The River

By William Wetherall

A young man returns to the village which abandoned him,
and to the lover he left with a child he didn't know of

Began 1988, last revised 1988 (5,260 words)

Placed 3rd in 1987 Asiaweek Short Story Competition.
First published in Asiaweek, 15 January 1988, pages 61-65
Anthologized in Prizewinning Asian Fiction (Comber 1991).

Prizewinning Asian Fiction
(An Anthology of Prizewinning Short Stories from Asiaweek 1981-88)
Edited and introduced by Leon Comber
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1991, pages 315-328

I had sworn that I'd never return to the valley, but the years have a way of making some promises impossible to keep. Each time I had thought of going back, fear had tied my guts in knots that would not come undone until I had repeated the pledge I had made when I left. But Grandpa and Aunt Sachi were dead, and Uncle Keizo had disappeared.

One summer morning I woke up dreaming that I was choking and would die without seeing the river or Kaori again. I rushed to the window for air and looked down at the streetful of people scurring to work, and I could think of no reason not to get on the train and just go.

The train plunged into the bowels of the mountain. I stared at the shimmering wall of the tunnel and imagined the river at the other end. I had crossed it thousands of times with Kaori, who had lived just down the road and walked to school and home with me everyday. I had left the valley after the ninth grade, all that the law required and all that the village offered. I hadn't been back in 24 years, though rarely has a day gone by that I haven't thought of Kaori and the youth we shared in love, and wondered if she still lived there and who she had married and how many kids she had, and if she was happy, and whether she remembered me whenever she passed the shrine on the hill.

The river fell west out of rugged mountains that were covered with snow until summer. The village was nestled in a short crooked valley of terraced paddies north of the river. The valley guided a fast creek to its mouth at the river just upstream from the railroad station. The school was across the river from the station, and we reached it on a wooden crossing just wide enough for a logging truck, or a double column of kids swinging bookbags, whichever came first.

The crossing became a urinal when the boys went home from school. We peed from it as an offering to the sprites that lived in the river. Our squirts brought pride or shame in accordance with how much acclaim they got from the girls who gathered on the banks to watch, we hoped in awe. They bet on which of us could shoot the furthest, and they giggled behind their hands when our pee arcked short and splashed the crossing or was whipped back on us by a gust of wind.

Not Kaori, though.

She laughed so loud all the frogs in the valley started croaking. She laughed at anything that amused her, and when she wasn't laughing, she was grinning to herself at the crazy thoughts that always bounced between her ears, even in her sleep. She had an utterly amazing mouth which spoke from only the right side so that the left side could smile at what the more talkative side was saying.

She sometimes fell into a pensive trance that even the class bell couldn't break. It would begin with a simple frown, then her eyes would narrow to absent slits, and her full lips would pucker into the hint of a pout. At the deepest point of the trance, the taut, translucent skin of her face would glow with the serenity of the Goddess of Mercy. Only the river sprites could have known what was on her mind--the death of a pet bird, the villagers who thought her a boy even when she wore a skirt, where all the fuzz in her belly button came from, how to tease me after school.

Kaori and I were only friends in grade school. She neither paid me special regard nor avoided me like some kids did. She was curious about me in her shy but alert sort of way. She called me "nigger" only because that seemed to be my name. But all this changed.

We always walked to school together and talked about our dreams. She said she snored and thrashed around and threw off all her covers. One morning I came down the hill and found her scratching the back of her skirt. She said that she had woken up with her bottom poking out of her pajamas. She had caught a plump mosquito in the act, but several others had been there before it. I said how much I envied them, and something in her blush told me that we would be better friends. In the schoolyard I told her how much I hated being called a nigger. She merely grunted, while nodding her head, and dashed off to join the girls. In a few days, though, most of the kids were calling me Joji, such was the magic of her spell.

I shall never forget the first afternoon we walked home alone. We both had to stay after school to do chores as punishment for goofing off in class. The other kids had already gone home so we had the whole crossing to ourselves. We stopped by the huge boulder that thrust up like a penis from the river on the upstream side of the crossing. A thick rope of twisted straw girded its head, on top of which was a miniature shrine to the god of virility.

But the gods were no match for Kaori.

Both of us threw a one-yen coin at the boulder. Hers landed near the shrine, but mine bounced into the river. She clapped her hands to beckon the god and bowed her head in prayer. When she looked up, I was fishing in my pocket for another coin.

"Save your money," she whispered in my ear. "I wished that the wish you want to make won't come true." Then seeing my confusion, she started to laugh, and I thought she'd never stop.

