Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
Siandra Hoepfner- Pima Community College – 1990
At the height of its beauty, a Japanese cherry blossom, the sakura, plump and full of color, gives up its anchor on the tree. With passion and
perfect grace, it lets go of life. Willingly.
The old woman sat at a small table, staring out the window of her apartment. The glass was clear as crystal, and she could see all that went on in the cluttered street below. She watched the neighborhood boys hang on the street corner in front of an angry blaze of graffiti, smoking cigarettes and flinging butts into gutters that ran with garbage. They looked thick and sullen, not at all like the young men she remembered from her youth. Those boys had been lithe, more beautiful, less threatening it seemed. Even the young American GIs who came after the defeat seemed softer-not so hard as these. And she had been as scared as hell then.
It was useless to be afraid of street punks, she reasoned. After all, she was no sakura to fall from the tree with grace. Not her. Not now. A withered autumn leaf to be knocked loose by the snow perhaps.
She wrapped her painted lips around a cigarette, leaving a purple-red stain on the paper, and took a long draw, releasing the smoke to float and swirl against the window glass like brewing storm clouds.
Cancer. Well, it was no stranger to this home. At least she knew what to expect. She thought of the withered leaf on the tree and shuddered. Winter was months away, but she felt the chill already. She thought of sakura, the cherry blossom, and laughed out loud at her own folly. Karma, neh, to die so far from home?
She moved to the small closet where her few clothes hung, clean but tainted by the smell of stale smoke and sweet potpourri. She jerked the clothes aside, one after another, their padded pink hangers shuffling quietly along the pole. The black cotton shift she had worn to Albert’s funeral slid by, and she averted her eyes.
She found what she was looking for snuggled into a corner behind several old shoe boxes. Care fully, she removed the oil skin cover from the shamisen she had brought with her from Japan. Its strings hung loose, and it made a feathery twang as she pulled it out. She smiled. The cat skin heads were still intact, and its inlaid pattern of mother-of-pearl made the instrument look remarkably elegant in spite of its age and neglect. She only wished she could have held up half so well as the shamisen.
She had not played it in years. Certainly not since Albert had taken sick. It took him a long time to give up on life, her Albert. Americans were tenacious to the last. He was as helpless as an infant in the end, withered like a leaf on the tree, unwilling to let go, dishonored by his struggle. In another time and place he might have been born samurai, committed seppuku, and died with grace like sakura. But these were modern times. Another world entirely. There were laws against that sort of thing now, laws against dying with grace, even in Japan.
She pulled the shamisen closer to her and twisted one of the keys very slowly, squinting her eyes, half expecting the old string to pop. She repeated the procedure carefully with each of the two remaining strings, and although one stubbornly refused to hold the proper pitch, she was pleased enough with the results. The ivory plectrum had been lost long ago, so she used her yellowed fingernails to pluck the strings instead. The first chord came out a little fiat, but strong. It reverberated throughout the room, filling the apartment with more noise than it had held since Albert’s death.
The sound shook her concentration, and she looked down at the shamisen in surprise. Had it always been so loud?
As the reverberations slowly faded away, she became very aware of the street sounds outside the cruel chiding of the boys who hung on the corner, the noise of the traffic, the deep throb of beat music coming from an electronic box. The sounds merged together in to a dull roar that seemed to grow louder with each passing moment.
She suddenly felt very vulnerable and alone. She clung to the shamisen the way a drowning man might cling to a piece of driftwood in the ocean, and she began to play. Loudly.
What she played was an old folk song from home, from the days of her youth when she was strong and unafraid, before the war, before she had had the misfortune to fall in love with the enemy. Such folly to leave home. She was, after all, Japanese.
Or was she? She stopped playing suddenly and looked at the shamisen. How long had it been since she had seen Kobe? Not war-torn Kobe, with its streets full of hungry and frightened people. That vision was best forgotten. But Kobe before the war, at the height of the cherry blossom season, when the gardens were filled with sakura that fell as thickly as snow until the ground was covered with them. She tried to envision the sakura festivals of her youth-the gaiety of the crowds, the sweet fragrance of countless petals on the wind. But her memory seemed as withered now as her body. All she could see were the graying walls of her apartment closing in on her, and all she could smell were the stale odors of cigarette smoke and potpourri.
She should never have left Japan.
Reluctantly, she gave up on her memories and laid the shamisen to rest in a far corner.
That night a powerful wind drove the rain against the windows like bullets of lead. A chill was in the air, and the old woman was forced to raise her thermostat by five degrees. Winter would come early this year.
