…in emptiness no form, no feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;
no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no object of mind; no realm of eyes
and so forth until no realm of consciousness.
From the Heart Sutra
A knock came to the heavy steel door, loud and insistent. She stopped in her tracks toward the bedroom. She was not expecting anyone, especially at this time of night. Her eyes shifted back and forth, as if she was groping for a forgotten invitation, appointment, nosey neighbour. Nothing. Her hands trembled.
Ayako Fukunaga’s Toronto condominium was sparsely furnished: beige unadorned walls, a grey couch and sofa chair, a low oak cabinet against one wall, a simple dining set with two wooden chairs in the living room. A bedroom was off to the side, hidden from the rest of the apartment. No television set, no radio, no books anywhere in the place. There was one telephone, a flat black rotary planted on the cabinet. Whenever it rang, infrequent as it was, she ignored it. A solitary clock, counting the remaining seconds of her life, hung on the wall above the dining-room set. And a single Japanese doll dressed in a bright red kimono rested in a wood and glass case beside the phone. Next to it stood a mahogany butsudan, the family altar, open to photographs of ancestors and a small incense burner prominently displayed up front. A tiny scroll sat among the images of the dead.
She shuffled to the door, plagued with bad knees and muscle pain – the fate of an eighty-six-year-old. The knock came again.
“All right, all right,” she rasped out loud.
Looking through the peephole and seeing only darkness, she called out, “Who is it?”
“I said, who is it?”
“It’s me, Auntie,” a loud voice responded. “Chad.”
She opened the door to a shadow in the hallway, black flames of night licking at the figure of a man before her. She shivered.
“Who are you?”
“Your nephew,” he answered brusquely.
“I have no nephew.”
“Do I have to call the nursing home?”
Ayako bristled at the thought.
She half-turned into her condo.
“Oh…oh yes, Chad,” she acknowledged as he stepped into the light. She eyed him suspiciously. She knew she’d forget things but how could she forget a nephew? There was something familiar about him.
“Auntie, I was in the neighbourhood, so I thought I’d drop by,” explained the twenty-something man. He was tall. His thin face was handsome with a defined jaw though his crooked smile betrayed contempt. His stare gave her pause; the pupils were deep black.
“Huh?” she said cupping her ear. “I can’t hear too good, you know.”
“Wear your hearing aid,” he said louder.
She grimaced and waved her hand.
As Chad moved farther into the condo, he took off his light jacket and tossed it onto the chair. The cold that had clung to the coat sprayed like water.
He suddenly turned and asked, “Why haven’t you called?”
“Huh, called? Who?”
She looked at Chad confused and a bit upset.
Ayako’s beauty had all but evaporated in her eighties, but anyone could see that she had had pleasant features in her youth. A round face with soft, brown eyes and a ghost-like complexion, probably through cosmetic surgery, but she wasn’t telling. Her hair was unnaturally black. Acquaintances suspected a wig, but they never dared ask. Her small stature, about four-foot-ten, was a sore point with her, but she had learned to live with it.
Her sister, Yaeko, was a true beauty. Her round face was a family characteristic, but her sunny disposition made anyone who met her want to be in her company. She was younger than Ayako by four years.
Their brother Robert was the oldest: he had eight years on Ayako, and so had “grown-up” concerns. Back in the days when the family lived in Vancouver, he was seldom around for gatherings, dinners especially. Even at Christmas, he opened his presents the night before and went out with friends for the day. When he became old enough, he joined the army.
The Fukunaga family had led a secure life in Vancouver, living in a rented two-storey on East Cordova, centred in the Japanese sector of town. The place was filled with refugee furniture left over from the Victorian era.
Ayako squeezed her eyes at the protected good times she had enjoyed. Back in the day, her father, Toshio, worked hard as a labourer on the railroad while her mother, Fumiko, took in laundry and sewing to make ends meet. Toshio was tall, for a Japanese, and strong. He had rugged good looks and saw life as a struggle.
