MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
March 10, 1987
When they got up that first morning, the little white finch was dead. The bottom of the cage was covered with a thick layer of loose feathers, and it looked as if there had been a violent struggle before the bird finally gave up the ghost.
“I wonder if it was just his time to go,” Teppei Kano said softly. “How old was he, anyway?”
“He was only four years old,” replied Teppei’s wife, Misao. “We bought him right after Tamao was born, remember?”
“Oh, right. That seems like an abnormally short life, even for a bird. Maybe he was sick or something.”
“Or he might have hit his head during the move and gotten injured somehow, maybe when the cage was jostled. I think that’s more likely.”
Misao opened the door of the metal cage and gently placed the dead bird in the palm of her hand. The tiny body was already cold. When Misao held it up to her nose, she caught a faint whiff of dried grass—the same earthy scent the little finch had given off when he was alive. Hot tears filled her eyes.
Making an effort not to cry, Misao stroked the stiffening corpse with her forefinger. “Poor little Pyoko,” she murmured. “You were so cute.”
“He really was,” Teppei agreed.
The family’s mixed-breed dog, Cookie, trotted up and laid her front paw on Misao’s knee. The dog’s nose twitched convulsively as she sniffed the air.
“Your friend Pyoko went and died,” Misao said. Choking back another sob, she held out the bird’s lifeless body, now cradled in both her hands, until it was nearly touching Cookie’s muzzle. The dog inhaled deeply, taking in the dead bird’s aroma, then wagged her tail and looked up at Misao with sorrowful eyes.
“We’ll bury him later, outside,” Teppei said, putting his hand on Misao’s shoulder. “It’s kind of ironic that our new location is already coming in handy. At least when we need a graveyard, there’s one right in front of our building.”
“Oh, don’t say things like that! Anyway, I thought we agreed not to talk about the cemetery.” Misao was feeling distinctly depressed about the fact that a living creature they’d been caring for had died so soon after their move to a new place. What on earth happened overnight? she wondered. As recently as yesterday the little bird had been in fine shape, chirping merrily away like an avatar of good cheer, both while he was riding in the back of the moving truck along with Cookie and after his cage had been installed in the living room. And yet now …
“Mama?” Misao’s reverie was shattered by the sound of her daughter’s voice coming from the child-size bedroom—which they called, aspirationally, the nursery—down the hall. Tamao always went to sleep docilely enough, but as soon as she woke up in the morning she would call out for her mother in a whimpering voice that sounded, to Misao’s ears, like an abandoned puppy.
Handing the little bird’s corpse to Teppei, Misao responded in a perfectly normal, everyday tone, “Good morning, sleepyhead! Time to get up!”
A few seconds later Tamao’s face peeked around the corner of the door to the living room. It was a beguiling little face, with her father’s large, bright eyes and her mother’s sharply chiseled features, framed by soft, slightly wavy black hair. Every time Misao saw her daughter she thought, She looks as if she could turn into an angel on the spot, if you just attached a pair of wings to her back.
“Sweetie, come here for a minute, okay?” Misao said in a subdued voice, beckoning with one outstretched hand.
Tamao’s big brown eyes flicked quickly to the birdcage by the window, then back to her mother. “Where’s Pyoko?” she asked.
“He’s right here,” Teppei said quietly, holding out his cupped hands.
Tamao’s bare feet slapped on the floor as she nimbly threaded her way among the jumble of packing boxes to join her father. Teppei opened his hands and showed Tamao the tiny, motionless bird. Tamao took a quick peek, then looked up at her father. “Is he sick?” she asked anxiously.
Teppei shook his head, while Misao explained, “Listen, sweetie, I’m really sorry, but Pyoko’s dead. He’s in heaven now.”
Tamao stared at her parents for a long moment. She looked utterly stupefied, and her thin chest was heaving under her Snoopy-patterned pajamas. Then, very timidly, she stretched out a plump pink finger and began to caress the dead bird. “Poor little thing,” she said.
