A Triptych Tale …

Facing Up

A Triptych Tale

 

Christine wrinkled her nose at the odor of disinfectant and other nursing-home smells she didn’t want to think about. She introduced herself to the old man lying in bed, politely ignoring the tubes and monitors, pulling a hard plastic chair over so she could face him.

He nodded at her. “I’m pleased to meet you; it’s time I told someone.” He nodded again, as to himself. “I killed an alien.”

“You mean alien like an illegal immigrant, right?” British Columbia had lots of immigrants. If he was a convicted murderer, then maybe she could use that for her homework assignment, even though it would be off-topic.

“No, no,” he said, his almond eyes twinkling behind his glasses. “Little green men, E.T., Klingons, and so on. Sit down, child.”

“Okay …” Christine slid into the chair, put pen and notepad on her lap, and gave him a small smile. With a wisp of white hair and rounded ears like that Donkey Kong character, he really seemed like a sweetie. Too bad he was crazy.

“Maybe you could start with the roundup of the Vancouver Japanese and losing all your property?” Christine said, looking at her prepared questions. That sounded a bit harsh so she added, “That was, like, so wrong.”

Too bad he was crazy.

Mr. Matsumoto chuckled. “Yes, dear, it certainly was. I was sixteen the year after Pearl Harbor was bombed and Vancouver was in an uproar about us Japanese Canadians. My mother was issei, born in Japan, but I was nisei, born here. We were Canadian citizens but that didn’t matter. The Prime Minister had us fingerprinted and assigned to various camps in the BC interior. I spent a week with my mother and sister in the cattle barns in Vancouver before we were sent by train to Harriston. I still remember the smell of the cattle dung.”

Dung smell was good detail. Christine scribbled a note. “And then you arrived at Harriston,” she prompted, “because the ghost town had empty buildings that the government figured was free housing for you.” She had been listening to Mr. Singh for once.

Mr. Matsumoto snorted. “They were sagging, uninsulated buildings. Some didn’t even have stoves. We almost froze to death that winter. We stayed three or four families to a house, just to conserve heat. I recall wearing four or five work shirts over my woolen vest, all that I owned, and still shivering in bed.”

Why would anyone wear a vest next to their skin? Gee, this guy was weird. Christine nibbled a fingernail and scribbled 5 wk shirts. At least he hadn’t mentioned the alien again. Maybe this interview was going to work out after all.

#

The summer I killed the alien, Mr. Matsumoto continued, was my first summer there. Nineteen forty-two it was. We were logging the hemlocks surrounding the town in a frantic attempt to get more housing built by winter. We were also planting gardens and foraging in the woods for food. Some of us grumbled that all this effort was unnecessary, since certainly before the snow fell we would be released and reinstated as citizens. Of course, it was years before that happened.

I grew hard muscle but I was thin, very thin. Meals were usually just a bowl of rice our concerned relatives in Japan had sent through the Red Cross. Perhaps some deer meat, although without guns or bows, they were tricky to kill. I usually put any meat or vegetables I was allotted into my mother’s or sister’s bowl.

My little sister, Momoko, ran wild.

We’d been allowed to keep family groups together, thank goodness, but my father had been too vocal in his protests so he’d been sent to work at road construction up by Prince George. My mother depended on me. No schools until a year or two later when the nuns were allowed in. My little sister, Momoko, ran wild. What a joy Momoko was! She’d imitate us boys when we practiced our judo, flailing her little arms about in the sun, parroting even the more difficult moves of our kata, our exercises.

We were a mishmash of families. Different dialects, different areas of Vancouver, different ages. We all had to learn to get along. We were such a docile bunch, it amuses me now. The one policeman used to joke how he couldn’t tell us apart but it didn’t matter because we weren’t getting arrested anyhow.

So, the alien found it easy to blend in. Maybe that’s why he chose to look Japanese and chose to suffer with us in the camps. Of course, I wasn’t aware he was an alien at the time. Later, I thought maybe he was among us because we were the “undesirables” of the era.

