*This story features multiple narrative voices. This follows the original Japanese and is intentional. I've done my best to make it sound natural in English. My apologies if it isn't!
When the train leaned steeply, his own body was pulled along with it. Even after the rails straightened out, the train continued to clatter at regular, measured intervals. When they approached a station, the next stop and connecting lines were announced over the PA. Although he knew he had his directions right, Nao Takamura nevertheless pressed his face against the glass and peered at the station sign every time they slowed to a stop.
There were only a handful of people on the train: two girls about his age; an old man with a cane; a businessman who was falling asleep with his mouth open wide, like a carp waiting to be fed. There was also an older girl who looked like she was in high school. She was talking on a cell phone which had lots of keychains hanging off of it. Her talking was louder than the clattering of the train.
A moment ago, they had been ducking through what looked like an alleyway, drawing right up close to the houses. Now, suddenly the scenery opened up before his eyes. He could see the ocean through the window on the left. It was a deeper blue than the sky, and it sparkled and glittered. The sight was enough to make his heart beat faster. The train ran along the ocean for a little while before diving once again into an alleyway-like gap between the houses.
Tsumagi... said the sign at the station. He got off. The coolness of the train had made him completely forget how hot it was outside. The strong rays felt like scorching prickles on his skin, and the shadow at his feet was stark. A sheen of sweat appeared on his brow.
There was no shopping district right outside the station, like the town where Nao lived. There was a bus stop out front, but no cars on the road in front of it. Nao shouldered his backpack and took out a crumpled piece of paper from the pocket of his shorts. He stopped an older man in coveralls who tried to slip past him.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where the police station is?” The goodhearted man took him to the police station beside an eyeglass store, about a five-minute walk from the station. There was a young officer sitting inside the police station, and when he noticed Nao, he crouched down with a gentle expression on his face.
“What’s wrong? Are you lost?” he asked.
“I want to go to the place that’s on this paper.”
The officer peered at the wrinkled scrap of paper as he knitted his brow.
“Hmmm,” he said. “It’s a bit far from here. For you, it might be a thirty-minute walk or so.”
“I can walk.”
“What grade are you in?”
The officer grimaced and hummed indecisively before going around behind his desk and retrieving a piece of paper.
“This is a map of the area. You’re right here.” He marked the middle of the map with a marker. “Keep going right on this path. When you see Ito’s Barbershop on your right-hand side, turn left. Keep walking, and take the third turn to the left. Then you have to walk quite a bit more, and you should see a small bridge called Ginrou Bridge. Cross that and walk for a bit more, and that’s where it’ll be.”
The police station and his destination were now connected by a fluorescent-yellow line.
“Are you going to Grandma’s place? A friend’s house?”
Nao looked up from the map and stared at the officer in the eye.
“I’m going to see my father.”
“My parents got divorced when I was small. My father lives here.”
The officer suddenly looked at Nao with pity. “...I see,” he said. “Does your father know you’re coming?”
“I see,” the officer murmured again.
“Thank you for giving me directions.” Nao bowed like he did at his school’s morning assembly, and left the police station with the map in hand. He took the path to the right and kept walking. His forehead was sweaty, and so was his back. It was sticky and uncomfortable. His head was hot, too. Just then, he remembered how his mother always told him to wear a hat.
He glanced left and right over and over, and when he started getting anxious about whether he had gone too far or not, he was relieved to see Itou’s Barbershop. He arrived at the small bridge called Ginrou Bridge, written in Chinese characters he could not read. He built up momentum and leapt across it, and was able to cross it in seven steps. From there, he looked at the map and counted the number of houses. The fourth one―this was it.
Dad lives here. The thought made his heart suddenly beat faster. His father’s house was a little far away from the rest. It was surrounded on all sides by a wooden fence about the same height as a grown adult. Nao glanced at his surroundings as he walked once around the house. Apart from the entrance facing the sidewalk, there was another entrance on the opposite side of the house. At the sidewalk entrance, Nao pushed the wooden gate lightly, and it yielded easily and swung inwards. He slowly and cautiously peeked inside.
The yard was very spacious, and there were many trees. The path leading from the gate to the entrance of the house looked like it had been paved with concrete. What should I do, what should I do? Nao carefully stepped forward, still battling his confusion.
