, not a young man of twenty. It seems a small victory, but I've won so few in the past months that it means everything to meperhaps even the beginning of my recovery. Just before leaving, I bought this book of Japanese parchment paper to record any other prizes I might be lucky enough to capture. It opens before me now, thin sheets of sand-colored paper, empty and quiet as the beach below the village.
Since I became ill last spring in Canton, I've had no time to myself. When I was too weak to continue studying, my instructors at Lingnan University ordered me home. My friend King accompanied me on the train, and hovered over me all the way home to Hong Kong. I'll never forget the frightened look in my mother's eyes the day I returned. It was like an animal's fear for her young. I couldn't stop coughing long enough to catch my breath. When King and a manservant carried me up the concrete steps of our house, my mother stood in her green silk cheungsam, lips pressed tightly together in a straight line as if she were holding back a scream. Once home I was constantly under her cautious eyes, and those of our old servant Ching. The two women monitored my every move, as if I might wilt away right before their eyes. That's how they looked at me sometimes, as though I were already a memory.
I can understand their concern. My days were still punctuated by fevers in the late afternoon and a persistent dry cough. All through the thick, sticky summer, the heat made things worse. When my illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis by an English doctor, my mother sent a telegram to my father in Kobe. Her concernturned to dread and she forbade my younger sister Penelope, whom I've called Pie ever since she was born, to enter my room.
Every morning Pie balanced on the threshold and smiled at me, looking smaller than her twelve years. There are four of us children in all. My older sister Anne and my younger brother Henry are now back at school in Macao. My parents gave us all Christian names at birth, since my father believes it an asset in the business world to be addressed with ease by Westerners. His import-export business thrives on such progressive ideas. It seems the apartment he keeps in Japan is more his home than our family house in Hong Kong. He makes his life in both places and the way he bows low with eyes averted seems at times more Japanese than Chinese to me.
By late July, the heat had settled in on Hong Kong, while my fevers advanced and retreated. A heavy stillness had descended on our house, as if everyone was moving in slow motion. My mother was even more nervous than usual. Two days later, the news came over the radio that the Japanese had captured Tientsin and surrounded Peking.
Hong Kong was stifling in August. Some afternoons I could barely breathe. My father wrote: "Send Stephen to me in Kobe, I will take him to Tarumi. The climate is drier there, and the air is much fresher than in Hong Kong." My mother ordered Ching to prepare for my journey to Japan, while the Japanese occupied Peking and sent their warships to Shanghai. I hated to leave my family and friends, even though I hadn't been allowed to see them. I felt lonelier than ever.
In some ways I can't help thinking my time in Tarumi will be a quiet resembling death. At least the sea breezes are much more soothing than the hot, humid heat of Hong Kong.
Late in August, the Japanese invaded Shanghai where a bloody standoff continues. Thousands of refugees have fled China and have built their makeshift homes in the crowded streets of Hong Kong. On the way to the harbor, we smelled their greasy street cooking and saw their gaunt, desolate faces begging for money and understanding. Then, at the pier in Kowloon, my mother and Pie looked bereft, too, as they waved good-bye to Ching and me.Only after she thought I had disappeared into the crowds did my mother lift her white lace handkerchief to her eyes.
All the way to Japan on board the President Wilson, Ching refused to let me sit on the sun-drenched deck without wearing at least three sweaters. When we finally arrived in Kobe, she clung to me whispering and hissing, "These are the Japanese devils who have driven our Chinese out of their homes." I looked out through the taxi window at the bustling crowds, but except for small groups of soldiers loitering in public places, rifles slung on their shoulders, these Japanese appeared harmless to me. I was relieved when Ching left me with my father and hurried home to Hong Kong.
My father had been waiting for us at his apartment. I could tell by the way his body tensed that he was shocked at my appearance, but he tried not to show it.
"Stephen," he said, "it's good to see you." His eyes surveyed my feverish face and too-thin body before he hugged me and touched my wavy hair. My hair has always delighted him, because it isn't straight like most Chinese. Then he stepped back and said softly, "We will see that Michiyo makes her sukiyaki tonight."
Kobe was only slightly cooler than Hong Kong, and Michiyo watched over me as closely as Ching. My father worked long hours and couldn't get away to take me to Tarumi as he had hoped. Transportation had been interrupted all over China, and his business was hanging in the balance. The more Michiyo fussed at me to rest, to eat, the less I was able to do either. It was then I realized there wasn't any reason why I couldn't find my own way to the village of Tarumi.
This morning in Kobe, I rose early, dressed, and had finished packing before my father knocked gently on the door to awaken me. I packed lightly, bringing only one suit, comfortable clothes, several books, my oil paints, and two tablets of paper. My father promised to send me some canvases shortly.
The drive to the train station was quiet, my father asking only twice if I was feeling well enough to travel. Even my coughing had eased. When we arrived at the station, he suddenly turned around and asked, "Do you have enough money?"
"Yes, you've given me more than enough," I answered, my hand instantly feeling for my wallet in my jacket pocket.
"You know you can always reach me at the downtown number."
"I know, Ba-ba, I know," I said. It was something he had been telling me for the past two weeks.
"The most important thing is that you take care of yourself, rest, and don't tire yourself out with your painting." My father looked away as he said this, always awkward when it came to the subject of my painting, which he saw as a time-consuming hobby.
"I won't," I answered, knowing that my only solace in being exiled to Tarumi was that I would have more time for my painting.
My father excused himself to make sure my luggage was safely aboard the train. He had agreed to let me go alone only after he wired the servant at the beach house to be waiting for me at the station. I saw him slip a Japanese porter extra money to watch me on this short journey. He returned through the crowd, telling me to board and get settled. He grasped my hand tightly.
"I'll see you in a week or two," he said.
"You don't have to worry about me," I reassured him as I boarded the train. "I'll be fine."
I watched my father from the train window, a small man in his dark double-breasted suit and thin, rimless glasses, standing next to a group of Japanese children. My father usually seemed so short, but as the train pulled out and he lifted his arm to wave, I thought he looked tall in the fading light.
The train was half-filled with elderly Japanese men and women, and mothers with small children who exchanged conversation with one another in hurried whispers. They mostly spoke of their children from what I could understand, and I was relieved when we finally left the outskirts of the city and I could focus my attention on the fleeting landscape outside the window. It was greener than I remembered, with large pine trees waving against a sky so sharp and clear that I felt as if I could almost reach out and grab one of their long, spiny arms. My mother had taken us to Tarumi for two summers of our childhood. I still remember her complaintsabout the heat, and her elaborate silk-painted fan, as she moved the thick air in front of her in quick, short strokes.
After a while, I was hypnotized by the passing scene. My eyes felt hot and tired. It was the first time since leaving my family in Hong Kong that I had thought about being completely alone. With my father only a few hours away in Kobe, and my mother planning to visit me in a matter of months, I could only breathe in both the fear and attraction of facing the unknown.
A little girl walked down the aisle of the train staring in my direction. When I looked up at her and smiled, she bowed her head shyly, then rushed back to her mother. She reminded me of Pie, though Pie might have stopped and spoken to a stranger to satisfy her curiosity. She has always been my favorite, with her large round eyes and pigtails. Part of the reason I was sent to Tarumi was to avoid infecting Pie. As a small child, she was the one who was always sick. Her frailty was equalled only by her quick, sharp eye and teasing nature. She and Henry were constantly entangled in something, often leading to violent fights. It worried me at first, until I realized Pie was always intelligent enough to know when to stop.
After my illness was diagnosed, Ching tried not to let Pie get too near, but Pie refused to listen, poking her head into my room whenever she could. When Pie found out I was leaving for Japan, she slyly slipped into my room after everyone had gone to sleep. Ching always left a small light in the entryway for anyone who had to make a trip to the water closet during the night. In the stillness, Pie entered and whispered my name until I awakened. I knew immediately it was she by the smell of mothballs on her sleeveless, yellow silk pajamas with flowers embroidered on the front.
"What are you doing here? I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and sitting up. I coughed, and was quick to cover my mouth.
"You're leaving with Ching tomorrow to see Ba-ba, so I've come to say good-bye," she answered. "I'll miss your handsome face."
"You shouldn't be in here, you might get sick," was all I could say. I could see Pie smile in the muted light from the hall. She threw her thin, pale arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek. Her lips felt cool against my warmth. "Go now," I said. "I'll see you soon."
Pie reluctantly withdrew her arms and ran to the door. "I'll write to you," she said, closing the door and leaving me in darkness.
When the train blew its whistle and slowed down for the Tarumi station this afternoon, I waited until it came to a complete stop. All around me were the anxious movements of others gathering their belongings. The station itself was just a one-room wooden building set on a wooden platform. I looked about and saw several Japanese women in kimonos, waiting along with a couple of older men. I leaned back uneasily and searched my mind, unable to remember how Matsu, the caretaker of the beach house, looked. Our last visit had been years ago, and I only remembered catching glimpses of him as he went about his duties. I was afraid of him. Matsu had seemed old to me then, so I was surprised when my father said he would be the one waiting for me at the station today.
I waited, letting the others disembark first, then followed behind them. Some were greeted at once, while others scrambled off by themselves in different directions. I walked to the middle of the platform, put down my suitcase, and watched for any sign of Matsu, already preparing myself to find the beach house on my own. It was a warm afternoon and my shirt was wet down the length of my back. I tried to remember which direction the house was, but every road appeared vaguely familiar. The crowd was beginning to thin when out of the building came a heavyset man with close-cropped gray hair. Nervously, I watched him approach.
"Pao-Lin Chan's grandson?" he asked, stopping a few feet from me. He was dressed in baggy khaki trousers and a gray sweater. I felt skinny and small next to him, though I was a good foot taller.
"Yes, and you're Matsu-san?" I asked. He gave me several stiff bows, which I returned. Before I could say anything else, Matsu had taken my suitcase and begun to walk to the station. At the door of the shabby building, he stopped and stared impatiently, waiting for me to pass through first.
My father told me Matsu has lived alone and taken care of mygrandfather's beach house for the past thirty years. After his parents died, he was given the choice either to join my grandfather's Hong Kong household, or stay in Japan by himself to care for the beach house. Matsu has worked for our family since he was a boy, and his parents worked for my grandfather before that. He appears about sixty, with weathered, umber colored skin and a remote, impatient manner. He seems the type of man who's more comfortable alone, and it's not hard to figure out that he must be annoyed at my disturbing his tranquil world.
The road to the beach house was powdered with white sand and felt stifling in the hazy heat. It was late afternoon and the sun exerted its last burst of energy before disappearing into evening. We walked past a few bamboo-fenced houses, which increased in number as we continued down the road. I was sweating heavily by then. Matsu silently walked in his quick gait a few steps ahead of me, as if he were all by himself. I increased my pace, pushing myself to keep up. The farther we walked, the more fine sand lined the road. The salty sea air filled my head, and from beyond the dune came the steady surge of waves. In between, I felt consumed by the quiet, so different from the summers I had spent here surrounded by my family and the noise of playful children. This early autumn there didn't seem to be anyone else here, just me, Matsu, and a complete, white silence.
I was exhausted by the time Matsu stopped in front of one of the many bamboo-fenced houses and cleared his throat to get my attention. My lungs were burning and my legs weak. Matsu wasn't about to treat me like an invalid. Never once had he stopped, or even asked to see if I was all right. My mother and Ching would have fussed over me, made me rest every five minutes. "Stephen, you mustn't tire yourself out, rest, rest, go slowly," they would say, as their high-pitched voices pierced the air.
I watched Matsu put down the suitcase and proceed to unlock the gate. My grandfather's house stood on the right side of the road on the slight slope of a hill. Across the road was the path down to the beach. I remembered how Henry and I used to race down it during our stay here.
Matsu gestured for me to enter first. Stepping through thebamboo gate, I found myself in the garden. The sweet perfumes were immediately intoxicating. A silk tree, still heavy with summer blossoms, and two large black pine trees shaded the house. An oval-shaped pond, with hints of movement that flashed orange and silver beneath its surface, dominated one side of the garden. It was surrounded by pale green moss. A wooden bridge arched across its width, and lines of odd-shaped, waterworn stones created two paths, one leading through the secluded garden right up to the front door, while the other disappeared around the back of the house. White sand formed soft beds in the crevices.
The house appears smaller than I remember, though it feels comfortable here, with a simplicity I could never find in crowded Hong Kong. On the left side of the house, there's a small verandah looking out over the pond. I like the straight and curved shapes of the tile roof with its projecting eaves; it all seems to harmonize with the surroundings.
We proceeded through to the genken, the entrance room, which had a wooden bench where shoes are to be removed. There were two pairs of house slippers neatly lined up. One pair was clearly worn, and next to them was a new pair that I slipped on. They felt cool and welcoming. The first summer we came to Tarumi, I asked my mother why we had to change our shoes before going into a house. She said it had to do with the Japanese custom of cleanliness, of not taking dirt from the streets into the house, and also because of the delicacy of the tatami mats lining the floor inside. It's a ceremony I found refreshing after arriving from the dirty streets of Hong Kong.
After I put my things away, Matsu led me out to the back garden where I took my first Japanese bath. On a wooden platform by the back of the house sat a wooden tub, a small black door open at the bottom of it, through which I could see coals in an iron container to heat the water.
While Matsu prepared the bath, he gestured for me to wash first. To one side was a stool, bucket, and a washcloth. I was embarrassed thinking I had to undress and wash in front of Matsu, but he went about heating the tub, ignoring me. I took my time taking off my clothes, then sat down on the stool, and began to soap and wash my entire body with the washcloth. From a barrel of cool water, I used the bucket to pour water over my head, rinsingover and over as I'd seen my father do. It felt good after the hot, dusty walk.
I stood up, feeling self-conscious as I walked toward the tub. I'd lost so much weight in the past few months, I looked no more than a skeleton. At my father's apartment, I had bathed quickly, too embarrassed to linger for a soak.
"The water's hot," Matsu said, not paying the least bit of attention to me. "Step in quickly. Then stay as still as you can."
