Stories from the Streets of Koza

Flowers

Toward the end of March, along the side street that runs parallel to Park Avenue, the golden trumpet flowers started to bloom. People talk about how yellow the blossoms can get, but it was even more vivid than I had imagined.

I’d just moved to Koza. I ambled back and forth beneath the rows of trees in full bloom. The golden trumpet is the national flower of Brazil, and its color reminded me of the Brazilian team’s World Cup uniform.

I remember being surprised by the breathtaking intensity of the cherry trees in full flower when I went to the mainland for work, but these golden trumpets had a different sort of feel. While the cherry blossoms had an enchanting purity, these yellow petals brimming up against the blue sky gave off a breath of rashness, a feeling of frenzied dancing under a burning sun. Just a few steps away, Park Avenue bustled with high school students and young American troops, but here on the narrow street there was a palpable hush, saturated with yellow. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling, as if the skin on the back of my neck was being peeled off layer by layer. I cut across the side street and went back to my apartment, which was still cluttered from the move.

I knew that it would be bad for me to stare too long at the flowers in full bloom. Nonetheless, whenever I left my apartment and had a few minutes to spare, I couldn’t help lingering. Within a week, the wind and rain had begun to scatter the delicate blossoms. Several times as I walked along the petal-strewn asphalt, I spotted a lone dog: a white mutt with a stump for a right front paw. He must have lost it in some accident, but even short a leg he got around just fine. The stray dog was always on that side street, but he didn’t seem to have any trouble finding food, maybe because he was well behaved and people felt sorry for him. He looked pretty old, and would sit under the eaves of the shops glancing at passersby with his mucus-filled eyes. If you patted him on the head he would give two or three tired wags of his tail, after which he would just sit there.

Sometimes when I was walking down the street, the dog would be pissing on the roots of the golden trumpets, and then he would stand there staring up at the trees. When he did that, it really looked like he was admiring the beauty of the flowers. In fact, he probably understood the blossoms’ attraction better than anyone else. Even I, who would stroll under the trees every morning, and during my lunch break, and for more than an hour after coming home from work in the evening—even I didn’t spend a fraction of the time that dog spent with the golden flowers.

*

The first weekend in April, on my way home from drinking at an izakaya in town, I stopped for a look. When I stepped into the side street off Park Avenue, I saw the dog on the sidewalk, gazing up at the trees. More than half of them had turned green, but the late bloomers still had their blossoms. Those were not what the dog was staring at. There was something hovering about three meters above the street. At first I thought it was a late flower—it was the same color as the golden trumpets, but much bigger, and undulating with a strange rhythm. It looked like a balloon that had snagged on something, except that it seemed to have a gelatinous consistency, and gave off a faint light. It floated along slowly, shedding what appeared to be butterfly scales. The thing advanced noiselessly for several meters, until it blended in with the yellow flowers still clinging to the branch.

When I looked down, I saw that the dog had turned to face me, and our eyes locked. His gaze shone with the green and red glow from the neon sign of a hotel. There was fear on his face as he looked away, and something desperate in the way he hopped off on his good front leg. I wanted to get a better look at the thing I had just seen, but I couldn’t work up the courage to step under the trees.

Still thinking about it the next morning, I washed my face and went out into the street. The road was wet; it must have rained in the night. Nearly all the flowers had fallen. The branches around where the floating thing had vanished the night before were bare, with only a few seedpods dangling down.

Slightly disappointed, I went to buy a canned coffee from a vending machine. As I was heading back to my apartment, the dog appeared, walking toward me, with something clamped between his jaws that looked like a yellow plastic bag. The semi-transparent, jellied mass swayed with the dog’s gait. The moment our eyes met, he stopped and let out a low growl. Surprised at his change of character, I held up the coffee can as if to throw it at him, at which he shrank back, spun around, and tore off at a clip that didn’t seem possible for a crippled dog.

*

I didn’t see the dog again for a while. After the last of the golden trumpets had fallen, I was pulling out of the parking lot on my way to work, when I spotted a dog’s leg sticking out at an angle from behind an electric pole. I got out to have a look. Rigor mortis had already set in. His eyes were nearly closed, and his teeth were bared. His lips were caked with a gold-hued scum. I didn’t have time to deal with the body, so I got back in my car and headed off to work.

I pulled out of the residential area onto the prefectural highway and headed down the slope toward Koza Junction. Veins of morning light filtered between the buildings and stretched out over the roadway. Suddenly it struck me that there had been a grin on the dead dog’s face. Clots of yellow were hanging in the bands of sunlight. Sweat crawled down the back of my neck.

