Birthing the kappa child: of sisters, shopping carts and cucumbers.
Dad didn't know how to grow Japanese rice. Forget about the fact that you couldn't grow it in Alberta anyway. No water. The too-short growing season. Old Man River flowing sluggish brown north of us and the Milk River, chocolate, winding too far south.. All he knew was that we needed water to make the flooded soft mud of his childhood-thought-place, years disremembered and half a world away.
Luckily, we arrived in high summer, too late for any active pursuit of the growing season. So we left our father to hunt down a used John Deere tractor while my mother, sisters, and I tried to make some semblance of a home.
Dad left us in front of the old Rodney farmhouse. The prairie spread we'd thought flat and unpeopled had small nooks of poplared houses in pockets of land. Dad helped us unload the station wagon, everything left in piles on the driveway, then he drove off in twin plumes of dust. The sun was directly above us and we cast no shadows. Okasan's face so pale, I knew she would never tan. Like the translucent skin of grubs or maggots, she would stay pale or dry up and die. I shuddered. My book clammy against my stomach. We stood in the middle of our belongings and all we could do was stare at what was now our home.
The house had a face. There were two tiny windows peering malevolently and a door-nose right in between. A tiny porch in front of the door the gritting mouth. The triangle roof was steep, pointing to a sky that never ended and we tipped back our heads, our mouths sagging. A tinier window in the crotch of the roof cracks around the frame, scarred the house's forehead
The sigh that came out of Okasan's mouth broke into shudders. Mice spun to her, arms outstretched, but PG grabbed the neck of her T-shirt and Mice gagged. PG had sense. I was glad she stopped our baby sister. Okasan was so boneless, she might fall to pieces if anyone touched her. Slither prodded her foot against a stack of boxes, picking at small semicircles of dirt trapped beneath her fingernails.
"Well then," Okasan shook herself. "Let's get settled before your father gets back. He'll be so surprised." She grabbed a cardboard box and marched forward. The dry grass crackled beneath her feet and hoppers clattered away on brittle wings. Mice, barking, chased after them.
"Come on, then!" I shoved Slither. Grabbing a suitcase, shoved her once more.
"Don't push!" she whined, picking up the smallest box.
"Come on, PG. You can help too."
There was no answer.
I turned around, glaring at my lazy little sister. But she was rigid. Hands fisted. Her left eye roved madly, looking for escape, and the right eye stared directly at the face of the house. Muttered something over and over. I crunched over to her. Frowning.
"It's not the nicest, but it's shelter, huh? Laura Ingalls lived in a dirt house, once, so we should count ourselves lucky."
PG didn't even look at me or answer back. She kept muttering her charm, over and over, "Scarythingsaren'tscaryifyou'renotscaredofthem."
The hair rose on the back of my sticky neck all shivery and weak. I scowled. "Get over it. You'll be living here for the next thirteen years!" And I left her out there to face her own monsters.
By the time everything was moved in, floors, counters, cupboards wiped. well enough to put things away, the afternoon was falling into evening. Crates, a green Formica kitchen table and four mismatched chairs. Powder-blue suitcases scored with scratches and shoeprints. Cardboard boxes with plates and coffee mugs printed with plumbing company logos. Dad had bought two sagging beds that were going to be thrown out from the motel man.
PG wouldn't come inside until it started getting dark. Once in the house, she kept spinning around to see who was behind her until she was so dizzy she lay down on one of the beds in the living room. She made Mice lie with her, back to back, so no one could sneak up.
No running water. A sink in the kitchen with no faucet, and the bathroom had a bathtub with no water source. Not a toilet to he seen.
Slither started blubbering. I went outside to squat next to the rusted drum cans, a little apart from the house.
Heard the roar of dust coming up the drive, I crab-walked, still squatting, drips of hot urine splattering my thigh meat.
Dad vas back. A blue port-a-potty tied to the top of the wagon.
"Where'd you get that, Dad?" I called out. I clamped my hand over my mouth to take it back, but too late.
"Ha!" Dad laughed. My heart stopped pounding "Looks like you need this! Your dad's always thinking ahead!" He snorted some phlegm and spat the ball into the dust. "I remembered driving past two of these in the campground. They don't need two," he grunted. Lowering one end of the potty from the back of the car.
