That day it was snowing since morning, you know. The monpe1 I had started making for my cousin Otsuru-chan was long ready, so I decided to drop by my aunt’s house in Nakano to deliver it and got two dried squids as gifts while I was there. By the time I got back to Kichijōji station it was already dark and the snow fall was over a foot. And even so the snow was still gently falling! I felt rather giddy, and since I was wearing my long boots I purposely chose a path with deep snow to walk through. It wasn’t until I got as far as the post office near my house that I noticed the newspaper-wrapped squid I had been carrying under my arm was gone. I know I’m rather carefree and can be absent-minded sometimes, but I hardly ever drop things like this. And yet, that night I was so excited romping around in the snow as I walked home—that must be why I dropped the squid. I felt so dejected. Now I know it’s unseemly to be so disappointed about losing some dried squid, and I should really feel embarrassed, but I was planning to give that squid to my elder sister-in-law. You see, she’s going to have a baby this summer. They say you get really hungry when you’re pregnant. You have to eat two portions for the baby, right? Now, Sister is very different than me: she’s well-groomed, until recently she ate like a canary, and she’s never once snacked between meals. But these days she gets hungry, and, though she says it’s embarrassing, she gets sudden cravings for very strange foods. The other day when my sister and I were cleaning up after dinner, she said in a small voice, “Ah, there’s a bitter taste in my mouth. I’d like to suck on some dried squid or something like that,” then let out a sigh. I hadn’t forgotten about that time, so when I got the dried squid from my aunt in Nakano I was looking forward to surprising my sister with it secretly. But then I went and dropped it and that’s why I was so depressed.
As you know, I live together with my big brother and sister-in-law. Now Brother, the eccentric novelist, is nearly forty but hasn’t made a name for himself at all, so we never have money, and yet he does nothing but complain about how he doesn’t feel well, laying down and then getting back up again, and though the only thing he’s good at is using his mouth, he has the nerve to constantly find fault with Sister and I—and for all his complaining about us he won’t help in the slightest with the housework so my poor sister-in-law has to do even the work that would normally require a strong man. One day I spoke up in what I felt was righteous indignation.
“Brother, why don’t you go out and buy the vegetables once in a while. The men in other households seem to be doing as much,” I said, but the he flew into a rage.
“You fool! I’m not such a lowly man as that. Listen up, Kimiko,”–that’s my sister in law–“you remember this too. Even if our house is starving to death, I won’t stoop to going out for such menial work as shopping, so you just keep that in mind. That’s my last shred of pride.”
Yes I see, a splendid resolve my brother has, but in my brother’s case I’m uncertain whether he thinks it a service to country to be so disdainful of food-hunting or if he simply refuses to go shopping out of his own indolence. My mother and father were both from Tokyo, but my father worked at a government office in Yamagata up in Tōhoku for years, so both my brother and I were born there. When my father passed away and my mother brought us to Tokyo, my brother was already 20 and I still a baby carried on my mother’s back. So we don’t really have what you might call a “hometown” from which we relatives might send us food, and with Brother the eccentric that he is, we have no social connections so there’s no prospects of good fortune that we might come upon—with this in mind, I thought of how pleased my sister-in-law would be just to receive those two dried squid, and petty though it may be I thought it a shame to have lost them so I turned right around and took my time searching for them along the snowy road I had just come from. But it was hopeless. Looking for a package wrapped in white newspaper along a snow-white road is difficult enough, but the snow continued to fall and I hadn’t found even a single pebble along the way by the time I returned to Kichijōji Station. With a sigh I took hold of my umbrella and looked up at the dark night sky; like a million fireflies, the snow was falling in a mad flurry of a dance. How pretty! I thought. The trees on either side of the road, their branches bent by the heavy snow, would make a slight stir now and then as though sighing–it was just, I don’t know, like a scene out of a fairy-tale, and I was so enchanted I forgot all about the dried squid. Then out of nowhere a wonderful idea came to me. I’ll take this beautiful snowy scene to my sister-in-law. How much better than dried squid would such a gift be! Fussing over food is such a lowly thing. How truly shameful.
My brother told me once that the human eye is able to store images. “When you stare at a light bulb then close your eyes you can still see the bulb on the back of your eyelids, right? There’s your proof, he said. I’ll tell you an old story from Denmark.” Then he told me the following little romance. Now most of my brother’s stories are just nonsense that you can’t really believe, but just this one story of his I think is a nice story, even if he just made it up.
