Jiro sat on the edge of the porch holding his sensu over his forehead. He let the sweat trickle down the sides of his head. A line of dark trees sat at the edge of their property. Beyond that was the family haka, dark grey and cool marble, lurking in the shade. Late afternoon sun poured through the leaves. The dappled light hit his face.
He tried to cool off again with the fan, but it was no use. His back ached and his eyes stung. But there, on one of the weathered floorboards of the porch, rested the egg. He’d found it on the ground, back there in the trees near the haka. It seemed to Jiro to sing with the fading of the light. He caressed its smooth surface and watched the sun drop.
Jiro set the iron kettle on a hook above the hearth’s fire. When the steam billowed out from the spout, he poured boiling water into a cup of instant udon noodles. His stomach churned as the powdered dashi dissolved in the water. He considered cracking the egg over the soup, but, thinking better of it, placed it in a small plastic bowl next to the hearth.
The sun fell beneath the mountain and night came quickly. A few moths flew in and singed themselves on the fire.
The egg must have hatched overnight, though he could see no sign of a hatchling anywhere. Only empty shell bits remained, strewn here and there across the tatami. Jiro swept them up into his hands and gently buried them in the garden. The scent of the morning still lingered on this side of the house, sagging as if exhausted. The kakitsubata and the overgrown cucumbers and tomatoes bulged in the humid air. A haze hung over them all like stifled laughter. It was already starting to get hot.
Oi. Dad. A hand was shaking him. Get up.
Hmmm? Jiro didn’t want to open his eyes.
What you doing on the porch? It was his son, Junichiro.
Hm. Must have fallen asleep.
Got any beer?
Some by the front door. Jiro said, finally. Warm, though.
Jiro made a supper of grilled saba and cucumber nukazuke for the two of them. They ate on the porch under a torn paper lantern. The bare bulb shone bright within. He could barely see the sky between the roof and the trees. A few stars out there, maybe, in the humid evening.
Junichiro tore at the label on his beer bottle.
Why do you still stay here, dad?
Jiro shrugged. Where will I go?
You know very well, “where.”
After Junichiro left, Jiro tried to peer at the stars again but saw only a few dull points of light. Fireflies burned bright and fizzled out quickly beneath the black trees.
The night called out to him from the dark.
He awoke to the silhouette of a bird—almost like a giant peacock—cast upon the shoji. Comforted in the silver moonlight, he fell back to sleep.
Jiro went into their bedroom. He could still smell her scent. In the small alcove on her side he found a shriveled-up iris, spotted brown, its husk withered and weightless, resting within its vase.
He took the whole thing and brought it out to the hearth. He placed the vase next to the fire as he boiled water for tea. He crumbled up the dried-out stalks and petals in his hand and tossed them into the fire. They flared up briefly and then smoldered in the coals.
As he drank his tea on the porch, he heard the sound again.
The tea tasted bitter. Only Makiko could make it taste right.
That night—and each night after—the bird appeared at their door.
Are we truly all the same person? he said aloud to the darkness. Is my pain everyone’s pain?
But the bird just sang until he slept again.
When the night cried out
he was comforted.
Just tell me which one looks good. Junichiro had arrayed several brochures on the small table.
Jiro just shook his head. Don’t know.
I can decide for you, if you want, Junichiro offered. They’re all good.
I think …
But Jiro stopped, hesitant to say more.
When he awoke in the dark, the bird was there in the room with him. It was quiet, lingering near him, resting upon a patch of moonlight on the tatami. It turned its head toward him. Jiro could see—behind the long, curved beak gleaming in the half-light—its human face. Her face.
It took him all morning in the fallow patch next to the tomatoes, cucumbers, and kakitsubata, but he got the fire blazing. The kimonos and all her other clothes went up immediately. Her futon took the longest. The smoke lingered above it all and smelled of ash and chemical dye in the humid air.
He then swept out their bedroom.
Junichiro looked confused, so Jiro repeated himself.
But why, dad? The town’s dead. You know they put kid-size dolls in the old school now? Crazy.
Jiro knew. Makiko had helped. Felt less empty, she’d said.
Jiro looked out toward the dark trees.
The bird needs looking after, he said finally. She needs my help.
The bird? Junichiro shook his head in disbelief. What bird?
The midnight rainstorm caught Jiro by surprise.
Thunder and lightning crashed around him, while the rain, whipped up by the winds, drove into the house. It leaked through a hole in the roof, dripping onto the tatami, leaving great puddles all over. The bedroom was swamped, the hearth quenched. The acrid smell of smoke and wet ash wafted through the air.
In the darkness the bird took sudden flight from Jiro’s side, bounded violently against the sliding door, cracking its wooden frame and puncturing the thin paper panels. As it lurched out into the storm, Jiro lost it amid the chaos of the rain and wind.
As lightning struck again, Jiro saw its form lit up in the trees beyond. It had fanned out its great wings and feathers like a sensu made of quicksilver and moonlight. Its eyes, so much like Makiko’s, seemed to glisten at him. Jiro couldn’t tell if it was tears or just the rain.
Then blackness again. The next time the lightning flashed, the bird was gone.
A line of mud remained on the walls once the water receded. Jiro dragged out the soaked tatami to dry in the sunlight, then cleared the hearth. The ash had dried into heavy grey clumps. He pulled out slender bits of scorched bone. Jiro could see the blue sky through the hole in the roof.
The bird did not reappear again. As the moonlight struck his pillow, he heard a cricket trill, plaintive and lonely.
Not just my pain, he said aloud to the night. All of it together. Bound. A rope entwined.
And for once the night did not cry out his name.
He swept up the haka and placed flowers and a single white feather into Makiko’s vase. Junichiro and his family were coming for shijūkunichi. After that, dinner.
The town would die soon, he knew. The house would collapse sooner and get covered over in mud and overgrown weeds. Even those dolls in the classrooms, sewn with care and an old woman’s longing for youth, would eventually come apart at the seams, their threads of pain unraveling. But for now, all he heard was the faint singing of the karyōbinga coming through the trees like the August sunlight, and beneath that, the eternal silence of the nothing that awaits us all.