NEA Literature Fellowships

Mary Yukari Waters

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(2002 - Prose)

from "Circling the Hondo"

Several days before her sixty-fifth birthday, Mrs. Kimura officially relinquished her position as lady of the house. She did this during a natural break in which water was coming to a boil for that evening's somen noodles. Her daughter-in-law, in anticipation of the ceremony, had already taken off her apron. The entire process -- the mutual bows, the long-rehearsed gracious phrases -- lasted but five minutes, with only a slight sourness on Mrs. Kimura's part.

Mrs. Kimura was past her prime. There was word on the alley that (to use a local expression) a stitch or two was coming loose. Even before her change in roles, Mrs. Kimura's eyes had taken on a vague, inward cast; when greeted by neighbors at the open-air market, it took her just a shade too long to respond. Mrs. Kimura would pay for an expensive aji fillet, the fish vendor reported, only to walk off without it. Her five-year old grandson Terao, who had grown two whole centimeters that summer, boasted that Grandma sometimes mistook him for his father. Maa maa, the neighbors could only imagine what went on in that household.

It had not been this hot and muggy in years. "Must be the global warming effect," was Kanayagi District's greeting of choice that summer. Cicadas shrilled up in the ginkgo trees whose leaves, sticky with dust, cast slow-stirring shadows on the pavement. Moss pushed up through cracks in the asphalt, where housewives tossed out buckets of water to cool the alley when the sun went down.

"It's all this humidity, that's what it is," Mrs. Kimura told her son Jiro at dinner. "It plays on everybody's mind! Ne, who can remember anything in all this heat!"

"Soh soh," he agreed from behind the evening paper. He turned a page. His wife, Harumi, shot her an inscrutable glance but said nothing.

"It gives me strange dreams at night, even," Mrs. Kimura said.

While she was lady of the house, Mrs. Kimura had rarely dreamed. Now she awoke each morning engulfed in some residual mood, which spread over the day like an expanse of calm and deepening water. Sometimes no details remained, but other times she could vaguely link her emotion to some throw-away instant from her past: the play of late-afternoon sunlight in the maple trees of a schoolyard, or a certain way her late husband's shadow would fall upon the wall, almost twenty years ago, when he went over finances in the evening.

Outside her second-story window this morning, a crow wheeled over the pine branches, landed, then flapped away, leaving a branch swaying. The sun was out in full force already, white and shadowless. Mrs. Kimura lay perfectly still on her futon while last night's dream dissipated. There was no rush to rise. Meals were no longer her responsibility, and Harumi preferred her upstairs, out of the way, until breakfast was called.

All her life, Mrs. Kimura had been in awe of the passage of time and its powers of annihilation. Looking back across an ever-widening gulf, she had watched her earlier selves grow as implausible as incarnations in a previous life. (Had she really possessed the new body of an infant? Been madly in love?) But lately, she sensed that the past had never really receded, but merely accumulated right beneath her waking mind. And now with this onset of dreams, some barrier was giving way. For the dead were swimming back to life, the long-forgotten becoming the very now.

Downstairs, Harumi began chopping something with a jaunty rhythm (self-satisfied! Mrs. Kimura thought). Little Terao raised his voice in query. Somewhere out in the alley a bicycle bell tinged once, tinged again. Mrs. Kimura was conscious of this day already humming with a tireless grinding force, of which she was no longer a part.

My fiction has been selected to appear in this year's Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, and The Pushcart Book of Short Stories. My first short story collection, Tales of Stone Faces, will be published by Scribner in Spring 2003. I am currently starting a novel.

Author's Statement

I will never forget the pure joy I felt when I received the phone call. I was in a daze for several days afterward. The prospect of money was wonderful, of course, and badly needed, but the honor of actually being chosen was -- and still is -- incredible. I am grateful beyond words for the NEA's encouragement.