Today is the birth and death day of my daughter, Naomi. The year, I am afraid I do not know. I do not know the faces of those eyes, filled with some force I cannot access, channels into some crevasse of unknown memories.
I look at them. I feel their potential to split through me, splay me, leave me splintered, open, gasping.
But: this has not happened.
I don’t recognize them when they visit, though I recognize the face on all these washed-out Polaroids.
It is my daughter, Naomi.
Sweet, rose-cheeked Naomi.
My little Naomi with her big violet eyes.
There she is at Kotobikihama Beach. She is jumping in the sand, her eyes lit up with curiosity, for the sand is whistling a lovely tune. Beside this picture, another one, there, at Kotobikihama. She’s running into waves, feet skittering across white sun-flecked sand.
In this one, here, she bites deep into an overripe persimmon, the juice trickling down her small red dress. We are picking persimmons at an orchard in Ide. I hold her up to pluck one off a low branch and she drops it—thud—into the burlap bag.
She smiles wide, says, “Higher, higher, Kaa-chan! I want to pick all the persimmons in the tree!”
The sky is streaked with ribbons of orange-scarlet as descending rays of sun kiss the sere slopes.
There is a man in one of the pictures. He is well-groomed with sharp, deep-set eyes and almost all-the-way-slicked-back bronze hair. Naomi is perched on his shoulders. She laughs. She grabs tufts of his bronze hair. I do not recognize this man, but he looks like an American.
Looming behind them is the Takashimaya department store, its hanging lights white orbs against the neon-lit street. Peeking behind them is my own shy, timid face. My mouth, a fine line, almost—but not quite—a smile.
I set the pictures down. Through the window, the pale morning sun gives the glass a light dusting, like pollen. Outside, stacks of power lines swathe the street. City buses fork every intersection. Street vendors and schoolchildren fill the air with a constant buzz.
My daily walk to work is not so fitful. It is filled with cobbled backstreets and tree-lined canals.
I let the silence fill me.
Temples and teahouses.
A hint of fragrant rouge.
Plum blossom rouge.
When I was a girl, I was fascinated by the Titan Arum, or Corpse Flower. It is the largest flower in the world, and blooms rarely, but when it does, it lets out the odor of a decaying corpse.
The flesh flies come in hordes. They plunge into its blood-red recesses. They pollinate the flower, driven by its putrid smell.
I used to wonder, in those rare moments of human connection, are we also driven by this nectar, by the smell of death? Do we slam ourselves against death to squeeze out the tiniest particle of life?
Now here I am, at the flower shop where I work. Behind the display windows are rows of bouquets, amaryllises, twirling geraniums which hang from fine, clear fibers. I have carefully catalogued every one of these flowers. They console me at night.
For there are times when photographs embody and retrace the dead.
Reds, greens, blues.
I turn over and touch.
I lean and smell.
Shavings and fragments.
Fragile points where bodies brush, now flat.
A stem, preserved in paper wax.
After a long day of watering, trimming, arranging, displaying, shuffling to and fro, the dying rays of sun break through the windows. Around this time each day, I climb up to the balcony. I stand alone. Red paper lanterns glow beneath the eaves.
I bring a cigarette up to my lips. The blue night rises all around me like a vapor. I coil the smoke into a hazy curlicue, a tongue of flame. A lambent light that dances on a dark reflecting pool.
I look into the sky, longing to peel back its layers, burrow deep to the starry womb of night.
I think about Naomi. She must see the stars, I think. She must bathe in them with me. She must taste the sky.
I take the pictures from the table where they’re spread. I carry them out to the clothesline on the balcony.
Slowly, I pin the pictures, one by one, up to the clothesline. They flap back and forth, caressed by the soft spring breeze.
There’s a Czech photographer I love who played with dark wavy lines. My favorite work of his is a nude woman lying between two waves, the arch of her back like the curve of the earth, or a foamy breaker at sea, tautly bowed, the split second before it crashes down.
White-crested, like white horses’ manes. They stamp and stamp their sodden hooves, suddenly rear, and everything goes black.
All burned-out and abandoned.
Or warm, buried in my mother’s hair.
My mother loves me and I love her, but that isn’t enough.
My father is a big man, a bright man, and a proud man. He’s white.
He first comes to Japan on a business trip. One day, he decides to tour Kyoto on a rickshaw and the driver happens to be my uncle J. My uncle knows some English from his university studies, knows enough to talk about his formidable beauty of a sister. That’s the kind of person my uncle is, pairing off every woman he knew with his male passengers.
