Still in his blue silk pajamas, Mumei sat with his bottom flat on the tatami. Perhaps it was his head, much too large for his slender long neck, that made him look like a baby bird. Hairs fine as silk threads stuck to his scalp, damp with sweat. His eyes nearly shut, he moved his head as if searching the air, trying to catch on his tympanic membrane the scraping of footsteps on gravel. The footsteps grew louder, then stopped. The sliding door rattled like a freight train, and as Mumei opened up his eyes, morning light, yellow as melted dandelions, poured in. The boy threw back his shoulders, puffed out his chest and stuck out both his arms like a bird spreading its wings.
Smiling, deep wrinkles around his eyes, Yoshiro came closer, his shoulders heaving. No sooner had he lowered his head, lifting a foot to take off a shoe, than beads of sweat dripped from his forehead.
Every morning, Yoshiro rented a dog from the Rent-a-Dog place on the corner to run with along the riverbank for about half an hour. When the water level was low, the river looked like silver ribbons that stretched out much further than you’d expect. Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down, an expression that had started out as a joke meaning “if you lope your blood pressure goes down,” but everybody called it that these days. And kids Mumei’s age would never have dreamt that adding just an e in front of it the word lope could conjure up visions of a young woman climbing down a ladder in the middle of the night to run away with her lover.
Yet even now, when foreign words were rarely used, the walls of the Rent-a-Dog store were still plastered with the katakana script used to write them. When Yoshiro had just started loping down and wasn’t sure how much speed he could manage, he’d first rented a Yorkshire terrier, thinking a small dog might better, but then he’d found it much too fast. He’d stumbled, almost falling, gasping for breath as the dog pulled him along, turning its head now and then, cheekily holding its snout high with a self-satisfied air as if to say, “How’s that for speed?” The following morning he’d tried a dachshund that turned out to be so lazy it had sunk to the ground after the first two hundred yards or so, forcing Yoshiro to drag it all the way back to the Rent-a-Dog place.
“Some dogs sure don’t like to go for a walk,” he’d griped as he returned the animal.
“A what? A walk? Oh, yeah, a walk, ha, ha, ha,” laughed the man behind the counter, finally catching on. It was a superior sort of laugh, directed at this old geezer who still used outdated expressions like a walk. The shelf life of words was getting shorter all the time—it wasn’t only the foreign ones that were falling out of use. And some words that had disappeared after being labeled “old-fashioned” had no heirs to take their place.
A week before he’d rented a German shepherd, which had been just the opposite of the dachshund; in fact, that dog was so well trained he made Yoshiro feel inferior. Yoshiro could run at top speed until he was so exhausted he’d be dragging his feet, barely moving, but whatever the pace, the shepherd stayed with him, right at his side. When Yoshiro looked at him the dog would flash back a glance as if to say, “How am I doing? Perfect, wouldn’t you say?” Disgusted by all this exactitude, Yoshiro firmly resolved never to rent another German shepherd.
Sandwiched in between the eight-mat room and the kitchen was a room with a wooden floor about six and a half feet wide in which a light foldout picnic table and folding chairs like the ones anglers use were set up. As if to add to the gay summer excursion atmosphere, on the table was a thermos emblazoned with a picture of a raccoon dog with a huge dandelion sticking out of it.
Recently all dandelions had petals at least four inches long. Someone had even submitted one of these jumbo dandelions to the annual Chrysanthemum Show at the Civic Center, giving rise to a debate over whether it should be recognized as a chrysanthemum. “Oversized dandelions are not chrysanthemums—merely mutations,” asserted one faction, while another charged that “mutation” was a pejorative term, further enflaming the war of words. Actually, the word mutation was rarely used anymore, having been replaced by the more popular environmental adaptation. With most plants growing larger and larger, if the dandelion alone had stayed small it would have ended up like a kept woman, hiding away in the shadows. It had simply grown larger in order to survive in this new environment. Yet there were other plants that had chosen to survive by getting smaller. A new species of bamboo, no larger than a person’s little finger when fully grown, had been named “the pinky bamboo.” With trees this small, if the Moon Princess from the Woodcutter’s Tale came down to earth again to be discovered shining inside a bamboo, the old man and woman would have to crawl on their hands and knees peering through magnifying glasses to find her.
Among the anti-dandelion faction were those who said, “The chrysanthemum, that noble flower chosen for the Imperial crest, cannot be put in the same category as a weed.” Whereupon the Dandelion Support Association, comprised mainly of members of the Brotherhood of Ramen Workers, fired back with the famous Imperial decree that “There is no such thing as a weed,” which finally silenced their enemies, ending the seven-month-long Chrysanthemum-Dandelion controversy.
