By Luke P.G. Draper
THERE WERE RATS in the house again.
Emi knew because there were droppings in the grooves of the fading tatami in Baba’s bedroom. Baba knew because it crept into her futon and nibbled at her calloused feet at night. Emi’s mama suspected the evening the cat lunged from one corner of the house to the other and was certain at the sight of the blood-smudged sheets around Baba’s heels in the morning.
‘Rats,’ Baba managed between throat rattles as she laid helpless on her futon, her sunken eyes bobbing in liquid that could have been tears.
‘I’ll get a trap today after school,’ Emi offered, hovering in the hallway.
Mama was sat at the end of the futon, still in her nightgown. Her hair was like a tussock of sun-crisp reeds. She was tired, but she lifted Baba’s gauze-bandaged leg and massaged her calf. Baba groaned.
‘I’ll use my money,’ Emi insisted.
‘Chobi will take care of it,’ Mama sighed as she began to unravel the bandaging. The dressing was gluey with seepage from the sores. Mama looked to be staring at something far beyond the floorboards. Emi thought she heard scratching.
‘I’ll buy my textbook next month. The teacher won’t mind if I share.’
‘No,’ Mama snapped, still unravelling. ‘You need your English textbooks.’
Mama finished school with no intention of stepping foot inside a classroom again. Spindly like Hinoki cypress, her world was volleyball and resent of the fact. Coach was cruel, lashing Mama’s forearms with bamboo until the skin hardened, unaware of the splints crumbling off the radius. When she played, every bump felt like iron rods skewering the bone. Her English teacher, Mr. Ono, always had white gunk on the corners of his mouth. The day she did not have her textbook, Mr. Ono barked so long and so close to her face she noticed the white mucous had vanished when he was done. All day she felt phantom spittle spray her face and was repulsed at the touch of her own hair. She got a nightshift warehouse job the day after graduation. She never spoke English again, even ignoring the confused foreigners who approached her for directions on one of the occasions she left the village during the daytime.
Emi was adamant. On her walk to school, she stopped at the hardware store with the yellowed, dust-masked windows and bought the cheapest snap-trap available. The man at the counter was forty-six but looked older, wearing tracksuit bottoms and a grey vest, and looking at Emi like he somehow knew her.
She used all the money she budgeted for the day from the money Papa gave her in pretty envelopes every other weekend. It meant no lunch for the day, but she knew that, so piled her rice ever so slightly higher at breakfast.
It also meant she could not buy her English textbook.
School passed by fine. It was the first day of term, so it was all orientations and icebreakers. If the students didn’t have the textbooks, the teachers all said, then they must buy them before the next class.
All the teachers seemed nice, Emi thought, especially the English writing teacher from Eritrea with the big bright smile. Although Teacher described her hometown as arid strips of desert, Emi imagined market stalls of colorful fruit and nighttime carnivals and dancing. The English listening teacher, however, entered the classroom stiff with tension just on the bell, clutching a cup of coffee and with a forced smile at odds with his creased brow. He didn’t say where he was from. Emi had her introduction written on a piece of scrap paper she cautiously picked out of the recycling bin on the second floor, but he didn’t ask for it, or anybody else’s. He slowly went over the class rules. No cell phones. No Japanese. No food, but a drink is ok. He seemed pleased with his altruism.
Of course, students must remember their textbooks.
Emi returned home just as the sun sank away. Mama was in the kitchen and Baba was sat in a chair in her bedroom watching the television. The smell of hashed beef rice filled the house; Emi’s stomach growled. She dropped her schoolbag in her room, rummaged for the traps and went to the kitchen.
‘I got the traps.’
Mama was immersed in stirring the beef and roux.
‘I thought I told you to buy your books,’ Mama replied, deep in stirring.
‘Yes, but I…’
‘I told you Chobi would take care of it, and he did. You’ve wasted your money.’
‘Chobi caught it?’
‘Where is it now?’
Mama turned and looked at Emi. The skin below her eyes was heavy and Emi thought she noticed lines around her mouth that weren’t there before.
‘We don’t waste anything in this household,’ she said, tapping the pan with the ladle.
Emi went ice cold.
‘Mama!’ she gasped.
Mama let out a gale of laughter.
‘I’m joking,’ she said. ‘It’s in the bin.’
Emi’s stomach felt tight, and her heart beat a quick rhythm, but it was good to hear Mama laugh again.
‘Now go and have a bath and put your clothes in the washing machine. You smell of school.’
Emi soaked in the bath, replaying an imaginary conversation with the hardware store owner about getting her money back on the traps. Each conversation was different in tone and reason but ended with the same refusal, even in the infinite cosmos of her imagination.
After her bath, Emi went to Baba’s bedroom. Baba was still sat silently in front of the television. Some police drama from the eighties was playing. Baba was stock still, which always alarmed Emi.
