Sideways Down the Sky

an excerpt



Salt Plum

In August, the first time his mother smothered an infant, Hifumi stood outside the hut on an overturned bucket to steal a glance--just a glance. If Otsuka-san hadn't been so vocal with the constant demands he made of Hifumi's mother--always yelling, always angry!--Hifumi might well have been out gathering burdock, oblivious to his sister's sudden arrival.

And subsequent demise.

In the hut's steamy interior, a frayed blue cloth, clutched in his mother's trembling hand, seemed aglow. A piece of sky, fallen to earth.

It was a sign.

How else could Hifumi explain that the cloth was nearly identical in color to a jagged, cracked piece of glass he'd found in the field and carried with him, for three whole months, until it fell through a hole in his pocket?

He believed in that moment that the sky was made of glass and cotton. And for a reason the gods kept secret, he and his mother were lucky enough to harbor fragments of it.

His mother spit on the cloth. Smoothed it out. Pressed it against the newborn's face as Otsuka-san stood there, arms folded, ready to throw the tiny human into a hole when it stopped breathing.

Otsuka-san carried it by the arm.

Afterwards, Hifumi placed two stones on the loose soil when Otsuka-san wasn't paying attention.

The following autumn, when a second baby came along, and its fate was decided--without anyone consulting him!--Hifumi sat against a tree, his eyes closed, his ears covered. He hummed a song he heard a man in the village sing one Tuesday, his voice deep and powerful. The air was so stifling that day, heavy, the trees in the distance wavy and warped. The man stared at him while he sang his funny tune. Hifumi's mother was with a stranger behind the closed door of a vacant building that once housed the general store. Her strange moaning clashed with the music.

The baby arrived a few months after.

Otsuka-san caught him placing the stones on the mound that time. The bruises lasted weeks.

In spring, as a third baby screamed, Hifumi needed neither tiptoes nor a bucket to peer inside the hut. No props. No crutch. He'd grown taller. At eight years old he was so tall, in fact, he could aim for Otsuka-san's face.

The baby cried. Squirmed on the floor like an overturned turtle.

A boy. This one was a boy.

Hifumi's mother had kept him. Maybe she would allow Hifumi a brother Were the other two babies dumped into the ground because they were girls?

"Don't," he whispered, his voice catching.

Within seconds his shirt cut into his throat. He stumbled backward. When he saw the sky, a knee to his ribs sent him rolling onto the ground.

"You little bastard."

A foot in the back. Always in the same place. Otsuka-san had figured out the small of his back, when struck with the toe of the shoe, produced the most pain.

Oh, the things Hifumi wished to shout out at that instant.

She's my mother.

You don't belong here.

Go away; leave us alone; die!

Wails. Whimpers. This baby was a fighter.

"Go make yourself useful," Otsuka-san said, his tobacco-ravaged voice hoarser than normal.

The baby boy. He was louder than the girls. Crying with more raw power.

Rescue me, Hifumi imagined the baby saying. Please brother, don't abandon me.

Otsuka-san, jerking Hifumi's arm like a fleshless lever on a piece of machinery, yanked him to his knees. Hifumi's torso twisted. A coiled spring, bending.

He thought of moments beneath the surface of the creek, whenever he tried to talk, bubbles tickling his chin and cheeks. How he loved the water. His favorite place to escape during the steamiest part of a summer's day. Yet when his brother's cries sounded as if they under water, he knew. Knew the wet cloth was pressed against its face. A face shaped like a tiny salt plum. Umeboshi kao.

"No," he pleaded, dropping his shoulder, planting his left foot in the mud to work against the pull of Otsuka-san's grip. "No Mama! Please let him live." Hifumi was breathless from the struggle to free himself. "For me."

Otsuka-san was powerful for such a thin, ugly man. But he was thrown off-balance by Hifumi's erratic movements.

Perhaps if Hifumi had been disembodied, standing so far away, so far he couldn't hear the names being hurled, so far, so disembodied from himself that the grunts and gasps and cries of pain would be drowned out by the sound of a wind through the trees, he might have laughed at the clumsy way two people pulled and kicked at one another, like puppets, or shadows formed with hands on the sun-baked earth.

Otsuka-san's strategy proved better in this battle. It foiled Hifumi's plan. His was the first face that received the blow. To the right of the nose. Eyes filled with white light. Breaths of dust and iron. Ears filled with a high-pitched whistle.

Then a sort of miracle. An unplanned outcome arising from this skirmish. His mother still cared enough about him--maybe he shouldn't be so presumptuous--that she rushed out screaming.