Ayako had been her father’s daughter, even if she and her sister looked like their mother. As a toddler, she followed her father everywhere. She carried on so every time he left town for work, she knew he wouldn’t be back for a long time.
“Papa, did you bring me something?” she always asked upon his return.
“Now, what do you think, Aya-chan?” She sat in rapt attention as her father pulled out a bunch of candies from his pocket. She just smiled at him as the confections tumbled into her outstretched hands.
But not after her sister was born. The baby had done something that was inexcusable to Ayako: she had become the favourite of the family. Ayako used to be the centre of attention; she used to be the one to get candy, the one to get a new doll from Tokyo or wherever he had gone. True, when she was old enough, she could buy her own dolls, but that was not the point.
Fumiko was short, with a peasant’s body. The problem was that she doted on Yaeko from the get-go. Mother had brushed Ayako’s hair at night, tucked her in bed to make sure her “aka-chan” was safe and secure. From then on, it was all Yaeko, the youngest could do no wrong. Maybe it was her sister’s attractive looks or her yasashii demeanour. Still, Ayako had said nothing. She just internalized it, until such time she could act on her anger.
Fumiko or Mama had an outgoing disposition. Whenever friends came to dinner, she laughed and kept the conversation going. Toshio remained silent.
And when they gathered around the dining room table, a simple but gleaming table with heavy legs and eight matching chairs, so large it pushed everyone near the wall on three sides as they squeezed and pinched their way to their seats. It was Fumiko’s pride and joy. She had worked harder than usual at her sewing and laundry to make the money to buy it at Woodward’s Department Store on East Hastings. She only hoped it was still available when she had saved the money. Fortunately, it was.
Ayako frequently remembered the dinner party after which things changed. She mulled over the fact that she should have known.
It was Thanksgiving 1941 when her parents invited a few lonely souls for the holiday dinner, an occasion they had started to observe the previous year. The first really Canadian thing they did.
Takahashi-san, a distant cousin of Fumiko’s, Tanaka and Sumida, both fellow workers on the CPR line with Toshio, graced the table. The three men each had no family living in Vancouver.
They wore identical black wool and ill-fitting three-piece suits with matching wide ties. They sat uncomfortably. The clothing was either too big or too tight; it was clear they were not used to dressing so formally.
But they gushed appropriately when Fumiko brought in the twenty-pound turkey roasted to perfection. The tempting skin was brown, crisp, and glistening in the light. The condiments, like stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, and steamed vegetables, too were unfamiliar for the most part but the aroma made the mouth water. At least, there was cooked rice and shoyu to keep things Japanese.
The conversation was convivial at the beginning.
“Takahashi-san, have you heard from Japan?” Fumiko opened.
“Hai, Shigeishi-no Ojiichan passed,” he said gravely, his youthful face drawn by sadness.
“Ara, he was so young,” she remarked.
Takahashi perked up with the challenge. “Well, if you call 70 young, I suppose he was.”
Everyone at the table laughed, even Fumiko.
That was the signal for Toshio to carve the bird. As the knife sliced into the breast, steam rose from the moist, white meat. The pieces looked so succulent on the plates as they were passed around the table. Condiments and gravy followed.
Ayako, Robert, and Yaeko sat at the “kids’ table” in the next room. Ayako appreciated the segregation. She could hear the talk but didn’t have to participate if she were called upon to comment. Robert called her “baka” since no one would be interested in what she had to say.
As the Canadian Club whiskey flowed, so did the talk.
“Japan is so strong. Nobody wants to challenge them!” the blustery Tanaka said, his face as red as an embarrassed child.
His eyes so bloodshot they looked like a roadmap, Sumida agreed with his workmate. “Look what they’re doing in the Philippines.”
Fumiko expressed dread. “I don’t like what I hear about China. All the massacres.”
“Ah,” scoffed Takahashi, “what do you care about a bunch of insect Nankin?”
