Rise and Fall
RISE AND FALL
Issue No. 4 – June 2014
Looking at the house now, a stack of boxes in her arms, Miku traced the horizontal line of the roof with her eyes, scanning the right angles to the point where they met the walls. It looked like a place of despair: its cement walls stained gray with salt from the East China Sea, its windows shut tight against the late season typhoons, the flat roof casting shadows across its facade like a veil. She looked for something in the way that it was constructed to understand how it could look both like a house and so unlike one at the same time, but there was nothing that she could see other than the post-war architecture found all over Okinawa: thick cement walls, shatter-proof glass, a tall wall encircling the cramped property like a fortress. It looked like it was hiding something inside of itself, she thought, something that would make it inhospitable to her and her husband, Dan, and their five-year-old son, DJ. It didn’t look like a place where living things could grow.
Miku shook her head and convinced herself she was just imagining things, imbuing the house with the darkness she had been feeling ever since the baby that had been growing inside of her for twenty-four weeks — a daughter — had died.
Ever since, her usual quiet had grown heavy. But the people she saw on a daily basis—the people who hardly knew her, who nodded at her from the line of cars dropping their children off at school or who said “Hey” while scanning cans of Spaghetti-O’s in the commissary—chalked it up to her missing home, figured it for nothing more than a rebalancing of sorts in a life constrained to an island two miles across in some places and sixty miles long. In Okinawa, people sometimes got like Miku, scattered across the island, hidden from each other behind the poured cement of their on-base housing, walls repainted so many times the lacquer bubbled and peeled in the island humidity, revealing in tacky layers the tastes of women who had come before them, all the way back to the Korean War.
Miku took a step forward and caught her arm on the metal gate at the entrance to their small driveway. The rusted wrought iron cut roughly into her arm. She dropped the boxes she had been balancing on her hip.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. She looked down at the gash, blood swelling along the wound.
DJ slid down from the high front seat of the moving van and came to stand next to her. She wiped the blood on her pants and did her best to keep a brave face for him.
“Take this,” she said, putting one of the smaller boxes into DJ’s hands. He didn’t move. He stood in the driveway, looking up at the house, the brim of his baseball hat shielding his eyes from the hazy sun. The house was at the end of the street, in between a crowd of houses and the East China Sea, far enough away from the island’s main roads that the only thing Miku could hear was the sound of salt water breaking against the cement.
“This is our house?” DJ asked. “This doesn’t look like a house.”
Miku ignored him. She picked up the two boxes she had dropped and gave his back a nudge forward with her free knee.
The house might not have looked like the kind of house they were used to, but it was better than the on-base housing they had lived in for the last year. Miku had always felt like an outsider there. No matter how many times she smiled at the other wives from her front lawn or waved to them while unloading groceries from her car, her neighbors would pull their circle tighter and lower their voices. When she lost the baby no one had said anything to her, her stomach going from hard and round to empty overnight. She assumed it had something to do with the fact that she was part Japanese, a trait that many of the wives viewed as a threat. They saw the way their husbands looked at her, the way they bowed and said “Konnichi waa, kawaii” when Dan was out of sight. Even though Miku had never lived in Japan, even though her mother had married her father when he was stationed on the island in the 1980’s and had moved with him to Michigan long before Miku was born, to everyone on base she was Japanese, the white wiped off of her like something she had accidentally spilled on herself.
She had tolerated living on base just as she had tolerated most things about Dan’s military career. He had joined to support their growing family, coming home with papers signed the day after she had announced she was pregnant with DJ. It didn’t fit who they were—two kids who spent their nights sitting along the wall that divided Grand Haven from Lake Michigan, dangling their legs over the edge and smoking tightly rolled joints until their fingers went numb—and Miku had been counting down the days until Dan’s enlistment was up, biding her time in the free on-base housing in Maine, North Carolina, California, and now Japan.
One evening, months before, DJ had come home from a friend’s house and told her that his friend had made him put his penis in his mouth, Miku had felt a rage rise in her so suddenly it had scared her.