For Yoshiro, one look at a dandelion was enough to bring back childhood memories of lying in a grassy field gazing up at the sky. The air was warm, the grass cool. He heard birds chirping far away. Turning his head to one side, he would see a dandelion in bloom, looming just slightly above his eyes. Sometimes he would stick out his lips like a bird’s beak to give it a kiss, then suddenly sit up, looking around to make sure no one had seen.
Mumei had never once played in a real field. Even so, he seemed to have an image of a field he carefully cultivated in his mind.
Yoshiro imagined himself packing a small suitcase with clothes and toiletries, then taking the train and bus to Narita Airport. It had been years since he had been to Shinjuku—what was it like now? Billboards, far too gaudy to be overlooking ruins; traffic lights changing regularly from red to green on streets without a single car; automatic doors opening and closing for nonexistent employees, reacting, perhaps, to big branches on the trees that lined the streets, bending down in the wind. In banquet halls, the smell of cigarettes smoked long ago froze in the silver silence; at table after table in the pubs on each floor of multitenant buildings customers called absence caroused, drinking and eating their fill for a flat fee; with no one to borrow money the interest demanded by loan sharks rusted in its tracks; without buyers, mounds of bargain underwear grew damp and fetid; mold formed on handbags displayed in show windows now flooded with rainwater, and rats took leisurely naps inside high-heeled shoes. From sidewalk cracks stalks of shepherd’s purse grew straight up, six feet high. Now that human beings had disappeared from this urban center, the cherry trees that had once stood demurely beside sidewalks, slender as brooms, had grown thicker around the trunk, their branches spreading boldly out in all four directions, their luxuriant green afros swaying gently back and forth in the breeze.
Yoshiro imagined himself at Shinjuku Station, boarding a deserted Narita Express for the airport. In fact, no one was riding the Express, the train whose foreign name had once projected the very image of speed, or drinking espresso either. At the airport terminal there was no one at the checkpoint, so no need to show his passport. The terminal sign, written in Chinese characters, had been taken down long ago, and was now propped up against a wall. Climbing the creaky steps of the frozen escalator, he found all the check-in counters abandoned, a huge spider’s web covering each one like an umbrella. Looking more closely, he saw that there was a spider about the size of the palm of his hand in each one, calmly waiting for prey. There were colorful stripes on one spider’s back; black at the top, red, then yellow. Germany was his destination—that must explain it, he thought. He took a cautious look at the counter next door and saw that its spider had red, white, and blue stripes. There were smaller red spiders here and there in the web too, with white stars on their backs.
Yoshiro didn’t know why he was able to picture the airport so clearly. With no effort on his part, these images just came to him, begging to be written into a novel. But it would be dangerous to write about an airport nobody went to anymore. What if the government was keeping it off limits to the public on purpose, because state secrets were hidden there? Sneaking into a forbidden place to dig up forbidden knowledge didn’t interest him at all. But even if what he published was only a description of what he had imagined, if his fiction happened to correspond too closely to what the airport was really like he might be arrested for leaking state secrets. Proving in a court of law that it had come from his imagination might be awfully difficult. And would they even give him a trial? Not that he found the idea of going to prison particularly frightening, but wondering how Mumei would survive without him worried him so much that he couldn’t bring himself to take many risks.
How many years had it been since the absence of animals other than rental dogs and dead cats had ceased to bother him? Though he had heard something about a “Rabbit Union” formed by people who secretly kept rabbits, since he didn’t know anyone who belonged, he couldn’t even show Mumei a living rabbit.
“Just wait, Mumei. Great-grandpa will cut through the jungle of vegetable fiber your teeth can’t manage, carving out the road to health and life. I will be your teeth. Mumei, absorb the sun into your body. Imagine you’re a shark, your mouth full of fine, white teeth, so huge and sharp that whoever sees them runs away in terror. Your saliva is at high tide, wave upon wave filling your mouth, your throat muscles so strong you could swallow the earth. Your gut is an indoor pool, full of gastric juices, and under its glass roof the sun soaks in your gastric pool. Unlike other planets, the earth is blessed with the sun’s light every day. Thanks to Lord Apollo, it is full of strange and wonderful forms. Even now, jellyfish, octopi, frilled lizards, crabs, rhinoceroses, human beings, and lots of other creatures live on the earth, changing all the time. Buds sprout from an embryo, which opens in the shape of a heart, tadpoles like little musical notes turn into frogs like the round wooden drums you see in temples, caterpillars become butterflies, wrinkly newborns age into wrinkled old men. In the past ten years or so, lots of species have gone extinct, but the earth is still warm, and bright.”
From The Emissary. Used with permission of New Directions. Copyright © 2018 by Yoko Tawada. Translation copyright © 2018 by Margaret Mitsutani.