I’ll never know the real reason.

#

Christine decided to ignore that last bit. She knew her wide mouth and plump frame belied her half-Japanese heritage but she was Japanese enough to keep from embarrassing him. She wasn’t going to go so far as calling him by the honorific Oji-san, respected elder, but she wouldn’t humiliate the old man either.

An older woman in a white uniform strode in, glanced at the tubes and meters, then crossed her arms. Deep grooves cut through her jowls, surrounding her heavily lipsticked mouth. “Time for your nap, Mr. Matsumoto. Visiting hours are over. She’s not family.” Christine was targeted by the woman’s piercing gaze.

“My dear, I didn’t survive eighty-nine years to be impolite to this delightful young lady, family or not.” Mr. Matsumoto winked at Christine.

“I can leave, Mr. Matsumoto,” Christine said, rising. “I can come back another day.” And flunk the course. Social studies was her worst subject. Mr. Singh was not known for giving do-overs.

“Sit, child,” Mr. Matsumoto commanded. Christine sat.

“Go, Maria. Go with grace.” He smiled at the aide who tilted her head and finally smiled back, cracking the lipstick.

“All right. You win. But just half an hour.” Her hips swayed as she walked away down the hall.

Christine watched her go. That had been cool — Mr. Matsumoto had changed someone’s mind with just a look. “Please continue, Oji-san,” Christine said and straightened her notebook on her lap.

#

The alien called himself Sato and claimed he came from a village none of us had heard of. We had no reason to disbelieve him. He looked quite normal: brown skin, black eyes, taller than most of us — about five-foot nine. A somewhat narrow head but the usual physiology otherwise. Like most of us, he had some scars. And he had only his index finger on his left hand, having lost the others in a farming accident, he claimed. The stubs of his four missing fingers had healed years ago. He was a quiet fellow, never saying much, just like a lot of the single men in camp. In fact, I wouldn’t have known he wasn’t human if he hadn’t slipped up.

I was deep in the forest and, um, using a tree. Sorry for the euphemism, young lady. I buttoned my fly, turned around, and heard a cracking noise high overhead, like something large had shifted. Too high for a bear to climb. Do you know what a “widowmaker” is? A loose branch, perched up high, about to fall. Very dangerous, especially in those days with no hospital available. I stepped back a bit and looked up, to see how precarious the branch was.

… I wouldn’t have known he wasn’t human if he hadn’t slipped up.

Sato hung one-handed from a narrowed tree trunk thirty feet in the air, holding a tiny box toward the sky and speaking nonsense words into a glowing screen. At least, nowadays, I know it’s a screen. Back then it seemed like a little lantern to me. All I could think of was magic. Magic and ghosts.

Sato closed the lid on the box and put it in his coat pocket then lowered himself from the tree, effortlessly, dropping swiftly hand over hand like a chimpanzee. His strength was amazing. What would you call it these days? Freaky. I stepped out from the brush.

“Sato-san, what are you doing?”

“Matsumoto,” he said, “Go back to the logging crew. This is none of your affair.”

I gazed at him for a minute but, at sixteen, I wasn’t going to disobey an elder and really, what would I have said?

But from that moment on, I watched him. Sitting around the stove at night while the men sang and made music, I watched him. At mealtime, while he shovelled in rice with his chopsticks, I watched him. He consumed my attention like nothing else.

#

Christine kept her head down so the old man wouldn’t see her expression.

“Don’t look so skeptical, child. Don’t you believe in extraterrestrials?”

She fidgeted with her pen. The old guy was nuts but she just couldn’t be rude. It must have been clear from her posture.

“It’s all right, you don’t need to answer me. Will you accept that Sato was an alien for the purpose of this discussion? That way you can humor an old man and get your homework paper finished, too.”

Christine nodded with relief.

