Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Playing Cicada

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She'd been hanging laundry on the balcony when she first heard the keening moans -- low and feline rising to nearly the screech of a tom. Not until he'd turned the corner, almost to their house, did Chloe realize it was her son. But because he and other boys often returned in a great din, she'd carried on pegging T-shirts and underpants -- until he'd climbed their front steps and the mewls opened to full gasping howls. As the door opened, slammed shut, and Sam's anguish filled the house, Emma awoke with a cry in the room adjacent to the balcony. Chloe dashed past her, unhung boxers trailing from her hands.

Usually the laundry was done by this time of day -- dry, stiff and ready to be pulled in, but Chloe had never finished hanging that morning. All day she'd been off schedule, and as she careened downstairs toward Sam, she wondered if she'd unhinged him by forgetting to attend some important school event. Considering her earlier mistake, that was possible. For just after she'd put Emma on the preschool bus and was hanging out the first of three loads, the voices had come up the road, women's chatter, followed by the chime of her doorbell.

***

There'd been four of them on the concrete stoop -- one at the top, and three arrayed on descending steps. By their smiles, bows, and shuffles toward the door she'd known they expected to be invited in, that this was planned and she was hostess -- that somehow she'd confused the day or week these Japanese mothers who wanted to practice their English would visit.

She'd swallowed her surprise, gestured them into the entryway, bent to move soiled family shoes aside and set out four pairs of hundred-yen slippers, mind racing trying to remember their names: Okubo? Nagakubo? Ozawa? Yoshida? Harada? Wada? At least she recognized them as parents from Sam's first-grade class.

They handed her small gift bags of Japanese sweets, herb cookies, dried persimmons, some dried wakame -- could she eat it? She assured them yes, her children loved it, especially with natto. This set them twittering -- foreigners who love natto! -- and immediately there was plenty to comment on, which had been her intent: genuine distraction from the house's disarray.

She'd ushered them into the small living room, presentable only because the children's Japanese tutor had been there the evening before. Just a few books needed clearing from the low table. The curtains were thankfully open to the cracked concrete terrace and tiny garden, so the women's focus was drawn outside -- to camellia shrubs, a mangy fan palm, and some stalks of Japanese silverleaf bearing plate-like leaves and ugly yellow flowers. Emma's buckets and scoops lay scattered about caked with dried mud.

The women had sat down cheerfully as if all was according to plan. If they'd sensed they'd caught her off guard, they hadn't let on. As they commented on the garden, Chloe pulled a photo album off a shelf, set it on the table, then retreated into the kitchen, madly picking up as she went -- toys, picture books, flung tops and bottoms of pajamas, newspapers, scattered mail. She'd wanted to be better prepared for this visit; the woman whose name she finally recalled, Budo, was the mother of a boy Sam had played with happily several times -- Yusuke? Yuta? -- and had been helpful translating at a parent-teacher meeting.

The women chatted in the living room as Chloe put on the kettle and searched frantically for food. She discovered a loaf of banana bread in the freezer and thawed it in the microwave while she prepared the teapot. She arranged their sweets and some strawberries -- a splurge for Emma's lunch box -- and slices of still cold banana bread on a plate. When she went in to collect teacups from the living room cupboard, she found the women clustered around the photo album.

"Is this Sam?"

"Is this your house in America?"

"Who's she?"

"Oh, his teacher?"

"Where is this?"

"Your garden? Eh?!"

"It looks like a park!"

The house in the photos did look enormous, to the women and to Chloe -- the five of them crowded there in her six-mat living room in a Japanese company row house. But the home in the photograph was small by Massachusetts standards -- a cramped two-bedroom cape. Sam's friends had lived in homes with basement playrooms bigger than that entire house. Chloe did not miss all that American excess, the largeness of everything, but still -- backyards. Tears nearly sprang to her eyes.