“What do you mean he made you?” she asked. More of Dan’s features had come through in DJ than hers. DJ still had her dark hair and high cheekbones, but otherwise his defining features looked like Dan’s: round eyes, wide smile.
“He said if I didn’t do it he would tell everyone that I was baby.”
Miku felt something soft inside of her turn to cement, and after she settled him down in front of the television with a bowl of cookies drowning in milk, she walked out her front door, her feet still bare, her hands red from wringing.
“Angie,” she said, crossing the street to where the boy’s mother stood with a few of her neighbors. One of them froze in the middle of lighting a cigarette, the orange flame held lit in front of her face. They all looked at her.
“What is it, Miku?” Angie spoke loudly, as if Miku were deaf.
“I’d like to speak with you in private if I could,” she said.
“These are my friends,” she said, gesturing around the circle. “Whatever you have to say to me, you can say to them.” A few of the other women put their hands on their hips and looked at her impatiently.
“It’s your son,” Miku said.
“My son,” Angie repeated.
“Yes, your son.” She paused and looked at the ground.
“Just say it, Miku.”
But when she did, Angie’s face turned the color of a setting sun.
“Hold on. Your son gave my son a blow job and somehow that’s Brandon’s fault?” She threw her cigarette on the sidewalk and flattened it under her foot. “That’s molestation, Miku.” She looked to her friends again for affirmation, but they were looking anywhere but at her: at the ground, at the sky, at the cluster of children riding their bikes down the middle of the street. Angie raged. She pointed her white-knuckled finger in Miku’s face. “You tell your faggot son to keep his goddamn mouth to himself.”
Later that night, after Dan called to say he was going to be working late and DJ had fallen asleep on the couch, Miku, still seething over what this life had been done to her son, had started packing.
“I want out,” she told Dan when he got home. “If we have to stay on this island, I want out of this base.”
They found the house a week later. After the baby died, they drove out to the seawall to scatter the ashes. Miku had carried the small box that held her daughter securely against the loose skin of her stomach. Dan carried DJ. DJ remained quiet as they scattered the ashes, leaning over the wall and watching as half of them sank like a cloud of stirred up sand and the other half floated away on a breeze in the direction of China. He reached out and tried to grab some like dandelion seeds. When the particles had all floated away, he stared at the surface of the water.
“It looks like oatmeal,” he said, and Dan had put his hand on Miku’s back. Miku didn’t look – she couldn’t – but if she had she would have seen it too: what remained of her daughter after the grey ashes sank was the thin shale of bone that refused to burn, floating on the surface of the water like rolled oats.
On the way back to their car, Miku had noticed the for-rent sign in front of the house.
“Come on, buddy,” Miku said to DJ now, stepping onto the porch. She shifted the boxes in her arms and unlocked the front door.
Inside, the house was traditionally Japanese: built-in cubbies for shoes in the foyer, wood floors that hadn’t been touched by anything other than bare feet, sliding shoji doors painted with intricate Japanese landscapes. The walls were made of dark wood that had warped from years of humidity, bulging and buckling in places as if something were behind it trying to get out. The house smelled like a sauna.
She told Dan it was because of the seawall that she wanted to move into the house. The seawall – covered with spray-painted Madonnas and bubble letters like a sleeve – reminded her of home, of the boardwalk in Grand Haven.
She took the small box from DJ’s hands and slid off her shoes.
For the rest of the day, Miku did most of the moving herself. She piled boxes high in her arms and walked slowly up the stairs to set them down in the rooms where they belonged. DJ ran through the house with his arms stretched out like an airplane, dragging his fingers along the bumps in the walls until they were numb. At eleven o’clock, Dan came home, untucking his shirt and stepping over a box as he walked in the door.
“Ah ah ah,” Miku said, waving a dust rag in his direction. “Shoes off.”
They had signed a separate contract promising to never walk on the bamboo floors with their shoes on, something Miku had been used to from growing up, a shoes off policy that her mother enforced with a sign and a long rug next to the doorway.
Dan bent over and took off his shoes. When he stood up, he gave her a small smile. He looked as tired as he had in the months after DJ was born, when he would stay up late to give him his last bottle, swaddling him in his arms until DJ was asleep again, blinking his heavy-lidded eyes closed in the dark room.
