By Ryu Ando
There were spots on the leaves of the mikan trees in the grove behind our house. My wife, silent, cut off the head of a red snapper while I told her this. Blood soaked into the cutting board’s criss-cross cuts and nicks. She just shook her head. Fish scales clung to her wet hands. She flicked them away absently with her fingers.
The next day the spots had grown larger, spreading across more leaves and fruit. By the end of the week, I cut down five trees and burned them to their stumps. The container holding the petrol was lighter but still strained my shoulder.
“It’s done,” I said to my wife.
The air was cooler, coming in from offshore. I caught a whiff of smoke and petrol still lingering in the air. I sat down beneath one of the trees. I peeled the skin off a mikan, digging my thumbnail into the soft ridge near the base of its stem. My fingers felt sticky. A faint breeze caught my hair and the leaves shook, seemed to sigh, then went silent again.
We were stranded in the sticks, maybe near Kasumigaura in Ibaragi, with our younger daughter by the edge of several wide rice paddies. The older one, Hirotan, stayed home. Toads migrate from those paddies in the evening. We crushed a few driving along the narrow road. Loud pops under the tires.
When the engine died, I had to walk along the road in the dark to a gas station several kilometers back. Petrol splashed onto my hands and clothes when I filled up the tank. That scent is hard to get out, but it does go away.
The smell of smoke lingered. Sunlight fanned out through the tree, piercing the bluish afternoon haze.
un, OK, Hirotan
The light hurt my eyes as I opened them. A wasp was crawling over a piece of chewed-up mikan. One of the stumps still smoldered nearby, billowing like a curtain.
The scent of the kakitsubata growing by the side of the house clung to my hands. The dirt was under my fingernails from digging around in the soil. Mud got smeared across my shirt and pants. As I tended to the flowers, I thought of Ibuse and the heat in August:
burn the skin
off the trees
nip the buds
that crazy iris
is blooming again
Those words haunt the pages where I wrote them down. I can barely read them now beneath all the smudges.
My wife was never so happy as when she was diving in the water. Like an uminyōbō. She could catch it all: uni, awabi, madai, unagi. Now she won’t even look at the ocean.
Cleaning fish is the closest she comes. She’ll stab at them with her knife until they lay there splayed out on the plate like secrets spilled to a stranger.
Under the tree, Hirotan’s skin looked faded, an orange blossom mottled brown and twisted up, helpless against the wind, ready to fall off at any moment. She said there was a space—a gap in an ever-opening gate that the sunlight comes through—where she waits. I didn’t tell my wife about that dream.
I retraced the route we took along that dark road bordering the rice paddies. I passed the toads we crushed with our car, sacks of meat smashed against the asphalt, tiny explosions of blood. I could smell the sea as the moon began to rise. Clouds bloomed like black roses across the sky.
The smoke from the fires after the tsunami hit our town lingered over us for weeks. I could feel Hirotan in that smoke hanging over us. Across the ocean she would wave to us. In the orange groves she would play with us. In the iris flowers she would bloom and wither with us.
The gate does not close.
In the end, I had to burn all the trees in the grove. But I burned Hirotan’s tree last.