Since My House Burned Down
They are burning leaves at Koh-Dai Temple. The monks do it constantly this time of year, in late afternoon, when there is the least amount of wind. From upstairs, above the slate-tiled roofs of neighborhood houses, I watch the smoke unravel above branches of red maple. Even from four alleys away it reaches me through the closed glass window: pungent, like incense; reminiscent of some lost memory. Impending recognition rushes through my head like the feeling right before a sneeze, then is gone.
They say that snakes are sensitive to smell. Some species can sense their prey from a distance of several kilometers. This seems significant because when I was born, seventy-six years ago, it was in the year of the snake. Although I've lost much of my hearing, as well as a steadiness of hand and jaw, my connection to smell has deepened with age. It's not that I'm able to smell better but that I have stronger physical reactions to it: sometimes a tightening of the throat, a bittersweet stab in the breast, a queer sinking in my belly. My convictions have always been instinctive rather than logical. "Snake year people," my mother used to say, "lie close to the ground. They feel the earth's forces right up against their stomachs."
Stomachs. Yuri, my daughter-in-law, must be cooking dinner downstairs. For a split second, I thought I detected the metallic whiff of American tomato sauce, which always makes me feel vaguely threatened. I sniff again, but it's gone.
I knew nothing about tomato sauces until a restaurant in the Shin-Omiya district first introduced the Western omelette on its lunch menu. That was a long time ago, years before the war. I remember my daughter, Momoko, fourteen at the time, begging permission to go with her friends.
"But Momo-chan," I said to her, "I make you omelettes every morning."
My daughter gave me a pained look. "Mother, Western eggs are completely different!" They use no sugar, Momoko said; no fish base to mellow the flavor, no soy sauce for dipping. Her classmate's father had described them as salty. They were spiced with grated black peppercorns and spread with a thick acidic paste made from tinned tomatoes.
"Ara maa! How revolting," I said. "But go if you must." The problem of not knowing how to use silverware did not cross our minds till later. That was where Yuri came in. My daughter-in-law, Yuri, who at this moment is downstairs cooking something which I pray is Japanese cuisine. I haven't caught any other smells yet, so what struck me as tomato sauce may have been a fluke.
Back then Yuri had been a new bride in our home for only a few months. She was raised in Kobe, a cosmopolitan port city well known for its foreign restaurants and boutiques. Yuri's family was very modish, and very rich; her trousseau included, among the traditional silk kimonos, a twelve-piece set of blue- and-white English china and several knee-length dresses from France. One dress was sleeveless and black; all along its hem hung long tassellike fringes. Yuri said it was a tango dancing dress.
Naturally I had reservations about this bride. I hope, I told her with polite concern, that this city has enough culture to appreciate your taste in foreign clothes. I doubt if Yuri caught the sarcasm. Our city of Kyoto was Japan's capital for centuries, the birthplace of The Tale of Genji, the focal point of the ancient arts. We are far inland, strategically cloistered by lush green hills on three sides. These hills, in addition to the Kamo River -- I offered this last fact on a more genial note -- provided a year-round cocoon of moisture which gave Kyoto women the finest complexions in the country.
But my reservations went deeper. Yuri being born in a horse year had bothered me even before the marriage. It wasn't just me. Our extended family did a double take when they learned that my son, a rabbit year, was considering marriage to a horse. No doubt neighbors gossiped in the privacy of their homes; the dynamics of such a union were only too obvious. How could a timid rabbit (a male rabbit -- the shame of it) control a headstrong steed? In the end, however, we all decided in favor of the match because Yuri came from such a decent -- and wealthy -- family.
When I was a child, a horse scroll hung in the tokonoma alcove of our guest room. It was ancient, originally painted in the Chinese royal court, and presented to my family by a city dignitary on the day of my great-grandfather's birth. If females born in horse years were to be pitied, then males born in horse years were cause for celebration and gifts. The stallion was painted on white parchment using no more than ten or twelve brushstrokes. The strokes throbbed with contained energy: the haunch a heavy, swollen curve of black ink; the tail a drag of half-dried, fraying bristles that created the effect of individual hairs swishing in space. The stallion's neck, lumpy with muscle, was caught in midturn. One large black nostril flared above bared teeth. What I remember sensing about this horse, captured by the artist in the split second before it bolted, was its imperviousness to anything other than its own alarm. That black eyeball, rolling back, would not see a small child like me underfoot. Its hooves would not feel what they crushed. That thick neck would not respond to reins.
I thought of that horse as I watched Yuri teach my Momoko how to use silverware. She looked very unlike my daughter, who had the classic Minamoto features: long, oval face, eyes slanting up like delicate brushstrokes. Yuri had a wide face; bold, direct eyes instead of dreamy ones; intense laughs like yelps. She was all smiles, eager to please. But some indefinable tension in her vitality reminded me of that horse. Something about her neck, too, although it wasn't thick or muscular (but then, any neck could look slender under that enormous face!). Yes, there was inflexibility in that neck, noticeable when she inclined her head sideways in thanks or in acknowledgment, that robbed the gesture of a certain soft elegance.
