Detail of Watanabe Seitei's "Goldfish," ca. 1887. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I buried fourteen candles.

With a small shovel that was starting to rust, I dug up the moist earth.

In the vacant lot, about thirty steps from the way in, past the completely overgrown weeds—in summer they got as tall as me—there were several trees at the back. A magnolia tree. A camphor tree too. Those are the only two kinds of trees that I know. The rest of the trees in the cluster there, whatever kind they were, their branches stretched toward the sky and in fall, they dropped little acorns.

The weeds thinned out a bit under the trees. I used the shovel to dig up the earth in this spot, where the weeds were sparse. By the roots of the camphor tree. I laid the fourteen short, thin candles in a hole about ten centimeters deep. I covered the candles with the earth I had dug up. Once the candles were no longer visible, I carefully leveled off the ground, then I stamped on it with the bottom of my shoe.

I continued to trample upon the ground until no one could tell that the candles were buried there or even that a hole had been dug. I stepped back a little and looked at the trodden earth. The slightly uneven surface of the ground.

“Hmph,” I muttered, grabbing my schoolbag that I had left in the weeds. I put the shovel in a plastic bag and shoved it into my schoolbag. I pushed my way through the weeds and left the vacant lot. I could hear the sound of autumn insects here and there. I walked straight home.

*

I turned fourteen yesterday. The candles had been on my birthday cake. Last night, I had blown them out with one breath. At the same moment I blew them out, my father had clapped his hands. Then my father and I cut up the cake and ate it in silence. We stuffed our faces with the buttercream rose petals.

When I did speak—to say “Tastes good”—my father raised the corners of his mouth and nodded. But the truth was, it wasn’t any good at all.

This was the fifth time the two of us were celebrating my birthday. My mother left home the week before I turned ten. The following week, I celebrated my birthday, just my father and me, for the first time. The cake my father bought was sort of crude, compared to the one my mother always got for me. The birthday cake my mother bought was a softer sponge cake, heaped with fresh whipped cream and sprinkled with chocolate. The number of candles on it was not my age, but for some reason, always precisely three. She made a special trip on the train to a pastry shop on a big shopping street to pick up the cake that she ordered beforehand.

My father didn’t even try to explain why my mother had left. He hadn’t spoken a word about my mother since then. But one day my aunt Namiko, my father’s sister, had let something slip, so I knew that apparently my mother had run off with some other man.

Of course, I never said anything to my father about the fact that I knew my mother had run off with someone else. As far as I was concerned—and my father as well—she did not exist. From that day forward. And forever after.

*

I had known about the vacant lot for a long time. When I was in first and second grade, during summer vacation the boys would get up early in the morning and go there to catch the stag beetles that gathered on the trees at the back of the lot. I’d be right there with the boys, catching those little creatures with what looked like antlers on their heads. In those days, there were quite a number of vacant lots around my house—the vacant lot where I buried the candles had been just one of many.

Over the past several years, the vacant lots dwindled as new homes were steadily built. The number of stag beetles and rhinoceros beetles also dropped considerably. Now that vacant lot is about the only space left that’s as wide open as this.

Soon after I started middle school, it became my habit to stop at the vacant lot on my way home—I rarely ever saw anyone else there. I guess not even the elementary school kids played here anymore. It was just a deserted tract of land with the occasional leaping grasshopper.

*

The first thing I buried in the vacant lot was my goldfish Tara.

I had kept Tara in a bowl by the front door. The bowl had previously been home to two goldfish I had gotten at a festival.

One was a pop-eyed goldfish, the other was a red goldfish, and I had scooped them both up from a night stall vendor at the festival. I carried the plastic bag that held both fish, and on the way home we stopped at a tropical fish shop where my mother bought me a round fishbowl. The edge had a wavy shape, and the glass was a very pale blue.

The goldfish from the festival were named A-suke and B-maru, and I fed them every day. A-suke was the pop-eyed one, and B-maru was the red one. My mother and I came up with their names.