"Don't you see?" she said at length. "Because I told you my wish, it won't come true. And so yours will!" Two years later it did.

We knelt at the edge of the crossing and gazed down into at the river. The backwater near the boulder was clear and we could see everything on the bottom. The sun warmed our backs as we studied the eeiry ripples of sand. We marvelled at the number of empty bottles, and we wondered why there were no footprints among them if really true that the river sprites danced there at night and drank cola.

Kaori suddenly stood and craned her head. Then putting on her most impish smile, she dared me to pee off one side of the crossing while she tried to pee off the other. It was my turn to laugh, but I stopped when I saw the "I'll show you!" look in her eyes.

"May I turn around?" I asked when I had finished. Just start walking, and don't look!" she ordered.

Her voice quivered as though she was trying not to weep.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

She didn't answer, but in the moment it took us to reach the other side of the crossing, she was back to being her cheerful self.

"Peeing on your feet isn't as easy as it looks," she chuckled.

I failed to catch her pun, but when I saw that her eyes were wet, I noticed the condition of her shoes.

It was a fine spring day, so we sat on the bank, and both of us took off our shoes and socks. Her things dried while we warmed ourselves and talked. I wondered if there was really an ocean and how the river could run so far. She wondered if the dragons which lived in the mountains really ate deer droppings on their rice, then laughed. When the frogs began croaking, she grew serious and said that she would tell me a secret about herself if I told her one about me.

She said that she still wet her bed. I said it's okay and told her that my mother had died when giving me birth. She already knew this, though, so I said that even my mother had no idea who my father had been. When I failed to stem my tears, she put her hand on my arm.

We were only twelve, but twelve was old enough to fall in love.

The train shot out of the tunnel, but the river that burst into my window was wider and slower than the one in my memory. A green steel bridge stood where the wooden crossing had been. It must have washed away, I thought, when I saw the rotten pilings sticking out of the murky eddies between the piers of the bridge. They seemed to mark the graves of the sprites which must have died when the kids began riding the bus that was parked on the other side of the river. The school house, at least, had not changed.

The phallic boulder seemed to be gone, but as the train got nearer the bridge, I could see the boulder on its side, no longer fit to be wished on by lovers. I looked in vein for the heart-shaped rock, and I fought off premonitions that a storm had taken Kaori, too.

Each spring the creek in the valley had swollen with rain and melted snow. Many creeks like it poured into the river, and even now I could hear the stones rumble along the bottom in high water.

The spring before the year I left, it had rained for two full weeks. School was cancelled when the river became uncrossable. The men went into the storm with yellow oil slicks and kerosene lanterns, and coils of rope to anchor the crossing and boulder to the trunks of upstream trees. Several days later the water went down and school resumed. The crossing still trembled, so we peed in the morning too.

When summer came and the river subsided to its normal level, Kaori spotted a new boulder, its top cleaved like a heart, protruding from the current on the downstream side of the crossing. She took my hand and pressed it to the back of her head. Beneath her pageboy cut was a skull that felt just like the boulder looked. So we called the rock Kaori's noggin, and she made me vow not to pee on it.

The train began braking for the station, and by the time it had clankered to a stop, I was sure that not a nail in the building's clapboard siding had changed, except that most wept tears of rust where the weather had exposed their heads through the dirty whitewash. The station showed no signs of life. The platform was empty and I was the only one to get off.

The engineer squared his cap before stepping out to take my fare. He carefully studied the ticket, and he finally put it in his pouch while looking at me as though to wonder why I had rolled and creased it until the printing could hardly be read. His face reminded me of one of the boys in my class, but he was reluctant to hold my stare, and before I could ask him if he was Tsuchida, or perhaps his brother, he nodded his head while giving a half salute, turned on his heel like a soldier, and reboarded the one-car train.

I watched the train as it creaked away. The man sitting in front had ignored me after one hard look when I got on the train at the terminal and took a seat at the back. He had barely glanced around when I got off, and now he leaned forward, his arms on his knees, and gazed downtrack while chewing on the engineer's ear.

The two women sharing a box of seats in the middle had often turned to stare at me. They were now gawking my way through the window, looking like a pair of goldfish sucking at the wall of their tank. The older woman was nodding at what the younger one was saying through her fog on the window. Their faces turned toward the river when the train cleared some signals and leaned into a curve.

