Hello, readers! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I meant to post this a long time ago, but I guess I forgot…
In any case, Fiction Friday is back with the third and final story that came into the world through Z Publishing, in the America’s Emerging Young Adult Writers series last year. I started it in college, and it went into revision a few times over the years (probably with some influence from Murakami/magical realism) before landing somewhere.
MAURA SANDERS was lying in a hospital bed waiting to die. At 24, she couldn’t imagine a more terrible fate, but if she was honest with herself, she couldn’t really imagine a better one either. Maura was half Japanese, and if the American side of her died, so did her mother’s heritage — maybe then, Reginald could finally let go of his regret over making such a family. After all, “comfort women” were never meant to be mothers. But Reginald loved Ayame, and Maura didn’t have the heart to have him committed for his PTSD. Not that Ayame would have let her. He only hit Ayame a few times, after she’d cut her hair so short that she reminded him of a certain Japanese soldier he’d killed — whom he thought had come back to haunt him — but when it grew out again he only yelled sometimes when shootings were on the news. Still, Maura had tried to reason with her mother.
“He’s not getting better, Mama,” she’d said when her father was asleep.
Ayame had thrown her dishrag on the kitchen counter. “So? You don’t put him in that place! Memory never go away — you can’t take that from him!”
Maura heard her mother’s double meaning: sending Reginald away wouldn’t fix the problem, but even if he were able to forget the war, he would forget Ayame with it. But maybe, Maura thought, Ayame’s love could heal him if they had more time to themselves. So she left.
IT OCURRED TO MAURA, at first, that she could just make herself more scarce at home, but that was no way to live; she was twenty years old, and she couldn’t be so much of a burden as to come and go as she pleased, reminding them at any moment that their love had cost them their freedom and imposed on them a responsibility. Before Maura moved out, she wrote,
I’m not leaving you my address, because I want you to act as though I am dead. No — as if I was never born. This way, you two can have whatever life you want, wherever love takes you. Do not try to find me.
FOUR YEARS LATER, Maura was living in a studio apartment in Dublin, Ohio working as a Japanese language tutor and piano teacher. It happened that one Friday, in June, a student noticed that Maura was not herself.
“Did I play it wrong again?” the young boy asked dejectedly, letting his hands fall into his lap.
“No no Addie, you’re really getting much better,” Maura said, gripping the piano bench. She tried to sound consoling but the pinched expression on her face didn’t have the boy convinced. Maura’s stomach flipped and she sprinted to the bathroom, miraculously making it to the toilet before vomiting violently. Maura stared into the bowl, waiting for her vision to clear, but the color never changed: red.
“Sensei?” Addie asked timidly from the doorway. “Are you sick?”
After a long moment, Maura said hoarsely, “You can go home early today, Addie. Tell your mom we’ll pick up next week. You can use the phone in the kitchen.”
Maura waited until she heard the boy’s little feet padding away to get up and, confirming that the nausea had subsided, flushed the toilet, washed her hands, and brushed her teeth. She hoped Mrs. Larsen wouldn’t see fit to hire a new teacher; with the rate Addie and his sister were learning, Maura wouldn’t be surprised if a little illness put her out of a job.
IN THE NEXT WEEK she vomited blood five times, and three doctor visits later, a gray-haired man in a white coat gave her the diagnosis: stomach cancer. It was mid-July when Maura arrived at the cancer hospital in Zion, Illinois to have the tumor removed, but after surgery, a small piece remained, and the tumor began to grow again.
“This is really very uncommon,” the young doctor said, his face red as he fidgeted with the clipboard in his hands. “I realize…that is, we’ll have to give you some more time to recover, but we’d like to operate one more time once you’re…when that’s happened.”
Maura stared out the window as a cloud moved in front of the sun. The doctor rubbed his neck. “If you don’t…that is, if you would like me to…I’ll come back when you’re feeling better,” the doctor ended hastily, hurrying out of the room. Maura scoffed at the probability of her “feeling better” any time soon. She watched the clouds drift for a while before she drifted off to sleep herself.
IN THE MORNING, the red-faced doctor returned with more of the same forms from before for Maura to sign, but he was met with more silence.
