A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-9


I am afraid I have told a long prosaic story in the previous chapter, and betrayed a school-boy-like delight for the bombastic in the description of the sunset, etc. No one detests more than I anything that smacks of the young misses' poetry. Come, let us inquire, more relevant to our purpose, what constituted my childish happiness, sorrow, fear and other kindred feelings in Japan.

The greatest fear I can yet recall was the ordeal of the yaito. This is a Japanese domestic art of healing and averting diseases, especially those of children. The moxa, being made into numerous tiny cones and placed on certain spots on the back, is lighted with the senko already described. Imagine how you feel when the flesh is being burnt; I used to hold out stoutly against the cruel operation—would you not sympathize with me? If I had any presentiment of it, I would slip away and keep from home till I became desirous of dinner. No sooner had I crossed the paternal threshold than I was made a prisoner; and ailment or no ailment, my severe father and mother insisted upon my having the yaito once in so often. Great was my demonstration of agony when father held me still and mother proceeded to burn my bare back a promise of bonbons, which reconciled me to almost anything ordinarily, did not work in this one in stance; I cried myself hoarse (keeping it up even while there was no pain) and kicked frantically.

"The storm is over," mother used to say with considerable relief, when the trial drew to a close; she hated the torture as much as anybody, but she had the welfare of her child at heart. Ah, gentle mother, if I had only understood you then as I do now I should certainly not have snapped so terribly. I remember, after twenty-four to forty-eight hours the blisters began to swell and chafed painfully against the clothing, and had to be punctured to let out the serum. As a matter of fact, the yaito did cure slight general and local ailments: once I had a blood-shot eye, and mother sent me to a worthy old woman in town who knew how to cure it by means of yaito. After much pressing with lingers, she hit at the vital point in the back and marked it with a generous dip of india ink. Upon returning home, it was burnt deeply with moxa; and miraculously enough the eye got well immediately. I am inclined to think the cautery acts through the nerves. Now for years have I been exempt from the operation, yet to this day on my back are symmetrically branded the star-like memorials of my mother's love.

Speaking of the old woman I am reminded of another whom I was in the habit of looking upon as a sort of witch. Her eye, with the crow's foot at the outer corner and, I fancied, with the pupil in a longitudinal slit like that of grimalkin, the creature nearest to witches and warlocks; her fetich, the image of a human monkey, to whom she was a sort of vestal virgin; her place of abode remote from town and isolated from other farm-houses, presenting a queer combination of a rustic home and a sacred shrine; these made my childish imagination invest her with an air of mystery. She was wont to come to town in trim, made-over clothes re-dyed and starched, with the slant overlapping Japanese collars adjusted nicely; in the setta (slipper-sandals, much liked by aged people for their ease and safety compared with the high clogs); with her gray-streaked black hair combed tightly up, glossy with a superabundance of pomatum and done up in a coiffure bespeaking her age; walking firmly, with a small portable shrine on her back wrapt in the furoshiki (wide cloth for carrying things about) and tied around her shoulders. People sent for her to exorcise their houses, particularly when there happened to be sick persons in them, consulted her in selecting the site for a new building and in sinking the well, in order not to draw upon their heads the vengeance of a displeased spirit. On some occasions our household required her assistance; I went the long distance through the open fields to her residence; and when she came she let down the shrine from her back, placed it against the wall in our sitting-room and, opening reverentially the hinge-doors, proceeded to pray. What for, I don't remember, I was too intent upon her manners to inquire into her purpose.

Of quite another stamp was Aunt Otsuné (so everybody called her), housekeeper to the prosperous candy dealer just opposite us on Main street. Ready with tears for any sad news; sympathetic in the extreme; beaming, radiant, full of happy smiles in beholding her friends—methinks I see her snatch me from my nurse's arms, fondle me to her bosom and press her withered cheek against my fat one, uttering some such very encouraging ejaculation as "My precious dear!" She did not kiss me, I am very certain, for we don't have kissing. And she must have many a time dropped her work to admire my holiday garment; I know I toddled some of my early experimental steps in journeys to Aunty, trailing behind me the free ends of my sash; and as I became confident of myself, I became ambitious and dragged my father's or brother's clogs, a world too big for my feet. O how good Aunty was! She would fill both my hands with the candies that were being prepared in the back of the store near the kitchen and bid me run home and show them to mamma. The best thing she was in the habit of bestowing upon me was—I don't know what to call it; it was the burnt bottom portion of the rice she had cooked for all hands of the store in a prodigious vessel, loosened in broad pieces and folded about the an. The an is (this necessity of definition upon definition cautions me against touching on many a thing peculiarly Japanese) the an is a red bean deprived of its skin and mashed with sugar; it forms the core of various comfits. O how I relished this Aunty's homely, warm, sweet concoction! It was not intended for sale, therefore we cared little about its appearance, were it only good to taste. She made it so large sometimes that I had to hold it with both my small hands. I munched away at it, whilst she scraped the great vessel; and it was sometime before each of us could finish our huge tasks. I well recall the flickering rush-light under which Aunty worked; the sense of satisfaction I experienced in my agreeable occupation in my corner; the harsh grating noise of the steel scraper against the bottom of the iron vessel; the obscurity round about the sink a short way off; and the invisible rascals of mice holding high festivity over cast-off viands, chasing each other, biting one another's tails and screeching at the pain. My family endeavored to keep me at home, for it certainly is not in good taste to have one's child running off to a neighbor's kitchen; but Aunty would steal me from mamma, and I, for my part, did all I could, I warrant, to be stolen!

