by Hirabayashi Taiko
translated from the Japanese by Amy Obermeyer
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By the time I returned to the hospital from the office of the military police, the sun was already setting. The reins of my overflowing carriage slackened as we approached the town square, clattering along on the sloping pavement.
“I have not any change,” the coachmen who’d brought me said, looking annoyed while spreading the bright silvery-blue bills and returning them to my palm. I bought two small white bills from the Chinese man’s stall near the front gates for tomorrow’s payment and received four small silver coins in return. Upon receiving his ten sen coin, the coachmen said “xie xie,” sounding his horn loudly at a boy pulling a bicycle ahead of him before taking off.
Under the electric light, the elderly man at the reception desk thrust out his neck and bowed politely as I changed into my cold, oily sandals, lazily straddling my fat legs. Already irritated, as I combed back the loose hairs from my forehead a dreadful melancholy fell over me. I was thinking about the dull ache running down my right leg when, as I reached the top stair leading down to the clinic in the half-basement, my leg cramped tightly, and as though some unknown force had scooped my feet out from under me, I collapsed onto the cold concrete floor. Pushing myself up, I try standing, but my knees rattle like metal fittings and my hands tremble precariously as they struggle to support my body with its swollen belly. A quavering tremor makes its way from my limbs deeper into my trunk.
The corridor leading to the half-basement room was still, damp and dark like a tunnel. Around a meter ahead, a bundle of tissue paper had been cast onto the dark floor. That white rectangle seemed to float as I watched, lowering my ear to the ground waiting for the sound of someone approaching. As I strain my ear to the fusty floor, the low, clear sound of a mosquito’s wings and a pungent scent mixed together in the breeze streams past my cheeks. My big belly is like a blood-sucking mosquito and cradling it while trying to stand is impossible, pathetically like trying to drag a heavy log from a cave. With my right hand, I try rubbing the left, frail like the stalk of an annual plant, and then, moving the five fingers of my right hand on my belly, I feel a tingling numbness, as though being stroked by crepe.
Beriberi. I’d heard from other people about its symptoms. For quite some time I’ve been here, breathing the red dust-laden air of the colony and eating the poor-quality Nanking rice, eight parts water and two parts salt. It had to be gestational beriberi I was suffering from. On top of everything, beriberi?
I feel myself staring blankly into the darkness.
On the other hand, having beriberi on top of childbirth, it’s possible I may be able to postpone my imprisonment just a little while longer. Something resembling a faint happiness trickled out of my otherwise emotionless head. I am afraid of prison. As I try to picture the life of an incarcerated woman with an infant in her arms, I feel my innards contracting. When I first learned of the child I’m now carrying, it was in jail in the chaotic aftermath of the great Kanto earthquake. Has this child been predestined to a life in prison on my account? That’s no good . . . or maybe it’s okay. Yes! I’ll raise a Japanese Bolshevik from jail. Ha!
After a little while, I gave a thick-lipped whistle, careful to keep the fetus from pushing further into my chest. A hoarse whistle resembling a steam locomotive resonated down the hallway that zig-zagged like the edge of a key. The terrible sound of the rail car falling into the sea after we destroyed the railway line still echoes vividly in my ear. I regret all of it.
Because they’d planned the terrorist act, my husband along with three coolie supervisors were thrown into jail and the labor dispute was thoroughly lost. Unity among the coolies was destroyed and the working conditions were crueler than ever. They’d responded to Zhang Zuolin’s1 military recruitment with thin futons on their backs and dusty cloth shoes on their feet only to be loaded like cheap luggage onto the South Manchuria Railway and carried away. All that remained, with the jailing of four comrades and my husband’s imprisonment, was my own path, was waiting for my diagnosis in the charity hospital where I’ll be admitted until I deliver.
I too, a former maid with the railway company, am likely destined to be detained as an accomplice the moment my labor ends. Beside my bed at the clinic, there’s always a prison guard keeping watch, clutching a dirty towel to wipe the sweat from around under his tall collar that reaches up to his hairline.
I must not resent my husband. The prospect that something like this would happen after undertaking such a terrorist attack had been all too obvious to me. My husband and our three comrades joked that my thoughts were the indecisive cowardice of a pregnant woman, but the result was just as I’d predicted. However, if the whole group must get through such a situation facing it head on, then the campaign is the path of those who must. The husband is the wife’s path. I have no regrets.