Well, I thought. Maybe Dad was just like Pa parking his wagon wherever he wanted. Maybe it was like Pa chopping down trees by the river. He didn't ask for anyone's permission. It wasn't stealing. No one called it that. I hoped. I left Dad tick, ticking into hard ground with a pickax.
After the kitchen was put away, Okasan stood in the doorway of the living room. One of the house eye-windows let in the sunset light. There was an unhealthy red glow on the walls. "It'll take a little while for us to use the other rooms," Okasan said. She was right. There were ugly stains on the ceilings. Walls with foot-sized holes and nails sticking, points up, from the floor. 'We'll all sleep cozy together for a little while."
Cozy, I thought. We'd get to listen to Dad doing it to Okasan, much like Laura and her sister must have. She never mentioned it in the book, though. Maybe her parents were quieter than ours. But I couldn't imagine any child sleeping through those intense graspings and clutching sighs. I glared at the beds, my baby sisters still sleeping back to back, my short fingers twisting with each other.
Smack! Metallic taste in my cheeks, a high-pitched whine in the canals of my ears. The pain washed up and stung my eyes. I blinked furiously so no drops would fall.
"What are you sneering at?"
How was this always such a surprise? Why couldn't I get used to it? I gulped something hard and dry in my mouth.
"Well?" Dad, streaked with dirt, his small eyes staring into my stupid mouth.
"Maybe she's tired and needs to sleep?" Okasan suggested.
I nodded furiously. My chin wobbled, so I nodded harder. Okasan curled her cracked hand around the huge curve of my head. I closed my eyes.
"You spoil them," Dad spit. Jerked a handful of toilet paper from a roll and blew with a trumpet blast. "If they aren't tough, they won't make it in this world."
Make what? I thought. Whose world?
Mice woke, wandered over and absently patted my grubby hand.
"I have to pee!" Slither blurted.
Dad's eyes swung to her. I exhaled. Slither took two steps back, then, two steps forward so she wouldn't look like she was trying to run away. She anxiously crossed her legs, her face turning red.
"There's a washroom. Use it." Dad blew his nose once more, then went outside. We could hear the tick, tick of the pickax again.
"Okasan," Slither moaned. "Okasan, I can't go in an outhouse. It'll make me sick. All those flies. Maggots."
"Don't forget the kappa," I jeered. "They like pretty girls. When you go at night, it'll touch your butt."
"Shut up!" Slither shrieked.
"Shush, your father will hear," Okasan said. "And there are no kappa here." She was grim. "If you don't pass shikko, the poisons will stay inside and you'll rot from the inside out."
"Ohhh," Slither groaned. She tottered out the door, glanced around to look for our father, then ran, hunched over, to the blue outhouse.
Okasan made a funny noise and I jerked my head around.
Her hand covered her mouth. She was laughing.
I smiled to see this side of my mother and I stepped toward her to stand in the sweetness. Mice tugged my hand and I looked down. Her dirty hair was matted with sleep but her eyes were alert. Hackles rising, she growled low in her throat. Her small teeth bared.
PG slowly moved toward us like she was deep underwater. She raised her finger and pointed toward the kitchen.
"There's a white woman standing behind you," PG slurred, not just her left eye, but her right eye swirling too.
"It's not polite to point at people," Okasan murmured, putting on her company face before turning to the unwanted guest.
I sneered. Great. A nosy neighbor come to get gossip for the townspeople.
I turned around.
An icy draft skated cold fingers up my arms and across my shoulders. The hair prickly all along my spine and my knees tipped toward each other. Okasan's brows were raised, her mouth slightly open. Mice growling even deeper.
There was no one there.
"Shut up, PG. That's not funny!"
Okasan spun around and her pale face turned tofu-white. She shook her head, a sideways jerk, then placed her hands on her hips.
"Shut up te yuwanaino," Okasan reprimanded. "And it's not nice to play tricks like that," she scolded PG. "We have to live in this house. Don't scare your baby sister."
"She's right there!" PG jabbed, her brown tan face turning ashen. "She's wearing a dress. She's counting her fingers!
"Old Lady Rodney," I whispered.