But that had been before his first deployment – had they been nineteen? twenty? – when it was still quiet and lovely between them. After they were married, she and Dan would drive to the pier on Friday nights, long after the summer tourists had returned to the suburban homes. They would buy a towering cone of ice cream from Stillwell’s and sit along the wall overlooking Lake Michigan. Miku would kick her legs against the cement and watch the soft, edgeless sun set over the water as Dan sat beside her, scooping small mouthfuls of the chocolate cone onto a spoon and feeding her every other bite. They went every night during the month before he was deployed, even though it was January and freezing. DJ would fall asleep in his car seat on the way there, and she and Dan would sit a few feet apart, the breeze between them whipping the sand in barely visible waves across the beach.
Miku remembered that time as something elusive, like a fistful of water. She watched after that first deployment — and every one after — how, even though he came home, parts of Dan were dropped one-by-one in the desert sand alongside empty water bottles and shell casings.
Dan walked around her without saying hello. “Do we have any food?”
When he came back, he was holding a bowl of cereal. He brought a spoonful to his mouth, and a drop of milk, once clinging to the bottom, let go and landed on the floor.
“Did you get any sleep last night?” she asked.
Dan tilted his head back to catch a bit of milk that spilled out of his mouth. “Barely,” he said, his mouth full.
Since the first deployment, their nights had been interrupted by dreams that would shake Dan awake like the stiff arms of a parent.
“Maybe you should talk to someone,” she had said to him the first time, but he had shaken his head and laid it in her lap, the sweat from his forehead soaking into her pajama pants. She had sat upright and awake for the rest of the night with Dan’s head on the soft inside of her thigh, running her fingers through his hair and watching his body twitch reflexively as he gave himself over to sleep. Taking advantage of the free counseling the VA provided was viewed as professional weakness, a sure way to never reach a rank high enough to keep him from deploying, so moving to Okinawa had been a compromise with the military: move your family to Japan for three years, and you’ll deploy for six months at a time instead of eleven.
He had one deployment to go before his contract was up, but Dan’s nightmares had become more frequent, more aggressive in the weeks leading up their daughter’s death. He had been more nervous than normal, talking about reenlistment as a way to defray the cost of a second child. She had pleaded with him against this idea, telling him she would go to work back in the states, that they would figure it out. It was the time in his enlistment, she knew, when he was the most vulnerable to being pulled back in, the military tempting him with huge bonuses, prime locations, a boost in their cost of living allowance, a promotion, anything to get him to stay. She had seen it happen to other women on base. One week they’d be sitting on their front stoop surrounded by their friends, tearing up and talking loudly about how much they were going to miss everyone, lamenting the hassle of having to pack up their entire lives and ship it across the world, and the next they’d be chain-smoking on the outside of the crowd, silent and stone-eyed and just as stuck as the rest of them.
“Maybe you should talk to your superiors,” Miku said, ripping a piece of packing tape off of the box labeled, DJ: ANIMALS. “You could let them know you’re not ready to go back.” Dan nodded but didn’t say anything. She stopped what she was doing and looked up. “I mean with everything that has happened—”
Dan dropped the spoon in the bowl and it clanged loudly, sending a spray of sticky liquid onto the floor between them. He sniffed loudly and set the bowl on the banister where it rocked back and forth and then fell. It clattered to the floor, the translucent milk spilling across the hall floor and filling the cracks.
She looked at the puddle on the floor and felt something pull inside her, a sharp razor dragging across her insides. She remembered the linoleum floor of their on-base housing and how, when her water had broken twenty-four weeks into her pregnancy, she had stood in the middle of the kitchen and reached her hand between her legs, hoping the small curve of her palm could keep in what was come out. The clear liquid had spilled over the sides of her hand and through the small cracks between her clenched fingers.
“I’ll get it,” Dan said. But Miku reached out and stopped him.
“I’ll do it,” she said and went into the kitchen for a paper towel.