I walked to the exit at the end of the concrete platform. The toilet was out of order but the drinking fountain worked. The wicket gate stood permanently open as though to welcome me. A sign beside the boarded ticket window sent travelers to the store across the road.

"Been that way since the station master retired seven years ago," the girl explained. She could not have been more than twenty, so I had been gone five years when she was born, possibly the daughter of one of my schoolmates.

She kept a cluttered but clean shop which sold everything from tea and crackers to postage stamps and telephone cards. A hand-printed notice on the wall promised full creels to anglers who used the shop's own sweetfish bait, and it offered the services of local guides to the best spawning spots.

"You don't look like you came to fish," she said as her eyes appraised my clothes. Her smile told me that directions were free, and that gossip, too, would be bartered with strangers. She'd know who I was soon enough, I thought, suppressing the urge to tell her.

The menu on the wall reminded me that I was famished. I ordered some noodles, and after she started the water boiling, she brought me some tea and a damp hand cloth. I wiped the long journey from my face and arms and sipped some tea while wondering how much she knew.

"You must be Joji," she said when she brought the noodles.

"How did you know?" I asked while reaching for the chopsticks.

"Everyone knows about you," she said. Her face turned crimson and she looked away.

I smiled to ease the pain in my chest. "What do they say?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

A long minute passed, but she could not seem to find the words that her downcast eyes and trembling lips were searching for.

"It doesn't matter," I lied, and she left me to my noodles.

When finished eating, I bought some flowers and incense sticks.

Grandpa's farm was a twenty-minute walk up the valley, at the end of the road which followed the creek from its mouth near the station.

A short ways up the road was a steep hill, covered with a dense bamboo thicket and crowned with red pines. A sign at the foot of the hill marked the start of the steps which led to the shrine on top. There had been no sign when I was a boy, but nothing else had changed.

The shrine was dedicated to the harvest god and was guarded by two fox messengers. It stood in a clearing at the top of the steps, which were cut into the side of the hill and carpeted with moss. At the front of the clearing was a vermilion torii gate which seemed on fire when seen from the steps through the tunnel of damp overgrowth.

The shrine was like it had been that first day Kaori and I were there. Someone had put fresh offerings of rice and cabbage on the altar. The breakfast leftovers would disappear into the maw of a furry creature by dusk. I gave the god of fertility its due and then went into the woods behind the shrine. There I found the trees, much bigger now, which had witnessed our unbridled love.

We secretly planned to marry someday. That winter, though, a woman who had come to the shrine to hunt mushrooms had seen us holding hands on the steps, and she told Kaori's father that we were more than just classmates.

When I came to Kaori's farm I stopped to take in every detail. Little had changed. The exterior of the house had been modernized. The thatched roof had been covered with sheets of metal which preserved its shape like the crown of a tooth. Some of the sliding glass doors had aluminum frames. More land had been cleared from the woods at the back. The mortuary stakes in the family grave had hardly weathered. There had just been a funeral or death aniversary.

No one seemed to be home. The curtains were drawn. A two-car shelter was empty. Someone might return by the time I came back down, I reasoned, less disappointed than relieved to think that I would not have to confront Kaori's folks for another hour. As I walked by the place, it occurred to me that she could still be living there had she married a surplus farm boy willing to become her father's adopted son.

Grandpa's house looked unlived in for years. It must have been abandoned when Aunt Sachi died, for long before that, Uncle Keizo had vanished into the world of migrant laborers. Someone, though, was making good use of the fields, and they had taken care of the graves where I had just offered the flowers and incense. The building leaned into the mountain but would probably collapse before it fell over. The ridge of the roof sagged. One of the eaves had caved in. Some of the tiles had been broken by the limbs of the untrimmed cedars that threatened to engulf the house.

I opened a storm shutter and stepped inside. Two cats scooted through a hole in the outside wall at the back. The whole place stank of their urine. I studied the room with the help of a cigarette lighter. The floor was strewn with debris from the plaster walls which had started to buckle. The straw tatami mats were crusty with mould. Colonies of toadstools had sprouted where the mats had rotted from rain leaks.

This was the room where Grandpa had sealed my fate. He had no sons, and only Aunt Sachi when my mother died. Grandma raised me till a flu took her life. After that it was Sachi's turn.

Grandpa's eyes were always full of defeat. He taunted me about my father, even called me "nigger" like some of the kids. He wondered what terrible things he had done in his previous life to be damned in this one with a whore for a daughter and a halfbreed grandson. Once or twice he took me fishing, but usually he just ignored me.

