|stories from the floating world||TOSHIO SHIMAO|
Down by the River
I wanted to go to the cape. I was on a small island at the time. I had the sudden urge to see land's end. So I asked Q if he would show me the way, and he agreed without hesitation. It was windy out. Light drizzle wafted over the path every now and then. I borrowed a pair of rubber boots from Q, and put on my raincoat. We stepped outside. On a whim, I asked if we could stop by the river along the way. He said sure. He gave me a knowing look and added, "We can stop by the spring too while we're at it." At a loss, I mumbled something vaguely assenting. I didn't quite grasp the connection between the two. It had slipped my mind that on the island here, the river doubled as the local bathing spot. My mind raced back to a comment he'd made earlier: "The hot spring is co-ed in our village. It took me some getting used to. It was damn strange at first. But I don't even notice anymore." Q was mainland born, which is why it would have taken him some getting used to. He had just moved back to the village not long ago. I don't know what prompted the confession. It just came tumbling out one night after a pause in the conversation. But it stayed in my mind for days afterward. Now I was starting to regret having assented so rapidly to his offer. Had Q interpreted my words as a veiled request to visit the hot spring? The river was the only water source in the village, so had I assumed there would be nothing suspicious about an outsider like myself asking to go to the river. Everyone knew how bad the water situation was on the island. There was only one place to get water in each village: the place they called the "river". I'm not talking long body of water flowing at the surface. All water on the island is located underground, in subterranean rivers. To get their water people here are obliged to dig a hole in the ground at some point over one of these underground waterways. Strictly speaking, that hole is what they're referring to when they speak of the river. And more often than not, the river isn't even manmade; it's just a big sinkhole formed on the spot due to the combined effects of erosion and the elements. In view of the scarcity of water, I speculated that village life would be centered around the river. I envisioned a scene of truly bacchic proportions. I was duly curious to see that scene for myself, and it struck me as being within the bounds of propriety. But the question remained: How to get there? There was virtually no way to tell from the main road, which passed through the village heading towards the neighboring villages on each side, eventually linking all of the villages on the island. Small dirt paths criss-crossed the main road, but taking one was tantamount to entering a maze out of which you might never find your way. Q's village was largish as the villages went. The largest one on the island, in fact. Inside the village, each house was surrounded by a high wall of stacked-up coral or moss, making it impossible to get a clear view of any of the houses from the road. Outsiders who chanced to wander into the village via the main road looking for the river spoke of the eerie feeling of being watched. As if the spirit of the village patriarch, proud-featured, walking stick propped up over each leg, were sitting solemnly by the side of the road eyeing all passers-by. And suddenly, as if shamed by the guilt of some hidden sin, the visitors despaired of the task of locating the river. If each village was a unique individual, with its own unique physiognomy, what could be easier than locating the private part that had to be kept hidden from intruders? The hard part was getting close to the place once you'd figured out where it was. I'd taken a direct approach and moved in with Q, the village chief, in the hope that doing so might provide me with a semblance of legitimacy. I was finding it hard to tell if my plan had been a success.
Q led me around back, where he took off his raincoat and placed it on the ledge, having just donned it before stepping out. I followed suit. As we set out, I marveled how at ease I seemed to be with the situation, considering the way my simple yes-or-no question as to whether Q would take me to the river had been answered by an invitation to the hot spring. Women came and went in the dappled shade of the tree-lined pathway, hips swinging proudly, nonchalantly balancing large pots or buckets on their heads. Transfigured by a mysterious inner glow, the women coming home seemed ten times more beautiful than the rest. What made me think they were coming home? The way they carried themselves, with a sort of godlike tranquility, seemed to speak of having accomplished a trip to a particular destination, and of now being on the road home. Frankly, their unassailable cool made me a little nervous. Every female, young and old, trundled along bearing her load of water on her head, eyes trained ahead in a look of implacable purposefulness. Most of them passed by without the slightest change in attitude, blinkered by their load. But every once in a while one seemed to produce a faint raising of the arms as if in greeting in our general direction; otherwise exhibiting no change in attitude: back rigid, head locked in place. Was it an everyday greeting they exchanged on a regular basis, or one that contained some special, discriminatory nuance aimed at me? And to what extent had my experiences in the village been colored by Q's presence? I'd begun to notice something slightly different about the way he acted when he was with me in the village. I thought of putting the question directly to him, but I sensed I wouldn't be able to get a straight answer out of him even if I did. That isn't to suggest the remotest parsimony on his part in chaperoning me around the village; should there happen to have been some place he wasn't supposed to take me, I'm sure that's the first place we would have gone. Adding to my unease was the way the women passed by with a faint smile on their lips, even though they were looking straight ahead: An expression of serene contentment, borne of familiarity with the surroundings? Q looked absorbed in his own thoughts. With no choice but to follow, I resigned myself to the suspense of the expedition.