There was a nameplate on the pillar at the entrance. It read “Kitagawa”. Nao spread open the piece of paper that was now damp from clenching it in his hand. His father’s name was Takafumi Douno. His grandmother had taught him how to read the Chinese characters. But the name on the nameplate was not it.
Does that mean this isn’t Dad’s house? Did I get my directions wrong? His thoughts were broken by a dog barking. His whole body flinched. There was a dog barking in the far end of the yard. It was a sandy-coloured dog. Its leash was too short for it to come this far, so the dog stood on its hind legs and barked at him loudly. Nao was terrified enough to wet his pants, but his knees shook and he could not move.
“What’s wrong, Ao?”
He heard an adult voice.
“Is someone there?”
A man emerged from the dense green leaves of the yard. He was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. On his feet were bamboo sandals. He was really tall. His hair was short, and his face was... scary. His eyes were scary. His father had looked so much more gentle in the photos.
“Who’re you?” The man looked down at him.
“A... Are you my dad?”
The man slowly tilted his head.
“M―My name is Nao Takamura. I came to―to see my dad.”
When my dad sees me, he’ll smile, pick me up and say, “Nao, you’ve gotten so big.” Then he’d say, “Did you come here all by yourself? Good for you.” That was what he had expected, but his real dad was scary. Very scary.
“What’s your dad’s name?”
Nao felt like crying that his father would ask him such a question.
The man crouched in front of him and reached out. Feeling like the hand was about to hit him, Nao flinched. The man’s large palm did not hit him, but instead ruffled Nao’s damp hair so roughly it hurt.
“Your dad is at work. He won’t be home ‘til evening,” the man said brusquely. Nao had assumed he could see his dad if he went to his house. He had never even thought of what to do if he wasn’t home. But at least this scary man isn’t my dad. He was relieved at the thought.
“Where’s your mom? Isn’t she here with you?”
Nao gulped and gripped the straps of his backpack.
“...She’s on a trip. She said I could stay at my dad’s place while she was away.” It was a lie. It was true that his mother had gone on a trip, but she had told him to stay at Grandma’s place while she was gone. He had gone to his grandmother’s, but had wanted to see his father so badly that he had lied to her, telling her that his mom had said he was allowed to go over to his dad’s house to play. He had left his grandmother’s house this morning. He had transferred once on the train and clattered along, finally arriving at the station nearest to his father’s house past noon.
The man was staring at him.
“How old are you?” he finally asked.
“Nine years old.”
“Which means you’re in third grade, huh? Is school fun?”
Nao nodded once.
“Do you have lots of friends?”
The man grinned and stood up. He grabbed Nao’s wrist as he still clung to his shoulder straps.
“Come on in and wait inside until Takafumi gets home.”
Nao was taken into the house by the tall man, who half-dragged him by the hand. The house looked old on the outside, but it looked old on the inside, too. The entrance had a steep step. The faded white walls had cracks in them, and were peeling in the corners. The lighting on the ceiling had no covers, and the bare light bulbs dangled in the air.
When he stepped into the hallway, the floorboards creaked. The man brought Nao to a room with tatami flooring. It was a bare room with sparse furnishings. There was a television against the wall, and a large low table in the middle of the room. That was it. However, the top of the table was littered with many sheets and books, pencils and erasers.
There was a large window across the room from the entrance, and it was thrown open wide. Beyond that was the porch and the yard. In the yard there was a dog house with a red roof, and the same dog was barking with its snout in the air.
The man left the room. Nao shrugged his backpack off and put it down against the wall. His watch said it was two o’clock. I wonder when Dad’s gonna come home, he wondered, when he felt a breeze on the back of his neck. It was hot outside, but the breeze made it cool.
The man brought him cold tea on a tray. There was a banana beside it.
“Oh. Thank you.” Nao was hungry, since he had only had breakfast and eaten nothing for lunch. He immediately went for the banana first and stuffed his mouth. The cold barley tea went smoothly down his throat. It felt cold and nice. Eating kept him fully occupied. When he was done, Nao looked up at the man to see him sitting cross-legged at the table and making scraping sounds as he drew something out on paper.
The man stopped and looked up.
“Who are you, mister? Isn’t this my dad’s house?”
