Sport 37: Winter 2009
—Tadaima, she called into the house. The words continued to sound strange to her. —I'm home. There was little about this house that made it her home. From the hallway closet she took a pair of visitor's slippers, men's brown ones as none of the more dainty pairs fit her feet. —Tadaima, she called out again. She put the slippers on and stepped up into the house.
She had lived here eight years before, when she was eighteen and was teaching at the local high school, and since she came back to Japan two months ago she had become a weekly visitor. Mariko chan's mother insisted that she should enter without knocking but she stopped now and waited in the hallway, listening.
—Okaerinasai, finally sounded from the second floor and Mariko's mother came hurrying down the stairs. There was no sign of Mariko chan herself. Cath hadn't seen her on any of her visits, which she kept regular in the hope she might drop by. They had hardly written after she'd stopped living here.
Okaasan, mother, as she still liked to be called, wasn't wearing her apron today and she had bright pink lipstick on. Her short bob seemed more immaculately in place than usual. There was something different about her. Perhaps an air of excitement?
She led Cath quickly into the living room and sat her down at the kotatsu. Once they were settled, she took the lids off the shiny lacquered boxes one by one and explained what was in each of them, and in what order the food inside should be eaten. Over the past month this had become a ritual between them. Much of what Okaasan said she only half understood, but it was getting better every week. Under cover of the heated table she pulled up her skirt and let the warm air move up the length of her legs. It was not even winter, but the warmth almost hurt after the chill outside.
A few weeks before, after the eating, they had gone together to the family temple. The rust-orange roofs were the first thing to become visible through the blazing autumn trees, then quickly they were through the main gate and the temple was there, small and wooden, with raked pebbles either side of the path leading to the main shrine.
As they approached the central altar Okaasan had joined her hands, bowed slightly, and insisted that Cath do the same. She had wanted her to make a wish. —You must, it is very important for your time in life.
Okaasan pointed to her own belly and handed Cath a small square of paper to write on. She had smiled, but stepped away, automatically crossing her arms across her body as if to shield herself from the baby that might grow in there. Alex wanted that too, but she wasn't yet sure. In the end she had written nothing on the paper, knowing that Okaasan would write that particular wish out for her. They had folded their papers and hung them on a tree in the courtyard garden.
Her own mother wouldn't even have hinted at this. Not that her mother thought much of her marriage anyway. She hadn't wanted her to come to Japan with Alex. —You'll have no choice but to be the wife, she'd said. —You know what it's like there. What will you do?
Alex hadn't asked what she'd do. After their wedding he'd told her that she didn't need to do anything if she didn't want to. Like her he was from Auckland, but he'd lived in Chiba-ken since he finished university and he explained that his employers more or less assumed that his wife wouldn't work.
She hadn't been doing much of anything in Auckland and she'd been happy enough to follow him here. It seemed as good a way as any to choose what to do next. Besides, she knew the place. She'd decided that she would like to work, at least for a while, so Alex found her a six-month stint teaching English to executives in his company. It wasn't exactly her mother's idea of how a woman should find a job, but it was easy work, well paid, and it made sense.
Her days had become busy since she began teaching and she'd found that she enjoyed the quiet as Okaasan showed her around the temple grounds. The place was so surrounded by trees that it felt private, and somehow secret, despite being in a densely populated neighbourhood. There was no one else there. She'd hardly noticed page 71 the progress of autumn in her days in the city, but here she was at the centre of it. The leaves seemed to tremble on the trees, ready to drop. When Okaasan stopped talking, the gravel shifting under their feet was the only sound.
Alex didn't have much time for these places—'decaying old sites of superstition' was his phrase, though pretty, he conceded. She might have thought the same eight years ago, but this time it felt like more than that. This place felt somehow necessary, with its firey leaves, its small paths, its moving streams, and with Okaasan wandering with her.
Alex had more favourable opinions of other aspects of Japanese society, of course. It was he who had encouraged her to take up Okaasan's offer to visit regularly. —Go on, he nudged her, laughing. —You can improve your Japanese and you might learn something about Japanese cooking at the same time. She only wants a proper daughter.
He forgot that in Japan the kitchen is a private place. Despite all Okaasan's intimacy, Cath hadn't been allowed into her kitchen. Besides, she enjoyed letting Okaasan look after her.
The week before, Okaasan had driven her to the rice paddies. They were closer than she would have thought, appearing without warning with only a few streets of tiled houses between them and the busy signs of a local shopping mall. They bought ice-creams at a 7-Eleven and sat in the car side-by-side, eating, and looking across the wet open fields with roads strung between. They were silent for a long time before Okaasan said, —My mother worked here, in these fields.