Like scree caught in a whirlpool, we suddenly found ourselves at a junction where the path branched downwards. A wave of fear washed over me as I realized the precariousness of my position. Intoxicated by the inner turmoil that was tearing away at the foundations of my already tenacious resolve, I was beginning to lose control of my actions. The gap separating me from Q seemed to shudder open into a gaping chasm, my actions to slow amidst a growing sense of guilt, until I could do nothing but wait for the final moment of judgment. But I wasn't about to seek help from Q, and that's not what I wanted anyway. Being sucked into that whirlpool may have been a mere trifle for Q—a part of everyday life in the village, his special privilege as village chief—but to me it was a nearly insurmountable obstacle; one that would merely have taken a different guise had I managed to refuse his invitation. The effort of maintaining the appearance of calm in my everyday expression up until that point had eaten away my will power, and I could feel a renewed vigor in the gravitational pull drawing me towards the hot spring. I'd made it this far groping in the dark, but how far would that get me in the situation that lay ahead? It bears mentioning that I knew absolutely nothing about where Q had invited me and was now leading me. Provided he was acting based on my words, it should be safe to assume I was currently being led to the river. I noticed my senses no longer seemed to register the wind and rain. The path on the expanse of hill we were now descending was immense beyond all proportion with what I'd seen before. In sharp contrast to the energy and industriousness that had seemed to characterize the actions of the villagers within the confines of the village, which appeared as imposingly three-dimensional as a fortress on a cliff seen from the outside, people around me appeared diminished in stature and seemed to move more sluggishly as we spiralled down the path and out of the village. The sounds of the village, vivid and omnipresent up until a moment ago, seemed to rush into the distance, as if I'd been struck dumb, and I began to notice the faint sound of chatter bubbling up from the silence. No words could describe the sheer, unfettered raucousness of the sound. Passing me on their way up the path, the water-bearing women, bathed in this hubbub, walked with the sure step of the anointed. Traces of perfume lingered in the air in their wake, and seemed to mingle with every breath I took.
