Hidari Wasayama signed her last article for the Ryukyu Standard and watered her rubber plant. Today was Keiro No Hi, Respect for the Aged Day. Celebrations would be held for those who had achieved a respectable number of years on the island, and as of August she was all of ninety-one.
Dignified light lanced the saggy windows on either side of her living room as she hustled to the front door. Outside, she surveyed the low houses along the road, the vegetable gardens and elderly people moving in twos and threes toward the community center. She stood in front of her porch and acknowledged the grass at her feet: it was healthy.
“Happy holiday, friend!” said her neighbor through his window.
Hidari lifted her head and eased the creases around her eyes so they widened, ricocheting sun back into gay paradise. “Hai sai, Tatsuo. I’ve just finished another piece, about the youth who respect their elders; there are many, no matter what these baby-boomers whine about. Don’t you think so?”
Tatsuo never answered one way or another. Like any farmer, he deferred judgment on whatever he could not crumble between his fingers. “I’d say you know more about it than me. Ask Aomi, she’ll be visiting tomorrow. Well, you remember. She brings that Pocky chocolate I like, or an audio book. You know my eyes aren’t too good anymore.”
Hidari tugged at the sapphires around her throat. She was small and trim and still elegant in an orchid-patterned sundress. “The eyes always do seem the first to fail, don’t they?”
Tatsuo beamed, mostly because Hidari had not taken offense at the mention of his granddaughter. Ms. Wasayama lacked what one might call a traditional family. “I think you have the honor of being the most senior person in Tsugunai now. Since Ms. Furama passed?”
Hidari weighed this pronouncement and burst into peppy laughter. “I suppose so, I hadn’t realized. In Naha they have at least fifty people over one hundred.”
“That may be true, but you’re far prettier than any of them.”
She folded her hands in front of her dress and sighed. “Tatsuo, you are very kind, even if I must disagree with you. I am an old woman.”
“Oh, no, no. You are the cornerstone of this town. Its heart! When I wake up I think, ‘Tatsuo, you are lucky you have someone like Ms. Wasayama right next door.’ And it’s true! Think of all you do for the island.”
“You are too indulgent.”
Tatsuo shrugged in non-repudiation, if not confirmation. His droopy, pleasant eyes scrolled this way and that while early-morning sun washed the lawn between them.
“Well, time for breakfast. So long, Hidari: happy holiday again! Best luck with your writing.”
Left alone, Hidari walked the half-kilometer to the ocean, treading the path from her backyard of ferns and hibiscus to the quieter dunes. The village of Tsugunai hid in a cove on the west side of the island, some two hours’ bus ride from the capital. Sugar cane and sweet yams crowded the fields kept by the farmers; a few cattle lowed in their pens outside the concrete houses, most of which were white and flat-topped with verandas in front. Hidari’s home followed the old style, with a red-shingled roof that sloped down into an overhang.
Out on the East China Sea teal breakers gamboled in the wind. Hidari traced the curve of the shore, holding her dress as the breeze passed, and came upon a boy tossing stones into the water. A pang of panic split her mind into ideograms that scattered across the sand like fallen go markers. Recovering, she clasped her hands, followed particles of grit as they sifted into brief patterns. A dolphin. A smiling fox. A helicopter.
The whiplash thrum of a V-22 Osprey broke the silence. Hidari looked up to the brightening sky but couldn’t see. Hybrid planes that took off without a runway, a menace to the village if one existed: dangerous, noisy, disreputable.
“Hello,” she called to the boy.
The child stopped and watched her. The choppering grew louder, to the level of a bloody dream.
“Hello, ma’am,” said the boy. In his hand he cradled a flat, sharp stone.
Hidari forced herself to smile. The bulky machine hove into view, breaking from the haze that lingered over the water. Its rotors cut the air like spinning claws.
“A shame, isn’t it?” she called. She did not know why she didn’t approach. Soon they wouldn’t be able to hear one another at all.
“About what?” said the boy. About what. You grow up with a white man in your yard and he is just another uncle. You don’t remember him cutting up your lawn and drenching it in fire. “Do you live here?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.” The roar of the Osprey faded and she plodded home, to drink tea at her wooden table, with the final draft of her article spread before her. Handwritten. The effort was slow and took a whole morning to complete, but Hidari had plenty of time. She woke at four, exercised and stretched, ate, wrote, spoke with journalists at the Standard. A committed freelancer, though she had a regular byline. With the rest of her day she lobbied for a freer island.