I stepped up onto the wooden platform, then lifted my leg over the side and into the tub. I let the rest of my body follow as water splashed out over the rim. Steam rose, surrounding me with the sweet fragrance of cedar. There was a smooth touch of the wood under my skin. The water was very hot, but when I sat perfectly still as Matsu advised, my body calmed. Matsu stood to the side and almost smiled as I leaned back, letting the hot water embrace me.
SEPTEMBER 16, 1937
I fell asleep while writing after my bath last evening. I'd told Matsu I was only going to rest a short time on the bedding he had rolled out for me. He nodded his head with a look of relief. Wrapped in a light cotton kimono he gave me to wear, I fell into a deep sleep from which he did not disturb me.
When I awoke, this book still lay open across my chest. It took me a few minutes to recall where I was. On the floor across from me was a tray with a small pot of cold tea, and the snack of red bean cakes Matsu had brought to me when I arrived.
It's very early, but I already hear Matsu moving around in the kitchen, and the faint smell of something cooking reminds me of how hungry I am. I haven't experienced the hollowness of hunger for the longest time. Below my bedding, Matsu has placed several quilts to ease the hardness of the floor, but there's still a stiffness up and down my back as I stand up. The air tastes sweeter here, and my throat is dry, but the coughing has lessened and I feel almost healthy again.
I slide open my door. Matsu's in the kitchen in the back of thehouse, so I walk through the hall, taking stock of everything I had missed the night before. Beyond the genken there's a long corridor with two rooms on each side, separated by thin shoji walls, whose paper screens slide open to expose each room. The main room is a good size, lined with six tatami mats with clean lines. There isn't any furniture, and it smells musty from lack of use. There are two small recesses which I remember are called tokonomas, one where a simple scroll painting hangs with a basket of dried flowers beside it on the floor. The other has cupboards with sliding doors that hide the zabuton cushions which are taken out for guests to sit on. Matsu keeps the house immaculate. I can't help but think how ecstatic Ching would be at the lack of clutter. The last time we visited, Henry slid open the doors every morning and strewd the cushions all over the floor, as he jumped from one to the other pretending they were small islands. My father had remained in Kobe that time because of business, while my mother spent most of each day alone in the garden, shaded from the sun by a large, red-paper parasol.
Across from the main room is my grandfather's study, with a low-set black lacquered desk and a large, hand-carved ivory urn on the floor nearby. I enter the room that had always before been forbidden to the children. The room is light and cool, and I lay the palm of my hand on the mirrorlike surface of the desk. I look down to see my disheveled appearance: wavy unkempt hair, dark hollow eyes, the thin face with flushed cheeks and slight shadow of a beard. Except for my obvious weight loss, the feverish glow still gives me a deceptively healthy appearance in the dark lacquer surface.
My room is down the corridor, smaller and brighter than the main room. It seems especially true this morning when a white light comes through the shoji windows, which aren't shaded by so many trees. The light makes everything appear clear. The pale green of the tatami has a spiral design which corresponds to the fluid grain of the natural wood. The plastered walls are the color of sand. There's a low sitting table, cushion, and a tokonoma which houses a Chinese scroll painting of the jagged mountains of Guilin. It was painted by my grandfather, and I've admired it since I was a child. It's a pleasure to wake up to the sight of it.
Matsu prepared a breakfast of rice with pickled vegetables and miso soup. After a six-word conversation with him, which consisted of my poor Japanese and several low grunts from him, I grabbed my sketch pad and headed down to the beach. The cool wind of early morning sent a chill through me.
The road was empty. The thick, sweet smell of the late summer blossoms drifted through the air. I walked down the road to see some houses still asleep behind their bamboo fences. Others were just waking with movement from within. Through the cracks between the bamboo I could see a servant or two moving about. Many of the houses were already empty, or with only a servant like Matsu left to care for them. I wondered if Matsu had any contact with the other servants, or did he simply keep to himself? I tried not to think that it would be almost a year before Tarumi came alive again with families returning on vacation. Meanwhile, I'd have to adapt to the silence, put away all the noise and comforts of my family and friends in Hong Kong and Canton. It's harder than I imagined, to be alone. I suppose I might get used to it, like an empty canvas you slowly begin to fill.
The path was just as I remembered it, a narrow strip of sand threading down to a large, open beach. From the top of the slope I could see the empty stretch of white sand, divided by a large sand dune. The sea was blue-green and very quiet. As I ran down the path, my canvas loafers filled with sand, still cool from the night before. I struggled up and over the dune, then moved closer to the water, breathing in the salty air. I didn't want to lose the morning light, so I quickly settled down and opened my sketch pad to draw the ocean and surrounding mountains.
The sun felt hot and sticky against my back by the time I was mildly satisfied with what I'd drawn. I put down my sketch pad and felt hungry again. My stomach rumbled at the thought of Matsu's rice and vegetables. Matsu was certainly a good cook, even if he wasn't much of a talker.
I decided to go for a swim to take my mind off food. There wasno one in either direction down the length of the beach, so I dropped my clothes on top of my sketch pad and walked quickly to the water. In my head I could hear my mother and Ching scream their disapproval as I plunged in. The sudden cold made my whole body tighten. With each stroke against the salty water, I felt a new surge of energy travel through my body. I swam back and forth, my arms thrusting forward with each stroke as I disrupted the calm of the sea with my furious motions. The coolness of the water felt good against my body. As I relaxed, a sense of freedom emerged which had been buried under my illness.
When my arms became too tired and my breathing labored, I simply lay back and floated. I could have stayed there forever, like a small child in a bathtub. Since returning to Hong Kong from my school in Canton, I'd spent most of my time in bed, too weak and feverish to do anything else. No one was allowed to visit, though Pie stuck her head in now and then. With only my mother and Ching as company, I missed King and my other friends at Lingnan University even more. I had been nothing but a prisoner in my own room.
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of voices coming from shore. Instinctively, I lowered myself in the water. I was surprised to see two young girls on the beach. The taller of the two chased the other along the sand, laughing wildly. They didn't seem to notice me. At first I wanted to yell out to them, happy to discover other young people were living in Tarumi, but then I realized my clothes were on the beach. Watching them run up the dune, I kept very still until they were well out of sight.
When I returned to the house, Matsu was nowhere to be found. I quickly ate the bowl of cold udon noodles and fish cake he had left in my room. Later on I tried to keep myself occupied writing letters to my mother, Pie, and to King. I hoped he was still studying at Lingnan University. Three months had passed since I'd come home from Canton and my life as a student. I had no idea if my letter would ever reach him there, with the Japanese swarming all over China. In King's last letter to me in Hong Kong, he had said all was quiet in Canton and that the Japanese devils were currently leaving them alone. He ended his letter hoping I would usemy "rest and recuperation" to perfect my art. King was one of the few friends I had who always understood how much painting means to me.
Matsu returned late in the afternoon carrying several magazines and small packages. He quickly took them to the kitchen, barely stopping long enough to give a slight bow in my direction. I followed him and stood in the kitchen doorway while he unwrapped his packages. The bloodier of the two contained a chicken, its head freshly severed, while the other was some sort of raw fish. At home, Ching forbade any of us to bother her when she cooked, including my mother who rarely entered the kitchen except to give last-minute instructions on what was to be served at her mah-jongg games.
Matsu finally looked up, no longer able to ignore me without being impolite. He shifted uncomfortably before saying his first full sentence since we met at the train station.
"Is there anything you need?" he asked. His hoarse voice vibrated through the small room.
"Yes," I replied, eagerly. "I wanted to ask you about some of the people staying around here."
Matsu looked away, a towel draped over the right shoulder of his worn gray kimono. He lifted up the chicken and continued to pluck out the brownish feathers.
"There aren't many people, only those in the village and some looking after houses. Summer is when the others come."
"But I saw two young girls at the beach this morning. Do you know if they live close by? Could they be the daughters of a servant?"
Matsu shrugged his shoulders. "Most of the young people left in Tarumi live in the village," he answered. He turned away and lifted a large clay pot onto the stove.
I waited until he turned around again before I asked, "Don't you ever get lonely here by yourself?"
I don't know what possessed me to ask Matsu such a personal question, but once I'd said it, I looked him in the eyes and waited for an answer. He didn't reply for a long time; he simply stood looking at me. Then he lifted his rough, thick fingers to his cheek and scratched it.
"There's always plenty of work," he finally answered.
"But what do you do when the work's done?" I continued to probe. "I suppose you have many friends here to pass the time with?"
Matsu's eyes narrowed. He looked me up and down suspiciously. "Why?" he asked.
I shifted uncomfortably, trying to find the right words to say in Japanese. "I just wondered. It seems so quiet here."
Matsu waited a moment, then let out a sharp laugh. "A friend here and there. Mostly, I work in the garden or read my magazines. I have a sister who sends them to me from Tokyo."
"You have a sister?"
"Does it seem so impossible for me to have a sister?" Matsu asked, clearly amused.
"No, of course not."
"I had two sisters, but one is dead now."
"I have two sisters and a brother," I said, realizing it was something he must already know. The few times our family came to visit, Matsu had helped us settle in, then quickly made himself scarce. I would have gone on telling him more about my family and friends, but Matsu cleared his throat and pointed to his clay pot on the stove. He picked up the chicken and turned away from me, but I didn't leave. Instead, I stayed and watched as he skillfully butchered the fowl. Matsu didn't look up or say another word. Still, it was a start.
SEPTEMBER 20, 1937
It was so warm last night I had a hard time sleeping. The moon was unusually bright, keeping the room awash in a hazy white light. Today I tried to draw, but nothing that made any sense found its way onto the paper. It was as if the dark charcoal lines were simply interrupting the whiteness of the sheet. I threw several away before I gave up in frustration. I tell myself I'll have much better results when I work with oil paints, but the canvases my father promised to send me from Kobe haven't arrived yet. He did send word that he wouldn't be able to come see me until next week. There also hasn't been any word from my mother and Pie in Hong Kong. I know it's been less than a week since I arrived, but it feels longer.
Matsu seems more receptive to my attempts at conversation, but we never get farther than what is already known. He acknowledges me with a slight bow of his head when we see each other during the day. At night, he spends most of his time back in the kitchen, or listening to the static sounds of his radio in the small room he sleeps in next to the kitchen. Matsu continues to surprise me. Usually he listens to pieces by Mozart or Chopin, which remind me of Pie and her White Russian piano teacher, or to the high female voice of a newscaster declaring "Shanghai's foolishness at not accepting the good intentions of the Imperial Army." Only once have I had the courage to ask Matsu what he felt about his country's victories in China. He was in the kitchen reading a magazine, as his radio blared from his room. He looked up at me, and simply said, "Japan is like a young woman who thinks too much of herself. She's bound to get herself into trouble." Then he looked back at his magazine and continued to read. I remained silent. Unlike me, he doesn't seem to need anything more. I guess all his years alone have left him comfortable with himself. We are slowly learning to live with each other.
There has been no sign of the two girls I saw my first day here. Every morning I go for a swim, hoping by chance another similar situation might bring them out. But it's been fruitless. Sometimes the house is so quiet I feel like the only noise that fills my mind is what I've created myself. Remembered conversations come back to me as if my friends and family were right here in the room.
SEPTEMBER 29, 1937
For the past week, I've endured all the quiet and loneliness like a blanket covering me until I'm well again. So I've simply resolved to become healthy through rest, exercise, and my painting.
Then this morning when I returned from my swim, I entered the garden gate to find Matsu carrying two wooden buckets of water to the silk tree. Instead of just giving me his usual quick bow, he paused and said, "A package came for you."
I don't remember if I said anything back to him. I ran into the house to find a large brown package of canvases leaning against the wall of my room, along with a letter from my mother and Pie lying on top of a stack of Japanese magazines. I grabbed the letterand a few magazines, then headed back out to the garden, but Matsu was no longer there. The garden was definitely Matsu's domain and I felt his odd lingering presence in it. Every part of the garden seemed to have a sturdiness about it, even with its quiet grace.
It was a warm day, so I sat down near the pond to read my letter. The green moss was like a soft blanket. I felt like a child opening a long awaited present. The thin, blue papers went limp in my hands as I unfolded the pages to see the quick, strong strokes of my mother, followed by Pie's large, neatly written Chinese characters.
My mother spoke mostly of my health. Was I feeling better? Was I getting enough to eat? She would come to visit me as soon as possible. Anne and Henry would be returning to Hong Kong from school in Macao when the term was over in December. We would all be reunited then. She didn't believe the Japanese would ever have the nerve to enter Hong Kong. After all, it was under British sovereignty. Still, as I read her words I couldn't help but feel troubled.
Pie's words gave me much more comfort. She was first in her class, and was currently designing her own dresses for the dressmaker, inspired by Poor Little Rich Girl, the last Shirley Temple movie she had seen. The bulk of her letter was devoted to Anne's having fainted in Macao during one of the blackout procedures. Anne's teachers had to revive her with smelling salts and a shot of brandy. Pie said she would try it next blackout, just for a taste of brandy.
When I put down the letter I felt more homesick than I had in days. It was difficult to keep up with the war news so far away from everything. I had only been able to hear bits and pieces of the Japanese version from Matsu's radio. I was beginning to feel trapped behind this bamboo fence, which kept me separated from my family and the rest of the world.
I lay down on the cool blanket of moss and closed my eyes. I might have fallen asleep, but sounds outside the fence revived me. At first I thought it was Matsu, so I lay my head down again. Though he was nice enough to leave me some of his magazines, I was tired of trying to get the simplest conversation out of him.
But the sound of whispering voices grew louder. I sat up to seetwo shadows moving around on the other side of the fence. I tried to make out what was being said, but they spoke in hushed, hurried tones. I was about to get up when I felt something brush the top of my head. I looked up to see a shower of white petals fall in my direction, scattering on the ground around me, dropping like little boats into the pond. I jumped up and could hear two girls laughing aloud as I rushed to the gate. But by the time I swung the gate open, they were already running down the dirt road away from me. I yelled for them to stop. I only wanted to speak to them, but they continued to run, never turning back.
