Fiction · 06/24/2009

Excerpt from Fog Island Mountains

Kanae hangs up her cell phone. She only wanted to hear Alec’s voice. Just to be sure. She drops the phone on the seat next to her, repositions the car in her own lane and ignores an angry honk from an oncoming driver. What matters is the speed of her car and its position in the lane. What matters is the repetition of the windshield wipers and the hiss of hot wind against her doors. What matters is driving carefully down a mountain road.

She turns the radio on. She turns it off. She checks her rearview mirror. She is alone on the road down from Shiratori. Usually she drives down just after lunch, following Kinuyo and Tomomi and Kayo; four little cars winding back toward their homes. Kinuyo and Kayo live in Tanocho like Kanae, Tomomi goes on further to Kobayashi. But today Kanae drove to Tanocho, parked in the Tanocho Town Hospital parking lot just in time for Alec’s appointment and then started the car again and drove back up the mountain to the onsen for the rest of the afternoon. She paid for a private room and soaked in the hot water until she knew her blood pressure was too high. Then she sat out on the hewn rock before the plate glass window, naked, cooling down, and watched the steam rise all over the mountain.

For a 62-year old woman she still has a nice figure. Her breasts have an insignificant droop, there’s too much loose skin on her tummy, and her skin everywhere has gone a little slack, a little papery, but the rest, the rest is doing just fine. Alec is 66 years old. Alec is sick. Alec is going to leave her behind. She got back into the hot water until her fingers wrinkled and the skin on her face felt too tight. She stayed at the onsen until after 6 o’clock.

Kanae pulls the car off the road and into the parking lot of a small restaurant. Noodle Dreams. She’s always wondered how this little cabin keeps itself alive without the tourists. In certain seasons there are droves of visitors to the hot springs resorts on Mount Takachiho, but between those periods only the locals venture the twisty roads and soggy forests. Could a restaurant like this make a year’s worth of business in just a few months? She pushes the glass door and bells jingle above her head.

“Irashaimasse!” yells the owner from the kitchen, his head bobbing above a cauldron of noodles. The restaurant is deserted. She chooses a table near the window and arranges her purse on the seat next to her. Outside, a flock of starlings are gathering momentum into a cloud against the purple sky. They swoop and vibrate in the hot air. Two birds remain out of sync with the undulating mass. She can’t think of the last time she sat in a restaurant by herself. She wonders what other natural phenomena she has missed by always having company to keep her from looking out a window. She shuts her eyes.

“Endo-san?”

Kanae turns. No one has called her that in over forty years. She realizes she has all but forgotten her maiden name for the foreign sounding last name she exchanged it for when she married Alec Chester. She blinks. She doesn’t recognize the man standing by her table. He can tell.

“Your old neighbor…it’s me, Fumi.”

Of course she can see him now. Those watery eyes. The long bones of his nose. She arranges her face into what she hopes is a smile. “Fumikaze! It’s been a very long time.”

He smiles, reaches for the chair in front of her but hesitates. “This is a huge surprise…”

“You moved away…”

They both say, “to Nobeoka,” at the same time and then he laughs. Kanae smiles, out of step with his merriment. She invites him to sit down and asks him what he’s doing back in Tanocho as if Nobeoka were a foreign country and not just a few hours away. Still, she doesn’t think they’ve seen each other once in all the years.

“Business.”

“With the resort?”

“I’ve worked for the Maruten Hot springs since college.”

“You must be a very relaxed businessman.”

He laughs, shrugging his shoulders as if in apology. “We don’t get to use the springs as much as the guests.”

The restaurant owner comes and takes their order. Kanae pinches her thigh under the table to make sure she has really decided not to go home. It almost brings tears to her eyes and she must rummage in her purse for a handkerchief and pretend to wipe some imaginary sheen of sweat from her forehead. Alec will be worried. “It’s so humid,” she says, flapping the cloth in front of her face.

