Etsu huddles over the go board, age nine, playing Grandpa Nakano on the porch. The goal: to surround more of the board than your opponent by placing stones, one at a time, black or white, in a 19x19 grid. White gets a point handicap for going second, but Etsu insists on playing black, even though her grandfather is a veteran.
“Was that a good move, Grandpa?”
The old man smooths out his moustache with confidence. “What did the naicha say to the farmer?”
“Do you tuck your tie in or out of your overalls, sir?”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t? Then I have helped you along life’s arduous and salty path, my dear.”
“It’s your turn, Grandpa.”
He purses his lips, skims a thumb over his graying beard. Etsu’s mother is scrubbing floors for a captain outside Heiwa Air Force Base. Etsu is nine years old.
“I’m going to win, Grandpa, I can feel it.”
“Hmm. That’s good, that’s good. Feeling.” He places a stone that captures one of his granddaughter’s.
“I’m going to get you now.”
They sit in silence. The day lengthens, passes into dusk. Etsu’s mother continues to work, and the air settles into that cool comfort particular to late April. A cat flits through the ferns nearby.
“You’re improving,” says Grandpa Nakano. He captures another stone.
“I’m losing, though!”
The old man sits back and rubs the corners of his eyes, prepping himself for the snippet of wisdom he loves to impart at favorable moments. “It is possible to lose and improve at the same time, my dear.”
“Well I want to win.”
“You want to win. I’m afraid we cannot, all the time, little starfish. Aha! The board is mine. You know the rules—your turn to get the tea. Hurry, please. I’m exhausted from all this victory.”
From the longitudinal research data of her soul, Etsu dredged up her first letter of protest. Well, the first she’d intended to send. Below the window to her left, cherry trees huddled in the wind like children whipped for unexplained rules of conduct. The Lost Boyz’ “Renee” played on repeat in her earbuds, a song of tragedy, while Etsu nodded to the snare and typed out what to her were lean, punchy phrases.
“Reiko, would you mind reading this over?”
The editor flopped down on the couch and skimmed the pages. Her chin glistened with miniature pearls of sweat in the lamplight. “All right, this title is demeaning. Say ‘Okinawan woman’, not ‘girl.’ Your hook needs work, because it’s not really a hook, and this paragraph doesn’t have a point. Are you sure you mean to sound so whiny?”
“Sorry, sorry. I mean it’s good, I like it. Just my job talking. Flaws make my skin crawl. I can perfect it, though, so don’t worry.”
“It’s not supposed to be perfect. It represents how I feel.”
Reiko tilted her head, held a finger to her lips. “Well, it does that.”
“So you can get it published?”
A slow half-laugh, Reiko’s eyes turning to the lightbulb above her. Someone’s cat yowled in the hall. “I mean, yeah, it’s great, I’m glad you’re writing it all out; but I don’t know if I can put it in the paper. I mean, I can’t just put anything in there. Maybe I can interview you, though, and try it that way? I’ll write it, then.”
“So you don’t think it will work.”
“It’s idealistic. The stone utaki, near the port? It’s unclear what the protest is even for.”
“It’s for people who are trampled by other’s actions. People who don’t receive apologies.”
“Do you understand you can’t just put a call out in the paper and expect a massive turnout? You establish relationships with unions, advocacy groups, assemblies. It takes time. Plus a clear message, which this doesn’t have.”
“It doesn’t always have to be that way, you know. If people are angry they’ll respond.”
“Well, what have they to be angry about? Something big enough to get up and hold up signs and yell? Little pockets of people do that for their own reasons, but it sounds like you’re trying to mobilize the island.”
“That would be nice.” But Etsu chewed her lip, crestfallen.
“I wouldn’t expect it, my dear. I’m sorry, I don’t want to burst bubbles or anything, but it won’t happen. So we have outcries against Furusato, those get pretty big. Because of that, we have people setting up food, water, portapotties, shift schedules. It’s a big deal.”
“I know it’s a big deal. But you don’t need all that to make a stand.”
“You kind of do, actually.”
Etsu fumed. She balled her hands and suppressed the kernel of anger that threatened to pierce the surface. Be a good person. Reiko is your friend.
“I appreciate your feedback.”
“Yeesh, okay. I’ll leave you alone if you need it.”
Etsu burrowed into the sofa cushions, following news. She had a make-up paper to write. Dissertation to plan for. Lit review, outlines, analysis. Upcoming practicum with an anthropological institute. And then, sure, the killer who slipped through her house and hammered nails into Lucy’s paws.
She wanted to kick in the television; hear it crack, puncture the media wheel that spit views of a brutal world she disagreed with. Her fingers threatened to reach into her purse for protection, but she clenched them against her palm. Keep it in. No civilized person let her feelings get the better of her. She sucked the anger down, rubbed her temples with aching fingers. She pored over her article and revised it. Many paragraphs did need work, and she made them better. But even still—you didn’t need perfection for results. Sometimes you just knew what you needed to do.