Mice barked furiously and ran to where PG still pointed. PG gasped, and tried to grab the back of Mice's shirt, but missed. Mice ran through the kitchen, all the way to the back door, barking, growling, snapping at the air.
"Stop!" Okasan's voice was terrible. I didn't know who she was telling to stop. But something stopped. Because PG's right eye stopped spinning and she ran to Okasan, throwing her scrawny arms around our mother's waist. Bawling.
Okasan lifted PG up and my sister wrapped her arms and legs around our mother like a monkey. She snuffled into her neck, her eyes wedged shut.
"Scary things aren't scary if you're not scared of them," she muttered and muttered. Gulping. After-shudders of tears. "Scary things aren't scary if you're not scared of them," she chanted until she fell asleep once more. Okasan held her tight, murmuring into her hair. We backed away from the kitchen and I held Mice's wrist in my hand, puffing her closer. Okasan lowered PG to the kids' bed and pushed back the sweaty bangs that clung on her forehead. PG frowned in her sleep. Ground her teeth. Okasan shook her head. She marched into the kitchen, banging cupboard doors open shut, couldn't remember where she'd put things. She came up with a box of salt. Frowning, she poured a small amount into the bowl of one hand, then, she tossed some grains into the air. Went back into the living room to sprinkle some onto my sleeping sister, a frightening look in my mother's eyes. Then she sprinkled what was left onto me and Mice, Slither too when she came back from the outhouse.
"What are you doing?" Slither ducked. Trying to brush the crystals out of her long hair. Mice laughed, spun in circles, pretending it was snow Okasan brushed the last grains over her own head and muttered, hands held together.
"Who're you praying to?" Slither continued. "I thought you were Buddhist? What happened?"
"Shut up!" I hissed.
"No one tells me anything," Slither sulked. "How're we supposed to take a bath and brush our teeth?"
I stared at our mother. Would the salt be enough to protect us?
Outside, Dad tick, ticked the pickax in the fossilized ground. So suddenly dark, now. Why was he digging in the dark? What was the hole for? What if bones came up?
"Your father is digging a well," Okasan said.
Oh! I was excited again. Just like Pa Ingalls! I quickly leafed through my book to the well section. Yes! Poison gas in the bottom of the well! Maybe Dad didn't know the candle trick to check for dangerous vapors.
"For serious?" Slither looked hopefully up into Okasan's face. "Will we be able to rake a shower?"
"No, but once your father finds water, we will have baths." Okasan looked absently around for something. I thought she was looking for Mice, but when Mice ducked into Okasan's hand, Okasan pushed her away.
"But no bath tonight," our mother sighed. She poured tepid mugi-cha into a plastic bowl and dropped in a hand towel. She wrung it out and wiped our dust-ringed faces with tea. She wiped not roughly, but not gentle either.
A sudden gust of prairie wind shuddered the thin panes of glass in the window, and we jumped. Dad stepping through the door, pickax over his shoulder. His hair stood on end and his teeth were rimmed with dust.
"What a wind," Okasan murmured. "You must be tired."
"This is a land for pioneers!" Dad beamed.
Yes, I smiled back, rubbing my book from the outside of my T-shirt.
"We struggle and fight. For water. For success. For life!" Dad laughed, so handsome. My eyes glowed. Dad set the pickax next to the door and spun around, wrapped his arm loosely around my neck and ruffled my exploding hair.
"A head just like mine," Dad muttered, low and warm and my heart almost burst.
I wake up smiling for no reason. I could be smiling all my smiles in my sleep for all I know. There is a yellow stain the shape of Madagascar on my ceiling. If the people above me keep on leaking water, the whole world might be revealed. I could learn to read my fortune from the markings. I could quit my job and become a professional reader of bedroom ceiling stains, have my own advertisement on late-night television.
I'd love to skip work, and I'm surprised. When my vocation has been such a source of satisfaction. Where does this unrest come from? I would happily skip work today but then, how would I pay for my cucumbers tomorrow?
Peevish feet pummel my stomach from the inside.
"Yes! I'm hungry too! What are you going to do about it though, huh?! When have you ever fed us?" Out of habit, I grab my backpack that has emergency books for boring situations. I haven't been reading much since meeting the Stranger. Okasan says that books make for good companions, but they can't hug you back. That's true, but then, being family doesn't mean they can hug you either. And to top it off, they aren't even good companions. Put it this way: A book will never ask for a hug you don't want to give.
