My mother was a photographer, before she became a wife. Each year when we went to the sea, Mama would play with me on the beach, taking roll after roll of film. Grandpa sent these off to Kodak to be made into Kodachrome slides, and in the autumn, as the leaves darkened and we returned to Tokyo, my mother would open a bottle of Coca-Cola at Grandpa’s home in Meguro and we would watch the slides all at once on the projector.
I still have them, these home movies of sorts; they are in the basement of the Meguro house, filed away in narrow leather boxes. Sometimes I go down there to look at the slides. They are beautiful, each one a rectangular jewel encased in white card. I can see my mother in miniature biting the cone of an ice cream; me in the sand with my red bucket, my swimsuit damp from the sea; Grandpa sheltering under an umbrella, even though he is already in the shade.
I have other memories too, but they are not of Shimoda. These appear to me as glimpses and flashes. In my mind’s eye, the line of the coast straightens, the rocky inlets of Shimoda are replaced by an open harbor, and I hear the slap of my feet on concrete as I run and run. There are moments of clarity, liquid scenes: I see a yacht on the waves, its sails stretched taut; I feel strong arms lifting me into the air; I turn away from the bright sun glinting off a camera lens; a man’s hand offers me a cone of red bean ice cream, a man with long elegant fingers that do not belong to my father.
I have never found these images in my grandfather’s basement, nor have I seen that harbor in any of our photographs. But sometimes, I wake in the night to the caramel scent of red beans. A breeze lingers in the air and there is an echo of people talking in the distance, but perhaps it is only the whir of the ceiling fan and the scent of buns left to cool in the kitchen, which Hannae, Grandpa’s housekeeper, taught me to make.
I asked Grandpa once about these memories of mine. He said I was remembering our summers in Shimoda. When I continued to look at him, he laughed and motioned for me to sit beside him on the stool by his chair. He reached for a pile of books stacked on the edge of his shelves, his fingers tracing the hardbacks, paperbacks, and volumes of poetry. “Which one will it be today?” he asked.
Years later, I was standing in my grandfather’s study when the lies that wrapped around my life finally began to unravel. I was due to give a talk to the final-year law students at Tōdai, and I was dressed in a navy suit, my hair pulled back into a sleek pony- tail, immaculate but late, for I had lost my notes.
I remember that I was leaning over Grandpa’s desk, casting the papers into disorder. I had passed the Japanese bar a year before and my legal apprenticeship with the Supreme Court in Wakō City was drawing to a close. I had just completed the final exams, so all my cases from the long months of rotations with judges, public prosecutors, and attorneys were stacked across every surface. Grandpa had gone to stay at an onsen with friends, but long before that he had ceded his office to me, too delighted by my professional choices and the job offer from Nomura & Higashino to question the invasion.
Crossing to the leather armchair in the corner of the room, I leafed through the files I’d left on the seat. Following my long daily commute home from Wakō, I often fell asleep reading there. In the past year I had taken on extra cases in an effort to stand out from the other trainees, and I’d worked hard to build up my network among the attorneys and prosecutors, but the lack of sleep was catching up with me.
I was kneeling on the floor, my hand outstretched towards a sheaf of papers that might have been my notes, when the phone started to ring. My life was in that room: certificates from childhood and university, the framed newspaper article on Grandpa’s most famous case, the folder on current events that he kept for me. Each morning before work, Grandpa would sit at the breakfast table, sipping his favorite cold noodles and cutting clippings from the day’s news so I would not get caught out. I had read every article, every story in that room, except mine. I was so caught up in the paraphernalia of my life that I almost didn’t hear it.
“Hello?” I said, picking up the phone.
“Good afternoon,” the voice said. It was hesitant, female. “May I speak to Mr. Sarashima?”
I was distracted, so I mumbled into the receiver, glancing around the room. “I’m afraid he’s in Hakone at the moment. What is this regarding?”
“Is this the home of Mr. Yoshitake Sarashima?”
“Yes,” I repeated. “I am his granddaughter, Sumiko. How can I help?”
“Is this the household and family of Mrs. Rina Satō?”
“My mother is dead,” I replied, focusing on the phone and the person at the other end of the line. There was silence. For a moment I thought that the girl with the hesitant voice had hung up, but then I heard her take a breath. Over the earpiece she said, “I am calling from the Ministry of Justice, on behalf of the Prison Service. I am very sorry to disturb you, Miss Satō, but my call is regarding Kaitarō Nakamura.”
“Who is that?” I asked.
As my voice traveled into the silence, the line went dead.
People say that you can’t unring a bell, that words once spoken hang in the air with a life of their own. In the last year of my mother’s life, Grandpa started taking me to a temple in the city. The hum of the crowds surrounded us as we made our way towards Sensōji. As we walked I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of burning leaves and incense, and I tugged at Grandpa’s coat. He looked down and lifted me into his arms, continuing to walk through the market. It was a new ritual of ours, this weekly visit. He lifted me higher onto his hip, tucking my yellow skirt around my legs. I chattered to him as he walked, pointing out the things that caught my eye. There were over a hundred stalls stretching between the beginning of the avenue and Sensōji, and there was another arcade running east to west, but he always chose this approach because I liked it best; it contained my favorite treats.
