T. Ben Bryant
In the winter, there are dried apples. Hung in the kitchen. Weak sun. Single windowed. We eat them with tea and honey. They coat the inside of our mouths with a thin film that the tea cuts away. The tea is bitter. Soapy. Thin leaves in the bottom of porcelain cups. Black strands on the sky blue. Our feet are under the table. The built-in heater makes them sweat. Our feet do not touch. My legs are outstretched. Hers are curled under. She does not look at me. She looks at her cup. She looks at the apples. She looks at the smooth lines of the cloth that covers that table and traps the heat. The weave intricate. We bought it years ago at a small Chinese shop on a winding side street in the capital. The people a constant pressure on every side. A steady flow that doesn’t end. She does not look at me.
We finish the tea. Three golden slices are sitting on the saucer. Ambered clouds internally lit. Delivered from Azumino to the southern tip of the Bōsō on the back of large trucks that rumble down highways deep in the night. The drivers barely awake. All day loading apples and all night driving cross-country to the cities. They drink Boss canned coffee and smoke Seven Star blacks to keep the drowsiness away. Every year many of them fail and end in tangled heaps driven into snow-piled banks. I do not want the apples, no matter their journey, but they will not keep. She places a napkin over them. The pale blue flowers do not match the saucer. I look at her. She does not look at me. I look at her eyes. The cloudy dark of her irises. The world is formless. She does not look at me.
She crosses her hands. Her fingers seek the skin of those below. Those fragile hands hold little warmth. Paper thin. Blue lined. She is becoming transparent with age. She does not look at me. I think of bamboo leaves dancing. Rustling sound. The distinct clack when the stems connect. My net flying. A thrill of hope buried so deep inside my chest that it is only revealed upon reflection. A shadow expanding over the water. Sunlight playing through the gaps. Sound of water. I sing to myself the songs that my mother sang to me. Genkotsu yama no Tanuki-san/ Oppai nonde, nene shite/ Dakou shite, ombu shite/ Mata ashita. The fish are deep below. Charmed silver flashes dancing to my mother’s songs. My toes pressing into the worn wood. The cypress occasionally gives off a faint smell that reminds me of the temple my grandfather frequented. He prayed to the goddess of flowing things, Kichijou, throwing brass coins into the deep well and ringing the bell with his head bowed low but she never answered him. The horses never ran fast enough to keep him out of debt. I cannot recall when I last felt the boat under my feet. I look at her hands. She does not look at me.
She raises her left hand. A single thin finger moves a line down her check and ends at the jaw with a slight flourish. Imperceptible. A final stroke. She does not look at me. I think of her fingers moving on my face. She traces my brow, jumps from the tip of my flat nose, and lands on my chin. Safe. Home. She laughs at the roughness. Three day beard. The grey is becoming undeniable. Three days on the boat. The storm was sudden. Fierce. Elegantly violent. It came from the north. It rolled over the Korean peninsula and across the sea of Japan and weakened only slightly as it cut the island in half. It lingered over the Bōsō dumping all the water it held in its guts. My boat full of rain. The water rising. Bamboo stalks disappearing in the darkness. The shore only a memory. The wind screaming in my ears. I prayed to any god who would listen and held fast to the railings. One oar disappeared the first day. Ripped from my hands. The god of ocean tides is vicious. On the third day, the winds pushed my small boat within sight of the shore as the last clouds turned to nothing. The god of ocean tides is benevolent. She does not look at me.
She turns towards the window. The sun is low. Her face is washed in light. Watercolor hues. She does not look at me. I think of reflections. Sun in the mud. The long shadows of the trees rippling. Fish and eels squirm. Slap. The mud between my toes. The younger men wear rubber boots but I cannot feel the earth through them. The wet suck noise. I take three eels home. She removes the guts and feeds them to a stray cat that has been hanging around the alley. It claims them swiftly and devours them while lying on its side. She strokes its soft white belly. It visits house after house. Her knife is a light arc. Sun made steel that separates flesh and guts and bone effortlessly. The blood spills. Already the smoke is rising in the grill. It rises a few meters into the blue and the grey becomes so thin that it seems to never have existed, though the smell will continue for a long way. Summer. The heat. We grill the flesh on thin skewers of bamboo in the yard. Eel gives a man stamina. The slender creatures swim through our blood. The neighborhood children fly through the fields kicking up grasshoppers that the older people like to fry with soy sauce. Their voices are small songs. Joyful. Free. Her smile sings along. She does not look at me.
The hair in her bun is coming free. Three strands pressed against the white of her neck. They disappear into the collar of her winter dress. The dress is heavy on her thin body. It must weigh as much as she. One strand moves along her temple. She brushes it behind her ear. She does not look at me. I think of snow. Snow in the embankments. The piles drift into the canals and the snow on the edges forms lacework patterns. Patterns like the girls in Tokyo wear. The ones who work in Asakusa and Kinshicho. My younger brother visited one of those girls. When he went to leave, a man in a western-cut suit brained him with a metal pipe he kept hidden in his sleeve. He took my brother’s yearly wage and left him with a face that permanently drooped on the left side and a left hand that twitched uncontrollably. His bad eye became colored glass. Leaves under frozen dew. Hashimoto calls from the shore. Frantic. Panicked. High. His face twisted and hard. The cold flushing his skin. He stamps his feet and rings his thick hands. I rush home. My sandals kick snow before me in billowing clouds. The sound of ice beating against wooden fences rings forever in my ears. I don’t take the sandals off. They drip along the floor. In the bedroom a doctor is talking slowly. His words are just words. Their meanings are lost. They never really had meaning. Disconnected. On the table is something small and blue and cold. Still. Tears and sweat form streaks and mingle. No more chances. The doctor leaves. He has other patients. The winter is hard on the elderly. I stand. The lamp burns low and dark. The smoke continues to leave a trailing stain along the wall that pools on the ceiling. She watches the smoke. She watches the flame burning lower and lower. She does not look at me.
She stacks the saucers. Gently with no sound. Places the empty cups into each other. Neat. The napkin is bundled into the top cup. One corner rises. A slanting peak over the horizon line. A miniature rendering of Mt. Jonen. We took a trip there when we were first married. Neither of us had seen the mountains so closely before. We stayed in a small inn and ate mountain vegetables and laughed to ourselves at the mountain peoples’ accents. She does not look at me. I think of steel and iron running in glowing rivers. Slow. Deliberate. There is no freedom in their flow. Those rivers are as caged as all of us. Work boots crunch through beads of metal that cover baking concrete floors. The heat so great it would bake the outer lining of our eyes and the skin would peel off in pinprick bubbles that left blurry holes in our vision. Men in coarse linens. Streaked. Singed. Full of tiny holes. Always stinking of sweat and burning soil. Thirty-seven years. I bought a house with sweat and pain and burning skin. A house that stayed empty. Haunted by two ghosts. Everyday I miss the water. I miss the boat. The call of the birds. The sway. She does not look at me.
She carries the cups and saucers to the kitchen. Places them on the counter beside the metal sink. Places them one by one into the water. Through the opening in the wall I look at her. She does not look at me.
T. Ben Bryant is from rural TN. He lives and works in Tokyo.