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Banner image by Glyn Lowe

Sentimental Education

The woman gave birth to a baby girl at the maternity hospital and then disappeared the very same day.

Located not far from downtown Isezaki-cho, the maternity hospital was well known as a place where many of the girls who worked as hostesses in Yokohama went for abortions. The woman arrived at the hospital alone, gave birth to the child alone, and then left alone. She never once held her baby in her arms, nor did she give her a name. When she left the hospital room, she tried not to look at the infant's face. The woman was so drained of strength that she became dizzy just from sitting up, but she had decided to leave while it was still dark since she would attract more attention once morning came. And she feared that her resolve would waver if she spent even one night with the newborn baby.

When she got out of bed, her still-open wound bled down her thighs, staining her slippers and the floor. Her breasts were painfully swollen with milk. The red spots scattered along the white corridor looked to the woman like nandina berries strewn across a snow-covered path.

When the nurse at the front desk called out to her, the woman said that she'd be right back, and then she went out into the rain, never to return.

They thought she'd come back soon. But there was one person—a midwife who had witnessed the birth—who was alone in her pessimistic view on the subject. When the woman had given birth to the infant, she hadn't smiled at all. On the contrary, she hadn't displayed a single maternal expression, neither relief nor affection. That's because she planned it all along. You think she's coming back here? And that's exactly what happened.

One day passed, then two, and after three days the mother still hadn't returned. There was no sign of the father either. According to the paperwork at front desk, the baby's parents' names were Ichiro and Kiwako Kuniyoshi. Even pregnant, Kiwako Kuniyoshi was almost a transient, not someone who had put down roots in the area but more like one of the drifters who passed among the throngs of people in the port city of Yokohama.

The hospital director would be the one to name the child and submit her birth certificate to the ward office. The hospital's address became her official address. This was not the first time the hospital director had had to do this. He did not concern himself with the question of which was the greater misfortune, to be aborted before being born, or to be given up after being born. As for the doctors whose paychecks were based upon the number of abortions they performed, pondering such ethical questions got in the way of their business.

Even in this kind of situation, where the hospital director was forced to name an abandoned child, he tried not to dwell too deeply on it, preferring to go with whatever might come to him in a flash. Since a name was nothing more than a symbol, it was his way not to deliberate over the child's future or what kind of feelings might be attached to it. This time he had been thinking about his hometown in Wakayama. There was a famous waterfall near where he had grown up. He couldn't decide between either Wakako or Nachi, so he surveyed the nurses, and they decided on Nachi.

Nachi Kuniyoshi was admitted to the nursery home in Yokohama, where she remained until she was two years old.

Nachi's earliest memory was of the flower beds at the nursery home.

She recalled how she used to break away from the other children to play alone beside the flower beds. The nursery home sat up on a small hill, and from the large flower beds in the garden she could see the ocean. When the home was established, Christian services and the Child Welfare Law had been its basic philosophy, so there was also a church adjacent to the facility. The hospital director had hired a priest, and all of the nursery and kindergarten teachers were nuns.

As a child, Nachi was terrified of physical contact. Since she had never formed an attachment to anyone, whenever any of the sisters tried to pick her up, she would cry and fuss, so that they stopped picking her up. If she was embraced against her will, her entire body would convulse and she was thrown into a panic.

When she turned two, Nachi was transferred from the nursery home to a protective home for children. Since both institutions were located on the same grounds, she only moved from one building to another and did not have to be separated from her beloved flower beds. At the protective home, there was a children's welfare referral center where they helped to facilitate adoptions, and almost all of the orphaned children who were housed there were placed in the care of foster parents by the time they were six. On Sundays, couples who hoped to adopt a child came from all over the country to visit the home. The sisters tried to make the children look as adorable as possible, dressing them in homemade outfits with white frills to make them look like little angels as they sang in the church choir.

