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Sweet Water (Fiction)

by Allyson Latta

Hiro came for her at seven, punctual as always, his bike rumbling up to her manshion and honking cheekily three times. She was washing up from her dinner when she heard, and ran in her bare feet over the tatami mats.

Opening her door, she leaned over the rail of her second-floor apartment’s useless little balcony—too narrow to sit on, it was mostly for hanging clothes to dry and futons to air. She waved with one hand, pushing her hair out of her eyes with the other.

“Ready?” he called up.

Anna thought he looked good, better than good, in his jeans and navy T-shirt. He was also wearing a huge grin today. His moods were a bit unpredictable, part of his charm, but he could be more fun than anyone she’d ever met. Once, for a costume party, she’s dressed as Anne of Green Gables and he’d surprised her by donning green and painting his handsome face purple, sporting a green construction-paper crown on his head. What are you supposed to be? An eggplant, can’t you tell?

“You’re not going to give me a hint where we’re going?”

Ie, it’s a surprise.”

 “I’m not sure going for a bike ride in rainy season is such a smart idea.” She eyed the mountains in the distance, the grey of the early evening sky.

“When are you going to learn to trust me? But, bring an umbrella.” That grin again.

Grabbing her fold-up umbrella and knapsack and slipping on a light jacket, she headed out, the steel door of her apartment clanging and echoing in the stairwell as she descended. Like a prison gate, she thought, not that she ever felt held here; she had more freedom than she ever could have imagined. Still, that jarring sound always sent her running down the stairs and out.

Astride the Suzuki, Hiro, wearing a blue helmet, handed her a red one with a yellow strip. His smiling eyes regarded her—more thoughtfully than usual?—as she strapped it on. Then she climbed on behind him and moulded her body to his, legs in jeans pressed to his hips, breasts to his back. It was a comfortable fit.

“Are we going to a karaoke box?” she asked, knowing full well how stubborn he was. If he wasn’t ready to tell her, he wouldn’t.

“You gaijin,” he muttered, revving the bike and starting off. “So impatient.” He had to raise his voice above the growl of the engine. “You just have to wait and see!”

They were probably off to a party somewhere, but with Hiro, one never knew. He had a playfulness that she was drawn to, had been since the beginning. Hiro was head teacher at the small ESL school called Way (the name of which made about as much sense as any Japlish place name) where she taught. His English was excellent because he’d studied for two years in L.A. He’d even had an American girlfriend, one he’d kept in touch with for some time after returning to Japan, though the relationship had petered out. Sandra eventually tired of pining for him.

When Anna thought about Sandra, that mystery woman, she felt a stab of jealousy, though she had no right. She had no hold on Hiro. He was her friend. Though, there had been times when she thought he might be more, could be more. Men were confusing, whatever their country of origin. At twenty-four she hadn’t yet figured them out, though she hadn’t entirely given up hope that she might.

As he drove, Anna peered over his shoulder, watching the play of muscles in his forearms as he gripped the handlebars. They had slept together once, months ago. Had come home from a party, full of Sapporo and good humour, their senses and curiosity alive. He’d kissed her just inside her clanging steel door, the taste of his mouth yeasty-salty from beer and edamame, and in moments they’d been inside, on the futon, clothes flying. He was a good lover, but oh, it was the softness of his skin that she remembered. Soft as a child’s. Even the soles of his feet, always protected, never barefoot except on tatami. She’d asked him how to say it in Japanese. Yawarakai hada, he told her. Soft skin.

One night of passion hadn’t changed anything between them. She wasn’t sure why women assumed, time and again, that sex would. A few days of awkwardness followed; they didn’t speak of it. Before long they were back to their usual banter, spending much of their free time together. He’d kissed her twice since then, both times when they had been drinking. Both times she’d kissed him back, and she would sleep with him again, she thought, though he hadn’t asked. She thought she could imagine a life with him, here. She could also imagine one without him, back home—though her mental picture of home was growing increasingly blurry around the edges. Perhaps she didn’t know what she wanted any more than he did.