Fumiko turned away for a moment. “What if Japan goes to war with Canada?”
“Why would they do that?” Takahashi asked.
“But if they did, what would Canada do with us?”
Toshio sat and said nothing. Ayako caught sight of his face. It was glazed with worry as he gazed at them in the next room.
Fumiko’s fears came true. With Pearl Harbor, a place no one knew or heard of, the Fukunagas along with 21,000 other Japanese Canadians were exiled inland to remote ghost towns. The only reason given was “for your own protection”.
Internment camp days, an unsettled time. Ayako fretted and wept quietly – her house and secure surroundings gone, forever, she suspected. Fumiko just felt she had to “get on with it”.
The family left Vancouver for New Denver, a settlement somewhere in the middle of the mountains. They lived in a shack with cracked thin walls. The first winter at the end of 1942 was the worst with icy winds invading the cabins indiscriminately. The liquid, soup stock (dashi) or just plain water, in the pots froze solid overnight. It took hours to start the fire since all the wood was caked with ice and snow.
“Why are we here, Mama?” Ayako questioned as she shivered under the blankets in the morning. “Must be your fault.”
“Baka child,” she admonished as she held her two daughters close to her in bed. “Think of better days.”
She looked at her mother’s eroded face. Ayako’s eyes narrowed to a frightened glare. Besides the heavy snow and ice, the surrounding forests seemed to close-in on them. The sisters especially clung to each other, terrified of unseen beasts and dark shadows.
Ayako had heard rumours of wolves dragging children into the woods. Yaeko was told by friends that internees simply walked into the surrounding area when all hope was gone. They were never seen again.
Sleep only came after many tears and much shivering. Their eyes closed, ensnaring the fear within. They dreamed of ghosts among trees.
Late that first winter in New Denver, Robert made an astonishing announcement. “I’m joining the army…as an interpreter.”
Everyone was dismayed. “Baka!” his father swore in Japanese.
Fumiko at first didn’t believe him, but when she saw he was serious, she shed tears and ran out of the cabin.
Ayako then spoke in English. “Quit your kidding. The government isn’t taking Japs into the army.”
“They weren’t,” answered Robert, “but the British said they wanted us. The Canadian government was so embarrassed, they agreed to take us.”
“Where you going?” Yaeko asked.
“Don’t know yet. I heard Indonesia.”
“Damare!” Ayako commanded her sister. “Why do you want to help a country that calls us Japs?”
“So, they’ll think of us as Canadians and stop calling us that word.”
“Baka!” she shouted, her lips trembling. “You should be here, with us. Protecting us. You have an obligation to us, to the family! We’ll never be accepted.
“There’s nothing out there,” Ayako continued, pointing to the nearby trees, “but lost souls.”
Robert ignored her. He left and the family never saw him again, just as if he had walked into the woods.
Reluctantly and with much resentment, Ayako took on the responsibilities of the eldest. She shook at the thought, but an ambition soon emerged as she watched her baby sister.
Even with the freezing temperatures and Robert’s sudden disappearance, Ayako hated the spring even more. The weather was better, of course, and the food was too since her parents could scrounge for plants like fiddleheads and mushrooms, but it was still a clammy cold. She saw fog rise above the ground, like souls climbing out of their graves, and drift through the trees. Some strands became snagged and shredded in the branches. The knots and furrows in the tree trunks grinned maliciously at her as the fog thickened to envelop everything. She cried out inexplicably at any given moment.
Ayako turned her fear into anger towards her sister. When they played outside, Ayako frequently tripped Yaeko and rolled her in the dirt so she would be punished for her dirty dress. She particularly liked the day Yaeko wore a white bluebell-flowered dress. At first, she threw dirt on it and then tripped her to the ground. Ayako then rubbed mud into the fabric. No one saw anything; no one heard Yaeko’s screams as she tried to fight back.
