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Water Babies

 

Water Babies

By Nina Schuyler

When the Japanese war bride moved in across the street, my mother warned me not to stare. "I mean it, Meryl. She may look different, but she's the same as you or me."

She pulled the car into our driveway, sideswiping the boxwood shrub again. She never made the driveway's turn without hitting the hedge. The engine sputtered to a halt.

 "How is she the same?"

My mother's upper lip tightened, which meant she wouldn't answer any of my questions. I knew her husband had brought her over from Japan, but I still couldn't help picturing hundreds of war brides floating across the Pacific Ocean and magically washing ashore. Even here, in the dull town of Port Angeles where nothing happened, except the slow death of our boxwood plants, run over by my mother.

Over the next month, I watched her closely. On Monday mornings, when the milk truck rumbled by, the war bride stepped out on her front porch. If I didn't look right at that moment, I'd miss her. Her gray raincoat was too short, revealing a splash of her flowery dress. Her hair was in a bun and she wore lipstick, as if she was going somewhere special, but I knew she was just crossing town to the grocery store. She popped open an umbrella--sun, fog, clouds, it didn't matter, always that umbrella. Nobody in our town ever did that. When she returned, she left her shoes outside. Side by side, small white shoes that could have fit my feet.

It was 1948, and I knew all this because whe I was nine-years-old, I spent the fall term at home. When the doctor had declared my weak heart probably couldn't withstand the long days at school, my mother rolled her eyes, as if to say, "oh, brother." She'd grown sick and tired of me coming home with new bruises-- the boys picked on me, mostly because I was short-but she wanted me to stay in school and toughen up. "You need to stand up to them like a man, Merle," she said. So did my father, who was also short. But my father was gone so much on his fishing boat, he didn't have much say. And in the end, my mother couldn't bring herself to go against the doctor.

After my older sisters left for school, my mother heaved the card table out of the hall closet. She sat on one side and I on the other, as if we were about to play a no-holds barred game of Go Fish.

"Fractions," she said, her tone already exasperated.

I opened my math book. I already knew about fractions, but I wanted to hear her explain it.

"Well, imagine you have a fish. A whole fish. A salmon. Like your father brings home. At least he better if we're going to have dinner tonight."

It wasn't long before she breathed a long full sigh. It meant she'd had enough and it was time for her coffee break. She rang her neighbor friends and they gathered in the kitchen, and I watched out the window, hoping to spot the war bride. After a while, I snuck into the playroom next to the kitchen. They must have thought I was in my room upstairs studying. Their favorite topic was why on earth the war bride and her husband, Bill Bull, didn't have any children?

"Do you think she's incapable? Her tubes deformed?" That neighbor always arrived with her hair in black curlers.

"Maybe she doesn't have good eggs," said another.

"Maybe he's deformed," said my mother.

Someone had heard of sperm that didn't know how to swim. Surely they wanted children. "Well, maybe not," said one of the women, laughing. The war bride had miscarried, they decided. Poor girl. Do you know what the Japanese call miscarried babies? A neighbor heard it from her brother, who was in the army and stationed in Japan. "Water babies."

Water babies. Babies floating in water. I pictured mothers carrying babies around the house, tripping over something, a shoe, a fold in the rug, and there were the babies flying into the bathtub, where they slowly turned blue. But I couldn't leave them there. In my mind, they gathered themselves, learned to swim, climbed over the tub's edge, and crawled out the front door to hunt for parents who knew how to hold them right.

Eventually, my mother and her friends turned their conversation to Bill Bull. I'd met him. He had a wandering left eye and you never knew what he was looking at. Our neighbor said her husband was friends with Bill Bull and had heard the story. Bill was stationed in Japan when he found the war bride wandering around Tokyo in a daze. Fires burned down the city, the wooden buildings lit up so fast. They left acres of rusty-looking soil and ashy rubbish. Her father was killed by an American soldier while he was plowing his rice field; her older brothers died in the Battle of Iwo Jima. As the war waged on, the war bride, her mother, and grandparents ran out of food. Once a day a single bowl of rice, until everyone but the war bride caught pneumonia and died. She'd seen a big white explosion in the sky, and she did what so many in her village were doing; she began walking from her small town to Tokyo.

A couple years ago, when the war bride first arrived in America, she could speak only two words of English, "Hello," and "Good bye." "Can you imagine?" said one of the women. I imagined her trudging along, her white shoes turning black from soot and ash. Unlike my mother, she wouldn't hum, Glory Glory or Blessed Little Ones. She moved silently, or maybe whispered to herself, hello, good-bye, and carried an umbrella. With nothing to eat, she felt light, as if she was floating. She kept marching-anything was better than what she'd left behind. When Bill Bull saw her, I supposed he thought she was the most beautiful woman. And he must have felt bad-so much gone, all because of the Americans. He filled out the paperwork and married her. An Army chaplain in Tokyo conducted the small ceremony.