Park

Across the way from my apartment, on the other side of the parking lot, sat Center Park. It was a smallish hill overgrown with trees and ringed all around by graves. These were dug into the side of the hill or made of cut stones piled in tortoise-shell formations. Some were from quite a while back. It seems that as houses went up in the neighborhood, the wooded area was repurposed from cemetery to park. If you walked up the steps through the trees to the top of the hill, you’d find an observation platform and a croquet court. But you wouldn’t see any children or elderly folk swinging around croquet mallets, not even in the middle of the day.

People had good reason not to go into the park. It had an ominous feel, was surrounded by graves, and cut off from the nearby residential neighborhoods by a thick tangle of trees. As a matter of fact, several years back, someone had been murdered in the park by an American soldier. A few times a week, in the middle of the night, I would hear raucous drunken voices. Going up the outdoor stairs to my apartment, I’d stop on the landing and hear them—young voices guffawing in English, or the bellowing of vagrants fighting.

I found myself in the park late one night, after having been out drinking. I had left the shot bar on Park Avenue near one o’clock. It took less than ten minutes to walk back to my apartment. Just as I was rounding the corner to my place, my eye fell on the observation deck, floating above the roofs of the houses. I felt a sudden urge to go to the park.

I wasn’t afraid of the graveyard. Actually, I felt a thrill at the thought of being attacked in the dark of the woods, since it would be a good chance to test out the karate I had been practicing since my school days. Walking along beneath the acacias and banyans, the cool air and the odors of the rotting leaves and earth sobered me up a bit. When I reached the top of the hill I could see the stars through a break in the thin layer of clouds. I decided to climb up to the observation deck. I cut across the weed-choked croquet court and started up the stairway. Halfway up, I caught the sound of someone snoring. Looking around, I saw a homeless guy sleeping on the cardboard he had spread out on the concrete below. All at once I lost my nerve and went back down the stairs, intending to head home.

It was then I saw the woman standing in the middle of the croquet court, looking up at the sky. She was illuminated by the court lamps, a petite woman of about thirty. Her jeans and T-shirt made her look young, but something in the careless way her hair was tied back and the slackness of her face gave her an air of fatigue. I checked my watch and saw that it was past one. I was debating whether to talk to her, when she shouted out to the sky: Please come down! The scent of the trees was thickening; the night air was growing colder. As I stared at her, she called out once more: Please come down! Her cheeks were damp. She stood there for more than ten minutes, head hanging down, not moving a muscle. It sounded like she was murmuring: Why won’t you come down?

And then she slipped between the trees, headed toward the exit of the park. I thought about following her, but it seemed likely she’d take it the wrong way, so I decided against it. Instead, I went to the spot where she had been standing. When I looked up, the clouds were spread across the sky, hiding the stars. I felt eyes on me and spun around. A young man was standing in the shadows behind an olive tree. He wasn’t the only one. Crouched below the eaves of the public bathroom, sitting on the bench beside the walking trail, there were five or six men of varying age and appearance, all peering toward me. Fear flashed through me, until I realized that they had all been watching the woman, just as I had. I hurried out of the park, disgusted with myself.

*

The next night around one o’clock, after having my usual few drinks, I made my way to the park. The other men were already there, in the same positions they had been in the night before. They regarded one another in turns while waiting for the woman to appear. I could hear the homeless guy snoring during the two hours that I sat on the stairs of the platform. By the time I headed back to my apartment, glancing as I went toward the lamplight on the deserted croquet court, I was exasperated with how ridiculous I was being—fantasizing about a woman obsessed with the occult or wrapped up in some weird religion. And yet, I also had the feeling that it wasn’t quite so simple. I went back to the park the next night. The men were all waiting there quietly. Every so often the wind would whip through the trees and they would all sway together. But the woman was nowhere in sight.

A week passed, and going to the park every night around one o’clock had become a habit. Having left the shot bar past twelve, I was making my way along Park Avenue when I noticed that the young man walking toward me was one of the regulars at the park. We both lowered our eyes as we passed one another. That’s when I decided to stop going. Something unsavory radiated from the haggard man, and I could feel it enveloping me as well. When I realized this, I knew that I couldn’t go to the park anymore.

I went straight back to my apartment. As I fit the key into the lock, I turned back to look out at the park. Someone was standing at the top of the observation deck. It looked like the homeless guy who slept there. It was sweltering, and I was drenched with sweat. I entered my one-room apartment and saw that there was a message on my answering machine. When I pushed the blinking red button, I heard the woman’s voice played back quietly: Why won’t you come down? I rushed back to the entrance and flung open the door. The smell of the trees was suffocating.

