by Steve Redford
[Editor’s Note: “The Barbarian” is an excerpt from the novel, Along the Same Street (Persimmon Dreams Press, 2013). It includes Chapters 1 and 8 of the novel.]
“Beasts,” my grandfather said, his eyes fixed on our mountain. “Beasts are what they are.”
“Who?” I asked.
My cousin Shizuko and I were sitting out on the cedar veranda with him. We were eight years old. Much later I would imagine that he had suddenly spotted the flickering eyes of a whole brigade of phantoms, but right then I only saw that his eyes had moistened, only heard his voice trembling as I’d never heard it before.
“I hear an American is coming to your school,” he said, turning to us. “Be careful.”
He tapped his chest.
“Americans. They attack you here. It’s a hurt that never heals.”
A big lump pushed up into my throat, and my grandfather, my jii-chan, disappeared into the cowshed before either of us kids could say a word. We traded looks of disbelief. We mumbled back and forth a bit. Then I ran home. I flew home.
Maybe it was the family genes—keeping the difficult stuff in—but no sooner had I spotted Mama in the family room than I knew I couldn’t tell her or anyone else what Jii-chan had said. In a daze, I banged back out the door and jogged back across the street. Halfway around Jii-chan’s house I slowed. The cowshed came into view. I snuck up to the big open doorway. I peered in.
Jii-chan was leaning over the front rail of one of the stalls. Leaning way over. It looked like the rail had bent him in half—had broken him in half. He was muttering to himself, crying a little. I couldn’t make out a single word.
This was not the Jii-chan I knew. The Jii-chan I knew couldn’t be broken like this. I turned away. I walked home.
What Jii-chan said to Shizuko and me would frighten any kid, but if you want to understand why my behavior the day the American came was so extreme, why the skirmishes that followed tore me up so, you’ll first have to let me tell you how I got started as me and what sort of me I got started as.
But this story covers a lot of territory. The street all us Ishiguros lived along proved to be a lot longer than I could have imagined at eight. That first American teacher coming to town marked only the end of the beginning. There were still a lot of face-to-face encounters with the “enemy” to come.
I don’t want to forget this day, the day I’ve begun writing, so I’ll put it down. Thursday, May 29, 1997. Rina’s had her birthday, but I’m still only seventeen. I’m in my room upstairs, at my desk, where I’m supposed to be, but this night, I haven’t cracked a book. January and the first stage of the university entrance exams are only six months off.
Rina must be putting away her books, leaving her cram school, saying good-bye to her friends. Soon she’ll be riding her bicycle back down the highway, and then up her street—over there, across the river. Probably her acoustic guitar is slung across her back. Maybe she is thinking of me.
When I was a little boy, Papa was always off across the river, at work in the building supply store, leaving home early, coming home late, but Jii-chan was forever out and about—in the rice paddies, in the gardens, in the cowshed. Whenever I’d spot him and call out, he’d look up and wave me over with a big inviting smile. He’d thank me for my company. He’d be grateful for my “help.”
And he’d talk. Of Mioyama, of the mountain, of the fruits and vegetables, of the rice, of us Ishiguros.
“Next week,” Tachikawa Sensei announced, “we’re going to have a very special visitor.”
“Who? Who? Who?!” my classmates shouted. Rina, my cousin Shizuko, all their bunch, shouted the loudest.
This was third-grade. Tachikawa Sensei, with her bobbed gray hair, her round glasses, her eyes gigantic behind the thick lens, waited for us to quiet down.
“A teacher who’s come from America,” she said.
“Eeeeehhh?!” the class shrieked. Were we really expected to believe that? More than forty years had passed since the end of World War II. Some of my friend’s grandfathers had memories of occupation soldiers passing through Mioyama, tossing candy out from their jeeps as they rumbled by, but my classmates and I, none of us had ever laid eyes on an in-the-flesh American.
The rainy season was over. The heat and humidity had thickened. We were all counting down to summer vacation.
“It’s no joke,” Tachikawa Sensei said.
“Why’s he coming?” a boy asked.
A good question, I thought. A very good question.
“To meet you. To teach you English. To talk to you about America.”
Exactly. I looked out the window. At Mioyama. At heaven. The first foreigner would take pictures for sure. And then he’d disappear. A week or two later, others would come. I closed my eyes. I envisioned a sky gone white with ballooning parachutes. I was still a day away from hearing Jii-chan, out on his cedar veranda, call Americans beasts.
“Mioyama is a very small place,” Tachikawa Sensei replied, “and Japan is a very small country. It’s a big world. You’ve got to learn more about it.”