The man was looking at him, but wasn’t answering. The cicadas were buzzing loudly in the yard. Finally, the man’s lips appeared to move.
“I’m Kitagawa. I’m your dad’s friend, and I live here with him.”
He began drawing again.
His hand stopped. Mister looked this way.
“What kind of person is my dad?”
The man’s eyes moved away from him and roved. “Let’s see... he’s honest and gentle.”
Gentle. Hearing that made him happy. The face he had seen in photos had been smiling gently, too.
“How old is my dad?”
“His age? He’s... two years older than me, so forty-six.”
“And his height? How tall is he?”
“I think about 170? He’s shorter than me.”
“What does he like to eat?”
“Curry, mapo doufu, stuff like that.”
“I like curry, too.”
Mister grinned. “So do I.”
At first he’d thought Mister was a scary old man, but he wasn’t. His face looked gentle when he smiled.
“What kind of work does my dad do?”
“He calculates stuff for a factory that makes food.”
“Uh-huh...” His father, whom he had only seen in photos, was slowly being pieced together into a human shape, like he was putting pieces of a miniature model together. Suddenly the dog barked, and Nao’s shoulders tensed.
“You don’t like dogs?”
“I’m scared of getting bitten, so I usually don’t get close.”
“Ao can be noisy when he barks, but he doesn’t bite.”
Even though Mister said he didn’t bite, the dog was still scary when it was barking with its big jaws and its big voice. Nao had wanted a smaller dog like a dachshund or a chihuahua, or a cat, but they weren’t allowed to keep pets in their current apartment.
“Is this dog my dad’s?”
“He’s both of ours. We have a cat, too.”
Mister went out to the porch. “Shiro, Shiro,” he called, and a white cat came out of the bushes across from them. It meowed in a cute voice. The cat sprang up onto the porch and purred as Mister petted it. Mister scooped it up and brought it over to him.
“Wanna try touching it?”
Nao carefully reached out. The cat had soft, fluffy fur, and it felt nice. Mister handed the cat over to Nao, but the cat arched its back, twisted out of the child’s arms and escaped into the bushes.
“It can be a bit shy,” Mister muttered, then sat down in front of the table. Nao peered at his hands as he wielded a pencil. It was a drawing of a large building and a woman.
“Mister, are you drawing a picture?”
“It’s soooo good. You’re like an artist!” Their eyes met, and Mister grinned.
“Want me to draw a picture of you?”
Mister pushed the half-finished drawing aside and took out a fresh sheet. His pencil raced across it with speedy strokes. Thin lines overlapped before Nao’s eyes and formed the shape of a face.
Not even ten minutes had passed, and on the desk was an image of his face.
“Wow! It looks just like me! That’s so cool!”
Whenever Mister grinned, gentle wrinkles formed at the edges of his eyes.
“Drawing is my job,” he said.
“So you really are an artist, Mister?”
“I illustrate for books or do individual pieces. Stuff like this.”
He drew out a book buried in the mountain of papers on the table, flipped open to a page, and showed it to him. There were lots of words on the page, mixed with what looked like English. It looked like a difficult book. There were pictures, but he couldn’t tell what they were of.
“What’s this a picture of?”
“It’s a tendon of the foot. This is a book that doctors look at.”
“Okay,” Nao replied, without really knowing what a tendon was. He flipped through the pages, but there were a lot of disturbing pictures and photos, and he closed the book soon after.
Mister had begun drawing again.
“Um... can I make a phone call?” Nao asked.
“Over there,” Mister said, pointing at the telephone handset near the TV. Nao took the handset out of the charger and left the room discreetly. Once he got to the end of the hallway, he phoned his grandmother.
“Hello? Grandma? I got to Dad’s place safely. Yeah, I was fine taking the train by myself...”
His grandmother asked to speak to his father, saying she wanted to say hello.
“Dad, um... seems to be busy at work. Bye.” With that, he hung up the phone without letting her reply. He had told his grandmother he would stay at his father’s place for three days. On the fourth day, his mother would come back from her trip overseas and would be coming to pick him up at his grandmother’s house.
“Thank you for letting me use the phone.” Even after he returned the phone with those words, Mister said nothing to him. His face almost touched the paper and he was focused completely on drawing. Nao sat down with his back to the wall. The wall clock read 2:45. Nao’s watch was five minutes faster.
