By Susan Laura Sullivan
Flirting and fighting and fucking, dragonflies hover over water, dive into their reflection and debris; confusing them for procreators and adversaries.
Kids squeal around the park, hunting for insects, snails, frogs. A soccer team, floppy-fringed boy far ahead, buzz-cut lagging behind, run the athletic course, compact the dirt. Ladies shellacked in nylon tracksuits power walk. Dog walkers, shit-scoopers, the dogs themselves – the shit-depositors – perambulate the path. Dreamers rest under trees, scrolling through mobile feeds, or sleep under book-cracked spines.
Jī hasn’t come to shore, or he’s hiding out. Sometimes he plays hard to get. Saeko hasn’t arrived, and Uncle said he’d be late. Even for the bread Jī often doesn’t come in, or it could be that all the activity scares him away. Our strike-rate is about one in eight and that one time is better than none, which is why we always bring it – the bread, that is. All the other ducks mill about, happy to gobble stale crusts. But they’re not who we want to attract.
The cherry tree leans into the pond, its branches shading the seat where I rest. This spot is popular for fishing, but no-one casts a line this evening. To the side, a rivulet creases the reddish-brown gravel and disappears underground before reaching the banks of the pond. The cicadas are loud as always at this time of year. If you didn’t know better, you’d mistake them for the steady hum of a creek. Or maybe not. Maybe you’d recognise the sawing of limbs and wings and other things. Maybe you could even identify the spinning eee-eee-eee-eeeeeee above it all. I’m not sure what that is. Dad would’ve known. It seems to keep the cicada din on track. Is it the noise of a conductor, or just a cicada looking to mate?
We caught them in summer when we were kids, kept them in Bug Collectors especially designed for hot weather, but I never learnt too much about them. Picked their bodies from the containers a few days after. We thought it was our negligent parenting. Later I found out cicadas are subterranean for most of their lives, and that once they leave behind their casings and dirt, once they’re visible to the human eye, they only have about two weeks left. In our Bug Collectors the dead adults still looked whole, alive, but were dried-out and lightweight, and they’d be in the same position the next day, and the day after that. Huge metallic monsters. Mum made sure those containers remained outside. She liked her sleep.
Jī is a brown and cream duck, and a light brown at that. Café au lait. He gobbles up the cicadas which accidentally land on the water, his pale neck bobbing. He’s much lighter than the other ducks which are all some form of grey, and he’s bigger. Not a goose though, not a mallard, nor the lone swan touring the pond’s circumference, its feathers grimy like sheets grey from soap. Jī’s plumage sparkles in contrast.
Why does that swan stay? In winter, late autumn, his friends return to the park, escaping the Siberian cold. They depart early spring, but he stays the whole year. Did he lose his mate, is his heart broken? Do his wings no longer take him to the sky? Is solitude sought, or wrought upon him? Maybe there are no cicadas in Russia and he’s developed a taste for them?
Nights when the moon bumps across the treetops of the hiking trails, I’ve witnessed the call and response of the swans coming in. And yes, they do make a noise. The birds land precisely where some of their brethren already paddle, water weeds draping their beaks. Some dive into the pond’s belly, a shawl around them, a cloak to obscure. Ducks and fowl vee away across the water, then flurry back to gawk. The swans nicker and spread their wings and ruffle feathers as if shaking out the futon and laying it on the surface of the water. Welcome home. Lie down, lie down. Rest your weary head.
The regular ducks don’t seem to talk to the lone swan much, the ones that can somehow bear the crushed ice of the pond in winter, and Jī speaks to none at all. I imagine the swan’s relief when he can call in Cyrillic, and his confusion for the rest of the year. His honks would sound as garbled to the Japanese ducks as that woman’s English. The one with the eyes. The one who taught us twice a semester when I was in middle school. Though, true, like us and her, the swans engage with the ducks often enough that some sense of familiarity must occur.
Maybe she blew in from the Siberian cold too. We really didn’t know where she was from, though Wada Sensei said she was a native speaker. The Chinese eat cicadas, you know. Their wings are used in medicine. The two countries border. I wonder if the Russians eat them too, if they do have them. The Russians dock at port here. Dad would drink sake with them at times. Sometimes they spend their breaks here, and you see them pushing their bicycles around town laden with white goods from the recycle store, set to take them home. A refrigerator tottering on the basket of a clunky mama-chari is something to see. Actually, those men are so big, they could probably just pick it up and carry it on their backs with little effort. Whether she was Russian or not, our visiting English teacher sure had a strange accent. Take the foin, for instance.
