Author: Serizawa, Asako
Date published: July 1, 2011
He came around noon, this man, this soldier, who called himself Murayama. At first I thought he had come, like so many of them, to beg for food, or inquire after the whereabouts of someone I may or may not have heard of, but this soldier, this Murayama, had come clutching a piece of paper, claiming to have known our son, Yasushi.
I did not not trust him, my eyes wandering from the scrap of paper he had apparently followed here to the gaunt, downcast face fidgeting one step back from the entryway, a deferential gesture rarely seen these days. Clutching his satchel, he spoke politely, and as curious as I was about the paper, I did not ask to see it, his presence like a beaten dog's, weary and shamefaced, his whole shrunken person so darkened by what I assumed was the tropical sun that he appeared like a photograph negative backlit against the bright, busy street. He never once attempted to peer around me as I listened through the wooden gate, opened just wider than a crack, despite my husband's parting caution, and a few moments later I found myself leading him into the front room, excusing myself to rummage for some tea leaves and a small bowl of millet noodles, which was more than I could offer.
The paper was brown, shiny with wear, and I resisted looking at it as I poured the tea, embarrassingly weak, and nudged the noodles, taken from my evening portion, toward him. In this room, softly lit by the midday sun sifting through the fragrant osmanthus tree rustling outside the sliding glass doors, he seemed less shrunken than coiled, his ligaments and muscles wound by an inner tension that seemed to tighten the air around him. Looking at him, I wondered how and when I might nudge him out; the extra cleaning I would have to do further limited the time I had before my husband's return in the evening, and one thing I was clear about was that I did not want my husband to know of this visit. In retrospect, I understand that it was a guarding instinct at work, though I cannot say for whom.
Murayama did not speak right away. Instead he darted his gaze around the room, bare now, except for the pale, ornamental vase my husband had sent from China during his tenure there. Like everything else, I did not expect the vase to stay long, its delicate color soon to be given up for a sack of grains and a few stalks of vegetables, but for the moment it cheered the room, its quiet shape attracting the eye, settling the soul, though it did not seem to have this effect on Murayama. Seeing that he had withdrawn into himself, I got up and slid the glass doors open.
The air outside was still, the sky abuzz with cicadas clamoring as though to convince everyone that it was summer, a hot one, ripe for kites and watermelons, both of which had been conspicuously missing from the season for some time. In fact it was hard to believe it was already July, almost a year since surrender, with the flood of returning soldiers and refugees seeming only to be increasing, bringing new hopes and difficult tidings to those in perpetual waiting. Until now, I had steeled myself against any hope, knowing that even if Yasushi had survived, he may not choose to return to this house he had once found so intolerable as to run away. But now? I sat back down, glancing again at the creased paper placed at the edge of the low lacquered table.
Murayama, for his part, seemed to have forgotten me, and again I nudged the tea and noodles toward him. To my surprise, he looked up, our eyes meeting. This man, this soldier, had been where Yasushi had been; the knowledge, like a sudden jab, shifted a curtain of air, and for a moment I could almost feel my son, his presence as palpable as this man before me, his shape, his face, almost visible, until Murayama, perhaps disturbed by my intensity, moved, and the moment snapped, releasing back into the room.
Murayama picked up his chopsticks. Bringing his hands together, he nodded thankfully and began to eat. He ate slowly, chewing the noodles, sipping the broth, his movements measured as though heeding the advice of someone who had once told him to slow down, eat with care, and as he replaced the chopsticks, he said as much, explaining that his mother had insisted on it. "The good thing is, I never get indigestion, and these days it helps with the hunger," he said, adding that the last time he'd eaten properly was two days ago, when he discovered that his home, his entire neighborhood, had been razed by the bombs.
"Were you able to find your family?" I asked, suppressing a suspicion that sent my mind scurrying to inventory the house.
Murayama shook his head. He'd searched for them, wandering through the shanties that had cropped up in the ruins, but nobody had seen or heard from them. "That's when I remembered Tanaka? I mean, that's what he called himself: Tanaka Jiro. Of course he never told me the reason, but I've always wondered why he'd chosen that name, you know, instead of something snappier. He never wanted to talk about it, and to be honest, I'm surprised I even found this house. Not because of the bombs, but I thought he'd made that up too."
