THE pleasant days of New Year barely lasted through the holidays. We usually left the mochi cakes on the tokonoma until the fifteenth, but it was everywhere the custom to remove the pines from the gateways on the morning of the eighth day. There was a tradition (which nobody believed, however) that during the seventh night the trees sink into the earth, leaving only the tips visible above the ground. Literally, this was true that year, for when we wakened on the morning of the eighth, I found the three-foot paths filled and our whole garden a level land of snow about four feet deep. Our low pines at the gateway were snowed under, and we saw nothing more of them until spring.

Every coolie in Nagaoka was busy that day, for the snow was unexpected and heavy. More followed, and in a few weeks we children were going to school beneath covered sidewalks and through snow tunnels; and our beautiful New Year was only a sunshiny memory.

One afternoon, as I was coming home from school, a postman, in his straw coat and big straw snow-shoes, came slipping down through a tunnel opening, from the snowy plain above.

Maa! Little Mistress,” he called gaily, when he saw me, “I have mail for your house from America.”

“From America!” I exclaimed, greatly surprised; for a letter from a foreign land had never come to us before. It was an exciting event. I tried to keep the postman in sight as he hurried along the narrow walk between the snow wall and the row of open-front shops. Occasionally he would call out “A message!”—“A message!” and stop to put mail into an outstretched hand. The path was narrow and I frequently was jostled by passing people, but I was not far behind the postman when he turned into our street. I knew he would go to the side entrance with the mail; so I hurried very fast and had reached Grandmother’s room and already made my bow of “I have come back,” before a maid entered with the mail. The wonderful letter was for Mother, and Grandmother asked me to carry it to her.

My heart sank with disappointment; for my chance to see it opened was gone. I knew that, as soon as Mother received it, she would take it at once to Grandmother, but I should not be there. Then Grandmother would look at it very carefully through her big horn spectacles and hand it back to Mother, saying in a slow and ceremonious manner, “Please open!” Of course she would be agitated, because it was a foreign letter, but that would only make her still more slow and ceremonious. I could see the whole picture in my mind as I walked through the hall, carrying the big, odd-shaped envelope to Mother’s room.

That evening after family service before the shrine, Grandmother kept her head bowed longer than usual. When she raised it she sat up very straight and announced solemnly, with the most formal dignity, almost like a temple service, that the young master, who had been in America for several years, was to return to his home. This was startling news, for my brother had been gone almost since I could remember and his name was never mentioned. To call him the “young master” was sufficient explanation that the unknown tragedy was past, and he reinstated in his position as a son. The servants, sitting in the rear of the room, bowed to the floor in silent congratulation, but they seemed to be struggling with suppressed excitement. I did not stop to wonder why. It was enough for me to know that my brother was coming home. I could scarcely hold the joy in my heart.

I must have been very young when my brother went away, for though I could distinctly recall the day he left, all memory of what went before or came immediately after was dim. I remember a sunny morning when our house was decorated with wondrous beauty and the servants all wore ceremonial dress with the Inagaki crest. It was the day of my brother’s marriage. In the tokonoma of our best room was one of our treasures—a triple roll picture of pine, bamboo, and plum, painted by an ancient artist. On the platform beneath was the beautiful Takasago table where the white-haired old couple with rake and broom were gathering pine needles on the shore. Other emblems of happy married life were everywhere, for each gift—and there were whole rooms full—was decorated with small figures of snowy storks, of gold-brown tortoises, or beautiful sprays of entwined pine, bamboo, and plum. Two new rooms, which had been recently built, were full of beautiful lacquer toilet cases and whitewood chests with iron clasps. They had come the day before, in a procession of immense trays swinging from poles on the shoulders of coolies. Each was covered with a cloth bearing a crest not ours.

Ishi and I wandered from room to room, she explaining that the bride for the young master would soon be there. She allowed me one peep into the wedding room. It was all white and plain and empty except for the offerings to the gods on the tokonoma and the little table with the three red cups for the sacred promise.

Ishi was continually running to look out toward the big entrance gate, and of course wherever she went I was close by, holding to her sleeve. The whole house was open. The sliding doors of every room were pushed back and we could see clear to the big open gateway at the end of the stone walk. Just beneath its narrow thatch was looped a dark-blue curtain bearing the Inagaki crest and on each side were tall slender stands holding lanterns of congratulation. Near one of the stone posts was the “seven-and-a-half-times” messenger in his stiff-sleeved garment. He had returned from his seventh trip to see if the bridal procession was coming, and though the day was bright with sunshine, was just lighting his big lantern for his last trip to meet it halfway—thus showing our eagerness to welcome the coming bride.

Presently Ishi said that the procession was almost here and I saw the servants hurrying toward the entrance, all smiling, but moving with such respectful quiet that I could hear plainly the creaking of the bride’s palanquin and the soft thud of the jinrikisha men’s feet as they came up the hill.

Then suddenly something was wrong. Ishi caught my shoulder and pulled me back, and Brother came hurriedly out of Father’s room. He passed us with long, swinging strides, never looking at me at all, and, stepping into his shoes on the garden step, he walked rapidly toward the side entrance. I had never seen him after that day.

The maiden my brother was to have married did not return to her former home. Having left it to become a bride, she was legally no longer a member of her father’s family. This unusual problem Mother solved by inviting her to remain in our home as a daughter; which she did until finally Mother arranged a good marriage for her.

