The Pilgrim’s Progress
(Part Two of Two)
By Robert Kostuck
Sunday, January 28th, 1945
Now we have rumors of surrender, spoken in hushed voices. What will happen? The Russians will turn to our nation of islands built on the cracked spine of the Pacific Ocean. Depredations continue. We wash linen and clothing without soap, in cold water. Two days ago some rice was delivered, heaven-sent. Unlike my village here the men still go out to fish. Part of their catch is donated to the hospital, also heaven-sent. Mostly there is dashi with fish and greens, also some rather dried-up roots. Someone brought us a large basket—almost 90 kilos!—of last year’s sweet potatoes. Flavor and fiber. Shizuko tells stories of growing up in poverty on a farm. She is eighty-one years old, strong as an ox and missing two fingertips on her left hand.
“Ten years old,” she says. “An argument between me and a knife for cleaning fish. The knife won! Clean living, young woman. Rice wine and plenty of vegetables. Makes one strong and long-lived. Your Buddhist grandmother was right. Too much meat makes the body weak. You have doubt? Look at me!”
I tell her about my tuberculosis, how disease comes with indiscretion to any and all. Always there is weakness and lassitude, other times I cough so much I think it will be my last breath. Because of my illness, I am segregated from the rest of the ‘staff,’ and most definitely from the patients. My volunteer work is limited to laundry and gathering firewood for cooking. There is a park near the city center, once beautiful with decorative cherry and peach trees. Unhindered, each week we go there with the cart and the old men and the young girls cut down the trees. Everything is burned for cooking fires and the wet, green wood smolders and fumes and blows sparks upward to heaven. I want to go on my knees and pray at this perverse cooking fire shrine, bow and make obeisance like Obāsan in front of her Buddhist altar.
Thursday, February 1st, 1945
I’ve temporarily stopped working on the novel.
It is becoming difficult and somewhat pointless to continue keeping a journal. I discovered a ream of typewriter paper in one of the abandoned administrative offices here at the hospital. I made a brush from a thin bamboo and my own hair. Ink? That must be the office worker’s India ink that comes in a bottle. I pour a bit in a dish and pretend I have ground a black stick into the sumi stone. Mind you, all pretend. The ink is inferior for anything but practice. My calligraphy takes on a dream-like quality, one day elaborately cursive, next day crude as a child’s first attempts. And that is just my handwriting.
My sister writes:
Yuriko-chan, we miss you and pray for you. Your illness is such that no one will prevent you from leaving the hospital. Here is food, comfort, and the love of family. How can you expect to get well living in a place filled with the sick and dying? Please, Sister, listen. Come home.
Sunday, March 25th, 1945
Spring. Patients sun themselves. I am one of them. The wind from the sea and the scents of new life. It seems everyone except me knows how to plant a garden. Seeds for cabbage, onions, and daikon; more donations. Shizuko oversees all, orders the volunteer nurses here and there. The girls obey. Measuring out the space for the rows in the lawns behind the hospital. Grinding up the beautiful lawns and tossing out the white boulders of an unkempt decorative rock garden. In the distance a child’s loud and happy voice shouting, “Ma! Come look!”
“We won’t grow rocks,” says Shizuko. “Better to grow melons and radishes and cucumbers. You came to the right place to be sick. Too bad there’s no medicine.”
She eats less and grows stronger. I eat less and grow weaker.
I sit on a bench in the sun. Sometimes I fall asleep. Messengers and medics arrive in trucks belching smoke and deliver official documents and angry wounded soldiers. So many important papers, so many men. Mail deliveries are sporadic. If my Kuri still writes I have no way of knowing. In my mind I continue to compose the new story. I think it will be my final novel. After this I will retire to my childhood home at the age of forty-two and spend my spinster days writing poetry and feeding my sister’s chickens. If I get better. When I get better.
The new book is equal parts fantasy and autobiography. In fact as I have it now it begins and ends with autobiography. Paragraphs, sentences, entire chapters form, dissolve, and reform in my imagination. Beginning and ending = memories of my own childhood. I never cut my finger with a knife. We had a servant who helped in the kitchen. I see now that my cherished memories were made possible by the labor of others. I was a spoiled child and I became a spoiled woman. The parties, the drinking, the public scenes. We build our lives around fantasy. In the end I am left taking orders from an eighty year-old woman, left eating roots and weeds.
Today I stood at the side of the road as a convoy passed from somewhere to somewhere. Not one soldier saw me, not one turned to look. So now I am invisible, turned into a pattern of leaves and shadows of leaves, turned into smooth river rocks and silky red fox fur. Invisible.
Tuesday March 27th, 1945
I drift. Somehow I have run aground in an abandoned fishing village. From the signs everyone left quite suddenly. Nets rot in the boats, gulls pick listlessly at offal on the wet sand. A bicycle leaning on the single automobile, the hood of the vehicle still warm. Smoke curls from the finest house: a western-style stove warm with embers; a pot of broth hastily removed and set to the side. Watery fish broth: I eat until I am full. Back on the beach I find a beautiful seashell, large as my head. When we were children we held shells to our ears, told each other: You can hear the ocean.