She'd brought the teacups into the kitchen and poured the tea, set the full cups and some flea-market wooden saucers on a tray, and carried them into the living room. The women were still hunched over the same picture, marveling over the vegetable garden, swing set, picnic table, and turtle sandbox. Standard fare back home, meager compared to elaborate play sets their children's friends had, but from here that compact little yard looked dreamy. And she wondered, once again, about the wisdom of dragging her children away from that world they'd been born into, to resettle in these close quarters. Not that they'd had a choice. Company orders. Masataka had been in the States long enough, according to personnel. He was an eldest son anyway; it was fitting they resettle in Japan close to his parents.

As the women stared at the photos, Chloe tried to summon any specific information about them. She recalled she'd run into Budo-san on the streetcar a week or so before, off to the breakwater to accompany her children fishing. She thought this a safe topic.

"Budo-san, did you catch any fish the other day?" she'd asked. But the other women had nearly spat out their tea and erupted in laughter.

"Mrs. Grape?" one had said in English, stifling giggles with a cupped hand.

Budo-san had smiled sweetly at Chloe. "My name is Kudo. Budo means grape. My name means carpenter . . . and . . . how do you say . . . wisteria?"

Chloe apologized and excused herself to bring the plate of sweets from the kitchen. She resented the laughter. Of course she knew budo meant grape, but who was to say it couldn't be a last name, too? Did they have any idea how hard it was to move a family halfway around the world? To struggle with this language?

When she rejoined them, talk skirted different issues at school: the supply bags they'd all sewn for their children except for one woman who'd purchased hers and simply added pockets; the teacher who they agreed was too lenient; the music teacher who they decided was too strict.

Then the topic of discipline came up. It had taken Chloe a while to understand, but after Kudo-san had rephrased the other women's quick Japanese several times, Chloe had caught the gist. They were comparing discipline methods and came back again and again to oshiire -- futon closet. There had to be another meaning, Chloe thought -- the women were laughing, asking each other, "Do you do oshiire?" When they finally asked Chloe, "Do you?" she was at a loss. They tried English, and finally she got it -- send a child to the futon closet as punishment -- a Japanese take on time out. Well, no, she hadn't thought of that one. Actually, Emma liked to play in there, on the shelf atop some blankets and pillows, she told them.

But she must have given the wrong answer, phrased it strangely or made an inappropriate emphasis because there it was, that familiar awkward pause and sudden break in talk. Everyone blinked, looked about, then discussion turned to Sam and how he was doing and was there anything they could do to help.

***

When she reached him in the entryway his eyes were rolled back in an anger more intense than any she'd ever seen in all his tantrums. He'd kicked off his shoes and stood rigid, arms and legs at odd angles, fury pulsing through him. Kneeling, she pulled him close, but his mind seemed far away, battling some grave injustice.

"Sam, come sweetie, it's all right," she soothed, rubbing his head, neck, shoulders. Then she spotted dirt on his pants, a scratch beading along his cheek, scrapes on his knuckles and palms.

"It's okay," she told him. "You're home. You're safe. I'm right here."

But he kept shaking his head, and bits of words, like torn unrecognizable scraps of paper, were all he could spit out.

"Let's do a bath," she said. She picked him up, heavy and awkwardly long now at age seven, and carried him toward the bathing room. He struggled. She set him down on hearing the word "pee." As he disappeared into the toilet room, she turned on the gas and ran the water.

Emma suddenly appeared from behind, giving Chloe a start, and she scooped her up, carried her into the living room, turned on the TV, and hurried back to Sam. Again she carried him toward the bathing room.

"It echoes in there," she told him softly, "so you might want to cry quietly, or all the neighbors will hear. You can have a good soak, then we'll sort this out. Okay?" He didn't answer, but his limbs were pliant now as she pulled off his clothes. He stepped onto the cool tiles and stood immobile, shivering, so she removed her socks, rolled up her jeans and stepped into the bathing room with him. She sat him on the plastic stool and set to washing him tenderly, with ample suds and soft lathering on the washcloth.

When she'd finished cleaning him, she sprayed him with the shower nozzle and stifled a cry as the suds slipped away. His legs were budding welts and bruises and there were scrapes along his ankles and forearms, some oozing blood that ran fast over his wet skin. He began to whimper at the sight.