OCTOBER 5, 1937
Yesterday morning my father arrived from Kobe. He came unexpectedly, walking from the train station without telling us of his arrival. Matsu, who was outside tending his garden, greeted him first. When I heard Matsu's voice, which was unusually loud and excited, I wandered out from my room to see what was going on. At the front door, the brightness of the sun blinded me a moment before my sight adjusted to the figure of my father standing there, wiping his glasses. I ran up and threw my arms around him, almost knocking him down I was so happy.
"Ba-ba, why didn't you let me know you were coming? I would have met you at the station."
My father put his glasses back on and smiled. "I only knew myself at the last minute. There was so much work at the office, I barely made the train. Now, stand back and let me see what this fresh air has done for you."
I took a few steps back and stood up straight. "What do you think?" I asked.
"You still look too thin," he answered. Then, looking at Matsu, my father said teasingly, "Matsu, aren't you feeding my boy enough?"
Matsu walked over to my father rubbing his hands against his soiled pants. "He eats like a bird," he answered, picking up my father's suitcase and walking into the house.
Last night at dinner, my father drank sake and seemed relaxed as we ate rice, chicken, and pickled turnips in my grandfather's study. I was happy just having someone to speak to again.
"How are you feeling, Stephen?" my father asked. He lifted the small cup of sake to his mouth, so that just his eyes watched mine.
"I've been feeling well. The chest pains have disappeared and I'm coughing less," I answered.
My father brought down his cup and smiled. "And you're enjoying your stay here?"
"Yes, for the most part, but I miss everyone. It's rather lonely here."
"I know, Stephen, but it won't be for much longer. When you're well again, this period of your life will simply be a quiet memory."
I looked hard at my father, his graying hair and kind eyes, only to realize it had been a long time since I had so closely felt his presence. After Pie was born, she seemed to dominate my parents' attention. Then in Hong Kong, and even in Kobe, there were always family or business problems to keep us from really speaking to one another. But here in Tarumi it's different. Even the light is revealing; you can't miss the smallest nuance, the slightest sound. It's as if the world were concentrated into just these small rooms. I wonder if it appears the same for him.
OCTOBER 6, 1937
Today my father and I went down to the beach. It was still warm enough, so I swam while he sat on the sand in a wooden chair under a large yellow umbrella Matsu had set up. Wearing white slacks, a white shirt and hat, he looked nothing like the father I'm used to, dressed in severe, dark business suits. He appeared more like an acquaintance of our family, someone I hadn't seen in a long time.
I didn't swim very long before I was back sitting beside him on the beach. I felt like a small child again. We spoke of how it was when I was a young boy, and how I had always loved the water.
"Did you swim much as a boy?" I asked.
My father laughed and said, "I was afraid to put my head in the water. It was never easy for me as It is for you."
"You can't swim?" I asked, astonished at the fact that I didn't know. Usually when we came to Tarumi, it was Ching who brought us to the beach. She would sit on the sand screaming for us to be careful, hot and uncomfortable in her dark cotton tunic always buttoned up to her neck.
"I can float, just long enough for someone to come and save me," he then added.
"I'll teach you."
"Perhaps on my next visit," my father smiled.
I felt sad knowing our time together was coming to an end. He would have to be back in Kobe the following day. I fought back the sharp sting of loneliness returning as we sat in a comfortable silence.
"What's the situation like in Shanghai?" I asked, hungry for any news. "I don't hear much here."
"It's not good," my father answered, his face becoming serious. "Warplanes have bombed Shanghai incessantly. What the bombs don't destroy, the fires they start do. So many innocent lives have been lost." He paused, shaking his head. Then he looked at me and said, "I'll have some newspapers sent to you."
"What do you think will happen after they capture Shanghai?" I persisted.
"They will most likely keep moving south."
"Do you think they'll ever get as far as Hong Kong?"
My father lifted his hat and wiped his brow. "It's possible," he finally answered.
We stayed quiet for a while, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
"Can you tell me something about Matsu-san?" I suddenly asked.
My father squinted down at me. "What do you want to know?"
"Why has he stayed alone in Tarumi for all these years?"
"Tarumi has always been his home."
I spread my legs out on the warm sand. "But when he was young, didn't he ever want to see other places, raise a family of his own?"
My father laughed. "I can see you haven't gotten much out of Matsu, have you?"
"He doesn't say much," I answered.
"He never did. Even when I used to come here as a boy I remember Matsu always keeping to himself, only at ease talking with his sisters. One of his sisters, the younger one, Tomoko, was very pretty and had caught the eye of many a boy."
"Did she catch your eye?"
"I was too shy to do anything." He smiled to himself. "Besides, I was the owner's son, and we were kept apart by class and custom. Your grandfather and grandmother had other plans for me in those days."
"So you never had anything to do with Matsu and his sisters?" I asked, burying my foot in the sand, where I could still feel some coolness.
"We were children. Sometimes we'd play together when they came to help their father with the garden. Most of the time, they stayed at the house they lived in near the village."
"What was Matsu like at my age?"
My father leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment before answering. "Matsu was like a bull, his energy pent up, as if he was ready to break out at any moment. Why he never did, we'll never know. There were rumors that he loved a girl in town. She moved away, or married someone else. I'm not sure which. Then his sister Tomoko suddenly died, and Matsu seemed to lose all his steam."
"You don't know what happened?" I asked, eager for answers.
My father shook his head. "I believe his sister had some kind of accident. By then, I was coming to Tarumi less and less and had only heard scant rumors of what happened."
"His other sister lives in Tokyo now," I said.
"She married and moved there."
"But why didn't Matsu leave here? What would keep him alone here all of his life?"
My father laughed at the urgency in my voice. "If you can get anything out of Matsu, I'll say you've accomplished quite a feat. He isn't the kind who will likely tell you his thoughts. Let's just assume he has found some sort of peace here in Tarumi, and leave it at that."
I kicked some sand away from me and remained silent. Matsu scared away most people with his aloofness, but I saw something more. He seemed to have a story no one had bothered to discover.
OCTOBER 8, 1937
My father returned to Kobe yesterday. Matsu remained at the house, allowing me to accompany him to the station alone. As we waved good-bye at the train station, he was again the father I recognized in a business suit. Walking back to the house, I felt such an emptiness, I wanted to cry.
Matsu was in the garden. He was stooped by the pond grumbling to himself as he picked up the wet flower petals which had showered the garden every few days. I still hadn't had any luck meeting the two girls who threw them over the fence, but I knew it was just a matter of time.
Matsu looked up when he heard me close the gate. He was almost shy as he bowed and spoke. "Your o-tsan is safely on his way back to Kobe?"
I nodded, then whispered, "Yes."
Matsu straightened. "I'm going to visit a friend who lives in a small mountain village near here," he said, his eyes avoiding mine. "I wondered if you would like to come with me?"
I looked at him and smiled, unable to conceal my surprise. "I would be happy to go with you!" I quickly answered before he had time to change his mind.
"Good, then we'll go after lunch," he said.
I watched Matsu turn around and walk back to the house, still clutching a handful of wet flower petals.
Yamaguchi was a small village in the mountains, Matsu said. He often visited to deliver supplies to a friend. We walked the two miles or so up a narrow, rocky, brush-lined dirt road. Ahead of us I could see the hilly slopes and large pine trees, which could easily cover up any signs of life.
"Yamaguchi is also called the Village of Lepers," Matsu said, as we walked slowly up the road. "When some of those who had the disease were no longer wanted by others in town, they took what few belongings they had and went up into the mountains, hoping to die peacefully. Away from the cruelties of the healthy."
"Aren't you afraid to go there?" I asked hesitantly.
Matsu walked straight ahead. I thought he wasn't going to answer,when he suddenly looked right at me and said, "The first time I went, I wasn't sure what to expect. After all, lepers from all over Japan found their way to Yamaguchi, simply hoping to be accepted, to be swallowed up by the mountain." Matsu looked down at the path again and then walked on. "I began to visit a friend theresomeone from my youth. No one knew. I was young and healthy. And I remember being told long ago by a visiting doctor that there was nothing to fear. Leprosy wasn't a disease that could be spread by simple contact."
When Matsu's voice stopped, I realized he was several steps ahead of me and had turned to wait for me to catch up. I felt a shortness of breath as I drew in more air and let out several long sighs. "I'm fine," I said, increasing my pace and moving past Matsu up the hill.
"Maybe we should visit another day," Matsu said, raising his voice to make sure I heard.
I stopped and turned back to him. "I'm really fine!" I said, with such conviction that Matsu caught up, then continued up the path alongside of me.
The village of Yamaguchi stood in a clearing on the gradual slope of the mountain, hidden away by tall pine trees. Small wooden houses sat in a cluster like any other village. I stopped at the outskirts and let my eyes wander over the tranquil sight. From the distance, the villagers appeared just like Matsu and me. Men were gathered in small groups sipping tea and talking, while others worked in small gardens, and women sat mending clothes. Only with closer scrutiny did I begin to see that the houses were painstakingly pieced together with mismatched scraps of wood. And while some villagers had their heads and hands bandaged, others freely displayed their raw scabs and open wounds. I felt a strange curiosity, rather than fear. In China, lepers had always been feared and shunned. I had heard stories of how they were forced to live on the streets, left to beg or eat rats, while they simply rotted away.
I stood a long time taking it all in. When I finally came out of my trance, Matsu was studying my face with an unusual intensity. He continued to watch me and finally said, "You don't have tobe afraid. I wouldn't have brought you here if there were any danger."
I smiled at his concern. "I'm afraid for them," I said, quick to cover my cough.
Matsu laughed, then pointed toward the far end of the village. "My friend's house is that way," he said.
We walked slowly through the village. There was a distinct smell of eucalyptus and something else medicinal. For the first time in my life I saw what it meant to be a leper, a disgraced one. They seemed to watch me with just as much curiosity. I tried not to stare, but I couldn't take my eyes off their wounds; the missing fingers and toes, the large, gaping holes in the sides of their faces, the mangled features that had once been noses and ears. It looked as if they were all wearing monstrous masks that I kept waiting for them to remove.
Matsu must have understood my thoughts. He suddenly stopped, turned to me, and said, "Most of them came to this village as young men and women. Now they are too old and set in their ways to move. Even though the Japanese government has acknowledged their situation and would gladly move them to better facilities. Good or bad, Yamaguchi has been their home."
I watched as Matsu then nodded and exchanged pleasantries with several of the villagers.
From some doorways I could also smell the strong, sweet aroma of tea which filled me and my parched throat with longing.
"Who is the handsome young man, Matsu?" one man asked, taking a few steps closer. His right arm was a gnarled raw stump which looked like it had been eaten away.
"The son of my Danasama, my master," Matsu answered, walking on without a pause.
I smiled at all of them self-consciously, then followed Matsu as if he were the master.
We walked to the far end of the village, where there were few houses and the pine trees thickened. Matsu slowed down as we approached a small, sturdier-looking house almost hidden among the trees.
"Who lives here?" I asked, catching my breath.
"A friend," Matsu answered. As he led me toward the house, I noticed how his steps lightened, his body relaxed, and he seemed almost young again.
I stood behind Matsu as he tapped three times on the door and waited, blowing air through his teeth to create a small whistling sound. I'd never seen Matsu so exuberant and was curious to see who lived there. Within moments the door opened just enough for a head, veiled in black, to peek out.
"Sachi-san, it's me," Matsu said, gently.
The woman stepped back and opened the door wider, allowing the sunlight to brighten the clean, spare, white room behind her. She looked away from Matsu toward me and held her place behind the door. "Matsu?" she said softly, watching me closely.
Matsu glanced back at me, then said, "This is Stephen-san, he's a friend."
"Konnichiwa," I said, smiling and bowing, trying to put her at ease.
The woman stepped back and bowed humbly. Matsu entered the small house, and with a slight wave of his hand urged me to follow. I did, anxious to know more about the timid woman who lived within it. The room smelled of the pine branches which sat in a vase on a low table in one corner. Next to the vase were two small, shiny black stones. Other than the table and a few cushions neatly stacked to the side, the room was bare.
"I didn't know you would come today, Matsu," the woman said, keeping her head bowed so low I couldn't see her face under the black scarf. Her voice was soft and hesitant.
"It was a nice day to take a walk. Anyway, since when do I need an invitation to visit you, Sachi?" Matsu said, teasingly.
Sachi laughed, looking down and away from Matsu.
"I will bring some tea," she then said shyly. She adjusted the black scarf so that it covered her face as she turned to leave the room.
"Is she?" I asked, without completing my sentence.
Matsu walked to the window and looked out. "Yes," he said softly, "she's a leper."
We stood so quietly for a few moments that the muted sounds coming from the kitchen filled the room. It was strange to be standing in a different house with Matsu, seeing him for the firsttime in a new light. He seemed gentler, less in command.
"This is a nice house," I finally said.
Matsu nodded his approval.
Sachi returned carrying a tray of tea and crackers. When we were seated on the cushions, I looked up to examine the face of our hostess. She was older than I had first thought, with a slender build and quick movements. When Sachi leaned forward to serve the strong green tea, her black scarf slipped a little from the left side of her face. Underneath I could see where the ulcers had eaten away her flesh, leaving white, scaly scabs, creating a disfigured mass as her half-closed left eye strained to open. When she saw my gaze, Sachi quickly looked down and re-covered the side of her face. As far as I could see, only her face and left hand seemed affected by the disease; her smooth, white right hand and fingers were untouched.
"More tea?" she asked, beginning to rise.
"Please," I answered, my face flushed and embarrassed.
Matsu rose quickly before her and said, "Let me get it," disappearing into the kitchen before Sachi had time to say anything. Very slowly, she lowered her body back down onto the cushion and turned just enough so that only the right side of her face was exposed to me. While the left side of her face had been devastated, the unblemished right side was the single most beautiful face I'd ever seen.
"I hope we're not disturbing you," I said, my voice sounding young and eager.
Sachi shook her head. She turned a bit more to get a good look at me with her one good eye. "I don't have many visitors, only Matsu-san. Often years will go by without my seeing a new face. I am honored to have you visit."