Nachi hated these outfits. They were loose and slippery, and for some reason whenever she had to wear them she was overcome with anxiety. She felt as if she herself had turned into a stuffed doll. She couldn't stand it when an utterly unfamiliar man would tell her how cute she was and stroke her hair. Even worse was when a woman reeking of perfume would suddenly press her cheek up against her own. Look how precious she is, the woman would say as her eyes teared up and her bright red lips drew closer. Fearing that she was about to be devoured, Nachi would cower, her body shivering.

But she did like to sing hymns. The organ player was the priest's daughter, a woman somewhere in her thirties named Megumi. She always wore a white blouse and a black skirt. She had never in her life worn any makeup, and she did not drink or smoke either. Her long straight hair was bound with a black rubber band, and she didn't wear stockings, even in winter. The black organ keys were infused with a gleam from the blood and sweat of the prime of Megumi's youth, among other things. She was taciturn, always wearing a modest smile. It seemed like, in her heart, she was quite content to fulfill her lifetime role as the church organ player.

Megumi was probably the first person for whom Nachi felt affection. That is not to say that she climbed up on her lap to nestle up to her like the other children, rather, merely watching Megumi's back while she played the organ put Nachi at ease. Megumi was the first person who ever praised Nachi. She complimented her singing. She complimented her drawing. She praised her when she finished her meal. Softly, so that no one else could hear, she would praise her in a low voice.

The second person for whom Nachi felt feelings of affection was a boy her age named Chuya. Chuya had been left in the parking lot of the Chushajo shopping center, which helped to explain his name. Six months later, his real mother came forward to claim him, but since she was schizophrenic and his father's whereabouts were unknown, he had to be cared for by the protective home. His entire body was covered with eczema, and he was cockeyed, so all the other children tormented him. Nachi watched Chuya being teased, and even though his aggressors were five years old, he would stand up to them and retaliate. Chuya attached himself to Nachi and followed her everywhere.

At the protective home, there were many cases like Chuya, children who stayed temporarily because their own parents couldn't raise them due to illness, or couldn't manage the effort. Sometimes members of those children's families came to visit, and Nachi was vaguely aware that she was different from them. She watched with wonder as they would act up in front of their parents by pouting and acting spoiled, going through a whole range of emotions. When their parents were there, suddenly they became restless, behaving in ways that were completely different from how they acted in front of the sisters. Bewitching smiles. Violent tempers. Blatant pandering. Feverish excitement. Meanness. Petulance. Fearfulness. Melodrama. Autism. Servility. All of these were manifested in abundance.

But Nachi never once felt envious. She couldn't understand them. Watching their behavior made her extremely uncomfortable. She felt as if she were witnessing something shameful. She wondered why they became that way only in front of certain adults.

The sisters must have thought that Nachi might feel lonely. On visiting days, they were unusually kind to her, giving her chocolates or caramels. Megumi even took her to see a movie once. It was a Godzilla film, and Nachi felt an affinity for Godzilla—it was easier for her to comprehend his reluctance to crush the Tokyo Tower than to understand how the children could so easily lose control of themselves in front of their parents.

Even when they went to the cinema, Megumi wore her white blouse and black skirt. As the movie started, she quietly pressed a gumdrop wrapped in red cellophane into Nachi's palm.

When Nachi was three, Mr. and Mrs. Tagawa arrived with a child welfare worker.

They were looking to adopt a daughter. They wanted a healthy girl no more than three years old, and the only one who fit the bill was Nachi. Dressed in the best clothing that she had, she met the couple. Kikuo Tagawa was a skilled carpenter, and his wife, Chiyo, worked part time for a small transportation company, so they had two incomes. Chiyo had had an ectopic pregnancy that resulted in a hysterectomy so they had decided to adopt a girl.

