Free Short Story – from Still Life and Other Stories

Still Life and Other Stories (Stone Bridge Press). Winner of the Pen Center West Award, this delicate collection of thirteen linked tales reveals the flow of daily life in the modern Japanese family. Junzo Shono’s artful layering of commonplace events, images, and conversations has been compared to haiku poetry crossed with an Ozu film.

“Shono conveys both intimacy and distance, tranquility and tension, as he explores the shifting relations between husband and wife, father and son, brother and sister.” –Publishers Weekly

* * *

“Two Men and the Autumn Wind”

“those things really make my mouth water.”

Yomogida was on his way out, but he still had some time when he had finished getting ready, so he paused to watch his wife making rolled sushi for dinner.

Mrs. Yomogida knelt on the wood floor of the kitchen in front of the low table she’d brought in from the tatami room. The various makings were arranged before her on the table, and a cypress sushi tub filled with rice sat on the floor to her right. She had bought this tub at the department store just last spring, and the wood still looked brand new. After seasoning it by soaking it for a day and a night in vinegared water, she had given the tub its maiden outing when she made some country-style sushi on the anniversary of Yomogida’s mother’s death.

Until then, she had had to make do with the largest of her mixing bowls. Unfortunately, its deep bottom made it hard to cool the steaming rice quickly enough when tossing it with the vinegar sauce. The rice tended to stay soggy.

Getting a proper sushi tub had made a big difference. The tub’s broad bottom let her spread the rice out in a nice thin layer, and because the wooden sides and bottom absorbed some of the steam as she mixed, the rice came out light and tasty. There’s always something better about things that have been used since olden times.

Mrs. Yomogida reached for a sheet of nori at her far left. Directly in front of her on the table was a cutting board. On the cutting board she had spread a small bamboo mat, and, on the bamboo mat, a dishcloth. Now she laid the sheet of nori on this dishcloth.

Next, she took the rice ladle (she had bought this at the same time as the tub—a large and easy-to-use ladle several times the size of an ordinary one) and lifted some rice onto the nori, pressing it down as she evened it out.

Waiting on individual plates on the table were the fillings, each cooked in its own sauce: freeze-dried tofu, shiitake mushrooms, shaved gourd strips (the mushrooms and gourd strips were on the same plate), sweet omelette, cucumber strips, and trefoil. Mrs. Yomogida’s fingers danced from plate to plate, picking up fillings and lining them up on top of the rice. The long gourd strips had to make a round-trip over and back across the rice to fit.

When the fillings were all in place, she dipped her fingers in a bowl of water and pressed down on the rice here and there. Yomogida asked what that was for, and she said to flatten the spots that weren’t even. After dipping her fingers in the water one more time to moisten the far edge of the nori (so this edge would stick to the other), she raised herself up on her knees and began rolling the front of the bamboo mat toward the back.

The small bamboo mat, hardly any larger than the nori, moved almost like magic in Mrs. Yomogida’s hands, and in less than a jiffy everything had been wrapped into a cylinder.

Finally, after giving a quick twist to the dishcloth protruding from each end of the cylinder (this firmed up the rice so it wouldn’t spill out the ends), she spread open the bamboo mat and dishcloth to reveal the completed sushi roll.

“I didn’t know you intended to go out today. That’s why I decided to make sushi,” Mrs. Yomogida said after transferring the finished roll to a plate. That made five. “Why don’t you have a few pieces before you go?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said vaguely, leaving it unclear whether he would or he wouldn’t. “They sure do look good, though.”

“You wouldn’t want to take any along, I don’t suppose,” she said. “Since you’re going drinking, I mean.”

“I think not.”

“But you could have a few pieces before you go.”

She chose one of the five rolls lined up on the plate and placed it on the cutting board. After wiping her large kitchen knife twice on a wet dishcloth, she began slicing.

“The end pieces here,” she said, “taste best. They have lots of the fillings and not so much rice.” After each cut she wiped the blade again on the wet dishcloth.

“My dead brother used to like nori rolls, I remember,” Yomogida said. “When he was on the swim team in high school and they were having training camp, if he went out somewhere and came back late, he used to buy one of these rolls at the shop in front of the station and walk back to camp eating it along the way. He’d chomp on it whole as he walked along the river.”

