Short Story of the Month
‘Hiromichi’ by Jayne Joso
Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘Hiromichi’ by Jayne Joso from her new collection of short fiction Japan Stories.
Japan Stories – a spellbinding collection of stories and short fiction set in Japan. Each centres on a particular character – a sinister museum curator, a son caring for his dementia-struck father, a widow in the far north reflecting on her provincial life, a young woman who returns to haunt her killer. Together, these compelling narratives become a mosaic of life in contemporary Japan, its people, its society, its thinking, its character. Japan Stories provides a window into a country we would all love to know more deeply. With illustrations by Japanese Manga artist Namiko.
I’ve known times of struggle in the past myself. When I was a student briefly in Chicago, I fell upon hard times and genuinely thought I might find myself homeless. I don’t like to think about it. I’m back home and things have sorted themselves out. It’s actually really hard to pull back the details, stuff I went through abroad, but I have a sense of it sometimes and it always makes me shiver. Like being taken by surprise by your own shadow when you change direction suddenly, rounding a corner or the light changing when clouds shift. A horrible, disconcerting feeling. And more than that.
In Japan, I feel safe again, it’s home. I have a few people here that I can rely on and realise now just how much I need them. I work as an illustrator – children’s books mostly. It’s nice work and recently I’ve been sharing some modest studio space with another artist. It’s made all the difference as my own place is also on the small side. It feels so good not to be cooped up in my small apartment while I draw. I like the quiet company of the other artist, Akiko. She has a calm disposition too and it suits me to be around her. We give each other peace and quiet, space I guess, to get the work done and then we have a coffee or discuss our projects over a simple lunch. We are almost like monks. It’s quite funny. Cute even. – The best thing is that I can now eke out a living. – Anyway, to my story: when I was coming back home two nights ago I passed a guy curled up in an odd position on the street, he didn’t look comfortable at all. I didn’t like to assume he was homeless, but it was cold and the forecast said that the temperature would drop further in the night. I got closer and said something casual and then I realised that he wasn’t Japanese. I switched to English but he didn’t answer very quickly so I worried. I don’t know any other languages. I stood a moment blowing air into my hands and he finally looked up. He said he was OK. I felt relieved, he did speak English, good; so I squatted down, careful in case he was drunk or something but actually he was fine. I smiled and said it was cold, too cold to be outdoors like this. He nodded. From his face and clothes I couldn’t really work out much about him. His accent wasn’t familiar to me either. At the same time, I know people are sometimes upset when you ask a lot of personal things, where they’re from and so on, so I thought best not to ask too much. He didn’t move. I motioned to him to get up and suggested that if he came with me, my place was close by now, I could make him some hot tea. I thought he was around my age, perhaps a little older.
He came along with me in a rather indifferent manner. I didn’t feel worried at all about inviting him. Not at all. He was someone in need and to be honest I was more than happy, maybe even overly eager to help. Sometimes people abroad had shown me tremendous kindness. I wanted to do the same.
As we entered my home I realised I had been chatting away to him the whole time, I don’t even know about what. I apologised and found him some slippers, showing him that he should take off his shoes. He seemed reluctant to take them off, or perhaps he’d become stiff from sitting in the cold so long. That’s happened to me before now, often actually, when I sit and draw too long without realising and the limbs seize up.
I made some hot soup for us. It took some time in preparation as I wanted to use all fresh ingredients and cook from scratch, give him something wholesome and warming. He complained that I was taking too long, which took me by surprise to be honest. And when I came from the kitchen to speak to him he laughed very heartily at my apron. I was taken aback by his reaction, and yet I felt it was good to have helped him cheer up, however unintentionally. I was rather conflicted.
He mumbled rather a lot and I struggled to follow what he said. But he seemed to be enjoying the soup. I asked if he had a place to stay, he replied that he had not or I wouldn’t have found him lying on the street. I asked if he knew anyone here, and he responded similarly. Then I grew nervous of making any further enquiries. I had no need to pry, and I was not in the game of trying to make another person feel uncomfortable about their life or situation, I merely wanted to understand what was going on with him so that I could help. And I worried someone might be looking for him or waiting for him. But by now I guessed not.
He asked for more soup, I gave him some and felt pleased that he liked it. He noticed some sketches of mine about the place, and asked under his breath, what were they for? They were some rough fox drawings I was working on, a new idea for a children’s book, I told him. I saw his eyes lighten and flicker and a little colour grew in his cheeks. I gathered the pictures together and placed them near him, bidding him to take a closer look if he should like to. It was my original idea, and I explained how I generally worked from a writer’s story, how this was fine, but that someday I would like things to happen the other way around: start with my artwork and let the writer find words later. He passed up his empty bowl and asked if he might wash his hands before handling the paper. I was touched. He knew to treat an artist’s work with respect. I pointed to the tiny bathroom and casually uttered, please, help yourself. I fumbled around for a clean towel for him. Now, he truly was my guest I felt.
When he came out I withdrew to the kitchen under the pretence of washing the dishes. I didn’t want to be in the room when he perused my work. Suddenly shy.
I heard a shuffling. What was he doing? Fidgeting noises. Perhaps he was just making himself comfortable. I called, asking, did he need anything? Beer, he responded. Get me a beer. Just that, abrupt, clear. When a man knows precisely his need it seems he can find his voice. OK, and a part of me was amused by this, perhaps even a little impressed. Well, not so much impressed, but somewhat entertained. As I opened the can I hoped I had never behaved in the same way. I took another beer for myself.
With the fresh advantage of the beer to offer him, I ventured to ask a few things. I gave him the can and he asked for a glass as though I was offending him, treating him like a brute. I retreated to the kitchen and returned with two glasses. He looked at me for a moment and gave a heavy nod. I have no idea what he intended to communicate in this but it felt a little awkward. I drank deeply on my beer then asked rather quickly, what was his name, where was he from, had he been in Japan very long? He continued to stare at my works and did not reply.
