Territory of Light

Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt

February 13, 2019 
The following is from Geraldine Harcourt's translation of Yuko Tsushimi's novel, Territory of Light, which follows a young woman over the course of a year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old daughter alone after her husband leaves them. Yuko Tsushimi's prolific literary career began with her first collection of short stories, Shaniku-sai (Carnival), which she published at the age of twenty-four. She won many awards, including the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature (1977), the Kawabata Prize (1983), and the Tanizaki Prize (1998). She died in 2016.

The Water’s Edge

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During the night, there had been a sound of water on the other side of the wall. In my sleep I was looking out from the fourth-floor bedroom at nearby buildings bathed in rain, gleaming with neon and streetlamp colors. It was a light, tenuous sound. I couldn’t say at what hour of the night it had started. It could well have been there when I went to bed; then again, it could have been an illusion as I was on the brink of waking.

In the morning, when I opened the windows wide, dazzling sunlight burst in, together with the thrum of traffic. The sky was pure blue. The streets were dry. Perfectly dry, even in the shade.

Happy to see another fine day, I set about waking my daughter without wondering where the night’s rain could have got to, leaving not the slightest puddle. I had a feeling that it was still raining elsewhere, someplace like that spot I couldn’t quite reach behind my back. It was a lingering sensation, close at hand, of water in the distance. I had almost dismissed it as a dream, but not entirely.

If the downstairs tenant hadn’t kicked up a fuss, I would no doubt have listened to the same splashing again that night, harbored the same not-unpleasant sensation the next morning, and then forgotten all about it.

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Just as I bit into a slice of toast, I heard a knock at the door. Who on earth could that be so early in the morning? More warily than necessary, I opened the door. A vaguely familiar face appeared, a portly man in late middle age. I couldn’t place him at first. It was a bit of a letdown that it wasn’t Fujino, whom I hadn’t seen since our separation, over a month ago.

“The water—are you having some kind of problem up here?” the man asked, scanning the room irritably. My daughter stood in front of him and curiously observed us in turn, her head tilted back. “The water! You’ve spilled some, or let the bath overflow, haven’t you? You’d better do something quick. We’ve got a real mess on our hands.”

It finally dawned on me that this was the man from the office on the floor below. After hurriedly greeting him properly, I replied, “How do you mean? Everything’s all right here.”

“I’m telling you, there’s a flood downstairs. The leak has to be coming from your place. If you haven’t noticed it yet, go and have a look around now, please.”

He was the owner of the company that made gold-plated trophy shields. They probably didn’t actually produce them in the small office downstairs, but there were always cartons stacked, ready for shipping, in the open doorway. I had seen this man several times, hefting boxes or checking the contents against a ledger.

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Whether overloaded with work or just a born hard worker, he arrived around eight every morning and then often stayed till near midnight. His presence was rather a nuisance to me, since it was my job, as the only resident in a building occupied by offices, to raise and lower the shutter at the street entrance. It can’t have been too convenient for him either to be kept waiting in front of the closed shutter whenever I overslept, or to have to give me a call through the door last thing at night. It had been a month since the company moved in, and after another month of this the landlady would give him his own key to the shutter, a special favor that came as a relief to me too.

The man’s wife, who was his only employee, was generally obliged to work late with him. But I had never really gotten a good look at her face. While he was regularly to be seen bustling in the doorway with the boxes, she invariably kept her head down at the desk in the room behind. In her apron, she seemed dressed for scouring pots in the kitchen.

Since the man insisted the leak must be somewhere on the fourth floor, I made a tour of the plumbing just in case, checking the kitchen faucets, washing machine, toilet, and the rooftop bathroom that opened off the inside stairs, conscious all along of the fast-approaching hour at which I had to leave for work. I checked the six-tatami room while I was at it. As I expected, there was not a drop of water.

“It doesn’t seem to be coming from here,” I reported. In the excitement of this unusual morning, my daughter hadn’t touched her breakfast. “Hurry up and drink your milk,” I scolded. “We’re leaving in a minute. You’ll get into trouble with your teacher again.”

“Look, lady, don’t give me that. What’s this puddle doing here, then? Here. Come on, you won’t see it from in there.”

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The man backed down two steps in the narrow stairwell and glowered at me, so there was nothing for it: I stepped outside in my slippers. He slammed the door and pointed at the landing. He was right, there was actually a small puddle on the floor. I looked up at the ceiling. That could have been a water stain in the corner, but the ceiling in my apartment had similar marks. The realtor had explained those away: the rain had leaked in badly at one time, but the terraced rooftop had since been completely repaired.