However, A-suke and B-maru had short lives. It may be that I overfed them. Or perhaps in the night stall vendor’s water tank they were already in poor health. Three days after bringing them home, A-suke was floating belly-up in the bowl, followed the very next day by B-maru.

Those third and fourth nights, I cried and wailed. On the morning of the fifth day, my eyes were so swollen my father took one look at me and said, “Shiori, your face—it looks like the goldfish put a curse on you.”

“You’re so stupid, Dad!” I yelled, and my mother gave me a stern warning. What kind of behavior is this, calling a parent stupid?

*

When I came home from school that day, there was a goldfish—bigger than both A-suke and B-maru had been—swimming around in the bowl by the front door.

I flew into the kitchen to ask my mother about it. “What’s the deal with the fish by the front door?”

“I bought it at the tropical fish store,” she answered logically.

Had I asked my father, no doubt his reply would have been something like, “A-suke and B-maru loved you so much, Shiori, that they united in heaven and came back.”

“Will this one last very long?” I wondered.

My mother thought for a moment. “I don’t know, but I asked the man at the store to select a fish as strong and healthy as possible, so I think it may live a long life—but there’s no way to be sure.”

“I hope it lives a long life,” I said, and my mother nodded.

Because the fish was red and about the size of a tarako cod roe, my mother named it Tara.

Tara died the year after my mother left. It had been just over two years since she brought it home. I didn’t like the idea of burying Tara in the garden, so I brought it to the vacant lot, and buried it there. With the same shovel I would use for the candles, I buried Tara near the way in to the vacant lot.

It was toward the end of autumn, so the weeds had grown sparse. As I shoveled, alone, I murmured over and over, “I pray for the soul of Tara.” I hated saying the name Tara. It reminded me of my mother. But it wasn’t Tara’s fault that it had that name.

I didn’t know whether or not just over two years was a long life for a goldfish.

*

Since Tara, I’ve buried numerous things in the vacant lot.

Eleven candles. A toy ring. The boxwood comb from my mother’s dresser. Twelve candles. Painkiller tablets. Thirteen candles. A frog figurine. A chipped mug.

Some things were connected to my mother, some weren’t. I remember where I buried each and every one of them.

The week after I buried the fourteen candles, I got a letter.

When I opened the shoe cupboard at the end of the school day, there was a white, rectangular envelope inside. It was not an envelope that I or the other girls in my class usually used—not one of those made of paper that was crisp to the touch, in shades of tea, grass, and peach—this was a business envelope, the kind an adult would use.

On the front of it, “Ms. Shiori Yamagata” was written vertically in black felt-tip pen.

I turned it over and saw the name “Toru Tanabe.”

I didn’t recognize this name or the handwriting. I mean, the only handwriting I was familiar with was that of the teachers and the characters they’d write on the blackboard, and the scrawls of Toko and Chie in the notebooks that we lent and borrowed from each other. The characters that spelled out “Ms. Shiori Yamagata” were large and vigorous.

I put the letter in my bag and went to the vacant lot.

Even though summer was long gone, the vacant lot was still overgrown with weeds. I sat down on the rock that had always been beside the magnolia tree and opened the letter.

Ms. Shiori Yamagata,

Please forgive me for writing this letter out of the blue.

My name is Toru Tanabe, I’m a eighth-grade student in Homeroom C.

You and I have never been in the same class together,
but I noticed you just after the matriculation ceremony.

Would you like to see a movie together sometime soon?

I’m in the Science Club.

My hobby is wireless radios.

I thought you might be surprised if I suddenly asked you out,
so I wrote you a letter first.

If it’s alright, I’ll ask you out the next time I see you.

Sincerely,

Toru Tanabe

The opening “Ms. Shiori Yamagata” and the closing “Toru Tanabe” were written in blue ink; the rest of the lines were in black. I read the letter over three times. I wondered whether he had added the names in blue after writing it.