Then I was the one who seemed shy, not knowing what to say to this very beautiful woman. It seemed we already had something in common in our loneliness. I tried to imagine what Pie would do in my situation, but realized she might just ask to see what was under the black scarf.
Sachi must have sensed my discomfort, because she was the one to continue the conversation. The words flowed from her with ease. "The last time Matsu came, he told me you were staying at the beach house for a while," she said.
"I haven't been well. My parents thought it might be better for me to be away from Hong Kong and my younger sister while I'm recuperating. They're hoping the fresh air of Tarumi will help me."
Sachi pulled the black scarf tighter across her left side. "Yes, Tarumi can be a cure for some, and a refuge for others."
"What's a refuge?" Matsu asked, walking heavily out of the kitchen, carrying a pot of tea.
Sachi looked toward him and smiled. "The beauty of Tarumi," she answered. She quickly rose from her cushion and bowed her head. "Matsu, let me see if I need anything for the garden."
We both watched in silence as Sachi slid open the shoji door and disappeared.
By the time we were ready to leave Sachi's house, it was late afternoon. I was filled with tea and crackers, happy that Sachi had relaxed and grown comfortable in my presence.
"I would be honored if you would come and visit me again," Sachi said. She stood at the door and pulled her scarf closer to her face.
"I will," I smiled. I glanced toward Matsu.
"There's no need to wait for Matsu," she said. "You are always welcome."
I bowed, and said, "Dmo arigat gozaimasu."
Matsu watched us and smiled. Then before he turned to leave, he gently touched Sachi's arm.
Matsu and I walked through the village saying very little. The same villagers sat playing cards or smoking in small, scattered groups. They were less interested in us this time, though Matsu lifted his hand and gestured to several of the men along the way. Our walk back down the mountain was quick and quiet. Only when we reached the beach road that led back to the house did I gather the courage to speak.
"Sachi-san is very nice," I said.
Matsu nodded his head in agreement, then added, "She wasonce one of the most beautiful girls in all of Tarumi, perhaps all of Japan!"
"How did she catch it?" I asked hesitantly.
"The leprosy?" Matsu shook his head. "It was like a wildfire back then. It couldn't be stopped once it began."
"When did it happen?"
Matsu slid his hand through his short gray hair. I watched his brow wrinkle in thought, as sweat glistened and slowly made its way down the side of his face. "It must have been at least forty years ago or so when it first appeared in Tarumi," he finally answered. "I don't know what brought the cursed disease to us. We had never seen it before, but maybe it was always incubating, waiting like a smoldering fire to spread out. One day, it began to show its ugly face and there was nothing we could do. The disease chose randomly, infecting our young and old."
"My father never told us anything about it."
"He never knew," Matsu continued eagerly, as if it was a story he'd long held inside and could finally unleash. "It was kept quiet among the local villagers. After all, Tarumi was a place for outsiders to come on holiday. If they'd heard about the disease, no one would return. We didn't want to frighten anyone away until we knew more about it. At first, no one had any idea what was happening, then a few more became infected with the scaly patches. It first appeared like a rash, only it wouldn't go away. Within months, it began to eat up the victim's hand or face." Matsu paused and swallowed. "Fortunately, there was a young doctor visiting Tarumi who tried, without much success, to reassure us that the disease couldn't be spread by simple touch. We wanted to listen and learn, but those first few months were like a bad dream. Every day people awoke, afraid the leprosy would claim them. Some of those suffering from the disease quickly left the village, while others ended their lives, hoping not to dishonor their families."
"Was your family all right?"
Matsu was silent. The road had become familiar again, with bamboo-fenced houses and trees. We were almost home. I could smell the salt from the ocean and feel its mist on my face. I waited for him to go on.
"It took my younger sister, Tomoko," Matsu finally said.
I hesitated, remembering what my father had said about her accident. I wanted to know more, but Matsu had quickened his pace as we neared the house. Instead, I asked, "Why did you take me with you to Yamaguchi?"
Matsu slowed, then turned to face me before he answered, "So you would know that you're not alone."
OCTOBER 21, 1937
Everything has changed between Matsu and me since we've visited Sachi. It's as if the awkwardness has disappeared and we share some precious secret. It's not that we speak a great deal more, but the silence no longer seems intimidating. Once in a while, I even catch Matsu glancing my way, a smile just barely visible on the corners of his lips.
Last night after I'd finished eating in my room, I walked back to the kitchen to find Matsu still sitting at the wooden table. A high, scratchy voice coming from his radio had just declared another Japanese advancement in their struggle against Shanghai. Matsu leaned over and played with the dial until a Bach concerto filled the room. He seemed oblivious to my presence.
After I listened for a while, I softly said, "Excuse me," to let him know I was there.
Matsu turned to me, startled for a moment.
"Will you be going to Yamaguchi soon?" I asked.
Matsu laughed and relaxed. "So you want to see Sachi-san again, do you?"
"Yes," I quickly answered, embarrassed that my curiosity was so apparent.
Matsu laughed and rubbed his thick hands together before he said, "I suppose it does Sachi good to see a young, handsome face now and then. Unfortunately, she has had only mine for too long."
"You have a strong face. A face someone doesn't forget."
"Like a monster," Matsu added.
"Like a samurai," I said.
Matsu opened his mouth as if to say something, but quickly swallowed the words before they came to his lips. I waited a fewmoments, then turned to leave. I already knew from the month I'd been here, Matsu had little more to say. It was always the same, conversations would simply end as they began. Matsu felt most comfortable when he spoke about his garden, and was most abrupt speaking of himself.
I was barely out of the kitchen when I heard Matsu's voice rise above the music. "We'll go again at the end of the week."
"Thank you," I said, happily.
I was grateful that Matsu understood. Sachi was definitely someone I wanted to know better. From the moment I met her, she had instilled a sense of richness and mystery in Tarumi. Her once-beautiful face had even appeared in my dreams, the sadness half-hidden under her black scarf. I wondered how long she'd been living alone in the mountains. Had Matsu always loved her? Did Sachi love him? These questions occupied my mind, and made her all the more enticing.
This morning I decided to paint the view of the garden from my grandfather's study. When I first arrived in Tarumi, I wondered how Matsu could spend so much time in the garden. But the more time I spend here, the easier it is to see there's something very seductive about what Matsu has created. Once, when I asked him to name a few blossoms for me, the words "Kerria, Lespedeza, Crepe Myrtle" seemed to flow from his lips in one quick breath.
The garden is a world filled with secrets. Slowly, I see more each day. The black pines twist and turn to form graceful shapes, while the moss is a carpet of green that invites you to sit by the pond. Even the stone lanterns, which dimly light the way at night, allow you to see only so much. Matsu's garden whispers at you, never shouts; it leads you down a path hoping for more, as if everything is seen, yet hidden. There's a quiet beauty here I only hope I can capture on canvas.
After breakfast, Matsu went to work in the back garden behind the house, so I carried my paints, a canvas my father had sent, and a makeshift easel into the study. I carefully pushed my grandfather's desk aside, then slid open the shoji doors that faced the front garden. The bright white light filtered in through the trees, leaving a sway of ghost shadows on the walls. I felt a burst of energyin my body as I ran across the hall to the main room and slid open its doors, so that the entire front of the house opened up to the garden. I breathed in the sweet air without coughing, filled with an urgency to paint. It was the first time in so long that I had felt any real energy return to me. From one full tube of oil paint and then another, I squeezed out large daubs of blue and yellow onto a wooden tray that served as my palette. The sharp, tinny smell filled my head. I looked outside to the quiet beauty, won dering how it would fill the blank canvas. My brush had just touched the white surface when I heard Matsu's quick, shuffling footsteps come from the back of the garden. He stopped abruptly when he'd seen what I had done.
"What are you doing?" Matsu asked accusingly.
In my excitement, I hadn't thought to ask his permission before opening up the rooms. "I wanted to paint the garden. I hope it's all right" I answered.
Matsu stood silent for a moment. His mouth remained slightly open, as if surprised to see the two rooms in such a different light.
"Do as you wish," Matsu finally said, disappearing around the side of the house.
After Matsu left, I began to paint. I didn't want to lose the light which had already begun to change. I painted with a vengeance, and might not have stopped at all if Matsu hadn't returned with a covered tray of lunch. I wanted to apologize for not asking him earlier if I could use the study to paint, but I was so involved I just kept working. He set the tray down on my grandfather's desk without saying a word. The next thing I knew he was gone.
When I finally lay down my brush, I stepped back to see that the garden was slowly emerging on the canvas. I felt happier and healthier than I'd been in months. My eyes wandered from the canvas to the tray Matsu had left on the desk. Under the lacquer cover was a bowl of noodles sprinkled with green onions and thin slices of fish, a rice cake, and tea. I was so hungry I picked up the bowl and began slurping up the noodles. It took a few minutes before I realized there was something else lying on the tray. A long, slim, black-lacquered box lay next to my cup of tea. I swallowed another large mouthful of noodles before investigating the black box. I lifted off the shiny lid to find three very expensivesable paintbrushes. Picking up one, I fingered its smooth, soft tip, thinking how well it would stroke against the canvas. I wondered where Matsu could have found such beautiful brushes. I examined the other two before placing them all back into the black box. When I finished my noodles, I picked up the lacquer box and went to look for Matsu. He wasn't in the kitchen, so I stepped outside. I found him in the back garden, carefully planting a small black pine. His thick body was bent over, so he couldn't see me watch him pat the dirt in place, then mumble some inaudible words to the plant. He was as gentle with it as with a small child.
"These are beautiful brushes," I said, as I held the black box out toward him.
Matsu turned around and raised his hand against the sun to see me. "I thought you might like them," he said. "They belonged to your oj-san."
I lifted the lid off of the box. "They're new. Didn't my grandfather ever paint with them?"
Matsu laughed. "Your oj-san had more brushes than he knew what to do with. He often painted when he came to Tarumi, but he only used one or two old brushes. He would usually sit half a day away looking through art books and catalogs. He liked to buy beautiful things simply to have them. I found those in his desk many years ago. I thought you might make better use of them."
"Thank you," I said, "I'll try."
I stood gazing down at the young pine he'd just planted. When I looked back up, our eyes met for just a moment before Matsu turned away.
OCTOBER 29, 1937
I painted a little today, then stopped. The painting's almost complete and part of me wants to save it, savor the last few strokes like precious drops of water. The thought of water was a reminder that it'd been days since I'd gone down to the beach. Since we visited Yamaguchi and I began to paint again, I'd barely left the house.
I went to tell Matsu I was going down to the beach, but I couldn't find him anywhere. For a moment I thought he mighthave gone to visit Sachi without taking me along as he promised, but I knew he was nearby when I saw his garden tools still spread out in the garden. I left a note for him on the kitchen table.
The path down to the beach felt like a familiar friend. I kicked off my shoes and walked slowly across the white sand and over the dune. Everything seemed in perfect focus. The air carried a sharp coolness to it, awakening me. The sky was a pale blue with small patches of clouds that resembled islands. Even the sea was calm. Small waves lapped in and out mechanically, clear as glass.
I fell limply onto the sand. As always the beach appeared to be all mine, so I began to undress for a quick swim. I had just taken off my shirt when I heard the sounds of laughter I'd been waiting for weeks to hear. In the near distance, I saw the two girls slowly walking toward me. The nearest I had come to them was when they had thrown flower petals into Matsu's garden. As they approached, I remained sitting on the sand, half-hidden behind the tall beach grass. My heart was pounding, yet I didn't move a muscle, hoping to blend in to the sand like a chameleon. I decided I'd only show myself when they were too close to run away. I suddenly thought back to Canton, back in school where so many girls had been afraid to approach me. They would whisper and giggle, never daring to speak to me. My friend King had his own explanation.
"They're afraid of you," he once said. "You're too good-looking. They don't trust someone as good-looking as you, which is a lucky break for us ugly ducklings!"
I was determined to prove King wrong. I sat perfectly still, watching them bob back and forth against one another as they walked. They reminded me of my own sisters as they talked and shook their heads in laughter.
It was the shorter of the two girls who first caught sight of me. She wavered a bit, then tugged anxiously on the sleeve of the taller girl. They stopped. I quickly put my shirt back on and stood up, waving in their direction. After a moment's hesitation, the taller girl began to walk toward me, closely followed by the other.
I searched my mind for all the right Japanese words with whichto introduce myself, but simply bowed and said, "Konnichiwa," when they were close enough to hear.
My greeting was returned with giggles. The two girls glanced at each other, before they turned back to me and bowed quickly.
I could see the taller girl was the older of the two, her face narrower and her giggling more controlled. She eyed me with a shy, yet inquisitive glance. They shared some resemblance, but the shorter girl had a fuller, younger face. She probably wasn't much older than Pie, who at twelve always seemed much older than her age.
"Hajimemashite. How do you do. My name is Stephen Chan," I said, bowing deeply again, careful not to do anything that might frighten them away.
The taller girl returned my bow and said, "Hajimemashite. My name's Keiko Hayashi, and this is my sister Mika." Mika looked away from me to her sister, then began to pull on Keiko's arm.
"I wonder if I could have the honor of speaking with you for a moment," I said quickly, hoping they wouldn't run off so soon this time.
Mika had apparently made up her mind to leave, but Keiko hesitated, then planted her feet in the sand against her sister's urging.
"Do you live around here?" I asked, my Japanese halting but polite.
But Keiko nodded her head, and in a clear, high voice answered, "Yes, we live in the village."
"I think I've seen you around here before," I said, focusing my attention on Keiko.
"Yes, it's possible, we often walk out to the beach," Keiko answered. She shook off Mika's grip. She had a pleasant, pretty face and spoke with assurance.
"Are there lots of young people around here now?" I continued.
"Not many. A few families in town," she answered. "Most of the young men have joined the army, while the others move to the city as soon as they can."
Mika began tugging at her arm again, then whispered somethingquickly to Keiko, who nodded her head.
"We must go," Keiko said, glancing shyly up at me.
"Can we talk again?" I quickly asked.