I sit on the bench and watch Shizuko guide other hands in the garden. And now sick, coughing Yuriko has been conscripted! My pages of calligraphy discovered! I am pressed to the honorable task of writing letters for the unschooled soldiers. They say tuberculosis is catching but the men crowd around me. Dear Keiko-chan. Fumiko, mother dearest. Brother, I hope this letter finds you well. Secrets and fears, anxiety and anger, sadness and yes, sometimes love. One insists I write to his former employer: You bastard! Where are my back wages!? I never realized the importance of writing for those who cannot read or write. The stories and desires are warring with the plot of my novel. Who will win? The finger or the knife? I will call it unasked-for research notes. Already new stories fill my thoughts, overflow, pool around my heart like moonlight on still water.
Monday, April 2nd, 1945
Letters are gathered. I fold the pages into envelopes, write out the addresses. We put the letters in a bag and give them to a surprised military messenger on the way to Kyoto or Tokyo—he’s not sure. Of this I am certain: the letters will never be delivered. The soldiers remain steadfast in their devotion to the Emperor. For them there is no disruption of daily life—this in the face of food shortages!
The worst days are when my appetite returns and there is nothing to eat.
Saturday, April 14th, 1945
Shizuko’s garden is lush with tiny green shoots. I’m a small-town girl who forgot her roots in the city. The garden amazes me. I am beginning the second batch of letters but these are now more ‘thinking out loud’ than notices of day-to-day happenings. My novel—all jumbled in my mind now—soldiers and nurses telling stories, prophecies soon to be fulfilled, dreams for the future. They ask about my life as a famous writer. I tell them if they never heard of me then I’m not so very famous. I embellish anecdotes from a not very wild past. Some wildness. That good-looking actor with the dark eyes and quick laugh, for example. Crazy about me, followed me everywhere for months, told me he would die without me. I don’t have to embellish that.
Monday, April 23rd, 1945
Today we sent out another sack of letters. Where will they go?
Saturday, May 19th, 1945
Today is my birthday. Unlike most women I am not ashamed to tell my age. Today I am forty-three years old. Shizuko clucks her tongue.
“You look older than me,” she says.
I tell her: “I am sick and dying. Disease, unfathomable, directed by a mysterious and probably uncaring god. Besides, you were raised on rice wine and vegetables. Me? I ate too much meat and drank too much Irish whiskey and Russian vodka. And the men! Tempting me, leading me astray!”
We laugh at that.
She holds up her amputated fingers. “We both lived the life we wanted.”
“Yes,” I say, “the life I wanted. Now I am a respectable public scribe composing confessions, testimonials, and love letters for free. If only they could see me now.”
I think: This is the life I was meant to live.
Sunday, July 29th, 1945
Who will read this? I lost my appetite. My breathing became so shallow. I thought I was dying. I think I am dying. The girls put me in a tiny hut away from the hospital. They cleaned it out and called it a cottage but it smells of rotted plants and gasoline. A disused storage shed. Each day Shizuko comes in the morning with tea and broth. Unable to stand and use the clay pot in the corner of the room I soil myself in the night. She cleans me. The other volunteers check on me during the day. Outside someone burns incense. A moaning prayer rising and falling in pitch. I have to ask: What day is this? It is Sunday, July twenty-ninth. Why do you need to know? You see, I tell them, I am keeping a journal. I am making notes for my next novel. I am composing—creating—recording—remembering—
Tuesday, July 31st, 1945
I can breathe again. The air is hot and dry. There is less food. Wild mushrooms and bits of strange fish in the dashi. What would a sweet potato taste like? Fresh bamboo shoots?
One of the girls brings me a dish with radishes, cucumbers and salt! From Shizuko’s wonderful garden. We are growing our own food. While I was isolated all of the soldiers were evacuated to Tokyo and Yokohama Bay. Now it is just the volunteers and no one to serve.
Friday, August 3rd, 1945
Today is the Day of the Ox, hottest day of the year. Shizuko brings back eels from the fishermen and roasts them on an open fire near the garden. As per tradition of course they are expected to keep us cool on this hottest day and provide us with strength for the rest of the year. Much work for a tiny eel! For some reason I am the first served. Everyone watches me eat and swallow. Day of the Ox. Now there’s a folktale I never thought to re-write.
I seem to have misplaced my notes for The Shell God.
Sunday, August 5th, 1945
I feel stronger. Does tuberculosis completely leave the body? Obāsan was a spiritual woman. Maybe I can still be like her. I resolve to change my ways.
Monday, August 6th, 1945
Today I woke before sunrise. Everyone else is still asleep. The hospital silent and empty. Shizuko was correct about today’s weather—country folk have a secret sense about nature. Clear skies and a breeze from inland. The odors of outdoor fires, of earth giving up summer. Premonitions of autumn. My heart is calm. I think the rest of the year will be calm also. I feel stronger. Maybe I will yet return to Hashikami—my very idealized fishing village. I’ll end my days filling volumes of thin rice paper with poetry, scattering grain for my sister’s chickens and ducks. After all this sickness and traveling—to return. To stay.
[The Pilgrim’s Progress was originally published in Roanoke Review, fall, 2013, Vol. 38.]
About Robert Kostuck, Writing for Peace Adviser
Robert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. Recently published fiction and essays appear in many American and Canadian literary journals. He is currently working on short stories, essays, and a novel; his short story collection is seeking a publisher. Learn more about Robert Kostuck and his work here.
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