I nodded, but I was reeling. Tanaka Jiro. That was a name we knew. It belonged to the police officer who had once interrogated my husband about his so-called anti-patriotic views. How Yasushi hung onto the name, I could not imagine; he had been so little, and we never spoke of it. "Did Yasushi mention anything else about us?" I asked, my pulse leaping.
Murayama looked away. "Tanaka was a vocal guy, but we all had something. We tried not to pry."
"Still, he gave you his address. You must have been close," I said.
Murayama glanced at the paper. "Honestly, I don't know why he did. We were about to be deployed. At the last minute I got pulled from my unit because I had mechanical skills they wanted to re-route. I kept the paper, thinking I'd come look for him afterwards."
"So it was your own decision? To come all this way?"
"Where were you at the time?"
"Luzon. But I knew him from Singapore. Our units got merged there," he explained.
"So you knew each other for some time. You must have been close, if Yasushi confided in you," I tried again.
Murayama shook his head. "That's the thing. He never confided. He was always joking. It was hard to know what was what with him."
"But he told you about his name. He gave you his address. He must have had a reason."
"Like because he knew I was staying behind? Look," he said. "I even asked him if he wanted me to, you know, take care of his things if it came to that, but he didn't say anything, and the next day they were gone."
"But he gave you the address. You said he was evasive about himself. He was taking a risk, don't you see?"
Murayama did not reply, and for a moment I could not help but wonder whether Yasushi had given him the paper. Murayama could have stolen it? barrack life was communal, wasn't it? Or else he could have come by it by some other means? but what? Finally, I shook my head. "Murayama-san, you must excuse me. As you probably guessed, we had no idea about Yasushi' s whereabouts for some time. Of course we had our suspicions? he was always committed to enlisting? but our inquiries yielded no traces of him, and now I know why. Maybe you can tell me just one thing. Is Yasushi still? ?" My voice caught.
Murayama lowered his gaze. He explained that Yasushi' s unit had been part of a regiment assigned to garrison an island. "Given the conditions ..." He gripped his knees.
I looked down at my hands, rough now because of the shortages. Of course, like any mother, I had anticipated this, but the finality of the confirmation sank what hope had been plucking at me, and I began to shake.
Murayama placed his hands on the table. "Listen, the truth is, no one knows for sure what happened out there. And these days you never know who's going to turn up," he said, alluding to all the soldiers who had returned only to find their names written off on tombstones in the family lot.
I nodded, thankful for his gentle consideration, but I was exhausted. It was a weariness I had long been keeping at bay, and now it seeped into my flesh, burrowed into my joints, making me feel oddly afloat, as though the weight that had kept me tethered had been cut, my whole body, all the years it had shaped itself around Yasushi, collapsing in a heavy heap below me. I turned and looked at the sliding glass doors, the leaves of the osmanthus tree shimmering like coins, the evanescent cicadas chorusing to an emulous screech. I looked at the pale green vase to my right. Its demurely fecund shape now seemed only to emphasize its hollow interior, and I saw why it had not had a calming effect on Murayama. "May I?" I gestured at the paper.
Apologizing, Murayama handed it to me.
The paper was soft, the worn folds releasing a leathery smell, and at once I saw that it was my son's handwriting, his gruff script still slouching to the left despite his early determination to correct it, and this evidence, stabbingly familiar, pierced my chest, releasing a swell of memories that soon crested with gratitude for this scrap of Yasushi that had made it back.
I was about to say as much, thank him for the care with which he must have carried the paper, but when I looked up, I saw a strange expression cross his face, an odd, observing detachment as though he had been watching and noting the moment? a lone middle-aged woman in slow undress? and my stomach tightened. Of course, he was a soldier, I reminded myself, the various rumors that had been circulating in the streets suddenly murmuring close to my ear. What did it matter that he was polite, that he knew Yasushi, that he had been demobilized? I glanced at his hands, thick but sinewy, his long fingers fingering the teacup, a rich blue glaze, one of a four-cup set I had been holding onto, and my skin bristled. I leaned closer to the vase, knowing full well that I would be no match for a soldier, even a starving one like this.