*

I wasn’t the type of girl who was enormously popular with the boys. Not like Chie, for instance, who had a new boyfriend every few weeks, or like Toko, who had Kitabayashi and was always getting a lift home from school with him, riding double on his bicycle. I had gone out with a boy before—to an amusement park or to the movies—but none of these dates had ever amounted to any kind of serious relationship. We would go out once or twice, and that would be the end of it.

I knew I could be a bit brusque. The truth was, I didn’t really get what was so fun about hanging out with boys. Chie, with her constant rotation—that kind of thing I could understand—but Toko, who had decided on the one guy, Kitabayashi, and spent all her time with him—that was a mystery to me.

“You’ll understand, Shiori, once you find a guy you’re crazy about,” Toko said.

“Do you really think so?” I replied, but somehow I had the feeling that I would never be like her.

I could imagine Toko’s life story—she would fall perfectly in love with a guy, marry him, have children, then they would have her grandchildren, and eventually she would die peacefully, surrounded by those children and grandchildren. My life story would probably play out quite a bit differently. The man I loved and children too might very well appear at some point, but their arrival would perhaps be strange and unexpected, and then again, they might not even materialize at all.

“You’re only in eighth grade, Shiori—how can you go on about these things?” Toko had laughed.

“You know, we’re not as simple as you think, Shiori,” Chie had said, slightly miffed.

I neatly refolded the letter from Toru Tanabe and put it back in the white rectangular envelope. I liked Toru Tanabe’s letter, quite a lot. If he did invite me out, I knew that I would nod to him in acceptance. Although I couldn’t be bothered to think about what would come after that.

We’d probably hang out once or twice—see a movie, have tea together, go to an arcade. We might take a leisurely walk along the river or on some other pleasant street. But that would be the end of it.

As for Toru Tanabe, and other boys I hadn’t yet met, they still weren’t any more distinct to me than all of the grasses growing here in the vacant lot. I let out a sigh, and stood up to leave.

*

I saw Nishino in the vacant lot the day after I went to the movies with Toru Tanabe, which was a Monday.

Nishino and I had been in the same class since our first year in middle school. He didn’t really stand out. He was about average height, his grades were about average too. For sports, I think he played tennis, or maybe baseball. I don’t remember exactly.

Just once, Nishino and I had embraced. It wasn’t as though we embraced because we loved each other—no, not like that. We were preparing for the school culture festival, and a ladder fell in my direction, but Nishino was able to brace it with his back—and in that instant, we ended up in each other’s arms. Everyone in the class cheered, though that’s all there was to it. Nishino’s breath was warm, and I didn’t find it unpleasant to be held by him. But it was only a moment.

Now Nishino was sitting on the rock—my rock—beside the magnolia tree, with a woman. Not a girl, but a woman. A pale woman with short hair.

I let out a little cry. Not because Nishino was sitting in my spot, or because he was there with a woman.

It was because the woman next to Nishino looked exactly like my mother.

*

Hearing the sound of my cry, both Nishino and the woman slowly turned their heads. Their motions were perfectly in sync. It was as if a single puppet master were manipulating the movements of two dolls.

Now that she was turned toward me, the woman’s face looked nothing like my mother’s.

“Oh, Yamagata,” Nishino said. His voice did not sound all that surprised.

The woman smiled in my direction and then turned back to Nishino. “A friend of yours?” she asked.

“A girl from my class,” Nishino replied curtly.

It was true that I was a girl from his class, yet I felt slightly miffed. Surely there was another way of saying it, wasn’t there? Here he had barged into my vacant lot, and he was just going to dismiss me as “a girl from his class”?

“What are you doing here?” I asked as coolly as I could manage.

“Nothing much,” Nishino said, standing up. The woman stood, following suit. As before, when they had both turned toward me, their movements were beautifully in sync with each other’s.

“I’m leaving,” the woman said softly, with a gentle touch of her fingers on Nishino’s shoulder. The gesture was so light, I couldn’t tell whether she actually touched him or not. Yet, to my eye, the movement of the woman’s fingers appeared to blaze a pure white trail in the air. The trail went beyond Nishino’s shoulder and left a distinct afterimage.