* * *

The discussion with the women had turned to Sam, to settling in, and bullying, and Chloe had thanked them and told them that things were indeed better now -- after all, they'd been in Japan nearly six months. As for bullying, she explained, after the case of the hidden shoes, there hadn't been any other major incidents at school, though there were still kids who called him names and one child in particular who tormented him every day with taunts of "Alien! Idiot!" and even "Die, why don't you!"

"Who is it?" the mothers wanted to know.

Chloe hedged. She hadn't intended to point fingers.

"Who? Tell us," they begged.

Finally Chloe offered, "I don't know him, just that he's a first grader."

"Did Sam say his name?""Tell us so we can help."

Chloe hesitated then said, "Well, I'm not sure, but I think Naoya." She knew full well his name was Naoya and what he looked like and that in addition to hurling names, he'd hurled punches and kicks as well.

The women had nodded at the name. Nodded and nodded. And there was that awkward pause again.

Then one of the women bowed low and began apologizing profusely. Chloe was puzzled. Kudo-san came to her aid. "Her son is Naoya," she said in quiet English. "Yamane Naoya."

Chloe's head was suddenly leaden. She bowed deep and murmured, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm terrible at names. I didn't realize."There was a long protracted silence.

"I will talk to him," Yamane-san had said eventually. She kept her head down, continued to apologize, voice breaking.

So Chloe had found her perky hostess voice, and smiled. "Oh, thank you! I would really appreciate you talking to him. Truly. I would be very grateful." And then she had added cheerfully, in English, "Don't worry! It's okay! They're first graders. They act like that sometimes!" And for once this seemed to be the right thing to say. They all started chatting again, Kudo-san leading with talk about a time when she'd discovered her son had been stashing acorns for battle against a preschool playmate.

"And all that time, I'd just thought he loved acorns!" she'd laughed. "Until his mother called me!"

The women had shared other stories and finally started in on the sweets and banana bread, which Chloe was relieved had warmed to room temperature and did not taste too much of the freezer. Then Chloe had brought a piece of paper and pencil and said, "Now, before I make any more mistakes, would you all please write your names and your children's names?" This, too, had seemed to be the right thing to say. Levity returned as the paper was passed around.

If only it could always be this easy, Chloe thought. If only there were always a Kudo-san nearby to explain her mistakes.

* * *

So now, staring at the swellings and bruises and abrasions on her son's body she thought of Naoya. She ached to ask who, but she clamped her mouth shut, helped her son into the bath and handed him some toys. He stood stiffly in the rising water, whimpering with the sting on his raw skin. She wasn't sure he'd stay in, but slowly he settled down into the square tub.

He fiddled with the toys. Chloe retreated to give him privacy and sat fixed in a kitchen chair out of sight but listening. His play was erratic, full of hushed utterances, now and then an angry burst, but she could only catch snippets of words in a rough guttural language she'd never heard him use.

When he climbed out of the tub, she toweled him off with soft pats and gave him his underpants. She sat him in the kitchen chair, brought antibiotic ointment, bandages, and a washcloth with ice. "Let's check to see what got hurt, okay?"

There were bruises coloring both shins, three with welts and broken skin. She prepared a second icy washcloth and propped his legs up. While he held the ice packs on, she went over his back -- four nasty bruises and three scrapes. And his arms were raw, scratched red on the inside with welts on the outside, and a deep bruise and scrape on one elbow.

Now she was the one with mounting fury. She ran her shaking hands through his hair, feeling for lumps, surprised not to find any.

Sam was fidgeting, so she removed the ice packs, dried him again, and rubbed ointment on the scrapes and covered them with bandages. Upstairs in the children's room, she rummaged through drawers for Sam's softest clothing, took a deep breath and swallowed the threat of a sob. After she'd dressed him, she pulled him onto her lap on the kitchen chair and with her arms wrapped around him asked if he would talk. His face contorted, and she felt rushes of anger coursing back into his limbs.

Chloe waited, caressing his head. "We can talk in a special place if that helps."

He nodded.

She took him up to the children's bedroom, opened the futon closet, and yanked out the stacked bedding except for one futon. She placed pillows against the walls and tossed in some of Sam's stuffed animals and a blanket. After grabbing Sam's turtle flashlight, she climbed up onto the wide futon shelf. "Come on," she said and hoisted him up.

