Type
Fiction

Child of summer

  • By Anne Hotta
  • 234.5: an autumn fiction edition with 16 editors!

‘Oh, it’s you, Ogawa. Back again.’ The policeman in his white radiation suit, dusty black boots, regulation police cap balanced on top of a hard hat, swings up the safety bar. The bar is there to stop vehicles and pedestrians entering the town.

Town?

One recognisable building – a two-storey cram school, no doors, no windows. Roofing half- off, hanging like an eyelid over a sign promising a place in Tokyo University, the most prestigious in Japan. Even for a child from an unknown fishing village.

‘Got your meter? If it goes too high, get out. There’s wind about. Blows the stuff this way.’ He shakes his head. ‘Guess you’re sick of me saying such things. You must know this place better than anyone.’

It will take more than a shrieking Geiger counter to deter him. Only once every three months, six hours at most. That’s all they give him. And she is out there. All day, all night, waiting for him. He sees her shredded clothes, her bare feet, the sooty snow and rain, wind whipping her with its toxic grit. He knows that finding her body is highly unlikely but he knows he must keep trying. Any bone, however small, is all he wants. Until then, she is trapped. Like all the others. Desperate for someone to take up the grey sludge in their hands, run it through gloved fingers, feeling for a bone. Releasing them.

Most will never be found. Never cleaned off and placed on a home altar in a ceramic urn next to their portrait, perhaps some fresh flowers, steamed rice, a flask of sake. Never put to rest. Instead, along with the grey sludge, they will be stuffed into plastic waste bags, rolled and sealed. One of the thousands. Shimmering black cotton reels, stacked in neat lines in rice paddies. Rice paddies iced over with concrete to stop the leaching.

The prayer beads of monstrous gods. Gods of the atom.

‘Hey, Ogawa. I forgot. This is for you.’ The policeman runs after him with a small bag. ‘I hope it’s something.’

He should wait and open it later. Somewhere he can wash the bag off, wash his hands after he touches it; it could have anything on it. But he can’t.

Anyway, what would be the point?

Behind a pile of Godzilla’s matchsticks, he pulls off his gloves and prises the zip- lock apart. A grubby tee- shirt, her school logo. Red. The colour of her sports team.

 

It was athletics day. They ran for their lives. But still it got them. A brown wall of water 25 meters high, hard as concrete. It outran all the teachers, all the administrators in the front office and every child.

Hokusai’s wave was blue and white-capped, with a dainty Mount Fuji framed in its rip curl. Not Natsuko’s. Hers was grey and black, churning and carnivorous with a payload of cinder blocks and roof tiles, splintered wooden planks, steel girders, vehicles, electric cabling, things bent on killing. Through the canyons formed by narrow streets, each lined with shops and houses, this ferocious monster surged towards the mountains. Even soft things like washing ripped from clothes lines, tatami matting and paper screens took on deadly force.

It spared no one, breaking people into pieces. Some large, whole limbs with big bones, some so small they could catch in a curtain fold, in the upholstery of a couch, the toe of a slipper. Until another creature, a small, agile one like a sea snail, a cockroach, a crab crawled in there later when the water receded, nibbling the flesh off, taking it into its own body. Back into the eternal cycle.

He turns the tee- shirt over. He knows that’s where the label is. It will have her name on it in indelible pen. His wife will have written it: Ogawa Natsuko. His wife had a distinctive writing hand. He wants to see it, read it but at the same time, he doesn’t. It will mean there were no bones found nearby, just the shirt. She is only kanji characters on a piece of fabric, characters meaning ‘child of summer’.

He sighs and shrugs his shoulders. ‘Better than nothing.’ He turns it over. Ogawa Natsuko. He rubs the label, puts it to his nose and then he cries. Shamelessly. Into her shirt. A couple of men come around his rubbish mountain, heading for the huge shovelling machine, ever scraping for Godzilla, getting his matchsticks into smaller, neater piles. They barely notice him.

‘Morning, Ogawa.’ A slight nod of the head.

‘Morning.’

He wipes his arm across his face and walks on. When he’s alone again, he will fold the garment up and put it inside his singlet. Close.

He picks his way towards the kindergarten. He knows exactly where it was. He went there every day after work, put her in the seat on the back of his bicycle, Natsuko clutching her cloth tote bag with all her books, pencils, empty snack box. The teacher recorded in her school diary, things like: ‘Natsuko wrote some hiragana characters today, she learned a new song, ate a good school lunch, played in the sand pit. Then she made origami birds and animals. She is very dexterous but likes to work alone.’