In a childish way I wondered about all the strangeness, but years had passed before I connected it with the sudden going away at this time of a graceful little maid named Tama, who used to arrange flowers and perform light duties. Her merry laugh and ready tongue made her a favourite with the entire household. Tama was not a servant. In those days it was the custom for daughters of wealthy tradesmen to be sent to live for a short time in a house of rank, that the maiden might learn the strict etiquette of samurai home life. This position was far from menial. A girl living with a family for social education was always treated with respectful consideration.

The morning after my brother went away I was going, as usual, to pay my morning greetings to my father when I met Tama coming from his door, looking pale and startled. She bowed good morning to me and then passed quietly on. That afternoon I missed her and Ishi told me that she had gone home.

Whatever may have been between my brother and Tama I never knew; but I cannot but feel that, guilt or innocence, there was somewhere a trace of courage. My brother was weak, of course, to prolong his heart struggle until almost the last moment, but he must have had much of his father’s strong character to enable him, even then, to break with the traditions of his rigid training and defy his father’s command. In that day there could be only a hopeless ending to such an affair, for no marriage was legal without the consent of parents, and my father, with heart wounded and pride shamed, had declared that he had no son.

It was not until several years later that I heard again of my brother. One afternoon Father was showing me some twisting tricks with a string. I was kneeling close beside his cushion, watching his rapidly moving hands and trying to catch his fingers in my own. Mother was sitting near with her sewing, and all three of us were laughing.

A maid came to the door to say that Major Sato, a Tokyo gentleman whom my father knew very well, had called. I slipped back by Mother. She started to leave the room, but Father motioned her not to go, and so we both remained.

I shall never forget that scene. Major Sato, speaking with great earnestness, told how my brother had gone to Tokyo and entered the Army College. With only his own efforts he had completed the course with honour and was now a lieutenant. There Major Sato paused.

My father sat very still with his head held high and absolutely no expression on his stern face. For a full minute the room was so silent that I could hear myself breathe. Then my father, still without moving, asked quietly, “Is your message delivered, Major Sato?”

“It is finished,” was the reply.

“Your interest is appreciated, Major Sato. This is my answer: I have daughters, but no son.”

Mother had sat perfectly quiet throughout, with her head bowed and her hands tightly clasped in her lap. When Father spoke she gave a little shudder but did not move.

Presently Father turned toward her. “Wife,” he said very gently, “ask Ishi to bring the go board, and send wine to the honourable guest.”

Whatever was in the heart of either man, they calmly played the game to the end, and Mother and I sat there in the deep silence as motionless as statues.

That night when Ishi was helping me undress, I saw tears in her eyes.

“What troubles you, Ishi?” I asked. “Why do you almost cry?”

She sank to her knees, burying her face in her sleeves, and for the only time in my life I heard Ishi wail like a servant. “Oh , Little Mistress, Little Mistress,” she sobbed, “I am not sad. I am glad. I am thankful to the gods that I am lowly born and can cry when my heart is filled with ache and can laugh when my heart sings. Oh, my dear, dear Mistress! My poor, poor Master!” And she still sobbed.

That was all long ago, and now, after many years, my brother was coming back to his home.

The snow went away, the spring passed and summer was with us. It seemed a long, long wait, but at last came a day when the shrine doors were opened early in the morning and the candles kept burning steadily hour after hour, for Grandmother wanted the presence of the ancestors in the welcome to the wanderer, and as the trip from Tokyo was by jinrikisha and kago in those days, the time of arrival was very uncertain. But at last the call “Honourable return!” at the gateway brought everyone except Grandmother to the entrance. We all bowed our faces to the floor, but nevertheless I saw a man in foreign dress jump from his jinrikisha, give a quick look around, and then walk slowly up the old stone path toward us. He stopped at one place and smiled as he pulled a tuft of the little blossoms growing between the stones. But he threw it away at once and came on.

The greetings at the door were very short. Brother and Mother bowed, he speaking gently to her and she looking at him with a smile that had tears close behind. Then he laughingly called me “the same curly-haired, round-faced Etsu-bo.”

His foreign shoes were removed by Jiya, and we went in. Of course, he went to the shrine first. He bowed and did everything just right, but too quickly, and some way I felt troubled. Then he went to Grandmother’s room.

Immediately after greetings were over, Grandmother handed him Father’s lacquer letter-box. He lifted it to his forehead with formal courtesy; then, taking out the letter, he slowly unrolled it and, with a strange expression, sat looking at the writing. I was shocked to feel that I could not know whether that look meant bitterness, or amusement, or hopelessness. It seemed to be a combination of all three. The message was very short. In a trembling hand was written: “You are now the head of Inagaki. My son, I trust you.” That was all.

That evening a grand dinner was served in our best room. Brother sat next the tokonoma. All the near relatives were there, and we had the kind of food Brother used to like. There was a great deal of talking, but he was rather quiet, although he told us some things about America. I watched him as he talked. His strange dress with tight sleeves and his black stockings suggested kitchen people, and he sat cross-legged on his cushion. His voice was rather loud and he had a quick way of look ing from one person to another that was almost startling. I felt a little troubled and uncertain—almost disappointed; for in some puzzling way he was different from what I wanted him to be. But one thing I loved at once. He had the same soft twinkle in his eyes when he smiled that Father had. Every time I saw that, I felt that however different from Father he might look—or be—he really had the lovable part of Father in his heart. And in spite of a vague fear, I knew, deep, deep down, that whatever might happen in the days, or years, to come, I should always love him and should always be true to him. And I always have.


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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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