Aunt Sachi had spent half her 32 years in the fields and had no prospects of marriage. She took good care of me, though, and would never have married had Kaori's family not wanted me out of the valley bad enough to bribe Grandpa's shame at being sonless.

Kaori was a Hotta, and the Hotta's owned the best paddies in the valley, and they had married into most others, but not Grandpa's. She was the only child of the third son of the head of the Hotta clan, and no Hotta was going to welcome a bastard mongrel as a son-in-law. They saw me as a stain on the pages of valley history, an unwanted reminder that a girl of local stock had fallen from grace with an American soldier, a black at that. I was tolerated like a rain one avoids but likes to watch from the eaves.

So it was arranged that Sachi Tamura be married to Keizo Hotta, one of Kaori's cousins. Keizo was only 18, but he took the name Tamura and replaced me as Grandpa's heir.

When I graduated from middle school, Grandpa took me to the city and enrolled me in a drafting institute, with Hotta money, and made me pledge to stay out of Kaori's life. He was quiet, even generous the morning we left. He bought me a bottle of cola, and we gazed at the river as the train picked up speed. While pointing out the place where he had caught his first fish, his face suddenly froze into a listless smile, and his eyes teared. Then we were deep in the tunnel.

Some thoughts of Kaori were amplified by the roar of the train through the mountain. As the train fell through the darkness, I had no idea that I wouldn't be coming back for twenty-four years.

A car was parked beside Kaori's house. A lone figure, a woman, probably Kaori's mother, was working in a field along the driveway between the house and the road. She was stooping between two rows of giant radishes, pulling them from the black soil and cradling them in her arm. The white roots glistened in the late afternoon sun. When her arm was full, she bundled the radishes with a length of plastic tape pulled from the pocket of her mottled indigo smock, dropped them on the ground, and stood to stretch.

That was when she noticed me.

She gazed at me as one does when watching a stranger too close to ignore but not close enough to acknowledge. I walked up the driveway while returning her stare, and I braced myself for what she might say when she recognized me.

Our eyes locked the moment I knew she was Kaori.

She broke into a run toward the house and vanished inside. I went as far as the entrance and waited. A few minutes later she emerged without the smock. She had creamed her tanned cheeks and her lips were now a soft pink. A purple head band kept her burnt-brown hair from falling across her brow. Her leathery skin showed the years of labor in the sun.

She was not the girl I had known as a boy, but a woman in her mid life, as I was a man in mine. Yet she was the Kaori I had come for.

"You look nice," I said.

I didn't know what else to say.

"You too," she said.

We stared at each other in silence.

"I just had to come back," I said when she had blotted her eyes.

"I'm glad you did. Can you stay?"

"Yes," I said, and only then did I realize how little our hearts had changed.

I followed her into the house and she made some tea. I told her what had happened to me from the day I left the valley. She began her story from the accident which had taken her parents last year, and had opened her mouth to continue when a truck pulled up the driveway. Someone had gotten out and was walking toward the house. Kaori bit her lip as she looked at me with eyes that begged forgiveness.

"I'm home!" said a husky voice from the entrance. A moment later a young man walked into the room. He was taller than me and darker.

Funny the way genes work, I thought, as I stumbled to my feet and fought to keep my eyes on his, feeling all the time that I was staring into a mirror.

"This is your father, Kenji," Kaori said.

"I can see that," Kenji said. His voice was calmer than his eyes.

"Kenji?" I said. I could think of no words that wouldn't hurt.

"He knows you didn't know," Kaori said.

Kenji and I got acquainted while she cooked dinner.

I closed the door to the bath and began walking back to my room at the end of the veranda. One side of the door to my room was aglow with a sliver of light, though I was quite sure I had left the room dark. Kenji's room was silent but I imagined that he was still awake. When I paused before Kaori's door, all I could hear were the crickets. I pictured her lying on her back, clasping her hands to her breast, listening to their evening chat. Her heart was beating fast like mine. I'd say goodnight, she'd say come in. I touched the door, then thought better of it, and went on to my room.

Those last few steps were the longest I have ever taken. The door slid heavily open. Then I saw the sleeping futon that Kaori had spread on the floor. It was covered with two sheets, and the top sheet had been folded back behind a small pillow.

I turned off the ceiling light and lay down on the futon, which smelled like the sun. The crickets had gone to bed but an owl was yawning, and a light breeze rattled the insect screens on the open outside doors. I untied the sash of my yukata and fanned the warm, clammy air against the sweat on my body.