“Good morning, is this the Governor’s office?”
“It is—this is Secretary Ko Yamato.”
“Mr. Yamato. How forceful. I was wondering if the Governor was available to speak for a few moments.”
“Could I ask who is calling?”
“This is Hidari Wasayama from Tsugunai Village.”
“I see. And in what capacity are you calling?”
“I wish to speak with the Governor about a petition many of us have signed. Regarding the American bases.”
Silence blossomed on the line; soft static drifting into the kitchen from a Naha office. “Ms. Wasayama, I’m afraid the Governor is very busy, but please leave me a message and I will pass it along.”
“I will do so, but I’m afraid none of my messages seem to make it through to the Governor. He has not responded to any of them.”
“I see. Well, I will see that this message does. I am ready.”
“All right: Mr. Governor, I, Hidari Wasayama, wish to bring to your attention the People’s Petition for Okinawan Independence. As it stands we have four hundred and two signatures, all from citizens who wish to establish a separate and legitimate government, apart from Japan, for the continued good of the Okinawan people.”
Another silence. Hidari heard the man conferring with someone else. Then:
“Ms. Wasayama, are you aware that what you are discussing is illegal?”
“According to Japanese law, perhaps.”
“Okinawa is a Prefecture of Japan, and seceding from it is an unlawful act. I must tell you that I, too, am very busy, and must be on to important matters.”
“Other than my petition. Whose message you will pass on to the Governor.”
“I must go, Ms. Wasayama. The Governor’s Office sincerely appreciates your call.”
Hidari sat with the phone cord wrapped around her index finger. She suffered the dial tone for a few seconds and hung up. Her tea steamed on the table, flecked with swollen leaves.
She picked up the phone again and rang the local councilman.
“Hello, is this Mr. Amuro? This is Hidari Wasayama from the Okinawa Peace Society. I wish to inform you of a recent petition drawn up by several dozen citizens for the establishment of a peaceful and separate Okinawan state.”
“Ms…is this Hidari Wasayama?”
“Yes, it is.”
“The one who writes for the Ryukyu Standard?”
“Occasionally, yes, but I am not calling in a journalistic capacity today.”
“I apologize Ms. Wasayama, but I am very busy.”
Hidari sighed and watched the surf crawl up the beach toward her window. Her body was all clenched, despite the pleasant temperature.
A third attempt:
“Nayu Onryomi, please.” She gave her name and waited while the secretary transferred her. “Happy holiday, Nayu, I apologize for failing to call for several weeks.”
Nayu’s voice was like a dolphin chittering as it dove alongside the coast. “My dear, it is nothing, don’t be silly. You’ve never failed me in seventy years. But how is it now, all wrinkly and ninety-one? I can only pray to attain such a meaningful age.”
“Two more years for you, Nayu. You will do it and surpass all wrinkles I could ever accumulate!”
“I expect so, for you know as well as I do that I am doomed to survive. Nothing much happens up here, even as a healer. Although one boy asked me to help his penis stop shrinking.”
Hidari laughed, but she was afraid that her dismay had seeped through. “Did you help him?”
“Yes, he said his prayers, and his body thanked him. He got a woman pregnant!”
“Your remedies have proven too effective.”
Nayu paused, her breath rattling as if through a narrow reed. She too, seemed to be straining, but hiding her effort. “I do what I can. Still, yutas are not in such great demand. Plenty of time for rest.”
“But don’t you all sleep under your desks in Tokyo?”
“Not on a board position, dear. Everyone thinks I am senile.”
“If that is so, then I must be a small percentage more infirm than you.”
“Hah. The way you write, you’re sharper than all these twenty-year-old bloggers sprouting every thirteen seconds. ‘Listen to my wonderfully profound thoughts no one’s ever thought of!’”
“You’re too kind.”
“Well. Something on your mind, Hidari? Or just calling to say hello? Either way, I have time.”
This woman on the line steadied her nerves. As friends from the same village—the first village—Nayu alone provided true solace. Such a bond, like rock sewn to rock, was not lightly broken.
“I’ve moved on with the independence petition.”
“Wonderful—I support it fully, although I expect it to fail.”
“Yes. All the same, I must try.”
“They’ve already branded you a radical. Calls for independence will make you a traitor in conservative eyes.”
“They have said worse. I am a woman, and Okinawan, and grew up in poverty, and have become successful. Inherently I am an affront to their sensibilities.”
“As always, your words are trenchant, my dear.”