“See you later,” she turned nimbly and left the vacant lot.

Nishino and I stood where we were, watching after her.

*

“Nishino, do you live around here?” I asked.

Nishino hadn’t moved from where he stood, so I stayed in place too. We had been standing there in silence for several minutes—or maybe it was only a few seconds, I really couldn’t tell.

“No,” Nishino’s reply was short. His voice sounded rather grown-up. It was completely different from that of other boys like Toru Tanabe. I must have heard Nishino’s voice in class before, though I didn’t have a clear recollection of what it might have sounded like. But here was definitely the first time I had heard this tone in his voice.

“Do you, come here a lot?”

Nishino offered no reply. He wasn’t avoiding the question—it seemed more likely my words hadn’t reached his ears. I strode over to my rock beside the magnolia tree where Nishino and the woman had been sitting, and with a certain roughness reclaimed my place. Nishino was watching my movements vacantly.

“Yamagata, you live ‘round here?” Nishino asked after a while. His voice was different now. The voice he had been using until just a few moments ago was gone. He sounded like a totally normal eighth-grade boy, half-child and half-adult, uncertain, and in the midst of breaking through adolescence.

“Just down the block,” I answered.

Nishino sat down in the weeds. The foxtails yielded, pinned under Nishino’s seat. That was right about where I had buried the boxwood comb.

I felt a shiver. Within the darkness beneath Nishino lay the rotting boxwood comb. The feeling was unlike fear, or pleasure, or disgust, or sadness. Various things mingled together in the shiver that went through me.

A dragonfly flitted through the air. As I watched, it multiplied into several dragonflies, and then they disappeared, only to multiply again before I knew it.

“I’m leaving,” Nishino said suddenly and stood up. Several small berries from the grass were stuck to the pants of his school uniform.

“Goodbye,” I said, still sitting on my rock.

“Goodbye,” Nishino said.

Nishino left, the grass berries still attached to his pants.

*

The next day, I saw Nishino in class, but neither one of us made eye contact. Of course we didn’t speak to each other either. At that point, I had barely ever spoken to Nishino in the classroom before.

Come to think of it, before Toko started going out with Kitabayashi, she actually had a little crush on Nishino. She was always keen to talk about him. Nishino, for his part, seemed uninterested in Toko. Chie used to tease Toko, saying, “What do you see in that guy Nishino?” But I thought I detected a note of bitterness in Chie’s voice. I sometimes wondered if Chie may have also had a thing for Nishino, but of course I never brought it up.

Before long Toko got together with Kitabayashi, and Nishino was no longer a topic of conversation.

That day, I followed Nishino’s movements out of the corner of my eye. Nishino hardly talked at all. Even when he was within a scrum of boys who were all chatting away, all he ever contributed was the occasional response—“Yeah” or “No” or “Uh-huh”—he never initiated anything. He would laugh along with everyone else, and if anyone asked him something, he would answer with a minimum of words.

But oddly, despite his reticence, Nishino did not come across as unsociable. With just a simple nod, he managed to give the impression to whoever was speaking that he had said ten words.

A strange air drifted about Nishino. An air that none of the other kids in class had. I had the impression that, if I were to try to push that air around, there would be no end to it. The more I tried to push it around, the deeper I would be caught up in it. And no matter how I pushed, I still would never reach Nishino, on the other side. Nevertheless, there was something gentle and warm and pleasant about that air. And imperceptibly, it seemed to create the illusion that the air itself was Nishino, instead of the person.

*

Toru Tanabe and I were on our third film appreciation date. “Film appreciation” was what Toru Tanabe had called it. I did not dislike the phrase.