“Later today we’ll all go outside together and dig a grave,” Misao told Tamao. “We’ll make it extra-specially nice, because Pyoko was such a good friend of yours.”
Tamao was a delicate, sensitive child. As Misao watched helplessly, tears welled up in her daughter’s eyes and rolled down her rosy cheeks. “Poor Pyoko,” Tamao moaned. “Poor little Pyoko.”
Misao nodded, fighting back the urge to burst into empathetic tears. “Yes,” she said, “it’s very sad that Pyoko’s gone. That’s why we have to make a really nice grave for him.”
How on earth did this happen? Misao wondered again, with a growing sense of uneasiness. It really looked as though the entire cage had been attacked and mauled by a cat, and the water dish was filled with the bird’s minuscule feathers, possibly shed (Misao theorized) in a life-or-death battle. Could a rat have gotten into the cage during the night? But surely there wouldn’t be rodents running around in a sparkling new apartment building like the Central Plaza Mansion.
“It’s really strange, though, isn’t it?” Misao said, cocking her head and attempting to dispel the melancholy atmosphere in the room by changing the focus from loss to cause.
“Definitely,” Teppei agreed. “It occurred to me that Cookie might have been trying to play with Pyoko and things just got out of hand. But the cage was latched, so that explanation doesn’t hold water.”
“Besides, Cookie would never do something like that!” Tamao declared indignantly, roughly wiping away her tears with both hands. “Cookie’s a very nice dog, and she and Pyoko were really good friends.”
“You’re right, of course,” Misao said in a soothing tone. “Cookie would never do anything to hurt Pyoko, but it’s just so mystifying. I mean, what could have happened? What do you think, Tamao?”
“I have no idea,” Tamao said, shaking her head.
“We were all sleeping like a pile of logs last night, so we wouldn’t have heard anything,” Teppei said, as he carefully wrapped the bird’s remains in an old newspaper, then laid the bundle on a nearby packing box. “Hey, maybe it was a giant monster cockroach, almost as big as Tamao. Grrrr!”
Tamao’s eyes were still brimming with tears, but now they crinkled around the edges and she began to giggle. There was something a bit forced about her laughter, but she was clearly doing her best to play along with her father.
“Could there really be cockroaches on the eighth floor of a new building? And wouldn’t March be a little early for them to show up, in any case? If this apartment has cockroaches, even if they’re just the normal size, I’m going to move out right now!” Misao said playfully.
Scooping Tamao into his arms, Teppei said, “Did you hear that? Your silly mom got totally hysterical at the very mention of a bug. Who’s afraid of the big bad cockroach? Not I!” he chanted in a comical singsong.
Tamao laughed outright at this, and Cookie began capering manically around the room, apparently sensing the change in mood. Misao was relieved to see that things seemed to be returning to normal. Briskly, she picked up the empty birdcage and took it out to the balcony. After sending Tamao off to wash her hands, she set about brewing a pot of coffee.
The spacious, south-facing living room was flooded with morning light. Okay, Misao told herself, it was a terrible shock to find that Pyoko had died in the night, but now it’s time to put aside our feelings of sadness and confusion, and get to work.
The to-do list for the day was as long as Misao’s arm. For starters, she needed to clean and organize the kitchen; go out and buy enough groceries to keep them going for the next couple of days while they were settling in; and air all the quilts and other bedding, which had no doubt picked up some dust during the move. She could put Teppei to work hooking up the electrical appliances and pushing the furniture into place, but she would still need to give the toilet, washroom, and bathroom a thorough scrubbing, and arrange both bedrooms for comfort and convenience. There were so many stacks of cardboard boxes waiting to be unpacked that just looking at them made her feel slightly ill.
