I’m about to make a left turn into the YMCA on Spears Road. The traffic light turns red. I hate this traffic light. It must be programmed to turn red whenever I’m here. The parking lot of the Y is filling with cars of other moms who have just dropped off their kids at school. After circling three times, I find a spot.
Rushing in, I take my phone out of my pocket to check the time. 9:05. This is my life: always five minutes late. In the changing room I realize that I’ve accidentally brought a bikini with a zebra-patterned push-up bandeau instead of a schoolgirl tankini. Shit. You’re supposed to take a shower before entering the swimming pool, but I just pass through the area and open the door to the pool. In the water float a number of white-haired heads, bobbing up and down to the blaring Olivia Newton-John. A portly man in the corner throws a woo-hoo look at me. I shake my hands and head, pretending to be shivering after a cold shower.
On my way back from Aqua Fit I pass along the glass panes to the gym, and look inside. Now Step Fit is going on, women in Lululemon tops step up and down the small, slim risers in front of them, jabbing their arms straight up in the air. Isn’t this the right age group for me? I wonder. Someone at the far end catches my eyes. It’s an elderly Asian lady. Totally lagging behind, though not seeming to care, she steps up and down, slowly, with her arms up, elbows bent, as if she were holding a huge watermelon in the air. It reminds me of the Japanese bon odori dance at summer festivals.
The moon is out, out, the moon is out,
Over the coal mine, the moon is out, eh, eh …
A month since I last visited the Y. So last month’s membership fee is more like a donation? Would I get a tax credit for that?
The railroad crossing bell starts to clang and the boom gates descend. I hate this crossing. If it weren’t there, my life would be much better. Ten-minutes better, at least.
Soon a huge shadow hurtles in front of us, giving a light quake to our car. “Look,” I say, turning to the rear seat, “it’s a Go.”
“Oh, yeah?” says my six-year-old son, not looking up from his 3DS. I recall how not so long ago he got excited every time he saw Go trains, pointing and yelling, his eyes sparkling.
After dropping him off, I drive down to Spears and to the Y. When I arrive it’s well into the second half of the Aqua session. Afterward, I linger in the lukewarm leisure pool for another half hour. Then in the shower room I run into the Asian woman I saw a month ago. A petite lady with stooped shoulders, her hair cut short and blunt, wisps of grey cluster in front trimming her forehead. She seems Japanese to me, but who knows? Washing myself, I glance at her, stealthily, again and again, and see her drop her mini shower-gel bottle. “Ah,” she says. I knew it; she’s Japanese. That was a Japanese Ah. In the changing room I walk up to her and say “Konnichiwa,” with a slight bow.
“Konnichiwa,” she answers.
Her name is Kayo. She moved to Canada three years ago to live with her daughter, who’s married to a Canadian man with Jamaican heritage. The couple go to work during the day, so Kayo takes care of her fourth-grade grandson after school and prepares meals. The men don’t really like her cooking though, she says. “The only thing they like is Japanese curry,” she says calmly and half smiles. She happens to be from Fukuoka City in Kyushu, where the moon song is supposed to have originated. I tell her that her movements reminded me of the bon odori dance. Her smile widens, fine lines fanning out around her eyes.
My children and I moved into a corner unit of a townhouse, on a ravine lot, two months ago. Oakville is an expensive city to live in but I wanted to stay close to their father. Though a decent shopping plaza is only a five-minute drive away, our backyard is like a provincial park. A brook meanders through it, fireflies wink at night. Fireflies! How I longed as a child to see this image beloved in my homeland. When I was ten my mother died, and she left me a purple handkerchief, which was coarse and rather like a beverage coaster, embroidered with beautiful fireflies, but I had never seen them in Tokyo. I had to wait until I was forty years old and living in a ravine in Oakville, Ontario.
I do some pharma patent translation and work from home. You’re lucky you can be home with kids and work, friends say. Why would you need day care? I want to laugh.
