[Chapter 1 – Cardamines at Sunset]
We bury him under the apple tree we always picked apples from after a long, hard day.
Dad was a hard-working farmer. He and I lived on his farm for as long as I can remember. Two days ago, after we finished digging up all of the potatoes, he leaned on his shovel and breathed a long sigh while looking at the sunset. The light orange glow cast a long shadow over the land. A light chill carried the fallen autumn leaves across the field. When darkness finally covered the farm, he spoke:
“My son, a failure like me can’t teach you much about life. But if I can leave you one piece of advice, it’s this: ‘Don’t lose your honor.’”
The next day, he packed one of two shipments of potatoes on his back and left to deliver them on foot to the neighboring town. I never followed because it meant leaving the farm unattended.
“I’ll make it home for dinner, Sorai,” he assured me with his usual smile, “I’ll look forward to it.”
That part wasn’t a lie. Dad did come back in time for dinner. He did so in a coffin. The policeman who brought Dad back was Mr. Murakami, an old friend of ours. According to him, a drunk driver swerved off the road near a high school. Dad died saving someone from being hit by the automobile. By coincidence, Mr. Murakami was already at the school on other business. He desperately tried to get Dad medical attention while on the scene, but Dad was far too gone for any help; he died within seconds of the accident.
“I’m sure he would want to be buried here more than anywhere else,” Mr. Murakami choked as he left after explaining everything, “I’ll come back tomorrow for the funeral. Please decide on a place before then.”
After shutting the door behind Mr. Murakami, I collapsed. Sitting with my back to the wall, I could do nothing but look up to the ceiling as tears streamed down my face. There, I slept, truly alone for the first time in my life.
The house was eerily empty the next morning. I had no more tears to cry; all of them had already been shed in my sleep. I sat for hours where I had slept the night before, mustering the strength to stand back up. The sun was already setting when I finally walked out to the porch and found the coffin Mr. Murakami and the others had brought the night before. The black glossy case glistened in the light of the setting sun. The case was solid black except for small white letters on the side of the lid for his name: “Yamanaka Seitaro.” Part of me wanted to open the lid and see him again. Another part of me expected him to jump out of the coffin, exclaiming that all of it was an elaborate joke.
“I guess he really is gone.”
Leaving the coffin there any longer would have certainly caused problems. Luckily, the weather was still cold as winter was approaching.
“Had it been summer, I guess Dad would have started… to… to… rot…” Those words caused me to vomit on the spot over the railing.
I couldn’t stay at the house. I put on my jacket and walked around the entirety of the farm until Mr. Murakami and a couple other men who knew Dad drove up the mountain road. They had come to help bury the coffin.
We bury him under the apple tree we always picked apples from after a long, hard day.
Dad treasured that tree, I’m sure. After all, it represented Mom to him. The only time I heard about Mom was when I was ten years old and found the tree on the edge of the farmland while exploring. It was a beautiful tree. The branches were numerous and the leaves were luscious. However, what interested me wasn’t the tree but the red, shimmering apples that hung from its branches. Branches with apples sagged, burdened by their load. When my short stature failed to obtain the low-bearing apples, I called Dad for help.
“I can’t believe this tree actually grew to be this big,” Dad reminisced while looking up at the tree, “Your mother planted this tree, you know? She loved apples, but buying them from town proved difficult. I swear, I don’t know what that woman was thinking when she bought an apple and simply buried it here in the ground.”
“This is Mom’s tree?”
“That’s right, Sorai. I completely forgot that your Mom did this until now.”
“Will we ever see Mom again?”
“… It might be too late for me, but I’m sure you’ll see her.”
“Why can’t we see her together?”
“… C’mon kid. You wanted some apples, right? Let’s see what we can do. Go grab a bucket from the house.”
He did never answer that question. I didn’t know if Mom was alive or not. I didn’t know where she lived. At least, until now.
I don’t know why he told me what he did two days ago about “honor.” Maybe he was senile. Maybe he had always wanted to tell me that and finally got around to it. Maybe he foresaw his untimely end. What I do know is that the man who raised me is gone.
After burying the coffin, Mr. Murakami and the other men ready to head back to their homes. As the shovels are placed in the trunk, Mr. Murakami asks if he and I can talk privately.
“… Yes, Mr. Murakami?”
“Your father was a good man. Seitaro may have had regrets, but I feel that was more due to his own kindness rather than any fault of his own.”
“Sir? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“… Perhaps it’ll be easier to simply give you this,” he states as he hands me an envelope.
The sender is familiar: “Yamanaka Seitaro,” Dad. But the recipient is unknown: “Yamanaka Naho.”
“Your father was on his way to the post office when he died… Yamanaka Naho… is your sister.”
I rip my eyes from the envelope and stare at Mr. Murakami in surprise.
