Memories from my early childhood bob around in a fuzzy sea of colors and hazy voices. Certain pictures and sounds can be made distinct, though. Take the brown-and-maroon blob, for example, and sharpen it. It turns into a kotatsu, a wooden table placed over an electrically heated pit in the floor with futon blankets squeezed between the tabletop and the table frame. The futon blanket is made of cotton and colored dark maroon with thin, white vertical lines running across it. It’s noon in July, so the heater is off, and no one has his or her feet in the kotatsu except for my great-grandmother. She’d always complained that her legs were cold.
Parsing out the voices is easier. My older sister used her lean arms to push me from in front of the fan – “Doite-yo,” which is at least a request, turned quickly into “Doke,” an ultimatum. It didn’t take much for the brute strength of a seven-year-old to overcome the will of a three-year-old. I wanted to cry out to the adults in the small living room about the dog-eat-dog injustices of life in front of the fan, but I glanced over at my sister and she raised her fist to her face to warn me of the dire consequences of squealing. At age three, I had no understanding of the value of a long and healthy life, but I still preferred to not be beaten to a pulp on a weekend. I watched my sister as she enjoyed all the advantages of sitting in front of the fan. She began to play with her voice using the fan as a voice box, turned to me, and asked if I wanted to try it. I nodded and wiggled over the tatami, the rice straw floor, to where she was. I began playing with my voice using the fan before my sister abruptly cut me off after a couple of seconds.
“Okay, you’ve had enough fun,” she commanded. “Now go away.”
I slinked off and hid underneath the kotatsu having decided that I had had enough of my sister’s dictatorial abuse of power.
The world underneath the tabletop was black except for a tint of purple light seeping through the thick blanket. The kotatsu pit smelled like feet, and I could make out my great-grandmother’s tiny feet and her wiggling toes covered by her faded grey socks. I stared at them, counting each outline of a toe forward, and then backward, and then forward again. I decided that I’ve had enough of the mustiness of the poorly ventilated kotatsu and pulled myself out before letting out a fart. I wondered whether that fart would be in the kotatsu forever if no one lifted up the futon blankets ever again.
As I stuck my small, stocky body out of the kotatsu, a jagged row of white, yellow, and gold teeth greeted me. The teeth smiled and reeked of tobacco. They belonged to my mother’s uncle, and he grabbed me under my armpits and lifted my body out effortlessly. He placed me between him and my grandmother. Due to my height, I got a whiff of his sweaty armpits and wished I could be back down there, in the kotatsu. I leaned over to my grandmother who smelled much better. Her clothes smelled of tangerines.
“Were you up to no good, Hikaru–chan?” He asked. I shook my head. “Good, good,” he pat my head and ruffled up my curly brown hair. “Good, good.” He pulled out a crumpled white pack of cigarettes from his pocket and fingered it for a smoke, but my grandmother stopped him.
“Haven’t you had enough for one day?” My grandmother chided him.
“Oi-oi-oi, can’t a poor guy smoke without his sister nagging him every time?” He looked down at me, winked, and feigned annoyance by running his right hand through his greasy, black hair that he combed back. “Besides,” he shrugged, “I’m all out.” He tossed the empty cigarette packet at the brown trash bin two feet away and missed. My grandmother grumbled, got up, and placed the paper pack into the trash. She called my great-uncle darashinai, but he laughed it off. It’s not the first time she’s called him a slob, “And it won’t be the last time, right, Hikaru-chan?”
“Hora-hora, we can take a break from arguing a little bit.” It’s my mom who walked into the living room with a 7-11 bag. Inside were rice balls of various flavors: BBQ pork, tuna, pickled plum. She placed the bag on the kotatsu tabletop, and I immediately reached in for the tuna flavor. My mother fished around in another plastic bag from the convenience store for our drinks.
“Hey,” my sister grabbed my arm. “That’s mine.” My grandmother had left with my great-grandmother to take her to the bathroom, and the only ones left in the living room were my great-uncle, my great-grandfather, my mom, and the two of us. My great-grandfather looked on, not saying a thing. My great-uncle chuckled and had no intent to stop my sister. My mother rolled her eyes and told both of us to play nice. I wanted my grandmother because I knew she’d take my side.
“But I want it, Onee-chan.”
“Well you should’ve asked for it then, baka!” She tightened her grip on my forearm and the tuna rice ball fell out of my hands and onto the tabletop. I felt tears welling up, and I looked to my mother for help.
“Should’ve asked for it before I went to the convenience store, Hikaru. Besides, the BBQ pork is tasty, too!” She unwrapped the rice ball from its plastic packing and placed it front of me. It smelled sweet, but I didn’t want the BBQ pork. I wanted the tuna.
My great-uncle kept chuckling and wolfed down his lunch. My sister gave me a good kick while no one was paying attention to send home the message that no one fucked with her, especially her little brother. She proceeded to tell no one in particular how good her tuna rice ball was, but I knew she was saying it to me. I grabbed my BBQ pork rice ball and ate it in silence. It was okay, but it’s not tuna. After washing down my lunch with a small can of Aquarius, I tiptoed out of the living room, and I passed my great-grandmother and my grandmother coming back from the bathroom. My great-grandmother had a content look on her face.
“What’s wrong, Hikaru?” My grandmother asked. “Mata kenka?” I shook my head. It couldn’t really be called a fight when it involved my sister. It would have been like calling a boa constrictor choking a small field mouse to death a kenka. “Where are you going, then?”