“. . . Well, I don’t know, surely this puddle can’t be–” As I spoke, my daughter burst into tears on the other side of the door. I reached to open it, and the man grabbed my arm.

“The water is obviously coming from this floor,” he said. “I’ve left my wife to cope, and she doesn’t know which way to turn. Because when we opened up, we found all our files soaking wet. Come down and have a look. You’ll see.”

My daughter was crying harder. Brushing the man aside, I tried to wrestle the door open. With nowhere to stand on the tiny landing, he scrambled out of the way down the steps.

After scooping up my howling daughter, who was hot all over, I told him, “In any case, we’ve established the leak isn’t in here. Would you mind checking again on your side? I have to go to work now, so please come back this evening if there’s still a problem. I’ll be home at six.”

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And without waiting for his answer I shut the door. He went downstairs without further protest. It was already time to get going. As my daughter clung to my shoulder, I wiped her flushed face with a wet cloth, then gave up on breakfast and rushed out. I crept down the stairs, afraid of being hailed again. Through the office’s open door, I could hear the man venting his frustration by swearing at his wife.

The leak he had reported concerned me very little. My daughter had gone without breakfast, and instead of waving her usual cheerful goodbye at the daycare centre, she pressed herself against me and let out a wail, trembling as though the teachers would devour her if she took a step in their direction. Two of them were eventually needed to march her indoors and I ended up late for work, on top of everything. As a result, I was less worried about the water than annoyed at having the start of my day disrupted for no good reason. What made him think he had the right to come to a stranger’s door and carry on like that? The man’s behavior seemed the height of selfishness, and I held it against him. I had completely forgotten the faint splashing I had heard in the night.

During the lunch break Fujino called as I was having my sandwich and carton of milk at my desk, as usual, across from Kobayashi, my immediate boss at the music library. “It’s your husband,” Kobayashi said, and passed the receiver offhandedly. Murmuring “Thanks,” I put it to my ear.

I heard Fujino’s familiar voice. The awareness that I’d missed that voice instantly gave way to a rush of fury. I could not even manage to speak in a natural, normal tone, despite all my promises to myself that if Fujino got in touch we would catch up casually, if only so as not to complicate the way things were between us, with our daughter in the middle, and that one day I would try to find the words to explain why, in the end, it was me who’d decided I wanted to split up—though, admittedly, I didn’t understand too well myself how I’d arrived there.

I was acutely conscious of Kobayashi listening. There had been another call from Fujino that he had passed over to me, four years earlier. We were living together at the time but not yet officially married. I don’t remember what the call was about; perhaps we discussed meeting somewhere for dinner. As Fujino was receiving both a scholarship from his university and an allowance from his parents, we were better off financially in those days than at any other time in our four years together, and we often ate out. I was content with my new life, which didn’t require much in the way of domesticity. And, as usual, I had chatted that day without particularly caring that Kobayashi was within earshot.

When I replaced the receiver, however, he had looked up and said, “I hope everything works out for you soon.” 

I blushed, startled: I had thought of him as an old man too absorbed in his archives and his books to have any interest in his assistant’s private life. Had he been listening to all our phone calls, then? I hadn’t told him that I had started living with Fujino, but he must have been taking it all in. In fact, why wouldn’t he, when I came to think about it, but my boss’s tactfulness had escaped my attention till then.

“It gets tiring when you take forever to settle down, especially for the woman . . . Take good care of yourself.”

I nodded, disconcerted.

Kobayashi had been a radio presenter. An unlikely one, I thought, with his hoarse voice, but in any event, nearly twenty years into his career, there’d apparently been some personal trouble that led to his being transferred from one section to another until he ended up in charge of the library that was being set up in an annex. He was a gruff man in his sixties who always looked unwell, but his young colleagues had given him quite an affectionate nickname, Chairman of the Board. A good many of them would stop by to pass the time. They seemed to say things expressly to provoke him, as if it amused them to watch the changes in his dour expression. I gathered also, from these exchanges, that he lived as a bachelor.

After Kobayashi spoke up, I’d felt both oddly touched by his concern and damned if I was going to let him feel sorry for me, which, together, made me smile more often in his direction. Kobayashi, for his part, took to inviting me out for a coffee during office hours, or for a drink after work in a bar where he was a regular with his name on a bottle of whisky.

