The Shrine to Lost Children

The plane takes off out of the smog of Los Angeles. Dad’s new wife, Momo, leans over me and puts her hand on the window. "Japan," she says. "It is time to return."

"I hate Japan in the winter." I turn my head and Momo withdraws her hand. "Dad and I always go in spring. Cherry blossom season."

"It’s too late to change the season, ne?" She begins squirming in her seat, jostling me with her elbow. She is trying to unclasp her seatbelt, which has rolled under her middle-aged flesh, hidden somewhere beneath her obi. Dad clamps a restraining hand on her wrist and shakes his head. "I’m very uncomfortable," says Momo. "Please, I need to change my clothes."

He looks at Momo’s red kimono. "It would be better if you kept it on."

"Yes." Her chin lifts and her eyes widen. "If I were young and strong. But at my age, I had better wear something more comfortable."

Dad smiles, pats her hand, and moves his knees to one side. As Momo squeezes by him, clutching her kimono closed at the throat, he looks up at her with an expression of charitable tenderness. I turn back to the window quickly, but all I see is the flat, empty sky. "I should have been born Japanese," I say under my breath, and steal a look at my father. He opens his mouth to speak, then shuts it and shakes his head. I turn to him and raise my voice. "It’s a mystery that you ever married a white woman."

"Don’t be ugly, Elise." Dad can’t look at me. "I thought we were through with this."

Momo returns in a shapeless calico dress, the white powder sponged from her face. She is no longer a bride. Now she looks like what she is—an aging Japanese-American Methodist whose idea of paradise is a potluck supper with paper napkins. She laughs and says, "I will be like you, Elise—gaijin tourist." I press my face against the cold window and try to stuff myself down into sleep.

 

Dad, Momo, and I sleep for four hours on the train that takes us from the Osaka airport to the foot of Koyasan Mountain. At the end of the line, we are the only passengers on the cable car that heaves us, creaking and swaying, up the side of the bamboo-covered precipice. We walk through a small town center with a few houses and shops, all covered with a foot-thick blanket of snow. In a small roadside shrine, a lone monk is kneeling, sweeping up the sweet, pine-smelling ashes from the morning fire ceremony. His back is to us, and his hands don’t hesitate as we pass.

Dad takes hold of Momo’s arm. "Your father lives here? This is no place for an old man."

"My father…He is very strong." Momo winks at me, like we’re sharing a private joke.

Dad rubs his hands together. "The elderly can’t take this kind of cold."

We walk through an open gate into a temple courtyard, and we can hear our frozen footsteps as we approach the monastery where Momo’s father lives. Momo leads us down a long hall, slides open a door, and walks backwards out of her slippers, head bowed, eyes downcast. Dad goes in after her, and I hesitate for a moment before following. The room exhales a warm, sour odor.

Inside, an old man in a wicker chair stares out through a sliding glass door at the temple garden. He is dressed in thick white robes, and his arms and head shake with palsy. A middle-aged woman sits on the floor reading a book. Momo ignores her and stands upright in front of her father. "Otou-san." He shows no sign that he recognizes his daughter.

The woman on the floor stands, crosses her arms over her chest and presses her lips together. "Hisashi-buri," she says. It’s been a long time.

Momo puts her hand on Dad’s arm. "Tony, meet my sister, Ichigo. And that is my father." Then, in Japanese, she says, "Ichigo, this is my new American husband and his daughter, Elise."

"Elise-san," says Ichigo, bowing to me. Her mouth puckers when she speaks. In contrast to Momo’s sweet roundness, Ichigo is small and withered. Her shoulders are curved, her chest concave. She clutches her hands in a pose of Zen Buddhist standing meditation. The fingers are plump and red, as if they receive more blood-flow than the rest of her body.

The old man is looking at me. He slowly lifts a tremulous hand and points. "Gaijin da."

"No, Father," Momo says in Japanese. "Musume desu. She’s my daughter."

I squirm beneath my heavy overcoat. "Step-daughter," I say, too quietly to be heard.

Ichigo hovers over Oji-Chan, smoothing his sparse white hair with her hand. She whispers in Japanese, "It’s all right. Your daughter is here. I’m here."

"Otou-san," says Dad. "Hajimemashite."

"Ah, you know Japanese?" Ichigo smiles, her thin lips pressed into a white line.

