I suppose this is a kind of thematic sequel to #18—A Bear Discovers Fire.
However, it isn't from that continuity or any other I've written so far. It can't be, for obvious reasons.
A Bear Discovers Tears
being an excerpt from the secret sections of ‘The Autobiography of Hakamichi Jigoro’ (2008 Edition)
My name is Hakamichi Jigoro, and I am writing this in ink, using the traditional style. This is to make clear the difference between the document I am creating here and the one that is my official autobiography. The reasons for such a difference may become obvious to the discerning reader. If you are not so discerning, too bad.
(Editor’s Note: In this English edition, I have attempted to preserve the nuances and atmosphere of the original. Sadly, in Mr Hakamichi’s case, the potency of his words and the forcefulness of his directions with regard to editorial policy render such attempts challenging at the very least, and often impossible.)
This story, which I have, in uncharacteristic indecision, not yet decided to include in my autobiography, is one that began a long time ago. I will tell the real story, and then I will tell you the story I would have written, if I could. Alas, I am not a god.
It is awkward. I am doing what a father must. I am in the quiet place that I am at, every March, every May. There are several occasions in each year you can rely upon for me to be in this place. Of course, I am someone who is more dutiful than that, and indeed, for years, I visited at least once a month, or even more frequently. Now I come here for inspiration, when my mind is tired and the elegant phrasing of my words is broken.
“Kitsune,” I whisper, using the nickname I had given her in my youth, “My voiceless fox-child, I hope you can somehow understand that I wish that you were happy.”
It seems needlessly sentimental. But I look down, and Shizune does seem happy. She says nothing, of course, as usual. She is dead, as is her mother. My heart was broken the first time around, and a broken vessel is already broken—further breaking doesn’t make it more so. Broken is broken. Or so I thought.
I am useless with stories, I sometimes think. But I have a book, I have written a book. So I imagine this is just another chapter of my ‘Art of Juggling’, and I keep on writing. Let me set it down, and you will see.
One day in spring, which is beautiful in my chosen home of Saitama, I am cleaning the stones and offering the favourite food—a delicacy of Hokkaido, milk biscuits from the Sapporo Agricultural College. If you are a foreigner reading this, think of it as a common folk ritual carried out to respect those who have gone before. My Shizune always liked those biscuits, which my wife Mayoi used to receive from her brother’s company; and so I always associate these treats with the females missing from my life.
It is then that I notice the woman watching me. With my lightning eye, I profile and outline her. Younger than I am. Slightly busty, a little fleshy, medium-brown hair which is naturally that colour and hence unusual. Also, indulging in behaviour that is awkward to say the least, and impolite to some extent.
With a start that shows lack of deliberate intent, she realizes she is being rude, and bows swiftly in my direction. “Honourable sir, very sorry for intruding on you, very sorry. Hai, very sorry.”
Of course I am irritated. This is my quiet personal time. I have not even brought the sprout today, because he has work to do at home, and I thought it best to let him apply his will to industrious behaviour.
Yet she has apologised intensely, if not elegantly, and so I respect that. She is not bad-looking or unkempt. She is just a little blousy, or whatever word you would use to describe a typical housewife type. She is wearing a long-sleeved well-knit top, and long skirts too. Her clothing lacks transparency, being quite modest.
“You are forgiven,” I reply courteously. Courtesy is one mark of the gentleman, in certain situations. I am about to turn away and resume my meditations when I think to add a few more words: “To what do I owe your ‘intrusion’?”
The woman blushes. I wait. Then she speaks, rather shyly, softly, almost as if she expects me to swing a blade at her or something. “Those biscuits, they were my daughter’s favourites as well.”
With something almost akin to horror, I see her uncover a cream-coloured box almost exactly like the one I’m carrying. The familiar, rather plain but descriptive, design elicits immediate recognition from me: Sapporo Agricultural College milk biscuits.
I sigh. I am Hakamichi Jigoro, not some mendicant priest to be importuned by the ignorant for the telling of fortunes or some idle chit-chat. But I don’t think this is the situation. Perhaps the gods are tweaking my beard, and I should respond cautiously.
“My family name is Hakamichi. I too have lost a daughter.”
“My family name is Kobayashi. I’m very sorry to have annoyed you.”
Annoyed? Am I really annoyed? Surely not… well, yes, I am. I chastise myself momentarily for lack of control over the visible aspects of emotion, and try to give her a genuine smile. I haven’t managed it since Mayoi went away, to be honest, and I haven’t even tried since Shizune left me.
“No, it is no trouble, Kobayashi-san.”
Somehow, time passes. One thing leads to another. And a month goes by. A month, and another month, and another month. It turns out we are both quite dutiful in our observances, and becoming more so.
Almost a year has passed. We are sitting in a little café just around the corner from the cemetery. I have no idea when Madam Kobayashi and I became ‘we’. She is an almost-divorced widow, in that strange world where halfway through divorce proceedings, normally quite short in my country, one party is removed from the face of the earth. She has just told me she would much have preferred to be an almost-widowed divorcee.