I work at night when my kids are asleep. Maybe because of an odd biorhythm, I sleep light, sometimes even doze at my desk, my brain untethered at last from the last sentence of translation. But in the early morning, I always find myself with my bare feet on the dew-soaked deck facing the woods, my coffee warm on the wicker table beside me. The trees touch the pink sky. I stretch my arms out to their tops, my ears attune to the language of the wind, my nose to the damp leaves, my eyes to the green. Deer appear from nowhere, from out of the mist.
“Did you kill it?” says my daughter, her tone is faintly teasing.
I rip off a piece of paper towel and pinch the dead mosquito on my forearm.
“Eeew,” drawls my son, looking at the red stain on the paper. “Didn’t you say killing is no good?”
“Mosquitoes are okay to kill.”
“Why? You can’t kill cats.”
I try to recall what I have read in a recent book written by young German philosophers. “Cats think so you can’t kill them. Mosquitoes don’t.”
I hate mosquitoes. Just one of them, just one of these tiny little insects in your bedroom can ruin your night. With my sore eyes, I look at the clock. “Come on, let’s go, we are running late!”
After dropping them off, I stop by an indoor playground and pay for the birthday-party package for my son. And then I drive to another plaza and buy some toys and trinkets for loot bags, and order nut-free cupcakes. The day has just started and I’ve already spent 350 dollars. Seriously, have I ever thrown a 350-buck birthday party for myself?
It’s 10:00 a.m. Tuesday. If I rushed to the Y, I might catch up with Kayo after Step.
I turn the car key in the ignition, buckling up at the same time and start off. This is my life: always slightly speeding. Fifteen minutes later, I am there. Among the ladies walking toward the changing room, I find her. Seeing me, she smiles, her cheek bones rise and narrow her eyes, making them two downward crescent. I smile too.
Kayo was born in 1940. She grew up in a suburb of Fukuoka, about 150 kilometers north-east of Nagasaki. It was — and still is — the biggest city in Kyushu, the most southern island of Japan’s four main islands. The coal mining village in the moon song wasn’t too far, in the same prefecture, but “The song wasn’t originally for the dance,” she says.
Kyushu men back then were alpha males, females were house servants, but her father was rather a gentleman. Unlike many men of the time, her father had a grad school degree, which only made things harder for him. In a small town like theirs, there was no room for an overeducated person. He found a job at a local post office, but couldn’t put up with his boss who was neither older nor more educated than he. Soon he found another job at a tailor but he was too old to do an apprenticeship. Nothing lasted long.
Her mother was much younger. Apparently it was his second marriage and her first, but no one really knew. In good times she had her hair set in a traditional, towering beehive every other day and wore a quaint kimono.
Her father ended up in pig farming and made his living by selling sows. He was able to be his own boss that way. The business went okay. Kayo’s parents were not necessarily well off, but they covered the fees for school excursions for children of poor coal vendors, or invited young teachers from Kayo’s school for dinner.
Kayo liked their little farm. In the blue of the early morning, under the dim light of the naked bulb in the stable, she fed piglets. Sometimes she soaked her fingers in milk and let the piglets suck on them, feeling the tingle at the tips of her fingers. No matter what time of the day it was, there was always a certain early-morning quality. It was cool and shady, with a whiff of hay and bird feed. She kept walking around, her booted feet roiling the muddy soil. Outside scurried a pair of black-tailed Japanese bantams, their chicks snuck into the kitchen and cheeped and raced on the earthen floor. Then one day, they just disappeared overnight. Paw prints of a fox were on the ground.
The early-morning fog would bring a sunny day, so said Kayo. I look out of the window facing the ravine. The fog has lifted and dissipated, and I see leaves patter, flickering silvery. It’s before noon and it’s already getting muggy. Now I have to drive down to the lake to have lunch with a friend.
