Read an Excerpt
By Banana Yoshimoto
Grove Press The Haunted Mailbox
Copyright © 1989 Banana Yoshimoto.
All rights reserved.
It's true: Tsugumi really was an unpleasant young woman.
Leaving behind the town of my childhood, the quiet cycles of fishery and tourism that keep it running, I came to study at a certain university here in Tokyo. Now I'm having loads of fun, living in the city.
My name is Maria Shirakawa. I was named after the Virgin Mother.
Not that I'm particularly like her or anythingI'm not. And yet for some reason, all the new friends I've made since I moved to Tokyo tend to describe the way I am with words like "generous" and "levelheaded."
The truth is that I'm just a regular flesh-and-blood human being, and as a matter of fact I have a fairly short temper. Though in Tokyo I often catch myself wondering just what that's supposed to mean. People here are always getting angry about the smallest thingsbecause it's raining, for instance, or because some class has been canceled, or because their dog took a leak in the wrong place. I guess maybe there is something slightly different about me. Because when I lose my temper, it only takes a moment before I feel the anger start to sweep back like a wave and sink down into the sand ... For a long time I'd just assumed that this was because I grew up in the country, that I was just laid-back in the way country people are, but a few daysago this nasty professor refused to accept an essay of mine simply because I'd turned it in one minute late, and as I was walking back home, shaking with rage, glaring at the sunset, it suddenly occurred to me that there was another reason.
It's Tsugumi's faultor rather, it's thanks to Tsugumi.
Everyone gets annoyed about something at least once a day, me included. But I noticed that there was something I did whenever this happened to meat there was a sentence I would start chanting over and over deep down inside, like a sort of Buddhist chant, without even realizing that I was doing it. Compared to the pain Tsugumi gives me, this is nothing at all. It seemed that during the years I'd spent with Tsugumi, my body had come to understand in a hazy sort of way that, in the end, getting worked up really doesn't take you anywhere. And there was something else that I understood as I stared into the orange light of the gradually darkening skysomething that made me feel sort of like I wanted to cry.
For some reason it had occurred to me that love doesn't ever have to stop. It's like the national water system, I thought. No matter how long you leave the faucets running, you can be sure the supply won't give out.
This story you're reading contains my memories of the final visit I made to the seaside town where I passed my childhoodof my last summer at home. The various people from the Yamamoto Inn who appear as characters have now moved away, and it's unlikely that I'll ever have another opportunity to live with them. And so the only place left in this world to which my heart can return is there in the days I spent with Tsugumi, only there.
From the time she was born, Tsugumi was ridiculously frail, and she had a whole slew of physical ailments and defects. Her doctors announced that she would die young, and her family began preparing for the worst. Of course everyone around her spoiled her like you wouldn't believe. Her mother carted her around to hospitals all across Japan, not sparing any effort, offering up every ounce of her strength to try to extend Tsugumi's life even just a little. And so as Tsugumi toddled her unsteady way toward adulthood, she developed a personality that was just as pushy and insolent as it could be. She was strong enough that she could manage to lead a more or less normal life, but that just made matters worse. She was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky. The obnoxious smirk that always appeared on her face after she'd said the one thing that everyone present definitely didn't want to hearand said it at the most exquisitely wrong time, using the most unmistakably clear language and speaking in the ugliest, most disagreeable tonemade her seem exactly like the devil.
My mother and I lived in the guest house of the Yamamoto Inn.
The inn was Tsugumi's house.
My father was in Tokyo, having an awful time trying to work out a divorce with the woman he was married to then. The two of them had already been living apart for ages, and he and my mother wanted to be officially married. This meant a lot of coming and going for him, and you would have thought it would be kind of grueling, but he and my mother were always daydreaming about the day when all three of us would be able to live together in Tokyo as a real family, without needing to keep a low profile. Having that dream to hold on to seemed to make their lives fairly enjoyable. So in the end, although the situation may have looked somewhat complicated from the outside, I grew up as the untroubled only child of a man and woman very deeply in love.
My mother's younger sister, Aunt Masako, had married into the Yamamoto family, and now my mother spent her days helping out in the kitchen of the Yamamoto Inn. The Yamamoto family was composed of the following four members: Uncle Tadashi, who managed the inn; Aunt Masako; and their two daughters, Tsugumi and her older sister, Yoko.
If I had to make a list of the Top Three Victims of Tsugumi's Outrageously Nasty Disposition, the order would undoubtedly be: Aunt Masako, then Yoko, then me. Uncle Tadashi kept his distance. I have to confess, though, that just putting myself on this list seems like kind of a bad joke, it's so presumptuous. In the process of raising Tsugumi, the top two contenders for the prize became so thoroughly gentle and good that they seemed almost to have entered the realm of angels.
While I'm at it, I might as well clarify the age relationships. Yoko is one year older than me, and I'm one year older than Tsugumi. Not that I've ever, ever been aware that Tsugumi is younger than me. You get the feeling that she's been the same ever since she was a little girl, that she's just continued growing into her badness.
Whenever her condition worsened and she was forced to take to her bed, Tsugumi's ferocious temper would acquire an even sharper, more awesome edge. In order to facilitate her convalescence, she'd been given a beautiful room on the third floor of the inn, a room originally meant for two. She had the best view in the whole building, one looking out over the ocean. During the day, sunlight glinted on the water, and whenever it rained the waves would turn rough and misty, and at night the lights of several squid boats could always be seen shining through the dark. The ocean out there was beautiful.
