The Helpfulness of Those Who Cannot Help | Amanda McTigue

mctigue

 

 

 

There is nothing wrong with sleeping in the nursery.

*

An official came to our home yesterday without telephoning first. Of course, we had heard on the local news that representatives from the Health Management Bureau of the Taka Bay Sub-Prefecture would be in the area, but neither of us took notice. We assumed these officials would visit the branch office to consult with our assemblyman about our needs. This was incorrect.

It occurs to me now that I could have pretended not to be home when the official rang the bell. I could have kept still, peeking from the nursery window until she went away. But she did not go away. In fact, she pressed the bell twice. I could see through the curtains she wore a navy vest and matching cap with the same fabric badge, a dull yellow, stitched at her breast and over her forehead to signify, surely, actual gold.

Because of her persistence, I felt obligated to tighten my sash, do what I could with my hair, and open the door, although “open” would hardly be the word. (Here we say, “the door squints” suggesting a barely opened eye.) While aware of the lack of hospitality this conveyed to my visitor, I acted out of deference. I had on only my yukata even though it was well past one.

To provide some context, my husband was out on the bay, or more accurately, at the bay, seeing to his boat as if the season were over because, of course, it is over for the foreseeable future. In English, one says “foreseeable.” We use no such phrase here. Our character for “future” suggests that which cannot be seen, much less foreseen. Literally it means, “that which has not yet come” as opposed to “that which is coming.” Our concept of the future, then, communicates no confidence that the future will arrive at all.

I provide this context to help explain my habit since the Spill of staying in my robe until minutes before my husband comes home for supper as if I’ve been properly dressed all day.

Happily, the woman at the door seemed to take no offense. She held a clipboard and a pen.

“Mori-sama?”

“Yes. I am Mrs. Mori.”

She introduced herself as a member of the recently formed Taka Bay Emergency Committee of the Regional Health Management Bureau authorized by the National Ministry of Wellness and Welfare.

“I am going house-to-house to check on your well-being,” she said. (I have substituted the phrase “house-to-house” here, but, in fact, she used our local idiom. She said, “I am going inside to you” to describe the nature of her visit.)

I did not invite her in, under-dressed as I was, and this I could see she understood even through the narrowness of the doorway.

“Please be assured, Mori-sama, I am a fully licensed public health nurse.” She pulled a plastic card from the breast pocket of her vest, the one with the golden yellow badge. Her face radiated an appealing quality, more like that of a young man due to its relative lack of make-up and the very modern way in which her hair had been chopped into clumps that poked from her cap the way a boy’s might. I felt as if I were speaking with a pitcher from the junior high school baseball team stopping by to raise money for new uniforms.

She asked questions. I answered every one while she took notes.

“How are you doing, Mori-sama?”

“I am fine.”

“Is your husband at home?”

“No.”

“Where is he now?”

“On the bay.” I corrected myself. “At the bay.”

“May I ask what he is doing?”

“Tending to his boat.”

“May I ask how he is doing?”

“He is fine.”

Check, check, check on her form.

Then: “May I ask, is there anything that you believe the Ministry of Wellness and Welfare might do to be of assistance to you and your husband?”

“I cannot think what that would be.”

She made a quick note. I felt sure my answer was credible since everyone knows there is nothing to be done. I’m not sure what prompted me to say more. Her amiability, perhaps, or her attentiveness, her pleasant boy’s face telegraphing the guilelessness of a professional listener. Something induced me to speak, even though our interview was clearly over.

“I was upstairs,” I told her. “Sleeping in the nursery.”

My interrogator’s gaze came up from her checklist.

“That would be inappropriate,” she said. I felt a shift in her previously accommodating demeanor. “Sleeping in the nursery can be dangerous. It can lead to nightmares.”

I was aware—am aware—that, as an official and no doubt an expert, it was her job to say such a thing to one of the mothers.

But she is mistaken.

There is nothing wrong with sleeping in the nursery.

*

When my husband and I returned from the morgue, we discovered a work of art, a vessel woven by our next-door neighbor, Miss Osawa, hanging over the crib. She has a key to our house. Clearly, she’d hung it there while we were gone. She’d even straightened Akako’s blanket, we noticed.