Stop this! Stop this!

Oh--could it be? Did this prevent the blue cloth from doing its job? How, how could a piece of the sky be used this way?

His brother now needed a name.

Eiji.

The gods were telling him something. He couldn't have just chosen that name so randomly, so rapidly.

Hifumi scrambled up to his knees. The world blurred.

Now his mother and Otsuka-san were a puppet show.

If Hifumi didn't vomit, this moment would be his chance.

Eiji's form was visible through the door. A little lump, a dropped melon with a salt plum face, that had been lucky enough not to explode into fleshy pieces.

Hifumi launched himself with his right foot, and sprinted across the tall grass. His mother's cries and Otsuka-san's grunts were a sing-song, back and forth, rhythmic, in direct contrast to the chaotic, sickening dance they performed. Two trees in a storm, one falling on the other, branches snapping. Splitting.

He bent down, scooped up his brother, turned, and raced toward the infrequently traveled path behind the hut.

When he eventually caught his breath, he would see if Eiji still had his.

* * *

He was scared. Was Otsuka-san in pursuit? He felt such pangs of guilt. He'd left his mother behind, flailing on the muddy ground.

Eiji felt as light as a kitten in his arms. Hifumi, so focused on escape, hadn't dared look at him. He concentrated on navigating the steep, rocky paths.

A stand of pines lay up ahead. He could duck in there. He needed to rest. He needed to check.

His eyes stung.

Otsuka-san was always angry, always grumbling, but he'd never treated Hifumi's mother as if she were an animal, a rodent to be slammed to the ground.

Maybe the man had reached his limit with babies. Maybe Hifumi's recent growth spurt was making him uneasy. Unnerved.

Life had been so much calmer before his mother had met this man. Otsuka Goro. What was their relationship, this disgusting man and Hifumi's mother? He didn't understand.

Some days--no, really, most days--Hifumi wondered why. Why did my mother keep me? He didn't know who his father was. He was thankful it wasn't Otsuka-san. If Otsuka Goro had been his father, Hifumi would have ended up looking like a beast. A rat-snake head on the body of a lizard with snow monkey fur for hair. That's how he knew that Eiji hadn't been fathered by the man either. Eiji was no disgusting creature.

He ducked down, his head smacking into the lowest branches. He slid to a stop on brown needles, and dropped to his knees. The weighty scent of pine wafted up. He held Eiji a few inches from his chest. His brother's eyes were closed, but his head turned. He seemed to want to cry, but had no strength.

"You need food," Hifumi whispered. "Milk. But where do we find it?"

He drew Eiji close. Eiji's tiny, bald head rested against Hifumi's cheek.

Eiji would probably never know who his father was either.

Hifumi thought back to his sixth birthday--though the exact date of his birthday had changed twice in the last few years: August fourth, 1910, and August ninth, 1910--he drew up enough courage to ask about his father.

His mother remained silent for a long time. He wondered if she would cry, but her eyes were dry. And angry. Her mouth was sad. Her body was tired and limp. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft, a whisper. As though she were talking to herself.

"Some men went off to war. The Imperial Navy, that's what he told me. That was his tale. To fight against..." She paused, searching for the words. "Austro-Hungarians and Germans. Are they the same? I don't know. We reclaimed islands. I think. That's all I know. That's all he could tell me. That's all he knew. I think he heard what others were telling him and merely tried to fill my head with his noble intentions."

She closed her eyes. She rocked back and forth.

"Does he deserve protection?" she asked.

"From what?" Hifumi said.

"The truth."

"What is the truth?"

"The truth is sometimes something you shouldn't know."

"Where is my father?" Hifumi demanded, his face burning, his fists clenched.

His mother stood. She walked over and knelt in front of Hifumi. She placed her hands on his shoulders. She looked deep into his eyes.

"Promise me something," she said.

"What? Promise you what?"

"That you'll never be a gambler."

She stood up. She walked outside. She sang softly to herself.

She hadn't answered his question. But she had answered his question. He wanted to scream.

Eiji stirred in his arms. He needed milk.

Could they make it all the way to Sendai before dark? Hifumi studied his surroundings, unsure if he was headed in the right direction.

Eiji gurgled, his eyes still closed. Hifumi didn't like the color of his skin. Too light. Like rice paper. It suggested sickness.

"You'll be better after you eat." He hugged Eiji close, to feel the faint breath on his cheeks. Shallow, struggling breaths.

He rose to his feet. He'd continue in the same direction. He felt confident Sendai wasn't all that far away.