The sound of footsteps drew near. It was the rhythmic footfall of new leather shoes as if approaching from the window side. Outside the window, the upper body of an alpaca with dark blue shoulders was drawn on the back of a white shirt. I was ready to feign collapsing. It was the old man from the reception desk.
“Excuse me, could you lend me a hand for a moment?”
“What in the . . . Sitting in a place like that?”
The old man squinted, a thick crease between his eyes, as if to confirm what he was seeing. He hunched forward as he approached. Once he realized I was a patient at the clinic, he spoke roughly.
“If it isn’t Ms. Kitamura. Well well, aren’t you in trouble?”
With his back still bent, he offered an unfriendly hand. I grabbed it, dry and languid, and leaned my body against the wooden wall. My feet were cold like fruit and when I tried to walk, they crumpled like an accordion. Putting the weight of my swollen stomach onto the old man’s unreliable body, together we descended the stairs to the basement.
The inescapable odor of disinfectant and bedpans, along with the dank smell of the half-basement floor, intertwines and attacks me who, owing to a summons from the military police, had breathed all day long the refreshing outdoor air. A paralyzed old woman, sleeping flopped like a squid on the bed, cast a sharp glance at me, moving only the whites of her eyes, which had a bluish hue that resembled the color of the wall. I gave her a similar look in return.
I could hear the sound of a praying voice resembling dissipating froth coming from the north corner of the room. This one too, an old woman with one hand rigid like a dried branch, was sent from the Port Arthur aged care home. Listening to the sound of her prayers, the odor of the toilet grows increasingly unbearable even to me, even though I’m not actually sick.
The guard on his rounds had put his storybook on my bedside table and fallen fast asleep diagonally across my futon. A thread of syrupy drool flowed from the corner of his mouth, dampening his moustache before meeting the top of my futon, where it sat like an earthworm. I seized the gold button on the breast of his white shirt and shook.
“Oh! I fell asleep. You’re just now getting back? I was worried, it’d gotten so late.”
Without responding, I grabbed a towel from the other side of the bed table and wiped the drool from the futon cover
“It was nothing.”
My obi stretching onto the floor, I cast myself onto the bed, which creaked as I tossed and turned.
“Well, I’ll be leaving then. Goodbye.”
A former prostitute who’d attempted suicide and now looked as though she couldn’t sleep raised her head and followed the guard’s movements as he pushed open the door to leave. The elongated shadow of his uniform shakes on the hallway walls.
My feet are hot. Their leaden muscles lean against my knee. The jagged sawtooth of despair sinks its teeth into my soul. My twenty-two years of life, the dreams I’ve accumulated, it all amounts to this? Water stains create a strange map on the wallpaper.
As the night wore on, the wind blowing off the acacia nursery pierced the pharmaceutical storehouse and threw sand against the windowpanes of the clinic. They were the only things obstructing the roar of the wind, and they clattered jarringly. I mindlessly placed my left foot upon my right and thought about my husband as I stared up at the long cord of the electric light.
No, not my husband. He’s my comrade. Thinking about him draws out various discontents. We try to advance comradery among the sexes, but so many cling myopically to the dominance of that dubious old family system2 that should have withered like last year’s weeds.
However, his big, round glasses with black frames look down on short me, trying to suck me in.
“Mitsuyo, please forgive me. To you and to our child, I’ve behaved inexcusably. I was wrong.” Looking down, a tear plopped onto his glasses, magnifying it. Such was the scene this afternoon when I encountered him chained up in the hallway of the military police. I felt the impulse to cover my face.
What is it causing his effeminate attitude that threads his lingering attachment? His bloodshot eyes, what in the world could they want of me? The wife’s presence keeps the weak-willed husband’s attention. When the edge of a long sash is cast off by a husband full of lingering affection, a wife cannot help but receive it. Alas, it’s detestable. Detestable. The feeling that I’m falling into something is unbearable. I am hollow, collapsing like a Yosegi puzzle box. Beloved comrade, don’t look around. Look straight ahead. Keep looking straight ahead, I appeal to the phantom of him that appears on the high ceiling.
I rounded my throat and, in a low voice, began to sing “The People’s Flag.” When I arrive at the loud points, I thrust forward my shoulders and pushed the air from my lungs, I come to hear my own trembling voice. Tears began streaming, tickling as they entered my ear.