#

My mother said she needed a day off from schooling me-"Besides, you know too much, Meryl." That was true; she was horrible at math and thought verb conjunctions were a waste of time. By then, I'd looked up miscarriage in the dictionary. I was still curious, but I knew she wouldn't go into more details.

"We can talk about Japan," I said, "or the war bride."

She frowned, her upper lip tightening.

"Or any country."

"I'm not going to talk about other countries. Why should I? I'm not going anywhere."

"Well, I am." We were standing in the kitchen.

"Well, Mr. Smarty-Pants. Good for you."

I went to the public library and found a book, We Japanese. The pages were thin, almost see-through and you had to turn them carefully or they'd rip. I felt like I'd found a treasure. In a corner chair, I read about moon-viewing festivals and flower arranging. You never used chopsticks to pass food to someone-that was how a deceased's bones were handled. I didn't understand the next section, so I had to read it a couple times: The Japanese are highly emotional but early acquire the habit of suppressing evidences of their deep-seated emotion. They encase themselves in an armor of inscrutability impossible of penetration by the Westerner.

Armor? Inscrutability? How did she get the armor? I looked up inscrutable: not readily investigated, interpreted or understood, mysterious-and the war bride became even more intriguing. Impossible rang out like a challenge.

When I came home, my mother was gone and had locked me out. There'd been a burglary two streets over, a vase taken from a hallway table. Probably a prank, but everyone in the neighborhood was locking their doors and windows. It began to rain, and I slumped on our sagging front steps, waiting, staring at the thick silvery sheet. The air was cold and I pulled my coat hood up. Our bare dogwood tree stood forlornly wet. A puddle formed at the base of the stairs, and in it swam a black ant, its thin legs frantically kicking. I was surprised; I didn't know ants could swim-when suddenly, all motion stopped. Now it was just a black dot drifting on the surface. A small yellow light flickered in the war bride's house. Then her front door opened, and she stepped onto her porch. The rain made her blurry. Stretching her hand toward me, she motioned to come over. I sat there, unsure, but she kept waving, so I raced across the street, a crackle of excitement running through me.

I took off my sneakers and left them by the welcome mat. She handed me a towel, and as I dried my hair and face, I felt her looking at me as raptly as I'd watched her. My scalp tingled and the hair on my arms stood up. I knew I'd find her shoeless. Through her thin socks, I could see the outline of her toenails.

Her house was so still, I heard her breathing, and mine. She led me down the hallway, and I tried to walk like her, straight-backed, without a sound. She gestured for me to sit at the kitchen table. Her house was laid out like ours, but without the piles of dirty shoes, coats hanging off chairs, puffs of balled-up hair in the corners. Nor did her house stink of cooked cabbage. And no one was whining or shouting or crying. The whole world seemed to disappear.

Soundlessly she swept into the kitchen and returned with a cup of hot tea and what she called rice crackers. "What your name?" she asked.

I blinked, then told her. She repeated it, turning it into three syllables. "Meru-san," she said carefully as if it were special. She pointed to herself and told me her name. "Kagami." As she ate her rice cake, she covered her mouth with her hand. Still, I heard her nibbling.

Afterwards, Kagami pulled out a small square of blue paper, folded it over and over, and handed it to me. "A fish. For overcoming obstacles." She gave me paper. "I teach you."

She folded slowly, carefully, making sure I followed along. I made one, marveling that a single sheet of paper could come to life. As if the fish was always there, tucked in, waiting for the right folds, the right touch. I made another, then another, and together we covered the table with them. Blue, purple, red, orange, yellow, a whole school of fish came to life. I could have stayed there all day with her. When her hand brushed mine, my heart raced.

When the rain subsided, she went to the living room window, I came over beside her. I'd never seen my house from over here. My bedroom was on the second floor, and I'd left my desk light on. I saw myself in my room, sitting there, paging through the library book that showed the insides of the female and male bodies. Each transparent sheet revealed a different aspect --the bones, muscles, internal organs, digestion, nervous, respiratory, reproductive systems. You removed one colorful layer of the body after another until you were left with nothing but a black and white outline.

"So you want to be a doctor?" my mother had said. She'd found me staring at the book.