“Actually, dear, decades later, I read up on the subject. Fermi’s Paradox, Roswell, SETI, I studied them all. I was even a Trekkie for a few years.”

Christine had to grin when he splayed his fingers into an unsteady Vulcan salute.

The old man chortled. “It’s true! I can quote you lines from the original TV show, and I know all about the Prime Directive and the Federation. But back then at the camp, no — it was all ghosts and demons.”

“Will you accept that Sato was an alien for the purpose of this discussion?”

“How did the internment experience affect your later life?” She’d taken the question right from an internet site on survivor experiences. Most had gone on to live ordinary lives although there were several notable exceptions.

“I went to UBC for sciences. Part-time, while I worked, of course. I graduated by the age of thirty. That led to a teaching-assistant position and eventually I got my doctorate.”

“And you got married? And had kids?” That wasn’t a prepared question but she found she really did want to know.

“No, no, child. I never made time for that. I was studying astrophysics, you see — the most necessary science of all. I wrote a few papers that are considered important and I won a few awards but that is my real prize.” He waved a hand at the wall next to the bed.

Christine put her pen and notebook neatly on the floor and stepped over to the framed photo. A moustached Japanese man wearing a funny-looking brown business suit was posed next to three tall white men in blue jumpsuits. The caption read Me with the Apollo 11 crew, taken October 1969.

“Oh!” She pointed at the man in the brown suit. “That’s you! Cool!”

“High point of my life, young lady. And the high point of our civilization. It’s a shame it didn’t lead to much.” He pushed his glasses farther up on his nose. “A rather large contrast to the internment camp and World War Two, both of which certainly held quite a few low points.”

#

Most nights we sat around the best of the stoves and let the elder men tell tales. By the time winter came, we were starved for material. We had maybe twenty books in the camp, which we had pooled into a kind of communal library. Some Shakespeare, some Dickens. Also an H. Rider Haggard, which we considered a bit racy and you would find very tame. My favorites were Edgar Rice Burroughs and a tattered copy of Weird Tales. We would read them aloud, translating for the elders. Then we’d discuss them, as the stove fire crackled, our bodies too weary to do anything else. I remember when we’d just finished Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. Momoko had fallen asleep on my lap and I had tucked my coat around her.

“Oji-san, do you think it’s possible that people will visit Mars, like John Carter, someday?” I asked Tanaka, the logging-crew boss, whom I respected mightily. He laughed and shook his head. The men a generation older muttered about fantasy and crazy youth.

“Or that Martians could come here?” I persisted. Not only because of what I suspected Sato was, but I think I needed to know there was something outside of this prison, this war, this disheartening time and place.

“Why would they come here, to this world?” Tanaka scoffed. “What is here for them?”

“Maybe they want to see us, learn from us, find out our best crops and our fanciest automobiles.” I answered sourly. “Then take our property like the government did.” Momoko stirred on my lap and I realized my fists were bunched as I held her.

The men a generation older muttered about fantasy and crazy youth.

“Maybe they have a community they want us to be part of.” The voice in the darkness of the corner belonged to Sato. He moved forward into the light and his face was more animated than I had ever seen it. I remembered his curious box and suddenly realized it might be something like a radio or a telephone.

“Maybe they are investigating us to see if we are worthy of joining them.” Sato continued, his expression unreadable.

“We would fail,” said Tanaka, who was quite the philosopher. “Mankind is full of frail, imperfect souls.”

“A race is not a race if the runners do not know they are running,” added an ancient uncle, holding out his hands to the stove.

“Perhaps,” said Sato, fading back into his corner.

#

Christine scribbled telephones? When were those invented? She sighed. The old man was nice but it was getting harder to ignore the weirdness. She needed to pee, and she hadn’t even got beyond her second prepared question.

“Had enough, young lady?” Mr. Matsumoto squinted at her, his forehead wrinkled. “Do you want me to stop?” A monitor beeped.

