The dim overhead light intensifies the shadows beneath my eyes until they become like bruises. Little pockets of darkness I carry my nightmares in.
I want to sleep, but I cannot. The few hours a night when my eyes are closed bring me visions of Japan and my last days there. The face of my patron twisted in pain haunts me. The feeling of his blood seeping over my fingers will not leave.
I yearn for rest—for peace.
The war between my country and the United States is over. The war inside me rages on.
There are two men at table three, with dates. They are the only customers in the Good Luck Bar, and I am the only waitress. The girls look at me with narrowed eyes, suspicious. The men have the cocky bearing of sailors, but only one of them seems to undress me as I set down their beers.
“Hey there, Miss Saigon,” the one with the roving eyes says. “My buddy here just got back from the far East. Hey, Jerry, how do you say hello in Nip-speak? Coneychee? That right?”
“You sound like an idiot,” Jerry says.
Baka no hito.
“Konnichiwa,” I say. The first man guffaws, slaps his thigh. His other arm slips around the girl’s shoulders.
“Did you hear that? Say something nice for my girl.” He looks at the girl. “How about it, honey? What do you want her to say?”
“Come on, Pete,” Jerry says, fingering his bottle. “My beers getting warm and my foods getting cold.”
“I’m a paying customer,” Pete says. “Go on, hon. Tell her what to say.”
The girl chews on her lip, leaving flecks of red lipstick on her teeth. “Tell me how pretty I am.”
Pete pulls her closer, laughing. “That’s my babe. Always fishing for compliments.”
“Uma ni niteimasu. Kamiga kusso mitai ni kusai desu.” Sugar drips from my words as I describe the girl’s horsey features and dung scented hair. She giggles. Jerry covers his mouth to hide his own laughter, and my stomach twists. He understood me.
His eyes catch mine; his smile softens and then turns dark. I turn away and hurry back to the bar, feeling exposed.
I tuck my tips into my bra: two dollars and ten cents—half my weekly rent. It still feels strange, paying for my own living. In Japan, when I was young, the geisha house took care of me. Then, my patron—but I do not think of him.
George grunts a goodbye as I walk out of the bar and into the cool night air. I pause for a moment to take a deep breath. Car exhaust, cigarette smoke; it is nothing like home. My heels click on the pavement as I walk.
The cigarette smoke comes from a man leaning against the wall, a few feet from the bar entrance. My heels click faster; my heart begins to flutter. His cigarette glows red as I approach.
“Hey,” he says.
“Bar is still open.” I say, not stopping.
“I’m not looking for the bar.” His fingers brush my sweater. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I turn, and recognize him: Jerry, without his friend or his girl. My heart flutters again, but not in fear.
I realize I’d been hoping to find him, too. He drops his hand away from me, and I follow him down the street.
“I came back after…as soon as the war ended,” he says. We sit on a park bench, surrounded by eucalyptus and gas fumes.
“You miss Japan?” I slip off my shoes and press my toes into the grass. It feels like a hundred cool tongues licking my feet.
“No.” He slides to the ground and takes one of my feet in his hands. I let him, though my instinct is to pull away. His hands are strong, softer than I have guessed. “I went to Japan to defend my country. After Pearl Harbor I was convinced I could kill every last one of… Well, I thought I needed to do my part.”
“To protect your country.”
He nods. “With warheads and shotguns and…I’m not saying what we did was wrong. Or right. I don’t know.”
I can’t help him. My patron never spoke to me about politics. I first learned of the war when my patron moved into the house he’d bought for me, after his wife was killed. That was also when I chose to leave, any way I could.
“Do you think killing a man is ever justified?”
I wince. Jerry stares at me, as if he can see my mind like the ekisha in the market, reading tea leaves to tell my future—or my past.
I do not know how to answer, so I say nothing. Guilt burns in my stomach.
“I don’t know,” he says. He runs his thumb across the arch of my foot, sending a shiver up my thighs. His gaze returns to my face. “Are you cold?”
I shiver again, my heart beating fast. Jerry stands and scoops me into his arms as if I weigh nothing.