The first time I went out with Toru Tanabe, we saw a movie and went to a coffee shop, where we drank juice. Then we stopped at a bookstore where Toru Tanabe showed me the wireless radio magazine that he bought each month, before going home. The second time, we saw a movie and drank coffee at the coffee shop, then we stopped at the model train shop where Toru Tanabe showed me the model train set that he was hoping to assemble. Toru Tanabe said he was an “HO scaler,” but I had no idea what he was talking about. The third time was also film appreciation, as Toru Tanabe had so dubbed it.

“Girls usually find boys like me boring,” Toru Tanabe had said the second time we went out.

“Really?” I replied—I didn’t think he was boring at all.

“Seems like it to me,” Toru Tanabe answered, giving the backpack over his shoulder a jolt. He was always carrying a large brown backpack. It was heavy. One time I held it for him, and had been surprised by how heavy it was.

Toru Tanabe did not have the same air as Nishino. The air around Toru Tanabe was like that of a clear fresh morning in the highlands.

“Wireless devices must be expensive,” I asked on our second date.

“They are,” Toru Tanabe confirmed.

“It’s nice of your family to buy them for you,” I said.

Toru Tanabe smiled. “I get my older brother’s cast-offs,” he explained.

Toru Tanabe’s older brother was in graduate school, majoring in architecture. “Yamagata, what do you want to do when you grow up?” Toru Tanabe asked. I thought about it for a moment, but absolutely nothing came to mind about my own future. Not a single thing I wanted to do or wanted to be.

Toru Tanabe stared at me, as I had fallen silent, and he scratched the top of his head. “I always ask this question right away, and that must be why they say I’m boring.” Toru Tanabe looked down at me—he was a whole head taller.

“No, that’s not why. It’s just that I can’t think of anything,” I replied.

Toru Tanabe squinted. “Yamagata, you’re really nice,” he said, and then he blushed.

Toru Tanabe had got it wrong. I really just couldn’t think of anything. Absolutely nothing that I wanted to do. There were plenty of things that I didn’t want to do. Like torment animals. Or be jealous of other people’s happiness. Or cut my hair short. Or obey unreasonable orders. Or wear pastel-colored dresses. The list went on and on.

*

After we had conducted our third film appreciation and then gone to the coffee shop, where we drank tea, instead of stopping by the bookstore or the model train shop, Toru Tanabe and I went to a park. He whistled as we walked around the park. I had to walk briskly to match his pace. His legs were longer than mine, and he was a fast walker anyway, so I had no choice.

When we arrived at the fountain, Toru Tanabe stopped whistling. There was a small grove of trees by the side of the fountain. Toru Tanabe walked in front of me and started to head into the trees. I broke into a trot to keep up with him.

Once we got to a spot where we were sort of hidden by the trees, Toru Tanabe stopped suddenly. Since I had been running, I almost collided with him from behind. He spun around and looked down at my face. There were faint beads of sweat on his forehead.

“Can I kiss you?” Toru Tanabe asked.

I said yes—it wasn’t as if I hadn’t expected it. In fact, I had, and yet I didn’t know what to do now. I didn’t know whether I wanted to kiss Toru Tanabe or not. When I didn’t say anything more, he stooped down and lifted my chin with his hand.

“No,” I said reflexively.

In that instant, Toru Tanabe let go of my chin and said softly, “Sorry.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” I replied, hastily turning my face toward him. I closed my eyes and waited for Toru Tanabe’s kiss.

But his kiss never came. Through half-closed eyes, I peeked at him. Toru Tanabe was looking off toward the fountain.

“Sorry,” I repeated, opening my eyes.

“You don’t have to say you’re sorry,” Toru Tanabe said, and he tapped me on the shoulder.

*

“Maybe it was too soon,” Toru Tanabe said after we emerged from the trees. Then, with a troubled look, he gave a little laugh.

“No, that’s not why,” I replied, my face serious, and soon the two of us were laughing together.

“It might have been a little early,” I said, still laughing.

We walked home along the path through the park, side by side. “Can I hold your hand?” Toru Tanabe asked, and I nodded. He slowed his pace. I didn’t have to hurry, I could walk normally.