Not that. I renewed the book over and over for no other reason than to look at those insides. Girl, boy? What did it matter? On the inside, they were almost the same. And under all the layers, they were simple outlines, nothing more. Though women tended to be slighter in build and shorter, which troubled me a little. "Maybe."

"Good. You can support me in my old age."

Kagami opened her front door. We stood for a moment, smiling shyly at each other. She bowed and I did, too. "Come back, Meru-san."

 "All right." There was nothing to do but shove my feet into my shoes and run home. My mother was fixing dinner and yelling at my sisters for leaving muddy footprints in the front hallway. She hadn't noticed I was gone.

#

Twice more I ran across the street. When my mother left and I knew she'd be gone for a while, I sat outside on our front stoop, trying to look forgotten. It didn't take long for Kagami to open her front door and wave me over. At her kitchen table, we ate mushy white balls with a brown sweet center. She served me green tea and I declared it my favorite (though I'd never had tea before). Pickled cucumbers, a bowl of thick noodles, and sheets of seaweed, I loved it all. Was I part Japanese? Though how that could be, I didn't really know.

One time, after I'd finished eating, she asked me to stick out my tongue. "Too pale. Meru-san, please take off socks." She pressed her thumb into my foot, working the edge and then slowly moving to the center. Now and then her fingers found a tender spot and I gripped my chair. After a while, my face felt hot. "Better," she said. "You worry too much. Use up energy."

Did I? I didn't worry about my father being lost at sea, but I did imagine it a lot. ("An extravagant imagination" was a common complaint among my teachers.) A storm swept in too quickly, whisked him into dark waters where the shore was a memory. Sometimes he fell asleep and the boat drifted far away, to another country, his fishing line still dragging behind the boat. I imagined other things too. I lived in a different house, with a different mother and father. If I'd been born to another family, to Kagami, who would I be?

She pulled out a piece of paper and with long slender lines, wrote my name in Japanese.

"A good name, Meru-san. Most fortunate."

I'd never seen that in myself before. Something wonderful and private. "What about your name?"

Kagami meant mirror, she told me. "Nothing but a reflection."

"Is it fortunate?"

She smiled and shook her head no.

#

My father had come home. That evening during dinner, my older sister announced she no longer wanted to go to school. "It's boring and everyone is mean."

 "You're staying at Water Ridge and that's that," said my mother.

"But you let Merle stay home."

At the other end of the table, my father set his knife down. He glanced at me, then my mother, his bushy eyebrows storming into one harsh line.

I took a deep breath. My mother's upper lip tightened. "With Meryl, there were special circumstances."

 "I told you this was going to happen," said my father. "You treat them the same or else there's problems. I told you."

"What's so special about Meryl?" said my sister.

"If everyone is staying home, I want to, too," said my other sister. "The teacher made me pound out the erasers and dust got up my nose."

 "See? Treat them the same. I don't care what the goddamn doctor said."

My mother glared at my father. "Let's just eat."

Under my breath I said, "I guess I'm just fortunate."

My father left the table and mother stepped into the kitchen. My older sister reached over, grabbed my ear lobe and twisted. "You're just weird. That's what you are. Everyone at school thinks you're sick and dying of something. That's why you have to stay home."

#

Everyone in town knew what was going on before Kagami did. I knew because a neighbor told my mother in our kitchen. That woman found out from her friend who worked on Tuesday nights at the Tiki Lounge. At a dark corner table, she saw Bill Bull with a red head who had a loud laugh and drank highballs like tall glasses of lemonade. They sat hidden behind a fake palm tree, but she was so loud everyone looked over and saw her stroking his hair.

Bill Bull went on a trip and didn't come home for five days; then he did and left again, this time with a heavy, black suitcase. "I never did like him, his fake smile, his fancy suits," said my mother. She cooked a tuna noodle casserole and put it on Kagami's doorstep. In the morning, it was still there. I snuck outside, dumped its contents in our trash, and put the empty dish in the sink. I told my mother I found it on our porch.

That next Monday, Kagami didn't come out at her usual time. "Meryl, get away from the window," my mother called. I couldn't concentrate. Her beige living room curtains were shut. What was she doing in there?

Three days later, she emerged. Wearing a white gown that flowed to her ankles. The sleeves were long and flapping, as if she might fly away. She carried a small purse, robin egg blue. Her black hair in a high bun, her face, white, almost translucent, and I imagined her pink lungs, the dark bulk of her liver, the coil of her large intestines. It was so real. My mother was in the kitchen, shouting something about my math assignment. If I didn't get it done, there'd be an entire afternoon of math. "Only math!" I stood there, mesmerized, watching Kagami take small steps down the driveway, the hem of her gown tight around her ankles. Where was she going? A party? A chill ran through me; she'd left her umbrella. She looked straight ahead, even though a group of kids stopped playing kick ball to stare; even though two houses down, a neighbor stopped sweeping her porch and called out, "Are you lost, dear?"