Keiko bowed but said nothing more. In the next moment, she and Mika were running back to the dunes and away from me. I waited until they were completely out of sight and their voices had faded in the cool, calm air. Then I turned around and ran to the water, forgetting to take off my clothes.
Once I was safely back in the garden, I took off my wet clothes and left them in a heap by the front steps. By the time I put on dry clothes, I found Matsu in the kitchen cleaning a fish and humming to himself in a relaxed, happy manner I was unaccustomed to. It wasn't far from what I felt myself after finally making contact with Keiko and Mika. At least I knew they weren't a figment of my imagination. During the height of my illness in Hong Kong, I would sometimes see spirits that couldn't be explained or identified. I was frightened by these apparitions, though they always approached me as harmless young children. I wanted an explanation as to why they stood quietly by, watching me. I would be in my room or sitting in the warm sun of the courtyard. These spirits would be there one moment and gone the next. I felt them waiting, and I wondered if it could be true that they would soon take me with them. Ching said it was the fever, and my mother blamed it on the tricks of a creative mind. "You're more sensitive," she would say. "The spirits are more alive for you." She told me to ignore them and they would soon go away. I tried not to pay attention to them, but the spirits only left when my health improved. Until now, I didn't dare let myself think that these ghosts had returned.
"How was your swim?" Matsu asked, hearing me approach.
"It was great," I answered. "I finally talked to the two girls I told you about."
"So they do exist."
"They live in town."
Matsu turned around to face me and smiled. "Did you tell them to stop throwing flowers into my garden?"
"I forgot," I confessed.
Matsu laughed. "Were you so captivated by them?"
"I barely got to say anything before they ran away again."
"They'll be back," Matsu said, matter-of-factly.
"I hope," I said, more to myself than to Matsu.
"How could they resist a handsome young man like you?"
I laughed, "They have, until now."
"It's part of the game," Matsu said, "you'll see."
I was about to ask Matsu how he knew so much about the strategies of two young girls, but before I could, he cleared his throat and said, "Sachi has sent a note inviting us for lunch. Are you free tomorrow, or will you be meeting your new friends?"
"What time should I be ready?" I asked.
Matsu laughed. "We'll leave before noon."
OCTOBER 30, 1937
I was up early this morning, too excited at the thought of seeing Sachi to sleep. I lay in bed and waited for the first sounds of Matsu preparing breakfast in the kitchen before I got up, and dressed in a clean white shirt and my beige cotton slacks. When I slid open my door, the delicious smells coming from the kitchen were not those of our usual salted fish or pickled vegetables.
The doorway of the kitchen had become my usual place to stand since the kitchen wasn't large and I didn't want to get in Matsu's way.
"What smells so good?" I asked.
"Bacon and eggs," he answered, without looking up from his frying.
"How do you know how to make bacon and eggs?"
Matsu turned to me and smiled. "How do you want your eggs, scrambled, sunny-side up, or over-easy?"
"Scrambled," I quickly answered. It seemed like a long time since I'd eaten bacon and eggs. Before my illness, when all of us were home from school on vacation, my parents would often take us to Western hotels for brunch. The long tables held something special for each one of us. Pie would race through her entrees so she could get to the miniature cream puffs and puddings, while Henry and I concentrated on the bacon and sausages, and Anne nibbled on the salads.
"Your oj-san always had his over-easy."
"My grandfather liked to eat eggs?" I asked.
"When he was here, he'd have three eggs every morning, and strong European coffee he brought with him from Tokyo."
"How old were you when you began working for my grandfather?"
"I wasn't much older than you are now. My family has always taken care of this house. Even when we were young, my sisters and I ran little errands and I helped my father take care of the garden. When my parents became too old, I took over for them," Matsu answered.
I watched as he cracked two eggs into a clay bowl, mixed them thoroughly, and poured them into a hot skillet.
Then while the eggs were cooking, he laughed hoarsely and continued, "The first time I made your oj-san his breakfast, I was afraid I couldn't make his eggs the way he liked. I must have gone through half a dozen eggs before he came into the kitchen and showed me how he wanted them cooked."
"I never knew much about my grandfather. He died before I had a chance to really know him. I only remember his carved cane and the tall hats he wore."
"Your oj-san was a very good-looking, intelligent man. He knew what his assets were and sometimes liked to flaunt them." Matsu paused, then quickly added, "But never in a way that offended anyone. Everyone in Tarumi liked your oj-san. He was a very generous man."
"Did he come here often?" I asked, thinking of my own father's infrequent visits.
"Once a month, or whenever the import business brought him back to Japan. Unlike your o-tsan, who is more serious about his work, your oj-san seemed to relax immediately once he was here."
Matsu scooped up some scrambled eggs, laid three pieces of bacon beside the eggs, and placed the plate on the wooden table.
"Eat," he said.
I pulled out a wobbly wooden stool from under the table and quickly sat down as ordered. Matsu filled a plate for himself and sat down next to me. He leaned toward the counter and brought back a pot of tea, filling the two cups in front of us. Then hewaited for me to begin to eat first. I picked up a strip of bacon and took a big bite.
"It's very good," I said, savoring its smoky taste. "How did you get it?"
"I have a friend who can get me anything I need, including bacon," Matsu laughed.
Matsu nodded, then began to eat his own food with pleasure. At first it felt strange to be eating in the small, crowded kitchen with Matsu, but it didn't take more than two mouthfuls before I was perfectly at ease.
It seemed like a good time to bring up another subject that had been on my mind. "Would it be all right if I took something to Sachi-san?" I asked. "Just a small gift to show my appreciation."
I watched Matsu chew his food in thought. It felt like forever until he looked up and said gently. "It isn't necessary. It would only embarrass her."
"It'll just be something small," I said.
Matsu cleared his throat and didn't say anything more. I took the gesture to mean yes, but knew better than to stress the point.
Matsu said very little during our walk to Yamaguchi. I wasn't sure if he was upset at my bringing something to Sachi, but he had smiled his approval when I showed him the charcoal sketch I'd drawn down at the beach after breakfast. I had hoped to run into Keiko and Mika again, but the beach remained empty.
When the road ended, we followed a dirt path that gradually wove its way up the mountain. Since the path was too narrow for two to walk comfortably, I followed Matsu, who remained lost in his own thoughts. Nothing seemed to deter him, while I jumped over rocks and overgrown shrubs along the way. Matsu walked ahead, sure-footed, turning back only once to see if I was still there. Under one arm, he carried several newspapers and magazines. And in the other, a package wrapped in brown paper. He never even noticed when I stopped to catch my breath.
When we reached Yamaguchi, the village was relatively quiet. Most of the villagers were inside eating lunch. I could see shadows move about darkened doorways as we walked by.
Once in a while, a gruff, loud voice acknowledged our presence with a spirited hello. "Konnichiwa, Matsu-san, come join us for something to eat!"
Matsu lifted his arm to wave his regrets as we continued walking.
I felt a twinge of nervousness when Sachi's house came into sight. I carried the rolled-up charcoal sketch in my sweaty hand. It wasn't my best work, but I thought I'd captured some endless, serene quality about the sea which I hoped Sachi might appreciate.
Matsu knocked on the door and waited. I expected to see the same shy smile greet us from under her black scarf, but a few moments passed and no one answered. Matsu took a step back and knocked louder. When there was still no answer, he turned to me and said calmly, "She must be in the garden."
I followed Matsu as he walked down a stone path which led around the side of the house to the back. He swung open a tall bamboo gate and stepped to the side, allowing me to enter first. In place of the greens, browns, and flashes of color which punctuated Matsu's garden, the spareness of Sachi's garden stunned me. There were no trees, flowers, or water, only a landscape made of sand, stones, rocks, and some pale green moss which covered the shaded areas. I took a few minutes to take it all in. On the rugged, sloping earth, Sachi had created mountains from arranged rocks, surrounded by gravel and elongated stones flowing down like a rocky stream leading to a lake or the sea. The flat surface of water was formed by smooth round pebbles, raked in straight and encircling lines to suggest whirlpools and waves.
"A dry landscape," I whispered aloud.
"It's called kare sansui," Matsu suddenly said. Only then did I even remember he was behind me.
"It's beautiful," I said, amazed at how the different light and dark stones could create such texture and illusion.
"Where did Sachi go?" Matsu asked, talking more to himself than to me. "She would have liked to have shown you the garden herself."
"I'm sure she'll be back soon," I answered. It was the first time I saw him so disturbed.
Matsu quickly walked back to the front of the house, but Icouldn't move. I took another long look at Sachi's garden before I turned around and followed.
Matsu had already begun walking to the village when, in the distance, I saw Sachi hurrying toward him. Her dark blue kimono swept across the dirt as she walked. Matsu stopped and waited, as she approached and bowed. He reached over and took her packages as they walked back to the house.
"Sumimasen, please excuse me for being late," bowed Sachi, as they approached me. With one hand Sachi held her scarf close to the left side of her face.
I returned Sachi's bow and smiled. "We haven't been waiting long."
"Tanaka-san asked me if I would bring him some old newspapers. I didn't realize it would take so long," Sachi continued to apologize. "Most of the food has already been prepared."
"There's no hurry," I said. "Matsu made a big American breakfast this morning."
Sachi turned to Matsu and said, "Ah, your eggs!"
Matsu laughed aloud. "Sachi likes her eggs scrambled as you do."
Sachi smiled shyly, pulled her scarf closer, and hurried into the house saying nothing.
Once again I was taken aback by the simplicity of her worldelegant and uncluttered. Matsu handed Sachi the newspapers and magazines, then took the rest of the packages to the kitchen.
"This is for you," I said. I handed her the soiled, rolled-up drawing, wishing I had wrapped it in another piece of paper.
Sachi bowed timidly. "Dmo arigat gozaimasu."
"I hope you'll like it."
Sachi smiled, but hesitated to unroll the paper in front of me.
"Please," I said, nodding my head.
She turned away from me and unrolled it slowly. When she saw that it was a charcoal sketch of the sea, she quickly turned back to me and bowed again, exposing the scarred side of her face. "I am very honored."
"It's just a quick sketch I did this morning. I wanted to bring you a token of my appreciation."
"You have brought me more than that, you have brought me the sea," Sachi said, her voice tight with emotion.
I didn't know what to say, and was saved when Matsu, lifting up his brown package, said loudly from across the room, "And I have brought you a chicken!"
Sachi and I laughed, as she carefully rolled up my sketch and placed it on a table. Her hand patted it gently just once before she turned back to me.
We ate lunch at the low table in Sachi's dining room. She had prepared fish cake, rice, thin slices of raw fish, marinated eel, and pickled vegetables. It all came in a black bento box, divided into separate sections. While Matsu and I ate, Sachi nibbled at her food, poured tea whenever we had sipped from our cups, and was ready at any moment to go back into the kitchen for more food.
"It was a wonderful lunch," I said, bowing my head in appreciation.
"I'm happy that you could come," Sachi said. She slowly rose to collect the empty boxes.
"Let me help you," I said.
"I'll take care of it," Matsu suddenly interrupted. "Sachi, why don't you take Stephen-san out to the garden."
Sachi glanced down at me and said, "If you would like to see the garden, I would be honored to show you."
I stood up quickly and felt a stiffness along my legs as I stretched my muscles. "I would love to see your garden."
I followed Sachi, as she slid open the shoji door that led out into her garden.
"It's wonderful," I said, even more intrigued than the first time I'd seen it. The sun was overhead, which lightened the color of the rocks, setting them aglow.
"I could not have done it without Matsu's help," Sachi said. "Many years ago, when I first came to Yamaguchi, the possibility of having a life had all but vanished. Matsu was the one who insisted I have a garden."
"And you created this?"
"With Matsu's help. He showed me that life is not just from within, it extends all around you, whether you wish it to or not. And so, this garden has become a part of my life."
I wanted to say something back to Sachi, but the words were caught in my throat. Her garden was a mixture of beauty and sadness, the rocks and stones an illusion of movement. What could she have possibly done to deserve such a fate? Didn't her family ever try to help her? I looked at the slim, shy woman standing in front of me and wanted all my questions answered, but I kept quiet and could only hope the answers would be given to me in time.
"If we invited Sachi-san to the house, would she come?" I asked Matsu on our way back down the mountain. I held my jacket tightly closed against the cold wind. The branches and twigs snapped beneath our feet as we walked. He was just a step ahead of me and in a good mood.
Matsu cleared his throat, slowed down, and turned to me. "She hasn't left Yamaguchi in almost forty years. In the beginning, I tried to get her to come down, but she was too ashamed."
"Didn't her family care what happened to her?"
"Her family gave up on Sachi a long time ago."
"They disowned her because of the disease?" I asked, flushed with anger.
Matsu shook his head, then said, "It wasn't so simple. It was a question of honor. Once she became afflicted with the disease, it was Sachi who chose not to dishonor her family any more than she had."
"It was her choice."
"She saw no reason for them to suffer her shame."
"Do you think she might come down now?" I dared to ask.
"Again, it will have to be her choice," Matsu said, picking up the pace and moving farther ahead of me.
NOVEMBER 19, 1937
I completed the painting of the garden this morning. Finishing it was like saying good-bye to my family again and being cast adrift on some endless sea; I felt that empty.
"It's finished," I called out, when Matsu came into the house. A small replica of his garden sat propped on the easel drying. I stood by the painting, eager for some kind of reaction from him; a simple smile of recognition, or at the least, a lingering gaze. Instead, Matsu stepped into the room wiping his mud-stained hands with an old rag. He took no more than a moment to glance at the painting, then grunt his approval before he turned to leave again.
My fingers closed tightly around one of my grandfather's brushes. The strong, sharp smell of the paints filled the room. Then, as if he knew my thoughts, Matsu stopped and turned to ask, "I have to go into town now, would you like to come along?"
"I'd love to go," I answered. "Just let me finish cleaning these brushes."
It was strange to think that two months had passed without my having seen the small beach village. Yet, even when we came to Tarumi as children, we seldom left the house and beach. It was always Ching or the other servants who walked the mile back and forth to buy food and whatever else was needed. I never thought of it as much more than a few scattered buildings, but now the prospect of seeing the village seemed like a good way to spend the afternoon.