The vessel is a signature Osawa creation woven of horsehairs, a very fine piece, meaning the horsehairs themselves are fine. This is unusual since horsehair is generally coarse. Miss Osawa says she gathers her materials by currying elite horses, ears to tail, and then cleaning out the combs. Also watching the floor for hairs that drop. She has access to elite horses for her work because years ago she introduced herself to the Regional Ministry of Arts and Culture as an important artist, which wasn’t true at the time, but she made it true by saying so, and thus received permission to visit the famous Stables of the Emperor, a beautiful campus of barns dating from the early Edo era. Its original foundations have been built upon by succeeding dynasties in strata, cedar to brick to granite to tile to a thatched roof that has burned so many times over that no one can remember which iteration today’s might be.

This is in Toyamaga where Fine-Maned Horses are still bred, a bloodline directly traceable to the legendary Miyaki mares. Their manes lie against their necks in oily curls, the color always lighter than that of the body, so the black horses have blond manes, the blond horses, silver. Their tails have hairs so delicate that, in a wind, they fly away from the body in all directions like the fluff of a dandelion.

The vessel Miss Osawa wove for us combines silvered hairs with some that are closer to dun, more the color of an unwell peach. As with all her pieces, this one takes the shape its weaving gives it, twisting and turning outward, then re-finding itself to close into a bowl, a horn, or, in this case, a vessel. She set it on the nursery wall by means of a wedge of hickory nailed in such a way that its thorns, really quite alarming in the room of a child, support the vessel in almost any position we might wish to hang it. I have tried several, all of them flattering to the work itself.

Doing so, I have wondered more than once what Miss Osaka imagined I might put in this vessel.

Or Akako.

I’ve wondered what Akako might have hidden there.

*

I sleep within sight of it now, or try to sleep, but these are unquiet nights, as the fairy tale says. In our vernacular, we call such stories “wander paths,” meaning the winding fantasies we tell children before sleep. At bedtime, our tradition is to guide each child along the trusty path of a fable, threading the dark woods of nighttime imaginings to the bridge of sleep. There the child crosses over into the meadow of dreams as we wave goodbye. “Have a great adventure,” we say (that is the literal phrase), kissing our little girl or boy farewell for the night. “We’ll be here when you get back.”

Stories, then, wander, though, as parents, we must not. It is our job to wait by the bridge until our children return. For this reason, among so many—including no reason at all—I am quite sure there is nothing wrong with sleeping in the nursery.

*

When my husband returns from the bay that night, I do not mention the visit of the official from the Ministry of Wellness and Welfare. He is a hard-working man who rises well before the sun, driven by a habitual determination to get out ahead of the other boats—”First cod, best cod” is his motto—even with the curtailment of fishing into an unspecified future that may or may not be foreseeable. This is a man for whom routine is sustaining, a man who, therefore, continues to live as a fisherman, dining early and retiring early to our bed. He does not join me in the nursery.

At daybreak, I still do not mention the official in spite of the fact that her appearance haunts me, has haunted me (both her visit and her mien) through the long hours when I should have been sleeping. I feel like an oyster pried, exposed in her shell. I do not like the idea of a stranger carrying in her mind the sight of me cowering behind the “squint” of the doorway like the mad empress who crept about Ido castle dragging the corpses of her children behind her.

I send my husband off with his lunch. Alone, I clean utensils, surfaces. I turn off unnecessary lights and prepare to climb the stairs. All I can look forward to is this return to the nursery, the way time both crawls and disappears, leaving for me—a great blessing—nothing to remember, not even time itself. But I reach only the third step. A new thought intrudes:

The official’s visit is a sign. When the world comes calling, an answer is required.

Off comes my yukata right there on the stairs. I rush not to the crib, but to my closet. My clothing feels rough after weeks of living in my socks and robe. In the kitchen, I locate my pail, the cloth with which I wrap produce from the market. In the vestibule, I slide on my boots and slip my mobile phone—untouched all this time—into my purse. My husband asks me to carry it when I leave the house. “For emergencies,” he says. So far, it has proved of little use.

“Good morning,” I say to each thing as I don or hoist it. “It has been too long. I am glad to see you all.”

And then comes another thought, intruding once again:

Miss Osawa’s gift is a sign. When gifts appear, thanks are required.

Ah! My note of thanks to Miss Osawa is long overdue. I decide to honor her artistry by etching a brief poem of gratitude into the bark of a birch tree, something my husband collects for the fabrication of his net weights. I use a fish knife to cut into its pale surface, fashioning characters with my crude gouging. The result is quite effective, hewn of nature in a way that reflects Miss Osawa’s weaving. I curl the note into a scroll, then tie it with plain string. I am happy for the first time in days.