‘Baba?’ Emi quietly called out, half behind the shoji doors. She didn’t answer. ‘Dinner will be ready soon.’
The channel suddenly switched to horse racing. Baba let out a quick grunt that to Emi sounded like approval. Mama was standing behind Emi with the remote control.
‘Is that better?’ she called out.
Baba gurgled, then rocked forwards and backwards twice.
Joey!’ She cried, pointing a gnarled finger at the television.
‘Yes, Joey!’ Mama said, as if talking to a child. ‘dinner’s ready. I’ll bring it in.’
Baba groaned in approval.
Emi went to the kitchen and sat under the kotatsu while Mama took Baba her food. When Mama came back looking pale and dazed, Emi regretted not helping. She leapt to her feet.
‘Sit down, Mama, I’ll dish up.’
‘You’ve had a long walk. I’ll do it,’ mama said ‘Besides, it’s only hayashi rice.’ Mama scooped two mounds of rice from the steamer and gently smothered them with the dark red stew. Mama’s portion was much smaller, even though there was a days’ worth still in the pot.
Dinner always began wordlessly, with Emi and Mama first savoring the food and then thinking of things to say to lift the silence.
‘Don’t worry about the money,’ Mama began. ‘I’m sure Papa will give you some more.’
‘I’ll go back to the store tomorrow and ask for a refund,’ Emi replied.
Mama rolled her eyes. ‘Good luck with that.’
After a few minutes of silence and eating, Emi wanted to know.
‘Who’s Joey?’ she asked.
A light entered Mama’s eye and she chuckled with a mouthful of food despite herself.
‘Joey? I guess you wouldn’t remember Joey,’ she began. She put her chopsticks on the rim of her bowl and looked inquisitively to the ceiling.
‘Huh, come to think of it, Joey was long dead before you were even born. I couldn’t have been any older than you are now when he died.’ She shook her head in disbelief she could confuse their timelines so.
‘Joey was a horse,’ she continued. ‘A lovely horse, a thoroughbred for racing. This village had stables and paddocks and pretty good tracks to take a horse around. All gone now though, they built those warehouses over them a while back. Anyway, your grandad did alright selling hospital equipment, but your grandmother got fed up in the house all day and wanted to go out to work. She didn’t want to be stuck indoors in an office or work behind a cash register, so she offered to help at the stables. She knew the owner well, Mr. Ota, I think they went to school together, so she was welcome. Voluntary of course, just cleaning the stables and the horses, taking them for a canter down the old tracks. Your grandmother was quite the rider back in her prime, by all accounts. There were many horses at the stable, but she was immediately taken with an older horse named Joey. Every night at dinner, she’d talk about how good a horse Joey was, how friendly yet dignified. The horse was twelve years old, way past its prime to race, greying a little but still a sturdy, muscular and proud horse. He’d been used for races before and did well enough to be left alone to retire and ride the local schoolchildren. But baba was convinced Joey could race again, have one last hurrah. She’d take him to the beach and give him a good gallop every other day, watching him get stronger, faster, hungrier. For one reason or another, though, Baba didn’t talk to Mr. Oda about racing him again. She just kept secretly training him until your grandad suspected something was up with her and Mr. Oda and stopped her from going back. After that, Joey was used day after day taking children for rides, but I guess he didn’t have Baba for that outlet he needed. One day, with a nine-year old boy on his back, he reared up and galloped all the way to the next village. When he reached the village, the child wasn’t on his saddle and the horse was bucking and rearing and dashing all over the place. Eventually, Joey ran into the road and was hit by a car. Mr. Oda was called over, borrowed the local butcher’s twelve-bore, and shot Joey in the head. Baba visited the village the next day and saw the piles of sand used to cover the blood that wouldn’t wash off the road.’
Silence descended over the dinner table. Emi was lost for questions. She stirred the bowl of hashed beef rice with her spoon as she imagined the final scenes.
‘Don’t worry.’ Mama eventually said. ‘The boy was fine. Found crying in a bed of brambles that evening. I think he owns the hardware store you bought those traps from, so say hello from me tomorrow if you see him. His name’s Ogawa.’
The next morning, Emi awoke to the sound of Baba howling. She jumped out of her futon and ran downstairs in a daze. Mama was already in Baba’s bedroom, her hands on her hips, scowling in confoundment.
Pools of blood encompassed Baba’s feet.
Before Emi could say anything, mama turned and snapped. ‘Chobi will take care of it. You get your money back on those traps and buy your textbooks. Do I make myself clear?’
Emi didn’t go to the hardware store in the morning. She passed it, peering through the windows at the man in the grey vest reading a newspaper. The sky was thick and grizzled, hanging low like washing on a line in the wind. She saw the school shuttle bus pass on the main road behind the side paths.