Still, compared with the rather dark, cramped rental apartment they had lived in until yesterday, their new home seemed like a vacation condo at some glamorous seaside resort. The eight-story building had only fourteen units, not counting the husband-and-wife caretakers’ quarters on the ground floor. There were two units per floor, and while the floor plans of those units were mirror images of each other, the placement of the balconies differed a bit from apartment to apartment, so the building’s facade had an interesting irregularity when viewed from outside.
The entry hall opened into a spacious, airy living room with a sunny southern exposure, which abutted a separate kitchen. Ranged along a corridor were a toilet cubicle, a washroom, and a separate bathroom with a tub lined up along one side; next came the two Western-style bedrooms, each with a single window and both facing north. The master bedroom was about half again as large as the nursery, and thanks to numerous built-in cupboards there was no shortage of storage space.
Heading south on foot from Japan Rail’s Takaino Station, it took only seven or eight minutes to reach the Central Plaza Mansion, and another railway stop—the privately operated South Takaino Station—was just a few blocks farther away. From Takaino Station the train took just under twenty minutes to reach the center of Tokyo, and Teppei’s daily commute to the advertising agency where he worked was a straight shot, with no need to change trains along the way. As for St. Mary’s, the kindergarten where they were planning to enroll Tamao, it was a ten-minute walk from the apartment. Looking ahead a couple of years, the district’s public elementary school was even closer; it wouldn’t take more than eight or nine minutes to walk there, even for a child.
A convenient shopping area and a large, privately owned hospital were situated nearby, just steps away from the north exit of Takaino Station. Best of all, the apartment building didn’t have any bothersome rules against keeping pets indoors, so there was no need to worry about Cookie.
It’s pretty close to perfect, Misao thought. What more could anyone want? Two LDK (real-estate shorthand for two bedrooms, living room, dining area, and kitchen); nearly a thousand square feet, including the balcony; a building that was only eight months old; full-time resident managers, right on the premises. For a family in search of a wholesome, peaceful life, it was really quite ideal. Not bothering with a tablecloth, Misao laid out two coffee cups on the bare dining table, along with Tamao’s mug, which was adorned with a picture of a cartoon bear. When she happened to glance toward the balcony, a fleeting wave of misgivings about the location washed over her. Shaking it off, she made a conscious effort to focus on the positives. Beyond the sliding-glass doors, the verdant-smelling March air was whipping around, and there were no buildings nearby to obstruct her field of vision. If only the sublime greenery belonged to a park, and not a graveyard …
Misao gave her head a quick, purposeful toss, as if to banish such futile thoughts, then laughed out loud. There she went again, fretting about minor drawbacks and useless hypotheticals. As if she had time to waste on that kind of nonsense! Cut it out, she told herself sternly.
The percolating coffee began to fill the room with a delicious aroma. Misao grabbed a frying pan that had just been unpacked a few moments earlier and gave it a quick rinse under the tap. She heated the pan on the stove and added a splash of cooking oil. When the oil began to sizzle, she dropped in three of the eggs she had brought from their previous place—painstakingly packed to make sure they wouldn’t get broken in transit.
As she worked, Misao couldn’t keep her eyes from wandering to the living-room windows. The nearly perfect apartment was partially surrounded, from the south to the west side, by a vast graveyard that belonged to an ancient Buddhist temple. To the north were some uninhabited houses, long since fallen into ruin and engulfed in weeds, while on the east side there was a patch of vacant land. Beyond that empty field the smokestack of a crematorium was clearly visible, and from time to time the tall, cylindrical brick chimney would belch out a billow of thick black smoke. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, it wasn’t inconceivable that some of that mortal smoke might waft in through the apartment’s open windows from time to time.
“We really lucked out, finding this place,” Teppei said when they came to look at the Central Plaza Mansion for the first time. “If it weren’t for the proximity to a graveyard, there’s no way the price would ever be so low nowadays. I mean, think about it. Do you really believe that a large luxury apartment like this in the Tokyo metropolitan area would be priced so low if the surroundings were different?”