They both liked Nachi at first sight. As for Nachi, she had no say in choosing her adoptive parents. From this day forward, these people would be her mother and father. That's what the priest told her, and everyone from the home saw Nachi off as she went on her way out into the world. More than being nervous, it pained her to be separated from her beloved flower beds and from Megumi. When Chiyo took her hand and led her out the gate, Nachi could see Chuya crouching among the flower beds. He stared at her with an expressionless face as he plucked petals off the flowers.

The Tagawas' home was on the outskirts of Chiba, which, coming from urban Yokohama, seemed like the remote mountains. Since the Tagawas both worked, Nachi was sent to a day nursery. Compared to their tidy wooden house, the dusty nursery, crowded with children and adults, was profoundly more familiar to Nachi and made her feel more secure, but in the evenings Chiyo came to get her and she had to return to her new home. Going home quickly became unpleasant for Nachi. Kikuo was a mean and vicious drinker.

He started drinking as soon as he got home from work, and continued drinking until he passed out. Normally he was mild-mannered, but his personality changed when the alcohol was in him. It awakened a violence. At first, it was directed toward Chiyo only, but before long Kikuo turned on Nachi as well. Once he started drinking, it didn't make the least difference to him whether his target was a frail woman or a three-year-old child. Suddenly he started yelling at them for no reason. Dishes came flying. Trays were kicked over. There were beatings. This went on every night. Kikuo was an alcoholic who couldn't go without drink. On days when he didn't work, he started drinking in the morning. He rarely went out drinking, he preferred to drink at home. For Nachi—who had never been yelled at by a grown man, much less beaten by one—being thrown into this state of panic was so bewildering that she even forgot to cry. Chiyo tried to protect Nachi with her own body. Seeing this sent Kikuo into even more of a frenzy and he would shout, Get out! I don't care where the hell you two go, just get out! When it got unmanageable, Chiyo would take Nachi and seek refuge inside their car. She locked the doors and, trembling, they slept there until morning. Kikuo's supplies were stacked up on the carrier, and there was planing dust everywhere. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry to make you go through this, Chiyo would repeat, as if she was delirious. Poor thing, poor thing, poor little Nachi had to come to such a home. There wasn't anywhere else to go. Sleeping in the car, covered in planing dust, it felt like the two of them were at the edge of the world.

In the mornings, Kikuo would show up at the breakfast table as if nothing had happened and then leave for work. He seemed to have no memory of the night before. For that same reason he didn't seem to feel guilty. Chiyo was used to this, and made no mention of the events of the previous evening as she cleaned up the broken dishes and made the miso soup for breakfast. Otherwise how else could she live with a man like this? It must have been awkward for Kikuo to see the purple bruises on his wife's face, but he never apologized nor did he try to make it up to her. Ever the dutiful wife, Chiyo would always quietly come back in from the car at dawn and spread a blanket over her husband sleeping on the tatami floor.

Nachi was still too young to understand that the couple maintained a distorted balance. When Chiyo had her hysterectomy, Kikuo's family had tried to make him divorce her, but Chiyo's parents had implored them to have mercy on her. Chiyo was frail, and she would never be able to remarry if she couldn't have children. Her sex drive had disappeared after her surgery, and because she now experienced severe pain during intercourse, she refused sex altogether. Since Chiyo felt as if her loss of womanliness was the cause of Kikuo's darkness, even if he hit her or played around on her, she never uttered a complaint or ever tried to leave. If only we had a child, Chiyo had thought. In order for the two of them to continue to live as a family, they needed a child.

Kikuo himself had been starved of anything resembling a family. His father had died when he was young and he was quickly sent out of the home as an apprentice carpenter. His mother was a fierce demon of a woman who had apprenticed all five of her children and at the end of the month went around to each of their places of service to cheat them out of their paltry wages. Among their relatives, it was rumored that this vicious woman had even poisoned her own husband. Nevertheless, Kikuo couldn't bring himself to hate the only parent he had. When his mother came at the end of the month to extort money, he was the only one of his siblings who freely handed over his earnings. He was kind at heart, but since his own family hadn't treated him well, he did not know how to be kind to his wife and child.

