Excerpted from Child’s Play, a translation of Takekurabe (たけくらべ）by Ichiyo Higuchi (1872–1896). Translated by Robert Danly Lyons, In the Shade of Spring Leaves, 1981 Yale University Press
He was ready to forget what he’d been angry about. For the price of a carriage ride, he was baby-sitting again, walking round with the child on his back and lulling it to sleep with nursery rhymes. He was 16, that age when boys get cocky, but the lumpish figure he cut failed to trouble him. He wandered over to the Main Street, unconcerned as always. “Hey Sangoro. Have you forgotten you’re a boy?” Midori and Shouta were great ones when it came to teasing. “Some sight you make, with that baby on your back!” It didn’t matter, they were still his friends.
In spring the cherry trees blossom in profusion. In summer the lanterns twinkle in memory of the late Tamagiku. In fall the festival streets overflow with rickshaws. Count them: seventy-five down the road within the space of ten minutes. Then the autumn holidays are over. Here and there a red dragonfly bobs above the rice fields. Before long, quail will be calling out along the moat. Mornings and evenings, the breeze blows cold. At the sundries shop, pocket wamers now take the place of mosquito incense. It’s sad, somehow, that faint sound of the mortar grinding flour at Tamura’s, over by the bridge. The clock at Kadoebi’s has a melancholy ring. Fires glow through all four seasons from the direction of Nippori. It’s in autumn that one begins to notice them. Smoke rises each time one more soul embarks on the journey to the other shore.
Women who have done time in the quarter will tell you – it’s the men who begin visting in fall who prove to be the truly faithful ones.
Deftly, a geisha plays on the samisen. The refrain reaches the path along the bank behind the teahouse. A passerby looks up and listens. Not much of a song, really, but moving all the same. “Together we shall spend our night of love.” Women who have done time in the quarter will tell you – it’s the men who begin visting in fall who prove to be the truly faithful ones.
Talk, talk: in this neighbourhood, there is always grist for gossip. The details are tedious, but the stories make the rounds. A blind masseuse, she was only twenty, killed herself. With a handicap like hers, love was out of the question. Well she couldn’t stand it any more. Drowned herself in Minunoya Pond. Then there are the incidents too commonplace to rate a rumour. Missing persons: Kichigorou, the greengrocer, and Takichi, the carpenter. How come? “They picked them up for this,” a fellow whispers, and pantomimes a gambler dealing cards.
A moment ago there were children there, down the street. “Ring-a-ring-a-rosy, pocket full of posies.” Suddenly it’s quiet now, before you notice. Only the sound of rickshaws, as loud as ever.
It was a lonely night. Just when it seemed the autumn rains would go on and on falling softly, with a roar a downpour came. At the paper shop they were not expecting anyone. The shopkeeper’s wife had closed up for the evening. Inside, playing marbles, were Shouta and Midori, as usual, and two or three of the younger ones. All at once, Midori heard something: “Is that a customer? I hear footsteps.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Shouta said. He stopped counting out the marbles. “Maybe someone wants to play.”
Who could it be? They heard him come as far as the gate, but after that, not a word, not a sound.
“Boo!” Shouta opened the door and stuck his head out. “Hey, who’s there?” He could just make out the back of someone walking along beneath the eaves two or three houses up ahead. “Who is it? Do you want to come in?” He had slipped Midori’s sandals on and was about to run after him, in spite of the rain. “Oh, it’s him.” Shouta cupped his hand above his head, mimicking a bald monk. “No use – we can call him all we want, he won’t come.”
He makes that pious, old-maid face of his and goes sneaking round corners. Isn’t he awful? My mother says, people who are straightforward are the good ones.”
“Nobu?” Midori asked. “That old priest! I’ll bet he came to buy a writing brush and scurried off the minute he heard us. Nasty, stupid, toothless, old-maid Nobu! Just let him come in. I’ll tell him what I think. Too bad he ran away. Let me have the sandals. I want a look.” This time Midori poked her head out. The rain dripped down from the eaves onto her forehead. It gave her a chill. She pulled back, staring at the shadowy figure as he made his way around the puddles. He was four or five houses away by now, and he seemed to cower in the gaslight. His paper umbrella hugged his shoulders. She looked and looked.
Shouta tapped her on the shoulder. “Midori, what is it?”
“Nothing,” she said absent-mindedly, returning to the game. “I hate that little altar boy! He can’t even conduct his fights in public. He makes that pious, old-maid face of his and goes sneaking round corners. Isn’t he awful? My mother says, people who are straightforward are the good ones. She’s right, don’t you think, Shouta? It’s a sure thing Nobu has an evil heart, the way he lurks around.”
“But at least he knows what’s what. Not like Choukichi, there’s a real moron. The boy’s a total ignoramus,” Shouta said knowingly.
“Cut it out. You and your big words.” Midori laughed and pinched him on the cheek. “Such a serious face! Since when are you so grown up?”
Shouta was not amused. “For your information, it won’t be long before I am grown up. I’ll wear a topcoat with square-cut shoulders like the shopkeeper at Kabata’s, and the gold watch Grandmother’s put away for me. I’ll wear a ring I’ll smoke cigarettes. And for shoes – you’re not going to see me in any clogs. Oh no. I’ll wear leather sandals, the good kind, with triple-layered heels and fancy satin straps. Won’t I look sharp!”
“You in triple heels and a square-cut overcoat?” Midori couldn’t help snickering. “Mm, sure, if you want to look like a walking medicine bottle.”
“Oh quiet. You don’t think I’ve stopped growing, do you? I won’t be this short forever.”
“Seeing is believing. You know, Shouta,” Midori said, pointing a sarcastic finger at the rafters, “even the mice laugh when you keep making these promises.” Everyone, the shopkeeper’s wife included, shook with laughter.
Oh but you’re old. I’m talking about brides. Once you’re old, it doesn’t matter.”
His eyes spun; Shouta was completely serious. “Midori makes a joke of everything. But everyone grows up, you know. Why is what I say so funny? The day will come when I go walking with my pretty wife. I always like things to be pretty. If I had to marry someone like that pock-marked Ofuku at the cracker shop, or the girl at the firewood store with the bulging forehead – no thank you. I’d send her home. No pockmarks for me!”
“How good of you to come, then,” the shop wife laughed. “Haven’t you noticed my spots?”
“Oh but you’re old. I’m talking about brides. Once you’re old, it doesn’t matter.”
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” the woman sighed. “Well, let’s see now. There’s Oroku at the flower shop. She has a pretty face. And Kii at the fruit stand. And who else? Who else, I wonder? Why, the prettiest one is sitting right next to you. Shouta, who will it be? Oroku with those eyes of hers? Kii and her lovely voice? Tell us who.”
“What are you talking about? Oroku, Kii – what’s so good about them?” Shouta’s face turned scarlet, and he backed away from the light, into a corner.
“Does that mean it’s Midori, then?”
“How do I know?” He looked away, tapping out a song against the wall. “The water wheel goes round and round.”
Midori and the rest had begun another game of marbles. Her face was not flushed in the slightest.
Ichiyo Higuchi was Japan’s first widely celebrated modern female author. She lived destitute around the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter and died aged 24. There is a museum about her in Iriya. Her portrait is on the 5,000-yen note.
Happy Children’s Day! May 5, 2014
Koinobori kombu from Konbu no Kawahito.
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