*

The sun has barely risen when I leave the house. Fog lingers, muting the morning with the same vague illumination that comes from the nightlight in the nursery. Tendrils of mist lap my ankles.

I tuck my scroll into Miss Osawa’s post box without alerting her. She may be inside with her tea watching me do this, but I believe that expressions of thanks are more welcome when delivered in silence, received in silence too. Gifts given in silence require neither an exclamation of praise nor the disguising of disappointment. Gifts given in silence permit the truth.

Descending the alleyway we call Bright Fortune to the pier, I shift my pail back and forth from one gloved hand to the other. My earlobes sting, my chin as well. I welcome the cold.

Those of us who go to market early know to nod in greeting, asking about prices only when necessary. We move from stall to stall accompanied by the clatter of crates, the thumping of cleavers. Once those cleavers halved Bluefin; now they hew potatoes.

On this particular morning, I am weighing Mr. Kanagai’s yams—they are so tiny today, like sea urchins—not sure if they are too small to be of use, when I hear, as if spoken to:

There is another silence. One that lies.

And then:

Speak to the other mothers.

I stare at the yams. They stare back from the pail. Is it they who speak to me? I hear the words again:

You must speak to the other mothers.

An imperative. My heart presses into my ribs, my ribs into my collar bones. I lose all sense of the market. Suddenly, I am on a dais at the harbor, standing before the other mothers in my quilted coat, my glasses, gloves—me, Mrs. Mori—addressing a sea of keening women from behind a bank of microphones:

“If anyone tells you—”

Oh, how my voice echoes! The bay water slaps the sound back so that everything is heard twice. I must slow up:

“If anyone—tells you—there is something wrong—with sleeping in the nursery—do—not—listen. This—is the helpfulness—of those who cannot help.”

I see myself, the crowd, both at once as they listen to me, Mrs. Mori, of whom and from whom no one has ever heard.

“Wait—by the bridge of sleep—where your children left you—some on foot with a stick—some setting off—with a good strong dog—or a pig—as a guide.”

The sound booms over the bay toward the sea, then recedes in my mind, and the market rises around me again as I hear Mr. Kanagai’s voice asking once, twice, will I take his yams home, the ones in my pail?

With apologies, I pour them back, gather the radishes I have wrapped, and pay him, but instead of walking home, I go immediately across the pier to the Regional Office of the Ministry of Marine Affairs of the Taka Bay Sub-Prefecture.

An attractive young woman whom I do not recognize, her long hair wound in artificial curls, stands from her office chair to greet me.

“Mrs. Mori to see Chief Tanaga,” I tell her.

I am surprised at the shortness of the wait. I have only just settled on the bench provided when Chief Tanaga himself appears to greet me. I am touched. His hands are so full these days.

I follow him into his office. He positions himself on the far side of a metal desk piled with folders and papers, some bound, some loose. There are two folding chairs. Neither of us sits.

“Mori-sama,” he says.

I bow. He knows my husband. My husband knows him.

“My thanks for taking the time to speak with me,” I say with sincerity. I see fatigue behind his glasses. His eyelids sag like the meat of mussels. Dark concavities have devoured his cheeks. It occurs to me, he too has not been sleeping. I wonder if he too has lost a child, and so it comes to me, yet another thought unbidden:

You must speak to the fathers as well.

Immediately, I know this is true. I must speak most especially to the fathers. We mothers are permitted our sadness. Even in these modern times, a woman is allowed a folding in of spirit that is never sanctioned in a man. The fathers must hear from me too.

I do my best to compose myself.

“Chief Tanaga, I am one of the mothers.”

“I am aware.”

He holds out a single sheet of paper, rotating it so that I can read at the top:

NVOOC Section 624.18(s)

APPLICATION FOR CLAIM

OCEAN AND SEABED SECTOR

MINISTRY OF MARINE AFFAIRS

Underneath, in faint ink, lines and boxes cluster, waiting to be filled in.

“Thank you, Chief Tanaga,” I say. “But I am here for other reasons.”

“Have you filed your claim?”

“I have not.”

I set my empty pail down, hoping it does not smell too much of the fish it used to bear.

“If you have a form by which my child might be returned,” I say to him, “that I would be happy to submit.”

The man crumbles before me. For this I am not prepared. He collapses into his chair, immediately taking off his cap to hold in front of his face. He makes no sound, I see nothing, but I know he weeps.

