theme: never forget my smile
by victoria minks
The sun turned sharp angles to peek through the tangle of overgrown trees into the garden. An old woman was sitting hunched over on a log, watching large black ants with an air of distraction. She turned her face to the light and scowled. “It is always so bright,” she fussed, turning so the sun hit her stooped back. The frown wrinkles didn’t ease in the dimness, though--they were her favorite accessory.
The people of the neighborhood knew her as “Ikeda Obasan”, her ancient husband called her Mama-san, and her cat only meowed at her. She was the only one who ever called her by her given name anymore-- Umeko. She had not heard it spoken since her mother had died, thirty years ago.
Umeko, she thought to herself, What a silly name for a woman your age. It was early March, and there was nothing in bloom but some straggling crocuses and the plum blossoms. Beauty in adversity, bah, She mused. Adversity brings nothing but pain and ugliness.
Somewhere beyond the confines of the garden, a child’s laugh rang out. Umeko flinched and rose. Crossing the mossy ground, she glimpsed through a crack in her wall-- she was too short to see over anymore-- and blinked at the dizzying brightness that met her eye. The street behind her wall faced three houses: one pink, one brown, and one yellow. How gaudy. A little fellow was in front of the pink house, crouching down and poking at something in the gravel of his front yard. She couldn’t see his face, but his sweater was bulky and bright blue. As he shifted, she could see his hair was so shiny it reflected the sun in little ripples of light. Everything was so saturated. Umeko tried to huff and turn away, but something held her. The way the snow glistened as it melted into puddles almost blinded her, in an almost hypnotic way. Sun rays beat down against the blacktop and caused puffs of steam to rise as a handful of sparrows whirled in dizzying circles in the air.
“Mama, mama!” The little boy yelled, raising his hand above his head. “Mama, my beetle is not dead after all!”
Umeko snorted and shuffled back to her log. The screen doors leading into her house were open and she slipped off her shoes and entered, shutting the doors after her. Any light or noise there had been was instantly drowned out in the dim, smoky interior of the house.
Her husband was asleep in a ball by the low table. He didn’t move when she came in, even though she banged her feet on the floor to try to wake him. He slept more and more lately. Umeko frowned at him. So lazy. What if I would like to talk to someone? But you only sleep! She sat down at the table and poured herself a cup of tea. The green was murky, and she could barely see, so she turned on an old golden lamp nearby. The tea transformed into something softer, a powdery hue of green that was muted even in the glow of the light. Umeko fidgeted around under the table until her fingers touched the smooth lacquered top of a box. She pulled it out and checking to make sure her husband still slept, opened it.
Rice paper filled it, black ink swirling in patterns all over the pages. Umeko sighed. What good was calligraphy on fine paper when you couldn’t write about anything beautiful? She pulled out a small slip of paper. The hand was not as steady here-- the paper faded. The words were short:
Bombs fall in my heart
Spring is never coming back
The flowers are crushed
The date was 1947. Umeko closed her eyes. She could see the poppies and cosmos petals littering the ground. The whispers of her mother and aunts when they thought she was asleep. They had not even seen the destruction-- they lived too far up in the mountains in the north of the island to know much of the world-- but the hearts of everyone in Japan were bleeding still, like open wounds. The mushroom cloud was what the rest of the world spoke of. Umeko knew it wasn’t that. It was the searing of their souls, their pride, their intense love, and their loyalty. Things in their country were getting better, they claimed. Everyone turned their faces towards the future. All the sun in the world, though, couldn’t wipe away the ashes that filtered through their memories. Everyone bore it, though they all tried to forget it. Every hopeless suicide, every disfigured veteran, every mother with empty arms, every mixed-race soldier-bred child that found themselves ostracized and hated as reminders of the past. They were like daily ripples of a shockwave, still going two years later.
With a shake, she pulled herself up, stuffing the poems back into the box. “It is generations ago. And yet it continues, and one cannot escape. Death,” she muttered under her breath, “Destruction, Hopelessness, Winter, Loss….” Her movements became angry and she closed the lid and stuffed it back in its hiding place under the table.