"Just a little," he says. "I was here in 1973 and 1974. Okinawa. Elise and I visit every few years. She’s practically Japanese herself, right, Elise?"

"G.I.," says Ichigo darkly. "Big soldier-man, ne? Big gun?"

"Tony was in the Navy," Momo interrupts. "He didn’t have a gun."

Ichigo turns her attention to me. In Japanese, she says, "Momo’s musume—Army brat then, so? Play with Daddy’s guns—shuu, shuu, shuu!" She makes a pistol with her fingers, and pulls the trigger at me, laughing. She narrows her eyes. "Wakaru?"

"Wakaru," I whisper.

"Ah, good, so. Speak Japanese. Eigo-ga dame. English no good." She sneers and continues petting her father.


We take the old man to a yaki-nikku restaurant. It’s snowing as we bundle out of the monastery. Momo walks on one side of Oji-chan, holding his black woolen elbow, and Ichigo supports his other side. The old man’s chin pulls into his chest and he takes slow shuffling steps. His feet never lift all the way off the ground, but skim the surface, sending a fan-shaped spray of gravel ahead of him as we cross the temple courtyard. Snow collects along the brim of his gray hat. Momo mutters about a taxi. Ichigo laughs, a short frozen grunt.

"No, it’s warm for this time of year. It would have been better if you’d worn a hat."

"Otou-san will freeze."

Ichigo shrugs. "You had better have worn a hat."

Momo brushes the top of her head, the permed black hair soggy and limp. Her shoulders sag.

Dad fills his lungs with air and looks around with sudden satisfaction. "It’s just as I remember," he says. "Nihon. Nihon. It hasn’t changed a bit."

 

In the empty restaurant, Ichigo unwraps the old man’s scarf from his neck and hangs it on the coat rack. His lips quiver and I stare at the exposed red gap where the loose skin of his lower eyelid falls away from his eyeball. His eyes are almost completely white—cataracts. My father looks surprised when I put my hands on his collar, but he shrugs and lets me take his coat.

An old woman, her back bent parallel to the floor, scuttles out of a heavy metal door, using a broom and a long-handled dustpan as crutches. When she sees us she cranes her neck back and darts her eyes over the restaurant before returning to us. She bows low to Oji-chan. "Irrasshai." She moves on, stopping every few steps to sweep a small section of the floor, and breathing a loud wet rattle.

We file through the metal door into a walk-in refrigerator filled with meat. Dad has to duck to keep from hitting his head. I, too, have to stoop. Ichigo piles a small plate with what looks like white cartilaginous honeycomb, adding circles of sliced yellow onion. I take five different kinds of steak and a mound of deep organ-colored hunks.

At the table, Ichigo piles peppers on the grill. Dad and Momo sit with their foreheads almost touching. She speaks in a soft voice, feeding him bits of pepper from her chopsticks. Ichigo and Oji-chan watch me, saying nothing. I rub my palms on my thighs, thinking of a way to break the silence. Finally I clear my throat. "Ichigo," I say. "That’s an interesting name." My textbook Japanese sounds clumsy and loud.

Ichigo holds up one finger. "Ichi. Niku-namu. Nickname." She picks up a pepper and puts it in her mouth with a quick, furtive movement. "Numba one! Numba one!" She waves her fist in the air and chants. "Eh? Numba one."

"Hai. Ichi means one. Joku desu, ne? It’s a joke."

"Joku-ja nai!" Ichigo points her chopsticks at me. "Not joke."

"Gomen," I mumble. Sorry. I slump into my seat. The old woman is moving towards our table with her broom. I wave at her. "Sumimasen! O-sake, please."

Ichigo looks at me with raised eyebrows and begins transferring meat from her plate onto the grill. Flames leap up when the red juices hit the coals. "Garakuta," she says. Tripe.

The old man sits up straight and brings his hands to the table, slapping them in a steady rhythm. His head bobs like a spool on a string, and his tongue hangs out one side over his lower lip. Honey yellow liquid gathers in the chasm of his eyelids. The old woman brings the sake, and I pour myself a glass, dipping my tongue beneath its warm, stinging surface.