“Really?”

“So when my brother and his friends gave each other nicknames, they called my brother ‘Cutless.’”

“Cutless?”

“Uh-huh. He ate the whole roll without cutting it, so he was Cutless.”

Mrs. Yomogida laughed.

“I was only in grade school then, but I still remember it. You know, I bet they really do taste better if you eat them whole like that.”

“They must!”

“He said he held it like this and just bit off mouthfuls from the end as he walked. Of course, that wouldn’t work if it were already sliced. He couldn’t have eaten while he walked.”

“I suppose not.”

Mrs. Yomogida stood up to get a saucer from the cupboard, placed one of the newly cut pieces on it, and held it out for Yomogida. He took it and put it in his mouth.

“Mmm-mmm,” he said.

“How about some more?”

“No, one’s enough.”

His eyes lingered on the rolls lined up on the plate. Their nori cloaks had such an inviting sheen, and they looked so plump and satisfying. They’d swallowed up all those different fillings, and yet gave not a hint on the outside, sitting there casually as though they were nothing more than met the eye.

It’d sure be nice if I could take some to Shibahara, Yomogida thought. In fact, this same thought had been going through his mind for several minutes. Shibahara was the friend he would meet at six o’clock today. His wife had died two years before, and he now lived alone with his only daughter, a high school senior.

Yomogida and Shibahara had already met twice during summer vacation. Actually, it was Shibahara who had a summer vacation, since he was a college teacher. Yomogida stayed home all year long, writing stories or thinking about what he would write next, so the idea of a vacation didn’t really apply to him. Strictly speaking, that is. In practice, when school let out for the summer and his three children started hanging around the house all day, the rhythms of his own activities quite naturally fell in step with theirs.

The get-togethers of the two men had no particular purpose except to talk about whatever came to mind over a few drinks, and they always began at the same beer hall in the basement of a department store next to one of the main rapid transit terminals in the city. The first one to arrive waited for the other on the sidewalk at the top of the basement stairs, which, being also the entrance to an underground walkway, saw a constant flow of pedestrians.

They had met there once at the beginning of July and once toward the middle of August. Today was the first of September, so Shibahara’s classes would start up again in about four or five days. They wanted to get together before that happened, to catch up on their talking one last time.

Yomogida had been the one who phoned.

“Right now my daughter’s away,” Shibahara said, “But she should be back in about two hours, and then I can go out.”

“School?”

“No, school doesn’t start until next week. She went to visit her cousins.”

Since there was no one else to watch the house, Shibahara said he would call when his daughter got back, and they could decide on a time then. He hung up the phone. Almost exactly two hours later, he called to say his daughter had returned.

In the Shibahara household, it was the daughter—she looked and sounded just like her mother—who cooked the meals. She’d learned to cook by watching her mother, and her specialties were hamburger steaks and potstickers. But Yomogida wondered if she ever steamed komatsuna greens or sautéed burdock and carrots to make the garnishes that gave color to a meal. And did she make rolled sushi? Yomogida doubted she ever went to that kind of trouble.

If Yomogida were on his way to visit Shibahara at home, he could take some of these nori rolls along, but meeting in town made things awkward. It would probably be after midnight by the time Shibahara got home, so even if Yomogida took him some sushi to share with his daughter, it would be tomorrow before they had a chance to eat it. The fillings might still be just as good, but the nori and rice would not. It seemed a waste.

In that case, Yomogida went on pondering, how would it be if he took some along for the two of them to eat tonight, whenever they thought they’d had about enough to drink?

“Let’s stop in for some rice balls,” Shibahara often suggested when they were nearing the time to head home. Even when they ate something fairly substantial early in the evening, by midnight they were usually hungry again. Tonight they could eat this sushi instead of their usual rice balls.

The tricky part might be deciding just when and where, though. Most times when they went out, the evening had a kind of flow to it, and they could simply drift along with that flow knowing it would eventually tell them when it was time to go home. But if taking the sushi along put him on edge, wondering when was the right time, it could turn into a troublesome piece of baggage.

Yomogida was still turning all this over in his mind when it came time to leave the house.

“How many minutes fast is that clock?” he asked.

