A FEW weeks later the children and I, with capable little Sudzu in the kitchen, were settled in a pretty home in Tokyo. The arrangement with Matsuo’s family was that some one of the relatives would visit us at intervals to see that everything was satisfactory; and that I was to consult the council about every new, even trifling, problem which might arise.

I was chained—but I was content.

My relatives in Nagaoka were much concerned over my peculiar position; and Mother, because it would be undignified for a young widow to be alone, decided to come and live with us. Not being able, however, to make immediate arrangements, she sent Taki, who was now a widow, and who, because her father and her grandfather had served in our family, had claimed the right to return to Mother and calmly settle herself as a member of the household. When she came to Tokyo she at once assumed the combined responsibilities of chaperon, housekeeper, cook, seamstress, and commander-general of us all—including Sudzu.

In less than three days Taki had discovered the best fish-shop in the neighbourhood; and in less than a week all second-rate vegetable venders and fruit peddlers went trotting by our kitchen door, holding their swinging baskets away from the keen eyes of our countrywoman who knew so well when the first blush of freshness was gone.

From the first I relied entirely upon Taki’s judgment. Nevertheless, I had some annoying experiences, for to her heart I was still little Etsu-bo Sama, although her lips acknowledged that I had reached the dignified position of “Oku Sama”—Honourable Mistress—and although I had acquired some wonderful ideas and possessed two astonishingly active children, who dressed queerly and talked too loud.

My troubles began the very first night. After Taki had closed the outside gates and fastened the front and kitchen doors I heard her sliding the wooden panels which ran along the outer edge of the porch overlooking the garden. These were for protection in stormy weather and to keep us safe at night, but when closed they shut out the air completely.

“Don’t close the amadoes tight, Taki,” I called. “Leave a little space between them. We need fresh air for the rooms.”

Maa! Maa!” cried Taki, with profound astonishment in her voice. “You left your home when you had but little learning, Oku Sama. Air without the smile of the august Sun goddess has poison in it.”

“But, Taki,” I protested, “this is like a foreign house. It has gas for the heaters, and we need outside air, even at night.”

She hesitated, evidently much distressed.

“It may be that air in the honourable foreign house is different,” she muttered, “but it seems peculiar—peculiar. And besides, it is not safe in a great city where burglars live.”

She walked away shaking her head and grumbling to herself. Feeling that I had established my authority, I went to bed, only to be awakened by a stealthy, intermittent rumbling, which presently ended in a muffled snap as Taki pushed in the wooden bolt of the last panel.

“Well,” I said to myself, half provoked, half amused, “Taki always had her own way, even with the jailer of Nagaoka prison. So what could I expect!”

Like many Japanese women of the working class, Taki had been obliged to take a large share of the burden of livelihood on her own shoulders. Her husband was a kind man and a good workman, but he drank too much sake, and that meant not only a mysterious slipping away of wages, but frequent imprisonment for debt.

Whenever this happened Taki came to our home, and Mother would give her employment until she had saved enough to set her husband free. One day while she was working for us, my older sister went out with her on an errand. Just beyond the gate they saw two men approaching. One was a well-dressed man, his head covered with the basket mask worn by all prisoners outside the walls. Sister said that Taki stood still, watching the men suspiciously, and did not seem surprised when they stopped.

The officer bowed and said pleasantly: “Only three yen is due now. Pay that and he is free.”

“Oh, please, Mr. Officer,” exclaimed Taki in great distress, “please keep him just a few weeks longer. Then I shall have all the debts paid and a little start for the next time. Please keep him just a little longer. Please!”

The husband, poor man, stood meekly by while his wife and the officer argued, but Taki stubbornly refused to pay the three yen, and the officer walked away with his basket-headed prisoner. Taki stood looking after them, triumphant. But a few moments later she pulled a fold of paper from her sash and, wiping her eyes, sniffed a few times and said: “Come, little Mistress; we have wasted much time. We must hurry!”