Emi arrived at school just as the heavens opened. Another crowd of students lined up at the languages office to buy the textbooks, but there were no English classes today, so Emi didn’t feel guilty passing the queue.
Today was lectures in Globalization and classes in sustainable city development. Emi had managed to borrow those books from the library, but when the teacher passed her desk, he stopped and frowned at the dogged pages with years of notes scrawled on them.
‘Umm…you need the third edition,’ the teacher said.
‘Yes sir. I’m sorry.’ Emi quietly said.
‘It’s pretty much the same, but the page numbers are different.’ He continued, pushing up his thick-rimmed spectacles.
‘I see. Again, I’m sorry, sir. I’ll get the correct book next time.’
‘Mm hmm,’ he said as he walked away.
Emi felt herself blushing, and a sea of eyes focusing on her. She heard sniggering but turned to see it was two other girls engrossed in a smartphone.
She didn’t concentrate well in class today. Her mother’s story about Baba the night before had crept into her dreams. Wild horses lunging through the village – a village Emi felt to be her own but couldn’t recognize – lurching into small children like they were skittles at a bowling alley; Baba sobbing uncontrollably, sat on the pavement by a mountain of sand, but the Baba Emi remembered as a child. The lucid, attentive Baba, always on her mettle. Those images blended with Mama’s story fizzed around like a Catherine wheel in her head all day.
She wasn’t going to go into the hardware store, determined as she was to lay the traps before bedtime. But she found herself walking through the door nonetheless.
The man in the grey vest was sat behind the counter, staring vacantly at the television. He gave a meek welcome without taking his eyes from the screen.
Emi approached the counter. ‘Excuse me,’ she said.
The man turned to her, his face pinching into what looked like disdain but was cloudy recognition.
‘Hello, young lady,’ he said, switching to a convivial smile. ‘Did those traps work ok?’
‘I haven’t tried them yet,’ she replied. ‘I’m worried they may be too small. I think we have an infestation of rats, actually.’
‘Oh, goodness! That’s a pain. Yes, I think those traps you bought may only be good for mice. They’ll deal a good blow to a rat, but maybe not a fatal one,’ he replied with an awkward wink.
‘What would you recommend?’ asked Emi.
‘Well, that depends. Would you want a humane trap?’
‘Ok. Your best solution is poison. It takes longer to kill them, but they will eat it and eventually go to that big rat nest in the sky. We have some here. Would you like it?’
‘I’d like to exchange the traps for the poison if that’s ok.’
The man lurched back and glowered, as if a bad smell had suddenly reached him.
‘Sorry, young lady, no refunds or exchanges here.’
Emi rolled her eyes. ‘My mother said you’d say that.’
The man straightened in his chair, scratching his stubbled chin as he strained to piece the puzzle together. He did recognize the girl.
‘Your mother, eh? Do I know her.’
‘Are you Mr. Ogawa?’
The man’s wiry eyebrows nearly leapt of his head.
‘Well yes I am! This is the Ogawa hardware store, and I am the owner.’
The sign had faded years ago and fell during a typhoon, yet it was registered as ‘Ogawa’s’ on any listings that remembered it.
‘My mother told me about the time you rode a horse as a child,’ Emi began. ‘A horse that went wild and bucked you off his back. She said you were found in the evening crying in a bush of brambles. That must’ve been really scary, I’m glad you weren’t more seriously hurt.’
Mr. Ogawa glared at Emi, then barked with laughter.
‘Oh wow! Talk about memories! Is your mother the daughter of the stable cleaner? Hiroko-chan! Goodness me. Yes, it could’ve been a lot worse. I shot off that horse like a cannonball! Ha ha ha!’
Mr. Ogawa stopped laughing, sighed and wiped his rheumy eyes with a handkerchief.
‘I tell you what, you keep the traps. I’ll give you a few tablets of poison. See if it works and if you still have a rat problem in a week, come back and I’ll sell – sell! – you some more. How does that sound?’
Emi was ecstatic. She felt she had won some complex, high-stakes negotiation.
‘I’d appreciate that’, she said, keeping her cool. ‘And so will Mama. I’ll tell her you said hi.’
Mr. Ogawa shuffled away from the counter, grabbed the poison, and handed it to Emi.
‘Tell her to come in, it’d be great to see her.’
‘Sure. Maybe she’ll bring my grandmother.’
Mr. Ogawa tried to not show his surprise at the old bird still breathing.
‘Sounds great,’ he said. ‘Let me know if the poison works.’
With that Emi left the shop, stepping out of the door and into the shimmer of a fierce sunset.
When Emi got home, Chobi was asleep on the old wicker chair in the lounge. Baba was watching television and Mama was silently hanging the washing on the pole in bathroom. She was still in the same night gown she wore the last night.