“It’s terrible. Everyone’s waiting for the storm. I can’t believe it’s you! You’re the only person I would have liked to see in Tanocho and here you are.”

“You wrote me lovely letters.” She remembers the blue paper, the childish stickers and drawings that decorated the envelopes. They wrote to each other all through high school. “I thought you would become an artist.”

He turns red. “I was never good enough.”

“You were wonderful. I should have kept everything you sent me.”

She asks him about his work. He accepts a glass of frosty beer from the restaurant owner and launches into the story of everything that has happened to him since they last saw each other nearly forty-five years ago. She is a wonderful active listener. She dips her head and makes encouraging sounds. What matters is listening to this man’s story.

“Was it hard to make new friends? I remember your letters sounded very sad.”

“It wasn’t so bad.” He waves away her concern but she can tell he is pleased she thought of him that way. He hasn’t changed a bit.

She remembers the day they met. His family had just moved into the aging house down the road from Kanae’s. Theirs was a lonely street on the outskirts of Tanocho with only two houses backed up against the firefly gorge. Kanae was an only child and since hearing the news from her mother about their new neighbors had smiled herself to sleep at night with the thought that one day soon she might have a friend to walk home with. She’d lived all her life in that isolated house, walking home from school by herself, leaving the rest of the girls at their houses in town and entering the footpath through the gorge on her own. Until Fumi’s family moved in, she’d nearly hated the other old house, passing it every day and glowering at its emptiness.

They met in the early evening in August when both families had gone for a stroll after dinner. Kanae’s parents were already deep in discussion with Fumi’s mother and father. Kanae raced to catch up with the youngest boy, the one her mother told her was her own age. He was trailing behind his two older brothers. It was clear they were much older than him.

“Here,” she said, offering him her firefly jar. “I like to catch them.”

But Fumi was scowling, holding his fists very tight. Tears were streaming down his face. He turned away, his lower lip white. Kanae looked at the ground, ashamed for him. She was about to move back toward her parents when one of his brothers up ahead turned around. “Did you say hello to our new neighbor? Are you being rude?”

Fumi glared at him.

Kanae saw the beating glow of light inside Fumi’s fist and reached out with her jar. “He’s caught a firefly for me, he was just putting it in here.”

Fumi started to cry harder but he held out his hand. They made a show of losing the insect and trapping it again. By the time they snuck a look back to his brothers, the two teenagers were deep in discussion and had forgotten all about them.

Fumi raced forward and caught three more fireflies that had appeared out from behind a bush. Kanae watched him, noticing he had a slight limp. She turned and took two more insects that had floated up before her, bleating light from their bellies as they breathed. Soon they had a lantern. Soon they were best friends. She never found out why he was angry that night.

The man in front of her has aged well. He is a few months older than she but looks younger. His forehead is smooth and his hair has only started to turn gray. “Did you go to college in Fukuoka?”

“In Tokyo.”

She is impressed. “That must have been hard.”

“I studied economics. Then I went to business school in Osaka.”

“But you came back to Kyushu, that’s something.”

He nods. “I’m a Kyushu man.”

“How are your parents and your brothers?” Suddenly they are old friends again. She is amazed at how quickly the years can pass. Amazed she can focus on the details of his story, his brothers, where they live, what they do for a living, when she does not believe she is really sitting at this restaurant. Does not believe she has not jumped up yet to race home. His mother is still alive. His father passed away a few years ago. She tells him how her own parents passed away nearly ten years ago now. He says she must miss her father, and she agrees, those sudden tears welling again. This time she doesn’t have to hide the shininess of her eyes behind a handkerchief.

Her cell phone rings. Alec must be getting frantic. Fumi pauses politely so she can answer her phone, but instead she turns it off. She offers him no explanation, just asks him another question about his work while gripping the edge of the table. She knows if she were to look down, her fingernails would be white with the effort.

The owner brings their food. The noodles are steamy and the tempura crisp. She can’t believe she’s never stopped at this restaurant before.