“I… have… I have a sister?”
“Naho lives in the town where my family and I live. She currently lives with Yamanaka Kochiyo, your mother.”
“… What? She’s… alive?”
“I guess Seitaro never told you. He didn’t even have the courage to see the two of them when he visited the town for business. Even when he sent money to his wife and daughter, he did so via mail; you’ll probably find the money he earned for yesterday’s crop in this letter. I’ve never seen their faces myself, but Seitaro did have his drunken moments where the two names come up.”
This explains why he always separated shipments into two. One for them. One for us.
“Mr. Murakami, what do you think I should do?”
“… That’s for you to decide, Sorai. If you need anything from me, don’t hesitate to call.”
“… Mr. Murakami?”
“… Don’t mention it…”
Mr. Murakami and the other men drive down the same road that Dad took just the day before.
Back home, I find myself inside Dad’s study. He never did let me into the place. There were days when he’d shut himself in the room for hours, muttering to himself. If he had written a letter, he would have done it in here. A folded futon and blanket are in the corner of the room. On the other side is a large desk with a lamp and an empty waste basket underneath. On the desk is a small stack of papers and a single ball-point pen. The desk has nothing else except for a single drawer. My hand instinctively reaches for the drawer and stops.
Should I really be going through Dad’s belongings?
“But I want to know more about my mother and sister,” I decide.
I pull open the drawer and find in it a file. It contains financial records, government documents, and the sort. Underneath the file, however, is another stack of papers. But, they are neither blank nor white. I turn on the desk lamp to get a better look. The light blue stationary paper has an intricate design on the top and bottom. The top paper contains a letter dated four months ago from Mom.
My dear Seitaro,
My love, how are you? The doctors tell me that my condition has been improving lately. I’ve even gone outside on my own last week. Naho’s starting school next week. She always smiles, but I fear she’s losing her own life because she has to take care of me. Perhaps it’s better if I hurry and pass on. Then, you, Sorai, and Naho can all live together. Won’t you come back soon? I want to see Sorai. It’s been so long. Does he even remember me? Does he remember Naho? I know it’s difficult for both of us, but won’t you consider returning for our children’s sake? Please consider it. It’s been too long.
I love you, my husband. This will always be true.
I spend the rest of the night reading through the remaining letters. As the date goes further back into the past, the letters get longer and longer. Compared to the short letter I just read, the letters from long ago are exceedingly descriptive, even describing less spectacular events such as “having meat for the first time since being admitted” or “seeing a butterfly flutter outside the window.” The oldest letter dates twelve years ago. The letters have long time periods in between them and aren’t on a regular basis; the first, second, and third have less than a year in between them, but the times afterwards range between one to two years.
“I’ve only got half the story,” I mutter after I finish reading the letters.
From the letters, three things are clear:
One, Mom is currently admitted in a hospital.
Two, Dad sends Mom and Naho money every season.
Three, Mom wishes to be with Dad, but he refuses to come to her side.
Why won’t Dad be with Mom? Why did Dad never tell me about Naho? I have so many questions, but only Dad can answer them. I shower to clear my head and return to the living room when I notice the envelope Mr. Murakami had given me still on the coffee table where I left it. This letter is the last remnant of Dad. Perhaps it contains the answers I seek.
“Should I open it? Maybe I should do it after I get my thoughts together after some sleep… Augh! But if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to be able to sleep!” I bark.
I grab the letter opener, slice open the envelope, and release its contents onto the table: 300,000 yen and two letters. The money is from the potatoes Dad delivered to the grocer. That doesn’t concern me. The letters are on simple white paper, much like Dad has in stock in his study. The paper is crisply folded into thirds as if folded with the utmost care. On one is written: “To Naho” and the other: “To Kochiyo.”
I unfold the letter addressed to Naho first to read. It was short and cold.
This season’s sale totaled 300,000 yen. The 5,000 yen extra from the usual 295,000 I want you to keep for yourself. Kochiyo told me you started high school. Girls your age should go out and spend money, not stay home and take care of her mother. Have Kochiyo stay in the hospital. The money should be more than enough for both her expenses and your living costs.
Not even a closing.
“Have Kochiyo stay in the hospital?” This implies that she is not there currently. Confused, I unfold the letter address to Mom. The letter is even shorter.
I’m sorry. I love you. I won’t tell you to not go outside, but please do take care of your health. Sorai is well.
Compared to the emotional letters Mom sent to Dad, this is cruelly brief. Looking at these letters will not give me any information. In other words, there is nothing at the farm that will clarify what happened between my parents.
“I have to ask her face-to-face. I have to see my mother,” I decide.
I pack my few belongings and pick up the phone.
“Hello? Mr. Murakami? I have to ask you for a favor.”