They settled in one corner and pulled the blanket over their legs.

* * *

When the women had left it was nearly one. "I will speak to Naoya," Yamane-san had said at the door. "But if the problem continues, please consult me." They had all written their phone numbers on the paper beside their names.

Chloe had bowed her farewell on the front steps then dashed about the house. She'd managed to finish hanging the first load of laundry, started washing a second, then raced out the door to the bus stop to meet Emma's preschool bus.

Satoh-san and Iijima-san were both at the bus stop already. Their sons were older than Emma and generally ignored her. And, incredible to Chloe, the mothers made no effort to encourage friendliness. Even when the boys' behavior was blatant rudeness, they never intervened. Once Chloe had spoken sharply to the two boys when they'd pushed Emma off a swing to claim it for themselves, but Chloe was the one made to feel awkward. Today was Wednesday, and the children who were friendly with Emma stayed late for after-school hours, so to Satoh-san and Iijima-san Chloe offered requisite polite conversation on the weather and preschool events until the bus pulled up, then quickly said good-bye. She and Emma walked home via the market, their usual mid-week routine, picking up some groceries and a rice cracker snack that always helped prod Emma up their hill.

Chloe asked about her day.

Emma said they'd played with newspapers.

Chloe asked what she meant, and Emma answered impatiently in Japanese, "Every way. Tearing, throwing, folding."

"Was it fun?" Chloe asked in English.

Emma answered in Japanese with exasperation."Tearing was fun. Throwing was fun. I hate folding!" Emma often came home from preschool angry and exhausted like this, unable to make the switch back into English until after her nap.

* * *

In the futon closet, Chloe listened as Sam tried to recount what had happened. She tried to piece the story together from the various scraps he presented.

The boys all had sticks. They collected the sticks on the way home. Even Sam. The sticks were lasers. They were doing laser fights. Superheroes. They took the long way home. Then cicada started.

"You collected cicadas?" Chloe asked. "Or those cicada skins?" It was a common activity around the cherry trees in the neighborhood park, to gather the hard, shed casings of cicadas that had molted.

No, he told her. They did cicada. Made him do cicada.

And as with the talk about futon-closet discipline among the women earlier, Chloe was confounded by this noun turned verb. "How do you do cicada? You mean act like a cicada?"

His lips pursed and his jaw trembled. He buried his face in his knees and wailed.

"Hey," she soothed, and he scrambled into her lap and clung to her neck. His tears wet her skin. She wiped his face with a pillowcase, cooed, sang, and finally tried the question once more.

"How do you do cicada?"

"They made me," he said. "I didn't want to." Then he switched to Japanese.

They'd told him to climb up the big cherry tree. He'd said no. Act like a cicada and hold on, they'd said. He said no again, but they came at him with sticks, and ordered him to climb the tree.

He went up just a little. They stood below with sticks. He tried to get down the tree, but they hit him. They told him to act like a cicada, make noise like a cicada. They were Japanese soldiers. He had to do what they told him.

When he began to slip down, they hit him with the sticks. Once he fell and they all hit him until he climbed up the tree trunk again. But his arms hurt. He couldn't hold on. They all hit him. Shouted orders. They only made him climb up, no one else. They called him foreigner, stupid American, and other things as they hit him. They said they were Japanese soldiers. Sam was the enemy.

Chloe held him and rocked him in the corner of the futon shelf.

Emma was calling them. A TV program must have ended. But Chloe was gathering herself. When she felt sure of her voice, she asked him.

"Who?"

And he named all the boys he walked to school with including Naoya, another boy from the company block, even Kudo's son and several other first graders who'd taken the long route.

"Whose idea was it?" Chloe asked.

Sam hesitated.

"Whose?" she persisted.

"Naoya's." He started to moan.

She praised him for telling her so much, wiped his eyes and face with the pillowcase again, then suggested they go downstairs and he, too, could watch TV.

* * *

Her husband was not at his seat, the voice said. She left a message for him to call home at once, called his cell phone again, and left three more messages. She occupied herself with Emma making clay figures on a placemat at the kitchen table.