“O, Chief Tanaga,” I say to him, and now the words pour out: “This is why I have come. To tell you, to tell the others, to go to the nursery. We are so sad. You are so sad. If your wife disapproves—if she claims that you are less than a man, or berates you for weakness, shaken that the pillar of her strength cannot be counted upon—you must say to her or anyone else who might challenge you with the full force of your heart which has, until now, remained brave and silent, you must say: ‘That’s right. You cannot count on me. You cannot count on anyone or anything. Count on nothing. Stop counting.’ Go into the nursery, Chief Tanaga, and lock the door. Rail and cry. Call across the bridge to your son, your daughter, ‘Come home, my darling. Come home.’”

Never in my life have I said so much so loudly. Chief Tanaga does not lift his cap from his face, but his stillness becomes stiller. I can see he waits like an egret on the river’s edge, watching for the foolish frog to stir again.

The room stills as well, “stuffed to the gills,” as we say, as if the air were trying to escape its walls.

A flat plastic fixture observes from overhead.

Chief Tanaga stands, smoothing his hair to slide his cap back on. He keeps his eyes on the paper before him, the paper I have refused. Courtesy dictates I wait for him to speak. I do not.

“With your permission, Chief Tanaga, I wish to share these thoughts with the other mothers.” I correct myself, “I mean, with the other parents.” At last he looks up from his desk. I wonder, sir, is there a way, a place, a time, when I might speak to them?”

*

That night I serve my husband his stew, once fish, now mostly radishes, in the ebbing light of evening. He is tired as always. His eyes have no life.

Only now do I tell him of the Wellness and Welfare official dropping by unannounced. He continues with his meal. I have his attention, but not his interest. He does not remark on her advice to stop sleeping in the nursery.

“And what else?” he asks me.

I am formal with him. “One more time, please?”

“What else happened?”

My husband has picked up an odd habit, borrowed, I think, from one of his crew. These days he likes to put crusts of old bread in his stew. He crushes them, then dusts what’s left in his bowl. It makes a kind of glue, most unappetizing, but this is what he likes now, and so I save our scraps. I keep them in a tin. I set the tin on the table between us. He does not want a spoon. No, his hand goes into the tin and comes out a fist, so unsanitary, though no one witnesses but me. Out comes his fist to open over his bowl the way the loaders open on the dock, spilling whatever he has caught and crushed. I think this is why he likes it so much. It reminds him of the harbor.

He is a good man, my husband. It is no trouble for me to adopt this new tradition, to stow things in the tin until they stiffen with time. But he digs for his scraps tonight without care, strewing them across the table, pushing my hand away when I reach to sweep them up.

“What else has happened?” he asks.

I say nothing. I had not planned on telling him.

“You went to see Chief Tanaga today. This is what happened. Yes?”

I say nothing.

“Why?”

It is clear Chief Tanaga has spoken to my husband: “Your wife is unstable,” or, more literally, “Your wife is but water,” meaning a thing of no solidity.

My husband lifts a second handful of crumbs.

“Why did you go to Chief Tanaga?”

“To tell him about the visit by the Wellness and Welfare official.”

“What can he do about it?”

“What can he do about anything?” In the quiet kitchen, at our quiet table, I have raised my voice. My husband does too.

“There is nothing to be done, wife! Leave poor Tanaga alone.”

“I will.”

He whirls his mound of crumbs down into his stew, then does not eat.

“What on earth do you think he can do for you?”

“I wish to speak to the other parents,” I say.

“Ugh!” My husband throws his spoon into the bowl sending stew into the air, onto the napkin tucked at his neck and all over his sleeve. Two large drops land on his glasses, the right lens, and stay there.

“There will be no speaking to the parents, any parents, no parents,” he barks, truly exercised. “In the market, you say hello. At the church, you say hello. That is all.”

I am already wiping his glasses. His eyes have squeezed shut because his eyesight is so very bad. I think as I wipe how dreadful it must be to go from sharpness to blur in an instant.

“Did you think you were going to give a speech?”

“A small one.”

“To say what?”

The glasses are clean. I go to work on the stew that stains his sleeve.

“A small speech, my husband, to say only this: that contrary to what our Ministry officials may tell us, there is nothing wrong with sleeping in the nursery.”

“Ugh!”

*

You are who you decide to be.

I hear these words very late that same evening as I neaten Akako’s closet—setting bracelets with bracelets, hanging things that hang back on their hangers. Far from a neutral declaration, the phrase commands as if summoning me—but to what?