Wind teasing their faces, they wound their way through the city, beyond the wider streets where the yellow streetcar grumbled and clacked and where the restaurants and bars with their colourful neon signs beckoned, to the outskirts that were lined with gawdy pachinko parlours full of hopeful gamblers, and where narrow, winding streets curved off into a maze of tiny homes with clay-tile roofs. Once in a while he reached down and squeezed her thigh.

He was definitely driving too fast, but Anna loved the speed, the feel of breaking free of the city. Soon they were racing along country roads among glistening, spring-water-laden rice paddies, catching a glimpse here of a farmer in a straw hat, there of a woman in what looked like a giant baby bonnet. Hiro was taking them northeast, toward ancient Mount Aso, watchful in the distance.

Inaka, desu ne?” Country, isn’t it. She said it above the engine noise, thinking to amuse him with her meagre Japanese. In the side mirror, she saw him smile. Just where was he taking her?      

It was growing dark when she spotted a flash of orange ahead, and realized as they approached that it was a torch being waved by an elderly Japanese man wearing white gloves, like the taxi drivers in town. He gestured toward a crude parking lot, a field really. Hiro pulled the bike to a stop and they hopped off.

She turned slowly, glancing around. He had brought her to the middle of nowhere, it seemed. The air felt warm and moist. Faintly, in the distance, she heard gurgling water. A hot spring? Then, staticky Japanese music, badly amplified, as if wafting from the fields themselves. The rich smell of shoyu-flavoured snacks. But this couldn’t be a festival, it was too subdued.

“Let’s go,” said Hiro, adding, “This is Kyokushi,” as if that explained all.

The darkness confused her and she didn’t know what lay ahead, so she took the hand he offered. As he pulled her along, the water’s chortling grew more vivid and she noticed a string of torches in the distance, set in the ground and spaced out to provide illumination, but not too much of it. She was very aware of him, his height only a few inches more than hers, his shoulders broad. She liked Hiro’s body, an athlete’s body—he’d been one in high school and still trained—taut and smooth. He’d tried to get her to run with him, but the one time they’d done so, up and around Kumamoto Castle, he’d left her doubled over and panting.

They made their way past a rough-hewn concession tent plunked incongruously in a field, a vender doling out food, and the aroma lured her even though she’d just eaten. The music she’d heard was emanating from the booth as well, haunting shamisen, man-made, not nature-spun after all. As the tinny strains receded behind them, Anna noticed shadowy movement ahead and to her right. People, some of them obviously children, shuffling along and whispering occasionally in the faint light of torches along a path by what was clearly the river.

“Be careful where you step,” Hiro said, indicating a concrete walkway that traced the river’s edge.

Anna was used to the reverence with which the Japanese viewed nature, but there was something eerie about this group—how many were out here? she couldn’t tell—moving quietly, purposefully along. She thought fleetingly of lemmings, yet couldn’t resist the pull herself.

“Only in Japan,” she said. When Hiro found one of her Canadianisms funny, he’d say, in the same incredulous tone, Only in Canada. He couldn’t believe she made such an effort not to slurp her noodles.

What he said now was “Patience.”

And then, as they rounded a graceful curve in the river, she stopped abruptly, for before her, strung across the water and against a dark backdrop of tall pines, was a brilliant tapestry of flickering, pale yellow lights. Thousands upon thousands of them. She blinked and tried to focus on one light, follow it, then another, but each disappeared as if defying such limitation. Above, the sky was overcast and empty-looking. Heaven seemed to have rained all its stars down upon this place.

“What—?”

“Hotaru,”  he said. “This is hotaru-gari. Firefly viewing.” He nudged her arm. “A good surprise?”

Her amazement must have shown in her face. She heard him chuckle. “Oh yes. Yes,” she breathed.

Murmurs floated about her. Segoi. Wonderful. Kirei. Beautiful. And then Hiro’s voice: “They say they only live where the water is sweet and pure. They started coming here five years ago—no one knows why exactly.” He paused. “As it becomes more popular, I’m sure, the river will be lined with yakitoriya.”

There are … so many.” It seemed impossible to attribute such ethereal beauty to lowly bugs and their chemical reactions.