Being healthy, I can't even begin to imagine how frustrating it must be to live through day after day of ambiguity, more or less sure that you're going to die before long, but never entirely certain. There is one thing I can imagine, though, and that's that if I were spending as much time lying in that room as she did, I would want to make that seascape and the scent of the tide something irreplaceable, something central to my life. But evidently that wasn't how Tsugumi saw matters at all. She would do things like shred her curtains or keep the storm windows closed as tight as possible, and sometimes she'd turn over her dishes at meals, and then maybe throw all the books on her shelves across the tatami-matted floor, leaving her room in a state that reminded you of The Exorcist and making even her always-gentle family moan. At one point she got seriously into witchcraft, and started keeping dozens of "familiars" in her roomslugs and frogs and crabs and so on. (There were always plenty of crabs around, so they were particularly convenient.) Tsugumi began sneaking these critters into guests' bedrooms, and of course this led to complaints, so ultimately Aunt Masako and Yoko and even Uncle Tadashi were driven to tears, anguished at the way she was behaving.
But even at times like that, Tsugumi sneered. "You're jerks sure are gonna feel like crap if I die tonight! Stop crying already?
The smirk she wore looked oddly like the savior Maitreya's smile.
And it's true, Tsugumi was beautiful.
Long black hair, translucent white skin, and large, very large eyes. Eyelids with thick lines of long eyelashes that cast pale shadows whenever she let her gaze fall. Her arms and legs were long and slim, her veins seemed to lie just beneath the surface of her skin, and her body was small and tighther physical appearance was so trim and gorgeous you could almost believe she was a doll fashioned that way by some god.
Ever since junior high, Tsugumi had made a sport of flirting with the boys in her class, getting them to come out with her for walks on the beach. Her boyfriends changed so often it was a joke, and you always had the feeling that in a town as small as ours she was bound to end up becoming the subject of some rather nasty rumors. But instead people just came to believe that her kindness and beauty totally overwhelmed everyone she came in contact with, leaving them hopelessly entranced. That's what the world saw of hera façade so charming the real Tsugumi would have seemed like someone else entirely. I suppose in the end we should just be glad that she didn't make passes at the guests who came to stay at the inn. I bet she could have turned the place into a whorehouse if she'd wanted.
In the evening, Tsugumi and whichever boy she was messing around with at the time would walk out along the tall concrete embankment that lined the beach, where they could look out over the gradually dimming bay. Birds would be swirling low under the tinted sky as the glittering sighs of the waves rushed quietly toward them. The beach, empty except for a single dog that was still out running around, seemed to stretch on like a desert, wide and white, and out in the water there were a few boats being tossed about by the wind. Off in the distance, silhouettes of islands began fading into mist, and a line of clouds faintly gleaming with red was slipping away beyond the sea.
Tsugumi walks slowly, ever so slowly.
Worried, the boy offers her his hand. She takes it in her own thin hand, keeping her head turned to the ground. Then she lifts her face and gives him a little smile. Her cheeks shine in the light of the sinking sun, and her face seems achingly fragile, like the overwhelming brilliance of the twilight sky, which keeps changing from instant to instant, never lingering for long. Her white teeth, her thin neck, her large eyes as they gaze into hisit all gets mixed up with the sand and the wind and the sound of the waves, and seems on the verge of dropping away into nothing. And of course it's actually true: She could cease to exist at any moment and no one would be at all surprised.
Tsugumi's white skirt flaps back and forth in the wind.
Every time I witnessed one of these scenes, I'd mutter to myself that it was certainly convenient the way she could go around transforming herself into completely different people like thatand yet even as I was cursing her I'd find myself on the edge of tears. Even for me, who ought to have known her true character well enough, those scenes on the beach had an aura of sadness about them that struck chords somewhere deep within me, filling my chest with pain.
* * *
Tsugumi and I became very close friends as the result of a certain incident. Of course, we hadknown each other even as children. If you could manage to put up with her maliciousness and her vicious tongue, she was actually lots of fun to play with. As she imagined it, our little fishing town was a world without boundaries. Each grain of sand was a particle of mystery. She was smart and she liked to study, so her grades tended to be fairly high for someone who stayed home sick as often as she did, and then she was always reading books about all kinds of things, so she knew a lot. And of course one has to be fairly intelligent to start with, to think up so many different ways of being mean.
During the early years of elementary school, Tsugumi and I played a game called "The Haunted Mailbox." Our school was located at the base of a small mountain, and there was a garden out back. In the garden there was this old box that used to have a thermometer and a barometer and so on insideclasses had used it to study the weatherbut now it was empty. The idea was that this box was connected to the spirit world and that letters from the other side would appear inside it. During the daytime we would go and put spooky stories or scary pictures that we had cut out of magazines inside, and then in the middle of the night we'd go back together and take them out. The garden where the box stood was an ordinary sort of place when the sun was up, but it certainly was frightening when you snuck out in the dark, and for a while we would both be totally absorbed in our game. But as time passed, "The Haunted Mailbox" got mixed up in all the other games we played back then, and eventually we forgot about it. In junior high I joined the basketball team, and practice was so demanding that I no longer had time to spend with Tsugumi. I'd fall asleep as soon as I got home, and there was always homework to do, and what with this and that she came to be nothing more than a cousin who lived next door. And then the incident occurred. As I recall, it was when I was in eighth grade, during spring vacation.
Excerpted from Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto. Copyright © 1989 by Banana Yoshimoto. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.