She pictured herself shooting Yoshio in the teeth.
Kobo and Yasu, yakuza bodyguards par excellence, drove a souped-up Camaro into Naha for a visit with two girls. Not for sex. They had been playing pachinko and drinking Orion beer when Maruka called, so they were the slightest bit sore at having to brave the Category-4 elements and forego a night’s otherwise idle departure.
The apartment in question was red and blue from the placidly rotating lights of a police cruiser. Kobo yanked his cigarette from his lips and swung it up to his eyes, as if to search for some urgent detail in the English word “Marlboro.”
“Shit, what do we do?”
“Well, while it is certainly possible that the authorities are here in a matter unrelated to our task, I recommend waiting until they leave.”
“You might want to put out that marijuana, then.”
Yasu stubbed out his joint and grinned: a black graveyard of teeth. You come up from nothing, educate yourself, but the past clings in nasty little displays of truth.
They pulled behind a parked van to watch the proceedings. Quiet, residential area, green grass and dirty white houses. Domestic violence, if one were inclined to bet.
“Hey, do one of your poems, man.”
The light caught Yasu’s glasses and obscured his pupils. Rain poured across the asphalt, between the wheels of the police car, down to the other side of the island and the other ocean, why not? This land was tiny; Yasu had traveled its breadth a hundred times, seeking, at various times: enlightenment, pleasure, relief, pain, love, death.
“I’ll do a poem, then, shit,” said Kobo.
“Stone in the road-pond all alone
Belongs in the policeman’s skull
A party favor for his sins
Look at him twitching!”
“Not bad. You’re no Onna Nabe, to be sure, but then you’re a much better shot than she ever was. Shall I go?”
Kobo waved in impatience.
“A drowning spider with crushed leg
Too wet to…too…so bristly with hair, ah…
His partner indulged a chuckle, risky though it was to toy with Yasu’s volatile feelings. “I guess those magic herbs you smoke aren’t helpful in the creative department.”
“Shut up. It’s just this stress. I drove through the bloody rain to sit and watch an officer of the law pretend to earn his pay. Do you have one of those pills handy?”
“The oxycodone? Yes, but you shouldn’t take those while driving.”
“Well I’m not driving now, am I?”
Kobo grit his teeth, as if in pain at conceding the point, and shook his head.
“Hand them over.”
Kobo palmed the bottle discreetly into Yasu’s hand, mumbling, “Yakuza or not, there’s still a cop there. Why risk it?”
“No lawful authority on this island is going to trouble us, Kobo.”
“What about Americans, huh?”
Yasu dry-swallowed a pill and sunk his head into the carseat. “I said lawful.”
Two blue-clad officers returned to the waiting car and drove off, passing the gangsters on the right.
“About time,” said Kobo.
They took the stairs. Echoing steps, water running off their jackets in happy streams. Yasu wiped his glasses when they reached room 304, in a hallway that stank of turmeric and yakitori. Low, paltry yellow lights along the ceiling. Yasu knocked, twice, then cocked his head to the side to listen.
Inside Reiko was clearing away the dishes from breakfast, bouncing on her heels to the Rolling Stones’ “100 Years Ago” and mulling over Jin’s whereabouts.
She stopped with a stack of plates and teacups nestled against her chest, knit her eyebrows in annoyance. She dumped the eatingware in the sink and peeked through the peephole at two strangely dressed gentlemen on the doormat.
“I can hear you in there,” said a well-mannered voice. “Please, we are from the leasing agency, I would like to speak with you regarding a reduction in your rent.”
The door swung open.
“Hey, wouldn’t you guys send an email or—”
Kobo brushed past into the room, frown balancing his partner’s smile.
“You are not from the leasing agency.”
Once spoken, the sentence fixed her with the same shot of clarity brought by mom’s call—during a high school party, no less—to buy crutches, with her own money, because her worthless dad had lost his leg at the knee.
“I do wish to lease some space in your paper, if that is possible,” said Yasu. “Politics.”
“This is not how it is done, gentleman. I ask you to leave at once.”
The two men nudged her toward the kitchen with easy, unhurried steps. She walked backwards, also in slow motion, plunging them into a strange imitation of Noh theater.
Yasu pinched the bridge of his glasses and set them closer to his eyes. “I don’t know why you look so frightened. We only came by to drop off an article.”
“This is…” Reiko fought to keep her face impassive. A few more steps and she’d be within reach of the kitchen knives.
Kobo slipped around to block entry into the room. He chuckled at the slow dawning of futility in her eyes. Kids.
In the bathroom just off the main chamber, Etsu huddled on the toilet, where she’d been freestyle rapping in her head. For original material she chose positive content over misogyny, but the slick venom of Mobb Deep or EPMD or Big L still hypnotized her, if only in the privacy of her own home.