Cat

I got a call from a high school friend who wanted to meet up, and since my university was on summer break, I went back to my old neighborhood for the first time in a long while. The house where I grew up is on a backstreet in an area full of bars. It's two floors of reinforced concrete, where my parents live together with my younger brother and my little sister. I passed through the gate and circled around to the yard, calling hello from the porch. Although it was a Saturday afternoon, my mother was the only one at home. She told me that my father had rushed out without eating lunch to go watch the bulls fight over in Gushikawa, my brother had ridden off somewhere on his motorcycle, and my sister was at school busy with extracurriculars.

The other night, she said, I had a dream that you were riding a horse on the beach, so I knew you’d be home around today. My mother shared this bit of nonsense with me as she cut up some watermelon. I was sitting on the porch spitting seeds out over the lawn when I heard what sounded like something bumping up against wire netting. I noticed a hemp sack under the kitchen eaves; it was shaking slightly. Still working on my watermelon, I got up to take a look and saw that the sack was stretched over what appeared to be a box. When I pulled the sack aside, a white mass lunged toward me, spitting and hissing. I leapt back. The sack fell away, revealing a wire cage with a cat thrashing about inside. The cage was woven from thick wires, with a trap door and bait on a hook: a pretty decent home-crafted cat trap.

*

When I asked my mother what it was all about, she told me Granny Nabi from the neighborhood had been suffering from headaches for more than a week, and the yuta she visited had prescribed broth made from a cat. My father was tasked with catching one, and he had a welder friend of his make the trap. Apparently, they laid it that morning and caught the cat in no time.

“Come on, if her head hurts she should’ve gone to the hospital. And this cat’s pretty clean—you sure it’s not someone’s pet?”

“If you keep quiet about it, no one’ll know,” my mother chuckled. I dropped the issue, finished off the rest of my watermelon, then headed to my friend’s house.

When I came back that evening, my father was on the clay patio by the kitchen, sipping a beer while sharpening a carving knife. He had won 30,000 yen on the bulls and was in a good mood. I took a beer from the cooler and drank as we caught up about home and school. He then tested the blade on his thumb and called out to my mother in the kitchen. She came out with both hands gripping the handle of a large kettle that had steam billowing from the spout. On seeing this, I blurted out, You’re gonna kill it with that? My father turned and laughed, You think I could do something that cruel? He pulled aside the hemp covering and the cat in the wire cage started screeching frantically. Grabbing the cage by the latch and pulling it along, my father went over to the man-made pond in the yard. It was a small one, the size of two tatami, but deep enough at more than twenty inches. I ran over when he unceremoniously dumped the cage in.

*

Eyes half open underwater, silver bubbles escaping from its mouth, the cat writhed, batting against the wire, claws out, desperately pawing at the water. I thought I could hear a faint yowling from under the surface. My mother had come over and the three of us watched the cat’s struggle in silence. Precious and sacred. When it had stopped moving completely, my mother knelt down and joined her hands together, murmuring words of prayer. The koi that had fled to the edges of the pond slipped between the gaps in the wire weave and swam through the cloud of white fur. My father lifted the cage out and carried it, dripping, across the lawn to the patio. He took the kettle that had been set down outside the kitchen and, careful not to splash any on himself, poured it over the cage. When I saw the fur sloughing off in the flow of boiling water, I went inside, thinking that if I watched any more I wouldn’t be able to stomach dinner.

My sister was back from practice and I had a snack while chatting with her. Then I watched TV for a bit before heading out to meet my friend for a drink at an izakaya. My father had finished dismembering the cat and was taking a bath, while my mother was in the kitchen checking the handwritten recipe as she made the broth.

*

The next afternoon, while walking with my friend along Park Avenue, I saw Granny Nabi pushing a dog in a stroller. She had to have been over ninety, but as she pushed her stroller my way in a lavender muumuu and green sunglasses, yellow jellies on her feet, and a dye-job to boot, she looked inappropriately youthful. When she noticed me, she called my name loudly and waved me over. As I came closer, the brown puppy looked up at me from the stroller with sleepy eyes. Haven’t seen you in a while, you’ve grown, Granny said, and then she thanked me for the cat broth. I asked, Headache all gone? And she said, Not only is the headache gone, the pain in my knees and hips has cleared up and I can hear again—I might go play croquet tomorrow. Looking forward to the next batch, she said. With that, she flashed a crooked smile and went on her way. I stared after her. As she passed an American soldier, her tiny body looked like it could have threaded right between his legs. Then her nimble little steps stopped short. She turned to the side and I followed her gaze: on the bench under a stand of banyan trees, a calico cat lay licking its forepaws. Sensing the eyes peering at it from behind the sunglasses, the cat raised its head to have a look. Granny Navi smiled and beckoned it over. The cat sprang down from the bench in a panic, its hackles raised. It mewed once, then ran off across the street.

 

Translator's Note: The fourth part of "Stories from the Streets of Koza," "Hope," translated by Steve Rabson, was published in JPRI Critique vol. VI, no. 12 (December 1999).