How much longer until I get to see Dad? he wondered as he closed his eyes. When I see him, what should I say? Maybe he wouldn’t recognize me unless I introduce myself first. The air is cool, but it’s still a little too hot here.... Nao’s thoughts trailed off, and before he realized it, he was asleep.
Hey―said a voice. It was past four when he was shaken awake. Nao rubbed his eyes with his hands. The sun, which had been shining on the porch, now came up to Nao’s ankle.
“Takafumi always comes back past six. I’m going to go grocery shopping for today’s dinner while I walk Ao. Wanna come?”
Mister placed a hand on Nao’s head and ruffled his hair so hard it hurt.
He was told to wear a hat because it was still hot out. When Nao said he’d forgotten his, a straw hat that was much too big was plopped onto his head. He thought it looked kind of dorky, but he couldn’t bring himself to say he didn’t want to wear it.
Ao barked a lot, but didn’t bite. When Nao held his leash, Ao wagged his tail furiously and hopped on his hind legs as he playfully jumped on Nao.
“Unlike Shiro, this guy’s a friendly one. He’s happy because he thinks he’ll get to play with you.”
Mister left Ao to Nao, and lumbered on ahead of him. Ao followed Mister, and Nao was dragged along. He realized dogs were much, much stronger than what he’d thought. Sometimes Ao yanked so hard at the leash he thought his arm would pop off, but it was fun.
He’d been envious seeing other kids walk their dogs in the park near his apartment. He’d tried not to feel that way, though. If he let himself be jealous, he would start wondering why he wasn’t allowed to have one, and he’d feel horrible afterwards.
“Mister, what kind of dog is Ao?”
“Probably a mutt.”
They walked along the small river which he’d crossed in seven steps. The further they walked, the wider the river got, and the sidewalk also widened.
“You didn’t buy it at a store?”
Mister turned around and looked at him curiously. “Why would you buy one at a store?”
“...All my friends who have dogs said they bought them at the store.”
“You can just pick up a dog anywhere.”
Ao barked. Mister stopped in his tracks and squatted to pet Ao on the head. Ao was licking Mister’s face.
“This Ao is the second one. The first Ao, his mom, was abandoned near my workplace when I still used to work at construction sites.”
“What kind of work do you do at construction sites?”
Nao squatted like Mister.
“Digging holes, making dirt piles... well, manual labour. But I couldn’t work there anymore because I got hurt.”
“You got hurt?”
“A huge piece of lumber fell, and my left arm got pinned underneath. After that, I stopped being able to put strength in my left arm, and I couldn’t hold or carry heavy stuff over my shoulder anymore. I could hold a book, but that wasn’t going to be any use at the site. So I was wondering what I could do to make a living, and Takafumi said, ‘why don’t you draw?’ From then on, my job became to draw pictures.”
When they got to the riverbank, Ao dashed all the way to the bottom. Yanked by his leash, Nao tipped forward on the riverbank, and began tumbling down. The leash slipped out of his hand, and Ao trailed it behind him as he ran happily around Nao.
Nao’s knees and his palms hurt from falling down. He heard laughter, and turned around to see Mister looking this way and guffawing. He made it sound so funny that Nao started to think it was funny, too. Even though he was hurt, he couldn’t help but chuckle. Mister picked up the straw hat that had fallen off Nao’s head partway down, and came down towards him.
“It’s nothing.” It actually hurt a bit, but Nao sucked it up. The straw hat was plopped back on his head. Mister turned back west towards the sun.
“―You can tell it’s summer. It’s still light outside in the evening,” he murmured.
In the tiny kitchen, I helped make curry.
“You gotta help, too,” said Mister, and he made me put on a huge apron. While I peeled the onions, tears started streaming from my eyes. When Mister saw me, he laughed again. Fed up with being laughed at, I tried to hold them in, but my tears didn’t stop running.
I also used a knife for the first time. At home, mom never let me touch it. Unsure of how to use it, I stabbed the carrot from above with a thunk. Mister clutched his sides as he laughed. He was far from scary. He laughed a lot.
We let the vegetables and meat stew for a good while, and right when we put the curry roux in, we heard a voice at the entrance. “I’m home,” it said.