Tarumi was not far from the train station, lying in the opposite direction of our beach house. When Matsu and I approached the small station and worn tracks, a train had just pulled in. People had begun to disembark as we walked toward town. I felt their stares follow me. I knew it was not only because I was a Chinese face in their village, but I also realized there were very few young men in Tarumi. Most of the women were dressed in dark, padded kimonos, but a few younger girls had on Western dresses and coats. I was mesmerized being around so many people again; the subtle sweet and sour odors of perfume and sweat, the high andlow of different voices. If I closed my eyes, I could almost pretend I was back in Kobe.
Tarumi looked tired and faded in the gray light. The buildings which lined each side of the dirt road were built of dingy brown wood. The village consisted of a store, post office, and teahouse. Their large, bold characters were carefully painted on signs above each building. Farther down the road were smaller houses where the townspeople lived. Bits and pieces of their lives could be seen in the bicycles and toys leaning against the mismatched bamboo fences. Dogs roamed freely down the road, as the bobbing figures of women and children walked back to their houses. I couldn't help but wonder which house belonged to Keiko and Mika.
"Come this way," Matsu said.
I followed him across the road to the teahouse. At the door we were greeted by a thin man with a white towel draped over his shoulder. His eyes were dark and sharp, and I watched as he lifted his right hand against the dull light from the street.
"Matsu, konnichiwa! I wondered when you would stop by," he bowed.
"Did you think I would forget, Kenzo?" Matsu answered.
"No, not you Matsu," he said, with an almost childlike enthusiasm.
Matsu turned, grabbed my shoulder firmly and pulled me forward. "This is Stephen-san," he said. "And this is Kenzo-san, he makes the best rice crackers in all of Japan. He's also the man who gets me bacon and whatever else I need."
Kenzo and I bowed to each other.
"Come, come sit down," Kenzo said, leading us to a table at the back of the large room.
When my eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, I noticed that besides us, there was a lone old man sitting in the far corner. The neat rows of tables were separated by simple wood panels, while sturdy wooden beams ran across the ceiling. The room felt comfortable and inviting.
"The usual for you, Matsu?" Kenzo asked.
Matsu laughed. "I didn't walk all this way just to visit with you!"
Kenzo turned around and disappeared behind a doorway coveredby two long panels of blue fabric. On each panel was printed a large white character, which when read together meant, "Great Harmony."
"Is he an old friend of yours?" I asked.
"One of my oldest," Matsu replied, his hand moving across his rough cheek. "Kenzo and I grew up together. This teahouse belonged to his family." He smiled, as if the memory pleased him. "I remember the morning we first met. Kenzo came to your oj-san's house while I was working with my father in the garden. Unlike me, Kenzo had always been very popular. He was the last one I had ever expected to see. I remember being covered in dirt. I barely said a word. Kenzo stood so straight, dressed in clean, starched clothes. Even as a boy, he was very proud and self-assured," Matsu said.
"What did he want?"
"He came to ask me if I had time to work on his father's garden. I was so surprised, I only mumbled that I would stop by his house and take a look. In the end, I didn't accept his father's job. My own father wanted me to spend more time on my studies. But soon afterward, Kenzo began to speak to me at school and we became good friends."
"Is that the same time you met Sachi-san?" I asked.
Matsu shook his head. "Sachi was already the best friend of my imto, Tomoko. They were very popular. Most of the time they were off whispering and laughing, never paying much attention to me. It must have been hard for anyone to believe that Tomoko and I were from the same ryshin."
"I guess you were the strong, silent type," I teased.
"I was invisible to them," Matsu said, softly.
I looked down and didn't know what to say. "Kenzo-san seems very nice," I finally said.
"Kenzo was smarter than all of us. He should have gone off to the city like the others. He would be a rich man by now if he had."
"Why didn't he leave?"
Matsu coughed and rubbed his cheek again. "As far back as I can remember, Kenzo's father was always sickly. Being the only son, he felt it his responsibility to care for his mother when his father finally died. We were about seventeen at the time."
I was about to ask Matsu why he hadn't left Tarumi, when thepanels of blue cloth parted and Kenzo returned carrying a tray. He placed it on the table and carefully distributed a bowl of rice crackers, a large brown bottle of beer for Matsu, and a pinkish colored cold drink for me.
"Dmo, Kenzo," Matsu said, with a nod of his head. Then Matsu gestured for him to take the seat next to me.
Kenzo took the towel from his shoulder and wiped up the water beading on the table. He leaned over and arranged the bowl of rice crackers so that it was exactly in the middle of the table. When he slipped into the chair next to mine, he brought with him the oily smell of cooking, mixed with tobacco smoke.
Matsu had already poured out his beer, quick to drink down half a glass in one large swallow.
Kenzo pointed to the glass in front of me. "Dzo," he said, watching me.
I smiled and bowed my head. The glass felt wet and cold in my hand as I sipped the pinkish drink. It tasted sweet and flowery. "It's good," I said, politely.
Kenzo smiled and turned to Matsu. "You see, the young man has good taste!"
Matsu laughed. "What do you expect, he's just trying to be polite."
"It's good," I said again, not quite understanding what was going on between them.
"You see, not everyone agrees with what the mighty Matsu-san thinks!" Kenzo said.
Then, before anything else was said, both Matsu and Kenzo burst into laughter.
"Kenzo has been trying to get someone to like that drink of his for the last twenty-five years," Matsu explained. "He has tried everyone in Tarumi, with no luck."
"Don't listen to him," Kenzo said, as he wiped away a new water mark left by Matsu's bottle of beer. "He has always been jealous of me."
"He's crazy," Matsu laughed, lifting his thick fingers to the side of his head.
I took another swallow of the too-sweet drink. Each sip let me know something new; it tasted more and more like flowers, with a strong scent of roses.
"What's in it?" I asked Kenzo.
But it was Matsu who laughed and answered, "It's his secret recipe that no one wants."
Kenzo made a growling sound in his throat, but didn't say anything.
In the dim tearoom, I once again saw Matsu as if for the first time, like someone I didn't know, light and playful. I imagined they knew each other's every move. Matsu was always the one who made the water marks, while Kenzo dutifully wiped them up.
I listened while their low, rough voices filled the open room.
"Did you hear our troops have captured Soochow? Muramoto-san just came to tell me the news," said Kenzo. "Shanghai is as good as taken!"
Matsu looked over at me and then answered abruptly, "In times of war, there are always rumors."
My heart sank with the news. I was grateful when Matsu changed the subject and spoke of the weather, business at the teahouse, his garden. My own thoughts began to take over. I knew deep inside that it was true that Shanghai would soon fall to the Japanese. Then they would continue south, destroying everything that stood in their way. I tried to change my thoughts, thinking how there might be a chance of my running into Keiko and Mika if I went for a walk. I was just about to excuse myself when Kenzo's questions drew me quickly back into their conversation.
"Have you seen her?" Kenzo asked.
"A few days ago," Matsu answered. "She's doing very well."
"Did you bring her the chicken?"
"Did she ask about me?"
Matsu drank down the remainder of his beer. "No," he said quietly. "But she gave me this note to give to you."
Kenzo's face lit up. He quickly reached across the table and snatched the note from Matsu's hand, placing it carefully into his shirt pocket.
"It's rosewater," Kenzo whispered to me as we stepped out into the cool air. "Just a drop."
I laughed and bowed, thanking him for the drink.
"What lies is he telling you?" Matsu asked.
"It's a secret," I answered.
Kenzo smiled, then looked toward Matsu. "You'll tell me if she needs anything?"
"Of course," Matsu said.
Kenzo bowed and put his hand over his shirt pocket to make sure the note hadn't slipped out. He stood just a moment at the doorway of his teahouse, then disappeared back inside.
"I need to get the mail," Matsu said, as I followed him back across the road toward another building.
"Does Kenzo know Sachi?" I quickly asked.
Matsu slowed down and turned to face me. "Tarumi is a small place. We all knew each other when we were young."
"Then why doesn't Kenzo go to visit her?"
"When we were young, Sachi cared a great deal for Kenzo, but the disease changed everything. After she left for Yamaguchi, she would no longer see him."
"Just like she wouldn't see her family?"
"But, she allowed you to visit her?" I asked, not knowing if Matsu would give me an answer.
"At the time," Matsu paused, in thought, "it was easier for Sachi to see someone she didn't care for." His face was expressionless, as he turned and walked quickly into the post office.
It never failed to amaze me how much one post office was like another in different places, even if every other custom varied. Tarumi's post office was identical to ones I'd seen in Hong Kong and Canton. A small, wiry man sat behind a caged window and became the messenger of words. The bare room was crowded with people who waited in line and whispered in low voices. Matsu gestured brusquely for me to wait while he went to collect the mail. I watched him hurry to the back of the room, down a narrow hallway, and stop halfway at what must have been his box.I hoped I hadn't offended him by asking too many questions. When he returned, Matsu didn't say anything, simply handing me an envelope which had my name on it.
NOVEMBER 20, 1937
The weather had changed drastically this morning. I could tell right away just by the heavy smell in the air. The sky was a dreary gray that hung so low and thick it felt suffocating. Matsu kept looking out the back door and up at the sky with such an intensity, it seemed as if it were night and he was looking for a particular star. He then mumbled something I couldn't hear and returned to the table saying nothing.
After breakfast, I went out to the garden and read my mother's letter over again. I had hoped that something overnight might have changed its contents. In it, she asked if I'd known anything about a woman my father was keeping in Kobe. The shock and disbelief I felt yesterday now gave way to a stabbing pain that moved through my body as I faced her words again.
"I have always known that there might be someone else," my mother wrote. "A man can't be so far from his family without seeking comfort elsewhere. In this I have never found fault in your father. He has always provided us with everything we needed. What he does during his life in Japan has always been his own business. But I have just learned through Mr. Chung at The Royal Hong Kong Bank that your father has been withdrawing large sums of money in the name of a woman residing in Kobe, Japan. Mr. Chung felt the need to tell me when your father asked to borrow against our Hong Kong house. It has been a great shock to me, Stephen. But my first concern must be for you children. Now that you are getting better, perhaps you should just return to Kobe early. You're old enough to understand these things, and you've always been the closest to your father. Maybe you can find out what this is all about."
There was little more to her letter, other than small formalities. Everyone in Hong Kong was fine, and Pie would write soon.
I sat, stunned by her words each time I read them over again. I swallowed hard and let my eyes wander away from her straight, neatly written characters. I knew my mother's even tone masked the embarrassment she must have felt, and part of me wished I could be in Hong Kong to comfort her. I tried to imagine my mother after she first heard the news. She might have been standing on the front balcony of our house, overlooking the Hong Kong harbor, her fan moving the heavy air from side to side, her other hand raised to block out the sun's glare. From the courtyard, the high, whiny voices of our servants could be heard, while Pie might be running in and out asking her question after question. All the while, I knew my mother could only have one thing on her mind: Who was this woman who had stolen my father's love?
I put the thin sheets of paper back into the blue envelope and closed my eyes. The wind had begun to blow, stirring the heavy air. I wanted to cry. My mother was wrong, I didn't feel old enough to understand any of it. My father never told me of another woman in his life. He was simply the man who wore immaculate dark suits, worried about my health, and sat on the beach waiting for me to listen to his calm voice. I never saw him give money to other women. I only knew one thing for sure, I wasn't ready to leave Tarumi yet.
The wind started to blow harder by late afternoon. I sat at my grandfather's desk trying to write a letter back to my mother when I heard the angry wind whistling through the house. It rattled the shoji walls and shook the floor beneath me. Matsu had disappeared after lunch without saying a word about where he was going. At the time I was happy to be left by myself, but as I stood up, I felt the floor vibrate and I began to worry.
All of a sudden I heard Matsu calling from the garden. I went to the front door and saw him hurrying through the garden to the house.
"A big storm is coming," Matsu yelled. He came into the genken and told me to follow him.
In a small storage space next to the kitchen, Matsu began pulling out several large wooden boards. "These slide into place infront of the shoji panels," he said, pushing one toward me.
We placed the wooden panels over the front shoji windows first. It began raining and the wind had increased so we could barely walk straight. I couldn't imagine Matsu having to do this by himself. We moved as quickly as we could around the house, until all the shoji panels were covered and the house appeared entombed. We were soaking wet, running around securing everything we thought might be washed away. When I stopped to catch my breath, I could hear the ocean rise up and crash against the road in front of the house.
Matsu stood at the open gate, watching the waves thunder up and over the dunes onto the road. "Do you think it'll come any closer?" I shouted.
"It has before," he answered.
"What should we do?"
"We'll wait and see. Sometimes the storm just dies down," Matsu said, turning back to watch the road.
It seemed like the storm would last forever, as it steadily grew in strength. The wind and rain continued, and the noise of the violent sea was deafening. With a wire net, Matsu carefully scooped up his fish from the overflowing pond into a wooden barrel. I watched as the waves crept closer and closer to the house, sliding under the bamboo gate and into the garden. Each time a wave receded, it left a foamy white line marking each advancing step.
"The waves are getting stronger," I yelled over to Matsu.
He nodded his head in acknowledgment. "You better go into the house," he yelled back, working frantically. I started toward the house, then stopped and turned quickly back to help Matsu catch the last of his fish. Just then the first wave crashed over the fence, drenching us. I saw several of his fish washed out of the barrel, squirming on the dirt. The next wave was even more powerful, and the one after that roared over the bamboo gate so fast and strong that neither of us had the chance to hang on. The wall of water swept us both off our feet, knocking us solidly against the house. I hit the house so hard the air was knocked out of me. I tried to get up, but the next wave slammed me back down before I knew what was happening. I grabbed onto a post by the genkenand tried to stand up again. I could hear Matsu yelling to me, but he sounded strangely far away, like we were already lost, deep under the water.
NOVEMBER 24, 1937
I woke up lying naked in my own bed. I opened my eyes to the dim light of a flickering oil lamp. My wet clothes were on the floor next to me. As my head cleared, I remembered the last thing I felt was the strong punch of the rushing water and then nothing; blackness. It was just a miracle that the house still stood, somehow having survived the crashing waves.
