Every now and then a bird cries at the window in my room. I have never once thought about what it means. My mind has been stuck on a nagging discomfort for the past eleven months. The bird is called an uguisu in Japanese. It has an English name too, but why would you call a bird endemic to Japan by its English name? I’ll have to look into why it is that birds cry at people’s windows.
On the third day of the fifth month of my continuing dissatisfaction my wife turned to me and said, very seriously. “You must stop moping, or I think I’ll have to divorce you.”
My eyes took an interesting course from wide and round to quite narrow and scrunched up, staring back at her. “That is not very nice.”
She stood there, in the hallway, with her hands on her hips and the shadow of the hall ominously shrouding her figure. “I suppose it’s not. Nevertheless, do quit it soon. Your clothes are dry, by the way.”
So I walked through the shadow of the hallway, fearing my wife’s threat with the sort of guilty self-loathing one might expect of an adulterer. My clothes awaited me on the line outside. Six white button-up shirts blowing in sync, like flags on a fallen ship’s mast. It was a bright day, blue and green and concrete, speckled with rust and the hesitant smiles of the eighty year old farmer and her son working in the plot of land just past our clothes line.
“Nice day isn’t it?” I called out.
“Your cat peed in my fertilizer.” said the younger of the two.
I nodded. “I’ll tell him not to do it again.”
He huffed at me. His mother smiled though. She liked cats. Pee or no pee.
I took my shirts off the line and went to look for the cat. The shirts smelled of fresh air and manure, a strange combination to be sure, but one can get used to just about anything, and once a thing has become normal, you’re only reminded of how strange it is when you have to tell someone about it.
I found the cat. It had a little green ball of feathers in between its paws. Whatever it was, was not quite dead, but not fully alive. I decided then that cats are truly cruel creatures. They deceive us with their cuteness and strange behavior around cardboard boxes, but the cuteness is a carefully veiled lie. At this current moment of discovery though, I was too deep into my own self-loathing to even realize the extent of the torture the poor bird was going through or that it was the very same uguisu that cried at my window.
After that day I made a concerted effort to conceal my moping, letting it out only while I was at work, away from my wife. My coworkers were not pleased. I was not getting a divorce. Things worked out well enough.
The shirts were each worn twice again before the next incident worth mentioning here occurred. The cat died. I thought perhaps the neighbor poisoned it. But the vet said it seemed to be the result of a horrible brain hemorrhage. “Not the kind of thing you could have prevented” he tried to console me.
When I got home I looked up the kind of hemorrhage the vet mentioned. It wasn’t on any of encyclopedic websites, but an obscure medical forum referenced a case study done in 1986. Unfortunately only the abstract to that study came up on any searches, and it was in one of those absurdly expensive research journals that you can’t get without spending an arm and a leg. I sighed and vowed revenge on the farmer’s son. He clearly poisoned the cat, I could find no reasonable alternative.
My wife came in at just the moment I came to said conclusion and saw the computer screen, which happened to have a browser window open showing rather gory hemorrhage photos. She seemed strangely unfazed. I tried to explain. She asked if the vet could do anything for the cat. I said no. She erupted into tears and fell into my arms sobbing. Truly, the farmer’s son deserved pain.
Strange how things work. Strange how absence shapes one’s hopes, but presence shapes one’s expectations. How anger fuels hate, but empathy soothes both with tears.
Months after the death of the cat, and only a couple days ago now, the farmer next door passed on. She was only eighty, barely old enough to qualify for retirement benefits these days in Japan. I do not know whether or not she also died of a strange brain hemorrhage. It does seem possible.
In rural Japan, one is expected to attend the funeral services of one’s neighbors. I did so happily, giving the small envelope of old, well used yen to the overly somber woman at the reception desk.
The farmer’s son spoke, thanking everyone for coming. He choked on his tears as he spoke. I don’t usually cry. And I didn’t cry because the old farmer died young. I cried then because I had wished this pain upon the man. And I cried for the cat, pent up tears that my wife had released but I hadn’t. And I cried for the bird that I finally recognized, and thought perhaps I knew why it made its longing call.
My wife held my arm and stayed close to me throughout the endless chanting of the monk. We tossed incense onto the embers and rang the bell before the old farmer’s coffin. My own pain seemed less as the incense smoke rose and the bell’s ringing faded. I turned to my wife and smiled a restrained, polite smile. Absence. Presence.