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Uncertain shapes, visitors from the past
At whom I darkly gazed so long ago,
My heart’s mad fleeting visions—now at last
Shall I embrace you, must I let you go?
It wasn’t until he read the words aloud that their meaning began to come clear to him, for though it was in Japanese, he hadn’t expected to understand. Now it was not only clear, however, but deeply moving and familiar, as if he’d known it once and had forgotten it.
He looked at Michi, to see what she might say, but she was busy with the dirty clothes.
Uncertain shapes, visitors from the past
At whom I darkly gazed so long ago…
When Wilhelm heard the opening lines of his translation he hurried around the corner of his house, sweating under the weight of his newly filled buckets.
“Okaerinasai!” said Michi. “I know we should have waited outside, but it’s raining again and we had no idea where you’d gone.”
Ken stood behind her, his head obscured by Wilhelm’s dirty clothes.
“Who was reading just now?” asked Wilhelm.
This seemed the worse violation, no Manjiro here and a stranger reading his translation.
“That would be me,” said Kyuzo, “My, how descriptive it is and how beautiful! I love its pensive quality and the closeness of its rhyme! Tell me, is it your own?”
“No it’s not mine! The original belongs to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe…. The Japanese is mine, though.”
“Well it’s the Japanese that moves me!” Kyuzo said, “For it’s the only language I know.”
A smile came to Wilhelm’s face despite himself. The open door let light from a crack in the clouds come across the nearest corner of the table, making it seem, however oddly, that the food had been prepared for these very visitors, though it was as cold as the slab of stone under the house. “This food and the writing are both from Germany,” Wilhelm said, “Since you’ve already read one, you might as well eat the other. It won’t take long to heat it up.”
His kitchen sat under a lean-to off his study, its fire constantly hot, so when Wilhelm picked up the potatoes, Ken followed with the sausage. At first the others paused, but then, as if staying alone in any part of this house, now that its occupant had returned to catch them at it, were a violation of protocol, first the twins and then Kyuzo joined them. Rain pushed into the lean-to horizontally, like in a Hiroshige print, hissing into the sausage pan and rolling amongst the slowly warming potatoes.
When the sausage was hot again Ken returned it to the table while Gorobei tried to secure the poorly-latched front door. The rain was worse toward the front of the house and, aided by a rising wind, thudded into Wilhelm’s recently planted tomatoes like bullets. What’s more, his scarecrow leaned at such a radical angle that it looked like it had ridden out of the sky on a spear, thrown across the bay by the Americans. At first Gorobei thought to go get Wilhelm, but then on impulse he wriggled out of his kimono, grabbed the umbrellas he and his sister had brought, and ran outside in his loincloth. If he could be of help to this man in saving his vegetables maybe they could garner more information. There were only two rows of tomatoes, but he could not cover even half of them and the rain on his legs was sharp and cold. It soon leaked under his loincloth, creeping into the creases of his sagging buttocks and scrotum.
He called for help but minutes passed, his feet sinking deeper in the soil, before his cries were heard, not by anyone in his house, but by the priest’s widow, who was sorting some newly cut flowers in the rear of the temple. At first she thought he was Wilhelm, crazed by too much loneliness. “I warned you and warned you!” she said, running out to help, but Gorobei’s liver-spotted face stopped her.
“Get the others,” he hissed. “We can’t do this alone!”
She had had to fight the wind to reach him and she fought it again, all the way up to Wilhelm’s door. Her yukata was soaked and clinging to her breasts, but she stepped inside anyway, to shout, “There’s a stranger out here trying to rescue your garden.”
Wilhelm had been soaking his sauerkraut, stirring it with juices from the bottom of the bowl, but he dropped his fork and hurried into his living room, closely followed by the two samurai. As Gorobei had done before them, the samurai undressed quickly and went outside in their loincloths, but because of the priest’s widow’s presence Wilhelm followed fully clothed, though he did carry two more umbrellas. The wind had lessened by then, gusting off toward the harbor, but that only let the rain come straight down, unrelenting in its assault on the tomatoes. Wilhelm opened his umbrellas, and when Ken took one from him Kyuzo grabbed both of Gorobei’s, letting the old man slump against the priest’s widow, who had come outside again, too, and now led him back toward the house.
“I’ll go get some stakes,” she said, “We have to make a proper cover.”
Michi received her brother while the priest’s widow ran to the back of the temple again to bring back various lengths of stakes and a roll of stiff paper. She drove her shorter stakes along the garden’s sides, the longer ones at its ends. “Help me!” she told the samurai. “Hold the paper tightly so it doesn’t fly away!”
She had loops of twine strung through her obi, and while they held the paper taut she tied it well, making Kyuzo think that the makeshift structures of man so often made it seem as if man and nature weren’t one. He resolved to write a poem about it later, and recite the poem to young Ken.