When I tried to raise my head, I felt an intense pounding that forced me down again. I closed my eyes until the throbbing quieted, then opened them cautiously, hopeful that the gradual light wouldn't hurt my head.
The boarded shoji windows gave no hint as to whether it was day or night. The house was completely still. There were no sounds of Matsu anywhere. Outside I could hear rain falling, but the fierce winds seemed to have died down. The strong, sweet and sour odor of the dank tatami mats filled the room. All I wanted was to steady myself enough so that I could get up and see what was going on.
Very slowly, I moved my feet from the futon to the tatami mats, and with all the strength I could muster in my arms, gradually pushed my upper body into a sitting position. My head began to pound again. I gently rubbed my temples, still sticky with salt from the ocean. Behind my right ear I could feel a good-size bump.
It was the sound of voices that reached me first, followed by footsteps that entered the genken. I recognized Matsu's voice immediately, but the other was barely audible. From the ease of Matsu's words, I could tell it was someone he knew well. The sound of footsteps continued down the hall until the shadowy figures stopped in front of my door.
"What are you doing?" Matsu's voice boomed across to me as he slid open my door.
I smiled weakly up at him as he stood in the doorway. Across his left cheek was a long, white bandage.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"That's what I was wondering about you," he laughed. He touched his bandaged cheek.
"My head hurts," I said, holding myself steady.
"You were knocked out when you were thrown against the house by a wave. It felt stronger than a tsunami," Matsu said, stroking his cheek again.
I lifted my weak legs back onto the futon and quickly covered my nakedness.
"Someone's here to visit you," Matsu smiled.
Only then did I remember that there were two voices that had entered the house. I looked up just as Sachi stepped out from behind Matsu.
"Sachi-san!" I said, surprised. In the flickering light, I caught a slight smile from behind her scarf. I tried to sit up again as the throbbing in my head became stronger.
Sachi bowed. "I decided to come down when the storm finally passed," she said. "We were hardly touched in the mountains. But I remember from my childhood how violent the waves can become."
"Thank you." I swallowed hard and felt dizzy and feverish.
"I was worried about you and Matsu-san," Sachi continued. She turned around and glanced shyly at Matsu.
"I'm very honored by your visit," I managed to say, lowering myself gently back down. I strained to keep sight of Sachi. I breathed in the pleasure of having her so close by, knowing it was the first time she had left Yamaguchi in forty years. I mumbled something about how long she was going to stay, hoping she would never leave, but my head began to pound so hard I could barely keep my eyes open.
"Do you think we should send for the isha?" I heard Sachi whisper.
I suddenly wondered if Tarumi even had a doctor. I wanted to say something more, but it took too much energy to tell them I just needed to close my eyes for a little while.
"He needs to rest," was the last thing I heard Matsu say.
When I woke up again, a white light came through the shoji windows and filled my room. My eyes strained against the brightness. The house was quiet. I looked around slowly until all the past events filled my mind. My vivid recollection of the storm quickly gave way to the letter from my mother, my father's infidelity, and finally, Sachi's visit. I suddenly wondered if Sachi's presence had been a hallucination. If it wasn't a dream, had she already returned to Yamaguchi? Or was it possible that she was still here? With a sudden burst of energy, I sat up.
A tray with cold tea and crackers sat by my bed. I was so thirsty I reached for the cup and drank down the tea, wanting more. I still felt a bit dizzy and my face was hot and flushed, but the pounding in my head had stopped.
Slowly, I stood up and stretched. My back felt sore from lying so long on the futon. I pulled on a pair of pants and a shirt and walked slowly to the kitchen, but no one was there. I wondered if Matsu was in the garden, or if he had gone to town. Maybe he had taken Sachi back to Yamaguchi. I only hoped she had really come.
The bright sunlight hurt my eyes as I stood in the genken and looked out. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I was shocked to see that Matsu's beautiful garden was now only a memory. Seaweed and sand covered everything, while debris and branches lay everywhere. The wooden bridge that stood over the pond was nowhere to be seen, and most of his best pines were torn from the ground, lying lifeless in the muddy mess. A thick, pungent smell of salty fish and earth filled the air.
While I surveyed the garden in disbelief, I heard a movement and looked up to see Matsu carrying two wooden buckets from around the back. The once-clean bandage on his left cheek was now soiled a dingy brown.
"Ah, you're finally up," Matsu said. "I thought you might sleep another day away."
"How long have I been out?" I asked, rubbing my head and feeling the throb of the bump.
"It's almost the end of the second day. You came around once or twice, but most of the time you've been unconscious. Sachi wanted me to get the isha, but he has been tending to other injuriesfarther down the coast." Matsu put down his buckets and said seriously, "You had us very worried."
"It's just a bump," I said, reassuringly. "Is Sachi still here? I thought maybe she was just a figment of my imagination."
Matsu laughed. "Sachi-san," he yelled, "look who has finally risen from the dead!"
In the next moment, Sachi appeared from around the back of the house. She pulled her dark scarf tighter around her face and happily bowed several times upon seeing me.
"Stephen-san, I am very happy to see you are feeling better," she said.
"I thought you were just an illusion," I said.
Sachi smiled. "As you can see, I'm really here. I came again this morning, hoping you would be better."
"Thank you, I'm very honored." I bowed my head, but stood straight up again when I felt the throbbing return.
Sachi looked away, embarrassed. "Matsu has also needed help with his garden."
"The storm has destroyed it," Matsu said. He pointed to his favorite silk tree which lay uprooted.
"I'm sorry," I said hoarsely.
"It's nothing that can't be replaced," Sachi said quietly.
"Can I help?" I asked. I took a step down and leaned weakly against the genken.
"Don't worry about the garden," Matsu answered. "The first thing you need to do is get your strength back."
"What better way to get my health back than to work in the fresh air," I argued.
Then Sachi turned to Matsu and softly said, "I remember a time when you told me working in the garden would give me back my life."
Matsu glanced over at Sachi, scratched his head in thought and said, "Only light work then, until you're better."
NOVEMBER 30, 1937
Every day Sachi comes down from Yamaguchi so early she's already hard at work in the garden by the time I've gotten up and eaten. She must start out when it's still dark, arriving here just asthe morning light fills the sky. She doesn't leave again until the sun goes down and she can disappear into the hazy gray just before dark. Matsu usually accompanies her back up the mountain. When he returns, there's a calmness to him I know only Sachi can give.
Sachi and I are becoming good friends as we work in Matsu's garden. Yesterday and today we replanted some pines and cleaned the pond. Matsu finished building a new bridge for the pond, then went to the village for some new fish to fill it. I asked him to mail a short, noncommittal letter I had written to my mother. I told her briefly about the storm, my relapse, and how I would write her a more complete letter soon. The only thing I let my mother know for certain was that I needed to rest in Tarumi a while longer, and that I would try to speak to my father soon. But just the thought of facing my father made me feel sick to my stomach.
Each day I work in the garden with Sachi, I feel stronger. The headaches lose their urgency once my hands dig deep into the cool, dark soil and I smell the damp dirt and pine. Even the cold wind of approaching winter makes me feel more alive.
"How does it feel to be here?" I asked Sachi this morning.
She was on her knees planting moss by the pond. Matsu's newly built wooden bridge sat to the side. Its fresh cedar smell filled the chilly air. She pulled her scarf closer to her face and turned toward me. "It feels like a dream to be living this life," Sachi answered. "I'm always waiting for the moment I wake up."
"I wanted to ask you to visit us," I said, digging a hole large enough to fit a small pine Matsu wanted us to replant.
"It took a storm to bring me down from the mountain," Sachi continued. She turned back to her work and started digging the hole I'd begun deeper.
"Did you ever think of coming down before?"
Sachi hesitated. "Matsu had asked me before."
"But you never came?"
"I didn't have the courage."
"Why now?" I asked. I continued to work, not daring to look in Sachi's direction.
"It was for you and Matsu that I came, not for myself."
I could feel my heart beat faster. "I'll never forget your kindness," I said, as I glanced over at her.
Sachi smiled and remained silent.
"Don't you ever miss your family, or your old friends like Kenzo-san?" I blurted out after a long pause. Even as I said the words, I immediately regretted asking her such a personal question.
Sachi slowly stood up and dusted off her dark brown kimono. She pulled her scarf closer to her face and looked at the gate. I imagined Matsu coming through the gate right at that moment, angry and dishonored by my rudeness.
But before I could say anything else, Sachi turned and looked directly at me. "So you have met Kenzo," she said, pausing again in thought. "He was a difficult friend to lose, but the time for missing has long passed. I have many new friends in Yamaguchi. And there has always been Matsu."
"I'm sorry for asking." I quickly stood up and bowed to her. "I know it must have been difficult."
"I am honored that you cared enough to ask," Sachi said. Then she turned and pointed to Matsu's newly built wooden bridge. It was an exact replica of the original, its ascending and descending curves forming a perfect arch. "Matsu once told me the bridge represented the samurai's difficult path from this world to the afterlife. When you reach the top of the bridge, you can see your way to paradise. I feel as if the past few days have given me a glimpse of that. To simply live a life without fear has been a true paradise."
I touched the bridge which stood half the height of my body. Suddenly I couldn't wait to see it back in its place over the restored fish-filled pond. I didn't know what to say.
We stood a moment in awkward silence until Sachi sighed, and pointed to a pine tree lying on the ground. "Let me help you with that tree," she said.
Together we carefully lifted the uprooted pine and placed it gently back into the hole we had dug. I shovelled the dirt back in, while Sachi dropped to her knees and patted the loose earth back into place.
"Do you think it will live?" I asked.
"No one knows this garden better than Matsu," Sachi answered. "It won't be long before it looks just like your painting again."
"You've seen the painting?"
"It was the first thing Matsu showed me. He is very proud of you."
"He never said a word about it to me," I said.
Sachi looked up and smiled. "With Matsu, everything is in what he does not say."
Sometimes, when Sachi is at work and not paying attention, her scarf slips just enough so I can see the white, puckered scars on the side of her face. I find myself wondering what these scars must feel like; the translucent lines spreading like a map across the side of her face. It seems the more I see them, the less effective they become in their power to frighten and repulse me. She's still very beautiful. I want to tell Sachi this, but I'm afraid it will only embarrass her, send her back into hiding.
Matsu's definitely happier with Sachi around. There's a gentleness about him when he's with her. They speak in low tones, and he's always making her laugh. "Little hana," he calls Sachi, when she laments that he has lost all his autumn blossoms. She's the only flower that matters to him. Sometimes, I wonder how their lives would have been if the disease hadn't claimed Sachi. Would they be married and living happily in Tarumi? Would Sachi be married to Kenzo? Would Sachi have left Tarumi like so many others and found a new life elsewhere? Perhaps Sachi is right, the door to the past should be closed.
The news of the present continues to hang heavy. While we were happily eating lunch in the kitchen, the music from Matsu's radio was abruptly interrupted by an announcement: "Japan's most honorable Imperial Army has finally succeeded in convincing Shanghai to accept its protection."
Matsu looked over at me and I could see his smile slowly leave, as he pressed his lips tightly together. Sachi looked down and remained silent. It felt as if the noodles I'd just eaten were lodged at the bottom of my throat and I had no voice.
My spirits were lifted this evening when I saw Keiko again. After Matsu left to walk Sachi back to Yamaguchi, I tried to keep my thoughts off the war in China by working in the garden. I first saw shadows between the slats in the bamboo fence. Then I heard low whispers, which stopped at the front gate. I stood perfectly still, and waited to see what they would do next. There were more whispers and then I heard the shuffling sound of someone leaving. I was just about to open the bamboo gate, when a tapping sound came from the other side. I swung it open to find Keiko alone, standing there in a blue kimono and padded coat.
"Konnichiwa," she bowed.
"Konnichiwa, Keiko-san," I said. "Where is Mika?"
"She had to return home," Keiko said timidly. "We heard that you were not well, and wanted to bring you something." Keiko handed me a black lacquer box tightly wrapped in marooncolored cloth.
I bowed. "Dmo arigat gozaimasu. Won't you come in?"
Keiko shook her head. "No, dmo, I must return home."
She turned to leave, but before she did, I asked, "Can we meet again to talk? We never seem to have enough time."
"Tarumi is very small, I'm sure we will see each other again," Keiko answered. She kept her gaze directed toward the ground.
"I thought maybe we could set up a time," I continued.
Keiko looked up shyly. "Perhaps tomorrow morning, down at the beach where we first spoke," she said. Then she bowed quickly and started down the dirt road to town.
"What time?" I asked.
Keiko stopped and turned around. "Ju-ji," she called back. She hesitated a moment, gave a small wave, and continued walking.
"I'll see you at ten o'clock," I said, but I wasn't sure if she had heard me as she hurried down the road.
I could barely wait until Matsu returned home. I was already lying in bed when I heard him come into the genken. Before he reached the kitchen, I slid open my door and handed the black lacquer box to him.
"What is it?" he asked, surprised.
"A get-well present from Keiko-san, one of the girls I told you about. I'm going to meet her tomorrow morning. Would you like some?"
Matsu opened the box and smiled. "Homemade yokan. You must be quite special to this girl," he teased.
"She's just one of many," I laughed.
Matsu picked up one of the rectangular red bean cakes and put it entirely into his mouth. He chewed it slowly and swallowed. "Very good," he said with a wink.
"Has Sachi ever made you yokan?" I asked.
Matsu laughed. "I think you should ask if I have ever made Sachi yokan?"
"I would not have dared."
"Sachi might have given it back to me then."
"Then, but not now," I added.
Matsu smiled. He quickly snatched another yokan from the box and handed it back to me. "You better get some rest for your big date tomorrow."
All of a sudden I remembered Sachi would be coming down. "What about Sachi?" I asked.
"I think she can stand my company for one morning," Matsu reassured me.
"Maybe for just one morning." I smiled, closing the black lacquer box.
