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from the March 2015 issue

Telegraph Pole

Now was the time to leave.

She could go anywhere, as long as there were streets. Just had to walk to get there. These feet would take her. Though they weren’t as good as they used to be.

Oh Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai! Where have you come from, and where are you going?

I am running from my mistress Sarai, she answered.

This road was here before they paved it. The rain left it muddy, pockmarked by puddles.

She had walked this street every day, ever since she was a girl. Quite a few of the houses on the slope leading up to the Telegraph Construction Corps had soldiers living in them. She had been proud of that. Once, she told her friend Kazue, “We have a lot of soldiers near us, you know.” A bit embarrassing to think of it now.

Before those three little houses went up, there was a soldier living there, too. His name . . . whatever was his name? There she went, forgetting again. Well, his name was gone, but he’d been a soldier and this was his home. Not such a big house, really. The hedge always neatly trimmed, the red trunk of the pine by the door had such a pretty color. A gray speckled bird that scampered up the trunk sometimes. He’d dig out an insect with his bill and peck at it. They were both gone, now—the hedge and the pine.

She used to see the soldier himself from time to time. His shoes and his briefcase always gleamed like he’d just finished polishing them. The smell reminded her of the shoe and bag section at the Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi. He smelled of cigarettes, too. She thought his long winter coat was splendid.

Sometimes the Telegraph Construction Corps used this road for practice. There were no concrete poles anywhere. The wooden practice ones were a charred-looking brown. Each bore a small tin tag: “Army” and “Telegraph,” it said, and then three numbers.

They used their pickaxes and shovels to dig a deep hole in no time at all, and next thing you knew a wooden pole had sprung up alongside the road. Her mother would stop and watch, holding her by the hand. “Fast as lightning,” she would say, “quick as a spark.”

A young soldier would shinny up the pole and hang the cable. When he finished, the taut black cable looked like an ink line drawn across the sky. The soldier would call down, “It’s up!” Even the crows stayed away from the lines the telegraph corps hung.

The soldier would speak clear, sharp signals into something like a telephone, keeping his voice down. Then he would listen in silence. Sometimes he nodded. He stared at his watch.

And they would take down the line they had only just put up. The wire hung loose as they wound it around a giant spool, crank by crank. The soldiers had a dusty smell like an old sack. She could hear the tools on their belts clacking together.

One of the men—not the first in command, but the second, or maybe the third—gave her a nice smile.

On the corner where you turned out onto the main street there was a transport company. Marusaka Transport it was called, now as then. Little Sakata Kiyo, who was two years below her, was the second-generation owner, or maybe the third. He was an old man now. Ignored her when she walked by. Slipped out of sight behind a truck. Now why would he do that? Back in the old days, they didn’t have trucks, they had horses. Horses that pulled wagons. When she stopped, the horses watched her out of the corners of their eyes. They had long, dense eyelashes; dark black eyes.

The tatami shop on the way to the bus stop had closed, who knew when. The milk store, too. And the tailor. There used to be a small ironworks, but it was gone now. Swallows built nests in the factory every spring, under the ceiling. All those sparks flying everywhere and the shrilling and banging didn’t bother the sparrows. They flitted about calm as could be, raising their chicks.

Where did they all go? Where did the swallows build their nests now?

Boarding the bus was a chore. She took care not to block anyone behind her. Don’t drop your pass, now, be careful. I don’t want to have to reach down there again, OK, darling? I’ll be careful, don’t worry. No need to be so snippy. The driver waited until she had taken a seat. Watching her all the while in the square mirror.

Such a relief to be sitting. “Here we go,” the driver warns, sounding relieved as well.

She holds her bag on her lap and stares out the window. The wide plot of land where the Telegraph Construction Corps was is all built up now. Buildings tall enough that she has to lift her head to see them. Their windows reflect the clouds. How could they possibly wash windows so high?

The Telegraph Construction Corps had a hangar for a hot-air balloon. Mother said she’d never seen a building so tall. She felt as if she’d seen it herself, but she hadn’t. Someone had told her little propeller planes used to land here, too. The Telegraph Construction Corps owned land all the way to Asagaya, all the way to her church.

The bus stop by the train station had moved. It was further away. And all the sidewalks were slanted. She tried to be careful, but still her feet got out from under her. A young lady came over as she lay motionless on the ground. “Are you all right?” The pavement felt cool; the woman’s tone was gentle. There was an ambulance. It drove up beside her, transported her to the station. It took less than a minute. There was a hospital in the station. They finished the operation and told her she could go. She hadn’t gotten to thank the young lady.

Michiko came to the hospital to fetch her. Why didn’t you say you were going out? I’m not a child, I don’t have to tell you every little thing I do. She kept this thought to herself and apologized. She wouldn’t do it again. Promising not to do it again worked best with Michiko. You didn’t want to get her riled up.

The station was different from before. She was afraid to go through the gate. Scared she might get stuck, or be hit, or bump into something. She asked an attendant for help and he checked her ticket, put a mark on it, told her to go on through.

The escalator scared her, too. She mounted the stairs, a step at a time, gripping the railing. These shoes weren’t new. But she was used to them, she liked them. Someone had told her she should buy a new pair so she wouldn’t slip. The woman who sometimes came to vacuum and do the laundry, to go shopping with her. So kind of you to suggest it, but I can still wear these, I’m perfectly fine as I am. She wanted to say that, but she kept quiet. She laughed and said nothing, looked at the ground, and in the end she didn’t have to buy new shoes.

Shi-na-no-ma-chi. Shinanomachi, that was her!

She had nearly missed her stop.

It felt very cold outside. She had been wearing a knit hat when she left, but it was gone now—that explained the cold.