His wife glanced back at the clock under the dish cupboard. “Seven,” she said. “So it should actually be about 4:30 right now.”

“Good,” he said, setting his watch by his wife’s calculation. “I think maybe I’ll be going.”

“Yes, if you start now, you’ll have plenty of time.”

Rising from the table, Mrs. Yomogida went to the front foyer and took out Yomogida’s shoes from the shoe cupboard.

“Last time,” said Yomogida, stepping into his shoes, “the train pulled in just before I got to the station, and I missed it by seconds. It made me five minutes late. I wouldn’t want to keep Shibahara waiting again.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

He now had his shoes on, and the only thing left was to open the door and leave, but he paused.

“I’ll bet they never have homemade sushi at the Shibahara’s,” he said.

“No, I don’t suppose they do. Will you take some along, then?”

“Maybe I should,” he said, carried along by the strength of his wife’s voice.      “Yes, why don’t you? Wait just a second, I’ll wrap some up.”

They both went back to the kitchen.

“I have the perfect container.” She opened the cupboard and took out a foil au gratin pan, then kneeled at the table again, selected the nicest looking roll, wiped her knife on the wet cloth, and started slicing.

“I’ve got plenty of time,” Yomogida said as he stood watching.

“Yes, I know.”

“Put those end pieces in, too.”

“Okay. I’ll do that.”

* * *

Yomogida stood at the edge of the sidewalk near the rear corner of the department store, looking up and down the street and watching the people go by. Since his arrival a chill wind had begun to blow.

This time a train had pulled in exactly as he got to the station, and he’d decided to go ahead and take it even though he knew it would make him arrive too early. How could he pass up a train that seemed to have come just for him? Since he’d not only left the house earlier but also caught a train without having to wait, he wound up getting there a full thirty minutes ahead of time.

“I should have worn my jacket.”

Yomogida had worn only a short-sleeved shirt and light pants, and brought with him only the package of sushi, like a take-out lunch. He’d been kicking himself for his mistake almost from the moment he’d arrived.

It wasn’t that he thought he should have worn his jacket because August had turned to September today. He thought so because it actually was cold.

When he left the house, the sun still shone high in the sky. It had in fact been quite a hot day.

The sun was still shining, too, when his train crossed the big river where sailboats dotted the water. But by the time it had passed through the sparsely built outskirts of the city to where the houses gradually crowded closer together, the women he saw walking the nearby streets with their shopping baskets had taken on an evening glow. That was when he really began to worry about the bare arms extending from his short-sleeved shirt.

In fact, to tell the truth, it was only a short time after leaving the house that he had first started thinking he should have worn his jacket. But by then he had already descended the steep hill by the cliff, and he was reluctant to turn back. He’d left home early, all right, but if he went back to get his jacket now, it might make him late. Perhaps not oh-so-terribly late, but probably just-a-few-minutes late, like the last time.

Besides, this was no place for dashing home to get something he suddenly realized he should have brought. To run up that steep hill by the cliff was out of the question. Just running up, he could perhaps manage—if that were the end of it. But to run up the hill and get his jacket and then have to turn around and run the whole long way to the station would be a test beyond his endurance. At times like this, living on top of a hill had its disadvantages.

If it were something else, Yomogida thought—something like his train ticket or his wallet—then he’d have to go back no matter what. But he was only talking about a jacket, not something he simply couldn’t do without. It was merely a precaution: he was going drinking and he’d be out late and it might get cold; if he wore his jacket, he wouldn’t have to worry about the cold.

In the end Yomogida chose to walk on toward the station dressed as he was rather than risk being late by going back for his jacket.

“It’s not as if I’ll be spending time in a refrigerator,” he mumbled to himself.

When his wife had put his shirt out for him, she had chosen one with a warmer fabric—a shirt suited to the period a little before summer, around June. She hadn’t completely forgotten that it would cool off in the evening, but rather had made what she thought was the perfect choice for the circumstances.

As Yomogida stood at the edge of the sidewalk watching the passersby, he mainly observed the men. A lot of them still had on short-sleeved shirts. Now and then a man with thinning hair and quite evidently much older than Yomogida would walk by wearing an ordinary short-sleeved shirt.