So, he said, this is what you do? For a living, you draw? You have a good eye. And these are for books. That’s a nice life. Few people get to do that. - I was flattered and excited to be indulged like this and impressed he knew anything at all about my profession. I told him as much but he responded darkly, that he was not an idiot.
Foxes are interesting, he said, adding, and so are cats. He scanned the room as though looking for one. I told him I didn’t have a pet. He looked disappointed in me. Indeed, I felt, disappointed in me. It would be nice to have a pet, would make all the sense in the world to have one. And yet, I did not. They are good company, I offered, pets: cats, dogs. He nodded, supped on his beer, smiled mischievously and said, he knew that cats and dogs were pets. I drank more of my beer. His character was not easy.
Will you let me stay here? He asked, placing my artwork carefully to one side. My eyes followed his hands. My heart wondered why he had not commented further on my drawings. But he had shown a generous interest, taking a look, washing his hands in advance and he handled the pages with great care. All of this I witnessed and appreciated. Could you get me another beer, he added, taking off his sweater. Without thinking I responded automatically to his request and fetched more beer. He asked if the futon he spied was spare and lay himself down on it. I had been about to say, yes. I placed the beer near to him but already he was sleeping. I felt a deep sense of compassion towards him. Imagine, being so very tired. I would let him sleep.
I shuffled some things about and lay down rather near to him as my place did not really permit anything more comfortable or polite. He smelt of herbs when I expected he might just smell rather dirty. Curious. Not drugs, just light smelling herbs, perhaps rosemary. I wondered, was it perfume?
When I awoke, the man was still sleeping. I did not like to disturb him, and for a moment I was concerned, I lent near to make sure that I could hear him breathing. He was alive. I felt happy. I dressed quickly for work and laid out a few simple things on a tray for his breakfast, and placed them close to his head. I left, and as I walked I considered that though in some small sense he was comfortable to be around, I had no idea really of anything about him. I shrugged. When I got to work I would tell Akiko.
One of the first things Akiko wanted to know was, what the hell, her actual words, in English too, ‘What the hell..’ was I doing taking in strangers, letting them sleep over, and leaving them unattended in my place? She was right, of course. But I didn’t like her tone. I didn’t answer her and got on with my work. By the end of the day I had all but forgotten that I had had a guest. I had purposefully left my door unlocked (this area is safe) so that he could leave easily, and I wondered what might have happened to him this day.
When I got home he was still there. Almost unrecognisable as he had clearly bathed, shaved and was dressed in a pair of my own pyjamas. I was obviously surprised. I think I was both delighted and.. and what? Astounded, I suppose, by his impertinence. Never in my life would I behave like that, just helping myself. However, I had to remember, that placed in situations of adversity, people do behave outside the normal range of acceptable behaviours. Before I could speak, he asked if I had brought home dinner. And beers, we were out of beers. No, I responded. I had not. His eyes were not unkind and bid me go get what might be needed. I have no idea why I was so obedient in his presence but I was. I took a moment to divest myself of my work bag, and take a glass of water, so as not to appear too much in awe and under his spell, and then I set out again to get groceries for our supper. It was as though I was a child again. And I have no idea why I found this quite so amusing, for sure I would not be telling Akiko, but it did amuse me. Was I such a masochist? It appeared, at least in this brief time, that I enjoyed being bossed around. I learned something new about myself.
It was an entire week that we lived together this way, we would eat and share beers, he would look at some of my work. His interest in me would distract from the fact that I had no idea who he was, where he came from, what were his intentions. I never mentioned him again to Akiko and allowed her to believe he had simply stayed the one night with me and that it was a kind of foolish gesture on my part. But each day I would return home and find him in my clothes waiting for me to feed him. It struck me how like a cat he was. It also struck me how arrogant his behaviour was, how passively and innocently he had inveigled himself. I was astonished when I took my walk to work each morning at just how smoothly this situation had appeared to set itself up. But so it was. And somehow I didn’t seem to mind.
When a week had passed, I came home with a gift of takeaway food, and better beers, as though I would celebrate something with my friend. I entered my place and he was gone. It was easy to check that he wasn’t there as the place is so small, no need to call out, and also, I still had no idea of his name. There was a smell, a scent. Lemons. He had left a note. He was deeply grateful for the care and love I had shown a stranger. And lacking any other means of thanking me, had cleaned my place using fresh lemons. That was indeed the scent. I had never heard of such a thing. ‘I have cleaned your house with lemons’ - I dropped to my knees on the tatami, letting the bags I carried fall away. Oh, how I cried. Where was he now? After some long moments and a howling deep from inside, I gathered myself. I hauled in some breath and then more but slowing down. I noticed then, my pictures, the foxes. Pulled them near, they were clean, intact, but some pages now were added. The story. His story. Just a few words in the finest hand-written script, on single loose pages, one to fit with each sketch. I could not read them for tears. I fell forwards, pushing my face into the tatami and howled again, into the ground. Never had I cried like that. Never in my life.
I read his words, in English though I knew that was certainly not even his first language, but it seemed clear he was a master. My little foxes, how he had animated them. He had made them true, given life to them and poetry.
I got up and ran outside, I could not call out for him without his name. But I looked and looked, ran back to the place where I had first encountered him. Of course, he was not there. I screamed a name inside that I did not even know. Please, oh please, please, please, come back to me, come back…
I walked. On and on. Back and to. As midnight approached I returned to my place. Though I knew he would not be there, and with all my heart I so wished that he was. Never, never would I forget him.
I had the words, ready now, for the fox book. But the author was unknown. And my home now, smelt of lemons.