“Soto.” I pointed outside to where the garden was. My grandmother nodded and walked her mother back into the living room, where the noise from an afternoon talk show, Warrate Iitomo, could be heard. I didn’t find the program funny, but, like a lot of talk shows, people watched it anyway.
I decided to go out to the garden from the butsudan room, where the family shrine stood, looked on by framed black-and-white photos of long-dead Saito family members. I’m not allowed to light the incense of the shrine, but there were ones already lit, so I stopped for a couple of seconds to strike the singing bowl and pray. I didn’t understand why people struck the metallic bowl or why they prayed, but I enjoyed the calming hum that emanated from the four-inch bowl whenever it was hit. I glanced to the right, where a wooden carving of an eagle glared at me, its talons wrapped around a tree branch. Above it, ancestors whose names I didn’t know scowled indifferently down at me. A chill went down my back. I trotted off to the sliding amido door of the room, opened it, and stepped outside.
The heat that greeted me made me forget the eerie chill of the butsudan room in an instant. The blue shorts and the white t-shirt I wore were covered in sweat in a couple of minutes. In one of the well-trimmed pine trees, a hidden cicada screeched away. Its oscillating shrill added to the heat somehow.
Because I left my shoes at the genkan, the front entrance, I hopped barefoot on the hot gravel until my feet ceased to feel much. It was after a couple of minutes when I noticed a spare pair of sandals that I had left from a previous visit lying around in the corner of the garden. They looked silly – light blue with Pluto on the left shoe and Mickey Mouse on the right – but I decided it was better than cooking my feet any further on the gravel, so I slipped them on. I then proceeded to stomp around the garden climbing large rocks and looking up at the pine trees for the shrieking cicada.
While thinking how this beats the snot out of getting the snot beat out of, I heard gravel crunching behind me. I swiveled around to greet the noise. Four feet across from me, my eighty-year-old great-grandfather stood there in his dark blue yukata-like shirt and black sandals. He held a yellow, plastic baseball bat and a soft plastic ball in his wrinkled, veiny hands. He didn’t smile, but his eyes did.
My great-grandfather never said much. He didn’t have to. Everyone listened when great-grandfather Saito opened his mouth. Later I would learn that they did so because of his inheritance. I did so because he was my great-grandfather, and his greying skin and milky eyes scared me.
He didn’t ask if I wanted to play baseball with him, but he didn’t need to say that for me to understand why he had a bat and ball in his hands. I walked over to him, grabbed the baseball bat, and put five feet of distance between us. The bat was far too big for me, and I struggled to lift it to a batting stance like I had seen on TV when the Yomiuri Giants played the Hanshin Tigers, but I got my oversized head to counterbalance the weight of the bat and put myself in a batting stance.
“Throw it, Hii-Ojiichan.”
My great-grandfather smiled and lofted an underhanded-pitch towards me. I swung in an upward arc. I missed wildly. The ball rolled near the big rock I had climbed earlier, so I went over to pick it up and threw it back at him. The soft, plastic ball bounced off the ground and into his leg. While my great-grandfather took his time to lean ever so slowly over the ball and grasp it in his hands, I prepared for the next pitch by managing to get myself in a batting stance again. When my great-grandfather picked his head up, he saw his three-year-old great-grandson wobbling around on one foot, yellow bat raised over his head and making movements like a provoked snake. He guffawed.
He pitched underhanded – again – and the ball glided past me – again – untouched by the wild swinging of my bat. I threw the bat to the ground in anger and stamped the ground with Mickey Mouse. I turned from my great-grandfather and squatted on the ground. I kept an eye on him to see what he would do.
My great-grandfather stood there for half a minute, looking at his garden, his rocks, his pine trees. After a while, he sat down on the rock. His skin hung down from his face, as if the earth were using gravity to reclaim what was rightfully hers. His third cancer was in remission, but he was tired. I remembered how my grandmother told my mother in the car that a life of drinking and smoking had taken a toll on him at this point in his life. My great-grandfather let out a sigh and walked over to me, painstakingly taking each step. I could see the grimace in his face.
“Hikaru-chan,” he said in his soft, raspy voice that spoke of the countless cigarette butts he must’ve flicked from his long, skinny fingertips. “Patience.” He then walked over to pick up the pink ball. I stared at the gravel, kicked off Mickey and Pluto, and grabbed my yellow bat from nearby. I dragged my feet in the hot gravel, faced my great-grandfather who stood there no longer smiling, and assumed a batting stance.
He chucked the ball, and I swung. I missed. And missed. And missed. After ten minutes, I had grazed two pitches and hit one over his head. Everything else was a strike. My great-grandfather never smiled or laughed during those ten minutes and, after his final pitch, made his slow trek back inside the house. I gathered the bat and the ball and walked to the genkan instead of the amido that would’ve let me back into the butsudan room. My great-uncle stood outside of the entrance, smoking a cigarette and holding a magazine with pictures of big-breasted women in bikinis under his wet armpit. He also held a plastic bag with the 7-11 logo on it.
“Hikaru-chan,” he snickered, “Here, look what I got you.” I thought he was going to give me the magazine with the breasts and bikinis. He reached into the 7-11 bag and pulled out a tuna rice ball. “What you wanted, see? And some ice cream, too.” I saw that he had bought three different kinds of ice creams and two tuna rice balls. I shook my head.
“I don’t want it.”
“What?” My great-uncle cocked his head to the side, and the magazine almost fell out of his armpit.
“I don’t want it anymore,” I repeated.
I slipped into the genkan and back into the living room. Everyone stared at the TV, even if no one laughed. My great-grandfather was nowhere to be seen.