I said nothing more about not closing the amadoes, but several days later I had a carpenter put up a wide, open-work strip of carved iris—the flower of health—between the eaves and the top of the panels. At intervals were inserted iron bars run through the hollow tubes of bamboo. Thus we were safe in every way; for not enough poison air could filter through the health-giving blossoms of the carving to injure us, even in the opinion of our good, fanatical Taki.

The children surprised me by the readiness with which they accepted conditions in this strange land. Hanano, from babyhood, had been attracted by new things, and I concluded that our life of constant change had kept her from homesickness. And three-year-old Chiyo—who had always been a contented little thing—seemed so happy in the unbroken companionship of her sister that I did not realize the possibility of her having opinions and desires of her own. While we were visiting she expected strange things, but when we reached a place that I called “home” and she found her clothing arranged in drawers and her playthings put where she could get them, she began to miss many things.

“Mamma,” she said one day, coming up and leaning against my shoulder as I sat sewing, “Chiyo wants——”

“What does Chiyo want?” I asked.

She took my hand and led me slowly through our six tiny rooms. White mats were on all the floors except the kitchen. In the parlour alcove hung a roll picture with a flower arrangement on the polished platform beneath. A small upright piano stood in one corner. Sliding doors of silk separated the parlour from my own and the children’s rooms, side by side, just beyond. In both, standing against the tan-coloured plaster wall, were whitewood chests of drawers with ornamental iron handles. My desk and Hanano’s, both low white tables with books and pen-stands on top, were so placed that, when the paper sliding doors were pushed back, we could see across the narrow porch into our pretty little garden with its well-trimmed shrubbery, its curved path of stepping-stones, and its small lake with nine darting gold-fish.

The dining room, at right angles to our rooms, overlooked the garden, too. It was the sunniest room in the house. The closets were hidden by sliding doors covered with tan-coloured tapestry, and the long, square-cornered fire-box with drawers—the invariable adjunct of every dining room in Japan—was a handsome one of white birch. On one side was always a cushion, ready any moment for the mistress when she came to talk over house matters with the maid, called from the kitchen just behind another tan-coloured door which looked a part of the wall. The bathroom, Taki’s and Sudzu’s room, and the servants’ entrance, were just beyond. Our own “shoe-off place” and entrance hall were in front, opening toward the big wooden gates with the “camel’s-eye door” in one of them.

From room to room Chiyo led me, stopping in each and pointing aimlessly here and there. “Chiyo wants——” she repeated, but her wants were so many that she had no words. The emptiness, which I loved, oppressed her. She longed for the big canopy beds of Mother’s home, for the deep-cushioned chairs, the large mirrors, the big square piano, the flowered carpets and the windows curtained with lace, the high ceilings, the wide rooms, the spaciousness! I looked at the wistful little face and my heart smote me. But when she pulled my sleeve and, burying her face in the folds of my dress, said piteously, “Oh, Mamma, take me home to Grandma and Papa’s picture! Please! Please!” I caught her in my arms and, sinking to the floor, hugged her close and, for the first time since I could remember, I sobbed aloud.

But this could not last. Where was my samurai blood? Where my childhood training? Had my years of unrestrained freedom in America weakened my character and taken away my courage? My honourable father would be shamed.

“Come, Little Daughter,” I said, choking and laughing together, “Chiyo has shown Mamma what we have not in our new house; now Mamma will show Chiyo what we have.”