“Now there’s a man who’s kept his vigor,” Yomogida thought. “That’s the way to be.”

On the other hand, when he saw a young man who still looked like a student walk by sheathed head to toe in an obviously new and expensive suit, he felt somehow let down.

Those wearing suits were clearly in the minority, and most of the men coming from work were still in summer wear. But seeing so many short-sleeved shirts held no consolation for Yomogida. These people, after all, had finished their day’s labors and were now headed straight homeward. They had dressed themselves correctly for working during the day at the office. Even if a nippy breeze came up after the sun went down, all they had to do was get on the train and go home. Short sleeves were fine.

But Yomogida had remained at home during the heat of the day and come into town about the time everything cooled off. And he’d dressed exactly the same as the people who’d worked in downtown offices during the day—even though he planned to be out until near midnight.

If you divided the passersby into two groups, the people headed home and the people staying in town, those staying in town were wearing suits. There was no way to know what kind of business they had or where they might be going, but the men who were on their way to evening appointments had all fortified themselves with suits. There were no bare arms among them, only bare faces. And they strode briskly by in front of Yomogida with the confident air of men who had taken full measure of what the evening held in store.

Behind the stairs leading down to the basement, set back a little from the sidewalk, was an elevator. The elevator provided direct service to a beer garden on the roof (Yomogida had never gone there), and four or five young men serving as touts hung about the stairway—standing, squatting, and sitting on the steps.

“Rooftop beer garden! Right this way!”

Their job, it appeared, was to call this out and point toward the elevator whenever they saw a potential customer, but in all the time Yomogida had been watching, the only ones to go in were a middle-aged man in an open-collared shirt and his date.

The young men seemed quite bored. One of them came out onto the sidewalk and stood beside Yomogida watching the cars and busses race by on the street. They all wore white, short-sleeved shirts, but none of them showed any sign of being cold.

They simply had nothing to do because they weren’t getting any customers.

* * *

 “I’m afraid I’m a little late,” Shibahara said as they started down the stairs.

“Not at all,” Yomogida said. “I got here way ahead of time. It was only 5:30.”

“Sorry about that.”

“No, no, not at all. I was late last time, so I wanted to make sure I’d be on time today, and I left the house a bit early. But then a train came as soon as I reached the station, and that made me get here even earlier than I’d planned.”

Shibahara had worn a jacket, and under his jacket he had on a long-sleeved shirt.

I knew it, Yomogida thought. I, the one with a wife, came in short sleeves, while Shibahara, who lives alone with his daughter, came appropriately jacketed.

He doubted it was the daughter who’d thought of the evening chill and told Shibahara to wear his jacket. True, she was a girl and a high school senior, so she might well be attentive to her father’s needs. But she probably wouldn’t think of something like that. No. It had to be Shibahara himself.

“I suppose I’d better wear my jacket today,” he’d no doubt said to himself. “It’ll get pretty chilly after dark.”

The last time, too, Shibahara had come in a long-sleeved shirt. That was in the middle of August, when one sun-scorched day followed another. Even at a time like that, because he knew they’d be out until late, he’d worn a long-sleeved shirt. Yomogida had come in a thin, short-sleeved shirt.

We’re backward, Yomogida thought. You’d think I was the one living alone with my daughter, and Shibahara was the one with a wife.

Actually, Shibahara had always been careful this way, even before his wife died. In early winter, when office workers still went about in the daytime without their overcoats, Shibahara wore his overcoat any time he expected to be out after dark.

Maybe the illness that had kept him in bed once for nearly half a year had taught him to be more careful about his health. Or could it really have all been from his wife’s attentiveness? Perhaps it wasn’t either of them in particular, but both tried to be careful.

Reaching the bottom of the steps, Yomogida and Shibahara came to their usual beer hall. They could not find any empty tables, but when they turned back after surveying the room all the way to the rear, a waiter they knew showed them to a table already occupied by another man.

This was what they did here whenever the place got crowded. The man was older than Yomogida and Shibahara, and he had a tankard of beer on the table in front of him.

“Excuse us,” they said with a bow and sat down.

“I wonder if I’ll forget this if I put it under here,” Yomogida said, peering under the table. “Seems a bit chancy.”