No one ever lives how they’re supposed to, Got to move on from pawn to being powerful, don’t you/ Think so, I’d give up every mink stole, to feel half-alive and claim some of my pride.
Then threats under the door. Fear tugged her down, shut her into a trap like tunnels under Shuri Castle. Etsu remembered her purse hanging on the other side of the door. Inside: well, she needed what was inside. But could she open the door and grab it?
“What is this?” Reiko’s voice.
“Just something we would like printed tomorrow.”
A scoff, which Etsu’s friend excelled at. “This is not how the newspaper industry works, in case you were wondering. Tomorrow? We have no need of freelance pieces at this time. If you want, you can contact us through the proper channels and leave your information.”
A soft, purring laugh. “That’s lovely. What I mean to say is, you need to get this material printed tomorrow. You are an editor, no? What you say goes?”
Etsu could hear the beat of silence as Reiko thought to say junior editor, but bit back to retain her pride.
“We don’t have any problems, right?”
Different voice. Gruffer, like a man who drinks.
“You two are crazy if you think this can happen. This isn’t legal. This is coercion. Of a person who works in the media industry. I’ll just write up an article about this right here and send it in, how about that?”
The soft, distorted echo of her friend’s words under the door.
“You do that, Ms. Xue.”
“That is not my last name.”
“No, it is your mother’s. Have I pronounced it correctly? It’s just, I may be on my way to see her later, so I want to ensure that I do not offend. Not too far from Kokusai-dori, I think.”
Brittle silence like shells about to break into dust. Reiko’s outrage seeped into the air along with the sweetness of mildew that issued from the walls.
“What do you want?”
A patient sigh. “I have told you already, Ms. Xue—oh, I apologize. You’re Ms. Shinsato, are you not? I know your mother didn’t keep the Japanese name after the divorce.”
“Do not speak about my mother.”
“Are people suspicious of her, I wonder? China’s watching.” Singing the last phrase in a falsetto.
“Of course, Ms. Shinsato, we’re going. Thank you for allowing us into your wonderful home. I might add that it was rude of you not to offer us tea, or even a seat, but I am quick to forgive. Make sure you read that article now—I spent all morning on it.”
When the front door closed (gently), Etsu hurried to where Reiko stood with her head bowed by the kitchen. Fluorescent light threw unflattering shadows beneath the editor’s chin. Etsu made to embrace her but stopped.
“They didn’t hurt you, did they?”
“This is the lowest form of extortion. Petty, cruel, thieving tactics. And for what? They came in a typhoon to do this!”
Etsu spied the flashdrive in her friend’s palm.
“I don’t even want to know what’s on it. I’m calling the goddamn police again.”
“Shouldn’t we take a look at it before we do anything else?”
Reiko stomped her foot and turned further away from her. “I should put it down the garbage disposal.”
“Don’t do that! They sounded serious.”
“And you. Where were you the whole time? Hiding in the bathroom.”
Etsu’s knees buckled; she had expected Reiko to do the protecting. True, she could have forced them out of the apartment, threatened them with the gun while Reiko phoned the police. But the men had done no violence.
“I’m sorry. I should have helped.”
“Shit, it’s fine. What would you have done anyway? Wrapped them up in a roll of toilet paper?”
Etsu tugged her grandfather’s gun from her purse.
“It’s Grandpa Nakano’s. From the war. It’s really, really old; I don’t even know if it fires, although I made sure it was loaded.”
“What the fuck?”
Wood grip, smooth, under half a kilo. Shaped like a crane’s head. Reiko hefted the weapon and swung it toward the front door, perhaps to send a prayer that the yakuza might burst in, having forgotten their umbrellas.
“It’s a Type 94, I think it’s called.”
Reiko searched the name. “Type 94 Nambu. When cocked, the sear that moves the trigger and hammer can discharge a bullet, by accident, if handled roughly. Nicknamed the ‘suicide special’ after stories of officers who surrendered to the Allies, only to have their pistols accidentally bang their hips and fire.”
“It wasn’t his, originally. He found it on the beach. Afterwards.”
Gone for ten years, Grandpa Nakano. Now he slept in the mountains, partied by the sea, watching Etsu wrestle with footnotes in her papers.
Did you hear about the naicha who asked for the real Okinawan experience? They stole his land and sold off his wife!
It’s your move, Grandpa.
Ah, but I’ve already captured the next stone, little squid.
Did he see her dad, perhaps? Ask him for that alimony. But no; slim chance she would meet her father again. Or Grandpa Nakano, for that matter. With nothing but a gun in your hand, life is barren of variance. Things happen one way and one way only. You risk yourself with every scrap of hope, but so often the outside reminds you of your gullible nature. Ensign Paul Harriman, official mystery running around the States with half her genes. Blood and maggots outside Shuri Castle while a young man retrieved a pistol.