At first she didn't say anything, hoping Okaasan would go on, but she was talking about the weather now. —Your mother, she reminded her, and began to wonder if she'd understood right. It was hard to imagine Okaasan in any space but that of her own house, moving quietly between rooms. When she arrived in the house each week she had a sense that Okaasan hadn't left since their last excursion, as though the open spaces would be too wide for her. She certainly didn't think of her, or of anyone else in Tokyo, having any connection to the land.
—It was country then, Okaasan told her, finally picking up her page 72 question. Inaka. —She didn't have much of anything until my father came.
Okaasan had never known these fields except as somewhere to be pointed out as the family drove by. From the way she talked it sounded as though her now-dead mother had been an immigrant from a different world.
They didn't stay long, but Okaasan honked incessantly as they sped back through the narrow streets in which there was only room for a single vehicle. And that day when Cath left, Okaasan loaded her with things to eat later, small star cookies, apples, onigiri she had made that morning. For a moment she thought Okaasan might hug her.
Today, it seemed, they would be staying in the house. Okaasan wasn't eating much; she was just watching. Surely she must see how much weight Cath had gained but she kept sending dish after dish her way. Eating Japanese food certainly didn't make her any more Japanese. Her stomach pushed against her skirt, just as it had when she first came and lived in the school apartment, and then here, in this house, eating too much of this food every day. Okaasan's husband, Mariko's father, used to laugh at how ookiii, 'big', she had become.
She finally made it to the last food item, a strange sticky sweet that Okaasan said her mother used to make. Okaasan found the word for 'bracken', waribi, in the dictionary and showed it to her.
She raised her eyebrows.
Okaasan nodded, gesturing for her to try some. The sticky substance slipped smoothly down her throat.
She wanted to ask about Mariko. Instead, she asked what the plan was for today. Okaasan motioned for her to follow her upstairs.
On the second-floor landing the door to the room she'd shared with Mariko was open. It looked tiny and it was hard to imagine where on the floor beside the bed they'd laid her futon out each night when she'd lived here. Little had changed. Soft toys were piled on the bed, looking more abandoned now than cherished; the other items of furniture, a simple chair and a small wooden desk, were just where they had always been; and on the wall there was a poster of the Osaka boy-band with which Mariko had been obsessed. Mariko's adult life must have developed elsewhere.page 73
Pushed off to the side of the desk she saw a photo of herself looking away from the camera in her own ultra-cool band pose. She was holding a guitar and wearing a dress with a dramatic slit up the side. She had really been her mother's daughter then: she'd argued with the school principal about the restrictions placed on student teachers; she'd insisted on going barefoot in the park despite disapproval; and she'd refused to confirm or deny neighbours' reports made to the school that men visited her apartment at night. She hadn't won that last fight and was sent back to live with a host family, here, to this house. This was supposed to be her rehabilitation unit. The problem was that it was meant to return her to something she'd never been, and didn't know how to be—they wanted her to become as well behaved as an 'ideal' Japanese girl. Mariko—it seemed ironic now—was presented as her model.
Mariko was the same age as her and was then in her first year of university. Within weeks the two of them were going on long bike rides together and finding quiet places to smoke. She was convinced that the school had spies everywhere but she wasn't going to let that stop her.
In one of those early weeks she got Mariko tipsy for the first time in her life, on wine drunk near the fountain in the small neighbourhood park, and they had to hold each other up on the way home. Okaasan laughed with them at first. Mariko's father was working late so it was just the three of them, there, eating dinner in the small downstairs room. Every time their giggles eased one of them kicked the other's feet under the kotatsu and they started laughing again. Mariko apologised, then she apologised, then Mariko apologised, but they didn't stop. Eventually comprehension entered Okaasan's eyes, and also what looked like pain—displeasure or discomfort at being left out? They were speaking in English, which Mariko chose whenever she didn't want her mother to understand.
But Mariko had worked hard. When she had assignments due she sat with her books upstairs, sometimes working through the night, dozing and waking, dozing and waking, while Cath shifted about on the futon on the floor. From a heated discussion she only half-understood between Mariko and her mother, she'd gathered that Okaasan considered this kind of 'cramming' appropriate only page 74 for getting into a good university. Mariko had got into the best: she should relax now. There must be plenty of nice men studying law. Mariko had only laughed and raised her eyebrows at Cath.