“My shoes!” My only pair of heels, left in the dewy grass. He laughs and bends so I can pick them up. Then his lips are on my neck. These, too, are softer than I had imagined.
He takes me to his apartment, carrying me without running out of breath or places to touch. Heat spreads through so that when we reach his home my body is alive with fire, and he is oxygen.
We don’t make it to the bedroom. Our clothing comes off in layers; heavy leaves falling from our bodies.
He is the first man I have been with since my patron, and it is so different. Jerry is young, and strong, where my patron had been elderly and soft—soldier and a bureaucrat. It feels unfair to compare them, but how can I not? When one has only had cold tofu to eat for days and days, is it so strange to enjoy grilled salmon?
I lay sandwiched with Jerry on the narrow cushions, exhausted and sweaty. I dread sleep, fearing the nightmares of my patron with my blade in his hand and a roar on his lips. I know if I am lucky I will wake up thirsty and dazed. If I am not, I will wake up screaming. Eventually, heaviness overcomes me, and I sleep.
I sleep without dreams. Jerry wakes me with a cup of coffee. I am too grateful to question my luck.
His apartment glows with early morning light. I try to cover my nakedness with a pillow and Jerry brings me a blanket.
“Arigotou,” I say, inclining my head. Thank you. I expect to feel ashamed, but his eyes feel too familiar.
We sit together on the sofa, smelling of one another, and drink our coffee in silence. When my cup is empty he takes it to the kitchen.
“How did you sleep?” he asks when he returns.
“I slept well. And you?” I ask, more out of politeness than concern.
“I always do.” He leans close to me and drops his voice to a whisper. “I’ve got a secret.”
He leads me to his bedroom, bottom lip caught between his teeth. A large bed dominates the room, covered with rumpled sheets and a thin blanket. There is a nightstand at the head of the bed, nearer to the door. A single lamp lights the room, casting strange shadows.
The scent of wet earth meets me as I step through the doorway. I take in the sweet intimations of cherry blossom, and rain. My knees buckle and Jerry catches me, lowering me to the edge of the bed. His eyes are wide. His arms tremble.
“I didn’t know… I mean, I thought you might—” He closes his eyes, shakes his head.
I cannot speak. My breath comes fast as I tried to suck up every bit of that scent that smells so much like home, like the hills outside of Sapporo where I’d been allowed to spend the best days of my childhood. How can that smell be here? It shouldn’t be possible.
Jerry crawls across the bed and squats next to a large, covered box I hadn’t noticed. I hear a snuffling sound. His eyes are on me as he tugs at the cloth, revealing a cage made of thin, wooden slats. An animal sits inside, about the size and shape of a wild boar. Its body is white; its legs, belly and head are black. A long snout curves off its face, twitching and searching the air, nostrils flaring. I follow Jerry across the bed, enthralled by the creature.
“You have baku?” I ask, unsure of the English word for the animal. “In your home?”
Jerry nods, his grin nearly spilling off his face.
“I knew you’d understand. I had to tell someone. I’ve been going crazy, keeping him here, but I couldn’t trust anyone else.” He grabs my hand and moves it to the cage.
The baku’s snout brushes over my palm, sending a chill tingling up my arm. Why would anyone keep a wild animal in their home? I remember a cat the geisha house had when I was young, and my patron kept dogs at his estate, but never had I seen something so large and undomesticated caged like a common pet. I look from the man to the beast, and back again.
“For the dreams, of course,” he says, letting go of my hand. I leave it pressed against the cage. As I study the animal, its oddities become clear.
I notice the feet first. Where there should be rough toes, I see paws, like a cat, covered in dull black fur. Its tail, which should have been no longer than my finger, swishes around the cage, nearly a foot in length, tipped with a tuft of silky hair. Stories from my childhood poke me, tease me with words almost forgotten. True understanding settles in my mind, and I jerk my hand away.
Jerry doesn’t keep a wild animal. My night of peace had not been a happy accident.
This is a nightmare eater.