“Yours are soothing.”
“We have our roles, yes.” Nayu chuckled, and the scratch of a pen burrowed through the speaker.
“I wonder how long I must play mine.”
“Oh, we’ve already decided—twenty more, at least. I expect to see you raising hell in front of the Naha government building in 2030. And to write two more books.”
“At ninety, if someone from heaven invites you over, tell him—”
“ ‘Come back when I am a hundred.’ ”
“Yes. But I am content with articles for now.”
Nayu sighed, as if dreaming of a faded joy from her selfish days. “The world is safer with another book of yours, Hidari.”
“Is that true? Do I create safety or disruption?” She watched the waves filching sand away and bearing it to China; washing up cowries from Hualien City.
“Don’t get reflective, my dear; you’re too smart for that. You will continue to work, and it will help those around you. You speak powerfully. Almost every day on the news I’ve seen your September 4 speech, and every time I wept. You have a true gift.”
Hidari gripped the phone until her fingers went numb. A cloud passed over the sun and she wanted to hang up without saying good-bye. She was, on this strange day, more fatigued than she had ever been before.
“Thank you, Nayu. Perhaps I should pay you for a blessing; it’s been long enough.”
A grunt like coral scraping wood. “Hidari, you are far too fine a friend to charge a single yen. It is right that you called today. You equate this petition with your worth in life. You feel buried in a hopeless endeavor, and you worry that life is ultimately empty for you. I believe there is an atonement you have yet to make.”
“Still,” said Hidari.
“I had a vision about you, you know. I was deciding when best to tell you, and here you are! I suppose it was fate, or whatever people wish to call it these days.
“Your great-grandfather, your mother’s grandfather, abused his wife terribly. Beat her. Raped her, too, although many men wish to claim that husbands cannot rape their wives. It was a terrible thing, what happened. This pain has trickled down. You will be made to suffer, unfortunately, until amends are made. This man, Sho Norito, got along very badly with the local priestess, the noro. He spat at her. Spat on the name of his aji. In all ways, by the end of his life, he had distanced himself from the village, from his very family. Your loneliness is the result.”
A drawn-out silence followed. Hidari watched the snaky veins in her hands.
“Why does this impact me now?”
“Only now have you begun to slow down in your workload. In many ways, as long as I have known you, you have kept the punishing habits of a mainlander. Always the last person to stop working, the most dedicated to whatever goal she had set.”
“I care about my work.”
“Yes, but one can care too much, can she not? I see it happening right now, in Tokyo, from my window.”
“But I stretch. I keep hobbies.”
“I have my neighbor. That is, I chat with him sometimes, in the morning. We don’t often share tea, though. And I have you, of course.”
“You do have me.”
“Is that not enough?”
Nayu made a wet, glottal cluck in her throat. “No. You do not visit the community center?”
“It drains me, to be there. It is difficult to tolerate many relationships. You know all this, better than anyone.”
“Here is the issue: your great-grandfather. This is where you focus your energy. Leave sugar cane at your butsudan; he farmed this crop, and he was quite proud of his efforts. Make offerings to the household gods as well: tea and water. You are losing your mabui, my dear; your soul. Say the mabui-gumi prayer every day. And it would be best if you left an offering in Gopai. From where this all originated.”
“Nayu, you know it is impossible to go home.”
“All the same. It would be best, and it would hasten the reclamation of mabui. At the very least, do not change your daily habits. Wake at the same time, walk in the same places, eat the same food. Avoid caves. That is very important, you must know.”
Hidari swallowed painfully.
“In your weakened state, the cave spirits would overpower you. Drain the life from your body. No way to survive in there, I’m afraid.”
“I will do what I can, Nayu. Keep away from caves, leave the proper offerings, adhere to my schedule. I trust your judgment. I was always the one with poor judgment.”
“Take care of yourself, my dear. I am here for you, anytime.”
After the call, Hidari wrestled with the urge to lay down. It was necessary to keep active at her age. She prayed before the butsudan, her personal sideboard shrine, and made obeisance to the tablet inscribed with her families’ names. A replica: the original had been lost on Gopai, her village, back on Runio Island. Like everything else. Hidari read the names of mother, father, husband, brother; and those before. Sho Norito in the middle, dating from before the Meiji Restoration. She boiled tea and cooked rice and left enough for one person on the shelf.
Tending her garden was the next step—a few ferns, hyacinth, heliotrope, a rose bush, fukugi tree, peppers, melon, oranges, yams, limes. Then feeding the street cat that hung around the neighborhood.