“Hunger,” she rose and went to the kitchen. “Sadness,” She began to measure rice into a pot. “Loneliness--” She swished water into the pot and let out a deep breath. “Who would read such poems? Life is only pain, but many try to pretend it is not. Age--” she frowned. “Age is only a reminder that everything we thought was beautiful and precious withers in the end. And then what?” She glanced over her shoulder at her husband sleeping in the main room. The lines in her face eased for a split second, then deepened again as she shook her head.
The doorbell rang, and she heard the front door scraping open. “Just a moment!” she shouted, setting the rice down and drying her hands.
The visitor had appeared before she reached the entryway, though. He stood there, and when he caught sight of her, he bowed. “Okasan.”
Her voice caught in her throat and then rushed out in a croak. “Mother? You have dishonored the family and been away for thirty-one years! You did not even come to your grandmother’s funeral! And now you come back in and call me your mother?”
Her husband had awakened and was rubbing his eyes and staring. “Son?”
“He is no son of ours, old fool.” Umeko snapped at her husband.
The man before them bowed again. “Mother, Father. It is me, Ichiro. Please forgive me. I am in need of help.”
Umeko was silent. She noticed for the first time the grey beginning to streak the hair at her son’s temples.
Her husband looked from her to the son. “And--” he hesitated. “And why should we help you? You have brought shame and unhappiness to us.”
“My wife has left me, and I’ve lost my job. I have nothing left. Please consider-- forgiveness.”
Umeko stalked back into the kitchen, her hands shaking. She knew her husband would say yes. He had always been extreme in his emotions-- either lenient and lazy or, after he was drunk, angry and forceful. He would be lenient today. She had heard him a week ago complaining about a lack of companions.
When she returned into the main room an hour later with food, she noted with dismay the carton of beer cans on the floor next to the table. She set down the food with a loud clatter and pointed an accusing finger at the carton. “You are helpless and yet you have beer? Is our rice wine not enough for you? You still must bring your own alcohol?”
Ichiro handed his father a bowl of steaming rice and then eyed his mother. “It is my goodwill gift,” he shrugged. “To drink with Father. I brought you something.” He directed her towards a package on the floor by her place at the table. It was toilet paper.
Umeko felt the sting. “You are not how I raised you to be.”
“Mother, think practically. I didn’t have money, so I had to bring the important things. Let’s eat. Itadakimasu.” He grabbed some chopsticks and began shoveling rice and pork in his mouth. “It’s good, Mother,” he said, his mouth full.
Umeko’s jaw tightened and she gave a swift nod. “Domo.”
Her husband scooted over to her side of the table and nudged her. “Please, Mama-san, eat some of your delicious food.”
“I’m not hungry.”
He pressed some chopsticks into her hands. “Please, eat.”
Shoulders sagging, Umeko accepted them. “Itadakimasu.” she mumbled. Picking at her meat, she began to eat. The food had lost the savor it normally held.
Ichiro worked his way through two bowls of food within minutes and then turned on the television. Umeko wasn't sure why. He gave his attention to his drink and the TV only blared in the background. Umeko left the table to do the dishes, turning her back on her son so she couldn’t see him.
It grew dark in the house, with only the lamp at the table on. Umeko returned and saw five cans littered, half crushed on the floor around the table. A scream, a raging attack was rising in her throat, but it quieted when she saw her husband in a sleeping stupor next to her son. “Ichiro,” she hissed. “Take that mess away, or I will throw you out of the house.”
Her son yawned and grabbed a few more drinks before padding out the large window into the garden. She saw his form in the shadows as he sat on the concrete verandah.
With a sharp fizz of static, she turned the television off. Noise disappeared and was replaced with oppressing stillness. Umeko knelt by her husband.