Down by the lake at the boat club it’s breezy, yet scorching. White waves curl far out in the lake, beside the tiny lighthouse. Boats rock at the dock, their mainsails tipping toward the west in the wind. In front of the main doors she stands, my friend, a member of the club, waving at me with a free hand, a large paper bag from the Apple store in the other hand, smiling, her blond hair shining. She invites me in. We walk through the narrow hallway beside the empty restaurant, she nodding to the service staff and greeting other members, and come to the outside patio. In the swimming pool five, six children under school age paddle on duck-shaped rubber boats, teenage lifeguards watching, adults having cocktails poolside. The walls of the clubhouse are sharp white in the sun, against the blue sky.
She orders a Pomtini, I a lemonade.
She has a sip of her drink. “This is definitely the best early-afternoon cooler, you should try it,” she says, putting her water-beaded, long-stemmed martini glass back onto the table. The glass-top clinks. “So, how are you settling in?”
“Fine,” I say.
The smell of French fries wafts in the air from the clubhouse.
“You look tired,” she says.
“I couldn’t sleep well last night. It was a full moon. I can’t sleep well with a full moon.”
“What, are you a werewolf?” she says, and titters.
We eat salads with chicken strips. After that, she starts to take things out of the shopping bag. She will be taking a computer graphic course during summer. “You’re supposed to have a Mac,” she says, raising her brows, holding her brand new laptop. And then takes another package to open. And another.
A girl in the swimming pool tosses a yellow beach ball high up in the air.
The moon swims into my mind, the full moon over the coal-mining village, like a black and white film. In the silence the little girl Kayo pantomimes and feeds piglets with her fingers. The moon is out, out, the moon is out. When did I last see films — except ones by Pixar and DreamWorks and Disney — at all? I don’t even remember. The Japanese bantams flap in front of my eyes.
“Ayako?” my friend asks. “Are you okay?”
“I just asked if you’d care for another drink. Or dessert, perhaps?”
I look at my watch. Still two hours till I have to pick up my kids.
“I think I gotta go,” I say.
I hurriedly drive to a Korean grocery store in Mississauga and buy some taiyaki, fish-shaped Japanese waffles with sweet bean-paste filling, and back to Oakville, to the Y. There is an afternoon Step session that I was once thinking of joining — and there she is. “I’ve got some taiyaki for you, Kayo-san,” I call out, raising the brown paper bag.
She cracks a winning smile. I suggest we stay inside at the air-conditioned cafeteria, but she wants to go outside. We walk around the building to the back of the Y to a cozy little nook on the undulating hill, where summer camps will soon be held. We sit on the sun-baked, colour-drained lawn. And then I lie on my back and sprawl, feeling the spiky grass under the length of my limbs, and bask in the sun. Tiny flies swivel over lawn daisies. Birds warble, crossing the sky in a stream.
Kayo is looking down on the fish-shaped waffle, happily, splits it in half with her wizened hands, and bites into it, on the tail side. Crumbs have fallen onto her lap. I offer my purple handkerchief. Her eyes widen.
“Where did you get this?” she asks.
“From my mother. She died when I was ten,” I say. “I love this handkerchief. It’s not soft at all but I like it.”
“Beautiful,” she says. “Yes, it’s hard, but this is silk. Hakata fabric. From Fukuoka,” she says, touching the firefly embroidery. “It’s usually used for obi sashes. I didn’t know they make handkerchiefs too.”
“Really. No wonder it’s so coarse.”
Kayo muses for a while. “On a sunny day like this,” she says, “when I was a girl — I would stare down at my own shadow, count to twenty without blinking, and look up at the sky and find the shadow there. It was me of course, the shadow, but I decided to think it was my father’s, when he was drafted.”
The birds are black dots in the sky. Kayo looks down again.
The time took on a darker hue. It was 1945. Her father had long been serving, and finally her much older brother was conscripted. So it fell to little Kayo to take care of the pigs with her mother, now in tattered cotton knickerbockers and her hair tussled, no more big hair and flowing robes. The pigs were sold one by one, and were almost all gone. Strange quietness filled the stable. No hens that laid eggs, no feline animals on the prowl.