Etsu read the yakuza’s article.
Hidari Wasayama is a woman of many faces: activist, journalist, international speaker. Today, however, we must add the title of prostitute to the distinguished woman’s career.
Now, you say? She is ninety-one!
Of course not—but after the war, according to a trusted source, she worked for years in Naha’s red light district. You may recall how the government set up organized brothels to “handle” the American GIs in Japan—and Okinawa—only for the generals to shut them down when their soldiers contracted disease by the thousands.
During her time in the sexual profession, Ms. Wasayama used the proceeds to support her brother, who struggled to earn his keep as a construction worker. A noble justification, perhaps, although not so noble that she has spread the news.
But why divulge this? Why drag an old woman’s past out of the crypt and present it to this honored readership?
Cancer, in a word. My source, I regret to inform you, is dying of an aggressive stomach tumor and wishes to air the unpleasant truth, with the request that anonymity be preserved. It is my wish to fulfill this task and ease a valued member of the community into the afterlife.
As we all know, full penetrative intercourse in exchange for money became illegal in 1956. Reportedly, Ms. Wasayama performed this activity for two years after the law was passed, which is a crime. There is, of course, a statute of limitations, but such a shocking revelation might remind the esteemed activist to consider her own history before criticizing the past actions of the Japanese government.
Etsu and Reiko stood huffing away the last of their adrenaline, unaware of the rain that martyred itself against the windows.
“So Ms. Wasayama was a hooker? Like the guy said, this happened after the war. Thousands of people did it. She needs help and understanding, not condemnation.”
“Plus there’s no evidence! The person didn’t even give his name. It’s a straightforward smear campaign, and a poorly executed one at that.”
“This is shit,” said Reiko again.
“But isn’t it odd that Ms. Wasayama would SMS you to call the police, and then this happens?”
“I don’t know, I don’t want to know. I just want this to calm down and go away. I have normal deadlines to worry about, typhoon or not. Personal concerns, you know? Who needs this bullshit?”
Reiko hissed a jet of air toward her bangs to clear her eyes. She staggered to the fridge and cracked open a beer, pushing all thought of chins and their relative roundness from her mind.
“We’re going to need to drink to make it through today, Etsu. I have a feeling.”
Her friend jogged after her, then cupped Reiko’s face in both hands.
“Remember when that girl Hana kept sticking thumbtacks in my chair, back in primary school, and you clocked her so hard her ear swelled?”
Reiko nodded, as if against her will. She wanted to drink until the light behind her eyes extinguished.
“Well, I remember she called you a Chinese slut after that, behind your back, so I wrote a letter explaining the origin of ignorance and name-calling. I stayed up all night after doing my homework to write it. I made all the best points I could think of, and I provided examples using our history book. Like major events in which ignorance and name-calling had made the world a worse place. I agonized over whether or not to leave it on Hana’s desk, or slip it in her bag, but I never did it. I was too afraid of hurting her feelings.”
Reiko backed into the fridge and tried to tip the Budweiser toward her mouth.
“That’s a beautiful story, my dear, but I really…need…this…drink!”
“I just meant to say that I wanted to defend you, and I didn’t, and I want to now.”
“Well, you have a gun, so it should be much easier.”
“When I was in the bathroom, earlier, I just kept thinking of all the times you rescued me, and how I never returned the favor. I only cause trouble.”
“Don’t start with that. You’re a fantastic friend, so don’t insult me by making yourself seem bad. I only select the best specimens to crash at my place.”
Etsu managed a wan smile.
“I’m lucky to have you as a friend.”
“Same here, little moper. Let’s not die, then, all right? I think we can handle that.”
“We’re not going to publish the article, though.”
“‘We?’ I didn’t realize you worked for the Ryukyu Standard. But no, you’re right, we are not. What we are going to do is call our parents and collect them and go to a hotel. Then we are going to call the police. Again.”
Etsu studied her grandfather’s pistol, the hardy artifact she’d smuggled in. She met Reiko’s fretful eyes and snatched her beer and tilted it to her own lips to drink. When the rim touched her bottom teeth, she stopped.
“I guess that’s enough for me. One of us has to drive.”
Reiko waved her hand in three styles of resignation, cutting across, flapping up and down, and adumbrating a rainbow to reject the idea of alcohol. “Drink up, sweet pea, I don’t want it anymore. You got me all nostalgic.”
“History’s the best, right?”
Reiko turned from her friend’s smile to survey her rooms, pretending the knock in her heart was just someone clapping for her. Her home would be broken when she returned. Bring the laptop, good clothes, a favorite cup or two. Leave the bobble-head doll. Gifts from a psychopath, no thanks; only a step up from being murdered by one.