“Wake up and come to bed,” She murmured. “Come to bed.” He didn’t move, so she went into the side room and unfolded her futon from the closet, fluffing the heavy covers. Glancing at the ancestor shelf, she sighed. I would rather be up there with all of you than alive.
Her husband was snoring lightly when she went back to him. She stood over him, shoulders sagging, then shook her head. “Sleep here then. I am going to take a bath before I go to bed.”
The windows clattered open, breaking the silence. “Mother,” Ichiro stumbled into view. “I’m going to use the bath. You had better head to bed. Don’t old people retire early?”
Umeko glared at him. “You will drown, you are so drunk.”
He laughed and launched himself past her to the bathroom. Umeko shuffled to the bedroom, slamming the sliding doors so hard the paper in the panels of them trembled. Her cat, curled up on the futon, mewed with annoyance. The moon came gleaming in through the window and glinted off the gilt edges of the shrine on the shelf. It illuminated one solitary tear on Umeko’s cheek before the moon’s light died and she hid under the covers of the bed.
She was awake the next morning before anyone else. The two men were snoring on the mats around the table, so she sidestepped them and went into the garden to have some space alone.
As soon as she crossed through the window, a stench hit her in the face. Cans were strewn everywhere-- her son had littered them all around her dingy sanctuary. She felt the heat rising to her neck.
“Ichiro!” His name was rapidly falling from her lips, but her voice died away as she knelt, helpless, on the moss. It would do no good. Clenching her hand around the can nearest her, she rose and stared at it.
Images floated through her brain like they were being spun in a car out of control. She squeezed her eyes shut, choosing anger over tears. How would she explain it to her husband if she was crying? Over some silly trash.
How could she put the feelings of her splitting heart into words? She had never been good at that unless it was in poems-- thoughts like wisps of clouds, never concrete, always so vague and yet so angry and threatening.
Alone-- she had always been alone-- or left out-- blossoms on the ground, crumpled. The blossoms stuck out more than anything. Withered on the branch at the first hint of cold. Bruised by the trampling of feet if they floated to the ground. They always fell. Everything in life fell-- she was falling, constantly. Never hitting bottom.
Her hand was too frail to crush the can like she would have liked. So with one outraged motion, she flung it over the wall.
A sharp ping replied as the can hit the paved road on the other side of the wall. It was oddly comforting. So she picked up the rest of them, one by one, and with silent screams each time in her head, sent them sailing over the wall. It was almost unthinkable-- throwing trash into the road-- but the rebellion in it was pacifying to her today.
The glass behind her rumbled open. “Mother, what are you doing?”
“Cleaning up after you!” The words were sharp and loud.
Ichiro raised an eyebrow. “By littering?”
Umeko didn’t reply. She shoved past him and charged to the entryway. “I’m going to the grocery store.”
Her husband sat up, in a groggy daze. “What?”
“I’m going to the grocery store for today’s meals!” She yanked on her shoes and left the house, her husband’s words floating after her. “But it’s not even open yet!”
She didn’t care. She had to leave. Her bicycle was comforting-- smooth and fast, so unlike how she traveled on her own two feet nowadays. She let the cold morning air sting her face as she rode down the sidewalk until she felt a bit calmer. The sun was too bright this morning, and the puddles in the bare rice fields were like mirrors of flashing white. She pulled over by a drink machine and fumbled for a few coins. The hot can of black coffee thudded down and she grabbed it, relishing the warmth. Slowly maneuvering her bike, she found a bus stop bench and sat down.
An hour and a half later, she was in front of her own house again with a bag of groceries. Something glinted on their front step-- silvery and blue. She blinked and shuffled over. Three beer cans stood in a line, stuffed with crocuses. She stared.
A giggle broke her thoughts. “Aren’t they pretty?”
The little boy from the pink house appeared out of nowhere. His knees poked out from his shorts each adorned with band-aids. He approached her, his cheeks dimpling as he got closer. “I found these in the road, aren’t they pretty? So shiny. I know you like flowers, because of your garden, so I thought you would like them!”