But why? I hoped the boy would ask again. He did not.
“How do you get here from America?” someone asked.
“By airplane. But—”
“Can’t you come by ship?”
“I guess you could come by ship, but these days most people don’t. Anyway, he’s not coming by ship. He lives in Miyanichi City.”
“He got there by airplane. He’ll come here by train. I’m telling you now so we can get ready.”
“Is he handsome?”
This from Rina. She was not the most ordinary of elementary school kids. Neither was I, I’d soon be worrying.
“I’d say so,” Tachikawa Sensei replied. “But I’ve just seen one picture.”
“Is he tall?”
“He might be. But that’ll give us something to look forward to, won’t it, seeing how tall he is.”
“Does he have blue eyes?”
“Rina, all I saw was a black-and-white pic—”
Rina leapt to her feet.
“Show us! Show us!”
Then she raised her arms up and out, like a cheerleader, only without pom-poms. She began spouting a whole flow of random words in English—a little hop and two little punches into the air, accompanying each word.
“Book! Teacher! Dog! Giraffe! Hippopotamus!”
There was initial surprise at this sudden burst of foreign sounds, and then applause. Tachikawa Sensei seemed content to let Rina cheer herself out.
“Fish! Bird! Zebra! Pencil! Paper!”
A few years later, whenever I tried re-creating this day, I’d imagine that I had probably looked at her the way I’d often looked at the electric-red dragonflies I’d spot when I wandered the paddies. You’d wonder why, with their long stout wings and their boundless energy, they had come up with such a jerky flight pattern. You’d think that even if you could fly, you wouldn’t want to fly like that. But the dragonfly would ignore you, it couldn’t care less what you thought about its style—and you could not take your eyes off it.
“Apple! Grape! Cherry! Kaki!”
She stopped her chant.
“Sensei, how do you say kaki in English?”
“You can check that yourself. Everyone can, before tomorrow. Check whatever words you want to know.”
“I like kaki!” Rina said, the I like in English. “Kaki! Kaki! Kaki! Kaki! Kaki! Kaki!Ka—”
“Okay, Rina, that’s enough,”Tachikawa Sensei said. “Look, everyone, what we need to do now is . . .”
We were told to get ready. To write out questions we’d like to ask the American. The teachers would translate them for us over the next few days. Then we could memorize the strange language, practice saying it, and, finally, ask our questions to the American in person.
I suppose I heard what Tachikawa Sensei was saying, but my eyes were stuck on Rina. I had witnessed many of her “wacky” performances. Like everyone else, I’d always appreciated the entertainment. This time, though, something was different. I felt as if she’d taken a needle and given me a couple of pricks. I was only eight. I couldn’t have told you what I was feeling. But my feelings were aroused, that’s for sure. And for better or worse, an idea leapt up into my head.
P-E-R-S-I-M-M-O-N. That was the English word the dictionary gave for kaki. I had to ask Mama how to pronounce it. She said it a few times, and I wrote out the sounds in Japanese letters. Then I went over to Baa-chan’s and found the dried persimmons she’d put away. I took enough to fill a small box. She would have given me as many as I wanted if I’d asked, but then I would have had to lie about what I wanted them for.
The next day after school, I hurried downtown, stepped into the stationery store. I hung out by the front window until Rina came by. She was with a friend. That threw me off stride, but I followed them out anyway. A few minutes later, the other girl turned in a different direction. I wasn’t sure where Rina lived, but it couldn’t be much farther. I ran to catch up with her. She heard me coming.
“Kenta! What are you doing over here?”
Somehow she looked different than she did at school.
I slid my book satchel off my back.
I had practiced what to say: You like kaki. My jii-chan’s trees have the sweetest kaki in all of Mioyama. Please, enjoy eating them.
But suddenly something was wrong with my fingers and the satchel latch became so difficult to open I forgot my plan completely. My brain went bonkers. It started telling me I’d make a much bigger impression on her if I tried saying something in English.
Somehow the latch came open. I pulled out the box. I handed it to her. I said only one word. One English word.
I had looked up that word, too. Two words in all. Persimmon and tangerine. In my defense, they were both orange. They were both round. I knew which word I’d said—just not that it was the wrong one of the two.
Rina smiled. Her eyes widened. They shone.
“Tangerine! Thank you!” she said in English.
“Tan-jeh-reen,” I said again. I gestured for her to go ahead and open the box.
She did. She looked surprised. Genuinely surprised. Then she was smiling at me again. Her eyes were shining again. My stomach did a little flip.