*

A month and six days later, my husband returns from the bay. I no longer ask how he spends his time. A trickle of money comes into our account from occupations he keeps to himself. Whatever they are, he comes home spent. But on this particular night I have only just arrived myself when he comes in the door with a story to tell me, even as he works off his boots.

“Did you see it on television?”

I am prepared for his question. I tell him I have been out of the house all day, but I’ve heard about it, seen some of it on my phone.

“Oh, you should have seen it for real. The cameras do their best, but it’s an entirely different thing to stand on the pier and see it from there. Yes, yes, it’s small, our bay, but my goodness, what a lot of shoes.”

“‘As far as a gull can see,’” I say. “That’s how the reporters described it.”

My husband slips on his slippers. “That’s the kind of thing reporters add to make stories more dramatic. But this needs no exaggeration. So many shoes, at tide, crowding the shore. It was impressive.”

I am deeply relieved. He reports on the experience as if I have no knowledge of it, hanging his quilted jacket as usual.

“What have you got for me?”

I serve him something special made the night before, a loaf he likes, vegetable and grilled tofu, something my mother taught me from the Lost Decade. He never liked my mother, but he likes the loaf.

I let him eat. I have no appetite so I sit quietly, waiting to speak until I am sure I can do so without revealing the agitation I feel.

At last I say, “I heard on the news, they were children’s shoes.”

He’s so excited, he speaks as he chews. “I can vouch for that. Every one of them a child’s. I joined the cleanup team. Why not? They pay well. And that way, I get the true story.”

My husband shovels food, speaks, and shovels some more. “They hired women for the sorting. We men do the dredging and collecting since we’ve got nets. Thousands of shoes, wife of mine. Perhaps tens of thousands. So far the sorters say they have recovered 6,000 complete pairs, 8,000 singles. They keep careful records. The sorting will go on for days. And here’s what the reporters don’t tell you.” He lowers his voice as if there were others in the room listening. “The shoes? They are not just Japanese. They come from all over the world. With computers these things can be tracked. Children’s shoes from Europe, the United States, China, of course, in droves, and Russia. Who knows where else?”

“Do they know how this happened?” I wait for an answer I both need and dread.

“Oh,” he is having the time of his life between bites. “This did not happen. No, no, no. This was made to happen. A stunt, no doubt, to protest the Spill.”

“It was more than a spill,” I say.

“Well, yes,” he says. “We need a larger word.”

*

In the immediate aftermath of what came to be known as the Protest of the Shoes, I am able to sleep again. All the parents are. Our phones, so important to us in our coordination efforts, now keep us connected. We tap

“goodnight” to each other in our own languages, a cascade of farewells from around the globe as we roll into darkness and

out again. We send no good mornings, only goodnights. It is I who begin these messages.

For the first few nights, my husband sleeps on his boat, eager to be available for recovery operations. This leaves me free to set a new routine in the nursery to help me sleep. I take pillows from all over the house and stuff them into a sheet on the floor to make a lumpy dough. Then I nestle myself inside, my bed rising around me during the night like a sweet roll with me, a drop of bean paste at its center. Always, I situate myself so that I can see Miss Osawa’s vessel above the crib whose mattress I keep neat while my dough bed is nothing but divots, a mess of a thing. In this way I keep us separate: a lump, a crib; a mother, a child. In this way, I can sleep.

But on the third night after the Protest, after I have typed my farewells—”Goodnight!” “Goodnight from the nursery!”—I hear someone on the stairs. The sound is unmistakable. Someone is climbing toward me, someone heavy-footed with the weight of a man. My husband? But he is at the bay.

“Husband, is that you?” I call quite loudly. I get no answer.

I rush to the closed nursery door, leaning on it, calling through it, “Husband, are you home?”

I hear nothing except the footsteps heavier and closer still.

The nursery door does not lock. I run into the closet.

In the dark I stumble reaching for what’s on the hangers to right myself, little skirts and shirts, but I wind up on the floor, switching on my phone for light. Akako’s shoes have scattered every which way except the one pair: pink lady bugs at the toe, lime ribbons on the arch, ruby sequins at the heel. Those shoes are not here.

The footsteps draw near.

Bump bump bump.

I should call my husband. I do not.

Bump bump bump.

I should call the authorities. I do not.