It's not like it was always hell inside the house, though. Whenever Kikuo lay off the booze, everything would be fine. Chiyo was by nature a cheerful woman, and even if housework wasn't necessarily her strong point, she liked to sing, and they often laughed and told jokes. Her mood softened the home. And Kikuo could be rather charming. Since he was such a capable craftsman, he had a good reputation among his colleagues. For a long time now he had enjoyed the favor of several master builders. The couple had finally achieved their dream of owning their own home.

Kikuo was good with his hands, and he really was a diligent man. He was better at cooking than Chiyo—he always made his own snacks to go with whatever he was drinking. When he was in a good mood, he also cooked for Nachi. For instance, sometimes he would simply frizzle cabbage, patiently, over a low flame for more than half an hour, but his technique would coax the sweetness from the cabbage and this humble dish was surprisingly delicious. He would take freshly steamed, piping-hot rice, adding a sliver of butter and then drizzling soy sauce over the whole thing—it was quite the poor man's feast. He also pickled shallots himself, and his sour plums and plum wine were not to be missed. When Chiyo wasn't feeling well, Kikuo made breakfast. Fried eggs with nothing but a little salt, and miso soup flash-boiled with just scallions added—it was simple fare, but to a child's palate it was far and above what Chiyo made.

The best thing for Nachi was that this house had a cat. The presence of the small, silent animal, the soft touch of its fur, the creature's warmth—these things soothed Nachi's loneliness. Little Nachi would bring the even smaller cat into bed with her. Nachi would pet the cat, and she liked to sleep with it curled up on her chest. In fact, this was an indication that all she really wanted was for someone to treat her the same way. Nachi had found something onto which she could lavish her affection. By the way that she cared for the cat, she was unconsciously projecting her own desire to be loved.

Nachi was not able to accept her adoptive parents' kindness. Chiyo would take her along when she went shopping, and even when she offered to buy her things or asked Nachi to tell her if there was something that she wanted, Nachi would refrain, saying that she didn't need anything. This always seemed to make Chiyo sad. Nachi was completely disinterested, lacking any self-assertion. At the toy store or the candy counter, seeing other children whining, Buy me this, buy me that, Nachi would instead watch their parents' faces. Offended by their children's selfishness, their irritation would mount, and she would peer at their expressions with baited breath, expecting hysteria to break out at any moment. If they made their parents so upset, one of these days wouldn't they leave these kids somewhere? Children couldn't survive on their own, they had to rely on their parents to take care of them. For that reason, children shouldn't displease their parents. Unaware of this, these children who foolishly bawled and flailed about like monkeys seemed extremely pathetic to Nachi.

But to adults, she must have seemed like a pitiable child. She wore the clothes that Chiyo bought for her without a single complaint, but on the other hand, she never seemed happy either. When Chiyo was late picking her up from the nursery, even when she was the last one and had to wait with the head teacher, Nachi never seemed sad. It was as if she had already given up on something.

Sometimes Chiyo was late picking her up and she was the last one, but Nachi didn't think there was anything she could do about being left behind like this. One day, suddenly, people had appeared to adopt her, so if one day, suddenly, no one came to pick her up, it wouldn't seem strange to her. She wondered what would happen to her then. Maybe she would go back to the protective home. Or perhaps the nice head teacher would take her into her own home.

She expected nothing from anybody. That was the one thing that the young Nachi had learned to get by on in this world. She was a lot like a stray cat. She would silently eat the food that was offered to her, but she didn't trust people. She wasn't used to being held or caressed, so she bared her claws. She had the ability to instantly discern which people might give her food and which people might throw rocks at her. No matter how hungry she was, she would never play up to anyone. She was prepared to accept whatever fate befell her. She would lick and nurse her wounds herself. And like a cat's, her eyes were startlingly limpid. She knew, instinctively, that she was alone from the day she was born until the day she died.