We finally arrived at our destination. Confirming my suspicions, it was the river. Flowing invisibly beneath our feet, its waters gushed into view inside a natural sinkhole, where it offered itself for a moment before disappearing back into the depths. An atmosphere of preternatural calm reigned around the opening, which had been reinforced with stark concrete landings to serve as a washing area. Pierced to the marrow by gusts of frigid air that swept out over the river from below, people milling in its vicinity appeared to move in slo-mo as I gazed over the scene rushing to assimilate every detail. Access was open to all, so, granted one were from the village, one was free to come and go there to do one's laundry or take a bath anytime one pleased. Faced with a setting so deeply rooted in intimate daily ritual, I felt like an interloper barging in on a private family gathering. A confused buzz filled the environs, which radiated a primal intensity that rebuffed initial scrutiny. Clouded water swirled in eddies on the water's edge as the river swept away the toil and sweat of life. I felt my legs buckle. This was no place for an outsider like me. No possible justification for the presence of an outsider could stand up to the withering glare of rejection implicit in the mien of openness and acceptance the villagers wore amongst themselves. The presence of a single outsider sufficed to unleash the latent fury, which pummelled the intruder with wave after wave of smothering heat. I cowered under icy stares as heads twirled around in surprise, although I hadn't done anything to attract attention. Under the circumstances, my only hope lay in Q stepping in to act as a go-between. I glanced at him, but he looked impassive. More than anything, I wanted to turn tail and run right then and there, but various hurdles precluded that option at this point in the game. There was no escape unless by some miracle Q managed to read my mind and veer us around on his own initiative. But even Q no longer had the power to halt the course of events. Like a runaway train, momentum propelled us toward our final destination, and I could do nothing but wait for that process to reach its inevitable conclusion. I sensed feelings of resentment towards Q bubbling up, as if in an echo of the growing conviction that the feeling was mutual. We started down toward the washing area, but my nerves were a wreck, making objective observation of the surroundings impossible. My eyes landed here and there, but my mind couldn't put things together to make sense of what I saw. I was muttering under my breath, mantra-like, "Calm down, calm down," when I espied the object of Q's invitation and my worries, the hot spring, tucked away in a ravine at the opposite end of the dell, like the basin of a waterfall. I could now pinpoint a small wooden hut entangled in the giant roots and leaves of the surrounding banyan trees as being at the origin of the hubbub that had been growing in clarity since we set out. Steam trickled out from between the widely spaced slats of the walls, encasing the cottage in a fog through which seated women could be seen cleansing their bodies near the doorless entryway. A wave of fire surged through me, leaving me at a loss what to do, but my legs pressed on towards the hut. I tried repeatedly to get behind Q to let him lead the way, but to no avail. Slowing down only put me further in front, forcing us to play catch up. In view of my complete ignorance of the dictates of etiquette, it seemed appropriate for Q to show me the way, so why did he seem to be pushing me ahead? I was drenched in sweat, and in my perplexity I became aware of the sharp contrast between my attire and that of everyone else around me. I examined Q for salvation, but he looked like any other villager in his stained work suit, stitched together from an old military outfit. The women had on either skirts recycled from old army clothes, or bashagin, the local dress, made from cloth of the banana plant. I was there in a three-piece, replete with necktie, which I longed to be rid of as soon as possible. I finally managed to slip behind Q just outside of the entryway. I could imagine how the womens' eyes would be trained on me in the semi-darkness, like the eyes of ferocious wild animals hidden in the bushes. Baring their white teeth in whispers to each other about a million things, eyes pivoted in my direction. They're all going to be talking about me! But stepping inside, much to my surprise, the women didn't take any notice of me. It almost felt like a deliberate kindness on their part, one that left me a great deal more reassured. That outcome nearly convinced me Q knew what he was doing. But Q continued to show every intention of drifting astern given the chance even as we strode ahead into the heart of the building. Our progress was considerably slowed by the fact that we had to carefully aim every step to avoid the outsplayed legs of women seated around the small bathtub at the center of the modestly-sized room, which topped a hundred square feet. My eyes had lost all semblance of self-possession and stared vacantly at the horizon. Occasionally when I glanced down to verify my footing, my gaze was met by that of one of the women, but I remained unable to pick out a single individual personality. My mind was too filled with self-reproach for having walked in wearing rubber boots. I had done so, true, simply