I remember after my mother shouted, I went back to my math and spent another hour working on long division. What if I'd run over to her? Would she have stopped?

People said later, as she went across the rocky shore, she lifted her gown, as if not to soil it with the seaweed-covered rocks. I've been in that icy water at that time of year, stepped in it because of my sister's dare. Only a few seconds before my feet turned numb. People said they didn't know what she was doing. Something foreign, something strange.

Maybe she listened to the waves racing over stones, tinkling like small bells. Then the stillness before the water rushed toward the land as if to reclaim it.

The water swept her up. The waves tossed her up and down, moving her to shore, then farther out again. "I thought she was swimming," one person told the newspaper reporter.

The waves carried her out to the orange buoy. A school of dolphins may have come by, nudged her body with their noses, as if to rouse her. The sharks, the silver fish, and the orange crabs scuttling along the bottom, all swam away. Then she was alone, her body curled around the buoy.

When this happened, I was in town, sitting outside the water company office, waiting for my mother to pay the bill. Our water had been turned off--again. It was mid-afternoon, and gray storm clouds hovered, along with a pale streak of light. I was drawing a skeleton, trying to remember the bones from my book, not thinking of Kagami and her white gown. A fisherman hurried up from the docks. He ran down the street, then ran by again, this time with the sheriff huffing behind him. I followed them down the ramp, my heart pounding. My father, I thought. The fisherman has found him dead in the sea.

She lay face down on the dock. Her knobby spine, like pearls in the almost transparent gown. When the sheriff turned her over, I flushed with shame and made my eyes move quickly over the curve of her breasts, and rest on her blue lips, slightly open, as if she were about to speak to me.

A small crowd of boys quickly gathered. Seagulls cried out in the eerie silence. I stood for what felt like hours. Other people pushed to see. Finally a boy said, "She's dead." The sheriff snapped, "Get the coroner! The rest of you, scat!"

When my mother got home, she grabbed my arm, "Don't ever disappear like that again!" She didn't say anything about Kagami and set about making dinner, as if everything was normal. Cooked cabbage and salmon I couldn't eat. Mother said, "Are you sick, Merle? Then stay away from your sisters." My older sister said, "Even if you aren't, stay away."

Afterwards, my sisters did the dishes and I stood beside them, numbly drying. My father went outside to stretch the fishing nets on the front lawn. Then I went to my room and stared at her house. Blood thudding in my ears, I saw my ghostly reflection in the window, and across the street, her dark house. By now, she'd have turned on the living room lights.

I found my mother in her bathroom brushing her teeth. I told her what had happened. She put down her toothbrush and spit. "Oh, dear Lord." She was staring straight ahead, thinking what I could not say. I waited for her to say more. Then I went to my room, lay down on my bed, and cried.

That Sunday, the pastor told us to pray for the woman's troubled soul. To find it in our hearts to forgive her. It was not her life to take. I sat there, furious with him. She should have asked someone for help, he said. "Anyone would have obliged."

Shortly after it happened, Bill Bull left town. Eventually the house was cleaned out and put up for sale. But no one wanted to buy it. So many mornings, I woke and stared at it, and the dark windows stared back.

#

 "That a young woman would take her life. I'd never do such a thing. No one I know would." My mother had just come back from the funeral.

"Maybe she was lonely."

"Who knows what went on inside that house."

 "Maybe really lonely. So lonely nothing in this world mattered anymore."

"It's incomprehensible to me."

After that, we never spoke about it again. The one time I did, my mother's upper lip tightened and she snapped, "We don't know why she did it. She was different, Meryl. That's all."

The next year I returned to public school and was moved ahead a grade. The boys left me alone, as if they sensed I had more to me. And I did: I knew how the body expires; how underneath the placid exterior, a secret interior resides, powerful as an undertow.

I did go back to her house one more time. Before it was cleaned out and put on the market. Her bedroom was exactly where my parents had theirs, up the eight steps and to the right, across from mine. Her closet door was open and her clothes hung limply, as if waiting for her to fill them again. I touched the sleeve of a long, blue gown. I'd never felt anything like it, like liquid. As I put it over my clothes, her bed floated in the middle of the room, and I lay down, curled myself inside her outline, and listened as the rain tapered to a drizzle. In the darkness, I drew my fingertips over the rise and fall of the gown.