4-2 They climbed the stairs at the back of the inn to the fourth floor. These buildings were all made out of wood and in big cities usually topped out at three floors. This inn apparently had a fourth. The ceiling was low enough that Youko could reach up and touch it. A big woman like Takki would have to stoop over.
She was shown a small room, not much more than six by six feet, with a wooden floor. A set of high shelves lined the wall at the back of the room, piled with some faded futons. There wasn’t a bed. She’d sleep on a futon on the floor.
Next to the wall, the shelves forced her to bend over, even kneeling down. She could stand up in the front half of the room. The back half of the room was for sleeping. The rooms she’d stayed in with Takki had high ceilings and beds and even a table and cost something like five-hundred sen a night.
Because this wasn’t the safest part of town, she’d be sure to lock the door coming in and going out. The old man handed Youko the key and started to leave.
Youko stopped him and said, “Excuse me, but where can I find the well?”
The old man jerked around like a dog running past the end of his leash. His eyes grew wide. For several long moments he stared at her.
“Um . . . ” said Youko. Thinking he hadn’t heard her correctly, she repeated the question. The old man’s eyes grew wider.
“Japanese!” he said, and all but ran back into her room. “Do you come from Japan?”
When Youko didn’t answer he grabbed her by the arm. “You’re a kaikyaku? When did you get here? Where you from? Speak Japanese to me again.”
Youko could only stand there and look at him.
“Please, do like you was talking before. I haven’t heard Japanese spoken for years and years.”
“I, ah . . . ”
“I’m from Japan, too. Go ahead, let me hear you speak Japanese.”
From within his eyes, deeply set in his wrinkled face, tears welled up, sparkling and clear. Youko felt herself start to tear up as well. What a strange coincidence this was, that in this strange land, in a corner of this big city, the two of them should have met.
She said, “You’re a kaikyaku, then?”
The old man nodded. Over and over, impatiently, bobbing his head as if words would not come. He gripped Youko’s arm with gnarled fingers. She could see in the firmness of his hold on her what kind of loneliness he had endured. She squeezed his hand in return.
“Tea?” he asked in a tremulous voice. “You want some tea?”
Youko bowed her head.
“You drink tea, don’t you? Ain’t much, but I got me some green tea. You wait here while I go fetch it, okay?”
The old man returned a short time later with two teacups. Youko thanked him graciously. The sudden smell of green tea brought back memories of home. Closely observing Youko as she tasted the tea in her mouth, the man sat down on the floor in front of her.
“So happy to meet you. I told ’em I was sick and skipped out on work. Tell me, boy . . . no, girl, ain’t you? What’s your name?”
Ah, the old man’s eyes replied. “I’m Seizou Matsuyama. My Japanese isn’t too strange for you, is it?”
Youko wanted to nod, but shook her head. He did have an accent but she could understand him well enough.
“Well, then.” The old man looked happy enough to cry. Indeed, he seemed to be laughing and crying at the same time. He asked, “Where was you born?”
“Where was I born? In Tokyo.”
Seizou gripped his teacup. “Tokyo? I can’t hardly believe that Tokyo is still standing.”
He paid no mind to Youko’s response, wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his tunic. “I was born in Kouchi, in Shikoku. I was living in Kure when I came here.”
“Kure, in Hiroshima. You know Kure?”
Youko nodded, trying to recall her old geography lessons. “I think I remember hearing about it before.”
The old man laughed bitterly. “There was a naval base arsenal there. I worked in the harbor.”
“So you moved from Kouchi to Hiroshima?”
“My mom was staying at her parent’s place in Kure at the time. The house got burnt up in an air raid, third of July it was. So she sent me to live with my uncle. He said he wouldn’t feed me just for sittin’ around all day, so I got a job. That’s when we was attacked and the boat I was comin’ into harbor on got near sunk. I fell overboard in all the confusion.”
Youko realized he was talking about the Second World War.
“And when I came to I was in the Kyokai. I was adrift on the sea when I got rescued.”
The way the old man pronounced “Kyokai” was slightly different from what Youko was used to hearing, closer to “Kokai.”
“So . . . that’s how it happened.”
“There’d been real bad air raids before then, too, even after the arsenal was reduced to rubble. There was ships at the naval base but they couldn’t help. The Setonaikai and the Suou Sea being all full of mines, the ships couldn’t get through.
“Oh,” said Youko.
“Tokyo was bombed in March, the whole place turned to ashes. Same thing happened to Osaka in June, a big air raid burned down the city. Luzon and Okinawa surrendered. Honestly, I didn’t think we was going to win. We lost, didn’t we?”
“Um . . . yes.”
The old man sighed deeply. “Figures. For a long time I had the feeling that’s the way things was headed.”
Youko didn’t really understand this feeling. Her parents were born after the war. None of her older relatives ever talked about those times. It was like ancient history to her, the kind of things you learned about in textbooks or from movies or television.
Nevertheless, what he was talking about was not as distant to her as this world. Although she couldn’t picture in her mind what he was talking about very well, it was gratifying to hear such deeply familiar places and historical events spoken of again.
“So Tokyo’s still around. Well, I suppose that Japan belongs to the United States, now.”
“Not hardly!” Youko exclaimed.
The old man’s eyes widened in turn. “Is that so, is that so. But, miss, what’s with those eyes of yours?”
After a moment of bewilderment, she realized that he was referring to her eyes. Her eyes had turned an emerald green since coming here. She hesitated then said, “This has got nothing to do with that.”
The old man bowed and shook his head. “No, no. Forget I said anything. It’s just that I was so sure about Japan being made into a colony of America. It ain’t being so, pay no mind, pay no mind.”
Here under distant, foreign skies, this old man continued to fret about his motherland, whose fate he could not ascertain for himself. What might become of their country neither he nor Youko could know. It was only with the passage of time that these sentiments had become so much deeper. It must have been hard enough being thrown into the maelstrom of this world. But on top of it all this old man had for half a century continued to nurse these affections for his homeland.
He said, “And is His Majesty doing well?”
“You mean the Showa Emperor? If you mean the Showa Emperor, well, he survived the war okay, but he’s . . . ”
Dead, she was going to say. She corrected herself and phrased it more politely. “He unfortunately has passed away.”
The old man’s head jerked up, and then he bowed deeply, pressed his sleeves to his eyes. After a moment of hesitation, Youko patted his rounded shoulders. As he did not seem offended, she continued to stroke the man’s almost skeletal back until his weeping had subsided.