That night, while Dan and DJ slept upstairs, Miku sat down at the kitchen table and smoked an entire pack of cigarettes. She had been doing this every night since her daughter had died, stopping only to light the next one. She smoked until her stomach started to hurt. She knew by now how many it would take to make her sick. After twelve her stomach would start to turn, moving around and making noises as if there were something inside her. After eighteen she would walk quickly down the hallway where she would throw up in the small, blue-tiled room that held their toilet. Tonight she was on number eight and feeling antsy. The sagging walls, the delicate doors, the soft bamboo floors all seemed to swell now that she was alone, the sea breeze or the air conditioning shifting the house’s surfaces as she sat among them: the thin shoji screens swelling, the floorboards groaning, the walls all around her cracking like brittle bones.
She pressed her hands into the tops of her legs, her bare thighs sticking to the seat cushion like they had in the hospital room after her daughter was born — Miku spreading her cotton gown open and sitting up on the delivery table, letting the stiff nyloncool the still-hot part of her where her daughter had slipped out of her, small and wet like a fish.
Miku leaned her head back and stared at the popcorn ceiling of their kitchen, the long rectangles of fluorescent light buzzing and bright. She heard DJ crossing the hallway upstairs and righted herself. She figured he was coming down for a glass of water or a snack or any other excuse he could think of to stay awake and fall asleep on the couch to be closer to her. He walked to the top of the stairs and then slowly descended, his bare feet touching each step, the wood settling underneath his small weight as he made his way down. When he reached the last step and walked toward the kitchen, Miku tried her best to appear serious. She squinted her eyes and looked into the dark hallway to find the figure of her son.
“What is it DJ?” she said. He didn’t answer. She rested her hands flat on the table. “DJ,” she said, trying to sound stern. Miku stood up and walked toward the dark hall. She reached for the light switch, steadying herself in the doorframe. She flipped the switch and saw that the hallway was empty.
“DJ?” she called. She wrapped her arms around her chest and took a step into the hallway. He must have ducked into the living room or back upstairs when he heard that tone in her voice. She took a step toward the living room and looked in. The light from the street lamps shone through the thin shoji, casting shadows of thick-trunked trees across the floor.
“DJ?” she called. No one was there.
Miku walked the length of the hallway and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Her foot stuck to the floor where Dan’s milk had spilled a few hours earlier. She peeled her skin from the sticky wood and rested it on the bottom step. She listened for the sound of DJ retreating into his bedroom, for his door squeaking open and then shut, but there was nothing. She climbed the narrow stairs slowly. When she reached the top she saw that the door to DJ’s room was exactly as she had left it, slightly ajar so that the bare bulb hanging from the hallway ceiling cast a blade of light across his floor. Miku crossed the hall and opened his door, expecting to find him hurrying to get under the covers, but instead she saw DJ sleeping soundly in his bed, the covers pushed down around his knees, his legs spread wide, his DS open and beeping in his limp hand.
She turned around quickly then. She walked down the hallway, steadying herself on the wood walls on either side of her. When she got to the top of the stairs she stopped and listened. A fighter jet took off from Kadena and echoed across the island. In its wake, she heard the light tap tap tap of a moth bumping its dusty wings against the bare bulb above her head. She watched it for a minute and then reached up, wanting to hold it in her hand, to feel its frail wings beat against her skin, to set it free into the muggy, orange-lit night. When she closed her fist around it, she felt a slight movement of air, like something was there, like something was slipping past her.
“Thalia?” she said, almost in a whisper.
She had never said her daughter’s name out loud, and it sounded strange in her mouth. After her daughter was born, her body impossibly limp like warm putty, the doctor took her into the next room, told her that she was born dead, told her that, even if she hadn’t been, she was too small to stand a chance. Miku had dangled her legs over the edge of the bed and looked toward the room where her daughter was lying, waiting to be taken away. It was an alcove really, an addition to the hospital room, where a crash cart had been wheeled in and never used.
“I want a minute alone with her,” she had told the doctor, and everyone had shuffled out, hanging their heads in a parade of grief. She heard one of the nurses sniff, watched her wipe the back of her hand across his lip.
