血の空 / Skies of Blood
The colors of the sunset — how can I describe them? The sunset started with orange, then moved through a spectrum of colors — vermillion, red, scarlet, then purple — until they were swallowed up in the dark indigo of the night sky. As the colors went through these transformations, they reminded me of many shades of blood. Like blood — that is how I think of them.
For children, sunsets are first and foremost lively celebrations of fun. Children run about beneath the blazing skies of sunset, chasing bats, kicking bits of gravel, and singing songs. It is as if the joyously flowing blood filling the veins of the sky excites the blood in the veins of the children below and fills them with vigor.
However, the joyous blood of celebration can also be terrifying and cruel as well. Children’s bodies and minds are open to a joyous banquet of pleasures, but they are also exposed and vulnerable. That is what I mean when I say that sunsets are the most fitting skies for my childhood memories, and that the sunsets over the memories of my youth are skies of blood.
As a little boy, whenever I saw the blood swelling and congealing on the surface of the sky, I thought of Mother. I am not just talking about the time during her absence when I lived with Grandmother or when I was being passed from one household to another. Even after my mother had returned, I continued to see sunsets and think about her. She was often away, and every time she left, I was exposed to the violence of my Grandmother, my aunt, and other adults. Meanwhile, that would just make me miss my kind and gentle mother the whole time. When she returned for good, however, I did not find the kindness I had been waiting for. Instead, what confronted me was a new kind of aggression. The violence that she displayed toward me was something that ran deep in her veins and that even she could not control once it had been aroused. This time, when I encountered violence in my own mother, it only made me yearn all the more for what I believed motherhood should be — eternal kindness.
I moved with Mother when she remarried a man who was in charge of track maintenance and divisions at the Moji Railroad, but she divorced him only half a year later. At the beginning of the following summer, I was in middle school. The following memory dates from about that time, I believe. It takes place on the day of the festival at the port of Moji. Mother and I had gone with my former stepfather, the same man she had just divorced, to have some fun at Wakari Shrine, which is dedicated to the deity Watatsumi-no-ōkami and is located at the edge of Moji.
The reason Mother and my former stepfather had decided to get divorced was not because of a fight. It was because his children and I did not get along. In fact, my parents and former stepfather seemed to still like one another. He would still come over to our new house once or twice a week. Sometimes, he would even take us to the port or across the straits to Shimonoseki.
After he had seen us back to our apartment after the shrine, my former stepfather left and went back to his own home. Mother and I decided to have dinner right away. We were holding our food on our trays when we heard the refrains of the following song through the wooden wall that separated our rooms from the front entrance to the building. The song itself seemed to reek of alcohol.
Oh, feudal lord with the eyebrows
When people sing this song, they take their thumb and point first to their eyebrows, then to their eyes, nose, cheeks, and mouth… It was a rather vulgar song, the sort that you might sing to poke fun at someone. It was clear the man who was singing it was poking fun at my former stepfather who was still coming to see Mother even after getting a divorce from her.
Mother was holding a glass dish in her left hand, and in her right, the chopsticks that were transporting the sōmen noodles to her mouth had paused in midair. Her temples throbbed. With a clatter, she put her chopsticks down on the tea table then squared off to go face the man.
“Hey, drunken turtle, just try singing that again!”
The man she was calling “drunken turtle” — the one who had been singing a moment earlier — was Kameji, a day-laborer who lived next to us in the cheaply constructed building. Kame, the first character of his name meant “turtle,” and he drank quite a lot. His apartment was separated from ours by just a thin wall of rough boards, and that was the reason we could hear him even in the privacy of our own home.
Kameji’s family was made up of him, his wife Tomiko, and their son Tetsuji who was about to turn two. All three of them lived in a miniscule three-mat room, and they hardly had a stick of furniture to their name. During the day, Kameji was almost too quiet, and when we ran into him in the morning, he would trudge off quietly, the bentō box containing his lunch held at waist level. When he received his wages, he drank most of it away, and when he was drinking, he would kick his wife and hit his infant son. In the aftermath, he might turn against us.