I grab my bag of Japanese cucumbers from the fridge. Peer inside. There's only five left. Two English cucumbers in the vegetable drawer and seven of the bread-and-butter kind in the fruit drawer. I'll have to stop by the Korean market for more.
I bite into the green, bumpy fruit and the water, sweet-bitter, floods my mouth. Energy flows through veins, fast and wet. Ahhhhh. Is this how a vampire feels when it feeds on blood? Shut up! The creature kicks. Quit thinking and eat more!
Crunching, I trot up my basement steps, struggling into my quilted work housecoat.
Warmish this morning. What a surprise. There's a glow in the tips of poplars and the pointed, bloody fingers of peonies are forcing through winter-packed soil. Hello, spring. You surprise me every year. I bob my great head in greeting and there is an answering bow from somewhere in my left buttock. I shrug my quilted housecoat off my shoulders.
"Could you just stay in the uterus, please?" I call out and hop into my milk van. The engine turns over and I roll down my window. The air is green as leaves.
Lucky for me I work by myself. Well, unlucky for me, because I'm not always happy having myself for company. But better than the clutter-mess of working with other people. What if they wanted things from me without my ever knowing? Dealing with my own expectations is hard enough.
There is a quick kick in my right buttock. A strange sensation to have your ass kicked from the inside.
"All right! I acknowledge you! I'm not really alone," I sigh. Sigh again. "I might be more accepting if you could talk to me," I mutter.
Blat of CB. My boss comes on.
"Breaker, breaker one-nine, you copy?"
I roll my eyes. Gary was overjoyed to find out I had a still-working CB and waved away my request for a pager like everyone else.
"Yes, Gary, copy! Which quadrant am I on today?"
"Breaker one-nine, you're in the core, I repeat, you're in the core. Watch yourself in there, soldier. Return to headquarters at 1800 hours. Over."
"Get real, Gary! Out!" God! Some people should never watch movies.
What a beautiful job. The one and only shopping cart collection agency in the whole of the city. There are seven of us trackers and we go all over the urban sprawl to collect the abandoned, the lost, the vandalized. Truck them to the large garage turned warehouse and get them sorted. Then we deliver them back to their respective stores. For a while, there was talk about closing down shop, Gary was worried when the superstores attached coin-operated locks onto individual carts. He thought that customers would return them for the sake of their hard-earned money. But the stores'll have to make ten-dollar-deposit locks before people return shopping carts. No one cares about a dollar any more.
My profession's not exactly a brain job, but who wants one? I want to use my brain for myself, not some corporation. Slither is always mentioning college or beauty school, like she did. How she'd make some phone calls for me and get me a good situation, I would make more money and could put a down payment on a condominium. Just like that! Condominium!
I like my job. I like my library card. I have enough money for cucumbers and movies and I put a little cash aside in an empty one-gallon kimchee jar for something special. I haven't decided what, yet. I must admit, sometimes I do choose pajamas that are just a bit hoity-toity in price, but you only live once. Some people worry about being in an accident and found wearing tatty underwear. I only want to be found in a pair of pajamas, preferably a nice silk job.
What a crummy day to be assigned the core. Spring so fine and green and the river babbling like it does this time of year. God, what Dad wouldn't do for a river like this one! Too bad, so sad, as PG would say. Too fucking bad.
Getting darker than dusk, my tired-ache legs and feet almost stumbling in exhaustion. I'm hungry too. The other one gave up the pummeling complaints long ago, must be curled, asleep, in bitter resignation. My cucumber snacks long gone. I have seventeen carts in my van. My diving watch gleams 6:17 P.M. Shit. Night turned and I didn't even notice. I stumble to the van and get on the CB.
"Hello. Calling from downtown. I've just finished and I'll be late coming in."
"Thank god, soldier! We were going to file you as missing in action!"
I breathe heavily through my nostrils.
"You're breaking up! Repeat. You're breaking up!"
"Are you okay?" Gary asks, like a normal person.
"It's late. I'm hungry. I] don't want to play today."
"Oh." Gary sounds sad.
I roll my eyes and inhale. "Sergeant!"