“Eh?” Umeko’s brows pulled together.
He shrugged. “Mrs. Yoshihama from the yellow house is allergic to flowers, which is unfortunate, isn’t it? I think it is why she loves ice cream so much. And Mr. Ono is away to visit his daughter in Tokyo. He is from the brown house. So, I knew they were meant for you!”
“How old are you?” Umeko stepped forward to peer closer at him.
“Five.” His eyes sparkled. Umeko coughed, shifted, and looked away. When she looked back, he was still there, studying her with sharp, intelligent eyes.
She stooped down next to him. “The flowers are nice.” They’ll wither soon in those cans, though.
He beamed. “Yes, I thought so! The cans wouldn’t be much without the flowers in them, I suppose.”
She squinted at him. “I suppose so.”
“Well, it’s always what is inside that matters. That is what my mother says.” He sat down on the front step.
“Ah.” Umeko thought of how empty she always felt inside and frowned. All at once, the flowers in the beer cans looked pathetic-- drooping and half crushed. “Well, you know,” she began but something stopped her. The child would discover life’s pain eventually, but she could wait for someone or something else to deliver the blow. No reason to spoil the child’s happiness today-- it would go before too long of its own accord.
“The sun is so bright today.” He shielded his eyes and looked up at her. “I think God is smiling.”
Umeko raised her eyes upwards and then looked back at the boy. “I don’t think the gods are capable of smiling. Not on us poor mortals, anyways. What in us can ever please the gods?”
He seemed confused. She shrugged. “No matter. It’s only the sun, you know.”
The little boy giggled. “You’re funny.” A distant voice called out and he jumped up. “Oh, that’s my mama. I have to go. See you again!” With a leap, he darted down the road and around the block.
Umeko remained motionless for a short while, till the glass door behind her slid open, and her son leaned against the frame. “Mother, aren’t you going to come in and make a breakfast?”
Men are so helpless, Umeko grumbled to herself. Fully grown adults and still needing their wives and mothers to tend to them. “Coming,” she sighed.
She was in the kitchen again, chopping green onions for their miso soup, when her husband approached her. “Mama-san, you work so hard. Let’s get hamburgers for lunch.”
She shrugged. “The place in the mall has a good menu.”
“Yes, they have the melon soda floats there.” He offered a smile. “I’ll buy you one, Mama-san. You like those.”
She scraped the onions off the cutting board and into the soup. “Yes.” Her face darkened. “Has Ichiro explained his plan yet? Is he going to get a job and an apartment in our town or is he waiting for a job acceptance back in the city?”
Her husband grimaced. “He has not said. Let us allow him a few days to become organized. Perhaps a week?”
“He should be taking us in, at our age, not the other way around.” Umeko shook her head. “But I will bide my time for a week, and then he must take action.”
That night, Umeko breathed a sigh of relief when her son announced he was going out. “I’m meeting up with some old friends,” he pulled on his jacket and grinned. “Well, I’m off.”
He left and Umeko settled at the table with a puzzle. “I hope he is seeing about a job,” she suggested.
Her husband handed her a puzzle piece that had dropped to the floor. “Mama-san, you know he is going to the bars.”
“Well, many workplace people frequent the bars together-- it could be a chance, anyways.” To herself, she added, And at least he won’t drink here tonight.
The next morning, Umeko awoke to find her son stretched out by the table again, in a deep stupor. A crumpled beer can leaked sticky liquid out near his head. She glared and took in a sharp breath. Her gaze traveled over to the sliding screen doors. It was ajar. Suspicions filtering through her mind, she crossed the room without a sound and glanced out. Once again, cans were strewn across the moss. She stared blankly, then with numb, stilted movements she began to pick them up.
It startled her, and she dropped a few of the cans as her head snapped up. The little neighborhood boy was peeking in through a crack in the wall.
“Good morning!” He said it again. “Can I have those cans? They’re red this time-- so pretty.”