Then Bang goes the nursery door and whoever it is is inside, and I am afraid because either I have gone mad like the mad Ido empress, or I have not, and this that is happening is not of this world.

I hold my phone to my heart. My yukata glows below me, a bell of light.

Then Bang. The closet door crashes outward into the crib and it is her.

Akako.

How can this be?

But it is.

She is such a little girl, just as I remember. Little even for a four-year-old. Too little to make such noise on the stairs. Too little for a girl who is not even here, who cannot be here, but who is.

Lady bugs. Ribbons. Sequins. She’s wearing the shoes, the shoes that I dropped in the bay with all the others. They were her favorites. Now they’re wet.

Oh, her feet must be soaked.

She looks miserable.

“Mama!” she wails. “Maaa-maaa! Why did you put my shoes in the bay?”

She is so angry. Her baby face distorts with fury.

She lengthens the word, sings it. “Whyyyyy? My favorite shoes!”

And I say, like any mother, calm like a mother, like her mother, but also like a woman in a closet, “Baby girl, sweet girl, how have you come to me?”

And she stops speaking. Stops crying. Her face stops. Suddenly, there is nothing. All expression gone. There is no answer forthcoming. She is a true ghost now.

I try coaxing, “Akako, your mother is so glad to see you. Won’t you tell me how you came? Who brought you here?”

It is as if my words have killed her once again.

I crawl forward, my knees cushioned by socks and stuffed animals, so fluffy, so crushable. I kneel to her. I reach to hold her, to kiss her when—Pop—she pops. A bubble. I feel the burst of moisture on my hands, my arms, across my cheeks.

Pop.

She is gone.

And I am the one raging now from the nursery to the top of the stair.

“Akako!” I scream. “Show yourself!”

Nothing.

“Bring her back!” I howl down the stair to the front door, the dark door, through which nothing has come, at which nothing waits. “Akako, come back!”

I stare down the steps at the puddles there, small ones from one riser to the next where two wet shoes have been.

*

I do not tell my husband about Akako’s visit. I do not wish to be seen as having lost my mind. This is not the reason he leaves me. It’s the photograph that proves to be the last straw, or as we say, “the final thread.”

He brings it home just two days after her appearance, so stirred up coming into the house that he neglects to put his slippers on. I hear the heavy pounding of his boots up the steps and think, “That is the sound Akako made. She walked with her father’s weight. How does a child do this? How does a ghost?”

My husband finds me by the crib and waves his phone in my face to show me something from the news, yet another photo of the scene at the harbor. I recognize the chaos of the Protest.

“Who is this?” My husband is beside himself.

I lie to him. “I don’t know what you mean.” But I do. I know who he sees there in the photo on the pier among the crowd. The woman’s back is turned, yes, but we all know our someones. He knows it is me.

“You were there.”

“I was.”

“For the Protest. You did not tell me.”

“I did not.”

He swipes one more time and shows me a close-up of a single pair of shoes among the others. Lady bugs. Ribbons. Ruby sequins.

I am on my feet now, backing him to the chair where my own phone lies to summon my own pictures, tell my own story.

“The Protest,” I say, “it was me. I organized it. Parents sent money from around the world and then their children’s shoes. One pair for each child who died. We rented a Korean boat. It was quite an operation. Nito at the Oyster Farm helped.”

My husband is stricken.

“You are who you decide to be,” I say. “The woman in the picture, she is me to you, but she is no one to everyone else. She is barely there. A photograph into which she has wandered, captured by mistake. She is not important. The shoes, yes. The children who once wore the shoes, yes. The parents of the children who once wore the shoes, yes. But not me.”

“Nito knows?”

“Only Nito, husband. Nito and Akako.”

My husband makes a sound. We call it the shriek of the fox. “Akako knows nothing, wife. Akako is gone.”

“She is not gone. She is here. She comes to me.”

“Never say this, wife!” His fury tips into something else, something quiet that quiets me. “You will be taken for a madwoman, and then you will be taken.”

My phone chimes, a single zendo bell. Characters appear: “Goodnight from the nursery.” I show it to my husband. “From Ryushu, you see?”

Another message appears from Beijing.

“We say goodnight to each other around the world.”

He backs into the rocking chair, tilting it until his head meets the wall. Braced there, crooked, he stares into my phone, goodnights brightening and fading across his face.

I kneel to him. “Our daughter is angry,” I say. “I used her favorite shoes.”

And his eyes come to mine, his sorrow at last meeting my sorrow. “She never liked cold water,” he says. “Summer or winter, that bay water is cold.”