When we are well-nigh through our business, Aunty, happening to glance at me to assure herself I am there though silent, breaks into a broad, good-humored smile at the sight. Here I am with the an smeared about my mouth, and stretching out my hands equally sticky, in a most comic despairing attitude. What I implore in mute eloquence is this, that she would please to take immediate care of my soiled hands and wipe off the material about my mouth. Aunty stands a minute appreciating the humorous effect so produced; I look up at her with unsuspecting eyes wide open and licking my mouth occasionally by way of variation. Soon, however, my good-hearted Aunty washes me nice and clean and taking me up with her hands on my sides, throws me on her right shoulder and crosses over to the opposite side of the street in short quick steps to our house. She is always a welcome guest there and is at once surrounded by our women, to whom she imparts her kitchen lore and latest bits of news about men and things.

She had a little romance in her kitchen, which she helped along and she took absorbing interest in its development. It was the mutual attachment of the adopted daughter of the great candy manufacturer and one of his men. Miss Chrysanthemum, to give a glimpse of her past history, was born in a humble home and, being a burden to its inmates, was thrust upon Mr. Gladness the Main street confectioner, who was immensely wealthy, and invested for pleasure in peacocks, canary birds, white, long-eared, pink-eyed, lovely, tame rabbits, valuable pot-plants and many other good things. I received beautiful peacock feathers from him; but my sisters did not wish them for their bonnets, because Japanese ladies do not wear bonnets. (But I don't know, of course, as I am a man and a foreigner, that ladies ever trim their bonnets with the gay peacock feathers.) And when the peacocks died, Mr. Gladness (his Japanese equivalent means it) caused them to be stuffed and surprised me and many others one day with the dead but life-like peacocks in the cage. I went to see Mr. Gladness often; Mr. Gladness was a very rich, important gentleman; Mr. Gladness was good enough to me, though older people did not seem to love him as I did; he let me see the rabbits eat bamboo-leaves. He said I might touch them if I liked. I was very much afraid at first, but Mr. Gladness assured me they wouldn't bite—honestly they wouldn't. So I ventured to put out my hand. They limped away from me though, keeping their noses going all the time. Don't you know how they twitch their noses? Japanese rabbits do that too; I thought it was funny! Mr. Gladness had in his yard a large pond, where he kept a lot of big goldfish; Mr. Gladness had also in his beautiful yard a little mountain and a little stream with a little bridge. Mr. Gladness had a great many servants; everybody, bowing, said "yea, yea" to him, while he stood straight as an arrow.

Miss Chrysanthemum, as I was saying, came, or rather was brought to this rich merchant's house, he having found her one cold morning at his door, tucked nicely in a basket, like little Moses. Her poor dear mother, like his mother, some have said, was watching from a hiding place; the anxiety of a mother seems the same both in ancient and modern times and all the world over. Now the rich man had no child, just as in stories; and when the crying baby stopped and smiled at him through her tears, his proud old heart felt infinitely tender. He adopted her at that instant and christened her afterward Chrysanthemum, the flower of that name being his favorite above all others in his garden.

These particulars I gleaned from the neighbors' social gossip after I had grown up; Miss Chrysanthemum was already a young lady when I used to go to Aunt Otsuné in childish adoration. I remember the young lady took me one winter's evening beside her to the kotatsu, the heating apparatus I have mentioned in connection with my grandfather's house, and told me stories. She was reared in luxury, had everything she wanted that could be gotten with money, and was a great pet of Aunty's, who regarded her as her own child. It was not surprising, then, that Aunty should note with deep satisfaction the gentle flutter of Miss Chrysanthemum's maiden heart at the sight of a young man; indeed, she seemed in the eye of the world to take more interest than the interested parties themselves. This kitchen romance was the pervading theme of her conversation; we were in duty bound to hear just how the matter stood between the two, with her opinions as to the prospect. The whole town took it up and discussed it variously; some sage persons shook their heads and intimated that they knew a certain poor fisher-woman to be Miss Chrysanthemum's real mother, and that they had all along their own misgivings concerning the young lady's future. "The blood will tell" was the maxim on which these sapient observers took their stand, and they talked the young man over as if he were an arrant fortune hunter, when I fear not one of them could come up to Mr. Prosperity in assiduity and honest labor. "The blood will tell," indeed, that a daughter of a friendless, mistaken, but upright woman should choose for herself a sensible man, one who will stick to her through thick and thin, as we shall see presently.