By the time their mother saw Yaeko’s ruined dress, Ayako had washed up and stood watching. Yaeko tried to blame her sister while Ayako secretly smiled. Fumiko broke into tears before her daughters. The dress was the last she had made in Vancouver. Still, Fumiko forgave Yaeko. She always had. Ayako hated her sister even more.
She continued to torment her younger sister. Besides soiling Yaeko’s clothes, she spoke Japanese to her parents all the time. Yaeko’s face turned red because she could barely speak it. She had never gotten beyond “baby Japanese”.
Whenever Ayako was sick with a cold, she took Yaeko into a private corner and sneezed in her face. Ayako comforted her sister in her sick bed by whispering, “I hope you die.”
The war finally ended with the mysterious bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was front page news in the New Canadian, the only Japanese-Canadian-community newspaper allowed to keep publishing. Toshio scoffed.
“How could one bomb destroy such a city? I don’t believe it…propaganda.”
Fumiko wandered around the cabin and outside. “70,000 dead with one bomb,” she kept repeating, her eyes wide with horror. Her extended family was from Hiroshima.
In 1949, the Fukunagas moved to Toronto. They rented a house, and the girls went to school. Other problems came to the forefront. Ayako became the “Dirty Jap”. The boys left her alone for the most part, but the girls called her the name and beat her. For all the hardships of New Denver, she had never been attacked by ‘Canadians’. No, there the enemy was unseen, the attacks legislated and incomprehensible.
“Jap, Jap, Jap!” screamed one little pale girl, much younger than Ayako. Others, more her age and bolder in a gang, slapped her face, kicked her shins mercilessly, and punched her stomach until she fell to the ground where she was attacked repeatedly. She often came home in tears with a bleeding mouth, torn clothes, or scraped knees. She hid from her parents, but Yaeko saw her and suppressed a chuckle. Ayako noticed and cried into her pillow, repeating her sister’s name while cursing her mother for giving birth to her. She said nothing to anyone.
Ayako hated coming home in the winter when she had to avoid the long, growing shadows and dodge the neighbourhood bullies. It reminded her of the forests around New Denver and the hidden animals waiting to pounce.
A few years later, Mama became sick.
Toshio’s long back grew taut, his face shadowed grim as he stood before his two daughters. He wore a heavy three-piece-suit, inappropriate for an early summer and out-of-style for the 1950s. Yet the heat didn’t seem to bother him.
Toshio or Papa by this point had streaks of grey frosting on his hair. His body had thickened round the middle, but his shoulders were still broad, his arms muscular. He needed strong arms to wrestle the piles of clothes that arrived daily at Matsuba’s Drycleaners (changed to just ‘Drycleaners’, shortly after rocks smashed the front window) up on Dundas near Bathurst. He gazed through the front window of their narrow, semi-detached two-storey home, through the leafy branches of the front-yard cherry tree to Huron Street, running north and south to Dundas Avenue. The narrow street was empty, strange for an early afternoon. The overcast skies and cold humidity encouraged clouds of fog to roam the immigrant area of Toronto, creating a spooky and lingering melancholy.
After being summoned, the daughters remained quiet in front of their father.
At length, their father spoke. The lines in his face may have betrayed his thoughts but the girls’ soft, delicate features, long hair, and under-nourished bodies always touched his heart and he proceeded gently. “Ayako-chan, Yaeko-chan, have you been good girls?”
“Yes, Papa,” Ayako said diffidently.
“Of course,” Yaeko said defiantly.
Ayako shoved her sister slightly.
Toshio continued, “Mama tells me you two want to go to university.”
“Oh yes, Papa,” they said in unison.
“Well, you’re doing well in school. You should do well in university…”
The two girls looked at him with expectant eyes.
“But there’s a problem…we can’t afford to send you.”
“Oh, don’t worry Papa,” Ayako said. “You know, we both have summer jobs to pay for the tuition and books, and there are scholarships.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Papa said. He turned away. “Mama is sick. We must pay a lot for treatment. More than I can make.”