“They look delicious! Thank you!”
I bobbed my head. You’re welcome. I slung the straps of my satchel back over my shoulders. I bobbed my head again. I turned. But I’d only taken seven or eight steps before she called out to me. I stopped. She walked up to me. She looked as if she wished she had something to give me.
“Just in case you’re thinking of bringing some for the American,” she said, “they’re not tangerines. In English, you say pah-shee-mohn.”
An hour and a half later, I was sitting on the veranda with Shizuko and Jii-chan. I couldn’t get Rina’s eyes and smile out of my head. I was still trying to figure out if I’d done at least something right or only made a fool of myself. And then Jii-chan was looking up at the mountain, misty-eyed, saying those words:
Beasts. Be careful. They attack you here. It’s a hurt that never heals.
As the other boys in my group were coming up with questions to ask the American—Do you like music? Have you ever been to McDonald’s? Can you eat raw fish? What sports do you like?—I was both remembering the trembling in Jii-chan’s voice and eavesdropping on Rina. Her group of girls was just behind me. They could come up with questions any time, she was saying, but now, wouldn’t it be more fun to guess what his eyes and ears and nose and hair looked like, more fun to try to draw a picture of him. They could all try drawing a picture. The girl who drew the one that looked most like him would win a prize. They squealed when Rina declared the only reasonable prize a kiss from the American himself.
Shizuko had heard Jii-chan say exactly what I had, but there she was, cackling away with Rina, as excited as she could be—as if taking a shower had washed his words right out of her head.
At least Rina hadn’t told anyone about the “tangerines.” At least it didn’t seem she had.
Suddenly one of my friends thumped me on the head with his index finger.
“You’ve got your head in the clouds again!”
“His head’s not in the clouds,” another said, “it’s right next door—in there with the girls!”
“Hey!” Rina snapped. “Pipe down over there!” It was the first time I ever heard her get angry.
My turn to practice came. I trudged in from the playground. I sat down with Tachikawa Sensei. The translation of my question was written on a piece of paper, with Japanese letters written above as a guide to pronunciation: Would you like some daikon pickles?
Tachikawa Sensei had asked me to consider changing it to Have you ever eaten daikon?—or more simply, Do you like daikon?—but I insisted on keeping it as it was.
Really, I didn’t want to ask the American any question at all. Far from it, I wanted to ask Tachikawa Sensei if his visit were really wise. But I couldn’t bring myself to. So all I could do was follow Baa-chan’s advice. She’d told me that if she were hosting a guest, she’d want to offer him something straight off. Like daikon pickles. Didn’t Mioyama have a reputation for some of the finest?
Tachikawa Sensei tried saying it.
Would you like some daikon pickles?
She seemed to say it pretty well. She made me repeat it without looking at the paper. My mouth didn’t want to make the sounds. I felt as if I had chewed up a tennis ball and was trying to spit out the pieces.
Tachikawa Sensei put her hand up in front of her mouth, a poor attempt to hide her giggling. Then she said it again.
Would you like some daikon pickles?
“Come on, Kenta, give it a try.”
I did. For three or four minutes, I tried.
In the end, though, my turn to ask my question in class, the real deal, never came. The American’s visit would be over, and the daikon pickles Baa-chan had brought over the night before would remain in their plastic container, inside my desk.
The American strode into the classroom just a step behind Tachikawa Sensei, his belt buckle almost as high as her shoulders. Whether he were a giraffe with big shoulders or an elongated gorilla was hard to say, but clearly he and she were of two different species. As they entered the classroom, the pressure pot of excitement that the class had become spewed out an overwhelming shrill.
The American’s hair was carrot orange, and his eyes, I would hear others saying later, an emerald green. At the time all I saw, from my desk at the back of the room, was that those eyes were slinging out a laser beam that could, if the American so chose, burn a hole right through my forehead. I pushed myself back in my chair. I held one hand up to my hairline, shading my eyes. I spread the other across my chest. It was the best I could do.
Tachikawa Sensei introduced him. No one heard her. We were too consumed with his enormous physical presence, with those dazzling eyes. I could only look at him as I would the sun, aslant, squinting.
Tachikawa Sensei finished saying whatever she’d been saying and took a step to the side. The American spoke. It was like a cloudburst. Gigantic drops splattering down on hot asphalt. One of those rains so furious you wonder if it comes from the gods or the devils. Loud, incomprehensible. My classmates squealed again. Some leapt to their feet. Some, still sitting, stomped their feet. I clutched my Adam’s apple.