Her time was running out, and she was angry that it disturbed her so. Like a withered leaf, she clung to the tree of life with a death grip as though she could somehow stave off the inevitable.
She stared at the cigarette in her hand, the smoke drifting off it like the smoke had drifted from the rooftops of Kobe after the fire-bombing. She watched the paper and tobacco burn slowly to ash. Pity no one had told her how deadly the stuff could be when the American GIs were charitably passing it out during the occupation.
Damn you, Albert, she thought. And damn all Americans, too. Wasn’t it enough that you defeated us once?
A loud, sharp twang from across the room startled her enough to make her jump. She sat very still for a moment, holding her breath. But there was nothing to be heard except the battering of hard rain against the panes.
She remembered the shamisen.
Through the thin haze of cigarette smoke, she could see the instrument sitting in a far corner. Something was wrong with it. She stood and moved across the room to where the shamisen rested in silence. A string had popped and was wrapped in tight coils around its neck like a constricted snake. One of the cat skin heads had split across its width and gaped open like a dry wound.
A pang of grief went through her, and she crumpled before the ruined instrument like a limp rag. She should have known better. The first thing her sensei had taught her was never to leave a shamisen unwrapped and unprotected in the humidity of a rainstorm. She pressed both fists against her temples, swaying back and forth with remorse and disgrace. She cried aloud, beating her fists against the threadbare carpet. “Foolish old woman. The shamisen was the only piece of home you had left.” She was answered only by the steady drone of the rain.
The shamisen was gone. Home was gone. Albert was gone. And I’ll be gone soon, too, she thought quietly. Why fight the inevitable?
She slumped back on her heels, taking the shamisen in her arms, slowly caressing the ivory inlay with gentle fingers. There would be no more music in this old woman’s life, she thought sadly. But did it really matter? At least the shamisen would never fall into enemy hands once she was gone.
Sakura. Rushing to death at the height of its beauty. She almost envied the instrument its valor.
Slowly, she lowered the shamisen to the carpet and left it to lie on its back as she returned to the table. She stared at the cut glass ashtray with its half-burned cigarette, watched the smoke swirl and curl off the glowing end. Then she looked at the shamisen lying in state across the room.
With a deep sigh, she stamped the cigarette out against the glass until there was no more smoke. She had witnessed enough destruction for one day.
She had been in bed for several hours when a sound awakened her-a scraping sound, barely audible against the drone of the steady downpour outside but growing louder with each passing moment. Beads of sweat broke out on her upper lip as she heard the front door case open with a slow creak.
God! How she wished she was back in Japan. With all her heart she longed to see Kobe just one more time. But it was too late for her now, she realized. Every chance she’d ever had she’d squandered, as though home meant nothing, as though she was ashamed of being Japanese. She had fallen into the hands of the enemy without a fight, and now her slow death from cancer was not enough. The ancient gods were paying her back for deliberately turning away from her heritage.
She heard a low voice coming from her living room. “I told you we should’ve gone uptown.”
“Shut your stupid face. Do you want to wake the old woman?”
“What are you afraid of? Ol’ folks have lived long enough to know how to mind their own business, haven’t they? Besides, between the storm and the downed phone lines, she won’t be calling nobody for help.”
The old woman tucked the quilt tightly up un der her chin and tried hard to stop shivering.
“If that ol’ woman shows her face out here, I’ll blow her to hell”
There was a long moment of silence.
“Are you crazy? Where’d you get that thing?”
“Cool your heels. I filed the numbers. It’s clean.” “Clean or not, complications are the last thing we need right now. You better pray that old woman stays in bed.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s the ol’ woman who should be doin’ the praying … ”
Slowly, the voice faded until it was swallowed up by the sound of the rain. Silence fell once more in the apartment, a dark and brooding silence that reminded the old woman of long hours spent in the bomb shelters of Kobe, where she had huddled in the dark with her mother and her sisters as the B-29s flew across Osaka Bay. When the incendiary bombs fell, the earth shook and dirt flaked from the ceiling to dust their bodies with a fine layer of silt. She remembered how the air grew thin as the fires spread, sucking the oxygen from the city, leaving many victims dead from suffocation. Crawling from the safety of the shelter, she had seen the bodies, some of them still standing, propped up by the corpses of others.
Now, in her bed, she could still smell the damp earth and the smoke; she could taste the fear as though it had happened only yesterday. She felt the darkness close in on her from all directions, smelled the stench of charred death, heard the ragged breathing of the sick, the old, the hungry.