“Is there anyone we can call that might help you with any preparations you might need to make?” the doctor asked, innocently enough, but Maura would have none of it.
“Preparations?!” she shouted, snapping up into a sitting position. “For idiot doctors’ mistakes?! TO HELL WITH YOU!” Maura shrieked, throwing a vase from the bedside table at his head. The glass shattered against the wall to the left of the man’s head and he sped out of the room, white as a sheet. After that, it was an older doctor that visited Maura with similar speeches and questions, but after six different doctors and the same number of broken, throwable objects, they finally stopped pushing consent forms at her. Puzzled, but legally bound, they put her in a small, pale-blue room in the back of the cancer ward. Days turned into weeks, and still the tumor grew, however slowly. Whatever pain it caused her, Maura showed no sign of any discomfort, nor any other emotion. Unlike the tantrums she had thrown before, it was now her bizarre stoicism that spread around the hospital as Maura’s distinguishing characteristic. That, and her Japanese mumbling from time to time — unsan mushō — which the hospital employees could only translate as “scattered clouds, disappearing mist.”
IT WAS THE LAST DAY of July and rain had been lightly pelting her window all day. Though she couldn’t see through the closed blinds, Maura imagined huge purple clouds weighing down the sky. As she lay listening to the weather, the door opened without a knock of courtesy. She considered feigning sleep, but curiosity got the better of her. She opened her eyes and turned her head to see the back of a small, sandy-haired boy as he quietly closed the door. Maura stared at him until he turned around.
“Oh,” he said in the high voice of childhood. “You’re awake.” He smiled and made his way over to the bed. Maura continued to stare at him in confusion, but he seemed to be waiting for her to speak.
“And who might you be?” she finally asked.
The boy’s smile whitened with the showing of his perfect teeth. Maura stared at him blankly.
“I’m Addie,” the boy said, crossing the floor to her bedside.
Of course, Maura thought, wondering how she could have not recognized him sooner. Yet, somehow, he looked older, as if he had not grown in size, but was a man of miniature proportions. As she stared at him in wonder, another presence arrived in the room, and Maura looked up.
“His given name is Adelard,” said a bitter voice from the doorway. A somber-looking girl with wide-set eyes glared at Maura. Mia.
Addie frowned at his sister and Maura found herself surprised at the displeasure it gave her to see his cherubic face so distorted. “I thought you were going to wait with Mother, Mia,” he said.
The girl hesitated and glanced at Maura, who was observing the lank, dirty-blonde hair that fell down to her flat chest. Mia wore a knee-length, pale-blue dress that her fair skin almost matched. Maura imagined that the girl might have disappeared into the wallpaper had she leaned against it, and an odd giggle escaped her lips. Mia looked at her strangely, and a shadow fell over Maura’s face. She did not want to be judged by this teenage girl with the “be careful, she’s crazy” expression on her face.
Crazy. Mentally unstable. Dangerous. All of these words came to Maura’s mind, and she wondered which one applied to her, but it was only the last description that gave her a little thrill. Dangerous.
Mia’s unusually cold voice brought Maura back to the scene before her.
“She went to the restroom, and she told me to come find you,” Mia answered. “She says we’re leaving soon.”
Adelard turned back to Maura, and to her unexplainable relief, he was smiling again. “I suppose I ought to get straight to the point then.”
Maura almost laughed at the boy’s formality, then thought better of it, suddenly desperate to hide her questionable mental state from him. She waited patiently for him to continue, keeping an eye on his freakishly tall sister.
Addie laid a tiny hand on Maura’s smooth, olive arm and she inhaled sharply in awe of the sensation — it was as if his skin was a part of her own. Maura shot a furtive look at Mia to see if she had noticed the change, but she was only looking at Maura blankly. Maura looked into Addie’s shining blue eyes, searching for answers.
“Why are you here?” she whispered.
“To give you a message,” the boy breathed.
“And what about you?” Maura asked Mia loudly, as if to challenge the girl to break the strange new bond between her and Addie.
Mia hesitated, then took a step forward, and stopped awkwardly in the center of the space between Maura and the door. “I heard the message too,” she said quietly.