The girls’ faces dropped with the news. They knew she wasn’t feeling well but had no idea how badly off she was.
“You two must keep working so we can pay our house bills too.”
In Toronto, Fumiko Fukunaga had developed thick calves, a solid trunk, and arms made strong by hard work. She gave the impression that she would last forever. Her laughter and endless energy told everyone that she didn’t have a complaint in the world. As she did in Vancouver, she took in laundry and looked for sewing jobs from neighbourhood wives. She once argued with her husband about a boarder when he suggested one. She didn’t like a stranger in the house, especially a man. But they needed the money, and if their landlord didn’t know about the sublet, they rented it to Masato Sato, a single man and co-worker. He lived in the attic.
Recently, Fumiko walked with a stoop, grew noticeably thinner, and held in her stomach as if to quell some mysterious pain. She retreated to her bed. Though meagre, her income was vital to the family’s well-being. Even more so when their boarder married and moved out.
Yaeko began crying before speaking. “It’s not fair!”
“Damare!” Papa slammed.
Yaeko stopped crying with a start, as Ayako glared at her.
She continued in English. “Don’t worry, Papa, I’ll ask Mrs. Tsuruoka for more hours in the beauty salon. Maybe she’ll take me on full-time.”
“Oh, that’s okay for you!” Yaeko complained. “I don’t want to be stuck in a no-nothing job forever!”
“Who said we’ll be in those jobs forever?” assured Ayako. “When Mama gets better, we can both go to university.”
Papa interrupted, “That’s good, yes.” He covered his eyes with his palms to let the worry drain. “Of course, your brother should have been the one to go to university.”
For a few months, Toshio’s eyes swirled with worried thoughts that plagued his mind. He finally expressed them a few weeks after that.
He gathered his nerves and said, “Mama is not doing well. Dr. Kuwabara told us she must go into the hospital.” He quickly added, “But only for a short time. She’ll come back to us. But it means we must watch our money. You two will have to keep working.”
Ayako glanced sideways and shook slightly, “Papa, I was counting on going to university next year…”
“What does that mean for me?” Yaeko asked.
“Ayako-chan, it means you can’t go. And Yaeko-chan, it means you’ll continue to go to high school.”
“But that’s not fair!” Ayako complained. “Why can’t I go and Yaeko work? I’m older.”
Papa glared at her and said, “You know, Yaeko-chan has to finish high school like you. Think of her future.” He then turned to walk out of the room, waving his hand in a gesture of finality.
The sisters faced each other and contemplated what to say next. The significance of his words danced in the surrounding air.
“I have to go to university,” Ayako insisted. “I have plans for the future.”
“Me too! I’m gonna be a doctor.”
Ayako burst out laughing. “A doctor? What makes you think you can be a doctor?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a girl.”
“So? Who do you think you are? Some rich girl? You can be a secretary or maybe a hairdresser. Teacher, at most. Something appropriate.”
“Yoneyama-san is a doctor.”
“I rest my case. She comes from a snooty family. Don’t rise above your station. Listen to me and I’ll steer you right.”
“No! I’ll be whatever I want to be,” she said almost in tears.
“Stop crying. Mama’ll be back soon and then life can go on as normal.”
“I think she’s gonna die,” Yaeko said with a pout.
“Baka!” screamed Ayako. “How could you say such a thing?” She then roughly grabbed Yaeko’s arm and pulled her towards the family altar. She placed both hands on her sister’s shoulders and pushed her to her knees while digging deep with her nails.
“You’re hurting me!”
“Ask for forgiveness!” Ayako insisted. Yaeko grumbled words of apology through her tears. Ayako smiled behind her.
Soon their mother’s photo joined the other recent and long-departed relatives in the butsudan.