She closed her eyes against it, creasing them tightly until tears ran down her cheeks.
Once again, she was trapped by the enemy, and helpless.
She could hear them rummaging around. They were taking less care to be quiet now. Maybe they’d forgotten about her. Please. Let them forget, she prayed silently and vowed to give up smoking.
“A man could build himself a real reputation with this baby.”
“Quit swinging that thing around before you hurt yourself. And lower your voice, or you’re going to have to use it, and every cop within a mile of this place will come running.”
“Who’d notice a shot or two in this neighbor hood? Besides, I’m not saying I intend to use it,” he snarled. ‘Tm not saying that.” His voice grew noticeably louder and more malevolent. ”I’m just saying that if some ol’ woman was stupid enough to get out of her bed, I might be forced to use it, that’s all” Then he began to laugh in a high, metallic way that made the old woman’s spine turn cold like ice.
“You fuckin’ lunatic!”
She remembered the day when her mother snapped like a rubber band wound too tightly. It was only a few days after the emperor had broad cast over the radio their country’s defeat. The baby had died of dysentery and laid like a limp thing in its little hammock, swinging from the smoke-stained eaves. Her mother was rocking the baby back and forth, back and forth as though it were merely asleep, and nothing any of them could do would make her cease. When one of them finally made a desperate grab for the child, her mother jerked the hammock harshly, and the dead infant tumbled out at her feet. For a long moment no one spoke or moved. They just stared at the poor bundle at their mother’s feet, one tiny hand thrust upwards toward the sky, already stiff in death, like a single perfect flower blooming in the rubble. Her mother stared at that tiny hand and started laughing. That’s all. Just laughing. And she never stopped. Not even when some of the townspeople came to take her away.
The old woman lifted the quilt over her head and pursed her lips tightly. She would keep her wits about her. She would be safe if she kept very still and very quiet. The enemy was just beyond the door. Americans. Armed Americans. Her youth had trained her for this. She knew how to hide in dark places.
“Come on, I’m getting you out of here before you do something stupid.”
“The trouble with you is you ain’t got no sense of humor, that’s all.”
There was a small crash.
“Goddamn! What is that thing?”
“Some funny look.in’ old banjo, that’s all. I al most broke my foot on it. Come on, let’s get outta here.”
“Hey, wait a minute. That’s no banjo.”
The old woman slowly pulled the quilt from her head and sat up in bed.
“Yeah? Hey, I think you’re right … ”
The old woman’s feet were on the floor.
“But it’s busted. Shoot. Forget about it.”
“No, it can probably be fixed, and I know an antiques dealer who will pay plenty for some thing like this, no questions asked.”
The door burst open, and the old woman stood glaring at them in her bedclothes and bare feet. She pointed at the instrument, barely visible in the soft glow of the city lights that came through the windows. “Leave it,” she said.
“I warn you, lady,” one of the youths said in an unsteady voice, raising a handgun to the level of her head. “I’m armed.” The gun shook noticeably, and he used both hands to steady it.
“Get back in the room,” the other boy said, “and no one will get hurt.
“Eventually we must leave the shelter and face the enemy,” she answered him.
“What?” The armed youth looked desperately to his accomplice. “She’s crazy! Chrissake, what do we do now?”
“That instrument must be worth a lot of money,” his friend said, a slick smile spreading slowly across his face. “And she’s not in a position to do a damned thing about it.”
“Leave it,” she demanded once more.
“Look, lady, shut your mouth or I’ll bust it up good with this.” The youth waved the barrel of the gun at her. The dim light from the window caught its movement, and the illumination danced in the air like a drunken firefly. “You ever been pistol whipped, lady? It ain’t a pretty sight.”
“I imagine not,” she said calmly. “But in this life, it’s best to get used to the taste of blood in your mouth. Life kicks you in the teeth every chance it gets.”
The two youths glanced at one another.
“The shamisen is mine,” she stated and took one step forward.
The boy leveled the barrel of the gun at her head.
Strange. She thought she smelled cherry blossoms.
“I’m warning you, lady, one more step and I’ll blow your head off your shoulders.” His voice was high and unsteady. His hands shook.
The rain must have stopped, she thought. She could hear only the tittering of laughter now, the rustle of fine silks, the sound of shamisen music drifting gently on the wind from the geisha quarter …
“Jesus!” the other boy shouted as the shot fired.
And the old woman fell like sakura.