“What is it?”

“A nori roll.”

“A present for your wife?”

“No, no. She was making them when I was getting ready to leave. I thought it might be nice to have some while we drank.”

“Oh, so you brought it from home?” Shibahara had seen the department store wrapping paper and jumped to conclusions. “I thought maybe you’d bought it. While you were waiting for me.”

“No, it’s homemade. She was rolling them right when I was about to leave, and they looked so good . . .”

“Well then, we can have some later.”

A waiter brought a plate of skewered shrimp to the man sitting beside them. The man picked up his knife and fork and dug right in. It was the dish Yomogida and Shibahara always ordered first when they came here

* * *

“The other day I stepped out to the bookstore, and on my way home I saw this great-looking French bread,” Shibahara said.

The man beside them had long since finished his shrimp and departed, leaving the table to the two of them.

“So I bought a loaf and took it home and had some that evening with my whiskey. It’s really good with a little bit of butter, because of the salt.”

“I can imagine.”

“Well, at first I was breaking off small pieces by hand and putting them in my mouth, but after a while that started to seem like too much trouble, so I picked up the whole loaf and tried to bite a piece straight off with my teeth. You know, I’d always told my daughter it was bad manners not to break the bread into small pieces first, but there I was sticking the whole loaf in my mouth. Then all of a sudden I heard this big noise.”

“Where?”

“Right in my mouth. My daughter sat there staring at me, saying ‘What’d you do, Dad?’ You should have seen the startled look on her face.”

“It must have been an awfully big noise.”

“I guess. I didn’t know what it was, but it seemed like I’d bitten into something hard in the bread.”

“And?”

“I wondered, What could that have been? and then out comes my false tooth, broken clean in two right at the gum.” Shibahara laughed. “What a surprise!”

“One tooth?”

“Uh-huh. Right here.” He touched his cheek at the spot. “I’ve already had a new one put in, of course, but, I mean, I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before.”

“I’ve never heard anything like it either.”

“I got that tooth year before last in December, so it hasn’t been quite two years yet. I remember feeling kind of disappointed when I had to have my own tooth pulled and replaced with a false one. Now I have to have this strange thing put into my mouth, I thought. Since it was only one tooth, they had to stabilize it with gold wires looped around the teeth on either side, you know, andI thought, what a bother, what a sad case. I forgot all about how sore it had been and started thinking, Oh, oh, oh, I wish I had my own tooth back, why was I so hasty, I’ve made a big mistake. But after a while I got used to it pretty well, and it didn’t bother me anymore.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I got so I played with it with my tongue, pushing it half-way off and pushing it back in place. I guess even with something like a false tooth, once you get used to it you start to grow fond of it. But then I went and busted it to pieces by biting into that loaf of French bread.”

This time Yomogida laughed.

“It’s like I chewed up my own tooth with my own teeth. I can’t blame anyone but myself.”

“So you chomped down hard on it when it had slipped part-way off?”

“That’s what I figure.”

The waiter came by and lifted the lid on Shibahara’s tankard. It was empty so he removed it from the table. Yomogida still had some left.

“Shall we order another?” Shibahara asked.

“Let’s do.” Yomogida reached for his wallet.

“I’ll pay this time,” Shibahara said. He took out a hundred yen bill and some change and handed it to the waiter.

“Two more of these.”

“Yes sir.”

The two men came here often enough that they knew quite a few of the waiters.

“So then,” Shibahara continued his tale, “I wrapped the broken tooth in some tissue paper and took it to the dentist. I didn’t think he’d be able to simply glue it back in place. It looked too far gone for that. Completely demolished. But I thought showing him the tooth would be the quickest way for him to see what had happened.”

“And there were the gold wires, too.”

“Uh-huh. I thought he might be able to reuse the wires. When I got there, I unwrapped the tissue paper to show the tooth and told him how there’d been this big noise when I was eating some French bread. Without batting an eye he said, ‘Well, then, we’ll just have to make a new one.’ That was the last I saw of that false tooth.”

“Uh-huh,” Yomogida nodded. “I suppose it felt a bit like you’d lost a friend.”

“A little bit. I thought, This is it? I don’t need it anymore, so it just disappears? It all seemed so sudden.”