I wonder how many hours I slept. I jolted awake with a start to asthmatic coughing in the next bed. The windows rattle gently. As I moved my back to reposition my feet, a creeping vine of intense pain crawled into my lower abdomen. Now this too? A crushing pain continues bearing down on me. To be able to bear it I bend my back and press both hands against my belly, my numb fingertips and palms feeling my puffy, swollen skin. I tried gently stroking it. A hard-to-fight drowsiness overtakes my eyelids, after which the roaring stomach pain draws in. The pain! The pain is unbearable.
I rose up impulsively, taking my fat knee into my hands and pressing it into my stomach.
An unthinkable nostalgic warmth transmitted within my body to my chilled abdomen. The pain was so unbearable the only thing to do was to push with my feet. I cast them out again and collapsed, feeling a hard pillow around my back. I was caught by the rattling horizontal bar that surrounded my bed. The pain ebbs as though pulled by the tide and I find the coolness of the rusty iron bar pleasing to my greasy hands.
I grasped the iron rod as though to pull it near, drew in my breath and endured the brute force.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!”
When I scrunch up the muscles around my nose and concentrate all my energy into my stomach, amidst the darkness of closed eyes, various things appear and disappear all at once. I can hear that terrible sound of the rail car crashing into the sea. Dust from which I want to avert my eyes whirls above like smoke.
When I open my eyes, the windows are being rattled by a sandstorm outside. The cord of the electric light, suspended from the high ceiling, is swaying quietly back and forth. The rustling of soft frail breaths of sleep, unmixed with my own squeezed groans, rises in the air.
In cold blood I listened attentively to my own gruesome, beastly moans. I must not mourn my own misfortune, torn from my beloved husband and thrust into this colonial charity clinic to birth my child like a stray dog. For me, it is as if I have lived up until now always keeping watch over a single candle within me, whose flame always returns, never disappearing for good. I live believing in the future. Even now in this, I feel the single red flame threaded throughout this struggle. No matter where, I will go and see this fight through. Salty tears flow ceaselessly down my distorted face.
At five in the morning, a nurse came from the second floor to the toilet and found me with labor pains. She lay out an old, stained cotton futon and there, like a monkey, I gave birth to a baby girl. Her long hair like stretched silk thread pointed over her forehead. After five minutes, her eyes, closed tightly, resembling filaments, finally opened.
Outside the windowpane, the blue night had turned to dawn. The child was returned from the nursery. Around her pillow, the hemp leaf patterned futon was encrusted with milk. With her quilt removed, she kicked her bright red legs as though they were aflame. As the outside light streamed into the room, the high-strung bleached blue whiteness of the nurse’s uniform pierced my crumpled, tired nerves.
I obediently position my feet just as the nurse said to and close my eyes. Damn, it’s like my crotch is melting. I shrug my shoulders from the pain at the base of the arm. When stroking the arch of my strangely soft foot, it’s like touching a terribly smooth and distant object. Both my hands and my feet feel stretched like thick mochi and are entirely numb.
The sensation of the nurse’s cold nickel forceps touching my inner thigh was so indirect as not to remember anything.
“Nurse, this seems to be really severe beriberi. To be this numb . . . ”
Positioning my palms as if begging for mercy, I demonstrate rubbing the skin of my white feet
“Beriberi? You’re just fine.”
Lowering the corners of her eyes into her unimpressed face, the nurse cast the gauze dripping with yellow liquid into the porcelain dish.
“But . . . well, look here. It’s pretty concave.”
When I push my index finger into the side of my knee, it depresses into a deep dimple and does not spring back. It was surprising even to me. I try pressing in two more spots, and dimples where I’d sunk my fingers in appear.
“You’ve had some trouble.”
As if she doubts me, she tries pressing with her own finger. Afterwards, she wrinkles up her forehead like a shrimp and shakes her bedraggled head from side to side. I turn to the open window and contemplate the nurse’s attitude.
Gestational beriberi is the most challenging illness in this hospital. Here in the colony, if the beriberi is even a little serious, after three or even five years, you still can’t stand. Being burdened with someone who can’t even go to the bathroom alone or stand on their own two feet is certain to be an outsized nuisance for the sort of hospital director who hopes to receive as much subsidy from the city as possible for a minimal amount of labor, and to then get on with his private life. Results-wise, keeping the same patient for three or five years is unattractive. If you’re writing how many tens, hundreds, thousands of patients handled on the report you send to your wealthy benefactors, decreasing that number just isn’t profitable.