*

The word “strange” means something different in our language. If we want to say a thing is “alien,” we use that word specifically. But to characterize things as “strange,” that is, as “unusual,” is in itself strange in our usage. For us, things are always, in their moment, ordinary. They become strange only in succeeding moments when information is lost, when that which occurs slips out of our awareness and we no longer remember their particulars. For us, strangeness is an artifact of forgetting.

I am deemed strange.

*

It must be said, my husband is a good man. His boat is his livelihood, a beautiful word I borrow from the English meaning “that which gives life its life.” We agree to keep the marriage. He rarely comes by, but he sees that I have money. I agree to everything except leaving our house to live somewhere else. This I cannot do.

He fishes these days in waters officially declared less compromised, though how reliable such pronouncements can be, no one knows. He sells what he catches on the black market to those determined to return to the old ways of eating. “Never for children,” he says. It is illegal to serve fish to children, but there are adults who will pay, particularly those old enough to have no fear of fish shortening their days.

Always, on nights before her father appears, Akako visits me. She does not age. She is the same height she was when we ran with her to the clinic, shoeless, wrapped in a blanket we never saw again.

Last spring, she stomped up the stairs to me and planted herself in front of my pile of pillows. “This is my room!” she announced. “Sleep in your own bed.” Then, as always, she popped. I have ceased trying to touch her, but she pops just the same.

So I moved back to my own bed. I continue to tap goodnight faithfully to all the world including my husband, but if this is received, he does not answer back.

These days I’m tired enough that I sleep deeply, a fact that troubles me since I sometimes miss Akako’s coming. I know she’s been here only when I find Miss Osawa’s vessel sitting in a new position on its thorned mount.

I have not yet told my husband what I am up to. When I do, I will say it is the fault of the goodnights. Reading them all this time—well, not always reading, because so many of the languages are foreign to me, but looking at those unfamiliar words and even alphabets—I began to wonder about their literal meaning. Do our bedtime wishes vary from culture to culture?

I looked up what I could at the library. Further investigation led me to the Foreign Languages Department of Taka Women’s University where I am now pursuing certification as a translator. I study English out of necessity, Chinese and Spanish out of practicality and Hungarian entirely on a whim—the result of particularly affecting nightly signoffs from a mother in Budapest—Jó éjszakát—whose strict translation is “good nights.” I find the optimism in the use of the plural—”nights”—quite moving.

My studies cost money. This is something I will have to explain to my husband. I hope by then to be making a good salary working for the trade ministry. “Fishing is for the young,” I will tell him. “When it’s time to sell your boat, someone must put food on the table. Someone must save for repairs we will surely need to our roof, the plumbing.”

My husband will be surprised initially, probably displeased, but he is a sensible man. He will come to appreciate my planning ahead for the two of us.

I am confident I can make enough to support us into old age—until my mind finally goes and I can translate no more. Should I live longer than my husband, I know I will be able pare things down to ride out my final years. Should I die first, however, there’s no telling. Who will see to him? How will he fare alone in this world?

I have decided, should I go first, crossing over into that place where Akako is now—perhaps another nursery—I will take hold of her, I will embrace her with a force I never used in life to trap her against me, dead to dead. I will contain her this way so that, try as she might, she cannot pop (even though I too will be unphysical) because, dead—I swear it—I will not be cold. I will carry this heat I feel now. I will carry this heat into death. My arms will feel like arms to her filling her with livelihood, my livelihood, until her struggling ceases and she settles into me. Then I will whisper in a way that gives language to breath, “Here you are, my daughter.” Her shoes will be dry, as will my cheeks. She will be yet little, her little hand slipped into mine—who reaches for whom?—who knows?—but her hand will be here and I will smile a smile I have not smiled since her leaving.

“What about an adventure?” I will say and her face, so solemn in her visits, will have its gaiety, its mischief back.

“Let’s take the bridge,” I will say to her. “Your father is waiting for us. Let’s take the bridge, and we’ll tell him how you are, how we are, in this strange life beyond the grave.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


 

Amanda McTigue’s debut novel GOING TO SOLACE was named a Best Read of 2012 by public radio KRCB’s literary program “Word by Word.” Look for more of her recent  stories in Literally Stories and Typehouse. She just got back from the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba researching her next novel, MONKEY BOTTOM. Find her at www.amandamctigue.com, via FB, or tweet @amctigue.

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