Well, maybe she would tough it out. He was enjoying himself. It wouldn’t be right. What was that word her grandfather had taught her for respecting one’s elders? Kosher? No, sonkei, that was it, it wouldn’t be sonkei to stop now even though this was all pretty bogus.

“It would be awesome if you kept going.”

“Well, if you are sure. There is more to tell, such as how Sato killed my little sister.”

#

A month or so later, Tanaka needed two men to recover a roll of cable that had fallen in the river years ago. The rivers in the spring in the mountains, how do I convey the rushing ferocity? Thundering down narrow chasms, pounding between boulders the size of this bed, dangerous as anything you can imagine.

I swelled with pride when Tanaka chose me, especially when he said that I was stronger than I looked. Retrieving the cable so it could be used for logging would increase my status and benefit our camp. That’s the type of community pride we had, something that very few people feel nowadays, I believe.

“There is more to tell, such as how Sato killed my little sister.”

The other man chosen was — did you guess? — Sato. I don’t think Tanaka knew of his extraordinary strength — it was just a matter of who was available.

Sato and I stripped down to our pants and boots and entered the freezing water, inch by inch, moving carefully from boulder to slimy boulder in the rushing current. My feet were numb before I was up to my waist. Glacier water, you know.

“Stay strong, you’re almost there,” Tanaka called from the shoreline.

Several children watched from upstream, Momoko among them. “Good luck, ani, big brother,” she shouted. I waved a stiff arm at her and kept inching across, my frozen feet useless to feel the rocks on the riverbed.

Sato crouched in a defensive stance just ahead of me, edging forward slowly. He seemed less stable than he should, bucking and twisting in the current, as if his bones were hollow.

The cable coil was a few yards ahead of him, hung up over a large rock, entwined with branches and dead leaves.

Momoko waved at me again, leaning out over the water, holding on to a slender willow branch, her yellow dress almost touching the spray. I wanted to shout to her to get back but my teeth were chattering too much.

The willow branch snapped. She plunged into the channel. Her dress billowed for a moment; then she became a rag doll, tossed by the current. She swept right by Sato facedown. He snagged her collar with the sole finger on his left hand, the momentum of the current almost pulling him over. He grabbed a large rock with his other hand and fought to stay on his feet.

“Eiii, eiii,” screamed the other children. I can remember that sound to this day.

I tried to close the distance between us and almost lost my balance. As I battled to keep upright, I could see Sato pull her steadily toward him.

I straightened. Sato caught my eye and let go. Just let go. Momoko sailed down and away, bumped hard against a rock, and disappeared in the roiling waters beyond.

We never did find her body.

Sato and I clambered back to shore and the cable project was abandoned.

Everyone said Sato had let go in order to save himself. He didn’t have a good grip anyway, some said. The child’s wet clothing and filled boots made her weigh almost as much as him, said others. No one blamed Sato. No point in losing a good man as well as a foolish little girl. The community needed him.

Only I had seen that his grip was with his single finger.

Tanaka and the others on the shore could not have seen what happened — my body had blocked their view. Only I had seen that his grip was with his single finger. And that his biceps had hardly bulged as he had dragged Momoko toward him. He had let her go because he had not trusted me to keep his strength a secret.

We held funeral services over the next two days. Sato said nothing to me beyond the expected rote condolences. I shivered constantly for the next week; I just couldn’t get warm.

I ignored Sato from then on and began to hang out with the older boys, behind the tool shed. We pretend-fought each other, using atemi-waza, the more deadly judo moves, until I was black and blue.

#

The old man’s eyes had been closed as he talked. When the room grew silent, Christine was afraid he had fallen asleep, or worse. She shifted on the uncomfortable chair. His eyes opened and, incredibly, he smiled.

“But that’s awful!” Christine exclaimed.