While Mariko worked Cath ended up spending her evenings alone with Okaasan. Apart from anything else, it was the best way to work on her Japanese. At first they had just watched the evening soaps together, The Bold and the Beautiful and Baywatch dubbed into Japanese, as well as some Japanese comedies. Later they talked stumblingly, keeping pen and paper as well as a dictionary nearby just in case.
One evening Mariko walked in on them, heads together, leaning over an illustrated explanation she was trying to give of what her own mother's inner-city apartment was like. In the first drawing her mother was in the centre of an empty room, with only a sofa and a computer desk in it. She had slightly wild hair, and stood with a briefcase on the floor beside her, her body sagging, and a big question mark above her head. In the next, her mother sat at a table eating her dinner, a takeaway bag beside her and a book in her hand. They were only sketches, but her mother was a graphic designer and Cath could draw. Sabishii, a word she had just learnt, she understood to mean both 'solitary' and 'lonely'. Despite the comic tone of the drawing, she was trying to explain to Okaasan that she meant it in both senses in relation to her mother.
Mariko leaned over their shoulders and looked at both drawings. Then she turned to her and said in English, —That's not how you talk about your mother with me.
Okaasan ignored the English intervention. Gesturing to herself now, she said in simple Japanese to make quite sure Cath understood, —Watashi mo sabishii. I am also sabishii. Everyone else is always working.
She looked at Mariko as she said this.
Mariko looked back at her mother silently, then turned to leave the room. —Don't worry, Okaasan, she called back, —you've got Cath now.
Okaasan's gesturing arm dropped to her side. She picked up the teapot and their two cups and took them into the kitchen. On the muted television a blond woman in a bikini was having an animated page 75 conversation with a tanned, muscular man. She tossed her head about and smiled constantly. Soon the sound of running water, and of dishes being done, came from the kitchen. Cath sat on in the living room, doodling on the drawing of her mother, drawing pictures of other women over the top of her: Okaasan, the woman on the television, Mariko. By the time she picked up her things and went upstairs to bed Mariko had turned the light out.
She now turned from the door to Mariko's bedroom to see that Okaasan was watching her. Her friendship with Mariko had never quite recovered from that night, and Okaasan and Mariko had been awkward together for a number of weeks.
During her more recent visits Okaasan had hardly mentioned her daughter. They'd had just one proper conversation about her. She'd become a human rights lawyer, lived in an apartment somewhere in central Tokyo, and although she had a boyfriend, he lived in Osaka and, according to Okaasan, Mariko showed no signs of wanting to make something more settled out of it. Okaasan had spoken of Mariko only by way of comparison with Cath, who had made a 'good' marriage, had followed her husband here, and lived 'properly'. The comparison only reminded her of her own mother's very different view of things.
Her mother hadn't liked any of her boyfriends much, and Alex was no different. He was too clean-cut for her, too business-oriented. The best thing her mother ever managed to say about him was that he was 'solid'; she might as well have said 'boring' or 'safe'. Her mother's boyfriends were never solid—there'd been the musician, the poet, the American landscape architect. . . . They also never stuck around for long, inevitably leaving just the two of them alone again, living in the apartment like flatmates. Cath couldn't afford to leave home and it had stayed that way right through university. After coming back from Japan, though, she'd taught herself to cook and had gradually taken over the running of the place, leaving food out when her mother worked late.
She hadn't asked directly about Mariko again and they moved on from the room now without comment. Okaasan gestured for her to come on into the formal room on the other side of the stairs. There page 76 was only tatami on the floor in this room, and a scroll hanging in the alcove. Even back then, when she lived here, it had amazed her that in a house this small a room was set aside from everyday use. At the door they took off their slippers and placed them against the wall in the hallway, her brown pair sticking out beside Okaasan's much smaller, pale blue pair.
The tatami in the room was older than it had been when she lived here and no longer had the fresh hay smell she remembered. She'd only been in the room once or twice. The time she remembered most was for a moon festival. What the significance of the autumn date was she no longer knew, but she remembered that it fell soon after she moved in, that she sat with Mariko while Okaasan cooked downstairs, and that for a while the milky moon appeared perfectly framed in the window, before it was diluted by evening rain.
This time the room felt empty. She thought of this as Okaasan's room, though Okaasan had only ever slept here on the odd occasion when they had guests.
With an almost formal gesture, Okaasan opened the sliding paper doors to the closet at the end of the room. Laid out on the shelf was a half unfolded kimono in deep scarlet. It was worked with embroidered flowers, white chrysanthemums and tulips, which reached down its long sleeves, while delicate stems grew up from the foot of the material. Okaasan touched her fingers to the silk, lifting the fabric to show her.