“And?” Maura asked the boy, suddenly anxious. She set her left hand gently on top of his, and he grinned. Mia’s face softened and the atmosphere seemed calmer. Still, Maura awaited the answer to her query with bated breath.
Addie’s smile flattened. He licked his lips, pink and cracked.
“Your mother,” he began gently, then paused for a long time. A range of emotions sped through Maura, without it showing on her face. She waited.
Finally, Adelard began again. “We were there when she died.” Shock jolted through Maura as she tried to understand the meaning of his words. Had her mother really died? When?
“How did she die?” Maura asked, trembling.
For a second, Mia didn’t hear her because she spoke so quietly. As understading hit, she gasped and glared at Addie.
“I told you to find out if someone had told her first!” Mia scolded, quickly crossing the room to tower over her brother. Addie’s ensuing grimace was so heartbreaking to Maura that, for a moment, she forgot her own pain, and she sat up to touch the boy’s cheek. They stayed like that for a moment before Mia straightened up and folded her arms, then took the liberty of answering Maura’s question:
“It was a few years ago. We were visiting our grandmother’s grave by the beach when we saw someone walking up the path to the cliffs, and we decided to follow her.” Mia paused and bit her lip, staring at her feet. “When she reached the top, we weren’t far behind her, and she heard us. She was standing at the edge of the cliff and…and she said…”
The girl stopped again as if she were afraid to finish. No, it wasn’t so much fear, Maura thought; it was that uncertainty again, whether or not Mia could trust Maura’s mental state. Maura watched the girl’s eyebrows crease in a what would have been a comical way, but for the circumstances; Maura let the laughter die inside her, and Addie spoke again.
“It was something in Japanese, I think. I might say it wrong, but…I think she said, ‘Ma-chan…ie ni kite kudasai. Anata…watashi no kokoro desu.””
Silent, soft tears began to pool beneath Maura’s closed eyelids, some spilling out onto her cheeks as she heard the words in her mother’s voice.
“Please,” Addie pled quietly, his own eyes turning glassy. “The words. What do they mean?”
Maura dear…please come home. You are my heart, my mind, Maura translated in her head, but she couldn’t speak the words.
Her eyes snapped open. “Addie. Adelard. Sono ato nani ga…What happened after that?” Maura asked in a fierce whisper, slipping into Japanese in her haste. The boy looked up at her, his eyes wide with…what it was, Maura could not place. Seized with something like despair, she grabbed hold of the boy’s shoulders and shook him.
“NANIGA OKOTTANOKA? TELL ME!” Maura’s shrill voice was riddled with sobs. Tears rolled down Addie’s cheeks, but he made no movement in his crying.
“She fell,” Mia murmured vaguely. She did not look at Maura when she pulled Adelard away from her grasp and gathered him to her thin body. His satiny hair clung to the spot on her chest where a grown woman’s bosom would be, but instead there appeared to be a wall. Maura leaned back and let her arms fall where they would. She closed her eyes in defeat and continued to weep for a long time. She hadn’t meant to startle the boy or anger the girl — for whatever reason she could possibly be angry — but it had been so long since she had shown any emotion, felt anything so strong as what her mother had allegedly felt for Maura in her final moments. And she had spoken in Japanese, reaching out to that part of Maura that had always screamed of shame to her — if not for Japan, would her father have had to go to war? But he would not have met Ayame. Watashi no kokoro, she had called her. My heart. My mind. My core.
But in the grief, in the waves of confused emotion that continued to wash over Maura as she silently begged her mother to explain why, then, did she leave Maura alone, her heart began to swell. Ayame Ito had taken what was left of her life when Maura — Ayame’s soul — had chosen to die. But Maura would revive Ayame’s kokoro. She would show her mother she had not truly died. She would choose to live.
A GENTLE tapping woke Maura from her dream. “Miss Sanders, I have a letter for you! Oh, but it’s so dark in here!”
Maura opened her eyes to see a short, squat woman with bushy red hair pudder over to the window and release the shade. Maura shut her eyes quickly, then smiled with the warmth from the sun. The nurse returned to her patient and set the letter on the bedside table. Unaware that Maura was indeed awake, she stared curiously into her tear-stained, faintly smiling face for a moment, then made for the door again in silence.