“That is a most peculiar sentiment, madam,” I exclaim drily. If anyone can exclaim in a dry and unexcitable fashion, it is my son Hideaki. Let it never be said that Jigoro refuses to learn from others.
Actually, it is indeed peculiar, but I understand why she feels that way. I have done my research. As a Hakamichi, one learns to use the tools of the trade: the Family network and its various appurtenances, and one’s own native intelligence and ingenuity.
“It’s not so strange, Jigoro!” she says fiercely. “My soon to be ex-husband should have been beaten and tortured first, and then allowed to live in a jail cell forever. He and his inane laughter, together as life companions!”
She says no more. But I know what she is hiding. Her husband was a maniac. He thought he was an emperor’s illegitimate son, something that would never be countenanced in our society. He thought that gave him the right to beat his wife and daughter, the bastard!
The daughter would’ve been about Shizune’s age. Let me tell you something about that daughter, from her own mother’s lips.
The poor girl had been cheerful, although unfortunately prone to loud outbursts of laughter. She had always wanted to be friendly and helpful. These traits did not change, even after several stiff beatings over the year, and a diet of daily abuse. One beating left her half-deaf. Another left her perpetually dizzy. One day, a little blood vessel in her head burst, and it ended there.
I find myself musing aloud. Before I can stop myself, I ask a rather forward question. “If your daughter had lived, what would she have been?”
Madam Kobayashi is somewhat taken aback, but she considers my interrogation calmly enough. A brief pause, as if to collect the right words, and then she answers with a series of heartbreaking words.
“My Shiina, she wanted to be an interpreter for the deaf. After she lost part of her hearing, all she could say was that it must be very hard for those who were deaf in both ears. She dreamt that she’d meet a deaf friend and between them they would share an ear together, she used to say. But before she got to high school, she was… gone.”
Years may pass, but grief doesn’t diminish. It just spreads from intense pain to a dull, broad ache of melancholy. Sometimes, it pulls itself together, in a flash, a moment of sudden agony. That can bring clarity, it can bring an opportunity to unburden the soul. I know, because it has happened to me.
I look at the grieving widow, this lady in which ‘grief’ and ‘widowhood’ are separate and unrelated. She fixes me with her intense golden gaze as if asking me to respond, and it surprises me even then, that I do so.
“My Shizune, she was deaf, and along with that, unspeaking. We tried to get along, but I was stubborn, and in the end, after my wife left us, I… sent her away to a school where she would be better taken care of. She would write letters to me, wishing for a friend who could share her problems and difficulties as she grew up. She never found one.”
“What happened?” Madam Kobayashi asks, her eyes large. It’s a very impolite question, but I have come to understand that with her, it is genuine and comes from deep personal concern. So, it is not rude at all.
“She fell off the school roof,” I say bluntly. I can’t say more.
Things happen. More months pass. One day, I walk through the front door of my own home, my manly posture much recovered over the months. Hideaki looks up from the book he is reading, some foreign book. It is one of a set about ‘The Art of Computer Programming’, by an unpronounceable author who doesn’t know how to number his volumes. My son seems to like that kind of thing.
“Father,” he says in greeting. He actually stands up to give me a nod, what passes for a bow these days.
I favour him with the steely gaze of the father who expects more, but I’m in a good mood, so there is nothing more biting than that. “Son,” I reply.
Normally, that’s most of our conversation. But my male offspring is looking at me with what I can only think of as a dodgy look.
“What?” I ask. “Is it the ‘Art of Computer Programming’ that makes you want to analyse your father’s face? Better you should read my ‘Art of Juggling’ instead, and learn something more broadly useful!”
“Have you done all those things that would have been most optimal yet?”
“What?” I ask again. Stop that, Jigoro!
I say to myself. Repetition is not a sign of cultural excellence.
“Madam Kobayashi, Father. I estimate it is of high probability that you should have by now eliminated her evil husband and courted her towards resolution. Mother’s been gone a long time, and we both need a replacement. Your cooking is terrible and you never remove the eggshells from the omelettes.”
I am suddenly aware that my mouth is hanging open. “Wh…” I begin, somewhat weakly, before realizing that to say the same something three times in a row is silly and only happens in fairy-tales. I disguise my lapse by continuing, “Where did you get all these funny ideas, sprout?”
“You’ve taught me to be observant. So I have observed. You have repeatedly ranted about how one should use the computer for informative and educational purposes. So I have done so.”
I raise an eyebrow, daring him to continue. To his credit, he blinks, and does.
“She’s rather pretty, Father. And I am sure Big Sister would have approved.”
Even Jigoro of House Hakamichi has a breaking point. I stride towards him and embrace him in the manly fashion. It works well so that he cannot see my tears. Unfortunately, I leak upon his roof, in a manner of speaking, and he complains about the wetness.
Now, more than a year later, we are a happy family. But when we go together to pay our respects, I sometimes exchange glances with Kobayashi, whose personal name is Minori. We’ve often wondered how our lives would have changed, if Shizune, my little fox-girl, and Shiina, her little helpmate, could have met and become friends.
Perhaps, in some other universe, this was true.