Toru Tanabe saw me to the front door of my house. “Goodbye. See you later,” I said.

Toru Tanabe smiled. “See you later,” he said.

I stood by the gate and watched his figure recede, wondering to myself if I liked Toru Tanabe. I did like him. But whether I would learn to like kissing Toru Tanabe, that I didn’t know.

I sort of felt like crying. I remembered the list of things I didn’t want to do, from when Toru Tanabe had asked me about what I wanted to do in the future.

I didn’t want to grow up. More than anything else, I was afraid of growing up and, without even knowing it, becoming exactly like my mother.

*

I went to the vacant lot for the first time in a while.

I had kept my distance from it, ever since I happened to see Nishino and the woman there. I may not have admitted to myself that I didn’t want to see the place where they were together, but I was well enough aware that there was something in the depths of my mind that kept me away.

The day after my third date with Toru Tanabe, I went to the vacant lot.

The weeds were a little sparser. It was almost the middle of autumn. The leaves hadn’t yet begun to change color, but there were lots of acorns on the ground. The dragonflies were gone, there was only the faint chirping of insects in the grass.

Without taking a seat on my rock beside the magnolia tree, I went further in, where even more acorns had fallen, and sat down on a tree stump. The frog figurine was buried near the roots of this stump. My mother had had that frog figurine since before she was married. She had told me at some point, secretly, that an old boyfriend had given it to her. The frog figurine was made of striped agate and fit in the palm of my hand.

Some time after my mother left, my father got rid of my mother’s belongings, but still, every so often things of hers would appear in unexpected places. The frog figurine had been hidden at the back of a shelf filled with albums. When I found the frog, I placed it in my palm. The striped agate felt cool to the touch. I went straight to the vacant lot, and carefully buried the frog.

*

I sat on the tree stump and waited. Somehow, I had the feeling that Nishino would show up. I was sure that Nishino, since seeing me here, had been to the vacant lot several times with that woman. I knew that it probably made no difference to the two of them, whether I was here or not. No one needed to tell me—it had been obvious from the way they had been when I saw them.

After a little while, Nishino and the woman arrived. Quietly, they sat down on the rock beside the magnolia tree. I held my breath and watched them.

The two of them were saying something and looking into each other’s eyes. It didn’t seem like a meaningful conversation. The two of them did not need to use words. With the sound of a mere sigh, they could communicate all they needed to say.

The insects were buzzing. I had turned into one of the grasses growing in the vacant lot. One of the grasses swaying in the gentle breeze, just listening to the sounds that filled the air.

The woman made a slight movement and touched Nishino’s arm. As before, her gesture appeared to blaze a pure white trail in the air. A single line, drawn amid the grass. The woman guided Nishino’s arm to the bodice of her blouse. Nishino allowed her to do this, and then he began to undo the buttons on her blouse, one at a time from the top. Her white bra became visible. Her breasts were large and round. These ample breasts did not correspond with the desolation in her face.

“Will you?” I thought I heard the woman say, but it may have been my imagination. Nishino unhooked the woman’s bra. The moment he did so, the woman’s breasts filled the air around her. They spilled over into it.

“They hurt,” the woman said. This time, I heard her clearly.

With her own finger, the woman pressed lightly on a nipple and a white liquid spurted out. Nishino was staring quietly at the white liquid. The woman pressed on her nipples several more times. Sprays of white soared through the air, like water gushing from a shower.

“They hurt. Please, suckle,” the woman said.

Slowly, Nishino bent down and brought his lips to the woman’s breast. Nishino drew in his cheeks and suckled at her breast intently. Nishino’s profile was beautiful. Even more than usual, his face looked like that of a child. This is how an infant suckles milk, I thought to myself. The woman’s eyes were closed. Her face was expressionless, she just closed her eyes.

Once Nishino had finished suckling at one breast, he brought his face to the other. When he had finished with that one, Nishino pulled his face away and asked the woman, “Better?”

“Thank you,” the woman said. Then she stood up rather casually, and left the vacant lot.