“Did anyone come to visit me?” Maura asked in a hurried voice, just as the woman reached for the door handle. She jumped in surprise, then smiled at Maura sympathetically.
“No, not yet I’m afraid.”
Maura thought she should frown, but she could only feel bliss — and resolve.
“Well, could you send for the doctor? I’d like to sign the consent form.”
The nurse stared at Maura for a moment before understanding slowly registered on her face. “Oh! Oh of course, just let me…”
The nurse moved to leave again, then paused halfway out the door and turned back to Maura. “Excuse me, but…what made you change your mind?”
Maura sat for a moment in silent contemplation. “A message,” she answered with a far-off look in her eyes.
Getting the feeling that she ought not to press further, lest the girl change her mind again, the nurse hurried out the door and tapped down the hallway to the doctor’s office as fast as her pudgy little legs could carry her.
Maura sat up and wiped the tears from her face, then picked the letter up off the table. It was a piece of expensive-looking stationery, folded in thirds, unsealed. She unfolded the letter and read the few short lines written in an unfamiliar, elegant script:
Dear Miss Sanders,
I hope you are not bothered by my intrusion, but my husband is on business in Chicago and my children insisted on visiting you. Since you were asleep, I told them to write you a note instead, and Addie wanted to draw you a picture. Mia has also written you a poem — I hope this brings as much comfort to you as it did to them in making it. Get well soon.
Below these four sentences was a crayon drawing of a small boy holding hands with a dark-haired, light-olive-skinned woman, who held hands with a tall girl on her other side. They seemed to be on a beach, with a giant blue sea stretching out behind them, a big yellow sun directly overhead, and little black Vs for birds on the horizon. Next to the drawing of the girl was written,
By the sea, in heart and mind
The salty sea flows behind
Like days reaching into light
Staying the terrors of the night.
At the bottom of the page were three signatures: Addie, Amy Larsen, and Mia. Maura put a hand to her mouth and held the letter to her chest, letting tears slide out from beneath her lashes again.
There was a knock at the door and the young red-faced doctor strode swiftly into the room, apparently having regained some confidence in the last month or so. Measuring Maura’s current state briefly and being satisfied, he muttered some pleasantries and handed her a clipboard and a pen. He then began to softly state the risks of the procedure, as fast as he could, and watched with shining eyes as the pen tip glided across the bottom of the page. Maura handed him back the clipboard with a small smile, which he returned with a grin.
“Congratulations, Miss Sanders. In a matter of days, you’ll be cured. You’ll be able to go home,” the doctor said.
Maura’s lips held their smile as she turned to look out the window, watching the clouds drift away from the sun outside.
“Yes,” she said serenely. “Home.” The doctor gave Maura a quick nod and moved to the door, but Maura stopped him.
“Could you do me a favor?” she asked politely. The doctor gazed at her warily and Maura felt a brief pang of guilt for terrifying him so. “It’s just…I’d like to you to call my parents, is all. Let them know I’m here.”
The doctor’s eyes widened in surprise, but refrained from commenting and handed her the clipboard again. She scribbled the number in the corner and smiled, handing it back to him. He looked at the number briefly, glanced at Maura, and left the room without another word.
Maura let her eyes be drawn back to the pale-blue wallpaper, imagining Mia fading in and out of it, then back to the window where Addie’s blonde head came out of the sun. Maura looked back and forth between the two visions for a long time. Watashi no kokoro…
FIVE days later, Maura Sanders was in the recovery wing, tumor free.
“How d’you feel?” the doctor asked brightly, but Maura wasn’t listening. As he talked, she watched a short Asian woman through the window as she got out of her car. A tan, graying man got out of the passenger side slowly.
“We’ll have to monitor you for a few more days, of course, just to make sure everything’s in order, all ship shape and whatnot, no bleeding or anything, and then you’ll be outta here. Just don’t forget to write,” the doctor said chuckling.
Maura was vaguely aware of the phrase “outta here,” and although she didn’t quite know where “out of here” would lead, she found herself smiling.
“Okaasan,” she whispered to the couple walking into the hospital, arm in arm. “Papa. Ie ni kitemasu.”
Mother, Papa. I am coming home.
Copyright © Cait Buxbaum, 2019