Umeko stiffened, glancing down at the cans. “No--” she hesitated. “Wait there.” She gathered up the cans again and took them inside the house, dropping them into the recycle bin on route to the entryway. Grabbing her coin purse she slipped on some shoes and a jacket and made her way outside.
The little boy was waiting around the block. “Hey, where are the cans?”
“Come on, the convenience store down the road has better cans and we can drink juice or something that way too.”
He brightened. “Oh! That’s a good plan.” He craned his neck and yelled for his mother. She popped her head out from behind a short hedge and waved at him and then bowed to Umeko. “I hope he is not bothering you!”
Umeko opened her mouth to reply but the little boy shouted before she had a chance to speak. “Mama, we are going to the convenience store, is that alright?”
Permission given, Umeko walked with the boy down the street, almost feeling foolish. The convenience store was almost empty when they entered, so they took their time in front of the drink section.
“Cola is red,” Umeko suggested.
“It’s so hard to decide!” The little boy laughed.
Umeko had to smile. “We can come back tomorrow. But what did you say? It’s the inside that matters, right? So pick based on the inside.”
A few minutes later they had stocked up on lemon soda and pork buns and were sitting on a short stone ledge with their snack.
“Lemon soda is like sunshine,” the little boy decided, taking a gulp from his can. “And I think those daffodils popping up by the side of the road would look good in these.”
Umeko looked to where he was pointing. She hadn’t noticed the daffodils yet. “It’s too bad they’ll die soon.” The words came out of her mouth before she thought.
The little boy fell silent, and for the first time, Umeko felt a little guilty at her pessimism. It was the truth, though, right?
They were driving back from the hamburger shop that afternoon when she saw the lemon cans on the doorstep. The sky was overcast now so the bright yellow spots on the step attracted all their attention.
“What is that?” laughed Ichiro.
Umeko didn’t answer, but stepping out of the car picked them up. They were empty. For some reason, her heart sank.
“Obachan,” the little boy’s voice broke her thoughts. He popped out from around the corner of the wall with a grin. “Did I surprise you? Look.” He held out his fists, which grasped bright paper tulips taped to green cardboard straws. “These won’t die.” he chuckled. “But I was afraid that it might rain, so I waited to put them in the cans so they would not get soggy.” He hesitated. “I made them myself, with a little help. Do you like them? There are messages on the back.” He offered them to her.
She took them, something of a glow seeping around her bones. “They’re beautiful.” She turned one of the tulips around and read the inscription. “May God’s face shine on you and bless you.” She faltered. “Very nice. Where did you learn that?”
“Oh,” he shrugged. “My teacher at church. Anyways, Mama said it was a nice thing to write when I asked her.” He met her gaze boldly. “Do you want to go to the convenience store again sometime?”
His mother came scuttling around the corner in garden slippers. “Oh, there you are!” She bowed to the neighbors. Umeko bowed back, a little bewildered. “I hope he was not talking your ear off. Excuse me, I’m so sorry,” She straightened, pulling a plastic parcel of cookies from her giant apron pocket. She offered them with both hands, giving a little laugh as she bowed again. “Please accept this in return for your kindness with Kenji this morning.”
Umeko took the package of cookies with a feeble protest. “Thank you,” she glanced at the little boy. “Kenji?”
“Let’s go to the convenience store tomorrow for pudding.” Her heart thumped with a weird, fluttery feeling. She almost couldn’t breathe.
“Ok!” He grinned. “See you then!”
They left and Ichiro grinned as soon as they stepped back inside their house. “What an odd child, and his mother too. They seem so amusing.”
Umeko frowned but ignored him. She walked into the house and sat at the table, picking up her cat and letting it curl up on her lap. The men ignored her as they turned on the TV, but that was just as well. She pulled out the box from under the table and looked at the slips of paper. With a hand surprisingly steady for her age she wrote in tiny symbols--
Why would a god smile?
And yet sunshine fills their hearts.
Their laughs grow flowers.