Translated by Jay Rubin
The common room clock gave out three loud chimes. Takao’s wide-open eyes stopped wandering around the room and seemed to focus on a fixed point of light. Hisako followed her husband’s gaze, which had come to rest on the doorway across from where the two of them were sitting. Even if he had not exactly been answering her questions, he had nodded or glanced at her now and then, but the moment the clock struck, the door was all that seemed to interest him. Hisako waited as long as she could for the silence to end, but finally blurted out, ‘What’s wrong, Sweetheart?’
Takao made no move to look at her.
A moment later, the door opened and a wheelchair rolled in bearing a white-haired old woman with a bright red blanket across her knees. Instantly, Takao stood up, and his chair fell with a clatter. Paying no mind to the fallen chair or to Hisako, he strode over to the woman in the wheelchair. The woman looked up at him, and a soft smile came over her features. Takao knelt down next to her and took her hand.
What is going on here? Who is this woman? Stunned, Hisako sat there paralyzed.
Turning the corner at the Ureshino Hot Spring bus stop, Hisako could never miss the large ‘Elder Spa’ billboard. Whenever she saw it, she found herself struggling to grasp the dramatic changes that Takao had undergone in the past two years. She felt as if many more years than that had gone by since he turned 75 and began forgetting things, which at first she had tried to pass off as a normal sign of aging, comparing his forgetfulness with her own.
Takao had retired at 60 from the Tokyo computer company where he worked as an engineer, and they returned to his hometown, Saga, where he set up a computer repair shop. On weekends, he would open the shop to the public and offer lessons in computer basics, mostly for seniors. He hired student part-timers to help him with the business, and things were going smoothly, one busy but relaxed and peaceful day following another.
Hisako had had no objection to the move from Tokyo to Saga. Her parents were close by in another part of Saga Prefecture, Takao’s parents still lived in the city, and their daughter’s new family was a short train ride away in Fukuoka. With all this family nearby, old friends from childhood, relatives, and new friends she made through her flower arranging and music lessons, Hisako was living a full life she never could have experienced in Tokyo—sometimes too full.
This life of hers underwent a total transformation with a telephone call one afternoon from Takao’s young assistant, Shiho.
‘Sorry, Mrs. Egashira,’ she said, ‘but I think you’d better get here right away. Your husband is acting very strange.’
‘Strange? What do you mean?’
‘I’m not sure, but he says he’s scared of all the snakes crawling around.’
‘Snakes? You’ve got snakes there?’
‘No, not at all. But he swears he sees them.’
Hisako ran to the shop, which was in Tojin-machi, just a short walk from home. There she found Takao sitting on the floor with his arms wrapped around his knees, eyes shut tight.
‘Should we call an ambulance?’ Shiho asked with some hesitation.
‘No, I think he’s going to be all right. I’ll take him home. He’s been saying how tired he is lately. It’s probably just overwork.’
‘Well, actually, Ma’am,’ Shiho began but stopped herself.
‘What is it?’
‘To tell you the truth, this is not the first time. It happened a few times before—not as bad as this one, and quite a while ago. He said he saw something or heard a voice, but he was laughing about it.’
‘Oh, really? Maybe he needs a good, long break. Can you call us a cab?’
Takao’s condition deteriorated rapidly. After two months of visits to specialists, he was diagnosed as having Dementia with Lewy Bodies. The doctors’ questions went into minute detail, each of which brought back something that Hisako had noticed but dismissed at the time. Of course he had been losing track of his personal effects more frequently—glasses, keys, wallet–but he had also sometimes cried out from nightmares or remarked to her that he saw someone standing nearby or heard a strange sound. Takao himself chalked it up to tired nerves and probably stopped reporting each instance to Hisako, which might have accounted for the long delay in recognizing the problem. Also to blame might have been the nature of the illness itself: the symptoms of Dementia with Lewy Bodies did not simply grow steadily worse but at first would alternate between periods of obvious difficulty and apparent normalcy.
A year after they learned the name of Takao’s illness, though, as he was about to turn 77, it became clear that Hisako could no longer care for him at home. She made up her mind to send him to the new ‘Elder Spa’ facility in Ureshino. It would be rather far from home, but there he would be able to enjoy the hot spring baths he liked so much.
It had been a shock for Hisako to witness the closeness of Takao and the woman last Saturday in the common room. The only conclusion could be that, in that moment, he had utterly forgotten the existence of the woman who had been his wife for the past 50 years. She had hesitated to approach him or even speak to him but instead had gone home bewildered and spent the week anguishing—fruitlessly—over what she should do from here on out. All she knew was that she needed some kind of help, and she spent another week reaching out for it.