“Hey there, Seishin.”
The cat pawed her hand by way of hello.
“Shall I mail in my article? Or deliver it by hand?”
“By hand, eh? You want this old lady to get some exercise. Here’s a fishbone.”
The cat, turned yellow by the breaking day, sniffed at the remains of last night’s dinner and padded off into Tatsuo’s ferns.
“Picky thing. Young creatures always are.” She laughed; not that the elderly weren’t.
The Ryukyu Standard worked from a flat, three-story building with wax plants hanging from the windows. White and typhoon-proof, too, like every structure around.
“Hai sai, Reiko.”
The young editor separated from her desktop and bowed. Flecks of red in her eyes, the reek of cheap coffee. Slim and pretty like the Hidari of old times.
“Politics and Elderly Day. You can teach these kids something about sacrifice.”
Hidari merely proffered the envelope containing the handwritten document.
“I have a copy at home. I only ask that you read this carefully, when you have some time to yourself.”
Reiko set the paper on her desk without sparing a glance. Mind on other articles. “Of course, Ms. Wasayama. You still write by hand, huh? How long does that take?”
Hidari laughed a low, simmering note. Her hair reflected streaks of bright white under the banks of fluorescent bulbs.
“Oh, no time at all. I rather enjoy the intimacy of it.”
The younger woman whistled. “I wish I had your patience.”
“You are very busy, Reiko, I understand.”
“Perfection’s a busy job.”
Hidari paused, uncertain if she should explain the folly of perfection. “Do you remember that document I wrote up last week?”
The young woman chewed her tongue as she purged impurities from the Governor’s press release. “Independence thing, right? You really like making people mad.”
“Not purposely. How do you feel?”
One red, watery eye remained glued to the screen. “About what?”
Patiently Hidari smiled, but inside she felt like crumpling to the ground. “About independence for Okinawa.”
Reiko did not stop typing. She rolled her shoulders and twisted her body a little more towards the desktop, as if to settle in for a night of hard labor. “I mean, if it happens, it happens. I’m here reporting the news. Life for me has American bases; they’re annoying sometimes, but I used to work in Dunkin’ Donuts near the mental health facilities, so I can’t hate on them too much. It’s the way it is.”
“The way it is.”
For a minute, only fingers drumming a keyboard. In another room a male voice asked for someone named Rizu.
“I get what you’re doing and I support it, maybe,” Reiko said. “But it’s a shitty sell. Okinawa’s not ready to stand alone economically. Japanese subsidies, American commerce. We’re only one leg of our own table, which means we’re still missing a fourth.”
“Okinawa has two point eight million legs.”
Reiko stifled her exhausted smile. “Two million, seven hundred thousand and ninety nine. My dad’s only got one.”
Hidari stiffened in her sandals. She folded her hands crisply in front of her dress. “I’m sorry, I did not know.”
“Nah, don’t worry, it was an accident. On his boat. He gets around better than most people.”
“We are good at surviving with what we have, I suppose. Which is why we can stand on our own.”
Reiko turned from the screen to face Hidari. She banned an insubmissive strand of hair from her eye with a sly, professional flick. “Perhaps you can, with all due respect, Ms. Wasayama. I’m barely holding on here. If you want me to sign your petition, I’m afraid I will have to decline.”
Hidari left the copy of her article, bowed genteelly, and left. Outside two Americans in uniform were swinging their shopping bags and talking loudly enough to be heard on the other side of the street. Her home was gone; on Gopai, Americans conducted live-fire exercises to simulate the next world war. The old woman shuffled back to the bus stop to wait in the strengthening sun.
A polished rock sat between her feet. It seemed to be waiting, deliberating, full of judgment. Looking to make sure no one saw, she kicked it away into the grass behind the bench. Stay away from caves. She could buy some sugar cane from Tatsuo and his small plot. It was too early to harvest, but perhaps he would make an exception for her. As a friend.
“Remember to vote for Governor Ikazawa November 28! Support American base relocation and fairer taxes!”
A propaganda car rolled by, blaring through a PA system. Hidari watched the driver with his headset microphone, his black sunglasses.
“Governor Ikazawa has supported you for six years with new construction efforts, increased jobs, and modern technologies! Support him when the time comes—November 28!”
Hidari rubbed her hands and shifted away from a cloud that had passed over her. Typhoon season. She only hoped the next storm wouldn’t be so damaging.