Then the American was whipping from his briefcase a stack of white cards and my classmates were up on their feet, shouting out, after him—Red! Yellow! Blue! Cat! Dog! Pig! One, two, three! Three yellow pigs! I stood too, but didn’t creep toward the front as most of the others had. I glanced around at the few others hanging back. Did they know what I knew? They seemed to know something.
The American motioned them into teams, pulling “first batters” up to the front, flashing cards, giving hints, meowing, converting his long, freckly arm into an elephant’s trunk, leaping over to the blackboard to tally points. The back of his white short-sleeved shirt became a sticky sheet of sweat. Soon kids from other classrooms were pushing into the back of the room and their teachers were peering in through the hallway windows. One of my classmates leapt up and caught the American’s bicep and was lifted up into the sky. Another boy jumped for the other arm. Up he went to.
My head was getting all messed up. Those boys swinging from his arms were laughing, and the American didn’t exactly look as if he were suddenly going to go berserk and bite a chunk out of one of their necks, or whip his arms back and smash their heads into the blackboard. Still, those eyes, those biceps. They looked dangerous to me.
As a half dozen boys jostled for their chance to scale the side of the American mountain, Tachikawa Sensei stepped in. She made them all sit down. Question time. Hands shot up. Tachikawa Sensei called out a boy’s name. The boy stood.
“Do you like music?”
We all knew what he had asked. We’d gone through all the questions beforehand. Still, Tachikawa Sensei translated it into Japanese, just in case.
The American had gotten the English right off, no problem. He pantomimed taking a CD from a plastic case, inserting it into a portable player, lifting the player onto his shoulder. He danced to a beat that only he could hear, strutting from one end of the blackboard to the other and back again.
LOVE!!! He wrote on the blackboard, still bouncing with the beat. “I luuuuuuuuuuv music!”
“Luv!” he said, motioning for them to chime in. “Luv!” He jutted his neck out, pointed to his upper teeth pressed into his lower lip. “LuvvvvvvvVVV!” he said.
Most of my classmates tried saying it. They pressed their teeth into their lower lips.
“VVVVV! VVVVV! LuvvvVVVVV! Good! Good!” He flashed two thumbs up, danced to the silent beat.
Tachikawa Sensei called out a girl’s name.
“Can you eat natto?”
Big head nods. “Yes! Yes, I can!” He picked up an imaginary bowl. Chopsticked up a mouthful of beans. Struggled, much to everyone’s delight, to break loose the stretchy natto strands. He put the beans to his lips. Ate. And fell over onto Tachikawa Sensei’s desk, clutching his throat, kicking out his legs, groaning. Then he was dead. For five seconds. For ten. Then he popped up. Again, he gave us two thumbs up—sitting on the desk!
Everyone clapped. It was perfect. A broad-shouldered giraffe, an elongated gorilla, dying from one measly mouthful of fermented beans.
“I knew it!” a boy shouted. “Only Japanese can eat natto! Right? Tachikawa Sensei, right?”
Tachikawa Sensei had been leaning away from the American, as if she feared he might suddenly burst into flames. An embarrassed grin had stretched across her face, and she’d brought her hand up to hide her teeth. Either she didn’t hear the boy’s question, or she ignored it.
Earlier in the year, a line of boys had been standing at the front of the class, giving a report. The boy at the end, waiting his turn, had hopped up and sat on top of Tachikawa Sensei’s desk. She had exploded. “What do you think you’re doing?! You don’t know the difference between a desk and a chair?! People sit at desks, not on desks! You’ve got to respect things! Use things properly! No one wants your little butt on their desk! You’re not a barbarian, are you?!”
The American’s eyes had gotten her. Zapped her. Dazed her. That’s all I could figure. There he was, flattening out his rear end right on top of her desk, and she was doing nothing. And neither were any of the teachers peering in from the hallway. We kids were on our own.
And then Rina was calling out.
“Tachikawa Sensei? I want to be next. Can I ask mine?”
I looked over. She was standing in her chair, waving her hand high above her head.
And then a lot of them were climbing up onto their chairs, waving their arms. But the American already had his eyes on Rina. How could he not?
“Giraffe! Hippopotamus! Persimmon!”
My head went all bubbly. And then I was getting to my feet, somehow heading for the door. I was too dizzy and dazed to worry what Tachikawa Sensei or my classmates might think. I hurried down the hallway. I stuffed my indoor shoes into my locker. I slung on my outdoor sneakers. And then my poor, befuddled brain imagined the American coming after me. I ran.