At their mother’s funeral at the Toronto Buddhist Church, the family listened to the Reverend Tsuji as he spoke gently to them, “I send you oceans of compassion during this sad time. Take comfort in knowing your mother is now in the Pure Land, free of suffering. The Buddha is ever present.” His face beamed in the incense-filled worship hall. He then led the gathering in the chanting of the Heart Sutra. The reverberating bell summoned the Buddha.
Outside the building, Ayako spoke seriously to her younger sister. “Okay, I’m in charge now. You can go to university this September. I’ll be working full-time at the beauty salon by then. Tsuruoka-san has promised to train me to be a hairdresser. I’ll give you the money for your expenses.”
“Really? Are you serious?” she said, surprised at the change of heart.
“…your teacher’s college tuition and books.”
“Do as I say,” Ayako ordered. “Teachers college.”
“Okay, I’ll pay you back…with interest.”
“Never mind that. Just obey me. That’s how you’ll pay me back.”
“But what about you? University?” Yaeko said.
“I’ll figure that out later.”
“That’s not how I heard it,” Chad informed, his dark eyes narrowing.
“Huh?” Ayako said, waking from her reverie.
“I said that’s not true!” he said loudly, while examining the doll.
“What are you talking about?”
“Your story about university.”
“I didn’t say anything.” Ayako hadn’t said a thing. Or wondered if she had. She looked at him with a questioning expression.
Chad frowned and insisted, “That’s not the story I heard.”
“Ach!” Ayako growled as she dismissed with a wave of the hand. “Your mother’s lying. She always does.”
Ayako struggled to the couch and sat down as her nephew patrolled the room. “Papa chose your mother to go to college. I stayed behind…”
“Not really, but we’ll let that go…for now,” he said. “Why do you have this doll?”
“I stayed behind,” she insisted, ignoring the distracting question.
“And you did well for yourself,” he said. “You started your own beauty salon and prospered over the years.”
“That’s not the point. I sacrificed everything for the family. For my sister. She never listened to me. So ungrateful.”
“That’s not true. She did everything you asked. She became a teacher and not a doctor. You made her feel so guilty, she had no choice. You always held the money over her. That’s why you didn’t want to be paid back. You even put the kibosh on the most important person in her life.”
Ayako just scowled and dismissed Chad with a grunt and a wave of the hand.
“You can’t see that man anymore,” Ayako said to her sister back when they were young and strong.
Yaeko glared at her sister. “Why not?”
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You know what they’re like.”
“Bill is a good, kind man. Another teacher. He treats me good,” she insisted. “And I love him.”
“Aw,” she said dismissively. “They only love one thing: your money.”
“I don’t have any,” she whined.
“That’s right,” Ayako snapped. “I gave you the money to go to university, out of the goodness of my heart.”
“And I offered to pay you back! With interest.”
“I don’t want your stinking money. I want you to do what I say –”
“That’s not fair!”
“You want to be Christian?”
“Well, that’s what you’ll be if you stay with this Moon Kim Korean man,” she hissed. “You’ll be a poor Christian woman abandoned and coated in shame.”
“You do what I say, or you’ll bring shame to the family!”
“I told you I love him!” she said with her eyes turning moist.
“So what? Think about what’ll happen.”
“And what is that?”
“No decent man will want you.”
“What do you mean by that? I don’t want any other.”
“What happens when he abandons you, after he gets…” Her voice trailed away.
“What do you mean by that?”
“You know. Gets what he wants. You know what I mean.” All the venom in Ayako’s body flooded out and into her words.
“You interfered with the love of her life,” Chad accused.
“What’re you talking about?” Ayako asked, her lower lip slightly trembling. “I had nothing to do with that. She made her own choice. Is that what she told you?”
“You haven’t answered my question,” he said, changing the subject.
“Forget it,” he said loudly.
“That’s what they all say,” she said with sudden anger revving with intensity. “Making make me feel like I don’t matter!” Her face contorted with rage.
“Fuck you!” she screamed. She immediately regretted her outburst and turned away, her face flushing.