"Papa-chan," says Ichigo sweetly. She strokes Otou-san’s bald head with her palm. She speaks Japanese in a high, childish voice. "Oh, Papa-chan. Tripe is your favorite. Isn’t it your favorite?" She scrapes at a piece with her tongs. "Papa-chan likes it just this way, right? Doesn’t he? Open up, Daddy." The old man turns toward her, and Ichigo lays the meat across his quivering tongue. I dig my elbow into Dad’s ribs.

"Ow!" He turns and looks at me. "Elise, don’t do that."

"Tripe." I hold a piece out to him.

He waves away my chopsticks. "I don’t want any."

"Come on, try it," I say. Momo pulls her chin into her chest and looks at me warily, but I press on. "You can’t marry a Japanese woman if you don’t eat tripe. Right, Momo? It’s a Japanese delicacy. Look, Oji-chan loves it." Mouth open, Oji-chan chews, his head nodding happily up and down. Dad rolls his eyes skyward and picks up his chopsticks. He moves to take the meat from me.

"Iieee!" Ichigo shrieks, and we freeze. "Dame! Dame!" She waves her hands at me. For a moment, the soft shuck-shuck of the old woman’s broom in the far corner, and the sizzle of the tripe on the grill are the only sounds in the room. Then Ichigo rises to her feet, reaches across the table, and knocks the meat from my hand. "Very, very bad," she says in breathless Japanese. She clutches at her shirt.

Momo hastily crosses herself, murmuring something beneath her breath. I lower my chopsticks to the table.

"What is it?" asks Dad. "What happened?"

Momo closes her eyes and shakes her head. "At Japanese funerals we pass the burned bones like this—chopstick to chopstick. It’s superstition, but…it’s very unlucky. Horrible to see."

The old man looks back and forth between me and his daughters. "Onakasuita," he says, complaining. I’m hungry.

"Did you know that?" Dad asks.

"I knew."

Ichigo unclenches her hand and smoothes the front of her blouse. "Ah, well," she says. "She is gaijin. She couldn’t understand." She picks up another piece of tripe and holds it to Oji-chan’s mouth. "Ii, ii," she says. "It’s okay, Papa-chan. Ichigo will take care of you."

My hands unsteady, I reach out and pour myself another tumbler of sake. The liquor slides down my throat in a hot, smooth stream. When it hits my belly, I see that Momo is watching me. "Kampai," she says softly.

As the night goes on, Dad and Momo murmur quietly in English, and Ichigo directs a steady stream of Japanese baby talk at the old man. The four of them eat and eat, the women picking up pieces of steaming meat and putting them into the waiting mouths of the men. But I can’t eat. I drink until the room begins to roll slightly. Then my hand slips, and the sake pitcher shatters on the floor. Oji-chan’s cloudy eyes widen and he points at me. "Bukiyou-na uji-mushi! Clumsy white maggot!" Meat falls out of his mouth. Momo looks at Ichigo with her sake glass frozen at her lip. The little bent lady rushes over to sweep at the mess, poking the broom violently at my feet.

"Oh, Aunty," Ichigo says to the old woman, her Japanese smooth and soothing. "We broke a precious thing. Many apologies. So sorry." She presses three one-thousand yen bills into the pocket of the old woman’s apron. The woman throws them down into the sake stain on the rug, and spits violently.

At the elevator, Dad looks down at me and holds my coat open. I slide myself into it and lean against him. He puts his arms around me and sighs, and I twist in his embrace, craning my neck upward. For a second, I just look at him. Then I press my mouth to his. I feel his soft mustache against my upper lip. He stiffens, lets out one puff of warm, meat-fragrant breath, and holds me at arm’s length, looking into my face. Behind him, Ichigo is engrossed in re-inserting the old man into his many protective layers. Momo, her eyes averted, is slowly, deliberately measuring the length of every finger before sliding her hands into her gloves. A ball of tears rises in my throat. The elevator dings, Dad lets go of me, and I’m surprised to find I can stand on my own.

 

It is too late to take Oji-chan back to the monastery. Momo and Dad link arms, supporting each other as they pick their way across the icy streets. Ahead of them, Oji-chan leans hard on Ichigo’s elbow. I let myself fall further and further behind, until the snow forms a curtain around me.

Five or six meowing cats come to the door at Ichigo’s house. They weave around her feet and she pulls pieces of tripe from her pockets and drops them onto the concrete floor of the genkan. I am careful not to step on them as I slip my shoes off.