“Manjū!” I demanded, pointing to a stall selling deep-fried jam buns in yam, cherry, sweet potato, or chocolate. I loved them all, but I lived for the red bean. “Manjū, Grandpa,” I repeated. Already a large queue was forming, spreading out beyond the store several lanes wide. People jostled one another, trying to get closer, as flavor by flavor the hot buns were lined up beneath the counter. A stocky middle-aged woman stood in the center of the crowd moving sales along; she pushed people forward and then would shove them away again as soon as they collected their buns, almost in one fluid motion.
I pointed at a tray of golden manjū, but Grandpa shook his head. “Red bean!” I squealed.
“Later, Sumiko,” he said while I pulled at his hair in annoyance. “Did you bring Mummy here?”
“Yes, when she was small,” Grandpa replied, shifting me on his hip. I was perhaps getting too big to carry, but he didn’t seem to mind. He said he wanted to remember me at this age.
“Where is Mummy?” I asked. “She’s shopping.”
“Why didn’t she take me?”
“I wanted to spend time with you.” “I want—”
“Your mother and I started coming here when she was just as old as you are now,” he continued as I began to lean away from him again towards the bun stall.
“Sumichan!” Grandpa put me down on the ground. “Temple first,” he scolded, and held out his hand for me to take. In the midst of the crowds, I pressed against his legs and my fingers tangled with his; I did not like to be surrounded by the other people and tourists. I was quiet as we passed beneath the Thunder Gate, but when we approached the red pillars of the inner gate with their giant hanging sandals made of straw, I stretched to see if I could catch a glimpse of the great bell. It was one of the bells of time. My mother said that even the poet Bashō, hundreds of years ago, had heard it tolling through fields of flowers. For back then, when Tokyo was still Edo, the whole city was governed by these chimes, which told the people when to rise, eat, and sleep. Now the great bell was heard only at six o’clock each morning and on the first midnight of the New Year when it was rung 108 times for each of the 108 worldly desires that are said to enslave mankind. Grandpa had taken Mama and me to see it. His friends on the local board had secured us a place very near the bell, and even now I could feel each reverberation in the air, the silent pause while the cedar beam was drawn back and then released, followed by the mellow vibrations of the bronze.
Weaving through the throng, Grandpa made his way towards the incense burner in front of the temple. As we walked he told me that the smoke emanating from it had always reminded him not of purification, but of my mother when she was a child, washing herself in the waves while he held her up, her hair tied with white satin bows, her petticoats showing through her Sunday dress.
“Are you ready to go in?” Grandpa asked, and I nodded, contrite. He lifted me onto his hip once more and I smiled at him as he found a place for us in front of the burnished cauldron billowing smoke into the air. I leaned in and Grandpa wafted the incense towards me as I pretended to wash in it, scrubbing my face and hands.
“Are you pure now?” Grandpa asked. “Are you sure?” he teased. “No more naughty little girl?” He laughed when I smiled sweetly at him. “I know what you would like to do,” he said. “You would like to see your fortune.”
This too was a ritual of ours. Every time we came to Sensōji, before Grandpa said his prayers in the main temple, he would take me to the bureau of the one hundred drawers. He gave me a coin to throw between the slots and together we listened to the metal as it tumbled and fell into the donation box. Then he handed me a cylinder filled with long, slender sticks and let me shake it back and forth until one fell out.
Lifting the stick, I looked at the writing carved into the wood and we searched for the matching symbol on a drawer. When I found it, Grandpa reached inside and took the first sheet of paper off the pile. Then he handed it to me.
Grandpa watched as I shaped the words in my mouth, reading the fortune aloud. I loved these predictions. Even in the mountains I would ask Grandpa to buy them for me from the vending machines by the ski slopes. But that day, when I had finished reading, I was not sure what the fortune meant so I held out the paper to my grandfather. He smiled, giving me a slight bow, and murmured that he was glad to be of service. “What do we have here?” he asked, scanning the symbols, looking for the scale of luck in the top righthand corner. He lifted the paper higher and I heard his intake of breath. He turned away from me and I could see him looking at the wire that hung above the drawers, the wire where all the fortunes he would not explain to me were hung. There were several there that day, idly flapping in the wind.
I stepped forward as he tried to fold the fortune into a strip so he could tie it around the wire, but as he fumbled with the paper I snatched it from his hands.
“What does it mean?” I asked, peering at the symbols and characters again.
“We don’t want this one,” he said. “Let’s tie it up, so the wind can blow it away.”
“I want to know,” I said, stepping back from him, holding the fortune in my hands.
“Sumichan, give it to me. This one belongs to the wind.” “Tell!” I said, crumpling the thin sheet in my fist.
Grandpa reached for my hand and began to pry my fingers open. “Come on, Sumiko, I’ll get you another,” he said, but his eyes widened in horror as I shoved the wisp of paper into my mouth and began to chew. Some words are buried, others are even burned, but over the years they reemerge, ringing out like temple bells, rising above the din.
From What’s Left of Me Is Yours by Stephanie Scott. Used with the permission of the publisher, Doubleday. Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Scott.