‘They always say she’s unsociable,’ his wife said. ‘What’s wrong with her?’

‘Nothing. They’re child-care workers. What do they know?’ Ogawa dismissed his wife’s complaints. ‘She’s a quiet child by nature. Like I was.’

‘Except she’s not your child.’ Mieko turned back to the chopping board. ‘You spoil her too much. How will she get on in life?’

~

‘Daddy, go faster. We have to get home before the 5 o’clock bell.’

He pedals faster. ‘You’re too heavy, little piggy.’

She giggles. The council chimes float over them from the town hall. They arrive at their gate as the last chime sounds.

‘Daddy, we made it. We made it!’ They high five and he lifts her down.

~

His boss is not happy, but he’ll put up with him going off to the site every few months; good carpenters are a rarity. His face unshaven, his hair greying, he is thin but with a slight beer gut. It’s the whisky. In the corner of the tiny bar where he sits after work, they serve him until he raises his hand to pay his bill. Then he walks sober, but sedated, back to his home, a temporary prefab in a nuclear refugee camp. He pees along the way. Into the bushes. It’s not that he objects to cleaning his toilet; he just doesn’t want to see his urine.

He collapses on his cot and sleeps. He likes to sleep; some nights he sees her. Some nights, however, he’s misjudged his mood or the amount of whisky he’s consumed, and he can’t fall asleep. He feels the pains, like flu rippling through his broken body. In fact, it’s his gut, twisted and working its way up towards his stomach. He tosses and turns. He knows the sound of the bed springs is loud and might upset his neighbours behind the thin walls. They know him well enough not to make crude jokes but he doesn’t want them to think he has anything wrong with him. He doesn’t want to be forced out. He needs to live near the site.

 

It’s true: she’s not his blood daughter. Maybe that’s why he felt so blessed when his wife said she was pregnant. He knew it couldn’t be his child; it was medically impossible. As far as he was concerned, he and Mieko were about equal in the lying department and he saw no reason for accusations. Later when she wanted more children and he’d had to tell her the truth, she was angry, called him a double-dealing cheat. Fearing she would leave and take Natsuko with her, he told her as calmly as he could that she wasn’t exactly honest either. Their daughter wasn’t his and she knew it when she married him. In the end, for the sake of social respectability and food on the table, they stayed together.

In time, however, he needed their daughter, her daughter, far more. To this end, he never spoke to his wife about the past again. He provided for them both and for Mieko’s parents. Some would say he got the dregs of the noodle bowl but he thought his life was filled with good fortune.

Natsuko. A child chasing the wind. Why did he think he could catch her?

 

As well as the tee- shirt, there is a pink, plastic container shaped like a heart. It’s the kind a mother uses for pieces of fruit or slices of cucumber or carrot, little things for the mid- morning snack. It, too, has her name on it. He turns it over. Perhaps it won’t open. Perhaps the lid is jammed on with dirt seeping under it as it tossed about for days in muddy water.

He knows it will open, but he’s afraid. There’s something inside it.

It must be a joke. That policeman at the gate, the silly one with his cap on top of his safety helmet, always chatting, trying to make a friend of him. Maybe he put something in the box before he handed it over. He sits on the black, wet sand. Exactly the place he walked the days after it happened, before they shut the town down, closed off all the roads, except to the army trucks.

Jungle green, heavy tarpaulins with a zipped opening at the back where the bodies were passed out and lifted down, then carried into a tent, a makeshift morgue where they were laid out in neat rows on heavy blue plastic. The days when he walked the shoals, his mouth and nose covered with a cheap flu mask. Before they knew he wasn’t a certified volunteer and wasn’t allowed to see what the sea had given back. Torsos with swollen stomachs, sluiced, bruised flesh, heads with weeping ears, noses, mouths stopped with bladderwrack. Water lapping over them, around them. Gently.
It’s a paper crane. The paper is fresh. He smells it, his lips touching her fingers. Fingers so agile, her cranes were exquisite, fitting symbols of good fortune. Suddenly, he jumps up and starts to run in wild circles. Then he stops and shakes his fist in the direction of the entrance gate.

‘I’ll kill you,’ he screams. ‘Evil bastard. I’ll kill you.’

Gulls and abandoned scraping machines hear him. They are happy for him to do what he wants. But bile is rising up from his stomach. He doubles over in pain, vomiting the red and yellow muck all over the sand. He is on his knees.

‘Paper,’ he yells as loudly as he can, still retching. ‘From the sea. How can that be?’ A ghastly mix of boiled rice, fermented pickles, dried fish and green tea.