Momoko was thrilled that Yuri's Kobe upbringing had included dining in Western-style restaurants. "Aaa, Yuri-san, you've saved me from becoming a laughingstock!" she breathed in that exaggerated way of teenagers. "I would have made some horrible mistake, not knowing any better, and shamed my whole family." At that moment, I wanted to slap my daughter. And Yuri too. Momoko's innocent words could not have cut me any deeper. We Minamotos were one of the five oldest samurai families in the Kansai region; Yuri's family crest came nowhere near ours in distinction. Since girlhood Momoko had been trained, as I once had, in every conceivable form of etiquette befitting her heritage: classical dance, stringed koto, tea ceremony, flower arranging, correct degrees of bowing for each social situation. She had nothing to be ashamed of. As if eating with outlandish foreign utensils even counted as manners!
Yuri had cooked up a traditional Japanese egg loaf for Momoko that night, since I kept no peppercorns or acidic tomato sauces in my kitchen, and served it at the low dining room table. Forks and knives glistened among her English china with the malevolence of surgical instruments. I sat quietly behind them on a floor cushion in the corner, sewing and watching this woman teach my child social behaviors I knew nothing about. Momoko's clumsy attempts made the metal utensils clang alarmingly against her plate.
"Place your forefinger here, like this," said Yuri, standing behind her and leaning over her shoulder to demonstrate. "That'll give you more leverage. Otherwise that fork'll slip right out of your hands." Momoko giggled and made a little bow of apology over her plate.
What a barbaric way to eat, I thought. Wielding iron spears and knives right at the table, stabbing and slicing -- chores that should be performed in the privacy of a kitchen, leaving diners' energies free for thoughts of a higher order. At that moment a strange foreboding rose up through my belly: a sense that my world, indeed my entire understanding of it, was on the threshold of great change. I felt my fingers tremble over the sewing.
"Momoko," I called out from my corner, "Momoko. Sit up straight."
I have carried with me to this day the image of Momoko begging permission to go to the restaurant: a slender girl in an autumn kimono the exact shade of those maple leaves down by the temple. She stands beside a tree whose bark is sodden black from the heavy rain. Moss creeps up its trunk, and her fine white Minamoto complexion is a luminous contrast to the bitter autumn hues of black and green and rust. The poignance of the picture strikes me now as it did not then: that fine play of color, worthy of a Hiroshige etching, youth blooming in a season of endings. Momoko was to contract pneumonia that winter, and die months later.
My instincts were right.
There was the war, for one thing, the magnitude of which none of us could have predicted. Its hardships need not be discussed. We tacitly understand this, those of us who have survived: our longtime neighbors, my rabbit year son, even Yuri, who, as I always suspected, is 100 percent horse. "Remember that crazy old Uehara-san?" I occasionally say, laughing, to our old neighbor Mrs. Nakano in the alley. "How he missed his sushi so much, he used raw chicken instead of fish?"
"It didn't taste so bad, ne...," she always says, and we both chuckle, as if looking back on happy times. We go no further. We never discuss the bombings.
Mr. Uehara was lucky; at least he owned chickens, living out in the country. He was our contact for black market rice, at a time when wartime currency was useless. I hate to think what that rice cost our family: bolts of fine watered silk, priceless porcelain vases handed down for generations since the Tokugawa Period.
We neighborhood women took the train into the countryside, since our men were either fighting abroad or, like my own husband, reported dead. Our train bumped leisurely through the crowded westside weaving district on its way out to flat farm fields, past narrow doorways of slatted wood and somber shrinelike roofs. In prosperous times one could have leaned out the train window and heard the deafening clatter of looms -- gat-tan-gat-tan -- coming from each house. Now, silence save for the occasional screech of ragged boys playing swords with long bamboo poles.
For the physical task of carrying, we wore navy blue mompe of the peasant class -- I always think of them when I see today's popular pajamas. On the way there, we lugged our family treasures concealed in large furoshiki wraps. By the end of the day, the contents would be replaced by half a sack of rice and no more; we had all been warned about women who developed hernias from too much heavy lifting. At the farm, old Mr. Uehara treated us to his startling lunch menus of raw chicken sushi. On one occasion, he served grasshoppers crisped over a fire and crumbled into brown flakes -- these looked identical to the shaved bonito flakes we had eaten with our rice before the war; the texture, too, was identical, and with soy sauce the difference in taste was barely discernible. "Plenty of nutrients," Mr. Uehara told us with a sparkle in his eye. "In times of trouble, we must all use our heads." It was hard to say whether that sparkle came from his own good health or from the anticipation of receiving yet another installment of our family fortunes.
The loneliest time was afterwards on the platform, sitting on our sacks of rice and waiting for the whistle of the train. We had no energy left for small talk, and each of us sank down into her private gloom. By now, no doubt, Japan Railways has replaced that wooden platform with a concrete one, complete with an automatic ticket vending machine, but back then it was rickety, its planks weathered gray by the seasons. Orioles' nests swung from the exposed rafters on the roof, which rose high above the surrounding fields, throwing down its long shadows. Whenever a breeze swept over the long suzuki grasses, those black shadows quavered like reflections on a rippling sea. I had the sense of being marooned while the sun set on the end of the world.