Finally they had to sell the last sow. Maru was her name. It was June. A break in the rainy season, sunny and sweltering. Kayo gave Maru her last meal. She bleated out throatily, as if she had been aware of her fate. Kayo touched the pig’s boney back, ran her fingers along each protruding knob. “So long, Maru,” she said.
Her mother left for the market with the pig. Kayo stood on a hill, gazing off in the direction of the city. The sky was turning gloomy. Plumes rose beyond the river, black dots gathered over it. Soon she heard a siren.
Spiders, flies, mosquitoes. You can find all kinds of bugs in this house. Ants. I keep screens shut but they all work their way in. A big fat fruit fly crosses in front of my eyes lazily, as if it were mocking me. As I wring a duster in a washbasin, I hear an unfamiliar noise from downstairs, among the rattle of the dishwasher, some kind of a raking sound. Alarmed, I go downstairs and follow the noise. It’s coming from the kitchen. There, on the granite top of the kitchen island, I see the plastic container of cupcakes that I’ve just picked up — moving.
Something pops up from behind it.
It’s a grey squirrel.
Startled, it dives off the island, kicking the plastic container off the top. The container has fallen upside down. The squirrel scampers around, squeaking, and streaks off toward the screen to the outside deck. There is a big hole, in the screen.
I grab the Swiffer stick and brandish it frantically in all directions. “Out, OUT!” I scream. “Get out!”
Panicked, the squirrel cannot find the hole that it has made itself, and stands up on its rear feet, scratching the screen all over. I slam the screen open and it jumps out, away into the woods. I tug the screen shut with a bang. As I pick up the container, it opens with a plastic click and all the cupcakes fall down, the yellow icing smearing all over on the floor.
This is it. Enough of the Thoreauvian life.
Vexed, I rush to the Y. Kayo and I are supposed to have a picnic. Upon seeing me she asks, “Are you all right?”
“I meant to bring some cupcakes for you, but…”
“That’s fine, dear.”
We sit on the grass. Just then, a mosquito settles on the back of my hand. I see it, and feel my cheek blush. I raise my other hand high, palm wide open, fingers spread.
Kayo holds me by the wrist. I stare at her questioningly. She averts her eyes from mine saying sorry and lets my arm go. The mosquito has gone.
“That day —” she starts, and pauses on a word. And then she begins her story.
That day when her mother went to town to sell the pig, she didn’t come home. The air raid had started, and she was stuck and couldn’t get out of town. She found refuge in the basement of the National Fifteen Bank in the Hakata quarter, one of the appointed bomb shelters. Soon after midnight, the power went down, the doors got stuck, and people were locked in. The water pipes were heated by the fires and exploded, sending boiling water flooding into the basement.
Sixty-two people were boiled in the water.
One of them was her mother.
Kayo had become one of the country’s 120,000 war orphans.
It was June, 1945.
Later that summer there were no mosquitoes in her village. The flames, the same flames that boiled the water with the sixty-two people, boiled all the water, the water in the pipes, in the rivers, in the ponds, in the pools of rain, until it boiled the last single larva.
Nagasaki was August, says Kayo. She looks up at the sky.
And she says: sure we talk about Nagasaki. But we don’t even talk about Tokyo where 10,000 lives were lost. Who would remember Fukuoka where only 1,000 were killed?
But I remember the summer, the summer with no mosquitoes.
It was quiet. A quiet summer.
Back at home, I find an ant on the kitchen floor, probably tracking the icing left there. I pull out a flyer from the pile of papers, fold it in half and make a crease, and scoop it up. I slide the screen open, and release it into the ravine.
Yoko Morgenstern is originally from Tokyo. She started creative writing while she was living in Canada. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Great Lakes Review, The Red Line (UK), The Montreal Review (Canada), and The Globe and Mail (Canada), among others. Her debut novel, Double Exile was published by Red Giant Books in 2014, and her Japanese translation of The Ghost Brush by the Canadian novelist Katherine Govier was longlisted for The Japan Translation Award in 2015. She received a post-graduate diploma in Journalism from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario and a M.A. in Literature from the University of Bamberg.