“Maybe thirty thousand, I’ve heard,” he said.

“As if anyone could count fireflies. Talk about Sisyphean.”

“Si-sy-phe-what? I’ll need to look it up.”

Anna was already moving forward, awestruck by the display of lights, the whole constant but the pattern endlessly shifting. She’d only ever seen fireflies at a friend’s cottage in the Kawarthas, and there they had been sparser, teasing the corners of her eyes. Here the astonishing ensemble scintillated as if performing for their audience, clusters gracefully separating and then coalescing. Individually, they were elusive, taunting; together they mesmerized.

“A Sisyphean task,” she said absently, not taking her eyes off the spectacle, “one that’s endless. Sisyphus was a Greek punished for his sins – he had to roll a rock up a hill. Forever.”

“Hmm, I’ll have to teach that one to my students.”

She pulled her eyes away from the hotaru and looked at him. “Oh yes, a very handy phrase for beginners. ‘Hello, how are you. My name is Yoshiko and my task is Sisyphean.’”

He took her hand again and his felt warm. The moment to her seemed perfect. Hiro. The night, the hotaru. She rarely thought about Canada these days, it seemed so far away. Her undergrad behind her. Mom and Dad divorced; her older sister married and settled down to a suburban existence. Here she had a job she loved, respect as a teacher, and friends, mostly Japanese teachers at Way. And the adventure of Japan, with surprises around every corner, every curve in the river.

His lips close to her ear, voice low, Hiro started singing:

Ho, ho, hotaru koi, atchi no mizu wa nigai zo,
kotchi no mizu wa amai zo;
ho, ho, hotaru koi, ho, ho, yama michi koi.

Anna shivered at the heat of his breath near her nape. He’d once told her that Japanese men find a woman’s nape one of the sexiest parts of her body. Ah, Hiro. She recognized a few words: hotaru … firefly … mizu … water … amai … sweet … yama … mountain. Though she loved the rhythm of the language, the full sense sometimes escaped her.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a child’s song. I forget all the words. It begins—” He thought for a moment. “Ho, firefly, come, there’s some water that’s bitter to taste. Come, here’s some water that’s sweet to your taste. Come, up this mountain path …”

“Teach it to me?”

“Of course.” He cleared his throat. “But later. Not here, not right now,” he said, gesturing as a stream of dark bodies approached and flowed around them, as if she and he were logs jammed in the riverbed.

Standing still made her uncomfortable. She preferred movement, always.

“Promise?” she said.

“Yes, I’ll teach it to you …”

A beat of silence.

“… before I go.”

His tone had turned serious. There was an emphasis on the word go that she didn’t like.

“Go? Where?”

“I’ve been meaning to tell you, Anna-chan. Trying to decide how to tell you.”

She waited. Occasional brighter flares from cameras—observers trying to capture the uncontainable – blended into this night of lights. Dark figures formed a procession that wound out of view. She suddenly realized that she did, and yet didn’t want to follow the path to its end.

“I’m moving back,” he said finally. “To L.A.”

She was aware that she would sound petulant but couldn’t help herself. “Sandra?”

“No, no, that’s over. Has been for a long time. But L.A. I know.”

How ironic, after Sandra’s years of waiting. “When?”

“Soon. Before summer. I’m going to do my M.A. in Linguistics. There are some courses I want to take first. I need to settle in.”

The thought crashed in: You can’t go. It was quickly followed by guilt. What she meant was You can’t go before me.

 “You’ll be leaving soon too,” he said, having read her mind. “You know you will. Back to Canada.”

She felt panic rising. As if his words had banished her. She didn’t even like to think about leaving this place. Couldn’t. She had time left on her contract, and even then, perhaps she would not go.

Before she could answer, he said, huskily, “Anna-chan, walk with me. I brought you to see the fireflies.” He took her hand again, and this time the feel of it as they strolled made her chest hurt. “Did you know,” he said, “that hotaru-zoku is what we call people who smoke outside their buildings at night, because from inside, the cigarette ends look like fireflies?”