“And look, there’s a crematorium practically next door!” Misao said with mock enthusiasm. “That’ll be handy for the next step, when the time comes. Talk about a stroke of luck!” Upon hearing this, the agent who was showing the property launched into a spiel that was clearly designed to be persuasive, explaining that sophisticated people in Europe simply thought of graveyards as another type of public park, with no negative connotations whatsoever.
“Yes, I see your point,” Misao said, her voice dripping with sarcasm as she gazed at the view from the balcony. “If only the ground beneath the graveyard weren’t full of the decomposing bones of human beings, it would be exactly like a botanical garden.”
Misao had absolutely no desire to live in a place like this. However low the price, however marvelous the accommodations, however sunny the exposure, however close to the center of the city the apartment might be, her initial gut feeling was still: Uh-uh. Never. No way. Surely, she thought, nobody in their right mind would intentionally invest in a property surrounded on three sides by a cemetery, a temple where funerals were held, and a busy crematorium.
Yet at the same time, from the very first viewing of the apartment—indeed, from the instant she looked out at the graveyard and thought, No way—the truth was that Misao was being inescapably pulled in the opposite direction by the stark numerical realities. She had given up her freelance illustration work when Tamao was born, and that had taken a severe toll on the family’s finances. As for Teppei’s salary, the advertising business was in an industry-wide slump, and there was no chance of his getting a raise any time soon.
But still, at their current rental—a dilapidated, sun-deprived apartment where even in the midsummer heat, the laundry Misao hung on the north-facing balcony took forever to dry—they were essentially pouring money down the drain every month. Fortunately, they had managed to hang on to some of their savings, and Misao got the feeling that if they were going to use that money for a down payment on a suitable apartment, it was probably now or never.
As Teppei pointed out at every opportunity, you could look all over Tokyo and not find a single comparable unit at this price: only thirty-five million yen for a great deal of space. When you factored in the convenience for commuting, shopping, schools, and so on, it wouldn’t be unusual to pay sixty million yen or, more likely, seventy million yen for an apartment of similar size, or smaller. So on the one hand there was the disadvantage of having to look out at a graveyard and a crematorium smokestack, while on the other hand you were getting a very attractive living space for something close to half price. I need to look on the bright side here, Misao thought. I mean, if you need to live within commuting distance of central Tokyo, finding an affordable, family-size home that offers perfection inside and out is the proverbial impossible dream, with no chance of ever coming true. This apartment is gorgeous inside, at least, and (if you don’t think too much about the view) the location really couldn’t be more convenient.
As for resale, Misao knew the unconventional setting might make it more difficult to find a buyer, but she couldn’t imagine that they would want to move out and find another place until sometime in the extremely distant future, and there was no point in thinking that far ahead. She had every expectation that the three of them (four, with Cookie) would enjoy living at the Central Plaza Mansion so much that they wouldn’t need to think about selling for many years to come. The dank little rental apartment where they had been living until yesterday was tainted by some exceptionally unpleasant memories, and it was a wonderfully liberating feeling to be making a new beginning here.
“Mama?” Tamao said quizzically, poking her head through the kitchen door. Misao had been absently spreading a piece of toast with butter, and she jolted back to reality with such a start that she dropped the pat on the floor.
“I can make Cookie’s breakfast,” Tamao announced.
“Really? You’re sure?”
“Yep! I’m sure!”
“Well, that would be a big help. You don’t need to add any water, though.”
The moment Tamao took the box of dog food out of the cupboard and rattled it, Cookie came galloping up with her tail wagging at maximum velocity. She wasn’t a purebred dog by any means, but her round black eyes and tawny coat were a clear legacy of the Shiba Inu branch of her family tree.
Oh, that’s right, Misao thought, staying positive. This area is an ideal place to walk a dog, too. And even if Cookie barks a bit from time to time, we won’t need to worry because there’s nobody living next door.