following Q's example, and in fact the women didn't seem to mind at all. The fact that they didn't seem to mind produced in me an upwelling of such strong emotions as to very nearly releive me of all my accumulated stress. Minus that fact, I might well have decided on the spot to turn around and go home. "OK, OK!" a voice inside me cried. It now became apparent that Q was heading towards a crudely fashioned clothes hamper nailed to the wall at the far end of the vestibule. Undressing took a matter of moments for the women, who came attired for the occasion. It sufficed for one of them to untie a knot in the belt of her bashagin and she was done. And after her dip, if she felt overheated, it was just a short walk down to the river to cool down in the fresh subterranean flow. Then back into her bashagin or refab skirt, and up the spiral path to her home in the village with the wooden pail or clay pot full of newly drawn water on her head. Now I knew, now I was there, at the bottom of the spiral path. That realization sent shockwaves through me. Here I was just another naked person—nothing more. I stripped off my clothes in haste, ashamed of their ostentation. By the time I was through undressing, however, unexplicably, Q was not, although clearly he should have been done long before me. Was he testing me or something? It now dawned on me that Q hadn't spoken a single word the entire length of the trip. Which made it even more difficult for me to breach the silence, so I stood facing the hamper on the wall until, spurred by growing impatience, I screwed up my courage and turned towards the bathtub. A single board divided the womens' side from this one, which was currently under the occupation of three elderly gentlemen immersed in the water up to their necks, each one of whom happened to be staring directly at me. The glint in their eyes made it abundantly clear: The moment of truth had indeed been approaching, but just not in the eyes of the women. It was merely a little behind schedule. Leaving Q to fumble with a knot in his underpants behind my back, I waded into the water. Everything had the telltale rough-hewn quality of hurried construction. Even the floorboards looked makeshift. Closer examination revealed that half of the building was propped up by a few posts over the void of the gulch. Water dribbled down the side of the bathtub and through the floorboards into the ravine below. I turned away from the partition, which was tied down in a perfunctory fashion that caused it to bob uncertainly on the waves, toward the valley. There was no wall in that direction, and I could see clear across the valley to the densely wooded cliff on the other side. Down to the left I could see women washing things and collecting water and even cooling themselves post-soak in the river at the washing area we had just departed. The near complete absence of men appeared attributable simply to the time of day I had chosen to visit, but it was obvious that the addition of men to the mixture would have done nothing to disturb the harmony of the unspoken pact that bound the women together. That much was unmistakable even to me, and for some reason it left me feeling even more lonely than before, as if it only helped to emphasize my status as an outsider. Sensing that someone was looking at me, I turned around towards the bathtub, where my gaze was instantly seized by the irritated stares of the three old men, who had obviously been attempting to make eye contact for some time. I got the feeling I'd been under close observation since the moment I entered the building. Instinctively I returned their stares, prompting one of the old men to cast his eyes down with a sheepish grin, but no sooner had he done so than he proceeded to lift them back up and scrutinize me anew. I decided to make a show of ignoring them, trying to look as unconcerned as possible. For the life of me I couldn't tell them apart, one from the other. They were the spitting image of the old patriarch with the noble visage I'd fancied sitting by the side of the road peering at passing visitors. Their overbearing assaulted me like medusae tendrils lunging out to sting; cut off one, and another sprouts up in its place. As for Q, having managed to finish undressing, he had now begun to wash himself rather than coming into the bath. Unable to take any more, I made to get out, when from behind me I heard the strangled sound of a throat being cleared. I braced myself, suspecting I was about to be addressed. Lo and behold: "Where are you from?" one of the old men called out, looking me square in the face. His voice was loud enough to have been clearly heard even by the women across the partition. As if on cue, the other two sprang up unceremoniously and left the tub. I shouldn't even have responded, but I did: "From N." After masticating vacantly in my direction for a few moments, he finally uttered, "I don't see why anyone from N would want to come to a place like this..." I held my peace. It would have taken too long to explain. "I don't see why anyone from N would want to come to a place like this," he repeated drearily, adding with a faint smile, "Strange." I looked at him but remained silent. What could I say to that? I had entrusted everything to Q. If my presence here was taboo, it was up to him to do intercede on my behalf. I was powerless. But I was tormented by the knowledge that ultimate responsibility for my