—I wanted you to see this, she said. —It used to be mine.
She was sitting alone in the room when Mariko arrived.
Okaasan had spent the past hour dressing her in the scarlet kimono, taking her time and pointing out details as she wound layers around her body. She had brought out an old photograph, in which a very young, very solemn, version of herself stood beside her husband wearing this kimono. Her face was powdered white and she was almost unrecognisable.
—How old are you here?
—Just nineteen. Mariko was born a year later.page 77
So even now Okaasan could only be forty-five. Her own mother was nearer sixty.
When Cath was finally dressed, Okaasan had insisted on combing and pinning up her brown hair, finishing it with a hair stick with bobbles that fell into her face. She had given her lipstick to paint her lips, had positioned her kneeling at the koto, the flat, harp-like instrument that had also been in the closet, and gone downstairs to get the camera.
Alone in the room Cath sat composed for the photograph: her fingers resting on the strings of the koto, like the flower-fingers of a lady of the court; her body pulled into unfamiliar shapes, with the obi wrapped tightly around her chest and across her breasts. The nape of her neck felt unfamiliarly exposed with the rest of her body so covered up, her hair pulled high, and the fabric of the kimono sitting stiffly outwards. She reached up to touch the traditional half-moon of erotic flesh. She felt like an exotic bird, long-necked and bright, dressed in feathers too lovely quite to be her own. They held her body stiffly upright.
Then Mariko appeared at the door.
Okaasan must have invited her. She couldn't understand why she hadn't heard Mariko's Tadaima and Okaasan's Okaerinasai. Perhaps they hadn't spoken at all and Okaasan had simply gestured for her daughter to go upstairs.
Mariko was wearing jeans and a black jersey. Her hair was unevenly cut and dyed brown and blond in the style favoured only by the 'bad girls' at the high school which Mariko had once attended and where she had once taught. Despite the brutal haircut, she still had the delicate oval face she had had when they were both eighteen, as well as an air of business, or success. She had a leather bag over her shoulder, suggesting that these were work clothes—tidy, funky, casual. She certainly didn't work for your standard law firm.
—Hi Cath, she said casually, as though they'd seen each other only recently. —What are you doing?
Her English was better than ever. She'd spent a year studying in the US since they last met.
Cath's hands left the koto, bumping it clumsily and releasing a discordant note into the room. She tried to change her position but it was awkward to move in the stiff fabric. She let her knees fall sideways on to the tatami.page 78
—Hi. Ohisashiburi. Long time no see. I didn't know you were coming.
She hadn't expected it to be like this.
Mariko stayed on at the door, seemingly unwilling to enter the room despite her casual greeting, and Okaasan showed no sign of coming upstairs. She couldn't even invite Mariko in without feeling that she'd taken over her house.
Instead she said quietly, registering her own status as a visitor who had only recently arrived, —Tadaima.
It seemed a long time before Mariko responded and, taking her meaning, stepped into the room. She stayed standing.
—I heard you got married. Okaasan talks about you a lot. She tells me that's why you came back to Japan.
She nodded. —About six months ago. His name's Alex.
—Congratulations then. Mariko paused before continuing. —You know that's her wedding kimono, don't you?
Cath shook her head, looking down at the scarlet fabric marked with ivory flowers.
Mariko went on. —I've never seen it before. I didn't even know she'd kept it. Mariko swallowed now and a familiar fragile stiffness gathered around her mouth.
Why hadn't Okaasan told her?
—I had no idea, Mariko, Cath said, reaching for an explanation, or an apology. —I thought uchikake, that's the word, right?, were white these days. I'm sorry. I had no idea.
Mariko looked away from her. She was standing awkwardly in the middle of the room now with her bag still hanging from her shoulder. Below her jeans her socks were an incongruous vibrant pink.
Cath wanted to soothe her, to show that she'd not meant to take anything away. She looked down again at her bright body shining with slips of red and white so lovingly wrapped by Okaasan: she was dressed for a wedding photograph.
She hurried to break the silence. —She must be keeping this for you. I guess she wanted you to see it.
Mariko looked at her and nodded. —Perhaps. Maybe I don't want to get married, though.
—But this is meant to be for you.page 79
—I get the message.
Where was Okaasan? What was she thinking? She must know that Mariko would be hurt by this.
Mariko still stood there in her jeans, not saying anything more. She held her body stiffly and dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands. Then she moved over to the small window, opened it, and leaned out. City noises—cars, scooters, heating units—hummed into the room.