“Help yourself anytime,” he urged me. “A woman’s entitled to have a drink when she feels like it too.” But I could hardly drink his whisky with Fujino, and I never called in at the bar unless I was in Kobayashi’s company. As there wasn’t really anything for the two of us to have deep discussions about, I found his kindness a little burdensome. Kobayashi remained dour wherever he was and however much he drank; he talked about work and books, and never referred to my private life again. After walking me to the station, it seemed he would head for another bar in a different area. His fondness for alcohol was known to everyone at work.

All the same, though he refrained from giving me advice, I had perhaps sensed from this new sociability of his that he was a little worried about me, and when Fujino and I got formally married, the first person I wanted to announce it to was not my mother but Kobayashi. While it was true that I sometimes resented Kobayashi and even wondered what he was playing at when, as always, I was called to account by Fujino on getting home late after these evenings—”You just don’t care that you live with me, do you?” he’d say, among other accusations—at the same time, I felt sure that Kobayashi would be more pleased than anyone to hear the news of our marriage.

When I made the announcement, adding apologetically that I knew I’d caused him to worry, Kobayashi gave a wry smile and muttered, “It’s nothing to do with me.” That was his only comment. But I felt as though I had received his good wishes, and dipped my head again, smiling.

I no longer went to the bar with Kobayashi after that—for one thing, I was soon pregnant. Instead, as it happened, we got into the habit of spending a leisurely lunchtime together at our facing desks, after I’d gone out for sandwiches, buying his along with my own. We often listened to music on a little radio I’d brought, or sampled Kobayashi’s favorites among the archived programs, and sometimes a visitor would join us, lunchbox in hand; once the baby arrived, I would often hold forth all lunch hour, explaining to Kobayashi how cute and funny she was, even showing him photos.

I also regaled him with a lecture on the “new cinema,” which Fujino had stayed on at university to study and to which he wanted to dedicate his life. On that occasion too, after hearing me out he’d had just one thing to say: “Kids grow up so fast—think of all the home movies he could be making.”

Thus, knowing Kobayashi, I knew he could not have failed to notice that, over the last year or so, I had gradually grown more reserved. And once I started giving up my lunch breaks to make the rounds of realtors, it must have been increasingly obvious how my life had changed. But even when I informed him of my new address, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about the situation with Fujino. I cringed at the reminder of how thoroughly I’d once congratulated myself.

As I took the receiver, then, I cursed Fujino: Why the hell did he have to phone me here? What did he expect me to say, with Kobayashi listening? I’d been persuading myself that, from now on, we would talk things over calmly, and if, by any chance, this meant we could live together again, that would be best. But now, caught unprepared, I tensed, determined to blame it all on Fujino: This wasn’t the time and place. It would wreck everything. Look what you’ve gone and done.

“It’s been a while,” he said. “How are you, how’s our little girl, how are you finding the new apartment, it’s about time we got together, come on, say something, ah, there’s someone there, isn’t there, well, OK, but still, you could say something, it’s your husband calling, what’s wrong with being heard? Hello, are you there? You could at least say yes. Is that too much to ask?”

After letting him run out of words, I said tightly, “Why are you calling?”

“Huh! So I’m not allowed to phone you unless it’s on business?”

“No . . . Goodbye . . .”

I hung up. Unable to face Kobayashi, I munched on my sandwich with eyes downcast. When I finally glanced up at him, over the milk I was drinking, he was buried in the newspaper, hamburger in hand. Fujino didn’t call back, perhaps not wanting to pursue this at my workplace. But knowing how angry he must be, I was aghast at what I’d done and couldn’t help regretting it. My legs shook, the back of my throat ached. It was me, not Fujino, who had wrecked everything. It was surely hopeless now.

As I stood up, twisting the empty milk carton and paper bag in both hands, Kobayashi said, “Could you get me a cup of tea, if you wouldn’t mind? I’ve got a thirst today.”

I lifted my head at last and answered with the brightest “Yes” I could manage.

I went into the kitchenette behind a partition and made two cups of green tea with care. My legs were still shaky. I was just about at Kobayashi’s desk when I teetered, though there was nothing to trip me, and both cups were sent flying off the tray. Mine didn’t break when it hit the floor; Kobayashi’s large cup did.

Murmuring “Oh dear, I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry,” I crouched and picked up the pieces. The cup had split almost cleanly in two. I heard Kobayashi’s voice above my head.

“You’ll cut yourself if you’re not careful. You should mop it up with a cloth.”

“Oh, yes, sorry. I’ll, er, I’ll be right back.”