Inside, Ichigo smiles and says to me in Japanese, "He’s really a great man. He’s the best man. The number one man." Then, in English, "Numba one." She laughs. I don’t know if she’s talking about my father, or hers, or some other man. Her wide smile reveals rows of tea-stained teeth, her upper canines slanted and overlapping, pushing the white gums out in a wave. She takes her father by the elbow and steers him into her bedroom, leaving Dad, Momo, and me to bathe and make up our own beds in the spare room.

 

In this country, my father bathes first, and Momo and I share the second-hand bathwater. During my bath Momo sits on a bucket, her elbows on her knees, washing her hair and scrubbing her skin raw with a loofah on a wooden handle, then pouring ladlefuls of water over her head. Halfway through my bath she comes and sits on the edge of the ofuro, the tall, square Japanese tub. "Foot," she says, gesturing brusquely. I hesitate, but then lift my leg out of the water. She takes my foot in her hands and begins to squeeze. She is surprisingly strong. As she rubs, she begins to sing:

"Akaku sabita tsuki no yori ni…"

I close my eyes and let the words take shape in my mind:

On nights when the moon is tarnished red,
we sailed a small boat.
The thin clear wind
carried the two of us far, far away.

Continuing straight to the ends of the earth,
forming a circle around the same place.
In the darkness without even the light of a star,
there is the song that the two wanderers sing.
Waves, if you can hear us,
hide our voices now.

She switches feet halfway through. I sink into the water up to my shoulders. When the song ends, Momo smiles and pats my leg. She slumps and lifts one flattened breast with her hand, absently scratching under the crease. She looks up and smiles to see me watching her. "You have such beautiful hair. It must have come from your mother." She runs a hand over my damp head to my shoulders. "Did your mother have beautiful hair?"

I pick up one limp, dark gold lock. "It’s not so beautiful. You only think so because it’s different."

"You mean, because I am Japanese."

I lower my face into the steam. "My father likes Japanese women."

Momo shrugs. "Men, ne? Who knows doushite—why they want the things they want? It is a mystery. Then they pick us&#8212" she reaches forward and plucks something invisible out of the air "—like picking a flower."

When I emerge from the bath into the small spare bedroom, I am yudetako, or the bright red of a boiled octopus, and I continue to produce rivers of sweat so copious I may as well never have bathed at all. My father appears like a corpse under the three-inch thick quilt of his futon, pushed close up to Momo’s. He scrunches himself down so far, just his nose emerges with its gray bristle mustache brushing the edge of the quilt. On the other end, his feet poke out over the bottom of the futon, which was never meant for someone of his height. I can see that his feet are bare, but that is all I know of his body. I push my futon far away into the corner.

 

I wake early, my head throbbing. Dad is snoring. Momo’s back is turned to him, curls escaping from her nightcap. I roll up my futon, the straw tatami mat floor cold under my feet. No sound comes from the room Ichigo shares with the old man.

Outside, the cold air burns my sinuses. If I were to see a bird or a person out on the street now, I would expect it to be suspended like a fly in an ice cube. The only thing that disturbs the absolute stillness of the air is the snow. A few handfuls of flakes are falling through the white sky, fluttering and dancing. I turn my face up and open my mouth, but none fall on my tongue.

I wander without a plan along the empty streets, until I find myself at the graveyard at the eastern edge of town. I have a vague memory of coming here as a child, in the summer. Dad held hands with a very short, very young woman, and I ran up ahead of them to the bridge at the end of the path, where I dropped on my knees and watched koi swimming in a rock-lined pond.

I am reading the kanji on the graves, when I see the crouched figure of Oji-chan through the cedars. I am surprised to see him out here alone at this early hour, and I have to look twice to convince myself that he is not a statue. Quietly, I pick my way through the graves to him. I don’t want to disturb him at prayer. But then I see that a layer of snow has covered his stocking cap. I dust it off with a strong cuff of my hand.

He bats me away. "Don’t touch me! Go away!"

"It’s too cold."

"Bah! Bah!" His face contorts with scorn. "Mushi-chan. Little insect, go away."

"Oji-chan—"

"No! You are not my grandchild. Why do my daughters send a little insect?"