*

Nishino did not go after the woman. He remained seated on the rock beside the magnolia tree. I too sat very still on the tree stump. The sun began to set, and dusk fell around us. The next thing I knew, my cheeks were wet with tears.

I was shivering. This shiver was different from the one I had felt when Nishino had been sitting on the spot where I had buried the boxwood comb.

It was beautiful. The sight of Nishino’s face at the woman’s breast, as he suckled intently—that had been quite beautiful. Nishino and the woman, the air surrounding the two of them, everything about it had been quite lovely. At some point I must have begun sobbing audibly. Much louder than the insects chirping in the clump of grass where I sat, I was now wailing the way I had when A-suke and B-maru died. Nishino was standing near me.

“Yamagata!” he said. Not with his grown-up voice, but with his eighth-grade voice.

“Yamagata, you should be ashamed,” Nishino said. I tried to stop crying, but I was still sniffling.

Nishino stood where he was, not saying anything more until I had composed myself.

“That was my sister,” he explained.

She was much older—a full twelve years—and just the other day her six-month-old baby had died, Nishino said softly.

It was her first child. Right after the funeral, his sister had taken to her bed. Her nerves were a bit frayed. She couldn’t be alone at home. She was wracked with anxiety unless someone was by her side at all times.

But even bed- and anxiety-ridden, she continued to produce milk—her breasts were full to bursting. Whenever she thought about the child she had lost, the milk would leak out. Going out soothed her anxiety somewhat. Seeing trees and grass and earth seemed to calm her.

“But once my sister calmed down, she whispered to me, ‘I just want to die,’” Nishino told me. Astonished, I looked up at him. Nishino’s expression was composed.

“But,” I stammered, and Nishino shook his head.

“That was my sister’s way of trying to say, It would be better that way.”

She can’t find the words when there’s so much sorrow. The same way that her breasts are tight and swollen with milk and she can barely stand the pain, all these thoughts in her head solidify in her body, and it’s agonizing. As soon as the milk spurts out, at some point the words burst from her lips—it’s like something hardened has come loose, and she feels somewhat more at ease.

“Nishino, are you, in love with your sister?” I asked gingerly.

“I feel sorry for her,” Nishino replied. He gazed off in the distance as he spoke.

I wanted to know what had happened to his sister’s husband, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. The air between Nishino and his sister was not quite the same as what might exist between lovers, although neither was it anything like that between family members.

“Yamagata, are you going out with Tanabe?” Nishino asked abruptly.

“Uh, yeah,” I answered. I may have had my doubts about whether or not Toru Tanabe and I were officially “going out” but I nodded anyway.

“I see,” Nishino said. “That’s too bad, ‘cause I kind of liked you too.”

“Wha?” The moment I looked into Nishino’s eyes, he touched my chin with his fingers and, a thousand times more smoothly than Toru Tanabe, he tilted my head toward his and kissed me.

*

Nishino’s lips parted and his saliva flowed into my mouth. It tasted sweet. Was that the taste of the breast milk? Or was it the taste of Nishino? Without thinking, I put my arms around Nishino’s waist, and held him tightly.

We kissed for a long time. Our kissing went on endlessly, with Nishino thinking of someone other than me, and me thinking of things other than Nishino.

In the grass, as I took in mouthfuls of Nishino’s saliva, I remembered all of the things that I had buried in the vacant lot.

Kissing Nishino was wonderful. More wonderful than anything I had ever known. And kissing Nishino was also sad. It was one of the saddest moments I’ve ever known.

As I was kissing him, I thought to myself, I may never come to this vacant lot again to bury something. I should tell my father frankly that I don’t need a birthday cake anymore. Someday, I may be able to see my mother again. And from now on, I wouldn’t be afraid of growing up.

Nishino’s kiss accepted everything in my fourteen years, and at the same time, his kiss rejected it in full. Fervently, we kept on kissing.

*

“Thank you, Nishino,” I said, once we were quite finished kissing.