So, gaily we went over the same road. In the parlour I pushed back the low silk doors beneath the moon window, and we saw two deep shelves in which were neatly arranged all of Hanano’s and Chiyo’s pretty books from America. I pointed to the wonderful panel over the doors—a broad, thin slab of wood, strangely delicate and beautiful—carved by unknown years of dashing waves into its odd, inimitable pattern. I showed her the post of the alcove: only the scaled and twisted trunk of a forest pine, yet so polished that it looked as if it were enclosed in crystal. We looked at the rich, dark wood of the alcove floor, “as smooth and shining as Grandma’s mirrors in the big parlour at home,” I told her, and she bent over to see the reflection of a grave little face, changing, as she looked, into one with a twisty smile. In another room I opened the tiny door of our unused shrine. Within the dainty carved interior stood her father’s picture, framed in America, which was to hang over the piano when the carpenter could come to put it up. I showed her the big closets where our bed cushions slept in the daytime, gathering, in their silken flowers, talk, music, and laughter to weave into pleasant dreams for her to find hidden in her pillow at night. I gently opened the wee mountain of ashes in the dining-room fire-box so that she could see the softly glowing charcoal, always waiting with warmth and comfort for any one who wanted a sip of tea. I had her peep into the tiny drawers—one for small rice-cakes of pink and white, in case a child should come to visit, one for extra chopsticks, and one for a tiny can of tea with its broad wooden spoon near by. But the big, broad drawer at the bottom—Oh, dear! Oh, dear!—we didn’t need at all. That was made for some old-fashioned grandmother who sometimes, after she had told a fairy story to her little grandchild, would reach in for a long, slender pipe with a silver thimble for a bowl. After three whiffs she would tap it on the edge of the box—just here—three times, tap-tap-tap, and then put it away with its fragrant silken bag (sniff, sniff!—poof, poof! Mamma doesn’t like!) to wait for another time of meditation or loneliness, or perhaps for an hour when another dear old grandmother might chance to call. Then there would be three more whiffs, or perhaps double three, while the two grandmothers sipped their tea and talked in gentle voices of olden time.

“And here is where Sudzu keeps the boats of the food fairies,” I said, “all waiting for their burden of good things to eat.”

I pushed back one of the panels which didn’t look at all like a door, and we peeped into a closet of many shallow shelves, on which, in piles of five, were wooden bowls for soup, china bowls for rice, oval plates for fish, deep ones for pickles, and many plates and cups and dishes, each shaped for a special purpose and each decoration telling a story of old Japan. Below were our lacquer tables, each a foot square and a foot high; and piled up, a little distance away, were our cushions,

Just One and Two and Three,
For She and Her and Me!”

as Hanano sang when Sudzu brought them out for meals.

“And now the kitchen,” I went on. “This door doesn’t slide, but opens by turning a little bronze pine-cone. Step into these sandals, Chiyo; for no one goes into the kitchen with only foot mittens on—or stockings. Here we are! One half the floor is of smooth, dark boards, you see, and the other half—step down!—of cement. There is the gas range, and close beside it a pottery fire-box for the big swelling rice-kettle with its heavy wooden top. No bit of waste-paper or scrap of any kind must be thrown on that fire; only straw to start it and charcoal to continue it, for it is used just to cook rice—the staff of life for Japan—and we must treat it with respect. Here comes Taki; and now she will show us something, little Chiyo, that will make you want to run to the big box that smells all camphory, like the forest near Uncle Otani’s house, and get out the fur collar that Grandma gave you last Christmas Day. See!”

Taki stuck two fingers in two little holes in one of the narrow boards of the floor and lifted it; then other, and another. Next, up came a light, broad square of whitewood, and there, within easy reach of Taki’s hand, was a small cellar where was a block of ice, roughly cut in shelves, on which were set wooden plates of fish and vegetables, eggs and fruit.

“That is what becomes of the cold, cold bundle the man brings every morning in the straw saddle on his back,” I said. “And there is Taki’s wooden sink, standing high up from the cement part of the floor, just like a table with legs made of water-pipes.

“Now, turn to the right. Down the narrow little hall we go—five steps of mine and eight of yours—and here we are in the bathroom. The oval whitewood tub, with its two faucets above and little row of gaslights below, is so deep that even Mamma can kneel with the water up to her chin. Here are the three little shelves for our bran bag, cup, and toothbrush, each with a carved towel-hanger below; and over in the corner is a big bamboo basket for laundry and a coil of hose to water the garden. Oh, it’s a very interesting little house, Chiyo; just like a big play-house, with Mamma at home all the time to play with you when Hanano has gone to school.”


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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