I get dressed quickly. I do not want to be exposed in front of the creature. It has my dreams, my secrets. Already I feel too vulnerable. The smell of home keeps me close, though. We drink our coffee in the bedroom, watching the cage.
“How did you find it?” I ask. The baku twitches; its cage seems too small for it to stretch out.
“I was in Tokyo, getting ready to come home. I couldn’t sleep. Hadn’t slept in weeks, really. I was having nightmares—horrible nightmares that woke me up and wouldn’t let me go. I must have looked like the devil.” He pauses, focused on a memory thousands of miles away. “Even when I wasn’t asleep I would still see…” He shakes his head. “I went walking. I was lost, somewhere near the fishing docks, when a woman called out to me. I figured she was a prostitute, which I thought would be just the ticket. Maybe relax me enough to pass out.”
He looks at me, perhaps to weigh my reaction, but I just nod. How can I care about him wanting to pay for sex when I let myself be purchased by a man I could not love?
“The only thing I really remember about her was her eyes. She looked tired, even more tired than I felt. She took me to this tiny room, told me to lie down and sleep. I argued, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I didn’t have a single nightmare that night. When I woke up—it must’ve been twelve hours later—she was squatting at my feet with a black box.
“She asked me how much I’d give her to get rid of my nightmares, completely. Gave her everything I had on me, which wasn’t much to tell the truth. But my nightmares came back that night on my flight home. You would blush to hear the things I said about that woman.” He leans back and grins. “Sounds crazy, huh?”
I shake my head, knowing I might have done the same thing.
“My first night in this place I pulled out the box and cracked it open. I don’t know what I expected: a puff of smoke, maybe? I got nothing. I went out to get a few drinks in me, help me sleep, and when I came back I found this cage, and that animal inside.” He pauses long enough to give the baku a look almost like love. “And I slept, like a little baby. This kind of deep sleep I hadn’t got any of since I was a kid.” He looks at me, now. “Like you slept last night.”
There is something about the baku I want to figure out, but seems out of reach. Jerry wraps his arms around me, tells me to stay with him. He needs a companion. Not the blonde from the Good Luck, but someone who could really understand this part of his life.
Someone like me.
Jerry is gone for most of the day, working outside of the city. He comes home tired, hungry, and happy to see me. I keep his small apartment clean but that takes little time, even though it is easily three times larger than the room I rented before I met him. I cook, a mixture of dishes from Japan and food from his mother’s old recipe box. After one disastrous meal of tuna casserole—which I made using raw tuna—we spend an evening going over each stained index card until I am sure I will not make any more mistakes.
He is sweet, bringing me flowers or a bit of candy. I have developed a taste for the little caramels and bitter chocolate. I am getting used to American flavors. There is more to eat in this country than the fried fish and tough steaks I served at the Good Luck.
I have not returned to my job. Jerry wants to take care of me, and I let him. I find I’m happier acting as his servant than as George’s.
I sleep, long and empty hours. I have not seen my patron’s face in over a month. A restless kind of peace has settled in my belly. I cannot ignore my past, and I cannot ignore the baku. Its breath seems wet and sick. It begins to press on me, an invisible force that feels like guilt.
I keep bedroom door closed.
Today, the world outside the apartment is covered in rain. It is dark, and though I want to leave, the drops spattering against the windows keep me inside.
I scrub the kitchen counters until my fingers are raw and red and the bleach burns my nose. I dust the photos Jerry has hung in the hallway from the living room. I fluff the pillows on the couch.
I hear it breathe.
I scour the bottom of the bathtub, stripping away most of the black mold that grows around the drain. I wipe the windows clean of grime; the raindrops seem suspended in midair.
I hear it breathe.
I organize the hall closet.
I hear it breathe. I cannot escape it any longer. When Jerry is home he fills the space with his voice and his laughter. Now, our home is empty. I am not big enough.
When I was ten years old, the geisha mother fell ill. She was old and weak, and the winter chill clung to her bones. I sat next to her as she slipped away.
The baku’s breathing sounds like hers.