Chad should’ve been as shocked, as anyone would, at such an outburst by an octogenarian; instead, his gaze hardened and carried on with his original question. “All right then, why don’t you call your sister?”
She began to raise an objection when she heard a noise close-by. A buzzing.
“What was that?” she asked as she looked around. “Did you hear that?”
“You heard something? That’s a first.”
“Whatever it was…,” she said, looking around the room.
Chad paused and ignored her; his face darkened as he again turned his attention to the doll on the cabinet. “Why do you have this thing?”
Ayako fell into herself.
“Auntie? Why do you have this doll?”
“What? I like it.”
“It looks like…it’s like…” He thought for a moment and then sighed. “Retribution.”
The Japanese doll was a noppera – a fully formed human body with beautiful long hair and clothed in a formal red and gold kimono, but with no face. Smooth as an egg and terrifying in its implications. It was mute, blind, and deaf to the world. Legend has it they are shapeshifters, tricksters, ghosts to frighten their victims to death; their no-face heightened the horror.
Ayako smiled, “Just decoration.”
Chad turned away. “Call your sister,” he said loudly.
She bristled where she sat. “Why hasn’t she called me?”
“Now that’s a silly thing to say.”
Chad paused before he next spoke. “She gave up Bill.” And only spoke in a perfunctory way to Ayako for the next fifty years. Even at their father’s funeral, they did not comfort each other through their grief.
“This again!” Ayako twisted away, avoiding her nephew’s disapproval. “She did what she wanted,” she insisted.
“She never found true happiness.”
“So what? Look at me, I never married. I don’t need a man…especially a Korean man.”
Chad dismissed the bitterness. “You have money, yes, but you’re all alone here with no one to love, no companionship –”
“Shut up!” she screamed.
“Are you going to swear at me again?”
The lull was deafening.
Ayako insisted, “I gave her money to go to university, didn’t I? And look where that got her – she became a respectable teacher with a long career.”
“Why are you changing the subject?”
“I’m not! Did I give her the money to go to university or didn’t I? She never appreciated my sacrifice. Never even thanked me.”
“Why didn’t you let her pay you back?”
“That’s not what family does. I provided the money so she could see her dream come true.”
“She wanted to be a doctor.”
“Ach!” she dismissed. “That was a pipe-dream. She took her appropriate place in society.”
“Yes, she was being high-minded. She saw the error of her ways and did the right thing. The least she could do is to protect the family. To protect our reputation.”
“According to you.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“She always had to check with you with every decision, with every dream she had.”
“So what?” Ayako pulled herself to her feet and moved toward her bedroom. “No appreciation…I sacrificed everything for her.”
As she passed the family altar, she heard the buzzing again, like a mosquito. She looked to the altar; the sound came from inside.
Nothing unusual, except one of the photos glowed, a soft light at first that steadily intensified. She bent down and gazed at the picture and recognized it immediately. It was a photograph of Yaeko. She straightened up and turned to Chad.
“You’re not Yaeko’s son! She committed…Who are you?”
“Yes, that’s right, she died a deeply depressed, unloved woman. All alone –”
“I said, who are you?” she yelled.
“I never said I was Yaeko’s son,” he said loud enough to hear. “I’m your brother’s son.”
“My brother’s…? He died in the war.”
“Doesn’t mean he didn’t have children.”
“What? Why didn’t he say something?”
“Because he married a Chinese woman.”
“Chinese?” she sneered. “A Chankoro? No, not possible.”
“Met her in Indonesia where he was stationed right at the end of the war. Never told anyone in the family knowing how you’d react.”
“What do you mean?”
Chad fell silent. He stood as still as a cold statue.
Ayako walked away perhaps ashamed, more annoyed than anything.
“Look behind your brother’s picture…in the butsudan,” Chad instructed.
Ayako moved forward and felt behind Robert’s picture. There was another photo – a sullen and thin woman with pulled back hair and dressed in a soiled dress. She wore a Chinese peasant’s clothes and held a new-born baby in her arms.