“Foin,” she said over the cicada hum, which then, like now, was ratcheting up. We didn’t know what a foin was, but she held up a picture of a lilac telephone. We were about fourteen. It was difficult to know her age, though I think we once played a game to guess it. That was fun. We could determine her sex because of her voice and long hair, but when she showed a picture of her short-haired mother, we could not believe that she wasn’t a man. Even Wada Sensei couldn’t hide her surprise. The teacher’s trousers were too short, though the maroon colour was nice. It contrasted well with the lilac, but didn’t match the brown school slippers she was falling out of at all, but what did? She might have had a hole in her sock. I remember she did one time. Who had a lilac telephone? I wanted one.
“Foin,” we repeated. Maybe she meant fine. We were as well as could be in the last few hot minutes before lunch.
She grinned at us. Grimaced. “No, no, no, no! Not foin! Foin.” Looked out the window as if trying to locate the source of the insect clamour, and back. The sweat patch on the back of her blouse deepened, but then we all had sweat patches – under our arms, around our necks, on our backs, anywhere cloth contacted skin. Like me now, wiping my brow with an Yves St. Laurent flannel that Uncle’s wife brought back from the duty free the last time they travelled.
“Foin,” we said.
She waggled that picture some more, its hard edges thwacking the air.
“Foin!!” she bellowed, loud enough to wake the class next door. Loud enough to wake Takumi, you’d think, though he remained sprawled all over his desk in a stupor, as he had for the last forty minutes.
I looked over at Hiroko at the desk next to mine. She lifted her eyebrows. We didn’t know what the woman at the front wanted. And speaking of eyes, we hadn’t seen so much white around the blue before, and the visiting instructor had opened hers wide. It was spooky. You could see she recognised something when we repeated her pronunciation, but we sure as hell didn’t know what. I don’t think she did either. I wondered how much her perm cost. She put the flashcard on the table and removed a band from her wrist, and pulled her hair into a ponytail. It really was a bit scraggly down like it had been. A good move on her part, I thought. How much did her perm cost? She had long hair, and it was so curly. Our copying seemed to get her excited, not in a good way, but we were just doing what she asked. Teachers held up pictures, said the English word, and we repeated. That was English class and she was the expert.
“Foin!” we responded. She looked as if might cry, but we were used to that. She called over Wada Sensei.
“Phone,” Wada Sensei said at half the decibels. She was young, just a year or two out of university, but to give her credit, she didn’t even need the picture. We usually gave her a hard time, but today we were on her side. I thought I even saw Takumi’s lips murmur something in the pool of saliva they rested in.
“Phone,” we repeated.
The foreigner listened as if learning a new word. Isn’t it a phone where you come from, woman, I remember thinking. Or hasn’t technology reached that far? Of course I never would have said that.
“Yes, yes, that’s it,” her smile grew wide, nodding at us and Wada Sensei.
“Phone,” said Wada Sensei.
“Phone,” we repeated.
“Foin!” I smiled with the visiting instructor. I wanted lunch, remember, and it was better than the spooky eyes.
“Foin,” answered forty voices in unison.
Ijimino park, where I wait for Jī, has one pond and a huge planting of irises. It’s famous for its irises. The flowerbeds house the insects and frogs. The pond, the waterbirds. The track is a figure of eight around the water and the gardens. It takes twenty minutes to walk at a fast pace. Along the paths, small streams form and puddle, circuits within a circuit. I use a stick to gently lift a stone lying in the runlet by my foot, one of those circuits, and wonder when Saeko might turn up. I’ve interrupted the flow of water. I set the stone down again. It is smooth and the current will lap and wear it smoother still, until it is silt or soil, or a rock with a different name. Many years from now. Motifs have been traced on its surface by the moisture, and ridges notated. Curvature transposes the grooves of striation. Water finds ways over, around, and through bumps and curls of the pebble without much exertion. Maybe that’s what it’s like for the swan. Maybe it isn’t lonely at all. Some patterns run counter to the grain. Maybe it likes sushi more than borscht. It seems to do okay for itself. Maybe it was the same for that English teacher too. She understood herself and her lilac telephone, and it could be that’s all that matters.