I push open the door and am again assaulted by the smell of home. There is something darker now beneath the smell; death has taken up residence in the baku’s cage. I crawl across the bed and slide to the floor. My fingers move to rest inside the cage. The baku sniffs me with its strange snout, so cold and damp. Then it lies down and shuts its eyes. I wait, but the baku does not move. I have words now, for what I have known all along.
The baku is dying.
I stay with the baku until I hear Jerry’s key in the lock. I am reluctant to move. It feels like leaving home again.
“Toki?” Jerry sounds worried. This is the first night he’s come home to a dark kitchen and an empty table.
“Okaeri,” I say, emerging from the bedroom. Welcome home. He wraps his big arms around me and presses his lips to my forehead.
“Are you okay?” He says, leaning back to look at me.
He stares at me with those big, blue eyes, all watery with concern. What secrets does my face betray? I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
“So,” he says, moving away from me, into the kitchen. “I was wondering when I’d get the chance to cook for you.” He opens the refrigerator and frowns. “Slim pickins’.”
I peer over the door at the shelves. Carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, a piece of pork belly, a bowl of old rice, milk and cheese and bread; a dozen meals asking to be made. I shove the refrigerator door. It slams closed. Jerry steps back, fists tight.
“I’ll ask you again,” he says with a voice like glass. “Are you okay?”
“I’m…” I drop to my knees, my anger raining out of me. I press my forehead into the floor. “Moushiwake gozaimasen deshita.”
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
After a long moment he presses his hand to my neck and whispers in my ear. “It’s okay. Just talk to me, babe. You can tell me anything.”
I stay pressed to the floor, until he pulls me up, a little rough.
“I know what this is about,” he says. My lips part, as relief cools my stomach. The feeling lasts until he continues. “You’re lonely.” He grins, his slightly crooked front teeth shining in the kitchen light. “I know how it is. If it wasn’t for my squad in Japan I would have gone crazy. Hell, I came pretty close as it was. Only…” He nods toward the bedroom.
“This can’t go on,” I say.
“No. It’s not healthy, you stuck in here all by yourself, all day. You need some friends.” He brushes a lock of hair behind my ear. His touch sends shivers over my skin, but this is not desire I feel.
“I mean the baku.”
He pulls back. “What about it?”
“It is sick… dying. Jerry, the baku gets hurt without its home.” I swallow hard, tasting the truth of my words. It tastes like matcha and ginger.
“That’s crazy,” he says. “That old witch never said anything like that.”
“The majinaishi told you nothing about the baku,” I counter. “The baku needs freedom. It is a spirit, not a tool.”
“No. No, Toki, You’re wrong. If it was a spirit, it could just float away.” He snaps his fingers. “Like that.”
“The cage. There is something in the wood keeping it trapped.” I grab his hand, begging him. “Please, we must release it.”
“We?” He jerks his hand away. “That thing isn’t yours. It’s mine. I bought it fair and square, and there’s no way I’m getting rid of it. Are you kidding? And go back to those…” He shudders. “No. I can’t live like that.”
He is strong, in will and body, but I hear weakness in his words. I bow my head, knowing that I will not convince him—knowing that I, too, will not be swayed.
He leaves for work the next morning, kissing me on the cheek. I hope I have played my role well and he has no suspicions. I don’t know what I would do if he came back too soon.
I lock the door behind him and press my hand to the wood. This will be the last time I see him. The thought makes my fingernails scrape against the door. But there is no time for regret. Not now. No time for goodbyes. I turn and go into Jerry’s bedroom.
The baku lies in its cage, unmoving except for its long snout, which waves through the air like a stalk of bamboo in a gentle breeze. I kneel in front of the cage, wrapping my hands around the corners. The wood pokes my skin, warms under my heat. I close my eyes and hope.
At first, nothing happens. The wood remains solid and unmoving. I concentrate on the scent of the baku, already fading into the smell of Jerry’s clothes, the apartment, Los Angeles. Had I waited any longer, the baku would be lost.
I act on intuition, envisioning home: Mount Fuji on a late summer’s afternoon, its gentle peak always capped with snow; the lake my patron took me to the year he purchased me from the geisha house, quiet and serene; my patron, before the war, his face still kind.