For his sister, he clearly wants someone suave, maddeningly so, rich, and even better, white.
My uncle is obsessed with Western culture. And he wants to drag his sister out of her interiority. Interiority as some hermetic space of confinement where one inevitably rots away, and needs to be pulled out, most graciously, by sheer force.
She isn’t easy to coax. She’s so stubbornly reclusive that when he brings the man over, she slips through the sliding door of her wardrobe and hides there, quiet as a mouse, until they leave.
My uncle then tells him, She must be out in her friend’s garden. An avid gardener, she is, out every night.
They finally meet in an old-style tearoom in Gion. They know instantly—at first lingering glance, a steady tapetum glint—that they are equals.
My mother follows my father to his charming bungalow overlooking the Mississippi River. There, he introduces her to barbecued ribs and rooftop parties at the Peabody. His parents emanate hospitality, all thoughtless smiles and nods and social functions.
At times she feels lonely, without daybreak filtering through paper-paneled doors, chrysanthemums in bloom, rain under the eaves. Without color and light, without shadow.
In Memphis, I am born.
My mother coos and cries, Naomi.
Small, sticky, legs kicking.
She lifts me up with tears in her eyes.
My father comes over, pecks me lightly on the forehead, all the while that stick-thin, professional smile.
Strokes my hair with his big hands. Keeps stroking. He can’t help it. Yes, tenderness overcomes him too.
Beyond all this, my mother is sad. She misses the blue of incense and how she could almost wrap it around her finger. The sweet, woody scent, warm, divine, almost forgotten.
My father says, Because I love you and you must breathe, not choked up like this, let’s go home, back to yours.
Almost inaudibly he adds, Besides, the streets are getting riotous.
A year later we move back to Kyoto, to my mother’s machiya home with the wardrobe.
My mother spends her nights in her room, writing, arranging old photos she’s taken, and her days working at a flower shop down the street.
My father enters into a managerial position at an electronics firm and comes home late every night. When he comes home smelling like beer, my mother stays in her room, not saying a word, invisible.
My father says, Been a long day. Naomi, tell your mother to come out.
I go into her room and see her sitting at her kotatsu.
She always looks like this when I go in at night.
Her eyes emptied of color, reflecting a distant shoreline.
When my father is away, she picks me up and spins me, kissing me. She smiles, laughs, sings my name. Over and over, the tender smack of her chamomile kisses.
At night, when I can no longer be hers, she sinks into the arms of a spectral, floating world. A world we cannot see or understand. A world we cannot touch.
One evening it falls and bleeds. This time my father does not ask me to go to her room. He goes in himself. He takes the camera on top of the wardrobe. He smashes it to pieces.
Inflamed, my mother kicks a shard of the broken lens at my father.
I start to cry, but they cannot hear me crying.
I cover my ears and scream.
Louder and louder.
They never did.
By the time you read this, I will be dead, I write.
I am fourteen. I don’t think I mean it, but I want them to think I do.
My uncle has been planning to start a new life in California, the land of palm trees and Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard.
I beg him, Please, please, take me with you.
Some say they see a girl drown at Kotobikihama Beach. She wades in and lets herself be borne away by the sea’s bone-crushing embrace, held tight, made love to, engulfed, until her gasps cease and her body sinks into the soft amorphousness. Her body is never found, but if you listen closely, the spurts of sea foam seem to cry out, “Kaa-chan! Kaa-chan!” as they swish, curled and uneven, beckoning at your feet.
Somewhere out there, the girl is with her uncle in California. The uncle cannot support her. He tells her to leave, to live with the disillusionment of escape, the futility and madness.
Somewhere out there, a man sneers at the girl and asks her if she is an Asian princess. She knows this game. She’s played it many times. She smiles coyly, answers with her silence, with an arched curve of her back. A wave. A dark swell. And the man just licks his lips.
Somewhere out there, the girl touches herself, cups her breasts, moans, in the din of her apartment with the peeling paint and midnight sirens, she finds no greater pleasure than her own hands, they are all she has.
Somewhere out there, she sees a white camellia in full bloom, moon-bathed, in the dark green shrub beside her apartment building. Wrinkled. Glowing. Budding. Opening up like a womb.
Somewhere out there, her pictures flutter on a clothesline.
Ellen Chai is recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, who majored in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology. Her work is forthcoming in Prairie Margins.