The roads were empty the following Sunday, and Hisako arrived at the ‘Elder Spa’ common room earlier than planned. This time she would be meeting with the residence manager, the head nurse, and someone from the family of Takao’s love interest. The room rang with the laughter of children.
Hisako glanced around, making eye contact with a woman in kimono standing near a side wall. The woman nodded to her and moved in her direction.
‘You must be Mrs. Egashira,’ she said. ‘My name is Nishikawa. I’m Ayako Kitamura’s younger sister.’
‘Oh. Then Ayako Kitamura must be Takao’s . . .’
Hisako felt her cheeks flush. This woman who introduced herself as Nishikawa looked younger than Hisako, and her tasteful brown raw silk kimono harmonized with the gray hair she wore pulled back in a bun.
‘You mean you hadn’t heard until now?’ Beneath her arching, elegantly sketched eyebrows, the woman’s eyes took on a somber caste. ‘We have time yet before the others come. Shall we go over there and talk a bit?’
Without waiting for Hisako’s reply, the woman led the way toward the far corner opposite the doorway, a kind of alcove with a table and chairs where they could have a more private conversation.
‘I should tell you first of all that my sister and I have known your husband for a very long time.’
Hisako was too shocked to say a word.
‘I don’t blame you for being surprised. Of course we haven’t said anything to the people who operate this residence.’
‘What is this all about?’
Hisako could not keep her voice down. The woman went on in soft tones that seemed intended to comfort her.
‘To put it simply, my sister and your husband went to the same high school in the city of Saga. She was two years ahead of him, but they met in chorus and started seeing each other constantly, both in school and out. Ayako was a beautiful girl and our parents had been approached with marriage proposals for her even in high school. They just ran a tobacco shop, so they had no college plans for Ayako and were eager to marry her off as soon as possible. She would have had to wait years for Takao to graduate even from high school, let alone college or graduate school, so they forbade her to see him. Of course, the two of them managed to meet in secret, but when Takao went off to college in Tokyo, my parents forced Ayako to marry the owner of an inn here in Ureshino. As far as I know, they never saw each other again.’
Hisako felt her heart pounding. This was all too unexpected. Had Takao and the woman met again here by chance? If it was not simply a coincidence, what was it?
‘I noticed that Ayako was getting friendly with a handsome old resident here, but I didn’t realize he was Takao. I mean, I hadn’t seen him in almost 60 years, so of course he looked totally different—not to mention the effect of his illness on his facial expression. I was astounded when I saw his name on the plaque outside his room.’
‘If you don’t mind my asking, is Ayako a widow now?’
‘No, her husband comes to see her all the time, and he often brings their children and grandchildren along. They’re a very close-knit family, but Ayako doesn’t recognize any of them–or me.’
So, was this what we all had waiting to trap us at the end of life—a tragedy or a comedy, a deep pit, or a joke? You labor together for over half a century, give birth to children, enjoy your grandchildren, and what did it all mean? Hisako believed their marriage had been a success, but was that simply an illusion? What was left for her from here on out? She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Gradually, though, she felt her mind growing clear and light, as if a pure, clear stream of water were flowing in and rinsing away her doubts and anxieties.
‘So,’ she said, ‘Takao and Ayako once loved each other.’
‘Yes, I think it’s true.’
‘And now does she recognize Takao?’
‘Hmm, I wonder. Maybe not. She just shakes her head when I tell her, “This is Takao.” Of course, it’s doubtful she remembers Takao from the old days.’
‘So then, they’ve probably both forgotten all about those times and are attracted to each other now purely by chance.’
‘Strange as it seems, don’t you think that’s what it is?’
Hisako had heard what she needed to hear. It all made sense now. Whether the two of them recognized each other or not was beside the point. They were together again, and that was all that mattered to them.
‘You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m going to go home now. Please convey my apologies to the others and tell them I’ll get in touch with them when I’ve calmed down. I hope you don’t mind.’
Mrs. Nishikawa made no attempt to hide her surprise, but Hisako gave her a little bow, grabbed her coat and bag, and left the common room behind.
The parking lot was full. Against the clear blue sky and the deep green of the nearby tea fields, the multi-colored array of cars sparkled in the glare of the sun. She stopped and looked at the scene as if for the first time.
Rakuko Rubin was not killed in 1945 when an American bomb smashed her house to smithereens in Kyushu, Japan, which is why she has been able to write this and other short stories when not working on her pottery wheel. She lives near Seattle with her contrite American husband, a translator of Japanese literature.
Translated by Jay Rubin