A downbound train was braking into the station. It would be the last one of the night, and the station would be dark before it reached the tunnel. I closed my eyes in thanks that I was not on it.

Thousands of thoughts kept sleep abay, but finally I slipped off into a dream of waking to the sounds of my childhood home. Aunt Sachi was pumping water at the side of the house. Grandma was at the sink chopping a radish. Grandpa was somewhere being his noiseless self, sipping tea and smoking in the veranda which faced the fields, or out walking the furrows between the chard that was just coming up.

Five minutes down the road, Kaori was doing her chores. At seven- thirty she would look out the window, and when she saw me on the road, she would run out the door to meet me.

She made me stand at attention and inspected my uniform, just like the teacher would do first period. She straightened the collar of my coat and brushed some dust off my arm. A loose button at the neck of my shirt triggered a frenzy of action. A sewing kit appeared from her bookbag. A small pair of scissors cut off the button and teased out the old thread. She started a needle and fixed her eyes on my shirt. Her fingers became the limbs of a ballerina. The needle flashed in the sun. I watched her lips banter me about my appearance, tell me how much I needed her, and wonder what I'd do if she ever got sick and I had to go to school alone.

"Doesn't your mother care what you . . . ."

The needle stopped for a second and then continued. Kaori's eyes never left the button, though now they glistened, and when she blinked, some tears formed on her lower lashes and ran down her cheeks. A few drops fell on her hands as she tied off the threads and looked away.

Chin pressed into my chest, I admired her work while fingering the button into its hole. It fit nice and tight.

"Thanks," I said.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I forgot."

She patted her eyes with a handkerchief.

"Me too," I said, my voice quivering.

She frowned incomprehensibly.

"I also forget, when I'm with you," I explained.

She started walking down the road. My eyes fell to the curves of her hips. After she had gone a few steps, she turned around and walked backwards, holding her bookbag in front of her lap with both hands. When I looked up she was smiling at me as though she knew where my eyes had been. She stopped and began to rock on her heels. I shifted my stare to the road ahead and started to walk. She cocked her head as I came closer, and our eyes met when I passed. Her lips were like ripe apricots with dew on them. When I imagined them pressed against mine, my face flushed and I looked at my loins, afraid that they had betrayed my rising desire.

She let me get two or three steps ahead and wordlessly followed me all the way to school. When we reached the crossing, she broke into a soft hum that seemed to be timed to my steps. I squared my shoulders and strutted into the schoolyard like a groom in front of his bride.

Something stirred me awake and I looked at my watch. Only twelve. Four hours till first light. Kaori would rise for chores. Slumber tugged at the sound of knocking on my door, my name being whispered, Kaori asking if I would go for a walk.

I tied my sash, opened the door, and followed her to the entrance. We stepped into sandals and strolled down the driveway to the road. The mountains were dark, but the valley was lit by the milkyway. The night was ours. Not a house was lit, and the dogs let us walk to the river in silence.

We stopped in the middle of the bridge. Kaori took some coins from the sleeve of her yukata. She gave me one, and we threw them into the river between the toppled boulder and the pilings of the washed-out crossing. Then we went to the downstream side, took off our sandals, and dangled our legs off the bridge while leaning into the railing. Kaori had thought to bring a bottle of plum wine, and we sipped it as we watched the stars on the current.

We talked for an hour, then stood to stretch before starting back up the hill. I had to pee and so did she. By the time I had stepped to the other other side of the bridge and lifted my yukata, I could hear her soft trickle in the purl of the river, like snow water running off the eaves. When I finished and turned around, she had an "I did it!" look on her face. I reached up and touched her heart-shaped head, and her tears came hot against my neck.

On our way back, we climbed to the shrine and made love. We got to her house just as the roosters began to cry. Kenji was already up and dressed. Kaori told him that we had been up all night and were going to bed. He merely nodded, as though he now took me for granted.

Kaori was fast asleep by dawn, and her snore was no louder than a kitten's purr. When I awoke, Kenji's truck was gone, and Kaori was weeding the strawberry patch.


This was the first short story to be published, and the first is always exciting. It is also a cause for later regret that I didn't show what I told that could have been shown to better effect. Other flaws have ocurred to me each time I read it.

One of the judges remarked that is was "an interesting story that curiously runs out of steam." The "steam" is generated within sight of the end, in a one-sentence love scene that is left entirely to the reader's vivid imagination. And the ending which follows is the one part I would not change. Should I ever rewrite the story, I will better prepare the reader to feel that it's entire purpose is to end on a note of quietude.