When the call from her husband finally came, she took her phone upstairs, paced the two rooms, then climbed into the futon closet, and in the semi-darkness repeated Sam's words, explaining to Masataka what had happened. He listened politely, but she could hear his sighs -- he was busy, why was she bothering him with home matters while he was at the office, they weren't in Boston anymore, expectations were different here.

But before he had a chance to say the usual -- that she needed to understand that this was typical grade school rough housing, that Sam just had to learn to be tough -- she told him this was an emergency, he had to come home early, that they were going around to talk with parents after dinner. She'd had enough.

"That's really not possible," he said predictably.

But when she didn't say anything, when her silence had grown icy, he offered to call his parents.

She remained huddled in the futon closet, picking at bits of Emma's clay under her fingernails, as she awaited Obaachan's call. Soon the phone rang and Chloe was grateful that Masataka's mother didn't make her explain it all in Japanese, didn't offer platitudes, didn't give advice, but just offered to come.

"I'll bring Ojiichan, too," and Chloe was relieved to know that at least her in-laws grasped the urgency.

* * *

They arrived with a bagful of mandarins from their tree and a tin of cookies. Ojiichan immediately took the children into the living room, set some tangram tiles on the small table and challenged Emma and Sam to form them into animal shapes. Obaachan and Chloe retreated to the kitchen. Chloe put on rice for the evening meal, and as she chopped carrots, potatoes, and chicken for a simple curry, she related what Sam had told her and described the welts and bruises.

"And you know this Naoya-kun's mother?" Obaachan said.

"A little. Actually she was here this morning with some other mothers. When the topic of bullying came up, she said she would talk to Naoya."

"So she knows about this?"

"Not this, not the cicada incident. Just that he's been bullying Sam."

"I see."

"What should I do? Masataka isn't here. He should be here," Chloe couldn't help but add.

"No matter. We women can manage." And Obaachan explained the plan.

* * *

After dinner, Chloe, Obaachan, and Sam set out into the dark streets to walk to Naoya's house, on the other side of the school. Sam was reluctant, pulling back, but Obaachan spoke with firm confidence and seemed to give him courage. She knew just the right words and delivered them without the accompanying bitterness that kept rising in Chloe's throat.

The house was large and new, built right to the edge of the lot, and had two different names on the gate. Yamane-san lived with her parents, Chloe noted.

Yamane-san answered the door and knelt in a low bow on the floor. Obaachan bowed deeply, and back and forth utterances between Obaachan and this woman went on and on. Then Naoya's mother was joined by an older woman, and the utterances began again. Chloe chimed in, as best she could, with apologies for bothering them in the evening, hopes that they could resolve the problem, and assurances that she was confident Sam and Naoya could work things out. Sam stood hidden behind Chloe, clutching her hand.

Finally they were ushered in and shown to a living room, left alone, then served tea. Naoya was brought in and with a slap to the back of his head told to kneel properly to deliver his apology.

Chloe listened to the older women talking things out. Obaachan had made the phone call to the family and explained what had happened, for which Chloe was grateful. She could not have described the injuries to Sam without losing control. Even here in the perpetrator's living room, Obaachan remained cool and calm. Chloe let the three women discuss the two boys for a while, and finally, when there was a pause, she cleared her throat.

She spoke directly but gently to Naoya. "Naoya, it's difficult to move house. Have you ever moved with your family?"

Naoya nodded. His head was slapped again as he was told to answer properly. "When I was four. When we moved to this house."

"Where did you live before that?"

The mother piped up and explained the neighborhood they'd moved from, several towns away.

"Ah, so maybe you understand that when you move to a new place you need friends. Sam needs friends in his new place, too."

An older man entered the room sputtering something low and gruff. Chloe tried to continue her talk with Naoya, but the man interrupted.

"You idiot! Those stories weren't for acting out! I told you and your older brother so you'd understand those times. It wasn't my idea. It was for Takuya's school project. Don't you know the difference? Fool!" He slapped Naoya hard on the back of the head and kicked at his legs.