The men were wet and tired by the time she finished, intent on going back inside, but when the priest’s widow took a leftover stake and began to dig a drainage trench they all at least tried to appear to help. The samurai brought pebbles for the trench, then stood by watching as the rainwater went off toward the cemetery, while Wilhelm bobbed his head up and down in imitation misery, like the sorely beaten tomato plants.
Wilhelm’s door had been closed all this time, but when she saw them returning to the house Michi opened it. She had used some of Wilhelm’s dirty clothes to dry her brother, and had spread the rest across the floor to keep them from dragging the storm inside. Gorobei, meanwhile, still in his loincloth, had lit a fire in a brazier in the center of Wilhelm’s dinner table. He said, “Everyone sit down over here where it’s warm.”
Because the samurai were also in loincloths they were able to dry themselves quickly, but Wilhelm and the priest’s widow were trapped in soggy clothing. When Michi ordered them to undress, the priest’s widow did so without hesitation, letting one cold breast touch Wilhelm’s arm, and when she picked up his old bathrobe from the floor, slipping easily into it, that left only Wilhelm, naked beneath his yukata and with no desire to show himself to everyone else while he still didn’t know who “everyone else” was. He decided simply to ask, to bring things into the open, when Michi, who had seen his shyness, came from his study with trousers and a sweater and thick wool socks. Gorobei, meanwhile, brought recently heated saké from the kitchen, the best of his gifts from town.
Wilhelm had an ancient cuckoo clock, no larger than his two unfolded hands, that had once belonged to his grandmother in Dusseldorf. The clock no longer cuckooed, but hung on a beam above his table, the small blue bird peering out with its beak hinged open. That was how he felt as he shed his yukata and dressed in his old German clothes.
When they were all finally seated at the dining table Gorobei poured the saké. Having food and drink in front of him, however, made Kyuzo remember himself, growing suddenly ashamed that he had let the reasons for his visit go unstated for so long. He was about to speak, to simply say that he was taking Wilhelm into custody—“arresting” was a word he would stay away from—when Michi began talking. “My brother and I have been merchants in Shimoda for many decades,” she said. “But to speak frankly, young man, we have come here today in the hope that you might tell us something that will give us an advantage over others like ourselves when it comes to doing business with the Americans. You come from their part of the world and…”
She stopped and looked at Gorobei, who recognized his cue. “And do you think the Americans will be reliable trading partners?” he asked.
Wilhelm put a hand on the side of the potato bowl, feeling its warmth. He was suddenly hungry, so instead of answering Michi and Gorobei’s questions he said, “Let’s eat now and talk later. Or pretend we’re in Germany and do both at the same time.”
He took food from each serving dish and set it on Michi’s plate, European style, then he gave Kyuzo an equal portion. At the other end of the table the priest’s widow followed his lead and served Gorobei and Ken, but she took almost nothing for herself. The twins and Kyuzo wanted to get down to business, but now each quite separately supposed they should eat something first, out of politeness. That the food had maintained its heat was in its favor, but when they actually picked small bits of it up it lost its appetizing aspect. To look at foreign food was one thing, to eat it quite another. Gorobei even thought there might be a parallel in that, a similar equation to be made between considering foreign trade and actually trading.
Though in his heart he had known that Manjiro would not come, Wilhelm had worked hard on the meal, and as he watched these unexpected guests of his now he couldn’t help hoping for compliments. He didn’t get them, though, except a mild one from Ken, who said, “There’s a sharp flavor to the sausage and a satisfying calmness beneath the initial blandness of the potatoes. It would be useful for feeding armies after a battle.”
The others really hated the food. Kyuzo put a bit of potato on his tongue, but when he saw his opening he palmed it, while at the same time touching Wilhelm’s forearm, nearly dropping the potato on it.
“Speaking of armies, there will be one coming here soon,” he said. “A small one, maybe, but the size of an army doesn’t always dictate the level of its hostility.”
“I think the Americans call it a navy,” said Wilhelm. “And however things go I don’t think there will be hostilities.”
“Me neither,” said Michi, “but will they be considerate customers?”
Kyuzo frowned at her fiercely, furious over having the focus of the conversation usurped once again, but before he could retrieve it the priest’s widow spoke. She was wearing the foreigner’s bathrobe loosely, as if about to drop it from her shoulders.
“I don’t think there will be anything like hostilities,” she said. “I think that dealing with the foreigners will be fun.”
She hadn’t eaten anything but had drained three cups of saké, and bowed toward Wilhelm as if to say, “like dealing with this dear man has been,” and when Gorobei refilled her cup she finally took a piece of sausage. “When first we taste something new we are cautious,” she said. “It has an unfortunate smell, or it’s too thick, or just so consummately odd. But however strange something new might seem, we must remember that it is only a first impression. Knowledge breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds affection.”
She let the piece of sausage sit upon her tongue.
“That’s precisely what my sister and I have been trying to tell those cowards at the Merchants’ Association,” Gorobei said. “If we can trade with those Edo idiots why can’t we trade with the Americans?”