DECEMBER 1, 1937
Matsu and Sachi were already at work side by side in the garden when I woke up this morning. With their backs to me, I stood in the genken watching them as they moved up and down in their own rhythm. Sachi seemed to be struggling with something in front of her, as her scarf slowly slipped down from her head to her neck and shoulders. For the first time I could see the streaks of gray that ran through Sachi's dark hair and a hint of her pale, white neck. Matsu leaned over to help her, then whispered something that made Sachi laugh. I realized how good she must feel, tolive a normal life and not have to hide among the wounded. It seems unfair that so much time had passed with their being apart.
I stepped down from the genken and quickly surveyed the garden. It was slowly returning to its former beauty. Many of the pine trees had been replanted, most of the debris cleared away, and Matsu had replaced the new cedar samurai bridge over the pond. But this time it felt different. Sachi provided a deep richness that made the garden almost hum.
"Ohaygazaimasu," I called out to them.
Matsu turned around. Sachi quickly stood, covered her head, and bowed before she returned my greeting. Matsu lifted his hand as if to wave, then pointed to the house to tell me my breakfast was in the kitchen.
"I'm not hungry," I said, as I walked toward them.
"Ah, too many yokan," Matsu teased.
"Yokan?" Sachi repeated.
"A get-well present from the girl he's meeting this morning," Matsu said, before I had a chance to say anything.
Sachi nodded her head and smiled. "A young man like Stephen-san should have many such friends."
"I won't be very long," I said.
Sachi bowed again. "We will be here," she said.
Matsu smiled and returned to work. He motioned for Sachi to hold on to a young silk tree as he unwrapped the burlap around its roots, and together they placed it into the earth. It was only then that I realized they might enjoy not having me around.
I was down at the beach before Keiko arrived. It had crossed my mind more than once that she might not show up, but I pushed the thought away and waited patiently. The air was sharp. For the first time in a week, the sun struggled weakly through the gray clouds. It left a strange bright light on the sand, still littered with remnants of the storm. I began to walk, sidestepping pieces of seaweed, branches, and large depressions still filled with saltwater. The air smelled of salty, dried fish. The waves came in calmly, slapping the sand so lightly it seem impossible they could have ever caused so much damage. I turned and looked out to the sea,shading my eyes from the glare. The blue-gray water mirrored the sky, and like it, went on and on.
A distant crunching sound caught my attention. When I looked up in the direction of the sand dune I saw Keiko, dressed in a dark blue kimono with light patterns on it. Her wooden sandals kicked up white sand and the wide sleeves of her kimono flapped in the air as she hurried to me. I was relieved to see that Mika wasn't with her.
"Konnichiwa, Stephen-san," she said, bowing. Her waist-length hair was tied back to expose her delicate, flushed face. The patterns on her kimono were white circles.
I smiled and bowed. "Konnichiwa, Keiko-san. I hope you didn't have to rush."
Keiko brushed some sand off her kimono, bowed again, and said, "I am very sorry to be late."
"I'm glad you could come."
"I had to make sure Mika ..." she began.
"I hope Mika is well," I said, realizing that it was probably rare for them to be apart.
"She is very well," Keiko said, suddenly laughing. She raised her pale hand to cover her mouth.
"What's so funny?"
"Mika is at home doing the laundry. This morning I made a bet with her that she wouldn't be able to keep quiet for five minutes, and she'd have to do the wash alone."
"And she spoke?"
"Only a moment later," Keiko laughed. "It was my one chance to get away alone."
We took a walk along the empty beach. At first, Keiko was anxious that Mika might find us, but it wasn't long before she relaxed enough to stop looking over her shoulder. When she did look away, I stole a glance or two at her smooth, pale skin, straight nose, and dark eyes. Keiko was quite tall and, when she wasn't bowing or looking down, stood somewhere between my chin and nose. If King could only see me now, he would be more than glad to trade places with me.
"I really enjoyed the yokan," I said.
"I hope you are feeling better, Stephen-san," Keiko said, her eyes focused on the sand in front of us.
"Yes, much better. I've been helping Matsu in his garden."
"I have heard that Matsu-san is a master of gardens."
"Yes, he is," I said, proud that Matsu was known in the village for his art.
After a moment of silence, Keiko glanced shyly in my direction and asked, "What is it like to live in a big city like Hong Kong?"
"It's noisy and crowded, but between the movie theaters and restaurants, there's always something to do."
"Do you miss being there?"
I looked at her and smiled. "Sometimes, but not right now."
Keiko looked away, embarrassed. In our silence, I could hear the measured squawking of the sea gulls. We walked along the beach until she stopped and asked, "Can we sit for a moment?"
"Of course," I said.
We sat down on the white sand that was still damp and cool. I threw aside large pieces of tubular seaweed, and wished I'd thought of bringing something to offer her to sit on.
"Are you comfortable here?" I asked.
Keiko nodded her head and gazed out to the sea. "It's always very beautiful after a storm. So calm and serene after all the destruction. We were very fortunate this time. The storm barely touched the village."
"We don't have much control over nature," I added, remembering some of the typhoons that had pounded Hong Kong. They swept in gradually, only to leave uprooted trees, debris, and even fragments of makeshift squatter houses scattered across the island.
Keiko smiled. "It's a reminder of the strength we all have within us. Many years ago, my parents told me of a storm that had destroyed much of the original Tarumi village. The villagers argued over where to rebuild, afraid that another storm would simply destroy the village again. Only one fisherman stood up and refused to move anywhere else, believing the best fishing was right here. He said that each storm would only serve to make them stronger if they carried the memory of its strength with them, andused it to prepare for the next storm. Tarumi has stood here ever since."
"Have you always lived in Tarumi?"
"Mika and I were born right here. My older brother was born near Kobe."
"You have an older brother?" I asked, surprised by the fact.
"Yes," she smiled. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"I have two sisters and a brother. My older sister and younger brother are studying in Macao, and my youngest sister is in Hong Kong. Mika reminds me of her."
Keiko suddenly turned around and looked behind her. "I should be going back now. My family will be wondering where I am."
We got up and brushed the sand from our clothes. The damp sand had left a wet stain on the seat of my slacks that I hoped Keiko wouldn't notice. I stepped back and let her walk ahead of me.
"Where is your brother now?" I asked.
Keiko looked away, hesitated a moment, then said, "He is with the Japanese army in China."
Then we both kept silent. I wondered if her brother was in Shanghai, celebrating their victory after months of fighting. I turned to see if there were any signs that Keiko might have felt the same thing. I thought I saw her shudder, but she simply wrapped her arms around herself for warmth. Then she gradually picked up the pace, her face serene, her eyes focused in front of her, giving me no hints as to what she thought.
I walked Keiko halfway back to the village until she stopped, bowed to me, and said, "Dmo arigat gozaimasu, Stephen-san, but I will walk the rest of the way from here."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"I think it would be wise," she smiled.
"Are you afraid to be seen with me?"
"My father is very old-fashioned," Keiko answered.
I quickly asked, "Can we meet again?"
"I imagine we will," she answered. Her eyes avoided mine.
"I look forward to it," I said, bowing.
Keiko glanced up for a moment, smiled shyly, then said, "Sayonara, Stephen-san."
Before I could say anything else, Keiko quickly turned around and continued down the road that led back to the village. At that moment, I realized how much I wanted to see her again. I bit my lip to stop myself from calling out her name. Instead, I watched Keiko disappear down the road, a small cloud of dust rising up behind her.
By the time I walked back to the house, it was past lunch and my stomach was rumbling with hunger. I was eager to tell Matsu and Sachi about my morning with Keiko. I expected to find them both hard at work in the garden, but when I entered the gate, the garden was empty. There was a breath of quiet before I heard loud voices coming from the house.
I knew something was wrong when I reached the genken. There was a voice other than Sachi and Matsu's coming from the kitchen. I could barely catch all the words, spoken in obvious anger. I moved quietly down the hall and stopped in front of my room.
"What other lies have you been telling me?" the voice shouted.
Then Matsu's voice answered, "We never lied to you, Kenzo."
"You never spoke the truth!"
"Please, Kenzo-san, you don't understand," I heard Sachi's voice pleading.
I moved closer to the kitchen doorway, careful to stay in the hallway and out of sight. I could see Sachi pull her scarf closer, as she huddled next to Matsu. Kenzo's thin, angry face was crimson as he stood across from them. He looked nothing like the calm, gracious man I had met at his teahouse.
"I understand perfectly," Kenzo yelled. He moved his arms through the air in frantic motions.
"Kenzo," Matsu said, stepping up to him.
Without warning, Kenzo lunged forward and pushed Matsu back. Matsu staggered a bit, then caught his footing, but did nothing. He was much broader and stronger than Kenzo, and could have easily defended himself, but Matsu simply stood still. Thisseemed to anger Kenzo more. He clenched both of his fists and a deep groan rose from down inside him. Then, all of a sudden he turned to Sachi and tore the scarf away from her face. Sachi let out a small scream as her scarf dropped to the floor. For a split second, they all stood frozen; the white, puckered scars magnified in the bright light.
Kenzo stepped back. "You really are a monster!" he roared. He began to laugh hysterically.
Sachi turned away from Kenzo and quickly picked up the scarf to cover her face. I gripped the door frame tighter. I wanted to do something to help her, but I knew it was not my place. Swallowing hard, I waited to see what Matsu would do.
"A monster!" Kenzo shouted.
Then Matsu regained his voice. "You are the monster," he said, his voice low and threatening. He stepped forward and shoved Kenzo into the back door. Kenzo's body slammed hard against the door as he grabbed his shoulder.
"Matsu!" Sachi screamed.
But he continued to move closer to Kenzo. Matsu grabbed Kenzo by the shoulders and threw him out the door. He fell clumsily down the wooden steps and onto the dirt. Then Matsu stood at the door, not moving. I stepped forward, just far enough to see Kenzo quickly pick himself up off the ground.
"To think I wasted all these years on a monster," Kenzo yelled, backing away from Matsu. "Now I understand everything! She's all yours, Matsu, no one else would want her!"
Matsu didn't say another word as he shielded Sachi, who stood behind him. She was crying softly, as she pulled the scarf tighter across her face.
I quickly stepped back into my room and leaned heavily against the wall, as if I had just taken the blows given to Kenzo. I didn't want Sachi to know I had witnessed her shame. If she did know, she might never be able to face me again. I wanted nothing more than to tell her how beautiful she was, to let her know she didn't have to hide from anyone, especially not from someone as cruel as Kenzo. But I knew my words would be a waste of time. They would mean nothing to her now, just as Kenzo's words meant everything. So I hid from them, until I heard their footsteps move through the house, and Matsu's soft words grew more distant. Iswallowed hard and felt an emptiness, knowing in my heart that Sachi was returning to Yamaguchi and wouldn't be back.
DECEMBER 2, 1937
"Sachi has returned to Yamaguchi," was all Matsu said, when he returned yesterday. Then he went back out to his garden and began planting more moss around the pond.
It wasn't until we ate our dinner of rice and marinated eel that he suddenly looked up and remembered to ask, "Did you see the girl this morning?"
"Yes," I answered. "We had a nice time."
Then a silence so thick filled the kitchen, I could hear my chopsticks slide against the side of my bowl. I looked around the small kitchen, which held no signs of what had happened that afternoon.
Matsu set his bowl down and rubbed his chin. He had eaten very little and appeared restless. I thought it better to stay out of his way and keep quiet.
"There was trouble here this afternoon," he suddenly said. His voice sounded low and tired.
Matsu looked at me, his eyes opening in surprise. "You know?"
"I came back and heard your voices. I didn't know it was Kenzo until I heard the yelling."
Matsu shook his head slowly. "Good, then I won't have to explain to you why Sachi won't be visiting us again." He leaned forward on the wooden table. "Kenzo rarely comes out to the house, but he forgot to give me a letter for Sachi, so he decided to bring it himself. We were in the garden working when he came through the gate. We thought it was you returning, so Sachi made no move to hide. By the time I realized it wasn't you, it was too late. Kenzo didn't immediately know it was Sachi. He stood for a moment, as if surprised that a woman would be with me. It was Sachi who stood and bowed, addressing Kenzo by name. At the sound of her voice, I saw the light of recognition appear in Kenzo's eyes. He took a step forward, then stopped, and whispered her name.When Sachi bowed again and nodded her head, Kenzo simply stood speechless. It was Sachi who asked him into the house for tea."
"What did you say?"
"What could I say? I had led Kenzo to think Sachi would never step foot out of Yamaguchi. It had been the truth until the storm brought her down."
"Why does Kenzo still have such strong ties to Sachi?" I asked.
Matsu didn't answer. Instead, he stood up and walked over to the small cabinet above the wooden basin. He took down a bottle of whiskey and a glass.
"They were once engaged to be married," he finally answered. "Sachi was the only girl Kenzo ever loved. I was his best friend and his go-between when the disease came. At first he didn't have the courage to face Sachi, but later when he realized how much he loved her, his family had forbidden him to go to Yamaguchi. So I became their only link."
"What about your feelings?" I dared to ask.
Matsu poured the whiskey into the glass and took a large swallow. When he spoke again, his voice was tight. "Kenzo has been my best friend since we were young. If I felt anything for Sachi, he was never supposed to know."
"But after all these years," I said.
"I've never seen Kenzo so angry. In all the years we've known each other, there's never been any anger. I have misled him, dishonoring myself and our friendship," Matsu said as he emptied his glass.
"Why didn't he just go to see Sachi himself after his parents died?"
"It was too late," Matsu answered. "By then, the prospect of seeing her again frightened him. He was ashamed of his weakness. It was easier to speak through me."
I paused a moment before I said, "There's no reason why Sachi shouldn't come back now."
Matsu sat heavily down on his stool. "She has had to live through one disgrace in her lifetime, and because I have been a foolish old man, she will have to live through another."
"I could talk to her."
"It wouldn't do any good," Matsu simply said.
"I could try."
Matsu suddenly leaned forward across the table. His strong, rough hand gripped my shoulder, and he said firmly, "I will not have Sachi hurt any more."
THE SAMURAI'S GARDEN. Copyright © 1994 by Gail Tsukiyama.