I ran half-stooping to the kitchenette, not taking the time to straighten up. I grabbed a cloth, returned to the spot in front of Kobayashi, kneeled, and pressed the cloth to the steaming floor. The liquid’s heat reached my palm at once.

“Your cup is tougher than it looks, isn’t it?”

When I raised my head, Kobayashi was comparing my cup, which he had in his hand, with the pieces of his own lying on the desk, where I must have tossed them a moment earlier.

“. . . I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry. It was only a free giveaway at a sushi bar, anyway.”

“Yes . . .”

The heat in the cloth was rapidly dissipating. I suddenly remembered that morning’s events and asked Kobayashi, “Er . . . Could a little spill like this leak through to the floor below?”

“I’d be very surprised. If this much could leak through, no one could live in a high-rise,” he answered, to my relief, giving a rare laugh.

“Yes, of course.” I laughed in turn and stared at the still-damp linoleum. I slid the cloth over it. Tears sprang to my eyes. I wiped them surreptitiously with my left hand as I kept mopping up, taking my time.

Before long, Kobayashi went to the toilet. While he was gone, I cleared the cloth and the broken china away, then started preparing new loan cards. The lunch hour was already over.

At the end of the afternoon, a little earlier than usual, Kobayashi told me I could go, that we’d finished for the day. I took off without a moment’s hesitation. My daughter leaped with joy when her mother showed up before the appointed time, and we did some shopping on the way back to the apartment.

We had barely set foot on the stairs when the man I’d seen that morning emerged from his third-floor office, my daughter’s shrill voice having no doubt announced our presence. The realtor who managed the building was visible behind him. It was not hard to guess from their expressions how impatiently they’d been awaiting my return. Barely restraining the desire to turn on my heel and flee the building, I climbed slowly, one step at a time, letting my daughter go ahead. She clambered up the steep stairs on all fours, like a dog.

When we reached the third-floor landing, the realtor stepped forward as if to shield his glowering companion with his own slight frame. “I’m sorry to bother you. Actually, we’ve been waiting over an hour. This gentleman wanted me to unlock the upstairs apartment, but I suggested it would be better to wait, as you were sure to be home any time now, and I took the liberty of waiting with him . . .”

“Wait, he says,” the man fumed. “There’s not a moment to lose.”

The realtor smiled reassuringly at me. “There does seem to be a serious leak. There’s water dripping down to the second story now, and since it isn’t raining, I’d have to say it’s coming from the top floor. I’m very sorry to inconvenience you, but would you allow me to make a quick check?”

The realtor was a thin, white-haired man. The sixtyish businesswoman who owned the building had been sitting on his office sofa when I went to pay the rent, and together they had something of the air of a chatelaine and her elderly butler. He was a quiet, rather distinguished old man.

I led the way upstairs. What had been a small puddle that morning was now wetting the whole of the fourth-floor landing. The stain on the ceiling had spread as well. A droplet grew there lazily, reached a certain size, then fell, and the process started over.

I first asked the two men to wait in the entrance while I took a look around inside. Nothing had changed since the morning. In the intense late-afternoon sun, the interior was dazzlingly bright, shimmering around me as if the rooms held a heat haze. My daughter never left my side, singing at the top of her voice a song she’d just learned at daycare.

I finished by sticking my head into the bedroom. Confident there was no problem there, I did so merely to rest my case with the man downstairs, but for the first time I discovered traces of water on one of the walls. Where the previous day I hadn’t noticed anything, a large stain had appeared. On the other side of that wall was the stairwell.

I reported the discovery. The man was raring to go in. “No, excuse me, would you mind not going in there? Let’s have a look on the roof. I didn’t check the terrace this morning.”

I led them hastily to the inside stairs. The thought of anyone seeing my unmade futon left out on the tatami made me tense.

There was nothing out of place in the bathroom. I opened the door that led onto the rooftop and was the first to cross the threshold. I let out a cry of astonishment at the sight that met my eyes. Where there should have been a perfectly dry roof, water rippled and sparkled. A great expanse of clear water.

“The sea! Mommy, it’s the sea! Wow! Look how big it is!” My daughter plunged in, barefoot. Laughing to herself in merry peals, she paddled, splashed with her feet, scooped with her hands, dipped her face. On her, the pool was ankle deep.

The three of us traced the flow to the building’s water tower. Water was spurting from it in a mesmerizing jet.

“It arrives at the drain over there, and the overflow has been seeping downstairs,” said the realtor. “It must be getting through a little crack somewhere. But . . . what a view.”

The man from the third floor, also awed, perhaps, had completely regained his composure. “Well, well, we can count ourselves lucky to have gotten off so lightly downstairs.”