“Takafumi’s home,” muttered Mister. Dad was home. Dad, whom I’d only seen in photos before. Creak, creak. The footsteps were coming closer.
“Kei, is someone over?”
I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear his voice first.
“Are you in the kitchen?”
I saw a figure in the entrance of the kitchen. It was Dad. I knew it the moment I saw him. He looked a little older than his photos. Dad was wearing a jacket and a tie, and he looked like the businessmen I saw at the station. My heart started pounding. I knew I had to introduce myself, or else Dad probably wouldn’t know who I was. I tried to speak, but I felt nervous like I did at school plays, and I couldn’t find my voice.
Dad was looking at me curiously.
“And this boy?” Dad asked Mister.
“What?” cried Dad as his eyes widened. He put his hand to his half-open mouth, and drew his eyebrows together. I felt a pang in my chest at his face, which seemed to look at me like I was unwanted trouble.
Nao bit his lip and politely bowed his head.
“I’m Nao Takamura. I heard from my mom that you got divorced when I was little.”
“Oh... right...” Dad murmured, then looked at Mister. “Did Mariko bring him here?”
“No. He came alone. I thought you and your wife had something figured out already?”
“I haven’t heard anything from her. Even if she’d told me something, I would have talked to you about it in advance.”
Dad raked his hand through his bangs and looked down at Nao with a slightly severe expression.
“...I want to speak to your mother. Could you tell me her phone number?”
“My mom is on a trip. She said I could stay with you during that time.” His voice shook as he told the lie.
“She might have said that, but I still want to talk to her. I want you to tell me her phone number.” His wording was gentle, but there was a finality in his tone that wouldn’t take no for an answer. Nao told him his mother’s cell phone number, and his dad called his mom on the spot.
“It’s not getting through,” Dad muttered as he flipped his cell phone shut.
“My mom’s on a trip overseas.”
At Nao’s words, Dad looked down and let out a long sigh.
“Can we eat? I’m starving.” Mister stirred the curry lazily in stark contrast to Dad’s bristling aura.
We ate dinner in the room with the table that Mister was drawing at. I had fun walking a dog for the first time. I had fun shopping and making curry. But eating wasn’t fun. Even though I was hungry, I didn’t feel like eating.
“What has your mother told you about me?”
Dad asked me questions once in a while.
“She said she divorced you right after I was born.”
There were so many things I wanted to ask before I met Dad. But now I couldn’t remember any of them. I’d only eaten half of how much I usually eat, and I was already full.
“Did your mother say anything else?”
“She didn’t tell me much about you.”
It was very quiet at nighttime. The sound of cars passing by outside was few and far-between. There was a TV, but it wasn’t on. I couldn’t ask for it to be turned on. If this was Grandma’s place, I could, but I couldn’t say that here.
“Oh, but... I had a sister... Grandma told me I had a sister, but she died.”
Dad looked away awkwardly. From then on until the meal was over, Dad neither talked to me nor tried to make eye contact with me.
After the meal, I was told to take a bath. The bathroom was dim and tiled, and the tiles were chipped and cracked in places, and were dirty. I quickly washed my hair and body, but didn’t get into the bathtub. I changed into my pyjamas, and was walking down the dim hallway when I spotted light seeping out of the room with the table. I could hear Dad’s voice.
“I don’t know what Mariko’s thinking. After all this time, why would she choose to send him over to us now, with no word at all?”
My arms shook as I clutched the clothes I’d changed out of.
“Maybe because the kid’ll be alone during her trip?” That was Mister’s voice.
“Mariko has her sister and her parents.”
“Maybe they couldn’t take care of him.”
“But still, there’s something off. I haven’t seen him even once since he was born. Mariko knows that.”
I wanted to burst out of the house. I wanted to go back to Grandma’s place. Dad thought I was a nuisance. I knew he did―
“I’m not saying I don’t want to take care of him, I just―I wish I had time to mentally prepare myself. And I don’t know how much Mariko has told him. I can’t say anything without being afraid of letting something slip.”
It turned quiet as Dad and Mister stopped talking. But I couldn’t get close to that room.
“Maybe the trip is just an excuse, and Nao just wanted to see you,” I heard Mister say quietly.
“Kids want to see their parents, don’t they? A long time ago, I used to want to see my dad, too. Now, I don’t really care.”