Emi was hesitant to talk to her, seeing how tired she looked, so she dropped her bag in the hallway, went to her bedroom, and began reading. A few hours later, Mama called her for dinner. When she came downstairs, she peeked into Baba’s bedroom. Her white head peeked out from her chair. Some variety show was on television. She slowly scooped her hashed beef rice into her mouth, growling with every bite. Emi wanted to call out to her, to say ‘good evening,’ but remained silent as she slunk to the kitchen.
Mama was in the kitchen preparing their dinner. Sensing Emi, she muttered. ‘There’s no more Hayashi Rice. I gave the last of it to Baba. We’ve got salmon. I hope that’s ok.’
‘That’s fine, Mama.’
Emi fixed herself under the kotatsu and waited. She watched as Mama sliced the daikon radish and filled two bowls with steamed white rice. A contentment began to wash over Emi, but she could sense something was wrong. More than usual.
‘Mama, are you ok? Can I help?’
Mama silently walked to the other end of the kitchen to the countertop and grabbed the box of poison tablets Mr. Ogawa had given Emi.
‘This is a funny looking textbook,’ Mama snarled.
‘But Mama, I…’
‘Didn’t I tell you to buy your textbook? How much did this cost?’
‘Your father toils day in, day out in that warehouse for you to get an education – An education we didn’t get -! And this is how you repay him…?’
‘I said I didn’t buy it…’
‘I told you Chobi would handle it…’
Emi felt the anger rise in her. She jumped to her feet.
‘Would you LISTEN!?’ She cried out. ‘I didn’t buy it. Mr. Ogawa gave it to me. He told me I could try it and if it worked, he would sell me more.’
Mama didn’t miss a beat.
‘Oh, did he? That’s very gracious of him. Same damned idiot he always was,’ she spat.
Emi felt her blood boil further. She shook with rage.
‘Well, all that fat cat does is sleep and chase its own shadow. He’s just as useless as you are.’
‘Oh, I’m useless?’
Emi darted to the stairs.
‘No wonder he left you,’ she hissed.
That night, Emi didn’t bother to bathe and went straight to bed hungry and angry as a bear. She waited for Mama to knock on the door, to apologize and say good night. She waited for that well after all the lights in the house went out. She recounted all the day’s activities in her head. Her teacher bothering her about her book. Bastard. It was the correct book. Mr. Ogawa clearly surprised Baba was still alive. To hell with him.
Emi’s incensed mind settled on her and Mama’s fight. She felt bad for her last words and thought about going to Mama’s bedroom and apologizing herself. But her bed felt like a cocoon, a sanctuary, and a shelter. At the time, she wished she could spend an eternity there, away from everybody and everything. She could still smell the salmon, warm and filling. She could still hear her mother’s annoyance, and the exhaustion in her voice. She could see the box of poison in her mother’s hand, opened and half empty. Rats visited her in the space between consciousness and sleep.
The next day, she walked a different route to school, off the back streets and on the main road. The shuttle bus sped past her. She walked past the small line of the last lot of students who waited to buy their English textbooks. She walked into the classroom, past the English listening teacher who drank nervily from a mug of hot coffee. She sat at the two-person desk on her own. The Westminster chimes rang out and the lesson began. Emi gazed out of the window, at the rolling hills, rows of buildings and distant mountains visible from the sixth floor.
‘Where is your textbook?’ The teacher asked from the front of the class.
The class went silent.
Emi turned and looked at the teacher. She noticed a white substance on the corners of his mouth.
The teacher stood up. He was taller than Emi imagined.
‘I said…WHERE IS YOUR TEXTBOOK?’ His face became red.
Emi took another look out of the window at the Hinoki cypress that grew in the woods to the east of the campus and felt a tear well in her eye. She reached into her bag and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper she’d fished from the recycling bin.
She began to read from it.
‘I’m sorry’, she said in warped but comprehensible English. ‘My family is poor. I spent my pocket money on traps because we have rats in the house. I will buy a textbook when I get more money. But only if the rats are gone.’
The tear rolled down her cheek. A heavy silence sunk in the room. Emi expected
sniggers, disparaging whispers, but the class looked on stunned.
The teacher’s complexion changed from beet red to pale in seconds. He saw the tear fall and could see pools of more tears welling in her eyes and the trembling lip.
He shuffled over to Emi’s desk, mortified.
Emi felt he was standing too close, but she was determined to stand her ground. She felt her entire body shake and could smell the coffee on the teacher’s breath.
‘Um…’ the teacher mumbled. ‘Uhh…’
Emi clenched her fists by her sides. She felt unsteady on her feet but wouldn’t sit down.
He put his copy of the book on her desk.
‘You should just, uh…have mine,’ he said.
He walked back to his podium; all the noble feelings he’d ever experienced before swallowed by shame.
Emi sat down and opened her new book at the page written on the blackboard, ready to listen, ready to learn.