They had bought unit 801; the other apartment on the eighth floor, 802, was still empty. Of course, there was a good chance that someone would move in eventually, but as long as their future neighbor wasn’t a curmudgeon with an extreme dislike of dogs, it should still be all right, assuming Cookie didn’t suddenly start howling loudly at all hours.
The big front window stood open, and the breeze wafting into the apartment caused the newly purchased white lace curtains to undulate softly. The air smelled like springtime. Although it was only nine a.m., the warm rays of the morning sun had already flooded the entire left side of the living room with light.
“After we finish breakfast, we’ll have a funeral for Pyoko,” Misao told Tamao. “Then you can tidy up your room and put all your clothes and books and toys where they belong. All right?”
“How are we going to make a funeral for Pyoko?”
“Well, first we’ll dig a grave outside and put a cross next to it, with ‘Here Lies Pyoko’ written on it. Then we’ll all say a prayer: ‘Please let Pyoko be happy in heaven,’ or something like that.”
“Is there something else you’d like to do?”
“No, it’s just—don’t we need to make one of those long, skinny sticks, like the one I’ve seen you and Papa praying over sometimes?”
Oh dear. Not this, Misao thought, averting her eyes. “You’re talking about a memorial tablet,” she said. “No, Pyoko doesn’t need to have one of those.”
“Because those are only for people. Pyoko was a bird, so we don’t need to make one for him.”
“Huh,” Tamao said doubtfully, watching as Cookie plunged her snout into the dog food dish and began wolfing down the dry kibble.
Misao hadn’t yet talked to Teppei about where to set up their small, portable Buddhist family altar. Last night she had stuck it in the closet of the master bedroom, as a temporary measure, but they couldn’t very well leave it there forever. After all, the altar needed to be somewhere out in the open, where the spirit of a certain deceased person could bask in the refreshing breeze that wafted through the new apartment.
Teppei was continually teasing Misao about her old-fashioned insistence on observing traditional rituals regarding people who were no longer among the living. In this case, the person in question was Teppei’s first wife, but that didn’t stop him from giving Misao a hard time. It wasn’t because he was heartless or unfeeling; he just happened to be the kind of tough-minded, strong-willed positive thinker who always found a rational explanation for everything, and refused to be haunted by painful memories or might-have-beens.
The event that changed everything had taken place seven years ago, during the summer when Misao and Teppei were twenty-five and twenty-eight, respectively. They had taken a secret weekend trip to a resort on the Izu Peninsula, where they had spent two blissful days (and nights) swimming in the hotel pool, enjoying poolside barbecues, and later, in bed, making love again and again. Teppei returned to his house in Tokyo late Sunday evening and found his wife, Reiko, standing silently in the unlit entry hall, waiting to welcome him home—or so he thought.
“What’s going on?” he asked casually as he slipped out of his shoes. “Why are you just waiting here in the dark?” When Reiko didn’t reply, Teppei groped around for the wall switch and turned on the overhead light.
His wife, he saw then, wasn’t standing on the landing, at all. She had hung herself from a crossbeam by a silk kimono cord, and the architectural element holding her upright was the ceiling, not the floor.
Reiko had left behind a suicide note, addressed to Teppei. In it, she wrote that she harbored no ill feelings whatsoever toward him or the woman he was having an affair with. She was just tired. Life no longer offered her anything to enjoy, and all she wanted was to go to sleep, forever. Good-bye, she concluded. Please be happy.
Even now, Misao still knew every line of that brief letter by heart, and she could have recited it word for word. Life no longer offers me anything to enjoy …
Before Reiko’s suicide, Misao was just a carefree young woman who had never given any serious thought to the nuances—or the ultimate stakes—of romantic relationships. She hadn’t had the slightest intention of engaging Reiko in a territorial tug-of-war, or of trying to coerce Teppei into getting a divorce. She would have been lying if she’d said she wasn’t bothered by the fact that Teppei was married, but their mutual attraction (stoked by workplace propinquity) had simply been impossible to resist.