Jī used to live in our backyard. He was cantankerous and droll, if that’s possible for a duck. Sometimes he liked being chucked under the chin, under the beak?, like a cat, other times he’d just as likely bite off your finger.
He had a waddle on him that reminded us of Dad. No-one in the family would ever tell Dad that, of course. His feet stuck outward as if they were covered in webbing, and his backside always seemed to be slightly stuck in the air as he toddled along, checking the rice-fields, or foraging for a new snack in the supermarket. His nickname was kamo-chan, so he’d heard it all before. Old news and tired news. But he didn’t hear it from us. Funny thing was he liked to run, in his bow-legged way, he liked to jog around this very path.
When Sakeo and I were younger, we’d join Dad running. He’d do five circuits or so. He could clock up the miles. As we got older I went onto basketball, and she onto volleyball, then me onto getting married and having kids, and she followed.
Even when we’d outgrown the park, Dad still used to jog. You think he’d be too tired, but running, was something he did come hell or high water, that is, even in the rainy season. That and reading the paper (or pretending to), were daily rituals. Not at the same time, of course. In the rainy season he’d wrap a white towel around his head like an open-faced veil. Like the scarves and towels wrapped with affection and regard around the jizo, the small Buddhist bosatsu statues at the temples and shrines, it kept the rain off up to a point, and kept the sweat out of his eyes. Once that point was passed – monsoonal rain is monsoonal after all – he and the towel got soaked through, but he never removed it until he’d splashed through the puddles, dirtying up his calves with mud. He never removed it until he’d completed his course, day after day, year after year. As if he didn’t see enough muck and sludge as it was. He’d wring the towel out once he finished, and wipe himself down, not making one whit of difference to the moisture rolling off his body like droplets from granite.
Though we outgrew the park, Dad’s brother, our uncle, the uncle I’m waiting on now, would often join him. Not in the monsoon though. In clear weather they’d jog five times around the pond, the splay-legged man and his straight-legged brother.
Only when Mum was angry would she mention Dad’s gait. “What am I doing trying to talk to you anyway? You walk like a duck, you talk like a duck! Gaa-Gaa, Gaa-Gaa, Gaa-Gaa, that’s all I hear. You think you’re so wise, but all you say is Gaa-Gaa, Gaa-Gaa. Why should I listen to someone who eats weeds and snails for breakfast? Why did I have the misfortune to marry a duck?” She’d make a hand gesture like a beak opening and clamping shut. Her rants might have been okay, even the description of avian nuptials, as Dad was easygoing, but at any mention of his walk he would fly into a ruffle-feathered rage and bow-leg it out the house, down to the bar. Still, he was very rarely an angry duck. His mood wouldn’t last long.
Jī was also a comedian. Even though he was brown and cream and Dad’s hair was salt and pepper, and Dad was scrawny and tan from working on the family’s rice fields, and Jī was fluffy and soft and lived a good life when he lived with us, loved as he was by us kids and Mum, Jī held himself the same way my father did.
Dad would read his paper of the evening when the news was already old, but you never tried telling him that. The surface of the table had to be clean, and he made sure it was, washing it down, wiping it down, then he’d shake out the paper and lay it on the table with reverence. If there was a damp patch, he’d get up again and wash and wipe until satisfied. He’d have his glasses’ case set just so. Snapping it open, he’d wipe the lenses and fit the frames to his face.
It was the time he set aside to fix his hair too. For whatever reason, he’d pull out a small comb from a plastic cover and run it through his hair, the other hand following, smoothing his short bristly cut. Turn a page, and start again. Only for the first few pages though, if that. He didn’t have so much hair.
He could not be interrupted. He’d send you on a chore to get you out of the room, or you’d make sure to sit quietly if you were nearby. All except Mum. No-one could tell Mum to shush if they wanted to eat in the morning.