actions lay with myself. Q had heard the old man's words as well as I, but he made no motion of coming into the bath. The women's chatter continued unabated. Maybe what I should have done right at that moment was to pull down that partition, explain exactly who I was and why I was there, and appeal my case before the jury of naked women on the other side. Then to ask those old men just exactly why it was they felt they had to keep such a close eye on me and affront me with a barrage of vaguely accusing questions. But I was inhibited by the fact that as soon as I'd stepped into the village, I'd been hounded by this unshakable feeling of guilt. Even so, those old men really rubbed me the wrong way, there was no denying that. I was under no obligation to answer their questions. Perhaps being naked was what made it hard for me to come to terms with my current dilemma. Could it be that my nakedness made me feel powerless against them? What connection was there between my nakedness and my feelings of guilt? And at what point should I have put my foot down and stood firm? As my mind raced across these various thoughts, the old man walked out of the tub, muttering to himself. Perhaps he had read my thoughts on my face. In his place, Q came in. Without warning, Q motioned to the partition with his head in a casual way that only someone secure in their nudity could, and said, "Usually that isn't there..." Inadvertently I frowned upon hearing this. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself for having done so. Q then proceeded to submerge himself in the waters with an expression of serene detachment. At that point it hit me that all conversation between Q and I had long since ceased. His comment only served throw into stark relief the fact that he hadn't spoken a single solitary word since tendering the invitation that brought us here. As much as I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, without Q in the lead, I was sure to instantly attract the suspicion of the women; something I had managed to avoid doing up until now. In any event, the prospect of the road home filled me with indescribable dread after the oppressive journey here, tagging along behind Q, totally unprepared for what lay ahead. Whatever had gotten into him to decide to bring me here? I tried to take my time so I wouldn't have to stand there waiting for Q to finish, naked and defenseless, exposed to the scrutiny of the old men and the women. The mere thought of it sent shivers down my spine. But wouldn't you know it, I stayed in too long and got overheated. The old men had just come back into the tub, so I took the opportunity to get out, and started washing myself. Again I tried to take my time, washing every nook and cranny with great care, but in no time at all I was done. Rather than just sit there, I decided to go back into the tub, and this time Q dashed out the moment I stepped in. Just as I was starting to get used to the stares of the old men again, one of them ambled up to my side and inquired tentatively, "I haven't seen you in this village before... Where are you from?" pretty much repeating the same question the other one had asked me. I couldn't tell if it was a different one, or the same one again, but even if it was a different one, there's no possible way he couldn't have heard the words we exchanged earlier. Yet here he was asking me the exact same question. So I gave the exact same response: I'm from N. "I'm staying with your village headman over there," I added, indicating Q with a jab of the jaw, hoping to drive the point home. But he didn't seem to hear me, replying instead with another repetition of a question I had been asked before: "What's someone like you doing in a place like this?" His tone was more insistant than before. I stared at him in disbelief, unable to bring myself to respond, and he asked again, "Don't see why a city person like you would want to come to a place like this..." "Well, I'm here, aren't I?!" I wanted to shout. Changing the subject, he asked again, "Do you know a guy called C? He lives in N." Reluctantly I replied, "You can't know everybody in the city... it's not like here in the village. N is a big place." "He came here one time," the old man continued. "I asked him where he lived, and he said N. He said he ran a candy shop. You sure you don't know him?" "Never heard of him," I said bluntly and hastened out of the bathtub. Q was turned the other way, scrubbing his head intently. "But he said he was from N," the old man called out after me, notwithstanding the fact that I was no longer facing him. "He came here one time, like you. I asked him where he was from, and he said he was C from N. You sure you don't know him?" Seated facing the hamper on the wall, my back to the bathtub, I set about wiping myself down. But no amount of wiping seemed to do the trick. The sweat kept on coming. Realizing the best thing for me to do was to resign myself to being wet for a while, and thinking it unbefitting to remain naked in plain view of the women, I donned my underwear and pants and shirt, leaving jacket and necktie off, and stood facing the wall waiting for Q to finish. I was determined not to budge from the spot no matter how long it took. However, Q came right out. "Taking a dip in the river is a great way to cool down," he said. It was the third thing he'd said to me. Old men or no, the last thing in the world I wanted to do at