Murayama did not seem to notice my alarm, and when he spoke, his voice was gentle. Once again he apologized for his presence, thanking me for my hospitality, repeating that he'd only come here hoping against the odds that Tanaka had made it back. "I just didn't know what else to do. Us soldiers, we're pretty unpopular these days. It's hard to know what it was all for," he said.
I did not reply. I took out my handkerchief to blot my face. Then I got up and slid the glass doors wider.
Outside, the day had mellowed, a light breeze beginning to loosen the air, the cool shadow cast by the eaves beginning to elongate on the ground, suggesting the presence of an awning we did not have but always wanted, a generous one, ample enough to cover the stone step placed at the foot of the sliding glass doors. Even Yasushi had smiled at the idea, most likely thinking that it would let him sneak his cigarettes even during a rainfall, and for a while, encouraged by the approval, my husband had put considerable energy into seeing it constructed, the two of them tentatively tolerating each other, until one night Yasushi failed to come home. That night the cicadas had been relentless just like this, and the pang of that memory clarified me. I sat back down and said, "People are tired. They' re looking for someone to blame. You mustn't let them bother you."
This time it was Murayama who did not reply. Instead, he gripped the teacup, swirling it, and I noticed that a slight sheen had come to his forehead, betraying a nervousness that prompted me to wonder again how I should send him on his way. I did not want to provoke him, but I was beginning to feel imprisoned, his physicality, though not quite a threat, beginning to oppress me. Why had he come here? The question bloomed in my chest, and a vague sense of uneasiness fanned across my back. After a while, thinking that he had not heard me, I repeated, "You really mustn't take these things personally. People are nervous. And you had your orders to follow."
As it turned out, Murayama had heard me, for he looked up brusquely and told me that he appreciated my sympathy but he was tired of people, so-called civilians, rolling out the carpet when there were things to cheer about, only to whip it away when the going got tough. "You people have no right blaming people who risked their lives on the battlefield. What do you know? All the crap, the dirty business, the shit you sent us into. Do you think we liked it? Who do you think we were doing it for?"
"But we didn' t know. If only we had known, if we' d been properly informed-"
"Then what? What would you have done?"
"Well, there would have been something, there would have been someone?"
"Like the Emperor, you mean?" He laughed. "The truth is, nobody wanted to know. All you wanted was someone to do the dirty work, and now you want us hanged."
"But how can you say that? Nobody can fault you for following orders," I said.
"Orders?" Murayama looked at me. "Sure, we were following orders. We were always following orders. What do you know about orders?"
"Please," I said, glancing at his hands again, grubby with dirt brought back from Luzon, Singapore, and who knew where else. "In a few months, things will settle, then it will be different. Would you like one more cup of tea?" I moved to comply, even though I knew I had none left.
Murayama glanced at his teacup. Then he leaned forward. "Listen, you've heard the talk, I know what people are saying. But do you believe it? Do you believe that your son-" He stopped.
A sudden fear sprang up my throat; I gripped the neck of my blouse. "What? What about Yasushi?"
Murayama did not move. Then he licked his lips. "Forget it. Tanaka was a model guy," he said, his voice turning dutiful and hollow.
Was this then why he had come? To confess a secret? I picked up the paper and again examined Yasushi' s script. There was nothing there to betray him, but having assumed myself a mother of a soldier, I had not been immune to the rumors, the grisly anecdotes, the muddy details, all no doubt embellished by the time they reached me, collecting like secret pearls in the back of my mind. I smoothed the paper back onto the table. "You were about to say something. What were you about to say?"
Murayama sat up, surprised. For a moment his face was clear, his eyes wide. Then he glanced at the vase, his expression dimming. Looking at me again, he reassured me that Tanaka was an upright soldier, almost a stickler, but well loved by everybody. "The thing is, we had a job to do; we had to do what was necessary. That didn't mean we did stuff, all that craziness, hacking down innocents and eating each other. I mean, did you hear about that? Those guys in those remote- I mean, don't get me wrong. Tanaka was on an island, but his island had villages, jungles, the whole nine yards. Sure, there were bad guys. Sure, we had to secure our positions. But my point is, if they'd just cooperated, told us what we needed to know, but those natives"- he laughed nervously? "would you like to see our album?"