He shouted, “What? You don’t like being called a mistress? I don’t care. I’ll say it over and over again.” He wobbled over on his wooden clogs to where Mother was standing in the hallway. He was only wearing a loose pair of underpants.
Mother was furious. “‘Mistress, mistress.’ How dare you say such things! When was I ever a mistress?”
“Mistress! Mistress! You’re a mistress, aren’t ‘cha? I’ll say it again and again. Mistress. Mistress. Misss-trrr-esss!”
By this point, there were only three inches or so separating the faces of Mother and Kameji, who had stuck out his chin out at her in provocation. His breath reeked of cheap liquor. Mother gave him two hard slaps with her open hand — one on each side of his face.
Mother’s bloody screams made every last drop of blood in my own body boil in sympathy for her. I could feel every branching vessel and artery in my body burn with the flames of suns.
This time it was Kameji’s turn to fly off the handle. “Fuckin’ whore!” Without removing his wooden clogs, he stormed into our room chasing Mother. He grabbed her hair, and dragged her down onto the floor, which was nothing but hard boards with a single woven straw mat spread over them.
“Let me go! Let me go!” she screamed, but her voice seemed to be choked by the bubbles of hatred and anger rising in her blood.
Mother’s bloody screams made every last drop of blood in my own body boil in sympathy for her. I could feel every branching vessel and artery in my body burn with the flames of sunset. I grabbed the glass dishes on top of the tea table and threw them one after another at Kameji.
Noodles dangled from his head; water dripped from his body, and blood gushed from his neck. Furious, he let go of Mother and lunged for me. Still in my bare feet, I ran over to the entrance, with its dirt floor, and flew into the sunset outside.
I ran between our neighbors, Shirae-san and Yamane-san, dashed past Horimoto-san and Kimoto-san, then between Ishimaru-san and Eguchi-san. I looked over my shoulder and saw that although Kameji was still barefoot, he was now wielding an axe and was chasing close on my heels.
The road filled with people, and whole groups of people peered out of their windows to watch the drunken man who was behaving like a bloody demon. The sunset seemed to bathe everything in a tragic shade of red — the windows, the faces of the people looking out at us, the dirt road down which both I and Kameji were running in our bare feet, and even the air itself.
I was not yet completely grown, but she had seen in me unmistakable signs of becoming a man.
From out in the distance, I could hear our neighbor Tomiko screaming in a shrill voice, “Run for your life, Mut-chan!” Some part of me couldn’t help but realize that there, in the middle of that beautiful sunset which illuminated both heaven and earth, Kameji and I were engaged in a race to the death. I was only seconds away from the moment the axe would split my head open. The axe was hanging right over me.
Suddenly, like a miracle, the Hirota’s field appeared before me. There was a path right down the middle. I rushed down the path as fast as I could go.
A few moments later, I turned to look and saw that Kameji had stopped near the entrance to the path. The axe was dangling limply from his hand. His face, which was already half obscured by twilight, looked strangely sad.
The landlord, Shirae-san, came to get me, and he gave me shelter in the front of his house. Later that night, Mother came to collect me. Below her eye, all the way down her cheek was a big, purple bruise. We tiptoed into the house, trying not to make any sound. From the other side of the wooden wall, we could hear the sound of unencumbered snoring.
That evening, Mother was silent. After that, she no longer engaged in any violence toward me, making it clear that she had been satisfied by my “manly” behavior. I suspect that when I acted aggressively to protect her, she stopped seeing me as the weak, little boy I had been until that point. I was not yet completely grown, but she had seen in me unmistakable signs of becoming a man.
— EXCERPT FROM THE MEMOIR Twelve Views from the Distance (1970)
Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com
Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/03/07/skies-of-blood