“Onegai…” Please, baku.
Then I feel it. The wood seems to melt under my hands. I open my eyes. A small lacquer box, engraved with the form of a stalking baku, has replaced the cage. I run my hand over the image and whisper my thanks. Beneath my palm, the box seems to pulse; deep inside, a heart beats.
I take what money I have saved and return the way I came: by sea. I lie awake in cramped quarters for days that stretch into weeks, the lacquer box held against my chest, my nightmares a roiling threat keeping me from sleep. I could drink the gin the deckhands offer, but I don’t trust the way they look at me.
The ship takes me to Hakodate, a port town in southern Hokkaido. It is early May when I arrive, and the snow that coats the ground in the winter has melted away. Fresh tsutsuji blossoms paint swatches of pink and orange in every garden. I breathe deep, greedy lungfuls of air and relish the feel of the earth under my feet.
From the port I find passage further into the island. I doze on the train, bursts of rest interrupted by the mad eyes of my patron. I have learned not to scream but my shaking causes other passengers to move away from me. Even in my home I am alone.
My ticket will take me to the northernmost tip of Hokkaido. I ride, waiting for something but not sure what. In Tomakomai, after six hours on the train, I feel it. The box pulls me out of my seat and into the quiet night air. I buy a cup of green tea at the station and begin to walk, eyes half closed. I realize where I am going only after I have left the city behind and entered the countryside. Though my feet are sore, I pick up speed.
When the sun rises I am on the shore of Lake Shikotsu, at the foot of the mountains. Brilliant yellows and oranges reflect off the surface of the lake. Green hills rise up on every side. I am in a bowl made of earth. The water is my broth. I drink deeply, letting the chill fill my chest and belly, then find a tree close to the water and unload my pack.
This is the lake my patron brought me to. On these shores, I became a woman. It is only fitting, I think, that I return.
I pull out the box and, using my pack as a pillow, I sleep.
In the dream I am in my patron’s home, kneeling at his table. I wear the kimono he took from his wife’s closet; red silk, koi embroidered upon the back, a strong black obi tied snug around my waist. My face is heavy with the makeup I wore at the geisha house: thick white cake upon my skin, sticky red paste upon my lips. Pins jab into my scalp, holding my hair atop my head in a sleek, painful knot.
There is a bowl of rice on the table, slimy and cold. I wait for him, limbs trembling. He should have arrived already, and, as is the way of dreams, I know something is terribly wrong. When I hear the noises in the hall, I press my back against the wall.
The door slides open with enough force to splinter the wood frame. My patron stands in the doorway, panting, covered in blood. His eyes are the red of my kimono. In his hand he holds my knife, its point meant for my heart. I raise my arms to ward off the blows as he advances. It is here that I usually come awake. This time, a figure moves behind my patron’s legs.
It raises its pendulous nose in the air, and sits with a heavy thud upon the floor. My patron stands above me, so close I can feel his breath stir my hair. I reach up, touch his hand and slowly get to my feet.
“Yurushite kudasai,” I say. Forgive me.
As the stiletto swings toward my chest I take a quick step to the side, my hand coming out to knock the blade away. In my next step I have ducked under the old man’s arm. I press my face against his chest, clutching him. He shakes against me, and dissolves. I am left with stale air.
The baku stares at me. I kneel, fingers outstretched. The creature steps forward, touches the chilly end of its snout to my palm, and I wake up.
It is nearly dark; a sliver of moon cuts into the deep blue sky. The dream clings to my skin like heavy air. I stretch, muscles stiff from the chill rolling off the lake, and then reach for my bag.
The lacquer box is gone. I feel a momentary flare of anxiety, and I half-rise, eyes flitting around for sign of the thief.
I am alone.
The breeze wafting over me smells of cool water and sweet blossoms. My heart slows.
“Sayonara,” I whisper, and imagine I hear the rustle of an animal, moving through the trees.
The war is over.
I am home.
Eliza Hirsch is a recent graduate of ClarionWest. Her short story “A Dancer for Aonou” is slated for 2012 publication in Kaleidotrope.