Chloe couldn't help herself. She stood. "Stop! Don't hit him!"

Obaachan stood now, too, and moved in front of Chloe to silence her. "What do you mean -- stories?"

The grandfather sank to his knees. "Useless idiot child! They were private. I should never have talked."

"Please," Obaachan said sternly.

And even the grandfather obeyed Obaachan, gathering himself into a more formal kneel. "Well," he said. "Takuya needed to hear about war times for a school project. He kept pestering me. He thought it sounded grand to be a soldier, but I wanted him to understand it was awful. I couldn't tell him those horrible things though, so I told him one story about when I was recruited. How rough it was. I told him how new soldiers had to climb a pole and play cicada while others beat him from below. But this fool child copied it. He's no good. He doesn't use his brain." By then Naoya was huddled in a corner sobbing loudly. He braced himself for the blow on its way to the side of his head.

"Stop!" Chloe shouted. She grabbed the grandfather's arm before he could strike Naoya.

The grandfather glared at her. Chloe stood breathing hard. In a quavering voice she said, "I am leaving. With my son. My mother-in-law will stay to talk with you."

Chloe hustled Sam out of the room as a riot of accusations and apologies ensued. She and Sam jammed on their shoes and bolted. They hurried past the school, through the dark lanes, and up the hill back to their block of company housing, panting and huffing.

But suddenly, when they reached the corner, nearly to the refuge of their little row house, she stopped.

"Come," she said and began to pull Sam in another direction.

* * *

At night the play lot looked different, the fluorescent streetlights casting an eerie glow, play equipment reduced to distorted shapes of cold metal, shrubs casting bulbous shadows. Sam whined and tried to pull her toward home.

"Which tree?" Chloe asked.

Sam shook his head.

Chloe knelt down. "We're going to visit that tree, you and me." Sam tried to pull away, but she held his arms. "Show me," she said firmly, mustering some of Obaachan's resolve. Finally, his breath quickening, he led her to the largest cherry tree next to the ball playing area.

The grasses and weeds beneath the outermost spreading limbs had shot thigh high in the recent typhoon rains. Chloe knew there might be creeping insects all about, but she led Sam through, waving her arms against spider webs, right up to the trunk.

Gently she placed his hands on the bark and put hers above them. They could feel the rough horizontal furrows.

"In spring this will blossom, and when the wind blows, the blossoms will rain down. You'll see. It will be beautiful."

Sam whimpered.

"Remember, what Naoya and the other kids did was wrong. You can play here by this tree. What happened today will never happen again. There was a misunderstanding between Naoya and his grandfather. Naoya thought something from the war days might be a good game to play. But it wasn't. It was a terrible thing from the war. Terrible then and terrible now. It won't happen again. This is your playground, too. This is your tree, too."

Chloe wished it were this simple, but she knew better. She knew all those kids involved would remember hitting Sam up in the tree. She knew that despite his Japanese blood, they set him apart, a "half." She knew there would always be a line drawn between them. And she knew that Naoya learned his attitude toward Sam from his grandfather, from the adults around him, from teachers, and from all the subtle messages telegraphed across this community.

She sighed, also knowing that Obaachan would arrive home with a more detailed report and that Chloe would need to act.

But right now she just wanted to be under that tree with Sam, grasping that solid trunk, claiming it. "This is ours, too," she said. "Our Japan." And both Chloe and Sam looked upward to the dark branches, barren of leaves for months to come.

* * *

Obaachan arrived home after Chloe had gotten both kids to sleep. Chloe had had to lie down between Sam and Emma on the futons, croon verse after verse of lullaby, and had finally fallen asleep herself there, but she'd awakened when the front door opened. She waited in the dark until the toilet had run and she'd heard the murmurs of Obaachan explaining everything to Ojiichan before she descended the stairs squinting into the light.

"We'll stay the night," Obaachan said when she saw Chloe. "Tomorrow morning you and I will go back to the Yamane home. The other mothers will be there, all the mothers of the children involved. Everything has been arranged. Tomorrow we will all talk. We will invite the mothers to share stories about learning right from wrong. And from that we will solve this little matter. And that will be that."