The tatami mats creaked. A looming shadow crossed the light seeping into the hallway. Nao stepped forward, not wanting them to think he had been eavesdropping. It was Mister who came out into the hallway.
“How was your bath? Good?” Mister grinned. Nao nodded silently.
“You like eating watermelons?”
“Then I’ll cut you some. Sit tight in the room.”
Mister went into the kitchen. If I went back to that room now, I’d be alone with Dad. Suddenly my feet felt heavy, and I stamped lightly on the spot. I didn’t want to be alone with Dad. But if I stayed in the hallway, they’d probably ask me why I wasn’t going into the room.
When I shuffled into the room, Dad looked this way. I felt like his eyes were saying, “You’re a nuisance,” and it scared me.
“Thank you for letting me use the bath.” I thanked him and went to my backpack in the corner of the room. I turned my back to Dad and stuffed my dirty clothes into the bottom of my bag.
“It must have been a long way here from your house. How did you get here?”
It was back to the questions he’d been asking at dinner.
“The train,” I answered without turning around.
“You took the train by yourself? Good for you. Did your mother tell you this address?”
I nodded with my back still turned. It was a lie. Mom wouldn’t tell me when I told her I wanted to see Dad. That’s why I lied to Grandma and got her to tell me by saying Mom had told me to ask her.
“I sliced some watermelon.”
Mister came into the room. We sat side-by-side on the porch and ate them together. Dad said he was full, and didn’t come out to the porch beside me, and didn’t touch the watermelon.
Dad and Mister said they didn’t have a guest futon, so the three of us lay down in the same futon together. I lay down beside Dad, but I was nervous, and thought about all sorts of things and couldn’t sleep.
Every year during summer vacation, I went to Grandma’s house. I was playing in the closets one day last year when I found old photo albums. I found Mom’s photos in one of them. She was carrying a little girl, and beside her was a gentle-looking man. There was nothing written on the photo, but I felt like this man must be my dad. When I showed the album to Grandma, she told me the gentle-looking man really was my dad, and the girl was my big sister who had died.
At the end of the summer, when Mom came to pick me up at Grandma’s place, I told her I wanted to meet Dad.
“Absolutely not!” she’d snapped, looking pale. That scared me and made me cry at first, but I wanted to see Dad more and more as the days passed.
I’d really, really wanted to see him, but this was different from what I’d thought. If this was what it was going to be like, I shouldn’t have come to meet him at all. The futon shifted as I felt someone roll over beside me. Dad was rolling over a lot. Maybe he’s having trouble sleeping, too, I thought. Then, our eyes met in the dimness.
“You can’t sleep?”
“...I think I’ll fall asleep soon.”
Nao pulled the towel blanket up to his mouth.
“I know it must be hard to sleep, since you’re in a strange house and the futon is tiny...”
One futon was really small for three people. And there was one thing that had been on Nao’s mind. Dad’s voice seemed gentler now―now, he felt like he could ask. He opened his mouth.
“Why do you and Mister sleep in the same futon?”
Despite how dim it was in the room, he could clearly sense Dad grimace.
“That’s because your dad and I are poor,” answered Mister, who was on the other side of Dad. “That’s why we don’t have a guest futon, either.”
That one word “poor” was enough to convince Nao. Although the yard was big, this house itself was very old. The walls were dirty, the bathroom was dirty, and the halls creaked every time he walked down them. Their dog, too, had been picked up and not bought from a pet store. There’d been lots of hints that they were poor.
“I don’t have much, but I brought some allowance. I’ll pay for my food.”
Suddenly, Mister burst out laughing.
“Kei!” Dad scolded him sharply. To Nao, he said, “We may not be rich, but we have enough to pay for food. You don’t have to worry about that stuff. Just go to sleep.”
Nao had only said he’d pay because they said they were poor. He had only tried to be as considerate as he could, but he’d only made himself more of a nuisance. His chest began to throb in pain. Nao turned his back to his dad, pulled the towel blanket over his head, and cried a little.
I couldn’t remember when I’d fallen asleep. It was probably late. Mister woke me up at seven-thirty in the morning. I washed my face and stepped into the room with the table. Dad was wearing a suit and kneeling at the table, eating breakfast.
“Morning,” he said.