“Young lady, things were different back then. Infant mortality was high. Children were a bit more expendable. And, don’t forget, Hitler was slaughtering Europeans all through those years. But, yes, it did affect me deeply.”

“But it’s so unfair!”

“Well, life is, you know.”

They both fell silent for a moment.

“I guess he deserved it.” Christine bit her lip.

“I’ve come to realize I killed him for several reasons. Justice was just one of them. Little Momoko’s death broke my mother’s heart and she died a few months later.” He sighed. “And, of course, overwhelmingly, I felt menboku marutsubure.”

“Loss of face?” Why? “Oji-san, I don’t understand.”

“I felt disgraced by his statements about the human race, about his lack of trust in us. So, regretfully, I dishonored us all further — by killing him.”

#

It was some time later that I found a chance.

“Hurry up!” Tanaka called out to us. Sato, Tanaka, and I were a work party of three, felling a lordly hemlock quite a ways from the camp. My chest heaved from the past hour‘s work with the large cross-cut saw and sweat had soaked right through my cotton shirt to stain my suspenders.

Our standard practice to fell a tree was for the rest of the crew, in this case Sato and I, to stand clear by more than the height of the tree, out of danger, leaving only the feller, Tanaka, at risk at the final moment. This evergreen was on a slope and Tanaka thought it safest to fell it upwards, into its natural lean. Then we could buck it up and slide it down the gully where it could be more easily sawn into lumber. Sato and I were to wait above on a narrow rock-bench that overlooked the gully.

I kept glancing at Sato climbing up the incline effortlessly beside me, as we dodged low-sweeping cedar branches and avoided devil’s club thorns. We burst out of a patch of dogwood at the same time, entering a small sloped clearing, devoid of brush, formed by a landslide of small stones that undercut the bank thirty feet above us. Roots dangled down from the grassy overhang above.

“The tree will not fall farther than this. We’ll be safe up there.” He pointed and began to scramble up the slippery gravelled slope.

Sato planted his feet on the edge of the rock-bench, holding the crosscut saw across his chest, listening and waiting.

We waited, out of danger, as Tanaka hacked out the last few chunks that would make the hundred-foot behemoth fall up the slope toward us. Sato planted his feet on the edge of the rock-bench, holding the crosscut saw across his chest, listening and waiting. Tanaka’s chopping resonated through the forest. I edged closer to the drop-off, sending a few pebbles over to clatter below.

“The war doesn’t seem to be ending,” Sato said without inflection. It was an odd topic to bring up, I thought.

“We will be victorious,” I answered. Anything else was unthinkable.

“I do not think I can take the daily pain for much longer,” he said, angling his narrow head toward me.

There were many things I could have said to that. I assumed his “daily pain” meant the rough conditions of the camp or perhaps a digestive problem he had from our inadequate diet. I wanted to cry out that his pain was nothing like mine. I would never again feel the warmth of Momoko’s birdlike body as she climbed into my lap; never again touch my mother’s hand as she handed me a bowl of rice.

I said nothing, but I’m sure I quivered with tension. I wonder now if he knew what I intended to do and chose not to stop it.

Finally, we heard Tanaka’s warning bellow, fading as he scurried out of range, and then a thunderous crack. I stepped closer to Sato. He turned to face me. I lashed out with the strongest judo move I knew, ude-ate, an arm strike. I struck him mid-chest and he tumbled over the ridge and onto the scree below. The saw skittered off to one side.

He rolled once, landing like a sack of rice in the middle of the sloped clearing, his head and one arm at odd angles.

The top of the hemlock crashed through the trees that lined the clearing and landed with a ground-shaking thump, its crown tip just below Sato’s still body.

During the time the tree took to settle, all popping and creaking noises, I half ran, half tripped down the slope. I quickly searched Sato’s body for his communication device and pocketed it, before dragging him a few feet over to where the tree top now rested. When I had run through the plan in my head moments before, I figured that pulling him would be the hard part but he weighed less than Momoko would have in her sodden clothes. I shoved him partway under a sizable branch of the downed tree before I licked my lips free of the dust and dirt, calling out for Tanaka, saying there had been a horrible accident.