“Yeah, even with something like a false tooth, if it’s been a part of your body for almost two years, it’d feel like a real loss.”

The waiter brought the two beers and wiped the wet spots on the table with a cloth.

“You’ve got good teeth, don’t you?” Shibahara said.

“Well, I’m not so sure anymore. A tooth up here has been bothering me lately when I take a drink of water.” Yomogida pressed a finger to his cheek. “I get this piercing pain.”

“Oh, now that sounds bad. Once they get sensitive to liquids, you’ve got to be prepared for the worst.”

“I can’t gargle or rinse my mouth because the water goes straight to that tooth. You know we’re on a well at our place, right? Well, when that icy well water hits—”

“It really smarts,” Shibahara said, laughing. “And let me tell you, it doesn’t take well water to do that.”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve got an exposed nerve, and that’s what it hits. It’s gum disease.”

“I know. They started warning me ten years ago. They said I had gum disease, and it’d get worse and worse.”

“I’d say you’ve got troubles ahead.”

“You think so?”

“It’s not so bad so long as it’s only cold liquids, but when hot liquids start to bother you, too, then you can’t ignore it any more. Or when it suddenly starts aching in the middle of the night—now that’s when it really gets bad. You won’t be able to stand it.”

“Don’t scare me like that,” Yomogida said.

“I’m not just scaring you. I’m telling you exactly how it was for me.”

“I suppose I believe you,” Yomogida said, and then added, “Actually, my wife says pretty much the same thing.”

“Does she have bad teeth?”

“Uh-huh. Cavities and gum disease, both. Bad news all around. When I told her my tooth bothered me when I took a drink, she said hers were that way all the time. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and she said it hadn’t been so bad since she got the two worst ones pulled, but until then it was constant. When I asked her if it was the same for hot liquids, she said hot or cold made no difference.”

“And you didn’t know about it?”

“She’d never said anything, so I had no idea. How was I to know she had trouble with both hot and cold? After twenty years, I finally find this out.”

Shibahara laughed. “So I suppose your tooth is sensitive to beer, too,” he said.

“Uh-huh. I have to drink like this,” Yomogida pursed his lips for a moment, “blocking off one side of my mouth and letting the beer through the other side. I keep the beer away from the tooth that hurts.”

“Sounds like you’ve worked it out.”

“Of course! I don’t particularly care if I have to go without gargling or rinsing my mouth, but I’m not about to give up drinking beer. So I figured out a way. I have to admit, though, drinking with pursed lips takes away some of the flavor.”

“It does, huh?”

“Yeah, you can’t beat drinking with an open mouth. To begin with, it’s more efficient.”

They both laughed.

“Anyway, that’s why I’ve been slowing the pace today. You always finish your mug first, when I’ve still got a ways to go.”

“Never mind that. I’m in no hurry. If you’d like we can switch to saké.”

“That’s okay. As I drink, I get so I can’t tell any more whether the tooth bothers me or not.”

Yomogida’s package of sushi sat unopened on the table next to the plate of crisp-fried chicken they’d been eating since finishing their skewered shrimp. The package was small enough that it had not gotten in the way. At first, Yomogida had put it on the rack under the table, but later on Shibahara had suggested he move it to where they’d be sure to see it and not forget it.

* * *

“Overlooking the beach where we swim, at the top of some stone steps, there’s a small shrine.”

Yomogida was in the midst of a story. Gone from the table was the chicken plate, and gone, too, was the plate for the asparagus spears they had ordered next. Gourd-shaped saké servers and small saké cups had replaced the large beer tankards. A plate of pickled pepper leaves had come with the saké, but it was so salty that neither of them had touched it much.

“It sits on a bluff. The first time we go swimming on the day we get there, we always stop by this shrine on our way down to the beach. And on the day we come home, we stop by again. In the course of ten years, going back to that same village over and over, it somehow got to be our custom.”

“Do the children go up to the shrine with you, too?”

“Uh-huh. The very first time we went I was thinking, if the village has a shrine we should visit it. Since we were going to be staying there for several days I thought we should pay our respects to the local divinities. So we went and told them we’d come to swim at their beach, and thanked them for their hospitality. We didn’t know then that we’d keep going back year after year, so that first time we really didn’t think of it as anything more than a simple greeting.”