“Look, your little girl is having the time of her life.”

“My grandchildren love to paddle too.”

The two men gazed at my daughter frolicking, their eyes lighting up with pleasure.

“But you were directly underneath, surely you heard something?” At the realtor’s remark I remembered, for the first time, the sound of water in the night. That gentle, distant sound. A sound that would be revisiting me in my waking hours: I felt a chill, as if I’d been caught off guard.

“Now that you mention it, I did hear something . . . But then, this morning, when I saw the sky so clear . . . somehow I didn’t . . .”

“Oh, really?” said the man from the third floor. “If you’d only dealt with it then, we could have had it repaired right away.” I bowed my head and apologized lamely.

Having agreed that the repairmen would come first thing the next day, the two went on their way.

That night, I took off my shoes and had a high old time in the rooftop “sea” with my daughter. Though there was no way it could be dangerous, it was a little unnerving to venture into the expanse of water, and the uneasiness gave me a thrill. We splashed each other and played tag till we ended up soaked. The air was chilly on wet skin. However warm the days might be, it was still only the beginning of May.

Just as we returned indoors the phone stopped ringing, having rung, I imagine, for quite some time. Fujino’s face came to mind. Along with it came the sound of my own voice, asking Kobayashi if I would always have to answer for having happily set up house with Fujino, for having gone so joyfully to the registry office, for having had a child with him so unhesitatingly. Kobayashi seemed to be nodding yes. All at once, countless shadowy figures loomed around me, agreeing vigorously.

This man was my daughter’s father and my husband, but he knew nothing of the life I had been leading for over a month now—an existence that was uneventful enough in its way, and yet the tranquillity of the days ahead only fed my apprehension—and I could give him no idea of that life.

I felt as though I had before me an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots that only my eyes could see. Having been presented with this unstable object, I was starting to grow too attached to it to be able to slip back into married life with Fujino as if nothing had happened. The way he spoke to me, as my husband, didn’t feel right anymore. Must I go on, still, listening to that distant and increasingly incomprehensible voice until he decided to break off ties?

Was I supposed never to forget Fujino, even though it was he who’d wanted the separation? Again I contemplated the shadowy figures, each of which reminded me of a person I knew. They nodded deeply, all together.

That night, too, the sound of water lapped about my ears.

I slept nestled in a sense of moisture.

The next morning, the repair work was over in no time. The rooftop was emptied of its transparent water before our eyes. My daughter spoke for me when she told the repairmen indignantly, “Don’t stop the water! Meanies! I hate you!” Two days later, a Sunday, the roof was mended, a job that took all day. In the evening, on learning the work was finished, I went up for a look. We’d been warned to keep off the surface until it was completely dry, as I reminded my daughter repeatedly on the way up the stairs.

When she opened the door and saw the rooftop, ahead of me, she let out an even more piercing squeal than when she’d discovered “the sea,” and began to make a commotion. Muttering, “What’s the matter?” I poked my head out. I couldn’t believe what I saw: the whole surface was a bright, shining silver. Its dazzling sheen hurt the back of my eyes. I’d thought they were just going to fill the cracks, but they had painted every inch of the roof with waterproof paint. If it was this bright in the spring, by summer it would be unbearable. The glare would burn our eyes, here in the midst of the city, as if we were crossing a snowfield or adrift at sea.

A silver sea.

I couldn’t help laughing. This too was a fine view, I told myself. And this time, nobody could take the sea away.

“It’s beautiful, it’s like a star.” My daughter gazed in admiration at the silvery roof.

It was the following night that Fujino called. The only things I could manage to say just aggravated his feelings. I couldn’t understand why my legs shook every time I heard his voice.

That same night I dreamed I was sitting in a silver, star-shaped receptacle. It was spinning, gradually turning faster and faster, until I found my body plastered flat against its wall by centrifugal force. When I begged aloud for forgiveness, an old classmate from middle school looked up at my star and said: Why are you such a loser?

We’d been in the same class, certainly, but she was an A student, and we’d never been close. She was always elected class president and, what’s more, she was good-looking and popular with the boys. While thinking how absurd it was to dream of her after all these years, I was defending myself tearfully: Can I help it if I’m a loser? And even if I am, there are people who won’t give up on me, who’ll stick around. There are, there must be.

The classmate shook her head sadly and walked away, still the same beautiful girl.


Translated by Geraldine Harcourt


From Territory of Light. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Translation copyright © 2019 by Geraldine Harcourt.

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