‘Eat it, you vultures. Get some breakfast into you.’

They’ve had it before. They’ll take it.

~

‘She is an odd child. Quixotic.’ The teacher ran her eye over her notes. ‘We don’t believe she is unhappy, but she keeps to herself. Doesn’t like group activities. It will make life difficult for her.’

He doesn’t care. It’s her nature. She’s not like other kids.

‘She seems to get a whim for something and off she goes.’

‘Does she, now?’

The teacher looked up at him but he said no more. She went back to her notes.

 

‘Daddy, let’s beat the wind home today. Go faster.’

‘What about the chimes? Are you sick of racing the chimes?’

‘No, Daddy. But don’t you think beating the wind is more fun?’

‘I haven’t thought about it. Why?’ He lifts her up and places her in the small seat behind him.

‘Because we can’t see it and it can’t see us.’ She laughs and claps her hands together. ‘It’s a mystery.’

He is poised on the pedals. He can feel her fingers poking through his knitted sweater, holding onto him.

‘All right, Mister Wind,’ he shouts, pushing down hard on the pedals. ‘Let’s see what you can do.’

~

He picks up the plastic heart box, puts the crane back inside, wraps it in the tee- shirt and seals them all up in the zip- lock bag. It’s time and he needs to get back to the gate; he can’t be banned from the area. Not yet.

 

‘They crinkle at night. I can’t sleep. They want to play with me but I don’t want to,’ she told him one night when he went in to say goodnight. She slept on a futon on the tatami. She had little paper creatures, frogs, cows, tortoises, pigs, cranes, standing by her pillow.

‘Shall I put them in the cupboard so you can’t hear them?’ he suggested.

‘No, Daddy. That will make them sad. They will think I don’t like them anymore.’

‘What a good, kind girl you are,’ he said. ‘Get some sleep, now.’

‘You are a good, kind Daddy, too.’

~

This is the conversation he pretends was their last, not because their final words were cross ones. Not at all. Never, in fact. But on that morning when the giant oarfish was already moving towards their town, they said nothing of significance.

‘I’ll be there to get you after school, little Natsuko.’

‘Yes, Daddy. See you.’

They said nothing of significance, standing there in the genkan with Mieko, that was it; they went their separate ways. They didn’t high-five and they certainly didn’t speak about racing the wind or talking paper animals in front of her mother.

~

He comes back from the bar. He doesn’t change his clothes. It doesn’t matter if they crease; he won’t need to look tidy in the morning. He puts Natsuko’s shirt and pink plastic box in front of the home altar, next to his wife’s urn and her purse. Mieko’s body was found washed up in the shopping mall, her small change purse still in her skirt pocket. The urns containing some of the bones from his parents-in-law also sit in front of the shrine. He kneels on the tatami in front of the three porcelain vessels, ignites an incense stick with his cigarette lighter, clasps his hands in prayer and bows his head. After a few minutes, he goes to his cot. It’s time to sleep. The paper crane sits on his pillow.

He doesn’t know what time it is but it’s early. Before dawn. He’s been awakened by the sounds of crinkling paper. The crane has moved and sits nearer to his head, close to his ear.

‘It’s time to get up. She’s waiting.’

He gets up, cradling the paper bird in his hand and goes to the entrance porch. There he rests his charge on top of the shoe cupboard and puts on his socks and rubber boots. Then he picks her up again and quietly slides open the front door. He needn’t have worried. No one is about.

It takes an hour to walk to the entrance gate marking the border of the prohibited site. But today it will take only twenty minutes; he’s not going to enter through the official gate. For anyone brought up in the village, there are many ways into the site – through the undergrowth on the surrounding slopes, around the mangroves, along the seashore. Whichever route suits you.

The sun will rise over the water. The sky above the incoming tide is already flushed and ruddy. A beautiful morning.

‘Do you see that sky, Miss Crane?’ he asks holding her high but cupping her body in case the wind springs up.

The machines are silent, no plastic covers flap; even the twig mountains are still with nothing creeping in or out of their hidey-holes. He grips the crane’s wing in his teeth, takes off his boots and socks and places them at the dividing line where the dry sand and wet sand meet. Facing out to sea. He cups her in his hand again and will hold her above the water as long as he can. Then he will put her into his mouth and they will go on together.

Image: Moominsean / Flickr

234.5

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Anne Hotta lives in Melbourne. She is a teacher and writer of both fiction (the short story) and non-fiction. Her short stories have been published and awarded prizes both in Australia and overseas. She is currently working on an anthology of short stories.

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