—I'm sorry, Cath repeated, needing her to say something. She was still sitting there, on the tatami floor.
Mariko swung her head back round and looked hard at her. —Don't bother pitying me, she said. —I'm not jealous of you.
—Sorry, Cath said again. It was the only word she could find.
—I just said not to be, Mariko cut her off. —I don't need it. Anyway, it's not me wearing the bizarre outfit. It's you, Cath. Perhaps I should pity you.
If only Okaasan would come upstairs. Mariko's anger both did and didn't make sense.
Mariko was questioning her now. —Do you want this to be you?
As though all this were about her. A truck drove past, its roar filling the room so that she couldn't speak.
Mariko's voice had become heated. —Do you want this? she repeated.
This? What was this?
—She's been showing me things, Mariko, Cath stumbled, trying to explain. A cold wind was coming in through the window. —We've been to your temple, and to the fields where your grandmother worked, she went on. —You've probably never even asked about those. I'm sure she just wants to show you how beautiful you would look in this. You would, you know. You're what she's done with her life.
—Don't turn this back on me, Cath. Anyway, she's not even fifty. She's still got a life. At least, she should have.
—I don't need anyone to look after me any more —to wait on me. Neither does Otoosan. We don't need her waiting at home for us to return. What do you want from her?page 80
—She likes what we do. She likes preparing food for people, dressing people up . . .
—As I suppose you do to.
—I suppose I do.
What did she want from Okaasan?
Mariko shook her head. —She needs to find something else to do. I don't want her mourning me for the rest of her life. The two of you together! And you think I'm jealous. What's happened to you, Cath? You seem so willing to give up everything. To live like her. To be a good wife to your good husband with the fancy job. At least that's what she tells me.
—Unlike you . . .
—Yes, unlike me.
—You two talk a lot, don't you?
—You could call it talking. But this is about you. In fact, that's what we generally talk about. What are you doing here, Cath? What are you doing sitting in this room in my house in my mother's uchikake?
She saw, then, that this was, at least in part, about her. She saw the two of them, as though in that drawing she had made all those years before of her mother sagging alone in a room. Each of them was in that drawing now too, running as far as they could from their own mother's brand of solitude, of loneliness. Sabishii. Each insisting on leaving her mother far behind in a foreign country. This tatami room, this beautiful kimono, this quiet, careful house, was about as far from her mother as she could imagine.
She reached up and took the stick out of her hair, then ran the back of her hand across her lips. She felt like a painted doll, dressed up for some performance she had helped to organise but wouldn't ever fully understand.
But at the same time she shook her head, shaking free the accusation that this was her. —This isn't me, Mariko, she said, finding the words with relief. —But I am interested in giving this life a go. Whatever this life turns out to be. Don't worry, Alex isn't your father. And I'm not Okaasan, Mariko. But I do like her. I like things about her life.
She paused and looked over at Mariko, who was still leaning against the window and had turned to look outside again. —I like your mother, she repeated.page 81
As she spoke she pulled her fingers through her now messy hair and the winged sleeve of the kimono lifted up across her face. For a moment she was hidden within the soft, slightly scented silk, the material warm against her cheek. She closed her eyes and listened to her contained breaths. In out, in out. She was a bird with its head tucked under its wing.
She let her arm fall and opened her eyes. —Do you want to try her kimono on? she said to Mariko.
Mariko shook her head slowly. —Not really, she said. —It suits you better than it would suit me.
Mariko turned from the window with a quick movement, then came to crouch beside her, stretching out her hand to trace one of the curved lines on the kimono's sleeve, following the stem till it blossomed into a single, open-mouthed tulip. The tension around her mouth began to loosen.
—You're getting fat again, Mariko said, looking her up and down and suddenly laughing. —Or are you pregnant? Okaasan would love that. She's been waiting for a grandchild.
For the first time since Mariko entered the room, Cath found she was smiling. —Not yet, she said, feeling that it might, indeed, almost be time. She thought, momentarily, about the blank wish she had hung from the tree and hoped that it wouldn't be bad luck. —You look good, you know. She was looking at Mariko directly now.
Mariko nodded acknowledgement. —My mother's a strange one, setting this up and then leaving us here.
By the time Okaasan came back with the camera and yet another box of sweets, Mariko had helped Cath to loosen her obi, and they had begun to talk more easily. Okaasan showed her daughter the photograph of herself in this kimono, a photo Mariko had seen many times before but had hardly looked at, and the three of them stayed on in the dimming room, sitting on the floor talking in a mixture of English and Japanese, until the autumn moon rose quietly, unnoticed behind their backs.