Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow,
BLACK-NAPED ORIOLE IN HOKKAIDO SNOW
by Leonard Seet
Copyright 2014 Leonard Seet
First published in Quarterly Literary Journal Singapore. All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. May not be copied, distributed, re-sold or given away without prior written permission.
"First, write a death poem in the waka style. Then, open the kimono; take up the tantō or wakizashi, holding the blade with a portion of cloth around the haft; plunge the blade into the left side of the abdomen; and draw it across to the right, with a sharp upward cut at the end..."
Yasahiro Kobayashi pointed the tantō below his left ribs and was tracing an arc in front of his abdomen when the phone interrupted his contemplation of death. As if trying to distract him from the blade and the book. But he continued to stare at the page and speculate on the samurai’s last thoughts. On the second ring, he put blade and book on the tatami and walked toward the phone. Outside the window, snow had blanketed the nearby slopes and the distant peaks and he wished the scenery could calm his mind. But images of his daughter’s hand slipping away replayed in his head as he picked up the phone. He eased into the coffin he had built from planks the previous night before drinking himself to sleep. He answered the call.
The landlord greeted him and apologized for disturbing him. The old man wanted to come over and pick up an origami, a wedding anniversary gift he had crafted but forgotten to take along when he left the cabin yesterday. Yasahiro imagined a paper crane dangling from a string. He would like to make Miyuki the Thousand-Crane for their wedding anniversary. He would like to see her smile again and to hold her hand again. But he could no longer. When the landlord apologized again and said he and his wife would be celebrating their fortieth anniversary tonight, Yasahiro realized he was daydreaming. As he leaned back in the coffin, he apologized and said, sure, he could come by anytime.
The old man had hung up and Yasahiro slouched inside the coffin he had planned to die in. After he had died, the paramedics would only have to close the lid and haul him to the mortuary. His landlord wouldn’t have to clean the bathtub or throw away the mattress.
While the wind tossed snow against the windowpane, he drew out a picture of his wife and daughter and tried to recall their voices. He wanted to taste Miyuki’s lips but could only feel the draft seeping through the window. He wanted to listen to Shiori recite her poems but could only hear the wind whistling around the cabin.
Last April, a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake, he and Miyuki had gone to Kyoto’s Tetsugaku no michi. Though waves of men and women and children brushed past them, Yasahiro felt as if he and she had detached from the world, as if the world had abandoned them. When they reached the Silver Pavilion and strolled on the flagstone zigzag bridge, where cherry blossoms showered upon them and the water reflected their profiles, Miyuki fell to the ground. He took her to the hospital and the doctor said she wouldn’t survive past autumn. Her illness had caught up with her.
Now, after nine months, Yasahiro could still recall the scene near the Silver Pavilion as if it had been yesterday. But outside the window, instead of cherry blossoms, snowflakes swirled in the air. He inserted the picture into his pocket and got out of the coffin. He sat on the tatami and, after glancing at the picture of a samurai’s guts lying on the floor, he put the book and the tantō into his backpack. He wouldn’t commit seppuku; he wasn’t a samurai. He didn’t want to mess up the cabin and trouble the old man, who had dusted the shelves and vacuumed the carpets before renting him the place. Vacationers wouldn’t want to rent a cabin reeking of internal organs. Besides, he couldn’t compose a poem, either in waka style or freestyle, and didn’t want to have his guts spilled inside the coffin. He had prepared several bottles of sleeping pills, a twenty-first century solution for a post-modern man.
He pushed the lid over the coffin and covered his resting-place with the sleeping bag. He didn’t want to alarm the landlord or remind him of death, especially on the old man’s fortieth wedding anniversary.
He went into the kitchen and toasted a waffle, Shiori’s favorite snack. Ever since last March, whenever he ate a waffle, he would recall how she had screamed for help as the currents whisked her away and how he couldn’t hold onto her hand. He would rebuke himself for lacking courage and strength. He would feel helpless. He would let the days pass away while Miyuki grasped onto every second.
He reached for the waffle as if it were his daughter’s hand but stopped an inch from it, knowing he could never touch those fingers. He glanced at the snowcaps beyond the window and wondered whether he was in a nightmare. But the dryer in the utility room buzzed to remind him of his chores in the real world.
He put the knives into the rack and stacked the bowls and plates on the shelves. Then, he went to the utility room and collected the laundry and he returned to the living room with the basket and turned on the TV. As he listened to the news of the Greeks rioting over the proposed austerity measures, he folded his clothes. A cashmere sweater Miyuki had bought him for their twelfth wedding anniversary. He would wear it to the grave. A wool scarf Shiori had bought him for his thirty-seventh birthday. He would wear that, too. Whenever Miyuki had to work on weekends, he would take care of the laundry and Shiori would help fold the clothes. He would pair the socks while his daughter would just shove them into a pile. He would iron the shirts, pants and dresses while she would call him mother.
As he recalled Shiori’s laughter, he smiled and folded the T-shirts, shorts, and underwear, sorting them into separate piles. While he matched the socks, the newscaster’s voice reached him across the living room. The local police was looking for three delinquents who had killed two girls and four elderly men. They didn’t rob the men or rape the girls. Thrill kills.
He was following the news when he discovered a missing sock, from the pair Miyuki had bought him just before the tsunami took Shiori. He rummaged through the laundry but couldn’t find it. He checked behind the TV and under the sofa but still couldn’t locate it. He wanted to wear that pair of socks in the coffin as a reminder of his love for Miyuki. Losing the sock would ruin his death. While the newscaster reported the deaths in Syria, he rushed into the bedroom to check whether he had left it on the bed. But the sock wasn’t there. He realized he would fail his wife just as he had his daughter.
Then, he saw it inside the trophy case at the other end of the room, the origami in a plastic box. A bird. A black-naped oriole. The black band painted around the nape from one eye to the other.
He opened the trophy case and picked up the box. He admired the handiwork and praised the old man, a romantic. On their wedding anniversaries, Yasahiro would take Miyuki to dine in her favorite French or Italian restaurant. They would have pot-au-feu with Chateau Margaux or agnolotti with Chianti. He would give her a necklace or a dress, but never a handmade gift. Looking at the origami, he wished he had arranged for her the algae from his research, which would glow orange under light, into the words "I love you." But he had forgone the chances just as he had those to take Shiori to the zoo during her summer vacations.
He shook his head to dispel the images from his mind and returned the box to the trophy case. He left the bedroom and inspected the floor along the hallway. No sock. He dragged himself into the utility room where the heat still warmed the air. He opened the washer. Empty. He opened the dryer. Nothing. But when he thrust his hand into th
Last month, he had returned with Miyuki’s ashes to Taro, where the tsunami had decimated the town. He had searched for three days before finding a fisherman willing to take him out to sea. An afternoon zephyr pushed the fishing boat out of the channel while Yasahiro surveyed the debris on water and listened to the rhythm of planks against the hull. Though the wind chilled his cheeks, his head fevered with images of Miyuki while he cuddled the urn that stored her ashes.
I will wait for you. Miyuki’s last words still echoed in his mind as he stood against the fishing boat’s balustrade and opened the urn. Her last smile, sad to unspeakable beauty, touched his heart as he scattered the ashes into the sea where Shiori rested. He rejoiced in the thought that the molecules and atoms of mother and daughter would touch one another. Somewhere, someday.