that point was walk naked through a room full of women to go down to the river to take a dip. Besides, I was already dressed. "You can take a dip if you want," I said, sweat-soaked clothes clinging to my skin. "I'm heading back." Q made no reply, and instead started to get dressed. I waited, stock still, until Q was finally ready to go, and followed closely behind him as he made his way towards the main entrance, hopping to the left and to the right over womens' legs. It was like walking through a barn full of animals. Again I couldn't decipher a single personality. When we finally crossed the threshold, it was with great releif that I stepped back out into the open air and the light of day. I could feel the knots in my stomach starting to come undone. I felt giddy to the point of wanting to break out whistling. My reproaches against Q started to seem like ridiculous overreactions. The old men had probably just been a little overcautious. The conclave of women at the spring had the sort of vitality and intensity that in retrospect made it seem like the living heart of the village. This time I was the one exuding the fragrant odor of fresh skin, and I noticed that the women coming down from the village were caked with dust and sweat. I sensed that they looked at me differently now that I had witnessed their locus of transformation, hidden in the bowels of the village. The river precincts struck me as not only the nucleus of the village, but also as its soft underbelly. I couldn't blame the old men for acting the way they did. How ugly I had behaved, in contrast. The old men and the women had seen me naked, and now they all knew me by face, but I couldn't even manage to remember a single one of their faces. I was seized by the feeling that some vague hope lay abandoned, unfulfilled, in that wooden hut. At that precise moment I finally succumbed to the notion that I was really an outsider in the village. When we finished our ascent up the spiral pathway to the outside world, the weather was as stormy as when we had left it, and the rain started up again like a stalled movie projector revving back into action. Only the river and the spring remained shielded from the brunt of elements, sealed off in their own special world.
After that, I was never again able to face the villagers with the same feelings I had before seeing their river. Now, every time I crossed paths with one of them, fear welled up inside me. Whenever I walked around the village, I felt like I had to hide my face. Worst of all, I was haunted by the sinking feeling that I would never be able to become one of them as long as I lived. As Q and I meandered back along the tortuous dirt path hemmed in by the coral fence, at one point we passed by a young man. Q stopped dead in his tracks. He muttered abstractly to himself, "Hm! Never seen him before." I paid the comment no heed and let it slip at the time. But as the import of his words slowly sank into my brain, I was seized with horror. To me, the young man we had passed had looked like just any other old villager. But Q's reaction was instantaneous. His voice firm. I decided I would go through with my original plan to visit the cape, so that I might see the ocean, and with it the smallness of this island.
|Translated April 16 to June 21, 2004 by Benjamin Ettinger|
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR|
|Toshio Shimao (1917-1986)|
Toshio Shimao is primarily remembered as the author of three types of stories: surrealistic stories that he wrote early in his career, war stories that he wrote a little later, and "mad wife" stories that he wrote even later. He also wrote a large body of essays dealing with Amami culture. Shimao's writing was an innovative updating of Japanese Watakushi-shosetsu, with a fluent, effortlessly elegant prose style characterized by long sentences, simple phrasing, and measured pacing. Writing about the most mundane subjects, his stories glimmer with a mysterious everyday magic. An author's author in the truest sense, Shimao retains a reputation as a forbidding writer of "Jun Bungaku", and he remains little known in the west largely due to the challenges inherent in translating his sinuous, elusive prose.
Shimao met his future wife during the war, on the Okinawan island of Kakeromajima, where he was stationed as commander of a Suicide Boat squadron. After the surrender they married and moved to Tokyo, where he earned a meager income writing short stories to support his new family. He started out writing surrealistic dream stories that announced him as a major new talent, and then wrote a series of instantly classic semi-autobiographical stories about his Dostoevskian brush with death just days before the Japanese surrender as he sat waiting for sailing orders that would never come. Around 1960 his wife suffered a nervous breakdown after reading his diary and discovering that he had been having an affair. Under her supervision he wrote in minute detail about the afflictions that subsequently embroiled their family, as both husband and wife were in and out of asylums throughout the decade, in a series of harrowing short stories later collected under the title The Sting of Death. He lived out his later years away from the cultural center of Tokyo at his wife's home in Amami, where he taught at the university and became an expert on Amami culture.
Kawa Nite was originally published in Gendai Hihyo in November 1959.