“I traveled for a while, working in different hotels around the world.”

“How lucky. Where did you go?”

“Singapore, Australia, the United States. I worked for several years in South Africa.”

Kanae’s chopsticks drop into her noodles. She splashes broth onto her blouse and trousers and has to excuse herself to the restroom. Fumi stands as she leaves the table and the look on his face tells her he finds her attractive.

She sits on a chair in the restroom under the hand dryer. Her hands are shaking and she pins them between her knees. She remembers her father’s face when her mother passed away. She had been the one to give him the news.

“Kanae-chan,” he’d said. His eyes had looked at her and she saw how he must have looked at her mother every day of their life. She saw he had no one else but her to look at that way.

She remembers turning away from him to wash a tea cup. She remembers she couldn’t look him in the eye for months. Eventually he stopped looking at anyone.

When she returns to the dining room she realizes she has not washed the broth from her clothes.

“But I’ve been so rude,” Fumikaze says immediately. “I haven’t asked you a thing about yourself.”

“Oh no, your life is much more interesting.”

“But you went to college? I remember we discussed that in our letters.”

He had written her about taking the test for college and that they could apply for the same schools. She doesn’t remember him ever mentioning Tokyo.

The last letter she ever wrote him explained everything. She had wanted to make her feelings clear without wounding his pride. He was such a nice kid. A good friend. She’d never considered him more.

“I went to Miyazaki Women’s.” She can see he remembers her last letter too. But he is smiling at her. All is forgiven. “I studied English literature.”

“You must be a teacher!”

She shakes her head. “No, I stopped studying.” The summer after her last year of university she had wanted to go on to graduate school and was juggling three jobs to save money so she could work full-time toward her dissertation. Then she met Alec.

“So you must have a family then.”

“I have three children. Megumi works in Kumamoto. Naomi in Miyakonojo and Kenichi in Kagoshima.”

“Young people these days, everyone is so busy. Grandchildren?”

“Only one. You?”

Fumi’s face grows still. She notices how smooth the skin is around his mouth. Here is a man who has probably never smoked. “No,” he says. “I traveled so much. I’ve never married.”

They kissed once. She remembers the taste of dust and green tea candy in his mouth. They were fourteen years old and he was her first kiss. She picks up her napkin and wipes her lips.

“But I have five nieces and nephews, well, ten, if you count their spouses and nearly as many grand-nieces and nephews.”

“You must be everyone’s favorite uncle. The exotic traveler.”

He waves his hand. “Everyone travels nowadays. I’m nothing special. My brother’s daughter Yuki lives in Australia. She married a man from Spain.”

“I married a man from South Africa. My children are only half-Japanese.” What a ridiculous thing to say, she thinks. She’s never once considered her children only half anything.

Fumikaze drinks from his glass of beer. “What a rich life you’ve given them. Are they bilingual?”

Kanae nods, still angry at herself. If Alec could hear her now he would say something about their decision to create a bilingual household. Remind her how it went against the fashion of the times. He might mention all their friends who had advised them against it, warned them to give their children first a mother tongue and then a second language. She can picture his excitement at what he considers their great success. His eyes would be dancing across her face and around the room, he would run his hands through his hair and say, “You see, Nae, you agree we did that right?” And she would cross her eyes at him and stick out her tongue and say that yes, they did it all right, they were perfect parents, no one in the world did as good a job as them. And then he would pretend to be offended and tweak her nose. Kanae steadies her gaze on the glass of water in front of her. If she concentrates long enough the muscles in her face will not move, will not crumple.

“And what does your husband do?”

Kanae puts her chopsticks down on the table and reaches for her purse. Outside the cloud of starlings has swelled to a monstrous undulating mass. She decides she will go back to Shiratori and pay for a room for the night.

“I’m a widow.”

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Michelle Bailat-Jones lives and works in Switzerland as a freelance translator and writer.