"Request permission to return to base with the carts, the cargo, at 1000 hours tomorrow morning sir!"
"Permission granted," Gary says sternly. "You've done good today, soldier. I'm proud of you. Over."
"Over and out." I smile. Blink. I'm so hungry my eyes swim. Cucumbers. I'm out of Japanese cucumbers. Raise my shaking hands to the steering wheel and reverse slowly out of the unlit alley.
I make the Korean market just as the shopkeeper is locking the door.
"Please!" I bang.
Bernie looks up and sees me, the one who's been buying over one hundred dollars worth of cucumbers every month. She smiles, and opens the door.
"Yeah," I sigh. The spiced miso, fish-broth smells flooding my empty stomach.
"I just got a fresh shipment, direct from California," Bernie winks.
"Wow," is all I can manage.
Bernie deftly packs two bags chock-full and weighs them on the scale. My hands are shaking when I hand over my bills. Bernie frowns.
"When was the last time you ate a meal?"
I puzzle over what she means by "a meal." When I don't answer for three full minutes, Bernie takes my money, gives me change, then locks the door again, only with me on the inside. She flips the sign to Closed and pushes me to the backroom.
A microwave oven and a high-tech rice cooker in a tiny kitchen area. A kettle and teapot. Two tea bowls. There's an overturned wooden crate with a piece of plywood on top. Two rice tins for chairs. On the crate table is a large bowl of steamy rice, a rich broth with oxtails and dark greens, and a plate of cucumber kimchee.
"Eat," Bernie says, handing me silver chopsticks. I sink into the tin chair and accept a smaller bowl of rice she's filled for me. Take the bowl with two hands and wordlessly nod my thanks. My thin chopsticks wobble, but I somehow manage, the cucumber spice licks the inside of my mouth. I gobble shamelessly and Bernie grins.
When my empty stomach starts to fill and the compulsion is appeased, I eat more slowly.
"Did you cook this?" I ask, in wonder.
Bernie laughs, shakes her head. "No, my father is the cook in the house. The girls like to work outside. Grandfather likes to cook."
We eat until we are full, then share cups of tea.
"Can I ask a personal question?" Bernie asks. I glance up. How old is she? I never really looked to see. Thirty-five? Forty? Her hair, sinking out of an enforced perm. Maybe she's Christian, I think. A lot of Asian Canadian Christians have permed hair. Or else she was a headbanger, a woman still in touch with a heavy metal adolescence.
"Sure," I shrug. Now that I'm full, I feel slightly embarrassed.
"Are you in the family way?"
"Sorry," Bernie looks concerned. "It is very personal."
I shake my head. "No, no. I don't care. How can you tell?"
"The cucumbers," Bernie grins. "When there's a pregnancy, there's often a craving. I craved kale during mine."
"Kale? What's that?"
"It's a leafy plant; chopped up and cooked with a ham hock. And some lean sausage. At least, that's howl like it. People eat it in Germany."
"Kale," I shake my head. "Where'd you ever taste that to crave it?"
"I read it in a book," Bernie grins with one side of her mouth.
"So, how old's your kid?" I ask. Never figured Bernie to be a mom.
"Three. His name is Gabriel," she beams, dreamy. Yup, I think, must be a Christian. "My father, Gabriel's grandfather, takes care of him while I'm at work."
"Oh," I mutter. A husbandless, Christian single mom. Really, I think. We have nothing in common. And I'm beginning to feel uncomfortable. Who wanted to talk about life stories, anyway?
"Thank-you for the food," I nod, standing up, my cap in my bratwurst fingers.
Bernie waves her chopsticks, then points with them to the backdoor.
"Lock it before you leave," she says. And pours herself some more tea.
Excerpted from The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto. (c) 2001, 2002 by Hiromi Goto. Published by Red Deer Press, 813 McKimmie Library Tower, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, www.reddeerpress.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
HIROMI GOTO's first novel, Chorus of Mushrooms, received the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in the Caribbean and Canadian Region and was co-winner of the Canada Japan Book Award. Her short stories and poetry have been widely published in literary journals, and she has published a novel for young adults, The Water of Possibility.
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|Title Annotation:||Fiction; from 'The Kappa Child'|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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