“Where did this come from? Who is this?” she asked as she held the picture up to Chad.
“Me and my mother.”
“Your mother…so you’re Chinese?” she sneered at the obvious.
“Who put the photo in there?” she asked, pointing to the altar.
“It’s there for a reason.”
“What?” she asked, frowning.
“I said it’s there for a reason.”
“What reason?” she clarified.
“Why else is any photograph in a butsudan?”
“To…to,” she stuttered, beginning to realize the implication.
“To memorialize the dead,” he stated, turning his back to her.
“But you’re not dead.”
A heavy knock came to the door. Chad moved forward to answer.
“No, don’t open it!” Ayako urged as she reached out to stop him.
Chad ignored her and twisted the knob to swing the door open. On the other side, two figures stood in the darkness of the hall. They moved into the condo light. One wore the soiled uniform of a Canadian soldier, and the other was dressed in a mud-splattered bluebell-flowered dress. Both faced her with closed eyes and withered ashen skin.
Ayako stumbled to the couch and quickly stared at the strangers. She shuddered with the realization. Her face blanched and her mouth fell open as she tried to speak. Her throat dried with terror. “Robert…Yaeko,” she finally choked out.
The two said nothing.
Ayako closed her eyes wanting the apparitions to go away, but when she opened them, they were still there. “How…how is this possible?” She looked at the butsudan. She could clearly see their photographs inside and confirmed that they were truly dead.
“What do you want?”
On her knees, she shimmied across the floor to sit in front of the butsudan. She then raised and placed her hands together, closed her eyes, and recited the Nembutsu. Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu.
The front door yawned, distracting her. Her chanting interrupted, she turned her head with eyes wide open.
Another figure stood in the hallway. Ayako didn’t recognize the apparition in ragged clothes but felt herself stand and rush towards it. The aroma of incense rose in the air.
“Mother!” she said instinctively; her eyes glazed with horror. “You know what I did for the family. Tell them, tell them.” She pointed to the three behind her.
But it was not her mother. The same body shape, perhaps, but with no face. It was smooth, featureless.
Ayako recoiled and soon found herself on the couch again. She looked upwards and saw the four before her: three with disapproving and menacing faces, their eyes open now and glaring; the fourth glowing with ominous anonymity.
A disembodied voice reverberated about the condo. “You didn’t care about the family’s reputation. You didn’t care about your sister’s welfare. It was your plan for revenge for your sister’s birth, for your parents’ perceived indifference toward you.”
And then silence hovered like an entity about the four. It grew and expanded until it enveloped Ayako. Her ears hurt in the vacuum. She uselessly covered them with the palms of her hands. A scream escaped her lips.
Chad stepped forward and reached for his face with both hands. With a great audible tearing, he ripped away a mask to reveal a blank face: no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. He uncovered his true self: a noppera.
Robert and Yaeko did the same. They were all noppera, and all four reached for her.
Ayako’s eyes widened; she shivered and then her whole body quaked. Her arms went up, her hands open in a defensive position. She whimpered as her face contorted with terror. She slid to the floor in her confusion. No color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of senses until no realm of consciousness.
“What have I done?” she managed to shout in the onslaught. A chest pain flourished and spread. “I did everything for you…sacrifice…Papa, Papa…where are you? Tell them…” Words fell from her mouth and dissipated into the darkness. Her torso tightened.
The police discovered her body about a month after. A neighbour had complained about the smell, the smell of rot and stale urine. The body lay upon the floor in a near fetal position. She had died of a massive coronary.
There was a touch of the comically macabre about her body. Her black wig, a badly kept secret, had fallen off revealing a nearly bald head, the wisps of white hair swirled around the scalp. She lay mired in her vanity, decay, and perversity. Free from its glass cage, a Japanese doll, with no face, stood beside the body as if watching over her.