“Uh huh,” Nishino replied, and then said, “Hey, why don’t you get rid of Toru Tanabe, and go out with me?”

I glanced at Nishino with surprise, and saw a bashful look on his face as he stood up and gave the withering grass a swift kick.

“But Nishino, you don’t really like me that much, do you?” I asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“C’mon.” I peered into Nishino’s face. Nishino turned just slightly away.

“A girl like you is too much for Toru Tanabe,” Nishino murmured.

“Is that so? But not too much for you, Nishino?” I asked. “You’re bold, Nishino.”

“Tsk!” he responded.

Nishino came and sat back down next to me. We held hands for a little while. It was completely different from holding hands with Toru Tanabe. When I held Toru Tanabe’s hand, it had felt like a strange creature from a faraway place. Big and warm, like something kind of scary I was seeing for the first time. But there was nothing the least bit odd about Nishino’s hand. While we were holding hands, it felt as though I no longer knew where his hand stopped and mine began.

“I’m going to keep seeing Toru Tanabe,” I said.

“Hmph,” Nishino snorted apathetically.

“Toru Tanabe is different from me, and that’s why I’m going to keeping seeing him,” I repeated.

“Okay, okay, I got it,” Nishino replied, laughing. I laughed with him.

We both stood up at the same time. There were berries from the grass stuck to the pants of Nishino’s school uniform, and to my skirt as well.

Autumn soon ended—before I knew it, winter arrived. The air was piercingly cold.

I conducted my tenth film appreciation with Toru Tanabe. After our ninth appreciation, we had coffee at a coffee shop and then, as we always did now, went to the park, where I succeeded in kissing Toru Tanabe for the first time. Ever since that earlier attempt, Toru Tanabe had become very hesitant, and I couldn’t help worrying about when we would actually succeed. After my kiss with Nishino, my feelings for Toru Tanabe had only grown stronger. In various ways.

Nishino and I still never spoke to each other in the classroom. I had stopped going to the vacant lot, so now I had practically no chance to talk to him.

When I happened to run into him on the way home one day, I asked Nishino about his sister.

“She’s a little better.” Nishino answered the same way he did in class. With the bare minimum of words.

Time passed. I was thinking of chopping all my hair off. My mother had always worn her hair short. From her, I had inherited the same soft fine hair, which tended to flatten against my small head. I thought that soon I might tell Toru Tanabe about my mother. And then I might even tell him about my goldfish Tara, and about the birthday cake with buttercream frosting. I wondered what Toru Tanabe’s face would look like while he listened to my stories.

Soon after winter began, the vacant lot was leveled and put up for sale. Sometimes, in the pale light of winter, I thought about Nishino. Once we graduated from middle school, I might not see him again but, through the various stages of life, I knew that I would remember Nishino often.

The small grass berries stuck to Nishino’s pants. The many things that were buried in the vacant lot. The rock beside the magnolia tree. The feeling of digging up the moist earth. And the mysterious, milk-sweet kiss with Nishino.

I would always remember clearly what happened in the grass between our fourteen-year-old selves, in the space between adulthood and childhood.

© 2003 by Hiromi Kawakami. English translation © Allison Markin Powell, 2019. The work was originally published in Japanese by Shinchosha in 2003 as Nishino Yukihiko no Koi to Boken.

Hiromi Kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami is a Japanese writer known for her fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. She has won numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, and the Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature. Her work has been adapted for film, and has been translated into more than fifteen languages. The Ten Loves of Nishino will be published by Europa Editions on June 4, 2019.

Allison Markin Powell

Allison Markin Powell is a translator of Japanese. Her translation of Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the UK edition (Strange Weather in Tokyo, Portobello) was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Her other translations include works by Osamu Dazai, Fuminori Nakamura, and Kanako Nishi.  In addition to translating, she works as an editor and publishing consultant and currently serves as co-chair of PEN America’s Translation Committee. She maintains the database of Japanese Literature in English.

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