Jī would chase everyone out his territory too, even Mum. She was a bit more forgiving of our animals. He didn’t like the other ducks and hens. Now that we see him in the middle of the pond, instead of our back yard, he’s exactly the same. Paddling along in his own bubble. When his home was our home, after making sure there were no ducks, chickens or people (that he could see) in the general vicinity, he’d fossick through the soil; turn up a clod of earth here, a weed there, throw away empty insect hulls. After his surroundings had measured up, he’d shake his feathers and preen. Just like Dad and his paper and comb. Halfway through, beak half-burrowed, Jī would nod off.
“You’re falling asleep old man.”
“Never. Just mulling things over.”
Dad liked to think he read all the news, that he knew what was happening in Tokyo, Kyoto, even New York, but his glasses would begin to slip, his head dip, his chin touch his chest, his comb fall from his hand – then he’d wake suddenly with a rustle of the paper, a cough, in the way that Jī would suddenly flap his wings, shake his tail feathers, and let out a quack to let everyone know he was wide awake.
“Go to bed, father.”
“Not yet, not yet.” Crackle, crinkle, picking up the comb, a sip of sake, pouring some more. “Only yokels go to bed before nine.”
If Jī felt you’d caught him out, he’d chase you right out the garden to the back door. Asleep? Me? On the job? Get outta here! I mean it, get outta my space! Other times he’d just look out, one eye open, measuring you up. Then he’d tuck his beak under his wing, and sleep for good, because the time for sleeping was now, damnit.
Dad worked hard – got up early – jogged around the park in the evening – would go to the bar sometimes, drink with the Russians. He should have gone to bed early. Mum worked hard too, but never jogged, or went drinking, though she had the occasional chu-hai on a summer’s night. She’s probably having one now. She worked shoulder to shoulder with Dad, and got up a few hours earlier, but some say a woman’s disposition is just that much stronger.
Dad died of a heart attack two years ago. Jī left us long before that. Mum had taken Jī in from a neighbour who was moving. He came to us nameless, and after a few weeks we decided to call him Chi, chichi, father. But we always threw the affectionate chan on the end. If we called out Chi-chan, Chi-chan, it would have sounded disrespectful. I could only use chichi with school friends, acquaintances and strangers, not to my father’s face. So, Jī-chan it was. Grandfather. Luckily, only in this case, our O-Jī was no longer with us.
As I was saying, Jī-chan literally flew the coop, long before Dad died. Well, he was never in a coop, but anyway. There were no flurries or clumps of feathers left behind, no tell-tale red, no streaks of excrement or entrails; no slaying of the other birds, or devouring of the eggs, so we knew that he’d gone and that a fox hadn’t got him. We kept his wings clipped, but obviously not clipped enough. Maybe we forgot a few months in a row, or he chased us from his corner of the yard on clipping day, and one day he decided he’d like to see the greater world, flapped his wings, and realised that he could. Could be that he’d got tired of us making fun of his waddley ways, or he actually didn’t like getting chucked under the chin.
Last year, Saeko took her kids to the park and she swore that out of a flock of birds that only came to the grounds in summer – though how you can tell most of the migrant ducks from the local ducks is beyond me – out of them all she swore she saw Jī. Maybe the migrant ducks are Russian too, and that’s who the swan chats with.
“Ane, ducks don’t live so long.”
“I saw him. I don’t pay attention. Ryu-chan was on the edge of the water. I was sure he was going to fall in, or get bitten by a snake, so many things to worry about. But he was just looking out.”
“Ryu-chan?” I imagined her six year-old accidentally-on-purpose tumbling into the shallow water, my sister’s frazzled expression. I found it difficult to imagine him standing calmly.
She nodded. “I was going to yell, move away, move away, but I held my tongue and looked out to see what he was staring at. This brown and cream bird, and then Ryu turned and stared at me. Not a word.”
“We had the bread, ‘cause you know the kids like to feed the ducks, but no other ducks would come up. This one though, and I want to tell you, we were standing at the place where Papa used to take us fishing, made a beeline for us, pecked at a few pieces we’d thrown in the water, left the crumbs as if they weren’t good enough, and then looked at me.”
“Looked at you.”
Saeko nodded, adamant.
“Then he ruffled his plumage . . .”
“Like rustling a paper . . .”
“And he rummaged through his down, smoothing feathers here, fluffing them there . . .”
“Like styling his hair with an old plastic comb . . .”