My heart froze. I stared at his face, oily with sweat now, despite the breeze that had begun to visit the room, and I could smell his body, piqued by a nervousness that frightened me, his sudden question like a mirror lake, concealing what could only be a murky depth. I squeezed my handkerchief. Yes, I nodded. Yes, I wanted to see his album.
Murayama wiped his forehead and reached for his satchel. Explaining that Yasushi, being initially from a different regiment, was actually not in his album, he assured me that military life was more or less similar everywhere. "See that?" He pointed at the first group photograph in the book. "That's me." He pointed at another speck. "That there?" A buddy who had enlisted with him. Page after page, he picked out key figures, rattling off facts about his division, the chief commanding officer, the number of battalions, platoons, and squads that made it up, his voice rising as the photographs showed fewer rows of soldiers, their individual faces becoming clearer, the background changing to show slivers of fields, runways, harbors. Coming to a portrait of his own unit, he told fond anecdotes, the hardships of training, all the work that went into steeling themselves, how they ultimately made them feel more exposed, more penetrable, their quickest reflexes always plodding against the speed of bullets. "At some point you just realize they're training you to be shot at. But the worst was the discipline," he told me, remembering each slap, each punch, the humiliation pumping him up so that by the end of it he couldn't wait to unleash himself. "This guy here?" He pointed at a scrawny boy. "He made us suffer the worst. They were all about group punishments, and that kid, he made us want to kill him." He laughed. "The good thing was, we had bigger enemies. See those officers?" He pointed at a row of decorated men. "They're lucky they had rank. Otherwise?" He drew a slash across his neck.
"Were there incidents like that?" I asked.
"Nah, not in our unit. That would' ve been suicide," Murayama said, chuckling as he remembered the more colorful characters in his unit, their small acts of rebellion, subversive but inconsequential, and again the feeling of Yasushi' s proximity seized me, the topography of his life, suddenly vivid, filling in all the years of his absence that had faded to a mute canvas occasionally flushed by old memories but otherwise remaining silent, blank, defying imagination. How much had I wished for this, these details? The unfolding was beguiling, and I found myself yielding to these pages, letting myself indulge just this once in this reunion with my son.
At five o'clock, the hall clock chimed, its sonorous report startling us. Explaining that it was my husband's prized Gustav Becker, I seized the moment to comment on the yellowing sky, the quickening traffic flashing through the gaps in the wooden fence foretelling my husband's impending return. Murayama, to my relief, flipped to the last pages of the album. Officially left blank for personal use, he had pasted in a few snapshots, and he lingered over these long enough to locate them for me- Singapore, Malaya, Philippines, Java-identifying all his closest friends, explaining that Yasushi would have been there, in these pictures, had they been able to coax the camera from him. "He really loved that thing, a Leica I think he said. He wanted to be a journalist," he told me, adding that the Leica was one of their best requisitions. "These here were his favorites," he said, pointing out several photographs Yasushi had been especially fond of. They were of small things? an ant on a crushed cigarette butt, a fish in a puddle of water held by an empty crab shell? but they were emotive, lyrical in their effect, and they provoked in me a surreal sense of pride and desolation. That these were Yasushi' s vision, what his eyes had seen and moved his body to capture, show, remember, opened a space in me, and I breathed, swallowing a lump that came to my throat.
Murayama, seeing this, hastened to cheer me. He relayed stories about their arguments, legendary in their absurdity, the technical points of their disagreements turning like empty spits in the heat of their rivalry. "What did we know about photography?" He laughed. "Still, he ended up learning something," he said, pointing out a few more of Yasushi' s photographs, mostly portraits in persistent repetition, some exhibiting a clear development, a growing promise I could not bear to witness. After a few more pictures, I reached out and touched the album. Murayama all but leapt up. He slammed the album shut, his gaze darting from my hand to the wall, finally settling on the vase, the pale shape now burnished by the afternoon sun. When he turned to look at me, I saw again that peculiar look, cool and assessing but also almost guilty now, and it struck me again that he had come for something, perhaps to burgle me after all, and I quickly apologized, explaining that I had meant no harm, that I had been overwhelmed, that his visit had been an invaluable gift, one for which I wished I had something to offer him in return. "It's really nothing, but would you like to take some of Yasushi' s clothes with you?"