The nurse is the director’s wife and is a Christian. The pretense is that she’s the head nurse, but without so much as a medical license, she examines patients herself and does house calls. Superficially, she’s as gentle as velvet, but underneath, she is a woman with the terrifying defenses of a thorn bush. After she finished with me, she pulled my yukata back down toward my feet and then turned toward my child’s crib, pulling it back to my bedside. I picked up the child and stared intently into her eyes. She was squinting weakly as though she couldn’t bear the brightness.
Curiously, I feel only an inexplicable disquiet and the feeling I’d feared most of all—love—has not at all awakened. When the nurse haphazardly puts down a red cotton futon, she taps the child’s foot, and the child moves her chest and breathes softly in her sleep as though she’s been tickled. This white, healthy-looking thing fills my heart. It’s the feeling of exiting a long tunnel. It’s the feeling of a refreshing morning. Until tomorrow, say, let’s cast aside my oily, desperately frightened self. I beg that this hope is not the ephemeral type that dries up in one day’s time.
The morning’s meal is the same as the day before—Shanghai rice with lye-like white miso soup, a small plate of kelp tsukudani that tastes like a mouth full of salt, and two yellow half-moons of pickled daikon. I mix the kelp into the mushy congee and, still lying on my side, pour it into my mouth.
“Again today, Shanghai rice. Tomorrow too, Shanghai rice. Ya’ get the feelin’ they’re trying to starve us to death?” uttered an elderly woman with palsy and a wild Kyushu accent. Sitting primly on the edge of her futon, she chewed exaggeratedly and then spat something blue onto the floor. We all turned and laughed the hollow laugh of a mouth filled with food.
“Hey, grandma, if you don’t like the miso, trade me for my pickled daikon!” The former prostitute got down from her bed, dragged out her purple rubber slippers, and went toward the old woman’s bed.
“I’m telling you, I’m going to kill Koramata Komiya. Unforgivable! Unforgivable!”
Suddenly, a delusional woman of about forty appeared in front of the prostitute, holding out her black chopsticks and sternly shaking them. Komiya was her husband that had died more than ten years previously. Since this is an everyday thing, no one laughs.
Although I had a lot of congee and kelp left, I put down my chopsticks. It occurred to me to write a letter to my husband. I’d often heard from the former prostitute, who’d had a miscarriage, that you shouldn’t read or write for a bit after giving birth, and I was plagued by vexing thoughts whenever I saw the personalized stationary bearing the name of the rail company that had deceived me. I set up the magazine behind my bedside table as a stand and spread the paper out. At first, to reassure him from his worry, I began to write cheerfully, but as I got toward the end, it became strangely agitated.
“I can’t stand on my own two feet. I can’t even handle the toilet alone. It pains me to think about the nasty face the nurse makes at me as she cleans up after. Beyond that, there’s no one to clean the infant’s diapers. I had no choice but to talk with the housekeeper who works on the second floor about her doing the washing for two sen per diaper, but now there’s only two yen and seventy or eighty sen left in my wallet.3 How in the world can I carry on?”
Even as I was thinking, don’t write it, don’t write it, I was pushed on by my own feelings until I wound up writing exactly that. Writing these complaints and feeling such scorn, as I sit up and seal the letter suddenly my head feels strangely unsteady. As I hastily close my eyes and fall back onto my pillow, I hear only a distasteful silence, like sinking down to the bottom of the sea.
As I was watching the fluttering white Japanese hand towels that had been hung over the window and thinking about how it was likely anemia, I lost consciousness.
- Zhang Zuolin was a Japanese-backed warlord who controlled inner Manchuria. Although the territory was then still nominally under Chinese control, Japan enjoyed great influence in the area. In 1928, Zhang would be assassinated by the Japanese Army, triggering a series of events that ultimately led to the establishment of the formal Japanese puppet state within Manchuria, known as Manchuoku (1932-1945).
- A system formalized legally in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration that imagined the household as a microcosm of the national body, with the father granted imperial authority over all members of the household. Lack of fidelity to the system was construed to be a lack of fidelity to the nation and to the emperor himself.
- In 1927, the yen was pegged to the gold exchange standard and was worth $0.50 in US dollars, the equivalent of roughly $7.35 today. One sen is 1/100 of a yen.