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—" 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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