“Good morning...” I answered in a small voice. The meal laid out on the table was miso soup, egg, and rice. I always had bread in the morning, and didn’t feel like eating rice, either. I left most of my portion untouched. Dad said his greetings and left before eight. He hadn’t said anything apart from “Morning.” But I was kind of relieved that Dad was gone.
“Hey!” Mister called to me. His voice came from the kitchen. When I peeked in, he was standing at the sink, gesturing for me to come over.
“Help me out.”
“We’re gonna wash the dishes. You ate out of them, too, didn’t you?”
I went to the sink, put on an apron, and grabbed a sponge. But the sink was deep and it was hard to wash in it. I wobbled on my tip-toes until Mister told me to get the stepping stool that was in the shed.
I went out through the front door and all the way around to the back yard. I was startled when Ao started barking at me. He didn’t seem to mean to surprise me, though. He wagged his tail so hard it looked like it would fly off, and panted enthusiastically.
Nao found the storage shed in the yard, which was dilapidated like the bird coop they no longer used at primary school. The corrugated iron roof was rusty, and the door had been left open. He dug out a dusty step-ladder from the collapsing shed and returned to the kitchen to find Mister with a wrinkled brow and a guilty expression on his face.
“I ended up finishing the dishes.” He clucked his tongue, and Nao clutched his sides as he dissolved in laughter. Mister scratched his head and said, “But you’re doing the dishes at dinner.” He went back to the room with the table, and placed a cookie tin on its large surface. It was a little early for a ten o’clock snack, but nevertheless, Nao peered inside expectantly. Inside the tin were pencils, erasers, and pens. Next, Mister put a large case on the table and took out a piece of white paper.
“Are you gonna do your work, Mister?”
“Can I watch?”
Mister began to draw. His pencil whizzed back and forth like it was alive, and it was interesting to watch people’s faces and buildings forming on the paper. But even that got boring after a long time.
Nao moved to a corner of the room and hugged his knees. The cicadas whined. Ao was curled up in the shade of a tree. Shiro was nowhere to be seen this morning. It was probably only the beginning of the day, but he was already so bored he felt like he would melt.
Nao lifted his face. Mister was looking straight this way.
“Did you bring swimming trunks?”
“Want me to take you swimming?”
His boredom disappeared. Nao could feel his own mouth stretching into a grin.
The bicycle sped along as fast as a car. It was scary. That was why I held on as tight as I could to the broad back in front of me. First, we went into an old-looking Western clothing store in the shopping district.
“I’m looking for swimming trunks,” Mister said. A hobbling old woman with a cane looked at me.
“We don’t have any for children,” she said gruffly.
“I’m looking for adult-sized ones,” Mister said. The old woman huffed in annoyance and brought out red trunks, tiger-striped trunks, and blue trunks with white hibiscus flowers.
“Which ones would you pick?” Mister asked me, and when I pointed at the blue ones, Mister bought them. Once we left the store, I whispered in his ear.
“That old lady was so rude.”
Mister didn’t seem to mind at all.
“A lot of things become troublesome when you get old,” he said.
We rode along the bumpy sidewalk, which made my butt hurt a little. We passed the police station where I’d asked for directions yesterday, went through the front of the station, and crossed the train tracks. As we went down a gentle slope, I could see the ocean beyond it. It was the ocean I’d seen on my way here. It was just as sparkly as I’d last seen it.
The beach was an endless stretch of sand. There were lots of adults and kids. Mister left the bike at the beach’s bike racks and changed into his swimming trunks in the change room beside a shop. We left our clothes and bags in a locker, freeing our hands. Now that we were fully ready, I couldn’t hold myself in anymore. I went running out into the sand. Mister followed behind.
The sand made soft crunching sounds. The small grains got into my shoes, and my feet felt gritty. It was annoying, so I took off my shoes and went barefoot. The sand felt a little hot.
At primary school we’d learned that before getting into a pool we had to do warm-up exercises, then enter feet-first, then splash water onto our chests to get our body used to the cold water. I remembered everything. But what did that matter now?
I raised a shout as I waded into the ocean. I splashed the water aside, letting the waves hit my body full-force. They receded, then came again. It was different from the waves at the pool. Way different.