“You say it’s been ten years?”

“Uh-huh. In fact, if we count the years since our first trip, this is already the twelfth year. But three of those years we couldn’t make it, so we’ve only actually gone nine times.”

“Still, altogether it’s been more than ten years.”

“That’s right.”

Shibahara lifted his saké server and poured into Yomogida’s cup.

“This year we went to the shrine as usual on the day we arrived, in our swim suits, but as we came up to the front of the shrine, this old man was there and he kept repeating something to us. We couldn’t understand him at first, but then we realized he was saying, ‘The festival is over.’ I said, ‘Is that right?’ and we all went on up to the shrine and prayed, but when we turned back he called out to us again and said ‘The festival is over.’”

“What could he have meant?”

“That’s what we wondered.”

“I suppose he thought you needed to know.”

“I suppose so. Maybe he was trying to say, ‘You folks look like you’ve come from far away, but what a shame. The festival at this shrine was over just the other day. If you had only come a little sooner, you could have seen the festival. What a shame.’”

“‘The festival is over,’ huh?” Shibahara tried saying it himself. “It’s a good phrase.”

“Yeah, it is,” Yomogida agreed. “In all those years, we never came across anyone else praying at that shrine. Not a one. I remember the very first year, they had an outdoor movie there to bring people out in the evening cool, and the children and the old grannies from the village were all spread out on straw mats they’d brought from home. But that’s the only other time we’ve seen anyone else there.”

“So then maybe the old man was happy because you came to pray there with your whole family, but he also felt sorry because you’d made the special trip when nothing was going on.”

“And he was trying to let us know.”

“Something like that, anyway.”

A waiter came by.

“How’s the saké? Shall we get one more?” Shibahara said. Both of their servers were empty.

“Yes, let’s.”

Turning toward the familiar waiter, Shibahara lifted his gourd-shaped saké server from the table and said, “Another of these, please.”

“Yes sir.”

When the waiter had gone, Yomogida glanced at the package he’d brought and said, “What do you say? Shall we break out the sushi now?”

“Not yet.”

“Okay.”

Yomogida still hadn’t figured out when they should eat the sushi. They had been at the beer hall quite a long time, but they hadn’t decided yet where they would go next. They never decided that until they were ready to leave. Fallen leaves, swirling and stopping in the wind, eventually make their way onward. The night would grow deep, and sooner or later the time would come to go home.

“I think I told you this before,” Yomogida said, “but there’s a view from the train on the way there that never changes. It’s a really nice place, not far from the station where we get off. The tracks are set back a way from the ocean, and you gaze out the window at rice paddies stretching on and on with a small river flowing through them toward the sea.”

Shibahara nodded as if to say, yes, maybe he had heard this before but he had no objection to hearing it again.

“Two or three boys stand on the bank of the river doing something or other. A boat drifts slowly by, carrying a lone fisherman. There are several houses scattered about—”

“A river village of eight or nine houses,” Shibahara quoted from an old poem.

“—and every one of them is surrounded by trees. Oaks and black pines, I think. The sun beats down from above, and a gentle breeze stirs.”

“Mmm.”

“Every time I see that place, this feeling that I’m gazing at something truly marvelous comes over me. The scene hasn’t changed the tiniest bit since the first time we went, yet it doesn’t seem like that should be possible. You know how we normally go around thinking there’s nothing in the world that doesn’t change, there’s nothing in the world that remains the way it was. That’s how we see ourselves, as well as everything around us. It’s a kind of resignation, you could say,and we’re completely steeped in it, through and through. So when this scene that’s still exactly the same as last year comes into view, all I can do is gaze at it in wonder.”

“Hmm.”

“Maybe it’s also that we always go by that place when everything is at its best, at the very peak of the summer.”

“That could be.”

“You know how we sometimes say something’s ‘as beautiful as a dream’? I always think, ‘That’s what this is.’ I suppose it’s the bright sun that makes it that way.”

The saké came. Shibahara lifted the server by its neck and poured some into Yomogida’s cup. “It’s a little hot,” he said.

Yomogida took the server and poured for Shibahara. “Yes, a little,” he said.

 

 

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