Sato’s upturned face looked blankly at the sky while Tanaka tramped the length of the tree toward me. As hemlock needles still pattered down through the many layers of canopy, like raindrops, I thought about choices.

The hemlock had no choice in losing its life. I believed I had no choice in taking one.

#

“Well, that’s my story, young lady. I’m very glad you stopped by this afternoon. I have never told anyone about this. Too embarrassing,” Mr. Matsumoto said. He gestured at his monitors. “Now, however, I have nothing to lose. What strange hubris man has, eh?”

Hubris? What was that? Christine had tried, she really had. But the old man’s story was just too incredible and his vocabulary too hard to follow. She did what she always did when teachers said mysterious things and then called on her. She pretended to read her notes.

Her page was almost blank.

The old man shifted in the bed, clearly in pain. “In fact, I’ve made a decision today that may help this sorry mess I got us all into. Can you pull my suitcase out of the closet?” He turned his head stiffly toward the small cupboard by the window.

The suitcase was made from some kind of woven material, like antique lawn chairs. It shed little brown slivers on the bedspread when Christine laid it beside him. She used her pen to force the rusty clasp open when her fingers failed. Inside, a small burlap bag lay surrounded by a few strong-smelling white balls. She breathed through her mouth as she handed him the bag.

He gently reached into the sack and drew out a small oval object that fit cozily in his wrinkled hand. It was a dull silver, almost oily-looking. Christine accepted it from him, politely using both hands.

He gently reached into the sack and drew out a small oval object that fit cozily in his wrinkled hand.

“Thank you, Oji-san,” she said, cradling it in her lap. “You kept it all these years?” She must have matured a bit this afternoon, by at least a couple of years. She could actually tell that Mr. Matsumoto’s answering smile held a great deal of sadness. And that he really thought this old cell phone thing was an alien device.

The old man lifted his shoulders. “I have wondered all my life. Was Sato’s civilization worthy of joining? Were we worthy? Would we have been accepted if I had not killed him?” He held his palms upward. “I kept waiting for mankind to advance enough, for a government I trusted enough, for science to catch up with this.” He gestured at the gadget.

“Um, I’m not sure about all that. Thank you for the present, Oji-san. I need to go now,” Christine said. It was all too intense. Mr. Matsumoto inclined his head and gave that sad smile again.

She headed for the elevators, stuffing her notepad in her purse as she walked. Her phone in its side pouch was flashing like mad with incoming texts. She shifted the metal object to her other hand but still couldn’t manage to grab her phone as well.

She stopped in the hallway. There was nowhere to put the gadget down. It smelled strongly of the horrible little white balls. What was she going to do with it? Where would the old man have gotten it, in this nursing home where no one ever visited? She turned it over to see if there was a brand name. Pulsating, dark shapes writhed beneath the silver surface. It was very weird.

She pressed the elevator button located above an overflowing trash bin. She hesitated, holding the gadget poised over the collection of gross paper towels and Styrofoam cups. The door slid open and she quickly shoved the gadget into her purse. She’d look at it later. There was no hurry.

She pressed the Down button. What a crazy afternoon. Her interview notes were useless, her homework assignment was going to suck, and her social studies grade would drop below a pass. Maybe she could talk to Mr. Singh.

A second chance shouldn’t be too much for anyone to ask for.

Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of a prairie farmhouse and her writing cabin on the West Coast. Her fiction has been published in Lightspeed, Crossed Genres, Tesseracts, and many other venues. Upcoming stories will soon appear in Unlikely Stories' Coulrophobia anthology, Bundoran Press's Second Contacts anthology, and World Weaver Press's Scarecrow anthology. For more of her work, see http://hollyschofield.wordpress.com/.