As I am not writing a love story. I shall not give the personal appearances of my fair Chrysanthemum and gentle Prosperity, nor their sayings and doings. Yet I do see perfectly, even at this distance of time and place, the picture of young Mr. Prosperity sitting with his fellow workers at his work, in the workshop on the rear of the store, under the same roof with the kitchen but with a hall-way between. Perhaps he is putting a color on the sugared commodities; he does it with a flat brush, taking up the pieces one by one, then he sends a box of them to the next man, who goes over the same, staining the uncolored portion with another tint. He looks up at my approach, smiles a welcome and resumes the work; the others, being used to my coming, go on with their job, without even taking as much trouble as the mere act of raising their heads, saying indifferently "halloo!" to their busy hands. Mr. Prosperity, I remember, gave me some of the candy he was making when he found an opportunity, which went farther to form my good opinion of him than any other act.

Everything went on pleasantly with the young people and Aunty—very pleasantly, in fact, until the pleasure of the old gentleman came to be consulted. Then arose an insurmountable difficulty: he would not hear of the match; he possessed wealth and in consequence proved supercilious. His wealth, however, was but recently acquired; he himself was once a common workman in a candy store on the fourth block of the same street. But he would not have anything said about it; he simply would not brook the idea of giving his daughter in marriage to his employee; he foolishly deemed it below his dignity. This was a severe blow to Aunt Otsuné; she felt her career balked and frustrated; the young couple began to love each other much more than before, "What would this state of things result in?" said the gossips of the town. Reconciliation of the huffy old man, impossible! Separation of the affectionate pair, quite as hard!

Here Aunt Otsuné called in her inventive powers: she was full of kind honest invention,—how else could she have carried herself in the battle of life so far, single handed, and remain a favorite with all the world? She took Miss Chrysanthemum and Mr. Prosperity under her wing, as it were, rented a comfortable little house on a by-street and installed them therein, married. She liked to see them happy together, and have them take care of her in her old age; she had heretofore been lone and helpless, despite her cheerful exertions. They opened a small candy store, falling back upon their knowledge of the trade; soon there came to them a dear little babe. Aunt Otsuné rejoiced at the little one's advent; her scheme was now complete. She bore the infant in her arms softly and went to the door of her former employer. Her diplomacy was to give the cross old fellow a sight of the lovely grandchild and thereby work a miracle in his stony heart, surmising at the same time that time must have done something towards mollifying his obstinacy. This accomplished, it would be an easy step to persuade him to take them all back into his favor. Alas, poor faithful soul! it was but a woman's wisdom: Mr. Gladness was still found inexorable.

On that memorable night slowly she walked into our house with the babe in her arms, and sat herself down heavily by the dim, papered Japanese household lamp. For some time she remained silent and glanced around the room furtively; to her unspeakable satisfaction there was nobody there beside ourselves. Then the mental tension with which she upheld the whole weight of misery and woe gave way, and she burst into a flood of tears. I recollect the unusual solemn hush of the room, the serious looks of the company and the distracting sobs on the other side of the lamp; I recollect my becoming unaccountably sad, too, and looking away at a corner in my effort to refrain from tears; I beheld the paper god pasted high up on the pillar brown with age and smoke. When Aunty recovered herself, she managed to inform us how she had been received by Mr. Gladness and told us she had made up her mind, if the young people were willing, to move to one of the islands in the Sound where she was sure of a kindlier reception. So the kind old soul, foiled in the last of her struggles, left her friends at Imabari for the simple life of the islanders. At intervals, we had intelligence of her whereabouts, but as years rolled on news reached us no more.

I have given this account of Aunt Otsuné somewhat at length, because I felt interested in reviving her half-forgotten memory; and I have entered upon the history of Miss Chrysanthemum and Mr. Prosperity in order to show to the people of this country, who are misinformed on the subject of Japanese marriage and believe that our young people are, in all cases, matched by their parents and not infrequently to those whom they do not love,—in order to show, I say, to these misinformed people by an actual example from my own observation, that such is not the case, and that our people marry for love of each other, notwithstanding the artificial manners of our society.

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