The escalator frightened her, so she took the stairs, holding tight to the rail.  The stairs were scary, too, but she could take them at her own pace, a step at a time. Everyone went down so fast. They were in a hurry. How tiring it must be to have to rush like that.

She always hated being in a rush.

Take the Toden line to the Third Girls’ High School in Roppongi.

“It’s incredible that you got in,” her mother said. “You’re the pride of the whole Kamata family.” That made her mad. It’s nothing special, and you better not say anything like that to my friends’ parents, you hear! “OK, OK. I won’t say anything, Tomoko.”

From Shinanomachi to Roppongi on the Toden line. Shinanomachi, Gontawara, Aoyama Icchōme, Shinbashichō, Ryūdochō, Roppongi. Roppongi was the sixth stop. Students from Tōyō Eiwa Girls Academy took the same line. Sometimes she would see a girl reading a book in English, holding it in one hand as she stood. They wore their hair differently and had different shoes, and above all different uniforms from the girls at Third Girls’ High. Tōyō Eiwa stood atop a steep hill. The building was very nice. An architect named Vories had designed it. How must it feel, she wondered, studying in a building a foreign architect had built?

She saw the Bible for the first time on the Toden line. She was standing, and a girl from Tōyō Eiwa who was sitting in front of her had it in her bag. It had a black leather cover.

She hadn’t been able to go to church for ages.

“Ms. Kamata, God isn’t in the church,” Father Miyahara had said. “He’ll be at your side, watching over you.”

The Third Girls’ School burned down in the air raids. Nothing was left. Mother always said it was a good school, but she felt sorry for it. Burning down like that, then turning into a completely different school after the war.

“Um, excuse me.”

She noticed an old man standing next to her, peering into her face.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

No.

All of a sudden, she felt embarrassed.

I’m waiting for the train.

“Ah, I see.”

She had seen people smile in that awkward way before. Mr. Takizawa, the science teacher, sometimes smiled like that. He looked that way in chemistry class when he called on someone and they got the answer wrong.

Are you a relative of Mr. Takizawa from the Third Girls’ School?

The old man did not reply to her question.

“Is anything wrong? Where do you live?”

She felt more embarrassed than before.

I’m all right, everything’s fine. I’m just waiting for the train, and when it comes I just go six stops. It’s not far at all. I’ll be there soon, once I get on the train.

“It’s after six now. It’s so dark, I think you’d be better off not going out.”

She looked at the sky and started. Somehow it was night already.

Oh no. Michiko will get after me for this.

She wanted to check her bag, but she didn’t have it. Must have forgotten it somewhere. She looked around, but it was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she had left it at home. But without it she couldn’t get back. She would have to call Michiko.

I’m afraid my I’ve misplaced my bag. Could you lend me ten yen?

Again the old man made a face like Mr. Takizawa.

“I’d be happy to, of course, but first, given the situation, I think it would be best if we went together to a police box. There’s one over there. Perhaps you can use their phone.”

The old man held her as she walked. Oh dear. Michiko would be angry.

“How cold you are,” the old man said, touching her hand. His hand was warm.

Ridiculous to be fussed over so by an old man. She felt grateful, but also sad.

The man went inside the police box and started talking to them. Something white tumbled past her eyes.

She gazed up at the dark sky.

Snow. Tiny, powdery flakes.

No wonder it’s so cold. It’s . . . what month is it?

A young policeman came over.

“Come on inside. It’s cold out.”

The policeman wore a pistol in his belt. A pistol, not a nightstick. Maybe he was a soldier as well as a policeman? How strange not to have a nightstick. He must be a real big shot.

The snow was falling faster.

Thick falls the snooow. Hard falls the haaiil.

“That’s a nice singing voice you have.”

He asked her name, so she told him. Kamata Tomoko. She got in trouble for throwing an eraser at a boy in elementary school. He had called her kamaboko.

The policemen guffawed.

Was it that funny, what I said?

The snow had begun piling up. The ground was white. How would she ever get home in this weather?

“Be careful walking,” the old man said. He smiled, rested his hand on her back, then left. Again she had missed her chance to say thank you. People are too fast, she can’t keep up.

My house?

She couldn’t recall the number.

Stupid numbers. If they just stuck to names, she wouldn’t forget.

“It’s OK. We can ask at the local office, they’ll know.”

Her bag . . . it was brown, made of leather.

The contents? Her wallet, her passbook . . . that was all she remembered.

“I’ll contact JR. You’ll need to fill out a Lost Property Report, though. A Lost Property Report.”

The policeman’s pistol is so close. It scares her. And his voice is loud. She knows he is speaking, but she can’t understand him. Her mind is blank. The pistol looks heavy.

A gunshot.

It was February. There was a snowstorm.

A snow just like this.

“I heard a gunshot,” her father said, and got up from the kotatsu. “You stay here, Tomoko,” her mother said, but she followed her father to the door.

She didn’t hear any gunshots.

The snow was falling thick and fast.

Practice telegraph poles lined the road.

All in a row, aiming for the Telegraph Construction Corps.

It looked like they were marching, without a wire stringing them together. Snow clung to their backs, the tin tags were gone. They looked as if they must be frozen solid.

She heard a gunshot. He heart pounded.

“We’re going home,” her father said.

How to get home?

“I’ve got your address, so I’ll take you back.”

No, no, there’s no need. If you can let me have forty yen I’ll take the train.

The policeman smiled. He seemed to smile a lot.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, Go back to your mistress.

Go back and submit to her.

She looked out the window of the police car at the falling snow. She felt more and more sleepy; her eyelids felt heavy. Her body rocked.

The night was still dark when she closed her eyes. It was snowing. It didn’t stop.

She knelt, facing the window, and rested both her elbows on her knees, and gazed out far, far into the snow that never stopped.

 © Masashi Matsuie. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©  2015 by Michael Emmerich. All rights reserved.

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