In the adjacent room her daughter was lying flat on the warming table: her skin translucent, her head too big for her body, her legs splayed open, her purple onionskin stretched across her ribs and stilled heart. She was a caricature of the baby she might have been, her features out of proportion and wrong. At first Miku felt nothing, as if it had all been a pantomime of grief and loss.
And then she felt some small part of her open – the part of her that had begun to tighten, steadily like a slowly turning vice, when they moved to the island, when DJ told her about Angie’s son, when Dan talked about reenlisting.
She didn’t tell anyone what had happened next – not the mortician who came to take her away, nor the nurse who massaged the afterbirth from Miku’s stomach. It was something she kept to herself, that was hers alone – how she was standing at the side of the warming table and saw something move: a trembling in her daughter’s chest, a small ripple in her skin as if she were made of water. And then her chest had inflated like a balloon, and Miku watched as her daughter breathed, her ribcage expanding and collapsing as her lungs fought for air.
She had stood there paralyzed, watching her daughter’s lungs suck in and out, and she had thought, Why am I not doing anything? Why am I not calling for help? Instead Miku had closed her eyes, feeling her earlier relief hanging above her like a light bulb that had been turned off. When she finally opened her eyes (had it been a few seconds? a minute? an entire hour?), her daughter’s chest was still.
Miku stood at the top of the stairs in their new house on the western side of island and listened for the floorboards to creak again. She waited for something to appear, but nothing did. She felt the dusty wings of the moth flit against her closed hand, and looked down. When she opened her fist, her palm was empty.
Miku didn’t sleep. Instead she stayed up all night wiping down the wooden walls and floors with a rag and a bucket of bleach. She scrubbed the few marks the furniture had made on the walls and across the floor until her arms were sore, until her fingers hurt, until DJ woke up in the morning, plodding loudly down the stairs and scaring her half to death.
“Hey buddy,” she said, her hand on her heart, trying not to look terrified. He rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands. “How’d you sleep?”
DJ shrugged his shoulders, raising them up to his ears and letting them drop.
“How about you play for a little bit until I’m done in here?”
DJ nodded his head and yawned. He walked heavily into the living room to play with the box of toys she had unpacked for him last night. She went back to cleaning, opening the closet she had unpacked the day before and shaking out their coats. She could hear DJ turn on the television and spill his building blocks out onto the floor. She listened as she worked to the knocking sound of him stacking his blocks, one on top of the other, and then the crash of his tower falling to the floor, destroying what he had created in order to build it again. Better this time, hopefully, and more stable.
“Careful of the floor,” she called to him.
She reached for a blanket from the top shelf and felt something fall into her hair. She jumped back and slapped the sides of her head, large sections of her ponytail coming loose. Whatever it was fell out of her hair and onto the floor. She looked down and saw it dart across the hallway, fast like a dry leaf blowing across a sidewalk. It stopped in the corner: a gecko, small and spearmint green, breathing deeply in and out, the skin of its neck turning translucent as it expanded and filled with air. It stood absolutely still, its eyes wide and blinking, and Miku didn’t move. She stood there for a minute watching the gecko and listening to the sound of the television in the next room. DJ giggled at the wap, zoom, bops. He knocked over his tower of blocks, this time more softly. Outside the thick windows, the palm leaves were rubbing against each other like numb fingers.
She waited for the gecko to do something. Then, after a minute, it took off, running in diagonals from one side of the hall to the other, looking for a way out. After a few tries it rested in the corner again, breathing deeply, struggling for air. Miku crouched down to pick it up, but it took off again, running into the walls, dizzying itself and starting to bleed from the top of its head. It stopped in the middle of the room, its eyes blinking rapidly, its breathing shallow and panicked, the translucent skin under its chin inflating, deflating.
Miku reached out toward the gecko and it froze this time, letting her pick it up between her fingers and bring it outside where it stood for a minute, stunned in the blinding island light, before taking off toward the eastern side of the island, in the direction of home.
Emily Lackey is an MFA student in fiction at the University of New Hampshire. She is a graduate of Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School of English. She is currently working on a collection of short stories set in Okinawa, Japan.