Misao and Teppei had met at the advertising agency where they were both employed, and after Reiko died their coworkers began to say nasty things about the two of them, quite openly. Misao decided that the only remedy was for her to quit her job, so she resigned and became a freelance illustrator.
At the time she had every intention of breaking things off with Teppei as well, but somehow they went on seeing each other. Evening after evening the two of them would huddle together in Misao’s tiny apartment and spend endless hours rehashing every detail of Reiko’s death. They knew it wasn’t healthy to keep going over the same things, but they also understood that while their psychic wounds would never heal if they kept reopening them again and again, retreating into silent denial would have been even less beneficial. There was no way to whitewash the harsh fact that their selfish, illicit actions had driven another human being to end her own life, and Misao and Teppei felt compelled to continue talking until they were able to accept that terrible truth, and forgive themselves, and move on. They were, in effect, equal co-conspirators who shared the burden of guilt, and neither of them wanted to take the easy path of pretending that nothing had happened, or that it hadn’t been their fault.
And so they talked, and talked, and talked about the suicide of Teppei’s wife, to the point where they were sick and tired of the sound of their own voices, but instead of driving them to break up and go their separate ways, that painful process brought them closer. And then, finally, after all those long, dark nights, Misao had a major epiphany. She realized she and Teppei were meant to be together, for the long haul—marriage, children, the whole nine yards—and that was when she committed fully to their relationship, in her heart.
Misao had just turned twenty-seven when she discovered she was pregnant. At that point Teppei was still living in the house he had shared with Reiko, but he moved out and came to live with Misao in her small, sunless apartment, bringing Reiko’s memorial tablet with him. They got married in a low-key civil ceremony, and the following year Tamao was born. And then …
“Hey, what’s for breakfast? I’m starving!” Teppei strode into the kitchen, wiping his damp hands on a towel. “I just finished putting up our nameplate next to the front door. Turns out, that’s hungry work!”
“I’m afraid there’s only coffee and toast and fried eggs,” Misao said.
“That sounds perfect. Wait, it looks like Cookie went ahead and ate before the rest of the family.”
“I made Cookie’s breakfast, all by myself!” Tamao announced proudly.
Teppei smiled at her. “What a good girl!” he said.
“Well, you know, I’m Cookie’s mother, so it’s my job,” Tamao explained.
“You don’t say.” Teppei’s grin grew broader. “Then I guess that means Mama and I are Cookie’s grandparents?”
“That’s right.” Tamao’s expression was still completely serious.
Teppei slid his arm around Misao’s waist. “Hey, Grandma,” he said slyly.
Misao laughed. “Are there really any grandmothers who look as good as this?” she asked with mock arrogance. “I mean, I don’t have a single wrinkle yet, and my bottom isn’t even a little bit saggy.”
“Oh, this bottom? Hang on, let me check,” Teppei said. The hand that had been encircling Misao’s waist inched slowly down, tickling her playfully through the cloth of the jeans she was wearing, until it came to rest on her rear end.
“Stop it, you! You’re going to make me spill the coffee!”
“Now that you mention it, it’s our first day in a new place and you haven’t even kissed me good morning yet,” Teppei whispered in Misao’s ear.
“That isn’t going to happen,” Misao said primly.
“Wow, you’re a regular ice queen.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” Misao sighed. “Okay, go ahead, knock yourself out,” she added with feigned weariness, turning to face Teppei with her lips extended in a comically exaggerated way.
Tamao was watching with great interest. “Me, too!” she clamored.
Teppei swept his daughter into his arms. Holding her tightly, he twirled her around and around, planting noisy kisses all over her face. Tamao responded with a torrent of high-pitched giggles and shrieks of delight.
Copyright © 1993 by Mariko Koike