I tried not to think of my husband, lying in some unmarked grave on Iwo Jima. I tried not to think of Momoko, dead these five years. But in such weak moments misery gathered in my breast so thick and clotted that it choked my breathing. The sound of crows cawing on their lonely flight home was unbearable.
At one point during those trips, I heard the music of the fields. It wasn't so significant at the time. But some random memories, like my image of Momoko, are like that. Over time, they acquire a patina the way pearls gather luster. The sound I heard, a hushed soughing, brought to mind countless blades of grass rustling together and the millions of tiny lives -- insects and birds and rodents -- feeding and sleeping and growing beneath their cover. The breeze, filtering through the grasses, dislodged the sounds so that they rose up and, wafting on currents of air, hummed and whispered all around. A Masahide poem I learned in childhood floated to mind: Since my house burned down / I now own a better view / of the rising moon.
Peacetime ushered in what I think of as Yuri's era. Children became versed in silverware usage, as the Americans instituted hot lunch programs in the decimated schools. Knee-length cotton dresses, too, became common. Yuri dragged out her French trousseau dresses -- practical-minded Mr. Uehara hadn't wanted those -- and paraded through the open-air market among rows of chives and lotus roots, gaudy and unashamed in her moth-eaten silk. It was all terribly embarrassing.
Yet for the first time I desired her friendship. We had gone through a terrible war together -- known so much loss -- and like it or not, she was now part of my life: someone who remembered our old quality of living, our family's stature. I was a bit cowed, as well, by this harsh postwar energy sweeping the city: children marching through our alleys wearing Western school uniforms of navy and white, garish billboards with English words (which Yuri had learned to read back in Kobe, and was now teaching my son). But as I said, this was now Yuri's era. She had no interest in friendship; the horse was already running with the bit between its teeth.
"Mother-san, I'll finish up here," she often said brightly as we were cooking together in the kitchen. This, before I had barely even finished washing the rice! I had to fight back just to stay standing.
"A! a! that's not necessary," I would reply. "I'm happy to do it. Why don't you just go relax, put on some cosmetics for when your husband comes home." Do something, so I can have grandchildren.
"I'm already wearing cosmetics." That short laugh of hers, like a yelp.
Our struggle progressed over the years until Yuri stopped playing fair. Her ultimate victory, driving me out of my own kitchen, finally arrived last year. To my credit, at least, it took several decades in coming. It was Toshihide, my own son, who delivered the blow to me in the garden, stepping cautiously across the moss to where I was bending over to feed the turtle in the stone vat. "Yuri has noticed," he said slowly and loudly into my ear, "that more than once...left on...gas on the stove. More than...refrigerator...closed all the way. Perhaps...old age....Would you mind..." From the corner of my eye I saw Toshihide's Adam's apple shifting about like the nose of a rabbit. Aaa, I should have had another son! Momoko should have lived.
My whole life has been a process of losing security. Or identity. Perhaps they are the same thing. I may not be a true snake. For each skin I have shed, there has been no new replacement.
I sit upstairs now, relieved of all my household duties, and look down at the smoke rising from Koh-Dai Temple. I wonder if the monks there contemplate life's cycle as they tend the fire, or if their mundane task is simply a welcome break from more serious duties. Leaves and twigs and straw, all leaving behind their inherent forms and evaporating into space. Next spring their ashes will reemerge without a trace of their former characteristics: as moss, as an earthworm, as a cherry tree whose fruit will be eaten by children in summer then converted to human matter. A pitiless world, this: refusing you the slightest sense of self to cling to.
It is two weeks later when I go for a stroll down to the Kamo River, which is three blocks from home in the opposite direction of the temple. I shuffle through the dappled shade of maple trees and hear cicadas shrilling meeeeee overhead, which is impossible in November; a combination, no doubt, of ingrained memory and the hearing aid I wear on my walks in case I meet someone I know.
I head toward a sunny bench overlooking the water. These days walking exhausts me. The river flows past, sunlight glinting on its surface like bright bees swarming over a hive. I can actually hear the bees buzzing, so I take out my hearing aid and put it in my handbag. I sun myself like this for a long time, eyes half shut. I conjure up from memory the surface sounds of the river, its tiny slurps and licks as countless currents tumble over one another. I remember too the soft roar in flood time of the undercurrent as it drags silt and pebbles out to sea.
The music comforts me. I imagine dissolving into the water, being borne along on its current. Something slowly unclenches within my chest. I am pared down, I think suddenly, to Masahide's poem. And I sense with a slow-mounting joy how wide this river is, and how very deep, with its waters rolling out toward an even vaster sea; and the quiet surge of my happiness fills my chest to bursting.
Copyright © 2003 by Mary Yukari Waters