Murayama blinked. He looked confused for a moment, then his face furrowed, and he looked stricken. Vehemently shaking his head, he muttered what sounded like an embarrassed apology, and he stood up, stuffing his album into his satchel. Thanking me again for my hospitality, he apologized for the time he'd taken, the food he'd eaten. "You never know about Tanaka," he told me, pulling on his gaiters, hoisting his satchel, his voice edged now with a chattiness that seemed to rattle the house. "He really was famous for pulling things off." In fact, when he did show up, would I mind letting him know that he, Murayama, had looked him up?
Promising that I would, I unlatched the gate, asking if there wasn't anything more I could do. Telling me that he' d already inconvenienced me beyond measure, he bowed deeply and stepped away, turning once to wave before dissolving into the evening crowd.
Returning to the room, I shakily set about straightening the room, gathering the chopsticks, nesting the teacup in the bowl, carrying them to the kitchen to be washed. Returning again, I wiped the table, swept the tatami, gently slipping the paper into my pocket. Closing the sliding glass doors, I locked them, vigorously testing the latch. On my way out, I stopped to wipe the vase. There in the bottom was a photograph, its white shape stenciled against the dark, and a sharp chill snaked up my spine. I picked it out. In the foreground was Murayama, his open smile revealing the sunny boy I had not seen this afternoon. Behind him, a field spread out, a few shrubs in the distance, the open meadow bisected by a diagonal line-a newly dug trench. Along this trench was a line of people, roughly clothed and blindfolded, their legs folded under them, their ankles and wrists bound by ropes tied to stakes hammered deep into the earth. Though diminished by distance, their faces were crisp, their flapping blindfolds clearly visible above their open mouths contorted by the imminent approach of the row of soldiers standing perhaps ten meters behind them, bayonets unsheathed. Like the prisoners, the soldiers' faces were also diminished but crisp, and as I stared, my eyes darting back and forth between the ferocious faces of these boys gripping their bayonets and the runny faces of the prisoners twisted in desperate fear, I realized that their expressions were in fact identical, both parties bound by a ferocious fear, the attackers anticipating the same moment of piercing anticipated by the victims who would receive them, and it was then that I recognized that what I was looking at was not, as I had first assumed, an execution, but rather a training session, the line of shrubs not at all shrubs but a row of chairs fattened by decorated officers observing the performance. Two questions sprung at me: Why had Murayama left this picture hidden here in this vase? Was this, like the others, Yasushi' s photograph? Then it dawned on me that perhaps this whole visit had been a ploy, a cruel, subversive act, plotted perhaps by Yasushi himself, not only to leak the image, a clear indictment of the military, but also a signal to me that Yasushi, though uninterested in presenting himself, had in fact survived.
This last thought seized my imagination, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed plausible. After all, that would explain Murayama's peculiar behaviors, and hadn't he, at the last moment, been careful to prepare me for Yasushi' s eventual return? I brought the photograph closer to my face, its faint chemical odor penetrating my nose. Yes, those were indeed officers, and those definitely a row of training soldiers, one end eclipsed by Murayama's head, the other end cut off by the photograph's border, the last visible soldier a mere slice, one visible leg stepping forward, one visible arm raising the bayonet, his face, angled and therefore whole, sending a bolt of shock through me. Yasushi. I put down the photograph. Outside, the sky had cooled, the branching footsteps of the passersby beginning to thin, depositing one pair outside the gate, rattling it: the sound of my husband sliding the bolt. I snatched the photograph. Glancing around for a place to hide it, my gaze, like Maruyama's, alighted on the vase, the coarse interior of which my husband was unlikely to examine. Carefully laying the photograph face up so that its darker hue might blend with the color of the vase's interior, I stepped back, my knees buckling. Outside, my husband's footsteps paused. Gripping the neck of my blouse, I braced against the sound of his key fitting the lock and arranged myself, straightening my back, smoothing the hem of my skirt, tugging the corners of my blouse, as all around me, the momentary quiet of the room, assailed once more by the cicadas, was swallowed up by the darkening summer sky.
Asako Serizawa's stories have appeared in The Southern Review and Prairie Schooner, the latter of which received the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is finishing a collection of linked short stories, which will include "The Visitor."