For some reason Obaachan's take-charge attitude didn't work for Chloe now. It wasn't a "little matter," and she hardly believed "that will be that."

"What about playing cicada? That grandfather's story? And the way he hit Naoya? And what about how the kids called Sam the enemy just because he's part American?" Chloe asked.

"The story isn't important," Obaachan said dismissively. "Naoya and the children could have used any idea. From television even. It doesn't matter. What is important is that the children know how to recognize what behavior is right and what is wrong. And it is important that the mothers form friendships, make a community."

Chloe didn't have the stamina to argue. Obaachan was too strong in her words. Chloe gathered bedding for her in-laws, ran a fresh bath, and set out towels. Still Masataka wasn't home.

"I'm going to sleep," she finally said. "Please, help yourselves to whatever you need."

Chloe climbed the stairs. She set out the bedding for herself and her husband in their room, changed into pajamas, and was about to lie down when suddenly she took her quilt, a pillow, and an extra blanket to the children's room and climbed up into the futon closet.

The shelf wasn't long enough for her to stretch full length, but with her legs bent she could fit comfortably enough. The deeper darkness soothed. She wrapped the quilt tight around her. When she turned over onto a hard object, she reached and felt Sam's turtle flashlight. Clutching it in her palm she fell into a deep sleep.

Around dawn she woke as Sam climbed up and joined her on the shelf. She rubbed his back softly and felt him settle into sleep. She tried to return to sleep herself but the shelf was too cramped with the two of them lying side-by-side. She had a faint recollection of waking during the night and gazing up at a perplexed Masataka as he peered down on her in the futon closet. He must have slept alone in their bedroom.

The events of the previous day charged at her. She sat up abruptly, hung her legs over the edge of the shelf, and watched closely the breathing of her two children, one beside her, the other below on the futon. She wanted to stay like this forever, perched above them, keeping guard.

Somehow she would have to convince her husband of the brute realities of being a "half." Somehow she would have to get him involved. Somehow she would have to make him see that his own children weren't considered Japanese enough by some Japanese.

Then it occurred to her in one swift vision that this was the architecture of her new life in Japan -- she there by her children, her husband uninvolved and apart, and her in-laws nearby with their own brand of support. And she was the one who would have to make adjustments.

Gray light spilled into the room. A turtle dove cooed insistently from a nearby utility pole. On the curtains, she could just make out the shadows of yesterday's laundry left out hanging through the night -- and the basket half full of wet clothes still on the balcony. She slid down from the shelf, tiptoed over her daughter, and stepped out to the dewy balcony to finish pegging as the first pinks of dawn stroked the company rooftops.


Holly Thompson (www.hatbooks.com) is a longtime resident of Japan and author of the young adult verse novel Orchards (Delacorte/Random House, 2011), the novel Ash (Stone Bridge Press, 2001), and the picture book The Wakame Gatherers (Shen’s Books, 2007). Editor of the forthcoming Tomo anthology of YA Japan-related fiction (Stone Bridge Press, 2012) and Regional Advisor of SCBWI Tokyo, she teaches creative and academic writing at Yokohama City University. She is a regular contributor to the Double Take column of All Nippon Airway’s Wingspan magazine with vignettes about raising her children in Japan. Visit her Hatbooks blog (http://hatbooks.blogspot.com) on writing, teaching, living and learning, mostly in Japan.


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Very interesting. I've never read anything from this cultural perspective before. The scene where the mother has to teach her son that they have a right to this country was pretty moving, and I imagine, something that will need to happen more and more with every passing year.
So beautiful -- taut and moving. I love that the futon closet becomes the safe space. The languages are handled so beautifully with the "translations" really feeling like Japanese, and I love the kids' tired switches between the two. Beautiful, accurate story.
Holly, this is such a powerful, disturbing, sensitive piece of writing on a topic that resonates deeply with me. The scene in Chloe's house when she divulges the bully's name is acutely observed. One thing I am curious about is the obaachan character - her readiness to speak out and confront the issue so immediately and directly is something I am unfamiliar with, and wonder what inspired you to create this character?
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