He knew her, knew that like him she loved language, even the trivia. It was only one of the things they shared. Yawarakai hada. Soft skin. Atchi no mizu wa nigai zo. There’s some water that’s bitter to taste …

“Maybe I just won’t,” she said, ignoring what he’d said.

“Won’t what?”

“Leave. I like it here, it feels like home now.”

“I know that’s how it seems, but you won’t stay. It’s not your life.” He paused. “If I stayed, you would leave me some day.”

She thought she heard pain there—or did she just need to believe that? None of this made sense. He had to leave his country, yet he was so sure she would return to hers? They were both suspended.

“What if I told you I love you?” It was out before she could stop it, and she felt herself flush, realizing the Japanese around them certainly would understand those three little words.

“I love you too,” he said without hesitation, though in a whisper.

Her throat was tight and wouldn’t let her swallow.

He began again. “Sometimes I think you are the only one who here who understands me, but …”

So there it was. But.

“Well, maybe I don’t.” Anna stopped walking and turned away from him, toward the hotaru. She felt as if she were no longer watching the fireflies but among them, one of them, her bioluminescence fading. And which one was he—there and then not there, lighting up and then disappearing, leaving her dizzy? She stretched out her hand toward the fireflies. Let it drop, empty.

A loud splash and then churning of water. Urgent Japanese, sharp admonishments, followed by relieved laughter. Murmurs and titters rippling along the line. She could make out the shadows of people hoisting someone from the river, dripping, a giggling child, perhaps six or seven years old from the look of him. Had he fallen, or did he too ache to touch the magical lights? The distraction broke the tension between them.

“Did you know,” Hiro said as they passed the knot of onlookers near the boy and rounded another bend in the river, “that fireflies have been used as a symbol … what’s the word? A metaphor? For love, passionate love. There was a Japanese poet in the eighth century … I’ve forgotten his name.”

“You just looked that up,” she said accusingly.

“True. I knew you’d ask me some of your endless questions.”

She moved closer so that his face was inches from hers, too-bright in the glow of a nearby torch. “‛Passionate love’? Just what are you trying to do to me here?”

“Anna, I’m sorry. I was just …”

“I know.”

“… trying to change the subject.”

“Not very well.”

 They both laughed, but at that moment she realized what they were, these hotaru. A goodbye.

“Tell me something else,” she said quickly. She no longer held his hand, feared she would seem to be clinging.

“About hotaru? Well, some Japanese believe they are the souls of soldiers who have died in war.”

“The souls of soldiers and the embodiment of passionate love? Only in Japan,” she said, shaking her head.

“Only in Japan,” he repeated. “But love and war … they are two sides of the same kouka.” He grimaced. “Okay, that was bad.”

“Yes, it was. Anyway, I’d rather think the lights were the souls of lovers—” Her voice caught and gave her away. Shit.

“Anna-chan, I—”

“I’m okay.”

She wasn’t sure, but she thought that perhaps in time she would be.

As she  moved forward she felt him following close, and she drew in a deep breath, then exhaled, forcing her sadness away, beyond the gurgling river and the silhouetted pines and the thousands of tiny, flickering lights.

She felt the first cool drop on her cheek, another on her arm, and then before she could even pull her umbrella from her pack, the deluge began and around her dozens of umbrellas shot up and opened like the wings of giant birds taking flight, blocking out the hotaru. They were still there, though, she felt sure, darting between raindrops, holding their secret light inside them, just out of reach above that pure flowing river, that sweet water.

A noisy, jostling exodus began, everyone making for the concession tent, the only shelter. Hiro was already drenched, grinning once again and holding his arms out like a suppliant.

Anna fumbled with slippery hands to open her own umbrella, but gave up. “Come on,” she said to him, raising her voice over the beating rain. “Let’s run.”

“Sweet Water” is a work of fiction based on memoir. Anna and Hiro don’t exist, or rather, they are composite characters, nor did the conversation unfold as it does here. Ah, but that surprise motorcycle ride to view the glittering hotaru remains one of the most sensual memories of my time in Japan.

Copyright 2006 Allyson Latta.

Published in the anthology Stumbling Through Darkness (2006, Canadian Authors Association, Toronto Branch).