by Sharon Hashimoto
Every time Hisa shifted in the folding chair, it squeaked. It was hard to sit still when one was so uncomfortable, the metal cold against her thigh where her dress had ridden up. Even when she tried to cross her ankles, there was some loud announcement by the chair. Every one else was so quiet.
In the semi-circle where Hisa sat, there were nine other women, four men, and Mr. Higashi. They were in the basement of the Ichiban Restaurant where they held their bi-monthly senryu meetings. Hisa pressed her hand against her mid-section, hoping that no one could hear her stomach growling. The smells of sukiyaki from the upstairs kitchen were making her hungry. To catch the bus on time and make her transfer, she’d had to skip breakfast.
On a piece of butcher paper taped to the wall, Mr. Higashi had written several topics down in katakana with his brush dipped in black ink–just as a way of note taking. She had expected the sentimental subject of babies; many of their grandchildren were starting families. “Ka-wai-so,’ the women had murmured earlier as they showed off pictures of swaddled bundles. Hisa couldn’t tell which were boys and which were girls. The men mostly nodded, then turned to talk to each other. But her friend, Sachi, had also suggested “home’ and “regret.’ There had been some discussion as to where was “home’–was that in the past, their childhood and what they remembered of Japan before the war? Or was “home’ here in Seattle, Washington? Maybe Sachi was feeling nostalgic?
Hisa thought about how eight years before, in 1961, she had passed the exam and become a citizen of the United States. Sometimes she sent things to family in Japan. After the war her brother and sister, who still lived in Okayama Prefecture, needed help. Hisa had sent them basic supplies that were black market or hard to get: tins of sugar, nuts, chocolate. She was sure her relatives were always happy to see the postmark from Seattle, Washington. Sometimes she’d include an inexpensive flashlight with batteries, matches, or even some crew socks. To this day, her brother and sister believed that she was rich; they kept asking for more. She sent letters home less often. But family was family, and Hisa remembered the days when she and her sister were girls wearing wooden getas in their everyday yukatas, gathering chicken eggs in a basket. Hisa’s mother would break a raw egg onto hot rice for their breakfast.
“Japan, United States. Home is the same, no?’ Mr. Higashi asked. “Shall we begin?’
Hisa guessed that it didn’t matter. The topic was open to interpretation. She found herself nodding along with the other fourteen senryu members.
Sachi touched her thumb to her lips, then started to write.
The sound of pencils on paper made Hisa want to scratch her arms. There were no strong ideas or feelings like the times before when she wrote well. Hisa closed her eyes to let the images of home take shape. But it was difficult with the growing emptiness in her stomach. That was kind of how she felt on all three trips back to Japan. There were high rises in Tokyo now, the big cities all full of noisy cars honking. And on the streets, she’d only seen the older women in kimonos. Most of the young women wore business suits. What her eyes wanted was a kind of hunger. Only in the country or in the mountains, when she was looking at a lake or a cherry tree, did she recognize something familiar. On her notepad, Hisa wrote: “Visiting home country. That was my dream. But no familiar face at all.’
She tried to change a phrase, looking for better words. She found herself counting kana to fit the syllable count. Shrugging her shoulders, she knew that what she had written wasn’t very good. It either came all at once, or not at all. Everything was practice for that one moment.
Next to her, Sachi was writing quickly. She had five, maybe six lines of kanji and was working on yet another.
Hisa folded back what she’d written and tried to start again. It was impolite to stare too long at Sachi, which might be considered a kind of cheating. Sachi was wearing a silky scarf today with a gold pin to hold it in place on her shoulder. Sachi was small-boned, her hair still black except for wingtips of white at the temples.
She felt jealous, even though she knew she shouldn’t be. She’d won one or two prizes from before when she was something of a beginner. These days, Hisa was stuck. She didn’t want just a pretty picture. She wanted the surprise, the unusual comparison that added depth and thoughtfulness.
Hisa didn’t know how Sachi had managed so much misfortune in her life. Somehow, her friend had crossed a line and made the next step. Maybe it had to do with her move to a smaller apartment, with her husband who’d had a stroke and always was on the verge of getting better. Maybe it had to do with the death of her daughter’s firstborn–a little boy all chubby-cheeked and fat-armed. He’d been laid down on his stomach to sleep for the night. Sometime in the early morning, he’d stopped breathing. Nobody talked about him except in lowered voices to say they were sorry. People shushed each other, tiptoeing around as if the baby were still alive and would awaken. What would help Hisa improve her poetry?
When all pencils had stopped writing, Mr. Higashi went around the circle. Every one read one new poem. Hisa watched as Mr. Higashi’s brush dipped into the sumi ink, how his hand held the brush horizontal to the butcher paper. Quickly, Mr. Higashi stroked down, the calligraphy flowing like river eddies. Hisa had only the one attempt. As she read her senryu out loud, she was embarrassed to see her work copied down next to her fellow writers’. Hisa shook her head; she thought she knew what she was trying to say. When she wrote, “Visiting home country,’ where was she talking about? Whose face had she been looking for in the crowds? Why did her words seem like gibberish?
Mrs. Beppu had a strong image of foot tracks in the snow leading home. Hisa liked the idea of routine as an invisible chain. And there was Mr. Niimoto’s poem about the fireplace as the heart of a home. Everyone laughed at Mrs. Komatsu’s reference to purple eggplants. But again, Sachi’s poem was the best. It earned nine red-inked spots, nine votes out of their fourteen. Mr. Higashi presented her with a small red lacquer box as her prize.
Then it was time for the box lunches. Two waitresses came from the restaurant upstairs with big trays. Hisa asked Mr. Higashi about his adjustment to retirement, watching as Sachi fiddled with the napkin on her lap. Hisa split her chopsticks into two. She sipped her miso soup, and alternately took small bites of rice and pickled radish. Again, she noticed the contrast: the starchy solid rice quieting her noisy stomach and the sharp vinegar of the bright yellow daikon with its crunch between her teeth.
Hisa looked up. Sachi hadn’t eaten anything; her chopsticks pushed the food around. But Sachi’s eyes were bright as she tilted her head, studying the red lacquer box. Hisa thought, maybe what Sachi had was a different kind of hunger.
Hisa chewed a slice of beef teriyaki and swallowed. A piece was stuck at the edge of her back molar. Not the image, but the senryu’s message came to her then in a quick flash: “Gain and Loss. Come and Go. It is a parallel line.’ Something was started; something Hisa knew. The message was something to explore.
Sharon Hashimoto’s poems and stories have appeared in or are forthcoming in North American Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Raven Chronicles and Louisiana Literature. She is currently at work on a novel.