I step back and he settles down again on his haunches, arraying his white robes around his knees, picking and smoothing, folding and unfolding. He is kneeling in front of a shrine to lost children: small concrete figures placed here by grieving parents, arranged in a pyramid, twenty feet high. Each little statue wears a red- and white-striped apron. They are identical except for the hand-knit caps on their heads. Some hats are faded, colorless gray, and others look new, with bright blue or green tassels, or rainbow-colored stripes. All are covered with an inch of snow.

Cursing under his breath, Oji-chan removes his cap, looks at it, and shakes it out, and replaces it. Then all his movement stops and he is like one of the little statues again. I pull on his arm. "Go away!" he screams. "I am saying a prayer for my daughter Momo, whose soul has departed."

"Your daughter is alive and well. Her soul is here in Koyasan."

"No." He shakes his head. "You are the insect who buzzes in my ear. Bzzz. Bzzz." He waves a shaky hand through the air. "Aren’t you? Isn’t she?" He addresses his question to the mound of statues. "Isn’t she just an insect? My daughter has left me! She has been stolen by the obake!" He wails and sinks forward into the snow.

I pull his arm again, and he sits up. "Obake?" I speak into his ear. "What are you talking about, ghosts?"

"The maggot gaijins have taken my daughter," he says, "I’m no longer her…" His hands make fists against his thighs. "She left me here—Oh!" He crumples his face and puts his fists to his eyes. "She doesn’t want her Papa. She’s forgotten—She’s forgotten—"

I put his arm around my neck and manage a few steps before he lifts his feet from the ground, pulling us both into the snow. "Stop it!" I stand and grab his elbow. "I’m trying to help you!" He laughs and spits into the snow. I dig my fingers hard into the flesh under his armpits. He stands and walks with me to the path. Then he pulls his feet up again.

This time I let go of him and watch him fall. He tumbles off the path through the snow. His head hits a gravestone with a bright crack. He lies motionless, face down.

I drop to my knees, reach out, and slowly roll him over. Blood trickles from a cut above his eyebrow. He moans. "When I am gone, my girls will be free." He begins to cry, and pushes my hands away. "I want to be alone. Leave me alone."

I look at him, helpless in the snow. My knees buckle as I pick him up, but I squeeze his warm body into mine. I am strong enough to carry him.

 

At the monastery, the monks explain that the elderly often begin to wander. It is a necessary step on their path back to nothingness. They bring in a chair with straps. This will keep him safe, in his delirium. Within a few months, he may not even know where he is. He won’t mind the restraints—they are for his own good. Two silent monks peel off his wet robes. They hold him upright between them. His eyes are as vacant as the snow-white sky.

"He looks so happy," says Ichigo. She clutches her sister’s arm. "Look, he’s smiling."

When I look at him, all I see is his shrunken chest, the empty coin purses of flesh behind his nipples, and the white hairs curling along the vanished muscles. A scar runs vertically from his collarbone to his navel, crossed by inch-long staple welts. On his temple, a pale bandage covers the laceration from his fall.

Suddenly, Ichigo begins hitting herself. She slams her fist into her chest again and again as hard as she can.

"This is my fault," says Momo quietly. "Please accept my guilt."

Ichigo puts her head in her hands and pulls at her hair in great handfuls, the muscles in her shoulders and neck straining.

In the new chair, a cracked leather belt crosses Oji-chan’s chest. The monks pull his clean white robe up and over the belt so we can’t see it. Dad squeezes my upper arm, and I put my hand over his, surprised by how small it feels. The monks roll the chair to the glass windows, and Oji-chan moves his eyes in his head, looking out at the temple garden. Ichigo settles down on the floor beside him with a book. Every few seconds, she reaches up to touch her hair, tucking it behind her ears with trembling fingers. Momo turns her face to the wall. I can tell by the movement of her shoulders that she is crying.

Outside, the snow falls silently on the hydrangea. I look out through the sliding glass door, trying to imagine what Oji-chan will see when winter is over. The monks, with their training in bonsai, have a plan for every season. A scrawny, leafless tree bearing the distinctive red bark of a flowering plum will carpet the ground with pink blossoms four or five months from now. Goose bumps rise on the skin of Dad’s hand. I close my eyes, and when I open them again all I see is the old man, fallen forward against his restraints, his hands quivering in his lap, looking out at the frozen garden.

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