We laughed. It was August, the time for ancestors to revisit the living. Why not? Why not in the park he loved?
Our mother thought we were bonkers of course. Stark Raving Mad were her exact words, and she wouldn’t join us. She has her own way of doing things, and since Dad died, it usually involves going to the health club and gossiping with the other old ladies over a long hot bath. I don’t think she repeated our news though. Uncle’s son takes care of the rice fields now, and of course Mum is always close enough to contribute her two-bits worth, whether that be via phone or physically, but now she enjoys plenty of time away from that back-breaking work too.
Uncle comes to the park though. He still goes jogging, but he says it’s lonely running by himself. He’s fitter than all of us.
Jī, the new Jī, flew away from the park before the first snow last year, but he’s back this year for summer. At first we came at a few different times of the day, but we couldn’t see him, but then Uncle said he’d seen him in the half hour before sunset. We decided that was the best time and we wait for him in two places. One is the fishing spot near the cherry tree, and the other is in front of the ryokan-inn where Dad would often stop and share a smoke with the owner.
We always bring bread. The other birds have lost their reluctance, and the swan always comes in, and some of the grey ducks. Jī deigns us with his presence now and then. Just like Dad. Dad would never do something if he knew you expected him to, or if it was something that you thought he might enjoy. You could trick him into enjoying himself occasionally though, trick him into joining in. Sometimes he woke up with a “Huh! I know what you guys are up to,” look and he’d readjust his stance to the serious one he seemed to think he needed with family. Other times he didn’t realise, and his decorum melted, and his enjoyment melded with ours.
Bread crusts aren’t really good enough for Jī. Like I said before, apart from the one time he came straight to Ryu and Saeko, he rarely comes to the edges of the pond, but he nearly always makes sure we see him, and for sustained periods mind, looking out at us slapping mosquitoes, ignoring the curious glances of passers-by. He probably wants us to catch live frogs for him. Then he’d come in! Until he decided that frogs weren’t good enough either.
A foreigner walks past. One of those passer-bys. There are more of them than there used to be, foreigners, but I’ve seen this one a few times. She always has her camera-phone with her. Pink, as I recall, not lilac. It matches the cherry blossoms when it is the season. Everyone snaps away at the irises when they’re in bloom, but she takes photos of everything – the ducks, the swan, Jī, a pebble on the path. It takes all sorts. One duck looks pretty much like the other, so I wonder what she gets out of her pictures, but then, it’s not like she’s using film.
She’s seen us feed him more than once. Her pace slows as she passes. Is she thinking, what is this rare brown and cream bird? It looks pretty common to me. Why do these people pay it attention? Or maybe it reminds her of a duck from her hometown. Maybe that’s why she took a picture of Jī. If she could speak Japanese, what would I say?
“That’s Jī, our household pet. He flew away many years ago.” She would think I meant my household now, with my kids now. I wouldn’t set her right. It would only confuse her. Or maybe I’d tell her it was the most rare of birds from the imperial, celestial skies. And it visited this pond and park once every thousand years. His faithful valet, the Russian swan, grows old waiting for him to return. Occasionally this mystical creature enjoys eating the stale bread that its subjects put before it, and it is rumoured that it can read anything you put in front of it, if you can only entice it to shore. A feather from its tail guarantees a life of health and happiness, and maybe a few riches as well. If you kiss it on the beak, a beautiful prince will tread water where once a duck had paddled. The only downside is that he is said to be as bow-legged as he is handsome.
She actually scares Jī away. She’s one of those with a heavy tread, so it’s unlikely that any fairytales are going to come true any time soon. I bet all her pictures of him are blurry. When Dad jogged around the park he loved everyone he came across. Jī seems a bit more particular.
It’s eight o’clock, dark but warm. The mosquitoes are biting. Jī has turned in for the night, or there is no moon and it’s too dim to see him. I’ll grab a ride home with Saeko. It’s too late to walk. Uncle will go his own way. Domo, he says – thank you, goodbye, goodnight. Oyasumi we answer, goodnight, mata ne, see you later, take care. We’ll meet again tomorrow, three of us, or two of us, or perhaps just Jī and me. We haven’t used all the bread yet, and it’ll be some time before it grows mouldy.