A long time ago in Denmark a certain doctor did an autopsy on the corpse of a young sailor. He looked at the sailor’s eyeballs under a microscope and found the image of a happy family sitting together reflected on his retina. When he told his friend about it, the friend, who was a novelist, immediately had an explanation for the strange phenomenon. “The young sailor was shipwrecked and, swallowed up in the raging waves, was thrashed against the coast–in a frenzy his hands clung to the first thing they found, which happened to be the outer windowsill of a certain lighthouse. He was about to call out in distress, but then suddenly he saw the family of the lighthouse keeper sitting down to a modest but happy dinner–ah, I can’t. If I yell out for help now I’ll completely ruin their family gathering, he thought. And so he loosened his grip on the windowsill just as another great wave surged up and carried him back into the ocean. That’s how it must have been indeed. This sailor is the most kind, most noble person in this world.” That was the interpretation the friend gave, and the doctor agreed, so the two of them honored the sailor by giving him a proper burial.
Now I want to believe this story. Even if it doesn’t make sense scientifically, I still want to believe it. That snowy night, remembering the Denmark story, I stored in my eyes the beautiful snowy sights and returned home.
“Sister, look in my eyes! Your baby will be beautiful!” I wanted to say to her.
You see, a few days before she had said to my brother, “Put a portrait of a beautiful person up on the wall in my room. I’ll look at it every day so the baby will be beautiful,” she said smiling.
Brother nodded very seriously. “Uh-huh, prenatal care. That’s important,” he said, and then put up two pictures on her wall, one of a lovely Magojiro Noh mask, the other a cute yuki no koomote Noh mask.2 Up to that point he had done great, but then he added a picture of himself making a strange scowling face right in between the two Noh mask pictures, which completely ruined it.
“Please, I’m begging you, take down just that one picture of you. It makes me feel sick to look at,” said my sister-in-law. She’s always so mature, but even she couldn’t bear that picture, and since she pleaded with him she eventually got him to remove it. Really, if she looked at that picture of my brother there’s no doubt she’d end up with a monkey-faced baby. I wonder if my brother actually thinks he looks handsome making such a weird face. He’s really a damned fool. What my sister-in-law really wants to gaze upon now are only the most beautiful things in the world. If I showed her this snowy scenery, no doubt she’d be a hundred times happier, than if I gave her some silly dried squid.
All along the road home I focused completely on taking in the beautiful snowy sights all around me, giving them shelter not just in the depths of my eyes but all the way down in the bottom of my heart.
“Sister, look in my eyes! There’s lots of beautiful snowy scenery in them!”
“What? What on earth is going on?” my sister said, laughing and putting a hand on my shoulder. “What on earth happened to your little eyes.”
“Look! Brother told you that story right? About how human eyes keep the images of the last things they’ve seen.”
“I forget everything Father3 says. It’s mostly lies anyway.”
“But just this one story is true. I want to believe just this one story, so come on, look in my eyes. I just looked at loads and loads of snowy scenery. Come on, look at my eyes. You’ll be sure to have a baby with skin as beautiful as snow!”
With a pitying look on her face Sister silently gazed into my eyes.
“Hey!” said Brother at that moment, coming from the adjoining six-tatami room. “Shunko’s eyes”—Shunko is my name—“they’re boring. It’d be a thousand times more effective to look at my eyes, aha!”
“Huh? Why? Why?” I hated my brother so much, I wanted to hit him just then.
“Sister says she gets sick when she looks in your eyes!”
“I don’t think so. My eyes have seen twenty years’ worth of beautiful snow. I lived in Yamagata until I was twenty. Shunko came to Tokyo before she could remember—she doesn’t know a thing about the amazing snowy landscapes in Yamagata. She makes such a fuss about this lousy Tokyo snow. Look in my eyes and you’ll see far finer snow—you wouldn’t know what to do with the heaps upon heaps of snow I’ve seen. Whatever you might say, my eyes are far superior to Shunko’s.”
I felt so dejected I thought I’d just go on and cry at that moment. But then Sister came to my rescue. She smiled and quietly said, “Father’s eyes may have seen a thousand times more beautiful things, but they’ve also seen a thousand times as much filth.”
“Yeah, yeah! There’s more negative than positive. That’s why they’ve gone all yellow-colored like that. Haa-haa!”
“You cheeky brat!” said brother in a rage, returning to the six-tatami room.
* * * * *
1 Monpe are women’s work pants.
2 A google image search will yield a lot of results, for anyone who wants to see what these masks look like.
3 Once people have children in Japan it’s common for parents to refer to one another as Mother and Father rather than using their respective names.