It was my first time swimming in the ocean. We’d gone to the ocean on school hikes, but it was still spring and we hadn’t been allowed to swim. We could only play on the sand near the shore.
A massive wave washed over my head.
“It’s salty!” I said as I spat the water out.
“Of course it’s salty. It’s the ocean,” Mister said, laughing. Then he started splashing water into my face like he was teasing me. It made me mad, so I splashed him back. Then, he splashed me so hard that I couldn’t retaliate. I ran away, but Mister chased after me. I wanted to run faster, but the water weighed my legs down and I couldn’t run very well. Soon, I fell forward. My body sank into the water, and I was flailing until I was grabbed by the arm and hoisted up out of the water.
“Mister, stop being mean!” I yelled.
“Sorry,” Mister grinned, not looking sorry at all. Small waves lapped against us.
“Nao, don’t you wanna try going to the deep end?” Mister was looking out into the horizon.
“No way. I’d be scared if I drowned.”
“We won’t go that deep. If you’re scared, you can ride on my shoulders.”
My heart soared.
“C-Can I? Can I really?”
Mister broke into a grin and dove underneath Nao’s crotch, then stood up. The water sloshed as it cascaded off of him, and Nao’s line of sight was suddenly elevated.
“Whoa! Cool! I’m so high up!”
“Hey, don’t kick your feet like that. You’ll fall.”
Mister grabbed my feet, so I settled down. But my feelings weren’t settled down. I was excited. I was really getting a ride on his shoulders. I’d always wanted to do this. I’d always been jealous of kids who got to ride on their dads’ shoulders. I’d always told myself I had to do without because I didn’t have a dad.
Mister walked towards the deep end with me still on his shoulders. Soon, it got so deep the water came up to Mister’s shoulders, even without any waves.
“My feet won’t touch the bottom anymore, would they?”
“If I fall off, would I drown?”
The moment I said those words, I was thrown off with a splash. My body sank with a gurgle, and everything looked blue. I could see lots of bubbles rising before my eyes. I couldn’t breathe. I was scared. Once I floated up and got my face out of the water, Mister pulled me by the arms. I threw my arms around his big neck. I’d been scared out of my mind being thrown off, but here I was clinging to the very person who threw me into the water. I was patted on my wet head, and even though I was angry at him, I felt happy. He’s like my dad. My real dad, I thought.
We returned to the shallow end. My feet could touch the bottom now, and I wasn’t scared anymore, but I held on tight to Mister’s hand, which was like a father’s hand. Mister Meany was looking at something. His eyes were glued to the big black inner tube that was bobbing on the water in the distance.
“Nao, what’s that?”
“I think it’s an inner tube.”
The person using the big doughnut-like inner tube was an adult.
“There were lots beside the shop. It said you could rent them.”
The big hand pulled mine.
“We’re gonna borrow one of those.”
“Okay!” I answered loudly.
We rented a big, doughnut-shaped inner tube. Mister settled his bottom in the big hole in the middle, and flung his arms and legs out of the doughnut and bobbed in the water. I sat on top of him, my body overlapping Mister’s. I closed my eyes. When we were rocking gently back and forth like this, it made me feel like I’d become an otter.
Staying still like this was starting to make me hot. The sun’s rays beat down on my whole body, and it hurt.
“Mister, it’s hot.”
Mister splashed sea water on me. Then it felt cool.
“Wonder where we’ll drift off to if we keep sitting here like this,” Mister murmured.
“We’ll probably end up waaaaay out there.”
“You think we’ll get to Spain?”
“Foreign countries are really far away. We’ll probably get eaten by sharks first.”
“Oh, but before that, we might go hungry and die.”
“Then we’ll just catch fish to eat.”
I could see Mister’s hands flexing.
“We’ll catch ‘em and swallow ‘em whole. They’ll be hopping when we catch them. They’ll still be hopping in your stomach.”
I imagined swallowing a fish whole. It would be scary to swallow big ones, but I felt like I’d be okay with small fish, like a medaka.
“I’m hungry...” Mister muttered.
“I’m hungry,” I muttered after him.
“Let’s get something to eat.” With that, Mister splish-splashed the water with both hands and paddled the long way back to shore.
- Blocks of dried/concentrated curry sauce, which can be melted straight into the meat and vegetable broth. See pictures here. (back)
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).